“So, she’s a hermit now?” I was learning, as an investigator, to read between the lines when people spoke to me.
“Oh no,” Phyllis said. “She’s a fixture at the cultural commission, at the arts center over in Ocean Grove, places like that. She even shows up at Hanrahan’s every once in a while.” Hanrahan’s was one of the less refined saloons on Ocean Avenue, our main drag.
Okay, so maybe I needed between-the-lines reading glasses. “Well, where do you think I can find her today?” All I wanted to do was confirm that the woman was alive. I didn’t need to write her biography.
“I’m sure she’s at the house most of the time,” Phyllis answered. “You want the address?”
“I didn’t come for the great coffee,” I told her. The coffee from Phyllis’s ancient hot plate, dangerously close to a few stacks of paper, was not something anyone would stop by to drink.
Phyllis wrote the address of Arlice Crosby’s house on the back of a receipt for seven dollars and sixty-three cents’ worth of postage dated three years earlier. “You have to keep these things for the IRS,” she said as she handed it over, “so bring it back when you’re done. What’s this sudden interest in Arlice, anyway?”
I told her the same story I’d given McElone, about having a client who wanted to confirm Arlice’s well-being, which was true. I left out the part about the client having been deceased for close to eighty years, as I didn’t see how that was relevant. And then I thanked Phyllis for the help, promised her an exclusive on the filming of
Down the Shore
at the guesthouse (no confidentiality was written into my contract, I was pretty sure) and got into my decrepit Volvo station wagon to find Arlice’s house.
Luckily, I had a portable GPS device. Even as well as I knew the streets of Harbor Haven, this was a part of town I’d never visited before, not even in high school, when driving around town was our major form of recreation and social interaction. This was before Twitter and e-mail, when you actually had to be in the same car as your friends to spend the evening with them.
Clearly, this was an exclusive little alcove that had been constructed for the more well-heeled among Harbor Haven’s citizenry. While it wasn’t gated, the entrance to the cul-de-sac bore a brass sign that read “Ocean Paradiso,” obviously quite old but still polished and shiny, mounted on a concrete pillar. Trees lined both sides of the drive, and looked to be quite well cared for. The grass was freshly mown. I also noticed a video camera on the top of the pillar. The residents in this area were interested in security.
I passed a few really impressive homes, each one overlooking a different view of the ocean and a private beach, but based on the impression of the lady Phyllis had given me, I could tell right away which house belonged to Arlice Crosby: There was an absolute mansion, resembling nothing so much as the main house of Tara in
Gone with the Wind
, standing apart at the top of the hill with the best view and the best beach. It was also, clearly, the largest and most impressive house.
Arlice Crosby’s place was right next to it, a very appealing but smallish Colonial, extremely well-maintained, with a long front porch and a glider, flowers on every windowsill and a few hanging plants, none of which had so much as one brown leaf. It made me think that I hadn’t done anything with my own front porch yet, and I should start getting ideas.
I parked the Volvo in front of the Crosby house and thought for a few moments before getting out of the car. If I were a wealthy woman of advanced years, why would I decide to talk to a complete stranger whose sole purpose in coming to visit was to verify that I was actually alive? The only answer I could propose was that it would be nice for someone to show that level of interest. That probably wasn’t good enough.
But wait—I had something with me that would serve as a terrific conversation piece in awkward situations. I took it out of my purse and walked to Arlice’s front door, where I rang the bell.
It took some time, but the door did open, and behind a screen stood a woman who was impeccably but casually dressed. She had probably been quite tall when she was younger, but age had bent and shrunk her a bit. But she was not one of those older people who seem to carry their ages on their backs; she smiled warmly when she opened the door and looked me straight in the eye.
“Yes?” she said.
“Are you Mrs. Arlice Crosby?” I asked.
“That depends,” she said. “Who are you?”
I held up my investigator’s license. “I’m a private investigator. My name is Alison Kerby. May I ask you just a couple of questions, Mrs. Crosby?”
“I haven’t yet said whether I am Mrs. Crosby, Ms. Kerby,” she pointed out. “What are the questions regarding?”
“Well, there have been reports of some . . . strange occurrences in Harbor Haven, and the name Arlice Crosby came up. I’d love to talk to her, if that’s possible.”
The woman pushed the screen door open and looked me up and down. “You’re not carrying a gun,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
I answered it anyway. “No, I’m not.”
“You’re an odd sort of private investigator.”
I nodded. “This is an odd sort of case.”
She seemed to make a decision; she nodded, more to herself than to me. “OK, you got me. I’m Arlice Crosby,” she said. “Come sit out here on the veranda. Would you like a lemonade?”
“I’d love one.” Anything to get the taste of Phyllis’s coffee out of my mouth. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Don’t be silly.” She disappeared back into the house, and I sat on a wooden rocker near a small table. I felt the glider might be a little strange for this type of visit.
Arlice reappeared in just a few moments, carrying a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses full of ice; she seemed pretty spry for a woman in her late seventies. Or was I being ageist?
“It’s sugar-free. I hope you don’t mind. I have diabetes,” she said after she’d poured for both of us and sat in a facing chair.
“Of course I don’t mind,” I said, taking a sip of the lemonade, which actually was quite good. “It’s delicious.”
A rather sad-looking but enormous black cat ambled its way onto the porch and, without any attempt at niceties, sprung up onto Arlice’s lap. She didn’t jump at the impulsive move, and simply began stroking the cat while she sipped her lemonade.
“This is Marcus,” she said. “He lives with the neighbors but, confidentially, he likes me better.” She produced some kind of treat from her apron pocket and fed it to the cat.
“I can’t imagine why,” I said.
“Enough of this polite chitchat. Tell me why you’re here.”
“I have a client who is . . . concerned about you, and asked me to make sure you were all right,” I answered. Yes, even after practicing what I’d say the whole morning, that was the best I could come up with.
“And who is this client?” Arlice asked, her eyes showing more amusement than anything else. She just continued to stroke the cat, who purred with some satisfaction and stretched on Arlice’s lap like it was a warm spot on the carpeted floor.
“I’m afraid that’s privileged information.” I’ve watched a few detective movies in my time.
Arlice pretended to look shocked. “Really! Here someone is so concerned about my well-being, and I’m not even allowed to know who it is? Did your client happen to mention why I might be in some kind of distress?”
I had rehearsed this, as well, but I was still careful with the words I chose. “It’s a person”—at least at one point, he had been—“who felt that there might have been an attempt to hurt you, and was concerned that this attempt might have, unintentionally, involved my client.”
“Very good, Alison,” Arlice said. “Not so much as a gender-specific pronoun. You’ve given this some thought, haven’t you?”
“I’m just starting out as an investigator, Arlice. I can’t develop a reputation if I go around giving away information about my clients. Nobody will want to hire me.”
“A sound decision,” Arlice said, nodding her head in approval. “But I can’t verify this attempt to do me harm unless I know what it involved.” She produced another treat from her pocket and gave it to the cat, who appeared to think he had indeed died and gone to Cat Heaven.
“Okay. Now, this is going to sound crazy.”
Arlice smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ve heard plenty of crazy in my day.”
I chuckled a little. “Well, according to my client, it involved a prank that lured you to the Ocean Wharf Hotel, where a figure dressed as a pirate threatened you.” I wanted to look away after letting that information out, but Paul was adamant about observing a subject’s reaction.
“Oh, that,” Arlice said.
I blinked a couple of times. “Oh,
She shrugged. “It was no big deal. My lawyer, Tom Donovan, said he’d heard stories about the ghost of a pirate haunting the main ballroom at the Ocean Wharf. Well, I’ve always loved a good ghost story. I’ve been on lots of ghost tours, and even followed a few scientists in paranormal studies when they’ve investigated claims. So once Tom told me about this one, I figured I’d see for myself.”
Oh boy. “So you see ghosts?” I asked. Another of the sisterhood.
But Arlice shook her head. “No, no. I’ve never actually seen one. But I’d love to, you know—it’s so exciting, the idea of people living on after what we call death. The idea has always fascinated me.”
“So you went to the Ocean Wharf Hotel looking for the pirate ghost?”
She waved a hand in disgust. “A pirate ghost. It was the silliest fake setup you’ve ever seen. A button on the floor to make moaning noises, can you imagine? And an empty pirate suit that they’d probably bought at a Halloween store. It was even rigged to swing a sword at me.”
“A sword!” Best to sound shocked. I didn’t want her to have any idea I’d heard the other side of the story—and that the ghost wasn’t the least bit fake (except for the pirate bit).
“Yes. It looked quite real, but it just swung over my head and went right into a wall. Knocked Tom right down, though. It didn’t touch him, but he was scared to death, the poor man. We left right after that. The thing stopped moving. Silly, really.”
Her story was even weirder than Scott’s, and he’d been dead since the nineteen thirties. “Who would have set up such an elaborate hoax?” I asked.
“Damned if I know,” Arlice said, shaking her head. “Kids, maybe. Someone with too much time on their hands. People need to spend more time trying to do good for others, if you ask me.”
The lemonade was almost gone. I stood up. “Well, thank you for your time, Arlice,” I said. “You’ve helped me quite a bit. My client will be pleased that you’re all right.”
Arlice gently lifted Marcus and put him on the floor of the porch as she stood up. “Go on home, now,” she said. “They like you up there, too, you know.” The cat did not look back as he ambled toward the larger house slightly up the hill.
“Yes, this mysterious client of yours, Alison.” She smiled, then stopped, looked more closely at me and snapped her fingers. “Alison Kerby! You’re the one who owns that new B and B everybody says is haunted!”
“It’s not a B and B. I don’t serve food,” I replied automatically. It’s practically a reflexive response at this point.
“But it is haunted?” Arlice asked. She sounded so hopeful.
“If you’re so interested in ghost stories, and you’ve heard all the nonsense they’re saying around town, how come you haven’t been by?” I asked her. All right, so it was a dodge. What’s wrong with a dodge when it’s used for the kindest of reasons?
“I’ve never been invited,” she said, looking me right in the eye with a dare.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” I said, knowing I’d been hooked by a pro. “We’re going to have a séance tonight to see once and for all if the house
“Really!” Arlice waited. She knew if she was silent, I’d have to fill the space.
“Yes, but it’s only for invited guests,” I said.
She waited a while longer.
“So consider yourself invited,” I said.
Arlice clapped her hands. “I’ll be there with bells on,” she said.
“That could get awfully noisy,” I told her.
“What the hell did you agree to?” Maxie’s arms were folded across her chest, obscuring her “Take a Picture, It Lasts Longer” T-shirt. “There are people crawling all over our house!”
To be fair, the cast and crew of
Down the Shore
did resemble an infestation of bugs at that moment. Lights were being set up in the main room. Young people in remarkably skimpy bathing suits were standing idly by, doing as much nothing as a person can do while remaining upright. And a few of my more awestruck senior citizen guests—minus Warren Balachik and Jim Bridges, who had weighed the advantages of a cold beer over their clear fascination with the production, and come down temporarily on the side of beer—were watching the nothing happen with something very closely approximating rapture.
The seniors in the house, by the way, had raved about the extra dimension to their vacation—or at least Jim and Warren had. When the two gentlemen weren’t raiding the cooler of beer in the game room, they never let the young “cast” out of their sight. Bernice, muttering something about “encroachment” in the den—a room I had not seen her frequent during her stay so far—was still there to gawk. The Joneses could not be reached for comment.
I had not yet been introduced to our reality cast, but was told they’d be “happy to talk with you after they’ve got a couple of scenes in the can.” Right now, until all the technical snarls could be straightened out, the two young women and the two young men were scattered to the four corners of the room, not interacting at all. With anybody. Once cameras were rolling, Trent had explained, there would be plenty of action.
One person’s definition of “reality” might not be the same as another’s. It’s a flexible decade.
I was huddling in the front hall, right near the door, trying to talk to Maxie in such a way that no one would see me having a conversation, to all appearances, with myself. “First of all, it’s
house, and if you need reminding, I’ll show you the deed
. Second, I thought you were the one who couldn’t wait for this carnival to get going. Something about ‘hot guys with no shirts.’ Well, there they are.”