8 min read

This Broad Does Her Thing First

Batya really hates job interviews, like that’s a fascinating or unusual thing.

Previously: Batya is reunited with her estranged sister, Mina, who is working for some kind of illicit undersea organization? Mina needs Bat’s help on a job or else [gross throat-slitting gesture].

— 04 —

Ten minutes later, Batya is seated in some kind of executive office, also with a nice view of the ocean floor. Her rude sister dragged her through a bewildering series of steel corridors and then abandoned her in this room. There are four other people here, none of whom looked up when she came in.

Bat has only the vaguest grasp of where she is, which makes her jittery. She always wants to know the geography, the square footage, the points of access, the lines of sight. Down here it’s all jumbled in her head. And the air pressure hurts her ears. And being trapped underwater is making her skin feel like it’s about to crawl off her bones and make a break for it.

But her sister is in trouble, and went through a lot of effort to ask for her help. And that makes Bat feel smug and self-righteous, two feelings she rarely gets to enjoy. So she takes a breath, puts a neutral look on her face, and focuses on clocking the joint.

The office looks expensive but smells like people have been living in it for weeks. It’s cold. Half-lit by floor lamps. Stacks of documents piled on the floor. Lots of empty takeout containers from Sal’s Crab House.

Near the window is a sofa, flanked by pneumatic tubes running down the wall. Three wan teenage girls are sprawled out on it, sifting through papers.

The center of the room is dominated by a cluttered cherry wood desk. Parked behind it, having a breezy chat on the phone, is a woman who Bat feels very comfortable assuming is Mina’s new boss. She just has this pulsating boss aura, like she fell out of the womb with a henchman in tow.

“Yes. Yes. Of course. I’m aware of that. No, I wouldn’t say it’s interesting. You certainly don’t have my interest.” She hangs up. “Batya, is it?”

“It is.” Bat doesn’t like when people she’s never met know her name. She doesn’t like job interviews. She doesn’t like how much she’s sweating in this chilly room.

“My name is Margaret Feddema, F-E-D-D-E-M-A.” Handsome, silver hair, anywhere from 40 to 70, Bat’s terrible at guessing how old people are. “I was dismayed to hear about your sister’s method for bringing you here tonight.”

“Yeah I think I got a rib pointing the wrong way.”

“We have a physician on call. He’s not good but he can take a look as soon as we’re done here.”

Bat nods, adds the first entry to her new F-E-D-D-E-M-A mental dossier: This broad does her thing first, then maybe you can do your thing.

Margaret tilts her head toward the trio on the sofa. “Ladies, what do we know about our new friend here?”

One of the teens scrutinizes Bat from across the room. “Not much.”

“Strange,” Margaret says. “I thought it was your job to know things about people.”

“Our usual methods didn’t come up with a whole lot.”

“Sounds like your usual methods could use some improvement.”

“Our usual methods are great!” the teen says, now scowling at Margaret.

“If I remember right, which I do,” another teen says, “background on Mina was pretty sparse, too.”

Bat shrugs. “We keep a low profile. We like knowing who knows what about what.”

“As do I,” Margaret says, smiling, gliding around the desk. “So, how about I tell you something about me, and then you tell me something about you. Is it a date?”

“Sounds good.” Bat tries to be cool and casual and ends up crossing her legs in a way no human being has ever crossed their legs in the history of sitting.

“This is Hawthorne Grain,” Margaret says, waving vaguely at the space around her. “It was the name of some other project that didn’t work out, but I’d already done all the paperwork so now it’s the name of this. It’s a new operation. My operation. We do courier runs all over Fort Hook. Pick items up, drop them off. Clean, dirty, whatever our clients need. I’m sure you know the work.”

“Yeah we called it kartoshka, Mina and me, back when…” Bat hesitates, would like to stop talking now. “When we had our own thing.”

“She mentioned something about that,” Margaret says. “Last year, I was putting my team together and needed one last runner to round it out. So I spread the word and in strides Wilhelmina Hull, talking a real good game about her various exploits.”

“That sounds like her.”

“She’s the only courier I didn’t know from my old job,” Margaret says. “Poached from my old job, I should say. I found her sales pitch convincing, and charming. But perhaps I made an error in judgment.”

One of the teens gasps in mock horror, says, “Not you, Margaret.” Bat glances over at the three girls, trying to differentiate between them, but she finds teenagers to be indistinguishable, and terrifying.

“She did fine for a while,” Margaret says. “But last week she muffed a job we absolutely could not afford to muff. And now her future with this organization is uncertain. As is her future in general.”

Bat is now acutely aware of her preposterously sweaty pits. She can’t believe her sister teamed up with this tyrant, must’ve been desperate. “I bet we can work something out.”

“Mina said the same thing. She said you two were a good team, and together you’d, quote, be the single best courier ever invented.”

“Yeah she lays it on thick sometimes.”

“I know,” Margaret says. “I like her very much. She’s a lock pick. But it’s not always a lock that’s the problem, is it?”

Bat tries to think of a smart answer, then starts thinking about how she’s supposed to be thinking of a smart answer, then starts thinking about the dirty ashtray on the end table next to her, with a logo featuring a stylized ear of wheat above the words Hawthorne Grain. After a century of this, she says, “No, I reckon not.”

Margaret looks her over, then takes a pen from an inkwell on her desk, jots something down on a piece of stationery, hands it to one of her girls. “Now, it’s your turn to tell me something. Where do you stand on chatter?”

That’s an easier one. “Not a fan,” Bat says.

“Good. Because Hawthorne is built on zero chatter.” She makes her way closer, undulating like one of the morays there on the other side of the window. “This city is full of animals who’d kill to know our secrets. Which is why I set up shop down here. And why I am very selective about whom I invite into this room.”

Bat is one hundo percent unflappable, she’s seen it all, done it all, and is not sweaty at all. Cool casual Bat says, “No offense, ma’am, but in my experience most secrets are pretty boring and not worth chattering.”

“Hm,” Margaret says. “Sounds like you need to work with a worse class of people.” And then she’s gripping Bat’s neck and her pen is right up against Bat’s left eye, perfectly steady, almost grazing her cornea.

A wave of nausea lurches through Bat’s body but she manages to keep her head still.

Margaret says, “I can’t kill you. But I can blind you. And if you’re blind, you’ll have a hard time retaliating.”

One of the teens says, “Oh come on, Margaret, yuck.”

“Now,” Margaret whispers into Bat’s ear. “You tell me something.”

Bat swallows, holds her breath. She’s about to take stock of the situation when she realizes she’s already stocked it. Frankly, she’s relieved they’re finally at this part of the interview.

“OK here’s what I’m thinking,” she says. “First off, I’ll lose the eye. Not the end of the world. I always wanted an eyepatch. And not to nitpick but you’re not really blinding someone if you leave them with one perfectly good eye. Depth perception’ll be off but I can still get in a good kick. For someone of your advanced age, probably with, like, osteoporosis, I’m sure breaking your hip won’t be a big deal.”

The pen doesn’t budge. “Go on,” Margaret says.

Bat can feel her eyeballs drying out but doesn’t blink. “Next I’ll fling this ashtray across the room, hopefully hitting one of your girls in the head, probably the tall one.”

“Leave us out of this!” the tall one says.

“And what’s that poking me in the side?” Margaret asks.

“This? It’s just a little stiletto, nothing fancy but it can make a few decent holes in your guts. That’s been ready to go since I came in here. So, a couple sticks from that and…then what. Let’s see. You’re on the floor, I’m probably het up with like a, uh, a kind of primal rage? Thanks to the eye gouging? My adrenaline’s pumping, I’m young and strong and healthy—sort of healthy—and I beat up your tired old body and break your teeth for you. I’m hoping the cheerleaders over there are unarmed, and rattled enough they won’t do anything stupid before I make the seven steps to the exit.”

“Then what?”

“I admit the next part gets fuzzy. We’re underwater and that throws me off. I got a special signal only my sister can hear, but who knows where she is, and the acoustics in this place, I dunno. Maybe I end up doing a hostage thing with lots of yelling, which isn’t my favorite but sometimes it’s all you can do.”

Margaret sighs, withdraws the pen. “So-so,” she says. “You’re wrong about my bone health and what it takes to rattle the girls, but I figure that was mostly sass to get us riled.”

Bat slumps down, exhausted. She wants to hurl, doesn’t hurl. She vanishes her knife and rubs her eye. She hates job interviews.

“But now I see what Mina’s been missing,” Margaret says, returning to her desk. “You available tonight? Now?”

“Sure,” Bat says. Always tonight now. Never give a gal any time to prep.

“There’s a rush job I’d like you and your sister to handle for me.”

“Can I see your doctor first?”

“Of course, if you want to waste the time. But the item needs to be delivered by midnight.”

Bat looks at her watch but then remembers she’s never worn one. “That’s…soon?”

“Yes. We probably should’ve moved this meeting along a little faster. But if you get this done, we have something to talk about. If you don’t, then the talking part is over.”

Bat would like some specifics on this arrangement but knows she won’t get any. “What’s the item?”

“A piece of paper. Eight and a half by eleven.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Bat says, dabbing at her forehead with her sleeve.

Margaret jabs her pen back into the inkwell. “It does, doesn’t it.”

This has been Chapter 3 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

Next up: My Adorable Mean Crybaby