Marley Jacobs is dead. Dead as a doornail. She’s not calling anybody. I don’t know what just happened or who did it or how they did it, but I know I did not just have a conversation with my dead boss. I don’t believe in unicorns, UFOs, and definitely not ghosts.
Although I have to admit, what happened just now felt very real.
There’s no chance of sleeping, of course. I have one of the most important presentations of my life in less than twelve hours, but instead of getting a decent night’s sleep, I’m lying awake in bed, trying to figure out what just happened.
The first thing I do is try to call Marley back. When I hit the number in my phone, a voice informs me that the number is out of service. It’s the same voice I heard several weeks ago when I tried calling Marley’s number. Back then, I had been calling just to hear the sound of her voice on her voicemail message. I thought it would be reassuring.
In any case, calling the number doesn’t give me any new information. And it’s certainly not reassuring.
Was it a hallucination? Even though I did pinch myself, I’m not going to eliminate the possibility that it was all some sort of crazy dream. After all, I ate a lot of nachos. And those nachos were pretty loaded. Spicy foods tend to give me nightmares. Spicy foods and pickles.
But it really did feel like it was happening. I don’t think I was dreaming.
So that leaves one last possibility: it was all an elaborate prank.
Let’s face it—the list of people who might be eager to play a terrible prank on me is a mile long. I’ve managed to make a lot of enemies recently. And I think that list has doubled in the last twenty-four hours. But none of those people have access to my phone. There’s only one person who has touched my phone in the last few hours.
He had my phone in his hand, unlocked. He hates me—that goes without saying. He had both motive and opportunity. And expertise—he’s a computer science teacher, after all. Granted, I have no clue how he could pull off such an elaborate ruse. But there’s nothing else that makes sense. Aside from the ridiculous possibility that Marley’s ghost actually called me on FaceTime.
By the time morning rolls around, I’ve convinced myself that Tim had to be behind this. And honestly, it’s in really bad taste. Maybe there was no chance for the two of us to have a relationship together, but this is beyond low. And I’m not going to let him get away with this. He needs to know I’m onto him.
Luckily, I never deleted his number from my phone.
Even before the sun is up, I click on his number. There’s a distinct possibility I’m waking him up, but I don’t care anymore. It rings three times before a sleepy male voice answers, “Hello?”
I did wake him up. Well, good. “I know what you did.”
Tim clears his throat on the other line. “Who is this?”
“You know who this is.”
There’s a long pause. “Ebbie?”
My breath catches slightly at the sound of him saying my nickname. Usually, it bugs me when people call me that. But somehow, I like the way he says it. “I know you messed with my phone.”
“Don’t play dumb. You have some nerve.”
At this point, he’d be within his rights to hang up on me. But to his credit, he doesn’t. Is that a sign of guilt? “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“That call at three in the morning? I have no idea how you did it, but it was really in bad taste. And you said I was a horrible person…”
“Ebbie.” His voice is quiet and measured. “I didn’t call you at three in the morning. I don’t even have your number.”
“So you’re seriously telling me you didn’t call me in the middle of the night, pretending to be Marley Jacobs?”
There’s another pause, this one even longer than the first. “Someone called you pretending to be Marley Jacobs?”
“Yes!” I exclaim. “On FaceTime. It’s not like I don’t miss Marley enough. But to actually pretend to be her and to make me think she’s out there somewhere and that I…”
Oh great, now I’m crying. This is so embarrassing. Trust me—I never lose my composure like this. That’s what only a few hours of sleep will do to you.
“Jesus, Ebbie…” His voice is softer now. “I can’t believe somebody did that to you.”
“Really? Because you seemed to think I deserved it last night.”
“I…” He’s quiet for a moment. “Fine. I did think that. But… Look, if somebody you work with has been messing with your phone to try to scare you, that’s a big deal. You say they were pretending to be your old boss?”
“Yes. They made it so the call was coming from her number and everything. It was…” I shiver, remembering how real Marley looked on the screen of my phone. “It was really awful. I don’t know how they did it. Do you think the guys at the Apple store might know?”
He snorts. “I doubt it. But… I mean, I could take a look.…”
Tim is offering to help me? After last night, I was sure he would never speak to me ever again. This is a real reversal. I want to believe he’s just being a nice guy. According to Roberta, he is a good guy. But I’m the one who fired his mother. Why would he help me?
“Sure,” he finally says. “I’ve got nothing to do during school vacation anyway.”
I run a hand through my hair, which is a greasy mess of tangles. “When could you come over?”
“Just give me time to shower, and I’ll drive right over. I could be there within the hour.”
I shouldn’t let him do this. I could see how angry he was at me last night. No good could possibly come out of the two of us interacting again. Yet I’m really freaked out over that phone call. If there’s any chance he could find out who is behind it, I’m willing to risk it.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll be here.”
Tim shows up at my door looking like I woke him up too early, dragged him out of bed, and made him rush over here. Which I suppose is exactly what happened.
His light brown hair is as messy as it could be, given it’s pretty short. He’s wearing a button-down blue shirt, but it’s buttoned wrong—in his haste, he must have missed a button. He lets go of one of his crutches to adjust his glasses on the bridge of his nose. He still looks really hot, in spite of everything. I’d been hoping that in the light of day he might not be as attractive as he was at the bar last night. But no.
“Thanks for coming,” I mumble. I’ve also showered and dressed in the power suit that I wear for all my important meetings, but somehow I still feel greasy and tired. I can almost feel the purple circles under my eyes. I put on my favorite power lipstick—Ruby Woo—but it doesn’t make me feel better. I would give anything to postpone this meeting by a day or two.
He nods, not bothering with a hello. “Where is the phone?” he asks.
I dig it out of my purse and hold it out to him, but he just looks at it. That’s when I notice the way his hands are gripping the handles of his crutches. “Would you like to sit down?”
“Gee, you think?”
He limps over to my sofa and collapses onto it with an ungraceful plop. I unlock my phone and hand it over to him, much like last night. If he really is the one who is behind the FaceTime, I’m opening myself up to something much worse right now. But I don’t believe it was him anymore.
“Do you want some water?” I ask.
“I could make you some breakfast…”
“This won’t take long.”
“It’s no trouble.”
I don’t know why I said that. I haven’t made myself breakfast in at least three years. I’m just throwing three years out there as an estimate—it could be as long as six or seven years. The point is, I’m not any kind of breakfast gourmet. Breakfast for me is a cup of coffee with or without a toasted bagel eaten while standing up. I’m certainly not going to impress this guy with my breakfast cooking skills.
Tim probably realizes this. But he lifts his blue eyes from my phone, and for a moment, they connect with mine. “Okay, sure,” he says. “Breakfast would be good.”
Oh great. Now I have to make breakfast.
I leave Tim with my phone to venture into the kitchen. In Manhattan, a kitchen is considered large if you could fit a table in it. So by that standard, my kitchen is very large. That said, the only thing I use it for is brewing coffee and storing things in the refrigerator. And I suppose I microwave things too. I’m not sure I’ve ever even turned on the oven.
Well, today will be a first.
I search the freezer first, hoping there’s some sort of frozen waffle that I can pop in the toaster and call it a day. No such luck. I look in the cabinet above the sink, but the only thing up there is the cleaning supplies used by my cleaning woman every Wednesday… and also a lot of cat food.
I can’t serve Tim cat food. That goes without saying.
I check the refrigerator. Well, I’ve got butter. And bread. I can make toast. There’s nothing wrong with some good hearty toast.
I pop two pieces of toast in the toaster, then I peek out of the kitchen. Tim is peering down at the screen on my phone, a deep crease between his eyebrows. He’s tapping on the screen with his right thumb and rubbing his left knee with his left hand.
“Did you figure it out?” I call to him.
“Uh…” He clears his throat. “Not really. Not yet. Give me another minute.”
I’m glad he’s here, trying to figure this out for me. I’ve never dated a guy who is really good with computers before. Not that Tim and I are ever going to be dating. But still. It’s comforting to have him taking charge of the situation. When you live alone, sometimes that’s all you want—somebody who you can hand a problem to and say, please take care of this for me. And then they do.
I go back to check on the toast, and I’m not sure how it happened, but during this short amount of time, it’s gotten burnt to a crisp. The whole kitchen smells like burnt toast. I pull the pieces of bread out of the toaster, singeing my fingers in the process. See, this is why I always get takeout.
I take out a butter knife from the utensils drawer and scrape off most of the burnt part. It’s not that bad. Especially with the butter. I put the two slices on a plate, arranging the less burned piece on top.
I carry the plate of toast out to the living room and place it unceremoniously on the coffee table. Tim looks at the bread, smirks slightly, and doesn’t make a move to reach for them. I suppose I can’t blame him.
“So here’s the deal,” he says. “The number you got a FaceTime call from? The last person that number was registered to was Marley Jacobs.”
I shiver. “So…?”
So Marley actually called me from beyond the grave?
“So that means somehow whoever did this was able to mimic a call having come from her number.” He clicks on her number and it brings up the same message I got. “Obviously this is no longer a working number. Nobody was really calling you from this number. It’s all a trick.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m thrilled he came up with an explanation that doesn’t involve me being crazy or Marley being a ghost. I don’t think I could deal with either of those possibilities right now.
“It really did look like her though,” I say.
He nods. “Some of these filters out there are incredible. I mean, look at the filters on Snapchat. It really looks like you’re vomiting a rainbow.”
I laugh. “I don’t use Snapchat. I’m too old for that.”
“Oh, me too.” He smiles crookedly. “But remember, I’m around sixteen-year-olds all day long.”
I hug my arms to my chest. “You don’t know how relieved I am. I mean, I’m not happy somebody was playing a trick on me, but the alternative…”
“We need to get to the bottom of this.” He taps a few more times on the screen of my phone. “I sent all the call information to myself. I have a friend who’s really good at figuring stuff like this out. I bet I could figure out where the call came from.”
“Really? That would be amazing.”
“Yeah, well…” He shrugs, that crooked smile still on his lips. “It was a really shitty thing somebody did to you. You should know who it is.”
“Well, thank you for helping me. Even though…” I don’t want to finish that sentence. He knows what I mean.
I chew on my lower lip. “How is… How is your mom holding up?”
His eyes darken. “Do you really want to know?”
“Yes. Of course I do.”
I mean it. I’m worried about Roberta. Yes, I didn’t want her to be my secretary anymore. But I still feel awful about the way I fired her.
“She’ll be okay. She’s tough. This isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to her.” He reaches for his crutches, which are leaning against the sofa. My leather sofa is so plush and deep, it takes him two tries to get back on his feet. He lets out a sigh as he adjusts his grip. “I’ll give you a call later, okay?”
I had been hoping maybe he’d suggest we could meet up for dinner. But I hadn’t really thought he would ask. “Okay.”
He looks me up and down in my power suit. “Good luck on your presentation today.”
I squint at him. “How do you know about that?”
“My mother told me. The chocolate guys, right? She made this whole plate of chocolate chip cookies for the presentation. She left it in the refrigerator at the office.” He looks up at me. “You should bring them to the meeting. My mother makes the best chocolate chip cookies.”
I don’t want to be mean and tell him the executives at Danvier Chocolates don’t give a shit about his mother’s chocolate chip cookies. But he’s not an idiot—he can see the expression on my face.
“It was just a suggestion,” he says. “It’s almost Christmas and everybody loves chocolate chip cookies. Right? It can’t hurt.”
I nod, even though I have no intention of using those cookies. They’ve probably already been eaten anyway.
“So I’ll call you later,” he says. “If you find out any more information or get another call, let me know.”
Except what I really want to say is that I’m sorry for what I did to his mother. That I want to start over again. That I want to have another night like last night. Not just one other night. Many more nights. I want to have dinner with him, and then breakfast next morning. (Except not the toast I cooked. Nobody’s eating that.)
But instead, I just stand there.
“Bye, Ebbie,” he says.
I usually pride myself on being very put together at work. Even when the guy I had been dating failed to call me (an unusual occurrence since I rarely date) or I was fighting off a cold or whatever else, I always came to work and gave one-hundred-ten percent. That’s what Marley taught me.
Today I’m a mess.
I could have dealt with that whole disaster with Tim. Yes, that was hard. I don’t meet many guys I like as much as I liked him, and to have it explode in my face so quickly was a real blow. But I could’ve tucked that into the corner of my brain and dealt with it after hours. If Tim was the worst thing that happened yesterday, I’d be fine.
But getting a call from my dead boss is a whole other ballpark.
Despite Tim’s reassurances, it felt so real. Like I was really talking to Marley. Also, she knew things about me that only Marley would know. And she talked like Marley. If this is a trick, whoever is doing it is some sort of genius.
So maybe it’s a dream. That’s the only other solution I can come up with. But if it was a dream, why is there a record of the FaceTime call on my phone?
When I walk into the office, I look like a mess. My hair refused to behave this morning. I always style my straight brown locks into a French twist, but my butterfingers couldn’t seem to do it this morning. I finally just went with a simple bun, but the hairs keep escaping. I tried a little mousse, but it didn’t help. Finally, I stuck a few bobby pins in there and called it a day.
Also, whenever I look in a mirror, it’s hard to ignore the dark purple circles under my eyes. I look like I haven’t slept in a week. This is not the impression I want to give for my presentation. In this field, you need to look young, enthusiastic, and dynamic. Right now, I look old and tired.
On the plus side, nobody said anything about the broken ornaments from the Christmas tree. Everyone probably assumed they just fell off and broke.
When I get to my desk, I sit down to check my emails. The first one that pops out at me is from Nicholas Danvier. Charles Danvier is the founder and CEO of the company, but he’s eighty years old if he’s a day, and his children seem to be calling most of the shots these days. Nick is a smart guy, and also a terrible flirt. The fact that he’s coming to the presentation today is all the more reason I need to look my best.
Looking forward to your presentation today at three. As usual, I expect great things from you!
Well, I’m not at my best, but the presentation should speak for itself. I’ve spent ages on it. This is the presentation that’s going to get me Marley’s old job. I will not fail.
As I’m reviewing the presentation one last time, I hear a knock on the door. The sound sets off a sharp jab of pain in my right temple. “Come in!” I call.
The door cracks open. It’s Courtney. As I look into her smiling, heart shaped face, all I can see is Richard’s tongue jammed down her throat.
“What is it?” I snap at her.
“So, um…” She wrings her hands together. “Can I sit down?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Courtney gingerly settles down into one of the chairs in front of my desk and crosses her legs. Her red skirt is too short, but she’s young enough to get away with it. I try to remember how old Courtney is. Twenty-seven? That sounds right.
“So here’s the thing,” she says. “I know you said we should be working on the chocolate account on Christmas Day, but it honestly didn’t occur to me we were going to have to come in that day. I’ve got all these family members coming in and we always have this big celebration for the holidays. It’s really important in my family.”
I stare at my computer screen so I don’t have to look at her smiling face. “I don’t hear a question in all that.”
“It’s just… I was wondering if there’s any chance I could have Christmas Day off from work?”
“Courtney,” I say patiently. “Do you understand what a huge account this is?”
She nods eagerly.
“And you understand the amount of work that is going to be involved, right?”
She nods again.
“I’m not going to force you to come in on Christmas Day.” I peer at her across my desk. “But you have to ask yourself what’s more important: your work or having the day off for a celebration? You’re going to have to choose.”
“But I work very hard!” Two little circles appear on Courtney’s cheeks. “You know I do, Elizabeth! And I’ll stay late on Christmas Eve. I’ll be here first thing in the morning on December twenty-sixth.”
“If that’s your priority, then go ahead. But other people will be here on Christmas Day. People who care more than you do.”
Her eyes drop. This job is important to her, but how important? For me, it was always an easy decision. Especially after my mother was gone. There was nothing else in my life. I put everything I had into this job, and it paid off.
“I… I guess I’ll be here,” she mumbles.
“Glad to hear it.” I raise an eyebrow at her. “Also…”
Her eyes widen. “Yes?”
“Your skirt is far too short. Please don’t come in wearing something so inappropriate ever again.”
Courtney sucks in a breath. She tugs at the hem of her skirt as her cheeks turn fully pink. I’ve worn skirts even shorter, but she doesn’t know that.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth,” she says.
“Don’t let it happen again.”
Her chin wobbles. She looks like she’s holding in tears. I wish I could say I feel some satisfaction in making her almost cry after the way she was kissing Richard last night, but I don’t. After all, she doesn’t know about the history I have with Richard. She doesn’t know I was watching them.
Nothing will make me feel better until I land this account.
While I’m eating my lunch at my desk—a salad from Chopt—my phone buzzes. I look at the screen and automatically smile when I see Tim’s name. He’s calling me. That was quick. He must have spent the morning trying to figure out the mystery of Marley’s phone call.
“Hi,” I say. “How’s it going?”
“Not great,” he admits. “Spoofing phone numbers is really easy, but figuring out who’s behind it isn’t that easy. If somebody had Marley’s old number, it would be a really easy task for them to redirect the call so it looked like it was coming from her number. Tracing it won’t be easy. You’d probably have to call your service provider. And even then, they might not have the information.” He pauses. “Plus if somebody went to that much trouble, they probably used a burner phone so none of it would be traceable.”
Even though I hadn’t expected him to have an answer, I’m still disappointed. “But why would they do FaceTime? Wouldn’t it be easier to trick me with a phone call?”
“I have no idea…”
“And the woman who was talking to me…” I shiver, even though the thermostat in my office is set at seventy-four degrees. “She looked and sounded just like Marley.”
Tim doesn’t seem that impressed. “It was three in the morning, right? You were really tired. And remember all those gin and tonics you had last night? She probably didn’t look all that much like Marley.”
“But she knew stuff about me. I asked her a question about me, and she answered it correctly.”
“What did you ask her?”
“I asked her what she bought me for Christmas last year.”
“Was it a Wonder Woman comic book?”
My mouth falls open. “How did you know that?”
“I saw it in the drawer of your nightstand when you opened it.” He chuckles. “I expected to see a sex toy or something in there maybe, but not a comic book. It didn’t look like the sort of thing you would buy for yourself.”
I don’t know how it’s possible that I have known Tim for less than twenty-four hours, yet he seems to know me so well. “Fine. Lucky guess.”
“And I’m guessing there are other people you work with who know about it too.”
“Maybe you should’ve asked her something more challenging.”
“I don’t know. Like how many orgasms in a row you’re capable of having.” I can hear him smiling on the other line. “Six, apparently.”
“Marley didn’t know that.” I suppress a smile. “Only you know that. I didn’t even know it before last night.”
My breath catches in my throat as I remember what he did to me last night. God, that was nice. But I can’t keep thinking about it. It’s never going to happen again, and if I start thinking about it, I’m never going to be able to focus on my presentation.
“It just looked and sounded so much like Marley,” I say. “It really seemed like her.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Ebbie. It wasn’t her. You know that.”
As terrifying and outright ridiculous as it would be to think of Marley talking to me from beyond the grave, there’s part of me that almost wishes it were really her. I know that’s crazy, but sometimes I feel so alone. My parents are both gone. I hardly ever see my sister. And there hasn’t been a decent man in my life in… well, ever. It’s comforting to think that Marley might be out there somewhere, looking out for me.
But obviously, she’s not. She’s dead. This is all a horrible, elaborate joke on me.
“So I’ll never know who did this to me?”
“I’m sorry. I tried my best.”
“Well, thanks.” I grip the phone more tightly. “I appreciate it. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, well. It wasn’t a big deal. You seemed really upset, so…”
“If you find out anything else, you’ll call me?”
“Sure.” But there’s not much conviction in his response. He’s done investigating. I’ll never hear from him again.
And that’s for the best.
“Okay, thanks,” I say.
I expect him to say goodbye, but instead he hesitates. “Ebbie?”
Is he going to invite me to dinner? Suggest another night at my place? Whatever the question is, I know what my answer will be. “Yes?”
He’s quiet for another beat. “Merry Christmas,” he says.
Damn. “Merry Christmas.”
I hang up the phone and head over to the break room to get my fifth cup of coffee of the day. I’m heading into dangerous caffeinated territory, but I need it right now.
I stick a coffee pod in the machine and wait for it to do its thing. There’s a small bucket of sugar packets next to the coffee machine and the refrigerator has individual containers of cream. But I drink my coffee black. Bitter and black. Honestly, I don’t know how you can drink it any other way. I don’t want my coffee to taste like cream. That’s not going to wake me up.
While I’m waiting, I glance in the refrigerator to see how messy it’s gotten in the last few days. It’s packed to the brim with people’s lunches, but on the bottom shelf, there’s a large plate wrapped in plastic. There’s a sticky note on it that reads, “For Elizabeth.” I frown and pull it out.
Chocolate chip cookies.
These must be the chocolate chip cookies Roberta made yesterday. She made them specifically for the presentation, using Danvier chocolate. As if that would impress them.
I peel back a corner of the plastic wrap, and the smell of chocolate and brown sugar immediately hits me, even though the cookies have been sitting in the fridge. They look moist and delicious. My stomach growls. I’ve been having too many salads lately and it’s slowly killing me.
I reach for one of the cookies. Despite being in the refrigerator, it feels soft and gooey. I break off a little piece in my right hand, and shove it into my mouth. And…
Oh my God.
This could be the best cookie I’ve ever had in my life. How does Tim not weigh two-thousand pounds if his mother makes cookies like this? Before I can stop myself, I’ve shoved the rest of the cookie into my mouth. Maybe it’s all the salads talking, but this is incredible. The only thing rivaling how good this cookie is might be what Tim did to me last night.
I pick up the plate of cookies. I’ll bring it to the meeting. Who knows—it could help. At the very least, it will put them in a good mood.
To be continued....