While seeking to resolve his wife’s disappearance, a travel writer uncovers mysteries in the White Mountains that lead to ghosts, CIA revelations, and disturbing answers to political events that shook America in the 1960s. The story begins with an unusual train ride.
A good writer writes for only one reason. It isn’t fame. It isn’t money. And it’s not even for a desired readership, although that’s a part of it. A good writer writes for existence. Because he or she will not exist if he or she doesn’t write. And since you must define yourself through your work, you must also continue to redefine the state of the art based on who you are.
~ Marcus Steiner
He wasn’t sure what to say or do. He just kept gazing down at the body staring up at him. The conductor had rolled it over so that now those cold, gray eyes were in full view. If he looked at them a certain way, they posed a question. But neither the eyes nor the face behind it could pursue their interrogations. Cheeks, ears, eyes, and nose all refused to come together symmetrically. Instead, they resembled a mosaic of broken glass with the torpor of death leaving cracks.
He remembered the man when he was alive—square-jawed, blond-haired, and Germanic. A mysterious figure who opened his mouth as if to speak. But when the train lurched, he never got the chance. So far, everyone viewed it as a fluke. An improbable accident. The man had tripped and fallen, twisting onto his side. When he hit the floor, the gun in his coat pocket fired, shooting him in the chest.
Three hours earlier, Roger had boarded the train on his way to New York, seating himself beside a boy reading H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History. Opposite him was an older woman drowsing off, which was clearly what she wanted. The young lady next to her was busy with her computer. No one nearby was wearing a mask, although they were still advised.
While the train moved forward with its first jolting steps, a man wearing a trench coat entered the car. The trench coat struck Roger as odd since the temperature was already in the seventies, an unseasonably hot day for April. As soon as he saw Roger, the man paused, sat down, took up a magazine, and began to read. Moments later, his eyes met Roger’s, luminous with a tiger’s intensity.
As time went by, Roger settled back in his seat and nearly dozed off, casting the man aside as if he were merely a part of a dream. But just after their train left Stamford, the man got up and began walking in the direction of the restroom. Once he was parallel with Roger’s seat, the train jerked. He leaned forward and his hand spread out with its fingers angling toward Roger’s chin. His expression suggested that he knew something Roger didn’t. He seemed to be saying, “I have something to tell you!”
Roger felt his body respond self-protectively as his foot slid out into the aisle to keep his visitor at a distance. Suddenly their car lurched again and Roger raised his knee—or rather, the knee raised itself—in an arcane, balletic move to compensate for the jerking of the train. The result was instant contact, hitting the man’s leg as he stumbled and fell. Much to his horror, Roger heard a gun fire when the right shoulder hit the floor. After convulsing like he was inhabited by snakes, the tremors stopped and the trench-coated intruder became inanimate inside his clothes.
With the sound of the gunshot, the napping woman woke up. Her startled expression quickly turned into disgust, as if she had just spilled coffee over herself. The young lady with her computer sat back in her seat and screamed, her head hitting the cushion with a jolt so hard that she bit her lip. The teenage boy grimaced, pushed himself against the window, shut The Outline of History, and stared down at his feet.
Roger called for help, and two people seated nearby jumped up to find someone. Within a minute, the train’s conductor and an attendant arrived in their dark vests. A man and a woman. The conductor announced that once the train arrived in Manhattan, they would have to detain all the passengers in the car for interrogation. Then he crouched over the body and rolled it over. When he rummaged through the pockets he found two passports, each with separate identities. While the impassive conductor, his shocked assistant, and everyone seated nearby gazed down at the mysterious corpse, it occurred to Roger that he should call his publisher to let him know he would be late for lunch.
Ghosts of the White Mountains
Making his exit into Moynihan Train Hall was a relief despite it looking like an overgrown greenhouse. Roger was even more relieved when he stepped out onto Eighth Avenue, mottled in sunlight and shadow, where people marched ahead with brisk city gaits. It was another place. Another scene. A far more familiar setting that now embraced him. And it was there, on the streets of New York, that he tried to collect himself.
The incident on the train had led Roger to think back to the disappearance of his wife in January. Rachel was staying in the White Mountains at the Presidential Inn. Nearly six months had passed since the Presidential’s innkeeper, Ben Bishop, first rolled out the red carpet for his wife to pursue her project for Currents Magazine—a probing inquiry into what happened to JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963, nearly a decade after the fiftieth anniversary had failed to produce much of interest.
The concept was: “What/if a few of the assassination theorists were onto the truth? When you add the clues together, what, if anything, makes the most sense?” Rachel told him that “the majestic solitude of the White Mountains” with its appropriately named Presidential Range was the perfect place for her to work on this. The location also provided some surprising local connections, including Ben Bishop himself, who had once been employed by the CIA. An association that, despite the innkeeper’s welcoming disposition and being well known for his criticisms of the Agency, took on a slightly more troubling tone after Rachel’s disappearance. And now, after what had just happened on the way to New York, all the mysteries surrounding Rachel’s vanishing had returned to the forefront of Roger’s mind in a manner more dreamlike than real.
As for why he had taken the train into Manhattan, through a combination of fortune and talent, Roger had become a travel writer. It was never really his ambition, but it was a more-than-accommodating compromise. For most of his career, he had written for the globally oriented middle class. His books had sold especially well during the recent pandemic, presumably because they afforded their readers vicarious adventures.
He’d gotten enthusiastic comments about his pictures in Discovering the Sydney Zoo with its chatty chimpanzees and brooding camels. His readers gave high marks to his Adventures in the Norwegian Mountains on route from Bergen to Oslo and his vivid descriptions of the sculptures in Vigeland Park. They were excited to explore his Excursion to Monaco and his Auto Trip on the Route Napoleon, as well as his Companionable Concepción with its sumptuous empanadas and its nearby Chilean farms. Roger’s readers liked to compare their adventures to his. Their letters and emails often had a familial tone, as if he were an uncle, a brother, or in the more annoying notes, a son who failed to see the world their way.
He had also written a novel, The Northern Spy, named for a man, and an apple, with “a rich inner life.” It took place in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the first turbulent years of the revolution. Inspired in part by the diary of someone in the Tsar’s secret police, it was the one thing he’d done that fully seemed to belong to him. But his book never sold anywhere near the number of copies he’d hoped for. Maybe because it was published by a small press that soon went out of business, leaving it solely promoted on his company’s Windmill Traveler website. The home page featured picturesque windmills on the hills of Crete. Not a place where the book belonged, sandwiched between a panoply of titles like Drives of a Lifetime, Where Locals Go, and True Stories of the Bible. Anyone looking for a work of historical fiction would have asked, “Who knew?!”
As soon as Roger entered Molly’s Tavern, a short, balding man got up from his table and stepped sideways in front of him. The collision was instantaneous. Roger straightened up. The man stumbled but he didn’t fall. Instead, he ignored Roger, said nothing, and walked off with his eyes glued to an imaginary breadcrumb trail leading out onto the street. A silly parody of what had happened on the train.
Roger caught his breath and spotted Sam Pullman grinning in his direction, seated two tables over. While he approached, Sam cocked his head in a manner suggesting authority. As president and publisher at Windmill Traveler, he was, after all, Roger’s boss.
Sam sat back in a dark blue sports jacket that was almost black and a light blue button-down shirt, with brown welcoming eyes and matching hair that flowed over his forehead in a wave-like manner. Like Roger, he was in his late 40s. They had once been roommates at Columbia. Taller than Roger by several inches at more than six feet, Sam’s face retained a boyish quality even as it had recently begun to thin with age.
“So glad you could finally make it!”
“Sorry for the delay. How long have you been waiting?”
“Just ten minutes. I set our reservations back an hour after your call. It looks like I guessed right.”
“You did. Thanks so much for changing the time.”
“Tell me again about what happened. It sounded impossible.”
Roger thought back to nearly an hour of unanswerable questions with four New York City police officers. “After we left Stamford a man in a trench coat got up and walked toward the restroom. When he got to my seat he stopped and opened his mouth like he wanted to say something. The train suddenly lurched and he tripped over my leg. He fell down and the gun in his coat pocket went off. He died instantly.”
“He tripped on your leg?”
“I felt his leg collide with mine. Like a miniature train wreck inside the train.”
“Was that the phrase you used with the police? If so, it was very colorful. Good travel writing!” Sam put on an expression of feigned bonhomie.
“I can’t remember the words I used with the police.”
As soon as the man hit the floor, Roger tried to convince himself that his body had reacted reflexively merely to preserve its own physical space. That’s what he wanted to believe. But a part of him felt that what happened belonged to a nightmare in which they’d both been fighting against a demon, and the demon won. A nightmare that, eerily, suggested a sequel.
“And the pistol went off just from hitting the floor?”
“One of the policemen said it was a Series 70 Colt—a gun that doesn’t have a firing pin block to protect it from shooting on impact.” This fact had lodged itself solidly in Roger’s mind as one of the few things that made sense.
“Interesting. I don’t know anything about guns. Do you?”
“No. Not anything more than I learned today.”
“You think the man in the trench coat wanted to talk to you?”
“That was my impression, but I could have been wrong.”
“Can you guess what he wanted to say?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. But it seemed important.”
“Why? In what way?”
Roger shook his head. “I really have no idea.” The truth was that far too many ideas were jousting for attention, none of which seemed even remotely credible.
“On the phone you said that they found two passports on him. Both with different names, but the same picture?”
“That’s right. Different names, same picture.”
This part of the story was another clue. One that increasingly troubled Roger. Either the man had just changed his name, or he sold passports as a scam, or, as Roger had begun to suspect, he really did work for the CIA.
Sam forced another smile. “Maybe he suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder.”
“That might be it!”
After their waiter came and took their orders Sam changed the topic, much to Roger’s relief. Sam let him know that his son, a junior in high school, had just become captain of his soccer team. Then Roger updated Sam about his daughter who was working toward a PhD in psychology at Stanford University. In March, Chloe had won an award for her essay on self-actualization. Any conversation about Chloe always carried with it the implication that she was brilliant. Which, academically, and even personally, she was, often to a degree that made Roger want to question himself.
After a few words of congratulation, Roger’s tablemate leaned forward with his ‘publisher’s expression’—a mix of lecturer and project coordinator. In less than a month, Roger would drive up to Jackson, New Hampshire, to write a travel book about the White Mountains. There he would stay at the Presidential Inn, just as Rachel had. At Ben Bishop’s insistence, his room would be free of charge. It was an unexpected act of generosity—one that, for various reasons, Roger finally decided to accept.
“You know, I’m very excited about Ghosts!”
“Ghosts of the White Mountains.” Roger recited the full title to recenter his attention. The project had been established months before Rachel’s death, with an extended treatment, an outline, and the usual flurry of research notes. While Rachel was still alive and staying at the Presidential, it had seemed like a great excuse to spend time with her. But after her disappearance, Roger canceled the project. A decision that gradually reversed itself thanks to Sam’s sympathetic encouragement, Ben’s willingness to give him a room for free, and the haunting sense that Rachel would have wanted him to persist.
“I’m excited about your book as a travel guide because New England mountain resorts, with their stunning views and their fresh air, are still very much in vogue. Picturesque vacations without any airport worries. But most of all, you’re breaking new ground by adding in a little ghost-hunting. I couldn’t imagine trying it with anyone else. It’s very much you to put the fantastic and the real together in a single travel adventure.”
“Thanks, Sam.” Roger already sensed that his publisher was testing the waters for something specific. “I’m glad you’re excited, and yes, I agree with you, it should be breaking new ground with the right medium. It looks like that’s going to be Naomi Nesbitt. Even if no ghosts materialize, I think people will enjoy reading about our adventures, along with some of the more picturesque legends.”
So far Roger had only corresponded via email with Naomi and spoken with her twice over the phone. Her getting fully approved would depend on a face-to-face meeting planned for the following week.
“Once you confirm Naomi, I’ll work with her to agree on an hourly rate plus expenses.”
“Thank you. As I’ve said, I hope to have her with me for at least a month.”
“It’s a big investment, but I like the added potential for drama. From what you’ve shown me so far, the White Mountains hold a treasure trove of stories, supernatural and otherwise. Although despite your title, I don’t want ghost hunting to dominate the book.”
“I never meant for it to dominate.”
“Good. I want it for texture. And I want it to be fun. Remember, you’re not supposed to scare people. Yourghosts, if they should seem to appear in any way at all, are only there for extra allure and intrigue. I hope you see it that way, too.”
“Of course. It’s a travel book first and foremost.”
Neither Sam nor Roger fully believed in ghosts. Both viewed that part of the book as ‘an open-minded experiment.’ Nonetheless, Roger wasn’t thrilled with the idea of texture. It seemed much too limiting. But he knew that if he spoke up, the conversation would only annoy Sam and get him nowhere in the end.
While their waiter served their lunches, Roger’s thoughts went back to Rachel. Four months ago, a young couple had discovered her dark blue Nissan Sentra abandoned in winter snows by Echo Lake and called the police. There were tire tracks from another car beside hers, but the police hadn’t been able to trace them. Was she already a ghost? And if she was, could Naomi find a way to talk to his wife’s spirit? Would it be appropriate? And would he even want it?
“Are you planning any other ingredients outside the norm?”
“The norm for one of our travel books?”
“The norm for you and your unique kind of travel books.”
Rachel remained in the forefront of Roger’s imagination. She wouldn’t let go.
“I’ll probably have to say a few words about my wife. About her disappearance. I couldn’t begin this project honestly without anchoring the reader in my own situation. As you know, in good travel writing, there’s usually a persona present.”
Roger wondered why he hadn’t brought this up before, when Sam was still so caringly trying to wean him back into doing the project.
His tablemate stared at him with a friend’s concern. “You still don’t know any more about what happened to her?”
“Nothing new. Nothing really at all.”
“It’s a terrible tragedy, a terrible loss in any case!” Sam gulped his beer like a fish swallowing air. “Although this isn’t your next mystery novel. I can see you mentioning your wife in the beginning to bring the reader into your situation. But not as anything central to the book, I’m sorry to say. I hope you understand.”
Sam had just lodged himself squarely in the role of a publisher seeking a product. Roger bristled for a second, but he knew that to complain would be irrational. Maybe even ridiculous. “So I should invoke Rachel as a kind of texture? A personal thread to keep the reader more engaged?”
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind. I’m thinking of it more as something to mention early on.”
“In the form of a preface?”
“As a part of the preface. I like to see Ghosts as a way of bringing you out of your recent tragedy and into a new future. And I hope you can see it that way, too.”
“That would be good, wouldn’t it?” Although even as they both sipped their beers, Rachel still seemed to be present, asking for more.
“Then there’s my wife’s work on the JFK assassination.”
“Well, anything about JFK that’s more than a sentence is not for this book.” Sam’s face froze into a grimace. “You don’t know for sure what your wife found out, do you?”
“I have an idea. I have some of her files.” The truth was he had quite a few ideas already, but no clear answers.
“You’re not going to make this another conspiracy book, are you? That’s the end of the deal right now if you are!”
“No, of course not. It’s a totally different project. As you know, I’m planning to organize her notes for her editor, Peter Graf, so he can finish her article. He’s still hoping to get some of what he likes to call her ‘provocative insights’ into Currents Magazine.”
Currents came out ten times a year. In late March Roger had promised to get Graf something for their November issue to align with the 60th anniversary of the assassination. This wasn’t news for Sam. Roger had already said as much on several occasions. Nevertheless, his publisher rocked back in his seat and frowned.
“I guess that makes sense. It’s good of her editor to finish it for her…You mentioned ‘provocative insights.’ Did Rachel reach any conclusions?”
“I’m not sure about conclusions. But insights, yes.”
“I think that might be an excellent way to frame your wife’s work for Ghosts. To let your readers know that that she had ‘insights’ in your forward without going into them. That will keep them interested, but it won’t turn the book around. Although I’d prefer it if you don’t say anything about your involvement, or any of the specifics in her findings.”
“Fair enough.” Roger took a deep breath to hide yet another flash of annoyance.
“Have you found anything that stands out among your wife’s insights?”
“To be honest, some of Rachel’s insights are quite surprising. The problem is, as far as I can tell so far, they don’t lead to anywhere in particular. Or more to the point, they lead to far too many places at once.”