Arla returned to her desk and took off her coat. Inhaling deeply, she consciously tucked her shoulders into her back pockets. Opening her eyes she caught Cassandra doing the same in front of her work station. It was a trick they had learned from their yoga class. It was vital to honor and feel the curves of the body. And for an hour and a half a week, both Cassandra and Arla did. A loud thud from the executive floor above, made everyone in the bullpen look up.
“Fiver on Tony,” Peter said. His arm waved a five dollar bill in the air, his head popping up over his monitor.
“Save your money,” Harry said coming around the corner. “We all know my brother.” Harry’s dark blue eyes rolled as he spoke. His voice raspy from years of hand rolled cigarettes, strained as if it had grown tired of working for the past sixty years.
Peter’s head disappeared behind his monitor once more, and the office returned to work quieter than before.
Cassandra looked over at Arla. Their assessment of this month’s Managing Meeting was clearly going as well as they had expected. Arla waved at Harry as he approached Cassandra’s desk and turned to hang her coat on the back of her chair.
While the companies that both Cassandra and Arla worked for in the same field and occasionally involved in the same projects, none had ever been as lucrative or as large as the Worldly Waters Aquarium project.
Arla curled into her office chair and pulled herself forward into her desk. Reaching back she released her hair from its bun and shook it out. She and Cassandra had just returned from their lunch breaks. The warmer days of Fall were gone, leaving only the colder ones ahead. But for now, both women could handle the fresh,chilly air as they walked through the park.
Unlocking her computer, Arla waited for her desktop to load. The soft jingle of Harry’s keys grew louder, and looking up she saw him standing in front of her desk.
Harry nodded, and pointed upstairs, “they need you too,” he said before walking away.
Arla pressed “Ctrl + L” on her keyboard and pushed her chair back. Grabbing her notebook and phone from her desk she walked through the open space to Cassandra’s desk.
“We’ve been summoned,” she said.
“Apparently so,” Cassandra replied.
Arla waited as her friend rushed to finish regrouping herself. Peter, whose desk was to the right of Cassandra’s looked up.
“How was the walk,” he said, putting his cell phone onto his desk?
“Good,” Arla answered. “It’s nice out, just a little chilly. Are you headed up as well?”
“No,” Peter said shifting in his seat, “thankfully the sales portion of that project is over. Joe hasn’t come down yet though. Neither has Devon.”
Arla looked at the desk to the left of Cassandra, neat and tidy and no sign of Joe. Behind her the row of desks were also empty. While she was used to being all alone in her corner of the world, Wide Load Logistics usually had a full house in the office. She knew Alex was out on vacation, but Roger and Joe were not around.
“Roger’s up there too?”
Peter laughed, “didn’t you notice how quiet it was today? Roger’s in the field.”
Cassandra laughed as she finally stepped out from behind her desk. “I’ll be back,” she said to Peter. “You ready?”
“Yup,” Arla said, turning on her heel.
Before they had rounded the corner, Peter’s phone was back in his hand. His thumb rapidly shooting all over the screen.
Arla looked up over her right shoulder at Cassandra’s elbow.
“It looks good,” Arla said.
“Really,” Cassandra asked?
“Yes,” she said dipping down, “and not because you almost knock me out when you start messing with it.”
Cassandra laughed, “I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay,” Arla said straightening up, “seriously though, Cass, the bob suits you.”
Reaching forward Cassandra opened the door to the stairway and let Arla go first.
“Thank you,” she said as she passed by.
“No problem. I’m just not used to short hair.”
“It’s not short,” Arla interrupted, “just shorter than what you’re used to. Besides, nothing is as short in this place as your boss’ temper, not even me.”
Cassandra laughed again.
“You’re like a fun size piece of bubble gum,” Cassandra said.
“Definitely not the hair – ”
“Or the glasses -”
“Must be my bubbly disposition,” Arla said laughing.
“Stop,” Cassandra said, “these stairs are going to kill me if we keep this up.”
“Might as well laugh while we can,” Arla said, stopping two stairs above Cassandra. From here they were almost the same height. “For both of us to be called up here, something has to be wrong with WWA.”
The smile fell from Cassandra’s face. “Probably,” she conceded, “and if I had to guess, I’d say it’s not you guys or Smart Tanks. It’s definitely us.”
“You’re probably not wrong, but that’s because at Unstoppable Imports, we can’t be stopped. But even if it is you guys, it’s not you, Cass.”
Cassandra looked up, a piece of her angular bob falling in front of her face. For a second Arla watched as the tears began to well up.
“You are understaffed, underpaid, and under a lot of stress. But you still get things done. So, fix that bob of yours once more, and let’s get this over with.” Arla closed her speech with a nod, sliding her ombré of hot to baby pink hair forward, tangling into her electric pink glasses. “Shit,” she whispered as she untagled herself.
“You’re right,” Cassandra agreed, “you look as serious as a dancing cupcake, but you’re right.”
“Gee, thanks,” Arla smiled as she turned and made her way up the rest of the stairs. “Your turn,” she said, opening the door to the executive floor.
Cassandra plastered a smile to her face and walked through to the open space. There were three offices upstairs – one for each companies’ owner – and a conference room. Each had a solid wall for privacy, but a glass front which negated the effort. Loud noises were coming down the hall from the direction of the conference room, but Cassandra held her form. Walking past the office on the left, the largest office with the best view, was empty. As the noises from the conference room increased, it was clear where Tony was. The office across from it, the second largest office, but with a view of the highway was also empty. While Ryan wasn’t one to yell, Tony had to be yelling at someone. Cassandra looked down at Arla and raised an eyebrow. Arla’s shoulders shrugged as they reached the large,140” x 48” x 32” fish tank filled with one-thousand gallons of water.
Arla made a left at the tank. Running her hand on the wall hiding the sump, and the filters, Arla saw Cassandra walking down the hallway on the other side. Despite being beckoned upstairs, and most likely to the conference room, Arla liked to take any moment she could to walk by the tank by herself. After all, it homed her own potamotrygon leopoldi, Black Diamond Stingrays, and other South American beauties. Getting to the edge of the tank, Arla walked toward her boss’ corner office, the smallest of the three, with a view of treetops and the parking lot. To her surprise, Stan was sitting there staring intensely at this monitor. From his profile, Arla could tell something was bothering him. Perhaps, Unstoppable Imports isn’t as unstoppable as we supposed, she thought to herself.
Turning around Arla pointed through her chest to indicate to Cassandra that Stan was there. Nodding back at her, Cassandra closed her eyes and took a deep breath in, in tandem they released their breaths and rolled their shoulders back. Arla gave Cassandra a smile and turned back around facing Stan’s door. She heard Tony’s anger briefly burst through the open door, before Cassandra closed it behind her. Arla gave a quick rapt on Stan’s door and opened it with the point of her elbow.
“Just me,” Arla said, peeking her head into the door.
“Hello,” Stan said. His eyes still glued to the screen.
Arla put down her notebook and her phone, and pulled the chair from the corner of the room closer to Stan’s desk. It continued to be her routine for the past two years. Come in, get settled, and wait for Stan to have turned over his mindsetting.
“It drives me nuts,” Stan whispered.
Arla lifted her eyes from her notes. Stan was still looking at his computer, but his head, now slightly askew, was partially facing Arla. Closing her notebook, she pulled her legs onto the chair and crossed them. Inching the chair as close to Stan’s desk as possible. Her notebook, which had also become something of a habit, sat in her lap instead of its usual place on the desk. Inside of it, Arla kept detailed notes pertaining to their meetings, her tasks, general follow ups, including goal tracking and reminders tucked in the margins. Each notebook started stiff and crispy, and ended up soft and well worn.
“He’s trying to bring one in for the Worldly Waters Aquarium – not for the aquarium – for the owner. For his personal collection,” Stan continued now facing Arla.
“Tony,” she asked in a hushed tone. “Bring what in?”
Stan looked flatly from Arla to the tank behind her. His eyes resting near the top. Arla didn’t have to turn around to know what he was talking about.
“But the Australian arowanas are legal. I can even reach out to my friend John. The one who got me Lumpy,” Arla blurted out. Her arm bent back, her thumb jutted from her fist pointing up toward the top of the tank where Lumpy, the scleropages jardinii, slid toward the corner of the tank, gently pulling off to the right to avoid collision.
In all of the annoyance of the morning, Stan had forgotten about Lumpy, more specifically how Arla felt about the fish and all of its cousins. Stan raised his hands. His head bowed slightly. The light reflecting off his silver grey hair contrasting the thick black coif around it.
Arla sat straighter in an attempt to pull herself together.
“You mean he wants an Asian arowana,” Arla said.
Stan pulled his hands back and nodded. Arla tried to read inside Stan’s dark brown eyes, but her stomach rumbled and she thought of chocolates instead.
“Yes,” Stan offered, “but that doesn’t mean we’re doing it.”
Arla’s shoulders dropped, the baby pink tips of her fair fell forward blending into her nudish/pink tank top. Gathering her hair, Arla dropped it behind her head and tugged her black blazer into place.
Stan looked around his desk for a distraction. Arla was waiting for him to elaborate, already her notebook was opened and back on his desk, her liquid gel pen poised for instructions. Her pale blue, almost gray eyes, bore into his.
“I already said no” Stan said lightly rubbing the bridge of his nose. A habit he had picked up the third of fourth time it had healed after breaking. “Obviously there is a tremendous amount of money in it for us – wait, wait, wait.” Stan said, raising his hands again, this time keeping his head held high.
A short huffed, breath escaped Arla’s nose.
“Tony still hasn’t paid for the five hundred dollar fire eel sitting in his office or the 40 piranhas he got for his son, Billy. If he can’t settle up an invoice for $1500, can we really expect him to pay thousands.” Stan raised his eyebrows at Arla.
“But I thought you said it was for the owner, you didn’t say it was for Tony,” Arla asked.
“It is. Tony’s friends with Fred. Fred knows fish, legal and illegal, and knew enough to ask Tony. Tony, brought it up after our monthly client check in call with Fred and his team.”
“Gotcha,” Arla said. Her brow knit as she looked down at her notebook. The rough outline of Lumpy had taken on a new shape, the illicit Asian arowana. Longer, thinner, sleaker, and without the lumps, bumps, and deformities more commonly found in their Australian cousins.
“The reason I’m bringing it up at all, is that, well,” Stan took a breath and fidgeted in his chair. He was a salesman at heart. Starting this business had been a risk, but he had seen an opportunity. Stan shook his head and continued, “things have been going missing from our section of the warehouse. Tony’s really taking the lead on the Worldly Waters Aquarium project. If Ryan pulls through and can get him the arowana and the other monster fish he was planning on getting through us…” Stan’s voice trailed off.
“You’re afraid that Fred will pull his order with us and give it to Ryan. If Ryan will do it off the Smart Tanks books, he can not only get Fred what he wants but also pad the numbers. Everyone except Unstoppable Imports wins,” Arla concluded.
Arla felt her heart being pulled by multiple strings. She wouldn’t abide in illegal fish trade, especially not of a beautiful and sacred fish to an ugly and corrupt person. She also knew both as Stan’s executive assistant and as the girlfriend to one of their biggest investors, that they could not afford to be cut out of this project.
“So what are we going to do, Stan?”
Stan looked up at Arla, focusing on the frame of her glasses hopelessly avoiding her eyes. He didn’t have her loyalty to the fish. Behind the pink exterior was a red hot firecracker, and one not to be lightly lit up.
“About that? Nothing, for now at least,” Stan said once more aware of his testicles, “they’ve already paid the deposit. Ryan said that all of the smaller tanks are ready, and Tony guaranteed delivery by next Friday. Let’s get that local kid, Perry, Terry, whatever,” Stan said waving his hand around. “Get him committed for the feeder fish. I want to have Fred on the hook for as much as possible until we figure out what’s going on with this other business.” Stan’s nose turned up like a bulldog fart had magically appeared.
Arla had taken notes around her full sketch of the Asian arowana. Reading back up the page she circled her own reminder to follow up with a handful of private hobbyists who over the years had become rescue homes to some of the larger fish that weren’t made to be confined to an acrylic tank.
“Oh and Arla,” Stan said as she finished the last of her notes, “follow up with everyone. We’ve had the calmest waters so far in this project, and we both know what a rocky import can do. I’d like to be as prepared as possible.”
“Already on it, Stan,” Arla replied, putting her pen down. “Before I go,” she continued, “we have to discuss a few things, just a few orders that need approval and one or two that need your devine sales intervention.”
“Okay, anything else?”
“Yes, I’m going to remind you that I have to cut out a little earlier today.”
Stan stood and nodded, “okay, let me run to the bathroom first. Then we can discuss.”
“Okie dokie,” Arla said, reaching for her phone.
Stan walked around his desk and past Arla’s chair. Opening the door to his office, Arla watched, as he stopped and looked up at Lumpy gliding toward the other side away from Stan. In a moment he had already exited the door and was heading toward the floor’s bathroom – four stalls, four urinals, and a couch area. Men only. Even women clientele had to use the downstairs bathrooms, of which there was a lady’s and a men’s, comprising two sinks, two stalls, and in the case of the men’s room, two urinals. Tony would probably throw himself off the roof before having a female executive in this building, let alone on this floor. Arla rolled her eyes as she unlocked her phone.
One new message from Cassandra: That’s it. Seriously. That’s it! Today is the day. I’ll catch up with you before you leave.
Glancing across the hall Arla could see Cassandra’s tall figure looming above Tony. If he had been more of a perv and less of a misogynist like some of the other men that worked in the building he could have appreciated his almost eye level view of her large, and perky chest. Instead, Tony stepped back to lessen the strain on his neck. With each step backward, the volume of his voice raised.
Ryan was no longer in the room. It was only Tony and Cassandra. Arla was worried that she might have demanded her raise in the moment, or worse altogether quit. They had spent a quarter of their lunch hour strategically planning the best way to broach the subject. None of their methods had included cornering Tony when he was already angry. Then again if diamonds formed under pressure, maybe this would pan out. Arla slid her glasses off, cleaning them on her shirt. Before returning them onto her face, she tapped the tip of glasses against her teeth as she thought about Cassandra and Tony in the other room.
Shadowy movement in her peripheral vision grabbed Arla’s attention. Jamming her glasses back onto her face, Arla recognized the shadowy figure as Stan.
“Sorry,” Stan laughed to himself, “didn’t mean to scare you.”
“That’s okay,” Arla said softly, still catching her breath.
“Alright, what do you have for me…”
Arla looked at the time on her phone as she exited Stan’s office. Almost two hours had gone by since she first sat down. She really needed to be out the doors and in her car by 4:30 if she was going to be on time for her cooking class. Arla ran through her immediate action items as she headed back down the hall toward the stairs.
The hallway darkened considerably the closer she got to the end. All the lights in Ryan’s office were off. The television he kept on, but barely audible throughout the day, the lights from his gourmet coffee maker, even his computer showed no signs of power. A crescendo of noise came from behind Arla. Startled, Arla dropped her notebook onto the floor, her cell phone crashing down after it, as she grabbed her chest and jumped, facing the direction of the noise. Straining her ears to hear beyond her own breathing, Arla heard the familiar sounds of rock music. From what she could hear over herself, it sounded like 80’s hair metal.
Movement from the other side of the office caught Arla’s eye. Turning her body completely facing Tony’s office. Her head looking at the wall separating his office from Stan’s. Brightly colored images of the Mediterranean flashed on the wall mounted display. Each beachy scene pixelated and dissolved into the next one. Tony, having little time to waste on adjusting settings, kept almost everything to the standard. What he did change, he made bigger, badder, or – in this case – faster.
Arla blinked her eyes a few times before kneeling down to gather her things. Her notebook laid open and face down. Picking it up as gingerly as she could, Arla gave it a once over. Save a few bent corners, her notebook appeared to be in tact. Which was more than she could say for her phone. Laying a foot or so away, the corner of her phone touching the glass wall of the office, Arla could already see the giant crack down the front of the screen. She hoped it would just be a cracked screen, and not her 32nd broken phone. Since they began dating, Ben had unofficially kept track of how many phones Arla had been through. She was currently on number 31 throughout the past four years. Arla reached forward and pressed the home button. Her phone lit up. A large crack splicing right through the “1” and the “8.” She reread the time, 4:18. Arla stood up, her notebook and phone held tight in both arms, weebling only for a moment, Arla caught her balance. Her eyes resting on a puffy orange vet. A matching camo hat with orange trim laid on top of it.
Tony was usually gone for the day by three. At almost half past four it was strange that his office looked occupied and that his stuff was still there. Goosebumps ran up Arla’s neck. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the empty hallway behind her. From the corner of her eye she saw Lumpy in full speed heading toward the opposite end. Arla smiled, probably something tasty looking too close to the tank she thought to herself. “Good night, Lumpy,” she whispered out loud. Still trying to shake the uneasiness, Arla held her chin high and made her way to the door to the stairs.
Making her way down the stairs Arla heard voices coming from below. Despite the intensity of the conversation, Arla couldn’t fully make out the conversation.
“Joe is a joke,” one voice gruffed out. Harry, Arla thought to herself? Straining her ears she heard a mumbled response. “For what you have him doing, fine,” the initial voice rose, “but not for this. No,” the baritone voice grumbled.
Arla’s right leg lifted, hovering above the step below her. In a few more paces, she wouldn’t be hidden. While she wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, she also didn’t want to get caught in the middle of something she couldn’t unhear. Her leg started to tire, begging to be returned to a stair. During class she and Cassandra had mastered balance, and apparently it was a skill she needed to practice more outside of the studio. Arla made a mental note to add it to her personal goal list.
“Well, it’s not my company is it,” Harry’s voice rang out like a bell through the staircase.
“You bet your ass it’s not,” Tony spat back at full volume, “and it would fare you well to remember that brother.”
A small squeak escaped a shoe as it turned. The soft jingingly of Harry’s keys echoed up the staircase. Arla let out her breath, and placed her foot down on the stair. Her phone vibrated in her hand. It was a text from Cassandra: You still up there? Arla shifted her notebook to the crook of her left arm and typed back an answer, “Just coming down now, are Harry or Tony by you?” Before she reached the bottom stair her phone vibrated again, “Harry just went into his office. Tony hot on his tail. Oohh, they just shut the door. Wonder what’s up with that???”
Arla sent back an emoji of a blonde girl shrugging. Her phone read 4:23. If she hurried, she would be able to send out the action items from their meeting to Stan along with a quick note detailing which partners she would be calling on her drive to Bright Mount. It would be a thirty minute drive if she left on time, which would certainly give her enough time to make the high priority calls.
Opening the door from the staircase, Arla almost collided with Tony. “Holy,” Arla gasped. A grunt came from Tony as he continued on his war path toward the stairs. Adjusting her glasses, Arla had a sense it was a great day to be leaving early. Walking as quickly as she could to her desk, Arla noticed that Joe’s computer was on, but locked. His chair pushed all the way back, a pile of paper sliding down his keyboard. Catching Cassandra’s eye, she nodded at Joe’s desk next to her. Cassandra followed Arla’s nod and pulled out her phone.
Arla sat back down at her desk and logged back onto her computer. Typing as fast as she could she ignored the vibrating of her phone. She didn’t need the reminder that she should already be on the road, and she could wait to read what Cass had to say on her way to the car. A small smile spread across Arla’s face, her bottom lip tucking under her front teeth, assuming that Stan stuck to the plan, they were in the right position to blow this thing out of the water. Arla felt a small, dry piece of skin. Her phone vibrated again, reminding her of an unread text. She glanced at her phone screen. Three new messages from Cassandra were waiting for her. Tony must be fairly explosive for three texts in a row. He could never just stick to a plan. Arla winced. The metallic taste of blood caressed her tongue. As she sucked on her own lip in attempt to stop the bleeding, Arla added one last line to her email before pressing send. It read, “Already put a call out, just on the off chance one has recently been surrendered.”
Waiting for her Outlook to update, Arla exited the program and turned off her laptop unplugging it from her monitor as she stood. Grabbing her backpack, Arla put it on her chair. Closing her notebook, she stuffed it into her backpack. Her computer was still shutting itself down. There wasn’t anything she could do in the meantime, so she grabbed her coat shrugging it on as she walked over to Cassandra’s desk.
“I’m going to head out,” Arla said.
“That’s right, you have your cooking class tonight, right?”
Arla nodded. “But I’m going to read these on my way out. You almost done?”
“Tony is in the warehouse out back. He’s been in there for a while,” Cassandra pointed to the building’s security surveillance on her monitor. I’m going to talk to him before I head out. About…” Her voice trailed off, as she rubbed her thumb against her index and middle fingers.
“Good luck,” Arla whispered. “I’ll be in the car for a half hour or so if you need to talk after.”
Cassandra laughed. “Definitely, let me know how the class goes. I’m sure I’ll talk to you, but have a good weekend!”
“You too,” Arla said as she returned to her desk. Throwing her laptop into her backpack, she turned and headed toward the door. “Bye,” she called over her shoulder, zipping her coat as she left.
Arla was excited for Cassandra, but also apprehensive. She had been so caught up in trying to leave that Arla hadn’t given her a heads up about the argument Harry and Tony had in the staircase hallway earlier. It was a short walk to her car, but Arla opened the texts:
He stormed out. Tony and Harry were audibly arguing in Harry’s office. Joe popped his head in. Tony asked Harry to pull his personal truck into the warehouse, maybe 5 minutes later Joe came out and stormed off.
His stuff is still on his desk, so I don’t think he’s left. But it was weird. Joe is definitely not like that, but Tony was super pissy before so I don’t know.
When Tony came out of Harry’s office he made a joke to the room and then headed back toward the staircase/warehouse. He’s in the warehouse, I’ll see for how long. I want to talk to him before I leave for the weekend.
Betsy, Arla’s white Honda with pink trim, beeped as she wrapped her hand around the driver’s side door handle. Arla was leery of most technology, but the fact that she didn’t have to dig her matching keyless keys from her purse to unlock her car was a saving grace. Putting her purse on the driver’s seat, she slid off her backpack. Reaching over Arla placed the backpack on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat. Picking up her purse, she got in the car and dropped it onto the seat next to her.
Getting settled she thought about what Cassandra had said. Tony was certainly on a hot streak today. The meeting from earlier, his brother, and apparently Joe… Hopefully three was enough and Tony would be better with Cass. Once her car was started and she was settled, Arla pulled out of her parking spot and drove toward the exit. Pressing a few buttons she dictated her response to Cassandra, “good luck girl! I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Let me know how it goes!” The radio blared to life after the text sent. Pulling onto the highway Arla noticed lights illuminate in the parking lot. Joe’s oversized SUV had started, the LED headlights shining onto the highway.
As Arla flicked her turn signal, the GPS spouted directions. Quickly, she killed the directional and continued straight on the highway. She was headed to Bright Mount for cooking classes with Elise, not home. Arla glanced at the seat next to her. Slapping her steering wheel, Arla sighed. She had forgotten the bottle of wine she had brought with her for the class. Arla dictated a short text to Elise, “Forgot the wine at work. Do you have an extra bottle… if not, I can try to stop.” Within moments a message flashed across her screen, “already have it. Figured you’d forget trying to rush out of the door.” Arla smiled as she told her car to make a call. For the next 28 minutes she was working, and then she was enjoying her weekend. Work could resume on Monday.