Soul Food

Book Cover: Soul Food

The diner gets some unexpected customers when Ralph orders a shipment of fresh fish that turn out to be more lively than anyone expected. Misty turns to Roland for help, but the vampire has his own worsening problems. His soul has an out-of-hell expiration date, and he needs Misty’s help to find the cure before he sleeps with the fishes. Permanently.

Now it’s a race against time and the Devil as Misty and Roland swim their way up the stream of questions to the lake of answers.

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The world of the paranormal was weird, but I didn’t think it got this weird until I had to fend off a floating dead fish.
It all started at the usual suspected place, Ralph’s diner. The hour was about eleven, and the day was Tuesday. I was minding my own business, and the errant hands of some new truckers, when it came.
Ralph stuck his head through the two swinging doors and caught sight of me behind the cash register.
“Ah need ya back here,” he told me.
I looked from the register and blinked at him. He never needed help in the back. That was his domain, his kingdom, his sweaty hole-in-the-wall. And he could keep it. There wouldn’t be any efforts to overthrow his rule by Candy or me. Or anyone else with a lick of sense.
“Really?” I asked him.
He frowned at me. “Really, now finish what yer doing and get in here.”
I shrugged. “All right.”
I closed the register and walked back into the kitchen.

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The back door was propped open with a broom and at the bottom of the steps on the cracked pavement was a stack of a dozen wooden crates. There was an emblem on the side that looked like a red hoof. Ralph stood by the open door and jerked his head at the crates.
“Carry ‘em in here,” he ordered me.
“What are they?” I asked him as I walked up to the door.
“Fish,” he told me.
I raised an eyebrow. “Fish?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, fish. Sole fish. They’re gonna be the special for Thanksgiving.”
“What happened to turkey?” I wondered.
“Too expensive. Ah got this mess for a special price,” he told me.
“From a door-to-door fish salesman?” I teased.
“Nope, over the phone. Called me up and told me he had a deal on these things. Ah couldn’t say no to him. Didn’t think it would’ve been polite,” he explained.
I crossed my arms and pursed my lips. “Ralph, are you telling me you bought twelve crates of fish off a guy you never met who called you over the phone?”
“What’s wrong with that?” he snapped.
I threw my arms up and sighed. “Nothing. The guy must’ve given you a great deal.”
“Yep. Only ten cents a pound, and free shipping,” Ralph told me. He paused and rubbed his chin as he looked over the load. “‘Course, that damn driver wouldn’t put the things in the kitchen. Said they gave him the spooks. Kept hearing noises in the back while he was hauling them.”
“Maybe it was the fish school marching band tuna-ing their instruments,” I quipped as I walked down the stairs. I lifted one, grunted, and dropped it back where I found it. “These things are a little heavy for me,” I told him.
“That’s cause yer not putting much muscle into it. Ya gotta lift with your knees,” he instructed me.
“And break my back. . .” I muttered as I looked up and down his skinny frame. “How about we both take an end?”
Ralph winced and rubbed his lower back. “Can’t. Sprained something the other day and can’t lift a thing.”
I rummaged through my pockets and found a dime that I flipped at him. The coin bounced off the pavement. Ralph scurried down the stairs and scooped it up.
“You look pretty spry to me,” I commented.
He glared at me. “What am Ah paying ya fer if Ah can’t get ya to lift a few measly boxes.”
“You’re paying me to waitress, not buttle,” I quipped.
He stepped aside and pointed at the kitchen. “Well, ya can buttle tonight, now get them inside before they start smelling. The guy said they were getting pretty ripe and were liable to float away if’n we didn’t get ‘em inside quick.”
I sighed and tried Round Two with the crate. The crate lifted and I waddled my way up the stairs and into the kitchen. That was repeated eleven more times until the last crate was on the kitchen floor. Ralph closed the door behind me and surveyed the crates. I sat atop one of them and rubbed my sore arms.
“See? Ah told ya ya could do it,” he commented.
“But was it worth it?” I countered.
“We’ll let’s just find out,” Ralph replied. He took a crowbar from beside the door and slammed the head into the lid of the crate I sat on.
I jumped up and glared at him. “There are eleven others,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, but ya know there’s no sitting down on the job,” he argued.
Ralph pulled and grunted, and the lid of the popped up. A few more tugs and jimmying got the lid and its nail completely off. Ralph set the crowbar down and pulled aside the lid. We peeked over the edge. The crate was piled high with tan-colored flatfish with beady eyes. They were eighteen inches long and had wimpy-looking fins on the sides. I took a whiff of the smell and pulled back.
“Smells like rotten eggs,” I commented.
“It’s not that bad,” Ralph argued. He picked one up by the tail and sniffed the fish. The color drained from his face and he dropped it back into the crate. “Maybe Ah can put it in a Thanksgiving Surprise.”
“It’ll be a surprise if we don’t kill somebody,” I quipped.
He turned his back on the crate and glared at me. “Ah don’t recall ya being the cook around here.”
“No, but I’ve got-” Something caught my attention behind my boss. “Um, Ralph?”
“What?” he growled.
“Are these flying fish?”
“They’re bottom feeders. Why?”
I pointed at something behind him. “Because one of them’s decided gravity doesn’t apply to it.”
Ralph turned around to see what I pointed at and his eyes grew as wide as saucers. The fish he’d tossed back still lay on its side, but two feet above the crate. As we watched it righted itself and its dead eyes blinked at us.
Ralph scuttled away from the crate and I slowly stepped back. “I think the food’s gone bad,” I informed him.
“It’s just the smell. We can’t really be seeing what we’re seeing,” he argued.
The floating fish was soon joined by all its brethren from the crate. They floated in a school, and their flippers flapped and their gills moved in and out. Ralph and I bumped into each other by the back door.
“Ah think Ah’m gonna need a pot for ‘em,” he mused.
“I think you’re going to need an exorcist,” I shot back.
The fish dashed forward. We ducked and missed the aerial barrage by a fin. The school broke formation and flew all over the kitchen. They crashed into pots and pans, and turned the dials on the oven and stove.
Ralph jumped to his feet and tried to grab one, but its slippery body flew out of his hand.
“What are you doing?” I shouted at him.
“We just need to get ‘em back in the crate!” he yelled at me.
The other crates rattled and rocked. Their lids exploded off their sides and the other soles burst from the boxes. They swarmed over the countertops and managed to pry open the fridge. The fish grabbed the food in their small mouths and flew around us pelting us with other dead meats.
“This was a really stupid idea!” I scolded Ralph.
“It was a good price!” Ralph told me.
I ducked from a dead duck and glared at him. “I don’t think you got your money’s worth!”
Half the fish flew through the swinging doors and out into the front of the diner. Ralph cringed and turned to me.
“Ya think they’ll notice’ em?” he asked me.
A loud, high-pitched scream followed by the sound of a stampede came from the front.
“I’d say yes,” I replied.
Ralph raced through the doors with me close behind. The truckers had all bolted for the door and tripped over each other getting through the narrow space. They lay in a pile of screaming men and flailing boots. The fish floated in a circle above them with their mouths flapping open and shut. Ralph ran over to the pile and held up his hands.
“Stop yer whining! It’s just some bad fish!” Ralph shouted at the men.
“Like hell it is!” one of them yelled back. “I’m never coming back here!”
The men managed to pry themselves loose from one another and fly out the door with a few of the fish in cold pursuit. The diner was soon filled with the headlights of semis and trucks as the customers jammed on their gas pedals and barreled out of the parking lot. In a few moments there was quiet. Well, as quiet as flying fish terrorizing the diner could be.
Ralph’s lower lip quivered and he fell into one of the booths near the door. He held his temple in his hand and shook his head.
“Ah’m ruined. . .” he moaned. “Nobody’s gonna come here knowing it’s haunted and smells.”
I snorted. “Everybody’s known about the smell for years.”
He waved me away. “Don’t go trying to butter me up. Ah know when Ah’m in trouble. That feller said he’d never be back, and Ah know the others were thinking the same thing.” He stood and shuffled into the kitchen.
I followed him and dodged a few homicidal fish with small steak knives in their mouths. “Come on, Ralph, you’re taking this way too seriously.”
Ralph stood by his chair that sat near the swinging doors. The fish had knocked it over and one of its legs was nearly snapped in two. He sighed and shook his head.
“No doing. Ah’ve been through a lot owning this place, but this takes the cake,” he replied.
“And the pies,” I quipped as I watched a few slices zoom by on the backs of the fish.
Ralph righted the chair and plopped himself in the seat. He waved at the door. “Ya should leave. It ain’t safe being here.”
I stepped towards him. “Ralph, I might know someone-”
He snapped his head up and glared at me. “Ah said go, now git!”
I started back. He’d never been angry at me before. Mad, maybe, but not angry. I pursed my lips and nodded.
“All right, I’ll go. You want me to come back tomorrow?” I asked him.
He turned his face away from me and shook his head. “No. Just keep yerself away from here, and tell Candy, too.”
I grabbed my coat and paused at the door to look over my shoulder. It was a little surreal to leave Ralph seated on the broken chair with flying fish over his head, but he was the boss. Besides, I needed space to work, and that space was taken by Ralph. If Roland and I were going to be doing some exorcising than we’d do it better without Ralph around.
I went to my car and drove out of the parking lot, but only around a wide hedge of brush behind the diner. Ralph would think I left, and I could see when he left. Then I dialed the land-line to my apartment. Roland picked up on the third ring. That should’ve told me something was wrong, but my thoughts were full of sole spirits.
“Roland, we’ve got a problem here at the diner. Something smells fishy, and it floats, too,” I told him.
“I can’t come. Not at this time,” he informed me.
I pulled the phone away and blinked at it. “Seriously?” I wondered.
“This is very serious,” he confirmed.
I frowned and placed the phone against my ear. “What could be more important than flying ghost fish?” I asked him.
“There is something amiss with my soul box,” he explained.
I felt the color drain from my face and my hand shook.
“I’ll be right there.”

COLLAPSE

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