'Welcome to Smyrnings' - Two-Man Crosscut
Take a break from the rat race and catch up with this 10th installment of our Smyrna-Vinings Patch fiction series.
"Criminal conspiracy. Hell, yes!"
Tyler loved being in the office on the weekend, when he could speak freely. He went in the floor manager's office and told his empty chair, "I'm totally going to commit a felony. With my co-conspirator."
He stood at the windows, looking down seventeen stories at Riverwood Parkway, and said aloud, "We'll double the Vinings crime rate for the day." No; not what he was going for. "We'll come and go like ravens in a coal mine." Did ravens live underground? He had an image of black birds flying out of a desk drawer.
Tyler was okay with not understanding things. He knew enough not to kid himself about what he knew. Even the things he knew, he didn't necessarily know how he knew them.
He knew this: When they were together, criminally conspiring, he saw Peg's true face. For other people, for their clueless boss, she carried faces to be used as required, like a satchel of Noh masks. The controlled and competent researcher; the quirky, wry girl; the crisp, cool liaison, making things right with difficult clients, covering for the VPs. (VPs made up seventy-three and a third percent of personnel at Macaco Logistics.)
And the trusting confidant. She offered her own trust, giving up nuggets of information; dropping unexpected intimacies. A mixture of the real and created, Tyler figured. It worked. People told her things.
Tyler knew the Macaco HR VP had picked him for his job because he never forgot a number. Peg had picked Macaco, for reasons of her own.
Alone with him, her face relaxed into what most people would call a poker face. Calm, smooth and symmetrical, unchanging and unyielding as a stone caryatid. That was Peg when she didn't make the effort to produce an expression. Seeing behind the disguise made Tyler feel special.
She'd told him, "We're working a two-man crosscut saw. If you learn to pull at the slightest pressure from me, if you train your hands to take signals from my brain, we can saw down anything you care to see as a metaphorical tree. Starting with Bridgehead, Pikeman & Markham. Call it a partnership."
He liked that. As long as they both kept their hands on the two-man crosscut, she couldn't pull a gun out of her purse and shoot him in the face. (Was that still a metaphor? He didn't know; not an English major.) "Can we call it a criminal conspiracy?"
"If you want to. Idiot."
If Peg was going to betray him (and he was about sixty percent sure she would, down the road), at least she respected him enough to drop the disguise. Well, maybe it wasn't respect; maybe it was indifference. Like with a pet dog. Good enough, really.
Since the day she showed up at Macaco Logistics, Tyler had watched her work people. She even charmed Jeremiah Woodley, President and company owner, when he came in for the one day a week he spent at the office. He watched her watch others, watched her immediately size them up and adjust her approach for an effective engagement on her terms. He watched her seemingly ignore him, as she found a point of leverage with each of her other thirteen.
Then she came to him and said, "Do you want to do something more interesting than monkey-related statistics? It's illegal."
He said, "Statistics and algorithms. Why me?"
She showed him her smooth stone face. "Because you pay attention."
But now Peg was out. Today she was working Tanager.
He'd asked her, "Won't he wonder why you're quizzing him about floor plans and what the senior partners have in their offices?"
"You don't know Tanager. All I have to do is get him talking about his new job. He's got a brain like a retarded computer. Just like you, idiot."
Tyler's stomach was growling. 11:30; Peg would be meeting her target for lunch. He'd asked her to bring him back a chicken sandwich. Her uninflected answer "No" echoed now in his mind, distorting into his mother's voice on his fourth birthday, when for five minutes he owned a puppy. His earliest memory. He let the echo fade away, and didn't think about it again that day, but he carried the sweet pain in his chest the memory always gave him.
He checked out the vending machine in the break room. He spent ten minutes staring at the proffered snacks. About 59% of the items featured chocolate; most of the rest were heavy in salt. Only one predominately mint selection. He'd watched people making selections, let some numbers work in his head, and was pretty sure that replacing the Zagnut bar with boxed Mentos, and the sour Skittles with Junior Mints, would increase the vending machine's revenue by a good three percent.
He got a Payday bar. He walked to his cubicle and went online. The woman at the mall who looked like Rossetti's Regina Cordium. He knew her name was Moira Belle something. He knew, thanks to the plunging neckline of her silk blouse, that she wore a handmade bra; or at least a custom item not found in stores. In two minutes he'd found her website.
Precious Stuffs. Finest, softest, fit-like-a-dream. Baby Dolls, Merry Widows. Historical, Ahistorical, Hysterical, and Sheer Fantasy. Foundations for Control; Foundations for Surrendering Control. Handcrafted in Smyrna, Georgia. Original custom items arranged on an individual basis.
There were a lot of words, and some arresting images (he recognized one of the models from an AA meeting). What interested him was the picture of the mall lady. Proprietress: Auntie Moira Belle. In the legal fine print he found her full name, Moira Belle Chesley.
Regina Cordium. "Queen of Hearts." A warm feeling in his chest overcame the pain still lodged there.
* * *
The Teasdales were good people. If she had called them anything but "Mr. Teasdale" and "Ms. Teasdale", she might have gotten too close, found it hard to leave. And after that night, she vowed never to live through long cold winters again and put Pittsburgh behind her. She left behind Mary Margaret, too, and from then on was Peg.
After she'd accepted her first cash payment for an off-book retrieval commission, she'd vowed never to eat again at a restaurant without real plates and waiters.
But Tanager's taste was not hers, and she needed him in comfortable surroundings. The Chick-fil-A on Cumberland Parkway was very much like Chick-fil-A in Pittsburgh, or in Knoxville. They took a corner table and opened up sandwiches and waffle fries.
Tanager was the only person in the place wearing a suit and tie. (He was also, from what she'd seen from the Reception area, the only non-partner at Bridgehead, Pikeman & Markham dressed more formally than khakis and a polo shirt.) He opened his briefcase, took out a bib and tied it around his neck. It looked like blue silk, with some really nice embroidery on the front in white thread, depicting an absurdly fat man trundling a wheelbarrow in front of himself to carry his gigantic belly.
Peg put a little whine in her voice. "How do they get away with saying they invented the chicken sandwich? Chick-fil-A was founded sometime in the mid-twentieth century, right? Do they expect me to believe that was the first time somebody put chicken meat between two pieces of bread?" She bit into the offending sandwich.
"It's a Christian company. That's why they're not open tomorrow." It still worked; Tanager responded to a complaint with a non-sequitur, or something close to it. Good enough. Half of what people said was like that. Non-sequiturs meant a loose conversational structure, not only in the words but in the target's mind. Loose enough for her to step in where she wanted. Annoying but useable. The sandwich was actually pretty damn good. She couldn't remember the last time she'd eaten anything fried.
"Do you always eat out? Don't they have a breakroom at your office?" This was easy and hard. Easy because there was no need for finesse; she could pick his brain without trying. Hard because—No, she thought. Use the tools available. Work the problem.
Tanager grinned at her, that tooth display that had always managed to surprise her. "You're right next to Publix here. But in response to your query, yes, they have a splendid breakroom. Here, I made a floor plan." He pulled a paper-clipped printout from his briefcase. "And some other stuff. I love talking about my job."
When they were, respectively, eleven and twelve, she'd told him, "Don't smile, there's nothing to smile about. You're an idiot." Secretly, she'd been afraid he'd stop smiling. He never did, though, she thought. Idiot. A brief sharp pain in her chest. Reflux. Damn this fried crap.