I turned up the radio to drown out Paul and Jeremy's daily argument over who would win a fight between Superman and Yoda. Although my vote went to Yoda, I didn't advertise my membership in the geek club. Instead, I tapped my foot to Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl and shivered in the arctic wind blasting from IT's massive air conditioner.
The whiny voice made me flinch. My screwdriver flew out of my hand and crashed into the electronic chaos on my workstation. An avalanche of computer video cards and memory toppled onto the floor. I gritted my teeth as I turned to face my boss.
Cameron stood in his doorway, giving me his scrawny come-hither finger. "In my office. Now." He disappeared into his dark cave.
A rush of heat swept across my face.
Jeremy leaned out from behind the cubicle wall and shoved his glasses up his nose with his forearm. "Damn, dude. What the hell did you do?"
I groaned and rolled down the sleeves of my blue dress shirt. "I don't think I did anything." Did I?
"Are you sure you didn't piss off Rita in accounting again?" Paul asked, his head buried in the chassis of a computer on his workbench. As usual, his hairy butt-crack showed above the sagging waist of his jeans.
Nice. Just what I needed to see right after lunch.
"I didn't go near that old crab." I threw up a hand. "And I didn't do anything to piss her off in the first place. I just told her I couldn't fix her computer speakers before the freakin' e-mail server. Christ." I shook my head and trudged toward Cameron's office.
I popped my head into the pigsty. "You rang?" His windowless cell always smelled of fish and BO, an aroma that always stirred up the contents of my stomach and threatened to unload it onto his carpet.
Cameron slouched at his desk, fingers poised over his keyboard. His instant messenger dinged, and he typed without looking up. "Come in and shut the door."
I backed out, inhaled as much clean air as I could, stepped into his office, and sat in the chair arranged in front of his desk. Shallow breaths helped me control my gag reflex as I stared at his bony profile and waited, my hands pinned between my legs and the chair so I wouldn't fidget. I commanded my leg to stop bouncing, but it ignored me as usual.
He'd painted his office dark gray, the same shade as his desk, carpet, and chair. And, come to think of it, his hair, at least some of it. Who decorated a lightless hellhole in shades of gray? I wasn't even sure it was a color, more a lack of color--a big gray hole. It matched his winning personality.
I mustered a smile when he turned his chair and folded his fingers together among the paper city on his desk. His silence stretched on, emphasizing the steady beeps and blips from the bank of servers outside his door.
"Something wrong?" I asked, fighting the urge to shake him and tell him to get on with it.
Cameron sighed and shoved his skeletal fingers into his rat's nest of salt and pepper curls. "I've got a problem, and I think you're my only solution."
My eyebrows shot up, and my shoulders relaxed. If he needed my help, then he wasn't about to chew me out. Better and better. "Yeah? What kind of problem?"
And why did he say it as if I were the lesser of two evils?
"My wife thinks she's in labor."
I shifted forward in my chair. "Oh. Crap. Then what the hell are you doing here?"
He clamped his fingers on to the edge of the desk, then proceeded to drum an annoying tune on it. "You know I spend most afternoons with Mr. Hathaway, right?"
"Yeah, though I'm not sure what the Big Cheese has you fixing all that time. How many computers does he have in there, anyway?"
Cameron reached into his drawer, then clunked a black iPhone on his desk and glared at it as if it had just peed on his shoes. "Mr. Hathaway is ... eccentric. No--jeez, that doesn't even come close to covering what he is. He's effed up eight ways from Sunday. Look, I need someone to cover for me while I'm away, and you're my sucker."
I scratched my head, searched his face for the punch line, but found only worry swirling in the depths of his stare. "Why not the guys? They've been here longer."
Leaning back in his chair, Cameron stared at the ceiling for a moment before looking back at me. "If you ever repeat this to them, I'll deny it. You're good at what you do, better than the two of them put together. And more importantly, you're the only one with the backbone to work with Mr. Hathaway." He pointed toward the door. "They'd run crying in about two minutes flat. Seriously."
A smirk tugged at my lips, and deep belly chuckles spilled over them. "The guy can't be that bad, Cam. You make him sound like a child of Lucifer or something."
He shoved the phone toward me and leaned halfway across his desk. "Possibly a cousin. If he lets you into his office at all, he'll do his best to humiliate you, and you'll probably be wishing a black hole would open on his precious hoity-toity expensive carpet and swallow you up. I think he's bored, and screwing with people seems to be at the top of his entertainment list."
I could dish it as well as I could take it. Bring it on. My smirk stretched into a grin. "Sounds like fun."
Cameron slammed his hand down on his desk, seemed to realize how badly he'd freaked out, and straightened in his chair. His voice came down a few notches, but I still caught his unease plain enough. "This isn't a joke, Eva. Screw this up, piss him off and not only will you get your ass fired, you'll never work in this city again. Please!" He pressed his fingertips together in a prayer position, jerking them in my direction a few times as if to drive his point into my head. "Please, try to be polite, no matter what he says. This could mean my ass too."
I folded my arms across my chest and stared at the Microsoft poster on his wall, the only color in Castle Grayskull. A sigh burst out of my mouth. "Fine, I'll bend over and take one for the team." I looked back at him. "But you owe me. What do I have to do?"
Cam massaged his temples. People tended to do that a lot around me. "Whatever he says. And there are rules. He's really weird about people looking at him, so try not to if you can help it. He keeps his office dark so it's not usually too bad. And I know you like to give your opinion, but please, for all that's effing good and holy, keep it to yourself." He scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck so hard it must have hurt. "Hell, don't even speak unless he asks you a direct question--it's probably safer for both of us. When he tries to embarrass you, and he inevitably will, don't flinch. It'll be over faster. I know from experience."
"Sounds like a real peach." I snorted. "How does a guy get like that?"
"No idea, and for the love of God, don't ask!"
"Really, how does he get away with treating his staff like that? Doesn't that go against labor laws or violate human rights or something?"
Cam sighed and dropped his head forward, once again drumming a death march on his desk. "He owns most of the city, Eva. He can pretty much do whatever he wants and get away with it."
"Okay, okay, sheesh, I get it. Do what he asks and keep my mouth shut." I stood and snatched Mr. Hathaway's phone from the desk before I opened the door.
Inhaling untainted air, I paused. "Yeah?"
"When he calls, you drop what you're doing. I don't care if you're taking a shit, you pinch it off in the middle and get there. He'll time you. Like literally, he'll have a clock on you."
I laughed and let my head fall back to stare at the umpteen pencils I'd flung into the drop ceiling of Cam's office. Un-freakin-believable. "Whatever you say, you're the boss."
"No. He's the boss. Don't forget it."
As I walked back to my desk, Cameron's office phone rang. After a moment, a clack announced he'd hung up rather forcefully. Jacket in hand, he sprinted out of his office, through our communal workroom, and slammed the outer door behind him.
Jeremy leaned on my desk, crinkling his nose under his thick black-rimmed glasses. All they lacked was the tape in the middle and he'd have been a nerd right out of stereotypes.com. "What was that all about?"
Without turning, I held up the phone.
"Dude!" A pause stretched long enough I wondered if he'd lost consciousness behind me. Meh. He'd live. "Is that the phone?" he asked finally.
A crash sounded from Paul's desk. Something clattered to the floor. Grunting. Cursing as he struggled free of the computer he worked on. "Did you just say what I think you said?" he asked Jeremy. "Skeletor gave her Hathaway's phone?"
"Yep," I said. "You heard right, dough boy. Cam's wife is about to have a kid so I have to fill in for him with the Big Cheese."
"I've always wanted to see inside that office." Jeremy sat on my desk, grinning and brushing a hand over his mangy red locks, eyeing the phone as if it were a Playboy centerfold.
"Hey, why you?" Paul leaned against my cubical wall and jammed his fingers into his pockets, sagging them even farther down his bulgy butt. "You've only been here for, like, a year. The rest of us have been slumming it in the dregs for a hell of a lot longer."
I shot up from my desk and glared at him. "Cam has his reasons, and from what he told me, you don't want the hassle." I poked a finger into his squishy chest, squicked out to find his button-down shirt damp with sweat. "Consider it a favor from me to you."
Paul's upper lip wrinkled, and he lumbered back to his station, muttering to himself.
The phone buzzed in my hand, sending vibrations up my arm as if I'd grabbed on to an electric fence. My heart jumped into my throat and proceeded to dance a tango in there. Jeremy leaped from my desk, and we stared at one another.
One word appeared on the screen: Now.
"The guy doesn't waste words, I'll give him that." I shrugged, pocketed the phone, and headed for the door.
I hadn't made it three steps down the hallway when the phone buzzed again. Picking up the pace along the carpet, I fished the phone out and looked at the screen: I'm waiting.
"Holy shizers, buddy." I passed the lunchroom speckled with lunchtime stragglers. The stench of some breed of cooked seafood slapped me in the face and wrinkled my nose. "I don't have a freakin' teleporter at my disposal. Star Trek, this ain't."
Shifting from foot to foot, I pushed the up arrow for the elevator, waited two seconds, and pressed it again.
"Come on!" The mirrored door dinged as it slid open. I rushed in and pushed the button for the twentieth floor. Of course every other floor opened for some schmo going to one department or another. Hell out of my way, people!
The phone vibrated against my hip again, and I withdrew it from my black dress pants. I pasted my palm against my forehead, squeezed my eyes closed for a moment, squinted at the screen. The message said: Ticktock.
"Fuck me sideways."
Beverly from Human Resources looked askance at me, her muddy brown eyes surveying me as if I'd turned into an escaped psyche patient with a horn growing out of my forehead.
"Sorry," I muttered and forced a partial smile, fighting not to laugh at her look of disgust.
She went back to scanning the paper in her pudgy hands, shaking her head.
Mr. Hathaway was beginning to remind me of Dad, king of his own twisted little world. The only reason I'd gone into IT in the first place was because he told me I wasn't smart enough to do it. Yeah, no better motivation for a stubborn girl than to tell her she can't do something.
I stepped out onto the twentieth floor and peered down the long, straight hallway. The paisley carpet glowed crimson under the rows of pot lights in the ceiling. Artwork of weird ass shit, blobs of colors smeared on a canvas that any monkey could have done, most likely worth more than ten years of my salary combined, lined the beige walls, highlighted with little lights perched above each frame. At the end, Mr. Hathaway's door glimmered gold. A false idol expecting to be worshiped by all those who came to grovel at them. A golden door. Really? Who was this guy? The Sultan of Brunai come to Canada? Sheesh.
Half chuckling to myself, I started down the hallway. Despite my amusement, my pulse sped as I neared the door.
"Where do you think you're going?" asked a man in a prissy voice.
I drew in a quick breath and searched the lobby for the owner of said voice. A man stood from behind a desk in a sunken alcove to my right and sauntered toward me. His gray suit glittered as he moved, and his shining blond pageboy cut fanned across his forehead, curled under a little at the ends.
I held up the phone, waggling it in my fingers. "Cameron sent me to help Mr. Hathaway this afternoon."
He didn't let anyone know? What. An. Ass.
"Oh no," blondie said in a singsong tone, clucking his tongue. "No, this will never do. He'll never let you in there."
"Listen..." I searched his desk for a nameplate, and his slender form, but didn't find one.
He bounced the toe of his black alligator skin shoe against the carpet and put his hands on his hips. "Brent." A flick of his head emphasized his annoyance. Jeez, I'd have bet him and Mr. Hathaway were an interesting pair in the same room.
I flashed a fake grin instead of rolling my eyes as I wanted to. "Listen, Brent, my boss sent me here so I have to at least try. And in case you haven't noticed, Mr. Hathaway isn't the most patient guy." I skirted around Brent and pressed the thumb lever on the handle of the golden idol ... er ... door.
"Wait. You can't go in there!"
The door opened with a swish to reveal a small room with one light shining down in the center. The kind of room I'd seen on cop shows where they interrogated suspects. Just splendid. Squinting to see past the cone of brightness, I edged closer to the far side of the room to find the route into Mr. Hathaway's office. The door clicked shut behind me. I spun around, but found no handle on the inside.
What the effing hell is this?
A booming bass voice echoed from a speaker in the ceiling. "You have exactly five seconds to tell me what you're doing in my office. If I don't like your answer, security will escort you from the building. Permanently."
Well, hell. What have you gotten me into, Skeletor?