When she'd seen the envelope on the mat on Saturday morning, the ivory parchment as thick as paperboard and sealed with actual sealing wax, her first reaction had been a surge of excitement, but by the time she'd gone back upstairs and read the letter of invitation – which was, surprisingly, handwritten in blue-black ink, the baroque loops of the round hand as meticulously formed as the wording – she'd come down from the clouds. The whole thing had such an archaic, eighteenth century surreality that she'd laughed and tossed it in the bin.
She'd intended to forget about it, but as the day went on curiosity began to eat at her. It had to be a scam, right? A bait-and-switch sort of thing? Design a letter to put out a subliminal whiff of wealth and power, send it to everyone in the postcode who met certain demographic criteria – mid-twenties, unmarketable degree, just skirting the dole – then try to sell anyone who fell for it resume counseling, or dangle jobs at a telemarketing farm. She preferred this explanation, preferred being one of thousands, to the other explanation – that she'd been singled out by a creeper who thought that she'd dress to his grieving widow fetish and be stupid enough to go to an office complex for a "job interview" on a Sunday morning of all times. Might as well invite her to pole dance on the docks at midnight, if whoever it was thought she was that stupid.
Still … something about the whole business kept bouncing around in her head, until, finally, after she'd eaten her cheap take-out supper, killed two roaches and a water beetle in the bathroom, and tried unsuccessfully to distract herself with a random page from Confessio Amantis, she fished the letter back out. It wasn't looking so elegant now, soggy and stained as it was, but nevertheless when she held it up to the bulb and saw the watermark, the unexpected, had-to-be-authentic watermark, the excitement was back. Because, seriously, would the average creeper go through the trouble of using authentic government stationery? She didn't think so.
Unless, of course, they were really, really determined to lure her.
In the end, though, it had been the address that did it. Not that she believed there would actually be a legit interviewer there, not for a minute, but her curiosity had been piqued enough that she knew she'd regret not finding out the real story behind the letter. She considered going to Mister Narali and mentioning the details in the letter, on the very slim chance that she wouldn't be coming back, but in the end she didn't. After all, it was easier just to leave a letter for the police to find.
Wear a modest, long-sleeved black dress. Eschew perfume, jewelry, or hair ornaments.
She was tempted to splurge for a cab both ways, but in the end she took the bus out. There were two pillowy middle-aged women at the back of the bus, their heads bent together in gossip in a way that reminded her of The Wedding Dance. For just an instant she wished she could afford to work on the degree: at least then she'd have someone to talk to about something other than the latest media idiocy.
She glanced away from the matrons to see the elderly couple across the aisle eying her with sympathy. It puzzled her at first, until it sunk in that they probably thought she was in mourning.
Be prepared to answer questions, not ask them.
Such an odd thing to include in an interview letter: it was as if they'd said, "And remember, it's generally not acceptable to piss on the carpet."
It was a good thing she'd taken the stance that she was only pretending to take the letter seriously, because that meant that her nerves didn't ramp up until she'd gone inside to find a legitimate security desk. Two actual gun-carrying guards – one standing, one sitting – looked her over coldly in a way that reminded her of the nuns in primary school, who made her feel guilty even when she'd done nothing. As she nervously explained to Standing that she wasn't sure who she was there to see because she'd got a letter, Sitting picked up a ringing phone, listened for a moment, said, "Very good sir," and then, after he'd hung up the phone, "Fifth floor."
These two magical words warmed Standing into respectful deference. "I'll need to search your bags, miss," he said. Her cheap mobile went into a plastic bag and into a drawer. The camera feature, she supposed, which was absolutely ridiculous, but she signed the form for it anyhow, then followed Standing through the security arch, and beyond that into a locked lift, down the hushed halls of the fifth floor and into an understated reception room.
After Standing left it began to sink in that it was real, she was actually going to be interviewed for a position in the Service. She had no idea why on earth they'd have any interest in a medieval art/philosophy/comparative religion baccalaureate with absolutely no office skills, but she supposed she'd find out soon enough.
Her stomach was in full knotty tumble by the time the inner door had opened. The thin, well-dressed ginger-haired man who stood there had the faintest of perfunctory smiles that didn't do anything to offset the cool, appraising way he looked at her. As she stood and walked across the insanely plush carpet – her feet didn't feel as though they were connecting to anything solid – she saw his eyes flick to her hand, saw the almost-smile disappear as thin lips pressed together disapprovingly.
"Sit down, please." he said emotionlessly without looking at her, returning to the chair behind his desk and beginning to page through the papers in the folder on his blotter.
Thinking she'd blown the interview even before saying a word, she sat with her left hand covering her right, watching him read, wondering what the papers were and what they said about her. As the minutes ticked by her pulse thudded louder and louder in her ears and her face started to burn with disappointment. It was just a simple band! It's not like she had a diamond tiara or rubies dripping down her cleavage!
He closed her folder and looked up. "Thank you for your time." The smile was bigger now, but still didn't reach his eyes.
The whole thing was so chafingly unfair that she said – because damn the Speak when you're spoken to bullshit as well – she said, "Sir, I realize that the letter said no jewelry, but this ring's been passed through my family for seven generations. It's the only family I have left. I'd never accept employment at a place where I was required to take it off."
He blinked and looked genuinely surprised, then made a small hm sound which she took to mean Oh so you're one of those cheeky disrespectful uppity liberated types, well, there'll be none of that nonsense here and so she'd stood and smiled and said she'd see herself out, thank you very much, and held her head up as if it was a privilege to walk unaccompanied down the hushed halls and the lifts with the unnumbered buttons and the echoing stairs, ignoring Standing and Sitting calling after her to pick up her mobile, because there was no one in there she could call anyhow.
She ignored the waiting cabs because she needed to walk, damnit, and fortunately the black pumps were suitable for that, at least.
There was a long black sedan parked by the flat, and as she untangled her key an attractive, dark-haired woman dressed in black got out of the car and called her by name, holding out an envelope sealed with wax and addressed in English round hand.
"This and that. Formalities and paperwork. Employment and non-disclosure contracts. Where to go for your physical. Our doctors are very good." She reached in her pocket and took out a plastic bag. "Oh, and your mobile. Though you'll be getting a new one."
"Wait, I got it the job?" When the woman didn't reply she asked, "Who are you?"
"You can call me Thalia."
"It's … how can I accept a job when I don't even know what I'll be doing?"
All she expected to get back was a I really can't say but instead Thalia said, "We attend, observe, and provide."
She shook her head. "Provide? Provide what?"
"Information. Structure. Reassurance."
As this answer made no more sense than the previous, she asked, "Why me? I've never taken any civil service exams, filled out any applications. Did I tick a ticky box for something in grammar school?"
Thalia smiled, a smile that was warm and sisterly and made the corners of her hazel eyes crinkle. "He overheard you talking about Breugel."
It took a minute for her to remember. "Oh! Right! On line at the cash machine – yes – I didn't know he was there that day. Does he bank there?"
"He wasn't," Thalia said, "and no, he doesn't."
"Your first duty of the shift will always be to log in and get your Alias of the Day," said a woman who'd introduced herself as Alecto. "Oh, lucky you, they've assigned you a pretty name! You'll probably get it most of the time, unless you're subbing for someone." Alecto had met her at the front desk and taken her around to get her photo ID and various requisitioned items.
"And now, 'Anthea,' let's do lunch."
The private dining room's round table was disconcerting – all but the two empty chairs were filled by attractive brunettes dressed in black. She recognized Thalia, and Alecto introduced the others.
"Look at you all," Anthea said. "It's – "
"Like a Fellini film?"
"You've got questions – "
"We've got answers."
"So what," Anthea asked, holding up her hands, "what is all this?"
The oldest of the ladies – who had been introduced as Vesta – said, "We're an information management team. We remember things, we look things up, we screen the mail, log tasks, manage his schedule. We – "
"Are a hive mind."
"Have interchangeable brains."
"Functional in every time zone."
"He doesn't sleep much."
" – provide support round the clock," Vesta said firmly, with looks of mock exasperation at the others. "The goal is to hand off so smoothly that he never notices the shift change."
"How do you – we – manage to coordinate all that?" Anthea asked.
"We stay in touch," Vesta said. She held up her Blackberry.
"We leave each other love notes," said – was it Anactoria? – with a grin. "A liveblog chatstream."
"Oh." She got it now. "So we're like … a human database program?"
"She's quick," Thalia said.
"And the clothes," Anthea went in, "I thought it was like a fetish – "
"Widowed bondage nuns." Clearly, Anactoria was the joker of the group.
" – so if we're the computer, the clothes are like, the visual equivalent of the desktop picture? Less distracting than a slide show."
They drank a toast, and she was in.
There were a few more ins and outs, of course, but by the end of the first week she had them down.
Mycroft disliked shaking hands with women, but was enough of a gentleman to take a hand if offered. His preferred way of receiving reports was to read them with the preparer present, although his expectation was that a report should never require verbal supplementation. She had unlimited sick days, and according to her contract was expected to take twelve weeks a year paid vacation.
That last seemed like a typographical error, but before she remembered to ask about it something happened that clarified the situation.
She was sitting in the outer office, being shown the finer points of the MSS (Mycroft Scheduling System) by Nebetha, when a young female courier came by with a dispatch pouch. The courier had laughingly blurted an apology about having to stop off and buy tampons: Nebetha had glanced at the closed door of Mycroft's office as she signed the delivery form, then crooked her finger and whispered something in the courier's ear.
"Oh!" The blonde had said. "Got it. Sorry."
"Good girl," Nebetha had said.
Anthea got the message, too.
ANTH: he never hits on anyone
ANTH: surprised mostly
TORI: if we were robots he wouldnt have to pay rag time.
PERS: but female robots
TORI: big brassy cone tits
MEDE: 4 srs
As the months go by, she begins to comprehend the deeper, unstated mission of The Ladies in Black (Torie kept vowing to do a logo): as interchangeable as they may be to Mycroft, as much of a distraction as they may be to the various personages they are asked to accompany and observe, they are essential. Not only because they cushion the brittle sharpness of Mycroft's personality for those who come in contact with him, but because, for Mycroft himself, they balance his universe, providing perspectives and insights that might not occur to him.
It wasn't that Mycroft lacked warmth and empathy: he just did not access them easily.
As she sits and watches him read her report on John, she knows that she has provided exactly what he needs. Not only bland facts, but also in her assessement of John's personality. The guidelines for the assessment ask questions such as What type of person is the subject, what makes them tick? What do they dream of, and how do they react when their dreams die? but in this case she knows that behind those is another, unstated question, Mycroft's deepest point of concern: What effect will associating with this person have on my brother? And though in general terms there were red flags—a self-effacing introversion, and a strain of repressed bitterness that could become explosive—she has decided that the wounded vet is absolutely essential. He has courage, and a sense of humor, and a down-to-earth quality. Breugelesque.
And so, because it is the task of the Moirai, the Parcae, the Norns, to decide which hand holds the thread, when Mycroft looks up to ask – his eyelashes in the sunlight like the curled legs of a dead spider – "Is he a risk?" she says no.
~ The End ~
Again, I thank samsarapine for being one of the best beta readers ever. Pointing out that the LiB as created here take the place of the Diogenes Club helped my confidence in the story more than I can express.
Additional author's notes and story creation ramblings here.
(08) 11 Nov 2013 ~ reworking of last section