A Likely Story

By L.S. Taylor

A Ghost in the Machine
There’s something about the knots in a person’s back that tell a girl all about that individual. Leaning over my first patient of the morning, I shook my head as I worked his muscles with my hand. This guy was coiled tighter than a spring, and though my fingers were deft, I gave him a week before he’d be back, his shoulders tense as ever.

He whimpered as I freed a cluster of tangled nerves. I chuckled to myself and kept working.

“This isn’t therapy, it’s murder,” he croaked.

“It wouldn’t hurt if you’d relax,” I retorted.

The third of January, a Tuesday, marked the second day of my new job as on-site massage therapist for the staff of the Comet. To the rest of the world, I, Jacqueline Garcia, now work for a tabloid widely known as the sleaziest rag on the market. What most people don’t know is that the paper is a front to protect the world’s mysteries—be they aliens, mythical creatures, or anything in between—from humanity. I’d been hired for my particular abilities, and for the most part, that meant helping my new coworkers unwind. After all, holding a job you have to keep secret from your friends and family is naturally stressful.

Yesterday had been the usual corporate bullshit—filling out forms, touring the office, learning the locations of the emergency protection charms—but I’d also used the time to set up my office. In one corner stood an aromatherapy mister; far opposite that sat my computer desk. The massage table stood in the centre of the room, while harp music played on my iPod dock. With the rest of the day left for planning, organization, and a mandatory Undead Self-Defense tutorial, I didn’t have time to do much actual work, so I’d taped the sign-up sheet on my door and hoped for the best. When I got to work this morning, Grady Babbage’s name was at the top of the list.

“You’re trying to kill me,” he whined.

I leaned close. “Not on the first day,” I whispered. “That would be too easy.”

Grady rolled to a sitting position and grabbed his square dork-glasses from the table that held my iPod. “So you are a spy! Who sent you?”

“Whoa, there, cowboy,” I said, backing up a step and shading my eyes. Part of my practice dictated that my patients strip—they could keep their undies on if they wanted, but everything else had to go. I needed to work directly with the muscles to do my best job; the parts I didn’t work on were discreetly covered with a blanket. Grady, as I learned just then, had taken “gaunch optional” to heart. “I was only joking.”

It was true. I hadn’t had time to get to know many of my coworkers, but from what I could tell, they all had quite a sense of humor—necessary, I guess, in their line of work. But of humor, well, let’s just say that Grady had about as much of that as he had clothes on, at the moment.

He started to dress. “You’re going to regret this,” he snapped.

“Wait a minute.” I glared at him, trying to ignore the snugness of his tighty-whiteys on his skinny frame, or the curious pattern of scars on his side. “It’s only been twenty minutes.”

“So?” he huffed, brushing his hair aside as he reached for his socks. The man had a honey-brown ponytail that went halfway down his back, but I’d made him take it out for the massage. The tension puts too much strain on a person’s head, especially when they’re trying to relax.

“So, get back on that table.” I pointed. “I’m not finished with you yet.”

“Not on your life.” Grady grabbed his pants, tugged his belt tight, and pulled on his sweater as he stuffed his feet into his shoes. He was out of the room before I could protest, and as the door slammed in his wake, all I could think was, Shit.

* * *

I’m the sort of girl who, when I’ve got to remove a band-aid, I rip it off quick. So, after counting to three, I calmly opened my office door, crossed Grady’s name off the list, and peered out into the hallway.

At least three onlookers vanished into cubicles. Damn.

Shaking my head, I turned back to the list. Foster Hearst was next. His was a name I recognized, though I’d yet to actually meet the guy. When my twin brother, Eduardo, was eaten by a yeti, Foster had been his replacement. Eddie still didn’t like him all that much. I think it had to do with professional jealousy—or maybe it was the fact that Foster was the best buddy of Max Murdock, one of the few people at the Comet who I could already call a friend. But Eddie’s a ghost now, and I’m the only one on staff he can talk to directly, so he can’t do much but grumble.

See, that’s the other talent I was hired for—I can speak with the dead. Except for Eddie, I don’t see ghosts, but I can hear them. Eddie’s talent was the other way around, which is probably how he started working for the Comet in the first place. Our boss, Mr. Detweiler, makes a special effort to hire people like us, those whose “special circumstances” can be an asset to his team. To be honest, I was looking forward to the massage part of my job a whole lot more. I’m not exactly at one with my powers.

I closed the door with a sigh, and sat down at the computer. Detweiler didn’t skimp: the machine was state-of-the-art. I’d never owned anything half as fast. I supposed I could check my e-mail while I waited for Foster, maybe catch up on the recent staff Intranet posts. Except about a half-second after I hit the power button, the CPU gave a distinct sizzle.

With no other warning, the monitor burst into flames.

I had no time to curse; the ceiling above me opened up, dousing my desk in fire-extinguishing gunk. I’d have been covered, too, and possibly burned or shocked, but I’d recoiled at the first sign of danger.

Ghosts? I can deal with those. Spontaneous combustion? Not so much.

Screaming, I ran from the room—and straight into the stranger in my doorway. Maybe that’s why the first time I heard the laughter, I thought it was my imagination.

* * *

To give credit where it’s due, the guy recovered in record time. Sort of. Though my flailing elbow connected with his solar plexus, he was back on his feet in a matter of seconds.

“Sorry,” he wheezed, leaning heavily in the doorway. “I’ll—come—back—later.”

I cringed. He was taller than me—not that that’s saying much; I’ve always been short—with curly blonde hair and a goatee. A little on the skinny side, but not bad-looking. “Foster Hearst?” I asked hopefully.

He nodded and held out a hand, like he was trying to ward me off. “’Sokay. I know. I’m—pant—early.”

Aware of the onlookers, I steered him into my office. A cloud of smoke still hovered by the desk. I opened the window; January chill was preferable to the reek of barbecued plastic.

“Computer trouble?” he asked lightly.

I scowled. “A little bit, yeah.” As the air cleared, the scent from the mister took over the room. I wasn’t too surprised by the lack of a fire alarm; after all, the last thing the Comet needed was investigation from the outside. I shut the window and grabbed a fresh sheet of paper from the main drawer of my desk. Miraculously, the things inside had survived intact. “Fill this out, then take off your clothes.”

The guy blinked. “Fastest proposition I’ve ever had.”

Oh, come on, Jack. Anyone but him!

Of course, this would be just the moment for him to appear. Ghost he may be, but Eddie’s older than me by a full minute, and like any brother, knows just how to get under my skin. Contrary to his usual behaviour, he hadn’t been around to annoy me in the past few days. I thought he’d understood that I had a job to do, but I guess he was only biding his time.

“Stop it, both of you,” I growled. “I am not that kind of massage therapist,” I told Foster. Rounding on Eddie, I snapped, “You. Out.”

Also to his credit, Foster didn’t give me the Look. You know, the one where people stick your mug next to their personal definitions of “batshit”. Instead, he shivered. “Wow. Max said you could talk to ghosts, but watching you do it is a whole other experience.”

“You saw him?” I asked in disbelief, as Eddie vanished post-haste.

Foster shook his head. “No, but I had an idea. It’s cold in here, even if you did have the window open.”

Right. I keep forgetting, I’m not in Phoenix anymore. Here at the Comet, most of the staff are trained to expect the paranormal. I shook my head. “Just fill out the form, and strip down to your shorts. You want a massage, Mr. Hearst, those are my rules.”

He did so without further comment.

It occurred to me then that I was being a bit of a bitch. As he stretched out on the table—plaid boxers, I noted with approval—I said, “Look, I’m sorry. Today didn’t really get off to a great start.” I came around the table to set the iPod back to the first harp song. “The guy before you stormed off halfway through, calling me a spy. Then my computer blew up and—”

“Ah,” said Foster. “Grady, huh?”

I tossed the towel over his backside, and oiled up my hands. “How did you know?” I gave the paper form a cursory glance; rules were rules, but like any decent masseuse, I could feel his tension on my own. No surprise there: typical of a desk-bound journalist, his shoulders and lower back were tight. I began work.

“Ahh,” he repeated, this time for more obvious reasons. “Grady’s the IT guy, and the least trusting person on staff.” He turned his head. “Though he’s never actually set anything on fire before. I’m surprised. Those machines are his babies.”

I waited a moment before giving reply. First, I had to take a deep breath: one must never take one’s frustrations out on one’s patient. Working steadily on the spot beneath his right shoulder blade—a haven for knots—I let the harp music, a Celtic ballad, sooth my frazzled nerves.

It might have worked, too, but that’s when things went haywire.

The music—the ballad came to a close, and now I heard the first strains of Loreena McKennitt’s “Lady of Shalott”—switched playlists, with no help from me. I can’t blame Foster; when “Highway to Hell” started blaring through the dock, I jumped just as much as he did.

“AC/DC?” he asked, sitting up.

“I work out to it,” I snapped. “But I didn't touch that thing!”

Foster shrugged. He looked about to say something, but the door crashed open. “Spy!” Grady pointed an accusing finger in my direction. “You did this!”

My anger returned in a flash. “Excuse me?”

“Don’t play innocent with me, woman,” he yelled. “You sabotaged the network! You melted my server!”

I blinked. “With what machine?” I flung a hand out at the remains of mine. “Or did you forget about your own handiwork?”

Grady sobered. “I didn’t do that.” Glaring anew, he said, “You did it to make yourself look innocent!”

“Oh, like I’ve had time?” I asked, as the room grew cold. The temperature change never bothered me, but I gritted my teeth. The last thing I needed right now was Eddie’s sarcastic commentary. “You’re a real piece of work—”

He’s my piece of work, said a voice in my ear.

Naturally, Mr. Detweiler stormed in then, his unibrow creased in fury. “Garcia. Babbage. Hearst. What the hell is going on here?”

“Spy!” Grady cried. He might as well have been foaming at the mouth. “She’s out to kill us all!”

“Actually, Boss—” began Foster.

“Quiet!” I barked.

Everyone stared at me. I heard the voice again, mocking me with feminine laughter.

“Mr. Detweiler,” I said slowly, “We’ve got a poltergeist on our hands.” I turned to Grady, feigning a smile. “She says she’s yours.”

* * *

Bean Baby’s, the local coffee joint, was packed. By virtue of being the boss, however, Mr. Detweiler had secured a table in the back. Crowded around it with him were myself, Grady, Foster, and Foster’s partner, Max Murdock.

Evacuating the building hadn’t been too hard, seeing as how three quarters of the staff were already gathered outside my office. “Everyone out,” Detweiler had announced. He was his own PA system. “Code Six, people. Leave all electrical devices at your desks.”

It being January, most employees had gone straight for the promise of a warm drink. I didn't know where my non-human colleagues had gone, but I got the impression that they had their own arrangements. In an act of unspoken obedience, everyone in the coffee shop gave our table a wide berth. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about my coworkers so far, it’s that they actually treat our boss with respect.

Eddie appeared beside me. Yep, he said. It’s Rose, all right. Grady, you poor bastard. Always one to show up when there’s drama, he’d returned as we’d fled the building. I had sent him right back inside.

“Rose?” I asked aloud.

Max whistled. Everyone looked at Grady.

The guy was a wreck. Behind his dorky glasses, his eyes were red-rimmed, and he clutched a mug of hot chocolate like it was the last vestige of hope. “Rose is dead,” he whispered.

Obviously, I nearly said, but I stopped myself. Not even he deserved that response. “Who was she?”

“Grady’s fiancée,” Max supplied, “and from what I’ve heard, our best undercover agent. She was killed about a year before your brother, Jack, just after I joined the team.”

“The Crafters got her,” said Grady.

I glanced around the table. “Crafters?”

“A secret organization that controls the mainstream media,” said Detweiler. “One of the worst. Rumour has it they’re behind the Nielsen ratings.”

“So that’s why my favorite shows always get cancelled,” I growled.

“Rose managed to infiltrate them, but her cover was blown. I was her technical backup. I didn’t—” Grady’s voice broke. “I couldn’t save her in time.”

Well, that explained why the guy was so suspicious. “So what does she want?”

“She attacked your computer, right?” said Foster. “And Grady’s stuff right after that.”

I looked at him, confused. “Yeah, so?”

“So, didn’t you say Grady was your first patient today?” Foster chuckled. “Wow, man, I’ve heard of jealous exes, but this really takes the cake.”

* * *

“Are you sure about this?” “Not really,” I told Grady, as we climbed the stairs to the second floor. “My poltergeist experience is rather limited. But when it comes to the departed, unfinished business does tend to be the theme.”

Behind us, Foster started whistling the Ghostbusters theme. I narrowed my eyes.

“You ever want a massage from me, Foster, you’ll stop that this instant.”

“Yeah, not like you’ll get any from Ito,” teased Max.

The whistling ceased, and I didn’t ask. Foster was cute and all, but even if I were to violate my personal “no coworkers” dating policy, I was still madly crushing on a girl in reception. I’ve tried to avoid getting involved with fellow employees, though, ever since the time, at my old job, that I slept with both the new guy and his girlfriend in the space of a week. Hey, it’s not like they told me they were dating.

Detweiler had sent the four of us to deal with “the technical problem,” as he’d taken to calling it at the coffee shop. I was the medium, and Foster and Max were the backups. As for Grady … well, I could only hope he’d talk some sense into this Rose chick. I wasn’t that fond of fearing for my life.

“So what am I supposed to do?” asked Grady.

I shrugged. “That depends on Rose. It might help to find out why she’s haunting you.”

Grady pulled the door open with a sigh, and we all filtered into the room.

The office was eerily quiet. Honestly, if I hadn’t known the place was haunted, I’d say it looked like nothing more than your average workplace: eggshell-white walls, rows of grey panelled cubicles. Splashes of colour—posters, figurines, family photos and even, in some cases, lava lamps and wispy scarves—were everywhere. They encouraged individuality here. The halogen lighting buzzed overhead.

Everyone looked at me. "What?"

"Y—you're the one who can talk to ghosts," Grady whined.

I shook my head. "Anyone can do that, if the ghost is present," I explained. "It's hearing what the ghosts have to say back to you that's the problem."

Pale-faced, Grady nodded, then turned to the rest of the room. "Rose?" he whispered. Then, louder, "Rosie?"

I'm here, I heard the voice say. You're with that woman again!

"Hey," I snapped. "This woman is here to help you."

The air rippled, and I blinked. This should not have been happening.

Before me, the ghost appeared.

I swallowed, hard. My powers didn't cover this. Seeing ghosts had been Eddie's thing, not mine, and now that he was dead, he used that power to make himself visible to me. Since when had that changed?

Rose strutted over to me. Dressed head to toe in black leather, she was a looker. She was—she'd been—a gorgeous redhead, half a head taller than me, with jade green eyes and lashes to kill for. So you can see me, she said, crossing her arms.

I shrugged.

Who are you, anyway? And what were you doing with my Grady?

I glanced about the room. Eddie's presence might have been useful about now. Ghosts, I had no problem with, but poltergeists were another thing entirely. They didn't just manifest, they wreaked havoc wherever they went.

(Don't argue with my definition of poltergeist. I know some people think they're simply a manifestation of nasty psychic energy. Those people haven't had to deal with a dead classmate on a high school ski trip damn near causing an avalanche.)

"I'm a massage therapist," I replied, fighting to keep my calm. "I work here."

Rose closed the gap between us, inspecting me with disdain. Hmph. Behind her, an army of telephones, CPUs, monitors and printers hovered above the cubicles. I could see beads of sweat on Grady's face; Foster was white. Max stood stock still, his jaw set in a grimace.

Grady yelped a little. "R—Rose?"

She whirled to face him, and the office electronics began to spin in place. You! she cried. I trusted you!

Grady blanched. Either Rose didn't need a translator, or Grady could feel the waves of anger that clogged the air. "Rosie," he whimpered. "I tried to warn you, but it was too late. They hacked my system!"

The machines began to rotate now, slowly at first, then speeding up with the poltergeist's rage. So you left me there. Why didn't you come after me? Her attention was completely on Grady now; nervously, I repeated her words aloud.

"But I did!" he cried into the swirling maelstrom, which threatened to descend upon us any moment. He yanked off his sweater, revealing the pattern of scars across his left side that I'd noticed that morning. "I tried to," he sobbed. "They had tasers. I couldn't save you, Rosie. I'm sorry!"

The electronics froze in midair, hovering ominously. And this woman? she asked, pointing at me. Like anyone confronted with a truth they needed time to absorb, she was changing the subject.

"Hi," I said, waving. "Still here."

Instantly she faced me again. The machines trembled. What do you want with him?

"I told you," I snapped. "I work here."

He's mine—

"Oh, for crying out loud, woman. Take a look at me. Isn't it obvious that I don't play for that team?"

It was a small lie, but necessary. I play for both teams, in case you hadn't figured it out, but Rose didn't need to know that.

Her shoulders slumped, and with them, the office equipment fell to the floor with a cumulative crash. With a small smile, I held out my hand. "The name's Jack Garcia. I hear you used to work with my brother."

As if on cue, Eddie chose to appear just then. Rose, she's telling the truth.

The anger vanished from the room so suddenly that I blinked in surprise. Ghosts didn't cry, but Rose looked like she wanted to. All these years, she whispered. I thought you abandoned me, Grady.

For a second time I didn't have to translate. It was as if the man sensed he was being spoken to. "I still love you, Rosie. I always will."

There was silence in the room, then, though Foster had the look of a deer about to be struck by an SUV. Max shook his head, as Eddie floated over to take Rose by the hand. It's time to go, honey, he said.

Rose nodded. She glanced over her shoulder at Grady. Love you too, baby.

I repeated what she said, and Grady's hand flew to his mouth. Solemnly, he nodded, too, as the pair of ghosts vanished.

"So is it over?" Foster whimpered.

"Until our next haunting," I joked. Everyone glared at me. "Just kidding."

* * *

Downstairs, the receptionists had returned to their stations. I gave Brenda a cheery smile and a thumbs-up as I passed, wondering once more if I would ever get the courage to ask her out, and if it was worth breaking my own rules to do so. Hey, even I have hangups.

Brenda's cohort, Andrea, smiled in perfect innocence. “Quite the racket from upstairs, eh? What happened?”

I shrugged. Unlike most of the Comet staff, Andrea was one of the few who hadn’t yet signed the company’s Non-Disclosure Agreement. I’d been warned about her. She had no idea about what really went on at the paper. “Just a little computer trouble,” I muttered.

Foster, of all people, snickered. “You could say there was a ghost in the machine.”

* * *

There’s something about the knots in a person’s back that tell a girl all about that individual. Leaning over my first patient the following morning, I smiled as the tightness vanished with a few deft strokes. A lot had changed in twenty-four hours, and I could tell that this patient was a lot more relaxed than the last time I'd seen him.

"Ahhh," he sighed.

I chuckled. "No murder accusations today?"

He propped himself up at once. "Oh, I'll still have to check you for cabal affilliations," he said seriously. "Standard procedure, you understand."

I pushed him back down to the table. "Mm-hmm."

"You can never be too—aaah—careful," he muttered, as my elbow freed another cluster of tensed nerves.

I just shook my head. You could save a guy from a haunting by his former fiancée, but you couldn't change a guy's basic nature. It was Grady's nature to be suspicious of everyone he met.

"Jack?" he murmured.

I blinked. It was the first time he'd called me by name. "Yeah?" I said, digging into his lower back.

"Thanks for everything. With Rose, I mean."

I grinned. I still didn't know why my powers had changed, why I could see ghosts as well as hear them, but for the first time since I'd agreed to take this job, my special abilities didn't seem quite so bad. "No problem," I told him easily. "All in a day's work."