Robin signed the paperwork and slid it aside. Maybe it was a dick move to fire people this close to Christmas— bleeding hearts would probably rag on her, but oh, well. The bottom line was the bottom line, and she didn’t need to burden the company with extra weight into the new year. Even though sales were up a bit, Robin didn’t want to take chances.
She answered a few emails and added a couple of figures to an upcoming presentation, which was sure to get her noticed as a CEO for a subsidiary, before she picked up the earlier paperwork. Robin walked the paperwork across the expanse of carpet in her office, past the sleek leather couch against the wall and the mini-fridge next to it, through the heavy mahogany doors to her assistant’s desk, positioned behind short cubicle walls.
“I need these scanned and sent to HR before lunch,” she said as she set the papers next to Laura’s keyboard. She retreated to her office before Laura could give her one of her questioning looks. Laura was damn good at her job, Robin conceded, but sometimes she acted like Robin’s conscience, like a little angel sitting on her shoulder. The last thing Robin needed or wanted was recrimination, silent or otherwise, on how she did her job.
Robin sat down and glanced at the clock on her laptop monitor. Not even ten yet. Her office door opened, and she looked up, irritated. Laura usually knocked.
“Good morning, Ms. Preston,” the newcomer said in a clipped British accent as she shut the door behind her. She wore a burgundy pants suit and sleek black high heels that looked like something a woman might’ve worn in the forties. Come to think of it, Robin thought as she studied her, the visitor looked a bit retro, like a forties professional woman. She also carried a classic black briefcase.
“And who are you?” Robin asked.
The woman approached Robin’s desk. “Your ten o’clock.” She smiled, pleasant.
“I don’t think—” Robin reached for her desk phone. How did Laura miss this? She picked up the phone. It was dead. She looked at her laptop. The screen was blank. She picked up her cell phone. Blank as well. She set it on her desk, wary.
The woman sat in one of the chairs in front of Robin’s desk and placed her briefcase on her lap. “I’ll just get right to it,” she said. “I’m Elizabeth Tolson, senior agent at the Bureau of Holiday Affairs.”
“Okay, you can stop right there. I don’t have an appointment with you, I have no idea who you are, and—” She stopped, puzzled. “The Bureau of what?”
“Holiday Affairs.” The latches on Tolson’s briefcase clicked as she opened it.
“This is a joke, right?” Had to be Robin’s brother. He was always trying to get her to loosen up, especially around Christmas.
“Absolutely not. The Bureau does not engage in such.” Tolson removed a small case from the briefcase, opened it, and took out a pair of gold-framed eyeglasses that she put on. The earpieces looped around her ears. Very vintage. Next, she took a thick brown accordion file from the briefcase and set the briefcase on the floor by her feet.
“What is that?” Robin leaned forward, unnerved.
“Your dossier.” Tolson undid the fastener—a string that looped around a small cardboard disk—on the accordion file. Robin hadn’t seen one of those in years.
“My what? Who the hell are you?”
Tolson opened the file and took out a manila folder, which she opened with a practiced flip. “Preston, Robin Anne. Date of birth, June 15, 1978.” She looked up from the file. “Seattle, Washington. Lovely city.”
“Okay, this isn’t funny. The joke is over.” Robin pushed back from her desk. She would kill Frank, if he was responsible for this.
“Bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon. Business.” Tolson regarded her over the top of her glasses. “But you started in art.”
Robin was halfway to the door before Tolson spoke again. “Master’s in business, University of Pennsylvania.” Robin’s fingers closed around the door knob, and she turned it. A strange sensation shot up her arm and into her chest, like a mild electrical shock. She pulled her hand back and started to reach for the knob again when she realized she was seated once again behind her desk. Her fingers trembled, and the small of her back was damp with nervous sweat.
“Somewhat of a business prodigy,” Tolson said. “Rose quickly here at Frost Enterprises.” She closed the file and let it lie flat in her lap. “The next logical step in your progression is CEO, most likely of an up-and-coming subsidiary.” She took her glasses off, disengaging them carefully from her ears. She held them in one hand.
“How do you have all that information on me? That has to be illegal,” Robin said, regaining some of her equilibrium amidst a flash of anger. “I assure you, Ms. Tolson, you will be hearing from my attorney.”
“Gerald Moorhouse, of Moorhouse, Sanders, and Craig.” Tolson sat back and regarded her with a gaze as readable as England’s cliffs of Dover. “The Bureau has scheduled a meeting with him, as well. But that’s neither here nor there.” She smiled, the kind of indulgent but patronizing smile Robin remembered from some of her childhood teachers who were about to phone her mom.
“How do you know my lawyer?” She picked up her desk phone receiver again and held it to her ear. Still dead. She replaced it with extra emphasis.
“Ms. Preston, in all honesty, I argued against this meeting. At your annual case review—”
“My what? What are you talking about?”
“The Bureau analyzes hundreds of individual cases each year. At its discretion, it assigns certain cases to agents based on several factors. Those include whether the Bureau’s Board of Advisors feels the individual is salvageable.”
Salvageable? Robin’s previous indignation dissolved into uncertainty. “What does that mean?”
“Redeemable, basically.” Tolson tapped the file on her lap with her glasses. “Strong childhood, good deeds interspersed with the usual foibles and mistakes of children that carried over into high school. Overall, you displayed general acts of kindness along with the usual high school drama and angst, the latter of which was exacerbated most certainly by your struggles to keep your sexual orientation hidden until college.” Tolson regarded her. “No doubt to cope with your father’s indiscretions and continued absences.”
Robin hadn’t realized she was gripping the edge of her desk until her fingertips hurt. She forced herself to relax her hands. “That’s personal. How the hell do you know that?” She would kill Frank. With her bare hands.
“We at the Bureau of Holiday Affairs know most everything about you, Ms. Preston. Within proper parameters, of course.”
“What do you mean?”
“We know when you’re sleeping. We know when you’re awake. And we know when you’ve been bad or good.” Tolson cocked her head. “Surely you’re familiar with that adage.”
Robin stared at her. She had to hand it to Frank. This was by far her brother’s best practical joke since...well, it had been a while. She was unnerved enough that she didn’t even remember sitting down after that weird shock at the door. And since it was clearly a joke—there was no other way anybody could know that much about her—she decided to relax and go along with it. Besides, who actually used that line from a goofy Christmas song?
“We noticed a change, however, your third year of college.” Tolson tapped the manila file again, this time with one of her fingertips. Perfectly manicured, Robin noticed. Her nail polish matched her suit. Once this was over, and after she chewed Frank a new asshole, she might track Tolson down and ask her out.
“We attributed the change to Jill Chen’s breakup with you, your mother’s death, and in the following months, an overall existential crisis that left you bereft of previous foundations. And, unfortunately, drove you to engage in indiscretions in your personal life. No doubt modeled by your father.”
“Really? An existential crisis? Care to elaborate?” She smirked, choosing to ignore the reference to her mother.
“I believe you would refer to it as, and I quote, ‘an increase in general asshole-ness.’”
Robin’s smirk shifted to a frown. That was a low blow on Frank’s part.
“Not to correlate that with business school or business in general. There are thousands of individuals engaged in business pursuits all over the world who do not slide into asshole-ness.” She added emphasis to the last word to indicate she was still quoting Robin. “In your case, however, it seems you used your new field as a way to mask older and better ways of approaching problems and to emphasize less desirable characteristics in their stead.” Tolson paused and took another sheet of paper out of the file and put her glasses back on. “I’ll cite one example here. Allison Wagner.”
Robin clenched her teeth. “Her résumé wasn’t as strong as mine.”
“Nevertheless, deliberately misdirecting her with regard to the deadline date for the fellowship was simply not sporting. And Matthew Jacobs?”
Frank was toast. How did he even know about that?
“Mr. Jacobs developed the business plan that you submitted as your own to win the seminar competition your last year of classwork during your master’s degree.” Somehow, Tolson’s accent made it sound even worse.
“To your credit,” Tolson continued, “you did appear to experience some remorse about that. And about Wagner. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after the fact.” Tolson slipped the paper back into the folder and removed her glasses.
“It was just business.”
Tolson raised her eyebrows. “There are standards regarding ethics in business as well, Ms. Preston.”
Robin hunched her shoulders. “That was years ago.”
“Lydia Evans,” Tolson responded. “Joseph Spinelli.”
Robin sat up straighter. “There is no way in hell you could know that. I just signed those papers this morning.” Nervous sweat gathered at her collar. Had Laura tipped her?
“I told you, Ms. Preston,” Tolson said. “It is the Bureau’s job to know these things.” She retrieved her briefcase from the floor, put the manila folder in it, and returned her glasses to their case before she put it inside as well. She latched the briefcase and returned it to the floor. “Now. As I was saying, I argued against this visit because I don’t think you’re redeemable.”
“Hold on. What does that mean?” Screw Frank. She’d drag more info out of Tolson.
“In more casual parlance, I believe you are a lost cause. Some people continue to engage in behaviors that are generally motivated by mean-spiritedness or a lack of empathy for their fellows. They learn these behaviors at some point during their lives and continue to use them as coping mechanisms. Some cases are, of course, genuinely unredeemable due to various psychological issues that the Bureau doesn’t handle, but others might be, given the opportunity to change their ways.” She tapped the arm of her chair a few times. “Many of these have what you might call an epiphany, and surprisingly, it does stick.”
“So you’re my epiphany?” Robin said, sarcastic.
Tolson smiled. “Of course not. I’m your current case manager. Not that I was pleased about that, since I have a one hundred percent rating at the Bureau for ensuring that my cases have their redeemable moment. Or moments. Some need a progression of smaller epiphanies to point them in the right direction.” She straightened. “But I don’t shy from a challenge, even though I am on record as strongly advising against this course of action where you’re concerned.”
Typical bureaucrat, Robin thought. Passing the buck.
“Regardless of your opinion regarding my place of employment and methodologies,” Tolson said, as if she’d read Robin’s mind, “I am here to do a job. With that in mind, you will have three more visitors between now and Christmas Day.”
You have to be kidding. Robin fought an urge to roll her eyes.
Tolson stood and picked up her briefcase. “They will, of course, keep me informed on your case.”
“Of course.” Robin put extra snark in her tone.
“They don’t necessarily share their tactics with me ahead of time, so I can’t speak to those. But they all know they have two weeks before Christmas Day to schedule their visits in coordination with each other. And once this process has begun, the Bureau does not stop it for any reason.” She paused, as if letting that sink in.
“What if I don’t want your visitors?”
“Our cases never do. No one likes the mirrors we hold up to them.” She smoothed the front of her jacket. “Good luck, Ms. Preston.” She turned and moved effortlessly to the door, which she opened with no problem. It closed with a soft click behind her.
Robin let out a breath. “Frank, you dick,” she muttered. She reached for her cell phone just as a knock sounded on the door. “Come in.”
Laura entered. She held a stack of papers up and moved toward Robin’s desk.
“Did Ms. Tolson leave a card?” Robin asked as Laura handed her the papers.
“Ms. Tolson. The woman who was just here.”
Laura’s brow creased in puzzlement. “Here? In your office?”
Robin studied her. “You didn’t see her?”
“No. You were just at my desk with the other paperwork.” Robin glanced at her laptop screen, which was functional now. The clock on it read 9:59 A.M. “What the hell?” she muttered.
“Never mind.” Robin stood. She’d go for a coffee. A big, strong cup from the café at street level. That would cure anything. “I’ll be right back.” She left Laura in her office and headed for the elevators. She was just working too hard. She always got stressed this time of year. But she couldn’t shake the chill wrapped around her spine.
The elevator doors opened onto the spacious lobby of the Frost building.
“Good morning, Ms. Preston.” The guard at the info desk nodded at her. She could never remember his name.
“Did you see a woman come through here a few minutes ago? Burgundy suit, dark hair, briefcase?”
“You’re sure? It would’ve been the last ten or fifteen minutes.”
“No, ma’am. Hold on and I’ll check the cameras.” He appeared to be looking at something beneath the counter. “No. Nobody like that. Would you like to see?”
She shook her head and continued to the exit. She was definitely working too hard.