Detective Lieutenant Anita McElone is one of Harbor Haven’s finest. She’s also a hard-boiled ghost skeptic. So when she shows up on the doorstep of Alison Kerby’s Haunted Guesthouse to ask for supernatural help in solving the murder of her former partner, it’s hard to tell which woman is more flabbergasted. But McElone is dead serious, so Alison promises to help in any way she can—even asking her resident ghosts, Paul and Maxie, for help with the case.
As Paul’s spirit source reveals some troubling information about the deceased detective, Alison wrestles with what to tell McElone. First, though, she has to find her…because the lieutenant has suddenly disappeared.
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I was stripping white paint off the paneling in the new home theater (formerly game room) of my guesthouse when the cell phone in my pocket vibrated, indicating a text.
Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered to check the phone immediately, at least not before I’d finished the task at hand and showered—and very likely changed my clothes, ordered dinner and straightened up a couple of rooms—but my daughter, Melissa, was at her friend Wendy’s house this afternoon and might have been texting to let me know she needed a ride home or (more likely) to ask if she could spend the night there.
Such are the thrills of summer vacation. You’re only eleven once.
I wiped my hands off the best I could, then let the rag fall onto the drop cloth I’d carefully placed under the work area. I am nothing if not prepared.
But the text I’d received was not from Melissa; it was from Detective Lieutenant Anita McElone of the Harbor Haven Police Department. My breath stopped for a second. When your eleven-year-old isn’t at home, you really don’t want to get a call from the police. I knew McElone a little, but we weren’t what I’d call “friends,” and she’d never contacted me out of the blue before.
The text read: “COME OUTSIDE TO YOUR PORCH.”
That took some of my panic away but piqued my curiosity. I looked out the window of the home theater—therein lies a tale; it was slated to become a fitness center for the guests until I found out how much exercise equipment costs—and sure enough, McElone was standing on the front porch next to the glider, hands clasped behind her, pacing.
I sighed. The big scaredy-cat. Lieutenant McElone, one of the most unflappable people I have ever met, is afraid to come into my house because she thinks she’ll see a ghost. Which is silly. McElone can’t see the ghosts who stay in my house.
Perhaps I should explain.
Melissa and I moved to Harbor Haven, the town where I grew up, about three years ago after a divorce from a man I call “The Swine,” although that sometimes makes me feel like I’m insulting actual pigs. I bought the property at 123 Seafront because I wanted to start a new life for us here on the Jersey Shore, and I’d been in the process of renovating the place when things changed after a freak . . . we’ll call it an “accident” . . . left me with a severely bruised head, a concussion, and the ability to see ghosts. Specifically, Paul Harrison and Maxie Malone, who had been inhabiting the old Victorian since they’d been murdered on the premises. Once they realized that I could see them, they’d wanted me to find out who had killed them. But that’s a story told elsewhere.
As it turned out, I was not the only member of my family who could see Paul and Maxie, though I was the only one who’d had to sustain a head injury first. My mother and Melissa were both professional-level ghost communicators and had been keeping that little fact from me for, let’s say all my life in Mom’s case and all her life in Melissa’s. But I have forgiven them. I am magnanimous. And it comes in handy now that my father has passed away. I’m sad he’s dead, but he’s still around a lot. My family is an emotional roller coaster. Probably in a different way than yours.
I took a breath before heading outside to McElone. I’d specifically chosen this moment to work on the theater because I was, for once, alone in my thoughts, something that almost never happens around the guesthouse. With Liss at her friend Wendy’s and all six of my current guests out at the beach on this scorching-hot day, the only “company” I’d normally have had would be the ghosts. But Maxie, who’d recently developed the ability to leave the property, had decided to go visit her mother, and Paul, who still can’t wander farther than my property line, had been . . . not upset, and not exactly broody lately, but showing signs of some ennui, which he had not explained. I decided he was a grown man—if a dead one, which would understandably bum anyone out—and I’d let him work out his issues until he brought them up himself.
Wiping off my hands again, I walked out of the theater, down the corridor to the entrance, and opened the door. A blast of heat and humidity, which you tend to forget about when you’re living in air-conditioning, smacked me hard in the face.
McElone wasn’t even sweating. I’d been exposed to the tropical wave for three seconds and was already feeling moist, but she had no human responses. She was, I had decided long before, not so much a regular person as a cop who occasionally took in air to survive.
“This is what it’s come to?” I asked. “You text me from my own front porch because you’re afraid of my house?”
“I’m not afraid,” she protested. “I’m just not interested in seeing any more than I already have.” The lieutenant had been witness to a few of the less conventional events that take place in my house. Events that several of my guests pay good money to witness, but the novelty of it is lost on McElone.
“You sure you don’t want to come inside?” I tried. “I promise there are no ghosts around at the moment, and it’s got to be a hundred degrees out here.”
McElone held up a hand at the very suggestion, which made her look a little like a very imposing cigar store Indian. Cigar store Native American? “I’m fine here.”
There was a tentative quality to her that I’d never seen before. McElone doesn’t actually have a sense of humor, but she’s usually sharper in conversation than this.
Something was bothering her.
It probably would have been bothering her more if she’d known that despite my assurances about the lack of ghosts, Paul had just risen up from the crawl space under the front porch and was watching her closely. “You didn’t call the lieutenant, did you?” he asked, knowing full well that I wouldn’t answer him directly with her there.
“What brings you here, Lieutenant?” I asked for both our sakes. “Have there been complaints about the guesthouse again?” Locals in Harbor Haven know the stories about the place, and I had recently installed a prominent sign, just to the left of the front door, that read proudly, “Haunted Guesthouse,” replacing a temporary one Melissa had made on poster board.
But occasionally the odd—and some of them are very odd—tourist or a townsperson with an especially prickly nature makes a complaint at the police station about “weird goings-on” or “strange noises” emanating from the house. None of which is actually true, since the ghosts can’t be heard at all if you don’t have the ear for it.
“Do you remember Martin Ferry?” McElone asked, out of nowhere.
“Detective Ferry?” I asked. I remembered him as a sour-natured detective in Seaside Heights, who had once reluctantly shared some information with me. We hadn’t hit it off so much as we’d tolerated each other. “Wasn’t he your partner before you came here to Harbor Haven?”
McElone nodded. Then she shuddered a little, bit her lip and looked like she was fighting tears. “He’s dead,” she said finally, forcing the words out.
“Oh, Lieutenant,” I said. I’ve never called McElone by her name, only her rank. We don’t have that kind of relationship. “I’m so sorry to hear it. Was it sudden?” I recalled Ferry as a middle-aged man with a prodigious belly; I wondered if his heart had given out.
“Very sudden,” McElone answered. “Somebody shot him.”
“Come inside,” I said again to McElone. I was getting really hot out on the porch. “I promise nothing strange will happen.” I might have said that last part a little louder than was necessary; I wanted to emphasize it to Paul. I had to admit, the heat and the news of Ferry had me just a little off balance.
“No,” the lieutenant answered. “Really.”
“At least sit down,” I suggested. I have a glider on the front porch, and gestured toward it. McElone surveyed it up and down, as if trying to determine what these puny humans do on such things, but eventually sat down and let out a breath.
“I’m going to get myself a glass of lemonade,” I told her. “Would you like one, Lieutenant?”
McElone turned her head suddenly, as if she’d just realized I was there. “Yeah. Sure. Thank you.” This was serious; she wasn’t even being snide. Snide is McElone’s baseline attitude when I’m around.
I opened the door again and let the cool, dry air envelop me as I walked into my supposedly terrifying house. Paul slipped through the door (and when I say through the door . . .) and followed me, as I’d hoped he would.
“Why do you think she came here?” I asked him quietly. “She seems really shaken by what happened to him.”
“I think it’s obvious,” the spook to my right answered. “She wants our help in finding Detective Ferry’s killer.”
Paul, who’d been a fledgling private investigator when his life was cut short on his first solo case—guarding Maxie—and I had an arrangement: He and Maxie would help me guarantee an interactive experience for some of my guests (those who booked through Senior Plus Tours, looking for the “value-added” aspect of staying in a haunted house) if I helped him. As it turns out, eternity is a long time, and being a ghost stuck within my property lines was a little dull. Paul wanted to keep his hand in the investigation biz. He’d need “legs” outside the house on occasion. And since Melissa was (at the time) nine years old and Mom was not exactly as spry as she used to be, Paul chose me.
Suffice it to say that while I was not completely thrilled at the prospect of working PI cases, I was thrilled with the idea of guaranteed guests for my business, which is what Senior Plus assured me they’d send if I could deliver the spooks. So after a while I’d caved and sat for the private investigator’s exam, Maxie reluctantly signed up for the “spook shows,” the guests started coming and I forgot all about my PI license until Paul started insisting that I keep my end of the bargain and actually take cases.
He can communicate with other spirits—I call it the Ghosternet—and he let it be known that “we” were open for business. So once in a while a ghost will ask him for help, and I have to go along for the ride if I want to keep my real business running. Which is also how I know Lieutenant McElone (who doesn’t respect my detecting skills much, and she’s right).
Now I looked at Paul carefully. “You know, there are times when you overestimate the draw of your imaginary detective agency,” I told him. He frowned at the word imaginary, but I didn’t give him time to answer. “McElone is a detective herself, and a good one. She doesn’t need me—and as far as she knows, the whole ‘agency’ is me—to help her on an investigation. She has the Harbor Haven Police Department.”
I opened a cupboard and took out two glasses. Melissa would have been impressed that I used the actual glass ones. When it’s just the two of us, we drink out of plastic cups I buy at the Acme. We’re a classy family.
“No, she doesn’t,” Paul countered. “Keep in mind, Detective Ferry was a member of the Seaside Heights department. Unless he was killed here in Harbor Haven, his case is not within the lieutenant’s jurisdiction.”
I went to the fridge and got out the pitcher of lemonade (which, in the interest of full disclosure, Melissa had made, following a recipe her grandmother had given her; I’m either the world’s worst or the least-inspired cook, depending on whether you ask me or the my mother, who’s diplomatic to a fault) and walked to the counter.
“I guarantee the cops in Seaside would be all over the murder of one of their own,” I told Paul. “Even if McElone wants to look into it herself, she has to trust them to handle it. There’s no reason to ask me.” I got a tray from the cabinet under the microwave oven.
Paul raised an eyebrow and put his hands into the pockets of his jeans, a sign that he was getting stubborn about something. This was different from when he’s thinking, when he’ll feverishly stroke his goatee. You get to know someone when they inhabit your house, even if they died before you got there.
“I’ll bet you that the lieutenant asks you for help when you go back out to the porch,” he said. “I’ll bet you I’m right.”
I put the glasses and the pitcher on the tray and lifted it, heading for the kitchen door. (Perhaps it should be noted that this was a special favor for the lieutenant—the guesthouse is not a bed-and-breakfast, so even my guests don’t get more than a morning cup of coffee or tea out of me.) “Fine for you,” I said. “But it’s not like you can pay off when I win. What are you betting?”
“If I win the bet, we take the case for Lieutenant McElone,” he said.
“And when I win?” We were almost to the front door.
“If you were to win, we turn down the next investigation we’re offered, and I won’t complain about it. How’s that?”
“Double or nothing,” I said.
He looked puzzled. “Double or nothing?”
“When I win the bet, I get to turn down the next two cases you cook up on the Ghosternet. Deal?”
Paul didn’t even stop to think. “Deal.”
I tilted my head toward the knob on the front door. “Do you mind?”
Paul reached over and opened the door for me, which was a vast improvement over what he could do when I first met him (at the time, picking up a quarter was a chore requiring intense concentration). I thanked him quietly as I carried the tray back into the blast furnace.
I put the tray down on a wicker table next to the glider where McElone was still sitting, looking uncomfortable but amazingly not sweaty. I poured the two glasses and handed her one as I leaned on the railing facing her.
“I’m really sorry for your loss, Lieutenant,” I said, and meant it. “I know Detective Ferry was a friend, and this must hurt. I wish there were something I could do.”
“There is,” Lieutenant McElone said. “You can help me find out who killed Martin.”
Paul’s grin was so wide I swear I could see his rear molars.
I concentrated my attention not on my usual terrible luck in gambling—I lose money driving past Atlantic City—but on the woman inhabiting my glider. “I don’t understand,” I told McElone.
Her face showed no emotion; her voice was not the least bit wavery. She looked at me with her un-sweat-stained face and said, without hesitation, “I’m asking you to help solve my ex-partner’s murder. Will you do that for me?”
Now, the fact of the matter is that bet or no bet, Paul or no Paul, I owed Anita McElone my life at least once and probably more times than that. She had been there for me at times when I most needed someone. She deserved to get what she wanted from me in her time of great need.
But what she really needed was a good detective, which I wasn’t. “Are you sure you want me?” I asked her. “Don’t you want a more . . . experienced investigator?”
McElone looked at me for a long time, so long that I started to think maybe she was staring into space, thinking of her lost friend. Maybe she was trying to bore a hole in my face with her eyes.
Then she did the oddest thing I could have imagined: She laughed. Not long, not uproariously—she laughed like she’d been taken by surprise by something so unbearably absurd that there was no other logical response.
“I’m not asking you to investigate,” McElone said. “Believe me. I’ve seen you investigate. No offense.”
“None taken,” I said. I am very objective about my (lack of) detecting skills. But Paul looked a little put off. “But then, how can I help solve Detective Ferry’s murder?”
McElone’s face lost any hint of amusement, not that there had been much to begin with. She broke eye contact and looked off toward the street. She bit her lip, but not like she was trying to fend off tears; it was more like she really didn’t want to have to say what was about to come out of her mouth.
She was embarrassed, and I’d never seen her embarrassed before.
“I want you . . . that is, I’m wondering if you would . . . please . . .”
Paul broke the silence, but only I could tell. “She thinks there might be something you can do with people like me,” he said. “She wants you to get in touch with ghosts.”
I almost shook my head to deny it, and then remembered my track record today betting against Paul. I turned toward McElone and tried out his theory instead. “You think a . . . ghost can help?” I asked gently.
McElone closed her eyes quickly, as if I’d said something dreadfully painful. And she nodded, an almost imperceptible gesture, and let out her breath. Make that Paul two, me zero, for the day.
“But you don’t believe in ghosts,” I reminded her, though she probably didn’t need the help. “You’ve always made fun of me when I say something about them.”
“She’s afraid of us, and you know that,” Paul admonished me. “She’s lost a friend. Let her up off the mat.”
McElone turned back to face me, something like the usual fire back in her eyes. “I have seen stuff go down in this house that I can’t explain away,” she said. “I have watched things fly around with nobody holding them up. I have heard you talk to people who weren’t there and get answers to questions that I couldn’t hear. I have seen you get out of situations you had no business surviving. A friend of mine is dead, and I want to find out who did it. I’ll use anything—anything—to accomplish that. If you can get me some good information, I don’t care where you get it from, understand? I’ll find the way to make it admissible in a court of law later. Now,” she said firmly, “Can. You. Help. Me?”
I didn’t give Paul time to interrupt, because I wanted him to hear me say it without prompting. “Yes,” I said. “I can, and I will.”
Contrary to my expectations, Wendy’s mom, Barbara, dropped Melissa off at home just a few minutes later. Turned out Barbara and Cliff, Wendy’s dad, had plans for the evening, so instead of Melissa spending the night at their place, I offered to provide a roof over Wendy’s head so they could cancel their babysitter for the night.
It was a shame from my point of view, though. As soon as they showed up, the girls headed up to Liss’s room to “hang out” (kids don’t “play” anymore), depriving me of my daughter’s input when Lieutenant McElone told Paul and me (one intentionally) the details of Martin Ferry’s death. She may be only eleven, but I value Melissa’s perspective on the investigations Paul makes me take on; she has a really good sense of people and a way of cutting to the logic of a point that helps.
Instead, she said hello to McElone, gave Paul and me a look that said she wanted an explanation when it was possible and led Wendy up the stairs to the dumbwaiter/elevator that leads to her room. She loves that thing.
Turning back to McElone once the girls were gone, I asked (at Paul’s prompting), “Why do you need to investigate the case? Isn’t Detective Ferry’s own department doing everything they can to solve it?”
McElone, standing now and ignoring the excellent lemonade (I was on my second glass), held up her hands, palms out, to indicate that she didn’t want to misspeak.
“They did everything they thought they should do,” she answered. “Between the boardwalk fire and how Hurricane Sandy messed up the town, the Seaside Heights department has had more to deal with than they should’ve. But that’s not the issue—it’s that Martin’s death was ruled an accident. From the trajectory of the bullet and the way the room looked, they determined that his weapon accidentally discharged as he was removing it. They said there was no sign there was anyone else in the room with him. There were no signs of forced entry. There were no prints on the weapon except Martin’s. They truly believe it was an accident.”
“Then why don’t you believe it?” I asked, without Paul’s help that time.
McElone did not pause to organize her thoughts. “Because I knew Martin, and that is not a possible scenario. He was so careful with his weapon—and I never once saw him draw it—that the idea he’d just idly toss it on the table and let it shoot him is outside the area of plausibility.”
“Ask if his current partner would agree with her assessment,” Paul suggested. “Perhaps his behavior has changed in the years since he and the lieutenant worked together.”
I passed the suggestion along, but McElone shook her head. “Martin hasn’t had a partner since I left,” she said. “He wasn’t always the . . . easiest guy to get along with.”
“No kidding,” I said. My memories of Detective Ferry were that he’d had a somewhat condescending and irritable manner, which I’d attributed to the usual disdain cops feel for private investigators. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t run-of-the-mill misogyny.
She gave me a warning look. “He was my partner, and he was my friend.”
“Okay,” I answered. “So what do you want me to do?”
The ice in my lemonade had melted, so now I had lemon-flavored cool water. But I took a sip anyway while McElone gathered her thoughts. Paul was watching attentively.
And then Maxie appeared from overhead, like a vulture. Maxie is sometimes a little thoughtless, I think, in the way she flaunts her ability to travel outside my property, particularly in front of Paul, who is frustrated that he can’t. She floated down from above my roof wearing a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt whose legend read, “Seriously?”
“What’s the lady cop doing here?” she asked with her usual high level of tact. “Somebody get iced?”
“As a matter of fact, someone did,” Paul told her. “Be quiet for a minute.” He was all attention on McElone.
“You don’t get to tell me—”
“I need you to try to get in touch with Martin’s . . . spirit,” McElone said, practically trembling with the weight of her embarrassment. “I want you to ask him what happened, and how I can find the person who did that to him.”
Involuntarily, I looked at Paul, my conduit to other ghosts. “Ask her,” he said.
“What are you looking at?” McElone asked me.
I dodged the question. “How long ago did this happen to Detective Ferry?” I said.
“It happened Sunday.”
Paul raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
“Two days ago,” I said. “That might not be enough time.”
The lieutenant squinted at me as if I were far away and speaking Finnish. “Enough time for what?”
“People don’t become conscious ghosts right away,” I explained. “The ghosts that I know—”
“Please,” she said. “I’m not ready for that yet.”
Despite her protest, I continued. “In my experience, it can take a few days before a ghost even knows where he or she is, and a while after that to figure out they aren’t alive anymore.” McElone was a cop and a good one, and she needed the facts in order to function at her best. “So it might be another day or two—or more—before Detective Ferry can be contacted.”
McElone’s eyes were serious and focused now. She was on a case and getting the information she required. “That’s doable,” she said.
“Yeah, if it works,” Maxie snorted.
Paul nodded at me. “She has a point. Tell the lieutenant.”
“There’s something else you need to be prepared for,” I told her.
She looked concerned. “He won’t know me if he sees me?” she asked.
“It’s not that. What you have to prepare for is that not every person who . . . passes away”—I try to be sensitive and avoid using the words die or dead in front of Paul and Maxie—“becomes a ghost.”
“You mean it might never be possible to contact Martin about this?” McElone said. The disappointment in her voice was thick; she’d clearly enlisted me as a last resort, and now I was telling her even that could fail her.
“I’m not saying that for certain,” I said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. The rules seem to be different for everybody. Paul says the afterlife comes without a handbook.”
That was a conversation for another day. “Don’t worry about it,” I told the lieutenant. “What I’m saying is that it might be a few days until I can give you a definitive answer, okay? I promise we’ll—I’ll—do everything I can.”
McElone stood up straight. “Thank you for doing this,” she said.
“Not at all. I know it wasn’t easy for you to ask.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You have no idea,” she said, then simply nodded, as if dismissing an inferior officer, squared her shoulders and walked to her personal car (she’d never drive the department-issue vehicle on what she considered to be personal business), got in and drove off.
So she probably didn’t see me turn toward Paul and ask, “What did we just sign up for?”
“From your standpoint, I would think it’s a dream case,” he answered. “All you have to do is tell the lieutenant what I tell you. You should be thrilled.”
My lip curled a little bit; I didn’t agree with his assessment. “I knew Detective Ferry a little, Paul. He wasn’t my favorite person on the planet, but I’m not happy he’s dead.” I walked back inside to the air-conditioning.
Paul scowled, following. He doesn’t like it when I call him out on things, especially when I’m right. “That wasn’t what I was saying,” he said.
Now I scowled, and for the same reasons. “Well, let’s move on,” I said magnanimously. “Can you get on the Ghosternet and look for the detective?”
“He’s not gonna be there,” Maxie kicked in. I hadn’t even realized she’d come inside with us—she doesn’t care if it’s a hundred degrees out. “Like you told the police lady, he hasn’t been dead long enough.” Maxie doesn’t mind the word dead as long as it’s not being applied to her.
“Nothing is uniform,” Paul told her. “We don’t know that I can’t find him. It’s all I can do, anyway. I’ll get on it immediately. I will let you know if I get a message back.” (That’s what he calls the communication he gets from other users of the Ghosternet.) Without another word, Paul sank through the floor of my front room to the basement, which is where he prefers to commune telepathically with those of his own kind.
Knowing my guests would likely be coming back from the beach shortly, I decided to go clean up the game room, where I’d been working, since there wouldn’t be enough time now to finish stripping the white paint off the paneling. Maxie followed me, which wasn’t astonishing but is unusual. She doesn’t often seek out my company and relishes time she can spend on the roof, by herself.
I walked into the movie room (as I’d decided to call it) and assessed its condition. The room was a long rectangle with windows on two sides and hadn’t seen much use as a game room. Maxie had suggested turning it into a home theater, while Paul actually thought we should turn it into a “consulting room” for the detective business (I shot that down in a hurry), so obstinately I’d decided to make it a fitness center for the guests—until I asked a few and discovered they had no interest, combined with the high cost of the equipment I’d need to buy. And my father, a former handyman, agreed with Maxie.
As usual, I realized that Maxie, who’d been an interior designer when she was alive, had actually had the best idea first, and subjected myself to her endless crowing when I announced my change in plans. I sold the pool table on Craigslist, and now the space was becoming a movie room.
First step: Strip off the white paint I’d used to cover the paneling because it made the room too bright for viewing movies, especially during the day. And because it was just ironic enough to fit my life. Paint on, paint off. Maybe the first movie we’d show would be The Karate Kid.
Maxie stopped at the door and considered. “How dark are you going to go on the stain?” she asked.
“Light,” I said. “Just not a real high-gloss finish, because I don’t want glare and I don’t want it to be reflective.” I started to clean up the site, first removing the can of paint thinner. It was extra hot in this room because I had some windows open to reduce the fumes.
“Probably a good idea,” she agreed. Ah, so I was going to get the reasonable Maxie this afternoon. Reasonable Maxie was a rare sight, and disturbing in her own way.
I put the lid back on the can of thinner, placed the morning’s front section of the Asbury Park Press on the lid and stood on it. That way you know the can is closed properly. But there’s not much to do when you’re standing on a paint can, so I looked at Maxie. “How’s your mom?” I asked.
“Fine! She’s fine! Can’t I do anything without being questioned like a criminal?” She flew up into the ceiling and kept going.
I got down off the can of thinner. The reasonable Maxie had left the building.
With Paul downstairs, Melissa upstairs with Wendy and Maxie’s whereabouts anyone’s guess, I didn’t have much time to consider why a young female ghost would fly (literally) off the handle (figuratively) at the mention of her mother.
What I did have to do was clean up the movie room, or more specifically, the construction area. I put the paint thinner, stepladder and other tools in a utility closet handily located in the room and did a little quick sweep-up, and the room was presentable again.
I, however, was not, so I went upstairs to shower and change before any of my guests returned from the beach or the town.
I’d barely gotten myself into a presentable pair of cargo shorts and a blue top before my cell phone rang. The Caller ID indicated the call was coming from Jeannie Rogers, my closest friend.
“Heeeeellllloooooo.” The mournful elongation of Jeannie’s greeting indicated either that the world had just come to an end and it was left to Jeannie to break the news to me, or that her one-year-old (pardon me, eleven-month-old) son, Oliver, was already tracking below the necessary requirements for a terrific preschool he wouldn’t be able to attend for at least two years. Equally unmitigated disasters in Jeannie’s world.
“What’s wrong, Jean?”
A sigh that could have driven a hyena to Xanax emanated from my phone, but I’ve known Jeannie for a while, so I was expecting it. “Nora broke her leg,” she moaned. “She fell down the basement stairs going for a suitcase.”
Nora? Who was Nora? Oh, yeah: “Tony’s mother broke her leg? Oh, that’s too bad.” Tony Mandorisi, my friend and home improvement guru, is also Jeannie’s husband.
“It’s beyond bad,” she went on, intimating that I had clearly missed the tragic implications of her—Jeannie’s—misfortune. “She and Jimmy were due in tomorrow morning.”
This rang a vaguely familiar bell, but I couldn’t quite remember what it was that bore significance here. “Well, I’m sure Tony’s parents can visit after her leg is better.”
Now Jeannie’s voice took on a decided edge, since I had not picked up on her deep and lasting misery. “You don’t understand. Tony and I are leaving on the cruise tomorrow afternoon. Nora and Jimmy were going to watch Oliver for five days.”
Oh, yeah. It had been surprising enough that Jeannie—who defines the term helicopter mom to the point that she should be decorated by the Air Force—would agree to leave her young son for five full days, but Tony had insisted that they celebrate their wedding anniversary with their first solo trip since Oliver’s birth. So Jeannie had reluctantly agreed to go on a romantic cruise to Bermuda with her husband.
Now that idyll was being threatened by a freak accident suffered by a woman trying to accommodate them, which Jeannie, of course, saw as the queen mother of inconveniences. I probably would have seen it as a dark omen indicating I should stay off the cruise ship at all costs, and that is the difference in our personalities.
Another is the fact that Jeannie absolutely won’t believe there are ghosts in my house. She’s known me for a very long time but still will not admit to the possibility that Paul and Maxie are real. She thinks I’m a master con woman, taking in gullible tourists who want to see spooky things go on, and that all the evidence of Paul and Maxie (which include flying objects, conversations that seem to have only one side and the occasional hole in one of my walls—it’s a long story) is just prestidigitation on my part. Her husband, Tony, however, has taken to the idea of the ghosts, and occasionally even tries to communicate with Paul. He’s a little afraid of Maxie.
“Well, there must be someone else who can take care of Ollie,” I said, slipping as I used the nickname that Tony used for their son but Jeannie disdained (“It makes him sound like he should be hanging around with a guy named Stan and getting into fine messes”). “It’s just a few days, right?”
“It’s five days, tomorrow through Sunday,” Jeannie answered. “And it’s impossible. My brother can’t get here from Omaha in time. And none of our friends have children.”
That irked me a little. “Hey, I have a daughter, you know.”
And even before Jeannie responded, I knew I had done something very, very stupid. I had walked into the middle of the highway as the tractor-trailer came barreling down from the mountain with its brake line cut. I had stood in front of the wall during the firing squad’s daily target practice. I had seen the funnel cloud and gone driving toward the tornado.
“Really? You wouldn’t mind?” Jeannie squealed. “Oh, Alison, I can’t thank you enough—you’re saving my marriage!” Jeannie is, among other things, given to hyperbole; as far as I knew, there was no trouble between her and Tony.
But that wasn’t the point. I had inadvertently just volunteered to bring Oliver to my house and care for him while his parents were on a ship at sea. Now don’t get me wrong: I adore Ollie and think he’s the sweetest baby on the planet since Melissa, but Jeannie is, let’s say, a little exacting about his care. She had interviewed seven different day care centers before deciding on a private babysitter, who had undergone every possible vetting mechanism short of a polygraph test. That was canceled only because Jeannie couldn’t find a qualified technician. And even after all that, Jeannie wouldn’t trust poor Katie the babysitter with her son for five whole days.
“Whoa, hold on there, Jeannie.” This required a moment. I’d volunteered, sort of, and I did want my friends to have a good time. Tony, especially, needed the break (mostly from watching Jeannie hover over their son). I wasn’t going to renege on what she saw as a promise, despite its stemming simply from my mention of having a daughter. “I’m happy to help you out, but I want to get a few ground rules straight before we start.”
I could hear her eyes narrow. “Ground rules?” she asked.
“Yeah. You need to understand that Liss and I are crazy about Oliver”—I avoided using his nickname so that this time Jeannie could concentrate on what I was saying—“and we’re happy to have him visit for a few days.”
Jeannie’s audible eyes were down to slits now. “But. . .?”
“But, we’re not going to be able to do everything exactly the way that you do. He’s going to be on vacation, too. You have to be prepared for the idea that some things in Oliver’s day might be just a little bit different than normal.”
“How different?” Jeannie asked.
“Well, for example, I’ll try to stick to the foods he eats already, but if I have to make substitutions based on what we have in the house or what my mom might bring one night, I’ll do so. Carefully.”
Jeannie made something approaching a chewing sound, which indicated that she was rotating her jaw, something she does when confronted with an idea she had not considered before. “How carefully?” she asked.
“I’m a gift horse, Jeannie. You want to look me in the mouth?”
There was a long pause while Jeannie undoubtedly considered her options. She had none. “Okay, you’re hired,” she said.
“Try not to sound too grateful,” I told her. “You don’t want me to get a swelled head.”
“Oh, come on, you know I love you, and I’m thrilled you’re taking Oliver! But . . .”
I smiled, but she couldn’t see it. “But you’ve never left him alone this long before, and you’re nervous. I get that.”
Jeannie had the nerve to sound amazed. “How did you know?”
“I told you. I have a child.”
We arranged for Tony and Jeannie to drop Oliver off at noon the next day. I started mentally calculating how much I’d have to pay Melissa to help me out with the baby whenever I couldn’t care for him myself but was interrupted by two of my Senior Plus guests, Don Coburn and his “better half,” Tammy, returning from their day at the incredibly hot beach.
In addition to the Coburns, I had another couple and two single guests at the moment, and while six people are plenty to deal with, at the height of the season, having any guest rooms vacant was not a great sign. We were still struggling to get back to normal after the Sandy damage, no matter what the TV commercials told us about being “Stronger Than the Storm.” I wasn’t worried about making the mortgage payments, but the knowledge that college tuition was just seven years away could send me into a cold sweat at night.
Red as beets, walking slowly with fatigued legs, the Coburns nevertheless appeared to be the two happiest people on the planet. Tammy was from Grinnell, Iowa, she had told me, and she was getting a look at the ocean for the first time in her life. Don, who’d moved to Iowa and met Tammy forty years earlier but had grown up in Avon-by-the-Sea, not far from Harbor Haven, just seemed tickled that she was so pleased.
They agreed that the Shore was the best ever (although Tammy really didn’t have a basis for comparison) and went up to their room to shower and change before heading out to dinner. A lot down the Shore is different since the storm, but sand still gets into your clothes and hair.
Paul rose up from the basement at that moment—it was clear I just wasn’t going to get much cleaning done this afternoon—with a puzzled look on his face. “I tried to contact Detective Ferry, and as we suspected, he is not yet in contact, if he ever will be,” he reported. “It would be much easier if everyone evolved the same way.”
“The lack of rules really bothers you, doesn’t it?” I asked him.
“A lot of things bother me,” he said. That was unexpected. Paul usually didn’t do the passive-aggressive thing; that was Maxie’s territory. And sometimes my mother’s.
“What do you mean?”
He waved a hand. “Nothing,” he said. “I am a little concerned, however.”
“Why?” I decided to go into the kitchen in case any more guests arrived. The Senior Plus tourists are used to my conversing with people who aren’t there, and since I’d publicly declared the guesthouse to be haunted, I’d been getting fewer “civilian” guests. Still, it can be unnerving to see your hostess talking to the ceiling or the wall, so I try to keep the kitchen a guest-free zone and conduct conversations with Paul and Maxie there.
Besides, since I don’t cook, the guesthouse is not a bed-and-breakfast—no breakfast—so the kitchen is usually unoccupied.
Paul followed me. “After trying to contact Detective Ferry and failing to find him, I sent out a general message asking about him. I got a number of responses from people who had some interaction with the detective while he was alive.”
I looked into the freezer, pretending I might actually cook something if I could find the right kind of food there. This was really just a ruse; I knew perfectly well that with Wendy in the house, we’d be ordering pizza. Luckily, Mom would be over tomorrow to help Melissa cook dinner, when I’d have Oliver around. “So people knew Ferry,” I said to Paul. “Is there something suspicious about that?”
“Not on the face of it.” Paul, when he’s thinking hard, doesn’t pay much attention to his positioning, so he drifts. He was about halfway in the air to the ceiling fan now, stroking his goatee. “You would expect that a detective would have interacted with a number of people who are somewhat unsavory, criminals and such. There was one who said the detective had solved his murder.”
“I imagine that guy’s pretty grateful. Does he have any information that might help McElone?” I asked.
“No,” Paul answered, looking uncomfortable. “His information was not specific to the detective’s death.”
Something about Paul’s tone was disturbing. I turned to face him. Paul’s head was an inch from the ceiling fan, and I suppressed the urge to tell him to look out, because there was nothing the fan could possibly do to him. “I don’t like the way you sound,” I said.
“You shouldn’t. The man who contacted me said that Detective Ferry was a corrupt officer, and that even his investigation into the man’s death was motivated by a chance to help the people who were, as he put it, ‘running’ the detective.”
“I’m not saying anything,” Paul said. “The man who says Detective Ferry solved his murder is claiming the detective was involved with a local mob.”
Detective Martin Ferry had mob ties? That wasn’t good news, and it certainly wasn’t anything I was going to tell Lieutenant McElone unless I absolutely had to. Paul couldn’t get any more information out of the “connected” ghost—apparently these guys won’t break the code even after they’re dead, and that’s loyalty—to the point that he didn’t even know the name of his contact, though Paul noted that the ghost “could be holding a grudge.”
I spent much of the night, when not listening in on the latest fifth-to-sixth-grade (summer is an odd time for kids) gossip from Wendy and Melissa or dealing with the needs of my guests, wondering what else I could do to help the lieutenant.
Let me save you the time: I didn’t come up with anything.
The next morning, my Senior Plus Tour guests Don and Tammy were the first up and out. They headed off to Point Pleasant to spend the day on the boardwalk, giggling like a couple of teenagers. It was inspiring.
Another couple from Senior Plus, Stephanie and Rita Muldoon, wandered down around eight thirty and took some of the orange juice I’d made available. Even though I don’t cook, I do put out coffee, tea and juice in the mornings. This time of year, I also make sure we have plenty of ice in case any of the guests want their morning beverage cold.
Stephanie asked about breakfast places in town, and I directed her to the Stud Muffin, our local bakery, or the Harbor Haven Diner (where I have an arrangement to get a small percentage for every customer I send their way).
“The next ghost experience is at ten,” I let them know. Rita laughed lightly. You can tell the ones who are a little bit scared by the way they act like they’re not scared.
“I think we’ll be seeing some ghost juggling,” I told her. It’s not that hard to juggle when nobody can see your arms. Paul and Maxie can just hold the stuff in their hands and move it around, and people think it’s juggling, I’m told.
“Sounds like fun,” Stephanie said. “But there’s another one in the afternoon, right?”
Maxie dropped down through the ceiling—early for her—just in time to hear that. “If they’re not going to stay, we don’t have to do the morning show, right?” she asked.
With my back to the guests for the moment, I threw Maxie an irritated look. “Yes,” I answered Stephanie. “Around four.”
“Good. I think we might just hang out on the beach this morning before it gets too hot.” Rita looked at her wife. “Right, honey?”
Stephanie put her arm around Rita. “Don’t worry. I’m here to protect you.” She smiled indulgently.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” I said sincerely. “I assure you, the ghosts in this house are absolutely not dangerous.”
“Depends on your definition,” Maxie said, but instead of proving her bad-ass-ness by throwing something, like she often does, she just smiled at me. “So, am I off this morning?” She knew I couldn’t answer in front of a skittish guest, but it’s hard for her to contain herself. Maxie has, let’s say, impulse-control issues.
I ignored her as I got Rita and Stephanie some towels from the downstairs linen closet, reminded them to make sure they used sunscreen and hydrated regularly (I’m such a mom) and saw them out the back door toward what would be my private beach if my beach were, indeed, private. It’s not. The borough of Harbor Haven’s zoning laws have seen to that. I don’t really mind, but I do have to buy beach badges for my maximum number of guests (and myself and Liss) every year. It adds up.
As soon as they were outside, I turned sharply toward Maxie. “All of a sudden you need your mornings off?”
Maxie made a point of studying the ceiling, like Michelangelo sizing up the Sistine Chapel and deciding one of Adam’s fingers needed nail polish. “I’m going to see my mom,” she said.
“Again?” I asked. “What’s going on with your mom? Is she all right? Should I give her a call?” It occurred to me that Kitty hadn’t come by the house to visit recently; even though she can’t see or hear her daughter anymore, Kitty and Maxie were usually able to communicate via notes, or with help from Mom, Melissa or me (the 3 M’s, we actually don’t call ourselves).
“She’s fine. Don’t call her! Please?” Maxie started circling the ceiling, which is what she does when she’s agitated. If someone could find a way to prescribe Ritalin for those beyond the grave, Maxie would be a regular customer.
“Then tell me what’s going on with you. How come you’ve been going to see your mom every day? And why hasn’t she come over here recently? She used to come here about once a week.”
“You are not my commanding officer!” she yelled, and once again launched herself skyward and out of the room.
Oooookaaaaaay . . . Well, if nothing else, I guess I’d found a new and effective way to get rid of Maxie when I wanted to. In this case, it was unfortunate, because I’d wanted to ask her to do some research on Detective Ferry, to see if there was any indication he’d been anything but an upstanding, honorable peace officer during his years on the force. I’d have to ask her later. I hadn’t actually said she could have the morning off—she’d gotten that, right?
Melissa and Wendy, sleepy eyed from having stayed up late talking, dragged themselves into the kitchen not long after. Liss was stretching her arms over her head, and Wendy smiled, because she always smiles.
“Good morning, Alison,” Wendy said. Kids think it’s amazing to call grown-ups by their first names. I had no problem with it because I knew Wendy wasn’t being disrespectful.
“Morning, Wendy. Who’s that you have with you?”
She looked startled. “You mean Melissa?”
I pretended to look more closely. “It is? Wow. That must be what she looks like when she doesn’t get any sleep because she’s been up giggling all night, huh?”
Liss regarded me with something like disgust, but no less enthusiastic. “Where’s coffee?” she rasped.
“If I’d wanted to have conversations like this, I could have stayed married to your father,” I told her. “You know where the coffee is.”
Wendy, astounded that Melissa actually drinks coffee now, followed her out to the den, where the urn and coffee accessories were currently available, and made sure there was plenty of milk, because my daughter’s coffee-to-milk ratio is pretty skewed toward the milk. I chuckled to myself. Liss tried so hard to be an adult, but she was incurably eleven. For a few more months.
It sounded like one of my remaining two guests was ambling down from one of the rooms, so I headed to the den.
Joe Guglielmelli, a single gentleman who had booked his trip through Senior Plus “despite all this silly ghost business,” was a widower in his seventies, a nonbeliever in the spirits and a jovial presence at the spook shows, constantly pointing out to the other guests and me exactly how he believed “the tricks” were done. Normally that kind of thing would get on my nerves, but Joe—he insisted—was so genial and engaged that he seemed like a little boy trying to understand how the magician made the dove appear.
He looked up from his glass of orange juice and smiled when I walked in. “Any new tricks from the ‘ghosts’ today, Alison?” he asked. He mimed the quotes around “ghosts.”
“You’ll just have to wait and see, Joe,” I said with a wink. “Watch really closely.”
“Can’t wait,” he said.
I was about to reply when my phone buzzed. I begged off for a moment, saying I’d be right back and apologizing for my technology-driven rudeness. Joe waved a hand to declare the infraction minor, so I walked to the other side of the room and checked my phone.
The message was from Lieutenant McElone: “Can you meet?”
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