Friday, 14 March 2014

Review: Broken Hearted Ghoul by Joyce and Jim Lavene

It’s been two years since Skye Mertz agreed to drive Abe’s Taxi for the Dead, transporting his zombie workers back to the man who gave them an additional twenty years of life. She’s raising her daughter, with the help of her ghostly mother-in-law, and keeps looking for what killed her  husband the night she died.

Now she has a partner—a housewife working off her zombie husband’s service—and she’s met a sorcerer with amnesia. It shouldn’t be surprising that a broken hearted ghoul, bent on getting revenge, should show up too. After all, there’s no rest for the dead.



If you're not a huge fan of all the blood, guts and gore that goes along with every Zombie novel (those I've read, anyway) then you will really enjoy this book. The Zombies in this story are nothing like those from The Walking Dead, in fact, you'd never know they were living corpses because they are almost as normal as it they were truly still alive. Although they differ from the living in that they don't sleep, don't get cold, they eat but don't really have to, and they have a 20 year price on their heads.
This story was so unique and refreshing, and it entertained me from start to finish. Skye is a kind of bounty hunter/taxi driver for the living dead, stuck with the job of delivering those whose 20 years is up. I loved the strange concept of the dead being allowed to "live" but at the beck and call of their master. Debbie's case was even stranger and at first I had to wonder why Abe had allowed her to work of her husbands debt, but when the truth came to light I still found it a little strange. It felt like Abe was hiding something about her husband. And, as for said husband, something very weird was going on there. I'm intrigued to find out what is the deal with him. Another unique aspect of this story was Addie. I loved the ghostly meddling mother-in-law and I want to see what more she is capable of.
When the broken hearted ghoul showed up and started wreaking havoc on Abe's Zombie clan, that's when things really got exciting. Abe, for the dark master he seemed was, had quite the soft spot for his old love, and his weakness only complicated his life, as well as Skye's. Of course, chaos ensued as Skye tried to stop a string of Zombie killings, and she soon found out that there are more monstrous things in the world besides her kind. The only thing that really confused me about this book was Lucas. His sudden appearance, his role in this story. It all seemed a bit odd, and it felt like he'd been thrown in as a bit of an after-thought. Even though he served a purpose, it just felt a little convenient, and because the reason for his sudden arrival was never explored more, it felt like it was a loose end.
This was a fun, quick read with interesting characters. Different from the norm and would appeal to a wide audience because it has a little something of everything to offer.


Broken Hearted Ghoul
Chapter One
My name is Skye Mertz, and I’m a zombie.
I know. Not exactly a great pick-up line at a bar, huh?
I’m not the newfangled, brain-eating kind of zombie who runs around moaning and pulling off body parts. I come from old magic, and I look mostly normal. Short blonde hair. Blue eyes. About five foot ten.
My dead husband—this is two years back—used to say I looked like an ostrich first thing in the morning. I think it was supposed to be affectionate.
How I got here is a long story. Where I am right now is waiting for a man at an old motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
It’s cold—though I can’t feel cold anymore. It’s after two a.m., but since I don’t sleep anymore, no problem.
“How long do we have to wait for him?” my new partner asked.
That’s Debbie Hernandez—late twenties, dark hair, big brown eyes. She looks like someone’s mother with her round hips and big breasts. There’s something very understanding about her. She’s compassionate.
I don’t know what she’s doing out here.
She’s not a zombie, but she’s taken on the twenty-year debt for her husband. He’s the zombie. She doesn’t want him to know. It’s complicated.
Oh, the twenty-year thing, right?
Abe, our zombie master—he hates when I call him that—grants everyone twenty years of life when he takes them. Since it usually happens when you’re on your last legs, most people are glad to do what needs to be done.
We wear his mark—a small blue symbol tattooed on the heel of one foot. It kind of looks like an A with a circle around it.
Each of us owes Abe twenty years of service of one kind or another. He’s into a little bit of everything so I guess he needs all different people.
Debbie is the first non-zombie to take on service to Abe that I know of. She was willing to do whatever he asked to keep her husband going. She said her kids needed a father.
I can relate to that. Abe came to me when I was in the hospital after the terrible wreck that left my husband, Jacob, dead at the scene. He offered me twenty years, and I jumped at the chance.
My little girl, Kate, was only five at the time. With Jacob dead, and my prognosis heading in the same direction, it was an easy choice for me. Kate will be an adult when my twenty years of service is up. She can take care of herself then. It was a good exchange.
“It’s cold out here.” Debbie exhaled into the frosty night air and rubbed her gloved hands together.
“You should dress warmer.”
“What about you?”
“I’m dead. I don’t feel cold.”
“Terry must be the same, right?” Terry was her husband. He was a cop who’d been shot during a hold-up. It had been two weeks since she’d agreed to trade her service for his life.
“He’d never let on that he was cold, even when he was alive.” She smiled. “He’s always been a real man.”
Ugh! Protect me from women who believe their men are worthier than them. Jacob and I would’ve never lasted a day if he’d had that attitude.
I’d been a Nashville cop for longer than Jacob had been. Not that being his partner was what made him respect me. Some people just won’t have it any other way. I respected him too.
I finally saw movement at the seedy hotel. “I think that’s him.”
“What do we do with him?” This was Debbie’s first time in the field. Abe said he was moving her around, trying to find the right spot for her.
She was still getting used to things. I cut her some slack. “His twenty years are up. Some people don’t want to let go, even though they made the deal. Like this one. He was supposed to turn up at the mortuary. He never showed up.”
“So we kill him, and take him back?”
“He’s dead already, remember? Basically, we just take him back. Abe cuts the silver cord that binds them to him. That’s about it.”
“Are they all this way?”
“Most seem to be grateful for their time, and they go along quietly. They just step into the taxi for the dead, and we’re off.”
Debbie shook her head. “Taxi for the dead?”
“That’s kind of what I named my van. It only carries dead people.” I grinned. “At least until you came along.”
“This whole thing is so strange. I’m not sure I understood what I was getting myself into when I agreed to this.”
Too late now.  No point in telling her. The contract can only be broken by death. It was between her and Abe. Nothing to do with me.
“He’s definitely trying to ditch us.” I pointed at the man as he stealthily slid toward his car, glancing furtively around the parking lot. “I really hate these ones. Come on. Let’s go.”
I started the engine, and drove across the empty street. All the outside lights were out. Had he picked this place because it was dark thinking he could hide?
I hoped he didn’t think it mattered to me. He should have known that zombies have a nose for each other. I can smell one a mile away.
I saw someone else get in the car with him. I really hated when a family member was with someone who didn’t want to leave. It made it hard when they begged and pleaded for the other person’s life.
There was nothing I could do about it. Even if I wanted to let him run, Abe would just send someone else, and I wouldn’t get paid. I might be a zombie, but I still had some physical needs, and my daughter, Kate, had plenty of them.
I parked the van, and approached the old Ford. My zombie was getting ready to pull out of the parking lot. I tapped on the driver’s side window.
“Yes?” He fearfully rolled the window down an inch or so.
“Mr. Frank Tappman? I’m here to take you back, sir.”
“I need more time. Please. I can’t go right now. Just a few more months.”
“It’s not up to me, sir. You struck a deal with Abe, and that twenty years has expired. Actually, it expired yesterday. Please step out of the car, and come with us.”
“No. You don’t understand.” He smiled at the woman in the car with him. “I got married in the last few years. My wife is pregnant and about to give birth. I want to see my son. Then I’ll go with you.”
I felt Debbie sneak a peek at me, probably wondering if I was going to let him go. I’d done it before, actually. It just meant running after the person again. There was always a good excuse to stay. I knew that. I hoped I wouldn’t beg for my life when my time was up.
I couldn’t see the woman’s face in the dark car, but she was in for a surprise. “I think I can help with this problem, sir. That may be your wife, but that’s not your child.”
The woman with him laughed—a titter of nerves in the interior shadows. “Of course it’s his child. Don’t listen, Frank. The baby is yours.”
“Zombies don’t get pregnant or get other people pregnant,” I told her. “We just don’t have it is us anymore. We’re dead.”
“What?” Mr. Tappman looked at his wife for an explanation. “Is that true, Marcia?”
“Not exactly.” She tried to dodge the issue, and failed. “You didn’t donate the sperm, but you’re the baby’s emotional father. That counts for something, right?”
Mr. Tappman kind of folded after that. He’d been defiant. Now he was afraid. He got out of the car and held out his hands like I was going to put him in handcuffs or something.
“I’m not the police,” I said. “Just get in the van. You know how this goes. You got your twenty years. I hope you got to do a lot of great things with your time.”
He looked up at the night sky and sighed. “I wish I could have another twenty.”
“Maybe Abe can help you with that.” I shrugged. “I don’t know. I only bring people in when their time is up. I’m a zombie, just like you.”
“You probably don’t think it will be hard when it’s your turn.” He stared at me. “But it will be.”
“Thanks.” I held open the van door for him. “You’re probably right.”
Marcia got active at the last minute when she finally realized we were really taking away her lover. She screamed, and threw herself on the hood of the van. I moved away carefully. I had no mandate to do anything with the living—that wasn’t my job.
She finally subsided, sobbing loudly as she leaned against the other car.
I heard Debbie’s heavy sigh next to me. I wanted to tell her that it got easier as it went along. It wouldn’t be the truth.
It was a long drive back to Nashville. Debbie slept most of the way.
I could feel Mr. Tappman’s gaze boring into the back of my head. I was hoping he wouldn’t try to make a run for it when we stopped at a light or something. I’d had that happen a few times. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
I carried a Taser. If I had to, I could take him down. But that meant picking him up, and carrying him to the van. I didn’t get paid more for the extra work.
There was some reason that zombies had to come in at the end of their service. I wasn’t sure why. Abe wasn’t exactly the sharing type in that respect. Maybe they became brain-eating zombies—all Night of the Living Dead or something. I didn’t know. Since it would happen to me someday, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Just do my job, keep my head down, and go home to Kate. That was my motto.
As we approached Nashville, my hometown, the neon lights were starting to fade into the morning sky. We’d left behind the Smoky Mountains, and approached the skyscrapers perched on the edge of the Cumberland River.
Somewhere out there, a guitar player was hoping for a lucky break today. This was Music City—the home of the Grand Ole Opry—and a thousand hopeful hearts.
My hometown had grown a lot in the past twenty of my thirty years. It wasn’t just country music and guitar players looking for a break anymore. It was banks, and insurance companies that blended in with the rolling hills.
Kate was still asleep in her bed. I thought about her often at times like this. It was a quiet and empty time that I was usually alone. These moments were what people fought so hard to keep. Life was precious in all its splendor—but no one could hold on to it forever.
“It’s so beautiful,” Mr. Tappman whispered from the backseat. “We don’t appreciate it, do we? Life is . . . amazing.”
“It is.” I wished Debbie would wake up and talk to him. I didn’t feel like a philosophical discussion about why he was there.
I nudged her a little. She groaned, and turned away in the seat. So much for that.
“There’s still time. You could let me go right here and forget you ever saw me.”
“You’re going to have to be thankful for the time you’ve had and get on with it.” I didn’t meet his eyes in the rearview mirror. That only invited more conversation.
It wasn’t that I disagree. Life is amazing. Most people who were alive didn’t realize how important it was—until it was too late. Those of us already dead, and living on borrowed time? We knew.
We reached the mortuary, finally. It was called Simon’s. Mannequins in tuxedoes and bland, pale gowns were posed next to expensive caskets as though they were mourning people inside of them.
It was tasteless. But it worked with the place.
I pulled the van around the back to the delivery door. There was an old black hearse parked back there too. It had seen better days. As far as I knew, Abe kept this place going with his zombies. I’d never seen a normal, human funeral here.
“Okay. Let’s go inside. I know you’re scared, but Abe is waiting. It’ll be okay.” I turned to smile at him.
He was already halfway out the door.
What the hell?
“I can’t do it,” he yelled back at me. “I’m sorry. I can’t walk in like a lamb to the slaughter.”
He was running through the parking lot. “Mr. Tappman, please come back.”
“You’ll have to catch me first!”
I could probably outrun him, but I was tired and really didn’t feel like it. I hated to shoot him down—it meant I’d have to drag him back—but I took the tranquilizer dart gun from the van and aimed at him.
Abe’s hand came down on it. “I’ll handle this, Skye. Thank you.”
He was a big man—well over six feet. His arms and chest were enormous. His head and face were smooth like a baby’s butt. Most of the time, he wore dark glasses. I suspected he did it to mask his eyes that were blank white with no pupil or iris.
His skin fascinated me. It wasn’t dark or cocoa-colored. It was black. Call it jet or ebony—there was no pigment there besides black. It was shiny too, and reminded me of a rubber wet suit. I tried never to stare at him, but it happened sometimes.
“Frank,” Abe called out in a booming baritone. “Do you remember when I came to your hospital bed and you wanted the twenty years I gave you?”
“Yes.” Frank’s voice was anguished. He sounded out of breath. “But it’s so hard. I just can’t do it.”
“You’ve had your gift of life,” Abe persuaded. “It’s time to come home now.”
I was surprised that Frank wasn’t long gone. He sounded as though he was still in the line of pine trees at the back of the parking lot.
That was probably as far as he could sprint without falling over.
“I can get him now,” I whispered to Abe.
“He’ll come in,” he assured me. “He knows what’s right.”
Not convinced of that as he was, I held on to the tranquilizer dart gun, and waited.
“Please, Frank.” Abe’s gentle voice said again in a tone one might use for a hurt animal or frightened child. “I’ll be with you through it all.”
Before I could volunteer again to go and get Mr. Tappman, he slowly started walking back in our direction. His eyes were downcast, and his hands hung limply at his sides.
“I’m sorry, Abe.”
“That’s all right.” Abe put his arm around Frank’s shoulders. “Let’s get inside out of this chill.”
I watched them walk inside the mortuary. My job was done—not sure I’d get paid extra for it. Abe had done most of the work. It was only a small extra stipend when I brought someone in. I was salaried the rest of the time.
“What’s happening?” Debbie was still half-asleep, rubbing her eyes, as she got out of the van.
“Mr. Tappman decided to run for it. Abe talked him out of it.”
“What?” Debbie shivered in the early morning cold. “This is what happens?” She stared at the mortuary sign like it was written in a foreign language she was trying to understand.
“Don’t forget he was dead to begin with,” I reminded her. “He knew what he was getting into—just like I did.”
“My poor Terry.” Her dark eyes searched my face. “What will I tell him when the time comes for him?”
“I suggest you tell him, and your kids, before the time comes. They might not like the surprise.”


Broken Hearted Ghoul tote, ecopy of Undead By Morning, and a print copy of Broken Hearted Ghoul

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Joyce and Jim Lavene write award-winning, bestselling mystery fiction as themselves, J.J. Cook and Ellie Grant. They have written and published more than 70 novels for Harlequin, Berkley, Amazon, and Gallery Books along with hundreds of non-fiction articles for national and regional publications. They live in rural North Carolina with their family.



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