At this hour of the morning, the boardwalk ghosts were silent. Simon Kincaide stared down the nearly empty, broad beachside walkway and breathed in the ocean air. Flags flapped in the breeze, waves pounded the shore on the other side of the dunes, and seagulls swooped. The tourists hadn’t yet woken.
Simon looked, out of habit, to the places the spirits favored. The old man with his bicycle and his dog wouldn’t appear until late afternoon, cycling down the boardwalk. Kevin, a dreadlocked man in his twenties, liked the stairs that led to the beach, perhaps near the spot where he drowned. Two children in Victorian clothing, spirits so faded that they could not even remember their names, would skip past near sunset. Other ghosts came and went, but Simon could set his watch by those appearances. Not everyone could see the ghosts—most of the people milling along the boardwalk could not and never would—but Simon did.
Sebastian Simon Kincaide had known he wasn’t like other kids when he realized nobody else could see and hear the spirits he considered regular playmates. Discovering he got glimpses into the future from time to time made him even less like his friends at school. Figuring out that he was gay was just the icing on the cake. That all happened long ago, but the sense of being an outsider never really went away, Simon thought, not even now at age thirty-five, with a prosperous business and a few bestselling books to his credit.
He worked the key in the front door. Grand Strand Ghost Tours, a small shop on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk, shared a building with a beachwear shop but had a coveted location between the legendary Gay Dolphin Gift Cove and the popular Myrtle Beach SkyWheel mega-Ferris wheel. Simon paused in the doorway, letting himself enjoy a moment of pride and satisfaction in the business it had taken three damn years to build.
Simon collected the mail, pocketed his keys, and locked the door behind him since the shop wouldn’t open for another two hours. He switched on the lights and music, then went to the back to start a pot of coffee.
His phone buzzed, and he answered. “Hey, Seth. What’s up?”
Seth Tanner chuckled. “You haven’t had your coffee yet, have you?”
“I’m working on it.” Simon held the phone between his shoulder and ear as he readied the coffee maker. “What do you need?”
Seth sighed. “I’m looking into a vengeful ghost problem near Breezewood, up in Pennsylvania. Salt and iron aren’t doing the trick, but I’m sure it’s ghosts, not demons, so exorcism won’t work, either. Got any ideas?”
“Find the anchor object the spirit is tethered to,” Simon recommended, measuring out the coffee. “Might not be near where the appearances are happening. Have an officiant from the deceased’s faith tradition say a blessing and urge the ghost to move on. If nothing else works, there’s a banishment ritual, but it’s brutal on the spirits. And no matter what you’ve seen on TV, don’t get yourself arrested trying to dig up the grave to salt and burn the bones.”
Seth chuckled. “I knew you’d have the answers. You’re a rare medium, Simon. Well done.”
“Ha, ha. As if I haven’t heard that one before,” Simon groaned, rolling his eyes. He pressed the button, and the coffee maker chugged to life.
“Seriously, thanks,” Seth replied. “Send me the bill.”
“When I have to do some research, I’ll charge for the time. This, I can give you off the top of my head. Next time you’re in the area, stop in and we’ll do dinner. Your treat.”
“You’re on,” Seth replied and ended the call.
Simon headed out to the main room and started to get the shop ready for business. Shelves in the front held books about ghost stories from all over South Carolina and the Lowcountry, but especially those with tales of spirits, pirates, or old scandals of the Grand Strand. Prominently displayed were the three books on local folklore and ghosts that bore his name as author. The glass case by the register held gemstones and silver jewelry for healing and protection, colored candles, and sealed bags of the most common dried plants and flours used in rituals and aromatherapy. Shelves behind the cabinet held an assortment of candles in tall glass holders with pictures of saints on the front. In the back, a table and two comfortable chairs supplied a homey place to do appointment-only psychic readings, and the table could expand to hold six people for a full séance.
A rack on top of the counter held brochures about the Grand Strand Ghost Tours that Simon led four nights a week, as well as the “Pirates and Scoundrels” special tours and the “Lowcountry Legends and Lore” talk he gave twice a month at Brookgreen Gardens. The large sign on the wall behind the counter advertised ticket prices for the tours and special events, with a prominent reminder to “ask about rates for private spirit readings and séances.”
Display racks offered t-shirts with the Grand Strand Ghost Tours logo, while others bore catchy phrases like “Ghosts Gone Wild,” “Grand Strand Spook-a-palooza,” and his favorite, a cartoon of a ghost holding a beach drink that read “Chillin’ Out.” The nearby shelves that held cups, stickers, and shot glasses with the same designs were a concession to tourist tastes.
Simon straightened some of the merchandise when his phone rang again. “Mark! You’re up early.”
Mark Wojcik grumbled something in response, and Simon grinned. Mark hated mornings even more than he did. “No, I’m up late and still haven’t gone to bed,” Mark muttered. “And I’m bruised from head to toe after I got my ass kicked by a were-cougar before we brought it down, so forgive me if I’m not Mr. Sunshine.”
Like Seth, Mark was a real-life hunter of things that went bump in the night; part of a loosely allied group of people who by talent or personal tragedy found themselves initiated into a shadow world most people could live happily never suspecting. Simon’s gifts as a medium and clairvoyant—and his training as a folklorist—made him a part of that hidden network, and his research skills provided a second stream of income.
“I finished the research on the kelpies you asked for,” Simon replied. “Sent the files to the secure share drive.”
“Okay,” Mark said. “That’s what I was calling about. I’ll shoot the payment back atcha. Thanks.”
Simon ended the call and ran a hand back through his shoulder-length brown hair. Four years ago, if someone had told him that he’d be making a living taking beachgoers on ghost tours, giving readings, and selling tchotchkes, he’d have laughed. But how he’d ended up on the Grand Strand was not funny at all.
Three and a half years ago, Dr. Sebastian Kincaide held a professorship at the University of South Carolina in the Humanities Department, teaching folklore and mythology classes and writing scholarly articles on legends and lore. He kept his abilities as a medium and clairvoyant hidden, although his long-time relationship with another professor on staff had been openly acknowledged, especially after he and Jacen had announced their engagement.
Even now, the memory brought a sour twist to Simon’s stomach. Emerson Baucom Tallmudge, the father of one of his students, turned out to be not only a donor and a board member for the university, but a hard-core fundamentalist as well, of the “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” variety. Apparently, after he’d gotten a glimpse of his son’s textbooks for the class, Tallmudge got his dander up and lobbied the board to be rid of such an “evil influence.” Simon thought he had successfully placated the board, citing the importance of classical mythology in a well-rounded education, but then Tallmudge found evidence online that Simon admitted to being able to talk with spirits, and everything came crashing down.
The board dismissed Simon with a severance package that told him they also thought Tallmudge’s complaints were bullshit, but in the end, the prospect of an endowment beat out standing up for one of their faculty. Then Jacen broke off their engagement, too afraid that Simon’s dismissal would compromise his bid for tenure, and Simon’s world went up in flames.
Alone, unemployed, and unable to find another teaching job, Simon drifted down to Myrtle Beach, intending to stay for a week or so to regroup and lick his wounds. When his aunt offered to sell him the cottage in Myrtle Beach where he was staying, Simon took it as a sign to rebuild his life from the ground up. He put his folklore background to use writing a book on local ghosts and used the self-published book to leverage himself into jobs as a tour guide, haunted attractions actor, museum docent, and speaker while he put his plan together. Grand Strand Ghost Tours wasn’t just a shop; it was Simon’s howl of defiance at a universe that had fucked him over.
And which was still doing so, since the coffee maker had not only failed to produce a cup of java-rich goodness, but had sent a gush of murky water and wet grounds all over the floor.
“Shit.” Simon grabbed a handful of paper towels and began mopping. The smell of burned electronics told him without needing to use his psychic gifts that the coffee maker was dead. He dropped the machine into the trash on top of the sodden towels, ordered a new one on Amazon with expedited shipping, and then contemplated the prospect of a morning without coffee.
“Screw that,” he said, glancing at the clock. He locked up, turned out lights, and headed for Mizzenmast Coffee.
Before he’d made it half a block, his phone buzzed once more. This time he smiled at the number that came up. “Hi, Cassidy. Everything okay?” His cousin, Cassidy Kincaide, ran an antique store in Charleston, just two hours south of Myrtle Beach. They hadn’t been close growing up, but now that Cassidy had discovered her own ability to read the history of objects by touching them, they had bonded.
“Fine. Just busy. Mostly regular stuff, but some of the other too, if you know what I mean.” Cassidy’s shop proved to be the perfect opportunity to get cursed and haunted objects out of the wrong hands. Simon and Cassidy often talked over whatever weird or supernatural situation they were currently navigating. Not to mention Cassidy had a gorgeous gay Weaver witch best friend as a partner in her supernatural escapades. It was another sign of the universe’s contempt for Simon that Teag was already taken. “Is the store open yet? Can you talk?”
“I’m heading for coffee,” Simon replied. “What’s up?”
“I’ve got a carved mahogany trinket box with the name ‘Jeremiah Holzer’ engraved on the bottom,” Cassidy said. “There’s a pretty nasty curse on it. I think Jeremiah was from the Myrtle Beach area, but Teag and I can’t find anything about him online, and I thought maybe you could check some local archive stuff for me.”
“Sure,” Simon agreed. “How urgent?”
“We’ve got the box quarantined, so it’s not doing any new damage, but two people were injured from the curse, and I have a feeling there’s missing information that we need to break the bad juju. So, the sooner, the better.”
“I’ll work on it tonight, after the tour,” Simon promised. “Say ‘hi’ to everyone for me.”
“When are you going to come to Charleston? You know we’ve got the best restaurants on the Southeast coast,” Cassidy replied. “Plus, Teag and Anthony have a couple of cute guys in mind they think you might hit it off with.”
Simon cringed, glad Cassidy couldn’t see his expression. Even after three years, he wasn’t sure he was ready for a new romance. Perhaps he never would be. “It’s the busy season,” he begged off. “But maybe this winter. Or come visit me. Roads go both ways, you know.”
“It’s tourist season here, too,” she reminded him. “But we’ll get together soon, one way or another. And thanks for the research.”
“You got that haunted painting off my hands,” Simon replied. “I owe you.” He hung up, but couldn’t shake the melancholy that had settled in. A couple walked past, hands clasped, talking quietly, and an ache he didn’t want to acknowledge flared in his chest. As much as he feared being hurt again, Simon couldn’t deny the fact that he missed being in a relationship, having someone to wake up with every day and fall asleep with at night. For a while, he’d buried himself in his work, and that had dulled the loneliness. Now that he was no longer in survival mode, the evenings were not completely filled with busyness, and the nights stretched long.
Simon chuckled at his fears. Here I am, backing up people who hunt real monsters, and I’m too chickenshit to go on a date. I need to man up and…man up.