"When an FBI Internal Affairs investigation lands the Preternatural Crimes Unit in a bureaucratic spank-fest, it feels like the perfect time for Marnie Baranuik to skip town and lend her expertise to a bear-sized Canadian cop who doesn't want her help with his case, his love life, or his car stereo. Back in her childhood stomping grounds, Marnie leaps into action, facing an exorcist in skinny jeans, a slap-happy specter, and an old friend up to new tricks. Are ghosts behind a string of unusual deaths? Why didn't her revenant companion, Lord Harry Dreppenstedt, tell her he had a Combat Butler? Can she survive dinner with her parents? With a shifty man of the cloth offering her soul's redemption, and a revelation that could change the future of her love life, she has her gloved hands full. She may not make a great first impression, but no one makes a Last Impression quite like Marnie."
Excerpt: Last Impressions (The Marnie Baranuik Files, Book 3)
The Epp farm was tucked behind an industrial park on the east side of the canal, not far from the Twin Flight Locks. From the looks of it, the farm had been there for generations, pre-dating the industry by decades. It consisted of two barns and some hen houses, a maze of chicken-wire fences topped with fresh snow, and a light blue farmhouse with doors and shutters freshly-painted the brilliant yellow of egg yolk.
Downwind, it stank of years’ worth of guano. So did Mr. Epp, who came waddling out of the smaller barn wiping his hands on his olive green coveralls, trudging through the snow. His padded, red plaid jacket was the type that always made me think of lumberjacks. Under a crammed-down, wrinkly Molson Canadian knit cap of washed-out grey, he had poker-straight orange hair complemented by a silver-streaked carroty handlebar mustache that he must have begun cultivating about the time I was born. I thought Batten’s upper lip would be sorely intimidated in the face of such manly follicles. When he opened his mouth to talk, I expected him to draw matching revolvers like Yosemite Sam. He was definitely the rootinest, tootinest, chicken-poopinest dude I'd ever laid eyes on.
“Why, I know I said I’m up and at ‘em before dawn, officer, but I sure didn’t expect you to show before the sun did.”
I whispered, “Is he for real?”
Schenk elbowed me. Because of his height, his chiding elbow connected with my left ear. “I understand you witnessed some youths down by the pond recently,” Schenk said. “Why don’t we go inside and you can tell me all about that?”
“Sorry, you misunderstood.” The farmer rubbed one hand with the other in rough strokes, thumb-in-palm. “I said I knew they were down there, but I didn’t personally see them.”
“Oh?” Schenk withdrew a flip pad and his pencil from his inside jacket pocket, and scribbled a note.
“The chickens saw them.”
Schenk didn’t miss a beat. “The chickens.” He wrote this, too, as though it could possibly mean something.
I raised my hand like I was in class. “Uh, how do you know the chickens saw them?”
“They told me. Well, not me, directly.” Epp smiled widely. “Obviously, I can’t talk to chickens.”
“You can’t,” Schenk clarified.
“No, not me, no sir.” When he shook his head, Epp’s ginger handlebars waved hypnotically back and forth like magic tentacles. “So, I’ll just go get the Chicken Whisperer, and we’ll get to interviewing your star witnesses, officer.”
Epp tromped off in the direction of the house. Schenk let a long, steady breath out of his nostrils and began to thump his pencil against his pad rapidly, taptaptap. My eyes snuck sideways and way, way up at him.
“Did he just say Chicken Whisperer?”
Unhappily, Schenk confirmed, “He did.”
“Oh, I’m so glad I answered your call this morning.”
“You owe me big time.”
“Wait a second. You woke me up, told me to come with you under pain of replacement with some less-awesome psychic, and I owe you? What kind of happy horse hockey are you trying to pull, Longshanks?”
“Hockey?” He paused, thoughtful. “I'll be damned. That's why he looks so familiar. He could be Lanny McDonald's twin brother.”
What I knew about hockey would probably fit on a puck with room to spare, because I am the worst Canadian in the history of ever, so I kept my ignorance to myself. I thought he needed a pat on the arm to bolster his spirits, so I gave him one.
He glanced down at me. “Getting anything off him, Big City Psychic?”
“Not a thing,” I confessed. “The Blue Sense must not be awake yet.” I turned at the sound of the door. “Holy crispy crapsicles.”
Epp thumped out the back door of the farmhouse wearing a floppy blond Marilyn Monroe wig and a quilted housecoat thrown over his overalls. He backhanded ropey platinum waves out of his hairy face. He’d smeared tangerine lipstick on his lips. It matched the color of his facial hair almost perfectly. He made me feel like Janet Leigh when the shower curtain tore open. It’s entirely possible I let out a little eep in lieu of a violin musical sting.
Schenk said tentatively, “Mr. Epp?”
“I’m Tina Epp, the Chicken Whisperer.” She handed Schenk a business card. “I’ll take you down to talk to Henny. She’s in charge of the girls out in the big barn. This way.”
I whispered out the side of my mouth, “It’s that new horror movie: Mrs. Doubtfire Silences the Lambs.”
Schenk clamped his lips together hard to keep a straight face and tucked the business card in his back pocket. “Uh, ma’am?” He followed her into the barn, clearing his throat. “Who's Henny? A hen?”
The barn was lit by stark white fluorescents and warmed just enough to take the chill off. The smell of chickens was only mildly worse inside. Epp began rubbing her hands again.
“She’s the Black Jersey Giant. Isn’t she a beaut? Now, hold on.”
She approached the pens and began talking to the chicken. In clucks.
I said, “How come you got a business card and I didn’t?”
Schenk was working valiantly at keeping his shit together; he flicked me an annoyed glance, dug the card out, and handed it to me. It was warm from being tucked against his butt cheek and it read: Chickens: I “get” them. The hinky quotation marks made me wonder: how exactly did Tina Epp “get” the chickens? She folded her fists into her armpits to make ersatz wings of her arms and used one boot to scratch at the dirt.
“This might be the best-worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” I confided to the cop in a whisper, “and I’ve been chased by half-naked zombies cosplaying wildlife.”
“Nope,” Tina reported to us, flexing her fingers. “Nope. Sorry. Henny says the girls don’t know nothing. Only the rooster was out.”
I ventured, “And you can’t talk to the rooster?”
“Aw, heck no, not me, Ma’am.” She batted at her wig again, spitting as strands of hair drifted and stuck to her mustache and lipstick: rookie make-up problem. It almost never happened to me anymore. Mostly because I stopped wearing lipstick.
Schenk opened his mouth, and by the hitching of his belt, I figured he was going to tell Epp we’d be heading out. Epp held up one finger to tell us to wait.
“You just hold them horses, officer. I’ll go on in and fetch the Cock Whisperer.”
Schenk and I froze in mutual stunned silence, our eyes slinking sideways to each other’s, while Epp clomped back toward the house in her black rubber boots, rubbing her hands in one another. I wondered if Schenk realized his hand had drifted to check that his gun was in place.
“Are you scared, too?” I whispered.
“I’ve never been so afraid in all my days on the force,” he said.
A.J. Aalto is a proud native of the Niagara Region. Born in St. Catharines, she currently resides with her wonderfully peculiar husband Jason and two quirky kids, a puppy that drives her bonkers and two cats who are undoubtedly plotting her demise. When not writing horror or dark urban fantasy, you can find A.J. researching horrible things, braying her unladylike guffaw, making dick jokes, mentally undressing strangers or sitting cross-legged on her front porch eating peanut butter M&Ms by the spoonful.
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For the giveaway: the entire series (ebooks/international) to 7 lucky winners: Touched (book 1), Death Rejoices (Book 2), Cold Company (Novella, 2.1) and Dirt Nap (Novella, 2.2) and Last Impressions (Book 3).