The ghosts were waiting for me when I arrived at Monroe Street Cemetery that morning.
I figured they would be. They’d been hanging around my office at Garden View Cemetery ever since the day a couple weeks earlier when my boss, Ella Silverman, informed me that instead of leading tours through Garden View that summer, I would be spending my time working on a restoration project at Monroe Street.
Back at Garden View, I’d pretty much been able to ignore this pack of annoying spooks, and I knew why. They were buried here at Monroe Street, and far from where they were resting (but not at peace), they didn’t have nearly as much ghostly oomph. Here they were as lively as the dead are likely to get and way pushier than ghosts have any right to be.
Then again, I guess I couldn’t blame them. Thanks to their daily visits to my office, they’d had a chance to look around Garden View, and they were bound to be pissed. After all, Monroe Street and Garden View are as different from each other as cemeteries can be.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a cemetery geek. Not like Ella. But I do know that in the hierarchy of burying grounds, Garden View is at the tippy-top. Its three hundred acres are as swanky and pristine as Monroe Street is… well, far be it from me to judge, but it’s hard to escape the facts. This one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old, thirteen-acre patch just to the west of downtown Cleveland was nowhere near as elegant-or as well maintained-as Garden View. The city-owned Monroe Street had been neglected for years, and it showed. From where I stood, I could see the overgrown paths and shaggy lawn. Oh yeah, and the few hundred vandalized and toppled headstones thrown in just for good measure.
But of course, if Monroe Street were perfect, it wouldn’t need to be restored, I wouldn’t have been there in the first place, and the gang of irritating ghosts wouldn’t have been all over me like-
Well, like ghosts on the world’s one and only private investigator for the dead.
“My hat is missing.” A tall, thin guy, who probably hadn’t looked any better alive than he did dead, rubbed the top of his bald head. “They say you solve mysteries. They told me you could find it.”
“As if she’d waste her time on you!” A woman in a canary yellow gown and one of those big honkin’ picture hats elbowed him out of the way and stepped into my path. “I haven’t heard from my beau. Something terrible must have happened to him. Else he never would have abandoned me. You must find him. They say you have the Gift, and-”
“News flash!” I said this nice and loud so Mr. Hatless and Ms. I-Should-Have-Looked-in-a-Mirror-Before-I-Wore-Yellow-with-My-Waxy-Complexion and all the rest of the ghosts crowding in on me were sure to hear. There were a couple dozen of them, and I glanced all around, meeting their eyes one after the other. “Missing hats and missing lovers… Come on, people, you know that’s not my thing. If you’ve got something important for me to investigate-”
“Aunt Lulu’s ruby necklace was nowhere to be found after she passed,” a woman wailed.
“My brother told Ma I was the one who ate the last of the cherry pie,” a man moaned.
“There’s money missing from the collection plate.” This from an elderly man in a clerical collar.
“Which ain’t nearly as important as my problem.” A flapper pushed to the front of the crowd. “There’s liquor missing from the speakeasy, and if the boss finds out, there will be hell to pay.”
At the sound of such language, Ms. Yellow swooned.
The preacher tsk-tsked.
I knew if I didn’t take control, these annoying ghosts would spend the summer bugging the crap out of me. With the restoration project already on my plate, that was more than I could handle.
“You’re not listening. None of you are listening!” I stomped one Juicy Couture ballet-flat clad foot against the ground to emphasize my point. “I don’t waste my Gift on dumb stuff,” I told them, even though I shouldn’t have had to. “So let’s make two lines. Those of you who are looking for lost necklaces and missing boyfriends and money and such…” I waved to my right. “You get over here. If any of you were murdered and need me to actually use my Gift to find your killer so you can finally go into the light…” I gestured to my left.
They shuffled and shambled. They stalled and hemmed and hawed. But in the end, they formed the lines. I should say line. One. On my right.
“All rightee, then,” I said, with a ta-da gesture to my left. “None of you have anything important for me to investigate. Nothing that involves you crossing to the Other Side, anyway. So how about you just get a move on.” I shooed them. “I’ve got enough problems without a bunch of annoying spooks spooking me.”
Big surprise, they actually listened. One by one, they drifted off among the tumbled headstones and overgrown paths of Monroe Street and disappeared.
Except for one guy who’d been lurking at the back of the crowd. I’d noticed him not because he was as pushy as the other ghosts, but because he wasn’t. While they competed for my attention, he kept his distance. While they chattered, he kept his mouth shut. And while the rest of them scattered off into the nowhere where ghosts go when they aren’t hanging around to bug me, he stayed. But he never looked at me.
Chin up, shoulders back, chest out like a soldier on parade, he paced back and forth on the small, clear path between the cemetery driveway and the overgrown tangle of weeds that was all that was left of the once-pristine grounds of Monroe Street.
Interested in spite of the good sense that told me not to be, I looked him over.
This ghost was a middle-aged man in a charcoal pin-stripe suit. Narrow stripes, narrow lapels, narrow tie. The only thing big about the guy was the black plastic frames of his glasses. That, and his shoulders. He wasn’t tall, but he was stocky and broad, and not as handsome as he was rugged looking. Maybe it was my imagination, but I also thought he looked a little lost.
Did Pepper Martin know to keep her mouth shut? You bet she did. Which doesn’t explain why I stepped toward him. “Is there some part of if you weren’t murdered, I’m not interested you don’t understand?” I asked. “Because if there isn’t-”
He stepped behind a tall-standing headstone and vanished into thin air. Just like that.
“So much for ghosts.” I brushed my hands together, ridding myself of the thought as well as the responsibility of taking care of so many ectoplasmic pests, and it was a good thing I did. Just as that last ghost vanished, my boss Ella pulled up in her minivan and parked behind my Mustang.
“Yoo hoo!” She rolled down the window and waved. Like I’d miss the only other living person anywhere around?
I waved back. “What are you doing here?” I asked. When she stepped out of the van and struggled to lift not one, but two overloaded tote bags, I headed that way. I grabbed one tote from her and went toward the canopy tent that had been set up as a workspace, since there was no office or administration building at Monroe Street. “I thought you had a staff meeting this morning.”
“Isn’t it just like you to be thinking about Garden View, even when you have so much else to do!” Finally at the tent, Ella hoisted her bag onto the lopsided card table under it and deposited it with a thunk. “Careful with that,” she said, moving forward to help when I lifted the twin tote. “We don’t want to aggravate that wound of yours.”
I stretched my left shoulder and felt a little pang in my side. “It’s fine,” I told her because she was already worried and there was no use making things any worse. Ella is the single mother of three teenaged girls. Worry is her middle name.
Not that I could blame her for her concern. She wasn’t used to sending an employee-me-off to a cemetery conference and having that employee-me-end up in the hospital with a gunshot wound. If only she knew all the things that happened in between!
Even after a couple months, the thought of nearly losing my body to the ghost who wanted to keep it for herself still sent heebie-jeebies up and down my spine. My solution was simple: I’d think about something else.
What’s that old saying about being careful what you wish for? No sooner had I decided to put everything that had happened to me in Chicago the winter before on the back burner than Ella reached into the closest tote bag and pulled out one of those little pink message slips.
“Don’t want to forget to give that to you.” She said it like it was the most natural thing in the world, and let’s face it, it should have been. It was. Until I glanced down at the message.
The words were carefully written by Jenine, the woman who worked the front desk back at Garden View and answered our phones when we weren’t around to do it ourselves. Give him a call sometime, it said. He’d like you to come out and visit. Jenine’s loose, flowing script was a sharp contrast to the icy claw that gripped my insides when I saw that on the line marked “From,” she’d carefully added, Your dad.
Ella tried to look casual when she leaned over my shoulder, but since she was a full head shorter than me and had to stand on tip-toe to read the message, her strategy didn’t exactly work. “Important?” she asked, as nonchalant as can be.
I stuffed the pink slip in the pocket of my black cotton sateen cargo pants. “Not really. I’ll take care of it later,” I said. I wondered if Ella knew I was lying to her and to myself.
“So…” I glanced at the overstuffed bags. A better strategy than thinking about my dad or about how last time we talked, I promised I wouldn’t let so much time pass again before I gave him a call. Except I did. I had. And really, there was no wondering why. If I talked to him, he’d ask me-again-to get on a plane and fly out to Colorado, and I’d have to come up with some excuse-again-to explain why I couldn’t.
Me? In a prison?
I’d rather shop for a new wardrobe at Kmart.
Seeing my dad, Gil Martin, the once-prominent plastic surgeon, in his khaki federal prison uniform… Well, if I did, it would make the whole thing all too real, wouldn’t it? Facing Dad would also make me face the facts: no matter how many times I told myself it couldn’t be true, it was. He really had done all those things the US attorneys accused him of. He really was guilty of Medicare fraud. And in the process of committing it, he’d betrayed his profession and his family. He’d hurt Mom so much she was hiding out in Florida. He’d broken my heart.
I cleared a sudden knot from my throat and concentrated on the totes. “You planning on camping out here or something?”
I could just about see the advice dripping from Ella’s lips. Instead, she grimaced to keep her opinions to herself and looked where I was looking-at those overstuffed tote bags. She was wearing a flowing orange skirt and an orange top with three-quarter sleeves. A trio of sparkling orange bracelets graced one arm. They were just summery enough and matched the beads around her neck in shades of melon, peach, and lemon that sparkled in the early morning sunlight.
“I needed to get these supplies over to you,” she said. “Log books, digital cameras, journals, T squares, and triangles. You know, for plotting out the new landscaping. There’s tracing paper and sketch books, too. Two sets of everything.”
I remembered my instructions to the ghosts-one line on the right and one on the left. “One set for each hand?” I asked Ella.
She laughed in the way Ella does when she’s nervous or a little unsure, and honestly, I wouldn’t have thought a thing of it if it also wasn’t the way she laughed when she was feeling guilty.
Nervous and unsure I could deal with. Heck, I’d never done a cemetery restoration. If I cared enough, I’d be nervous and unsure, too.
But guilty was another thing.
And wondering what Ella was feeling guilty about, I was suddenly a little nervous myself.
“There’s something you’re not telling me.” I looked at her hard as I said this, and I knew for sure something was wrong when she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“It was Jim’s idea,” she said.
Jim is the administrator over at Garden View, and he’s Ella’s boss. Which means he’s my big boss.
This did not bode well. Neither did the fidgety little dance Ella did from Earth Shoe to Earth Shoe. “Jim said you’d be fine with the idea once you understood that it’s great publicity for Garden View.”
I folded my arms over my chest and waited for more.
It came in a rush, the way Ella usually imparts information when she knows there’s a chance it’s going to piss me off.
“You see, all the pieces just fell into place late Friday afternoon, and that’s why I didn’t have a chance to tell you about it because Jim was handling all the details, of course, but nobody was sure about anything until this morning, and I didn’t want to tell you before now because I didn’t want you to spend your weekend worrying when you should have been resting. And I hope you did get some rest, I mean, with that gunshot wound of yours, and you know, I don’t ever want anything to happen to you again, and so I thought it was just best if we left it all for today.”
She sucked in a breath and I took the opportunity to move a step closer. “And?” I asked.
“And…” She swallowed hard. “It really is brilliant. I mean, it’s brilliant publicity, and Lord knows, we need all the good publicity we can get. And by we, I mean both Garden View and Monroe Street. People hear about cemeteries and so many of them are creeped out. They don’t understand that cemeteries are actually museums without walls. There’s so much history in a cemetery. And so much interesting art and architecture and-”
“And so you and Jim decided…?”
“Well, I didn’t. Decide, I mean. Though if it had been up to me, I would have made the same decision Jim did. That’s how good of an idea it is. And I know you’ll agree once you hear the details. It was Jim and the board who decided, and the people over at the Historical Society. Since they’re going to be such a critical piece of the puzzle, they had to be in on it, too. And that’s why it took all weekend to come to a decision, because they had a lot of work to do on their end, and-”
A big black limo pulled up the drive into the cemetery, and we both turned to watch. Since there hadn’t been any active burials in Monroe Street for who-knew-how-long, I was intrigued.
Ella, I noticed, wasn’t. But then, she could afford to be blas'e; she knew what was going on. I still didn’t, but I had a feeling I was about to find out.
“They’re here.” She grabbed my hand and dragged me toward where the limo stopped. “You’re going to love this,” she said in a stage whisper just as the limo door opened.
Jim, our boss, got out. “Good morning!” Jim is a pleasant guy who I’m convinced wouldn’t know me if he tripped over me in the hallway outside my office. It’s just as well since these days I spend more time investigating for my dead clients than I do working on cemetery business. “Ella told you what’s going on?”
Before I had a chance to either lie or hang Ella out to dry, the door on the far side of the limo opened and a woman in pink popped out. She was old and thin, one of those fluffy types who hang around at the country club my family used to hang around-before Dad did what Dad did and we lost our country-club membership along with our home, our friends, and what there was of a Martin fortune.
The little pink woman was followed by another, taller woman with a broad chest and a scowl on her face. That woman was followed by another, and-
“Mrs. Lamb!” I knew the fourth woman who emerged from the limo. She lived just a couple doors down from where we used to live before-
Anyway, Mrs. Lamb was the mother of my best childhood friend, Dominique. Domi and I were inseparable through our high school years, right up until college when we went our separate ways. We’d kept in touch, until-
There was no use going over it again. I found myself fingering the phone message from my dad and told myself to get a grip. It was a good thing I did. Just at that moment, Mrs. Lamb recognized me (it’s hard to forget a five-foot-eleven redhead) and came around to the other side of the limo.
“Pepper!” Her smile was pleasant enough, but I couldn’t help noticing the way Katherine Lamb’s gaze raked over me from head to toe, checking out my hair, my makeup, my clothes. Her smile wilted a bit when she said, “So, the rumor I heard is actually true. You really do work in a cemetery?”
“Not this cemetery.” I thought it best to set the record straight. Garden View is way classier than Monroe Street. “I’m just sort of here on loan.”
“Yes. Of course.” Mrs. Lamb touched a hand to one diamond earring. “And how is Barb?”
I was tempted to tell her that she could find out herself if she would just pick up the phone and call my mom. But it was early in the morning, and I am never at the top of my game before noon. Besides, like it or not, my hand strayed again to the pocket where I’d tucked my dad’s message. Of course Katherine Lamb hadn’t called my mother. Like all Mom’s other friends, Mrs. Lamb was embarrassed and appalled by my dad’s lack of good sense. Not to mention his carelessness at getting caught.
When I didn’t answer right away, she apparently considered the subject blessedly closed. “You’ve heard about Dominique, of course,” Mrs. Lamb said.
It wasn’t a question. “I heard she graduated from Wellesley, but it’s been a few years and-”
“Wellesley, yes. She married a doctor, you know. They’re living in Manhattan. Upper West Side near the park. And your other friends? Tiffany and Madison and Sydney? What are they up to these days? My goodness, you girls were inseparable, weren’t you?”
We were. Until my dad was declared a felon and the friends who were supposed to be my bridesmaids and my life-long buddies abandoned me, just like my fianc'e had. I shrugged like it was no big deal, and I was still scrambling to come up with something to say that would make it sound as if none of it mattered when Jim stepped forward.
“You will all get to know each other better over the next couple months,” he said, looking back and forth between me and the line of well-dressed ladies. “But let me do a quick introduction. Pepper, you seem to already know Katherine Lamb, and this”-he turned toward the fluffy little woman in pink-“this is Mae Tannager.” From there he pointed down the line, starting with the big woman. “And this is Lucinda Wright. Gretchen Hamlin, and-”
“Bianca?” I’d been so busy talking to Mrs. Lamb, I hadn’t noticed the woman who stepped out of the limo last. Now, I stared in awe. I would recognize those perfect high cheekbones, the pouty lips, and the incredible dark eyes anywhere. She was taller even than me, pencil thin, and elegantly dressed in camel-colored pants and an unstructured jacket in shades of burnt orange, taupe, and a startling aqua that matched the color of her silk asymmetrical tee.
Bianca needed only one name because anybody who had ever flipped through a copy of Vogue, or Elle, or Cosmo recognized her at once. She was one of the first African American supermodels, and she’d lived the kind of life most of us-well, I-only dream about. She had homes in Paris, London, and Monaco. She’d married a movie star, but the romance fizzled, and when she jetted to Tahiti to forget her troubles (paparazzi in tow), she’d met a guy from Cleveland who just so happened to have more money than God. He was twenty years older. She was in love and was welcomed with open arms into the closed community of North Coast society.
These days, Bianca devoted her time to various local charities and-way more important-to La Mode, a women’s boutique over on Larchmere, in one of those neighborhoods that’s shabby, chic, trendy-and too expensive for me to shop in. Just thinking about my last trip past La Mode made me wonder if they ever got my nose prints or my drool off the front window.
My hand outstretched, I closed in on Bianca even before I realized I was moving. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I said, right before I felt like a complete fool, so I added, “Well, you know what I mean.”
She laughed. Her teeth were perfectly straight and blindingly white. She was kind and gracious. I knew she would be. “It’s nice to meet you, too. You must be Pepper.”
She knew my name! I was so flabbergasted, I could only gape. Not a good look for me, so it was just as well that while I was doing it, Jim stepped over. His cheeks were flushed; he was clearly smitten. “Bianca has graciously agreed to be part of the team,” he said.
“Team?” I glanced from Jim to Ella. “We’re a team?”
Ella smiled. “We’ve worked so hard on getting all the pieces in place, and it’s going to be fabulous and such good publicity and-”
“Team.” I fastened my eyes on Ella as I said this, the better to get her to stick to the matter at hand. “What kind of team are we? What are we going to be doing?”
Ella’s smile was a mile wide. “Why, you’re going to restore the cemetery, of course! It’s brilliant PR, Pepper. Instead of you here working with just any volunteers…” When she looked around at the limo ladies, Ella’s eyes sparkled. “All these wonderful women are involved with the Historical Society, and they all understand the importance of cemeteries in preserving local history. They’ve agreed to be part of the team that’s going to work on restoring one of the Monroe Street sections this summer. You know, deciding what to do as far as landscaping, and how to fix the damaged headstones, and how we can all work together to get publicity for the cemetery so that people realize what a worthwhile cause it is and donate to help with the rest of the restoration.”
One look, and I knew if anybody could help, it was these ladies. Sure, they were all a little older than middle aged. Absolutely, they looked as if they’d never stepped foot in a cemetery before (except for funerals) and that they wouldn’t know what to do to restore a headstone if they had to. Heck, I didn’t, either.
But I’d known women like these all my life. They were the movers and shakers of the city, mild-mannered housewives (for the most part) who, thanks to the force of their personalities, their family names, and the big, big bucks they had, could move mountains.
And we were going to be a team!
I found myself smiling at the same time I smoothed a hand over my white blouse. If I was working with Bianca all summer and I could impress her enough…
The thoughts that sped through my head were crazy, sure, but crazier things had happened in my life. Like my family losing its fortune, and Joel dumping me, and me talking to ghosts. Why was it any crazier to imagine that if I worked hard to impress Bianca, there might be a job at La Mode in my future?
No more cemeteries!
No more ghosts!
Days filled with fabulous fashions, elegant fabrics, cultured and very rich clients who came to me for advice and respected my opinions and listened when I recommended styles and put together colors like nobody else could.
I did my best to control the bubble of excitement that would have made me look too unprofessional, and reminded myself that as team captain-I mean, I assumed I was team captain since I was the one with cemetery experience-I needed to be cool, collected, and in control.
I would have been, too, if that ghost in the pin-striped suit didn’t show up again right behind Bianca.
I rolled my eyes, and instantly regretted it. The fashion consultants who worked at La Mode would never be so gauche.
Instead, I concentrated on what Jim was saying, on how he was explaining that Mae and the other women would be working over in Section 10 where a couple prominent early settlers were buried. I was listening. Honest. It would have been easier if that pin-striped spook didn’t hover around behind Bianca, his chin up and his shoulders steady, even though he never once met my eyes.
He moved away, toward the overgrown walkways, marching toward the back corner of the property where the iron fence separated the cemetery from a neighborhood pocked with boarded factories and tiny houses.
“So what do you think?”
Jim’s question snapped me out of my thoughts. Since he was looking at me, I was afraid he was talking to me, too.
“I think…” I grinned in what I hoped was an embarrassed sort of way and pointed toward the Porta potti that was all Monroe Street had to offer in the way of amenities. As if I wouldn’t let myself burst first before I ever set foot in it. “If you’d all excuse me for just a moment…” I sidled toward where I’d seen the ghost vanish into the undergrowth. “I’ll be right back.”
I knew what I was about to do was a big ol’ mistake. Believe me. At this point in my investigating-for-the-dead career, I knew I was better off leaving well enough alone.
Which means I should have simply ignored the guy.
But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t. Not when I saw how lost and lonely he looked.
I hate it when ghosts do that to me, but facts were facts and this was one fact I couldn’t ignore. I had to find out what was up with this guy. I did the only thing I could think to do, the one thing I’d never done before in my years of ghostly investigations-I went after him.