The Hidden Tunnel: A Sneak Peek
Chapter One: Saying Goodbye
Ellen sat between two of her children beneath the canopy in the cemetery on the warm spring afternoon in folding metal chairs beside the coffin holding Paul’s body. The priest was talking about eternal life and God’s heavenly kingdom, but Ellen wasn’t listening. She was thinking about the last time Paul was alive and what he had said to her.
Although a large crowd of family and friends surrounded her, including her three kids, Sue and Tanya, Paul’s family from New Braunfels, Ellen’s brother and his family, and many of Paul’s colleagues, Ellen kept forgetting about them. Each time she looked up from her thoughts during the priest’s sermon, she glanced around at all the familiar faces, trying to hide the fact that she’d just remembered they were there.
Then she’d stare at the polished coffin until it disappeared again, and she was once again sitting beside Paul’s hospital bed on the day he had died.
They’d been laughing. Ellen and Paul hadn’t laughed together like that in a long time. During the months before he’d been admitted, they’d been looking at lakefront properties, hoping to find either a vacation home or a place close enough to their kids to move into permanently. They’d been especially fond of Marble Falls, which was only an hour away from Austin, where Lane and Alison went to college. It had been a happy time, full of dreams and expectations. Making plans had reinvigorated them, had brought them back to life. That’s why, on the day Paul died, it hadn’t occurred to either of them that he would.
He’d developed a cough that had held on for a few months. At one point, he’d been diagnosed with walking pneumonia but had seemed to be on the mend. Then, the night before he died, he asked her to take him to the emergency room because he couldn’t breathe properly and was experiencing chest pains. They’d both assumed the pneumonia was back.
That’s why, as they waited for test results, Ellen and Paul had been laughing their heads off. The nurse had just walked out, after Paul had farted eight times in a row during a coughing fit. It had sounded like a marching band—the coughing, wheezing, and blasts of gas. What had made them both break out into laughter was the look the nurse had given Paul just before she’d left the room.
As their laughter had finally subsided, they smiled at each other, eyes full of tears from laughing so damn hard. Paul had taken her hand and had squeezed it. Then he had said, “I’m so glad it’s you and me, kid.”
She’d been surprised. Paul had never been one to use words to convey his feelings.
Ellen had laughed and had said, “I think your gas fumes are getting to my head. It almost sounded like you gave me a compliment.”
Paul had busted out laughing, forcing out another fart, which had made Ellen laugh, too.
“I’m getting out of here,” she’d said. “It stinks to high heaven. I’m going to shower and change. I’ll be right back.”
She’d pecked him on the head, and that was the last time she’d seen him alive.
The doctor had called it a pulmonary embolism. A blood clot, that had likely formed in Paul’s leg, had traveled to his lung. Ellen had just gotten dressed at home when she received the call that Paul had been taken into emergency surgery. She had rushed like a mad woman, but by the time she’d arrived, Paul was gone.
As she sat between her children, she still couldn’t believe Paul’s body was lying in the polished coffin across from her. It seemed more likely that he was on a golf course. It had been an inexplicable whirlwind, and she was still caught up in it. Nothing seemed real.
Her son Nolan was suddenly speaking in place of the priest. Ellen snapped to attention to hear what he had to say.
Tears flowed freely from his green eyes down his cheeks. He didn’t try to stop the tears or wipe them from his face. He stood beside the priest, trembling, even though his large stature overpowered the small man beside him.
“I can’t believe my dad is gone. He was a good father.” Nolan ran a hand through his curly brown hair. “He tried for years to get me into sports, especially golf, but he eventually realized that was a waste. I was no athlete.” Nolan chuckled. “And he supported me when I became interested in other things. He once learned how to play Magic the Gathering—a fantasy card game—just so he could play it with me. We had some good times fishing together, too. He worked hard—he and my mom—to give our family a good life. I wish…” Nolan couldn’t speak for several seconds, which broke Ellen’s heart. She jumped up and went to his side and squeezed his hand. Nolan smiled at Ellen and turned back to the crowd. “I wish he hadn’t left us so soon. He was loved dearly and will be dearly missed.”
Ellen hugged her son. He hugged her back. She held his shaking, trembling, sobbing form in her arms like she had when he was a boy and had gotten hurt. It was at that moment that Ellen finally realized Paul was gone, and she, too, began to weep.
After the funeral, family and friends gathered at Ellen’s house, and for a while, she escaped her grief to play hostess. People had brought so much food. Ellen arranged the containers of sandwiches, pasta, casseroles, and other dishes along her kitchen bar and invited everyone to make a plate, buffet style. Tammy and Sue were at her side in the kitchen, brewing tea and filling paper cups with ice.
Once everyone had gone, except for Ellen’s children and Sue and Tanya, the six of them sat together in the den. Alison was cuddled against Ellen on the loveseat, like she used to do when she was younger. Her long brown hair hung in her face, as if she was hiding behind a curtain, not wanting to be seen. Nolan and Lane sat beside one another on the sofa, each clutching a decorative pillow in his lap. Two boys could never be so different. Nolan had dark hair, was a doctor and scientist, and was interested in superheroes, anime, and video games; whereas Lane had lighter hair, like Ellen’s, and was a musician and artist whose paintings were every bit as good as Ellen’s, if not better. Sue sat in Paul’s recliner eating a piece of chocolate pie. Her dark bangs needed a trim, for they nearly covered Sue’s round, dark eyes. Tanya, her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, sipped a warm mug of tea in a chair beside Sue.
“You should get a dog,” Alison said to Ellen. “Maybe a miniature poodle, to keep you company.”
Ellen patted her daughter’s knee. “I’ll be alright.” The thought of a dog was comforting, but she traveled too often.
“A dog is the last thing she needs,” Sue said, as she lifted a piece of chocolate pie with her fork. “What she really needs is a cruise.”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “I’m not ready for that. Not yet.”
“What about a trip to Portland?” Tanya asked.
“Portland, Texas or Portland, Oregon?” Lane asked.
“Oregon,” Tanya clarified.
“Why there, of all places?” Nolan asked.
Tanya glanced at Sue.
Then Sue said, “I was going to hold off talking to you about this, Ellen, but Tanya’s jumped the gun.”
“Jumped the gun about what?” Ellen straightened her back. “Might as well tell me now.”
“I was contacted through my blog by a billionaire from Portland,” Sue explained.
“Wait a minute,” Ellen said. “You have a blog?”
“How was blog the word in that sentence that caught your attention?” Tanya asked.
“I told you about it,” Sue said. “I blog about our projects, about Ghost Healer’s, Inc.” Sue took another bite of her pie.
“She has quite a following,” Tanya added.
“Why do you think I’m always taking so many pictures?” Sue asked.
“To document the before and after,” Ellen said.
“Exactly,” Sue said. “For my blog. And I write about the ghost mysteries we solve.”
Tanya took a sip of her tea. “She gets requests from people almost every day asking for our help.”
“That’s really cool,” Lane said.
“So, who’s the billionaire?” Alison asked.
“His name is Brian McManius,” Sue said. “He’s one of two wealthy brothers from Portland who own a huge chain.”
“What kind of chain?” Nolan asked.
“A brewery,” Tanya said.
“It’s much more than that,” Sue explained. “They own hotels, bed and breakfasts, pubs, restaurants, meeting facilities—over fifty establishments. They like to restore historic places.”
“Like we do,” Tanya said before taking a sip of her tea.
“And they’ve seen a lot of paranormal activity, too,” Sue said.
“Is that why he contacted you?” Ellen asked.
“No.” Sue sat her empty plate on the end table beside her. “His brother’s missing.”
“But why would he contact you about that?” Nolan asked. “Shouldn’t he go to the police?”
“He did,” Sue said. “Weeks ago. They haven’t turned up any leads.”
“His brother went missing while working on their most recent project,” Tanya said. “A carriage house in downtown Portland.”
“Chances are, he’s already dead,” Lane said. “I hate to say it.”
“Does the brother want you to do a séance or something?” Alison asked.
“He does,” Sue said. “He wants us to conduct a full paranormal investigation. And to make it worth our while, he says if we do find his brother, he’ll give us their current restoration project.”
“The one where he went missing?” Alison asked.
Tanya nodded. “It’s worth 3.2 million.”
Ellen’s mouth fell open. “He must be desperate.”
“He is,” Sue said. “He said he’s tried everything—local law enforcement, private detectives, state troopers, local paranormal teams. He said he’s putting his last hope in us.”
“What did you tell him?” Ellen asked.
“Nothing yet,” Sue said. “I told him I’d get back with him. I wanted to wait and talk to you about it, in a few days.” Sue gave Tanya a look of reproach.
“Sorry,” Tanya said. “I just thought it might help take her mind off …of things.”
“Tell him we’ll do it,” Ellen said. “Tanya’s right. I need this. I can’t sit around in this big empty house all day. I want to go to Portland.”
“Mom, are you sure?” Alison asked.
“Unless you kids need me.” Ellen squeezed Alison’s hand. “If you want me to stay close by for a while…”
“No, it’s okay,” Lane said. “We’ll be fine.”
“We don’t have to go right away,” Tanya said. “Take as much time as you need, Ellen.”
“I don’t want time,” Ellen said. “I need to keep busy.”
Sue shifted in the recliner. “Should I tell Brian McManius to expect us next Saturday?”
Ellen put an arm around Alison. “Is that okay with you, sweet girl?”
“I’ve got to get back to school anyway,” she said. “I only planned to stay a couple of days.”
“Nolan?” Ellen asked.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I think Dad would want you to go.”
On Saturday morning, with her rolling suitcase waiting by the door, Ellen walked around the house, turning off lights, and caught herself as she was about to call out to Paul. She stopped short and put her face in her hands, fighting tears. She’d been crying all week, and her eyes, as swollen as golf balls, hurt. She’d gotten into the sick habit of pretending Paul was there in the other room watching television in his recliner while she read or watched her shows in the front room. It had been comforting, this pretending. She’d even talked to him out loud, as if he were there, listening. At night, she convinced herself that that his ghost visited her. She even thought she’d felt his presence.
Talking to his ghost had to be healthier than pretending like he’d never died, but she’d continue to do both. Now she walked into the den, looked at his recliner, and said, “I’ll be back soon, Paul. I love you.”
As she turned to leave, she could have sworn she saw the recliner move. She turned back and stared at it. It wasn’t moving now, but in her peripheral vision, it had seemed to. Had she imagined it?
Her phone vibrated, bringing her from her ponderings. It was Sue, waiting out front with Tanya in a cab. Ellen grabbed her suitcase, locked up the front door, and headed toward her next adventure. It would be good for her, she reminded herself. It would be good to keep busy and focus on other things.
The cabby put her suitcase in the trunk while she climbed in the backseat beside Tanya, who was sitting in the middle with Sue on the opposite side.
Sue leaned forward and smiled at Ellen. “Ready?”
Ellen buckled her seatbelt. “Let’s do this. Let’s find the missing brother.”
“Look at you, sounding like a bad-ass,” Tanya said with a laugh.
“That’s exactly what we are, Tanya,” Ellen said.
Sue leaned back in her seat. “And don’t y’all forget it.”