How To Seduce A Ghostby Hope Mcintyre
Ghostwriter Lee Bartholomew lives in a crumbling old town house in Notting Hill, London - alone. Her boyfriend has been badgering her for years to marry him or let him move in. But over thirty and counting, Lee is set in her ways, likes her space, and is terrified of letting any man get too close. Then an arsonist sets fire to a nearby house, and the woman who… See more details below
Ghostwriter Lee Bartholomew lives in a crumbling old town house in Notting Hill, London - alone. Her boyfriend has been badgering her for years to marry him or let him move in. But over thirty and counting, Lee is set in her ways, likes her space, and is terrified of letting any man get too close. Then an arsonist sets fire to a nearby house, and the woman who lives there is killed - and Lee convinces herself that she's next.
- Grand Central Publishing
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How to Seduce a Ghost
By Hope McIntyre
Mysterious PressCopyright © 2005 Caroline Upcher
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHEN ASTRID MCKENZIE WENT UP IN FLAMES AT THE end of my road I was fast asleep in my bed, dreaming about my mother.
Had they ever met, I think Astrid and my mother would have got along rather well. They are two of a kind, which is to say they are everything I am not. I didn't really know Astrid except to nod to in the street but the word in the market-on which I rely for virtually all my gossip-is that she was a live wire. My mother is a naturally gregarious person, who leaps about the place like a mountain goat most of the time. Frankly, I'm amazed they haven't signed her up to model for one of those over-fifty-five fitness programs that offer to rejuvenate your mind and body, or a fashion spread in Saga magazine. She has that lithe, eager-beaver look about her and I imagine talk of a party will still get her ears flapping when she's ninety.
I, on the other hand, am what they call a loner. Or, and here's a word that really makes me cringe, a homebody. I like to live vicariously. I realized pretty early on that my aim in life was not to sit night after night in the Met Bar getting smashed and going home with the first hot guy to buy me a cosmopolitan. Nevertheless I wanted to hear about the people who did, just as when I refused invitations to glamorous parties and sat home, happily watching the box, I looked forward to the calls the next morning from all and sundry with a detailed account of everything I missed.
I never got the point of going out all the time. I never had the stamina for a start, but I also always preferred being one-on-one with someone and you could have a cozy dinner a deux at home just as easily as going to a crowded restaurant. The problem is, while I don't think there's anything wrong with spending a lot of time on one's own, I have to admit that my antisocial lifestyle is not the norm. I mean, I don't know anyone else like me, and it worries me sometimes. Everyone's always saying things like You should get out more, You're only young once, It's not healthy sitting at home on your own all the time. I think it makes them uncomfortable having a friend who's not like them but I notice it doesn't stop them making me a captive audience for all their problems. They seem to like the idea that, more often than not, I'll be home alone and ready to listen. Of course I turn on the answering machine and screen my calls for days on end and that really turns me into a hermit. It's been particularly bad lately and if I don't get a grip on myself soon, I am in danger of becoming seriously unglued. Sooner or later my life is going to require a major shake-up or else I'll join forces with Astrid and spontaneously combust. I'm talking about all areas-work, living arrangements, and most important, my love life for, despite my reclusive nature, I do have a long-standing boyfriend. But, I find myself wondering far too often lately: For how much longer?
I feel terrible that while Astrid crackled away I was totally oblivious to her suffering. My mother maintains you always dream in opposites so I suppose it makes sense that in my dream she was running toward me with her arms outstretched, ready to embrace me. This simply does not happen in real life, which is probably why I was so deeply ensconced in the dream, enjoying something I never normally experienced, that I never heard the crackling of the flames only a little way down the road.
Astrid was a children's television presenter. I was always mildly intrigued that she was one of my neighbors because she was a minicelebrity and celebrities are my stock in trade. I'm a ghostwriter. I'm the "as told to" or the "written with" in small type you see underneath the celebrity's name on the cover of their autobiography. Every time I hear the name of someone in the news I automatically start asking questions, filing away a mental profile, just in case. Although Astrid was hardly likely to need a ghostwriter now.
But Astrid, it seemed, was not responsible for the blazing inferno that killed her. I first learned about the fire when I watched the local news on breakfast TV. It had started just after midnight. I must have slept through all the sirens. Seeing the street where I lived on television was unnerving. I pulled a pair of jeans on and rushed outside to look at the charred remains of Astrid's little mews house. The crowds and the press had already accumulated in the street outside and I noted that one or two of the women wearing particularly high heels were having a problem with the cobblestones in the mews. This was exactly the kind of inappropriate detail I would take into account rather than facing up to the unpleasant fact that there was a dead body lying in the house. She'd gone to the trouble of painting the outside pale pink and she must have started very recently because only yesterday the postman had come away cursing the pink paws he received when he tried to put her mail through the letterbox. What a shame, since it was now almost totally blackened by soot, I thought irrelevantly. Anything to ward off the images that would begin to terrify me at any moment.
"It's all right, love, they already took her away." Chris, a merchant I knew from Portobello Market touched my elbow. "You look terrible. Did you know her?"
I shook my head. "No, I never met her."
"Well, you won't now. I heard she was dead when they carried her out. That's her bedroom up there"-he pointed to a window toward the back of the house overlooking the mews-"that's where they found her."
And then it began to hit me. I had a sudden flash of Astrid waking up to a wall of fire around her bed. I wondered what went through your mind when faced with something like that? Did you automatically leap out of bed and try to wade through it? Would you stop to think about anything at all in the face of such danger? What would it be like to know that in a few seconds you would be subjected to heat that would cause your flesh to fry, your blood to boil, and your bones to snap, crackle, pop into powder. These were the kind of thoughts that would now begin to haunt me. Sometimes I lie awake, working myself up into a state of panic imagining the worst kind of violent death I could encounter. Plane crashes have always been favorites. Boating accidents and drowning feature high on the list. It doesn't matter that I made the swim team at school and passed the lifesaving exam. Somehow I will be caught in the perfect storm with drowning the only option. Elevator cables snapping, tornadoes hurling the car I am in through the air, sharks lurking beneath the surface in a bay where they have never been seen before, waiting to bite my leg off. I've entertained all these eventualities and many more.
And then of course there's murder. They're all out there waiting for me but murder is the worst. One night, while I'm fast asleep, someone is going to creep into my bedroom and smother me with a pillow. It doesn't help that I live in Notting Hill, an area of west London that has more than its fair share of crime. The carnival that takes place over the August Bank Holiday weekend is known for its race- and drug-related violence and there has been a stabbing at the end of my road two years running. I hear talk in the market of people opening their front doors in the morning to find blood on their doorsteps. It doesn't seem to matter that mine is a designated "ritzy neighborhood" to which tourists flock on a Saturday afternoon. What they never mention in the guide books is that living side-by-side with the celebrity residents gathering their organic groceries and frequenting the amazing number of fancy bars and coffee shops that have sprung up all over the place, are junkies, prostitutes, and dealers armed to the teeth. The only clue is the crumbling facade of the stucco-fronted crack house whose walls abut a millionaire's mansion.
I know the kids who grew up across the street from me and with whom I used to play hopscotch on Saturday mornings are now busy heating up their cocaine in a solution of baking soda until the water evaporates and they have their base cocaine. Many a night I can hear the whirring of police helicopters hovering overhead and I know that someone's getting stabbed somewhere. I force myself to ignore them and the danger their presence signifies. I huddle away in my house and pretend I'm safe. I know I'm behaving like an irresponsible ostrich, but once I allow even a snippet of the outside world to penetrate, my imagination starts to run riot.
So Astrid's death at such close quarters had really shaken me and I couldn't stop thinking about her. Nor, it seemed, would I be allowed to banish her from my mind even if I wanted to. Clearly, the fire was all anyone in my neighborhood was going to talk about for quite a while.
"You know," said Chris, looking at his watch, "it's eight forty-five. She'd have been on round about now for her morning slot. Johnny, two stalls down, told me his wife always parked their youngest in front of her when the older kids left for school. It upset him seeing his brothers and sisters leaving him, but Astrid took his mind off it. She was a lovely person. Did you watch her at all?"
"Never. Was she married? Did she have kids of her own?" I realized I didn't know much about Astrid beyond seeing her in the street and the pictures in the Sun the market merchants sometimes showed me of her leaving nightclubs on the arm of footballers or B-list pop idols.
"No, she had a bit of a problem in that department."
"She couldn't have children?"
"Don't know about that. I meant the married bit. She wasn't."
"Why was it a problem?"
"She went in for the wrong sort of bloke. You could tell she ... No." He stopped. "Shouldn't go into that. Don't want to speak ill of the dead. Listen, gotta run. I'm supposed to be picking up a couple of sacks of potatoes from the lockup. Carrots are lovely this week and I've got some of them sweet potatoes I know you like. Stop by later."
I went home to tip Tommy out of bed and get him off to work. Tommy Kennedy is the "love life" I've begun to wonder about that I mentioned earlier, my boyfriend if you can call a man in his early forties a boyfriend. He'd stayed the night, not something I encourage on a regular basis but I'd had too much to drink and when that happens my resistance is low. I knew I'd regret it later.
Tommy got in under the wire about eight years ago and while we're still seeing each other, the precarious state of our relationship is something I keep pushing under the carpet along with the rest of my worries. The problem is he's ready to get married and have kids and I'm not. I've got the biological clock-I'm nearly forty-but he's the one keeping time. He'd settle for just moving in with me but I don't want that either. I'm quite happy on my own. I take my ghostwriting very seriously. The last thing I need is an overweight radio engineer cluttering up my life, demanding meals on the table, and turning up the television to full volume whenever Chelsea score a goal. I need peace and quiet to order. Or, to put it another way, I'm just terrified what would happen if we spent too much time together. Tommy has the patience of a saint but I don't know how he'd react when faced with constant exposure to my neurotic phobias. I keep telling myself I love Tommy and that I don't want to lose him but I'm not 100 percent sure I still believe what I'm saying. I pretend to myself that we're doing fine as we are and the more people urge me to think about settling down, the more I resist it. The thing is, I am settled down. Marrying Tommy would only unsettle me.
Tommy works for the BBC in the bowels of Broadcasting House and he has the complexion to prove it. He's gray. If I had the time I'd spend a week spying on him to check if he ever sees daylight. He works underground in a studio all day and I know he doesn't go out to lunch because if he ever does stay the night here, I have to make him sandwiches to take to work the next morning. Cheese and pickle on white. I keep a jar of Branston specially. That's about the extent of my culinary activities as far as poor Tommy's concerned. I have to make at least four sandwiches. They didn't call him Thomas the Tank Engine for nothing when he was at school although I confess I find his solid bulk reassuring when the helicopters are hovering and the police sirens are roaring up Ladbroke Grove.
We met when I went along to the recording of a late-night chat show with one of my subjects, as I call them. I think it was the medium. I seem to remember she did a lot of radio. Spooky phone-ins with people calling to see if their loved ones would get in touch over the airwaves from the other side.
Tommy wandered in and out of the studio with earphones hanging round his neck and did a lot of very pretentious fiddling with knobs. Then he asked me if I'd like to go for a Kit Kat and a cup of BBC tea.
The basement of Broadcasting House is not the most romantic venue for a first date. He led me down a long underground corridor to a vending machine, asked me if I had any change before we progressed to an empty canteen. We sat under the kind of harsh fluorescent lighting that probably gives you bags under your eyes and wrinkles if you are under twenty, let alone approaching forty. But it didn't seem to bother him.
He didn't say much but I found his presence oddly reassuring. I always have. The only thing I remember about that first encounter was that he asked:
"Why are you so nervy? Why do you look so worried? Why do you keep lining up the salt and the pepper and the ashtray?"
"I don't know. I probably have an obsessive-compulsive disorder or whatever it's called. I have to touch things a certain number of times, I won't walk through a door until I've touched the jamb four times. I can't go to sleep if I don't have a certain pillow."
"Weird," said Tommy. "I suppose you wash your hands fifteen times a day."
"You're not taking me seriously."
"I'm taking you perfectly seriously," he told me, smiling. "I just think you're talking a lot of rubbish, that's all. I suspect you might be a bit neurotic, a bit of a worrier rather than this obsessive thing. Still, something seems to be bothering you, you're all jumpy."
"It's the radio show," I confessed. "Listening to her just now, it reminded me of all those people she got in touch with who died such violent deaths. I hated doing the book, writing up all the gory details and the way they were still in pain when she caught up with their spirits."
"'Caught up with their spirits'! You believe all that crap?" Tommy was incredulous but when I started to tell him about how freaked out I could get at the thought of someone coming to a grisly end, his face softened. He listened in a way nobody else ever had and he didn't laugh at me the way most people did when I tried to explain how the mere mention of physical danger could start my imagination working overtime.
"You funny old thing," he said affectionately when I'd finished. "What a waste of energy."
"It's not that I think I'll die tomorrow," I said, "just that when I do it'll be horrible and agonizing."
"It's all in the mind," he said. "You do know that, don't you? You're no more likely to encounter the kind of violent end you keep thinking about than you are to slip away quietly in your sleep. So stop worrying. It's a waste of time. Just deal with problems when they turn up, that's what I do. I don't see the point of fretting about something unless you can actually do something about it. Like right now. I'm not going to hover in the background while they record the show. They'll holler if they need me."
At that point they hollered and he disappeared, but first he scribbled down my phone number.
Excerpted from How to Seduce a Ghost by Hope McIntyre Copyright © 2005 by Caroline Upcher.
Excerpted by permission.
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