Max Paddington refuses to go into the light until he finds his killer. This presents a dilemma, since Max is even less competent as a spirit than he was as a live person. No one sees or hears him and he can't manage to get anywhere or do anything on his own.
Joe Cavelli is a private investigator, living an ordinary life. Then one day he walks across a parking lot, gets yelled at by a ghost, and hislife only gets stranger from there.
Max and Joe team up to find Max's killer. In the process, they form an unlikely friendship and change each other's lives in ways theynever expected.
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Divorce. She slid the word across the table like it was part of his breakfast. Here's your toast and coffee and I want a divorce.
Max Paddington stared into his wife's clear brown eyes and said the only thing that came to mind. "What?"
"I want a divorce," Rachel repeated.
At least she'd left out the toast and coffee bit. Divorce hadn't been a side order, after all. "Are you still mad about the golf clubs?" he asked. "I'll take them back if it's that big of a deal."
Rachel said his name as if it left a sour taste on her tongue. Max swiped a hand through his damp hair. He'd been awake less than a half hour and already his day had turned to shit. Rachel, his wife of fourteen years - no, it was fifteen now - stood in front of him with her arms folded over her breasts. She wore a black camisole, pantyhose, and three-inch heels. And he was supposed to take her seriously?
"Rach," he said. "You want to get divorced over golf clubs?"
"It's not the golf clubs, Max."
"Well, what the hell?"
"I need to finish getting dressed or I'll be late for work."
"So be late! You can't tell me you want a divorce, like you're telling me the weather for the day, then walk out the door."
"I can't be late today."
"Or what? The world will implode because you don't serve your boss's coffee on time?"
Rachel glared. "I do not serve my boss coffee. I only did that for you and I won't be doing it anymore."
"I'm sorry, okay?" Max pushed his coffee mug aside, the object having suddenly become an obstacle between them. "I didn't mean that. It's just that you dumped this bombshell on me and you won't even talk to me about it."
"I don't understand why you're so surprised."
"What? I should have been expecting a divorce with my breakfast?"
"Think about it, Max."
With that, she turned and strode from the room. He watched her ass, naked beneath the pantyhose. Divorce. What the hell?
~ ~ ~
Max took his miserable attitude to work at the local Publix, where he'd been assistant manager for nearly five years. Before that, he'd been the assistant manager at Winn-Dixie. Always the assistant. Never the boss. And now his wife wanted a divorce because he'd bought expensive golf clubs. How had he managed to earn such a low rank in life?
He took his misery out on the new stock boy, a skinny sixteen-year-old with pockmarked skin and the grace of a five-thousand-pound elephant. The kid was close to tears by the time Dan, the manager, caught wind of the bad karma in the air. Max muttered an apology to his boss, said he was having a bad day, and wandered out to the stockroom. While sorting through overstock, he knocked an open case of olives onto the floor. The green ones in the glass jars. Four of the jars shattered. Little green eyeballs rolled in a puddle around his feet. One of the stockers helped him clean the mess with only a minimal of razzing.
Max hid his embarrassment behind a gruff attitude, then ducked into his office. He poured himself a cup of coffee and promptly spilled some on his tie. Next, he slipped on a newly waxed section of floor and did a fancy skid that landed him on his ass in the middle of the aisle. After that, he gave up on even pretending to work and managed to steer clear of everyone until quitting time.
He cursed his Honda Civic for not being a Mercedes, then cursed the traffic for getting in his way. His house mocked him with its dark silence. The coffeemaker mocked him from its place on the counter. Would you like a divorce with your morning coffee? A sweep of his arm sent the machine and its glass carafe sailing across the room. Leftover coffee exploded with the glass.
Was Rachel even coming home? Max watched the coffee form a river between the floor tiles. He cursed at the mess on the floor and the mess that was his life. Think about it, she'd told him. As if he could think about anything else!
He grabbed his keys and slammed out the door. Stupid to sit around sulking on the off chance that Rachel would come home soon. She was probably humping her boss on his fancy desk in his cavernous office. Damn lawyers. If the guy wasn't overweight and bald, that thought would bother him a lot more.
Max brought his attitude to Chili's, where he ate a burger and drank two large Cokes. Rather than one of the cute waitresses, he got stuck with a twenty-something waiter with a hundred-watt smile and perfect hair. The kind of guy who got threesomes on a regular basis. The kid's name was Carlos and Max hated him on sight.
The noise level in the place had Max chewing on the edge of his glass. An entire building full of couples and families, all talking to each other, smiling and happy. He sat alone, being waited on by the pinup boy for Playgirl, looking like the true loser he'd become.
Would you like a divorce with your order?
Max left Carlos what was likely the worst tip the kid had ever received and stomped back out to his car. He'd been forced to park in the bank's lot next door. That should have been a sign for him to stay out of the place. The food, liquor, noise and Carlos's perfect white teeth only managed to further sour his mood.
Maybe Rachel would be home by now and be willing to talk. As he yanked his door open, it occurred to him that he should have gotten her some food. What if she hadn't been avoiding him and had only worked late? What if she was waiting for him now, in their kitchen with the glass and the coffee river?
He spotted someone standing in the shadows, twenty feet from his car. A thin man, maybe a woman. Couldn't tell with that stupid ball cap pulled low, half hidden behind the palm trees where no lights fell. Why the hell was the guy standing there in the dark? That was the thought Max had when the bullet ripped through his left eye, tore through his brain, and exploded out the back of his skull.
~ ~ ~
Max awoke to hysterical, high-pitched screaming. Oddly enough, he wasn't horribly annoyed by the shrilly sound. He blinked away what felt like a year of sleep and attempted to focus on the source of the noise. A crowd gathered in a semicircle below him. Bright lights flashed and sirens wailed. He was taking in the scene when it occurred to him that he was, in fact, hovering above them all.
"What the hell?" he shouted.
No one turned or acknowledged him in any way. He hovered there, as the strobe from a police cruiser lit the sky and the siren from an ambulance shrieked at bystanders.
The ambulance slammed to a stop and two EMTs hurried out. Max looked down at his feet, dangling in mid air. He shouted again, "Hey!" No one looked up. No one could hear him over the wails of the sirens.
Another police cruiser arrived and the crowd was pushed back. Max spotted his car. The stupid Honda. Someday he'd have a shiny new Mercedes.
Why had all those people crowded around his car? What the hell?
Max wanted to move closer, find out what was going on. He wasn't aware that he'd actually done so, until he found himself dangling above a cop. His feet were almost close enough to kick the cop in the head. What was going on? "Hey you!" he shouted.
The cop didn't look up. No one did. Max shook his head. This was crazy. He had to be dreaming.
He looked away from the cop and noticed the EMTs crouched down by a body sprawled on the pavement. Had there been an accident?
One of the EMTs shook his head. The two stood, gathered their things, and moved away. That's when Max noticed the person lying on the pavement. The body was his and it was covered in blood.
"Wait! What the hell? That's me. How can that be?"
A black, bloody hole took up the space where his left eye used to be. Max reflexively reached up, touched his left eye. Fine. It was fine. But… how?
He held his hand in front of his face and his jaw dropped open. His skin had a translucent glow. He was no longer in his body. He was dead.
~ ~ ~
Max blinked and time did a fast forward. The ambulance was gone. His body was gone. Having no body made him happy, in an odd sort of way. He'd never liked that body, anyway. Why couldn't he have been 6 feet 2 inches and muscular, instead of 5 feet 9 inches and stocky? And the hair on his arms, what was up with that? He'd had a damn forest growing there.
The cops were questioning the people below him. No one shed tears. Why would they? No one there had known him. Hell, even the people who did know him weren't likely to shed any tears.
Max felt himself floating into a soft, peaceful place when he remembered the person in the ball cap. Then the word divorce echoed in his head. Rachel had wanted a divorce! And he'd been murdered! She'd done it. Rachel had killed him. Or had someone kill him. Over golf clubs? What the hell?
The crowd below him had thinned out. Two cops walked toward Chili's. What, seeing his dead body had given them an appetite? Max shook his head. No, he'd eaten at Chili's earlier. He remembered now. Carlos and that gleaming smile. Those cops must be going to talk to Carlos. Great. Perfect. Carlos would tell those cops that he'd left a lousy tip. He'd been grumpy and a lousy tipper. That's what everyone would remember about his last moments on earth.
Max turned his attention back to the crowd. No one in a ball cap. Was it even a ball cap? He shrugged. A cap, sure, but what kind? Baseball? Maybe football? Could have been any kind of cap. He didn't even know the color.
Regardless, no one in the crowd wore a hat. The person in the hat had killed him. And it was all Rachel's fault. Would you like a divorce with your death certificate?
"Hey!" Max shouted at the cops below him. "Hey! I'm talking to you! Find the person in the cap!"
No one looked his way. They couldn't hear him. He was dead.
A bright light flashed in his eyes and warmth flooded over him. He spun around, expecting to see more police cars with their lights blazing. Instead, a radiant white light shined down from somewhere above. Unlike spotlights, this one didn't hurt his eyes. He felt drawn to it, like he could float right up into that light and nothing else would matter.
But Rachel had killed him. Over golf clubs! He couldn't let her get away with it.
Max flinched. His grandfather. That was his grandfather's voice. His very dead grandfather.
"Maxwell, take my hand."
Max turned to see his grandfather standing on the edge of the light. His arm was outstretched, his hand turned palm up, waiting for Max to take it. "Wow," Max muttered."Grandpa Max. Wow."
"It's good to see you again, Maxwell."
"Yeah, well, I could have waited a few more years to see you, Grandpa Max."
His grandfather smiled. "Your time on earth is finished. Take my hand now."
The light pulled Max in, its warmth covering him like a soft blanket. Here's your coffee and toast and I want a divorce. Max batted the light away like a pesky insect."No," he said. "I can't let her get away with it."
"Maxwell," his grandfather said, "you don't understand. Take my hand and you will see. It's time."
"No. I'm not going."
Max folded his arms over his chest. His grandfather had that same exasperated look he'd worn in life. He said, "Maxwell, really, this is no time for stubbornness. Come with me."
Grandpa Max had been dead nearly ten years. Lung cancer. He'd gone from a hefty two hundred pounds to barely one hundred when he died. Now, standing there on the edge of that brilliant light, Grandpa Max looked healthier than he'd ever been in life.
Grandpa Max. His mother's father and the man to blame for his name.
"Why did you let them name me after you?" Max sputtered.
"Maxwell. You're confused. The transition into the hereafter can be traumatic, particularly when death is unexpected. Take my hand and all will be well."
"Didn't anyone think ahead to what it would be like for me to be saddled with Maxwell the rest of my life?"
Maxwell Paddington. Seriously. Who would do that to a child? His first day of junior high, the cool kids had taken extraordinary delight in putting his first and last name together and renaming him MaxiPad. Before long, he was no longer Max or even Maxwell. Everyone in the school knew him as Maxipad.
That name had followed him straight through high school. MaxiPad. One day, in ninth grade, he'd arrived at school to find a dozen Kotex pads stuck to the outside of his locker. He still flinched every time he thought about that nickname. At work, he couldn't walk past the aisle of sanitary napkins without shuddering.
Grandpa Max's voice broke into his thoughts. "I'm not going, Grandpa Max," he said. "Not until I'm sure Rachel will pay for what she's done."
"That is not for you to decide."
Max rolled his eyes. "Oh, please. It's right in the Bible. An eye for an eye. I'm not coming now, Grandpa Max."
Max turned away from his grandfather and the warm, radiant light. The light disappeared like a flashlight being switched off. Below him, only two young men and four cops remained. The rest of the crowd had gone home. Or back inside Chili's, to finish their meals and gaze adoringly at Carlos. Max wanted to listen to their conversation. An awkward attempt at floating sent him tumbling over the tall cop with the crooked nose.
"Thanks for your help," the cop said to the two young men. "If you think of anything else, please give me a call."
The cop handed each of them a card and the two men sauntered off in the direction of Chili's. The younger cop with the shaved head said, "Maybe a carjacking gone bad?"
"Could be," the tall cop said.
"No!" Max shouted. "No one wanted my car. It was Rachel! I bought golf clubs!"
"Let's go talk to the wife," the tall cop said.
"I hate this part," the bald cop said.
"Yeah, it never gets any easier, either. Notifying family is the part of the job that I'll never get used to."
"Will you listen to me!" Max called out. He leaned over, his mouth inches from the tall cop's ear. "You don't have to notify Rachel. She knows! She killed me! I know she did!"
The two cops moved toward their car, without as much as a flicker of acknowledgment. Max wanted to throw something at them. He wanted to smack them in the head to get their attention. But he couldn't even figure out how to get his feet on the ground, much less pick something up. He leaned further toward them and found himself dangling upside down. By the time he'd righted himself, the cops were gone.