Chapter 1: The Iron Lady
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby.
The world runs on fictions, not facts. It has to. Facts are too inconvenient, too irregular, too factual. Far better the smoothness of a fiction, a lie, a tale told to soothe our feelings and our consciences. Except that the fictions often hurt and trouble us as much as any facts.
One of the fictions the world ran on was the idea that I worked from 8 AM to 5 PM, with an hour off at noon for lunch. My employment contract stated I worked a forty-hour work week, and that was a fiction, too. I came in when I was good and ready, and worked as long as I needed to get my work done. You don’t like my hours? Fine, don’t complain when I don’t put in unpaid overtime to solve your problems for you. People understood, mostly. Those that didn’t complained to my boss, Ted Hute, who liked my performance too well to bother me with such nonsense.
But even Ted had his limits, and I was about to run into one of them.
It was Monday morning. I’d been out late last night helping my roommate Mary drown her sorrows after being dumped. So when my alarm went off at 7, I just hit the snooze button a few times. Aspirin, orange juice, and a shower later, I finally set out for work and arrived just after 9:30. Not too shabby.
The main lobby wasn’t very busy, and the security guard, who knew me by name, just waved me through. I hopped the elevator, got out at the fourth floor, and saw our appropriately young and pretty receptionist, Jenny Kalska, beaming at me.
Well, until she saw who I was. Then her smile died instantly, to be replaced by a worried look. She stood up from behind her desk as I approached, and in a loud whisper said to me, “Em, the Iron Lady’s here, and she’s been looking for you since 8:30.”
“Well, Jen, I guess she’ll find me soon,” I replied nonchalantly. But inwardly, my heart sank. The Iron Lady was Mrs. Herbert C. Chattings, the head of the agency. Decades ago, she’d had it dumped in her lap when her husband up and died at age 27. Instead of running it into the ground, she had built it up into a successful multi-state operation.
I’d never dealt with Mrs. Chattings directly, but I’d heard stories. Employees were not quite serfs in the Iron Lady’s eyes. Serfs had souls. Ours had been bought and paid for. One did not disagree with, second-guess, or defy Mrs. Chattings, or else terrible things would happen.
But, hey, what could she do to me? On the other hand, I didn’t want to find out. So I walked down the elegant hallways, past the offices which were the only parts of the agency clients ever saw, and through the security door to the cube farm in the back. That is where half the real work of the agency is done. And that is where I have my office, my own little cube, with more hyped-up computer power than some countries own.
I’m a data analyst for the agency. I get the customer stories, the reports of our detectives, police reports, motor vehicle registry reports, news, and the price of tea in China thrown in for good measure, and run it through my computers, looking for clues, clients, and above all else, patterns. My job is to make sure that when our detectives and lawyers go out into the world, they are armed with the information they need to make the agency rich. Speaking for myself, I’m damn good at it.
I didn’t head to my office directly, but to the kitchen/lounge, where I waved hello to various colleagues, poured myself a cup of coffee, and grabbed myself a donut. Just as I was about to leave, Ron Baker loudly intoned in a deep voice, “Fisher late to meeting with Iron Lady. Details on funeral to follow.”
I flipped Ron a bird, to the laughter of the others in the room, and headed over to my cube. Before I even got there, Ted Hute caught up to me.
Ted’s a tall guy, sandy hair, brows stuck in a permanent frown from worries. The lines on his forehead looked like canals this morning. “Emily, where have you been? Mrs. Chattings has been waiting for over an hour for you.”
I joked, “I don’t remember her having an appointment.”
Ted’s face crinkled up into an even more worried look.
“Okay, okay,” I told him, “I’m coming. Do I need anything? And what’s this about?”
Ted shook his head. “Whatever it is, you’re treading on thin ice. She demanded your personnel files while she’s been waiting.”
Great. And my headache was still throbbing in the back of my head. I nodded and let Ted steer me to his office.
Mrs. Chattings was sitting behind Ted’s desk, looking as if she didn’t think this was impressive enough for someone of her dignity. Since she’s barely five feet tall, she had to develop a lot of dignity to run her agency. Kings have had less dignity than the Iron Lady. She looked at me as if she were contemplating which form of execution would cause me the most pain and suffering. For a woman in her sixties, she looked well; must be all those opportunities to express her temper keep her happy. Well, it looked like I was about to get the famous treatment.
Without shouting, she barked out, “You’re Emily Fisher, a senior data analyst in our employ when you bother to show up to work.”
She paused, as if waiting for me to reply. And here’s where environment kicked in. I’m not one of the agency’s detectives, but I have to deal with them a lot. One of their rules is never to let the other person take the initiative in a confrontation. So rather than nod and tug at my nonexistent forelock, I just barked back, “Sometimes I even do analysis when I don’t show up for work.”
Amazingly, she smiled at that remark, baring her teeth. It was the sort of smile I’d expect to see on a piranha just before it sank its teeth into a victim. “You’ll have plenty of opportunity for that with this new assignment. You grew up in Quasopon, Vermont.” Her tone of voice made it clear this was not a question. Mrs. Chattings knew whereof she spoke, always.
I’m thinking to myself, just where the hell is this going? Preferably not back to Quasopon. I replied, “I haven’t been back there since I was 18.”
“You keep up connections there?”
“Not even your parents?”
“Not even them.”
The Iron Lady seemed dissatisfied with my replies. I got the impression that I was morally culpable for not staying in touch with my home town. Well, maybe I was, but it wasn’t for her to say so. At least I thought so. Not that that mattered to Mrs. Chattings.
Then she threw me a curve I should have expected, but hadn’t even wanted to consider. In that same barking voice, she asked, “You know who the Children of the New Revelation are?”
Ah, yes. Or, oh, yes. Or, oh my god, no, not them! Yeah, I know. I know too damn much about them, and not enough at the same time. I slowly nodded to that one.
The Iron Lady leaned back, casting her eyes up to the ceiling. “We’ve had a request from the ruling body of the Children to supply them with an investigator to help them solve a murder. They specifically asked for you. When we pointed out that you were not a trained investigator, they insisted on it being you, and indicated they were willing to pay a premium for your services. The local . . .”
I couldn’t let this go on, so I interrupted her, “They want me because I am one of the Fallen.”
The Iron Lady snapped her head forward when I interrupted. She looked at me as if it was unheard of to interrupt her. And then when I finished, she just continued on, as if my interruption was of no account at all. “The local police acknowledge they cannot solve the crime, and are willing to co-operate with you, and you alone. We have agreed to tender your services, until either the murder is solved or the Children of the New Revelation decide to dispense with your services. They will provide you with lodgings, meals, and transportation while you are working on the case. As they expressed a great urgency to have you start, the agency has booked you a flight out at 12:35 P.M.” And with that she pushed forward a folder. “All the information you will need is in the folder. Good morning, Ms. Fisher.”
It was a clear dismissal.
Except I wasn’t going to be dismissed so easily. I was not going back to Quasopon, no matter what the Iron Lady said. Rather than reach for the folder, I looked her square in the eye and said, “I am not a detective. I know nothing about how to conduct an investigation. And I am completely uninterested in giving the Children a shot at saving my soul.” I kept raising the volume of my voice as I spoke, until I was shouting the last few words.
The Iron Lady didn’t even blink at my shouting. Instead, she stood up (not that that meant much, at her height), and in that same barking voice said, “I have reviewed your record, Ms. Fisher. Your work has been often praised, even if your temperament has not. I expect you to perform professionally and to the credit of the agency. You will do so, as required by your terms of employment. Now, your flight leaves in a little over two hours. I suggest you make haste.”
I recognized the threat behind her words: do this, or get fired. In fact, do this, and do it well, or get fired. And it was all said without being said, so one could not argue against it, or negotiate for better terms. There were none. Mrs. Chattings had spoken.
I took the folder and walked out of Ted’s office, silent and fuming. I thought of flipping a bird at Mrs. Chattings as I was leaving, but realized it would be pointless. Such a gesture of futile defiance would be beneath her notice.
End of chapter one