Charlie was miserably awake, blanket pulled up to her ears, waiting for the clock to flip. For a full half hour now, she watched the minutes count up. When the bright red numbers finally turned to 6 o’clock, she gave up and got out of bed. The carpet was flat and rough on her bare feet and she slipped into a pair of house shoes before shuffling towards the bathroom.
The shower heated the tiny room nicely, fogging up the window and mirror. It was still dark grey outside, the kind that was already hard to see in and was made worse by the light fog clinging low to the city. It settled in each morning before burning off with the sun to leave a thick layer of humidity behind. The spring weather here was hellish – cold enough for a jacket in the morning but just shy of too warm for a sweater by the late afternoon. Impossible to dress for. Charlie listened to the crescendo of car horns alerting the neighborhood to the unfortunate souls already stuck in rush hour traffic.
Well ahead of schedule, she plucked her nicest black power suit and a crisp white shirt from the closet. She auditioned a ponytail, a bun, half-up-half-down, and a stubby little braid before scrapping it all and wearing her hair down, tucked behind her ears. She finished the look with a pair of simple silver stud earrings and the twisted silver ring she almost never took off.
Her kitten heels clicked sharply on the stairs down to the kitchen. Click click click I’m important click click. The bottom floor of her townhouse was already filled with the scent of hot caffeine, expertly programmed to brew at exactly 6:20 each morning by the fancy coffee maker her mom gave her last Christmas. She chose her Scrabble mug, the one with the C on it, and threw a dash of milk on top. Her cell rang just as she popped two slices of bread into the toaster.
“Hey, mom.” She blew on the mug before taking her first sip, still burning the very tip of her tongue. She hissed. “Yeah, of course I’m up. I couldn’t sleep. What are you doing up? It’s three in the morning there.”
Charlie pulled the margarine from the fridge and popped the lid. “I have done this before, you know…yes, the black one I got tailored last year.”
Her toast popped up and she threw the bread onto a napkin. “I don’t know. I’m sure they’re going to show me around…yes, I’ll get my own desk.” The butter melted perfectly. “I will send you a picture of my nameplate. I’ve got to go though, I’ll text you, okay? Yes. Yes. Mhmm. Love you too. Bye.”
She tossed her phone into her bag by the front door before circling back around to take a bite of toast and two huge gulps of coffee, now the perfect temperature. She remembered she hadn’t taken her headache meds at the same time her phone alarm went off to remind her.
She threw back the pair of little pink pills with another large sip of coffee before assessing the contents of her bag – planner she never uses (check), extra phone charger (check), protein bar so she doesn’t get hangry (check), and her wallet (check). She grabbed her keys off the hook by the door and took a deep breath.
“Okay. I’m ready. I’ve got everything. I did everything. I’m ready.”
She got halfway down the front walk before running back in for her toast. Okay, now she was ready.
The windshield of her car still had a coat of morning dew on it and her wipers did their crappy little job of wicking it away as she programed her new office into her GPS.
“Take a left at Oak Street,” the robotic female voice announced at the end of her street. “Take Oak Street for 1.3 miles to Hubbard Lane. Then merge right.”
Charlie had debated taking the subway to save on the anxiety of navigating a new set of one-way streets and roundabouts, but ultimately decided to be an adult and drive. She only got 1.3 miles before she wished she had made a different choice.
“Merge right onto Hubbard Lane, then follow north to 2nd Avenue.”
She held her breath, watching the cars ahead of her take to the outside lane and swing around the absurd circular fountain in the middle of the absurd three-lane circular road. She merged into traffic and followed them around, finally exhaling when she made it to a straight line again.
“Turn left onto 2nd avenue and continue for 6.5 miles.”
Without any more roundabouts, Charlie made it to the Northpointe Times. The newspaper was housed in a particularly ugly building that stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of an otherwise streamlined downtown. It was six floors of dirty white plaster and cracked molding, an unfortunate attempt at Gothic architecture. Most of the bright overhead fluorescents were on and she could see a few silhouettes milling about through the windows.
“You have arrived at your destination.”
She turned off the mouthy machine as she searched for a parking space in the garage tucked under the building.
The last of her coffee was cold now, but she tossed it back before stepping out into the cold concrete lot, taking time to control her sudden bout of nerves. She smoothed her blazer and pants and walked towards the door, head up, confident. Click click click.
“Hold the door, will you?”
Charlie looked around for the source of the call and spotted a shorter man, not much older than herself, in jeans and a well-worn khaki raincoat. He looked like he had rolled straight from bed going by the state of his jet-black hair. The door in question was locked to anyone without a keycard, the red light sparking a flare of embarrassment.
The man arrived, slightly out of breath, and smiled. “You forgot your card as well?”
“I…well, I don’t, it’s my first day,” she stuttered.
His smile brightened as he leaned towards the security box, pressing the small intercom button. “Maria? It’s Finn. I’ve left my card again, can I get a buzz in?”
“That’s the fourth time this month,” a static reply came. “And it’s only the tenth.”
The door buzzed and Finn quickly propped it open. “Thank you, Maria,” he replied sweetly.
“Morning security, controller-of-the-doors, easily bribed with pastries.”
“I’m Finn Hartman, by the way,” he said, casually extending his hand as they headed for the nearest elevator.
“Charlie Morgan.” She startled at how quickly he pulled his hand back, almost like he had been burned.
“Morgan? You’re on my floor.” He pressed the button for four, blowing past whatever weirdness could have lingered after the handshake. “The new kid.”
“You could say that.”
“First time in the big leagues?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“No,” he said. “You just…you look ready.”
Charlie felt her shoulders relax. She was ready. The elevator dinged to reveal her new home – Floor Four: Investigative News and Current Events.
“Come on, your desk’s this way,” Finn said, indicating the far back corner.
The empty desk sat facing another that was decked out in thin red and pink ribbons crisscrossing along a corkboard, small photographs tucked in creating a collage of model-thin women in five-inch stilettos. Upon closer inspection, the nameplate read Kate Underhill, Journalist.
“Here you are, brand new desk cleaned just for you.”
Charlie ran her fingertips across the edge. It was bigger than her last desk and much less like a cubicle.
“Charlotte? Charlotte Morgan?”
Charlie faced the voice coming up behind her in at-least-three-inch heels and a tight pencil skirt. She’d bet money it was Kate Underhill.
Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’m Kate.” She sat her Coach purse on her desk while rummaging for something that turned out to be a protein shake. “Have you met Frank yet?”
Charlie looked to Finn, who had settled into his own desk across the aisle. He shrugged. “Not yet, no.”
“Come on then,” Kate said, wrapping a hand around Charlie’s upper arm to steer her. Her lacquered nails looked like blood against Charlie’s pale olive skin. They matched her lipstick.
Kate knocked twice on the door labeled Franklin Amburgey before parading Charlie inside. Frank was a large man, beefy from his neck to ankles, and a zealous blond moustache made his face look ridiculous.
“Ah, is this Miss Charlotte Morgan?”
“Everybody calls me Charlie.”
“Charlie,” he repeated, extending his hand and sausage-like fingers. “Welcome to the Northpointe Times!”
She offered her Professional Smile. “Thank you, I’m very excited to start working.”
“I see you’ve met Kate, she’s one of our senior writers. She’s going to show you the ropes around here.” He leaned back in his luxurious leather chair, resting his hands on his potbelly. “She’s one of the best we’ve got.”
Kate preened at the compliment, positively glowing. “I’ve got your first story all set up for you.”
Charlie thought she caught a knowing glance between them, a momentary joke that she wasn’t in on. “Really? A solo story?”
“After a tour, of course.”
“Perfect, yes,” Frank said. “Off with you now. Let me know if you need anything, Charlie. We’re so glad to have you.”
She followed Kate back out of the office after another handshake, shutting the door behind her. “Um, I didn’t really expect a story so soon.”
“The interview’s set up for tomorrow afternoon, there’s plenty of time to get your bearings before we send you off.”
“Tomorrow? Isn’t that something I should prepare for? Or like, do a little research?”
“Not to worry,” Kate said, opening the top drawer of her desk. “It’s all right here.” She dropped the thick manila envelope in front of Charlie. “I wrote up some questions. Frank initially had me on the story but he thought you might like to dive right in.”
Charlie thought she was going to be sick and she wasn’t sure if it was from the rapid-fire assignment or the sugary sweetness of Kate’s voice. “Great, yeah.”
“Before you get started though, I’ll show you the main attractions.”
Charlie looked back to Finn’s desk hoping for a lifeline, but he wasn’t there.
“Keep up,” Kate said, heading back towards the elevator.
Charlie noticed a few more desks had gained occupants in the time she spent in Frank’s office. Most were eagerly typing away or studying papers with scribbled notes, mugs of coffee steaming within reach.
“The kitchen’s down this hall. Make sure you label your food or it will probably get eaten before you get to it. Bathrooms are past the elevators on your left. And the watercooler is on floor three,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “All the best office gossip.”
“Almost everything is electronically organized, you’ll have access to all of our stored records. And if you can’t find something, Fran in the basement can probably pull out a copy of it. Though,” Kate said, leaning in close enough for Charlie to be overwhelmed by her perfume. “I wouldn’t go down there after dark. There’s a rumor it’s haunted.”
Charlie laughed. “Seriously?”
“Sure, this building’s almost as old as the city. There’re plenty of ghost stories about it.”
Charlie scoffed as they returned to the comfort of their desks.
“You don’t believe in ghost stories?”
“Not particularly,” she said.
“I thought you were a big conspiracy theorist?” Kate’s returning smile was predatory.
“That’s not exactly the same as believing in ghosts.”
“Well at least my source was half right. Let me know if you have any questions about the interview. I’m always happy to help.”
She exhaled when Kate disappeared behind her red and pink corkboard.
Starting with page one of the file, Charlie took in as much as she could retain. It was an exposé on the mayor of a neighboring small city called Hamlet’s Grove. He recently cleaned up the city with a huge green space initiative, new parks galore, a new focus on clean air, all that jazz. Seemed well enough in her wheelhouse. She scanned over Kate’s questions, marking some out and adding replacements at the end.
The amount of work Kate had put into the story already was shocking. Charlie would have never given up something she’d already worked so hard on. It must have taken days to gather up all the information on the mayor and the city.
Charlie looked up to see Finn, big headphones hooked around his neck. She hadn’t realized it was already after noon. “Oh, yeah. Sure.”
Finn smiled. “You like soup?”
“Who doesn’t like soup?” She stuffed her planner back in her bag and slipped Kate’s file in the top drawer of her desk.
Finn took her to a food truck a couple of blocks away and they found a bench to settle on with their Styrofoam containers.
“So Kate gave you the Hamlet’s Grove story, huh?” he said, testing the heat of his vegetable soup with the tip of his tongue.
“Yeah. It’s kind of weird, right? She’s done so much work on it already. It should be her piece.”
Finn shrugged. “The mayor’s rescheduled on her a lot. I think she’s happy to get it off her desk.”
“He does seem like a busy guy. From her notes.”
“You’ll be fine. Frank doesn’t hire people who suck.” He smiled around a spoonful of his lunch.
“I don’t suck,” she said, sitting up a little straighter. “I’m pretty great, actually. I graduated at the top of my class.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Are you from out there?”
She fiddled with her soup, scooping and stirring pieces of chicken and rice. “Yeah, my parents still live there with my brother.”
“Older or younger?” he asks, pointing his spoon at her.
“The question still applies.”
Charlie laughed. “He’s younger by like, barely a minute.”
“You totally lorded that over him when you were little.”
She absolutely did.
“Have you lived in the city long?”
She held a finger up as she finished chewing. “A couple weeks.”
“Well,” he said, scraping the bottom of his container. “If you have any questions about anything, I’m just across the aisle.”
It’s not that Charlie expected everyone in the city to be like Kate (though she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t considered it) but Finn’s immediate kindness is a pleasant surprise. “Thanks,” she said. “For that and for the soup.”
“Anytime.” He stood and tossed his empty soup cup in the trash next to their bench. “You’re a slow eater.”
Charlie looked down in shame at her half-full container. “The slowest.”
Finn settled back down on the bench, legs extended out and crossed at the ankle. “I’ll just bask in the nonexistent sun while you finish.”
She took her time eating as Finn closed his eyes and tipped his head to rest on the back of the bench, completely in the shade.