Always exciting to start a new job and lose something precious!
Previously: Batya returns to the underwater HQ of Hawthorne Grain, where I guess she works now? She gets to know a little bit more about the archivists, three teenage girls who claim they run the place. They really give her the business.
The shift from executive office to private chambers makes Batya a little dizzy. This room is soft, lush, intimate. There’s a king-sized bed, precisely unmade. There are candles that smell like heated whispers. There’s a wall filled with framed mugshots of handsome criminals. Bat’s like: Is this what a boudoir is?
Margaret Feddema is in a robe, skimming through dresses in her closet, crisply scooching each hanger along the rod with a tiny metallic squeak. She glances up. “Whoever stitched up your face did a good job.”
“Thanks, did it myself.”
Margaret nods, and Bat can see her filing that tidbit away. “Mina was just catching me up on the Clingingsmith’s job. Spilling the oyster symbol on the air will have repercussions, but what doesn’t.”
“Yes, she was sure to tell me,” Margaret says, selecting a bizarrely vibrant A-line and taking it behind a shoji room divider. “But I was pleased to see you in action at the gym. And I heard you made a dent in the bouncer.”
“It was fun,” Bat says. She looks for a place to sit but there’s just the bed, a little embroidered bench by a vanity, and some silk pillows strewn on the floor, so she stays put.
Now there are some curious noises from behind the divider: the hiss of steel against steel, the rattle of small plastic pellets, the scritch of duct tape or velcro?
“I can come back later if this is a bad time,” Bat says.
“Nonsense,” Margaret says, emerging from behind the screen in the dress, a chaotic collision of geometric shapes and neon colors.
Bat winces. “Got a hot date?”
“A meeting with the good doctor who won the competition last night. Hoping to blackmail him into joining us.” She strikes a series of poses, letting Bat see all the angles. “What do you think?”
“That pattern is uh…it’s…intense.”
“How’s the fit?”
“It’s…I dunno, I can’t really…”
“Does your head feel like a magnet repulsing against another magnet?”
“Good. Look away before it damages your inner ear.”
She peels off the dress and underneath is a bodysuit with miscellaneous gear attached to her biceps, waist, thighs: tiny screwdrivers, a half dozen stoppered vials, a few syringes, something that looks like—but Bat really hopes is not—a speculum.
“That’s some kit.”
“It’s bulkier than my usual, which is why I’m trying this dress. It’s designed to repel the eye so you won’t notice any suspicious bumps. At least not until it’s too late.”
“It works great. I feel like I might barf.”
“That is very nice to hear.”
“What’s that little trident? Or like…bident.”
“This?” Margaret detaches a two-pronged instrument from her wrist. “A specialized tuning fork. It transmits a subsonic tone that impacts the nervous system. The effects vary from person to person. The instruction manual calls them intolerable sensations—not unlike the dress, I suppose. Here, you can have it. I only use it when I’ve run out of ideas, it’s too imprecise. Consider it a little…sweetener.”
Bat tucks the fork away in one of her own hidden pockets. Did Margaret hear her mention sweetener to the archivists? Wasn’t she in here talking to Mina? How many ears does this dame have?
“Moving on,” Margaret says, draping the dress along the vanity table where it seems to vibrate. “I’d like to officially make you an offer. You and Mina will work as a team, starting today. Now. You’ll have a room here, all the crab you can eat, hopefully some decent medical care in the near future. And we have an arrangement with White Clinic if you ever feel lonesome.”
“I don’t suppose you could give me my first few paychecks in advance?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You get paid upon completion of a run. I assume there’s a pressing financial situation?”
“Things are tight, yeah.”
“Well, Miss Batya, the more jobs you do, the more you make, so I encourage you to be ambitious. Just know that you’ll be splitting every dollar with your sister.”
Bat tilts her head like a puppy hearing a thing. “Pardon?”
“I only need five couriers, and you’re the sixth. I was just telling Mina that I have to treat you two as a single entity, for budgetary reasons. You understand. This is a new company, very thin margins.”
Bat hears her rings clink together and realizes she’s making a fist. This is exactly what she was dreading down here: no air, no exit. “I dunno if that’s gonna work for me.”
“Not to brag but my services are pretty in demand these days. I got regulars topside who will pay premium.”
Margaret suddenly turns to face her and she flinches, the memory of the fountain pen in her eye still fresh.
“Is that a fact,” Margaret says.
“No,” Bat sighs. “I was trying to lie to you.” She’s not exactly what you’d call a sharp negotiator. Always left that to Mina.
“You’re young, you’ll get better at it.” Margaret smiles and sits down on the bed. “Come here.”
“You…want me to sit on your lap?”
“Listen to me very carefully. I will never want you to sit on my lap.”
Bat sits next to her and has to twist awkwardly at the waist to make eye contact.
“You strike me as someone who can improvise. You can walk into a room without a plan, because you don’t need a plan.”
“That’s me, all right.” Boss lady’s little analysis is not as dead-on as she thinks but Bat’s not going to interrupt. She likes hearing theories about herself, who doesn’t.
“Good. Because what I need is someone who won’t try to predict what’s going to happen. I need someone who can go into that room and contend with whatever is actually happening. Someone who knows when to let go of a plan and just react.”
Bat smiles politely, nods.
“You’re upset,” Margaret says.
“I’m just wondering if you gave the same speech to Mina.”
“Of course not. She got one called Tell Lies That Are Mostly True.”
“Well it sounds like mine’s called Shut Up & Punch. Which is one I might’ve heard from my sister once or twice.”
“Is that why you two stopped working together?”
“There were a few reasons.”
Margaret reaches out her hands. The little vials in her bodysuit clink against each other.
“Do you want me to put my hands on your hands?” Bat asks.
She does. Margaret’s are smooth and cool, hers are beat-up and a little sweatier than she’d like.
“I don’t know how you and Mina ran your outfit,” Margaret says, “but I run this outfit. And I don’t think of you as a Shut Up & Punch. Honestly, I don’t know what I think of you yet. The man I used to work for, who I stole the archivists from, and most of the couriers, he prides himself on being able to instantly identify what value a person can provide to him. Then he extracts that value—these are his words—he extracts that value until the person is no longer of any use to him.”
“Sounds like a real charmer.”
“He is, unfortunately. But my method is to simply find people I like and discover what they need to thrive.”
Bat doesn’t buy that for a second but anyway: “I bet some cash would really get me thriving. What about that big scary job you want us to do? That sounds like a, you know…a fat peach.”
“Indeed. I’ll brief you tonight. For now, I have an item that needs to go to the Khamsin Hotel. I’d like you and Mina to handle it, and not arrive seventy-three minutes late.”
“OK, Ms. Feddema.”
“It’s pronounced Feddema. You can call me Margaret.”
“OK, Margaret. Guess I better get moving.”
Margaret grips her hands a little tighter. “First, we need to share a moment.”
Margaret takes a breath and looks into Bat’s eyes. Bat braces herself, trying not to predict what’s going to happen but instead contend with whatever’s actually happening.
Margaret places her right thumb against Bat’s forehead and keeps it there for a moment. It feels so cold it burns. Then every muscle in her body clenches and she can’t see or hear or think.
Then it’s over. Margaret removes her thumb and Bat gasps.
“I have taken something precious from you,” she says. “Welcome to Hawthorne Grain.”
This has been Chapter 18 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: Chiseled Torso