Friends in High Places
I was afraid to blink, lest this weird reality I was living in suddenly turn into a nightmare with Riley – Mr. Walker – dressed as a clown , throwing unicycles at me while Derek strapped me in place. Not that I’d ever had such a nightmare, but the scenario was definitely flitting through my head as I gazed in wide eyed horror up at my boss.
“Are you sure that’s him?” Dodge asked, his breath leaving a moist warmth on my neck.
“Yes,” I muttered, suppressing a shudder. “I saw him out in the parking lot this morning. He ran into me again. It’s definitely him.”
“If Riley the Unicyclist owns the company, why was he at the drug trial?” he asked, as if it were the next logical question.
At that moment, Emily materialised on Dodge’s other side, issuing him with a discreet jab to the ribs that had him sitting bolt upright in his chair. “What’s with all the whispering?” she demanded in a hushed, yet authoritative voice. “You’re in clear view of the boss and you’re not paying attention.”
I didn’t dare take my eyes off Riley as Dodge quickly shot off a completely bogus explanation ending with, “And then I was dumped here by Mr. Hunky over there,” by which time Riley appeared to be just about ready to speak, having set up the projector and his tablet just the way he wanted it.
Riley stepped up to the podium, shuffled through a few papers then looked up, meeting my eyes instantly, as if he knew I would be right there. I gulped involuntarily as he crooked a finger in the universal gesture for ‘come here’ at me, but my butt seemed to be glued to the chair. After a long awkward moment, during which Dodge attempted to pull and shove me to my feet, Riley crossed the distance between us.
“Agent Cooper, would you be a lamb and run off a few copies for me?”
“Agent Cooper?” Emily hissed in Dodge’s ear. I was vaguely aware of her tapping frantically at her PDA, muttering all the while. As I continued to stare dumbly into Riley’s eyes, watching them slowly morph from green to brown, I caught the odd phrase. “Must have missed something... How does he even know her name?... don’t even have agents here.”
Eventually, Dodge took the pages from Riley and urged me to my feet. “I’ll just assist Ms. Cooper,” he murmured, bowing his head respectfully for some reason as he backed us away.
“Agent Cooper,” the man corrected with a smug smile. “And thank you, Roger.” Then he turned to the room at large. “Just talk amongst yourselves, folks,” he called loudly as Dodge and I reached the hall. “We’ll be ready to go in a few minutes. Sorry to keep you waiting.”
Have you ever had one of those days where everything just starts spiralling out of control? When something happens that screws up your day and leads to something else, equally as terrible and annoying happening and soon the snowball is rolling down the hill in a massive avalanche that you wish would just consume you whole so you didn’t have to live through the torture anymore but it just won’t because it hates you too much?
Don’t worry if you didn’t really follow that, I’m not sure I did either. But that’s how I was feeling as I shuffled through crowd an hour later, trying to lay low to avoid having to face Riley again. Dodge was walking with me, between me and the front of the room, acting as a shield, while on the other side was Emily, demanding to know how I knew the boss and why he called me agent and if I could possibly talk him into expanding the technology budget. To be honest, I was too focused on getting out of the conference room without being nabbed or feeling like I should stop and talked to Mr. Walker.
Once clear of the door, I started pushing my way through the crowd, not caring if Dodge and Emily kept pace with me or not. I just needed to be as far removed from Riley and the weird reality he represented as possible. I hurtled through the office when I reached it, knocking my hip on a desk corner and nearly falling head over heels as I tripped on an extension cord that ran along the floor. My photocopying tub was still half full from that morning, so I grabbed it and headed straight for the only thing that ever made me feel competent.
That’s where Dodge and Emily found me, mindlessly feeding a double sided job into the document tray on top.
While Dodge crossed the room and gently prised the paper from my clutching fingers, Emily closed and locked the door. “Alright, you two,” she said, pulling a small stack of boxes over and sitting down. “You’ve got some explaining to do.”
“Last Wednesday Bea was late because Riley ran into her on his unicycle and she sprained her wrist. He took her to the nearest doctor, got her wrist strapped. While there Bea noticed a flyer for an ongoing drug trial program at the university offering five hundred bucks for anyone who met their deceptively complex criteria. She convinced me to go with her. Friday we rocked on up to the drug trial initiation. Riley was behind us in line. This morning he ran Bea over with his unicycle in the parking lot. Turns out he’s the boss man,” Dodge rattled off, rather succinctly summing up our history with Mr. Riley Walker, CEO and part owner of Walk Safe Security.
Emily stared at us blankly, her processing face. I thought she was going to yell at us for not telling her about Riley the moment we realised, but in the end she asked, “You’re doing a drug trial?”
I exchanged a glance with Dodge. “Uh, yeah,” I murmured, feeling much calmer about the whole situation now that I was not under the microscope in the front row of the meeting. “I thought it would be a good way to get the extra money for the rent this month.”
“We’ve cut it fine the last couple of months,” Dodge added. “I didn’t want to do the trial, but I like having a roof over my head.”
Emily rolled her eyes, glanced down at her PDA, tapped a couple of times then looked back at us. “Why don’t you find a cheaper apartment?” she asked. She’d been asking that for a while now, and the simple answer is that Dodge is used to a certain lifestyle. He grew up in a wealthy family in a spacious house with a maid. When came out of the closet at nineteen – well, came out to his parents at least, I’d known he was that way since we were fourteen – they’d cut him off from the family money. Everything except his college fund. They said when he decided he was straight again they would support him again.
“You find us a cheaper apartment that will pass Dodge’s standards, and we’ll take it,” I assured her.
“There’s always the flats down the road,” she suggested. “Don’t the Walkers own them as well? I’m sure Riley could get you a good price.”
“Just how chummy do you think I am with Mr. Walker?” I asked, emphasising his name in an effort to maintain a certain air of professionalism.
Emily raised an eye brow at me. “It’s not how chummy I think you are now that matters. It’s the potential for chumminess that I’m interested in.” She tapped some more on the little screen in her hand and added in a distracted tone, “Mama needs a Jarvis.”
Dodge met my gaze, silently asking if I’d heard it as well, and as I gave a short nod, he asked, “What’s a Jarvis?”
“Oh, come on, Roger,” she sigh exasperatedly. “I know you’ve seen all the Avengers movies. Iron Man? Jarvis? Artificial Intelligence? Ring a bell?” Shaking her head she dismissed Dodge’s apparently stupid question, turning to me. “If I had a personal assistant I wouldn’t have to read all the time. Do you know how much I know about some of these people that I just wish I could wipe from my memory? Especially the Squad. You would not believe the things they send each other via company phone texts. It’s like they’re trying to gross me out.”
“They’re good at what they do,” I agreed.
“Regular bunch of shit stirrers,” Dodge added. “And speaking of, here’s your personal terrorist. Derek the Delicious.”
I looked out the large picture window that connected the copy room with the office proper, and sure enough, Derek was hanging about by my desk, his arms crossed over his chest as he glared at us.
“Please,” I said. “He is not Derek the Delicious. Devilish, maybe, but not Delicious.”
Dodge cocked his head to the side, considering the man in question. “I can see that,” he mentioned. “They say that demons are very good looking. It helps them lure unsuspecting women to the dark side. Maybe Stud’s a good nickname for him.”
“Why does he need a nickname?” I asked, incredulously. “What’s wrong with calling him Dickwad like I usually do?”
“I’ve never heard you call him Dickwad,” Dodge countered, jumping up onto the table he’d been leaning against. “When do you call him Dickwad?”
“Fine,” I sighed – I seemed to be doing that a lot lately. “I’ve never called him that, but I think it suits him.”
Emily stood from her makeshift stool and stared through the window with us. Luckily Derek had turned his attention to studying the cowering office workers around him. “I agree, he needs a code name,” she said thoughtfully. “But I think he’s more of Pookey.”
I cut my gaze to her, eyeing her warily. “That thing in your ear is messing with your brainwaves, isn’t it?” I asked. “If we’re giving him a code name it should be something demeaning. Like Numb Skull.”
“You’re not very good at this, Bea,” Dodge informed me. “What about Big Winkie?”
“Yeah, because he has a big Winkie,” he explained, idly scratching the rash at the back of his neck. “I caught a glimpse of it in the men’s room.”
I collapsed back on the table with an exasperated groan. Dodge was absolutely no help in this naming endeavour. We just weren’t on the same page about Derek. “You know, that right there is probably why guys are so nervous around gays,” I pointed out. “You perv on them in the men’s room.”
He slapped my shoulder with the back of his hand. “I do not perv. I just appreciate the male body any chance I get.”
We all gazed silently through the window for long moments. I was trying to figure out a suitably demeaning code name for the dastardly Derek, while simultaneously wishing I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, drinking martinis on a sun lounger on the pool deck. I imagined I was there right now, soaking up the sun as a well toned, shirtless pool boy brought me another drink. He sat at the end of the lounger, to give me a foot rub and I moaned in delight. This was the life.
“Bea!” Emily said loudly from directly in front of me.
I snapped my eyes open to find that the foot rub I had been imagining was actually just Emily kicking the bottom of my shoe in an attempt to get my attention. I shook off my fantasy and sat up, straightening my blouse as I went. “What?”
“Derek is coming ov-.”
She didn’t have to finish that sentence, as a banging knock sounded on the door. From my position atop the table I could still see his profile through the window. Something about the set of his shoulders told me I probably wasn’t going to want to stick around for very long. I glanced between my still not empty photocopying tub and the door, wishing there was a back exit to this room I loved so much. As I retrieved the latest completed job from the tray and sorted the next to be started, Dodge made his way to the door, Emily by his side. Together they unlocked and opened it, as I punched a few buttons and hit go.
“Hey Big Winkie,” Dodge greeted, pushing his way through the doorway and out into the main office without so much as a pause to allow for Derek’s reaction to his new ‘nickname.’
“I need to talk to you.” Derek’s voice filled the small space with ease and I glanced over my shoulder in the hopes that he wasn’t addressing me. He stood with his big hands on his slim hips, as if drawing attention to his wonderful package – dammit, now Dodge had my mind on Derek’s winkie and I couldn’t get it off! – staring down at Emily, who looked comically small in comparison to hall his bulging muscles. As I watched, he glanced over her shoulder at me with a single eye brow quirked. “Privately,” he added, meeting my gaze.
I leaned my hip against the copier, crossing my arms over my chest. “Don’t let me stop you,” I said. “I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied in here.” I attempted to quirk my own eyebrow at him, but given that I’d never quite been successful at such things in the past, I can only assume it was another failed effort. “You can commandeer Emily for as long as you like.”
I watched the amused smile spread a couple millimetres across his face before vanishing.
“Shall we head to my office then?” Emily suggested, glancing nervously between Derek and I, as if we were two chemicals that were likely to explode if left in each other presence for too long. It was probably true. I can think of a few things I’d like to do to Derek if I had the skill, and they would probably explode out of me if I was tempted for too long.
Amazingly, when Derek just stood there, she took his arm and guided him effortlessly in a turn before leading him away.
I sagged, all the defiant energy seeping out from my toes as I was finally alone. Between Derek’s terrorist attacks and Riley’s presence in the building, I can’t imagine how I could possibly get anything done this week. The best I could hope for was an extended game of Hide and Seek where I hid and everyone one else just forgot that we were even playing and stopped looking for me.
My gaze slid to the stationery cupboard in the corner. That would be perfect if it wasn’t full of shelves. I could always make a fort out of the boxes stacked in the corner. There were definite possibilities for hiding places in here, the only probably was, this room is the first place they would look for me. I’d be better off squeezing myself into a locker in the gym.
“So what do you think about this merging business,” Dodge asked that night.
He, Emily and I were sitting cross legged around the Chinese food laden coffee table in our living room. Emily and I had been chatting idly about the advantages of having a Jarvis-like system. She’d mentioned having Jarvis scan all the communications for certain key words and phrases so that she didn’t have to spend all her times sifting through endless crap just to get down to the facts. She was no gossip, but if you were looking for confirmation on an interoffice romance rumours, she was the girl to go to. I, on the other hand, was more interested in its dealing-with-Derek potential. I wouldn’t need lasers and flamethrowers – which I had briefly considered this morning – on my photocopier; I could just tell Jarvis to cut power to the copier whenever I wasn’t using it.
Dodge, while present in body, had been absent from the conversation as he once again followed the maze of prompts and options the drug trial hotline provided. This was his third attempt at getting through. Each time, he’d ended up on hold for an hour before being abruptly disconnected. It appeared he’d made it to the hold music once more, if he was speaking to us.
“What merging business?” I asked around my latest mouthful of Sweet and Sour Pork. This earned me identical deadpan looks from my company. “What?”
“Did you pay any attention to today’s meeting?” Emily enquired.
Dodge chuckled. “Oh, she paid attention alright,” he informed her. “Didn’t take her eyes off him the entire time. I think Agent Cooper is in luuuurv.”
“More like freaking out,” I muttered. “I didn’t hear a word he said after we returned with his copying. And I’m not an agent,” I added in exasperation. If this kept up I was going to get a complex. Or an identity crisis.
“Maybe that’s one of the changes Mr. Walker wants to make,” Emily suggested, ignorant to my inner turmoil. “He’s got the Squad for the brunt work, but he needs a group of more subtle and sophisticated people to do some high end espionaging.”
“Espionaging isn’t a word,” Dodge informed her with a roll of his eyes. “You of all people should know that.”
“Back to this supposed merge,” I inserted, waving my chopsticks between them. “Who? When? Where? How? Why?”
“Wow,” Emily breathed, speaking out of the corner of her mouth. “She really is frazzled by this Riley situation. Doesn’t she usually read everything she photocopies?”
Dodge scratched his chin, appearing thoughtful, though I was pretty sure he was just itchy. His fingers were gliding over a few red dots that were gathered there, threatening to become a full blown rash again the moment he took his pill after dinner. “Huh,” he murmured. “You know, you’re right. I bet, between you, you know everything that’s going on in this company.”
I scoffed at the very idea of me knowing what was going on, but was shocked to find that Emily let out a derisive snort at the same time. “What?” I asked indignantly. “You don’t think I know what’s going on?”
She shook her head, her blonde hair, loosed from his customary bun to hang in a perfect pony tail down the back of her head in a single perfect curl, swung from side to side with the motion. “No, I just know that most of what you photocopy and read has been put together on the company computer network, which I also monitor, but to a lesser degree. And collaborated via email, so that by the time it gets to you I’ve already seen about a thousand versions of it.” She paused. “Why did you scoff?” she asked.
“Same reason,” I mumbled, feeling incredibly inferior. “I didn’t feel so bad about it a minute ago, though.”
She apologised and offered me one of her spring rolls, and just like third grade, we were best friends again. That’s why I love these guys so much. We could insult each other and make up almost in the same breath.
Eventually, we got around to discussing Riley’s proposed merge and I found it interesting, given what I knew about Riley and what I knew about the company that we were apparently joining with an experimental science group. I couldn’t even fathom how science and security went together. They seemed worlds apart to me.
“So what you’re saying is, they’re adding an extra floor to the building so they can put labs in and we’re all going to be forced to get brain transplants so that we’re mindless drones that Riley can control with a single thought?”
“Close,” Emily said, leaning across the table to snag the PDA I had confiscated several minutes ago. “But no taco.” She didn’t even make it back to a fully seated position before Dodge had snatched it off her and shoved it into the teeny tiny pocket of his pants.
“It’s more like they want to try a new approach to security and crime fighting,” Dodge explained.
I sighed. “Isn’t that what I just said?”
“Science and security,” Emily said wistfully. “Think of the possibilities.”
“Perimeter control robots.”
“DNA scanning entry, like in the movies.”
“My very own pet vampire.”
We cut our eyes to Dodge at his comment, an incredulous expression passing between the three of us before we all burst into laughter. We weren’t sure what was coming, but we knew for sure that even if it wasn’t pet vampires, it would at least be interesting.