An Open Spook (A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery)

Berkley Prime Crime titles by E. J. Copperman








An Open Spook

E. J. Copperman


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

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A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey Cohen.

Excerpt from
The Thrill of the Haunt
by E. J. Copperman copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey Cohen.

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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14057-8


Berkley Prime Crime Special edition / October 2013

Cover photos:
Man walking
© by Kamenetskiy Konstantin/Shutterstock;
© by B. Brown/Shutterstock.

Cover design by Jason Gill.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Also by E. J. Copperman

Title Page




Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10




Special Excerpt from


“I thought you got rid of that thing years ago.” My husband Jack was looking over my left shoulder as I rummaged through my jewelry box. I was looking for a particular pin, but Jack had noticed a half-inch-wide strip of nickel I’d stashed in the box months before.

“No,” I assured him. “I don’t think I could ever get rid of it. But I put it aside after that time at Alison’s.”

“What time at Alison’s?” Jack asked.

“Oh, that’s right. It was back when you were still refusing to go over there,” I said with a sniff and rolled my eyes at him. “You were being so silly about that.”

“It’s water under the bridge and best left alone,” he answered. Jack can be sensitive about things when he knows he’s in the wrong. “But remind me why this was such a big deal.” He picked it up out of the jewelry box and examined it like I hadn’t owned it since before we were married. “My memory isn’t what it used to be.”

“Let’s face it, honey.” I said, “Nothing about you is the way it used to be.” Jack and I were married for thirty-five years . . . when he was living. But since I’ve never had a problem seeing the dead, we were able to pick up pretty much where we left off after he passed away five years ago. In fact, Jack came back as a ghost in much better shape than he’d been the last couple of years he was alive.

It’s all really quite simple: For as long as I can remember, I have been able to see and communicate with the spirits of people who are no longer alive. To me, it’s as natural to see a ghost as it is to pass a stranger on the street. I saw a program once on one of the educational stations—maybe the one that shows Honey Boo Boo—that described people like me as “ghost whisperers.” I think that’s silly; there’s no reason to whisper to a ghost any more than to a living person. Most of the time, their hearing is just fine.

Things became complicated when I noticed that our daughter, Alison, even at an early age, could not see ghosts the way I could. She simply was born without the ability. But she was perfect in every other way, so I let it go and decided not to say anything to her so she wouldn’t feel bad about it. Instead, she learned some tricks of her father’s trade. Jack was a handyman, and he liked to show our daughter how to fix things around the house. He said this was so she’d never be in need of a man just because he knew how to use a screwdriver and she didn’t.

Unfortunately, Alison found a different kind of man altogether and married him. The less said about Steven the better, but he did at least leave Alison with my granddaughter, Melissa, a levelheaded, brilliant, mature-beyond-her-years girl approaching the age of eleven.

Melissa could also see and hear ghosts very early on. She and I bonded over it when she was only three or four, when Alison was working at a lumberyard and I would watch my granddaughter during the times she was not in preschool. Melissa was delighted that I could see the same people she could, because she’d tried to point them out to her mother and been told her friends were “imaginary,” a word she didn’t understand.

“It means Mommy can’t see them,” I explained to her.

“Why not?” Melissa wanted to know.

“Some people can draw, and some people can’t draw. Some can see all the people, and some can’t.”

“I can draw
see all the people,” Melissa said.

“That’s because you’re a genius.”

As she grew, Melissa came to understand that the people only she and I could see were ghosts, and that didn’t seem to bother her because most of them seemed happy enough, she said. But after they moved into the house in Harbor Haven, Alison suffered a blow to her head while renovating, and her ability was somehow activated. She can only see about half the ghosts Melissa and I can—and she only recently was able to even see her own father, but that was his fault, and a whole different story—so we try not to lord our talents over her.

“I died, Loretta. It tends to change a man,” Jack reminded me now. “Are you heading over to Alison’s?”

I nodded. “Melissa wants to learn how to cook lasagna, and there’s something Alison wants to talk about,” I said. “She asked for you to come. I think she’s got a home improvement question. Josh is coming, too.” Josh Kaplan is Alison’s new boyfriend. She likes to ask them both about renovations to her house because Jack was a handyman when he was alive and Josh co-owns a paint store. But since Josh can’t see or hear Jack, it was best to get there early if Jack was going to be of any help. It saves so much explanation.

A hat appeared on Jack’s head; he never went outdoors without one. “Let’s go, then. You can tell me the story about that on the way.” He was outside before me, but then, I have to use doors and such. He can go through walls. Still, he’d meet me at the car, I knew, and want to open the door for me. Jack has always been a gentleman.

I went to the kitchen and packed up the fixings for lasagna—Alison wouldn’t have the ingredients in the house, I knew—and headed for the door, backpack over my right shoulder (the left has bursitis, and has been giving me a little trouble).

The idea—that Jack didn’t remember the search for the bracelet! I marveled. It was quite a story. How my husband could have forgotten it . . . well, but then, he wasn’t there when it happened.

Chapter 1

I knew something was wrong when the roast chicken started to walk out of the kitchen.

It was a Monday evening in late October, and my daughter, Alison, was outside the dining room nailing plywood over the windows of the old Victorian home that she’d turned into a guesthouse in Harbor Haven, a Jersey Shore town.

“They say it’s going to be a bad one,” she said from outside. It wasn’t a cold night, but the wind was already picking up. News 12 New Jersey had been going on about “FrankenStorm” all day, and their predictions had indeed been dire.

“I know,” I assured her. I had to shout a little through the kitchen door so Alison could hear me through the open dining room window. It wasn’t a terribly convenient system, but it was working so far. “You’re smart for preparing in advance.”

“That’s the only way you
prepare,” she assured me. That girl keeps me on my toes. “Preparing afterward doesn’t really work that well.”

I heard the hammering get nearer; Alison was working her way toward the kitchen, which she’d already boarded up because it is the closest to the backyard and therefore the beach, and that would be where the storm—if there was one—would no doubt hit the hardest.

Alison and my granddaughter, Melissa, (currently upstairs doing homework after an argument about how “there won’t be school tomorrow anyway,” Alison had told me) live in the guesthouse year-round. Because of the coming storm, all but one of her guests for this week had cancelled, which was understandable but unfortunate for her financially. I knew she was worried, but she wasn’t letting on.

The first ghosts that Alison was ever able to see were Paul Harrison and Maxine Malone. Maxine was actually the house’s previous owner, and Paul was the private investigator she’d hired to look into what unfortunately turned out to be very legitimate threats against her. After recovering from the shock of discovering their existence, my savvy daughter turned it into a marketing ploy when a tour company catering to senior citizens asked for a “haunted” destination for tourists who want more than a time at the beach. It’s a brilliant idea that Alison claims just fell into her lap, but she really doesn’t give herself enough credit.

However, Mr. McNamara—the lone guest who hadn’t cancelled—wasn’t there as part of a paranormal tour. He was what Alison called a “civilian guest,” one who was not sent by Senior Plus Tours and did not have a desire to see ghostly activity. I hadn’t met him yet, but everyone else in the house had told me he stayed in his room most of the time and in the two days he’d been there had barely spoken to either of the residents he was capable of seeing. He was, as much as anything in the house, a mystery.

“Mom, you should go home while you still have the chance,” Alison said. “It’s going to get dangerous to drive.” I live in Manalapan, about a half hour from Alison’s house, and I could certainly understand her concern. But I knew better.

“I thought I’d stay here until it’s over,” I said in as casual a tone as I could muster. If I kept my manner calm, I felt the response would be equally placid.

No such luck: The kitchen door flew open and Alison, wearing her tool apron and holding a hammer, appeared in the room. I hadn’t realized she could move that fast.

“You thought
?” she said. “Mom, you live farther inland. It’s going to be safer at your house. If I thought I could talk Liss into it, I’d ask you to take her to your place, but she’d just worry about me being back here.”

I went on with what I was doing, which was making a salad to go with the roast chicken that was in the oven as we spoke. Alison doesn’t cook very much, so when I come to visit, I like to bring some good home-cooked food. She’s so busy.

“I can be more help here,” I said, again with a very soft and natural tone. “At home, I’d just worry about you. This way, I can see that you and Melissa are all right.”

Before Alison could protest further, we both noticed a form descending from the ceiling. Maxine, a lovely young woman who passed away far too soon at the age of twenty-eight, was joining us, no doubt to see what all the noise was about.

Alison’s expression was less than pleased. She and Maxine pretend not to get along very well, but it’s probably because they’re very much alike: strong-willed and interested in home design. The chief difference, of course, is that Maxine is a ghost.

Maxine floated down from the ceiling, looking at Alison with a puzzled expression. “How come it’s so dark in here?” she asked.

Alison let out a breath through her teeth. “I’m boarding up the windows.”

Maxine wrinkled her brow. “Why?”

That seemed too much for Alison. “Maxie!” she shouted. “There’s a hurricane on the way!”

“So?” Maxine asked.

Alison rolled her eyes and headed back outside, hefting the hammer. The banging against the outside wall resumed a few seconds later.

“Thank you,” I told Maxine.

She smiled. “What for?”

“You interrupted an argument I was having with Alison, and so I win,” I informed her. The kitchen timer rang, and I checked on the chicken in the oven, which appeared to be done. I got a meat thermometer from the backpack I carry with me—Alison owns some cooking equipment, but I like to be prepared—and went back to check the temperature in the thigh.

“Cool,” Maxine said. “What was the argument about?” Maxine is a sweet girl, but she does think of herself as my favorite over Alison, and that’s simply not going to happen.

The thigh temperature was perfect at 160 degrees, so I turned the oven off and moved the chicken to an empty burner on the stove. Meat has to rest after cooking. “I told Alison I intended to stay to help out during the storm, and she wanted me to go home.”

Maxine pursed her lips. “I’m not sure you
stay,” she said after a moment. “You’d be safer at your place. I could come with you, if you want.” Maxie, who had developed the ability to leave the grounds of Alison’s house recently, loved to ride in the car.

“I’m not lonely,” I said. “I want to be helpful.”

From behind me, I heard the kitchen door open. “Hi, Grandma. When did you get here?” Melissa walked over to a bowl of apples and picked one up. “Hey, Maxie.”

“A little while ago,” I answered. “Is your homework done?”

“Homework!” Maxie sputtered. “There’s a hurricane coming, and she’s got

“That’s what
said!” my granddaughter agreed.

I put some asparagus in a serving dish with water and covered it with plastic wrap, then put the dish into the microwave. “You’ll see,” I told Melissa. “There might not even be a bad storm, and you’ll feel better knowing that your homework is done and you don’t have to worry about it.”

“That’s what Mom said.”

“She’s right. And don’t eat that apple; we’re having dinner in ten minutes.” I started draining some of the drippings from the pan into a measuring cup. I would use them to make gravy.

Melissa scowled and put the apple back into the bowl. “You’re harshing my mellow, Grandma,” she said. It was a favorite expression; the girl is adorable.


“Come on, Melissa,” Maxine said. “Let’s go upstairs and I’ll dye your hair blue.” Maxine likes to think of herself as Melissa’s “roommate.”

Melissa giggled and started for the stairs while Maxine took the more direct route through the ceiling. I doubted Melissa’s hair really would be a different color when she returned for dinner—especially since it would be so soon—but that was the least of my worries at the moment.

Because when I looked up, the roast chicken had raised itself out of its bed of carrots and apples, and seemed to will itself over the edge of the roasting pan and then, in midair, toward the kitchen door.

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