A medic in the house, and there wasn’t a thing we could do for Arlice Crosby. It had already occurred to me that if I hadn’t invited her into a dark, crowded, hot room, she might’ve been alive and enjoying a calm evening sitting on her front porch with the neighbor’s cat, looking at all the larger houses owned by people without as much money as she had.
“Did anybody near her make any sudden moves before she fell?” McElone asked.
I shook my head. “Not that I saw. I was looking for the next question.”
“Arlice,” McElone echoed. “Funny how tight you got with her after asking me who she was just this morning.”
“We bonded,” I said. “She insisted I call her Arlice.”
“Interesting,” McElone said. “Did
say anything to you during the . . . event?”
“She didn’t get a chance to ask the ghosts a question, if that’s what you mean,” I answered.
McElone pursed her lips. “Uh-huh. Ghosts. I’m going to go talk to some living people now, okay?”
“Just trying to help,” I said.
“Yeah. And by the way?”
“Yes?” I asked.
“Nice bathrobe.” Then McElone turned her attention back to the crowd. So I wandered through the room, being barraged by everyone I passed.
“Is she dead?”
“When can we go back to the game room?” Attaboy, Warren.
I did what I could to reassure everyone that this was a routine inquiry by the police after an unexplained death, but the fact was, it didn’t feel like one. Maybe it’s because I’ve been involved in such things with McElone before, but her demeanor was definitely more suspicious than if she’d thought it was a simple heart attack. Maybe losing one of the wealthiest citizens in town and a patron of the arts for two counties in any direction had something to do with the detective’s grumpy attitude.
By the time I got to the back of the room, where Mom and Melissa were talking to Jeannie and Tony, I must have looked like I’d been through a prize fight with Mike Tyson.
“Why are the police still here?” Mom wanted to know after clucking over me. “Your friend the detective is questioning everyone in the room.”
“She’s not my friend, and I don’t know,” I answered. “McElone is acting like something criminal happened here, and I don’t like the way she’s looking at me. Did any of you see anything?”
“I couldn’t see over everybody’s backs,” Melissa said. “I was watching Maxie, because she was up near the ceiling.”
“Who’s Maxie?” Jeannie asked. Then she remembered, nodded, and condescendingly told Melissa, “Of course you did, honey.”
Tony gave me a significant look. He believes it’s easier to indulge Jeannie’s fantasy than to try to convince her otherwise. I was tired and upset and shook my head while I exhaled.
“I feel terrible. I invite Arlice here, and then this happens.” When you’re feeling sorry for yourself, the best thing is to sound pathetic when talking to your mother. She’ll always do what she can to make you feel better.
“Yes, I guess it could have been the closeness of the room that did it,” Mom said. “Or the excitement of the moment. You know, you were really putting on a show.”
“I don’t think it was anything like that,” Tony said. “I was looking at Arlice just before it happened. I did some contracting work for her a few years ago, and I was trying to catch her eye, say hello, you know. But she was enthralled. She looked very happy. And then something happened, her face changed, she started to turn behind her, and then she dropped.”
“What do you mean, something happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know. One second she was smiling, then she grimaced, like something hurt.”
“Like in her chest?” Melissa asked. Her health class, which the schools insist upon for one quarter of the year instead of letting kids run around in gym, had recently been tackling the issue of heart disease, because the fourth-graders didn’t have enough to be afraid of yet.
“No,” Tony said. “Something seemed to be hurting her, but she didn’t put her hand up to her chest. She looked behind her.”
“Go tell that to McElone or one of the cops,” I instructed him. “Right now.” The last thing I needed was for the detective to think I was letting someone hold back significant information.
“She’ll get to me,” Tony protested.
Convinced, he walked over toward McElone.
The night progressed as McElone and two uniformed officers debriefed every person in the room. Slowly but surely, it started to empty out. She made a point of telling Trent that she wanted to see every frame his crew had shot, and after he protested that you didn’t measure digital video in frames, he agreed to turn over the footage. But he insisted that the police make copies and return it to
Down the Shore
before any news organization could get its hands on what he called his “exclusive intellectual property.”
A woman’s death was his intellectual property? The mind reeled.
After a while, the only ones left in the room were Melissa, Mom, Jeannie (protesting at how cops had held “an expectant mother in a crowded room for hours” despite her sitting on a very comfortable armchair), Tony and me.
And three ghosts, waiting for the cops to leave so we could talk and Jeannie could pretend they weren’t there.
By one o’clock in the morning, Melissa was asleep with her head on my lap (McElone had said she’d question her the next morning, but Liss wouldn’t go to bed), I was sitting on the area rug next to Jeannie’s chair, Mom was in another armchair facing it and Tony was standing. The ghosts were hovering overhead when McElone dismissed the two uniformed cops and walked over to our sorry crew.
I stood up, careful not to disturb Melissa, who slept right through. McElone and I are often at odds, although I think she’s a good cop and she thinks I’m . . . insane, and I didn’t want to give her the height advantage in my own den. “What have you found out, Detective?” I asked.
“You don’t seriously think I’d tell you?” she answered.
“No, but it was worth a shot.”
“Until we get a preliminary report from the medical examiner, I’m assuming this was a death due to natural causes. That means you’re free to continue having guests here and operating as a public convenience.” McElone said
like she meant my place was a large restroom.
It brought out my natural Jersey antagonism. “That’s sweet of you,” I said in a voice dripping sarcasm.
“It’s also standard operating procedure. But if we find that there was any foul play involved, things might change quickly. Are any of your guests scheduled to leave tomorrow?”
“No. They’ll all be here until Wednesday.”
“All right. If anything that affects you comes up, I’ll let you know,” McElone said. “In the meantime, if you think of anything you saw or heard, or if one of your guests or . . . the television people . . . remembers anything, call me. You have my number?”
“Memorized. I’m thinking of putting you on speed dial.”
“Take a business card anyway,” she said, giving me one, and left, nodding toward Mom. McElone clearly believed in respecting her elders, if not their daughters.
As soon as the door closed behind her, I looked up at Tony. “Get this pregnant woman out of here,” I told him. “She needs her rest.”
Tony looked like he wanted to say something else, but he nodded. “Come on, Jeannie,” he said. “Alison says you need your rest.”
“She couldn’t have said that two hours ago?”
They headed for the door, and Tony made the “call me” sign with his hand as they left. And the second they were gone, I pointed my gaze upward, where Paul, Maxie and (presumably) Scott were hovering, looking like they were about to explode.
“Yes,” Paul told Scott. “They’re gone. Alison can talk now.” He looked down at me and scowled. “I’d been hoping to give Scott
news tonight,” he said.
“Well, he got good news,” I answered. “He didn’t kill Arlice.” Then I thought about seeing the red bandana behind her when she fell. “Did you?”
“Of course I didn’t!” the blind ghost shouted. “Why would I do such a thing?
would I do such a thing?”
“The old lady just keeled over,” Maxie said, as if we hadn’t all been thinking about what had happened for hours. “I guess it was just her time.”
“Just what time?” I asked. “Was it just
Maxie made a rude noise with her lips and vanished.
“You know, sometimes you’re too hard on Maxie,” Paul told me.
“Me? Arlice Crosby wasn’t just some old lady; she was a real living person until not too long ago. Maxie was the one being insensitive.”
Nobody said anything for a long moment. Melissa snored a little.
“I guess her heart just gave out,” Mom said to no one in particular.
“That’s not what Tony said,” I reminded her. “He thought she was taken by surprise somehow. It doesn’t make sense.”
“There wasn’t any blood. There wasn’t any wound. She wasn’t killed,” Paul said, and then shook his head. “There’s something very wrong with this.”
“I’m tired,” I told them. “I’m going to wake up Melissa so she can go up to sleep, and I’m going up, too. If you think of anything that explains what happened tonight, feel free to let me know in the morning.”
There were no further comments from the assembled group. Mom got up as I walked to where Melissa lay sleeping, and we admired my daughter together for a moment.
“She’s so dear,” Mom said. Grandmothers talk like that.
“I hate to disturb her,” I answered. “Do you think I can just leave her there on the floor until it’s time to get up for school?” Friday, now today, was still a school day, and Melissa didn’t like to miss for any reason, even if she was tired.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “Some of your guests will probably be up before Melissa, and you don’t want them to wake her up early.”
I nodded; she was right. I bent down to pick up my daughter and tried to move both slowly and smoothly as I put my arms under her and scooped her up. Mom saw I had her safely in my arms and nodded a good-bye. She walked out the front door as I turned toward the stairway up to the bedrooms, noting that ten-year-olds are not as light as five-year-olds.
But children aren’t quite as pliable as any of us would prefer, so Melissa woke up just a little as I was carrying her up the stairs. “Where’s the detective?” she asked hoarsely.
“She left, Liss. It’s very late at night.” I was trying to step as lightly as I could on each stair, especially the ones I’d had to repair when I was renovating the house last fall. “Go to sleep. You can brush your teeth in the morning.” So I’m a bad mother, and I promote tooth decay; go ahead, bring me up on charges.
“Did you tell her about the . . .” I couldn’t hear what Melissa was mumbling, but I decided it was best not to rouse her just to finish a sentence.
“Shh . . .”
She shook her head a little as we reached the top of the stairs, and I maneuvered her toward her bedroom. She was getting so big. Why can’t they stay tiny forever?
“Did you tell her about the lady?”
“What lady, honey?”
“The lady who bumped into Mrs. Crosby just before she fell over. Did you tell the detective about that?”
I opened the door to Melissa’s bedroom and lay her down on her bed. “What lady bumped into Mrs. Crosby?” I asked quietly. Maybe I hadn’t heard her right.
“The lady. She walked behind Mrs. Crosby just before she fell, and bumped into her in the back. The lady with one leg.”
Linda Jane Smith.
Melissa got up late for school the next morning, with just barely enough time to throw on clothes and be at the front door when her BFF Wendy’s mother picked her up. After everyone had gotten up and started the day and Melissa was safely at school, I called McElone. If she wanted to question my daughter, the detective would have to wait until after three o’clock.
But I’ll admit that while I was straightening up before most of the guests went out for breakfast, I was keeping an especially close eye on Linda Jane Smith.
She wasn’t doing anything special, just getting herself together to go out to the café for a muffin and coffee or something, but her every move seemed suspicious to me. Even putting on lipstick (just to go to the Harbor Haven Café?) looked odd.
And Linda Jane seemed to notice me noticing her. “Is something wrong, Alison?” she asked as she was adjusting the shoe on her artificial limb. “I didn’t freak you out when I told you about the leg yesterday, did I?”
“Oh no,” I replied, because in fact, I was not upset by her story so much as awed by it. “You didn’t freak me out. I guess I’m still unsettled because of what happened
“Yes, an awful thing. That poor woman. I guess when it’s your time, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Linda Jane shook her head,
ed a couple of times, and then headed out for a nice warm breakfast.
My newfound suspicions of Linda Jane were already working on my head—how could she be so casual after she might have done something nefarious toward the lovely Arlice Crosby last night? I wondered.
And then the good little angel on my shoulder asked,
Would you be this sure Linda Jane had something to do with Arlice’s death if it hadn’t been Melissa who’d seen something?
Little angels can be great big pains when they do stuff like that.
I didn’t ponder that any longer, because ten o’clock was already on the way, and I wanted to make sure Paul and Maxie hadn’t forgotten about their performance in the wake of the eventful night we’d had and the early morning that followed it.
To be honest, I also wanted to ask if they’d heard at all from the spirit of Arlice Crosby. There was so much she could clear up if she was around, and I’d certainly feel better about having invited her if I knew that, after dying, she was still all right.