“Ah hell,” Marinette cursed under her breath. She pulled an artifact from the half-assed packing material and suppressed an internal rant. The preparator from London who packaged the artifact for the exhibit did a terrible job, and now she was going to have to explain why the scepter of Tutankhamun was missing the crystal sphere from its crook.
Juleka, her assistant, poked her head around another box. She scrutinized the condition of the scepter with her usual emotionless indifference.
“Call in a favor to Max,” Marinette sighed, before laying the scepter back into the box. “I’m going to write a scathing letter to the curator at the museum in London, they are going to hear about this.”
Juleka nodded and began furiously typing away at her iPad. “What should I tell Max?”
“Tell him I need the new conservator down here asap, and to sweet talk her for me because she hates my guts.”
“I suppose I should include your usual bribe?” asked Juleka in a disinterested monotone.
“Tell him I’ll bring him breakfast from my parent’s bakery all week if he does this for me.” Marinette breathed a sigh and set the box on the cart labeled for items that needed fixing.
Her museum was running an exhibit on Ancient Egypt, having just received the exhibition pieces from their previous show in a London museum. Except now her schedule was compromised because one of the pieces was damaged due to poor handling and care. She cast a look at the myriad of other boxes that still needed to be catalogued for inventory.
“Juleka, can you check over the other pieces, and call me once you finish inventory? I’ll be back in an hour; I have a meeting with Ms. Bourgeois.”
Her assistant gave half a nod.
Marinette shuddered at the thought of her upcoming meeting. Chloe Bourgeois, the Mayor’s daughter, was one of their sponsors and apparently she was “unhappy about something,” and her boss decided it was her job to smooth things out. Not that it’s going to matter anyway, she thought bitterly. Chloe always found something to be pissed off about, and nothing Marinette said or did would change that.
She spared one more look at the boxes and Juleka, who was nosing through said boxes, decided that inventory was in good hands and headed off towards the front of the building.
Along the way she passed by the roped off section of the museum that was being renovated for the Egyptian exhibit she was overseeing. She felt a swell of pride at the sight of the opaque plastic sheets obscuring the view, and the neat little signs with Egyptian themes telling guests what to anticipate. This would be her biggest and most prestigious show since becoming a museum curator. She was still pretty young, only twenty-seven, and the success of this exhibit would be the nail that either made or broke her career.
Her heels clicked against the polished tile as she strode on by. The usual security guard waved to her on the way out, and she flashed him a friendly smile. She stepped out into the afternoon sun, sucked in a lungful of fresh air, and attempted to expel her dread along with it. Her eyes fluttered closed as she let the air escape through her nose and started down the steps toward the parking garage.
Don’t screw this up. It’s just Chloe. She opened her eyes again just in time to dodge the man standing in front of her. But failed to land the last step of the stairs and ended up diving nose first into the concrete instead.
“Ow, ow… ow.” Marinette hissed as she brushed off her clothes and sat back on her knees, giving her appearance a quick assessment.
“Are you okay?” The man, whom she spared a tackle in favor of becoming intimate with the ground, turned to offer her a hand.
“Yeah, nothing’s broken.” She poked a finger through the newly acquired hole torn in the sleeve of her blazer and wiggled it around. It was a small tear, she could easily mend it, and she had a spare blazer in her car in case of emergencies. Given her level of klutziness, and how frequently she managed to spill coffee on herself, a change of clothing was a necessary precaution.
“Did I cause that?” The man sounded genuinely concerned, so she took his hand letting him haul her back on her feet.
“It’s not your fault,” Marinette amended, and tried to hide the damage. She tilted her head to look at him. “It’s nothing I can’t fix...” her words trailed off and died in the back of her throat.
“Are you sure? I can pay to fix that. Hell, I can buy you a new one.”
She didn’t even hear his words. Her eyes were too busy darting over the contours of his face and sending a cacophony of signals to her brain that she was unable to sort out. Helpful Man was blonde, and tall, kinda tall, taller than her, but she was sorta short. He was also handsome, with a cut jaw and swooping nose line. He had eyes like wheat grass in the sunshine and perfect brows that were scrunched together in concern.
He asked me something. I need to reply. What did he ask? Marinette couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d seen this man before. His face was so familiar it was starting to make her itch. Her eyes made another pass over his face, reminding her that he was still waiting for an answer.
“Yes,” she assured him, hoping that was the correct response to whatever it was that he asked.
“You’re sure it’s not my fault, or yes, I can pay to replace it?” he asked for clarification. The expression on his face softened a little bit now that she was speaking again instead of staring at him like an idiot.
“Yes, I-No! My fault! Don’t replace it!” Her sudden outburst startled them both. She had to scrunch her eyes shut and look down just to unscramble her thoughts. “I gotta go, I’m late.” She stepped away from him so fast she almost tripped again, but caught herself this time. He called after her but she was already away and escaping.
A quick glance at her phone told her she had less than a half hour to change and meet Chloe. She didn’t have time to fumble over words in front of a handsome stranger whom she swore up and down she’d seen before.
“Only you have the talent required to make a fool of yourself in front of everybody,” she chastised under her breath. She managed to weave her way through the parking garage and make it to her car without any more mishaps. She unlocked the door with more force than was necessary, growling under her breath. “Way to make impressions, Marinette. What are you? Fifteen? Is this high school where you drop your books in front of a hot guy and blush shamelessly while he picks them up for you?” She tossed her purse into the passenger seat and plopped down behind the wheel.
Marinette started the ignition of her little yellow Fiat Panda and pulled out of the parking garage aggressively. It took a few minutes to regain her composure, and when she expelled a breath it disturbed some of her bangs that had settled on her nose. She passed by a couple streets, and checked her phone to confirm the address she was supposed to meet Chloe. When Marinette looked up again she was passing by a billboard with a Men’s fashion ad.
“Shit!” She slammed the breaks out of shock and realization, and sent a simultaneous prayer thanking God that no one was behind her. “That was Adrien Agreste.”
Her meeting with Chloe took more than an hour, in fact it took three hours. By the time she finished placating their sponsor it was already dark.
The Parisian night life was in full swing, cars zipping up and down the street when Marinette stepped out of the Le Grande Paris hotel and signaled the valet to bring her car around. She checked the time on her phone, showing just past nine, and saw several texts from Juleka informing her boss that she had finished inventory and even emailed her a draft of the scathing letter Marinette intended to write.
There was another text informing her that Max was staying late to work on the security programs for the Egyptian exhibit and that he was hungry and calling in that favor Marinette promised.
“The bakery is closed,” she mumbled to herself. “Max is just gonna have to settle for cheap take out.”
Regardless she made good on her promise, when she got her car from the valet she picked up Greek takeout on her way back to the museum. The parking garage was nearly vacant at this hour, so she had no trouble finding a parking space near the exit and under a bright security light.
The night security guards at the front desk gave her friendly nods when Marrinette flashed her ID at them, and she hurried on by into the darkened halls of the museum towards the wing with all the offices. She passed by her own office on the way, and cast a longing look at the dark neglected interior. Once upon a time, it was organized and professional looking. Now it was a mess, with paperwork lining every surface of her desk and large blueprints pinned to all the walls.
Her destination was an office second from the end, and the lights were still on inside. Well, Max is still here. Marinette crept up to the doorway and poked her head inside. Just as she suspected Max was bent over his desk typing furiously into his keyboard, surrounded by empty cola cans and candy wrappers. His glasses were sitting comically on the end of his nose, tape holding the center together because Marinette had knocked them off his face a week ago, and then proceeded to step on them. All by accident, but the replacement set had yet to come in. He was wearing an olive-green button down, suspenders, and brown slacks. His usual tweed jacket was thrown over the back of his swivel chair and there was stubble along his jaw hinting to her that he had been in that office for over twenty-four hours.
“Would it kill you to go home and sleep?” She asked, stepping behind him to lay the takeout on top of his impressive collection of candy wrappers.
“I took a nap this morning until lunch time.” He gestured at the swivel chair he was sitting in as if it served as a suitable sleeping spot. “Eight-thirty-two until twelve minutes passed noon, to be precise.” He only paused when the smell of food reached his nose. Max pushed away from his desk and regarded Marinette over the top of his glasses. “This isn’t bakery food,” he criticized.
“Bakery closes at six, Juleka texted the food emergency at seven. I’m really sorry Max, if you don’t like what I got you then I’ll eat it.”
“No, no,” he assured, “this is fine.” The way he said it made it sound like he was doing her a favor, but he pulled the bag of food open too hastily.
“You haven’t eaten all day, have you?”
“I had a protein bar at two,” he mumbled around a mouthful of gyro.
She rolled her eyes, and perched on the edge of his desk. Her gaze glanced around the tiny office before settling on his computer screen. She deduced from the gibberish that he was working on some sort of code for the new exhibit. She looked away after a moment and spared the nerdy man another look.
Max was a longtime friend, she’d gone to school with him, and even back then he was a nerd. He had dark skin and a scrawny build, and his hair was wiry and pulled back in a short poofy ponytail. He used to keep it short, but over the past two years he let it grow out a little. It was a good look, different but good. His taste in clothing left something to be desired, but no matter how much Marinette insisted on helping update his wardrobe, he always refused.
“Any head way with Lila?” Lila was the museum’s new conservator. Max had a thing for her. She seemed to hit it off pretty well with Max, and she hated every cell in Marinette’s body.
“No, I haven’t asked her out on a date. And the next time you ask will probably be a no too.”
Marinette wrinkled her nose at his response, but decided not to press him on it. She’d been giving him a tough time over Lila for months. Max was too chicken to ask her out, and watching him squirm had been an endless source of amusement for her and Juleka.
“I’m gonna go double check the inventory, and put a big obvious sign on the box for Lila so she can’t pretend she didn’t see it in the morning.” She spared one more look at his computer. “Are you gonna pull another all-nighter?”
“No, I just need to finish up a few things, and email Lila for you. If you wait around for an hour I’ll walk you out to your car.”
“Sure.” She smiled warmly. Max knew how uncomfortable the parking garage made her feel in the dead of night, it was a relief that she’d have someone to accompany her.
Marinette left Max to his own devices and exited the office wing. The halls of the museum were dark, only the security lights breaking the inky blackness, barely illuminating the building. She had just passed the roped off area when a prickly feeling started up and down her spine. It was the uncanny feeling someone got when they could swear they were being watched.
A quick glance over her shoulder revealed nothing. So, she darted her eyes around the shadows looking for the source of her trepidation. The feeling intensified when her eyes settled on a corner tucked behind a couple of carved marble pillars. The shadows were thickest in that corner, the security lights failing to even touch it. She knew from memory that there was a door in over there. It was a maintenance door, and it was always locked. Double-triple locked.
But her anxiety told her she needed to check it just in case. Her anxiety also told her to get out of there and make a mad dash back to Max’s office where there was another soul and well-lit safety.
“Suck it up,” she growled under her breath. “This is your job.”
Marinette took a step towards the corner and swore a thousand times she saw the shadows shift. Something or someone was there and stepped behind the pillar. She fumbled in her pocket for her car keys and flicked on the small flashlight keychain she kept handy. The pitiful beam of light pushed against the shadows of the corner, and a few hesitant steps closer it bathed the maintenance door in an eerie blue light. No one was there. She cast the beam around, fished a bottle of pepper spray from her pocket then held it ready in front of her. After a minute of serious debate Marinette worked up the courage to peer behind the pillars. The key light chased the shadows away to reveal once again that no one was there.
She swallowed the thick lump in her throat and reached a hand for the maintenance door, never once taking her eyes off the rest of her surroundings. A quick try of the handle confirmed that the door was locked tight, and no one could have gone through it just now without her hearing.
“It was just a trick of the light, no one is here, quit being a fraidy cat.” Still she couldn’t shake the prickly feeling that someone was watching her. It felt like icy ants crawling up and down her spine and pooling in the base of her skull.
Sudden foot falls to her right caused her heart to leap into her throat in fright, and a bright beam of light flashed in her face from around a corner. She threw her arms over her face to shield her eyes from the assault, and tried to peer at the figure approaching her.
Marinette recognized the voice of one of the night guards almost instantly. He dropped the light when he verified it was her and she was all too eager to rush out of the corner and stand next to him. Relative safety at last, she thought.
“We saw you investigating the maintenance door on camera, is everything alright?”
She took a moment to calm her racing heart, trying to make sense of the shadow and anxiety she felt before. “You didn’t see anything on camera, did you?”
“No, but I’d be glad to go back and check if you think you saw something,” offered the guard.
“Yes please,” she said, then noticed the guard’s face adopt a pensive expression, and quickly added, “It was probably nothing, but I’d feel better to have it confirmed. If nothing else it might have been a trick of the light.”
The man nodded, and offered to walk Marinette to the storage room where all the exhibit pieces were being held. She accepted his offer without hesitation. Along the way he radioed his partner to go over the security footage of that corner. The farther they got away from the maintenance door the more the prickly feeling began to fade. By the time they reached the storage rooms the feeling of being watched had completely subsided.
Marinette was quick to go over the inventory. As usual Juleka was thorough and it seemed everything was accounted for and in appropriate shape. That meant the only piece that Lila would need to fix was the scepter, and Marinette covered its box in little vindictive neon-colored sticky notes with Lila’s named scrawled over them in bold letters.
If the witch said she didn’t see the box in the morning she would be a big fat liar. Hopefully Max requesting the favor was enough to butter up the conservator so she’d actually do her job.
Lila and Marinette never got along very well since the conservator started about five months ago. Lila liked to flirt with all the cute guys while on the job, both co-workers and museum patrons. She also liked to flake out on her job, and take long lunches. Her lack of work ethic drove Marinette insane. It also got on her nerves that Lila called her homely. Not to her face, she’d heard the insult second hand from gossip.
Marinette never considered herself homely, she was short, yeah. Only about 5’3” but she wore heals most days so that had to count for something. Her hair was black, but in the right light some people swore it shone blue, which was just fine because she had vivid blue eyes. She supposed her face was nothing extraordinary. Big forehead, small chin, Round nose with a spattering of light freckles over it and her cheeks. She kept her bangs styled so they’d hide her forehead, and most days the rest of her hair was kept in a messy bun because she was too busy to do anything fancy with it.
Most of the clothes she wore were designed by her own two hands. If museum curator didn’t pan out, she could always fall back on being a fashion designer. Or so she hoped. She was proud of her sense of style, and she thought her clothes were cute and professional. Of course, in comparison with Lila’s flirty outfits, Marinette’s attire was considered conservative.
In response to her self-conscious assessment she stared down at her chest and hips. Her chest was sorta small, but her hips more than made up for it. She didn’t quite have Lila’s hourglass figure, but Marinette thought her body was still shapely enough. Being a baker’s daughter meant she was never gonna have a model size waist but she was perfectly content with that. Curvy women still had fantastic appeal.
Why do I even care what Lila thinks? Marinette crushed a sticky note in her hand and let a curse slip out under her breath. Lila had this uncanny ability to strike savage blows at her self-esteem and it was starting to infuriate her.
She plastered a few more petty notes all over the box just to vent some angst, then packed up her things and joined the security guard who was waiting for her out in the hall. She double-triple locked the locks, punched in the security codes, and breathed a sigh of relief that her day was finally over and she could go home and throw back a couple glasses of wine.
She made it back to Max’s office without any issues. The prickly feeling didn’t return when she passed the maintenance door, and the guard bid her a polite farewell.
Marinette poked her head into the office and found Max in the same place she left him before. “You ready to go? ‘Cause I wrapped up my business for tonight and I got a date with Chardonnay.”
“Tall or short?”
“Tall, and it’ll be a threesome with Pinot Noir,” she replied suggestively.
Max locked down his computer and put the screen to sleep, when he pushed away from his desk he wiggled his thick brows playfully. “Sounds hot, any chance I’m invited to watch?”
“Hell no,” she shot back. “Go home and date your own wine.”
Marinette waited for him to gather his bag and toss his tweed jacket over one shoulder. He joined her at the door and locked down his own office before the two of them made their way out of the building. Upon approaching the parking garage, Marinette felt the return of the icy ants crawling over her spine, her gaze darted around so fast she hurt her neck in the process.
“What’s got you so worked up?” asked Max. His gaze followed hers feeding off the curator’s anxiety.
After a thorough scan of their surroundings she still didn’t see anything. No out of place suspicious shadows. No strangers. Nothing. She tried to pass it off as frayed nerves, and shot Max what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
“It’s nothing, I’m just really tired.”
He scrutinized her face for several long seconds, before accepting her explanation. But he still cast a wary glance over his shoulder when they entered the garage just in case someone might have been following them.
Marinette bid her co-worker goodnight and parted ways to their respective cars. Max drove an old American car that she forgot the name of, but it was classy with a long hood. She had to admit she felt infinitely better once she was in her Panda, pulling out of the parking garage. The feeling of being watched dissolved completely once she had put some distance between herself and the museum.
What she didn’t realize was that twice that night she should’ve looked up. Nobody ever looks up.