Casey King’s luck wasn’t bad. It was plain awful.
She’d just settled into her cubicle after a long morning meeting when a fast delivery hand set a brown bag at the farthest edge of her L-shaped desk. Her stomach growled on cue, and like a wolf in the hen house, Casey snatched it, opened it, and peeked inside.
“Wait!” She grabbed the bag and sprinted as best she could in heels and a pencil skirt.
Sauce seeped through the bottom of the bag, as the stench of warmed meat assaulted her nose. Even with her long, quick strides, the elevator door closed in her face.
Great. They’d delivered some sort of cow sandwich. Casey spied the name of the intended recipient: Matthew Wilson. Could this day get any worse?
She glared for a beat then stomped back to her desk. Her mind wandered helplessly, as she like an unfed orphan, counted down the minutes until her official lunch break. The way she saw it, she had two options: face the notoriously rude head of accounting or starve. Her stomach growled loudly enough to turn her cheeks warm and to wonder if anyone had heard. Okay stomach, point taken.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t like her new risk management job. It paid most of her bills. The real problem was she hadn’t eaten a thing for breakfast. Her tiny new Atlanta apartment cost slightly less than her paycheck, leaving zero room for groceries. One of the hordes of problems with moving to a new state after spending her savings on foolishness. Her wallet was as empty as her stomach.
Using more money than she should’ve, she’d ordered a veggie sandwich from a trendy shop. A well-deserved Friday treat, she’d told herself.
Stalling, she stared at the flickering headline trailing across her computer monitor. Another Hollywood star coming out and claiming to be a Dream Walker. The fourth A-Lister this week to jump on that bandwagon. Unlike the others, this starlet didn’t blame vaccines. Good. One less report to write.
The real question: was she hungry enough to face Matt Wilson? He was the golden boy of the company. Moody, headstrong and absolutely no desire to speak to anyone, especially someone like her, a virtual HR nobody.
She’d once overheard one of the HR Barbie Dolls talking about him in the bathroom. “A hot numbers genius,” she’d called him. Apparently, HR Barbie had been rejected. She mentioned he’d been too focused on work to be bothered with people. “A self-centered jerk,” she’d called him. With a personality change, he might actually be handsome.
Casey’s only run-in with him had happened when the old CEO had retired last month. They’d all been invited to the exclusive top-floor reception. Everyone milled about, politely talking, when she and Matt Wilson grabbed the same pristine plate with a large piece of white cake. Rather than acting like a gentleman, he’d glared at her and pulled, yanking the cake free. He’d walked away without a word. Total ass, if you asked her.
Casey stood next to the elevators and glanced back at her cube. If she hadn’t spent every dime of savings on her stupid almost-wedding, then abruptly moved—putting a jaw-dropping deposit down on her Atlanta apartment—she’d toss the damn sandwich. Simple math told her she couldn’t. Her stomach told her it would revolt if she even thought about it.
Casey turned back toward the elevator, swiped her security card, straightened her shoulder, pulled her grey, V-neck sweater over the top of her navy skirt, and sighed.
This wasn’t good. This would end badly. Her hangry stomach took charge of her critical thinking. It was like rolling a twenty-pound bowling ball full speed inside a glass shop.
Inside the elevator, Casey pressed the top floor button then stared at her hands. Her once-polished fingers hadn’t seen a manicure since Kentucky. Well, in truth, since her wedding day. The day her world changed.
Riding the elevator, she concocted a plan. She’d waltz into his office, grab her sandwich, and be on her way. Easy.
When the doors opened on the top floor, the first guard-dog receptionist looked her up and down. Eyebrows up, the woman searched for her security badge. Casey lifted it from around her neck and flashed her picture. The woman’s frown said, why are you bothering the important people?
Casey marched past the woman without even a nod. She aimed for the glass offices and pressed a button. After a beat, the door clicked and opened. A cool breeze hit her, and shivers ran up both legs. The bought air was at least ten degrees cooler inside the plush executive offices. Symphony music hummed in the background, showering the creamy, luxurious couches in the empty waiting room.
With the company’s Autism Vaccine under fire every day in the news, the executives fought with the press and special interest groups constantly. Their high-stress jobs were equal to their outrageous salaries. She stood for a second looking around at the nameplates on the doors.
Executive Secretary, Bonnie was a short, dark-headed woman, who’d been with the company longer than most. She knew every soul in the building by name. She smiled brightly and rose when she spotted Casey.
“Good Morning, Miss King, can I help you, dear?” A sweet, Southern twang added flavor to her professionalism.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m looking for Matthew Wilson’s office?”
Casey didn’t miss Bonnie’s slight eyebrow twitch.
“Is Mr. Wilson expecting you?”
“No, ma’am, but I believe the sub shop switched our orders. I’m here to return his and retrieve mine.”
“Oh, alright. It’s kind of you to right their wrong.”
Casey nodded then followed Bonnie around two short hallways and past the CEO’s double door office. Matt Wilson’s nameplate hung on the wall beside a closed mahogany door. The secretary excused herself, leaving Casey alone at his door. She squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and knocked.
“Come in,” a gruff voice on the other side answered.
Casey turned the knob and pushed the door with her free hand. She waited for the stubble-faced man behind the computer screen to look up, but he didn’t. Nor did he say anything. Awkward. She glanced around. Should she just stroll up to his desk? She should’ve guessed he’d have no manners.
Shaking her head, she took a few more cautious steps into the bright, corner office, letting the door close with a click behind her.
His office would have been bright and cheery if he weren’t occupying the dark cloud in the middle. The twelve-foot ceiling was held up on two sides by walls of windows. She couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the glorious view of Atlanta’s skyline and bustling streets below. Warm sun glinted off the shiny buildings with a backdrop of bright blue sky. It looked like a postcard. She envisioned placing her easel right in the middle. Paint colors ran through her mind. Painting could temporarily make her forget about her aching stomach. It took away other types of pain too.
After another minute, when he still hadn’t acknowledged her, she turned toward his desk and cleared her throat. Nothing.
“Mr. Wilson, I—” Her voice wasn’t nearly as steady as she’d hoped.
“Sit down,” he commanded without even a glance her way.
Casey froze. Then glared. His command ran all over her. She wanted to make him say please. She’d made a promise to herself, nobody would make her feel worthless again. But this was business and his domain. With her jaw set in her best fake smile, she played his game. She sat gingerly in a chair opposite his large desk. And glared, willing him to look up.
His office was too quiet, no music, no noise, and empty except a desk strewn with papers in no apparent order. She observed him over the top of his laptop. Barely older than she, his brown hair was cut close on the sides and shaggy on the top. It had hints of red among the waves of brown. Strands hung dangerously close to his eyes, as if he was too important to be bothered with cutting it. From this angle, she had a clear view of his eyes. They were an odd shade of green, deep like the bristles of a pine tree.
He’d be easy on the eyes, if he wasn’t such an ass.
Moments ticked by uncomfortably as he typed furiously on his keyboard, never looking up or acknowledging her. The bag holding her veggie sandwich sat behind him on his credenza. She had half a mind to march over, switch the bags, and walk out.
Finally, she’d had enough. Casey stood up, straightened her skirt and balled her fists. “Mr. Wilson.”
His gaze snapped up, eyes glaring. “What?” He emphasized the ‘t.’ Casey pointed toward the bag behind him.
“The sandwich guy delivered what appears to be your meatball sandwich to me. Which means you have my vegetarian special. I need to make an exchange, please.” She’d meant for her voice to sound loud and powerful. It came off nervous and too high-pitched.
Matt Wilson rose. His eyes raked her up and down, taking in the full sight of the angry woman before him. The force of standing caused his rolling chair to shoot backward. He snatched up the sandwich bag behind him and looked inside. He was taller than her, but she’d worn two-inch heels. He’d have to be over six feet to be taller than her in heels.
“Vegetarian?” He scoffed as if it was a bad word.
“Yes,” she snapped, “I prefer not to eat diseased animals who’ve been dragged half-dead to slaughter. Any other questions?” She hadn’t meant to sound so damn snarky, but she couldn’t be responsible for her words or actions when all she could think about was food.
He froze, then raised his head toward her like a slow-moving crane. Their eyes met. Great. She’d overstepped.
“What’s your name?” his voice was silky and deceptively soft. Angry pine-tree eyes bored into her blues.
She took a small step forward and softened her voice, holding out her hand. “Can I have my sandwich, please?”
Matt turned the bag over in his hands and stilled when her name came into view. “Casey King, HR” he read, stretching out her name and smiling. He’d probably find pleasure in getting her fired.
She needed this job, but there was no way she’d let some snobby accountant make her feel inadequate. She’d had enough of that lately. Casey's stomach catapulted her forward. She took two athletic steps toward him, snatched the sandwich bag out of his hands, and in the same fluid motion, dropped his bag on top of his desk.
The look on his face was priceless: a mixture of disbelief and respect. His lips curved upward as if they had a mind of their own. They were in direct opposition of his angry eyes.
Casey turned and sped toward the door, swung it open and without looking back said, “Thank you, Mr. Wilson, nice doing business with you.”
As she strode down the hallway toward the glass doors, heart pounding, she heard him chuckle. Odd, but the jerk had a decent laugh.
When Casey got back to her cubicle, she half expected he’d chase her down and tell her off, but he didn’t. It took several minutes for her hands to stop shaking. She’d used most of her lunch time chasing down her sandwich, so she inhaled it at her desk.
Laughter and gasps rippled on the air like fog from the other side of the expansive HR cubicle room. She wiped the corners of her mouth after annihilating a few bites and raised up, easily peering over the grid of never-ending cubes. An enormous bouquet of red roses bobbed up and down toward a blonde whose name Casey couldn’t remember. The roses were placed on a shelf atop of the girl’s cube. The blonde squealed as a suited man, clutching a little black box appeared then dropped out of Casey’s view. The cheers from the gathered crowd indicated she’d said yes.
Casey flopped back in her chair and took another huge, un-lady-like bite. That kind of thing would never happen to her, well, not anymore. She rolled her eyes. If she could give the young woman one piece of advice, it’d be: save your money honey, it’s not worth it.
With a full stomach, seven phone calls returned, two wrongful-mind-reading claims logged, and a conference call down, Casey stretched and smiled. Almost time to go. She’d forgotten the sandwich episode until her desk phone rang. Janice. Her stomach fell. Janice was her direct supervisor. An image of Matt Wilson drifted across her mind.
“This is Casey,” she answered sheepishly.
“Hello, Miss King. Can you come in here for a second, please?”
Hesitantly, then quickly, she tidied her desk, stashed papers and pens and pulled out all personal items, gum, lip gloss, sketchbook, a picture of Pops and placed them in her purse.
The hostile terminations she’d seen in the two months she’d worked there had been swift and without empathy. Upper management didn’t give the employee even time to sign off their laptops before being escorted down to the first floor and chucked out onto Peachtree Street.
This was it. Bastard. Matt Wilson was a jackass. She hoped she saw him on the street one day. She’d trip his smug ass. Should have thrown his damn sandwich in the garbage and eaten crackers. She trudged toward the corner office, shaking, but managed to square her shoulders as a few other HR cronies watched from their cubes.
She rapped lightly on Janice’s door. After a second, she heard a clipped, “Come in.”
Everyone knew Janice was close to retirement. From her spiky, salt-and-peppered hair to her fashionable clothes and thin frame, she seemed younger than sixty-five. She was kind, sometimes, but with a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type personality. She could switch from being the caring boss and friend to blessing someone out in a nanosecond. Then switch back before you could say the word crazy. The week before, all of HR watched in horror as Janice paralyzed a newbie with her evil side. So far, Casey had only seen the nice side. That, she feared, was about to change.
Opening the door, Casey quick gauged which personality she was about to meet but stopped mid-stride. Sitting in one of the brown leather chairs in front of Janice’s pristine desk, was none other than sandwich-jerk himself, Matt Wilson. When she entered, he grinned. A shit-eating, you’re-about-to-get-fired grin at that. He rose like something bit him in the chair and stretched out his hand. Maybe he’d listened to a podcast on manners.
Casey shut the door, mostly so the gossips wouldn’t hear the torture of her being fired, but also to make it easier to ignore Matt’s outstretched hand. She cut her eyes at him then smiled at Janice as she sat. Janice hadn’t seemed to notice the hand snub because her goofy smile never faltered. She spoke formally.
“Miss King it seems you’ve made an impression on Mr. Wilson today.”
Janice had zero emotion on her face. The woman was maddening. The one time she needed either Jekyll or Hyde to rear her ugly head, and she had neither.
Casey scooted to the edge of her chair and turned her back on Matt Wilson. She addressed only Janice, speaking low, trying to win her over.
“Janice, it wasn’t my fault. I was only trying to get my lunch back.”
Even to her own ears, she sounded whiny. Like a first grader explaining to the teacher why she’d kicked someone on the playground.
She wanted to tell Janice Matt Wilson was a jerk, but out of the corner of her eye, she noticed he watched her, thoughtfully. A smile played on his lips.
Janice smiled. “Well, it appears fate is in your favor today.”
Confused, Casey glanced from Matt to Janice and back.
Mr. Wilson scooted toward the edge of his chair and turned his body toward Casey. Their knees touched briefly. Janice nodded and he began.
“M-Miss King,” he stammered, sounding nervous. Green eyes locked on hers. “We’re considering you for a department change. I need someone in accounting who can take charge. I’ve spoken with Mrs. Richards, and she indicates in your short time working with this company you’ve impressed her as a hard worker and quite dependable. With the …” he hesitated, “gumption, I saw today, I’d say you’re perfect for the job.”
Wait, what? Casey’s mouth dropped open. She stared at him like he was crazy. Was he offering her a job? Why would she ever consider working for a rude, angry man like him? The excuses tumbled out of her like a ripped bag of cat food.
“Mr. Wilson,” she began, brows furrowed, and head cocked to the side like a dog hearing a whistle. “I’m, I’m sorry, but I’m not trained in accounting.”
“I don’t need you to be.” His long, slender fingers arched to make a steeple while he shifted in his chair..
“My degree is in HR,” she argued.
“I’m looking for an office manager, Miss King, not an accountant.”
“I don’t even like balancing my checkbook,” she said mainly to Janice. Mr. Wilson grinned at her joke, but his eyes never wavered from hers.
“The job would be more personal than that,” when his eyebrow hitched, she leveled a look at him. Matt cleared his throat and continued, “It’d entail keeping me and my accounting staff on track, not numbers. Mrs. Richards tells me you primarily handle the facilitation of general liability claims. You deal directly with the individuals who were allegedly vaccine injured, correct?”
“For the whole company?”
“Then taking care of only a few people, rather than thousands should be simple for you.” Mr. Wilson rose. Casey stood too out of habit. “Send your resume to me within the hour. I’ll call you if I have questions.”
He brushed past her, nodded goodbye to Mrs. Richards, and shut the door.
Janice beamed. “I knew you’d do well here, dear.”
Janice fired up her computer and placed her glasses on the end of her nose. “Let’s see here, oh, yes. The job he offered is about, wow, two pay grades higher than the one you’re in, so you’re looking at a substantial pay increase.”
Janice took the glasses off her face and continued. “Not that I want to lose you, but it’s a good opportunity. Even though he’s inexperienced at running his own team, I’ve heard he’s a good boss.”
Casey gaped at Janice as if she’d sprouted wings. She couldn’t be serious. She pointed a finger toward the door. “Janice, I’m not sure there’s enough money on the planet to make me consider working with him. He seems odd … and angry.”
Janice’s eyes narrowed. Her other personality seemed about to rear its ugly head.
“You listen to me, young lady. You’d be an idiot not to work with him. He’s loved by the new CFO, whereas, well …” Janice trailed off, straightening papers and looking anywhere but at Casey. “We may have cuts coming and you know what they say, ‘last hired—first fired.’ Now, go find that sparkly resume I remember and get it sent up to accounting. Now.”
Janice stood, rushed around her desk, and opened the door for Casey who meandered like a zombie back to her cube.
More money. Well, that’d be fabulous. It might even end her lack-of-good-judgment-when-she’s-hungry rants. But working directly with him? His callous attitude towards others?
Casey sat down at her desk and numbly answered emails as the minutes ticked by. Stalling. She didn’t want to send her resume to this man, but something kept telling her it was the smart thing to do. The ding of an instant interoffice message rang out as a box appeared in the right corner of her screen. At the top, it said, Wilson, M.
She clicked to open it. “I haven’t received your resume yet. Why?” it read.
Pushy, angry man. She typed several inappropriate replies, but nothing sounded formal enough. Or kind enough.
“… Hello?” he wrote back within thirty seconds.
“Still trying to decide,” she typed, squeezed her eyes shut and hit send.
“What’s to decide?”
If she was thinking about working for him, she had to be honest, even if it meant the job offer was revoked. Honesty in any relationship, she knew all too well, was the only way she could operate.
“Waiting for someone friendlier to offer me a job.”
She bit back a fingernail and watched the screen like it was a bomb. Three dots indicated he was typing, but nothing came through.
She glanced around and thought about her life. She’d done this to herself. Allowed her ex-fiancé’s wants and needs to take precedence over her own. She’d allowed Rob’s friends and his interests to become hers. Lost herself, if she was being honest. She needed purpose and something to fight for. She, her cats, and Pops would be fine without the extra money.
Her stomach knotted as she waited. A ding dragged her gaze back toward her screen to read his reply.
“I’m much better with numbers than people. Therefore, I need someone like you. Someone who can keep me in line, remind me to be nice, and help wrangle the employees in my department. Send the resume or don’t. But decide posthaste.”
Casey sat, weighing her options. More money meant more canvasses to paint, a nicer car or even getting out of her bug-infested no-hot-water, tiny apartment. It might even mean travel, just not to Kentucky.
A few minutes later, she took a long deep breath and hit send with her updated resume attached.
At 4:30, Casey stowed her black heels and yanked on tennis shoes for her four-block walk toward the subway to catch her five o’clock train. She turned off her lamp and reached for her laptop to place it inside her bag, when it dinged.
She exhaled and read the incoming email from Matt Wilson.
“Miss King, I’d like to offer you the job. Below are the pay scale and expectations. Print them out, read them on the train. Get back to me tonight with your answer. I have other employees vying for this position and need to give them an answer. –M.”
She read it twice. It bothered her he knew she took the train. And yet, something low and rumbly told her it also meant he’d noticed her, which was flattering.
She printed out the offer, closed her laptop, and read as she walked through the lobby toward Peachtree Street. The cold spring breeze took her breath away as she walked out the revolving door. She zipped up her jacket and dashed past the shiny storefronts, four blocks toward the closest MARTA station.
Once she navigated the narrow concrete steps underground and swiped her monthly card, she found an empty spot to lean against the wall. She scanned the proposal and gasped. The dollar signs made her temporarily forget she’d be working for a rude boss. They were higher than Janice had read to her.
Someone knocked into her, causing her to topple over her rolling bag. On instinct, she grabbed his hand to help him up. He glanced up with both quick recognition and terror in his dark chocolate eyes. He blurted out an apology, pressed a card into her hand, and tried to sprint away. His face looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him.
Four green suited government officers carrying Billy sticks made an angry beeline toward him, overtook him, and tackled him a foot beyond her bag. They yanked him to his feet. Anger pulsed through her like never before. Her hand flew to her mouth as her body pushed toward the concrete wall. One officer pulled out a small glass instrument with a trigger on the bottom.
The other officers held him as he thrashed about, trying to get free. The crowd collectively stepped back, but Casey was against a wall, closest to them and as far back as she could be. The chatter in the subway hushed. Several cell phones were lifted above the crowd recording the event.
While the other officers detained him, one held the instrument over the man’s head and pulled the trigger. A few seconds later a red light appeared at the top of the instrument. The four officers grabbed the man’s flailing arms and pushed him up the steps to the outside world.
The crowd, including Casey, stared after them. Nobody spoke.
The witch hunt for Dream Walkers, which had once only been a rumor, had now become a reality on Atlanta’s busy streets.
Her hands trembled when she peeled open one and found a stark white card. One side had a strange symbol that looked like salamanders going in different directions. Flipping the card over, it had three simple words: Find “THE GHOST”