Alice Archer surveyed the three human beings and one ghost in the room and decided the guy in the armchair was going to be the problem.
Betty Plumscott , the fluffy, little white-haired woman nodding encouragingly only needed to be talked out of a séance. Isolde Hammersmith, the sharp-faced, salt-and-pepper bee-hive glaring at her was going to be more difficult, but Alice knew Isolde was a realist, so she’d deal with it. The ghost in the long skirt and mobcap was so old that she was basically just a mutter by the fireplace. It was the guy in the armchair, introduced by Betty just as “Ethan,” who was a pain in the ass. He had one of those too-handsome faces that was all cheekbones and bright eyes, and for some reason, he was pushing Isolde’s séance.
“I think you should go for it, Betty,” he was saying. “What do you have to lose?”
“A lot of money,” Alice said, annoyed.
“No, dear,” Betty said. “Mrs. Hammersmith and I have worked out an arrangement.”
Isolde nodded, and Ethan looked interested. “What kind of arrangement?” he said.
“That’s private, dear,” Betty said, her smile never wavering.
“It doesn’t matter,” Alice said. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Plumscott, your husband isn’t here.”
“Call me Betty,” the little woman said.
“Betty. I understand you miss your husband and I’m sorry for your loss–”
“Stanley wasn’t much of a loss, dear,” Betty said, her smile unwavering. “I haven’t missed him at all. But I need some information, so I asked Isolde to talk to the Other Side.” Betty beamed at Isolde. “She couldn’t seem to find Stanley.”
“The Other Side is crowded,” Isolde snapped. “And there’s not much chatter about Stanley.”
Betty nodded. “He always did keep to himself.”
“Isn’t there some kind of PA system?” Ethan said. “You know, like at the airport. Will Stanley Plumscott please report to the information desk?”
“Why is he here?” Isolde said to Betty.
“My next-door neighbor worries about me, so she sent him. It’s impossible to say no to Nadine. And Ethan can be very nice when he wants to be.”
“Thank you, Betty,” Ethan said, unfazed, and Alice took another look at him.
Thick dark hair that could have used a trim, too-pretty face, ancient green canvas coat he’d probably gotten at Goodwill, equally ancient jeans, and Nikes that were long past their expiration date.
Slacker, Alice thought and said, “You are not allowed to speak again, Ethan. This is between Betty and me.” She transferred her attention back to Betty. “The thing is, Betty, Stanley’s not here.”
“No, he’s been gone for twenty-five years, dear.” Betty nodded toward the fireplace. “He died right there. I came downstairs and found him, dead as a doornail.” She lifted her chin. “He must have tripped.”
Alice looked at the hearth. “On what?”
“He wasn’t a graceful man,” Betty said.
Alice narrowed her eyes. “Exactly what did Stanley die of?”
Ethan stirred. “Does that matter? Can’t you just call him up for a chat?”
Alice ignored him. “Your husband is not here, Betty. You have a ghost by your fireplace, but she’s female.”
Ethan leaned forward and opened his mouth.
“And she’s really old,” she told Betty before he could say anything. “She’s barely there any more.”
“A shadow of her former self,” Ethan said.
Alice ignored him some more. “There are many reasons why Stanley wouldn’t be here, Betty, but the most likely one is that he passed on to the other side. Most people do. There has to be a pressing reason for them not to go toward that light. Another reason might be that he doesn’t want to talk to you. But if that’s the case, he’s not going to tell you anything, so there’s really no point in a séance.”
“I want a séance,” Betty said, some mule showing in the fluff.
Ethan checked his watch. “So let’s get that started then.”
“It’s a waste of your money,” Alice said to Betty, her patience wearing thin. “Stanley is not here.”
“The ghost by the fireplace might know something,” Ethan said to Betty. “Maybe she saw Stanley die. There’s a reason for a séance right there.”
“Oh.” Betty blinked. “Well, then, maybe not. How trustworthy are ghosts anyway?”
“About as trustworthy as people,” Alice said, now definitely looking at Betty as a possible husband killer. “That’s not the problem. The problem is that the longer a ghost hangs around, the more they fade. After a hundred years, there’s not much left, and this woman is easily eighteenth century. She has nothing to say.”
I might, the ghost said.
Alice jerked back. “What the hell?”
“I know what you said. Why are you talking?”
Ethan raised his eyebrows. “Now it’s talking. See? No point in being close-minded. So about this séance–”
Alice concentrated on the mob cap. “How is it possible you’re still sentient?”
The ghost shifted a little and Alice got a better look. Round face, big eyes, pouty mouth: the Bimbo From The Other Side.
“When did you die?”
“Then what are you dressed for?”
Renn Faire. She swished her skirts. I think I look hot in this, you know, cause of the boobs. But you can’t see my legs. If I’d known I was going to get stuck in this forever, I’d have worn something shorter.
“Uh huh.” Alice turned back to Betty. “When did Stanley die?”
“Shouldn’t you know that?” Ethan said.
“Shut up, Ethan,” Alice said. “Betty?”
Alice looked at the ghost. “What’s your name?”
“Of course. So how well did you know Stanley?”
The ghost stirred again, coming into sharper outline, and Alice could see faint, blurred color like an old snapshot. Kimberley was blonde.
How come you can hear me?
“I had a traumatic childhood. Did you see a man named Stanley die in here in 1995?”
“Yes,” Alice said, patiently. “Stanley’s dead. Let’s talk about Stanley.”
“You know it’s rude to have private conversations in front of other people,” Ethan said. “Is there any way you can tell her to speak up?”
“Shut up, Ethan,” Alice said, and then she winced and said, “I’m sorry. That was rude. I’m tired. I’ve had a long day, and now there’s Kimberley.”
“Kimberley?” Betty said, losing her smile.
“Who’s Kimberley?” Ethan said to Betty.
“I have no idea,” Betty said loudly.
“So you and Stanley,” Alice said to Kimberley.
I barely know Stan—Mr. Plumscott. I just stopped by here to drop something off for him on my way to the Faire. And tomorrow I have a concert.
I have Oingo Boingo tickets! She stopped swishing her skirt. I wonder if they’re still good.
“Kimberley, you’re dead. Go toward the light.”
No. It’s not fair. I had OINGO BOINGO tickets. Did I get to go? No.
“What’s she saying?” Ethan said.
“She’s whining,” Alice said. “She had Oingo Boingo tickets.”
“Oingo Boingo broke up,” Ethan said. “Twenty years ago.”
Alice turned back to Betty. “Kimberley is here if you want to talk to her, but really, there’s no point.”
“So who is Kimberley?” Ethan said.
No more Oingo Boingo? Kimberley said. I can’t believe it.
“Betty,” Isolde said. “Have Alice ask Kimberley what you want to know.”
“Kimberley,” Betty spat.
“I gather Betty knows you,” Alice said to the ghost.
Kimberley rolled her eyes. Whatever.
“Ask her,” Isolde said, putting some steel in it, and Betty lifted her chin, and then sighed and dropped it again.
“Ask her if she knows where the money is,” Betty said.
“What money?” Ethan said, straightening for the first time.
“Two hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars,” Betty said, practically snarling the words.
“Okay.” Alice turned back to Kimberley, fairly sure there was a lot more to this story and positive she didn’t want to know about any of it. “Kimberley, where’s the two hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars.”
Kimberley looked away. I don’t know. Why would I know?
“You are a terrible a liar,” Alice said. “Look, you’re dead. You can’t spend the money. Tell us where it is and then go toward the light. Maybe the light is Oingo Boingo.”
Kimberley looked down at Betty. I’m not giving HER anything.
Alice smiled at Betty. “She doesn’t like you.”
“Husband-stealing bitch,” Betty said.
Old disgusting wife, Kimberley said.
“And that clears up the mystery of who Kimberley was,” Ethan said. “Now about the money–”
“He cleared out our accounts to run away with his office tramp,” Betty said. “Everything that he could get his hands on. Then he came here for his passport and . . . tripped. I don’t know how she got here.”
I drove, Kimberley said.
“Wait a minute,” Ethan said. “You think there’s a quarter of a million hidden somewhere in here and you haven’t looked for it?”
“Of course I’ve looked for it,” Betty said. “I can’t find it. That’s why I’m going to mediums and ghost-whisperers.”
“Don’t call me that,” Alice said. “I’m a lepidopterist.”
Ethan looked at her, surprised and then shook his head and turned back to his hostess. “Betty,” he said, calmly but with some force. “It’s dangerous to have that kind of money hidden here.” The concern on his face pretty much wiped out the whole slacker façade, and now he looked sharp, focused, and engaged.
“I know,” Betty was saying. “That’s why they’re here.”
God, she looks really old, Kimberley said, drifting close to Betty.
I don’t remember her being this old.
“It’s been twenty years,” Alice said, as Betty pulled her cardigan closer. “Come away from her, Kimberley. Back to the fireplace. Come on.”
Kimberley drifted over to Ethan. He’s really cute. She put her arm around Ethan and he shuddered and then looked around.
“There’s a draft,” he said.
“There’s a Kimberley,” Alice said, and then said, “Stop that,” to Kimberley. “Come back to the fireplace.”
Ethan looked startled as Kimberley moved on to Isolde.
This one does the séances? Kimberley leaned down to look into Isolde’s eyes.
Isolde stared back into the cold air, unfazed. “Hello, Kimberley. Where’s the cash?”
She’s spooky, Kimberley said and drifted back to the fireplace.
Alice shook her head at Isolde. “Okay, fine, schedule your seance. Kimberley’s all yours.” She picked up her coat and shrugged it on. “But I must be going. Close this room until Isolde can get rid—can help Kimberley move on. Don’t come in here until she says it’s okay. And hire somebody trustworthy to find the money.” She looked at Ethan again, his concern for Betty evident on his face. “Maybe Ethan. He may have more potential than I thought.”
“Wait,” Betty said, getting up. “You’re going? I don’t understand.”
“Stanley’s not here. Kimberley is. Isolde will take it from here.” Alice patted Betty’s arm awkwardly. “Good luck.”
You can’t leave, Kimberley said, moving toward her. I was half asleep until you came. You’re the first person I’ve talked to in ages. Don’t go.
“You should go, too, Kimberley” Alice said, and headed for the hall.
Alice waited for Isolde out on the street, wondering about Betty-who-probably-killed-her-husband and Ethan, sharp and dark and unsettling. No, not unsettling, surprising. There might be layers there. Of course, layers of what was the real question.
Isolde came down the steps, her black-streaked white beehive shining under the streetlight.
“You’re looking more like a zebra every day,” Alice said, trying to keep the concern from her voice. What Isode was looking like was ill and old, and Alice didn’t like it. “Might want to ease up on the black streaks.”
“Adds to the atmosphere.” Isolde shoved her beehive up in back, and pulled her black cloak tighter around her against the autumn chill.
“Yeah, you need more atmosphere.” Alice opened the car door for her.
“So she killed Stanley, right?” Isolde said as she got in.
“I don’t know. Hold the seance and ask her.”
Alice closed the door and walked around to the driver’s side, and Ethan stepped out of the darkness in front of her.
“Hey,” she said, stepping back. “Don’t do that. Make a sound when you walk.”
“We should talk,” he said, and Alice, annoyed that he’d startled her, said, “No, we shouldn’t.”
“Oh, come on.” He hit her with that smile again. “I need your professional services. Do you have a card?”
“No.” Alice scowled at him. “I don’t do this professionally. And what I do professionally, you don’t need.” She tried to go around him but he blocked her.
“Wrong, I need a lepidopterist.” He smiled down at her, much closer now.
“You’re being creepy,” she said, and he stepped back immediately.
“Really sorry.” He sounded sincere, which helped lower the creepiness factor.
She opened her car door, and then curious to see what he was up to, turned and said, “Why do you need a lepidopterist?”
“I am infested with butterflies.”
“They die very quickly. Most are gone in a week.” Then honesty compelled her to add, “Unless they’re a species like fall-hatched Monarchs.”
“They’re fall-hatched Monarchs,” Ethan said.
“Then they’ll migrate south when it gets cold. Winter’s coming on, they’ll be leaving shortly. You’ll be fine.”
“We should discuss it.” He reached into his suit jacket, took out a card case, extracted a card, and handed it to her, keeping a respectful distance. “Call me, please.”
Alice looked down at a midnight blue card that said “Ethan Aldridge” and a phone number in white letters. But when she took it and tilted it to see it better under the streetlight, another word appeared between the name and the number: Magic.
“You’re kidding me,” she said.
“Hey. You of all people, making fun of magicians?”
“I’m a scientist,” Alice said, annoyed.
“You talk to ghosts.”
“You don’t believe that.”
His smile grew wider and lazier, if that was possible. “Convince me.”
She gave him his card back, said “No. Thank you,” and got into the car, brushing against him as he held the door for her.
“That’s a handsome man,” Isolde said, leaning to look through the windshield as Alice started the car.
“Go for it.” Alice pulled out into the street.
“I don’t have the energy for a younger man at this point in my life. Although back in my day . . .” Isolde leaned back in her seat and sighed, whether from the memories or her exhaustion, Alice couldn’t tell. “He’d be good for you. You need some practice at human interaction.”
“I have family for that. And besides, he’s a magician. He doubts us, but he tells people he can make magic.”
“He probably can. Perception is everything.”
“No,” Alice said. “Reality is everything.”
“Perception is reality.”
“Do you want to walk home?”
“You’re underestimating him,” Isolde said.
“I know exactly what he is,” Alice said, and thought, Layers.
An hour later, Ethan was raiding the refrigerator of the art gallery next door to Betty, explaining to his best friend and unrequited love that Betty was not who they thought she was.
“There really was a ghost?” Nadine said, picking the sprinkles off a chocolate-iced doughnut. “I thought Betty was crazy.”
“I wouldn’t give up on that thought.” Ethan came to the table, his hands full of mustard, ham, and cheese. He shoved Nadine’s sketchbook out of the way with his elbow and dumped everything into the clear space. “You want a sandwich?”
“No. I don’t even believe in ghosts, how can there be one?”
“Well, there can’t.” Ethan opened a cupboard and got out the bread. “But these people that Betty hired were good. They found out she killed her husband.”
Nadine met his eyes, and he stopped, recognizing all over again how beautiful she was, like human whipped cream, blonde and rosy and perfect. Most of the time he didn’t think about it because he’d been looking at her for thirty-four years, but every now and then . . .
“You can’t just stop there,” Nadine said.
“Right.” Ethan put the bread on the table and started making his sandwich. “You got any pickles?”
“Ethan,” Nadine said, but she got up and went over to a grocery bag on the counter and handed him a jar of pickles.
Ethan took the jar from her and unscrewed the lid. “It’s really not a ham sandwich without pickles.”
“Also did you notice how I just took that pickle jar lid off with one twist? Applause would not be—”
“Okay, okay, I got there early. Betty told me I didn’t need to stay, but I told her I had instructions from you, and then the two women arrived, so I sat down and she gave up.”
“You don’t have charm, but you do have persistence,” Nadine said judiciously, swiping a finger full of icing from the doughnut.
“I have charm,” Ethan said. “I just don’t waste it on you.”
“Two women,” Nadine said.
“Right. The medium was in her seventies, thin face, sharp nose, eyes like Cleopatra, big white beehive with some black streaks in it, earrings that looked like wrecking balls. Betty called her Isolde.”
Nadine picked up a pencil from the table with her free hand, and drew a few quick strokes on the pad of paper and then held up the sketch while she took a bite of doughnut.
Ethan stopped slapping pickles on ham long enough to look at the cartoon. “Older. There were wrinkles. Otherwise, kinda.”
Nadine put her doughnut down and flipped to the next page of the pad. “Second woman.”
“She’s the spooky one.” Ethan squirted mustard on his sandwich, capped it with the second piece of bread and sat down, surveying his masterpiece with doubt. “It needs something else. You got lettuce?”
“The second one,” Nadine said.
“Early thirties. Blonde. Pale. Thin face. Pale eyes.” He stopped for a minute to remember the lepidopterist. “Really odd color. Almond-shaped. Sharp. Oval face, a little too long. Pale lips. Doesn’t show much expression. Tall. Slender. Great rack.”
“Really,” Nadine said.
Ethan looked over at her innocently. “Her name’s Alice.” You can get jealous if you want.”
“Alice,” Nadine said and drew a few lines on the pad.
When she held it up, Ethan said, “No,” around a mouthful of ham.
“Just no?” Nadine looked at her drawing. “What’s wrong with it?”
“She’s . . . really alive. Not boring.”
“You said she didn’t show much expression.”
“I didn’t say she was boring.” Ethan chewed slower. “It was in her eyes. There was a lot going on in her eyes.”
“Uh huh.” Nadine put down her doughnut, picked up the drawings and pinned them to the board. “Okay, so it’s these two and you and Betty. What happened?”
“Alice said Betty didn’t need a seance because Stanley wasn’t there.”
Nadine frowned as she sat down again. “What kind of a con is that?”
“A good one. Very disarming. She told Betty that Stanley wasn’t there but that Kimberley was, Kimberley being the bimbo that Stanley was running away with, taking his and Betty’s life savings of two hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars.”
“Whoa,” Nadine said.
“Yep. I don’t know how the hell they found that out, but they had all the details, right down to Kimberley’s passion for Oingo Boingo. They’re very good.”
“So then they had the seance. How much did they soak Betty for?”
“Nothing,” Ethan said. “Alice told Betty that Kimberley didn’t know anything, and Stanley still wasn’t there, and then she left. It must be a long con.”
Nadine bit into her doughnut again and chewed thoughtfully. “So maybe they’re not trying to screw Betty out of money for a seance. Maybe they just needed a way in to find out where the two hundred and something thousand is.”
“Nope, Betty had already told Isolde.”
Nadine sighed. “Betty is an idiot. This is worse than that guy who told her he’d resurface her driveway and then poured oil on it.”
“They did not ask for money while I was there, but I think Betty agreed to give Isolde a cut of it if she could find out where it was by asking Stanley. Evidently Betty has looked and cannot find it.”
“They’ll ask for money,” Nadine said. “Which means somebody has to go back to protect Betty.” She smiled at Ethan and he sighed. “Oh come on, you’d love a seance. It’s all slight of hand, right?”
“I don’t know,” Ethan said, “I don’t do seances. I’m a magician, not a charlatan.”
“Being a magician is being a charlatan.” Nadine finished off her doughnut, leaving a smear of chocolate on her lip.
Ethan stopped chewing to stare at it for a moment.
“What?” she said.
“Chocolate,” he said, pointing to his own lip.
She licked the icing off her lip, and he thought, She knows that makes me crazy and she does it anyway. “That was mean.”
“You don’t want me,” she said as she got up. “You had a crush on me fifteen years ago, and you haven’t noticed that we’ve both changed.”
“Not that much,” Ethan said, watching her move around the table. She had a really great ass.
“I’m engaged,” Nadine said. “Remember?”
“You’ve been that before,” Ethan said. “Five times. It loses its impact.”
Nadine shook her head, and began taking down her sketches. “You’re hopeless. So which one’s the most dangerous? Isolde or Alice?”
“Alice,” Ethan said. “But she’s not coming back, it’s all Isolde now. Thank God. Alice is a little scary.”
“Good,” Nadine said. “It’s about time somebody shook you up.”
“Somebody already has,” Ethan said, watching her go out the door.
Then he sighed and finished his sandwich.
Alice unlocked the door of the Victorian building that housed the family law office and most of her family and went into the reception room. She dropped her purse on the table there, and said, “Hi, Dennis” to the couch.
They’re waiting for you in the office, Dennis said, the transparent argyle of his sweater barely discernable in the dim light.
“Really?” Alice looked toward the closed office door. “They who?”
North and Carter. Something’s going on in there. What happened at the séance?
“Some 90’s bimbo hanging around a fireplace. Isolde’s trying to get a return invitation and if she gets it, you’re going, not me. Her name is Kimberley, and she likes Oingo Boingo.”
Kimberley, Dennis said with distaste.
“With two e’s.”
She sounds . . . uneducated.
“Well, we can all be dead parapsychologists now, can we?” Alice said and opened the door to her father’s office.
The two men she loved best in the world turned to look her with exasperation, one tall and broad and contained, his pale eyes boring into here, and the other tall and thin from illness but equally pale-eyed and reserved.
“So,” Alice said to them. “Whooping it up behind my back?”
“Funny.” Carter folded his arms. “Where have you been?”
Alice ignored her brother to circle her father’s massive desk. She stretched up to to kiss the older man on the cheek and then rubbed his back. “Sit down, Bad. How are you feeling?”
North Archer’s handsome face creased in a grimace. “I’d feel better if you’d stop talking to the undead.”
“It was just a small favor for Isolde. Nothing happened. Well, this degenerate named Ethan harassed me, and then a bimbo named Kimberley whined about Oingo Boingo, but other than that, pretty dull.”
“Kimberley’s been dead awhile then.” North sat down in his desk chair slowly, and Alice watched him, still worried about the pneumonia that had laid him low.
“I’m fine,” he said to her. “And even I died, you could still talk to me so–”
“Not funny.” Alice sat on the edge of his desk.
“So,” Carter said, “who’s this Ethan and why was he harassing you?”
“And was he dead or alive?” North said.
“Alive. Very.” Alice met her brother’s eyes, frowning as she thought about Ethan. “He was sharp. I’m pretty sure he thought we were conning Betty, especially when Betty told us there was a lot of money missing. He got to me and I yelled at him, which I am not proud of, but I think he was okay. Unless he’s after Betty’s money, too.” She tried to remember exactly what he’d said, but all that sharp dark handsomeness got in her way. “He was really good-looking, so that might be clouding my judgment.”
“Ethan’s last name?” Carter said.
“No idea.” Alice looked at her father again. “So Dennis says something’s up.”
“I thought he couldn’t hear through that door,” North said to Carter.
“He can’t or he’d be dragging that couch in here to yell.” Carter looked at Alice. “Do you remember a guy named Boston Ulrich?”
“No. Should I?”
North sat back in his chair. “He was one of two parapsychologists your mother consulted back when she was trying to get you out of Archer House. The other, of course–”
“—was Dennis,” Alice finished. “So?”
“He and Dennis were rivals,” North said. “Pretty bitter about it, too. So we thought it best if he didn’t know that Ulrich has offered to buy Archer House.”
“What? Why?” Alice stood up, alarmed. “Why would he want Archer House? It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s derelict. It’s a horrible place, there’s no reason–”
“He’s a parapsychologist and it’s a haunted house,” Carter said. “Which means he’s the only person who will ever want to buy it. I say we sell.”
“No,” Alice said.
Both men looked at her, eyebrows raised, and she realized she’d been loud. Then she realized that her heart was beating faster and her breathing had kicked up. You’re dealing with two hyper-rational men, she told herself. Be calm. She took a deep breath and tried to keep her voice steady. “Sorry, but no. We are not selling Archer House to anybody.”
“Do you want it?” North said, sounding surprised. “You’ve never wanted to go back.”
“Of course I don’t want to go back.” Alice thought about the empty house with its massive stone arches and fireplace, the mullioned windows and the gloomy two-story high central hall and the nursery where she’d spent her first eight years with . . . “That place is awful.”
Carter looked sympathetic, but not swayed. “Then it would make sense to sell it to somebody who doesn’t think it’s awful.”
Somebody else living in that house, maybe somebody with kids– “No.”
“Okay.” Carter unfolded his arms, clearly getting ready to negotiate. “I’m going to need a little more than that, since he’s offering a hundred thousand for it, and fifty thousand of that would be mine.”
“That house is evil,” Alice said as firmly as she could because she knew she sounded insane.
“No, baby,” North said from beside her, his voice gentle. “It had bad things in it, but they’re gone. Now it’s just an old house, rotting on its foundation, which is a shame because it really was a beautiful place once. If this Ulrich is willing to restore it–”
“No,” Alice said.
North looked at Carter. “I’m going to let the two of you work this out.”
“You’re a great help,” Carter said.
“I’ve been sick,” North said. “I do not have the energy to try to move your sister when she gets like this. I couldn’t do it when she was eight, and I can’t do it now. You want to sell the house, you talk her into it.”
“Like I could do that alone,” Carter said. “She gets like this, she’s eight all over again. I’m more interested in this Ethan character who was harassing her.”
“You know, I’m standing right here,” Alice said.
“I wish you weren’t.” North picked up a folder from his desk. “I have about fifteen minutes until your mother gets back and makes me quit, and I would like to get this done. Go someplace else and argue. Let me know what you decide and I’ll take it from there.”
“We’re not selling.” Alice kissed him on the cheek again and went back to the reception room, pretty sure she was going to get back-up from Dennis.
“Do we have to talk about this here?” Carter said, closing the door behind him.
“Talk about Boston Ulrich buying Archer house?” Alice said in the direction of the couch.
What? Dennis said, even his argyle going tense.
“You did that on purpose,” Carter said, stolid in the dim light.
“You bet your ass,” Alice said to him. “Dennis, Boston Ulrich wants to buy Archer House.”
The silence stretched out until Alice squinted to make sure he was still there. “Dennis?”
Why does he want Archer House?
“It’s a famous haunted house,” Carter said. “He’s still writing books about haunted houses. Owning one makes sense for him.”
The house isn’t haunted any more.
“All the more reason to buy it.”
No, Dennis said, and Alice relaxed.
“There,” she said to Carter. “You see? Dennis–”
That’s not why he wants to buy it. He was always a fraud. He’s up to something.
“You know,” Carter said to the couch, “I don’t care. How much harm can he do in the middle of nowhere with an unhaunted house?”
“Famous last words,” Alice said.
“You think it’s still haunted? Carter said, turning back to her.
“No. They’re gone. But . . . I bet it still feels wrong.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t been back in twenty years.”
“What if he has kids?” Alice said, meeting his eyes.
Carter pulled back a little. “If it’s not haunted–”
“What if he has kids?”
“Okay. I’ll call and ask if he has kids.”
“Or ever intends to have kids. Or might ever sell to anybody who has kids.”
“Really? You’d be comfortable with that?”
“Okay,” Carter said. “Okay, fine. We’ll go down this weekend, look at the place, you can see that it’s just a house now, not haunted, safe for children of all ages, and then we will sell to Boston Ulrich.”
I think that’s a bad idea.
Carter sighed. “Dennis, the only Archer House ghost left is you. Unless you’re planning on haunting the place, it’s pretty much paranormal free.”
I’m going with you.
“I’m not renting a truck to take your couch back to southern Ohio.”
Take one of the bolsters. I can deal with that.
“No, Alice and I are going alone.” Carter looked at Alice. “That okay with you?”
“Yes,” Alice said. “But we’re not selling the house.”
“Jesus,” Carter said and walked out and then came back to say, “You really didn’t get this Ethan guy’s last name?”
“No,” Alice said. “Drop it. I’m never going to see him again.”
“Get me his last name so I can check him out, and then we’ll go south and see no ghosts.”
“Just forget Ethan,” Alice said, exasperated. “Concentrate on Boston Ulrich and his ulterior motive.”
Carter shook his head and went upstairs, and Dennis said, This has disaster written all over it.
“My day had disaster written all over it,” Alice said on her way out the door. “This is just the big finish.”
We’re going to regret this, Dennis said, and then Alice turned out the light and left him in darkness.
Later that night, when Alice undressed for bed, a midnight blue business card fluttered to her carpet, fallen from god knew where Ethan had tucked it on her as she’d gotten in the car. She picked it up and threw it in her wastebasket where the hologram glittered at her.
She ignored it and went to bed because she had to get up in the morning and deal with butterflies.
I’m infested with butterflies, he’d said.
“I don’t believe in magic,” Alice said to nobody in particular and fell asleep.
That night she dreamed of magic and butterflies, so when she woke up, she fished the card out of the trash and gave it to Carter.
“His name is Ethan Aldridge,” she said, and went to work, leaving Carter standing in the hall with a determined look on his face.
Ethan vs. Carter: Nadine is renting a room to Carter, they size each other up, and at the end of the scene they go out for a drink. Or something that makes a transition to the next scene.
On Friday, Alice went into the reception room to tell her father they were leaving, and on her way out, Dennis began to argue that he should go with her.
“No, I am not taking you,” Alice said. “Just stop asking.”
You should not talk to that man alone.
“I’m not going to be alone. Carter’s going with me.” She picked up her purse from the reception room table. “The car won’t hold your couch anyway. And no we are not renting a van to take the couch. We’re leaving as soon as Carter gets back.” She checked her watch and thought, Where the hell is he? He was the one who wanted to sell the damn place.
Take one of the bolsters. I can hang on to that.
“I am not taking a couch pillow with me to tell somebody they’re not buying a house. Besides, you’re not rational when it comes to Ulrich, so–”
The doorbell rang, and Alice left Dennis to go out into the hall and answer it. When she opened the door, Ethan Whosis was standing on the step, smiling at her with all his angular charm.
“How did you find out where I lived?” Alice said, appalled.
“You’re in the book,” Ethan said. “Also, your brother told me.”
“Carter? Why would Carter–”
“He can’t go south with you today but he didn’t want you to go alone. So he hired me.”
“Hired? He paid you money to go to the middle of nowhere with me?”
“Why would I go for free?” Ethan smiled at her again.
Alice folded her arms. “And he’s not worried about my headless body being found in a ditch while you go south with my car?”
Ethan looked back at the curb where Alice’s vintage yellow Mustang was parked. “That’s your car?”
“If I’m going to steal a car, it’s going to be of serious value.”
“It’s an ’82 Mustang. If you can’t appreciate that, you’re an even worse human being than I thought. Where did you meet my brother?”
“He rented the apartment next to mine.”
She frowned at Ethan again. “Why would he rent an apartment? And why isn’t he here?”
Ethan shrugged. “Said he was busy and waved his checkbook at me. I said yes.”
Alice looked him up and down. Same crummy Army green canvas coat from the day before, same battered Nikes, and his jeans looked older than he did. But the shirt under the coat was expensive. And his hair, floppy though it was, looked thick and healthy, his eyes bright, his skin clear. “You’re not poor.”
“I think I should be the judge of that.”
“So Carter knew you didn’t need the money. But he offered it to you anyway.”
“If you want to know the truth–”
Alice braced herself for the lie.
“—I think he was planning on hitting on the woman I love.”
“So you left?”
Ethan shrugged. “She’s engaged to a real loser, so I’m hoping he breaks them up, and then I’ll move in. Plus he paid me.” He frowned at the Mustang. “Seriously, we’re going to travel four hours round trip in that?”
“No,” Alice said.
“I’m going to travel four hours round trip in that. You’re going to go give my brother back his money and tell him you missed me.” Alice stepped out onto the porch and turned to pull the door shut behind her. Then she turned back to keep an eye on Ethan, who was standing way too close. “Creepy again.”
“Sorry.” Ethan stepped back and leaned against the porch pillar.
“No offense,” Alice said, starting down the front steps, “but I’m not crossing county lines with you.”
“Why not?” Ethan followed her down the walk. “It’s not like crossing a state line. There’s no Mann Act.”
“The Mann Act wouldn’t apply anyway.”
“Because you wouldn’t be transporting me for sexual purposes? You don’t know that. Magic could happen on the way down.”
“No, it couldn’t.” Alice went around the car and saw him yank on the passenger door. “It’s locked. Go back to the woman you love.”
“Can’t. I need the money.”
“This is your job? Paid escort.”
“No,” he said, cheerful as ever. “I’m a magician, remember?”
“I remember. But you can’t actually make a living doing that.”
“Says the lepidopterist. How much money is there in butterflies?”
“Probably more than in rabbits in hats.” Alice met his eyes, looking as quelling as possible, which was usually pretty effective. “I’m leaving now. Go away.”
“You’re not leaving now,” Ethan said, unquelled.
“And how are you going to stop me?”
“I made your keys disappear.”
Alice froze for a moment and then yanked open her bag.
“My keys,” she said.
Ethan held up both hands. “Nothin’ up my sleeve.”
“My keys,” Alice said.
Ethan snapped his fingers and when he opened his hand, her keys were there, complete with her thumbdrive key ring.
“You palmed it,” she said.
“You saw my palms,” he said.
“Up your sleeve.”
“Nothin’ up my sleeve.”
Alice shook her head and held out her hand.
Ethan unlocked the car door and slid into the passenger seat, leaning over to unlock the driver’s side door. When she got in, he said, “When you swear you’re going to let me go with you, you get the keys.”
“Your brother doesn’t want you to go alone,” Ethan said, sounding serious for the first time. “I promised him you wouldn’t.”
“So he sent me a magician.”
“A magician and a lepidopterist walk into a bar . . .”
“Funny,” Alice said. “If you’re a magician, what were you doing at Plumscott’s?”
“Waiting to sit in on a séance at the request of the woman I love.”
“Why does the woman you love want you going to séances?”
“She doesn’t. She wants me catching fake mediums before they bankrupt her crackpot neighbor.” Ethan frowned. “Should the plural of medium be media?”
“So you thought you were going to catch Isolde table-rapping.”
“Except you stopped her from playing.”
Alice shook her head. “You wouldn’t have seen anything anyway. She’s the real deal.”
“But this guy we’re going to meet isn’t?”
“He’s a parapsychologist, not a medium.”
“I don’t know anything about parapsychologists.” Ethan slid a little farther down in his seat, making himself comfortable. “You’re on your own there. Can we get this over with?”
“Damn,” Alice said, and got out of the car.
Ethan rolled down the window and called after her as she started back up the walk to the house. “I have the keys.”
“But you don’t have me.”
Alice let herself in the front door, went into the reception room, and picked up a bolster from the couch.
“Yes. There’s somebody I want you to meet,” she said, and walked out of the house with the bolster, pulling the door shut behind her.
I’m going! Dennis said. YES!
“A pillow?” Ethan said when she got back into the car.
“This is Dennis. He’s coming with us.”
Who’s he? Where’s Carter? Why are we taking him?
“He?” Ethan said. “You name your pillows?”
“He thinks he’s a magician and can spot frauds,” Alice said to Dennis.
I call shotgun.
“Too late.” Alice and threw the bolster into the back seat and held out her hand for the keys.
“Explain the pillow.”
Alice smiled at him, giving him back open and guileless. “I grew up in a haunted house which is where we’re going now. A parapsychologist came to study the ghosts and the ghosts killed him on a green couch, where he thinks he’s trapped.”
I don’t think I’m trapped, I know—
“His name is Dennis. He’s in the backseat now because he is willing to travel if we take one of the bolsters from the couch. The guy who wants to buy my childhood home is his arch nemesis, a parapsychologist that Dennis says is a fraud.”
“Aren’t all parapsychologists frauds?”
I don’t like this guy.
“Dennis doesn’t like you, but we are taking you with us because even though I am completely capable of telling Boston Ulrich that there is no way in hell I’m going to sell him Archer House, Carter wants to sell. And if I can tell Carter that Ulrich is up to no good, he will agree not to sell. And you are evidently good at spotting fakes, as is Dennis. So you and Dennis and I are going south to find out what Ulrich is up to.”
Ethan stared at her for a long moment, probably trying to figure out how demented she really was. “So Dennis the Undead knows Ulrich from beyond the grave, and I’m a magician. What is it that a lepidopterist is bringing to this party?”
“Brains,” Alice said. “Also, I can talk to ghosts. So if there are any real ones there, I’ll know.”
“A magician, a dead parapsychologist, and a ghost whisperer walk into a bar.”
“I don’t whisper.”
Ethan handed her the keys, pulled on his seat belt and fastened it. “Let’s go.”
Put in some Elvis.
“No,” Alice said and pulled out into the street.
“No, but we’re leaving?” Ethan said.
“Dennis wants me to play Elvis on the iPod.” She nodded where the cable from her iPod was plugged into the dashboard. “I’m not in the mood.”
“I like Elvis,” Ethan said.
Two against one, Dennis said.
Ethan smiled at her. “That would make it two against one. You know, me and the pillow.”
I’m not a pillow.
“He’s not a pillow,” Alice said, and handed the iPod to Ethan.
It was going to be a long trip.