“Ghosts!” My daughter, Melissa, just turned ten, came running down the stairs from her bedroom. “There are ghosts in the house!” she screamed. She ran through the front room and into the kitchen, where she hit the back door and tore into the enormous backyard.
Behind her, objects—a wax apple, a real banana, an old hat, a lace handkerchief, and a picture frame (hey—that was mine!)—flew around in the space behind her, held up by unseen hands, manipulated in ways that betrayed intelligent thought (except that picture frame, which I wanted back) rather than some wind-based phenomenon.
Eerie laughter (admittedly attributable to hidden speakers and recordings Melissa and I had made one night) filled the front room of my guesthouse in the New Jersey Shore town of Harbor Haven. Guests, almost all of them senior citizens, stood and watched amazed as the objects flew in a perfect circle, then began to juggle, then flew all the way up the stairs and into Melissa’s bedroom, where the door slammed shut.
I checked my watch. Four o’clock already?
The guests stood transfixed, watching the spectacle. When it was over, they applauded mightily.
Perhaps I should explain.
After I divorced Melissa’s father, to whom we will refer as The Swine, I bought this huge Victorian in the town where I grew up. Upon moving in (and after a series of circumstances that left me with a concussion), I discovered two ghosts who were, as they put it, “trapped” in the house and on its grounds, since they had died here.
It’s a long story (told elsewhere), but two things happened when it was over:
1. A man named Edmund Rance, who represented a company offering “unique” vacation experiences to a senior clientele, offered me steady bookings throughout the Jersey Shore season (roughly April 1 to October 31), but only if ghosts made themselves evident at least twice a day;
2. Paul Harrison, the budding private investigator who had been working a case for the house’s previous owner, Maxie Malone, when they’d both become . . . well, ghosts, asked me to get a private detective’s license, so we could work on the occasional case together.
These two events meshed nicely, since I needed Paul and Maxie’s cooperation to fulfill Rance’s requirements and to make my guesthouse work, and Paul needed me to participate in the odd detective case. Neither Paul nor Maxie is able to leave my property, so Paul requires eyes and ears out “in the world,” as he puts it, and that’s where I come in.
I don’t know how much persuasion it took on Paul’s part, but after a few days, Maxie agreed to the plan. Part of the agreement, however, was that we not let the guests know every time Paul and Maxie were around—Maxie was especially adamant about “not wanting strangers bothering me all the time”—so I would be discreet about communicating with them other than during “performances.”
I’d spent the ensuing five months placing ads (to fill the rooms Rance was not booking), making brochures and generally going through the guesthouse making sure everything was perfect.
And everything had seemed perfect the day the first guests arrived, three days ago. Melissa and I had stood outside the house on that lovely sunny morning, watching our first customers exit a navy blue minivan with the logo “Senior Plus Tours” on its side. Rance had indeed delivered on his promise: I had five available bedrooms, and there were six lovely seniors plus a tour guide who had all put down deposits and agreed to come spend varying amounts of time with me, my daughter, and two undead creatures who would haunt them vigorously a minimum of twice a day, as dictated by the terms of my contract.
Everybody has a dream vacation. Who am I to argue?
“These people know about Paul and Maxie, but what about someone who comes here and doesn’t know about the ghosts?” Melissa had asked as we waved at our new guests.
“We’ll make sure the Senior Plus tour guests know not to say anything, and we’ll be discreet with the others,” I answered.
“What’s discreet?” she asked.
“Sneaky,” I said.
Maxie had then appeared at my side out of the blue—she does that with some regularity, because she enjoys the startling effect it has—rolling her eyes and clucking her tongue at the sight of our visitors.
“You sure these old people can handle it?” she said. “I’m not interested in giving anybody a heart attack. Unless it’s intentional.” She was hovering a few feet above the ground, wearing a tight pair of jeans and a black T-shirt bearing the legend “Wouldn’t You Like to Know?” But who knew how long that ensemble would last? Maxie’s clothes tended to change—I couldn’t tell whether it was intentional or not—based on her mood.
Maxie, who was only twenty-eight when she died, had not taken the transition to her new state of being easily. In fact, while she often referred to herself and Paul as dead—something Paul never did—she seemed to think the whole thing would all blow over eventually. Her main purpose these days seemed to be giving me decorating tips, when all I wanted to do was keep the plumbing working and the heat on long enough to make my guests happy.
“They’ll be fine,” I told her, with absolutely no certainty whatsoever. “They came here because they want to see you, not in spite of it, like me. Now remember, you’re not to do anything . . . obvious, except at ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, every day.”
“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Maxie said out of the corner of her mouth.
“I didn’t talk you into this. Paul did.”
“That’s who I was talking to.”
Sure enough, Paul had materialized at my daughter’s side just as a fiftysomething woman approached me and put out her hand. He was muscular and a bit wan (in the parts that weren’t transparent), and was already stroking his goatee. It wasn’t a good sign.
“Linda Jane Smith,” the woman said. “I’m the designated liaison between the tour guests and the site—that’s you. I’m also a registered nurse, in case there are any medical problems with our Senior Plus guests.”
I shook Linda Jane’s hand and introduced Melissa and myself. I didn’t feel it necessary to introduce Paul and Maxie. “Nice to meet you in person,” I said. “Now, I’ve assigned the rooms as you specified. But I hope you don’t mind—I had to double you up with Dolores Santiago.”
Linda Jane checked her list. “Yes, she signed on to the trip so late. But she’s making her own way here, apparently; she wasn’t on the van. Have you met her yet?”
“No. She e-mailed that she’ll be here in an hour or so. Do you mind sharing the room?”
She shook her head. “It’s fine.” She looked up at the house. “It’s a lovely place. And it’s so big.”
The house has seven bedrooms. Subtracting one each for Melissa and myself, that left five that I could rent out at a time. To keep the costs down for each guest, but to assure that I wouldn’t lose money on the deal, Senior Plus Tours had offered a lower rate for those willing to share a room, and most of the guests—including Linda Jane—had jumped on the deal. That left me with only one vacant room. I was glad we weren’t operating at full capacity for my first week, though on the other hand, more guests would have meant more money.
“You’re sure Mr. and Mrs. Jones have a double bed, and not two singles?” Linda Jane continued. “I don’t know what they’re planning, but Mr. Jones was absolutely adamant about it.”
I smiled my best proprietor smile. “They have the second bedroom on the second floor,” I said, nodding. “It has a queen-size bed. Now, let’s get inside, and . . .” The sooner I could get them inside, and away from the ghosts (mostly Maxie) until it was time for the afternoon “performance,” the better. Maxie was nervous with strangers around, and tended to compensate by being, let’s say unpredictable.
“Actually,” Linda Jane answered, “I’ll just have the van driver carry all the luggage up to the appointed rooms, if that’s all right.”
Paul came over to me, taking care to walk around Linda Jane, which I thought was a gallant gesture on his part, since he could have walked through her. But he knew that made me a little queasy.
“We need to talk,” he whispered in my ear. “I’ve had an offer.”
An offer? What, he was going to leave for a better house to haunt? No, wait—Paul and Maxie were apparently incapable of traveling off the property. They didn’t know why; Paul said some other ghosts he’d had contact with could move about freely, but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the process. He reminded me that, unlike in the movies, when he and Maxie had died almost a year and a half earlier they hadn’t been given an “instruction manual.” He was hoping that they would develop more skills as time passed. Maybe even eventually move on to another level of post-life existence.
So what could this offer be about?
It had to be the other half of the bargain we’d made—that if he and Maxie would “entertain” the guests at my house, I’d help Paul with the occasional investigation. But the timing couldn’t be worse for that; my first guests were literally just then walking up the path to the house.
“Okay?” Linda Jane repeated. “The driver can bring the luggage up?”
“Sure,” I said, moving toward the oncoming guests, who were arriving at what could charitably be called a leisurely pace. Paul moved with me as I advanced, giving me just enough time to say, “Not now. Please. No detecting now.”
“Detecting?” Melissa had heard me. “Are you going to be doing some detecting?” She seemed to think this would be a great idea.
I think I whipped my head toward her a little too quickly. “No,” I said. Melissa’s eyes registered a little surprise and a little concern that her mother had flipped out.
Paul had noted my demeanor as well, and nodded. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll talk about it later.” And he vanished.
A lovely little woman wearing harlequin glasses and a blue suit and—I swear—a straw hat, reached out for my hand. “Hello,” I’d said, taking hers, “I’m Alison Kerby, your host.”
“Are there stairs everywhere in the house?” the woman demanded in a harsh tone. “And it’s hostess, by the way.”
“There are stairs—it was in the information you were given—but if you have difficulty, I’m sure we can accommodate . . .”
“Don’t patronize me, Tootsie. I’m paying top dollar to stay here, and I expect to see something for my money. So. Are there ghosts here?”
I was already biting my lower lip, but I managed to smile in what I hoped was a friendly manner. “Well, you’ll just have to find out, won’t you?”
“I’d better,” she’d snapped, and kept walking toward the front door.
Behind her, Linda Jane shook her head and smiled. “Don’t mind Mrs. Antwerp,” she said. “I get the impression Bernice hasn’t been satisfied with anything since Eisenhower was president.”
“I’m glad to hear it’s not just me,” I told her.
“Oh, trust me, it’s not just you.”
Almost all the new guests had entered the house by then, so Melissa and I started toward the door, and Linda Jane followed. “Lovely place you have here,” she said.
I thanked her for the compliment. “It took a lot of work,” I said.
“Everything worthwhile does,” she answered.
I had to agree, although Melissa had piped up with her opinion that homework was pointless, which has been the complaint of every fourth-grader in history. “If they teach me the stuff in class, why do I have to learn it myself at home?” she asked.
Linda Jane laughed as we reached the front door and entered the house. “We’re going to get along just fine,” she said.
Maxie, walking in through the wall with her lip curled, rolled her eyes. “I liked the nasty one better,” she said.
“You would,” I said.
Three days later, the whole thing had already become pleasantly routine, except that I now got up every morning at five-thirty, which was the least pleasant part. But it gave me the chance to do whatever straightening up of the common rooms was necessary, greet the especially early risers among our guests, answer the incredulous questions about our lack of available breakfast—although to be totally honest, I do keep a coffee urn going in the morning for those who want, and I have hot water for tea—direct the more adamant to the Harbor Haven Café (where I’d made an agreement with Janice Bacon—no, really—the owner, to give my guests a ten-percent discount) and check for ghosts, although Paul and Maxie were rarely around first thing in the morning. I didn’t know where they went when they vanished, but they usually answered when I shouted for them. Not that I can remember ever having shouted for Maxie. Not happily, anyway.
Then I’d get Melissa ready for school, which was usually pretty easy. If there were no footsteps upstairs or the sound of the shower after her alarm went off at seven, I’d go up to roust her out of bed. But she’s a very self-sufficient ten-year-old.
After driving her to school—they still didn’t have a school bus route in Harbor Haven—I’d get ready for the ten a.m. spook show. Sometimes I’d have to remind Maxie, but Paul gamely appeared every morning promptly at nine-fifty-five.
Except today. He showed up at nine-twenty, when I was in the library (thankfully alone) reshelving books that had been left strewn about the room.
“Wake up early?” I asked, although I didn’t know if he and Maxie actually slept. I’m not sure they knew.
“It’s time we discussed that . . . matter from the other morning,” he said, his Canadian/British accent making it sound more like mawning.
“What matter?” There was a memoir by a politician shelved on the fiction wall, and I was considering whether to leave it there out of sheer irony.
“The offer I received a few days ago,” Paul said. “About us looking into a certain situation . . .”
Suddenly, I felt very tired. “Oh, come on, Paul,” I said. “You didn’t really expect me to go into the gumshoe business, did you?”
“You did sit for the examination and get a private investigator license,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, but that was only because I thought I’d never have to use it, and you’d leave me alone.” One paperback was placed, spine splayed open, on the side table. I don’t like to abuse books like that, but on the other hand, one of my guests was probably reading it and wanted to mark the place. I picked up a bookmark from a stack I keep on the table (which was right next to the paperback) and placed it in the book on the appropriate page, then closed the volume to try and save what was left of its binding.
“Well, I took it seriously,” Paul sniffed. “You know how I feel about this. I was a good private detective when I was alive. . . .”
“You were a brand new private detective when you were alive, and you’ve told me you want to keep going to see how you’d do,” I countered.
“I don’t want to spend eternity putting on invisible music-hall dramas for your tourists,” he came back. “We had a deal, you remember. And one word from me to Maxie can end the twice-a-day vaudeville act for good.”
I pivoted and stared at him. “You wouldn’t.”
He tilted his head and curled his lip. “No, probably not. But you agreed to something, and I think you should at least try to live up to it.”
I sighed. It’s not something I do often, but I’m trying to perfect it. “You’re right. But remember the ground rules—I won’t get involved in anything that’s going to place me or Melissa in any kind of danger.”
Paul nodded earnestly. “This doesn’t involve any danger, Alison. I promise you. We’re just confirming an event, that’s all.”
“Who’s the client?” The books were shelved, and now I was dusting the furniture, can of Pledge in hand.
“A man named Scott McFarlane. We haven’t met, but we’ve . . . communicated.” Paul has the ability to “speak,” more or less, with other spirits, sort of telepathically. He doesn’t really understand how it works, but he and I call it the Ghosternet.
“So it’s a ghost, right?” Figured. I wouldn’t even get paid.
“Yes,” Paul admitted. “I don’t talk to that many living people.” As far as we knew, Paul and Maxie could only be seen by Melissa, my mother, and me. My mother says it’s a “gift.” I have other words I could use for it.
It was hardly worth polishing the furniture; the seniors staying in my house were tidier than I was. I put on the look Melissa calls “grumpy” and faced Paul. “I’ll listen to the story,” I told him, “but I’m making no promises, understand?”
“Absolutely.” Paul smiled and looked away, trying but failing not to seem like a child who’d just gotten his mother to agree to a theme park vacation. “I’ll have Scott here this evening after the guests are asleep.”
“That’s not too late,” I mused. “Most of them are in bed before nine. Hey, is this Scott guy cute?” I liked to tease Paul, and he should have known I had no interest in a dead guy, but he sputtered.
“Scott is a hundred and forty years old,” Paul said, and then he started to laugh. And eventually, he literally dissolved in laughter. Okay, so sometimes the teasing thing backfires on me.
When I turned toward the door, Linda Jane was standing there watching. “Was there just someone else in the room, or were you talking that way to yourself?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yes,” I said.
After a quick sweep through the house to make sure everything was in order, I headed up to the attic.
I’d been giving some thought to converting the attic—essentially a large, empty space on the third floor—into a loft apartment to entice higher-end vacationers who might want more spacious, and by extension, more expensive accommodations.
But before I could approach my contractor/mentor/friend Tony Mandorisi with any plans about such a conversion, I’d have to measure—twice, to go along with the home improvement credo “measure twice, cut once”—and come up with some plans for Tony to look at and explain why they would never work.
It also occurred to me that if I were going to create living space in the attic, it would have to be for a somewhat younger group of tourists. I loved the seniors I had now, but my legs were already starting to bark as I reached the second floor, and I’m only in my thirties.
I pulled down the staircase to the attic, flipped on the light switch, put on my tool belt (complete with flashlight, just in case: you don’t want to be caught without one, if the power goes out or the bulb simply burns out), measuring tape, hammer and screwdriver. I had renovated most of the house when I bought it, drawing on my previous career working at a home improvement superstore and, more important, on advice from my dad, who had died a few years before. I could hear him now: “Never do anything the least bit like home repair without a hammer and a screwdriver handy, Alison. You might never use them, but if you want one, you don’t want to have to walk down three flights of stairs to get it.”
It was silent in the attic, which was quite large but completely unfinished. I had to be careful about where I stepped. No floor had ever been put down, and I was walking on bare beams, sixteen inches apart. If I stepped the wrong way, I could certainly put my foot through the second story ceiling. Probably into the room the Joneses were using. They hadn’t emerged all weekend; I was convinced I’d have to burn all the bedding and buy a new mattress once they left.
The single bulb hanging from the center crossbeam didn’t really do all that much in terms of illumination, so I got out my flashlight and turned it on. I made my way to the far corner facing west, and took the measuring tape from my tool belt.
And that’s when I heard a sound from somewhere in the attic.
I am not a fan of rodents, so the possibility of rats in the room with me was not terribly appealing. Then it occurred to me that I was in an attic, and the squatters in this area might very well be bats, and I started thinking not especially rationally. The only thing that works with bats is a tennis racket, and what do you know, I’d forgotten to bring mine.
Slowly, surely, I got control of my breathing and scanned the flashlight around the room to find the source of the noise, which had sounded just a little like a squeak, but might have been a sob. A wounded bat? Do bats cry? Is this a question anyone’s ever asked before?
Instead, my beam of light found Maxie, huddled in a corner, knees to her chest. She didn’t actually have moisture on her cheeks, as far as I could tell—I’m not sure she can—but her expression was one of desperate sadness. Until she saw me. Then it became one of extreme annoyance.
“What are you doing up here?” she demanded.
“Isn’t that supposed to be my line?” I asked. I walked toward her, forgetting I was dragging the measuring tape until it snapped behind me and rolled itself back up into the metal house in which it coiled.
“All those people in the house,” she said. “This is the only place I can think straight.”
“Were you crying?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“I wasn’t crying,” she said. “I don’t cry.”
“My mistake.” If she was going to be like that, I could just go back to what I was doing. I got the tape measure out and started working from the far corner to the near.
“What are you doing?” Maxie asked. “Why do you need to know how big the attic is?”
Sometimes I asked Maxie’s advice—just to keep her happy, of course—on home design issues. She had aspired to be an interior designer before she was killed, and she second-guessed every single decision I made about what she insists on calling “our house.” Still, I figured that if something was bothering her, talking to her about design might pull her out of this mood. “I’m thinking of turning this into a loft space,” I said. “Maybe put in a little suite that people can rent if they’re especially interested in privacy, or want a larger area all to themselves.”
Maxie did not take the bait. In fact, her eyes widened and her clothes changed from orange overalls (what can I tell you?) to all black, and her hair sprung spikes. She looked like a punk bandleader from nineteen eighty-two.
“You can’t do that!” she hollered. “You can’t make a room up here!”
“Because you can’t!” And she vanished directly into the ceiling. I got the impression she was going to sit on the roof, where she knew for a fact I could not create rental space.
It took me a few good minutes to overcome that image, but eventually I got back to making measurements and wrote my findings down on a pad I also carried in the tool belt. I looked for Maxie out the window when I was ready to climb back down, thinking perhaps I could find out what her problem was, but she was nowhere to be seen.
I spent the rest of the afternoon drawing up plans for an attic suite, seeing to the needs of my guests, picking up Melissa from school and looking for Maxie. But Maxie was not to be found.
My mother appeared (not like Paul or Maxie—she actually drove up and rang the doorbell) before dinner that evening and, despite my best efforts, stayed with us. One of the upsides of not serving food was that dinnertimes were quiet; the guests all went out to eat. One downside was that the seniors tended to eat at about five in the afternoon, so they were back before we were even sitting down to dinner in the kitchen.
Since I almost never cook anyway, my mother had taken Melissa out to get strombolis at a take-out place, and the three of us sat at the kitchen table eating off paper plates and drinking water from plastic bottles or, in my case, a beer.
Maxie, seemingly unfazed by our encounter in the attic, showed up while we were eating and was hovering around the kitchen cabinets, which were mounted on the wall not nearly as high as she’d had them when she owned the house before me.
“You know, feeding a kid take-out food every night can’t be good for her,” she said. I rolled my eyes heavenward just a bit, but my mother, as usual, got there ahead of me.
“Don’t you start, Maxine,” she scolded. “Alison knows what’s best for Melissa.”
Melissa wedged her way in. “I’m here in the room, you know.”
“They know, Liss,” I told her. “This isn’t actually about you. It’s a turf war.”
“Alison!” my mother had the nerve to exclaim.
I didn’t get the chance to respond, which was probably a good thing, because Paul materialized near the back door. There was an odd moment when my mother, Maxie and Melissa all stopped talking, and seemed to be looking at the space next to Paul, but not at Paul himself.
There must have been someone there with him.
“Excuse me.” Paul was never anything but polite; I’m not sure if it was his British birth or his Canadian upbringing. “Alison, I’d like you to meet Scott McFarlane.”
Mom and Melissa nodded hello, and Maxie seemed to be sizing up the newcomer, and finding him amusing in some way. But to me, the space they were staring at was completely empty.
“Paul,” I said, “this is going to be difficult.”