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Gonna Be One of Those Days
-First, there was the pantyhose. The last pair of pantyhose in the drawer, and silk ones at that. The last pair in the whole apartment, and considering the current state of Kendra's finances, the last one she'd be wearing until payday rolled aroundand they had a run. Not a dinky, fix-it-with-a-dab-of-nail-polish sort of run, either. It was the kind of run that should be more truthfully described as a ladder, and a four-alarm fire engine ladder to boot.
Then there was the scorch mark on her silk blouse, a Japanese designer original, put there by Kendra herself when, in her irritation over the pantyhose, she'd accidentally set the iron to Wool rather than Silk. The mark snuggled in her left armpit, almost indiscernible, but it was a crime to ruin anything that gorgeous.
Naturally, when Kendra arrived at the towering Farrar-Chase building on Blackburn Boulevard, the elevator was down again. The cab sat forlornly in the lobby, its doors dismantled and its guts exposed, like the victim of a woeful accident. Workmen in blue coveralls stood around drinking coffee and solemnly contemplating the problem.
Kendra's workplace, the head office of the Wanderlust chainrenamed from Salomon's Travel and Tours a few months ago, when the new owner blew into town like a tornadowas on the sixteenth floor. Universe 3-Kendra nil. She sighed and began to climb the stairs.
By the time she reached her floor, it was nine-fourteen. Near the swinging glass doors, Mrs. Mertz was lurking, like a ferret who'd heard a rumor that there were nice fat mice on the loose. Lurking and smiling. No, not smiling, smirking. Her lipstick was a scary, bloodiedscarlet, the same shade she had been wearing for years. Kendra was sure it was the only color she owned. "Nine-fifteen," Mrs. Mertz said. She tapped her watch, in case Kendra hadn't cottoned to the fact that she was talking about the time.
"Fourteen," Kendra corrected, and pointed to the wall clock. Childish, she knew, but the woman always made her feel like a kid.
"Whatever. You're still late." Her too-long eye teeth were tipped with red.
Kendra suppressed a shudder and hurried to her desk, ripping off her favorite Hermès scarf and, more reluctantly, her gorgeous Balenciaga coat, as it bared her laddered stocking for all to see.
Then Iris walked in, and Kendra felt a thumping at her temple, like the band striking up moments before the Titanic hit the iceberg. She hadn't even had her coffee yet. Iris's homing device led her unerringly toward Kendra's cluttered desk. "Busy?" she asked, and sat without waiting for an answer.
Kendra liked Iris well enough. The older woman was as cheerful as they came, although her voice rose half an octave or so above the threshold of human tolerance. But, as many women did when they were flushed with the newfound joys of wifedom and motherhood, she waxed lyrical about the most un-settling things and did so at great length.
"Uh " Kendra hit the power button on her computer, knowing even as she did so that the old heap would take forever to get going. "A little," she hedged, all the while silently yelling, "Hurry, hurry! Boot up!"
Iris smelled of lavender bath salts and Cheez Whiz spread. She was wearing a necklace of spray-painted pasta elbows strung together with odd-shaped lumps of clay by her four-year-old. She wore it as reverently as if it were a string of pearls. On her right shoulder was the grubby handprint of her eighteen-month-old. It was Monday, and that inevitably meant Kendra would be treated to an expansive rundown of the weekend's antics by the tireless duo. She braced herself.
Iris leaned forward, eyes shining. "You won't believe this."
Try me, Kendra didn't say.
"Zachary did a huge poop last night."
Kendra nearly fell off her chair. "What?"
"He did a huge poop." She demonstrated with her hands as if Kendra needed a visual. "And took his diaper off. All by himself. Then he showed it to us!"
Iris was smiling. Waiting for her to say something. Kendra coughed, searching for an appropriate response, but all she could come up with was, "Oh, really?"
"Right in the middle of Tony's cocktail party, would you believe it? Everyone was so impressed. He's so smart for his age. And then he marched inside, and brought out the tub of baby wipes."
Kendra fished frantically in her In-box. "Wonder if the mail guy passed," she said, a little louder than necessary. There was nothing there but today's paper. "Where is he?" All of a sudden the impending appearanceor inexplicable nonappearance of the mail guy took on a disproportionate importance.
Iris amused herself during Kendra's mini panic attack by fiddling with the array of knickknacks littering the desk, an assortment of souvenirs from far-flung places in the world. They were gifts from Kendra's grateful clients for trips she had arranged. In the year or so since she moved here, she had become one of the best sales agents Salomon's Travel and Tours or, rather, Wanderlusthad. She loved people, and it gave her the greatest pleasure to hand select the best holiday packages around for the company's small list of wealthy and fussy clients. They'd been assigned to her since her promotion from sales representative to special accounts executive.
The computer finally obliged and chimed out its little welcome. Kendra tried not to look too relieved. This minor but significant event had no effect whatsoever on Iris, who had moved from a purple koala from New Zealand to a small Bahraini hookah made of brass. Kendra tried again. "Busy around here, huh?" That was when she noticed that, far from being simply a broad hint, her comment was disconcertingly true.
She looked around. A soft buzz hovered above the heads of the employees occupying the twenty or so cubicles on the floor. Many were on their phones, and from the low, excited chatter, she suspected they were talking to each other.
"You betcha, it's busy! Hammond's snarling mad. He's got poor Petreena jumping through hoops. Making phone calls, running around looking for documents something's going down. And from what I hear, it isn't pretty."
Kendra felt a chilly dread settle upon her shoulders. She looked up. One of Shel Salomon's brilliant ideas had been to erect the CEO's office on a huge loft overlooking the general working area, and to construct it almost entirely of glass. That way, he couldand frequently didsit at his desk and look out onto the floor, like a lion on a hillock surveying his pride.
The disadvantage, as Trey Hammond learned, was that, while the occupant watched his staff, they couldand frequently didwatch him. Because the new owner was a looker. With his long legs and lean, athletic build, he was the hottest stranger to ride into Santa Amata in ages. He had dark brown hair with a hint of warm highlights, skin the exact color of the filling in a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, and charcoal gray eyesgray eyes! Andthe girls sighedhe had the most beautiful smile.
When he'd arrived, the whole officepractically the whole buildinghad gone into a frenzy of speculative whispers. Half the unmarried women, and a few of the married ones, related breathlessly to each other the details of their briefest encounters. In the elevator, in the lounge, at the cooler or the coffee-makereveryone wanted to know who this newcomer was. And why hadn't he crashed into their lives earlier?
He was up in his glass box now, and Iris was right, he didn't look happy. Kendra watched with growing unease as he paced the carpeted floor, arms outstretched, gesticulating forcefully as he talked. Even from all the way down here, he was larger than life. The fine tailoring of his navy suit emphasized his height, and his obvious agitation made him seem to fill the large office. Hammond's executive assistant, Petreena Rai, swayed as she tried to continue facing her boss, even as he wore a path into the gold rug.
Kendra began to feel ill. "What d'you think he's mad about?"
Iris leaned forward. "Talk around the water cooler says he was in all weekend with the external auditors."
Auditors? Oh no.
"Talk says someone's been robbing the company blind!" Iris waited eagerly for Kendra's scandalized reaction, maybe for a little more information to feed back into the rumor mill.
Oh God. I'm going to throw up.
Head hurting, mouth dry, Kendra stood and wheeled past Iris, her only thought being to make it to the bathroom before she embarrassed herself.
Iris swiveled in her chair, concerned. "What's wrong?"
Bathroom, Kendra thought. Bathroom!
"Need some water? You aren't " she looked around to see if anyone was listening, and then hissed in a voice that would unavoidably be heard by anyone who was, "You aren't pregnant, are you?"
Kendra managed to shake her head. Her phone started ringing.
"Want me to answer that? Want a paper bag for your head?"
Only if it comes with a cyanide pill, Kendra thought.
The phone stopped ringing. Kendra evaded Iris and hurried up the corridor. The ladies' room, and refuge, were in sight. Mrs. Mertz loomed, cutting off any hope of escape. "Miss Forrest! Didn't you hear your phone?"
"No, I " Kendra answered weakly. "I uh was on my way to the ladies' room. I didn't"
"I was calling you."
"Mr. Hammond wants to see you in his office." This seemed to make her extremely happy.
Kendra hesitated, looking past the woman's angular shoulder to the swinging door with its familiar icon, a white-painted female in a triangular skirt. Had she been three seconds faster, she would have been on the other side of that door.
Mrs. Mertz followed Kendra's longing gaze to the bathroom door. "You're just going to have to hold it."
Just going to have to hold it? On any other day, she would have laughed off the directive, suggested to Mrs. Mertz that a cup of tea might improve her mood, and continued on her intended trajectory.
But not today.
Wordlessly, she turned, the terror that had replaced her initial dread eliminating any need to hit the bathroom anyway. She walked back into the main working area. Past her own desk. Mercifully, Iris had left. As she mounted the curved staircase leading to the CEO's office, she wondered briefly what Marie Antoinette must have felt like as she climbed the scaffold. At least the peasants weren't hurling insults and rotten cabbages in her general direction. Yet.
The big glass door was etched with the words, Trey Hammond, Chief Executive Officer. Beyond it, she could see Hammond and Petreena. The latter was still agitatedly clutching her notepad, reading aloud from it. The former had stopped pacing, and was standing stock still. He was looking right at her.
In one imperious gesture, he motioned for her to enter. The soft pile of the carpet was familiar, as were the warm earth tones of the decorharvest gold and pumpkin, olive green and cranberry. That was one thing Hammond hadn't gotten around to changing in the rampage of evaluation and modification he'd gone on.
The warmth of the office was in stark contrast to the demeanor of its occupant. Trey Hammond couldn't have been thirty-five, but his conservative suit made him seem older. His face was as somber as a graveyard. "Miss Forrest?" he confirmed.
"Yes." By rights, she should have extended her hand to shake his, but something told her he wouldn't be keen on taking it. She kept it at her side.
"Have a seat," he said. It was not a request.
In spite of her churning stomach, Kendra raised her head and held his stare. "I prefer to stand."
He lifted his shoulders and let them fall. "Suit yourself." The desk between them was littered with files, documents, and boxes of papers. Right before him, however, in a clear space among the rubble, was a manila folder.
He opened it and removed a single sheet of paper, glanced at it, and lifted his eyes to hers. The much-discussed gray eyes were now a flat, cold, gunmetal gray that sent chills down Kendra's back. Hammond held the document out to her.
When she didn't take it, he set it down, turning it around so she could read it. It was printed on the letterhead of a large and respected auditing firm, and appeared to be the cover sheet of the report that still lay in the folder. The word "fraud" leaped out at her.
When Hammond spoke again, she couldn't bear to look up. His voice was clipped, cold and disdainful. "Miss Forrest," he began, "can you give me one good reason I shouldn't call the police?"
Deny, deny, deny. The liar's mantra. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of your guilt, deny. But she was a lousy liar. Hell, she wasn't even a good thief. The piece of paper between them was a stark, accusing white. She looked away. As she did so, she caught sight of Petreena, standing anxiously nearby, head dipped, avoiding the unpleasant scene.
Kendra tried to catch her eye, pleading silently for the smallest gesture of support, but Petreena determinedly avoided her. If there was to be any tarring and feathering, she was loath to come anywhere near the brush.
Hammond caught the wordless exchange, and was merciful, at least toward Petreena. "Miss Rai, would you leave us?"
Petreena was off like a bullet, scurrying as fast as her pencil skirtan excellent Givenchy knockoff that would have fooled anyone who didn't have Kendra's discerning eye would let her.
Then Kendra and Hammond were alone. More damning papers appeared from some infernal place. Kendra recognized most of them.
"As you've probably heard, I've been meeting with managers, examining the books, and conducting a series of audits." He waved his hand. "Standard procedure after any takeover. Helps me understand where the company is and decide how I'm going to take it where I want. One of the auditors noticed something."
He stabbed at a piece of paper with a long finger. "Over the past few months, five payment vouchers were made up to cash, signed off and settled. All were charged to accounts you're responsible for, but my auditors inform me there's no way of determining whether the services being invoiced were rendered. Have they?"
Kendra said nothing.
"You should know, Miss Forrest. The signature on the vouchers is yours, I presume?" He waved one of the documents before her face. She flinched, but didn't need to look at it. Instead, she nodded.
"Have these services been rendered?" He didn't raise his voice, but the dangerous chill conveyed his anger. "Because if you're unable to verify otherwise, I'll have to assume the beneficiary of these paymentsfourteen thousand, six hundred and eleven dollars in paymentsis you."
Kendra expelled the breath she'd been holding. It hurt.
"So, let me ask you once again, is there any reason, any reason you can give me, why I shouldn't call the police?"
"Don't," she managed. "Please."