tagRomanceThe Cotillion

The Cotillion

byDreamCloud©

Author's Note: This is for all those who have told me my stories need a noir bent. Here is proof that I write modern fairy tales. I love my characters too much to do noir. To make it scarier, I edited it myself.

The Cotillion

The elevator wasn't moving fast enough. I watched the dull red numbers change from floor to floor, seven, eight... They seemed to be moving slower, almost like the building was getting tired. A four letter word caught in my throat. I would have let it loose if I were alone. There were two others on the slow ride, a rich gray suit and a bicycle courier. I swallowed the word and began tapping my foot, thinking the elevator may get annoyed and move faster.

The suit got off on nine, slowing me down even more. I moved over to the panel and smacked the close door button a couple of times which seemed to amuse the courier. The button was useless. The elevator doors closed in their own sweet time. After an interminable wait, it began to rise again.

"Running late?" The courier asked. I turned, about to snap at him. He was young, probably couldn't drink legally. He was fairly trim but rather sloppy in the hygiene department. It looked he lost his razor a few days ago.

"Yes," I replied, turning back to the console to watch the numbers slowly change. There was no need to bite his head off.

"Can you push twelve, please?" The courier asked.

"We just past it," I said and pushed the button.

"I'm not late," The courier said smiling. I turned back quickly to the young man. Young was relative since I just had my twenty-fifth birthday. He stood confidently in his black knee length bike shorts, his windbreaker unzipped open to his stomach, revealing a taut blue t-shirt. It was the nicest thing anyone had done for me in a long time. He was not as shabby as I first thought.

"Thank you," I said as pleasant as I could. It was hard, as late as I was, to muster a smile, but I did. A lot of stress faded away at that moment. Here was a little piece of the world that wasn't out to get me. It would be nice if he was a few years older with a better job. Not that my job was anything to be proud about. My father's death had wounded me in heart and future. It created a legal mountain whose peak wouldn't be reached until my thirty-second birthday. I was rich, I just couldn't touch any of it.

"No problem," The courier replied, then he leaned against the far wall and looked away, seemingly uninterested in more conversation. For a moment, I thought I would have to fend off an advance. I looked down at my blouse and skirt to see if there was a stain. Nothing. Just me. A strange disappointment clouded my mind. I would have preferred a small flirtation.

The elevator doors opened on fifteen. I sighed and exited, the courier seemingly oblivious to my leaving. "Good luck," the courier said when my back was turned. I turned as the elevator doors closed. He smiled at me in a soft dreamy way. Unthinkingly, I smiled back, the doors acting as a comfortable shield for the brief flirtation. Life was good again.

"Ella, you're late again," Agnus Tremaine spat with hands on her wide hips. Her graying hair, glued in curled clumps atop her head, bounced to emphasize every word. I sighed. I had hoped to escape my step mother's notice. Life was bad again.

"Accident on sixth street," I stated as I moved toward the utility room. My utility room, held in trust.

"My daughters don't seem to have a problem arriving on time," Agnus continued with a grating tone. I hated these times. Seven more years of being under this woman's claws.

"They seem to be on vacation more than not," I returned with my own venom. Agnus had fooled my father into tieing up his assets until I was older. She, of course, became executor and, in turn, my jailer. I suspected she was a slut in bed. I could think of no other reason my father would screw me like he had. I loved him more than anyone, but he was a man and I knew he wrote that will with his dick.

"Business trips are not vacations," Angus defended Drizella and Anastasia. I was sure they got little done in Tahiti with my money. "I only wish you had their work ethic," she continued as if I didn't know the truth.

I ignored her continuing rants and pulled out the bucket and mop. My bucket and my mop. I was required to stay with Tremaine Marketing, Inc until I came into my inheritance. He just failed to say in what capacity. Agnus thought it best I was the night janitor. Seven more years and I can fire her. I began to fill the bucket with hot water. At least Agnus would go home soon. My home.

"The floors were done poorly last night," Agnus continued while pointing out some corners that held dust. There was a rider in the will that stated if I failed to stay with the firm, I would lose it to the next in line. Agnus was next in line. My only saving grace was that she had to answer to a board and the court. My life was miserable, but I still had hope.

I added a potent lemon-scented cleaning fluid to the bucket. At least it overwhelmed the perfume that Agnus liked to swim in. I ignored her other admonishments, knowing they were designed to get me to lose it and quit. That wasn't going to happen. I just had to stay out of trouble and in seven years, I get to fire the bitch.

I turned with my prepared bucket and smiled at Agnus. It was my you'll-get-yours smile. She never understood that smile. I think she thought I had a few screws loose. It always made her back away and lose her train of thought. The only attack I was allowed. I certainly couldn't yell at the CEO. That might be grounds for termination. It was a war and I had to let her win all the early battles.

"Good evening Mrs. Tremaine, Ella," Raj said, his olive-skinned smile leading the way out of the elevator. I smiled back, which irritated Agnus more. She had hired Raj as the night tech thinking I wouldn't be comfortable with an immigrant from India. The opposite occurred. He had become a dear friend and I adopted myself into his family. His wife Kiran and their daughter Aanya were such a lovely family.

"Mr. Vijaya, do think it is wise spending your time with pleasantries when there is work to be done?" Agnus asked. Raj lost his smile. His green card held him to his job as surely as the will held me.

"No, Mrs. Tremaine," Raj answered and moved quickly to the control room. I wanted so much to shove the end of my mop into Agnus's mouth to shut her up. I closed my eyes and let the image float away. Seven more years. Raj could stay. Agnus was out.

Agnus followed Raj into the control room. I was sure it was to give him an impossible list of tasks and remind him not to fraternize with the janitorial staff. The hallway seemed to brighten when she left. A devious thought entered my mind and I laughed to myself. The first sign of insanity, but it felt good. I began mopping. Mopping exactly where Agnus would have to walk in order to leave. Images of her falling on her ass were pleasant. I started humming Dancing Queen and used the mop as my partner. My thoughts were very pleasant.

Agnus didn't fall. I apologized for not thinking and starting at that end of the hall. It was humorous watching her walk in her high heels while holding herself along the wall. It was hard to hold my smile in, but I had a lot of practice at it. The corners of my mouth stayed low while my insides jumped with glee.

"Good night, Agnus," I called as she pushed the elevator button. She hated when I called her by her first name at work. I saw the anger in her eyes when she turned. I knew she wasn't going to walk back across the newly mopped floor again. Chalk up another one for Ella. Agnus just grimaced and stepped into the elevator. My body relaxed when the doors closed. The bitch was gone.

I pushed the bucket and mop into the corner. It was usually the last thing I did. I had a system. A series of steps that optimized the time it would take to clean the offices. Mopping first would just slow me up. Optimized work time allowed for optimized free time. I grabbed the large wheeled garbage can, vacuum cleaner and dust rag. Office to office, I quickly dusted, emptied trash, and vacuumed then closed the door.

I had told Agnus it took thirty minutes to clean an office. She said I should be able to do it in twenty. It actually took less than five when I put my mind to it. Chalk up another one for Ella. I was done in under three hours, floors mopped and all the glass cleaned. They were my offices, so it wasn't as hard to do as Agnus thought. She was conniving, but a little on the dumb side. If she really wanted to get on my nerves, she should have me working during the day, with her.

I restored all my supplies and cleaned myself up a bit. I tossed a few dollars at the vending machines for a coke and chips. I went to the control room to see Raj. It was our nightly ritual. Raj worked and I kept him company. It was a somewhat boring existence, yet when shared, it lost its 'boring' status and become tolerable.

"Almost a record, Ella," Raj said, pointing at the clock.

"If she wouldn't have hung around, I would have broken it," I said. I raced myself every night. The quicker I got done, the sooner I could chat with Raj. I watched as he executed another batch process. The screen said he was updating the report server. A restructured database that allowed quick access for decision-makers. The two years I have sat with Raj had schooled me well on the inner workings of my company. I don't think Agnus thought I knew thing one about the goings one. Chalk up another one.

"Kiran wants you to come over Saturday afternoon," Raj said when he was sure the batch was executing. He spun in his chair to look at me. They were using me to try and become more American. I loved them, so I always agreed.

"I would love too," I agreed, "is Kiran making those potato things again?" They were to die for.

"Aloo kikki," Raj reminded me. I will never remember the name, "of course she will." Saturday seemed to far off. My social life was shit when I wasn't with the Vijayas. Working nights puts a huge cramp in one's mojo. I sleep when most people were awake and was heading off to work when they are getting frisky. I was sure that was part of Agnus's plan.

"I have to warn you," Raj continued, "Aanya has a new board game she wishes to play." I laughed. Aanya thought of me as a big sister. In truth, I thought of her as my little sister. She was more attuned to American styles than I and schooled me often. I helped her with the things a young girl couldn't talk to her parents about. Usually, boy things. Aanya was in the eighth grade and the drama had begun. The boys were just beginning to think girls weren't as useless as they thought. Girls, on the other hand, were separating the studs from the duds.

"Sounds like fun," I said. I had no plans that even sounded close to a good board game. Raj looked at me funny. I could tell he was thinking. His eyes always became still when his brain was working.

"I love that you come," Raj said, "it makes Kiran and Aanya very happy, but I worry we are stopping you from things." I smiled and decided to torture him.

"What kind of things?" I asked.

"You know...things," Raj said, using his hands to emphasize things.

"You mean like snorkeling?" I asked with humor.

"You know what I mean," Raj replied, trying to hide his blush.

"Ahh, you mean wild sex," I said, my eyes wide waiting to see if I could deepen the red in his cheeks.

"Well..." Raj stuttered, "I mean you're a pretty girl. You should be out on dates." Raj tried hard to clean up my words. I smiled at him.

"Agnus makes that difficult," I said, "my time is coming." Seven more years. Raj turned back to his terminal and began typing again.

"Kiran worries about you," Raj said quietly. I felt my heart throb. Raj was worried about me. I loved him for it. I was in a hole right now and in seven years, I would climb out.

"You tell Kiran that all I need is aloo kikki," I said with a little laughter. That got me a chuckle. I certainly didn't want Raj sad on my account. I thought back to my last boyfriend. It had been before my father had past away. I would be lying to myself if I didn't admit that I missed the intimacy. Sex had its medicinal properties and was a ton of fun as well. Fried potatoes and board games were a poor substitute.

I changed the subject and asked Raj what he was doing. This is how I learned about my company. Raj, who had access to all the information, would instruct me in his tasks and I, in turn, would learn. I knew an awful lot about how the money moved, who moved it and why. I knew each employee, who were the slackers and who drove the business. In seven years, the board wouldn't find a naive girl, they would see a knowledgeable woman owner who knew how things worked. Agnus was digging her own grave. That was my solace.

I stepped into the bathroom before the end of my shift. I looked into the mirror and began to dishevel myself. I pulled a few strands of hair from my ponytail and let them float in a wispy mess. I smudged my glasses with fingerprints and pulled my shirt so it hung poorly, half out of my skirt. I had to look harried before Agnus arrived. There was rarely a need for her to be at work early. Her sole goal was to ascertain my level of misery. I gave her the answer she wanted to see. I girl on her last leg, about to throw away her inheritance. My secret defiance was my shield. Only seven years to go.

*******************************

The drive home was miserable. Bands of rain ran across the windshield with a ferocity that made that wipers moot. I decide to pull over and let it pass. My first mistake. I ran over something that must have been placed there just for me. The telltale flapping and the steering pulling to the right let me know I had a flat. I went through my entire vocabulary of foul words. Then, I went through the litany again. The rain picked up. I made up some new words.

I waited for the rain to stop. I used the time wisely and pulled the owner's manual from the glove compartment. I had never replaced a tire on this car. I cringed when I saw the instructions. There was a bolt in the trunk, when turned, lowered a temporary tire. It was raining and I would have to retrieve it from under the car. The rain never stopped, but did change to something less than a deluge. I sighed and stepped out into the rain.

There were a lot of places I could have picked to pull over. I had to pick a spot where recent construction had left mud where rock should have been. The state had decided it would be good week to dig up the culverts along the side of the road and had deposited most of it on the shoulders. My white tennies sunk on contact. I slammed the door with anger as my only umbrella, I squished my way to the trunk.

I promptly squished my way back when I realized I had not undone the trunk hatch. The world was attacking and my mind was becoming traitorous. I gave up trying to walk carefully when I felt the mud ooze into my socks. Shoes ruined. Chalk one up for mother nature.

The bolt was stubborn. I had no idea which way to turn it as rain pelted my back. Finally, when I felt cold wetness find more private areas, I figured out it was clockwise. I gave up trying to do it quickly. I was soaked. It didn't matter how long it took anymore. I squatted down, my wet skirt fighting the movement, and saw the tire lying in the mud, almost two feet under the car. I tried to reach it, flailing at the edges. I sighed and dropped my knee into the mud. It found the rocks under the mud causing more wonderful words to escape my throat. I cringed as I shifted my knee and created a semi-unpainful spot to anchor it.

One hand on the trunk, I lowered myself, reached under the car and dragged the now muddy tire toward the back. My blouse was ruined by the time I figured out how to detach the tire from the cable that had held it under the car. I carefully lifted, trying to hold it away from my skirt. I turned and a wave of water, mud and whatever else was on the road covered me as a semi passed. I looked down at my clothes and lost it. I was tired, wet and now covered in mud. Swear words were no longer enough. Tears mixed with rain as I slipped and slid my way to the flat front tire. My throat was spasming as I went back for the jack and tire wrench.

Another bout of hard rain whipped through and my left foot slipped into the culvert. It came back missing its shoe. I leaned against the car, clutching the tools, trying to stop the horrid feelings coursing through me. I had no more anger to rely on, only hopelessness.

"You look like you could use some help," a male voice called. I looked up, my glasses blinded by rain. I didn't know who it was. I could only sob, covered in mud and show my tools. I didn't want to be helpless, but my mind was surrendering to it all. You can't fight the world.

"We'll start with the jack," the man said, and took it from my hands. He was taller than me, that much I could tell. He moved confidently to the front as another dousing came from the clouds. I followed him, my sock trying to leave itself in the mud. "Stand away from the side in case it slips," he said as he kneeled into the mud trying to find a secure place for the jack.

"Thank you," I said, remembering my manners. "Thank you," I said louder, certain that my first attempt was lost in the rain. He looked back at me and I saw a smile between the droplets running down my lenses.

"Wrench," he said, holding out his hand. I put the wrench in it and he affixed it to the jack. He began raising the car. "Crappy day for a flat tire," he observed. I nodded though he wasn't looking at me as he concentrated on the jack. I wiped my glasses with my wet finger. He had dark hair, soaked through. His shirt and pants were a mess now but looked expensive. The one shoe I could see was brown leather and not something found at Walmart. My savior was some kind of executive, probably on his way to work. I sucked in a breath and forced my helplessness away.

"That should do it," he said rising with the wrench. I took it from his hands, trading it for a smile.

"Thank you," I said again. I couldn't believe I had lost it. An executive doesn't collapse at the first sign of trouble. In seven years, I needed to be a rock of confidence. He smiled back, the rain running off his nose and past his strong chin.

"You lost your shoe," he said, pointing at my sock.

"It's been one of those days," I said, trying to ignore the loss. I moved to the tire and inserted the blade end of the wrench into the slot of the hubcap as the manual had said. It popped off and I pretended it didn't surprise me. He was there to catch it before slid into the culvert. He watched as I went at the first lug nut. I pushed down on the wrench and it didn't want to move. Hesitantly, his hand moved next to mine and we pushed together. The nut relented. He removed his hand and let me finish.

He stood there in the rain, holding the hubcap and collected lug nuts one at a time. To be honest, his presence gave me strength. His desire not to push the poor woman out of the way and do it himself was nice. He moved from savior to helper without a thought. I was smiling when I finished the last lug nut.

"I'm Ella," I said as I handed him the last nut. The rain was beginning to let up again.

"Peter," he responded.

"Thank you for stopping," I repeated again. I lifted the tire off the car and it bounced in the mud. I longer cared about the mud that splattered on my ankles.

"You said that already," Peter said. I looked up at him. He was smiling at me, almost laughing as I struggled to wheel the flat tire off to the side. He made no move to help, which was strangely helpful. I lifted the dinky donut tire and struggled it onto the bolts. He moved behind me. I suspected he meant to catch me if I started to slide into the culvert. Most helpful.

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