Lydia woke up with that shock of confusion that always came with waking up in a new place, which briefly distracted her from the confusion that came when she realized she was waking up alone.
She had been feeling that way more mornings than most for almost three years now.
Her new apartments were big and bright, every room fronted with glass and a triangular wrap-around deck. The inner furnishings were subdued, with good, neutral corporate color schemes and practical furnishings. They had been chosen by another person, for another person. The whole place felt like a workplace to her. It was a workplace. It would also be her home.
She started mentally making plans, not so much for what she would do to change it but whom she would contract to do it: artists, designers, decorators.
She headed from the bedroom to the open floor plan that held the kitchen, dining room, and entertainment space, where she stopped.
A woman sat at the breakfast nook, whippet-lean and with straight auburn hair in a braid that hung down her back past the seat of the chair. Her tight-pulled skin was so luminously pale her veins showed. She had bags under her eyes. She wore no makeup, but was wearing a cream silk blouse—couture, worth a thousand dollars if it was worth a nickle—and held what looked like a Bloody Mary in a highball glass.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Prudence,” she said. She looked bored. She sounded bored. Bored, and hungover. “Your executive assistant.”
“I didn’t ask for you.”
“You hired me,” she said. She took a sip of her drink. “Signed the paperwork last night.”
“Did you work for Rothsko?”
“No, against him.” Sip.
“Are you here to work for me, or against me?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Prudence said.
“I have,” Lydia said. “You’re fired.”
“Well, that’s a bore,” Prudence said. Sip. “Enjoy the penalty clause, though. I know I will.”
“What penalty clause?”
“The early termination clause,” Prudence said. “You signed the employment contract. Did you not read it? Careless. You know, a good assistant can help you avoid those pitfalls.”
“I don’t need an assistant,” Lydia said. “And when I do, I can pick my own. And I think I can do better than resting bitch face.”
“You don’t know what I can do for you,” Prudence said. “And because you don’t know that, you wouldn’t know what to look for. I am not here to pick up your dry cleaning or cancel the dog groomer. And, honey. This bitch face never rests.”
“No? What exactly do you do, then?”
“Whatever you need.”
“So you’ll do anything I say?”
“No. I’l do anything you need,” Prudence said. For the first time, some hint of emotion—passion—crept into her voice. “Whatever you need, whatever that means. I can provide you with vision. Focus. Direction.” She sipped her Bloody Mary again. “An alibi.” Sip. “I’m the little devil that sits on your shoulder and reminds you that mediocre, grasping, mewling little men who don’t have a tenth of your strength or a hundredth of your cunning run this world for two simple reasons: they feel entitled to, and no one stops them.”
“Big talk,” Lydia said. “But what can you actually do?”
“I can’t discuss what I’ve done for previous clients, but for one thing, there are two people in this room who have their current jobs thanks to me.”
“I earned this!” Lydia said.
Prudence leapt to her feet, the tumbler of tomato juice and vodka surprisingly steady and stable in her hand, even as she gesticulated with it.
“Bullshit!” she said. Fire filled her eyes and her voice “What you earned was a cabinet seat! You earned a leadership position at a multinational corporation! You saved his company! Twice! You saved his campaign! And what’s your big reward? You get to sit here treading water for four to eight years so he can come back and reclaim his kingdom when he’s done playing president. That’s more than he would have given you, if Rothsko hadn’t gone pffft. You’re welcome, by the way. You think he trusts you in an emergency, but he only trusts you because it’s an emergency.”
“Okay,” Lydia said. “Prudence, right?” The woman nodded, and sipped. “Let’s call this a trial period. I’m going to look at that contract and the so-called penalty clause. I doubt it’s enforceable. But, I’ll need to have my lawyers go over it, and in the meantime, you have a chance to impress me. But, you are never going to speak to me like this again. You don’t raise your voice. You don’t roll your eyes. And you will address me as Ms. Lydia, and only as Ms. Lydia, every time you speak to me. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Prudence said. She held out her glass and let it drop against the white tile, where it smashed, spreading broken glass and red liquid over an impressively large area. A few stray drops of tomato juice splattered across Prudence’s shirt and face. She did not react. “I’ll make sure to get you the number for your new lawyers. Because all the ones you know really work for him, don’t they? See you downstairs, Ms. Lydia.”