The lobby walls shifted in splotches from pumpkin to licorice as the assistant typed, his cat ears perked atop his neuron-scanning headset, and fingers playing with the holopuzzle in his lap. He sat behind a desk, a legless faux-granite slab protruding seamlessly, aesthetically, minimalistically from the wall and angling around, where a figure shrouded under an ancient, calligraphed cloak had now swept and flung back her hood.
“See me, mortal pest! I, the Unceasing! The Uncompromising! Take my beauty, my form, into your soul, and let it petrify you! You have lied and cheated your last—”
The figure, baring her scaly, snarling hair of ophidian cords neatly parted and curled, dropped her looming pose for a moment, enough to notice the washed bronze mirror on the otherwise elegantly, progressively, synergetically empty desk, and the assistant’s moisturized, wrinkleless face sneering inside it. He flicked his eyes downward. She read the card below the mirror.
For all gorgons, sacred fires, the unseen, the ethereal, and other inscrutables.
“May I help you?”
Ka’arn the Implacable cleared her throat.
“Yes! I am here for the council—”
The assistant plucked and slid one of the stacked informational folders toward her.
“Down the hall, to the right. Conference room two.”
“I was told you validate parking?”
“The building handles that. You can speak downstairs on your way out.”
“I know, I talked to them already. They said it’s actually up to the tenants.”
“They’re wrong. Trust me, I deal with this all the time. It’s the building.”
“But I just—”
“Ma’am?” The assistant’s head in the mirror tilted, the cat ears folded back, the fine hackles on his neck bristling. “The building.”
“Look, I’m not trying to be a monster or anything.”
“I believe you just described yourself as ‘the Uncompromising.’”
Ka’arn tried to center the assistant’s increasingly judgmental face in the mirror.
“This is an especially awkward and disrespectful way to speak to someone.”
“Well maybe the one of us who turns people to stone should—”
“All right, all right.”
The chthonic priestess rolled her slit, serpentine eyes, threw up her hood, and stomped down the hall. The assistant returned to his typing and light puzzle, the cat ears flipped up calmly, until he saw another figure in the mirror, this one dressed in a black pinstriped suit, black high-collared coat, black cloth mask, black sunglasses, and black-and-black-banded trilby cap. The assistant waved aside the puzzle and spun around.
“Good morning, Mr. Marreau!”
“Riley.” The figure set his old leather briefcase on the clean carbon desk and placed one of the folders inside. “Are the agendas in these?”
“As of your latest message, 8:42 AM.”
“Right. Sounds right. Are we waiting on anyone?”
“Not anymore.” The assistant committed two affronts, by choosing to both wink and hold said wink in a pose that Osse Marreau—eternal instantiation of death, and Chairman and CEO of Calcia Care Partners—knew was reflected back, off his mirrored sunglasses.
“Tell me, Riley,” Marreau spoke, his voice sharper and shriller than usual. “It’s almost Samhain, yes?”
The cat ears wilted as Riley frowned.
The cat ears twirled as Riley nodded.
“So, just in the spirit of things, what do you fear?”
“Oh, what do I fear?”
“Wow. Well. If I have to think about it.” The assistant puckered his mouth and swung his eyes up cheerfully. “Um.”
“What do you fear most on this planet? On this plane you call existence? On the very—”
“Probably, like, water.”
“You fear water. Drowning?”
“No, don’t smile. But good. You fear drowning.”
“Except some dogs.”
“OK. I can understand—”
“Sometimes, when someone uses a vacuum, I like to run to my little—”
“What about this, Riley.” Marreau stretched himself up, his slim suit and coat hanging higher, flatter, over the desk. “Me. Do you fear me, Riley? What do I look like?”
“A skeleton wearing oversized clothes, sir.”
Marreau stopped rising and stood rigid.
He entered the conference room and took the head of the table distracted, touching his briefcase with his black-gloved phalanges, staring emptily (as he always he did with vacant eye sockets) around himself, at the streamlined, antiseptic, corporate décor that he had tolerated in sacrifice for the malevolent efficiency of his ever-under-compensated employees.
“I had to pay, you know,” Ka’arn spoke before Marreau could start the meeting. “For parking? The werewolf did too. She said so.”
“It wasn’t that much,” the chipper lycanthrope in a wicker hat and sundress clarified, without looking up from her nimbly knitting claws.
“Was it more than free? That’s what the screamail said.”
“I have a name, too? Iba?”
“Az for me,” a pale, lank-haired man began, turning his tattooed and thickly zinced cheeks around the table, his voice digitized through the neon rebreather covering his fanged mouth, “I parked my hearze when ze maid of meterz vaz checking ze ztreet. I enchanted her into zkipping mine.”
Marreau tore off his headgear, showing his fossilized skull balanced atop his vertebrae, the bones floating hauntingly, intentionally, in place.
“But why not destroy the meters, Vladik? Steal the money? Cause mayhem?”
“Vell, sche vaz vorking hard, blue of collar. I try to zcare up, not down, you know?”
“And that’s the problem. People are weak, but have we become weaker? I mean, here we are, complaining about parking.”
“Ugh!” Ka’arn spat twice, her snake hair hissing. “It’s not the parking, it’s the principle. Is this how you do business, breaking promises?”
“Precisely. But is it enough? That’s what I’m saying. Sure, there’s suffering. Immense, profound suffering, in an entire spectrum of ways, from petty to terminal. At what cost, though?”
“The bees.” The werewolf solemnly lowered her wicker hat.