Borgia Prince

Della went to the theatre early that Saturday afternoon, carrying her beaded dress in its cleaner’s bag, and peeked in the stage door, expecting to find a rehearsal in progress. Instead, the wings were empty, the stage empty, lit only by a single work light. She gave a little snort and walked toward the stage. Just because this wasn’t New York, that didn’t mean the actors should slack off. The heavy door creaked shut behind her, and the plastic cleaner’s bag rustled as she moved, but the theatre was otherwise silent.

She stepped onto the set of Fifteenth Century Florence, all fancy gilt work and red velvet, incongruously lit by the electric work light on its spidery metal frame, and looked around. Up close, the columns and capitals were coarsely painted, and the backdrop covered with splatters of different colored paints. Considering how much they’d paid that scenery person, she thought he could have done a neater job. Maybe she’d deduct something from the final check because of sloppy workmanship. No point trying to get Eugene’s approval: he was too soft with these people.

She turned toward the house. It was dark, the seats and aisles invisible, with nothing to define the size and nature of the space except the exit signs floating at intervals but giving no illumination to their surroundings. Outside the work light’s harsh circle, the world was blank.

Della’s eye caught a flicker of movement at the circle’s edge. She turned and saw the maintenance man coming from the wings, a tall, thin figure who looked like a shadow cast by the work light. She didn’t know why Eugene allowed him to wear that mustache and pony tail. He, in turn, saw her, and moved backward. What was his name?

“Will!” she called out, remembering just in time to keep him from melting into the darkness. He stood there staring glumly at a point on the floor and to her left. “Where is everybody?” she asked him.

He looked at her then, evidently surprised. “They open tonight,” he said.

“I know that,” Della said impatiently, rustling her party dress in its bag. “Why aren’t they rehearsing if they’re opening tonight? You’d think they’d want to get it right.”

“They never rehearse the day of a performance.”

“I hope they know their lines,” Della said. Will just stared at her. The man was really stupid, Della thought. “I suppose that means they didn’t have any donuts delivered?”

“No,” Will said. “No donuts.”

Della smiled. Her mother had often told her no one could resist her dimples, and she had never questioned this truth. “Will, darling, would you be an angel and run down to the coffee shop for me? I haven’t had any breakfast and I’ve got so much work to do. And on a Saturday. I don’t get to sleep in like these actors and stage hands.”

Will motioned vaguely toward the wings. “Well, I’ve got to…”

“Whatever it is can wait, I’m sure,” Della interrupted.

Will shrugged. “What do you want?”

“Oh, anything. I’m not fussy,” she said, walking toward the stage door. “Just a couple of donuts, no, make that two danish. Any kind. But nothing with coconut or that horrible red filling. And please be a dear and make sure they put paper between them, so the fillings don’t smear each other.” She paused in the doorway. “And bring that to my office.”

She stepped into the arcade and walked past the music shop and gift shop, heels clicking on the marble floor. Publicity posters lined the walls: Colin Webb as Cesare Borgia, very Aubrey Beardsley in style, taking full advantage of Colin’s handsome profile. He was dressed entirely in black velvet, which called attention to the pale face and the long-fingered hand holding a mask. And below the mask, in red, the title of the play: “The Borgia Prince.” Della still hadn’t been given a poster for the office. If they didn’t give her one soon, she’d just have to take one of these.

The box office was opposite the stairs that led to the floors occupied by management, and Della noticed that new girl, Fiona something, behind the ticket window. She was shifting about on the hard chair the theatre provided, Della having insisted that it wasn’t wise to make these people too comfortable if you wanted to get any work out of them. The motivational aspects didn’t seem to be having any effect at the moment, since the girl was clearly doing nothing. She seemed flustered when Della approached, as though she were hiding something, but then she leaned forward on her elbows and smiled in a friendly enough way. Della wondered  why she didn’t do something about her hair. You hardly ever saw that shade of dishwater blonde any more, with hair dyes so readily available.

Della paused before going upstairs. “Keeping busy?” she said to the girl.

“Not really,” Fiona said. “It’s been slow.”

“I’m surprised you’re in so early, even if there is a show tonight.”

Fiona shrugged. “They told me to come in at noon, so here I am.”

“Is it past noon already?” Della said. She shifted the weight of the garment bag slung over her shoulder and looked at her wristwatch. “So it is. Carol must really trust you, to put you on alone when you’ve just started.” The girl didn’t say anything, and Della thought there was something furtive about her expression. She considered her more closely. Fiona had the kind of thin bridged, tip-tilted nose Della had always secretly wanted and so resented on anyone else. It wiggled impertinently when the girl talked. “Haven’t I seen you working somewhere else?”

“I work at the library,” Fiona said. “Part time. They can’t afford to hire me full time.”

“The same problem we have,” Della said. “Budget problems everywhere. But welcome to the Empire Theatre. I hope you enjoy working here.”

“Thank you,” Fiona said.

Della smiled, then climbed the stairs to the arcade’s second story. She stopped at the receptionists area to dash off a note telling the box office manager that the new girl, Fiona, was sitting around doing nothing all Saturday afternoon, and that her bored attitude was making an unfavorable impression on the customers. She put the note in Carol’s mailbox, but supposed it wouldn’t do much good: these part time people expected to be paid just for being there, whether they did anything or not.

Della picked up her own messages and continued down the hall, past the frosted glass doors of all the closed and empty theatre offices on her right. She took care not to touch the guard rail that kept people on this level from falling off to the left into the arcade. She didn’t think maintenance kept it all that clean.

At the far end of the hall, she climbed the winding stairway to her own office, solitary on the third floor, the words “Della Masoti, Finance,” in gold letters on the glass. She unlocked the door. The air conditioner hummed, controlling the temperature of the lingeringly warm autumn days. Overhead, the ceiling light burned, but the light it gave was washed pale by the noon sunshine. Della hung her dress on the coat rack and smiled as she inhaled the light fragrance of the potpourri that sat in china bowls around the room. She locked her door, slipped off her shoes, and walked across the thick carpet to her desk, where she settled comfortably into the padded chair. She picked up the letter opener and slit open the envelopes containing her mail and messages.

The first was a reminder from the company that supplied the candy counter that the bill was past due. It was a polite letter, and they didn’t charge interest on past due balances, so there was no reason to pay it yet. Might as well keep the money in the bank and let the theatre get interest on it. When they threatened not to deliver, that’d be time enough to pay them. She dropped the letter into her wastebasket.

The next was a memo from Kip Wayland. It was about his income tax again, and he wasn’t at all polite. Yes, she’d made a little mistake on his taxes, and when she’d sent the corrected paperwork to the IRS, she’d forgotten to mark that it was a correction. But it wasn’t her fault the IRS thought he’d gotten his salary twice. She’d explained this to Kip and didn’t know why he couldn’t straighten out his personal problems himself. She certainly didn’t have time to deal with the IRS for him.

The next envelope contained a check and a letter from some lady explaining that she was making this donation to the theatre because the maintenance staff had been so nice and helpful when she’d had car trouble after the preview performance. No sense letting the maintenance people get a swelled head; they were hard enough to discipline as it was.

Della felt hungry. Will ought to be back with the danish soon; she decided to make a pot of tea in the meantime. She went downstairs to the second floor coffee station, leaving her office door open for once since there was no one else in the management section of the building, and took her teapot down from its shelf.  She added teabags, then water from the coffee machine’s hot water spout. The machine was one improvement she’d insisted on: when she came, they’d had a coffee machine that only let you heat up water by pouring it through the coffee maker. Disgusting. The tea always tasted like coffee.

While the tea brewed, she reached for her jar of honey.

Where was it? She looked on the shelf, moved a box of Sweet ‘n Low and a jar of sugar, but it wasn’t behind them. That was so annoying. Nobody else used honey in their tea, in fact, most of the people drank coffee. Why couldn’t they leave her things alone? She slid the nondairy creamer and the stirrers aside, and finally found, not her own honey, but a little jar saying it was from Manfred Clark’s bees. Somebody probably broke her jar and replaced it with this much smaller jar, which they’d probably gotten free. Manny was always giving away honey.

Oh well. She discarded the tea bags, stirred a few spoonfuls of honey into the tea, and took the pot up to her office.

After Della had walked away from the box office and gone upstairs, Fiona said, “Okay, Carol, she’s gone. You can come out now.”

“You’re sure?” Carol said from the recesses of the box office.

“Yes. She went upstairs. She didn’t seem all that bad to me. Very pleasant, and smiles a lot. After what everybody’s told me, I was expecting her to have two heads.”

“No, just two faces,” Carol said, peeking around the corner of the ticket window. Evidently satisfied, she went back to filling the staff’s requests for tickets for opening night. “Now remember, the tickets in this box are comps, so don’t include them in your tally of tickets sold.”

“What are comps?”

“Complimentary tickets. And we don’t go out of our way to remind Della that we do this.”

Fiona was puzzled. “Why are you so afraid of Della, Carol? You’re as important as she is.”

Carol snorted. “Nobody’s as important as she thinks she is. And I’m not afraid of her, I just find I’m much happier when I can successfully avoid her. That’s part of your job, by the way: helping me avoid her. That’s why I hired a friend.”

“I kind of figured that,” Fiona said. She leaned forward and looked down the arcade. “A customer! Oh no, it’s Colin Webb.” She watched him come toward her, a tall figure in a long black overcoat that swirled elegantly around him. He tossed his hair back in a gesture designed to let the admiring  crowds know he acknowledged them, and Fiona giggled, because the arcade was empty.

“Don’t laugh at Colin,” Carol warned. “It upsets him, and I’m sure he’s nervous enough as it is, with the opening tonight.”

“I promise I’ll be good,” Fiona said.

Colin breezed up to the window, looked directly into Fiona’s eyes, and smiled. It was a warm smile, and seemed meant just for her. She understood then why so many women liked him. She smiled back.

“A new face,” Colin said.

“Hi, Colin,” said Carol.

“Carol, darling. Is that a new hairstyle? Very gamine,” Colin said, shifting his attention. Then, without waiting for her answer, “Would it be too terrible of me to ask for more comps at this late hour?”

“No, it’s fine, Colin.” Carol moved to the ticket window, edging aside Fiona, who suddenly found it a struggle to maintain her perch on the stool.

“I’m not sure I altogether like the sound of that,” Colin said. “Isn’t it well sold?”

“We’re pretty solid for about a month,” Carol said. “I think we’ll sell out if the reviews are good. But I kept an extra row of house seats for opening night. How come you’re here so early?”

“Just passing through. Errands. Flowers for the ladies, that sort of thing.” He handed her a slip of paper. “Here are the names. Just two. I told them they could each bring a guest, but all four don’t have to sit together.”

“No problem,” Carol said.

“Will I see you at the party tonight?” Colin asked, and managed somehow to give Carol and Fiona each a glance that said the question was intended for her alone.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Carol said.

Colin was off then, toward the far end of the arcade. Carol returned to her work, and Fiona was able to center her balance and let go of the counter.

“Wasn’t it nice of him to notice my hair?” Carol said, running her hand over the brush cut she’d gotten that morning.

“I think it makes you look like Peter Pan.”

“Nobody asked you.”

“A tall Peter Pan. Do you have a claim on Colin or something?”

“On Colin? I’d have an awful lot of competition if I did. Why?”

“I’ve never heard you care that a man noticed your hair before. It’s unusual behavior for you. But maybe it’s the environment. Schenectady’s your home town, not mine, and I don’t know the undercurrents.”

“I’m sure you’ll be riding them soon enough,” Carol said.

Fiona looked across at the posters. “He’s almost as good looking as his pictures.”

“He’s better looking,” Carol said stiffly.

Uh oh, Fiona thought. She’s got it bad.

“That’s funny,” Carol said, looking at the paper Colin had given her. “This one name, McCreedy. Sebastian’s already put in a ticket request for him, and I think… Yes, Doree has, too.”

“Maybe they’re different McCreedys?”

“With the same first name? I doubt it. If Slim is a name, which I also doubt. Sebastian said he’s a film producer who’s interested in the show, and I should give him the best seats. Doree and Colin probably found out he was in town and invited him. But what am I supposed to do, give the man three sets of tickets?”

“I wonder why they didn’t talk to each other about it,” Fiona said. She gazed hopefully down the arcade, wishing someone would come in.

“Competition. Every man for himself,” Carol said. “What the…” Carol’s voice trailed off. Fiona looked at her friend, and saw Carol frowning at a sheet of pink paper she held in her hand.

“What’s the matter?” Fiona asked.

“It’s a note from Della. She says not to give any comps to a Mr. McCreedy, no matter who requests them. I’m to send the tickets up to her office, and Mr. McCreedy, too, when he gets here.”

“Why?”

Carol shook her head. “Something’s going on. And I don’t like being put in the middle.”

“Well, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. She’s not your boss. Gene’s the executive director,” Fiona said.

“You don’t understand how things work,” said Carol. “People who cross Della have a way of getting fired. The person who writes the checks is in a great position to harass everybody else. Plus she goes into Gene’s office and sits there and cries and tells him how hard she works and how mean everybody is to her, and he believes her. Della gets away with murder around here.”

“So you are afraid of her. What are you going to do?”

The open box of comps was sitting inside its lid. Carol picked up the box, set the note down inside the lid, and put the box back down on top of it. She smiled sweetly. “Isn’t it a shame I never saw that note from Della until it was too late to do anything about it?”

“Four years as college roommates and  you have this deceitful side I never knew anything about,” Fiona said.

“I’m learning survival,” Carol said, carrying the box of comps to the paid reservation window.

Fiona returned her attention to the arcade just in time to see Will go upstairs carrying a bag from the coffee shop.

Della had half finished her first cup of tea when someone knocked on her office door. She opened it and found what she expected: Will standing there with her bag of danish.

“Thank you, Will. You’re an angel of mercy,” she said, smiling and taking the bag. She tried to close the door, but the stupid man had got his foot stuck in the doorway.

“That’s four seventy,” he said, not moving.

“Oh. Of course. Mustn’t forget that,” she said airily, putting the danish down and opening her purse. “Can you change a fifty?” she asked, holding up a bill.

Will frowned and leaned against the doorjamb.

“It’s the smallest I have,” Della said sweetly. “Why don’t you catch me at the beginning of the week?”

“That’s okay, I’ll get the fifty changed for you,” Will said and put out his hand.

Della hastily stuffed the bill back into her purse. “Maybe I have a five,” she mumbled, and took out a crumpled bill and handed it to him. He withdrew from the doorway then, and started down the hall. “Don’t I get change?” she asked.

Will stopped and looked over his shoulder for one slow, incredulous moment. “I’ll get back to you at the beginning of the week,” he said before continuing on his way.

Well! Della thought. The nerve. She locked the door behind him and went back to her desk.

He wouldn’t dare to do that with people around, but a woman alone in the office… She’d have to tell Eugene the next time she saw him, about how Will had tried to intimidate her into giving him fifty dollars. Probably get drunk on it and be no use during the show, these stagehands and maintenance people were all alike. Nobody appreciated what she had to put up with around here, having to keep her door locked just to feel safe. She could feel the tears coming to her eyes just thinking about it, could picture herself sitting in Eugene’s office, and telling him the story, and crying just a little, not enough to redden her nose. And that would be the end of Will Bradley around here, she thought with satisfaction.

She swallowed some tea, to make herself feel better, then opened the coffee shop bag. The danish were cinnamon, with the large sugary crumbs that were the shop’s specialty. She took a big bite, savoring the sweetness, then refilled her cup and drank deeply. It was all so good. Her mouth tingled pleasantly.

*****

Ticket sales picked up as the afternoon wore on; never a line, but enough people coming through so Fiona had something to do.

“The real crush will come around seven. Get your practice in now,” said Carol, busying herself with paperwork and letting Fiona deal with the ticket window. Fiona found she liked selling tickets, liked the anticipation in the people’s faces, most of them looking forward to what they hoped would be an exciting, or at least enjoyable evening in the theatre. Even the one glum man had been polite.

“Is it noisy?” he’d asked.

Fiona had to grasp for something to say. “I don’t think so. I mean, it’s not a musical or anything. Small cast.”

“So if I snore, I’m in trouble,” he said, scooping up his tickets and change. But then he smiled at Fiona. “Elbow in the ribs from the wife,” he said, and moved on. Fiona put her hand to her mouth and giggled.

Around three, Doree Hale came through. Fiona was surprised how small Doree seemed offstage, but the blue eyes were the same, as was the corn-blonde hair, even though Doree wore it in a simpler style when she wasn’t being Lucrezia Borgia.

Doree came up to the ticket window and smiled. “Hi. Fiona, isn’t it?” She leaned forward, trying to see through the bars. “Is Carol here?”

“Hi, Doree. Can I help you?” Carol said.

“Just checking on my comps. Did you get the request for McCreedy?”

“Yours and Colin’s and Sebastians’s. The man has a lot of tickets waiting.”

Fiona saw surprise flit across Doree’s face, to be replaced instantly by curiosity. “Who asked first?” Doree said.

“Sebastian. By days.”

Fiona saw Doree swiftly absorb this information and draw some conclusion from it, but Fiona had no idea what that conclusion might be. Doree stepped back and spread her arms dramatically. “I guess we all want the attention of the man who can wave a magic wand and send us to Hollywood.”

But Carol was looking at the box office clock. “Is our clock wrong, or are you in awfully early?”

“I’m early. Polly promised to sew weights in my second act costume, and I said I’d drop by to try it on.”

“Why do you want weights in your costume?” Fiona asked.

“In the train,” said Doree. “So that when I kick it out of the way, it stays out of the way. It’s a short train, and without the weights it bounces back. Cesare murders my husband, I scream and run off dramatically, only I trip over my skirt. Spoils the effect. Who are you going to say the tickets are from?”

It took Fiona a moment to understand the conversation had bounced back to Mr. McCreedy. From Carol’s pause, Fiona deduced Carol had been similarly thrown.

“Well, Carol said, “Not from anybody, really. He’ll ask for tickets for McCreedy and we’ll just give them to him.”

“Good,” said Doree. “Keep the race even. See you later.” She walked toward the stage door, past Will, who was sweeping the arcade. She came from behind him and had to dance out of the way of the broom, but he stopped when he saw her. They exchanged a few words, smiling, but were out of Fiona’s earshot.

“I don’t think I ever met anybody who showed so much in her face, so fast. I suppose that’s good if you’re an actor,” Fiona said to Carol. “Do you suppose she lets you see everything she’s thinking, or only what she wants you to?”

Sebastian Price came hurrying in then, wearing a tweed jacket that didn’t seem to be keeping him warm enough. He had a scarf wrapped a couple of times around his neck, but his shoulders were hunched and the tip of his nose was red. Fiona decided it must be turning colder outside. He spoke to Doree in an agitated manner, and she stroked the front of his coat rather as though she were trying to calm some large and ruffled bird.

Will opened one of the house doors and disappeared into the theatre’s darkness. Doree gave Sebastian’s coat one last, reassuring pat, and went in the stage door. Sebastian, left alone, gave himself a shake that ruffled him up again, and strode purposefully toward the box office.

“Sebastian’s coming,” Fiona said, already sure she wanted help with this one.

Carol leaned toward the grille. “Hi, Sebastian. Yes, I have Mr. McCreedy’s comps all ready.”

“What?” Sebastian said. “Oh. Of Course. I mean, good. Thank you. Did Della leave anything for me?”

“Della?” Carol said, surprised. “No. You mean, for you personally?”

Fiona thought of the note Della had sent, and could tell from Carol’s hedging that she was thinking about it, too.

“Yes. An envelope with my name? Thickish, probably.”

“No,” said Carol, relieved. “Nothing like that.”

“Damn,” Sebastian muttered. He looked furiously down the arcade, for no apparent reason Fiona could see other than to direct his fury away from her and Carol.

“What were you expecting?” Fiona asked, eliciting a shocked look from Carol.

“A contract. Eugene’s been promising me a new contract for three weeks. He said Della was supposed to take care of it.”

“Why would she leave something like that in the box office?” Carol asked. “Wouldn’t she put it upstairs in your mailbox?”

Sebastian looked at her as though she’d just told him the secret of the universe. “Of course. I’ve been looking in my mailbox at home.” He turned and hurried up the stairs to the receptionist’s office.

Carol smiled and shook her head. “Sebastian. As a playwright, he’s a genius, but when it comes to the real world, he’s out to lunch.”

“At least he remembered where his mailbox is. Both of them,” Fiona said.

“And you! The questions you ask.”

“It’s generally the best way to find things out.”

“You shouldn’t be asking staff members what’s in their personal mail from other staff members. It’ll get you in trouble.”

“You’d think so, but usually people just answer.”

“Around here, it could get you fired. You’re just plain lucky you only did it to Sebastian, who has no sense off fitness in office behavior anyway.”

“And how did you get to be an expert on business etiquette? I remember you as the girl who used to roller-skate to class, inside or outside the buildings.”

“Six months unemployment followed by a business course, that’s how. Listen to me on this one.”

Sebastian came back down the stairs, walking quickly but going through his pockets at the same time. He walked directly up to the ticket window. “Nothing,” he said, and looked frantically through several small pieces of paper he’d fished from his pockets. “I don’t have Della’s home phone number with me. Do you have it, Carol?”

“She’s not at home,” Fiona said. “She’s in her office.”

He smiled. “Bless you,” he said, and took the stairs two at a time.

“Why did you do that?” said Carol.

“I was just trying to be helpful, trying to save him some time.”

“You saw how upset he is.”

“No more than usual. He comes and goes, and every time I’ve seen him, he’s been like that,” Fiona said.

“It’s the strain. The opening and all. But I’m afraid you’ve just made trouble.”

Fiona turned on her perch and looked directly at Carol. “For Della?”

“Ah,” Carol said. “You’re right. For Della. Who cares?”

Della checked the loan statement and calculated the days to the end of the grace period: no point in giving the bank its money before it started charging interest. She leaned back in her chair and thought with satisfaction that the theatre was lucky to have her watching over its money, considering what a spendthrift executive director Eugene was. If Eugene or any of the department heads knew about the surplus she’d carefully built up, they’d want to spend it right away. They were good at spending. And at borrowing. And the staff! They were good at finding ways to get paid for not working. Her job would be so much easier of she could just convince the board to change this into a presentation house and get rid of all these resident actors and directors and people.

Della was looking forward to the opening and to the party afterwards, but her mental well being was at odds with a growing queasiness in her stomach. She hoped she wasn’t coming down with the flu. And her office seemed stuffy. Maybe the air wasn’t circulating properly.

Somebody knocked on her door. Startled, she returned and saw a silhouette through the frosted glass. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Sebastian.” He rattled the doorknob. “Della, open up. I’ve got to talk to you.”

“You’re not supposed to bother me while I’m working. You know that. I’ve sent you all memos.”

“Della, this is about work. It’s about my contract. Now let me in.”

He banged on the door frame, and she wouldn’t have let him in, only… “What contract?” she said, opening the door just wide enough the get the question out.

Sebastian pushed past her. “My contract. Where is it?” he said, pacing and looking at the paperwork on her desk, on her file cabinet. The gall of the man. “Eugene said he’d pass it on to you to look at and give to me. By tonight. Where is it?”

“What contract?” Della said.

That stopped him. “We’re renegotiating my contract. Eugene and I. It should be done.”

“Nothing’s been submitted for my approval,” Della said stiffly.

Sebastian threw up his arms in exasperation. “You’ve been promising to put it in my mail box.”

“Oh that. You wanted a copy of your contract. I haven’t had time to deal with that, Sebastian. I’ve been far too busy.”

“Not the old contract: the new one.”

“There is no new contract.”

“Eugene promised…” Sebastian stopped in mid-sentence and looked at her coldly. “I’ll speak to Eugene about it.” He stalked out of the room.

Della watched him go. She didn’t like the sound of this. She’d told Eugene she didn’t approve of this contract renegotiation. Was he trying to go behind her back? She closed and locked her door thoughtfully. So let Sebastian talk to Eugene. She’d call Eugene’s secretary, and they’d see who found out first what was going on. She flipped cards on her rolodex, found the number, and dialed.

At the other end of the line, Cissie Lydon reached a bare arm out of her bed and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Cissie!” Della said, “I’m so glad I reached you. I’ve just had such a terrible experience. Sebastian was in here, all upset, raving, waving his arms around. He actually threatened to hit me. And all about some contract. Do you know anything about it?”

“Oh, hello Della,” Cissie said, speaking the name with light emphasis for the benefit of Eugene, who was lying beside her. Eugene rolled his eyes heavenward, then reached for a cigarette. ”That doesn’t sound like Sebastian. What contract would that be?”

Eugene dropped his cigarette, retrieved it, shaking his head.

“That dreadful man. I’m so upset,” Della said. Tears slid down her cheeks and wet the telephone, which struck Della as a waste, since there was no one there to see them and give her sympathy. “I’m actually crying.”

“I wouldn’t doubt that,” Cissie said. “You ought to speak to Eugene about it.” With a playful smile, she offered Eugene the phone. He drew back in alarm and fell off the side of the bed, causing Cissie to break into laughter. She smothered the receiver in the pillow while she regained control.

“Eugene? Oh, I can’t bother poor Eugene about something as unimportant as this on the day of an opening. I’m trying to save him some trouble, is all. That man is looking for him.”

Cissie pulled  herself together and got back to the phone in time to hear the end of this. “Who’s looking for him? I’m sorry, I dropped the receiver for a moment.”

“Sebastian is looking for Eugene. He seems quite violent. Eugene should be warned.”

“Well, I suggest you call Eugene at home. If he’s not there, I’m sure you can leave a message with his wife.”

“I was actually hoping you could tell me what was in the contract, so if I see Sebastian again I can calm him down.”

“My notes are all at work. I try to keep my work and my private life separate,” Cissie said, giving Eugene a conspiratorial smile.

“Surely you remember what was in it?”

“Sorry. I don’t even remember typing it. I’ve got to go now, Della. You really should speak to Eugene about it: I’m sure he’ll be interested.”

*****

Della heard the click of Cissie ending the connection. The people in this office were so uncooperative, it was incredible. Something else to leave Eugene a note about… no, speak to him about. Cissie opened all his memos. She really was going to recommend he replace Cissie with a more efficient girl. After all, what qualifications did a twenty-two year old community college dropout have that made her worth an executive secretary’s salary? It wasn’t Della’s fault, the salary had been in place when she arrived, and Eugene just wouldn’t listen to reason about cutting it to something more in keeping with the girl’s level of experience.

All this upset really was making her ill. Her stomach was much worse. In fact, she felt like she was going to throw up. She unlocked her door and ran down the stairs and hall to the staff ladies’ room, searching through he key chain for the key as she went. When she got there, she was surprised to find the door unlocked.

Ordinarily, with the office empty, Della would have investigated before going into a room that should have been locked, but the condition of her stomach wouldn’t allow time for that. She rushed through the door and into one of the stalls, where she immediately vomited. When she had finished, she flushed the toilet and went shakily to the sink to rinse out her mouth.

The door of the other stall opened and Tracy Aldrich came out. What was the receptionist doing here on a Saturday? Tracy’s features, too soft to be attractive in Della’s opinion, expressed concern, but when she recognized Della, Tracy’s expression immediately hardened. She went to the other sink and washed her hands.

“Need anything?” Tracy asked grudgingly, as though she didn’t want to ask but couldn’t stop herself.

Della shook her head. She thought back over what she’d eaten. Tea and danish couldn’t have caused this. “I must be coming down with some kind of stomach flu,” she said. Then, looking at Tracy suspiciously, “Why are you in today?”

“I had to get caught up on a few things,” Tracy said, drying her hands on a paper towel. She crumpled the towel, threw it into the wastebasket. “Why are you in?” she asked defiantly.

“I just have so much work to do, I often come in on Saturday,” Della said. Her face in the mirror was pale, but her stomach did feel better. “There’s a lot of responsibility, working in finance. It’s far more of a strain than just answering the phone. Did you get behind on your filing?”

“You guessed it,” Tracy said, and left the room.

Della followed her. “As long as you’re in today: I’ve been trying to track down a contract that’s supposed to be ready for Sebastian. He was in today, looking for it, and Eugene was supposed to have given it to me, but he didn’t.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Tracy said, continuing toward the reception area.

“Cissie would have typed it. You do xeroxing for Cissie, don’t you?”

“Sometimes.”

“Did you copy anything for her yesterday?”

“Yes.”

“What was in it?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t read it,” Tracy said, going into the receptionist’s office. She let the door shut in Della’s face.

Della couldn’t believe the rudeness of these people. She was going to have a long meeting with Eugene on Monday: something had to be done about all this. At the very least, Tracy should be made to apologize. She looked through the glass door at Tracy, who didn’t seem to be working on files at all. She seemed to be packing things into a box. Della decided they’d better do an inventory of office supplies and maybe take Tracy’s keys away.

Tracy looked at Della, then came and opened the door. “Was there anything else you wanted?”

“No,” Della said, backing off. Returning to her office, she wondered what she should do about the evening. Should she go home? She had intended to get an early dinner, then change into her dress and go to the opening and the party, but she didn’t feel at all like eating. Maybe if she just skipped dinner, her stomach would be all right.

When she reached the top stair, her legs felt weak and it was all she could do to lock her door and make it to her chair. This flu was really taking it out of her, but she had a few hours yet to rest. She decided to put the back of her chair into the reclining mode and take a nap. But when she tried, her hands didn’t seem to work quite right.

Funny. She didn’t know the flu made you weak and clumsy. She tried to stand up then, and found that she couldn’t.

Della felt frightend. Something was happening to her, something she didn’t understand. “Tracy!” she called out, but with her door closed, and Tracy’s door closed, and the whole hallway in between, she didn’t have much hope of being heard.

The telephone. She could telephone someone. She put her hand out toward it, but it was just out of reach, and her legs  wouldn’t push her and the chair nearer to it. They just wouldn’t.

She used the control she still had of her upper body to throw herself forward. The chair shot backward and she fell heavily on the desk, scattering papers as she fought to hold on. Panting, she rested on the blotter. Thinking she’d made it, and letting go with one hand to reach for the phone, she felt the dead weight of her lower body pull her down and the blotter with her. She lay on the floor, able now to move only her arms and head.

“Tracy! Help!” she shouted, and then, remembering the maintenance man who was working, “Will!”

She waited. No one came. Her neck was getting weaker, and from where she lay on the rug, unable to lift her head, she saw the desk legs and, running beside them, the telephone wire.

With great effort, she raised her arm and grasped the wire, then pulled. It was the last movement she made before the paralysis became complete. The telephone fell to the floor and the receiver lay beside her. “Hello,” she said to the dial tone, to no purpose. Her voice was weaker now, too.

“Help,” she called again, but it was only a whisper.