The picture on the left is called Page Building Lobby and is by Tomas at Active Pa-Shun, used in accordance with his Creative Commons license.
I filed my tax returns today, for Erin and myself. As you know, I have few complaints with the taxes I pay and the services I get in return. What complaints I do have with the process have to do with the complicated nature of the tax forms I fill out. Having spent the better part of the afternoon hunting for receipts, entering receipts, figuring out deductions, etc, etc, etc, I now have the honour of telling you that I've gone cross-eyed.
No matter, though: it's all done. Turns out, I owe the government $3.56 (in addition to the taxes I've already paid). Erin, who received some untaxed grant income in 2003, had to pay around $500 in addition to taxes already paid. Not bad when you consider that last year, our additional tax bill was something on the order of $7000. One other reason I'm able to breathe a sigh of relief.
The Night Girl: Wired Fergus
Fergus is the proprietor of the cappuccino stand in Subbasement 3 of the SunLife Tower. He does pretty good business, as you will soon see.
"How did they get here?" said Perpetua. "When did they get here? Why doesn't everybody know about them?"
Fergus counted out his answers on his fingers. "I don't know, I don't know and a lot of people do know about them, but they mind their own business? Why make trouble for them if they don't make trouble for you."
"That can't be enough to keep their secret," said Perpetua.
Fergus shrugged. "What about the people who work in the receiving docks and the basement of this financial district? Do you know who they are and where they live? No? And if you don't know these guys, why should you know who they know, you know?"
The Night Girl continues to simmer on the backburner. I'm a little frustrated that the story doesn't yet have a plot, and already I'm 8500 words into the thing. However, I do get the sense that I am coming to the end of the introductory part of the story. Perpetua has been tested, and has decided to stick with her job. So, her character has grown, in time for a decision to be made just before chapter two. As a result, chapters one and two form a mini-story of introduction, the climax being Perpetua's decision to stay. With luck, the rest of the story will start to develop in part three, giving this novel a rather segmented feel, but one that still works (I hope).
The section below follows on after this section. The whole story so far reads as follows:
Half-an-hour before midnight, Perpetua was sipping her third cup of coffee when she heard stirrings within Earthenhouse's office. The door creaked open and he stared out at her, polishing his teeth.
"Good morning, Miss Collins," he said. "Did you get my notes?"
How could I not, thought Perpetua. But she creaked her mouth into a smile. "Yes, Mr. Earthenhouse."
"Good. And did you have any trouble sending the faxes?"
"No, Mr. Earthenhouse."
He blinked at her. "Really? That's interesting. Must be a human thing. Well, that's excellent, Miss Collins, truly." He nodded at the clock. "The first of our clients should be arriving in the next few minutes. Are you ready to meet them?"
What was he going to do, bolt the door to them if she said 'no'? "Yes, Mr. Earthenhouse."
"Did you make the coffee?"
Perpetua's knuckles whitened on the edge of the keyboard. "Yes, Mr. Earthenhouse."
"Good, good." He resumed polishing his teeth and turned away. Before he closed the door to his office, he paused, then turned back. "Miss Collins." Perpetua looked. Earthenhouse held up his fingers in a "V" sign. "Make two pots."
She stared at the door a long moment after it clicked shut. Then she shrugged and made a second pot of coffee.
At a minute to midnight, Perpetua pushed back from her computer and stretched. She peered at the bottom of her coffee cup and wondered whether having yet another was worth the serious health risks. She may have enjoyed the night, but watching it and working through it were two different things entirely. She blinked at the empty office, and wondered, despite Earthenhouse's assurances, whether she'd see any clients today.
Then the clock clicked midnight.
The door swept open. Perpetua dropped her coffee cup. A chattering hoarde had just entered the office.
It was a sea of bald heads and grey skin punctuated by taller, pointy eared figures with fangs, grinning and cackling and talking about the ride into work.
They were in all shapes and sizes, but most were under three-feet tall, punctuated by a creature or two that were as tall as Earthenhouse. Then the door swung open and a seven-foot tall creature ducked its head and sidled sideways into the office. He sat down across three vinyl chairs.
Perpetua stared at the throng of strange and bizarre creatures and began to slip down in her chair, looking to hide beneath her desk until this hallucination was over, but then one of the creatures' bright gaze flicked to her.
"Ooo!" it chirped. "New secretary!"
More eyes flashed. "It's human!"
There was a gasp, then a patter of small feet. Perpetua was suddenly surrounded by pair after pair of gleaming eyes and wide, cheeky grins.
She swallowed hard. "Um. Hello."
"Hi!" chorused the short throng.
"What are you doing here?" asked Perpetua.
"Waiting for coffee," said an impish creature. The others nodded at each other.
"Why can't we have coffee now?" asked a small voice in the back.
"We must wait," said another. "Chim and Chum aren't here yet."
"Who?" said Perpetua. Then the door burst open.
A ball of stone scrambled across the floor, unravelling itself on Perpetua's desk as a naked stone ghoul, all points, from its knees, its elbows, ears and teeth. He grinned at her as he shook. "Is there coffee?!" Its foul breath blew back her hair.
Perpetua stared at him, then raised a finger, pointing to the corner table.
The ghoul launched off the desk, grabbed up the pot, and poured half of it down its throat.
The door burst open again and a second ball of stone scrambled across, landing on her desktop with a thump. It was the first ghoul's twin, straight down to the ragged, toothy grin. "Did he drink all the coffee?!"
Perpetua shifted her point to the second karafe on the table. The creature looked at it, then beamed at her. "Thank you!" She wrinkled her nose at his breath.
It hopped off the desk and snatched up the second karafe, downing half of it in one gulp. Then, holding their karafes like coffee mugs, the two stone ghouls chattered at each other like a conversing couple in a sped up film.
Perpetua turned back and blinked to see a lineup of ghouls at her desk, all smiling at her, all waiting patiently with a mug in their hands.
No wonder there was a third karafe in her desk.
Perpetua made the coffee. As the crowd gathered around the coffee maker to watch it drip, she backed slowly to the door. The creatures made no move to stop her. She waved quickly to the seven-foot troll that hadn't moved from his chairs, muttered something about break time, yanked open the door and shot outside.
She stood in the middle of the near-deserted shopping corridor, all the stores glassed in, but one: the cappuccino stand with the words "WIRED FERGUS" emblazoned in backlit white perspex. The proprietor poured some beans into a bag, and looked at her.
Perpetua walked like a shell-shocked man across the shopping corridor, up a short flight of stairs, and into the small coffee shop. She plunked herself by the counter and stared at the proprietor. He was a young man, cleanshaven, with a mop of unruly brown hair and long sideburns. He wore a plaid shirt open over a white t-shirt and jeans. He stood opposite her by the cash register, just a little taller, and waited.
For a long moment, the two humans stared at each other across the coffee counter.
"So," said Perpetua, with a non-committal shrug. "I work for a real troll, eh?"
The boy blinked at her. "Are you speaking metaphorically or are you commenting on the fact that you actually work for a goblin?"
Relief swept through Perpetua and she banged her head against the counter. "Oh, thank God! I'm not hallucinating" Then her stomach knotted. "Oh, my god, I'm not hallucinating!"
The boy reached out, hesitated, then patted her shoulder. "Um... there, there. I know it's a little alarming, but you soon get used to it."
"Used to it?" She looked up at him. "Working for somebody who isn't even a member of my species?"
He gave her a tight shrug. His whole expression was neutral, his mouth set neither in a frown nor a smile. "I know they look odd. But they speak English, and they like their coffee. Some of them actually know how to tip."
They stared again. Silence lengthened. Then the boy passed over a small cup. "Have an espresso. It'll make you feel better."
She took the cup and downed it as if it were whiskey. She looked him over, his open plaid shirt, his hands stuffed in his pockets, his non-committal face. "What's your name?"
She blinked at him. "That's not really your name, is it?"
He shrugged. "Named my coffee bar after it, didn't I?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Your first name isn't Wired. Can't be."
"Well, it's not," he allowed.
"What is it?"
"I'd rather not say."
She stared at him. Then shrugged. "My name's Perpetua. Call me Tua. It's the best I can do."
"Only if you want a punch in the stomach."
He nodded, his mouth quirked slightly to show he was impressed. "I see."
"You don't drink many of your espressos, do you?" said Perpetua.
Fergus raised his eyebrows. "I'm actually on my third." He gave her the ghost of a smile. "You should see me before I've had my first cup of coffee. Speaking of, you want another to take with you back to work?"
She raised her hands as though warding off spirits. "Oh, no! I'm not ready to go back there."
"You sure?" He nodded past her. "I think your desk chair wants you back in the office."
"What?" Then she heard the squeaking sound and whirled around to see her desk chair trundling up the corridor. It had somehow made it up the short flight of stairs and it was wheeling towards her. She dodged, and it altered course. "What are you-- Hey!"
She glanced back at Fergus. He shrugged at her and resumed drying the mug in his hands.
The chair squeaked close and Perpetua rounded on it. The two froze. She eyed it, in a sumo crouch, ready to wrestle the chair if it attacked her. Despite having no facial features whatsoever, the chair stared back. Then it darted to her left and, as Perpetua reacted, it zipped right, swung behind her, and rammed her in the back of the legs. Perpetua fell into the seat, arms and legs flailing, and the chair zoomed back to the office.
"See you after work," called Fergus.
Perpetua's eyes widened as the chair headed straight for the short flight of stairs. "Use the wheelchair ramp!" she cried. "Use the wheelchair ramp! Ow! Ow! Ow!" She grabbed her seat as the chair skipped and hopped down the short flight of stairs. The door swung open for them as they swept into the office.
The short throng of stone creatures waved and raised their full mugs of coffee as Perpetua passed, making a beeline for Earthenhouse's office.
Earthenhouse stood up as she entered. "Miss Collins! I'm sorry! I didn't realize!"
"Didn't realize what? That my chair is possessed?" Perpetua stumbled out of the seat and darted for the door. The chair scooted over and blocked her path.
"Ah, no," said Earthenhouse. "I must apologize; I forgot to tell your chair that this was your first day."
Perpetua stopped trying to sidestep the chair and stared at Earthenhosue. "Tell it? My first day?"
"Yes; it should have been less stringent about the rules of your contract, Miss Collins." He picked up a file-folder from his desk. "I'm afraid the chair has some difficulty telling its occupants apart; I suppose it has to guess by weight. But unless it is told otherwise, it is rather strict in enforcing the rules. I'm no slavedriver, Miss Collins, but a goblin contract has clear clauses. You will be paid well and on time. You have your sick leave, your vacation, and you're asked to give two weeks notice if you intend to resign. You get a half-hour lunch break and two fifteen-minute breaks on either side of it. I suppose you were on break longer than is listed in the contract."
Perpetua tried to get a handle on the gape. "Let me get this straight," she said finally. "This... thing will come and get me if I don't come back from break on time?"
"We goblins are sticklers for punctuality," said Earthenhouse, looking almost sheepish. "Unless you give us notice or call ahead sick, the chair is obliged to come and fetch you."
"You're down three flights of stairs," said Perpetua.
"It will manage."
Goblins, possessed chairs, twenty-two dollars an hour; these things almost didn't add up. Perpetua touched her forehead. "Permission to speak freely, sir?" she said.
Earthenhouse blinked at her. "Always."
She rounded on him. "What the hell is going on here?!"
"I thought I'd already covered that in the interview," said Earthenhouse.
"You mean those are your clients?" shouted Perpetua. "Hordes upon hordes of stone figurines with nasty teeth--"
"Goblins," said Earthenhouse.
"Huge seven-foot tall creatures--"
"Trolls," said Earthenhouse.
"And--" Perpetua waved her arms. "Other things, with weird faces, tongues sticking out all the time!"
"Gargoyles," said Earthenhouse.
Perpetua pinched the bridge of her nose. "And the two hyperactive goblins who drank two-thirds of my coffee?"
"Ah, yes, Chim and Chum," said Earthenhouse. "Twins from a fine gargoyle family. We've had some difficulty placing them, I'm afraid. They have great difficulty sitting still for long periods. They're also learning how to socialize."
Perpetua stared at him through the fallen strands of her hair. "Oh, really?"
"I did tell you that I was a goblin, didn't I, Miss Collins?"
"I thought you were crazy!" Perpetua yelled.
At this, Earthenhouse drew himself up. His dark eyes gleamed. His smile was tight. "Do you think that now?"
"No." Perpetua lowered her gaze. "Maybe I'm crazy."
Earthenhouse's voice softened. "Do you really think that?"
Perpetua closed her eyes and opened them again. She still stared down at Astroturf. "No. And I'm not dreaming, either. I should quit, but if I don't give you two weeks' notice, your chair will come and get me."
"Well, you can still leave," said Earthenhouse. "We have a clause. It's called the screaming clause."
She looked up at him. "Screaming clause?"
"If you leave the office at a run, screaming, the two weeks' notice period is waived."
"Oh," said Perpetua. I could do that, she thought. A yell of fear and a yell of rage; those sound roughly the same. I can give a good bolt too, even though I'm wearing pumps. All I'd have to do is forego $165 a day and listen to mother tell me that she told me so.
Her eyebrows and her mouth tightened into two thin, level lines.
"Miss Collins," said Earthenhouse. "Everything I have told you still stands. I run this company so that my people can earn an income within human society. To do this, I need someone that humans can deal with, and I'm prepared to pay $23/hr if it will make you feel better. You have been the most promising candidate by far, and I would very much like to keep you. Now that you know the conditions of this workplace, will you be staying?"
Silence stretched a moment longer. Then Perpetua nodded. "I'll get back to work." She glared at the chair until it sidled out of her path, and she stepped to the door.
"Miss Collins," Earthenhouse called. "You've forgotten your chair."
At the door, Perpetua turned back. "Come on, Scooter," she said.
The chair squeaked and turned around.
"Scooter?" said Earthenhouse.
She ignored him. "Now, look," she said to the chair. "If you can move around on your own, you don't need me to pull you. Now, are you coming with me or not?"
The chair hesitated, then squeaked forward. Smiling grimly, Perpetua left Earthenhouse's office and headed for the reception desk. Scooter, the chair, followed her until she sat down.
Chim and Chum stood in the corner with a group of goblins, bouncing on their knees like two pistons of an engine, chanting "Socialize, socialize! Socialize, socialize!"
Perpetua picked up a file-folder from her inbox, containing the day's placements. "Right," she called to the crowd. "Gather round, everybody. The first temp jobs are here."