“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.”
I could not see the visiting ghost, who had arrived at least two hours earlier than I’d expected. While that wasn’t a complete surprise—the only ghosts I had ever been able to see were Paul and Maxie—it wasn’t anticipated.
Luckily (depending on how you look at it), Melissa and Mom
see Scott McFarlane, so both they and the two resident ghosts could relay his expressions to me. But there was something strange about carrying on a conversation with someone who, to all your senses, was not there. Like talking to a ghost. Or something.
Scott, who had a slight burr to his speech, said he was troubled by something that had happened recently, and he wanted Paul (and by extension, me—in fact, mostly me) to investigate.
“Right now, the guests know I’m having dinner, and besides, they don’t need much out of me in the evenings,” I said. “So we can start, but if I’m called away, I’m called away. Is that all right?”
Everyone in the room looked in the direction to Paul’s left, and then nodded, which I took to mean Scott agreed with my plan.
I asked Mom for a general physical description of McFarlane, and she said he was “an older gentleman, I’d say in his sixties—oh, really? He says he was seventy-two when he passed away.”
“I can hear him, Mom,” I reminded her. “I just can’t see him.”
“You look much younger, Mr. McFarlane,” she went on, ignoring my rudeness. Scott thanked her. “You’re welcome. Anyway, he’s not a very tall man, but he looks fit. He’s wearing dark slacks and a white shirt with long sleeves and no collar. He also has on a knit cap and black boots.”
“He sounds like a pirate,” I thought out loud.
“Alison,” my mother admonished. “Mind your manners.”
I exhaled. “Look, it’s making me crazy talking to someone I can’t see who’s in the same room with me,” I said. “Can you hold something, or wear something, so I can at least locate you?” I asked the air.
“Like what?” Scott asked.
“There’s that old jacket of Daddy’s that’s in the upstairs closet,” Melissa said. “Can we put that around his shoulders?”
The last thing I needed was to have this spirit remind me of The Swine. “How about a bandana?” I asked, pulling a cloth napkin out of one of the kitchen counters. “Would that work?”
The napkin, a red one with the standard bandana pattern around its edges, liberated itself from my hand, tied itself into a scarf shape, and started floating just north of the refrigerator, to Paul’s left.
“I guess so,” I said.
“I want you to feel comfortable with me,” something slightly higher than the bandana said.
“Of course, and I want the same of you,” I said in Scott’s direction. “Please, tell me your story.”
“Shouldn’t the child leave?” Scott said. “I’m afraid my story will frighten her.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street
,” Melissa said. “I didn’t get scared at all.”
“No, but you did have to sleep in my bed for a week after you saw
,” I reminded her. “You kept having whale nightmares.”
“I was three. And I’m not leaving.”
“Go ahead, Scott,” I said. “Don’t worry about Melissa.”
“All right, then, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Scott said. “I’ve been staying in a house a few towns over, in Avon. The place was abandoned ten years ago, and they were supposed to tear it down and put up a hotel, I think, but then the money went away. So I do what I do there. I don’t need much, being dead and all.”
“So I take it that you are an experienced, um, spirit?” I asked. Maxie and Paul were still adjusting to their existence after their murders. “May I ask how and when you . . . passed away?”
“It was entirely of natural causes, I can assure you,” Scott told me. “Cirrhosis, I think they called it. I drank a bit when I was alive. And that was just about eighty years ago.”
“So, you said you want us to verify that something happened. What is that?” It was time to get to business. Whatever business this was.
The scarf untied itself and was rearranged more like headwear. I assumed Scott had taken it from around his neck and retied it into a do-rag. “About two months ago, I was contacted by someone who wanted me to help them with something. They said it was harmless, just a prank, but that they would pay handsomely for my services.”
That raised about seventy-five questions in my head. “How could someone pay you handsomely?” I asked Scott. “No offense, but what does a ghost need with money?”
“Not money,” Scott replied. “The reward was that I would be able to leave this form of existence and move on to the next level.”
No one in the room spoke for quite some time. Finally, I managed to squeak out, “How were they going to achieve that?”
“They didn’t say.”
This guy, however dead he might be, was starting to sound like an idiot. “So you were going to perform whatever service was requested, and you had no guarantee at all that the person who contacted you could deliver on what they promised. How did this person get in touch with you? How did they know you were there?”
The answer was a long time in coming. Finally, Scott said, “I can’t say how they knew I was living in the old house, but they contacted me through an old child’s toy that had been left there. A set of alphabet letters—magnetized, I think—that they used to spell words out on the floor. I kicked the first one, and couldn’t put the message back together, but it was back the next day when I looked for it. I would find them there at odd times, and answer the same way. I never heard the person’s voice.”
I didn’t like the way this story was going, but there was an unmistakable sadness that pervaded Scott’s voice. Even the red napkin seemed to be bowed, as if Scott was staring at the floor. I looked at Mom. I wasn’t actually appealing for help, but that must have been the way she interpreted my expression.
“Mr. McFarlane,” Mom asked, “who did you think this person was? No one can grant you . . . the kind of thing you were promised. How could you agree to this prank on such thin evidence?”
There was silence for quite some time, then Paul said, “Scott, are you all right?”
And I confess, my first thought was,
Of course he’s not all right—he’s dead!
“I’m embarrassed,” Scott’s voice said finally. “I don’t want to say what I thought.”
“If it can help the investigation, Scott, I think you pretty much have to say who you thought was sending you the messages,” I said in his general direction. “Who do you think was sending you these messages on a preschool alphabet set?”
“God,” he said. “I thought it was a sign from God.”
“Ah,” I said.
The rest of Scott McFarlane’s story was less bizarre, but not much. For weeks, he had been finding messages spelled out on the floor in what he called his “main room.” It started with simple messages: “HELLO,” “HOW ARE YOU” and “I SEE YOU.” Then, Scott found more letters in longer messages, which became more elaborate. An easel showed up one day that the magnetized letters would stick to, and he could “read” them without bending down, or occasionally kicking the words apart accidentally, as had happened a few more times. And Scott began to ask questions, most of which he said were never answered.
“They wouldn’t say how they knew I was there or why they wanted to talk to me,” he said. “They never explained why we couldn’t just talk in person. And pretty soon, the messages were all about how they thought they could help me, if I would just do them this one favor.”
The favor, apparently, hinged on a prank the unseen visitor wanted to play on an elderly woman, whose name Scott was never told. (This part started to erode his belief that a divine presence was behind the messages, he said.) And when he would show any reluctance to comply with the requests, the messages would stop for days.
“It gets damn lonely in that house sometimes,” Scott said. “I finally said yes just to keep the contact.”
“Couldn’t you have come here and talked to Maxie and Paul?” Melissa asked. A ten-year-old girl truly values a good playdate.
“I don’t always know where other people like me are located,” Scott told her. “And it’s hard for me to find my way around.” Melissa nodded.
“So you agreed to play this prank,” I said to get Scott back on topic. “What was it you had to do?”
“It took four days of messages to tell me the whole thing,” he answered. “I was supposed to go to an abandoned hotel here in Harbor Haven.”
“Probably the Ocean Wharf,” Maxie said. She had done considerable research into the area before buying the house I now owned. And Scott’s story must have truly captured her attention, because she was even forgetting to be detached and snide.
“On the day I was summoned, I would arrive in the ballroom of the hotel, and I’d find some . . . they called them ‘props,’ for me to use. A long coat, a hat, an eye patch and a sash with a sheath for a plastic sword.”
I put my hand over my mouth to avoid laughing. “So they
want you to play pirate?” I asked. The red bandana nodded, and it occurred to me it would have been helpful in the role.
“Apparently,” Scott replied. “And I’d wait there until a certain time, when the woman who was, I guess, the target would show up, and I’d rattle the sword and do some ghost stuff. Billow the drapes, throw things around. I’m guessing they figured she couldn’t see me, but she could see the props, so that would be enough to scare her.”
“Why did they want to scare an old lady?” Melissa asked.
“I have no idea,” Scott said. “It was just supposed to be a joke. Just a joke.” His voice sounded sorrowful.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The big finale, the thing that was supposed to put a capper on the gag, was that I’d pull out this plastic sword and wave it around, then act like I was going to cut her head off. But something was wrong.”
“What?” Mom asked.
“The sword felt too heavy. The handle was cheap, and it might have been wooden—it wasn’t metal, but it wasn’t plastic. And when I swung it . . .” His voice trailed off. Then Scott continued. “When I swung it, it felt like I hit something. And I heard—damn it—I heard something hit the floor. It sounded like a body.”
There was silence in the room, but I was confused. “Well, why didn’t you just look to see what you’d done?” I asked. “Was it so dark in the room that . . .”
Then I noticed the horrified looks of the others in the room. “Alison . . .” Mom began.
“Mr. McFarlane is blind,” Melissa told me.
“Oh,” I said.
After that, the conversation sort of deteriorated. I was doing my best to turn down Scott McFarlane’s request, but it’s hard to say no to a blind dead man. I mean, what else could go wrong for the guy?
Scott explained that he had been blinded by an accident with acid while working at a printing press in the early part of the twentieth century and had lived the last thirty years of his life without sight. When he died, he’d assumed that his sight would be restored, but was disappointed to find out that was not the case.
“Instead, I was in a run-down house on the New Jersey shore, blind as a bat and completely out of my element,” he went on to say. “It’s taken me a while to get used to it, but you never really stop hoping that something will change.”
I looked at Maxie, who had been depressed after we’d discovered her killer, because she’d assumed that solving her murder meant she would be moving on to another level of existence. She puffed out her lips a little, not realizing I was watching, and sighed quietly. Paul suddenly looked even more impassioned than before.
“I just need to know if I killed that poor old woman,” Scott said. “I heard someone say the name Arlice, so that’s something to go on. You have no idea how difficult it is living with myself like this.” I declined to challenge him on the term
“Have you heard from the person who contacted you since then?”
“No,” Scott answered finally. “The next day, the letters were gone. I don’t know how they got in without me hearing them, but they were simply gone. And they’ve been gone since.”
If there’s one thing you learn as a parent, especially a single parent, it’s how to be the bad guy and still be able to look yourself in the mirror. “Let me think about it,” I told Scott. “I understand how you feel, but I can’t tell you right now that I’ll be happy to do what you ask.”
Scott said that he understood, but Paul, Maxie, Mom and Melissa didn’t look like they concurred. After a minute or so, Paul informed me that Scott had left. I already knew that, because the red bandana had vanished, too. I’d seen Paul and Maxie stuff things into their pockets, and the physical object had disappeared. Once Scott left, everyone in the room, living and not-so-much, let out a sigh of relief. The man’s sadness had been palpable.
One by one, they got up and left without a word, until just Paul and I were still in the kitchen. And he looked at me with those puppy dog eyes and stroked his goatee, which I guessed no longer required daily maintenance.
“Don’t start,” I said.
“You did make a promise,” Paul said, completely ignoring my plea.