The routine was a simple, comfy one. She and her boyfriend, Tyler, would depart from one of their apartments–preferably his, because it was closer to work–and make their way to one of the many skyscrapers near Battery Park. Next, they would clear security and purchase and decorate a cup of coffee in a kiosk in the lobby before riding the elevators. They’d kiss each other goodbye on the fourteen floor, where Tyler served as tech support for the corporate loan division of a large, foreign bank. She would then continue to twenty-six, swipe her ID badge and pass through reception to begin her shift as a temporary employee at Metropolis Reinsurance, thinking, as she always did, that an insurance company insuring insurance companies must be some kind of scam.
Her first stop was the to-file bin near the door, where a pile of folders had accumulated overnight, because apparently people with real jobs had to work overtime. All she had to do next was deposit her coffee, cardigan, and purse at her desk; clock in; photocopy and file the contents of the folders; and wrangle some spreadsheets.
This was no ordinary day, though. The first sign of this popped up in front of her like a shriveled, hairless, prairie dog wearing a blue jumper draped over a blouse made of doilies. “Emily!” the figure panted. “Have you seen it?”
“Seen what?” yelped Emma, whose name was not Emily. She was used to the executive vice president’s secretary appearing out of nowhere like this–but only when she was in her own territory. In the handful of weeks Emma had been here, Esther had never strayed this close to the entrance before.
She might have been tightly wound, but Esther had always come across as harmless. Today, however, the old woman’s eyes glowed with desperation and murder. “My cockamamie tape dispenser!”
Emma asked. “Have you looked–?”
“I looked everywhere!” Esther told her. “The floor! The drawers! Miss Brotz’s office! All the cubicles! Your office! The floor! The trash can! My chair! The conference room! The break room! The men’s room!”
“What would it be doing in the–?”
“Everywhere!” Esther looked left and right, the chain attached to her glasses whipping dangerously back and forth, and leaned in close. “Don’t spread it around, but I think someone stole it,” she whispered.
Esther exploded, “What kind of bitch or bastard would steal a tape dispenser!”
Emma shook her head. “I doubt–“
“It had my cockamamie name on it!”
There was no way out of this. Esther blocked the way forward, and Emma couldn’t turn and flee, because the heels on her boots made it difficult to maneuver on carpet–whereas Esther’s moccasins were ideal for this terrain. Besides, for someone who resembled a mummy left in the bathtub too long, Esther was shockingly nimble. Emma closed her eyes, found her happy place, and mentally huddled there.
A few moments later, freedom shuffled past in the form of a half-awake accountant named Takeema. “Tawanna!” Esther barked. “Have you seen it?”
Emma scurried to her workspace while she still had the chance.
Metropolis Reinsurance was, like most corporations, a pasture of little privacy and even littler cubicles. You therefore might think it strange that a pair of temps–lower than serfs in the feudal world of business–had been granted their very own office. That’s only because you haven’t smelled it. Until the end of the twentieth century, the windowless room had served as the twenty-sixth floor’s smoking retreat, and no amount of paint, deodorizer, and years could heal that fragrant scar.
Besides, there wasn’t a lot of square footage in there anyway. She and her officemate, Mike, were crammed so closely together that she could talk him through the occasional obstacle in his perpetual game of computer solitaire without even looking up from her assignment. And sure enough, as she rounded the corner, the click of his mouse swept away the mess Esther had left on her concentration.
Most of her routine tasks were frontloaded to the hours before the big, eleven-o’clock executive meeting, and this suited her just fine. She didn’t need to be conscious to run a copier, alphabetize, and sort spreadsheets, so long as all her tools were in place.
And, as per usual, they were–from the surprisingly comfortable rolling chair, to the computer with its keyboard, CPU, and prehistoric CRT monitor, as well as the flimsy plastic in-box, a mug full of pens, stapler, a lamp that didn’t work, paper-and-binder clips, and daily printouts. “So where the fuck’s my desk?” she asked.
This was a rhetorical question, but Mike answered anyway, “Your desk is gone, Emma.”
“Where the fuck did it go?”
“I can fucking see that.”
“You seem cranky,” he said.
“That’s because my fucking desk is gone, dude.”
“Maybe you should try to remain calm.”
“I would if someone could tell me where my fucking desk went,” she replied.
“Have you considered toning the language down, Emma?” he suggested. “You do have a bit of a potty mouth.”
“Where the fuck is my desk, dude?”
“It’s gone, Emma.”
She dragged her feet across the miniscule area of floor and plopped down on her chair. “Fuck.”
“I think we should get a swear jar,” said Mike.
“I’d volunteer to put it on my desk, dude, if I had a fucking desk!”
“When you’re ready to have a conversation like a rational human being,” he huffed, “just let me know.”
Emma wasn’t ready.