“Careful!” I said. All right, shouted. “We can’t afford to drop this.”
It wasn’t so much that the sheet of wallboard Maxie, Paul and I were holding up was so expensive it couldn’t be replaced; it was more that hanging another heavy sheet up here in the attic of my massive Victorian home and guesthouse would be enormously difficult.
Renovating the attic into a bedroom for my ten-year-old daughter, Melissa, during breaks from my duties as hostess and overall ringleader of the house at 123 Seafront Avenue had seemed like a good idea when I’d come up with it in April—it would give Liss a little privacy from the flow of guests in the house, and would free up another bedroom downstairs to rent out, thus generating more income. It had seemed like a practical and logical idea. In April.
Now it was July on the New Jersey Shore, and the attic was not yet air-conditioned. Heat, in case you haven’t heard, rises. It was about 15,000 degrees up here, even with the windows open.
Sometimes, my creative instincts overcome my common sense. I really should watch out for that.
“You can’t afford to drop it,” Maxie answered. “It’s not our money.”
“No, it’s not,” I agreed. “But you were in favor of this plan, and practically forced me into it. So if you don’t want the construction to go on indefinitely—”
“It wouldn’t matter to me,” Maxie cut me off. “I’ve got nothing but time.”
That was true. Paul and Maxie were going to stay in the house for a very long time.
They were dead.
Perhaps I should explain.
Paul Harrison and Maxie Malone had both died in my house, a little less than a year before Melissa and I moved in. They’d been murdered, and although there’s quite a story involved with that, it’s been told elsewhere, at length. Suffice it to say, they seemed bound to my property, and I was, in essence, stuck with them.
When I finalized my divorce from Melissa’s father, whom I charitably call The Swine, I bought this great big old house, knowing it was in need of repairs in pretty much every room. But I didn’t know it was haunted. It wasn’t until a rather questionable accident gave me a massive headache and the ability to communicate with my two nonpaying boarders that I gained that information. When I’d discovered my mother and my daughter had actually been able to see them all along, I had been relieved that I wasn’t going insane, but not that pleased Mom and Melissa had been keeping their abilities from me all those years. Turns out that though most living people can’t see ghosts, obviously, most of the females in my family can—I was the rare exception, until recently. Go figure. My mother and Melissa could see pretty much every ghost they encountered, and my abilities were developing slowly.
Anyway, today I had an almost-full roster of guests downstairs, a heavy sheet of wallboard I was trying to attach to the studs on a slant, and I was putting my resident ghosts to work hanging drywall.
“Just a couple seconds longer,” I told the ghosts as I secured this particular sheet in place with my cordless drill. Maxie seemed not to be exerting any energy at all, but Paul was visibly flagging—his ability to interact with physical objects was improving, but he was not able to do it as well as Maxie. There don’t seem to be any “rules” regarding ghosts—it’s not like they all have the same abilities, apparently. Paul tells me that some ghosts can roam freely, and I’ve seen that happen, but the two of them couldn’t leave my property. They didn’t know why. And we haven’t been able to figure out why some dead people show up as ghosts and others don’t. (The whole “unfinished business” thing is a good theory, but there seem to be a ton of exceptions.)
Frankly, the whole afterlife didn’t seem very well organized, in my opinion.
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to hang on,” Paul said, “breathing” heavily. And sure enough, a second later his fingers seemed to fly up into the wallboard—the ghost equivalent of dropping something.
Luckily, Maxie was stronger and more “solid.” “I’ve got it,” she said, “but don’t take all day.”
The drywall screws went in fairly easily—if you do something enough times in your life, you get good at it—and then I could tell my two nonalive assistants to relax. Once all the wallboard was hung in the room, I could work joint compound into the cracks and the screw holes, and after sanding (my least favorite part), I’d paint the room. Assuming Melissa ever decided on a color she liked.
I checked the wallboard for fit, and it was fine; a quarter-inch short on the bottom, but the wainscoting I was planning to add would more than compensate for that. The next piece we hung would have to fit around the window I’d installed the week before, so I began to measure for the fifth time, despite having memorized the dimensions. I’m never comfortable until I can actually see everything fit in its final state.
“What are you thinking about for the ceiling?” Maxie asked. Maxie was trying to be an interior designer when she died, and still has opinions. Since she couldn’t go anywhere but my house, all her opinions were about 123 Seafront. You can’t possibly imagine how thrilling that was to me.
“The ceiling?” I asked, as if I didn’t know what she meant. I was stalling for time. Typically, the way these things work is that I suggest a traditional—but classy—design element, Maxie scoffs and counters with something that sounds outrageous and absurd, and I reject it. Then I think about it for a moment, realize she’s actually on to something, and end up grudgingly doing things Maxie’s way. We have a slightly dysfunctional relationship, but it works for us. Which I suppose technically makes it functional.
“Yeah. That thing that hangs over the rest of the room—remember?” Maxie thought she was witty. Spending eternity with a witty ghost was probably some kind of Chinese curse.
“I figured I’d just paint it white,” I said. There was no use in trying to delay the inevitable. “It’s already pitched at an interesting angle; that should be enough of a visual statement.” I braced myself for the coming withering condescension.
It never came. “You’re probably right,” Maxie said. “The dimensions of the room are the feature. It would be a mistake to add too many elements to that.”
“You’re agreeing with me?” I asked. “How does that work into our usual dynamic?”
We were both distracted by the sound of the doorbell. I have an old-fashioned one on the house, loud, and even up here, it was as clear as a . . . what it was.
The idea that someone was using the doorbell was odd; the front door was unlocked until all my guests were inside at night, and on a hot afternoon like this, it was as likely as not to have been left wide open so as to better allow out the conditioned air and drive up my energy bill.
With two flights of stairs between me and the front door, the prospect of traipsing all the way downstairs to find a meter reader or misguided UPS deliveryman was less than appealing. Especially since I was soaked in sweat from spending my afternoon performing construction in an un-air-conditioned attic.
“Would you mind taking a look and seeing who that is?” I asked Paul. The ghosts, after all, don’t have to worry about things like walls and ceilings—they zip right through solid objects—and don’t so much walk as glide through the air. Going downstairs was hardly an exertion for Paul.
But he shifted his gaze to Maxie. “Would you do it, Maxie?”
Paul raised an eyebrow. “Because I went the last fifteen times,” he said.
“What are we, six years old?” But Maxie disappeared through the floor, not looking in any special hurry. I’d probably end up having to go down there myself anyway.
I gave Paul a significant look as soon as Maxie left. “Okay, what was that all about?” I asked him. “You didn’t ask her to go downstairs because of some juvenile scoring system. You wanted her out of the room.”
Paul looked away. His polite Canadian upbringing and his British roots probably made him feel embarrassed for having emotions.
“I have a favor to ask,” he said, unable to make eye contact. My mind immediately raced through the possibilities of things a deceased person could ask me to do . . .
Oh, no. Not that.
This part is complicated: Before my guesthouse was officially open for business, I was approached by a man named Edmund Rance, representing a firm called Senior Plus Tours , which books tours with “special experiences” for senior citizens. Rance had heard the rumors of hauntings at my house and asked specifically for eerie, ghostly happenings at least twice a day to astound his clientele.
Before I could agree to the deal, which guaranteed me a profitable season, I had to convince Paul and Maxie to “put on a show” a couple of times a day. At first, this had consisted of them moving a few knickknacks around to give the guests a look at “floating” objects, and they still did that, but we’d added some other features. For one, Paul, who said he’d been in a band before his murder, would play music on a few instruments (cheap ones) I’d bought for the shows. And the ghosts had decided between themselves to surprise me every once in a while by floating some unexpected object around to get a reaction out of me. Maxie took special delight in selecting things from the toolshed or the basement, and although they were never living (or dead) creatures, they could be pretty slimy. There had been some I could not identify. This surprised me, not so much the guests, who were, to my disappointment, amused by the hijinks. Ghosts. You can’t live with them, you can live without them, and I’d recommend it.
The ghosts also could make objects “appear out of thin air.” This was accomplished simply by hiding whatever they liked in their clothing (a pants pocket or inside a jacket) and then removing it at a strategic time. The ghosts seem able to keep material objects with them, hidden from sight, as long as they carry the object in a pocket or under their clothes. I’ve seen Maxie secret things in her endless supply of T-shirts, for example. Lately, they (okay, Maxie) had also taken to doing annoying things like mussing my hair or my clothing while I was talking to the guests. I had gotten her back by scheduling the spook shows randomly—which had the added advantage of helping us avoid guests who were “civilians,” or not in on the Senior Plus deal, who might be alarmed to see invisible people juggling fruit. Maxie didn’t like the unpredictable aspect of a random schedule.
When the offer from Senior Plus Tours had come, I hadn’t known the ghosts for very long, but I knew better than to approach Maxie with the proposition. I talked to Paul instead, and ran into a condition: Paul, a former private investigator, wanted to keep his mind occupied with the occasional case, and he needed me to be his “legs.” I reluctantly agreed to sit for the private-investigator exam and obtained a license, hoping Paul would be content with the effort and not actually ask me to investigate things.
It hadn’t worked out that way.
“I’m not investigating another crime,” I told him firmly now. “I’ve had my and Melissa’s lives placed in enough danger. It’s not going to happen again.”
Paul turned back toward me with a strange grin on his face. “Oh, it’s not that, Alison,” he said. “It’s something considerably more . . . personal.”
That threw me—personal? What could be personal to a dead guy? I mean, you could see right through him. Literally. “I don’t understand, Paul,” I told him.
“It’s something . . . I’ve been meaning to ask since I met you,” Paul said. He turned away again, but I could see that even the slightly transparent tone of his face was reddening a little. Who knew a ghost could blush? “I’ve really come to know you now, and I’m just beginning to feel that you won’t think I’m foolish.”
He reached into his pocket, then extended his hand and opened his fingers. He was holding a small jewelry box covered in velvet.
Oh, my! There had always been an odd sort of attraction between Paul and me, but we’d never said a word about it, because it is impossible to act upon unless I die, which I’m not really willing to do for a guy. Call me selfish.
“Oh, Paul,” I said, “you know I care about you, but this is far too much.”
Paul’s gaze went from the box to my eyes in a nanosecond. His eyes narrowed, then widened, and he smiled broadly.
Then he began to laugh. And he didn’t stop. It seemed he couldn’t stop. And that went on for a full minute; I know because after a while, I checked my watch. Okay. I had clearly misinterpreted something here.
“Come on, it’s not that funny,” I finally managed to get in. “So what were you going to ask?”
Paul’s laughter ended gradually, and his face took on that sad, serious look he gets sometimes when he’s forced to acknowledge that he is, in fact, dead. “It’s something I’d like to ask you to do for me,” he said.
But he didn’t get the chance to tell me anything more than that because Maxie levitated up through the floor and grinned at me. “There’s a guy downstairs looking for you,” she said, looking more wicked than usual. “He’s cute, too.”
Perfect. A cute guy comes to see me while I’m here basting in my own juices. Story of my life. I’d been on a total of three dates since my divorce from The Swine, all with Melissa’s history teacher, Ned Barnes. But Ned and I had decided to take a break from each other for a while because Liss was weirded out by the idea of a teacher dating her mom. So now, the possibility of an attractive stranger downstairs was both interesting and daunting. I hesitated a moment, trying to calculate how quickly I could change my clothes.
Finally, I decided I’d have to face the music as I was, since no man worth cleaning up for would want to wait as long as it would take me. Besides, if he didn’t see my inner beauty, the heck with him anyway. You can rationalize these things.
I did use the rag I had in the attic to mop up a bit, then made my way back into the air-conditioned part of the house, which helped. And by the time I’d made it all the way to the ground floor and the front entranceway, I felt more presentable, even if I didn’t look that way.
And that’s when I realized it didn’t matter how I looked, because the mysterious man in question was kneeling in my foyer, a big crooked grin on his damned handsome face, his sandy hair carefully mussed just enough to make it look casual. He was hugging my daughter tightly, and she was purring, “Daddy!”
I groaned (if there were any guests within earshot, they probably thought it was a “spook house” effect). The very last person I wanted to see had traveled three thousand miles to visit my house and, no doubt, disrupt my life. My ex-husband, Steven Rendell.