Chapter One - Living With Strangers
Keenan was used to living with hundreds of people. He no longer felt crowded, talked to himself, or went to therapists. Not that he liked it, mind you; given half a chance, he would have buried them all.
So stepping into a full elevator was a relief. They didn’t follow him, as a rule. Ironically, they detested crowds.
Keenan nestled into the throng like a warm winter coat, fiddling with the change in his pocket while he watched the glowing “1” above his head. The group smelled of new coffee, sweet perfume, and peppery deodorant. The only sound was the door swooshing closed. The metal box lifted with a jolt and rushed him to the twenty-third floor. The crush of humanity was somehow comforting.
When he stepped out, Keenan paused at the immense reception desk to check for messages. The huge plate glass windows behind the desk framed a glimpse of the Portland skyline and Mt. Hood looming gray and white against a cloudy blue autumn sky. The tilt of the earth must have been just right; the mountain filled the sky to the east, making the city look small and insignificant… like him.
The site didn’t make him feel any better. They would be waiting for him in his cubicle.
To postpone the confrontation, he decided to take his time getting there.
Standing at the coffee machine, he yawned and muttered a stifled morning to two half-awake fellow graphic designers stumbling past him. He tapped in a heaping teaspoon of creamer to make the coffee a nice tan, gave it a brisk stir, blew the steam away, and took his first sip.
Oh, yeah. Perfect.
When he turned around, an electric blast traveled down his back, paralyzing his legs.
There she was.
The name flowed through his neurons like fine brandy.
It took Keenan a microsecond to drink in the full extent of her dazzling loveliness. Since she was busy talking with one of the secretaries, he took his time appreciating every inch.
Flowing chestnut hair, fawn-like eyes, and lips that begged for a long hot hiss. He loved the way the black dress accentuated the enticing inward curve of Isabella’s back and the soft mounds of her ass. It took everything he had to keep from crossing the twenty feet between them and running his hands over those gorgeous contours. Keenan liked the way the dress isolated and displayed each of her delicious breasts. The dark line of cleavage peeking out at the top blended well with Isabella’s dusky Mediterranean skin.
Heat rose in Keenan’s cheeks. It had been a long time since a woman could arouse him with a glance. He liked that about her. Despite his pleading, his cock stiffened painfully on its own and crept up the inside of his pants. He had to shake his leg to get it to behave. It had been doing that a lot lately.
He remembered their first meeting two weeks ago: Isabella had appeared as if by magic at his cubicle, peeking around the gray fabric wall, and voicing a hardy, Hi, I’m Isabella, the new head of HR. I brought you your insurance package and…
Keenan didn’t hear what she said after that, finding himself distracted enough to go deaf. He would have made his move then, if his posse hadn’t intervened…again.
Isabella looked up at him now and smiled, the delicate lines around her eyes crinkling, and perfect white teeth bright against her dark skin. The slightest gleam of playfulness danced around that mouth. It caused his heart to drum an African rhythm against the inside of his ribs and his mouth smiled back insipidly. His brain ceased to function. Only last night Keenan imagined those lips kissing him, trailing down his chest, wrapping around the head of his…
He had to shake his leg a second time.
Since we’ve gone this far in my imagination, I guess I should ask her out. Yeah…it was the least he could do.
All right let’s go, buddy. Get your blood up. Move that leg. Just walk…right…over…to her and…
…and it was no good. That niggling little problem that shadowed most of his motivation went into full gear. His nerves crumbled into piles of broken resolve.
Isabella went back to her conversation and Keenan went back to his coffee, filling the void with another scenario…
“Good morning, Isabella. How’s your day going?”
“Oh,” she said in a breathless whisper, pressing her hot body into his and opening the first button on his shirt. “It would be much better if you’d rip my clothes off and take me right here, stud.”
“Oh…ok.” He ripped the front of her shirt open, exposing lovely bundles of…
The female shriek made him spill scalding coffee all over his hand.
Keenan’s fantasy went up in smoke and his cock shriveled. He set the cup down so he could grab a few napkins.
“Shut up, Agnes,” he sneered under his breath.
“Sinner! You will burn in hell for all your carnal thoughts, Keenan Swanson. Sinner. Spawn of the devil.” The disembodied voice behind him shifted to his right, but he didn’t bother to look. He knew there wouldn’t be anyone there.
“Constance…” His lips barely moved when two office execs flittered by him laughing on their way to a meeting. When they were gone, he jerked his thumb toward where he figured Agnes would be. “Please come get Agnes, will you?”
“Sorry, Kee.” Constance’s deep southern voice shifted in from the ether and reverberated from one ear to the other. “Come along, dear. Don’t bother the poor man. He’s trying to work. We promised, remember?”
A shimmering outline appeared at Keenan’s elbow and he had to jerk his arm away fast to avoid the blood freezing touch of those skeletal hands. When Agnes materialized, a shiver vibrated against his skull and arms. Only the top half of her appeared, but the lucent face staring up at him solidified, crowded by stacks of wrinkles and a cold, milky gaze. Why do they always look so creepy?
“Sinner!” Agnes shrieked again.
Another pair of hands appeared, wrapped around her shoulders, and pulled her back into nothingness. Agnes’s body faded, then her face, and finally those white accusing eyes.
Keenan whirled around and searched the cubicle walls receding like lines of staunch gray soldiers, but Isabella had disappeared. His heart dropped and he tried to relieve it with a misted sigh. No dice.
He knew he would see her later, so he played another scenario in his head to keep him company (she felt so nice in his arms). Grabbing what was left of his coffee in one hand and shoving the other into his pocket, he headed to his cubicle.
As he rounded the opening, Grumpy sat in Keenan’s chair, trying without success to touch the computer.
Grumpy was a new addition to the family, a tall black man without legs, and a creased bald head. Keenan figured the ghost used to work for the railroad because of the greasy overalls and engineer’s hat, but since he only swore, Keenan had no way of telling. The specter’s hands kept slipping through the keyboard and Keenan snorted a laugh.
“Sorry, old man, not today. Out of my chair.”
The apparition turned his face and got his mouth working. His hands flailed in the air above the keyboard, making the papers on Keenan’s desk whirl into a miniature tornado. A stream of muttered profanities filled the air around Keenan’s head. He covered his ears until Grumpy dissolved in pieces leaving only his mouth for a couple of seconds to finish the tirade.
When he vanished, Keenan blew out a breath and watched the cold billow of white drift through his cubicle. It dissipated once it warmed. He shook his head.
That cold spot never ceased to amaze him. Of all the hundreds of ghosts and ghoulies surrounding him every day, only a few generated that kind of cold, and he was still trying to figure out why. Even Constance didn’t know, though she thought it might have to do with strong emotion: anger, hate, fear, or sadness. It seemed to fit.
Keenan took his seat and turned his computer on to start the day’s work. He pulled a pile of clear envelopes towards him and thumbed through them. There had to be at least fifteen graphic design and rendering requests. Christ!
Keenan peeked into the first envelop looking for the DVD that should have been tucked inside with the layout. It wasn’t there, which meant he had to download the graphics from the server and fix the artwork before he could even start.
Why the hell don’t people follow instructions?
He slapped it down on his desk and yanked up the second. No DVD. This one he tossed across the desk, knocking over his pencil cup.
What do you know? An independent ‘disaster’ that doesn’t involve the dearly departed. He probably shouldn’t take it out on his work, but who gave a crap?
Gathering his pencils, he shoved them back into the cup, and decided he had seen enough. The thought of spending his precious weekend redesigning bad graphics and inane copy to sell pharmaceuticals to a gullible public made his hackles stand on end. He slammed his fist against his desk. Looks like another all nighter.
“Language, mon frère.”
Reggie materialized at his elbow, one hand on his hip, smoking a brown English cigarette with the other. Keenan rubbed his face to take the edge off his irritation.
He liked Reggie, in fact, he considered him his best friend. They had met in college where Reggie had terrorized the co-eds by stealing their clothes (while they were still in them) and he had taken an instant shine to Keenan. Reggie told Keenan that he reminded him of younger days long ago.
He was a good-looking man, as ghosts go: tall, thin, muscular, dark. His proper English gentleman façade masked the true scoundrel lurking beneath. A guy Keenan knew the ladies adored when he was alive. Hell, they probably still adored him dead. Who knew? He was always the consummate gentleman and scholar. He had been an anthropologist at the turn of the century and died in Persia during a dig, at least as far as Keenan could gather; if even half of what Reggie told him was true, the ghost’s experiences could fill a library of adventure books.
Reggie was what Keenan called a “solid” since he could see all of him and not just bits and pieces. It took him a long time to figure out that the longer a ghost had been dead, the more translucent it became. The solids were preferable to the really old ones, the ones he called “transes” since they were largely transparent. Those guys could make you piss your pants if you weren’t ready for them. That caused some embarrassing moments in Keenan’s past and earned him the nickname “Pissy” in high school.
God, he hated ghosts.
“Hey, Reg. How’d you do with the twins?”
Reggie floated into a side prone position a few inches above the desk. “Try as I might, I could not get them to feel me. But I had loads of fun attempting it.” He rolled his eyes. “Oh, those perfectly symmetrical tits.” He took another long draw on the cigarette and Keenan laughed. “You staying home tonight?” Reggie asked.
Keenan drew his brows together and folded his arm. “Yeah, like I’d have a date. Why?”
“No reason. I’m attempting the girls again.” Reggie tossed the butt into the ether where it disappeared. “Thought maybe you’d like to join me.”
“What? Spy on the twins?” Keenan snorted. “Putting aside the fact that I would probably be arrested for voyeurism, I’ve got all this work to do. Rain check?”
“As you wish.” Reggie got himself upright and adjusted his sleeves. “I’ll come over after. Might have something of interest to report. I’m feeling lucky.”
Keenan laughed at his friend’s persistence. A rustle from the next cubicle told Keenan his neighbor had just come in. Reggie tossed him a sloppy salute and disappeared. Keenan busied himself with the stack of requests.
A living head materialized above the gray divider. “What’s so funny?”
Keenan cleared his throat. “Just this email.”
“Send it over. I freakin’ love a good joke.”
“Sure thing, Mike.”
Keenan bit his lower lip and gave himself a mental smack to the head for not being more careful. People thought he had just stepped out of a loony bin as it was without adding disembodied conversations to the list. Not that he cared much what Mike thought, he had to remind himself. But the truth was Keenan was lucky anyone talked to him. Now he had to come up with something to email Mike.
“Hey, did you hear about Susan in accounting?” Mike asked. “Randy said he went out with her and…”
And so it began: the endless office gossip, the exchange of bad jokes, the politics, the lies. Everything Keenan hated about his job. Whenever he focused on the computer clock, it seemed to be moving backwards.
When lunch finally slogged in, Keenan decided he wasn’t going to work through like he normally did. His stomach and his nerves were both growling at him.
Four spirits, two solids and two trances, floated in and out of the cubical entrance playing some kind of tag. The group included a Chinese woman named Sadie who liked to turn herself inside out when she was upset, a clown they called The Bounce whose makeup had run together a long time ago, a little old lady without hands or feet, and Constance, the closest thing Keenan had to a sister…or a mother, if it came to it. His own mother had tucked herself inside a vodka bottle and he hadn’t seen her in years.
Constance broke off from the group and touched his hand. It went instantly cold and he yanked it away, wincing at the sting shooting up his arm. When it numbed Keenan gave it a quick shake to get the feeling back.
“Oh, sorry, Kee,” Constance said. “I always forget.”
He wondered if she really did forget. It was hard to tell with Constance. Her mothering instinct usually got the better of her and she hated not being able to comfort him with a touch. Those cow-like eyes studied him and her teeth shone like a lighthouse beacon from the elegant dark chocolate face. Since she only came up to his chin, he had to bend his neck to show her a loving smile.
“It’s all right, Cee. What’s up?”
The solid upper half of her sported, as it always did, a worn blue housecoat. Faded flowers speckled the fabric in pinks and greens, and a long half butcher’s apron completed the ensemble. Her salt and pepper hair (heavy on the salt) lined up in curlers that surrounded a plump kind face, making her look like an English barrister. She tilted her chin toward feet that had vanished into the other side a long time ago and her hands rested firmly over the apron. Unlike the others, Constance had the slightest white aura around her.
“Sorry about Agnes this morning. She can be a handful that one.” Constance lifted those lined old eyes and winked at him. “She didn’t spoil your chance with that girl, did she?”
Keenan let out a snort. “Cee, how is it you always know.”
Her dark eyes solidified when she folded her arms together and drummed her fingers against a substantial black bicep. “Oh, child, how long we been together? Nineteen years this summer. Remember? I think I know ya better than anyone, Kee.”
Constance wrinkled her brow and Keenan braced himself. Every time she did that, he could hear a lecture coming. He settled back to absorb it.
“This one’s special,” she said. “She’s not just for your bed. You gotta be careful, baby… there’s something else coming. Something important.”
That jovial round face puckered, and her eyes rolled back into her head. When an eerie light spilled from her hands, she lifted them towards him and her voice came from miles away. A sharp scent of something burning twitched at Keenan’s nose, the hairs on his arms stood at full alert, and a chill rushed from ass to neck, making his skin crawl.
“Ya got some strange times ahead, boy.” The words sounded like they were coming from behind him. “Your life’s in danger…ya could fall into darkness, yet light stands at the threshold. Always follow your heart, boy, even when your head tells ya no. Be mindful of strangers… and friends. Watch the night.” With a shudder that made her fade out and then back in, the old ghost gave her head a vigorous shake. The curlers clicked like a flock of birds. She squinted one eye up at Keenan and a broad smile traveled from ear to ear.
“Ooo, that was a good one. It’d make my Creole papa proud, conjurin’ like that.”
This was the only thing that drove Keenan nuts about Constance. Her father had been some kind of famous Creole voodoo priest from New Orleans. Because of that, Constance thought she was psychic. Problem was she really wasn’t. Not a single prediction had come true in the nineteen years he had known her. He would never tell her that, of course. He loved her very much.
“Sure, Cee. I’ll be careful.”
The other three apparitions slid in and out of the walls of the cubicles, exposing themselves to each other, hysterical with laughter. Keenan reached for his coat and tucked his arms into the sleeves.
“Listen. I’m going to lunch. Can you please keep the posse at bay for a bit? I need some space.”
“Sure.” She floated over to the group and whispered to them. They gave Keenan a dirty look, mooned him together, and flicked out of view.
Constance smiled and swirled into the fluorescent light above his desk.
Whistling an off-key tune, Keenan headed to the elevator.
When he got there, it was empty. He slipped inside, looking forward to being alone, if only for a few seconds. As the doors closed, a hollered “hold please” made him slam his palm against the rubber door jam.
A whiff of Isabella’s spicy scent entered before she did. He was certain it was just testosterone muddling his poor male brain, but she seemed to sashay into the elevator just for him. Keenan liked that about her.
“Going down?” he asked with what he hoped was his most charming smile, ignoring the innuendo.
“Yes.” The sweet hum of her voice made the muscles at his center jump, adding a log or two to the fire growing inside his pants.
A bright red blush traveled up Isabella’s cheeks making her eyes sparkle (with what he convinced himself must be desire). When she reached past him to hit the already lighted “1” button, a flash of cleavage sent his pulse pounding against his ears. Man, she was amazing. The thought of pressing her hot body against the cold elevator walls was almost too much.
“Isabella, isn’t it?” Keenan hadn’t seen a ring on her finger, around her neck, or a Love John Forever tattoo any place noticeable, so he assumed she was available.
“Right. You’re Keenan. We met the other day.”
Usually he didn’t have problems talking to girls, but now it was harder than it had ever been. A hundred witty comebacks crowded his brain for attention, but not one of them could make it past the lump in his throat. His growing cock wasn’t going to be much help either; all it wanted him to do was blurt out, “Ya wanna?”
Bracing himself against possible rejection, and telling his cock to shut the fuck up, Keenan gathered his courage and charged into the fray. “Say listen, if you’re not…”
The elevator jarred to a halt and the doors burst open in front of them. At least fifteen people piled into the box, disregarding the “maximum occupancy” sign.
Keenan hit his back hard against the railing and suddenly found his arms full of warm, healthy girl.
The sounds around him came to a crashing halt when he fixated on those gorgeous almond eyes and full red lips. The urge to devour that mouth was irresistible. He felt like he was home. Her balmy scent marinated his brain, clouding out everything else. The velvet skin of her naked arms made his palms tingle.
A sudden terror seized him when he realized his rod stood at full attention, shouting, “Yippee!” Since the crowd had crushed Isabella against him, she must have felt it jumping like an excited dog against her stomach. To Keenan’s amazement, she didn’t say a word and smiled sweetly up at him. Her expression was almost pleased. It boggled his mind.
“Sorry,” he managed after a few precious seconds.
He let go and fully expected her to scrunch as far away from him as possible, a murmured “pervert” escaping her lips. Instead, she slid up next to him and stayed attached to his shoulder, turning her lovely breasts to the doors.
Keenan had a hard time keeping his eyes off them, noting with interest that both nipples were little rocks against the black fabric. He forced himself to focus on the bald spot on the head of the guy in front of him. He hoped to God the man wasn’t pushed back; in Keenan’s current state, it might be difficult to explain what rested against the man’s ass.
“It’s all right,” Isabella whispered. “You were saying?”
“Oh. Yeah.” An irritating rush of fear crept into Keenan’s back and he had to fight to keep it out of his voice. “I wonder if you’d like to have dinner with me tonight.”
“Yeah, that would be great. I could pick you up at…”
“Actually, do you know The Hotcake House on Ninth?”
“How ‘bout I meet you there at ten on Sunday. All right?”
“Sure.” The schoolboy monosyllable stammering irritated the hell out of him, but Keenan couldn’t help it.
The elevator bounced to a stop and people poured out, pulling Isabella along with them. Keenan wanted to ask her to lunch next, but they drew her away from him in the rush.
When he finally disentangled himself from the retreating throng and an influx of new riders who almost trapped him, he scanned the lobby, but the girl was gone. Growling at the innocent air, he slammed a fist into his thigh and immediately wished he hadn’t. He grabbed a hotdog at the corner vendor and sulked the rest of the day.