City of Ghosts by J.H. Moncrieff by J.H. Moncrieff - Read Online

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Summary

On the day the villagers were forced to flee Hensu, not everyone got out alive.

Jackson Stone is touring the abandoned Chinese city when he slips away from the group to spend the night, determined to publish an account of his ghostly experiences there.


Then he meets Yuèhai, a strange, soft-spoken woman who can tell him the city’s secrets—secrets the Chinese government would kill to keep hidden.

As Jackson uncovers the truth about Yuèhai and the ghost city, he’s drawn into a web of conspiracy, betrayal, and murder. He must risk everything to save himself and bring honor back to Yuèhai and her family.

Published: DeathZone Books on
ISBN: 9780987712943
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Dedication

For my dear friends from the 2014 Essential China tour group. Not a Meghan among you.

~ Chapter One ~

It was easier than I thought.

All I had to do was bide my time in one of the less popular temples, crouching behind a weird-ass statue while the guides checked for stragglers. Thankfully, they didn’t do a thorough search—just popped their bobbed heads in and glanced around before hurrying to their cozy cruise ships.

Guess I couldn’t blame them. It seemed like it was always pissing down rain in this part of the country—at least, it had been since we’d been here—and even though it was mid-September, it was freaking cold.

As I stepped over the temple’s sacred threshold and hurried to the place I’d chosen to camp for the night, I grinned, unable to resist pumping my fist in the air. I’d done it. What would the group say when they realized I wasn’t on the ship?

Only the terminally stupid got left behind on a tour, so they’d probably figure I was hung over again, and in that, they’d be partially right. It takes skill to get a decent buzz on the watery crap they call beer in China, which is why I switched to the rice wine. Doesn’t take much to feel it, but you pay for it the following day.

It was only six o’clock, but the sun was already setting. Flipping up the hood of my jacket against the drizzling rain, I whistled to keep myself company, careful not to slip on the wet stone path. The place where I’d decided to spend the night was perfect. Even though it had fallen into ruin, this particular temple still had a bit of roof left, so I’d be able to get dry. Since it was open to the air, I wouldn’t have to worry about my campfire burning it down. There was enough junk in there to keep a decent fire going—not that I was worried.

It wasn’t like I believed in ghosts.

I’d planned this for a long while, which is kind of out of character for me. My little sister Roxi is the planner in the family—she’s always making lists and schedules and color-coded charts. I would have loved to bring her with me, but she won’t go anywhere without consulting every available website about what to wear, what to pack, what to do and not do, and there wasn’t time for that. The why of this trip was planned, but the when was not—it was a matter of waiting for the right seat sale, and when I found it, I pounced.

That’s more my style. I prefer to just do stuff, go with the flow, see where life takes me. Problem was, for the last few years it hadn’t taken me anywhere interesting.

Like the majority of my peers, I’d had no clue what to do after high school. I’d gone to university because my buddies were going, and ended up drinking and partying my way through a lackluster bachelor of arts degree. Which qualified me to drive a cab or spout deep philosophies that annoyed the hell out of pretty much everyone. If it weren’t for juggling tracks as a part-time DJ, I would have starved to death.

Since the idea of playing the Chicken Dance at yet another wedding made me want to hang myself, I took a two-year computer course that landed me an entry-level IT job at an insurance company. Which was about as interesting as listening to AM radio, but hey, at least I was earning decent money without having to watch a bunch of biddies flap their arms.

It was a start.

Trouble was, I was still there four years later.

So a few months ago I came up with this brilliant idea. It was so damn brilliant I didn’t tell anyone about it—not even Roxi.

China has plenty of ghost cities, but I’d gone for the most infamous. The locals believe spirits actually live here. Now that Hensu was empty of tour groups, with their incessant questions and stupid umbrellas hitting me in the head every time I turned around, it had an abandoned feel that was more than a little creepy.

A figure loomed out of the darkness, brandishing a sword at my skull, and I jumped before realizing it was another statue. In the daylight, with its pig-like face and coating of moss, it had been comical. I wasn’t laughing now. Why the Chinese decided to fill their ghost city with fake ghosts was beyond me. If they really believed spirits lived here, the statues were overkill.

What the Chinese call ghosts are more like demons to us. But demons, ghosts, whatever—these spirits were lifeless chunks of rock. Nothing to freak out over.

I dug a flashlight out of my daypack and clicked it on, but that just made things worse. It cast an eerie blue glow that danced in the statues’ eyes, turning their grins into leers.

Chill, Jacks, I muttered to myself. They’re rocks, and you don’t believe in this supernatural shit, remember?

There was no way I was gonna drain my phone battery to see where I was going, no matter how much the blue light spooked me. What the hell was wrong with me? Why had I regressed to the age of ten? Gotta be the hangover. I had to lay off the booze. Who knew what was in that Chinese stuff? I’d probably pickled my brain.

Once I found the ruined temple again, it took me about ten minutes to scrounge enough wood for a decent fire. By then my fingers were numb with cold and my stomach was growling. There hadn’t been time to grab breakfast on the ship, and I’d forfeited lunch when I’d ditched the tour. The sooner I could get a hot meal in me, the better. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so damn jumpy.

Not that it was much of a meal. As the fire crackled, sending smoke swirling into the night air, I hauled out what Roxi would call meager provisions: a handful of those neon pink sausage things that line the shelves of every Chinese grocery store. I’d bought them on a dare. No one in our tour group knew what they were made of, and honestly, I didn’t want to know. One label showed a penguin dancing with a cob of corn. Hopefully that was a case of something getting seriously lost in translation.

I had the sausages for protein, Pringles to fill me up, and a couple cans of Coke to wash them down (or kill the taste of the sausages). Chinese Pringles came in intriguing flavors like seaweed and sizzling hot pot, but I figured the sausages were adventure enough for one night. I’d grabbed good ol’ sour cream and onion instead. The meat would most likely turn out to be inedible, but at least I wouldn’t starve. I tried not to think about the five-course dinner the rest of my group was enjoying.

One of the rotting pieces of wood I’d stuck in the fire collapsed with a loud crackle that made me flinch. Flurries of sparks raced each other to the roof, and I watched their progress, uneasy. What if the temple caught fire? What if I burned the entire thing down? You do not want to be on the wrong side of the police in China. Plenty of tourists had made that mistake and they’d never been heard from again.

My guide Harold would be pissed that I’d started a fire—it’s not like I’d be able to hide the evidence. Then again, since he was the one who’d abandoned me here (well, as far as he knew, anyway) I figured I’d get off easy. He couldn’t expect me to freeze to death. Come to think of it, considering the expression his face twisted into whenever he was forced to acknowledge me, he probably would.

The sparks winked out before they reached the ceiling, and even if they hadn’t, everything was probably soaked through from the rain. Careful to breathe through my mouth, I sliced into a sausage wrapper with my Swiss Army knife, grimacing at the slimy liquid that burst from the package. Before I could question the wisdom of this decision, I jammed the slippery contents onto a folding camp fork I’d stuffed in my pack. Everything tastes better when it’s cooked over a campfire, right? That’s what I was counting on.

While I charred the hell out of the sausages, I slid a digital recorder out of my pocket and set it on a statue’s foot before switching it on. There wasn’t much audio for it to capture, aside from the roar of the fire.

If nothing else, at least I’ll be able to sell this as one of those white-noise sleep aids: The Soothing Sounds of China. The thought made me snicker.

It was strangely quiet here. I’d only been in the country three weeks, but I’d spent over a month in Indonesia last spring. There you could barely sleep, what with the frogs and crickets and everything else. Even the geckos sounded like squeaky toys being strangled. It got really loud. Yet when I returned to Minneapolis, where the night noises were courtesy of tools with over-developed subwoofers, I missed it.

Either my hunger was playing tricks on me or the sausage was not too bad. It tasted like an ordinary hot dog, maybe a bit on the sweet side. I’m not sure if it was made out of penguins and corn, but apparently our beloved ballpark franks are made from lips and assholes, so who knows? Best not to think about it.

The first can of Pringles opened with that satisfying pop I knew and loved, and as I crunched a handful, I leaned against my statue buddy and tried to relax.

Something’s bugging me.

Maybe it was leftover adrenaline from playing ninja in the temple, waiting for the moment Harold would notice I wasn’t in the van, but I was wound tighter than an irate terrier. If I couldn’t get my nerves under control, this brilliant plan of mine was never gonna work. Cracking a Coke, I let the lukewarm acid fizz over my tongue, wishing I’d thought to bring some of that rice wine along instead.

Feeling the urge to text Clarke, I pulled out my phone. As soon as I powered on, a dozen notifications made it ding like a slot machine: ping ping ping ping! The sound was ludicrously loud and somehow unwelcome, and my face burned as I muted it.

Clarke had been my best buddy since grade school, but he hadn’t spoken to me in weeks. I knew why, but it was still torture not to be able to talk to him. I wished he would forgive me.

Sadly, aside from a single text from Roxi, the rest were from her.

I’d rather walk through fire than talk to her.

Still… call it boredom, call it masochism, I glanced at one before I could stop myself.

I know u’re mad but u dont know my side.

Please talk to me, Jackson. I want to make this right.

Cant u see we need each other?

Especially now.

- B

Gritting my teeth, I deleted the message before turning the phone off. I could hear her simpering, whining voice in my mind. Just the thought of her made me want to hit something.

A flicker of movement outside the shelter made me look up. The skin on the back of my neck bristled.

Wait…was that statue closer than before?

It had been a lot farther away when I’d set up camp—I was sure of it.

That’s ridiculous. Statues don’t move.

Still, the way the light danced in the sculpture’s eyes was unnerving. A log cracked in the fire, startling me so much I laughed out loud. To think Roxi had accused me of not having an imagination.

As it turned out, I might have had too much.

~ Chapter Two ~

At first I wasn’t sure how China fit into my escape plan, but I knew my idea was solid.

Instead of watching paint dry in the cubicle forest, I’d get people to pay me to travel.

I was chilling on the couch, too drained from the day job to move, when one of those lame ghost-hunting shows came on TV. That’s when my brilliant plan occurred to me—I’d spend the night in the world’s most haunted places and write books about my experiences.

How hard could it be?

The writers I worked with at the insurance company were dumb as bricks. They were always calling me for help, never realizing their power bars were off, or that they’d turned their system on with a CD still in the drive. (Yes, I said CD. My company isn’t exactly cutting edge.)

With all the people who’d died building and defending the Great Wall, there should be lots of spooks there. But getting some alone time would be a challenge. Big tour groups spend the night on the Wall. Not exactly scary.

Or unique. I needed a gimmick, an angle. Otherwise, no one would buy my book.

I’d given up on the Ghost Writer idea—at least for this trip—when I heard about Hensu. The fabled city would be the perfect place to launch my new career.

Hensu was a ghost city in more ways than one. A few years ago, a dam opened and flooded its streets. People panicked as the water levels rose. Once the water receded, all that was left were some crumbling temples and a cable car station falling to rust. The people never returned, abandoning the spirits of the dead to wander the stone paths, searching for their missing loved ones.

As a story, it practically sold itself.

Tossing another handful of twigs and old wood onto the blaze, I tried my best not to think of Brandi, otherwise known as her or The Witch. Even her name gave me hives. Brandi was a great name for a drink, a decent name for a dog, and a damn stupid one for a woman. I was willing to bet she’d dotted the i with a tiny heart back in high school.

A nerve in my jaw twitched, and I was tempted to punch something after all. Grabbing the recorder, I laid out the Hensu story, hoping it would distract me.

The people commissioned these fugly statues… I leaned against an ancient wooden column in an attempt to get comfortable. Casting an uneasy glance at the statue with the glittering eyes, I shivered and tossed more wood onto the fire. They decided to make this place some test of the underworld, where spirits would be judged by how they’d behaved on earth.

If you want to make a living writing about weird things, China’s a great place to start, as I’d discovered. I never knew what freakishness I’d stumble upon next—I’d even seen trumpets made out of human thighbones. Don’t ask me why anyone thought that was a good idea.

But the underworld of Hensu was the oddest yet, and the friendly guy brandishing a sword at me was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The ghost city’s statues tortured each other—and I’m talking some seriously twisted shit: people boiled alive in oil, eyes ripped from their skulls, devoured by demonic birds. Harold said politicians often ended up here for lying and cheating.

One could only hope.

Perhaps I should have brought Brandi. It’d be interesting to see what her judgment would be.

Note to self, I murmured into the recorder. "Was Hensu always disturbing, or did they build this stuff after the place was abandoned as a way to scam dollars out of tourists? Like some Disneyland from hell?"

I smiled to myself, enjoying the turn of phrase. Disneyland from hell. I liked it. That was good. I could use it as the title of my book. Or maybe the subtitle.

The recorder was still clutched in my hand when I heard it—the soft rustle of something in the darkness. I froze, listening, my heart pounding in my ears so loud I could barely hear anything else.

My fingers were stiff with the cold again, even though it was warm where I was sitting. Putting the recorder back on the statue’s foot, I reached for the flashlight.

Rustle rustle.

There was definitely something out there, and it was getting closer.

Probably just a dog.

That didn’t make me feel much better. Any dog out here would be hungry. Not to mention ill tempered. Of course the one thing I hadn’t brought was a weapon. Against a ravenous animal, my Swiss Army knife would be useless.

Rustle rustle.

The sound was louder now, and worse—it felt intentional. Peering into the dark beyond the fire, I couldn’t see a thing. My legs began to tremble, and I realized for the first time that I really had to piss.

Get a grip, Jackson. It’s probably just a frog. Or a mouse. Just a wee rodent, not some gargoyle from the Chinese underworld coming to get you.

I didn’t believe it. Not for a second. For one thing, there was something too deliberate—too sneaky—about that sound. I’d lived in a dorm for four years, for Christ’s sake. I knew what it sounded like when someone tried to sneak up on me.

The memory of my university buddies and the tricks they used to play filled me with relief.

That’s it.

Of course—Harold had noticed I was missing and decided not to leave me here all night. My tour group had returned, spotted my campsite, and now a few of the guys were having some fun at my expense. No doubt they hoped I’d scream like an idiot so they could record it for posterity on their phones and broadcast my humiliation all over social media.

I leapt to my feet. Stop fooling around, guys. I know you’re out there. Show yourselves, or I’ll come out there and get you.

The rustling stopped.

Clutching a plank of wood, I tried to seem somewhat intimidating.

As my hands grew clammy, I tightened my grip on the board. We had some real clowns on this tour, and I’d expected at least one of them to burst out laughing when I went into my tough-guy act.

Silence.

Matt? Eric? Todd? Come on, guys—this isn’t funny. I’m freezing here.

Water dripped from the ravaged roof in a slow and monotonous trickle. It was enough to drive me insane, but at least the rain had stopped.

I was about to attribute the rustling noise to a harmless rodent when I heard another sound—one that wasn’t as easy to dismiss.

The crunch of footsteps on the path, gradually getting louder.

Maybe it was a dog.

A rabid dog.

Something out of Stephen King’s nightmares.

I shone the flashlight down the path, squinting into the dark.

Nothing there.

Still the footsteps moved closer.

Who’s there? I yelled, grateful my voice remained steady. My hands were another matter, causing the light to waver. Hello?

The path was empty—until it wasn’t.

There was a glimmer of white, and a pale face emerged from the darkness. I stumbled backward, nearly impaling myself on what was left of the firewood. Retreating until I hit one of the posts that held the shelter upright, I willed whoever it was to go away. I hadn’t signed up for this.

It was a prank, just a stupid prank to make some cash.

That beige cubicle was looking better all the time.

The air in the shelter changed, becoming heavier and heavier, weighing on my lungs and pulling them down, down, down.

My breath escaped with a tiny squeak.

A young woman stood outside the remains of the temple’s threshold, staring at me with huge, dark eyes. She wore a coat that was three sizes too big for her and her feet were bare.

Sagging with relief, I pressed my hand against my chest as if I could will my heart to slow down. You scared the crap out of me, girl. Where did you come from?

The girl continued to stare at me without speaking. I was getting that prickling feeling on the back of my neck again, and I didn’t like it.

Were you with a group?

What happened to her shoes? If she’d planned to spend the night, she certainly hadn’t put much thought into it.

There was no hint of recognition at my words—no indication she intended to reply. Her expression was as blank as it had been before I spoke. And then it dawned on me.

She doesn’t understand a word I’ve said.

Traveling would be so much easier if everyone spoke the same language. Squirming, I was wondering how I was going to get rid of her when she responded.

I live here.

You speak English? A lot of the younger generation did, or so Harold said, but this was the first time I’d encountered someone other than our guide.

There was an unbearable pause while she studied me in silence. Finally, I couldn’t take the awkwardness any longer.

What do you mean, you live here? I thought this place was abandoned. Then it occurred to me that she might be homeless. Hensu would make an ideal hideaway for the down and out. No one came around at night, and during the day, she could blend in with the hordes of tourists. She’d need some shoes, though.

"I do."

Yeah, right. Where, in the pagoda?

In the middle of the town square was a pagoda thousands of years old, but unfortunately Harold hadn’t let us anywhere near it. The ground underneath was so saturated with moisture that the pagoda could disappear into a hole in the earth at any moment. I knew I was being a jerk, but I was tired of playing games. Being alone in the ghost city had been creepy, but stumbling through this clumsy small talk was much worse.

My house is down there. With a pale hand, she indicated the hill our group had climbed to reach the ruins of the abandoned city. At the bottom, there was a dock where small boats deposited their cargo of wide-eyed tourists and their cameras.

Sure. Sure it is.

Then it dawned on me.

Let me guess—you’re one of the actors, right?

Dozens of costumed performers wandered the site during visiting hours, posing as judges of the underworld. No doubt there had been a few ghosts flitting around as well. This girl, with her pale face and bare feet, would be a natural.

I’m not an actor. I’m a musician.

I couldn’t remember any music on the tour, but then again, it had been pissing down rain. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to get her bone trumpet wet.

Don’t be an asshole, Jacks. I could hear Roxi’s voice in my head. You’re just pissed ’cause she scared the shit out of you.

Even the imaginary Roxi was smarter than me.

What do you play? I asked, though I couldn’t have cared less what this strange girl did for kicks. I wanted to get back to my project, and there was no way a ghost was gonna drop in with all this chitchatting going on.

I’m a violinist.

Figures. Do you play songs, or handle the special effects? I’d seen YouTube videos where musicians coaxed the squeal of a rusty hinge or the shriek of a wraith out of a violin—even a howling wolf. It was pretty amazing. I guess it made sense to have a violinist on site setting the mood. The weather had accomplished that on my visit, but on a sunny day, the statues would seem more ridiculous than threatening.

A shadow crossed her face. I don’t know this word. What is ‘EFF-acts’?

Sorry. Sound effects. If I hadn’t witnessed her frown a second ago, I would have thought the only expression she was capable of was no expression at all. You know, spooky stuff. Screeching doors, screaming vampires… I waggled my fingers in the air in my best vampire imitation and then promptly dropped my hands to my sides as she gawked at me like I was an idiot. Damn, this chick was cold. Not the slightest hint of a smile.

Clarke used to claim my smile was a guaranteed panty remover, but whatever charms worked their magic with other women cut no ice with her. Maybe, as with so many other