Cee had been at work for about two minutes on Monday before the serenity of her morning was shattered.
"Oh my God!" she said, staring at her computer.
"What?" Ian asked, as he emerged from the kitchen.
"Did you read Non Prophet this weekend?"
"Nah, I only read industry blogs during the week. What's he say?" Ian sipped his coffee, seating himself and switching his monitor on.
"It's not what he says, it's how he says it," Cee said. "Or -- something like that. Listen to this: I was privileged, recently, to spend some time with Elaine Schmidt...
"I'm sure she goes to more than one event in a week," Ian said, around a yawn.
"ARE YOU READING THIS?" Sarah yelled down the hall.
"Just getting to it now," Ian called back. "Hang on, I'll bring it up too."
Cee drifted over to his desk and watched as the page loaded. Even reading it over Ian's shoulder, she kept hitting the sentence about meeting Elaine Schmidt and stopping dead.
"It's not conclusive," Sarah said, coming down the hall with a printout in her hands, "but it's pretty damning all the same."
"It's not like he's running a blog called I'm A Chainsaw Murderer," Ian pointed out. "Damning is relative."
"But Jess said -- " Sarah started, but she was interrupted by Roxy and Jess, hurrying through the door from the elevator lobby.
"Oh my God did you see it?" Roxy blurted.
"I don't believe it!" Jess said.
"We're reading it now," Ian replied, with what Cee thought was unnecessary annoyance.
"So what do you think? It's Sparks, right? It has to be, just like that reporter thought," Jess said.
"What reporter?" Cee and Ian asked in unison.
"There was this reporter, Tanya something, she floated the idea to me that Sparks is Non Prophet," Jess explained, shedding her coat and scarf. "So, is this cool or lame? I can't decide."
Cee glanced at Sarah, who shrugged.
"I think it's cool," Cee decided. "It's only lame if people find out he's Non Prophet. That could be trouble."
"Why? Everyone likes him," Roxy said.
"Not everyone," Sarah replied. "He's been in trouble before. A lot of local news sites won't link to him."
"Why not?" Ian asked.
"He's a big advocate of bloggers' rights," Sarah said. "And he pokes fun at the mainstream media. They don't like being shown up by an anonymous blogger."
"I'm still not convinced it's Sparks," Ian announced, eyes scanning the post. "I stand by my earlier assessment of 'not sparkly enough'."
"I'm sending the text to Creative," Sarah said, tapping furiously on her phone. "Do we want to tell Erin?"
"Why wouldn't we tell Erin?" Ian asked, alarmed.
"What aren't we telling me?" Erin added, as she emerged from the elevator lobby. Cee winced.
"Sparks is Non Prophet," Sarah said.
"He might be
," Ian corrected. Sarah glared, and Ian hunched low in his chair.
"He can't be. The post went up on Sunday morning. We were having brunch. I'd have seen him being a genius on his computer if he did it while we were having brunch," Erin said. Everyone wilted a little, but then Sarah perked up right around the same time the implication hit Cee, too.
"You were having brunch with Sparks?" Sarah asked.
"Business brunch. Strategies for the new year. Waffles and hard boiled eggs," Erin replied. "He was weird."
"Weird?" Cee asked, worried.
"I don't know, unusually perky, even for him. Anyway, some of us had a brunch on Sunday and now have work to do. I'll be in my office!" Erin called, departing down the hallway.
"He could have it set up to go off on a timer or something," Jess ventured. Roxy snorted.
"Look, it could have been any one of us," Ian said, as Anna and Zoe walked in. "Sparks talked to her, but so did Naomi, and Vicky and I did as well. I'm sure Erin did during the setup."
"Oooh, are we already on whether Sparks is Non Prophet?" Zoe asked. Cee laughed.
"Do you want me to make a Facebook poll?" she said.
"Sarah," Naomi called, walking down the hallway with a binder in her hands, "Can you come look this over? I need a second pair of -- oh my God," she said to Anna, as she looked up.
"What?" Anna asked, turning to look behind her, then back to Naomi. "Is there something in my hair?"
"Your pashmina," Naomi said, pointing to a brightly-colored, sleek-looking swath of fabric around Anna's neck.
"Oh, my scarf? You like it? Trent gave it to me," Anna said. "It's Hur-mees."
Cee hid her grin as Naomi sputtered.
," Naomi corrected, pronouncing it with the proper air-mezz
"Is that good?" Anna asked.
"Cashmere, hand-woven, and custom-studded with semiprecious stones...it's a few thousand dollars worth of good," Naomi told her. "You're wearing the start of your future child's college fund around your neck."
Anna looked down in alarm. "Does this mean I have to breed with him?"
"In some cultures, yes," Sarah told her.
"Only if your father gave him twenty goats," Ian added.
"I thought you were dumping him," Jess said.
"I changed my mind," Anna declared, but Cee noticed she gave Ian an odd sidelong look. "We're all adults here, right?"
"Well, most of us are," said a new voice, and Sparks breezed in through the door, pulling his gloves off with his teeth. "Good morning, conspirators. Beware of Brutus, take heed of Cassius, come not near Casca, have an eye to Cinna, trust not Trebonius: mark well Metellus Cimber!" he finished, disappearing into his office.
"The hell was that?" Anna asked. Cee returned to her computer and googled "metellus cimber".
"Julius Caesar," Jess replied.
"You're guessing because he mentioned Brutus," Naomi said.
"Good guess though," Cee announced. "It's a warning to Caesar to beware his assassins."
"That sounds like an admission of guilt to me," Zoe said, crossing her arms.
"Caesar wasn't guilty of anything," Jess told her. "He was just a little too popular."
"Erin's right about the perky," Sarah said, narrowing her eyes. "I need to talk to some people," she added, and disappeared down the hallway.
"This is all very Cautionary Fable at the moment," Ian added, shuffling papers on his desk. "Everybody scram, you're cluttering up my lobby."
"Ian, you want to go have a smoke with me?" Anna asked, as everyone else wandered off. Cee knew Ian didn't smoke, or at least thought he didn't; then again, neither did John.
"Uh. Yes, all right," Ian said, standing up. "Cee, you'll keep an eye on the desk?"
"Sure," Cee said.
"ARTEMIDORUS!" Sparks called, and Cee glanced back at the e-text of Julius Caesar
. Artemidorus: the deliverer of the message that Caesar never got, warning him of his imminent demise.
"YES, BOSS?" she called back. Sparks, inside his office, burst into uproarious laughter.
"Come in here, I have letters I need you to read over," he said, leaning out through the doorway. "It's a beautiful Monday, isn't it?"
"It's..." Cee glanced at the cloudy sky outside, which was threatening rain or possibly sleet in a matter of hours. "Whatever you say," she said, and ducked into his office, taking her red pen with her.
"Okay," Anna said, when they stepped out into the little covered smoking area behind the building. "One -- "
"One, please, let me have a cigarette," Ian said. Anna blinked. "I know, whatever, I don't smoke, but this is stressing me out."
out?" she asked, offering him the pack. He took one out and accepted the lighter from her, then looked down at his arm, sighed, and offered her the lighter back. She gave him a slightly sympathetic look and flicked the lighter. He leaned forward to light the tip.
"One, thousands of dollars for a scarf is messed up," she continued. "I already dipped part of the fringe in egg this morning."
"I agree," Ian exhaled smoke through his nose. "And now you're smoking in it. Those things probably have to be washed in the tears of virgins or something."
"Two, Trent offered me a job," Anna blurted.
"Wow," Ian said. He tapped ash off the end of the cigarette. "Wow.
"Hey, no, not wow! OHNOES! Not wow!" Anna said. The panic over the offer had subsided quickly, but the confusion and desperation hadn't. Confusion and desperation weren't exactly new in her life, but they didn't usually involve job offers. "I'm doing this spywoman thing for you, or for Sparks via your messed up relationship with authority or something. Get your reactions right."
"Well, what did you say?" Ian asked, apparently ignoring the jab about his dysfunctional relationship with their boss.
"I said I needed time to think it over, and I wanted until after the new year," she said.
"Did he offer you a raise?" Ian asked.
"He doesn't know what I make."
"Perks, I bet," Ian said slyly. Anna smacked him. "Hey, watch the coat, it's leather!"
"He wants to put me in charge of the re-branding," she said, sobering. "He wants me to do their logo and lead a think-tank on a new name."
"Look, you know he's a creep," Ian said. "And you know Sparks wouldn't fuck around like that. If they re-brand they're going to lose money."
"I'm not really considering it, dork," Anna replied, which wasn't an actual lie. If she were considering it she'd be freaking out even more than she was, so she hadn't allowed herself to think about it much. She let silence fall between them for a minute, then drew a breath. "I'm just keeping you up to speed."
Ian looked at her over the red tip of the cigarette. "Mmhm."
"No, I believe you," he said, stubbing out his cigarette as they turned to go back inside. "Hey, my weird relationship with authority aside, we all have issues. Is this whole Sparks might be Non Prophet
thing going to mess you up with him? Because I am absolutely positive it's not him. Erin has an alibi for him, even."
"No," she answered. "I don't care. I mean I care, but I don't care
Ian followed her through the revolving door and back into the building. "For a writer, sometimes you're a little lacking in the coherence department."
"I'm an impressionist," she replied.
Jess's pained yelp echoed down the hall to the tech desk, where Roxy was busily engaged in bug-testing Nations In Need's website. So far she'd found eighteen, and it was only mid-morning.
"Yes?" Roxy called, putting her head up over the edge of her cubicle. Jess's head was likewise raised.
"I think we've been invaded by pervs," Jess said. "Help me."
Roxy looked around. She didn't see any perverts other than the usual, though her head definitely wasn't the only one poking out of its cube in Jess's direction after that announcement. She shrugged and walked down to Jess's cube, leaning over her shoulder at the desk.
"It's the SELF site," Jess said, calling up the front page of one of their more flaky but respectable clients. S.E.L.F.; Smart, Ethical, Loyal, Fun. Kids raising money to save the spotted owl and making vows of ethical vegetarianism. Like PETA, Roxy always thought, only sane.
"I was checking the stats since it went live and the messageboard has been getting a lot of links off some site called Furttage.com," Jess continued. "Which is about animals and...well, sex."
"Animals and sex?" Roxy asked, hearing her voice rise a little. "Like bestiality?"
"Oh! No, no!" Jess looked distressed. "It's the people who like to dress up in animal costumes. Furries?"
Roxy sighed with relief.
"They're usually harmless," she said. "Are they posting on the messageboards?"
"Just about how much they love animals," Jess said. "Not, y'know. Love
"How much wood would a woodchuck -- don't finish that," Roxy said hastily, as Sparks ran past on his way to see the Creative team about something-or-other. "Okay, well, it's probably not going to be a problem, just let them have their fun. If it turns weird or skeevy, though..."
She leaned over Jess's shoulder and began working the keyboard, accessing the messageboard's options and installing a little macro-client for tracing IPs -- unique numbers associated with screen names that would link them to an internet service, or sometimes even a physical address. The more technologically sophisticated members of the Furry Invasion Squad would probably skip under the radar, but she could at least snag a few. If there was trouble, she could go to the site directly and tell them to knock it off before she Named And Shamed. Outing someone online was bad form, but making sure nobody was talking dirty to kids just because they wanted to be vegetarians was higher on her priority list.
She paused, briefly, as IPs began showing up in the database linked to her desktop, and names began showing up next to the IPs. Some of them looked vaguely familiar.
"I'm...gonna go back and look at this on my machine," she said, closing out a few windows. "Keep an eye on the messageboard but if they behave themselves I say let them alone. Check with Erin though, make sure she knows about it."
"Thanks, Roxy," Jess said, setting the board to track all comments and mail them to her. Roxy hurried back to her own cubicle and opened the database again.
She wasn't expecting any of the names that came up to be familiar; it wasn't like she made a habit of hanging out on furry messageboards. On the other hand, some of them seemed to ring faint bells -- not the user names, but the names of the real people linked to their IP addresses. She stared hard at one for a while before picking up her phone.
"Legal," Sarah answered, sounding harassed.
"Sarah, it's Roxy," she said. "Hey, the guy who set up the annual gift for S.E.L.F. and the save-the-rabbits deal, what's his name?"
She heard paper shuffling, then the click of a keyboard. "Clint Eldridge."
"He lives out in Oak Park, right?"
"Yeah. Why, was he just arrested on national television or something?" Sarah inquired, sounding as if she somewhat expected it, because it was just that kind of day.
"No -- I'll get back to you," Roxy said hurriedly.
"Uh-huh. I'm pulling the file now. If you need it, it'll be on my desk," Sarah said, and hung up the phone.
Clint Eldridge gave thousands of dollars to animal welfare causes each year, and was a lead fundraiser for some sister organization of SELF that didn't employ SparkVISION. He ran a successful software company in the downtown loop and had five or six dogs. He was also, apparently, known as OtterEyes74 on the SELF messageboards, and Otterized on Furttage.com, where he showed off photos of himself in a (really very well-made) otter costume.
Roxy decided to put that piece of information away as irrelevant. After all, he was a generous man and a good fundraiser. If she didn't want to think about his strange hobbies (or, possibly, his sex life) she shouldn't be butting in.
It did, however, give her an idea.
You didn't have to know much about the internet to get on it. Most people were automatically connected all the time at work, and anyone with Non Prophet's output would have to have a home connection as well. Just because he was well-known didn't mean he knew the first thing about internet security, beyond not telling anyone what his real name was.
Roxy sat down to compose a cunning trap.
Subject: This is just to announce...
...that I have conquered the grocery store on my lunch hour.
LET THERE BE PIZZA BITES FOR DINNER.
(What? Not everything I say can be intelligent and mindblowing, or I'd be surrounded by people going "Wow" all the time.)
No sea kittens will be harmed in the making of my pizza. 24 Comments
12/21/09 at 1:52pm
12/21/09 at 1:52pm
12/21/09 at 1:53pm
SHIT, SECOND ACTUALLY
12/21/09 at 1:56pm
Look, would it be out of line for me to say 'Wow'?
12/21/09 at 2:04pm
Well, not to stand in the way of my adoring fans or anything, but you could say "Ooh!" instead.
12/21/09 at 2:02pm
Did you slay the fearsome checkout-lady?
12/21/09 at 2:05pm
I didn't want to be all "I'm a homicidal maniac!" in a public post. I prefer to generalize that I vanquished all opponents in my path and appeased the fearsome cashier (dude) with many dollars.
12/21/09 at 2:15pm
Hey Non, OT but: have you seen this vid?
SparkVISION is hosting it, so I guess it's on the level?
12/21/09 at 2:45pm
It's a clever piece of propaganda but it's old news -- they put that up last year and it went viral, they must just be rearranging their site code. Log on more often, Gmail Diva! Great nickname though.
The restaurant had linoleum floors, plastic seats, and a counter where you placed your order; it smelled like roasting tomatoes and bread. Bo liked it immediately.
He admitted to himself that it could have something to do with the fact that Tanya Montray was leaning against the counter at the back, waiting for him. She hadn't had much time to talk to him when he'd called earlier; she'd been on deadline and sounded stressed and irritated. Still, before telling him to get out of her hair, she'd given him an address in Little Italy and told him to be there at six. He could appreciate the honesty, but he appreciated the dinner date more.
She didn't look irritated now; she looked satisfied and relaxed, and she had a beer in one hand.
"Am I late?" he asked, and noticed one of the guys behind the counter rolling his eyes.
"No, I'm just well-prepared," Tanya told him. "I hope you like chicken wings."
Sparks looked around at the green window-drapes, the pictures of Italian landmarks on the walls, and the people in the plastic seats eating pizza and pasta and garlic bread. "Chicken wings?" he asked, feeling unusually stupid.
"Yeah, I don't know why, but they make the best fried chicken on the west side," she said, shrugging. "I thought you'd appreciate it, and I wanted chicken."
He grinned. "What madam wants...oh, sangria!" he added, noticing the beverage menu (a chalkboard hung on the wall). Tanya gave him a skeptical look.
"Sangria?" she asked.
"What? I like the color," he told her. "You know what's best, just get that and a glass of sangria."
"Again I say: bold," she told him, and turned to the counter. "Large basket half and half, small with basil. And a sangria
," she added. Bo refused to blush. "I'll treat, but I'm buying the sangria under protest. Let's get a table."
Sparks accepted a glass that looked like a bottle of red wine had attacked a fruit salad and followed her to one of the tables, edging her chair out with his foot before sitting down. It was always a toss-up whether a woman wanted her chair pulled out, so he usually compromised. Tanya looked like she liked that, and it was becoming increasingly important to him that Tanya like things.
"Bet you don't get to holes in the wall like this very often," she said. Behind them, their chicken wings hissed as they hit the fryer.
"Not anymore," he agreed. "Sometimes I think I live on catered appetizers and prepackaged sandwiches."
"What a hard life it must be," she drawled. He laughed.
"Traditionally, journalists live on cigarettes and coffee. My writers seem to," he added.
"Mostly coffee," she agreed. "But we like fried chicken and pizza, too. And," she added, leaning in a little, "we promise not to talk shop tonight."
He smiled. "Even about Non Prophet?"
"Especially about Non Prophet," she replied, but he noticed an odd twinge in her tone. Guilt, or maybe regret. Well, perhaps she'd hit a wall in her investigation.
"I've been reading your columns," he said, sipping his drink. It was good -- better than a beer, better than the bad wine he usually got at functions. "It's so much less creepy to say that these days, isn't it?"
"How so?" she asked.
"Well, it's not like it takes a lot of effort. I go to the website, and there's a list of all the columns you've written," he said, beaming. "It's not like I had to go to the library and dig through back-issues. I love the internet."
"I noticed," she remarked.
"Well, don't you?"
"I think it's useful. I think -- " she stopped, then started to laugh. "I said I wouldn't talk about bloggers. But it has its good and bad points. Like you said, you got all my columns at once. What do you think of them?"
"I mostly read the ones from back when you were on Entertainment Beat," he said, and she groaned. "Don't be ashamed, we all have to pay our dues. You seem to understand Chicago. You definitely know the best places to eat," he added, waving a hand around the tiny restaurant. "I can tell you liked the political reporting better, though. You have a knack for telling a story. Sometimes that gets in the way of what's actually going on, but nobody's totally objective."
"Don't pull any punches," she said, looking discontented.
"Why should I? Either you already know your flaws, or you should wish to," he said. Tanya narrowed her eyes, tilting her head. "I like to be told when I'm doing something wrong, if it really is wrong. That way I can fix it. There's nothing wrong with your work, but you should tell stories, too. You're good at it."
He'd obviously mis-stepped; her face changed, just slightly, but the laughter went out of it.
"What did I do?" he asked.
"Nothing," she said.
"I just got through telling you I liked to be told when I screw up," he pointed out, touching her hand gently. Her fingers twitched. "What is it?"
"When you're a woman in journalism, people tell you a lot that you should write other things," she said, her voice tense. "Leave the news to the men. And if you get angry you're some radical feminist."
"Yes, I can see that," he said thoughtfully. Some of the anger faded from her face. "I'm not telling you -- "
"You just did," she pointed out.
"I'm not telling you that you shouldn't be a journalist," he repeated.
"Good, because I am."
"I'm just saying, there are other ways of getting your point across. Sorry it came out wrong. I'm not perfect, you know. I just seem like it," he added, and felt a delighted thrill when she ducked her head and smiled.
"You're not very good at this dating thing, are you?" she asked.
"I don't think I'm not good
at it," he said, leaning back to allow the restaurant's one waiter to set a giant basket of chicken wings and a small, greasy-looking pizza on their table. "I just find ordinary conversation boring."
"Well, I'll try not to be ordinary then," she said, taking one of the wings off the top of the basket and biting into it, pulling the meat off the bone. She licked her fingers and caught him watching, misinterpreting his fascination for disapproval. "What? It's not exactly ladylike food."
He took one of the wings himself, tried it, and nodded. "They're good, you're right. Anyway, I don't think you have to try not to be ordinary," he pointed out. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here."
"Good to know I live up to standard," she said, as he took another bite.
Flame suddenly raced up his tongue and he yelped, dropping the wing and exhaling, trying to get cool air across the sudden burning sensation in his mouth. Tanya watched, looking amused, as he gasped "Hot! Pepper!
" and reached for his sangria. His eyes watered as the alcohol and citrus made it worse.
"Yeah, you suck at this," Tanya told him, and left the table. He panted, wondering if her beer would help, until a glass of water appeared under his hand and he gulped, gratefully.
"Thanks," he said, wiping his eyes with a napkin. "You could have warned me."
"Oh, it's so much more fun to watch people hit that for the first time," she told him, and pointed to the half of the basket heaped with slightly-browner wings. "Stick to the mild, Bo."
"You're cruel," he moaned, reaching for a slice of pizza. Then he hesitated, giving it an uncertain, searching look for peppers, and she laughed.
"I promise the pizza's not booby-trapped," she said. People were staring at them, but Bo had long since stopped caring about that, and Tanya didn't seem to either. He took a careful bite. Basil, garlic, tomato, cheese and bread; he sat back with a small, relieved sigh.
"This is going to be interesting, isn't it?" he asked, taking another bite.
"Possibly more than you know," Tanya informed him. Chapter Eleven