In the latest mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of Give Up the Ghost, it will take a beacon of ghostly intervention to guide contractor Mel Turner to the truth...
Dangerous tides ahead...
When her friend Alicia hires Turner Construction to renovate a historic lighthouse in the San Francisco Bay, Mel Turner can’t wait to get her hands dirty. Alicia plans to transform the island property into a welcoming inn, and while Mel has never attempted a project so ambitious—or so tall—before, she’s definitely up for the challenge.
But trouble soon arises when Alicia’s abusive ex-husband shows up to threaten both her and Mel, and later turns up dead at the base of the lighthouse stairs. With no other suspects in sight, things start looking choppy for Alicia. Now, if Mel wants to clear her friend’s name, she’ll need the help of the lighthouse’s resident ghosts to shine a light on the real culprit...
About the Author
Juliet Blackwell is the pseudonym for the New York Times bestselling author of the Haunted Home Renovation Mystery series, including Give Up the Ghost and Keeper of the Castle. She also writes the Witchcraft Mystery series, including A Toxic Trousseau and Spellcasting in Silk, and, together with her sister, wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery series as Hailey Lind. The first in the series, Feint of Art, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. She is also the author of the novels Letters from Paris and The Paris Key. As owner of her own faux-finish and design studio, the author has spent many days and nights on construction sites renovating beautiful historic homes throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Read an Excerpt
The tower reached high into a gray sky. A faint glow-dare I say a ghostly light?-seemed to emanate from the lighthouse's narrow windows. Probably just a trick of light, the afternoon sun reflecting off curved stone walls.
Just looking up at the tower through the cracked bay window made me dizzy.
"I'm thinking of calling the inn 'Spirit of the Lighthouse.' Or maybe 'the Bay Light,'" said Alicia Withers as she checked an item off the list on her clipboard. Alicia was big on lists. And clipboards. "What do you think, Mel? Too simple?"
"I think you need to figure out your plumbing issues before you worry about the name," I replied. That's me, Mel Turner. General contractor and head of Turner Construction.
Also known as Killjoy.
Alicia and I stood in the central hallway of the former lighthouse keeper's home, a charming but dilapidated four-bedroom Victorian adjacent to the lighthouse tower. The structures had been built in 1871 on the small, rather unimaginatively named Lighthouse Island, located in the strait connecting the San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Not far away, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge loomed, and barely visible to the southwest was the elegant new span that linked Oakland to Treasure Island and on to San Francisco. The nearest shoreline was Richmond, with San Rafael-and San Quentin prison-situated across the normally placid, though occasionally tempestuous, bay waters.
It was a view to die for.
Lighthouse Island's foghorn and lamp had been staffed by full-time keepers and their assistants and families for decades, the flashing light and thunderous horn warning sea captains of the bay's surprisingly treacherous shallows and rocky shoals. But the humans had long since been replaced by less costly electronics, and the island's structures had fallen into disrepair.
The house itself had once been a beauty, and still boasted gingerbread trim and a cupola painted an appealing (but now peeling) creamy white. Also in the compound were a supply shed, the original foghorn building, and a huge cistern that collected rainwater for the keeper and his family on this otherwise dry rock. The only other structures on the island were the docks and lavatory, located in a small natural harbor to the east, which were still used occasionally by pleasure boats seeking refuge from sudden squalls-and by those interested in exploring Lighthouse Island, of course.
"I'm just saying," I continued. "There's a lot of dry rot to contend with before you start inviting guests to your Lighthouse Inn."
"Oh, you," Alicia said with a slight smile, which I answered with a big one.
I had known Alicia for quite a while before spying an iota of good cheer in her. She was still a serious, hardworking person but had relaxed a lot since I first met her on a historic restoration in Marin. We had bonded late one night over a shared love of potato chips and home renovation television shows. And then we quite literally kicked the butt of a murderer, which had definitely improved her attitude.
"I'm sure you know I haven't lost sight of the all-important infrastructure," continued Alicia. "But I need to register my domain and business names, so no, it's not too early to think about such things."
She whipped out a thick sheaf of lists and flowcharts and handed them over. I flipped through the papers. There were preliminary schedules for demolition and foundation work, electrical and plumbing and Internet installation, Sheetrock and mudding, overhauls of baths and kitchen, and installations of moldings and flooring and painting and light fixtures.
I raised my eyebrows. "Thanks, Alicia, but I usually work up the schedules with Stan, my office manager."
"I know you do, but I was up late one night thinking about everything that had to be done, and figured I might as well get the paperwork started. I based these on your schedules for the job in Marin, you see? I can e-mail everything to Stan so you can rearrange it as you need, and plug in the actual dates and the like. I hope you don't think it was too presumptuous-I couldn't help myself. Ever since Ellis agreed to back me on this project, I can hardly sleep I'm so excited!"
Several months ago Alicia's boss, Ellis Elrich, had asked me to evaluate "a property" he was considering. It wasn't until he told me to meet him at the Point Moro Marina that I realized this would be no ordinary renovation: It was Lighthouse Island, and the Bay Light.
I-along with much of the population of the Bay Area-had watched over the years as the historic Victorian-era lighthouse descended into greater and greater decrepitude. Every time my family drove over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, my father would shake his head and grumble, "It's a damned shame." Mom would shush Dad for swearing in front of the children-"Little pitchers have big ears, Bill"-but, craning her neck to watch the sad little island as it receded from view, she would add, "You're right, though. Someone really ought to save that place."
Never did I imagine that, decades later, I'd be that person.
But historic renovation was my business, and Alicia's boss was filthy rich. Which was a very good thing, because this lighthouse was in need of a serious infusion of cash. I already had in hand the architect's detailed blueprints, as well as the necessary permits and variances from the city and county, which had also promised to fast-track the code inspections. The Bay Light's renovation would be a highly unusual public-private partnership that cash-strapped local officials had agreed to in the interest of saving the historical structures. I was impressed at the city's eager participation but didn't ask too many questions. Ellis Elrich had a way of making things happen.
"So, here's what we're thinking," Alicia said, making a sweeping gesture around the former front parlor. "We take down this wall, combine the space with the smaller drawing room next door, and make this whole area the bar and restaurant."
"It's not very large," I pointed out, comparing the blueprints in my hand to the existing floor plan.
"It doesn't have to be. There will be at most ten overnight guests, so only five small tables are required for their meals-or we might just do one big table and serve everything family-style, I haven't decided yet. And visitors won't be that frequent-there aren't that many people who stop in at the yacht harbor, and even with our boat ferrying people over from the mainland, it will still take some planning to come to the island. It's not as though we have to take into account foot traffic! So I'm thinking we'll be at capacity with about twenty guests for drinks and dinner. But for those that make it, we'll be a gorgeous little oasis in the bay."
Alicia sighed with happiness.
I was pleased for my friend, but experienced enough to be a wee bit jaded. At this point in a renovation, most clients couldn't see past the stars in their eyes and the longing in their hearts. Starting a historic renovation was a lot like falling in love: a blissful period of soaring romantic hope and infatuation that lasted until the grueling realities of sawdust and noise and confusion and delays-not to mention mounting cost overruns and unwelcome discoveries in the walls-brought a person back to earth with a resounding thud.
"We'll keep the bare bones of the kitchen, but include updated fixtures and some expansion, of course. But we'll make the study and part of the pantry into a first-floor suite for the live-in manager-"
"That would be you?"
"Oh, I dearly hope so, if I can find a replacement to serve as Ellis's assistant. I can't leave him high and dry."
"But he wants this for you, right? Isn't that why he's bankrolling the project?"
Alicia blushed. "Yes, he does. Ellis is very . . ."
"Sweet," I said when she trailed off.
She nodded but avoided my eyes. Now that she had loosened up a little and was no longer the tight-lipped martinet I had first met, Alicia was charming. The scar on her upper lip and another by one eye-relics of difficult times at the hands of her abusive (now-ex) husband-only served to make her pretty face more interesting. The wounds on her psyche were another matter altogether, but through therapy and a whole lot of emotional hard work, Alicia had made great strides toward healing.
And now, unless I was mistaken, she had developed a serious crush on Ellis Elrich, her boss and savior. Ellis was a good guy, surprisingly down-to-earth for a billionaire. Still, the situation seemed . . . complicated.
Oh, what tangled webs we weave.
"Anyway, that will leave three guest suites upstairs, each with an attached bath. And one in the attic, awaiting renovation. Oh! Did I tell you? The attic is full of old furniture, and there's a trunk of old books. There are even the original keeper's logs!"
"Still? No one took them after all this time?"
"I suppose that's the advantage of being on an isolated island. Can you imagine? We can put some on display to add to the historic maritime ambiance!"
I smiled. "Of course we can. I can't wait to look through everything. You know me and old books." Me and old everything, actually.
"We might be able to create one more bedroom in the foghorn building, unless we decide to turn that into a separate office. The problem, though, is the noise."
"The foghorn still sounds on foggy days. It's not the original horn; it's an electronic version. But still, it's loud."
"That could be a problem. So, what do you want to do with the tower itself? The architect hasn't specified anything here."
She stopped midsentence and her face lost all color.
"Alicia?" I glanced behind me, but didn't notice anything out of place. "What's wrong?"
"I thought I saw . . ."
"Nothing," she said with a shake of her auburn hair.
I turned back to scan the scene, paying careful attention to my peripheral vision. Fervently hoping not to see a ghost. Or a body. Or both.
Because I tend to see things. Things that would make many people scream, run, or faint dead away. Not all the time, but often enough for it to make an impression. Due to my profession I spend a lot of time in historic structures, so it probably isn't surprising-for the open-minded, anyway-that I've been exposed to more than a few wandering souls who aren't clear on the veil between our worlds.
The fact that I trip over dead bodies, on the other hand, is . . . disturbing.
For me most of all, I should add.
Happily, in this moment I saw only the debris-filled main parlor of the old Keeper's House. My mind's eye began to imagine the space filled with vivacious guests sharing meals and stories, children holding cold hands up to the fire in the raised stone hearth, perhaps a calico cat lounging on the windowsill. The visitors warm and happy, safe from the chill winds blowing off the bay, the occasional mournful blast of the foghorn or flash of the lamp atop the tower adding to the dreamy atmosphere, to the sense that they were a world away from a major metropolitan area, rather than minutes. Alicia was right; with Ellis's deep pockets and Turner Construction's building skills, the inn could be magical. Would be magical.
Who's the romantic now, Mel Turner?
"Let's . . . I think we should go, Mel," Alicia said, her voice tight.
"What's wrong, Alicia? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, it's just . . ." She walked toward the front entry, its charming beadboard paneling buckling in the center, and led the way out to the deep wraparound porch. Thick wooden boards had been laid over rotten sections of the porch floor to allow safe passage to the steps. "I think I'm just spooked."
"Did you see something . . . ghostly?" I asked, surprised. Alicia had never mentioned being sensitive to the supernatural.
"No, it's nothing like that. It's-well, I'm a little jumpy. I received a letter not long ago."
"It was from Thorn."
"Thorn Walker. He's . . . he was my husband. Thorn's my ex-husband."
"How did he find you? I thought you changed your name, covered your tracks."
"I did," Alicia said with a humorless laugh. "Ellis hired a lawyer and a skip tracer, and they helped me to create a new identity. But . . . it's all my fault. I haven't been as careful as I needed to be, and have let my guard down lately. When Ellis bought this island and announced plans to renovate the buildings and open an inn, I was photographed next to him. The photo appeared in several news outlets-it seems everyone loves stories about historic lighthouses! What was I thinking? Thorn's not stupid. I should know better than anyone that when he puts his mind to something, he can be quite determined."
"What did Ellis's security team suggest?"
She didn't answer.
"Alicia? Did you show Ellis the letter?"
She remained silent, heading down the shored-up porch steps, past an old no trespassing sign, and into a cement courtyard that had been built on a slight incline to funnel rainwater into the underground cistern. Back when these buildings were constructed, access to fresh water would have been a priority. Living on a virtually barren rock wasn't easy, and similar challenges had ultimately closed down Alcatraz, the famous federal penitentiary that still held pride of place on another island in the bay, much closer to San Francisco. When everything had to be brought in by supply boat, priorities shifted.
There would be no pizza delivery while on this job.
In fact, any and all construction supplies-lumber and concrete, nails and screws, equipment and tools-would have to be brought to the dock by boat and hoisted up with a winch.
The prospect was daunting, but exciting. I had been running Turner Construction for a few years now, and while I still enjoyed bringing historic San Francisco homes back from the brink, I had been itching for a new challenge. For something different.
And this was a lighthouse.
Still, one aspect of this renovation gave me pause: The lighthouse tower was several stories high, and ever since an altercation on the roof of a mansion high atop Pacific Heights, I had found myself dreading heights. Where once I wouldn't have given a second thought to scrambling up a tall ladder or hopping out an attic window to repair loose shingles, now the very idea made me quail. I told myself I was being silly, and that these feelings would dissipate as the memory of the attack faded. I would not let fear stop me.