by Dawn Jones
What Sean had said earlier about playing games--another one of his cryptic free-advice moments--somehow stung and kept crowding Celia's mind with worry. It was hard to pin it down, what she was feeling. Lately, anything outside of her discipline was a hard track to follow, especially at the end of a long day; her mind waded in only at the edge. Coffee had not helped. The office lights brightened with her heartbeats, which was fascinating but odd.
In the last few minutes she had rearranged the same set of documents several times over. It was late, and she was exhausted. The corporate bylaws were fully drafted now, and it had been a long push to get it done. Celia was finished, but she could not leave it alone, so she prepared for the next day. I'll just go ahead and find the right sections of this agreement, get that marked and ready, and, oh yeah, she sighed, I'd better have a copy of the statute this time, pore over that thing.... There's a glitch in here somewhere, and I'll be damned if I'll miss it.
Although the Law Offices of Bingham & Lowe were elevated enough to be in shadow in the middle of downtown Atlanta, it required no effort to imagine how hot and humid the air would be when she left--something akin to breathing soup, and after a few minutes in it, her skin would be covered in a thin film of sweat. Not yet time to leave, though she puttered like an engine about to stall--her computer remained open. She stared at it now, eyes burning, unblinking.
Back to what Sean had said: "If you're playing a game and you think you can't win by the rules, you know, as it's set up, but you can change the rules, or the game, whatever... well, it's obvious that you have to."
He had stood at the door to her office, twirling a binder clip around his index finger.
"What are you going on about?" she had replied. "Define 'win.'"
Celia grabbed the last set of client documents needed tonight; this batch someone had bound with rubber bands and dropped into a pocket folder. She herself dropped it onto the corner of her desk, irritated. It was time to go, but vague worries kept her there. Every few months these moments came when her life seemed laid out, plopped onto a slab for forensic review.
She did not want to leave yet.
It was an honor to be an associate at Bingham & Lowe newly promoted to Mergers & Acquisitions, and no easy feat, which included an exhaustive battery of tests. She recalled the web of electrodes strapped to her skin. Never knew lie detectors caused physical pain. But in this hour of reckoning, the fullness of her life boiled down to a simple truth: Only the present mattered. What's right now matters, not the past, not what happens tomorrow. She stopped to think about it, but her mind wandered off again.
The screensaver kicked in, and the screen went black.
"Smile sometimes, won't you?" Sean liked to say. Earlier that day, he had proclaimed: "You're too proud. That's what it is." "Thank God for pride," she had said. "It keeps you busy."
She tried to rest her eyes, but they would not stay closed. They itched and watered. She stared at the one window, no more than a foot wide, near the middle of the wall. She gazed at the four walls, the closed door.
All the walls were bare, including the 'vanity' wall, but the paint was dented where other licenses and diplomas had hung. Her own diplomas remained on the floor. Celia was instantly tired of thinking about it, so she got up to stretch her legs. Her pillow toppled into the seat with a thump.
She walked over to the love-seat covered with books, and then the window. Not a thing was visible outside. It was her own body that stepped into view from another room in the framed glass. There stood a woman who looked almost pretty, even delicate around the eyes, but the softness held only in the eyes.
The woman looked sad. Celia usually pulled her thick black hair back, and that was what she had expected to see, but tufts flopped loose around the ears. It looked ridiculous. In the narrow window, a very pale face, and a pair of black eyes shined through, intense, scrutinizing. The effect was stark chiaroscuro; all her lipstick had rubbed off.
At a little distance, she thought her chin jutted a little more than it used to. I'm growing older, she thought--and then quietly even to herself, Maybe I'll grow up to be a big man someday. This made her laugh, though it felt more like a hiccough. In the window there was only a slight movement in her clothes, and the eyes still looked sad.
The break room with morning coffee was diagonally across the hall from Celia's office.
"Another good morning to you fine gentlemen," she said, scowling when she arrived at her door.
She slipped between Michael and Brent on the one side and Sean on the other, who politely moved for her to pass. They all wore crisp, starched shirts and colorful ties, Sean's pulled loose from his neck, a look consistent with his mop-like hair. Nobody acknowledged any displeasure on her part.
"It's a little late for you, isn't it?" Sean said. "Mr. Bingham came by about half an hour ago."
"Oh, hell," she said, and sighed.
A warm coffee aroma drifted through the door as she stepped over to the desk and set her things down. The narrow window showed its brown tint now that it was daylight outside. She sat down and pulled her blazer on. It was always extra cold in the mornings. Sean had said she was cultivating bad habits, apt to die of exposure if she didn't toughen up.
Congealed cream floated on the surface of her half-empty mug. She got up with it, but frowned at the crowd at the door and sat back down. She opened the computer instead.
"Excuse me, sir," Michael said a minute later, and she looked up to see him slip outside the doorway out of view. Sean and Brent did the same.
Mr. Bingham pivoted into her doorway. She jumped to her feet, but he did not come in. He continued to talk to the three men outside her door, shaking his thick hand at them. She figured he was giving them a hard time for loitering, but then they all laughed. One howled. Sounds like Michael. All she could see was Bingham's wide back in a dark suit and his sparse red hair. She remained standing behind her desk, waiting, not sure what to do. With one eye on the door, she picked up some documents she had planned to examine, turned them sideways, and set them firmly across the top of another pile.
Bingham turned and filled the door as he stepped into the small office. His height and large head were like those of a football player, an impression he seemed to like. His intellect was just as formidable.
With his free hand, he indicated for Celia to sit down; in the other he carried a package the size of a hefty book. She looked up to his profile while he scanned her naked walls, drawing her attention to the white cracked porcelain of his eyes.
"How's it going, Glaz? Got everything you need down here?"
The question felt like a signal, Game on, so to speak. She could never be sure what the next best move was, and so in the same quick calculation every time, she let it drop.
He sucked at his teeth.
"I'm about ready to turn over what I have on the Tortula merger,” she said. “To Andrew's people."
Bingham said nothing. He turned his puffy face towards her and smiled the sort of smile to say he had smiled.
"Is that what you wanted to know, sir?"
"Nah," he said, as if to slap the idea aside. "Just wondered how you were faring down here. Told Rice to check in on you. Has he?"
"No, sir. Not that I'm aware of."
He was examining her office again. It was all she could do not to roll her eyes.
"No big deal," he said, and added softly, "not a biggie at all."
Bingham's gaze then settled back on her, and he frowned. It was as if he was considering a very hard question, as if she was not a person to him so much as an object, one he might easily toss away, but thought maybe, just maybe, he’d rather keep. With no other options, she stood looking steadily back at him, anxious and insulted, half expecting the elusive game to be revealed.
"Glaz, get your things in order here, and get them to Andrew. Tidy up," he said. "I want you to take this package for me to a client in Rome. You leave tomorrow. Shirley's got the ticket."
"What?" she blurted, color flooding her face.
"I thought the merger was a time-is-of-the-essence matter, sir," she said with forced calm. "Wouldn't it make more sense to use a courier?"
"Don't think it's beneath you, Glaz," he barked, and she found herself hoping her outburst had not gone too far. "This is an important package, and a very, very important client. Others no better than you have delivered packages." He spat the last word.
Bingham placed the package on her desk. Then he picked up one of the documents she had laid out and flipped through the pages, as if to remind her that it was his. He put it back down, but in the wrong spot.
Celia stood dumbstruck. Bingham turned to leave but before stepping out of the door, he paused at the threshold and made the slightest turn of his head. Out of the corners of his hard, dry eyes, he glanced around the office once more, and left.
"Excuse me, sir," Michael said again as Bingham passed. Sean and Brent slid back into view at the door.
"Like I was sayin', my buddy at C, L & L was telling me about this case he landed--I mean, yikes, that shit ought to make his career," Michael said. "He's representing the guy who killed that Mildred Hall woman. Allegedly," he acquiesced at Sean's frown. "You guys remember hearing about this?"
Sean nodded as he blew into his steaming coffee mug.
"Oh, definitely," Brent said, hair buzzed, arms folded, and feet apart--as if fresh from the military, which he was not and had never been. He rolled his head back and nodded gravely at the ceiling tiles.
Celia sat frozen, torn between pride and shame. She raged at having been treated so small, but she was grateful to be where she was, with the firm--she had worked so hard. She looked on, not taking in the conversation. Her hands lay hooked on the edge of her desk.
She tried to gather her thoughts and rearrange her carefully plotted priorities. She wanted the men to go, but was too upset to say it. In order to know where to cut off preparation, she had to backtrack. She had to compile her work, get it to Andrew, and pick up the ticket from Shirley before the end of the day. In point of fact, she was profoundly embarrassed.
Celia wondered if she should go find Bingham and ask that the trip be delayed, but that would be foolhardy at this point, she knew, and she did not have enough information even to debate the issue. He had obviously planned it that way. All told, there was no time to think about it. She needed to focus on putting her work together, but she could not get around the idea that she would have to turn her project over incomplete and insufficiently organized.
"Man! It is so messed up!" Michael continued, slapping his thigh. "Okay, this guy, his client, allegedly attacked that self-help guru, and he did it in front of an auditorium full of people. They all saw it happen. All of 'em. The fucker hopped up on stage, threw her down and stabbed her through the cheek." Brent winced comically and shook his head. "And man, you won't believe this shit—he actually pinned her to the floor through her cheek!"
"How's she doing?" Sean said.
"Yeah, well, she didn't die. And, you know, I suppose she's a tad more famous now.... But uh, oh yeah," he said dramatically, "let's not forget the part where he fuckin' stick-pinned her to the floor!"
Sean laughed with a pained expression, as if unsure whether laughing was a good thing.
"I wish your buddy the best of luck," Brent said wistfully as Michael turned around and leaned against the doorway, sporting a wry grin as he looked into Celia's office.
Sean was sipping his coffee, and Michael leaned against the door frame. Sean had been studying Celia over the rim of his cup, pensive.
"Ya've had this sweet space a whole month?" Brent suddenly said, pointing to the dents in the walls.
Celia did not answer.
"Ah, the mysterious wall of fame of one who's gone before--some kind of megastar like yourself, no doubt," Michael said. "Yeah, yeah, don't even bother denying it. Rumor has it the guy was some sort of legal genie. Left over a year ago. Nobody seems to know where he went off to."
"You'd have to be one hell of a star to want to do that," Sean said, shaking his head.
"Maybe he imploded," Brent threw in with eyebrows raised.
Michael shrugged his shoulders. Someone down the hall had caught his eye, and he waved and headed that way. Brent peaked out the door, too, and, seeing who it was, followed Michael.
"So, your office here isn't just any pretty little office," Sean said kindly. "Celia, smile sometime, won't you?"
They looked at each other for a moment, harboring different thoughts. Celia snatched up her cell phone, checked the time, and then dropped it loudly back onto the desk.
"That's some weird assignment you've been given. I heard what Bingham said."
"It is indeed that." Her gaze drifted to the corner of the room.
"It might be good to get out, though. You know, with all this paperwork...," he waved his arm at the piles lining the baseboard. "I swear, they're burying you."
"Ooh, like a pirate's treasure," she said.
"Or a dead body."
She tried to think. She had work to do. But she felt a wave of vertigo, as if a grappling hook had come loose and the ledge was too narrow for footing. Sean continued to talk to her for a while. She tried to review the controlling document in front of her but had only managed to flip the pages.
Finally, Sean folded his arms in frustration and leaned against the door frame. His mug dangled from his fingertips.
"Celia, even if you don't like the cards you've been dealt," he said loudly, "just see if you can't somehow enjoy the game or... or, seriously, just walk away."
She heard him this time. She looked up and shot him her best eat-shit-and-die glare.
Sean dropped his arms. "Of course," he added, "you could always cheat. Mighty fine cheaters have left the firm and moved on to great things." At that, he winked and left.
All Celia could do was shake her head.
Over the next several hours, she worked feverishly and forgot to eat lunch. It became harder to ignore the nausea. Just before five o'clock, she piled all that she had together.
What she had obsessed over for months had to be set aside for a whim--that's what it was, right? Or some chauvinist pig's practical joke? She exited the elevator. She had to leave tomorrow for Rome. She had to drop everything to perform a grunt-level task. They left the firm for great things, he says? That's the incentive? I don't want to leave the goddam firm! The receptionist steered her to Shirley's office. Is it really worth it? And what will Momma say? Not that it was ever her decision.
By the time Celia returned to her office, most of her furor had burned itself out. Even so, as she turned the key and thrust the door open, she felt a spell breaking, and she was frightened by how enduring a break it could be. It was all too sudden to figure out properly, but the insult had truly hit home. When she pulled the strap to her laptop onto her shoulder, the package sat at the end of her desk. She marveled at how gingerly she tucked it under her arm.
The apartment was all shadows by the time Celia had arrived home, but she was home much earlier than usual. Lasagna had been in the oven only a short while ago. Momma must have been restless.
Her mother insisted on doing the housework, and as a result the apartment was always too clean and gave the impression of being uninhabited. There was a knit afghan draped stylishly over the arm of the couch; the television sat gray and dull, and the end tables, coffee table, and chemically fumed carpet all bled together in the deep evening haze. All these lifeless things--usually, it was so dark when Celia came home that she did not see them at all.
Her mother's room was an altogether different realm. Celia heard it before she reached it. The television volume was turned up loud and blasted canned laughter into the hallway.
Celia wanted her mother's approval for going along with the assignment, but really, there was no point. Her mother would never tell her that she was doing anything wrong. She refused to pass judgment at all. The result was an input vacuum, and Celia filled it with her own stringent demands, what she imagined a proper mother would want.
Every once in a long while--though hard to remember--she questioned this. Alone on her bed in the wee hours of the night, feet dangling over the edge, she would sit very still, frozen to the spot, afraid even to breathe.
Celia nudged the door and saw how her mother’s long body and long legs spanned the length of the bed. Celia nudged the door wider, and her mother’s eyes lit up.
"Hey, Patty! Home so early?" she said in her loving, sing-song drawl.
Celia’s first name had been her father's name, the asshole. He had left them soon after she was born. She wished she had changed her name when she had had the chance, but in keeping with lifelong habit, she had simply forced him from her mind.
Her mother and she eyed each other for a moment, and when nobody said anything, her mother blithely returned to her show.
"I'll explain, Momma. Just let me take a bath."
Celia headed down the hall, unbuttoning her blouse as she went. She heard her mother laugh and turned around. The cat darted into the brightly lit bedroom.
"I'll miss your lasagna," Celia shouted. "And I suppose you, too." She paused and listened, then flipped the switch for the hall light.
"Yeah, that's right!" her mother shouted, although it was unclear whether she was shouting at Celia or something on TV.
In the bathroom, she kicked off her shoes and pulled off her blouse, pants, and the rest and dropped everything onto the floor in a heap. She turned on the water for the tub. In the mirror over the sink, her face looked tired and sour, and her breasts hung like old forgotten ornaments. She shivered, and sat down on the edge of the tub to watch the water steam.
As was her routine, she shut the door partway and switched the bathroom light off. The illumination from the hall spilled otherworldly through the crack. It was just enough to see by and gave her eyes a cool rest.
She sank into the tub and relished the way the warmth swallowed her. Sheets of water slid off her arms like silk when she lifted them. But the drips echoed too loud, so she put a stop to that.
In the half light, the water was as black as crude oil. The air was warm and moist and smelled like soap in the tray.
She thought of Sean standing in her doorway.
The tub felt cramped, so she changed position, scraping the sides. The noise of the water drips and tub squeaks annoyed her, but she only had to still herself in the warm black pool, and all would quiet down.
It was a smooth black sea under a midnight sky, and as long as she focused on the sleekness of the water--the slightest disturbance ruined the effect--she felt safe with her thoughts. It was the perfect reflection of control.
But she was unable to ignore the full view for long: Midway across the sea where sargassum dimpled the shine, where the flesh of her other self, the double-blessing, her mother had called it when she was young, bobbed at the surface. Celia loathed her father's name. He and the doctors had wanted surgery. Her mother had said No. Like a child carried away with her fantasies, Patrick Celia Glaz mourned for all who had ever drowned in murky depths.
After a while, she heard her mother down the hall and remembered that she had an early flight.
She tried closing her eyes, but they would not stay closed.
The water had grown tepid.
Celia stood up and switched on the light. The brightness felt rude the way it ran all over everything. She began to towel off.
Whatever revelation had come of the short respite was beaten away as fast as she could rub her hair dry. Like the dreams that woke her in the mornings, the particulars had lost their urgency, and only an uncomfortable foreboding remained.
In twenty or so shaky steps, Celia rounded another corner, her balance barely tenable in the requisite high heels. She walked as quickly as she dared over the sidewalks and cobblestones, onto curbs, off curbs--dodging natives, tourists, and spastic little cars.
A woman on the plane had warned Celia not to take a taxi, but the thirty-minute walk from the hotel was giving her a dry mouth on top of an already sore throat from the flight. In Rome her sweat evaporated so quickly she hardly noticed it until she smelled the warm, musky scent in her clothing. She was worried about body odor.
At last she smiled, relieved for the first time that day. The gray office building was in front of her, and she was right on time.
At the door to the building, Celia stopped and shifted the package from one hand to the other so she could try to hook her purse onto her shoulder, but her suit's shoulder pad kept causing the purse to drop. The straps were simply too short.
Usually she carried everything in her laptop case, but she had been afraid the laptop would be stolen or damaged. Plus, after all of Sean’s dire warnings, she wanted to see what it was like to leave work behind for a few days. She had even bought a novel last-minute at the airport.
The late afternoon sun bedazzled the glass front doors. She reached for the handle and saw herself in the blaze--her features blurred by the bright wash behind, her head outlined in fire. The door swung open wide, and she stepped into a reservoir of cool air. Everything in the foyer was a hazy brown until her eyes adjusted.
Celia pulled her cell phone from her jacket pocket, but she had forgotten to charge it. The screen was blank, so she was glad she had shoved an old watch into her purse and pulled it out, too. It read eleven-thirteen but meant five-thirteen. Her appointment was scheduled for five-thirty. She thrust the watch and phone back into her pocket.
A few people passed her on their way to the front doors, and then more rounded the curve of the wall, heading her way. The foyer was covered with marble tiles, blue-gray and polished to a shine, but the floor shifted to wood around the bend--old wood with gouges. Everything about this trip had been a hassle--the screening lines, the long flight in cramped seats--and now the wood floor's downward grade compressed her toes into the narrow tips of her shoes.
She would rather not have these complaints dominating her thoughts, nor the probability that she stank, but her ankles, strapped in as they were by bands of expensive leather, just hurt. Jesus, they hurt.
An attractive young man stepped backwards out of an office. She ran straight into him.
"Scusi, Signorina!" he said and tried to help steady her.
"It's fine," Celia said, pushing him off.
"No, please. My fault."
She tried to hitch her purse back onto her padded shoulder. She did this a couple more times as the man looked on. Finally, she gave up.
With a dramatic swing of his arm and keys jangling, the man offered her clear passage, but when she returned a smile of thanks, their eyes locked, and his smile dropped. He looked concerned about something. He signaled for her to stay put and ran back into the office.
She thought maybe he knew who she was and why she was there, and so she waited. A minute passed, then two. Ah, hell, he was just flirting with me, she realized, and peered through the office door to see where he had gone. This has nothing to do with Blanquin.
She was in no mood to have to explain herself in broken English, so she moved on. When she looked back, the corridor was almost empty, and the young man was nowhere to be seen.
A few stragglers lingered in doorways as Celia marched past. A janitor in a clean, white uniform shuffled by with his mop and bucket, heading in the direction of the foyer. She pulled the package closer into her arm, and continued to the end of the hall, as the instructions had said.
The exterior of the office building had been unremarkable, but the offices abutting the hallway were lavish. Each contained a separate reception area lined with ultramodern chairs, lush plants, sculpture, and paintings, with an open floor plan leading to more rooms down the side. Sunlight through tinted windows filled the offices with a rosy hue.
The end of the hall terminated in a sort of enclave disconnected from the rest of the building. Ornately carved beams crossed a vaulted plaster ceiling covered in somber frescoes. There were no windows. She tried to imagine where this section was in relation to the street, but had trouble lining them up.
There was movement behind an enormous white reception counter to the left. A small, middle-aged woman in an orange and green dress-suit was shutting down her computer while the lights went off down the corridor behind Celia, darkening large sections.
The receptionist's plump little body bulged in her suit. Her thin gray hair was woven into an elaborate bun, and she had dark circles under her still-darker eyes--all of which showed her age, Celia thought, in a way that most women back home took measures to avoid.
The receptionist had been mumbling to herself but looked up sharply as Celia approached the counter.
"Aha! You arrive at last." The woman spoke with an unpleasant pinched expression. Celia asked what she meant by 'at last,' and the woman stopped rummaging.
"Niente... nothing, my dear," she said with eyebrows raised. She resumed piling her belongings into a heap and paid no more attention to Celia whatsoever. The woman’s blue and white raincoat made scraping noises when she laid it on top of her lunch containers. She shoved the raincoat into a mesh bag with the rest.
Dismayed, Celia looked around to see if anyone else would be staying behind, but there was nobody. It was beginning to dawn on her that this might be a problem.
The woman changed her mind about the raincoat, pulled it out of her bag, and noisily shoved each diminutive arm into a sleeve.
"Oh, si!" she said, as if remembering Celia, who was still standing at the counter. "I have to tell you. Signore Blanquin will find you when he is ready. The office is there," she pointed at an imposing white door to the right of the counter, "and you wait there," she said and pointed her long painted fingernail at the chairs behind Celia. Her tone did not invite conversation.
The receptionist lifted her bags, stepped around the counter, and began the long trek down the hall. The knocking of her shoes on the floor echoed more and more the farther she went, while her plump little body shrank to the size of a doll.
A shadow-puppet with a broom over his shoulder, the janitor, had emerged from an office at the same time the receptionist passed, and bits of their lively chatter could be heard all the way back at the enclave. When the janitor hit the main switch, he extinguished all the remaining lights in the hall, leaving only the fading sunlight from the offices and the glass front doors, streaming across the distant bend.
Though table lamps domed Celia's plush island in a mellow light, she was uncomfortable in her overstuffed chair and frowning. A bang traveled down the hall from where the tiny janitor stood, and then he vanished through a door and was gone.
Celia turned in her seat to face Blanquin's office. It emitted no sound.
Her heavy purse slipped from her lap and thudded onto the floor as she sank lower into her seat. It had been such a pleasant unburdening to let go, she put the package down, too, next to the purse, but then she worried that this might appear disrespectful and returned the package to her lap.
The time of the appointment passed without event. Celia crossed and re-crossed her legs, trying to allow for both circulation and modesty, despite no one being there to see.
More time passed. Celia's feet ached and burned. Must be blisters, she thought, and sighed, but chose not to look. She tried to force comfort in the sinking cushions, but after another half-hour her butt was numb.
Random images from past events played between the bouts of boredom and anger. There was the novel in her purse, but it was impossible to imagine getting into it.
Smile sometime, Celia.
Celia rubbed the brown paper on the package to smooth out the wrinkles. This is some serious bullshit, she thought. To try to keep her mind sharp, she reviewed from memory the latest shareholder notices for the Tortula merger until the still air and the mild light from the end-table lamps lulled her into a torpor.
After a while, she realized Blanquin's door had been opened a crack. She pulled out her watch. It was six-fifteen.
Nothing else happened. The dark corridor beside her, the one she had crossed more than an hour ago, remained empty. The quiet was unnerving.
Then she heard the sound of two men speaking in the office, but she could not tell what they said or even what language they used. One laughed often. This carried on for a while longer. Celia could see that the light inside the office was brighter than where she sat. She could just make out wainscoting on the far wall, and a very high ceiling, but that was it. She felt her time being irretrievably squandered.
"Come in, Ms. Glaz," Blanquin said, which made her jump out of her chair. She had not heard his approach. The lawyer towered over her while they shook hands, and standing next to him was a smaller man who seemed nervous, but friendly.
"Regrettably, we had some business to attend to." Blanquin spoke with only a slight accent, but it was not Italian. "I would like to introduce you to Mr. Sardo."
"I am very happy to meet you, Miss Glaz," Sardo said with boyish enthusiasm, although he had to be in his fifties. Then to Blanquin, he added, "Funny how innocuous they always seem."
Blanquin ignored Sardo's comment. Celia decided to play nice and gave Sardo's proffered hand a quick shake.
They led her into the office. She surveyed the vast room, then studied the little man, wondering if he was going to stay--the asshole who had held up her appointment, no doubt--but it was Sardo who placed his hand on her back and led her to a chair in front of Blanquin's imposing desk. He invited her to sit. Even though tired and more than a little put out, Celia did not sit. She had sat long enough. She wanted to get this over with, hand over the package and get out.
For a minute the three of them moved about the office making small-talk, nobody sitting, like tea leaves in a gently stirred cup. But Celia's feet throbbed, so she at last gave in and took the seat. Blanquin, who had until then seemed tense, stepped behind the desk and relaxed into his own chair. Sardo still milled about the room, picking up display items from the shelves while Blanquin asked Celia about all the recent happenings at Bingham & Lowe. He asked how Bingham fared on the firm golf team, not being known, he said, for his skill on the green. Even though Blanquin's conversation was pleasant and light, his gravelly voice remained hard and cold.
The talk soon died out, and silence followed. Celia was too angry to chat. She clutched the package in her hand, and the wrapping made crinkling sounds. Only the alleged importance of the mission held back the inner tirade. Now's not the time.
"All right, gentlemen," she said, louder than intended, and blushed. "Obviously, I've brought you your package, Mr. Blanquin." She smiled tersely, stood up, and placed the package on the desk.
"No, no, Ms. Glaz, please take that back," Blanquin said.
She was on the verge of losing her temper, but his tone commanded restraint. Celia leaned out towards the desk and took the package back. She turned to look at Sardo, who smiled idiotically, and then turned to Blanquin again, who remained unreadable.
Is this some sort of initiation, something stupid like that? 'Nobody will ever guard your time as well as you do,' was what her legal mentors had always said.
Celia drummed her fingers on the package, but caught herself and stopped. Blanquin sat back in his seat with his long arms on the arm rests, contemplative, his heavy-lidded gaze fixed on a closet door.
You're a fool, Celia! She looked around the room for distraction. What the hell are we waiting for?
Sardo still fumbled with artifacts on the shelves, jars or urns of various sizes and quality, all sealed. Sometimes she heard the thump of him putting one back down on the felt. The creaking of her chair, the crinkling of the package, Sardo fondling those jars, and Blanquin's heavy-lidded stare--these had become all that was left to the world.
"But here you are," Blanquin said abruptly after checking his watch, and put his fingertips together as if he had just settled a dispute. "It's been a long day." Then he nodded towards Celia, "As it must have been for you, Ms. Glaz." Sardo took this as his cue to leave the jars alone.
"Mr. Sardo has always been fond of those."
Blanquin got up and gestured for Celia to follow him. She left her purse in the chair but carried the package with her. Blanquin did not touch the jars the way his friend had, but it was obvious that he valued them. But Celia stood on raw feet, and she was itching for a chance to check her watch and see how much time had been wasted--how many hours before the flight? Will she be able to take a nap at the hotel, or would she have to try to get some rest cramped in an airport chair?
"They don't look special, do they? But they are said to hold something precious. Within these," Blanquin tapped a stopper with his long tapered finger, "the Bokor, or what I believe you call a witchdoctor--"
"Yes, I know about witchdoctors," Celia said, appalled that the conversation was taking such a turn.
"And so you are aware that these hold within them the captured souls of their enemies?"
"No," she said, nearly abandoning all attempts to hide disdain. The man is certifiable. "That is not something I know."
"They're bright, Monsieur Blanquin," Sardo interrupted, beaming. "They have to be!"
Blanquin ignored him.
"During the ritual, the Bokor would appear to extract their souls,” Blanquin continued, “but it was in fact with the aid of puffer-fish toxins. Those toxins shut down the victims' nervous systems--they appeared dead, and when they awoke, they were no longer sane. Perhaps due to the toxins, maybe the lack of air from being buried alive.” He nodded towards her as if for punctuation, then shrugged. "Because the victims were not themselves any longer, the natives believed the sorcerer had taken their souls."
"And you've collected all these, I suppose, to do... what?" she sighed, looking around the office.
"Nothing at all."
The rest of the office was decorated with prints and paintings depicting male and female figures, some with tiny symbols in the backdrop. Some figures--most of them, actually--blended into their counterparts. Celia examined each in turn as she walked along the walls of the room and made the effort to appear interested.
He was an important client, or he worked for one, she reminded herself--she was not sure which it was anymore, but in the final analysis, she really could not have cared less. The task was the same, and it came to the same end either way. Relevance was, as always, the crucial distinction. Though this attitude tended to circumscribe one's view, trigger tunnel vision, in the here and now, she concluded, some particulars were irrelevant.
"Do witchdoctors have their own sorcerer's stone or something like it?" she asked Blanquin.
"Aha!" Sardo blurted, lunging at her in his enthusiasm. "You know something about alchemy! You recognize the symbolism, yes?"
"What?" she snapped. He was crowding her, and she wished he did not wave his hands so much.
"You really are lovely,” said Sardo. “And your parents are of two different races, yes?"
Blanquin glared at Sardo. "You have no tact, sir," Blanquin said. Sardo backed away and picked up one of the jars.
Confused, Celia looked back and forth between the two. She sensed that she had not fully understood what was going on here and was unsure how to respond.
"Too true," Sardo assented congenially, after a pause, and turned the jar in his hand. "I apologize, Miss Glaz. It was insensitive of me. Things may be different in our country." She nodded acceptance but found herself walking over to her chair.
She picked up her purse.
"You know, I think it's time I left," she said, and Blanquin turned towards her. "I don't mean to be insensitive, either, to tradition... or protocol, whatever, but I really do need to get ready for the trip back home. It's getting late."
"Not just yet, my dear! Mr. Sardo has arranged a treat for you. He has something he was very much looking forward to showing you, a site of some historical merit, not for your average tourist. It's close by and certainly worth your while. In fact, let's go now," Blanquin said and, after checking his watch, proffered his long arm. "I insist. And you can leave that behind," he said, pointing to her purse, "but do bring the package, please."
On some level she knew she had said Yes to it all when she accepted this errand. Thus, too unsettled to protest, she returned her purse to the chair, thinking it strange, but took Blanquin's arm as he led them towards the short closet door in the far left corner of the room. Sardo opened it, and to her surprise, cool air rolled out. The door was at the top of a narrow spiral staircase. It went down. Just inside the stairwell, beyond the first few steps, was a crumbling brick wall, and she saw nothing. To think of going in there--it was solid blackness.
"After you, Monsieur Blanquin, and then of course you, Miss Glaz," Sardo said and clapped his hands together with delight.
"The switch, Mr. Sardo. Press it for us, please."
As they descended, Blanquin described how this part of the building was very old and once part of the walled courtyard of a monastery, but before that, as was often the case in Roman history, he explained, it had been something else. They were going to see the something else.
"Celia. That's quite a feminine name for such a masculine profession," Sardo said after they had clanged some distance down the stairwell. "A combination of forces, is it not?"
Celia stopped. She looked up at Sardo, and their eyes met, and although his continued to flash enthusiasm, behind her own, a heavy door had begun to open.
Something's not right here, she thought, but all she wanted was to go home. Humoring her colleague seemed the only way to bring about that result, and so she pushed all questions aside. Exhaustion helped.
As if he recognized what was happening within her, Sardo grinned reassuringly. Live in the present, she reminded herself, and resumed descending the stairs.
At intervals she turned to look up behind her. Sometimes Sardo appeared as only a dim outline, his features swallowed by deep shadow. At other times his round face mooned above her. They passed in and out of the illumination, for the light bulbs had been strung along an orange electric cable suspended down the side of the stairwell.
The air did not smell musty or mildewed, as Celia had expected, rather it was dry and odorless. The bricks looked fragile. At the bottom, the layers were hardly distinguishable from one another anymore, compressed over time from above.
They came off the spiral staircase onto hard ground at the top of a set of steps leading down a narrow tunnel that curved to the left. When Celia reached the first step going down, she looked behind her and saw that the top of the stone passage had caved in at some point. Rubble and large rocks in the shadowy recess blocked an old access. The office must be directly overhead, she thought. The same orange electric cable with lights was attached to the ceiling of the tunnel.
They resumed their descent. The steps were carved out of the rock and not very wide, but she could at least extend her arms here. Blanquin's head almost touched the ceiling. The steps were polished in the center--worn smooth by centuries of feet, Sardo said.
Once again, when the light of the bulb left behind grew too dim, the light from the next one began to brighten the way. The bulbs gave off a small amount of heat that warmed her forehead when she passed under them. Otherwise the air remained cool.
This is taking too long, she thought. She could imagine what it was like above--Rome at night, the well-lit Spanish Steps, all the happy people gathered around in clusters, some fire-jugglers, maybe. She was hungry. The idea of being among people again, even if alone, was vastly more appealing than here.
Her pulse throbbed in her ears, and she grew concerned about the air.
Down a ways the corridor expanded, but she remained trapped behind Blanquin, and she had to listen to Sardo behind her explain the ancient bas-relief sculptures now visible on the tunnel walls. He described the first Hermetic alchemists, how their ancient texts had burned in Alexandria. He explained how modern science had obscured and bypassed those early principles, even though the alchemists' practical knowledge helped give birth to science, at least the discipline of it.
It took a great deal of effort to keep pace with Blanquin while wearing heels, and in spite of the underground chill, she began to perspire. She had let herself get into a real fix this time. It's seriously isolated here, she thought, feeling the first tinge of panic. The stone absorbed Sardo's voice when he spoke.
Sardo blathered on about the history of the mysterious group who had made the bas-relief sculptures, but her mounting distress drowned out what he said. She could not focus on both.
Sardo stopped walking, and sensing it, Celia stopped and turned to look at him.
"There are no souls in those urns, just as you would expect. But we know this for a fact. You see, we can detect souls." Sardo waited for the impact of his words, but Celia only squinted. "It's true!"
They resumed walking, but Sardo's voice had lowered and grew stern behind her. "You'll see. It has been my life's work. We could show you yours, if you like. And as I was saying before, some souls are more valuable than others.
"Try to understand, Miss Glaz. The soul... well, that common word hardly comes close to it.... But for lack of a better one, let's say, within all living bodies, there exists a soul, a nexus, if you will, where spirit and matter collide, and also conjoin. But you see, some souls transcend these barriers. They're beautiful to behold. Pure. Concentrated. And powerful! They span outward and connect to all that came before and all that follows--we're talking Quintessence, Miss Glaz! They reach outside of time!" Sardo had worked himself into a frenzy. He paused for breath.
"Miss Glaz," he added, "have you ever thought of yourself as a device with some grand, unknown purpose? Marvelously complex, and yet... ill-applied?"
Then Sardo heaved a sigh and said no more. Celia tried not to think about what she had heard. Total nonsense. The sound of their footsteps flooded the confined space.
Celia expected to find their destination around every bend. She could not tell whether they had left the office ten or thirty minutes ago, and the flanking of the men, one behind and the tall one in front, no way to veer--she did not like it. She had never felt this sort of vulnerability before. She had always made sure there was a way out if she wanted out, and more often than not, fought to get in--and now she had allowed herself to be escorted down into the segmented darkness.
The package wrapping crinkled as she walked, but parts had become soft and damp from her palm sweat. Each time, the upcoming light threw the back of Blanquin's head into shadow until they rounded the next coil, and he passed the next light, bowing to miss the bulb.
Her blood pressure was high. She was furious, and her eyes were watering. A full-blown panic would not help now, she knew, so she stifled it. She forced her jaw to relax and her brow to smooth out, and she tried to set her lips calmly together, but she was relieved when she took the last step down onto level stone.
The corridor widened. It had been altered. The stone looked fresh compared to the older part of the tunnel, and the orange cable was gone. The lighting was more sophisticated here, and from somewhere unseen machinery thrummed. Newer statues lined both sides of the wide corridor; they were nudes carved out of stone but, oddly, set behind glass--she had seen the Mona Lisa once covered by such a screen, which the tour guide had said was designed to protect the painting. She remembered how the screen had made the painting difficult to see.
Maybe the artist intended the screens to be part of the sculpture, she thought vaguely--you never know. The life-size women lined both sides of the coil as they moved onward, and she eventually lost count of how many. From what she could see of them behind the glass, the artist wanted a varied effect: Some looked scared, others in pain, and others seemed to be praying. She stood at eye level with them. Some had the most peaceful expressions on their faces.
But something else had caught her eye, and she stopped. Sardo stopped short behind her. Then Blanquin turned to see what was going on. Celia stepped over to the glass of one of the statues and cupped her eyes, looking down. That's a penis.
She looked back down the corridor, and now that she was looking for it, she saw that several within easy view also had male genitals. Surprised by the fact that she had not noticed all this before, she looked up at the lawyer.
"Yes, all of them." Blanquin said.
Celia turned back around and felt sweat prickling her scalp. The walls sharpened and closed in, and her ears were ringing. Her eyes opened wide as she scrutinized the statues behind and ahead of her, and those next to Sardo and Blanquin, trying to make sense of it. She tried to simulate calm. All of the statues were hermaphrodites.
She approached the statue that she had thought was a frightened young woman, and the expression was mesmerizing. The image resonated deep within Celia, recalling all those heavy moments and sleepless nights and all those burdensome feelings she had tried to forget. She found that she was more sad than angry. The artist was very good. Maybe the artist was a hermaphrodite, she thought briefly, never once considering her own connection, or that Blanquin and Sardo might know her secret. Nobody knew. It was her problem. It was private.
Okay, it really is time to go now, she thought as she snapped out of it. She tried not to look at her watch, and sighed with emotional exhaustion, relieved though that at last it all made sense. This was what they wanted to show--some modern addition to their art collection, she thought, dismissively. Perfectly ordinary to want to do that. She had to admit that it was impressive, even if art had never really been her thing.
Together the three of them proceeded a few feet farther, and the statues came to an end. They had reached the center of the coil and stepped into a small room with concrete floors and walls.
The hidden machinery droned louder here, and a bluish light illuminated the walls with several closed security doors and metal screens pulled over what might have been observation windows. A chemical pungency permeated the air. In the center of the chamber, a plain metal sarcophagus had been propped on end, empty and missing its lid. A large round hole opened up above the sarcophagus, but it was dark beyond the cement lip.
She walked into the room, drawn to a spindly wooden table with an old lamp. The yellow bulb was visible through a tear in the shade, and the lamp bathed the table top in a feeble light. There was nothing on the table and no chairs anywhere.
Celia looked around with an unspoken ‘What?’ Her mind clamped down, unable to assimilate what she saw.
"Excellent," Sardo said. "Oh, I think we've done very well, Monsieur Blanquin. I expect the lights in the tunnel have timed out. You needn't trouble yourself about it. Dr. Miceli should be here by now, so feel at liberty to exit through the front."
"Toujours un plaisir," said Blanquin, shaking Sardo's hand. "Until next time."
Blanquin was lit from behind but his eyes glimmered.
We're going out through the front? But my purse.... Wait a minute. Blanquin's leaving? Then whose office...?
Blindly defiant, she seized Blanquin's arm and thrust the package into his hand. She was breathing heavily and could not speak.
This time he took it. He held the package and looked at it as if to read the contents through the wrapping, but then he lifted his head and shot her a wan smile. He tossed it back to her, and she caught it.
Glaring at him, she stepped to the table and tore at the flaps of brown paper.
Several fashion magazines slid against one another and tumbled onto the table. She felt sick.
Blanquin stood by the yellow lamp. The sounds of machinery were coming from somewhere. What had Sardo said in the passage? Try to imagine the power such polarities generate when brought together! These are the embodiments of that power!
Oh, no, no, no! She was holding onto the desk with sweaty hands. She jerked towards the little man she had found such a nuisance. His opalescent eyes were brimming with intent. She realized now that Blanquin was working for the little man. He was working for him this minute! Sardo was the client.... She looked at the magazines, then at Blanquin, expecting some sort of professional acknowledgement, anything, but no support came.
"This wasn't the package," she rasped at Blanquin, as a tsunami of understanding choked her. Blanquin remained expressionless but he stepped behind and around Sardo.
She crumpled a magazine's cover, punishing it for not being what it was supposed to be. Her hands shook. Her heart thudded so hard and fast that her body pained her, all of it, all that she had striven to hide and ignore her entire life. It was not what it was supposed to be. Her body, her life--she had had it all under control, and hidden. She believed it had to be.
"You are correct," Blanquin replied drily. "That's not it."
"I am the package."
The statement came with practiced composure, but her mouth had not wanted to cooperate. Wave after wave of awareness leeched into her bones, making her knees go soft. But she stood her ground. With tremendous effort Celia dared gaze into the lawyer's eyes again. She saw wet shine in dark recesses.
His expression bore no message of pity or scorn or reverence. His answer was brief.
"You and the rest have been selected with care," Sardo interjected. "You must understand, you're precious to us. More than any fantasy of a sorcerer's stone. Most likely you would not be killed by the unfreezing process.... In fact, unfreezing may not even be necessary."
It was as if Sardo was repeating aloud to himself details he had mulled over many times before.
"We've worked very hard for a very long time, you see," he continued. "How can we hold onto all of them while we perfect the channeling process, we asked ourselves. We couldn't use urns," he chuckled.
Celia stood agape.
"We're going to hang onto you for a good long while. Until we're ready, you see. Cryonic storage, of a sort. Your precious soul won't be going anywhere," he said, looking smug and assured.
"I'm afraid that you will--as will we, mind you...," and Sardo sighed as a man who had leapt one hurdle and knew it, but also knew he had about a thousand more to go. "You'll just have to wait!"
Then he reached up to her face and caressed her cheek.
He did it, and she let him. No memories, no worries, no context stood a chance of intruding on the moment. Clearly, she was in shock. She was unable even to think to scream. But she was immobilized in a way she never would have expected, confused by the utter newness of it all. It had been her secret. To have her secret known, to be treasured for it, and suddenly to have a home with others like her--and for a second, she felt oddly comforted. It was an embrace like no other. It parried with the tension. This minor communion carried a thrill of envelopment that was far beyond what she imagined a lover's touch could bring, for she had never allowed herself to have one.
"It's time, Celia," Sardo said as he dropped his hand.
"It's time for the sleep before the sleep," he smiled, "so to speak." He uncapped a needle and pressed it towards her arm.
"Now?" she panted as he pulled her arm towards him.
With both infinite speed and timelessness, her eyelids were closing. The light diminished to a sliver and then deepened to a blood-red blackness. She was aware of herself, and then she was not. In the end, it was as unceremonious as counting to three without ever getting past one.
Poet and novelist James Dickey mentored me in the mid-1990s when I was preparing my undergraduate creative writing thesis. Before practicing law in North Carolina, I attended law school in Atlanta, Georgia, where "The Acquisition" begins. I've had small, humorous nonfiction articles published in a local newspaper and an anthology, but I've returned to writing fiction and am currently working on a novel and two short stories, all with fantasy/science fiction themes.