Chapter One – Fresh Meat

1: FRESH MEAT

She walks in like a deer approaching a watering hole favored by its top ten natural predators: eyes wide and fearful, face pale, a fine tremor racing through hands clasping a leather notebook to her chest. Her conservative plaid Pendleton skirt swishes around her kneecaps in a frenzy of pleats, and the coordinating jacket over a muted maroon blouse must make the office temperature seem like a suburb of hell.

“Fresh meat,” I say in a low voice, tossing a paper clip over the low cubicle wall at my neighbor Stella. She picks it up and bounces it off the head of our coworker Gretchen, who is my best friend. Gretchen looks up and catches Stella’s slight nod toward the New Girl passing behind her cubicle. She rolls her eyes. No one wears wool in this office, even Pendleton wool, and no one wears a suit jacket except the administrators. Or perhaps I should say Administrators, for that’s how they see themselves, with a capital A—capital A for Assholes, Stella always quips.

“I give it two hours before she finds a way to shed the wool shell,” Gretchen wagers.

“One,” I say.

“Fifteen minutes. What’s the wager?” Stella asks, scrutinizing the New Girl closely. She sees what Gretchen and I miss: the fine sheen of sweat stippling her more-than-likely freshly-waxed upper lip.

“Starbucks Frappuccino,” I suggest. I love Frappuccinos and would find a way to exist on a diet made up solely of said beverage if I could. That and Arby’s French dip sandwiches.

Gretchen sighs expressively. “Didn’t I just buy you a Starbucks card for Christmas?”

“Yeah, for ten bucks, you skinflint. I was out by the end of December.”

Stella snorts. “I don’t like Starbucks. How about pizza for three from Domino’s. They deliver,” she adds quickly as Gretchen’s brows lower ominously.

Gretchen’s husband is a general manager for Pizza Hut and she views consumption of any other brand as a betrayal. Unfortunately, although I like Pizza Hut better than Domino’s, we’re not located within the delivery range of any of them.

“Make it pizza for four,” I say, nodding toward New Girl. “The friendly thing to do is invite Fresh Meat to join us, since the wager is about her.”

“Fresh Meat,” Stella repeats distastefully. “Geez, Frannie. Why don’t you just call her by her name—er, what is her name? I’ve forgotten.”

It’s Gretchen’s turn to snort. “Who cares? Malaria will run her off within two weeks, just like she did all the previous assistants Sam’s hired.”

Malaria—more commonly known as Malia, pronounced like Maria but with an L instead of an R—is our immediate supervisor. She met her husband Sam, another Administrator, while employed as his assistant. She worked her way up into management—we aren’t really sure how since she’s as incompetent as a comatose monkey, but we suspect she did most of the work on her back or on her knees—and then ruined Sam’s life by accepting his martini-induced marriage proposal. The man hasn’t been the same since.

We watch as New Girl, led by none other than Malia herself, stop outside Sam’s office door. Malia motions her into Sam’s office ahead of her. We begin the count; sixty seconds and New Girl will be ushered out to sit in a chair outside the office while Malia lays down the ground rules to Sam about his attractive new assistant.

“Forty-two seconds,” says Gretchen, raising a brow as New Girl is ushered out and the office door is promptly closed. It’s a record.

“Okay, who’s going to take her in hand?” I ask. A muted argument has already started inside the office, and New Girl’s face has taken on an alarming shade of Humiliation Red. “Rock, paper, scissors?”

“Nice try, Frannie.” Stella grins. “I took the last one, and Gretchen took the one before her.”

I push my chair away from my desk, grousing. “Oh, all right.”

It’s not that I don’t like connecting with new staff; it’s just that…well, okay, I don’t like connecting with new staff. I like to ease my way in to conversations and relationships, unlike Stella, whose very molecules are gregarious. Stella is the outgoing, quirky one; Gretchen the glamorous, aloof beauty; and I am—well, I am the mediocre one in every way except job performance. I can run an office with both hands tied behind my back in a semi-conscious state, but I long to be charismatic like Stella or cosmopolitan like Gretchen. Instead I’m dismally average: my hair is medium-dark, my skin is medium-pale, my dress size is medium-large (okay, perhaps I have consumed too many Frappuccinos and French dip sandwiches).

New Girl watches me approach as though I’m the angel of death. I see she’s been relieved of her leather notebook. The rising voices inside Sam’s office tell me she will not be reunited with her cowhide shield any time soon.

“Frannie Freeman,” I introduce myself. “Don’t try to say it when you have several margaritas under your belt.”

“I don’t drink,” she says warily.

“You will.”

“Morgan Cassidy.” She shakes my hand. I keep hold of it and use it to haul her to her feet. “Wow, it’s hot in here.” She shrugs out of the jacket. Damn! Stella’s won; she’ll be impossible to live with now.

“How do you feel about pizza, Morgan?” I ask as I lead her away from Cubicle Row, mentally calculating the balance in my checking account and her deepening green pallor.

“Generally I like pizza,” Morgan says. “But Frannie, I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Yep, I figured so. That’s why we’re heading to the bathroom.”

Morgan’s eyes widen. “That’s incredible! Are you psychic?” And she throws up all over me. Stella and Gretchen stifle their laughter behind their hands, but not very well.

I sigh. “Nope. If I was, I’d have called in dead today.”

Morgan is mortified. “I’m so sorry! I usually don’t throw up on the first date—I mean, day!”

Stella and Gretchen completely lose it. Morgan looks like she wants to pass out, and I would like to join her, because I’ve just noticed Eric Edwards from Sales watching the festivities with utter disgust stamped all over his too-handsome face. I’m wondering if the disgust comes from seeing me thrown-up on or if he now thinks I’m a lesbian because of Morgan’s unfortunate misspeak. Either way, I would not object to a crater opening at my feet and swallowing me whole this very minute.

“Come on, Old Faithful.” I guide Morgan around the last corner, our coworkers’ laughter chasing us into the bathroom.

Damned if I’m paying for pizza!

 ♥♥♥♥♥

Before we go any farther, I suppose I should explain just what it is that I do for a living. Harper & Lyttle, Inc., where I work, produces business system software, usually by contract but we boast a modest collection of programs built on speculation as well. Speculation software, in case you’re wondering, is software created for no particular client. Someone simply has an idea and runs with it, and we try to sell it later on the general market.

I, Frannie Freeman, hold the coveted (by no one) title of Training Specialist III. In other words, because I have three Associates of Applied Science degrees in computer systems and office management, Harper & Lyttle believes me fully qualified to train myself and others in all our products. What this means to me is I’m at my desk infrequently because I’m training others, and I am quite often called down to the Customer Support Center to answer a consumer’s questions. I also find myself tethered to a laptop in my off-hours, trying to catch up on my enormous workload, but since I have no social life to speak of, it’s not really a problem.

Tension runs high in our department due to understaffing (and the constant friction between Sam and Malaria), thus we have pizza delivery on speed dial and know the shortest routes to the best espresso stands. The girls and I frequently gather after hours at a dimly-lit bar called Tony’s, where the live music is loud and the margaritas strong. This gets us through most of the acid-rain showers from the Adminisphere—oh, you know what I mean: the corrosive decisions that eat away logic and those rare feelings of felicity we may occasionally harbor for the Suits, usually only when someone in their family dies.

So Tony’s is where we head at quitting time. Fresh Me—er—Morgan isn’t with us, not because we failed to invite her, but because our decision to go to Tony’s was made at 4:58 PM and she had Orientation in Human Resources the latter half of the day. I rather doubt she would have felt like downing several of Tony’s ‘ritas anyway. Half an hour in the bathroom—most of that time spent holding my shirt under the hot-air hand dryer after washing it in the sink—put both my wardrobe and Morgan’s upset stomach to rights, but I doubt seriously that I’ll ever be able to erase my vomit-splattered image from Eric Edwards’ brain.

Stella tosses the drink menu into the center of the table and holds up a finger, signalling to our server. He winds his way with a beaming smile through the clutch of tables between us and the bar and hovers at her elbow, touching her shoulder with a lack of restraint that fairly shrieks evidence of a past sexual liaison. He’s a tall, dark drink of water: smooth, blue-black skin, ebony eyes, and fantastic, straight white teeth.

“Stella! Your usual?” His voice is buoyant with a Jamaican accent.

“That would be lovely, Darius. My friends will have a margarita each. Make them good.” She winks as he moves away, and Gretchen gives her a disgusted look.

“He’s—what? Twenty-two to your thirty-three?”

Stella shrugs. “So what?”

“Ever hear of VD, Stella?” Gretch persists.

Stella smiles wickedly. “Sure. It’s what they made penicillin for.”

Gretchen’s blush is neon-red, and I hastily change the subject. “I heard they cut Concept Development’s budget. Jeremy Ingram was in a complete snit after the budget meeting.”

“Great,” Stella grumps. “That means with fewer products, the rest of the department budgets will be cut as well. I wondered why all the administrators were crab-asses today. Even Sam.”

“Sam’s a crab-ass because he’s married to Satan’s daughter,” Gretchen replies, flicking a glance at me.

“He’s a crab-ass because they downsized half his staff two years ago and still expect the same level of productivity,” I say, not appreciating the reminder of his marital status. My crush on Sam Harrison is legendary—at least among Gretchen, Stella, and me. “Remember our workload—the reason we drink?”

“Speaking of drinking,” Stella says. “It’s too bad Morgan couldn’t join us. I wonder why they have Orientation in the afternoon after you’ve worked the whole morning at your new job.”

I have the answer. “It’s because they don’t want to waste their time on you in Orientation if you’re not going to come back from lunch. Remember that little gal we had oh-how-many-assistants ago? She smiled at us all and said ‘See you after lunch!’ and we never saw her again.”

Stella’s mouth drops open, and Gretchen clenches her teeth, hissing, “Frannie! She was hit by a delivery truck on her way to the deli! I think she’s still in a coma.”

“Oh,” I say blankly. “I forgot about that.”

“You’re hopeless…and oh, let’s add alcohol to your hopelessness,” she grumbles as our drinks are delivered. Darius gives Stella a seductive grin and weaves off to the other side of the room.

“Pardon me,” Stella murmurs. “I must go find a reason for a dose of antibiotics.” She’s off after Darius before we can stop her.

Gretchen shakes her head and flicks some of the salt off the rim of her margarita glass. “So when do you think Sam is going to divorce Malaria?”

“Never,” I say sharply. She winces and I relent. “If he was going to, he would have by now.”

“Fran—“

“I’ll be fine,” I say brightly. “I’m going to start dating again. Maybe I’ll lose some weight, buy some new clothes. Things are going to change, you’ll see.”

If I’d had any clue of crapstorm about to transpire, I’d’ve found another job by week’s end.

I hear Domino’s is hiring.

 

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Character-driven fiction. Because characters matter.

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