"Mutant Wizards," I said. "Could you hold, please?"
I switched the phone to my left ear, holding it with my awkwardly bandaged left hand, and stabbed at a button to answer another line.
"Eat Your Way Skinny," I said. "Could you hold, please?"
As I reached to punch the first line's button and deal with the Wizards' caller, I heard a gurgling noise. I looked up to see that the automatic mail cart had arrived while I was juggling phones. A man lay on top, his head thrown back, one arm flung out while the other clutched the knife handle rising from his chest. He gurgled again. Red drops fell from his outstretched hand onto the carpet.
"Very funny, Ted," I said, reaching out to press the button that would send the mail cart on its way again. "You can come back later to clean up the stage blood."
I could hear him snickering as the cart beeped and lurched away, following an invisible ultraviolet dye path that would lead it out of the reception room and into the main office area. I'd gotten used to seeing a set of metal shelves, six feet long and four high, creeping down the corridor under its own steam, but I was losing patience with the staff's insatiable appetite for playing pranks with the mail cart.
Ted leaned upside down over the side, waggled the rubberknife suggestively, and made faces at me until the cart turned to the left and disappeared.
I scanned the floor to see if he'd shed any more valuables this time--after his first tour through the reception area, I'd found eighty-five cents in change and his ATM card, and a coworker had already turned in a set of keys that were probably his. No, apparently his pockets were now empty. I wondered how long before he came looking for his stuff--I wasn't about to chase him down.
Then I glanced at the young temp I was teaching to run the switchboard. Uh-oh. Her eyes were very wide, and she was clutching her purse in front of her with both hands.
"What happened to him?" she asked.
"Ignore Ted; he's the office practical joker," I said. "He's harmless."
I could tell she didn't believe me.
"What about that?" she asked, pointing over my shoulder.
I followed her finger.
"Oh, that's just George, the office buzzard," I said. "He's harmless, too."
When he saw me looking at him, George shuffled from foot to foot, bobbed his head, and hunched his shoulders. I suspected this behavior was the buzzardly equivalent of a cat rubbing itself against your ankle when it hears the can opener. At any rate, George had started doing it on my second or third day here, when he realized I was the one delivering his meals. I'd actually begun to find this endearing--doubtless a sign I'd been at Mutant Wizards too long. The temp edged away, as if expecting George to pounce.
"Don't worry," I said. "He can't fly or anything. He's got only one wing. One of the staff rescued him from some dogs and brought him back for a company mascot."
I vowed once again to try convincing my brother that abuzzard was an unsuitable mascot for his computer game company. Or at least that the mascot shouldn't live in the reception area, where visitors had to see him. And smell him.
"He stinks," the temp said.
"You get used to it."
"You've got four lines lit up," the temp said, pointing to the switchboard, and then jumped as a loud snarling noise erupted from beneath the counter of the reception desk. I knew it was only Spike, the nine-pound canine-shaped demon for whom I was dog-sitting, testing the wire mesh on the front of his crate, but the sound seemed to unnerve the temp.
"Why don't you take over now?" I suggested. "I can stick around until you get the hang of it, and then--"
"I'm sorry," she said, backing toward the door. "I probably should have told the agency not to send me out at all today. I'm really not feeling very well. Maybe I should--"
"Meg!" my brother, Rob, shouted, bursting into the reception room. "Take a look!"
He proceeded to fling himself about the room, performing a series of intricate shuffling movements with his legs while flailing his arms around, hunching his shoulders up and down, and uttering strange, harsh shrieks at irregular intervals.
Normally, the appearance of my tall, blond, and gorgeous brother might have provided some additional incentive for a temp to stay. At least a temp this young. Under the circumstances, though, I wasn't surprised that the temp fled long before he ended up, perched on his left toes with his right leg thrust awkwardly out to the side and both arms stretched over his head.
"Ta-da!" he said, teetering slightly.
I sighed and punched a ringing phone line.
"Meg?" Rob said, sounding less triumphant. "Was my kata okay?"
"Much better," I said as I transferred the call. "I just wish you wouldn't practice in the reception room."
"Oh, sorry," he said, breaking the pose. "Who was that running out, anyway?"
"Today's temporary switchboard operator," I said. "She decided not to stay."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I guess I did it again."
I shrugged. It was partly my fault, after all. I was the one who'd invented the fictitious Crouching Buzzard kata--named, of course, for our mascot, George--and taught it to Rob in a moment of impatience. Or perhaps frustration at his unique combination of rabid enthusiasm and utter incompetence.
And to think that when Rob first became obsessed with the martial arts, I'd encouraged him, naively believing it would help build his character.
"Give him backbone," one of my uncles had said, and everyone else around the Langslow family dinner table had nodded in agreement.
Rob had brains enough to graduate from the University of Virginia Law School. Not at the top of his class, of course, which would have required sustained effort. But still, brains enough to graduate and to pass the bar exam on the first try, even though instead of studying he'd spent his preparation classes inventing a role-playing game called Lawyers from Hell.
He then turned Lawyers from Hell into a computer game, with the help of some computer-savvy friends, and failing to sell it to an existing computer-game maker, he'd decided to start his own company.
As usual, his family and friends tripped over each other to help. My parents lent him the initial capital. I lent him some money myself when he hit a cash flow problem and was too embarrassed to go back to Mother and Dad. Michael Waterston, my boyfriend, who taught drama at Caerphilly College,introduced him to a computer science professor and a business professor who were restless and looking for real-life projects. The desire to stay close to these useful mentors was the main reason Mutant Wizards ended up in the small, rural college town of Caerphilly, instead of some high-tech Mecca like San Jose or Northern Virginia's Dulles-Reston corridor.
And now, less than a year later, Rob was president of a multimillion-dollar company, inventor of the hottest new computer game of the decade, and founder of Caerphilly's small but thriving high-tech industry.
Not bad for someone who knew next to nothing about either computers or business, as Rob would readily admit to anyone who asked--including Forbes magazine, Computer Gaming World, and especially the pretty coed who profiled him in the Caerphilly student paper.
At the moment, the young giant of the interactive multimedia entertainment industry was looking at George and frowning. George ignored him, of course, as he ignored everyone too squeamish to feed him. Although I noticed that when Rob was doing his phony kata, George had paid more attention than he usually did to humans. Maybe I'd accidentally invented something that resembled buzzard mating rituals. At least George wasn't upset. I'd found out, on moving day, that when George got upset, he lost his lunch. Keeping George calm and happy had become one of my primary goals in life.
"He's looking a little seedy," Rob said finally.
"Only a little?" I said. "That's rather an improvement."
"Seedier than usual," Rob clarified. "Sort of ... dirty. Do you suppose he needs a bath?"
"Absolutely not," I said, firmly. "That would destroy the natural oils on his feathers. Upset the chemical balance of his system. Play havoc with his innate defenses against infection."
"Oh, right," Rob said.
Actually, I had no idea what washing would do to a buzzard. All I knew is that if George needed washing, I'd be the one stuck doing it. And I suspected it would upset him. No way.
"Then what about birdbaths?" Rob said.
"For small birds," I said. "Songbirds. And they only splash gently."
"That's right," Rob said, his face brightening. "They clean themselves with sand."
"We can get him a sandbox, then," Rob said. "You can rearrange the chairs to make some room for it. What do you think?"
He was wearing the expression he usually wore these days when he suggested something around the office. The expression that clearly showed he expected his hearers to exclaim, "What an incredible idea!" and then run off to carry it out. At least that was what his staff usually did. I was opening my mouth to speak when--
"Rob ! There you are!"
We both looked up to see Mutant Wizards' chief financial officer at the entrance to the reception area.
"We've got a conference call in three minutes."
Rob ambled off, and I dealt with the stacked-up calls. A sandbox. I'd been on the verge of coming clean. Confessing to Rob that Crouching Buzzard was a practical joke, not an abstruse kata.
Instead, as I whittled down the backlog of phone calls for Mutant Wizards and for the motley collection of therapists with whom we shared office space, I began inventing a new kata, one even more fiendishly difficult and amusing to watch.
Stop that, I told myself, when I realized what I was thinking. I wasn't here to invent imaginary katas. Or to mind the switchboard.I was supposed to find out what was wrong at Mutant Wizards.
It all started two weeks ago, when Dad and Michael brought me back from the emergency room with my left hand hidden in a mass of bandages the size of my head.
"Wow, what happened?" asked Rob, through a mouthful of Frosted Flakes. He'd come over to Michael's apartment to feed and walk Spike while the rest of us were at the hospital, and had stayed to empty the pantry.
"Long story," I said, and disappeared into the bathroom for a little privacy. Michael went to the kitchen to fix me some iced tea, while Dad, a semiretired general practitioner, began telling Rob in excruciating detail exactly what was wrong with my hand and what the doctors at Caerphilly Community Hospital had done to repair it, along with a largely favorable critique of their professional expertise. I sighed, and Michael reached over to pat my good hand.
Yes, I know I said he was in the kitchen and I was in the bathroom. The kitchen of the Cave, as we called Michael's one-room basement apartment, consisted of a microwave and a hot plate perched atop a mini refrigerator. The bathroom was separated from the kitchen by a curtain I'd hung five minutes after walking in the door on my first visit. The seven-foot ceiling felt claustrophobic to me, so I could only imagine how it affected Michael at six feet four inches. The fact that several of Michael's colleagues envied him for snagging these princely quarters showed how tight living space was in Caerphilly.
"Actually, I meant how did she injure it?" Rob said. I could tell by his voice that he was turning a little green. Rob fainted at the thought of blood. "What happened, Meg?"
"Like I said, long story."
"My fault," Michael said. "She was trying do her blacksmithing in that tiny studio I found for her, and it was just too small. She hit her elbow on a wall while hammering something, and hammered her other hand instead."
"Too bad," Rob said.
You have no idea, I thought, staring into the cracked mirror, fingering the bruises and lacerations that covered my face. Michael had forgotten to mention that, along with my hand, I'd also banged the hell out of a structural wall and brought part of the ceiling down on my own head. The studio might have worked for a painter, but it was just too small for a blacksmith. Still, I'd tried to make it work. Tried desperately, because after nearly a year of looking for somewhere for the two of us to live and me to work, the tiny basement apartment and the even tinier converted garden-shed studio were the best we'd found. Apart from being painful and keeping me out of work for weeks, my injury meant that I still hadn't found a place to work in Caerphilly, and we'd have to go back to square one, with me living several hours away in suburban northern Virginia, seeing Michael only when one or the other of us could get away from work for long enough.
Although obviously I wouldn't be working for a little while, I thought, staring at the bandage.
"How long till she can do her blacksmithing again?" Rob had asked, as if reading my mind.
"At least two months," Dad said.
"That's great!" Rob exclaimed.
"Rob!" Dad and Michael said it in unison, and I stuck my head through the bathroom curtains to glare at him.
"What I meant was, it's too bad about the hand, but I have a great idea about what she can do in the meantime," Rob said hastily. "Remember how I was saying that I think there's something wrong at Mutant Wizards? Maybe Meg could come andpretend to work there and figure out what's going on."
"That's brilliant, Rob!" Dad exclaimed.
"Except for one tiny detail," I said. "What on earth could I possibly do at a computer company?"
"You can organize us!" Rob said, flinging his arms out with enthusiasm. "You said yourself that you can't imagine how we'll ever get moved into our new offices and that we should hire a competent office manager. You're perfect for it!"
I wondered if he really was worried about the company, or if that was just an excuse to get me to come and organize them.
"I was rather thinking Meg could come back to California for the last few weeks of my shoot," Michael said. "You'll have plenty of time to rest while I'm filming, and then we can spend time together in the evenings."
Nice try, but I knew better. Oh, not that he didn't mean it. But I'd seen what Michael's life was like when he was filming these TV guest shots. He'd be up at dawn for makeup call. I'd twiddle my one working thumb during the twelve to fourteen hours he was shooting. And then, over dinner, when he wasn't mumbling lines under his breath, he'd be fretting about whether playing a lecherous, power-mad sorcerer on a cheesy syndicated TV show was really how a serious actor--not to mention a professor of drama--should spend his summer break.
Maybe not. But he enjoyed it so much that I didn't have the heart to say so. And besides, it paid well.
And while the few decent houses we'd found for sale in Caerphilly over the past year were well beyond the means of Professor Waterston and Meg the blacksmith, they might not be unreachable for Mephisto the sorcerer. Especially if they signed him for several more episodes.
And if you added in what my Mutant Wizards stock mightbe worth if the company continued successful, home ownership might eventually be within our means. Which, I realized, gave me more than an idle interest in why Rob thought there was something wrong at his company.
I glanced up to see that all three were looking at me expectantly.
"So, what's your decision?" Michael asked.
I should know better than to make major decisions while taking Percocet.
Copyright © 2003 by Donna Andrews.