Let me state, for the record right at the top, that I was against the plan to show Ghost for the first movie night at my guesthouse, but I was outvoted.
By the ghosts.
I had chosen the coming Sunday night to inaugurate my newly- renovated movie room, which was at one time going to be the fitness center but had originally been the game room (it’s a long story). The room was finally done the way I wanted it to be, with light chestnut stain on the paneling, beige room-darkening drapes for better projection, a very large HDTV connected to the Blu- Ray player and a killer surround- sound system. Everything was exactly the way I wanted it.
But Maxie Malone, who’d been a rising interior designer before her life was ended for her at the tender age of twenty eight, had insisted that I was wrong. “The wood floors are too hard and shiny,” she said. “You really want an area rug in here to absorb some of the sound or the movie will echo.”
Maxie likes to play oil to my water, but although I hate to admit it, she usually makes the right suggestions about décor in the guesthouse. I’d bought the place roughly three years earlier without knowing she and Paul Harrison, a then newly minted private investigator who’d been poisoned while working a case for Maxie, were already inhabiting the place. It took a hard shot to the head— administered by Maxie herself— for me to develop an ability to see and hear the ghosts, and there have since been plenty of times I have regretted not ducking out of the way faster.
Anyway, after much debate, I’d finally (as usual) acquiesced to Maxie’s judgment and bought a six-by-nine-foot rug in maroon and brown for the room. It looked perfect, which only made me resent Maxie more.
But that was not the argument about the movie.
I had chosen a classic film, Lawrence of Arabia, for our first showing. Its gorgeous vistas and sweeping scope would best show off the terrific flat screen TV I’d bought, and its themes of enigmatic heroism would feed the soul of everyone who viewed it.
“Booooooooring,” Maxie said, and to my horror, I saw my daughter Melissa, eleven years old but wise beyond my years, nodding her head in agreement.
“It’s like four hours long,” Liss sided with Maxie. “By the time it’s over I’ll be twelve.”
“It is a long film,” Paul agreed. You’d think someone existing through eternity would be less concerned about elapsed time. “But it is a classic.” That was better.
While my ability to see ghosts was a relatively new occurrence after the “accident” that led to my discovery of Paul and Maxie (among others), the blow— not the one to my head, but to my sensibility— was compounded by the revelation that my mother and my daughter had both been able to see and communicate with ghosts all their lives and had concealed it from me for fear that the knowledge would make me feel inferior, when in fact it would merely have made me think the two of them were delusional.
With only three days before the premiere would take place, this insurrection was throwing a severe monkey wrench into my plans. Including the three ghosts present at the moment (Maxie, Paul and my dad), there were seven of us: Melissa, me, Mom and my boyfriend Josh Kaplan (who can’t see or communicate with ghosts himself, but luckily didn’t run for the hills when I told him about them).
I looked to my dad, hovering about two feet above the floor and admiring the paint job on the ceiling, for moral support. “What do you think?” I asked him. Dad always backs me up.
“I wasn’t listening,” he said. “What’s the question?” He looked to my mother, who raised an eyebrow and cocked her head to one side: What’s the difference?
“It’s about a movie,” Mom told Dad, smiling at him. They have a great marriage that lasted thirty- three years while my father was alive and six years since. That’s quite an accomplishment when you think about it.
Dad shrugged his shoulders and floated up closer to the ceiling so he could admire the corners and see I’d done the job right. Dad, who taught me all I know about home maintenance (which is approximately one-seventeenth of what he knows), takes great pride in my every accomplishment.
“What do you suggest?” I asked Maxie. If it was something wholly inappropriate for Melissa, I could shoot down her suggestion easily and Peter O’Toole would be mounting his camel in no time flat.
But Maxie’s smart. “Ghost,” she said. “It’s perfect because the place is haunted, and people like that.”
Perhaps I should explain.
I came back to Harbor Haven, the Jersey Shore town where I’d grown up, after my divorce from Melissa’s father, a man I refer to as The Swine because using more accurate language around my eleven- year- old daughter would be inappropriate.
I’d also gotten some money from a lawsuit I’d settled with a previous employer and sunk it all into this great big Victorian at 123 Seafront Avenue. My intent had been to create a unique vacation experience for people year-round, something which doesn’t happen that much down the shore, but which is possible when the building is properly insulated. Sure, it makes sense to come down here in swimming weather, but the shore is also beautiful and peaceful in winter and offers a relaxing trip when the crowds dissipate in fall and spring, too. In the early fall, like now, there is foliage to look at, but the waves still hypnotize with their sound and their beauty, and the air is crisp but salty. We get the occasional hot day, but the ocean water has cooled to the point that swimming in the Atlantic is really more for the very brave or the incredibly crazy.
But it turned out that what really drew in guests was being haunted. They love that.
I was approached just before the place opened by Edmund Rance, a representative of a company called Senior Plus Tours, which offers adventurous people over a certain age vacations with “value added” experiences.
Like hanging around with a couple of ghosts.
Senior Plus guaranteed me a number of guests in exchange for at least twice a day contact with the spirits, and they don’t mean alcohol.
In order to secure Paul and Maxie’s cooperation in what we call the “spook shows,” I had to make a bargain I would have preferred to avoid. It turned out that Paul wanted to keep doing investigations, not letting a little thing like being deceased stand in his way. But as he is incapable of leaving my property (Maxie has since developed the ability to travel around and now shows up wherever and whenever it’s inconvenient for me), he needed someone living to do the legwork for him. In short, I agreed to sit for a private investigator’s license to help with Paul’s cases if he’d convince Maxie to perform in the spook shows. Let’s just say investigating crimes is not my favorite thing, but since they’ve held up their end of the bargain, I’m stuck doing the right thing. The moral high ground can give you nosebleeds.
“Ghost?” I asked now. “It’s such a cliché, don’t you think?”
“What?” Maxie came back. “You have a sign outside the front door that says ‘Haunted Guesthouse.’ You want to promote the place based on subtlety?”
I hate it when she has a point.
“Let’s take a vote,” I said, assessing the room. I figured on votes from Mom, Dad, Josh and maybe Liss in addition to my own, so I had confidence in my suggestion.
Except Maxie was grinning, and that’s rarely a good thing.
A mischievous poltergeist, she is emotionally a little young and unlikely to get any older, considering her not-so-alive status. She exists mostly to make me cringe, but will defend me to the . . . well, let’s just say Maxie will stick up for me if someone else takes on her role of antagonist. It’s an odd sort of friendship. I guess.
“Great!” she said. Uh-oh. “Who wants to see—”
“Lawrence of Arabia,” I shouted out. Get my choice in first and cut this charade short, I figured.
The problem was that only three hands went up: Mine, my mother’s (she’ll back me up on anything I ever want to do because she lives under the deluded notion that I’m perfect) and Paul’s.
I couldn’t speak. The feeling of betrayal was . . . okay, it wasn’t that serious, but I was still a little hurt.
“How about Ghost?” Maxie said, her smile now wide enough it seemed to be the only feature on her admittedly transparent face. Melissa repeated the question aloud for Josh, who can’t see or hear ghosts.
His hand went up. So did Melissa’s, Dad’s and hers.
“That’s a win,” Maxie crowed. “Four to three.”
Dad shrugged. “I’ve never seen Ghost,” he said.
I looked over at Josh, whose expression was that of a six- year- old boy caught standing on a kitchen chair to reach the Oreos on the top shelf. “Josh?” I said.
“I like Whoopi Goldberg,” he said sheepishly.
I was about to suggest he date her in that case, when something in the far corner of the room caught my eye.
There was the indication of movement, something going from the outside wall abutting the driveway (to our right) toward the hallway to the front room (left, for those of you drawing maps at home). Very fast motion, so that I really couldn’t make it out, but I thought it might be a person.
“Did you see that?” I asked Paul.
He nodded. “I think someone just passed through the house,” he said, and headed in the direction of the movement.
“See what?” Josh asked, now anxious to get back into my good graces.
“There’s another ghost here,” Melissa told him. “They don’t usually just barge in like that.”
Dad followed Paul toward the intruder, who must have been in the front room by now. He moves more slowly than Paul, I suppose because he was older when he died. “Let me see what’s going on,” he said.
Mom looked concerned, despite the fact that as far as we know, there is no possible way that harm can befall my father anymore, but she didn’t say anything.
“It’s probably nothing,” I told Josh and by extension Melissa, who wouldn’t have admitted to being concerned. “Ghosts do pass through every once in a while. We’ve found others in the house before.”
“Yeah, but this one looked like it was trying not to be noticed,” Liss said. She didn’t sound worried, but had that “woo- ooh” tone kids get when they’re trying to make more of a situation than is there just for the drama it can generate.
Maxie looked annoyed. “Why is somebody always ruining it when I get the attention for a second?” she whined.
“Calm down, you won,” I told her. “We’ll show Ghost, but over my protest.”
Maxie brightened up. “Of course you will. I won the vote!” It takes so little to make her happy— just me not getting whatever I want.
“Maybe I should go see, too,” Josh said, squinting in the direction Liss indicated Dad and Paul had gone. He likes to feel useful, but he sometimes overlooks certain facts.
“You wouldn’t see anything,” Melissa pointed out.
Josh grinned a little sheepishly, which is one of his better grins. “Touché, Melissa,” he said. He stayed put.
From the entrance to the movie room came a somewhat tired voice. “Is there something going on in here?” Maureen Beckman, one of my younger Senior Plus guests this week, moved her walker into the room as I went over to meet her. Maureen didn’t move around all that well (“My hip. As soon as I finish this vacation I’m going into the hospital to get a new one.”), so I was trying to minimize the amount she had to walk in the house. She was game, though, and had already spent a full day on the beach, something younger, sprier guests don’t always find enjoyable in September.
“Nothing special, Maureen,” I said as I reached her, only a few feet into the movie room. “Something I can do for you?” This is how you learn to talk in Innkeeper School. I assume.
“Well, Alison, you know I don’t like to complain.” Of course, Maureen loved nothing better than to complain; but she did it in an ingratiating way, and since I’m from New Jersey, a little complaining doesn’t bother me. “But it gets a little chilly in my room at night.”
I had put Maureen in the largest room I had, which was located on the ground floor and wouldn’t require her to climb stairs, and had not charged her the extra fee I usually ask for that room. It does get a hair cooler at night, though, especially at this time of year. “I can put another blanket or two in there for you,” I told her. “Do you need a space heater?”
Maureen waved a hand. “Oh no,” she said. “I’m sure extra blankets will do it. Thank you, Alison.” As she turned to leave, I saw Paul and Dad hover back into the room. There was another ghost behind them, not being dragged but certainly lagging behind. I could barely see him.
Maureen turned back. “There’s just one more thing.”
With Maureen there was always just one more thing. “Do you know of a reliable taxi service in the area?”
Of course, I knew of several, and was about to give her the name of one that would accommodate her needs (and perhaps get me a small percentage in accordance with an agreement I have with a few local businesses that I know are reputable).
But suddenly I found myself unable to speak.
“Um . . . um . . . um . . .”
Melissa, immediately keen to such things, looked up at me with a perplexed expression on her face. “Mom?”
I wanted to tell her it was okay, because it was okay, but the words weren’t coming. “Ahhhh . . .” I said instead. At least it was a variation.
Josh came to my side. “What’s going on?” he whispered in my ear. “Is it a ghost thing?”
“I’ll just check the phone book,” Maureen said, shaking her head a bit and heading out of the room, walker clacking as she moved. There went my commission.
My mother looked at me, then followed my line of sight and chuckled a little. “Oh, that’s it,” she said.
“What?” Josh wanted to know. “What’s it?”
Maxie, her face even more sardonic than usual (mouth curled to one side, one eye narrowed), lowered down to look me directly in the eye. “What got in your drawers?” she asked. Maxie is the very picture of restraint and demeanor.
I was staring at the new ghost and my mouth was moving. That much I knew. But nothing coherent was happening.
Have you ever met an idol of yours, face-to-face? I mean someone you absolutely adored from the time you first saw them, someone whose every work you collected religiously, someone who seemed to absolutely understand your nature and communicate directly with you although you’d never actually met?
I was currently staring upward at mine: Vance McTiernan, lead singer and songwriter of the Jingles, maybe the least appropriately named band to come out of England in the 1960s. I first became aware of them more than twenty years after the band split up, but once I’d been introduced to the Jingles, and Vance especially, I was devoted for life. There was a time I would have gladly sued for my independence from my own parents if Vance McTiernan had expressed an interest in adopting me.
“Mom?” Now Melissa was starting to sound worried. “What’s wrong?”
I have evidence of my strength of mind, because I forced myself to relearn the entire English language in one second. But what I was thinking came out as one word, as a thirteen-year-old girl (something Melissa will be in two years, and if you don’t think I’m dreading that, you are incredibly wrong) would say it: “OhMyGodThat’sVanceMcTiernan!”
Vance himself looked surprised. “You know me?” he asked, just as Josh was saying, “Where?” and Maxie was saying, “Who?” Josh’s expression indicated he remembered the name but couldn’t place it, and Maxie’s indicated she was Maxie.
“Yes,” I answered the only one I was listening to. “I’m a big fan. It’s an honor, Mr. McTiernan.”
He was a great physical specimen (before the heart disease had weakened him) for someone who had died at least one president ago: he looked lean and somewhat better defined than he had been late in his life. This must have been a slightly younger version than the final Vance, but certainly not the one I’d seen in magazines and concert footage from before I was born.
He’d abused drugs and alcohol in an attempt to prove he was a real rock star (according to the biography I’d read) because his deep, intelligent lyrics had moved some critics to argue that he actually wasn’t crude enough for the Jingles music to be considered rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that they’d jokingly called themselves the Jingles hadn’t helped his case.
Now he smiled the most charming smile since Cary Grant gave up smiling, and floated down toward me. “But you’re much too young,” the charming accent said, making the words that much more endearing. “You couldn’t have even been born when I was working.”
My mind was still operating on something lower than its usual level, so although I grinned foolishly back at him, I couldn’t get it together enough to respond. Mom picked up the slack. “She got the records from me, Mr. McTiernan,” she said.
He diverted every ounce of his attention to her, reached for her hand with both of his and said, “You call me Vance. All of you.” His arm swept the room, including us all, living and . . . otherwise.
“Swell,” Maxie mumbled. Maxie truly hates it when attention is on anyone but her.
Josh touched my arm gently and asked, “Where should I be looking?” Josh is a very understanding man who is fascinated with all the ghostly goings on at my house but knows it’s best to ask about them after the fact when I can explain everything at once rather than fielding questions as events unfold.
I pointed, and Vance (what the hell, we were on a first name basis now) looked down at him.
“Nice to meet you, sport,” he said to Josh.
“He can’t actually see or hear you,” I explained to Vance when Josh didn’t react.
Vance blinked and looked around the room. “Oh. I thought it was the house that was special.” He focused those laser eyes in my direction, and something odd happened inside my stomach. “Turns out it was you, love.”
It was my definite and deliberate plan to bask in that moment for about two weeks, but I was wrested out of my reverie by, of all people, my daughter.
“No, Mr. McTiernan. My grandma and I can see you, too,” Melissa said.
I did not feel resentment toward Melissa for refocusing Vance’s attention away from me. I didn’t. Not even a little. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Vance swooped over and looked Liss in the eye. “Of course you can, my dear,” he cooed at her. “You are all very special ladies indeed.”
Paul, with a concerned look on his face I didn’t understand, coughed theatrically (which is the only way he can cough. I don’t think it’s possible for him to catch a cold anymore, which he would no doubt say was one of the few advantages to being dead).
“Mr. McTiernan—” He checked the singer’s look in his direction and began again. “Vance says he came here following a message I sent out some time back.” I knew that Paul sometimes sent out mental advertisements about what he truly sees as our detective agency, since he can communicate sort of telepathically with other spirits, a system we call the Ghosternet. (Okay, I call it the Ghosternet. Paul just isn’t as hilarious as I am.)
“I understand you offer investigative services,” Vance said. “I am in need of such a professional, alas.”
This was the first time I’d ever been glad to be a PI. “What can we do for you, Vance?” I asked. For once, here was a client I’d happily take on.
“Mr. . . . Vance said he wants us to investigate a murder,” Paul said and, very uncharacteristically, shook his head no just slightly.
“Of course we will,” I said, looking at Vance. “Let’s have a seat.”