Lauren Mallard put her briefcase down on the bar, sat down, and sighed.
“Can I get you something, ma’am?”
She looked over at the sound of the bartender’s voice. “What?”
“What would you like to drink? The usual? You normally order dirty martinis, don’t you?”
“Mm… no, I need something stronger. Give me a tequila sunrise. And use the good tequila, understand?”
As the bartender busied herself with various bottles, Lauren looked down at her hands, studying her nails and noticing with disgust that one of them was chipped. Ugh, she thought, that’s the last thing I need.
“Hello,” a voice said next to her. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
She turned slowly, fixing her best dealing-with-strangers smile on her face. “Lauren Mallard. VP in charge of acquisitions at Strexcorp.” She held out a business card. “And you are?”
The man sitting next to her took the card, scanning it briefly. “The name’s Cutter.” He fished a card of his own out and handed it to her.
“Never heard of them,” she said. “What do you actually do, though? This doesn’t say.”
“What don’t I do?” Cutter said dryly. “I’m a… middleman. I manage things for my bosses.”
The bartender reappeared with Lauren’s drink, which she accepted gratefully. “Hey,” she said, “you want anything?”
Cutter blinked at her. “Mm? Oh… you can get me another port, if you like. The girl knows what brand I like.”
“Can I get a port for this guy? Whatever his usual brand is.”
“Certainly, ma’am.” The bartender reached for a bottle on the very top shelf. Lauren looked at her companion and raised an eyebrow. “How expensive is this stuff?”
“I’m sure it’s well within your salary as a VP.”
“So why are you hitting the tequila?” Cutter asked as his glass of port arrived.
“I used to be important. I used to work for a company that was actually great. Strexcorp was doing so well, everyone was happy, and productive, our profits were looking really good… but then my boss decides that we’re going for a new acquisition, a really big one, we were going to merge Desert Bluffs, that’s our town, with the one next door, it’s this horrible, awful place called Night Vale… honestly I don’t know what they thought was so good about it. But they’re the boss, so…”
“I know how you feel,” Cutter said. “Just once it would be nice if the directors could actually tell me what the big picture is. Just once. I put on a big show for the employees, to make them think that I know everything that goes on, but in a way I’m in the dark as much as them.”
Lauren took a big gulp of her drink, coughed, and said, “You too! It’s good to find someone who understands… the employees never do, they’re all but what about my family and but that will kill dozens of people, they can be so self-absorbed sometimes…”
The momentary silence was broken by a soft slurping sound, and they both turned around. Sitting in the booth directly behind them was a man in a dark suit with slicked-down hair, who was holding a juicebox and staring right at them.
Lauren drained the rest of her drink, and told the bartender to make her another. “And who are you?”
“The name’s Chamberlain. George Chamberlain.”
“Lauren Mallard,” she said, “and this here is Mr Cutter.”
“I heard you complaining about your employers.”
She frowned. “Yes…”
“Your employers have nothing on mine.”
“Ooh, who do you work for?” She took her new drink from the bartender and moved over to the booth. “Do tell.”
Chamberlain looked from Lauren to Cutter and back to Lauren. “I work for the HartLife Corporation, obviously. I deal with… problems. Specifically, I make problems go away.”
“Oooh that sounds interesting.”
“At least I used to. I was their best agent. But then they sent me after that Rourke kid. Ever since then it’s like I’m cursed.”
“Oh, kids are the worst. That little brat Tamika, she caused so much trouble, her and her little army. Ugh.”
“The worst part is, the kid was missing and they told me to find him, and they sent his mother with me. I killed her, though, so it was all right… at least I thought it was. That damn freak West went and brought her back, the bastard.”
“Oh, that sounds awful, doesn’t it, Cutter?”
“Mm, yes,” Cutter said, moving from the bar to the booth. “It is… irksome when you think you’ve got rid of someone and then it turns out that they’re actually still around.”
“And then, to make matters worse, they told me to kill this scientist. So I went out, did some reconnaissance, I had a whole plan…”
“You tried to kill a scientist? Good, I hate scientists,” Lauren said, clenching her teeth.
“But she kept getting away from me! I tried really hard but she kept getting away. And then the board of directors turns around and says that actually no, they don’t want her dead and they actually need her to run the city or something.”
“I don’t know,” Cutter added, “They have their uses. All you need is to find a way to make them… appropriately motivated.”
“So then they just told me to watch her. Totally disrespecting my skills, my professional values… they don’t appreciate me at all.”
Lauren patted Chamberlain’s shoulder gently. “There, there. We understand.”
Chamberlain looked down at her hand. “Please don’t touch me,” he said, and she drew her hand back slowly.
“You know, we should meet up more often. We all need to blow off steam occasionally, and none of us can do it at work…”
“I’ve certainly had worse company,” Cutter said.
“….I wonder if I could get them to keep juiceboxes here,” Chamberlain mused. “Then I wouldn’t need to carry them around with me…”
Several drinks (and juiceboxes) later, the three exited the bar. When they were gone, the bartender collected the empty glasses from the table and wondered who the hell she’d been serving drinks to all evening.