Miranda had an impressive interview, and her resume and references had been beyond reproach. So she’d been hired. But, as is so often the case, the glowing reviews and impressive accomplishments hid a simple truth: the good people at Iowa Northwestern had been trying desperately, hungrily, to rid themselves of her.

And it was easy to see why.

She was absolutely batshit insane crazy.

The warning signs had been there for anyone who cared to look, but it wasn’t until the deal was sealed that worrying things came to light. Miranda had assured Burroughs that Elvis and Lennon were alive and well over coffee one morning, for instance. When prodded, she’d said they were on the same spacecraft in the shadow of the moon. She had an utterly unnerving habit of cutting faces out of the paper and adding them to a collage–of obituary columns. Faces of Irish Lottery winners grinned cheerily from a bulletin board in Miranda’s cube; if pressed, she said they made her feel more alive.

But none of it was enough to terminate her five-year contract early, at least not in the eyes of anybody upstairs. So she was shuffled from project to project, contributing vociferously to derailing discussion and never assigned any deliverables for fear they’d arrive in lavender ink (as had once happened on an official memo to the mayor).

That was the state of her when I was assigned team as Miranda’s team leader.


Let’s face it, you’re still scared of the dark. It’s hard-coded by our species’ relative lack of night vision, and reinforced by a thousand hours of pop culture.

As you wander through the darkened hallways, catching a glimpse of the city lit up at night, you reflect on how many films have shown someone in the same situation meeting a grisly death at the hands of mass murderers, monsters, and other fun chaps. The emergency lights give the place an eerie sheen like the best Hollywood mood lighting, and the fact that, in your mind’s eye, the place bustles with attentive life makes its still, cold silence all the more difficult to bear.

Even with the weight of years upon your brow, you can’t help but believe in some heart of hearts that Murgmagh the Eyeball Plucker is lurking out there, and that unless you turn back now, he will have his meal.

“Calm down,” Shaun said. “Harvey gives the same damn speech every quarter.”

His words didn’t calm Aaron’s shakes. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“Look, I’ll do a play by play if it’ll make you feel better. First he’ll tell us we’re the greatest thing since Jesus invented sliced bread.”

Harvey climbed up on one of the meeting room tables, using it as an impromptu stage even as it wobbled dangerously. “First, let me say I’m honored–privileged, really–to have such a solid sales team behind me,” he said.

“Then we’ll hear how we stink like a Manhattan dump on a hot July morning,” Shaun muttered.

“But our solidarity is meaningless if we don’t deliver results,” Harvey continued, pumping his fist in the air as if he’d scored some kind of touchdown. “I look at our numbers from the last fiscal year, and there’s a little disappointment there.”

“There’ll be a touch of a challenge next,” Shaun whispered. He paused, thoughtfully adding: “Maybe a little us-versus-them.”

“Rutherford’s team has exceeded their last quarterly profits for five quarters running. Are we going to let those pansies on the 57th floor take our lunch money?” Weak cries of “No!” issued from the assembled sales staff.

“Then the inane comparison to selling retail products and war,” said Shaun, “full of reminders that the closest he ever came to military service was owning a G. I. Joe.”

“All great battlefield commanders lead their armies personally, so I will be in the trenches along with you the entire way!”

“And if it’s not done by the end of the week, I’ll have your heads on a platter at the partners’ meeting and on stakes in the plaza after that!” Kilp yelled. “When you work in this firm, you produce results!” She stormed off, ponytail swinging angrily. Each strike of a high heel on the floor seemed forceful enough to shatter shoe or tile, whichever was weaker.

A short silence followed.

“Kilp, why must you be the queen of all bitches, indeed of all bitch-kind?” Mike said to the closed door. “The single template from which all other bitches are wrought?”

“Upbringing,” said Gene. “Raised in a house with seven brothers, forced to learn how to mash balls to live.”

“Sex change,” Mike countered. “You can take the drill instructor out of the Marines, you can even cut the drill off of the Marine, but you can’t take the marine out of the drill instructor. Not even with hormones.”

“You guys have it all wrong,” said Jason. “You see, Kilp is really the proboscis of a pandemensional predator which must feast of human souls.”

“Give it a rest, Jason,” Gene groaned. Fun was fun, but Jason’s moronic flights of fancy had a way of getting old.

“Hear me out, hear me out,” said Jason, grinning. “Kilp’s projected into our reality as a lure, like an anglerfish, and our misery sustains her between feedings. She subsists on a diet of interns, since no one notices when they disappear, but every now and then hungers for sweeter meat. When one of us gets fired, we’re really enveloped and consumed.”

Grumbles and a few crumpled wads of paper came at Jason from every angle.

“Mark my words,” he continued. “And beware if she ever opens her mouth way wider than usual and you see rows of teeth.”

In the nearby conference room, Kilp had one ear pressed to the door.

“He knows!” she growled.

When Peter returned to his home office, he found Sedena there. She was at his desk, wearing reading glasses and scratching with a blood red gel pen.

“What’s that you’re doing?” he asked amicably.

“Paperwork,” said Sedena.

“Paperwork for murdering somebody?” Peter said. “Isn’t that a little counterintuitive for assassination?”

“Not really, no.” Sedena removed her glasses and tossed them to the desk. “Littleton & Associates expects a full report for every job. It’s not all that different from corporate finance, really.”

“I find it hard to believe that anything could be as convoluted as corporate finance, least of all a transaction with so few steps,” said Peter.

“Try me.”

Peter rummaged through the stack of documents from his last day telecommuting. “See this? This is Form 943-X: Adjusted Employer’s Annual Federal Tax Return for Agricultural Employees or Claim for Refund. My firm has to fill it out because of our minuscule agribusiness holdings, and it is tedious to the point of brain failure. I take care of it so that junior employees won’t have to bear its terrible brunt.”

Sedena pulled a sheaf from her own stack. “Form B3-7: Certification of Lifesign Termination. I have to fill this out, in triplicate, on demand so the suits can be sure the target wasn’t resuscitated in the hospital. Very tedious when a job was done from a mile away with a wildcatted Barrett M82A2.”

“Meet my friend Form W-8EXP: Certificate of Foreign Government or Other Foreign Organization for United States Tax Withholding,” Peter said, winnowing a sheet from his pile. “It is a tidal wave of red ink and nightmares, and I have to spend hours on the phone with people for whom English is a fourth language in order to collect the relevant information.”

“Try Form L8D-12: Collection of Organ or Organs as Proof of Contract Fulfillment. Rarely invoked in the past, very popular since the dawn of the DNA era,” replied Sedena. “That one comes with its own plastic baggie; I have to supply the bonesaw.”

Undaunted, Peter dipped back into his stash. “Uncle Sam is worried that, when you die, you will give all of your money to family members. To prevent this literally grave injustice from occurring, I have to handle Form 706: United States Estate (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return. It involves collecting information from helpless, grieving family members like some kind of hideous beancounting ghoul. Every time I have to fill one out, I die a little inside.”

“Speaking of dying,” Sedena said, “here’s Form X2X-99: Notice of Circumstances Requiring Escalation. That one’s a little vague, so let me clear it up for you: witnesses are bad, and sometimes Littleton & Associates needs to take them on as ‘clients.’ It’s like a cascade of paperwork, since every X2X-99 means filling out another complete set. Worse, we don’t get paid for X2X-99’s; they come out of my own pocket. And that’s without the feeling that you’re just ruining someone’s day.”

One particular stretch of the walk, a dead-end utility road, was Jackson’s favorite. He liked the way thick foliage on either side cut busy nearby streets and buildings off from view; made him feel, if only for a moment, like he was out in the back country on a casual stroll instead of trying to save precious gas money by walking to the office.

That was only the most visible part of the atmosphere, of course.

The real attraction was the scent that filled the area during the springtime.

Even though the brambly wooded gullies on either side of the road revealed nary a visible blossom, the path always smelled strongly of wildflowers. Nevertheless, their presence was felt as soon as Jackson walked by; unlike many strong floral scents, he didn’t cease to percive it after a few moments.

It was almost as if he were walking somewhere breathtaking, like a flower show or a wide-open field scattered with blossoms rather than a dreary windowless office.

Kevin had never liked Emmett very much, and the feeling was mutual. But, given the proximity of their cubicles, the two were bound to run into each other frequently.

And they did.

Kevin returned from lunch one day find all his pictures on the floor and his cubicle swaying like San Francisco during a 6.9. Emmett was on his end, Allen wrench in hand.

“What the hell?”

“I measured. Your cubicle’s six inches wider than mine, so I’m just correcting that little oversight,” said Emmett.

“How can you do that?” Kevin cried.

“Oh, it’s easy. The stuff’s all modular; all you need is the right tool.”

The note was creased and worn, as if it had been worried over for some time. Erased words were still visible beneath their replacements and sometimes a whole lineage could be traced. The first words had the smudged look of old pencil, but the last were fresh enough to rub off on one’s hands.

I want to tell my children about a day that was so bright and clean and pure that you could shout possibilities to the heavens and no one would question them. I want to tell them that I devoured that day, let its juices drip down my chin; I want to tell them that I lived that day as fiercely as if it were my very last.

What I will tell them, if indeed I tell them anything at all, is how I spent that day behind my desk, watching it blossom and fade in snatches. Through a window here, a door there, sunlight dancing its life away on tiled floors. I will tell them how I emerged only as the day was cooling and dying to embers about me.