Where Alison Kerby’s ex-husband goes, trouble follows. This time, unfortunately, he’s brought that trouble right to her doorstep. On the run from a business deal gone bad, Steven, aka “the Swine,” owes some scary people a staggering sum of money. No need to panic, though. He has a plan: Sell Alison’s Jersey Shore guesthouse to pay them off.
Before Alison has a chance to read Steven the riot act, he disappears—after a mysterious man trailing him ends up full of bullet holes. Now the police are next to darken her doorway. For all his faults, Steven is still the father of Alison’s daughter, so with the help of ghosts Maxie and Paul, Alison sets out to find her ex and clear him of the murder. But if the bad guys get to him first, he may not have a ghost of a chance...
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"This is the end," I said.
I was mostly talking to myself. It was one of those things you say to yourself when things aren't exactly going your way, and they weren't going mine right now. I was standing just short of the security line at Newark Liberty International Airport (the longest name for an airport in the continental United States, but that's just a guess) where at any moment-I had been told-my daughter, Melissa, now thirteen but no less sensible than she ever had been, would be returned to me after having been held captive against my will for almost a whole week.
Okay, she'd been visiting her father in Los Angeles during a school break that took into account all presidential holidays and the remainder of a week, but to me that was the equivalent of kidnapping. Sure, Liss had been willing to go visit Steven, but that didn't make it the right thing to do. He had not been given (in my mind) the nickname The Swine without some cause.
"What's the end?" Maxie Malone, to my right, was watching up the corridor as I was, despite my urging that she head on down past security and see what was holding Melissa up. Maxie could do that because very few people could see her.
She was dead. More on that in a minute.
"The end of my patience," I said into the little Bluetooth device I wore on my ear so I could talk to Maxie without people thinking I needed psychiatric observation. "She was supposed to be back here three hours ago."
"It was snowing," Maxie reminded me as if I didn't know that. "You're lucky she's coming home today at all. They almost closed the airport."
Since when was Maxie the Weather Channel? "That's not the point," I explained through semiclenched teeth. "The point is that I was supposed to have my daughter back at two and it is now five fifteen. That is worse than two."
"You're overreacting," said Maxie.
I looked around for a kettle and a pot to see what color they each might think the other was. Oddly I found none.
"So she's a little late. You know how the airlines are." Maxie had once told me she'd never been in an airplane in her life. Maxie had been murdered at the age of twenty-eight and now existed-lived would be inaccurate-in my huge Victorian guesthouse back in Harbor Haven, New Jersey, roughly an hour's drive from here when it wasn't snowing.
"It's not the airlines. It's Liss's father. He probably made it snow so I wouldn't get her back."
Maxie rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue. I gave her a sharp look, which drew a quick glance from the TSA guard at one of the fluoroscope machines. Great. Now they'd think I was a hijacker because I was trying to glare significantly at one of my resident ghosts.
Perhaps I should explain.
After divorcing The Swine I had taken some money from the settlement-okay, all the money from the settlement-and some from a lawsuit I'd settled with an ex-employer with wandering hands and bought the big house in Harbor Haven, the town where I'd grown up. While restoring the house with an eye toward opening it to tourists, I'd taken a bucket of wallboard compound to the head (Maxie to this day swears she wasn't responsible), and once I'd come to had seen two people in my house I had not known were there.
Maxie was one of them. Paul Harrison, the aspiring private detective who had been Maxie's bodyguard for the last twelve hours of her life, was the other. The reason I hadn't seen them before was that almost nobody could see them-they were ghosts.
It seemed seeing ghosts ran in my family. My mother and Melissa apparently had the ability since birth, which they told me about only after I'd been clonked on the head and thought I was having dangerous hallucinations. This was the dynamic in my clan.
Paul and Maxie had been murdered in my new house and oddly were not happy about that, so they'd insisted I find out who had done the murdering. We eventually did sort that out, the perpetrator was now in prison and would be for quite some time and I figured the two ghosts would move out and let me have my guesthouse on the Jersey Shore.
No such luck.
At first neither of the ghosts was able to move beyond my property line, which was the beach in the back of the house, the street in front of the house and some nebulous line between houses on either side. Eventually Maxie spontaneously developed the ability to travel, but Paul was still housebound and grumpy about it. He was a lovely guy, but he tended to take things like being cooped up in one house for all eternity personally.
"Why don't you go up and see if she's in yet?" I suggested to Maxie. "They're not going to arrest you for breaking security."
"Will you calm down?" she said. "I miss Melissa, too, but you don't see me getting all antsy."
It was true. Maxie considered herself something of a big sister to my daughter, and Liss adored the brassy ghost, particularly since Maxie loves nothing better than to annoy me to the point of distraction, which Melissa considers hilarious. Even so, I was anxious to see my daughter after a week away. Five years to college. There was a thought I didn't want to have.
"I just-" I began.
Maxie rose toward the ceiling to get a better viewpoint. "They're coming out," she reported.
Immediately I started to jockey for position, but so did every other person waiting for a loved one (or maybe someone they didn't even like) to walk down the corridor. This area could see as many as three flights arrive at once, so even in this weather it was fairly crowded with New Jerseyans, and there's nothing we like better than nudging each other out of the way.
Unfortunately many of the New Jerseyans (don't ever call us "Jersey-ites") in front of me were tall, or at least tall enough that I couldn't see Melissa-or anything except the somewhat hairy neck of the guy in front of me-as the ex-passengers approached. "Do you see her?" I asked Maxie.
Maxie started to giggle, and that was always a bad sign.
"Yeah," she managed to squeak out.
"Why is that funny?"
The hairy neck in front of me wasn't laughing. Neither was anyone else in line. That let out the possibility that Jon Stewart had disembarked here or that a group of chimpanzees in flight attendant uniforms were juggling on their way out of the tunnel. Because chimps are funny.
"You'll see," Maxie chuckled, and then she rose higher either so that I'd have to yell to talk to her or so she could see better. There were no hairy-necked ghosts hovering near the ceiling, although one rather distinguished elderly gentleman dressed for a flight in 1974 was hip-deep in the floor of the terminal. He checked his watch as if time was actually a consideration of his.
I didn't have time, I'm saying, to assess Maxie's proclamation before my very own Melissa, who seemed taller after being gone only a week, squeezed her way through the crowd (practically hip-checking Hairy Neck) and gave me a measured but affectionate hug.
"Where's Josh?" she asked. That was the kind of greeting I got from my daughter. A lot of girls would have said, "Mom! I missed you so much! Thank goodness I don't live with that demon full-time!" But no. I got a thirteen-year-old asking where my boyfriend of two years might be.
"He couldn't make it tonight; he has to shovel out in front of his store." Josh Kaplan owned Madison Paints, an independent store in Asbury Park. "The town issues summonses if you don't shovel. But hey, don't worry, he managed to send your next favorite adult." I gave Liss a consolation hug with my right arm.
"I thought that was me," said a voice I knew too well. A voice that I couldn't be hearing. A voice I absolutely didn't want to be hearing.
"Don't make me play favorites, Dad," said my daughter.
Sure enough, standing just to the left (mine, not his) of Hairy Neck was my ex-husband, Steven Rendell.
"What are you doing here?" I sort of growled as Maxie, guffawing her way down from the ceiling, pointed at me.
"You should see your face!" she gloated. Melissa shot Maxie a look to indicate she was taking the gag too far. Maxie didn't notice, or that was what she wanted us to think.
"Nice welcome," Steven said. "Can't I come out and visit once in a while?"
Melissa dragged her carry-on-size bag with the one sort of shaky wheel, and started toward the exit. "Come on," she said, I think to Maxie. The ghost nodded and floated on behind her.
"I just wanted to come out and see you for a couple of days," my ex continued as if I hadn't made it clear that was a bad idea. "Do you have a room empty?"
It was February and the tourist trade down the shore (as real Jerseyans call the coastline) was not exactly booming. I had a grand total of three guests at the moment and none scheduled for the following week.
"We're all full up," I told Steven.
"Good for you!" The Swine liked to pretend that any business success I might have would be a complete surprise, because he thought I didn't actually know what I was doing. Yeah, I only had three guests. February. Shore. Remember? "You have somewhere you can stash me, right?"
I noticed he was walking slowly, more so than I remembered, but then, maybe age was starting to catch up with him. Steven had to be in his early forties by now, because I was in my late thirties. "Not really," I said. "Why not catch a flight back out to California while you can and save the cost of a hotel?"
"Ally." Steven knew for a fact that I absolutely hated being called "Ally." I gave him a look. "Sorry. Alison. Can you just wait up a second?"
Melissa (and by extension Maxie) already had a ten-yard lead on us. "Steven, I haven't seen our daughter-my daughter-in a week. Why would I hang back with you, when I didn't want to see you at all?" It seemed a logical question. The Swine had left us when Melissa was only eight, and he had done so to go live the Southern California lifestyle (which as far as I could tell was like New Jersey but with less gluten) with a woman named . . . Bambi? Barbie? That was four women ago, so I couldn't really remember.
"I have a problem." It was hardly worth noting that The Swine always had a problem. That was why the child support checks were late, when he managed to send them at all. That was why it hadn't been, until now, a "good time" for Melissa to come visit him in sunnier climes. Steven saying he had a problem was like LeBron James mentioning that he was taller than some.
"Fine, you can have a room at the guesthouse," I relented. "But only for a couple of nights. I have a new group of guests coming in a few days." That was an outright lie, but fight fire with fire, I always say.
"That's not it." Steven held my left biceps to slow me down, which considering that I was barely walking at this point, meant I had to stop. "I mean, yes, I want the room, but I figured I could get that. I have a real problem."
"And a charming way to convince me I should help." I shook his hand off my arm and started after my daughter, who was conversing openly with the invisible woman over her head. "What's the problem?"
"Some people want to kill me."
I kept walking. "Again?" I asked.
The drive home was slow and, from Steven's end, quiet. Melissa and Steven did not have a lot of details to share about their week together-they'd gone to Disneyland (of course) and the Chinese Theater (even more of course) and gotten their picture taken under the Hollywood sign. I would have to consult with Maxie, who had "mad computer skills," she said, about Photoshopping The Swine out of that one.
Maxie was sitting with her head out of the car, which made it look as if she were feeling the breeze despite the fact that she couldn't. So she did not contribute much except when she decided to drop down and see if anyone was saying anything she would consider interesting. We were, apparently, not doing that very much.
I had not mentioned Steven's comment at the airport to Maxie, since I'd had no time alone with her and didn't want to alarm Melissa over what I was sure would not be a serious issue. Steven was always getting involved in somewhat sketchy business deals, confident in his ability to talk his way out of trouble, and about seventy percent of the time he was able to do just that.
It was the other thirty percent that offered him some challenges, and probably would have ended up contributing to our divorce if Bobbi (or Bitsy, or something) hadn't gotten in the way first. I was really young when we got married. That's not an excuse, but it is an explanation.
"So, what's Dad's house like, Liss?" I asked when the slick roadway on the Garden State Parkway eased to the point that I could stop leaning forward, coaxing the Volvo's ancient defroster to make the highway visible.
"Um . . ." Liss wasn't often at a loss for words. "We didn't exactly stay at Dad's house."
"I'm having some renovations done," The Swine jumped in. "We had a suite at a hotel for the time Melissa was there, because nothing is too good for my girl."
I couldn't actually turn my head at the moment, but I could picture Liss rolling her eyes at that one. Her father could snow her (if you'll pardon the expression), but he had to work harder than that.
"A hotel?" None of the texts or phone calls had mentioned that.
"It was really nice," Liss told me. "One night we got room service and all they brought was a soft pretzel."
"Uh-huh." I didn't care much for the way this particular vacation was sounding. We didn't talk again for a while.
The truth was, what had fallen on New Jersey that day was hardly a significant snowfall. But it was the third one in a week and we were running out of places to put the stuff. I know some people see snow and think of lovely evenings spent watching it pile up. You never hear rhapsodic tales of shoveling and driving in snow on a dark night.