HTG: Quarterly Gains & Losses
by Delilah Winston
Donna wriggled and twisted her bound wrists as far as the ropes would let them, pulled as hard as she could--
What was-- 'Oh my God!'
Donna paused for a minute; she closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She kept her eyes tightly shut, in an effort to concentrate on her sense of touch. She twisted her wrists behind her back again.
'I've got it, my God, I think I've GOT IT!' One of the coils of rope was slackening. She could feel it between and around her wrists. Donna took a deep breath and twisted her wrists again; pulled in a different direction.
“MMMMmmmMMRRRRRmmrrrrrrMMMMM!” Donna felt her heart smash against her rib cage as a rush of adrenalin accompanied the feeling of utter joy. The rapidly unraveling coil would let her wrists snap completely free in another second. Her mind raced with delight as she tried to force her mouth open into a beaming smile.
'I'VE DONE IT!!'
The blonde blinked twice, her head shaking slightly as her senses came back into focus. She felt her face growing warmer as blood crept up to tinge her cheeks with a rosy tone.
'No, no, no, no!' Donna sighed and gritted her teeth around her gag. She couldn't begin to imagine why, or how, she'd begun daydreaming while struggling in her hogtie during 'Down Time.' The competitor in her scolded her for wasting the period by letting her mind wander. Her pragmatic side came up with defensive thoughts, trying to shield her self-esteem. But the thought that made its way to the forefront of her mind made her blush again.
And she only felt herself blush even rosier as she heard her door open and turned her face toward it. The aides came in, closed the door behind them and set about untying Donna. Even as she felt the ropes around her being gradually uncoiled and untied, she remembered when she did wriggle free: because it was the day of her own 'loyalty test' to the other women of the company. And now it was Cassie's turn. Another full circle being turned.
'I'm not even her 'big sister,' either,' Donna thought, although she found herself relishing the time she spent with her successor. Cassie's social etiquette left a few things to be desired, even though, as she claimed, it worked for her and she'd made a number of friends in the building where she lived. But she was sharp like a tack, knew her math and business skills, and worked hard. And her cynical attitude about HTG's practice of tying up the corporate women each afternoon was, in Donna's opinion, a very refreshing and amusing take on the whole thing. Even though they apparently thought Cassie was going to flunk the 'loyalty test,' KJ and Nancy had taken a liking to her, and Claire was beginning to, as well. The one woman who felt rubbed the wrong way by her, not surprisingly, was Karen, although even she appreciated Cassie's work ethic, and having settled into her increased responsibilities and duties as an investment executive, Karen didn't need to be around Cassie as much.
Donna walked into Cassie's office, handing her the lotion bottle and packet of Epsom salt. Cassie accepted them with a smirk, as she'd been doing each day the past three weeks.
“So what's next on the menu?” Cassie asked her sarcastically. “A strappado?”
Donna blinked. “Um, what's that?”
Cassie snickered. “Better you don't know.”
“I'll take your word for it, then.”
Cassie's speakerphone buzzed. “Hello Cassie,” Mr. Stone's voice came through warmly.
Donna gave the new hire credit for one thing, she did show proper respect to her managers and supervisors. Cassie had previously made it clear that she didn't particularly like Mr. Stone, and thought he was an idiot. Mr. Stone took it with grace, however, and Cassie had always since spoken to him respectfully.
“Hi, Mr. Stone,” Cassie answered. Donna paused, and then gave the same greeting.
A brief silence followed before Mr. Stone answered.
Donna's heart sank. The others were right about Cassie. “Thank you, Mr. Stone,” she acknowledged.
Mr. Stone knew Donna was bad at keeping a straight face, so he spoke up again in hopes of keeping Cassie's attention. “How are you doing, Cassie? Your work so far is excellent. Screening incoming calls seems like something you're a natural with.”
“Thank you,” Cassie accepted the compliment without any cynicism.
Although she was quick to show it through a second later.
“By the way, Mr. Stone, they screwed up.”
Donna raised her eyebrows. Did Cassie mean what Donna thought she meant?
“Oh?” Mr. Stone's inquiry had an air of calm curiosity.
“Yeah. Whatever idiotic reason all of you guys have for sending the rope-happy monkeys into our offices each day, I've heard there's some kind of pansy competition going on, over who can wriggle out of it?”
Donna nodded. “Yes, that's true,” she said. “We girls all have a friendly little thing going where we try to be the first to get free.”
Cassie shook her head and tsk'ed. “Yeah, like I said. Pansy. But Mr. Stone, your monkeys fucked it up today. They didn't tie my hands right, like they've been doing every day before.”
“What happened, Cassie?” Mr. Stone asked.
Donna turned sixty degrees and held her breath. She knew that Mr. Stone was playing along. Donna prayed Cassie wouldn't see her face.
“Like I said, they fucked up,” Cassie scolded. “They made one of the loops wrong in the rope, which made it easy to get one of my wrists out of it. Took maybe ten minutes afterward, but I was able to finish getting free.”
“Ah, I see,” Mr. Stone said.
“I mean, what the hell was I supposed to do, anyway?” Cassie offered. “I couldn't untie that stupid piece of cloth, so I just pulled it down to around my neck, left the damn ropes on the floor, plugged my phone cord back in, and got the rest of my work done. No point lying around on my ass waiting for them to show up again.”
Donna felt her lungs bursting for air, but she didn't dare breathe.
“No, no! Not at all,” Mr. Stone said agreeably. “I bet they were pretty shocked when they came in and saw you make them into the monkeys you like to call them.”
“Damn, I sure hope so,” Cassie nodded. “They were too good at not showing it, damn them. They just picked up all the ropes, handed me the scissors and walked out. Not even a 'my bad' out of any of them for screwing it up, the little monkeys.”
“I see,” Mr. Stone sounded like he was enjoying the dialogue immensely. “I'll be sure to talk to them about that, Cassie.”
“Yeah, and while they're at it, if they're gonna hog tie us, tell them they should know better than to leave our legs hanging apart like that, okay? It looks trashy, and it feels that way, too. They're lucky I didn't kick their asses for that. You say we women are respected? Give us a little modesty, then.” Cassie's voice showed her anger at the thought of it.
Donna thought she was going to pass out from lack of air. Of all the people to come to her rescue, however...
“Hey, Donna. You're with me on this one, right? The monkeys need to stop letting our knees hang so far apart.”
Relief flooded into Donna as she released her breath, disguising it as best she could with a cough. “Yes, of course,” she said. “Please excuse me, I'm feeling a little light all of a sudden...”
Thank goodness Mr. Stone had kept Cassie's attention off of Donna. The blonde hurried back into her office and shut the door a little forcefully. She lost her balance and fell to her knees just in front of her desk, grabbing onto it to keep from falling over. Tears started to come to Donna's eyes as she busted out into raucous laughter.
Donna heard her speakerphone buzz; heard the sound of Mr. Stone laughing.
“You were right, Donna,” he said. “That lady is loads of fun.”
Donna couldn't say anything in response. She slapped a hand on her desk, didn't try to wipe her tears of joy.
“I guess you'll be taking her to Jackson's, after all,” Mr. Stone noted.
He waited patiently for Donna to regain control of herself and her hysterics to calm.
“I guess I will be,” she panted, still catching her breath.
“Send the word out, then,” Mr. Stone said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Good night, Mr. Stone.”
Donna organized the department's women into action. When Cassie came into the department atrium, all the women were waiting. They all applauded the latest hire passing muster.
They all knew Cassie would take the news and explanation far differently than any of them did. Sure enough, she didn't disappoint.
“Y'know, you're all the ditziest bunch of gals I ever worked with,” she tsk'ed. “You're all real nutjobs, you know?”
Carla seemed to consider the idea briefly. “Coming from you, I think that's a compliment,” she winked.
“Look. It's great you're all trying to be so nice to me, especially given what I think of what goes on here,” Cassie said, shaking her head slightly. “But I don't need to lean on you to get through it, okay? I already told you, I learned a lot more about it in college than you have in all the years you've been holding your goofy little competition.”
“So, be honest with us, then,” Nancy asked. “Why have you stayed?”
“It's a job that pays pretty well,” Cassie shrugged. “I'm already tied to a college financial aid package worth forty large, that I gotta pay back some time.”
None of the women could argue with that. The understanding looks on their faces made Cassie smirk in triumph.
“So, I'm sorry to bust your little celebration bubble,” Cassie said, in a tone of voice that didn't really sound sorry about it. “But I got a date tonight with the tube, watching the Timberwolves. They're my favorite team.”
“Hm,” Nancy paused in thought. “That game's on ESPN2 tonight, right?”
Nancy smiled. “We all frequent Jackson's often enough that they'll switch their big-screen to that channel if we ask,” she offered. “We can all sit at the sports bar section tonight, take the game in together. Nobody's opposed to watching a game of basketball tonight?”
All the other women shook their heads or gave a quick 'uh-uh.' Nancy nodded and then smiled at Cassie. “What do you say?”
Cassie gave all the women a baleful look. “I'm not sipping a gay little crystal goblet of Chablis, you got me?”
The other women all laughed; Christina and KJ throwing their heads back as they did so. “Couple of baskets of buffalo wings, an onion loaf, and a couple pitchers of Bud, should see us all through. Those of us who drive here can call a neighbor or a taxicab to give them a lift home, right?,” KJ challenged, to a round of applause and cheering whistles.
Cassie stared for several seconds before she finally smiled. A real smile, no daggers behind it. “You're on,” she said, shaking KJ's hand.
* * * *
Donna stepped out of her car and breathed in the fall air. It was mid-November, with a couple of weeks to go before Thanksgiving, but the radio stations already had Christmas music playing over the speakers. Black Friday would see the streets dotted with people in Santa suits on one fundraiser or another.
Donna hadn't originally planned to spend the holiday season alone. But as she'd told her sister over a year ago, she wanted to travel this year; see a little of the world. Working at HTG had done her a lot of good. Her posture was straight, the look in her eyes showed poise and confidence, and (much to Deena's ongoing amusement, and now also to Donna's own), she was in the best physical shape of her life. And while the economy was still nothing to cheer about, Donna was making a comfortable living. She was far from wealthy, and still had to budget, but she wouldn't be struggling financially, any time soon.
Unfortunately, while nobody else in the family was worrying about their next meal, going with her to Toronto, in Canada, wasn't something any of them were properly prepared to do, especially since all of them lived much further away than she did, and their tickets would have been a lot more expensive, with at least one layover. Ethan would have been able to swing the trip, but he'd promised his family he'd be spending the holidays with them. Going by herself wasn't what Donna had hoped for, but she'd been researching popular areas for people to hang out and socialize, and she had hopes of a pleasurable trip.
The travel agency she was visiting to help her book everything-- tickets, hotel, car rental if she needed it-- came highly recommended by Colby and Geri, and Geri's brother and his family, all of who'd used it several times. It was clear across town on the other side, but if they were as good as Donna was told, it would be worth it.
Donna walked in and sat down at the waiting area. She'd gotten there early, but it seemed enough people had gotten here even earlier, that she'd have a bit of a wait. Donna picked up a magazine and read while she waited.
Presently, she was called to a desk where a full-figured woman sat. Her hair was pinned up in a neat, light brown bun, kept away from her face. Her full cheeks made her smile seem warm and motherly. Her fingernails were nicely manicured, polished with a dark pink polish. She wore a knitted blue sweater that looked pretty cozy. Pinned to her sweater on the left side of her chest was a name tag that read, 'Ann W.'
She stood as Donna approached. “Good morning,” she said in a warm, matronly voice, as she shook hands. “I'm Ann. How can I help you today?”
Donna smiled politely and sat. “I'm Donna. I'm looking to book a round-trip air fare to Toronto, from December 23rd to December 29th.”
“Toronto,” Ann smiled at the thought of it. “My daughter plans to go to college there after graduating high school. You're not planning to be there over New Year's?”
“I already have plans back here at home for New Year's,” Donna said, still smiling.
Ann turned to her computer and punched in the dates Donna gave her. “What else are you looking for, besides air fare?”
“Hotel, maybe a car rental,” Donna said. “I have a list of places I researched where I'm planning to visit during the trip; they all seem to be within a short distance of each other. So if there's a good hotel and a couple of good restaurants also nearby, I should be set.”
Donna took an envelope out of her purse and handed it to Ann. The agent smiled again as she opened the envelope and unfolded the papers inside.
The color drained out of Ann's face in a second and her hands went limp, dropping down to the desk. She struggled to steady her hands again as she looked the listings over, perspiration starting to bead her forehead. It was over as fast as it had time to register to an onlooker, but Ann's expression was one of total shock.
“Sorry, hon,” she said softly. “Just got over a bug. I hope I'm not relapsing. This is the busiest time of year for us, so I can't sit home with an icepack on my head, and sucking on a thermometer, with so many people counting on us for their traveling arrangements.”
Donna nodded. “This is the season for it.”
Ann went on to Google Maps and referenced some of the locations Donna listed, doing a search for hotels and restaurants. She nodded and smiled at the results and printed them up for Donna. “You're in luck, hon,” she said. “There's a Howard Johnson's with a number of available rooms. Queen bed and full service restaurant, free Wi-Fi, free parking, fitness center and indoor pool... here are some photos.” She turned her monitor so Donna could get a clear look, and scrolled through the photos.
Donna smiled. “Very nice.”
“$140 a night standard holiday rate,” Annie said. “Bundled with air fare and car rental, you'll get a nice discount off the total.” She handed Donna the printouts that listed all the standard and optional amenities for the hotel.
Donna looked them over and nodded. “Done,” she smiled. “Will I need to--”
Another agent hurried up to the desk and smiled apologetically. He handed Ann a small stack of forms. “Thanks, Annie,” he said to her, hurrying off.
Ann nodded after him and turned back to the listings Donna had given her. Her face twitched slightly as she turned back to her computer and printed up two car rental options for Donna to use if she desired.
Donna blinked. Ann didn't act like she was really getting over a bug. A hand sanitizer dispenser rested on a corner of her desk, but she didn't use it. No trace of a cough, her face seemed to have normal coloring without looking flushed, and she didn't break a sweat until she looked at the listings Donna gave her. The way her face twitched just now, again, it was as she looked at the listings. The blonde tilted her head, glancing at Ann's monitor, and then her gaze flickered across the listings Donna had given Ann.
It hit Donna like an uppercut in her belly. She'd printed the listings on company letterhead while at work, just at the start of the work day, three days ago.
Ann W... Annie. Annie W...
“...and with air fare, hotel room booking, car rental, and agency fee, after the discount, it all comes out to $1240,” Ann said, smiling politely. “We take all major cred...”
Her voice died out. Donna was staring a little brazenly. The blonde shook her head slightly and blinked before returning her gaze to Ann, saying nothing.
Annie closed her eyes and mumbled under her breath, but her lips clearly mouthed out the word, 'shit.'
Another few seconds passed in awkward silence.
Finally Annie spoke up again. Her voice quickly became clipped, straining to maintain courtesy. “So, now you know. Annie Wooten, in the flesh. They told you about me, did they? I guess they don't say my name there very cheerfully, anymore, huh?”
Donna touched her fingers to her forehead, lowering her head enough to take her eyes off Annie. “You could... say that,” she admitted. “You're the last person I expected to run into, any time soon.”
Donna slid a phone bill with her full name and address, and phone number, across the desk, and Annie began entering the information into her computer to make all the reservations. She chuckled without humor. “Why? They thought I left town? This city's been my home for thirty-five years now, sweetheart. I'm not leaving the city 'til they put me in a pine box.”
“But no other employees have ever come here to book travel arrangements?” Donna asked skeptically. “You seem to have been working here a while.”
Annie smiled tightly. “Hon, my husband owns the place. Family business. And I'm sure a lot of you gals have come here over the years. Just not with anything printed on letterhead that they put right into my hand.”
Donna blushed. “Yeah, mistake on my part,” she said.
“So I guess there's gonna be a lot fewer women coming in here to use the agency in the future?” Annie asked cynically, still typing in Donna's reservation and billing address.
Donna frowned. “If you can learn to hide your distaste better, at being reminded that the company is still going strong, and a lot of women still work there loyally, with good careers, then maybe that won't happen,” she countered.
Annie glanced over her shoulder and gave Donna a sour look, before she turned back to her monitor and finished putting in the necessary information for Donna's travel booking. “I'm one of the ones who left on bad terms, remember?” she noted, keeping her eyes on the screen. “Nobody who leaves there on bad terms wants to be reminded of what 'life' there was like. And I promise you, hon, I can defend my version of the story every bit as well as they think they can defend theirs. Maybe better.”
Donna sighed as she fished in her purse for her credit card. “Well, I'd like to ask a favor, if it's okay with you,” she said flatly. “Can we please not 'talk shop' any further? I'll take one of these business cards you keep in the holder for customers, and if I want to talk 'shop' at a later date, I'll call you and ask, 'let's do coffee?' and then we can talk shop.”
Annie slid her computer's credit card reader across the desk so Donna could swipe her card. “Looking forward to our first shop talk session, then,” she smiled.
Donna swiped her card and signed the receipt after it was printed. “You seem pretty confident we'll be having that talk at all,” she noted.
Annie's printer hummed to life with an itinerary, Donna's hotel reservation, her airline booking, and a car rental form; all with QR codes that could be scanned at the appropriate locations. A full receipt was also included. Annie collated all the papers and put them in a manila-size envelope. “I sure am,” she nodded, handing Donna the envelope. “Here's all the paperwork you need, and the papers you gave me to put all the info in. You're all set, Ms. Richmond. Have a pleasant trip.”
“Thank you,” Donna nodded back, shaking hands.
“Call me if you have any questions,” Annie said, spreading her thumb and pinky apart in the telephone-call hand sign. “Or to set up that coffee date.”
Donna just smiled condescendingly, folded the envelope in half so it would fit in her purse, and headed out, to return to her car.
Donna called the hotel and airline to confirm, soon as she got home. Putting the envelope on top of the traveling suitcase she'd be bringing, she fixed herself a ham sandwich and poured a soft drink. Turning on her TV, she plopped on the couch with her snack and surfed for something to watch.
'I sure am,' Annie had said about her complete confidence that Donna would want to 'talk shop' with her later. That confidence bothered her more than she wanted to admit to herself. It wasn't like Donna had anything to be afraid of, anyway. Annie had left HTG a long time ago. Unless Christina, Mr. Stone, and Carla had all lied to her, there was plenty of testimony available to prove what Annie had done. If Donna herself had been working at HTG the same time that Annie was, she'd have been furious when she heard. There was nothing Donna would need to discuss with Annie, concerning HTG.
Feeling reassured, Donna started preparing her checklist. With seven weeks to go before her trip, she'd need to do laundry one week before she left home, pack the clothes she'd be taking, and call the postal service to arrange to have her mail held until she returned home. She decided to place her mobile device charger with her suitcase for now; if she needed to recharge it before leaving, placing the charger here would remind her to make sure it was packed and ready to bring with her. She picked out a few paperback books to bring along and placed them at the bottom of the suitcase. Three days before leaving, she'd give a spare set of house keys to Bobby and Diane for safekeeping. Diane would keep Donna's house plant watered and make sure fliers didn't pile up at her door.
As Donna put the manila envelope back with the suitcase, an extra piece of paper slipped partway out. Something Annie had slipped in, probably while Donna was busy signing her credit card receipt.
She took the piece of paper out and unfolded it, and her reassurance vanished.
'The reason I know you'll call, is because it's the only way you can face your fear that I'm right. Enjoy the trip! Annie'
Donna sat unmoving, and hardly blinking, for the next several minutes; staring at the note.
End of part 3
Copyright© 2014 by Delilah Winston. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org