In the fake-oak-paneled conference room, Zarabeth Battrie found a dozen others standing. All looked wilted and worn, with bunched shirts and bowing ankles. The plastic tables were gone, the plastic chairs stacked in the corner. More people arrived but no one unstacked the chairs. A herd instinct, Zarabeth decided, to keep a clear path for fleeing.
A natty beige man in a crisp blue plaid suit came in, pushing a low gray plastic cart with stacks of documents. If the standing people surprised him, he didn't show it. With practiced ease he lowered the room's screen, plugged in his powerstrip. Someone passed the documents around but no one spoke. In the silence, Zarabeth felt anxieties around her, about money, status, children, groping her like fevered predictable hands. Too intimate, these people's worries in her skin when she didn't know their names, or want to. She shook them off, pushed through to the front so as not to stare at men's backs all meeting.
Projector light bleached the natty man while he talked through slides of sunsets and bullet points, with the real news a seeming afterthought. Her office and two others were merging with Optimized Deployments, in Boston. A great move. Efficiency for all. The animated org-chart realigned over and over, three squares gone and Optimized’s no bigger. Reorganized like a stomach does food.
People asked tired questions, their hot worry now clammy hope. The natty man smiled no matter what he said. Yes, redundancies. Jobs would move, details to work out. All would be well and better.
He left to spread his joy. The room lights rose.
Zarabeth’s boss, Aleksei Medev, slouched in the corner like someone had whacked his head with lumber. His unshaven olive skin hung gray and limp. With all eyes on him, he straightened.
“A very challenging time,” he said. “We’re sending reports to justify -- to guide the transition. Client work is secondary.”
Zarabeth was in no hurry to fill out Aleksei’s useless reports. Nothing she had done in the last two months justified keeping her employed, she knew that. She went out the broken fire exit to a stand of pine trees behind the parking lot. She lit a cigarette, paced in the shade.
Once, Zarabeth Battrie had traveled the country as an Inspiration Manager, connecting the best people at Straightforward Consulting to an in-house knowledge network. She had good instincts which managers to flatter, which to cow, which to sneak past. It surprised her how much she understood when she finally got her quarry to talk their special arcana, over morning jogs, lobster lunches, steak dinners, midnight hookahs with shots of tequila. Later, on airplanes, she’d think of those and other conversations, watching the pieces fit together in this strange unity and balloon, her world growing with a drug-like jolt. To let her do that, week in week out -- taking off, landing, on the move, on her feet -- had been the greatest praise.
On Valentine’s Day, it had evaporated without explanation. Zarabeth had been reassigned to Reston, in the Virginia suburbs, to do public-relations grunt-work for industry trade groups. Aleksei Medev, still shiny then, had put his feet on her new desk and spun a great tale, core knowledge toward a turnkey marketing solution, select team deep study. At least she got an office with a door.
Zarabeth had visited Boston twice in her old job. Optimized had smart people and kept them by being greedy. They would suck the money from her division like marrow from bone. Everyone fired, no matter how they danced.
Doubt ate through her like some parasite come to lay its eggs. She pinched the cigarette’s cherry to burn it off with pain. Six years at this firm would not end this week.
Zarabeth sublet a furnished apartment in Foggy Bottom, facing west and the Potomac River. She had chosen it for the balcony view and the location near the highway, but she didn’t like the place much. The heavy dark furniture and metallic abstract art looked good at night, but menacing in morning shadow and grim in afternoon sun. Some days Zarabeth fantasized trashing it, taking a sledgehammer to the whole gloomy aquarium. This was a good day for that.
But Missy Devereaux was there, watching TV, in new red hair, her dirty bare feet on the coffee table.
“Hey, sugar,” Missy said, in her perky Kentucky accent. “Want some wine?”
“Get your bow legs off my table,” Zarabeth said. “When did you go ginger?”
“Do you love it?” Missy muted the sound. “I love it. Gramma hates it. Do you love it?”
A year ago, Missy Devereaux had been a Straightforward legislative liaison, frost-blonde hair and pricey suits, working her congressman daddy’s contact list. Now on the ground floor of Missy’s Georgetown mansion, her grandmother died slowly of bone cancer. Missy came to Zarabeth’s place as a retreat, a chance to smoke without blowing up the oxygen tanks. In return Missy watered the plants and filled the wine rack. It was a good arrangement, most days.
“It’s great.” Zarabeth went to her bedroom. She wiped off her makeup, washed her face with cold water. Her copper skin looked flushed. Small zits on her forehead. Twenty-seven, and she still broke out. She turned from the mirror so as not to smash it.
Missy came with a glass of white. “Three hours ’til the nurse leaves. You want dinner?”
Zarabeth shook with fury. “I so don’t deserve this.”
“I know, sugar-pea. I know.”
“The fuck you know, witch?”
Missy’s eyes flashed, from blue to bright green. Like the unlocking of a cage.
Zarabeth backed down. She checked herself by punching her palm repeatedly. “Fuck me! Fucking fuck.”
“You just relax,” Missy said. Maybe to herself too. Her eyes blue again, at least. She pulled a joint from behind her ear. “Drink and smoke. I’m ordering food. Lamb kebab with fries, right?” She closed the door.
Zarabeth struggled to light the joint with her smarting hands. She took small drags of the sweet smoke. The pain in her hands faded. Clearly Missy already knew about the re-org. Maybe she had known in advance, not that it would have done Zarabeth good to know sooner. Still, it was fine to pretend they were just two gals in the city, but one was an heiress and more.
That Missy came from old money, or close enough by American reckoning, Zarabeth had known from the start, but they both looked good, worked hard, and closed down bars too. Six months earlier, at a warehouse nightclub in Northeast, Zarabeth had lost track of Missy. Noises on the phone when Zarabeth called, rustle of a hand hanging up. A man’s hand. She had felt his sweaty soft skin through the phone.
“A white guy dosed my friend and they're here,” she had told the bouncers. The bouncers had known which private room to try. A dark crowded party, Missy in the back on a couch, waving like a broken doll, a fat preppy fuck in seersucker kneeling between her legs, his own belt undone. Zarabeth took his open-mouthed fat preppy picture and dragged Missy out until her own walking took over.
The next night Missy had come over, without makeup, not in crisp linen but in the hippie disarray that soon became her general uniform.
“Thank you for saving me,” Missy had said. “I’m leaving the firm. Going back to the family business.”
“Stop. What was that?” Zarabeth had asked. “On the phone?”
Missy hadn’t tried to pretend. “I didn’t think we had become so close. Let me tell you a story. May, 1593. King James was burning witches, and more who weren’t, on Edinburgh stakes. But in the Highlands, the widow Cullodena McCauley walked into the forest, and was not seen from new moon to new moon.
“Cullodena returned with a compact from Queen Mab, signed in blood; a proof of her new arts, which is not discussed; and, though it was only found out later, pregnant. So our old books say. Six families followed Cullodena from Scotland to Ireland. Their daughters studied the old ways, and charmed the men learning the new ways. A century later, they came to America as one coven, ruled by Cullodena’s female descendants. I’m fourteenth in that unbroken line. Soon, my grandmother will die. My mother will rise to advise the coven. I will be the Brigid, both queen and high priestess, of a coven of hundreds -- a secret matriarchy, hiding in plain sight.”
Missy had stood. “Know what else? We really are witches.”
Missy had risen in the air, eyes glowing hot green, arms shaking as if they bore her weight and more. “Go ahead,” Missy had grunted. “Check.”
A jet-engine in Zarabeth’s sensitive skin, either Missy or the weight she bore. “I’m good. That’s a neat trick.”
“One of many. But they have rules.” Missy had somersaulted backward, landed standing on the floor, dying green light in her eyes. “You know this is secret, right? So shut up. We kill from a distance.” A last flash of green, a smile less mirth than hunger. “Thanks for that picture, by the way.”
Heiress and witch. One thing Zarabeth had learned, neither liked to owe. Sometimes Zarabeth wondered if that wasn’t why Missy had told her, not to bring them closer but to bind her with fatal threat. It made their friendship a little sharp.
Heiress and witch. This evening the witch was close to the surface. Maybe Missy wasn’t having a good day either.
Zarabeth changed into yoga clothes. She found Missy lighting a glass pipe on the apartment’s small balcony. “Sorry.”
“Sugar, please,” Missy said. “Don’t even. Bad day at Straightforward. Three digits, I hear tell. Maybe four.”
“You’ve been gone a year and you have a better network than I do.” Zarabeth slumped in her chair. The high relaxed her too much, weighing on her limbs like Christmas ornaments.
“Boys always talk to pretty girls,” Missy said. “You should try that sometime. Have you seen my babies?” Missy grew seedlings on the balcony to amuse herself on her visits. “Here’s wormwood, coneflower. Brings butterflies. Valerian, bloodroot, and that whole row is tansy. Pretty flowers but itchy leaves. Some is for you. Keeps away cops.”
“Nice of you.” Zarabeth refilled their wines. “Four digits? I’m out on my ass.”
“I still don’t see how you’re in Reston. What happened to, uh, Execution Exemplary?”
“Executive Exemplars.” Zarabeth shook her head. “No one ever said. Four hours in Anchorage and they made me fly back. Next day, the server was locked. So was my office.”
“You know Boston staff. They’ll see your worth.”
“I never met Magda Crane herself. Have you?”
“Couple times. She acts a bit dotty, but she knows her stuff. Not a nice person.”
“I don’t need nice. Do you miss working?” Zarabeth asked. “I mean, corporate life.”
“It was a good time,” Missy said. “Work was like college. I knew it would end.”
Zarabeth bobbed in her high. She could play with Missy, until Missy moved back to Kentucky to assume her throne. Zarabeth didn’t want to play. The firm had taken her seriously. It hurt when they stopped.
The food came cold but they didn't bother heating it up. They said little, less eating than refueling. Missy seemed antsy, getting up for more wine, for hot sauce, for water.
“I’m afraid Gramma doesn’t trust me,” Missy finally said. She looked around as if for eavesdroppers, a reflex that amused Zarabeth, though Zarabeth didn't smile. Missy rarely discussed her family. Maybe the wine, maybe her own bad luck. Zarabeth paid a snake’s attention.
“Why would you even think that?” she asked.
“Without our arts,” Missy said, “Gramma would have -- and her pain -- but she hangs on. I don’t know how to prove myself.”
Zarabeth swallowed so as not to chuckle. “Maybe it’s not you? Your kind are all circle-of-life, but dying sucks. When my dad died, he was so angry, he could barely see me. Maybe she’s angry. Maybe she’s scared. Sometimes on planes, in turbulence, I think -- if we crashed, would this be enough life?”
“No,” Missy said.
“Fuck no. Maybe it’s even harder when you’re older.”
Zarabeth cleared the wrappers and refilled the filtered water pitcher. Missy sat in the living room, under a lamp of metal thorns, idly fan-shuffling Zarabeth’s tarot cards with a stage magician’s flair.
“You still read the cards?” Missy asked.
“They don’t say much,” Zarabeth said. “My days are all the same.” Zarabeth had bought the cards at Missy’s prompting, last of a display in a stationery store. Missy had offered to teach her, and she had, three serious evenings when Zarabeth had expected a ten-minute lark. In retrospect, maybe Missy had done it as groundwork, to see how Zarabeth handled woo-woo, but it had felt like girlish friendship.
“Mind if I try? If you don’t mind spoilers. I’m curious.”
“If you’re offering,” Zarabeth said carefully.
Missy grinned, tapped her nose. “Of course. Re-org special. Can you turn down these lights?”
Levitation was the only impossible thing Missy had ever done in front of Zarabeth, but a card reading was enough to bring out Missy’s gifts. Zarabeth refilled her glass and dimmed the lights. All the while she watched Missy, who sat motionless, eyes closed, hands crossed over her chest. Zarabeth felt a long cold drip down her spine, sensed big furry moth wings beating the air. Behold the great witch Artemis McCauley Devereaux, robed in dark power, sipping the future from the goddesshead. Zarabeth pulled up a chair to face it.
Missy fanned the deck across the table. “Plus-minus,” she said. “Choose your proxy.”
Zarabeth drew Brand 7, a picture of a messy supermarket shelf, boxes and cans with bright quick-sale tags. Discards and leftovers.
“A humble card,” Missy said. “Stuck, paralyzed by choices, out of time. Sure?”
Zarabeth shrugged and put down the card.
Missy drew a man on a burning pyre of bills, and placed it over Zarabeth’s card. “Bankruptcy confronts you. You need help.” She turned the next card sideways, nurses transplanting a heart from a pudgy corpse to a golden body. “Reorganization challenges you.”
She placed the next card below the first three, a woman with treasure above a flooded city. “Money 4, under you. Greed whetted by misfortune. Past experience you draw on.” To the left, colleagues raised glasses at a work party. “Brand 3, behind you. Making connections.” Above, a mini-skirted woman on stage, an image of a forest glen between hills like crossed thighs. “Marketing crowns you. That’s good. She gets people interested.” To the right, completing the plus, the colleagues from Brand 3 at a table full of trophies. “Brand 9, new opportunities in your future. That’s the plus. Now the minus.”
A man alone with closed file boxes. “Inside you, Product 3 upside-down. A regrettable ending, or a new beginning. Or both.” A jewel heart above a rapturous crowd. “Outside you, Brand Ace. A good reputation. Also, the marriage card.”
“Ha. Maybe I'll just get laid,” Zarabeth said.
T-shirt vendors hip-deep in snow, outside a shining stadium. “On your journey, Money 5. Downsizing, unemployment, limited opportunity. And where you arrive --”
Giant cargo planes loading huge boxes. “Product 8,” Zarabeth said. “That’s success?”
“Success,” Missy said. “Also, the work to sustain it. But, a good card.” The spell of her presence had lifted. Missy looked tired. “Nothing bad. Professionally successful. Whatever happens this week, you’ll be working this summer, but it’s complicated. You’ll meet a guy, might be rocky. And, you’re going to be lying to people. A lot. So say the cards.”
“Fantastic!” The reading delighted Zarabeth, more basic than belief, the pleasure of winning the game. “Couldn’t ask for more. Best fortune-teller ever.”
“Queen of woo-woo.” Missy turned on the light. “More ice cream? Or a nightcap?”
“Just water.” Zarabeth gathered the cards. She yawned. “I still have a job.”
“Be glad it doesn’t involve bedpans,” Missy said.
Thursday morning in the office, the overhead lights were off. Aleksei’s door locked, many cubicles empty. Had the layoffs begun already? Or were the missing ones safe?
Her voicemail light blinked. “This is Jill Carson of Optimized,” a woman with a heavy Boston accent said. “Magda Crane will be calling you at two-thirty. Please be available.”
Zarabeth hissed. At least it wasn’t a summons to Human Resources.
In her in-box, more forms from Aleksei. She ignored them. She worked out her annoyance trolling news sites for a bankers’ association, posting nonsense invective against mortgage reform. For lunch she ate a Greek salad at the Korean deli while surfing job sites on her phone. Consulting jobs, spec jobs. Work now, salary later. Nothing with health care.
No call at two-thirty, not at three. In the western distance out her window, gray clouds glinted silver-white with lightning. The office phone wouldn’t forward calls. She was stuck. She went through her files to see what was worth saving.
The storm broke at four, heavy downpour drumming the window. It took her a moment to notice the knocking through it.
“Are you Zarabeth Battrie?” The woman in her open doorway had a drawn, pale face under stringy gray hair. Her voice was clear and nasal, a Northeast boarding-school hauteur. She wore a red pantsuit and carried a slim brown briefcase. In flat shoes, she was taller than Zarabeth in heels. She got the name right.
Zarabeth’s heart beat faster. “You’re Magda Crane.”
“I am. I planned to call, but things came up. And this rain. Does it always rain this hard here? So I came to find you.” She cocked her head, raised her thinned eyebrows. “Here you are.”
Everything the woman said was false. Another day, Zarabeth might have enjoyed it.
“I didn’t know you were in town, Ms. Crane. Come in. Sorry about the mess.” Zarabeth put her box of saved files under her desk, closed open drawers. “The chair’s clean.”
“Thank you. You don’t care to be idle, do you, Ms. Battrie?”
“Zarabeth, please. No, Ms. Crane, I don’t.”
“Better ways of being the devil’s tool, yes? Call me Magda.” She perched on the edge of the chair, twitchy like a squirrel, her voice tipsy on sherry. She placed the briefcase on the floor between her legs, as if it held valuables.
“I’m excited to meet you,” Magda said. “My people mentioned you. Mention-itis. You’re a little thing but you make an impression. Of course, we studied up on you. Did a search, as they say. You came so far, in so little time. It’s remarkable, really. Especially since you didn’t go to college.”
Zarabeth was too surprised to lie. Her heart, even faster.
“Don’t look so glum,” Magda said. “You did well, fooling the Philadelphia office, and once you’re in, no one looks twice. But, we did. You’re from the school of hard knocks, as we used to say. I’m curious. When you sit in meetings, with people who went decades into debt to earn what you assumed with a forged transcript, what do you think about them?”
Zarabeth fought to unclench her teeth. “Sometimes, they have jokes,” she said. “One says something, like from a book, and others laugh.” She thrust her shoulders out. “I laugh too.”
“I understand. They can laugh someplace else.”
Zarabeth felt jerked upwards, as if her parachute opened. “You’re not laying me off?”
“I’m offering you a new job. My personal representative, in certain unusual matters.” Magda patted her chest below the notch of her collarbone. “Of course we’ll give you a title. Director of Special Projects?”
Director was a salary raise. “Yes. Great. I accept.”
“You do? Don’t you want to hear more about it?”
“Sure. But it must be better than this. I’ll take it. Why me?”
Magda laughed in high titters, coughed hard with paper-bag sounds, laughed again. “You’re a card, you are. A card. Why you? A few reasons. For one, people talk about you. I know people. Those people?” Magda waved behind her. “Worthless. Couldn’t pour me coffee. You’re a tough cookie.”
Magda bent over and took a black envelope the size of a greeting card out of her case. “Also, because you’ve had a singular education. For example, you know what this is.”
Taking the envelope made Zarabeth uneasy. She used a letter opener. Inside was a slip of parchment, the real kind made with animal skin, greasy and cool to touch. On it, a messy five-pointed star, in a circle, drawn in dried blood.
It was a magic spell, embedded in an object. If Zarabeth burned it, something would happen, most likely something nasty.
“I’ve never seen a charm before,” Zarabeth said.
“Then you should know this one is quite expensive, and hard to come by. How do you know what this is? Your witch friend?”
So much for secrecy. “Missy can’t tell me much unless I worship her.” Zarabeth slid the charm back inside the envelope, handed it back to Magda. “When I was a kid, I could find things. Anything. I'd pretend I had seen it earlier, but I hadn’t. In high school, if I danced at parties, sometimes -- something would come over me. If I wanted something then, I got it. Money, a bike, a necklace. It hurt though, and I never had them long. I shoplifted books from stores and tried to do their spells, but they never worked. I do magic. I just can’t control it.”
“This is more than your witch friend knows, isn’t it?”
“Just as well,” Magda said. “You’ll never do magic like she does. Wildness like yours can’t be tamed, just harnessed for a while. Which is fine. I don’t demand worship,” Magda said. “But I do demand honesty. You know there’s more going on with this firm than just consulting.”
“I find hidden things,” Zarabeth said. “In Houston, this drunk engineer told me about our occult work for the CIA. Janice Goldman in Los Angeles doesn’t age, and no one talks about it.”
“No one ages in LA,” Magda said. “Hide in plain sight.”
Zarabeth smiled politely. “What is all this?”
“You’ll have to play the game to learn the rules, I’m afraid. I do think you’re a natural. For now, you’ll just poke around. There are things I’m curious about.”
“You mean I’ll be a spy?” Zarabeth asked.
“You’re clever, they said so. Clever spy. First up, there’s a client we have in London. Telecoms firm. Doesn’t add up to me. You’ll tell me everything. What people say in the kitchen, at the pubs. Oddities in your tarot cards. Think you can do it?”
Cards. You’re a card. Bankruptcy confronts you.
“Executive Exemplars,” Zarabeth said. “You killed my project.”
Magda’s left eye narrowed grossly, like a mask had fallen off. “Killed ‘my’ project. Well.” She frowned. “It was nonsense like that which got us to this reorganization. But I liked you. So I tucked you away. Time to blow your dust off.”
Zarabeth felt ashamed of her own self-doubt. If she had only known -- but anger now would get her less. “OK,” Zarabeth said. “I’m your spy. I’ll be a good one.”
“Of that, I’m sure. And now, back to work. These people won’t lay off themselves. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, dear.” She stood, so Zarabeth stood. “With a little luck, together we might even start a war.”
Zarabeth took Magda’s hand.
A shock and a dread sang through her, as if Magda were a garbage disposal. The moment before the pain.
Done on purpose.
Zarabeth jerked back her hand. Magda smiled nastily and walked off. Zarabeth rubbed her hand on her thigh until Magda was out of sight.
A beatdown to establish dominance. Fine. At least she had a job. An executive had watched her career. And fucked with it. At least she had a job. She closed her door and sat.
On her desk, the black envelope, not by itself but in an odd pile. Under it, a folded printout of a flight itinerary. On top of it, an orange silicone wristband with the firm’s three-arrow logo and the tagline: Straightforward Consulting -- The Devil You Know
All without Zarabeth seeing.
“That’s a neat trick,” Zarabeth said aloud. She picked up the wristband. Stink of packaging, feel of goo. Just a wristband. She put it on her right wrist.
She shook the parchment out onto the desk, rotated it with a pencil eraser. The star and circle were drawn in a continuous, splattered line, as if squeezed from a body part. When she touched the parchment, its clammy feel moved up her arm. She put her hand above the blood but wouldn’t touch it.
Magda wouldn’t let her just accept.
Zarabeth slowed her breaths, made them full. The charm could make her a monster. It could make her a slave. It could be -- awful.
As awful as sneaking around the edges, a grifter of magic with no one to teach her or even believe her, and not taking the chance to trade places? Who had fallen for her to rise? Whoever had bled onto the charm, for sure.
She could walk. Take a package, move to a cheaper city, get a desk job. Her brush with the uncanny, a story in a journal no one would ever read.
Twelve good years since she had left Pittsburgh, each one better than the one before. Six at Straightforward, and after each, money and respect. She could take that elsewhere, but never get anything like this for it.
Zarabeth emptied her candy jar and knelt on the floor. Her heartbeat shook her chest, her hands.
Zarabeth held the clammy charm by the corner and lit it with her cigarette lighter.
The charm burned fast, with red hissing flames. She dropped it into the jar, her fingers smarting. Oily white smoke spilled out. Zarabeth inhaled it, coughed hard. She inhaled again, pressed her hands to her mouth to hold it in. It itched like bugs in her lungs. When she exhaled the smoke was gone. The jar was still warm.
She leaned back against the desk. Her arms fell asleep. She felt a newness in her mind, an idea with no meaning.
The phone rang. She clambered onto her chair, keying the speaker.
“This is Endre,” the caller said. “Optimized, Internal Support. We shipped you a device. Any problems with it? Sorry we sent no documentation.” Something odd in his voice.
“No,” Zarabeth said. “I think I did it right. Am I -- waiting for something?”
“It sounds as if everything worked,” Endre said. “I also wanted to give you our phone number here in case you have questions later.”
She keyed the number into her phone’s contact list. Something odd. His accent. His numbers. His words. “Endre? Am I -- we’re speaking Hungarian, right?”
“Igen, mi magyarul beszéltek.” Through the strange-familiar words, Endre sounded pleased, the same gotcha Magda had also enjoyed. These people liked to fuck with you.
She filed that for later. “Wow. Cool. So it just --”
“It just works.” Endre switched to English, with a thick accent. “The Polyglot begins with standard speech, and adapts to your current region. You can brush up before you go with web-casts or movies. Call if you have questions. We staff this desk twenty-four-seven.”
“Köszönöm szépen, Endre.”
“Szívesen, Szarabet. Look forward to working with you.”
Zarabeth laughed with joy and relief. Wait until she told Missy, in her own coven’s old Gaelic.