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A Cornelia Upshaw and Fancy Mystery
      CHAPTER ONE:  Friday Evening 

      There's really only one choice you get to make in this life:  whether to sell Them your body or your soul.

      Having made the other mistake once, I now choose to sell Them my body.  In other words, I'm a secretary.  Nowadays They get my body from nine to five -- longer, if they're willing to pay through the nose for it to Metropolitan Office Professionals.  I'm a professional temporary secretary, and I'm very, very good.

      I can type and take dictation and know what 'alphabetical order' means.  I can also operate almost any word processing system currently in use, and a number of those that are now considered passť, except by the poor fool of an office manager who got suckered into buying the Cutting Edge that dulled so quickly.  I can also answer a telephone promptly and politely.

      (Don't laugh -- today the number of people who both can  and are willing to do these things is shrinking rapidly.  Everyone wants to love his/her work.  I love my paycheck.)

      As I said, I do this from nine to five, Monday through Friday, and I get well paid for it.  MOP knows a good thing when it tests it.  And then at five I walk out the door free and clear.

      This attitude drives a lot of people right round the twist, especially managerial women.  They just can't believe that someone with my (and here I modestly quote) intelligence, education, and abilities really wants to work as a secretary.  I could really make something of myself.  (My mother agrees, except that she thinks I should make something of myself by marrying again -- which I will do about the time there's ice dancing in Hell.)  It's my opinion that I already have made something of myself.  Something that I like.

      Anyway, my current assignment was a six-week stint at Dayborne Ventures, Inc.  Dayborne was an extremely prestigious, high-ticket company that did something truly magnificent in the way of international finance.  I wasn't quite sure what.  In my more cynical moments, I sometimes suspected even the regular Dayborne employees weren't quite sure what.  But whatever it was, it kept them on their collective toes.  At Dayborne, a harassed manager was a happy manager.

      As you might guess from the above, Dayborne was extremely corporate, and proud of it.  The firm occupied two entire floors of a soaring glass-and-steel tower down in the financial district near Wall Street.  Through the floor-to-ceiling walls of glass to the north, you could see most of Manhattan; to the south, there was a magnificent view of the harbor and parts south.  East and west looked only over Brooklyn and New Jersey, respectively; unimportant territory.

      Within the glass tower, Dayborne's corporate taste ran to cutting edge decor and wave-of-the-future technology.  Reception was a dream of polished steel walls and charcoal grey carpet, and the receptionist's desk looked like a starship console.  Past the heavy glass doors into Dayborne proper, shades of cool blue-gray reigned supreme.  Walls, carpets, secretarial furniture all coordinated.

      Doors to executive offices were polished teak, and the executive offices themselves were supplied with the most intimidating power-trip furniture money could buy.  Upon the walls hung, at precisely calculated intervals, works of art that just happened to coordinate with the office color scheme.

      Everything was so elegantly low-key tasteful it occasionally made me want to spray paint the walls in Day-Glo neon stripes.

      This isn't to say Dayborne was a bad place to work, just that I found a little of Dayborne went a very long way.  Fortunately, I was only there while someone named Annabel Price, who was something called the Assistant Secretary to Ms. Fran Jenkins, Executive Secretary to Mr. J. Abercrombie Davis, Executive Vice President, had her baby.  For six weeks you can put up with practically anything.

      Including the obligatory "No, really, Cornelia -- you have such potential" speech.

      (They will call me Cornelia, although when I'm working I prefer to be called Mrs. Upshaw.  I think it adds a nice touch of efficient distance to business relationships that are, by their very nature, temporary.  Sometimes I get my way on this, sometimes I don't.  Although why the Corporate Powers That Be insist that We're All Jolly Friends Together with one breath and then with the next complain that This Is A Business, You Know, I've never figured out.  One or the other.  You can't have both at once.)

      This time I'd gotten cornered at my desk by Harriet Benson, who was the current advocate of upgrading Upshaw.  Harriet was about my age, or maybe a little younger; twenty-eight and already an assistant vice president.  At Dayborne Ventures they gave out AVP's the way a dentist gives out lollipops, and for the same reason:  good behavior.

      Now she was bound and determined to raise my consciousness and show me the glories of the fast track to success.  "You know, you could do a lot better for yourself, Cornelia -- "

      "Mrs. Upshaw," I murmured without either rancor or much hope of affecting Harriet's form of address.  Especially since Harriet was magnanimously overlooking the fact that I was a Mere Secretary, and addressing me as an equal.  Sort of.

      "You've got the talent, the brains -- you know we have a management trainee program, don't you?  Why don't you apply?"

      Well, for one thing, because I only like to work thirty-five hours a week.  And because I already have a full-time life which suits me very well.  But I didn't say this, because as far as I could see, Harriet Benson, AVP, could say the same thing about her own life style choice.  Different strokes, as they say.

      "You'd be just perfect," Harriet continued.  "I'd be glad to recommend you, if you'd like."

      "Thank you," I said politely.  I was raised to be polite; a Perfect Little Southern Lady.  And then I asked Harriet what she was doing over the weekend.

      "Oh, I'll be here -- Davis wants the spreadsheets on AIB&C first thing Monday."

      I would have commiserated with her if I'd thought she was in the least sorry to be losing an entire irreplaceable weekend to AIB&C (which I had learned stood for the vitally-important Accounts International Billing and Charges subdepartment) and a computer.  So I just smiled politely and carefully placed the cover over the electronic typewriter, unplugged the computer keyboard and stowed it in its special drawer in the desk, and made sure my desktop was empty and the drawers were locked.  Dayborne Ventures was what they called "security-conscious" and I what called paranoid.  Nobody had the least idea what Dayborne Ventures did, so I didn't see how any of it could be of any use to anybody outside the firm.  It was little enough use to those inside it.

      On the other hand, Dayborne's attitude meant that even such an ephemeral employee as I was got a key to the desk that was temporarily hers.  This was a feature I liked.  To recoin a phrase:  lock your desk; take your keys.

      Then I beat it out of there.  Because Harriet's Mr. Davis, head of the department I was currently working for, had a cute little trick I'd discovered the first week of my stint at Dayborne.  Just before quitting time on almost any Friday, he'd come sauntering along with a major project that just had to be done before his secretarial staff left.  Said projects usually involved overseas transport of papers to a part of the world in which everybody was already in bed, and apparently planning to stay there for the next twenty-four hours.  In which case, it always seemed to me that the Vital Information could just as well be sent the next business day, instead of running into overtime.

      But Mr. Davis didn't see it that way -- which was, no doubt, why he was an Executive Vice President working on hypertension and an ulcer and I was only a Temporary Secretary working (at the moment) on reading my way through the collected works of Anthony Trollope.

      Today it seemed that Davis hadn't managed to get any vital material in under the wire; Fran Jenkins, his Executive Secretary, was also closing up.  I looked back as I opened the heavy glass door to Reception and saw her shutting drawers and turning keys with firm, deliberate movements.  And it only five o'clock, too.

      Which was rather amazing, as I'd begun to think Fran was shackled to her desk.  Frances Jenkins, you see, was a secretary of the Old School:  totally efficient, totally discreet, and totally devoted to her boss's interests.  She came by these attributes naturally, as Fran was somewhere over fifty; plenty old enough to be most of the Dayborne secretarial staff's mother.  Her wardrobe didn't do anything to dispel this illusion; Fran wore matronly and oddly outdated suits in falsely girlish colors like baby pink and mint green.  Under them she wore ruffled blouses which she accessorized with a string of pearls.  I suspected the pearls were imitation.

      Now I waited for her, holding the door invitingly.  "Come on.  I don't see him anywhere."

      Fran came puffing up -- she was plump and soft, and any exertion whatsoever caused her shortness of breath.  I could not imagine why a nice lady like Fran was at Dayborne, which apparently hired its secretaries by passing them through the eye of a needle, unless it was because she was the only secretary they'd ever found who could work with J. Abercrombie Davis without going mad.

      "I -- think -- he -- must have -- left early," she panted.

      He had, after a manner of speaking, but we didn't find that out until Monday.

      And I had much, much better things to think about this evening than the whereabouts of a temporary boss.  It was Friday, it was summertime, it was five o'clock.

      I was free.


      My first stop on the way home was at Metropolitan Office Professionals.  MOP is located in the top two floors (plus roof) of an ex-factory in an unfashionable Manhattan neighborhood halfway between Midtown and the Lower East Side -- the sort of neighborhood composed of co-ops lived in by yuppies who're never home and by retail stores whose ownership changes as regularly as the seasons.

      The building has an elevator, but it frequently isn't working, and I like to take the stairs for the exercise anyway.  So I climbed up six flights and breezed in to MOP's lobby -- a large open area that still manages to look like a redecorated factory loft no matter how many spider plants and mauve movable walls MOP hopefully puts in.  Maybe it's the tangle of pipes writhing across the ceiling.

      On the other hand, there's certainly plenty of space, a good deal of which I had to cross in order to get to the receptionist's desk.  In addition to the cheerful receptionist, Krissie, sitting ready with a stack of neatly labelled white envelopes containing the weekly paychecks, Holly Steinberg was there, stuffing papers into her already overladen briefcase.

      "Oh, hi, Cornelia.  How's the Dayborne job going?"

      "Great," I said, "except for the boss."

      "What's wrong with him?"  Holly regarded me anxiously, her brown eyes wide and her brown hair seeming extra-curly with concern.  Holly's my "placement counselor" at MOP, and is very protective of "her people".  She's an awfully nice girl, and I always get a kick out of watching her try to mother and protect me -- I'm several years older and at least six inches taller than she is.

      "Nothing," I assured her, "except that he's a complete son-of-a-witch."

      Even after all this time in New York, that's the last vestige of Southern speech pattern that I just can't shake.  Other expletives may roll trippingly from my tongue, but I still can't bring myself to call someone a "bitch".  Not that we Southerners are mealy-mouthed, mind -- the first time a New Yorker heard me call someone a "mother-fucking son-of-a-witch", he nearly choked to death on his white wine spritzer.  And Lizard's pejorative vocabulary can be quite Elizabethan in its frankness.

      "That's all?" Holly asked.  "No touchy-feely stuff?"

      I assured her that Mr. J. Abercrombie Davis never made inappropriate sexual advances or innuendos -- at least, not to me.

      "Nothing like that -- he just always has this last-minute project that he managed to forget about all week, or needs his secretary in at seven a.m. and then he doesn't get there till nine -- that sort of thing."

      Which Mr. Personality even pulled on me, even though I'm a temp and the overtime would hit him where it hurt -- in the budget.

      In case you don't know how a temporary office help agency works, I'll explain.  The average temp agency charges the firm hiring a secretary from them precisely twice what the temp agency pays that secretary.  MOP's billing practices are slightly different:  they pay their temp personnel less than the going hourly rate and charge the hiring firms triple that rate, not double.

      For example, since I'm paid ten dollars an hour (as I mentioned before, my skills make me a high-ticket item), this means Dayborne pays MOP thirty dollars for each hour I work.  This is certainly more than Dayborne pays its own secretaries.

      It's true that ten dollars an hour -- $350 a week before taxes -- doesn't sound like much.  In fact, it isn't much, considering that I could walk myself over to almost any of the major firms and make more than twice that as an executive secretary to some hyperactive Type-A boss.  I could, in fact, make more by working for the average temp agency, instead of for MOP.

      But there are three reasons I work for Metropolitan Office Professionals instead.  One is the health insurance.  The second reason I work for MOP is that I can (with care) afford to.  And there's a third reason; the most important one.

      You see, MOP's administrative offices occupy the sixth floor of that old factory building in that less-than-fashionable neighborhood.  Their free child care facility occupies the seventh floor.  The playground is on the roof, which is also MOP territory.

      The third reason is three years old, and her name is Heather Melissa Upshaw.

      Free day care is even more unusual in the temp business than health insurance.  In fact, Metropolitan Office Professionals is the only agency I've ever heard of that offers it.  The day care center is the reason MOP is located way downtown from all the other temporary employment agencies.  They needed the space an old factory building provides.  The day care is also the reason MOP has a die-hard core of fine workers who stay with them rather than flitting from agency to agency or off to the world of permanent employment in search of a benefits package and a larger paycheck.  Workers like me.

      Since it was Friday, I was here at MOP to pick up both my paycheck and my daughter.

      "Well, that's pretty typical," said Holly of my analysis of Mr. Davis's managerial flaws.  "Just as long as he doesn't think you're fair game just because you're a temp."

      "Holly," I said, taking the long envelope containing my check from the receptionist, "nobody thinks that."  I waved my left hand, making the broad gold band flash in the fluorescent light.  "I just tell them it's Mrs. Upshaw, and they behave like perfect little gentlemen.  Now stop worrying, honey, and go home.  It's Friday, you know."

      "Yeah, I know."  Holly sounded grim, as was only natural for one whose days -- and sometimes whose evenings and even weekends -- were frequently made hideous by frantic phone calls from desperate clients.  "Look, how much longer are you at Dayborne?"

      "Four more weeks," I told her.  "Until just after the Second Quarter Closeout, whatever that is."

      "Four weeks," she said gloomily.  "Oh, well, I guess maybe I can get Danielle for this call-in.  Want to work at a design studio?"

      "Sure," I said, "as long as MOP's paying me."

      I waved the pay-envelope gently back and forth like a lady's fan before shoving it into my purse.  "Have a good weekend; I've got to go up and get Heather."

      Leaving Holly to her paper-packing, I went back to the corridor and climbed up one more flight to the MOP child care center.  Pre- and after-school; bonded and licensed and very, very reliable.  Leave your precious child with them with complete peace of mind.

      Sound wonderful?  It is -- but MOP's management isn't run by altruistic fools; they own the best stable of temps and have the lowest turnover of any agency in the five boroughs.

      By now it was five-forty-five on Friday.  I collected my particular little darling and we went down the seven flights of stairs with me helping her slide carefully down the elegant, if ancient, brass banister.

      To save time, I will admit right now that my daughter is the delight of my life.  Unlike her mother, she is angelically lovely, and shows every sign of becoming what is known, where I come from, as a "heartbreaker" when she's a bit older.  Huge dark eyes surrounded by sinfully long lashes, wavy dark hair, skin like heavy cream; in looks, Heather fortunately takes after her father.  Unlike her late father, Heather is willing to be pleased by almost anything; a talent she must have inherited from some other ancestor.

      Eventually we reached the lobby, where Heather regained terra firma.  Then we went out into the shimmering heat of a late June afternoon and walked uptown, towards home.


      "Lizard?  You home?"


      The answer echoed down the thirty-foot hallway.  It was either Lizard or our Siamese cat.

      "We're home," I called out, which was pretty obvious.  Heather dashed past me, eager to tell Aunt Lizard all about her day (the MOP pre-school group had made squirrels out of brown paper and, as a bonus for good behavior, had also learned to sort their Crayolas by color).

      Smiling, I began lugging the D'Agostino's bag down the long hall towards the kitchen.

      I was named Cornelia, after one grandmother; my unfortunate sister was named Lispenard, after the other.  These names were the fallout of a fit of optimism on the part of our parents:  perhaps Grandmothers Cornelia and Lispenard would Remember Us in their wills.

      Unfortunately, they did.

      Grandmother Cornelia Caroline Upshaw bestowed upon me a twelve-piece sterling silver Victorian tea service so heavy and rococo that you risk a hernia if you presume to lift the lid of the teapot.  It crouches like a sullen beast of prey on the coffee table in the living room, as there's simply no other place to put it, and gives the unwary a nasty start when they come upon it unexpectedly in a dim light.

      Between the Service and Waldo, the living room is an interesting territory to negotiate.

      Waldo was Grandmother Lispenard Wharton Mingott's legacy to her namesake.  He's a seal-point Siamese cat quite as heavy and rococo as the Service; Grandmother Lis had named him something long and impressive in Thai.  After we'd had him for a week we changed his name to Waldo Lydecker.  It seemed to suit him better.  The principal difference between the feline Waldo and his filmatic namesake is that our Waldo would be exceedingly delighted to see his neighbor's children devoured by wolves.  He would then devour the wolves.

      Occasionally people -- usually people who've seen BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE too often -- ask Lizard whether he's her familiar.  Lizard always says he's not because he's too lazy, whatever that means.  But she told me once that she wouldn't dare.  I don't blame her.

      Nobody calls her Lispenard; she's been Lizard since the day she was christened.  For the usual reason:  I, at the tender age of three, could not be expected to pronounce "Lispenard" with any degree of accuracy.  And as anyone with a name in the least unusual will agree, "Lizard" is infinitely preferable to what's on Lizard's birth certificate:  Lispenard Evangeline.

      Actually, Lizard suits her.  Unlike me, she's small and quick and vivid and glistens with color, especially after a buying binge in the makeup department at Bloomingdale's.  When I got far enough down the hall to spot her, she was glittering in purple and gold and was actually wearing a dress.

      "You look like the Assyrian.  What's the occasion?"

      "Julian and I are going to the movies."  Lizard continued examining the brown paper squirrel (slightly crushed and damp from handling) that Heather had proffered for inspection.  "Hey, honey, this is real nice.  You've got a real talent for color work."

      Which was a tactful way of saying the squirrel's tail was painted in green and orange stripes.  I went into the kitchen, set the bag on the table, and glanced at the calendar.  Today's square was filled with arcane symbols that I recognized as Lizard's excuse for handwriting.

      "And just when are you going to cram in a movie tonight?" I called, beginning to unpack the strawberries.

      "After Vespers and before Circle.  It's the new Arnie Schwarzenegger."

      "What's this one called, THE DEFENESTRATOR?"

      "Something like that."  Lizard darted into the kitchen and kissed my cheek.  She reeked, not unpleasantly, of patchouli.  "I'll be late.  See ya."

      "Have a good time," I said.  "Here's some fresh Eye of Newt in case you need it."  I put a jar of black olives into the refrigerator.  "And don't forget -- widdershins is counterclockwise."

      "Yaa," said Lizard, and dashed off again.

      Lizard likes to think she's a witch, and currently belongs to something called the First Church of Wicca Scientist (I swear I am not making this up).  Julian is an Episcopalian minister with Saint Benedict's on East 65th Street.  They met at an AIDS outreach clinic, literally over a patient (who turned out to be Jewish and didn't want to see either of them), when his cross became inextricably entangled with her pentacle (which is a sort of line-drawing five-pointed star in a circle; the last time we visited home it gave two of our aunts Palpitations, because they were sure it was a Star of David, and were not in the least soothed by our mother pointing out that "at least with Jews you always know who their people are").

      Anyway, Lizard and Julian have been Significant Others ever since.  This isn't, actually, as odd as it seems, especially in New York.  They both share an interest in comparative religion, a number of social work groups, and a detestation for the IRS vis-a-vis its stand on non-profit, charitable, and religious organizations that amounts to a mania and leads them to support some surprisingly unlikely groups.

      Julian is also Julian Lovell of the Boston Lovells.  The Lodges may talk to the Cabots if they like, and the Cabots to God; the Lovells won't talk to any of them.  Julian blotted the family escutcheon permanently due to his democratic willingness to consider God his equal.  Julian is also rather devastating in the Ashley-Wilkes/Lord-Peter-Wimsey fashion, and eminently suitable as a love object for anyone involved, as Lizard swears she is, in a Nature religion.  Summer sunshine hair, eyes the mottled iridescent blue of the wings of certain exotic butterflies, skin like very pale spring honey -- well, you get the picture, and a very attractive one it is, too.

      Oh, yes, Julian and Lizard have one other thing in common:  the opinion that I'm too cynical, and could use a good deity in my life.  I've given up listening on that one.

      There was the fading clatter of high-heels on the hardwood floor and the slam of the apartment door.  I followed on back down the hallway to the door, Heather chasing after me to slide on the polished wood.  There I made sure all the locks were turned, shot, and bolted, and then turned to walk back to the front of the apartment.

      Or, as I should say, The Apartment.

      Because there was one more legacy from Grandmother Lispenard; one for which we could almost forgive her saddling Liz with Waldo.  The Apartment.  Which she had left, in her thoroughly documented and totally legal will, to "my faithful and beloved companion of many years."

      In other words, to her dyspeptic Siamese cat.


      Fortunately, it was a life tenancy only, or the entire matter would have wound up as one of those Dickensian legal cases that crawl on past the heat death of the known universe.  As it was, it meant that Lizard owned (or would own, after Waldo's demise) a long, dark, pre-war apartment in the East Fifties.  Which meant both Lizard and I lived rent-free.  Which meant we both could go our own merry ways without too much let or hindrance from reality.

      Don't ever let anyone tell you that money can't buy happiness.  Have you ever noticed that those attempting to foist this philosophy off on the general public are usually twice as rich as Croesus and have every intention of staying that way, their allegedly miserable personal lives notwithstanding?

      Squeaking with delight, Heather slid past me again; a clever girl, she'd taken off her shoes to reduce friction.  Her Princess Jasmine socks gave great slide, especially in our hallway, which is, as mentioned, thirty feet long.

      The hallway still has the original wallpaper, something dimly Victorian.  Sometimes we argue over what, precisely, the blobs of faded colors are.  Lizard says they're pre-Freudian Rorschach blots; I say (prosaic to the last) that they're probably cabbage roses.  Heather's vote wavers between bloodstains and big fuzzy spiders.  Sometimes I think Heather watches too much television.

      On the right-hand side of the hallway are rooms:  bedroom (Lizard's), bathroom, bedroom (mine and Heather's), in that order.  Since the apartment is pre-war (Spanish-American, we think), the rooms are lofty and spacious -- a good thing, since the closets are slightly smaller than my high-school locker.

      Once past those rooms, there's the kitchen (also pre-war; in this case, pre-War Between the States).  Then the apartment opens up into a room the full width of the apartment that must once have been used for Gracious Dining.  We have other uses for that space, so we eat in the kitchen, which is large and also came to us equipped with an old and sturdy dinette set.  Now half of the former dining room is a home office for me and half of it is Lizard's art studio.  An archway closed by a set of glass doors etched with peacocks in splendor leads from the office/studio into the living room.

      The living room is the largest room in the apartment, and the only one that looks out over the street, instead of the side alley.  The full width of the front wall is windows, the old-fashioned kind composed of dozens of tiny square panes of glass.  The glass itself is so old light wavers through like light seen underwater.

      There is also, tucked behind the kitchen, a six-by-ten foot cubicle once called "the maid's room".  These days (since no modern maid would condescend to dwell in such a primitive cell) Lizard uses it to store her art supplies and canvases in various stages of completion.

      Lizard, you see, works as a free-lance cover artist.  Next time you're browsing at Barnes & Noble, check out the fantasy books.  The painting on the cover may have been done by Liz Upshaw.  Liz's painting wasn't, yet, a living -- but without rent to pay, she got by.

      Didn't I say money could buy happiness?  Or at least freedom, which is almost as good and twice as negotiable.

      "Mommy, Mommy, come look!"  Heather, demanding I admire Aunt Liz's latest masterpiece.

      Detouring prudently around Waldo, who was lying in a large, malevolent, beige-and-brown coil in the geometric center of the living room rug, I came; I looked; I admired.

      "Gee, that's awful pretty, honey," I said.  Right now Lizard was working on a line of covers for the science fiction line at Flatiron Press, and the living room was strewn with canvases on which fire-breathing damsels threatened lovesick dragons.  Or possibly it was the other way around.  Lizard's a good artist, but when a book publisher's art department wants a "definitive look" for a line, all the covers tend to look alike.  (You should see the covers Lizard did for Chantilly Romance's "Next Chance at Love" series sometime.)

      "That's me," Heather cooed, sounding like a delighted pigeon.  She pointed at an tiny elf holding something (a sugar lump, possibly) out to a particularly scaly dragon.

      Lizard makes shameless use of the materials at hand -- in her case, her long-suffering sister and semi-insufferable niece.  Rather to everyone's surprise, Heather adores posing for Aunt Lizard.  In fact, Lizard calls Heather the best model she's ever had, which always strikes me as odd, since patience has never been one of the Upshaw virtues.  I don't know where Heather gets it from.  Sometimes I worry about that girl.

      I agreed that the glitter-clad elf looked suspiciously familiar, and leaned forward as if to inspect it more closely.

      "Mustn't touch," Heather warned me darkly.  "Because it'll smudge."

      "And Aunt Lizard'll turn you into a frog," I said, swooping my daughter up and nuzzling her cheek.  Heather regarded me with the fond superiority of the pre-schooler who has not yet been taught to believe in utter nonsense.

      "It's Friday.  I want ice cream for dinner," she announced.

      Friday nights, Heather chooses dinner.  Usually it's ice cream, which is all right with me.  Fortunately, I don't have to worry about what I eat; we all get at least one blessing to ameliorate our trials here on earth.

      "Okay," I said.  "Where shall we go for this ice cream?"  As if I didn't know.

      "Ben-n-Jerry's!" Heather shrieked, just as she did every Friday.

      "Okay," I said again.  "It's a long walk, though, honey."

      "Ben-n-Jerry's," said Heather firmly.  Heather already has her future mapped:  she plans to marry either Ben or Jerry -- precisely which ice cream entrepreneur is to be the lucky man hasn't been finalized yet -- when she grows up to ensure a steady supply of premium ice cream.  Heather, like all little girls, has her eye squarely fixed on the main chance.

      And so we went to Ben and Jerry's ice cream parlor, where I had a strawberry sundae with vanilla ice cream and Heather had pistachio walnut with fudge and Reese's Pieces.  There's nothing like a well-balanced diet for a growing girl.  I consoled myself by thinking of what my mother would say if she could see us now.

      After dinner, Heather and I walked slowly home, enjoying twilight and the passing parade.  New York is a summer festival.

      And that is pretty much how I spent the weekend:  innocently indulging in modern family values.  I vacuumed the apartment and took Heather to the library; I posed for Lizard, who had developed an urgent need for a tall model to portray a Wicked Queen; I read the latest Kinsey Millhone mystery.

      Not once did I think about Dayborne Ventures or about my current temporary boss, Mr. J. Abercrombie Davis.  I'm a temp; when I leave a job at five, all of me leaves.  It's one reason I haven't had either an ulcer or a nervous breakdown yet.

      And on Monday morning I dressed myself up as a sober member of the working public once more, dropped Heather off at MOP's day care center, and returned for another fun-filled week at beautiful Dayborne Ventures.




      When I arrived at my desk in Dayborne's offices on the twenty-first floor, I began the Monday-morning ritual of preparing for the day's work.  I unlocked my desk and put my pocketbook in the lower right-hand drawer.  I untied my Rockport Walkers and slid on my plain black leather pumps.  I turned on my computer and booted up the word processing system.

      Since I prefer to arrive fifteen minutes early rather than fifteen seconds late, I was still alone in the office.  This rather surprised me, as Fran Jenkins was always at her desk practically at first light, just in case Mr. Davis needed her.  But today she wasn't there yet, although Davis was.  I knew this because his door was closed, which was the first thing he did in the morning when he came in.  Well, the second thing.  First he stalked past Fran -- and me -- without a word.  Then he slammed the door to his office.  This guy would never make it big in the user-friendly South.

      Since there were no signs of life in our little corner of Dayborne, I walked down past the ladies room to the staff lounge to see if anyone had started the coffee-maker going yet.

      Someone had; the rich dark scent of brewing Maxwell House filled the recycled air.  I poured myself a cup, added milk and two packets of Sweet'N Low, and tossed the empty pink envelopes into the trash on top of the blue foil Maxwell House packet.

      When I got back to my desk, Fran was at hers, hastily stuffing her oversized pink plastic handbag into her lower right-hand desk drawer.

      "Hi," I said, and she jumped slightly and turned, hand pressed to her plump bosom.

      "Oh, it's you," she said on a half-gasp.  "You gave me quite a start."

      Thinking I knew what she meant, I glanced over at the polished mahogany door upon which an oval bass plaque announced in chaste italic script that "Mr. J. Abercrombie Davis, Executive Vice President" resided within.

      "Don't worry -- his door's been closed, so no one'll know you were -- " I checked my watch -- "gee, all of sixty seconds late."

      "I'm not late.  I was in the ladies.  I always get here at 8:30, you know.  To make Mr. Davis's coffee.  Just like I did this morning.  You know how particular he is."  Although Fran only drank herb tea, she made coffee twice daily for her boss in his own personal private coffeemaker.  With his own personal private coffee, too -- Maxwell House apparently wasn't good enough for him.

      "Sure," I said.  Fran was chattering more than usual this morning, and to be perfectly frank, I didn't listen with any particular attention or sympathy.  The woman seemed to be perfectly happy with her eternal role as Davis's Doormat -- and I as knew only too well, it takes two to dance that particular dominance-submission waltz.

      I ought to know.  When I'd been married to Ravenal, I'd known all the steps by heart.

      The morning stalked by on leaden Monday feet.  There was no word from Mr. Davis's office, so I efficiently answered phones, took messages, and typed two short memos.  In between these tasks I enjoyed the passing parade of Dayborne Ventures; as the temp, the outsider, I could observe this particular patch of corporate jungle with the detached interest of the scientist.

      A truly high-ticket firm, Dayborne Ventures was sleek in that heartless corporate fashion that negates all humanity.  The ultra-modern corridors and offices were inhabited by men and women dressed for success in all the possible shades of grey, from ice to charcoal.  These were the executives, the high-riders, the smooth-cruising sharks.  Occasionally a maverick in something radical, like navy, slid by.

      Secretaries flashed past, slim and quick in bright silk dresses.  Everyone was obviously on his or her way to accomplish some task of overwhelming importance to the free world -- or at least to Dayborne.

      At ten the robot mail truck trundled slowly along its track through the corridor.  As it rolled past my desk I got up and walked alongside the Dayborne R2D2 to collect the morning's mail from the bin marked "Davis/Corp. Res. & Accts".  Which, translated from business-speak, meant "Davis's Department:  Corporate Restructuring and Accounts".  Which does not, as far as I can tell, translate at all into plain English.

      I opened and sorted the mail preparatory to handing it to Fran for further analysis before it went before the critical gaze of Mr. Davis, Ex. V.P. Corp. Res. & Accts.  The usual, the usual, the usual -- and then I unfolded a letter and found myself staring at a sheet of plain white paper which bore the following message:  "You won't get away with it."

      After the first instant's freeze, I took a deep breath and a closer look.  The words had been cut from a newspaper and taped to the paper.  Careful not to touch any more of it than I already had, I turned it over; nothing.  I held it up to the light; no watermarks.  Setting it down with equal care, I examined the envelope:  standard number ten (business size); first class stamp; postmarked at the main Manhattan Post Office the previous Wednesday.  There's nothing like the prompt mail delivery in the Big Apple, thank god.

      After playing Jessica Fletcher with the letter and envelope, I called, "Hey, Fran, better take a look at this."

      "What?"  Fran obligingly heaved herself out of her chair and walked over, reaching for the letter.

      "Don't touch it," I said.  "There may be fingerprints."

      Fran leaned over and examined the letter closely.  "Oh," she said after a moment, "another one.  Don't worry about it, he gets lots of these."  She scooped up letter and envelope before I could stop her.  "I'll just file these with the others."

      "Shouldn't we tell Mr. Davis?"

      "Don't worry about it," Fran repeated.  She hauled open one of her file drawers and dropped the hate mail into one of the Pendaflex files.  Fran kept ferociously detailed files which she understandably hated anyone else to touch; I wondered what that folder was labeled.

      "Did he ever call the police about it?"  I asked.

      "He's an important man; he gets lots of crank letters."  Fran seemed almost proud of this rather dubious achievement.

      Maybe, but I'd been there two weeks and hadn't seen any yet.  Of course, maybe Fran had been intercepting the mail before I got it -- no, that would be "going outside of proper channels".  Executive secretaries did not chase after Robbie the Mail Truck.  Ordinary secretaries like me -- and Annabel Price, for whom I was substituting -- did that.

      As you can see, Dayborne favored a strict chain of command system.  This efficient system ensured that everyone always had someone below them in the hierarchy to shoulder any blame that needed assigning.

      And people wonder why I don't take a permanent job with one of these wonderful companies.

      At eleven the refreshment wagon bell rang in the main lobby by the elevators; there was an instant exodus in that direction that reminded me forcibly of the Eloi answering the summons of the Morlocks.  I admit I joined the flow myself, pausing only to ask if Fran wanted anything.

      "Oh, no -- " she glanced over her shoulder at the closed door to Davis's office.

      "You sure?  What about your traditional jelly doughnut?"

      "Oh, yes.  That would be lovely."  She fumbled in her outsize purse for change and handed me a crumpled dollar bill.

      "What about him?" I asked, indicating Davis's door with a tilt of my chin.  He'd never wanted anything yet, but the habit of helpfulness dies hard.

      "Oh, no -- you know the rules.  Mr. Davis is not to be disturbed unless he leaves explicit instructions."  This was said in the reproachful tone of a kindergarten teacher who has been sadly disappointed in one's playground conduct.

      "Fine," I said, and went off to procure and bring back one cellophane-wrapped jelly doughnut for Fran and one Coca-Cola for me.  Classic, of course.

      The rest of the morning passed quietly, all one hour of it.  Then it was noon, and lunchtime.  I sat on a concrete bench in the little pedestrian plaza outside the building while I ate my sandwich, and then walked across the street to Battery Park.  I always felt that New York Harbor provided a pleasant contrast to the concrete canyons of the financial district.

      Especially on such a glorious June day, when the sky was a smooth pale blue and sun sparkles danced diamond-bright across the dark grey-green surface of the harbor.  Out in the harbor, the Statue of Liberty lifted her lamp.  Past her, in the middle distance, the ferry chugged its industrious way towards Staten Island.  Overhead seagulls whirled and screamed.  The wind off the water tugged at my neatly pinned hair and teased the hem of my skirt.

      Walking at the water's edge made me feel wild and free; it was worth having to take ten minutes at the other end of my lunch hour to re-tidy myself into Mrs. Upshaw, Perfect Secretary.

      When I returned to my desk at one, Fran was brushing crumbs from her desk into the wastebasket.  The Davis door was still closed.

      "You should get out at lunch," I told Fran.  "It's good for you."  Fran, as far as I could tell, never left her desk at all.

      "Oh, no -- he might need me."

      "Obi-wan Kenobi?" I muttered, sliding into my secretarial chair.

      "What?" Fran said blankly.

      "Nothing," I said.  "By the way, are you sure he's in there?"

      "Oh, yes -- there's nothing on his calendar, you see, and he would certainly have called me if anything had prevented him from coming in, and -- "

      I stopped really listening, and began typing in new numbers on an old spread sheet.

      And if you say I should have been more suspicious at the time, all I can say is you haven't worked in as many offices as I have.  For example, you probably haven't worked in the office where the boss's secretary did nothing but answer the phone and knit her afghan.  Or in the office where the boss leaves for lunch at 11:50 and doesn't return until the next morning at 9:00.  Or in the office where the boss hangs around your desk most of the day chatting about sports, movies, and his military service.  (This last chap then wonders why nothing ever seems to get done on time in his office.  And he's serious, too.)

      Or in the many, many offices where they simply don't trust a temporary secretary to be able to do more than keep the regular employee's chair warm until she returns.  This is very boring.

      Important Safety Tip for the professional Temp:  Always Bring a Book.

      It's also a good idea to bring along your personal correspondence.  Letter-writing enables you to look terribly industrious without endangering the esoteric filing system that no one but Valerie-on-Vacation can either understand or negotiate.

      At two-forty-five, Fran cast me an agonized glance and murmured that she really must....  She trailed this statement off with a delicacy of feeling that my mother would have admired; I assured Fran that her secret was safe with me and that I'd hold Fort Zinderneuf in the face of all comers until her return.

      "What?" said Fran.

      "Go ahead," I told her.  "You need a break.  Oh -- if you hear the three o'clock bell, would you be kind enough to get me a Coke?"

      "I won't be that long," she assured me, and hastened down the hall to the ladies room, clutching her big pink purse.

      Shaking my head, I returned to my spreadsheet.  Less than five minutes later, I heard knocking and looked up to see Raymond Clough tapping on Mr. Davis's closed door.  This was lamentably contrary to Dayborne procedure; all approaches to a Great Man -- or Great Woman -- must be made via his or her secretary.  Chain of command, you know.

      "Excuse me," I said, "may I help you?"

      "I hope so.  I need to talk to Davis.  New info on the RE&T merger; he's got to know about it ASAP."  Mr. Clough worked down in the far corner of the twenty-first floor, doing something in Overseas Investment Futures.  Moderately tall, moderately dark, and moderately handsome, he looked amazingly similar to all the other Dayborne Assistant Vice Presidents.  Idly, I wondered if Dayborne cut out their AVPs with cookie cutters and then used some different colored icings to achieve the illusion of variety.

      "I'm sorry," I said.  "Mr. Davis can't be disturbed if his door's closed."

      "Damn it -- " Clough began, and then stopped.  After a moment, he said, "Where's Fran?"

      "Ladies," I said.  "But she said -- "

      "Look, can't you at least buzz his intercom and get him to answer his damn phone?"

      If I'd been a Dayborne employee, I might have hesitated more; Davis's temper was notorious.  But I wasn't employed by Dayborne, but by MOP, and if any place gave me enough grief, I'd pick up my marbles and go home.  And have a new temp assignment the next day, if I wanted one.  (Once I'd even had a new one that same afternoon, but that was a special case involving long-standing and especially desperate MOP clients.)

      And while it was possible that Davis had spoken to Fran (who wouldn't bother to tell me, and why should she?), or had popped out while I was away from my desk, it was also possible that the guy was lying in there incapacitated by a heart attack or a stroke.  (His blood pressure had to be about 200 over 190, minimum.)

      "Okay, I'll buzz him," I told Raymond Clough, and pushed the intercom button.  And held it down.  Although the walls and doors at Dayborne were as rock-solid as its financial status, I heard a faint irritating drone inside Davis's office.  I admit I was listening pretty hard, though.

      After a solid ninety seconds, I looked at Clough.

      "He's not answering.  Look -- I think we should go on in there.  He may need help."

      I thought I heard Clough mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, "He sure does," but I pretended I hadn't heard and we both headed for the door.  I tried it and discovered the door was locked just about the time Fran came scuttling back, breathing hard.

      "Cornelia!  What are you doing?  Mr. Davis will be furious if he's interrupted -- "

      "He'll be a sight more furious if he's had a stroke and is lying there without the strength to call 911," I said.  I was starting to wonder if Davis was even in there.  Maybe he'd snuck out while we weren't looking.  Maybe he'd suddenly wanted to spend the afternoon with his secret mistress, or at the movies, without informing the ever-vigilant, ever-concerned Fran.

      "Right," said Clough, and tried to turn the knob he'd just watched me fail to turn.  Perhaps he thought it would miraculously unlock under a masculine touch.

      However, the locked door was admirably gender-neutral; in other words, it was just as locked for Raymond Clough, AVP, as it was for Cornelia Upshaw, temporary secretary.

      So Clough knocked again -- pounded, rather.  "Davis!  You in there?"

      "Oh, no; oh, dear -- " Fran was literally wringing her hands in distress.  "You don't think -- "

      "I think," I said over Clough's continued pounding, "that you'd better get someone to open that door.  Hey, Fran, don't you have a key to his office?"

      Fran stared at me wide-eyed, as if I'd suggested multiple orgies in the lobby.  "Well, yes, but Mr. Davis said to never -- "

      "This is an emergency," I announced firmly.  "Come on, Fran, get the key.  Everybody's looking," I added as the final inducement to compliance.  Heads were turning as people walked past; other heads were poking out of offices.  Nobody, I noticed, did anything so sensible as come over and ask what was going on, or if we needed any help.

      To a steady stream of "oh, dears" Fran rummaged in her purse and produced a veritable handful of keys.  The key to her boss's office door was obvious -- it was the one attached to a large enameled tag that said "VIP".  It was also the one that fell to the floor while Fran was fumbling about sorting semi-identical keys.

      I scooped up the key before Fran's worser sense came to the fore again and slid it into the keyhole of J. Abercrombie Davis's locked door.  Then I turned it, and turned the knob, and opened the door.  And then I walked into J. Abercrombie Davis's office.

      He was slumped over his desk, and he was dead....

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