Chapter Twenty-Two

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The woman is new, part of Carter's hiring binge, and fits the feng shui of E-wing. Six foot, voluminous roan hair. A cream suit that belongs on a mannequin rather than a real person knitting her brow, standing right where I need her not to be standing.

Before her eyes lift from the stubborn envelope clasp, I sidestep to the desk of one of the office professionals—possibly her—and grab a paper stack. Any stack. The top page reads Regional Network Opt Proposal: Giga Telecom.

It'll work.

I saunter back toward Carter's office. The woman is still finagling her clasp. I croak idly from my throat until she looks up.

"Oh. Can I—" She breaks off seeing my face. "—er, assist you with something?"

I fill my lungs with air, hoping the floor's management essence will seep its way to the bullcrap-generating region of my brain. I need a story. But what story? She didn't use my name. She does not seem awed or on-guard, the two most common responses my presence invokes here. I don't think she recognizes me.

"Sorry about the gore-fest." I touch my throbbing lump. "I'm new, from the mailroom—they had me bike halfway across town to get this for Carter. Pothole on Folsom Street one, me zero. Least I got here. Now I just need to leave this on his chair."

I wag the papers, mopping my brow.

The tall woman looks downhill at me. "I'm new as well, relatively. Ashley Thimms."

"Hiya Ashley, Zaya," I say, recycling the name of my old Harvard RA.

Ashley initiates a handshake. "You said you biked? Isn't campus sealed?"

"It is, yeah, but this Giga Telco thing is so important Carter said we could." I cup my hands around my lips. "I'm not supposed to tell anybody they let me through. Hypocrisy and all."

She accepts this without flinching, which I take as proof hypocrisy is king here on E-wing. I'm tempted to engage her further, to cultivate an ally in this rarefied enclave of the company, but my window of opportunity may be short.

I continue, "So right then, I'll just leave this on his chair."

"I can do that." Ashley offers her slim-fingered hand, palm up.

"No I'm good, thanks, you keep working that clasp." I crinkle my face apologetically. "We have this sadist down in mail? He takes pleasure in overwrapping the things till they're literally impossible to open. I report him, nothing happens."

With all the self-assuredness I can muster, I breeze past to Carter's office. I've been here before for Susan meetings. The space is showy, over-prosperous. Armless blue-velvet chairs preen. An art deco chandelier looms over a tulipwood table. He's all set for Anne Leibovitz and Vogue to show up.

I go straight for his desk. A glass top and spare, drawer-less design do me no favors: Ashley can see exactly what I'm up to, if she's hanging around to watch. I don't want to peek and risk appearing furtive.

I need a few minutes on Carter's machine. This "leave it on his chair" ruse has gotten me inside, but it won't explain me sitting here typing furiously for an extended period of time.

Hmm.

I drop my pilfered packet on Carter's chair. I watch it land, then cock my head. I gnaw my lip. I glance quizzically to the hall—confirming that yes, Ashley is watching the performance—then manufacture a few more gestures to indicate my distress.

Ashley asks what's wrong.

"Different version," I say. "Downstairs they handed Carter the Q3 proposal to compare with this—what Giga marked up—but Giga actually gave me Q4. It's all different. None of the slides match. He won't know what the hell he's looking at."

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