“Where the fuck has your author gone?”
Michelle sighed as she looked up from the manuscript she’d been trying to edit since she got in that morning. All she wanted to do was get this one manuscript completed before she got home, for a change, instead of staying up until midnight. It was heading toward lunch, and she’d barely made a dent. She glanced at the desk clock, half hidden by stacks of manuscripts, galleys, and review copies.
Senior editor at Faraday Publishing might be her dream job, but the actual work was a slog.
She took a deep breath, focusing on the current emergency. “How can I help you, Pam?”
Pam the Publicist stood over her. In the year that they’d worked together, Michelle had noticed that the woman was often pissed, or at least irritated. But now Pam was so angry, she was shaking. Her short, red-tipped gold hair stuck straight up, like she’d been tearing at it with both hands.
“You can help me by getting your special snowflake in line,” Pam snarled.
“Which snowflake?” Michelle responded, thinking of her current list of authors. Sterling Knight was an old-school, hard-core sci-fi writer who was generally a pain in the ass about publicity. Phil Geunther was an up-and-coming epic fantasy writer who needed equally epic amounts of hand-holding and ego-stroking. There were plenty of options.
Before Pam could answer, Michelle’s phone buzzed, signaling an incoming call from Ted, one of the best literary agents in the business. He’d been hounding her for feedback on a controversial proposal he wanted to start shopping for the past few weeks.
Ted also happened to be her husband. But since he never called her during work hours in his spousal capacity, she didn’t feel too guilty hitting “ignore.”
Pam crossed her arms. “Aditi Sodhi. You want her book to hit the list, remember? So does Gwen, after all the money we spent on it.”
Michelle winced. Everybody knew Aditi’s book was Michelle’s baby. It was her biggest acquisition, and the series was one of the biggest buys in the publisher’s history. There was a lot riding on this—for her, for the marketing team, and for the publisher.
“Ok, what is she doing?”
“It’s what she’s not doing,” Pam said. “I got her into the diversity special week of io9, I got her personal essays on Jezebel and Bustle, and a bunch of guest posts for some great sci-fi sites. Fucking Den of Geek stuff. Maybe even a book pick from Felicia Day’s Vaginal Fantasy book club. That means Aditi needs to give me content. She’s delivered nothing, and she is totally MIA!”
Michelle reached for her phone without looking at it, quickly hitting “ignore” again as Ted called for the fourth time.
She felt her stomach knot with tension, but kept her face impassive. “She’ll get you something. I’ll talk to her.”
“I can’t have her vanish on me! You know that.” Pam’s eyes flashed behind her gunmetal-gray glasses, glinting with a promise of retribution if she were dicked around. “I need it by the end of the week, latest. And that isn’t one of my usual padding-for-lollygagging deadlines. That’s a drop-dead-latest-or-they-tell-me-to-fuck-off deadline.”
Pam looked unwilling to let the issue drop as Michelle’s assistant, Jamie, sidled into the room looking paler than usual.
“Michelle,” she said, “Um . . . Ted just called.”
“I’ll call him back,” she told Jamie, her focus still on Pam. “Did he say what it was about?”
Jamie looked nauseous. “He says . . .” She cleared her throat, glancing at Pam. “He says he’s moving out, and thought you should know.”
She should have expected Michelle to start nudging a little harder. Hell, she probably shouldn’t have gone on the Slack channel at all. But after a week of isolating herself in the house, working on the damned sequel, she had been stir crazy and climbing the walls. Ordinarily, she’d just work a few intermittent hours, with plenty of daydreaming, playlist-building, and cooking peppered in for good measure. Or going out shopping, grabbing coffee, and the like.
She grabbed a thepla off of a glass plate on the counter, munching on it as she picked up her phone. She was stress eating—she had to be up another five pounds, she thought—probably at around 215, not that she paid much attention to that. Still, it was something her mother would no doubt notice and comment on the next time she saw her.
The writing wasn’t happening. She’d been given a high six-figure deal to sell her “trilogy” even though she’d only conceived of one book. She’d worked on that book for nearly three years, with Michelle pushing her the last twelve months. Now, she was supposed to somehow repeat the performance in twelve months. And she was scared out of her mind.
She needed to blow off steam. She needed to get in a better frame of mind.
She glanced down at herself. She was in writing mode, which meant wearing her Lululemon-knockoff yoga pants (until the damn people make a size eighteen, she thought with a frown) and a stained University of Wisconsin sweatshirt. She wasn’t even wearing makeup.
No wonder I feel like shit.
She headed for the bedroom, stripping down completely. She pulled on a sexy matched set of underwear, classic black lace panties and bra. Then she put on her favorite dress, a deep plum ponte knit that clung to her curves in just the right way, suggestive—not sausage casing. It was cut deep in the front, showing off the girls to their best advantage. Nodding, she wandered barefoot to the bathroom and played with her makeup, giving herself a subtly smoky eye and matching deep plum lips. The color went perfectly with her amber skin, and made her brown eyes look almost black. Super dramatic.
Sexy as fuck, she thought with a nod.
Now she was looking fine, and feeling a little better. It really did make a difference. Unfortunately, she didn’t want to waste all this energy on writing stupid blog posts. She needed a distraction.
She called her husband, Druv.
“Hey there,” Druv said. “You okay?”
“I can’t write, I hate my life, I want to die,” she said dramatically, then smiled, throwing herself on the bed, phone cradled to her ear like a teenage girl. “You busy?
He laughed. “One of those writing days, huh?”
“Seriously. I’m supposed to work with this publicist . . .”
“Sweetie, I am right in the middle of pulling together the GreenWave merger,” he said. “I promise, I will listen to you in full, cursing detail, and get you a pint of the best mango sorbet you have ever tasted in your life. But I can’t today. Okay?”
She wanted to kick something. “You going to be home tonight?”
“Late,” he said, and to his credit, he did sound regretful. “But this weekend, it’ll be all about you, I promise.”
“It’d better be,” she grumped, then sighed. “I’ll leave your dinner in the oven, and we have plenty of snacks left over.”
“Best of wives, best of women,” he said, before hanging up. She started to shut off the phone, then bit her lip.
Wandering back to the kitchen, she opened up Tinder. It’d been a solid week since she’d so much as peeked at it; she frankly hadn’t had the time. But she was nervous, and stressed. And all dressed up, at this point.
What she really, really needed was something to get her mind off things. Something to help ground her, calm her down.
Picking up another thepla and taking a bite, she started swiping.
Frank waited until the others left, then shut the door behind them. Now they’d get down to brass tacks, she thought. Time to show your stuff, girl.
“Are you happy with the acquisition? Glad to be a part of Starwisp?”
She nodded. “Yes. I’ve loved working for Maniac Games, don’t get me wrong. But I’d like the opportunity to grow, and be more challenged.”
Frank looked at Brad, then gestured to Taneesha to sit back down at the conference room table. She did, sitting near Brad. Frank continued to pace.
“We are very, very happy that you’ve joined the team,” Frank said, and she felt her chest warm with pride. “You graduated with honors, and you can work system side and platform side. That’s impressive.”
“Thank you.” She struggled not to smile, but did anyway.
“We’d like to make sure that you stay on the team, and that you know just how much Starwisp values you,” he said. “You’ve obviously done a lot of work, and we feel that you’re crucial to our objectives moving forward.”
“Thank you,” she repeated, feeling an almost surreal sense of lightness.
“In fact—we wanted to make sure that you realized it.” He smiled, but it looked odd—like he wasn’t used to the expression. It was a little creepy, actually.
Brad piped up. “What Frank is trying to say is, we’ve authorized a six percent raise for you.”
Her eyes popped. “Wait, what?”
“We value your contributions. And here at Starwisp, we realize that . . . well, money talks, and bullshit walks.” Brad looked a little sheepish.
“I can’t . . . I don’t know what to say. Other than thank you,” she said, flabbergasted.
“No. Thank you, for choosing to stay,” Frank said.
“Well, since you’re here, maybe we can talk about the integration,” she said. “I had some ideas on how we could . . .”
“Oh. Oh, no,” Brad said, pushing back from the table and putting his hands up. “We’re more . . . upper management. You’ll be getting a senior programmer, and an architect who will be overseeing Galactic Assassin.”
“We don’t want to get in the way of his plans,” Frank added.
Hold up. His plans? Taneesha narrowed her eyes, and the feeling of lightness and pride and happiness slowly started to plummet.
“But I’m a senior programmer on this project,” she said.
Brad looked uncomfortable. “Ah . . . from an HR standpoint, the titles you had at Maniac Games don’t quite line up accurately to our org chart,” he said slowly.
“What do you mean?” She had a sinking feeling in her stomach, and she knew, she goddamn knew what he was trying to say. But she wanted to hear him say it out loud.
“You’ll be a programmer, of course. But you will be working with another senior programmer who will be taking the lead for the time being,” Frank said firmly.
“Of course, you’ll still be ahead of most of the other programmers,” Brad added quickly. “We’ll have another title for you. A commensurate title.”
“But not senior programmer,” Frank emphasized.
Of course not, she thought, the grip on her pen tightening. She thought about asking what the title would be, but honestly, it didn’t matter. They’d come up with something that sounded impressive—“Executive Engineering Anomaly” or some shit—but she knew the score.
“But you’ll still get the raise. Above your current pay,” Brad said. “And think, you won’t have to work quite as hard . . .”
He shut up when Frank glared at him.
“We do hope that you’re happy with the arrangement,” Frank said. “And if there’s anything you need, or if you have any questions, my door’s always open to you.”
“Oh, you’re here in Austin?”
Frank blanched. “I meant more figuratively,” he admitted. “I’m out of Seattle.”
“But we’re only a phone call away, is what Frank meant,” Brad chirped. “So . . . was that all clear?”
She smiled, a paper-thin smile.
I’m a black woman coder. I’m a goddamn unicorn. You want me to stay on because I make your company look good. But God forbid I do any fucking coding. You’re going to have an overseer coming in to do the “real work.” But you want to keep me happy, so you’re going to throw money at me, hoping that I’ll stay—but stay out of the way. You’re going to make the junior programmers pissy when they find out I’m getting paid more for doing their work. You’re going to make the senior programmers pissy that I have a special title but I’m doing less work. And you’re going to give me the mushroom treatment: Keep me in the dark, feed me lots of shit.
You “value” the hell out of me. You just don’t remember my fucking name.
“Oh yeah,” she said tightly. “I understand completely.”
In the end, she’d gone with velvet because it felt so luxurious and regal. Now, sitting here surrounded by fifteen yards of the plush red fabric, Elli knew she’d made the right choice. If only it weren’t such a bear to sew.
She’d barely begun on her second section when she heard the door open upstairs. It was spring, but a chill still hung in the air, causing a vacuum that made Elli’s basement door rattle against the draft. Great. Someone was home, and judging from the footsteps coming down the stairs, had every intention of bothering her. She loved her parents—loved living with them, even—but right now, she was busy.
Her mother, Esther, breezed right through the door without knocking. Her eyes alit on the red velvet. “Well, isn’t that lovely.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Elli said.
Esther unbuttoned her spring jacket and unwound the belt, pulling up a seat next to Elli. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in days,” her mother said, patting her knee. “How is the coffee shop? And Aaron? If he’s working you too hard, just say the word. I’ll give him a talking-to myself.”
Elli smiled. She leaned forward and hugged her mother. “Mr. P. is very nice, but it wasn’t the job for me.”
At this, Esther stiffened. “Oh?”
Of course her mother would be upset that she’d quit. Esther was always upset when Elli chose to make an abrupt switch, but she’d get over it. Elli couldn’t be tied down to something as constricting as a coffee shop. Set hours, rules about what she could and couldn’t wear . . . It was a means to an end, and Elli had reached the end. She wished her mother could understand that for once, but Elli wasn’t going to stress about it.
“I’ve really got to focus on Princess Vivian and the con,” Elli replied, “The job was only ever supposed to be temporary. You knew that.” Maybe it was a shorter duration than her mother expected, but Elli had never hidden her desire to make money and walk away.
“So, what are you planning on doing next?” her mother asked. Elli could tell that Esther was trying to keep her tone light and placid. It just made her sound more high-strung.
“I have so much work to do on the princess,” Elli replied, laughing. “I can’t possibly start thinking about future ideas yet.” She knew her mother was talking about another job or a “career choice.” But Elli wasn’t in the mood to continue this conversation, so she played dumb.
“Sweetheart, don’t plenty of the people who go to these conventions keep their jobs?” her mother prodded. “What about those girls you talk to in those chat rooms? Don’t they all have big jobs?”
“And they’re all always stressed out and manic. No, thank you,” Elli replied.
“Elli, sweetie, you can’t just play dress-up in the basement forever.”
It wasn’t dress-up. She wasn’t a little girl in a cheap costume shop, picking out her favorite character for Halloween. She’d moved so far beyond that, but it was still the same thing to Esther.
“So what are your plans?” her mother pressed.
Elli sighed. The conclusion was inevitable. “I guess . . . I’m going to get a job.”
“Where do you want me today? Am I still with the warrior chick?” Christina had been assigned to Lana since last week. She was a guest star with four lines who mostly had to scream while tied to a post and could never seem to do either on cue. There were worse jobs, like the production assistants who worked in the office and had to make phone calls all day. Christina would’ve offed herself ages ago doing that.
“We have a new recurring on set and she’s . . . interesting. I was hoping you’d be her handler. I’m concerned the younger kids won’t be able to keep up with her.”
Warren deliberately looked away as he said this. He was telling her the actor was difficult and the other PAs would be unable to deal with her without outright crying.
“What’s her name?”
“Vivi. She’s got the trailer behind the honey wagon.”
Christina headed around the wagon and expected to find one of the split trailers, indelicately known as a double-banger. But Vivi’s was full-sized and decked out, not the usual day rental. Christina felt the need to double-check the name on the door before knocking.
“Come in!” The voice from inside sounded bright. So far, so good. It seemed unlikely that a breakfast quesadilla was going to be thrown at her as she walked in.
Vivi was sitting at the table, her exceptionally long legs flung over the tabletop. She was stunning, with wild, wavy brown hair that ran over her shoulders and down her back. Christina was fairly certain the actress didn’t have a smidge of makeup on, but it didn’t lessen her beauty.
“Hi! I’m Vivi,” she said, her voice just a touch husky.
Her undivided attention hit Christina like a sun lamp. Okay—maybe not so average.
“And you are?” Vivi prompted, a teasing lilt to her question. Her smile got warmer somehow. It made Christina realize that she’d been silent and staring for a long second.
Get it together. She shook off the night’s excesses and buckled down.
“I’m Christina, and I’ll be your assigned PA for the week. Just wanted to introduce myself and let you know that you’re due in makeup at seven.” Seriously, what was so difficult about this chick? Given Warren’s avoidance of eye contact, she’d expected full-on Exorcist behavior.
“Thanks, Christina. That gives me . . .” The actress looked down at her phone. “Twenty minutes. Just enough time to smoke a J. You want to join me?”
Yes. Yes, she did. But Christina knew that you couldn’t hotbox a rental trailer; that smell never came out of the carpet. “My boss’ll kill me if Starwaggons won’t take the trailer back.”
Vivi laughed. “Oh, hon, this isn’t a rental. This is mine. We can hold a blood ritual in here and I’d just get some hazmat guys to clean it up when we were done.”
Christina choked. “Convenient,” she said.
Vivi smirked, “So—you wanna?” patting the chair next to her.
Christina smiled, shaking her head. She realized the door to the trailer was still open and anyone walking by could hear. She turned and shut the door behind her. “By all means, who am I to say no?”
This week wasn’t turning out so bad after all.
They wrapped at seven and Christina thought she had a clean escape—but no such luck. Just as she was unplugging her walkie in the production office, another PA came to find her to tell her Vivi would like some help removing her blood makeup.
As she made her way back out toward the trailers, she kept reminding herself that Vivi wasn’t in until nine a.m. tomorrow. Three more hours of sleep. Three more hours, she chanted in her head.
She’d knocked just once when Vivi called, “Come in, Christina!”
When she stepped inside the trailer, Vivi was already topless, the outline of her costume showing the dividing line of the stage blood. Christina tried not to react—they were just boobs—but holy fuck was Vivi’s body smoking. “You needed me?”
Vivi’s smirk instantly told Christina she was in trouble. “I could use a little help.” The actress turned and walked to the bathroom, disappearing inside. Christina heard the shower go on. This was by far the strangest day she’d ever had on set.
Unsure what to expect, Christina followed Vivi to the trailer bathroom, which was larger than she would have expected. Vivi had already shed the bottom of her costume and was now completely naked. She picked up the bar of soap and held it out. “I can’t wash this off all by myself, now can I?”
Vivi took a step forward and slung both arms around Christina’s neck. “Don’t you think you should take your clothes off, too? I wouldn’t want to get blood on anything.” Which, of course, she already had.