Being dead isn't all it's cracked up to be. Take my word for it. The afterlife is about as dull as one of Sadie Johnson's tea parties. Not that I was ever invited to one of Sadie's stupid parties. Sadie would have turned up her toes in a dead faint if I'd come within fifty feet of her house, especially when she had her lady friends visiting. Still, her parties had to be dull as kicking dirt--all those stiff-necked, dried-up hens cackling about the weather, their lumbago, and whose cross-stitch wasn't quite up to snuff. You can't get more boring than that.
Or maybe you can. Like I said, the afterlife is pretty damned ho-hum. At least mine has been, so far. You've heard those hellfire-spouting preachers shouting that you've got to be good? That the folks who pray in church every Sunday are getting a harp when they cash in, and the folks who have a bit too much fun are getting a pitchfork? Horseshit! All of it. I'm here to tell you it's a lie. If anyone should have been pitching brimstone when she checked out, it would have been me, because I'm about as wicked as you can get. Or at least I was a hundred years ago, before Jackass Jake Schmidt shot me dead in the outhouse. Being wicked isn't as easy once you're planted six feet under.
Let me introduce myself, folks. Robin Rowe's the name--or Roberta Rowe, if you want to get fancy. Red Robin, the fellows called me, and the name brought a smile to their faces. It surely did. With my red hair, sultry smiles, and the curviest shape God ever gave a woman, I was the hottest thing in Jerome, Arizona. Hell, I was the hottest thing in the whole Wild West. I could knock a man off his feet with a twitch of my hips and send him to heaven with a smile. I could make a man forget his troubles with a touch of my lips and a soft whisper in his ear. As I said, I was wicked. And I was very, very good at being wicked. My girls were good, too. They weren't in the same class as me, of course. But damned close. I didn't hire cheap strumpets to work in my house. Only the classiest ladies, ladies who knew how to please a man and send him on his way smiling. Fellas always got their money's worth at Robin's Nest.
But that was a hundred years ago. Things are different now. Jerome's mines aren't cranking out copper, silver, and gold these days. The shafts and tunnels are boarded up tight. The miners who flocked to Robin's Nest are long gone, replaced by busloads of gray-headed folks from New Jersey and curious sorts looking for the Old West. And the kinds of places that get flocked to are the T-shirt shops and ice-cream joints, the stores that sell jewelry, artwork, and the pitiful clothes that pass for fashion nowadays. I could give these modern gals a hint or two about how a woman should dress. But then, nobody cares what I think anymore.
That's what I get for being a ghost. It took a good while for me to get used to that. I wasn't happy about getting shot, as I'd been counting on a lot longer life than a measly thirty-eight years. It doesn't seem fair, somehow. I worked hard all my life--and if you don't think we sporting ladies work, why don't you try it for a while? Lying down on the job doesn't mean you're slacking off when you're a strumpet. I started out as a lumberman's daughter with only two dresses to my name: my workaday dress and my Sunday-go-to-meeting dress. But when Jake Schmidt shot me, I had a mansion in Jerome, a closet full of fancy gowns, two dresser drawers full of jewelry, and a pile of money that made the town's bankers my very good friends.
But more important than all of that--I had a seventeen-year-old daughter in school in South Carolina. Seventeen is such a fragile age, and she was so sheltered. Too sheltered. My fault, I reckon, but what was I supposed to do? Let her lead the same hardscrabble lip I'd put up with? She didn't even know how her mother made a living. I told her I owned a hotel--just a wee stretch of the truth.
Understandably, my Laura was a tad put out when she learned the truth about her mother. Embarrassed, too. I can't blame her. Still, she carried resentment too far when she ripped my name from the family Bible and vowed not to speak it ever again. Disrespectful is what that was. Fancy woman or not, I was still the mother who carried her inside me for nine long months. And her marrying that Homer Pilford was plain stupid. He just wanted her money--my money it was, really. I would have given her hell if I'd been alive at the time. But I was new at being a ghost, and I hadn't gotten the knack of getting people to listen to me. Now, if I say boo, you'll hear me--if I want you to. But that was a hundred years ago, and even ghost need time to learn their trade.
Well, Laura was unhappy with that gold digger Homer, as I could have told her she would be. Her two daughters screwed up their lives as well, and their daughters, too. I watched it all, helpless, till I was sick and tired of the sorry lot of them. Finally, as the new century came in, there was only one little gal left who carried my blood, and she was continuing the family tradition of trashing her love life. Her natural urges weren't the problem. Her heart was the problem. She was headed for spinsterhood, sure as hell. And there went the glorious legacy of Robin Rowe. Not only did the family pedigree lack my name in its proper place, thanks to Laura, but the whole family was about to peter out like dust blown away by the wind.
Then something happened. Someone up there who pulls the strings dumped my great-great-granddaughter, Maggie Potter, right smack on my doorstep. It was spring of the year 2000, a day of blue skies and blazing sunshine, and she stood like a lost child in the middle of the lane in front of Robin's Nest. I recognized her right off. Blood calls to blood, you know, even when you no longer have any.
Pretty as a picture, Maggie was--or at least she could have been, with her thick reddish hair (a little gift from me), her long legs (another gift), and her curvy form. Too bad she didn't have a lick of sense between the ears. Not that I didn't have sympathy for her plight. I knew what was troubling that gal. Oh yes, I knew. Not pretty, what had happened to her. But then, life isn't pretty, usually. Most of us get over it.
What really wasn't pretty, to my way of thinking, was that this little gal was last on earth to carry anything from Robin Rowe, and she seemed determined to keep it that way. Depressing. Still, she was here. I was here. How hard could it be to bump Maggie onto the right path? A push here, a shove there, a hint or two or three.
I was confident. I had all the cards in my hand, you see, and the deck was stacked.
Maggie Potter had never before heard a house call to her, but she heard this one. It stood in the warm April sunshine, two stories of gleaming stucco and red Spanish tile, and called out her name. Maggie stood in the middle of Hill Street and stared.
"Oh my! Isn't this just quaint?" Maggie's stepmother Virginia wasn't looking at the house. She was looking at the café across the street, aptly named the Haunted Hamburger. "Do you supposed it's really haunted?"
"I'll bet it is!" Catherine, like her mother, Virginia, was blond, blue-eyed, and plumpish. Unlike Virginia, her hair was not teased into a bouffant but fell in lustrous waves to her shoulders. Her eyes twinkled and her smile was as infectious as the cheerful sunshine. "I'll bet they have ghosts frying the hamburgers. Cheap labor, you know."
Virginia sniffed. "It's not so ridiculous. Jerome is a ghost town. Something should be haunted."
"Ghost towns don't have ghosts," Catherine told her. "It means the town is a ghost. You know, deserted. No longer alive. Get the connection?"
"I get the connection. And don't use that school-teacherly voice on me. It's a cute name, all the same. I like the idea of ghosts flipping the hamburgers."
Only half tuned to their conversation, Maggie muttered, "There's no such thing as ghosts, Virginia."
"Don't be a spoilsport, Maggie. We're having fun." Virginia raised her sunglasses and peered at her stepdaughter. "What're you gazing at so intently, dear? You look a bit ghostly yourself."
"That house. That wonderful house."
"What house?" Catherine asked dubiously. "That house?"
"Well, I suppose it was wonderful at one time. Maybe."
"It looks as if no one's lived there in a while," Virginia noted.
The boarded-up windows and weedy yard hadn't escaped Maggie's eyes. They simply didn't matter. The house had something. It called with a siren's song, promising comfort, refuge, security. It promised home.
"Let's take a closer look." Maggie climbed the cracked and crumbling concrete steps that led from the street. The wrought-iron gate creaked when she opened it, and weeds batted at her ankles as she traversed the brick walkway to the front porch.
"Be careful, dear!" Virginia called. "It looks as if you could fall right through to one of those mine tunnels underneath the town."
A big front window had somehow escaped the damage of time. It afforded a view into a large, airy room with a huge fireplace and beautifully carved crown molding.
"Wonderful," Maggie sighed. She turned, and her face lit up at the sight that met her eyes. This house, like every other building in the old mining town of Jerome, Arizona, clung precariously to the side of Cleopatra Hill. The arrangement made for some exciting times, for buildings had been known to slide down the mountain, but it also ensured that every place in town had a sweeping view of the valley below, and beyond that, the Mogollon Rim country and the towering red buttes of the Sedona area.
An idea nibbled at her mind. A ridiculous idea. Ludicrous, farfetched, impractical.
But it was an appealing idea. Compelling, even. Why hadn't she thought of it before? It was just what she needed.
Virginia didn't think much of the idea when Maggie brought it up over a haunted hamburger, but Catherine's eyes lit up.
"What fun! And when school lets out next month, I'll have the whole summer to help you. Maybe we could buy the place together. I have some money put aside."
"That would be great. Look at the horde of tourists up here. And how many rooms are available to accommodate them? Twenty? Twenty-five?"
"You're both nuts!" Virginia chimed in. "There's a bunch of motels just down the road in Cottonwood. Who'd want to stay in an expensive bed-and-breakfast that's about to roll down the mountain when they could get a nice, safe motel room for thirty bucks?"
"The view!" Maggie enthused. "The ambiance! The history!"
"That old jail building we saw has slid a half mile from where it was built!"
"It hasn't slid a half mile," Catherine corrected her succinctly. "Only a couple of hundred feet."
"Always the schoolmistress. The point is, it's not where they put it."
"This house is fine," Maggie insisted.
"You don't know the house is fine."
"The house is fine. I know."
"That's silly. How could you know? Are you an engineer? Are you a contractor?"
Maggie shrugged, and Virginia gave her a suspicious look. "That's an odd smile on your face. Are you all right?"
"You're imagining things. And the house is fine."
"It's probably not for sale."
"There was no For Sale sign."
"It's for sale."
"Something else you just know?"
"I . . . well, yes."
"I keep telling you, ever since you came home, that you should see a shrink. Someone who's been through what you've been through . . . well, you should see a shrink. It's no disgrace to need a little help. A shrink would help you more than a falling down house that's sliding down a mountain."
"Well, I think Maggie's idea is just wonderful!" Catherine interjected diplomatically. "Just think! Maggie and I running an inn in picturesque Jerome. Fresh air. Interesting people. It's ideal. Sedona's just down the road--big draw, there, with the scenery, the art stuff, and all the New Age gurus. And the Grand Canyon's just a couple of hours away. Tourists will be flocking to our front door. It's almost destiny, isn't it? We drive up here for a day's outing, and Maggie finds her life's mission. I think it's terrific!"
"Terrific, schmerific. It's insanity. That's what it is. Insanity."
Maggie tuned them both out. She was busy looking out the cafe window at The House. She smiled and somehow didn't think it odd that The House seemed to smile back.
Excerpted from A Ghost for Maggie by Emily Carmichael. Copyright © 1999 by Emily Carmichael. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.