Bethany Cartel paused, after locking her car, to look up through the pines at her workplace. Every day she thought about imploding the building. She could get her cutting gear, the torches and angle grinders, out of storage. She could get dynamite, and her cousin could probably get her hands on linear shaped charges.
Bethany didn't do it, but every day when she sat at the reception desk, it pleased her to keep the image in the back of her mind.
This sunny morning, she'd picked up goodies for the office. And since BPM's card was paying, she stopped at the new in Vinings for cookies and cupcakes, instead of getting doughnuts at .
Fat, jolly Mr. Pikeman would, as usual, joke that she was trying to kill him, then disappear into his office with a plate full of delicious carbohydrates.
She was in fact trying to kill him. She'd like it to happen via a massive cerebral hemorrhage, but it was more likely his hypertension in combination with his diabetes would cause renal failure. He was killing himself.
That was only just, she thought. Like so many blandly smiling round men, he had terrible things hidden under his layers of fat and easy-going Mama's boy country lawyer persona. God knows, she thought. And I know.
Bethany liked to get into the office a half hour before the rest of the staff showed, just to have some time alone. She picked up the copies of the AJC, the WSJ, USA Today and (since it was Wednesday) the weekly lawyers' journal from the lobby and took them up to Bridgehead, Pikeman & Markham's suite on the seventh floor. She balanced the pastry box and papers on one arm and fished out her big BPM key ring. When she looked up, she saw someone approaching the glass door from inside.
It was the new guy, the files and mailroom guy, Wishes Tanager. He held the door open for her. "Ms. Cartel, good morning!"
She walked past him to the conference room and put down the box. Wishes followed, sniffing the air.
He said, "They use fresh lemon zest. That's a superb choice. Should I chip in for the cupcakes?"
Bethany gave him a sidelong look, trying to decide if he was serious. Hard guy to read. And wearing for no apparent reason a sharp suit and tie, as he had every single day, even when they worked on Saturday. "No," she said, "it's on the company card. Look, how do you keep getting in here before me? Don't tell me Bertrille gave you a key. That old vulture woman doesn't trust anybody."
"I was afraid to even ask Ms. Bertrille for a key, so I made impressions of her keys and copied them at home." Wishes took a leather case out of his coat pocket, and showed her his homemade keys. "I always do that at places I work. Before I'm fired I'll probably recommend an electronic lock."
Bethany examined the keys; she shook her head. "What you did? You're a trip! Just don't get caught. Why you want to be in here so early for anyway?"
"Well, today I wanted to get Marty settled before everybody showed up."
Something wet touched the back of Bethany's knee. She looked down and saw an unkempt little dog, some kind of terrier mix. Two hind legs, one front leg. "He's Marty, this one?" She knelt down and scratched the dog's neck; he rotated in a tight circle then flopped on his back, displaying his belly for a rub. "Hey, I can't believe they let you bring your dog to work."
"I didn't ask. He likes that. He'll let you rub his stomach all day." Wishes was setting something up in the corner: a greenish circular metal dish, standing on three stubby legs. Bethany recognized it as a portable brazier. Instead of coals it held an embroidered round pillow. On the rim of the metal dish were engraved the words MARTIAN FIGHTING MACHINE.
"Damn, Wishes, that looks good." She felt the edges of the letters; smooth. "All right if I give Marty a cookie?"
"Long as it's not chocolate." Wishes picked out an oatmeal cookie and handed it to her. "He'll probably hide it."
Bethany held out the cookie. Marty immediately leapt completely off the floor, snagging the cookie from her hand. He disappeared in the direction of the mailroom. "How was it he lost that leg?"
"A teenager rode a lawnmower into him by accident. Don't ever bring a mower around Marty, he doesn't like it."
"Who would blame him?" Marty came tripodding back in, jumped into his brazier bed and onto the pillow. He stretched out and groaned.
Bethany pulled a plastic-wrapped comic book from her purse. "Here. I stopped at last night." She handed it to Wishes. He grinned at her and took the book, immediately pulling it out of the plastic to look at the garishly bright cover, its title glowing orange under the lights: BAD GERRY.
"Ms. Cartel, thank you. I was going to go at lunch, I called and asked them to save a copy."
"Well, here it is. You're welcome. Call me Bethany, for God's sake, I'm younger than you."
"It's got florescent ink on the cover. Excellent, Bethany."
"Why you want a comic about a badger, anyway? Badgers are destructive."
"They're misunderstood. Here, let me pay you for the comic."
Bethany hesitated. "How about you take me to lunch?"
* * *
Around eleven, a woman pushed open the door and stepped into Reception. She paused, and half-turned as if on a fashion runway, head slightly tilted and looking far away. Bethany took the chance to look at her.
Nobody she'd seen before, ever, anywhere. She'd have remembered. Not five feet tall, curved like some tribal people's love goddess; as if a runway model had been compressed by a foot in height, the inches redistributed strategically and horizontally. Dressed in brilliant silk from pale coral slippers to sheer stockings to shimmering red dress and matching purse. The blossom in her coiled fall of shining black hair was real, not silk.
Below that, a patch covered the place where one would expect her left eye to be. It was surely the finest white silk; embroidered on it in black silk an unblinking black eye. Her right eye was deepest lovely liquid black.
Although Bethany thought about destroying the building with the senior partners inside, she prided herself on her work as the first representative of the firm visitors would meet. She had perfect timing in greeting them, but now she realized she'd spent a second too long looking. She opened her mouth, but the woman spoke first, her voice like a slow-drawn cello chord.
"Viviane Moreira for Aloysius." The right eye swiveled, its gaze wandering over the plaques on the wall. Bethany felt the embroidered black eye was watching her, taking her measure.
She shook it off and called Wishes on the intercom. He came out, putting on his suit coat. "Aunt Viviane, hey. Thanks for taking care of Paulo."
The woman held out her hand. "The keys to that piece of crap Ford, please." For the first time Bethany noticed she wore gloves of what looked like exquisitely fine black silk lace.
Wishes dug his key ring out of his pocket, slid off two keys and handed them over. "Problem?"
Viviane opened her purse's sterling silver clasp and drew out an envelope. She tossed it on the desk. "Keys, papers. Your new car is downstairs. Now we are square regarding the events in Americus." She snapped the purse shut; before she did, Bethany thought she saw something move inside it. Something like a slender green snake.
Viviane suddenly looked, for the first time, directly at Bethany. The beautiful right eye closed. The ever-watching eye of black silk still stared, and Bethany realized the woman was winking.
Then Viviane swept out, Wishes holding the door for her, and was gone from sight around the corner, past the elevator to the stairs.
Wishes smiled at Bethany. "She never uses an elevator for less than ten floors. Says it's a coffin that goes up and down." Bethany tried to smile back, and took a long drink of her iced tea.
He looked in the envelope. "Looks like we're going to lunch in a Benz."
Bethany choked on her tea and coughed for a moment. "Sweet Jesus!"
"Yep." Wishes straightened his tie. "Hey, Pikeman, Bethany and I are taking a long lunch." He spoke to Gerard Pikeman, just coming into the office.
Pikeman stopped short, his eyes suddenly looking piggish rather than jovial. "You said what?"
Wishes winked at him. "You heard me."