A/N: A Gift of Ghosts, by Sarah Wynde is available on Amazon. If you enjoyed the story here, please consider reviewing it there. And thanks for reading!
Akira checked her reflection in the sun visor mirror. She'd bitten off all her lipstick during the drive from the airport. Hands shaking, just a little, she pulled out a pink gloss from her bag and carefully reapplied the color.
"You're awfully pretty, you know." The teenage boy leaning over the back of the seat made the words sound disparaging. "It's not like you need that. It's probably going to give you cancer or something. Why do girls think it's a good idea to spread chemicals all over their faces?"
Ignoring him, she took a deep breath, and tucked the gloss back into the pocket of her bag, trying to summon up the courage to step out of the car. She'd walk into the building and breeze her way through her first job interview in years. She could do it. Of course she could. She'd be bright and smart and professional, and they'd love her and offer her a job, a good job, one that would let her actually work on her research.
"And then I'll win the lottery," she said aloud, chewing on her lip, already forgetting about the gloss.
"No one ever does," the boy said cynically.
Akira wasn't even sure how she'd made it here. She wasn't the adventurous type. Life, it seemed to her, had enough challenges without searching out new ones. She'd mapped out her path long ago: a nice, quiet academic life in the Californian town where she grew up, some teaching, some research, staying in familiar territory, living on familiar ground.
But then one reckless paragraph about spirit energy in an article for the prestigious Energy Research Quarterly, and suddenly all her plans were in jeopardy. The committee hadn't denied her tenure yet, but her department head had made it clear that it was only a matter of time. With no hope of a university job, she'd have to teach in a high school. She'd rather work in the fifth circle of hell.
The phone call from General Directions, Inc. had been out of the blue, but it felt like a potential lifesaver. The company wanted to meet with her. They were willing to fly her to Florida—Florida, of all places!—rent her a car, and put her up in a hotel room for a day or two, while they interviewed her for some undefined position. Despite the vagueness of the details, Akira hadn't hesitated.
But she was hesitating now. She sighed. She couldn't sit in the car forever. Might as well go in and get it over with. She took one last glance in the mirror and for the briefest of seconds her eyes met those of the boy in the back seat.
"Hey," he said, pushing himself away from where he'd been leaning. "Hey, did you . . ."
Akira, though, was already out of the car, closing the door firmly behind her.
The brick buildings, lush grass, bright flowers, and flowing water in front of her were undeniably beautiful. But where was the research lab she'd been expecting? She'd pictured a square box, five stories high, with mirrored windows, set in the middle of a giant parking lot. The kind of place that could exist anywhere, neither fitting in nor standing out. The kind of place where maybe she could exist without fitting in or standing out.
This looked more like an extremely exclusive private school.
She made her way up the cobblestone walkway to the front door of the nearest building. Although the friendly guard at the security booth way back up a winding road had told her that she'd found her destination, she still felt unsure of herself until a discreet sign on the wall labeled General Directions, Inc. reassured her that at least she was in the right place.
General Directions. The name was so very generic.
At the front desk, she introduced herself, trying not to let her uncertainty show. "Akira Malone, here for an interview."
"Of course." The young blonde woman behind the desk responded with a warm smile, her eyes just a little curious. "Mr. Latimer's been expecting you. I'll show you right in."
Zane Latimer was playing his twentieth game of solitaire on a borrowed computer in a usually unused office. He liked his own office just fine. It was comfortable and cluttered and a great place for thinking. At least for him. His sisters claimed it was full of distractions.
But his office was too revealing for an interview like this one. The stark walls, empty desk, two metal chairs, ugly carpeting, and old desktop computer in this room presented a much better image for his purposes. He wondered if this candidate would notice the lack of a phone. There really ought to be a big clunky corded phone with square buttons. He made a mental note to search one out before the next interview.
He glanced at his watch again. His agent at the tiny private airport had called half an hour ago. Ms. Malone had arrived without incident, but had requested a different car immediately upon seeing the black Taurus that was waiting for her. With no other car available, she had reluctantly accepted the keys from the clerk. The clerk had reported this with interest: she was paid well to note the arriving guests' attitudes about their transportation, but this was the first time she'd had anything to say. Zane accepted the information without comment, but had been waiting a little more impatiently than usual ever since.
Ms. Malone was the fourth person he'd interviewed. As far as he was concerned, this job search was a wild goose chase. But his father had insisted, and when Max Latimer dug his heels in, people around him mostly sighed and acquiesced. Mostly.
Zane stood as Grace opened the door without knocking, and ushered the latest candidate inside. He paused, his mouth not quite dropping open. This—she—wasn't what he'd expected at all. Over Akira's dark head, his sister raised her eyebrows and grinned, and then gave him a hasty thumbs-up behind Akira's back.
"This is Zane Latimer," she said to Akira. "He'll be interviewing you today. Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea, some water?"
"I'm good, thank you," Akira responded, tugging at the edges of her black suit jacket and then extending her hand to Zane where he stood behind the desk. "How do you do, Mr. Latimer?" she asked with an old-fashioned formality.
"Ah, fine. And you?" he answered on auto-pilot, shooting a perplexed gaze at Grace. She shrugged as she pulled the door closed behind her, still grinning, and he gestured toward the uncomfortable chair on the other side of the desk.
"Quite well, thank you." Akira perched on the edge of the chair, holding her bag in front of her.
"How was your flight?" he asked as he took his own seat.
"This morning's?" she answered. "It was the smallest plane I've ever been on. It was interesting." Her lips curved in an almost smile.
Zane couldn't tell whether interesting meant white-knuckled terror or gazing out the window in delight. At Max's behest, General Directions had arranged for Akira to fly from California to central Florida on a commercial airliner the day before, staying in an airport hotel for the night. That flight was a standard commercial flight. This morning's much shorter hop was in a Piper Seneca, a six-seat twin-engine plane. Zane loved it, but it was not the type of corporate jet that featured flight attendants serving champagne, kitchens, fancy conference rooms and sofas.
Leaning back in his chair, Zane steepled his fingers together. He enjoyed interviewing, but for the first time, he wished he'd found out more about this applicant than her name. He'd grabbed a slim file folder from his father's desk when he came in this morning, but he hadn't bothered to open it. It was now sitting on the desktop in front of him.
"So, how did you hear about us?" he started.
"Uh, you called me?" Akira responded, sounding doubtful. "I don't know very much about the company. The man I spoke with on the phone last week told me you'd tell me more at the interview."
"I see." Zane leaned forward, touching the folder but not quite picking it up. "In that case, why don't you tell me a little about yourself?"
"I—do you mean—are you interested in my research? Or my teaching?" Akira stumbled to a halt.
Zane gave her a polite smile, trying not to let his confusion show. Max must have called her. But where had he found her? Research? Teaching? That didn't fit the usual profile. Max had been sorting applications and resumes for months, and this was only the fourth time he'd wanted to bring a candidate in for an interview. But Ms. Malone was completely unlike the others.
It wasn't that the first three had been similar physically, but they'd had a certain kind of gloss, a polished exterior, and a projected warmth that made their differences disappear. This one was a mouse.
A cute mouse. Maybe even an adorable mouse, like a chipmunk or a jerboa. Zane tried to think of other types of mice. Was there one with dark eyes and round cheeks and fluffy hair? That would be the right kind of mouse. Suddenly he realized that he'd let the pause drag on too long and that the mouse was looking increasingly nervous.
"Right, research, tell me about your research."
She sighed with obvious relief, and plunged into a description that within the first few words flew totally over Zane's head. "Sono—what?" he finally interrupted.
"Sonoluminescence. Specifically, stable single-bubble sonoluminescence. I've been experimenting with the noble gases—argon, xenon . . ."
Before she could continue, he put up one finger to pause her and flipped open the folder that was on the desk. The single sheet of paper inside wasn't a job application. Or even a resume. It was the last page of an academic article, with a red circle around the final paragraph.
"Potential energy?" he said out loud, skimming it quickly. "Ah, spirit energy."
Akira seemed to go a little paler, if that was even possible. "That's not . . . I mean that was simply a speculative, theoretical idea. Just a hypothetical possibility that might be—"
"What is it you do exactly?" Zane interrupted her, still puzzling over the article. "Energy Research Quarterly? What is this?"
"I'm a physics professor. I teach at Santa Marita College. In California?" Akira said it as a question.
"A physics professor?" Zane couldn't stop his lips from twitching, but he tried hard to swallow the smile. Okay, his father had gone around the bend. What in the world were they going to do with a physics professor? General Directions had a research division, but they tended to work more on biochemistry and medical projects. And Zane didn't hire the scientists.
A quiet tap at the door interrupted them and Akira looked back at it with relief. "Shall I—" she started as the door swung open behind her, and Grace entered holding another folder.
Grace looked at Zane, her eyes laughing. "I'm so sorry to interrupt," she said smoothly, "but Max wanted you to have this."
He took the folder she handed over with some relief. This must be the rest of the information about Ms. Malone. Enlightenment was at hand. He flipped the folder open.
The folder contained three documents: General Direction's standard non-disclosure agreement; General Direction's standard employment contract, already filled out with Akira's information; and a sticky note that said "Natalya says yes. Give her whatever she wants, but get her to sign a two-year-contract." His father's illegible signature was scrawled across the bottom.
A two-year contract? That was ridiculous. The contracts used at General Directions were typically for short-term contract labor, three or six months at most. Why would Max want this woman to commit to such a long stay?
"Did he say anything else?" Zane asked Grace, not hiding his surprise.
"No, I'm afraid not."
"But . . ." He glanced at Akira. "Excuse us for just a minute."
Standing, he took Grace by the arm and ushered her into the hallway, pulling the door almost closed behind them. In an urgent whisper, he asked, "What job does he want me to give her? What exactly is she supposed to do for us?"
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"I love seeing you confused, darling." Grace patted his cheek. "She's not the usual type, is she?"
"Has Max lost his mind? She's a physics professor. I thought I was hiring a . . ." He glanced back at the door, realizing that Akira might be able to overhear them. "It's not like I interview every employee. Shouldn't Smithson be hiring the scientists?" he asked, naming the head of GD's research division.
Grace shrugged again.
"Well, is she supposed to work for special affairs or research or what?"
"You know as much as I do. I guess it's up to you."
"Okay." Zane sighed. Did he want the mouse working for him or not? Well, yes. A reluctant smile crossed his face.
Back in the office, he sat down behind the desk. She looked quite miserable. She had the kind of face, fluid and expressive, that would have been wonderful on a stage—even the audience in the farthest reaches of the theater would be able to see her emotions. But it might have been better for her if she'd been a better actress, more able to hide what she was feeling.
Zane had planned to continue asking her questions while he tried to figure out what to do with her, but he couldn't resist ending her misery. "So we'd like to offer you a job," he found himself saying. "You'll need to sign a two-year contract. And what's your current salary?"
"I—what?" she asked.
"Your current salary?" he repeated patiently.
She named a figure, but then added, "But wait . . ."
He added twenty-five percent to the number and said the new total out loud, then added, "And Florida is much less expensive than California. You'll find your standard of living quite different in Tassamara, I suspect."
"But wait," she said again. "What do you want me to do? What would the job entail?"
"Research." He smiled, probably a little too brightly, while he tried to figure out what the right answer to that question might be.
"But I don't even know what General Directions is. It's an extremely vague name. What does the company do?"
"Oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Some government work, some private research, some investments in other companies."
She frowned at him, and he couldn't resist the urge to tease her a little. Quite solemnly, he said, "Nothing X-rated, of course," as if that was her paramount concern. Her eyes widened, and he tried not to smile, but a quiver of mischief escaped.
Narrowing her eyes, she forged forward, obviously determined to ignore his distractions. "My concern is the government work. Are you a defense contractor?"
"Do you have reason to believe you wouldn't get a security clearance?" he asked, interested now.
Again, she looked startled. "No, but I don't want my research used to make weapons."
This time he looked surprised. "Do you think that's likely?" He flipped open the folder again and looked at the minimal material inside. What exactly was her work?
"Well, I don't know." Her exasperation was clear. "I haven't completed it yet. I don't have any results. But I'd like some reassurance that if I do have any interesting findings, they won't be promptly locked up in a top-secret project for military use."
"I can assure you that we have never developed any weapons for the government. Any government."
"So what do you do for the government? Any government?" She repeated his phrasing pointedly, and he couldn't resist smiling at her. She didn't smile back, but for just a moment, a dimple appeared in her cheek.
"Oh, ah, well . . ."
"Don't tell me. A little of this, a little of that?"
"More or less."
"So you're offering me a job, but you don't want to tell me anything about what the company does, or what I would be doing?"
"Something like that."
She frowned, and he could see the indecision on her face, so he added, "I can tell you that you'll be free to pursue your own research. On sonoluminescence . . ." He stumbled over the name, then added, ". . . or whatever." He doubted she'd actually be researching that science stuff for long: Max must know something more than he was saying about what she was capable of.
She was still looking doubtful, so he slid the non-disclosure agreement across the desk to her. "Sign that, I'll give you a tour, we can talk about what kind of lab and equipment you need, and then you can decide."
He took out a pen and added the salary figure to the two-year contract, then showed it to her. "You will have to commit to two years. But there's no need to think about that until you've had your tour."
Akira took a deep breath before starting the car. She was not at all sure how she felt about this, but apparently she was going to move to Florida. She couldn't suppress a little glow of joy when she thought about the beautiful labs she'd seen. Even her uncertainty about why exactly she'd been hired couldn't dim her delight at the idea of uninterrupted time to do nothing but explore her ideas.
"You look happy," the boy in the back seat said. "Maybe you did win the lottery."
Akira didn't respond, but her happiness dimmed a little.
"I wonder who you saw in there. Let's see. Maybe I can figure out what you do. Maybe you were selling something? No. Maybe you're a librarian? No." The boy gloomily sank back into his seat and said, "This game's not much fun when I'll never know."
He looked out the window, and sighed. "Twenty-five minutes to the airport and then back to the parking lot."
Akira bit her lip. "So, what's your name?"
The boy's eyes widened and he leaned forward again. "You can see me!"
"Yeah, but don't get all excited about it."
"Are you kidding? I haven't spoken to anyone in months. I'm trapped in this car. I mostly sit in a parking lot. And you're living!"
"Again, don't get all excited." Akira knew exactly how this was going to go, and it wasn't going to be fun. She probably should have just kept pretending she didn't see him. But he'd looked so sad and she'd been so happy. She hadn't been able to stay cold to him.
"So, do you help me? Like, find a light or something?"
"That'd be nice, wouldn't it?" Her voice was dry. "No, unfortunately, I don't know anything about lights. And if you want me to go talk to any relatives—well, it never ends well. I'd really rather not."
"But isn't that what you do?"
"No, that's just how it works on television." Akira sighed and flipped her blinker on. The guard shack was just ahead, and she didn't want to be seen talking to herself.
"But . . . but you can see me!" She glanced back at him in the rear view mirror. Yes, she could see him, and he was quite a charmer, really. He must have been about fourteen or fifteen when he died, tall and gawky in that adolescent way, all arms and legs, with a shock of curly dark hair and intense blue eyes.
She pulled out onto the busy street, and with the guard safely behind her, asked again, "Do you have a name?"
"It's Dillon. You mean you really can't help me?"
She shook her head. "Not so much, no."
"Man, that bites." He flopped back against the seat again, looking disgusted. "I finally find someone who can see me, and she's useless. Um, no offense."
Akira bit back her smile. She didn't mind useless, actually. She'd heard worse. "I can listen," she offered. "And I know a little."
"Do you know why I'm stuck?" he asked. "I mean this can't happen to everyone. I met a guy at a gas station once, but it's not like the roads are crowded with us."
"Oh, there's a fair number of you on the highways, actually. It used to be quite a nightmare for me when I was first learning how to drive. I kept getting distracted. My dad would . . . never mind." She shook that thought away.
She glanced at her watch. "I don't have to be at that airport for the trip back to Orlando for about five hours. Where do you want to go?"
"You're serious?" he asked.
She nodded. "But no relatives, please." She looked pained. "Honestly, it never works out well."
She'd been given clear instructions on where to drop off the car, but as she drove up to the parking lot, she couldn't help worrying. Unlike the usual rental car experience, she'd been told she'd be met by someone who would collect the keys.
"So you remember what I told you, right?" she asked Dillon.
"Every word," he assured her.
"Work on stretching. I know the bounce-back is no fun, but if you practice, you'll find that you're able to get farther and farther away from the car. It's like exercise, it's going to be painful at first, but the rewards will be worth it."
"I will. Are you kidding? Being out of this car would be so great. I'll practice every day."
"And avoid the ghosts with the red edges. If you see someone who looks like they're outlined in red, go the other direction."
"I will," he promised, but this time with less enthusiasm.
"I'm serious. I know you're lonely and you probably think any company is better than none, but it's not. The red ghosts are bad news."
"I'm already dead. What can they do to me?"
"Oh, sweetie." She shook her head. "If you think boredom is the worst thing that can happen, then you didn't watch nearly enough television while you were alive. Trust me on this one." She turned and stared at him, eyes intent, knowing that she was probably the first person who'd looked directly at him since his death. "Stay away from ghosts with red edges."
"And stretch." She pointed a finger at him and smiled, and he smiled back, a mix of emotions fighting for precedence on his face.
She spotted someone approaching through the back window, and said hastily, "Gotta go. You take care."
Stepping out of the car, she greeted the young woman. As she handed over the keys, she impulsively said, "I'm going to be moving to this area in a few weeks and I'll need to lease a car. Is there any chance that this one might be available?"
The girl looked startled. She glanced from the car to Akira and back to the car again, before saying, "This car? But . . . um, well, I guess. I mean, I don't know. I can ask." Her tone was doubtful.
"That would be great," Akira said. "Do you have a number or something I could call when I get back?"
"Sure. Yeah. You could ask at GD. Ask Grace." The girl nodded, her uncertainty disappearing. "Grace will know. She'll be able to help you."