The offices of the Mundane Insurance Company were nondescript in an almost painful way. Some sort of tan hessian weave covered most of the walls, though not to the floor or ceiling, but in the perfect placement to tear the skin if a hapless employee decided to rub against it while flopping over from exhaustion due to overwork or, more likely, catatonic boredom. The floors were covered with grey industrial carpeting so thin that it often revealed seams and exposed metal sub-floor where it wasn't held together by spilled coffee stains and liquid white-out streaks.
Above the thirteenth floor was a standard dropped ceiling with panels that have browned along the seams. In keeping with corporate custom, every fifth panel was substituted for a buzzing translucent panel that blinked on-and-off with light at a cadence which could have been carefully designed to zombify the floors occupants if company executives could gin or vodka up the interest in being the least bit careful. More fortunate souls worked under panels that had gradually burned out and failed to be replaced by what appeared to be a non-existent maintenance staff.
The labyrinth of lavender cubicles was punctuated by attempts to add color and personality to the endeavor. Not too far from the elevator doors was a bunch of three silvered Mylar balloons tied with ribbons that were stuck to well-chewed gum at the corner of a space assigned to Harriet Cornish, according to the nameplate. The balloons variously read 'Happy Birthday George' and 'Chinese New Year 2005' along with faded stars and fireworks. These were hard to read as the helium seemed mostly depleted and each rolled back and forth along the cubicle wall as the inadequate ventilation system blew around them. The balloons added a bit of color and movement that an abandoned pair of crumbling banana antennae headgear and walls festooned with sarcastic Dilbert cartoon strips failed to provide.
Harriet Cornish, or the woman who was sitting in Harriet's apparent cube, looked quietly furious. She would sit up very straight every few moments to glare at her bow-tied manager, who was cowering a few cubicles away while still remaining visible over the four-foot-high cubicle walls. The cubicle he was sitting in was labelled with 'Lucretia Vordonis', giving us the impression that nameplates rarely matched people in this organization. To further reinforce this thought, the woman who we will tentatively name Harriet, once she gets her manager's attention, clamps her teeth down hard and thumbs at one of the offices that line the wall on either side of the floor's elevator. It is one of those offices with a glass wall that allows us to see its occupant. The nameplate on the wall seems to be the managers name, which I won't bother to disclose as he is as inconsequential as the beginning of the story made clear. As 'Harriet' and the manager can clearly see through a glass wall, Lucretia Vordonis is sitting at the mock-impressive desk in the office with the manager's name on it. The cubicle woman glares back menacingly at the manager who readjusts a new bow-tie and hides behind Lucretia's former computer, feverishly speeding through the process of converting Lucretia from an hourly worker to a salaried professional and justifying her new office space by a change in title and grade. Unfortunately, both he and several dozen people are interrupted by a jangling ring from Lucretia's phone, all the heads pop up from their work like a prairie-dog convention, as the manager sitting in Lucretia's cubicle dutifully answers.
The call comes from the finely-appointed and properly-maintained executive offices and reception area of the Mundane Insurance Company one floor down: An important customer wants some technical information on their account and the executives want the best analyst to help him. After the manager breaks into a cold sweat and whispers some phone conversation, the call ends. Harriet sneers at her boss and he simply hunkers back to the task of elevating Lucretia. There is a sour feeling in his stomach but that is nothing compared to the experience of being alone with that strange woman. Anything is worth avoiding that.
Shortly, the doors of the elevator slide open and a smartly dressed man of unspecific ethnicity steps out, squinting at the visual assault of the cubicle farm at its perpetual haze of angst and sweat hovering to some unseen horizon. Mylar balloons rattle about in an artificial breeze nearby as he approaches the nearest supposed human and inquires regarding a Lucretia Vordonis.
A red-faced woman begins to hyperventilate and can barely manage to motion a shaking finger toward an office a few doors away from the elevator. The man pivots with his fine leather shoes and glancing back to notice the name on the cubicle's plate, he says "Thank you, Harriet" in an off-handed yet pleasant way.
The office door has a man's name but he sees a woman within sitting at an uncluttered desk. Shrugging, he opens the office door just enough to put his head inside. "Lucretia Vordonis?" The woman at the desk looks up from reading a book, which he takes as an acknowledgement. The chair across the desk from Lucretia is of a style and manufacture that you will find in many run-down public institutions, yet this doesn't seem to bother the man, who smoothly loosens the button of his fine suit coat. "I am happy to see you today," as he offers his hand.
The woman across the desk simply looks at him, ignoring both the offered handshake and the crash of some equipment beyond the still ajar office door. The smartly-dressed man flinches slightly at the noise, but the practiced smile never leaves his face as he gracefully slides into the available chair. "I am Antonio Midinar and I have come to consult with you about a property I own in Kuala Lumpur..." His voice was smooth and the accent used was exotic yet very intelligible. He began to talk of the intricacies of Malaysian zoning policy, producing a manila folder about three centimeters thick that he set before the woman.
He noticed the disheveled sense about Ms. Vordonis, however his studied manner in adjusting to perceived cultural standards in any situation allowed him to continue smiling and speaking in a carefully prepared way. The woman's light brown business suit with an antiquated ruffle about the collar and cuff clashed strongly in his mind with the rose-colored poet's blouse, sequined and buttoned up to her throat. He could hear some heated yet indistinct talk from the cubicle farm but he didn't allow it to disrupt his description of the skyscraper in the Malaysian capital that he and a conglomerate of international businessmen jointly owned
His eyes narrowed as it appeared he was losing the woman's concentration on his speech. Her look was almost placid as she seemed to stare at something over his left shoulder. Not missing a syllable in his on-going talk, he casually sneaked a look what Lucretia might be focusing her attention rather than him, but it appeared to be only another section of complete blank grey wall. There was another crash from the cubicles that he strained to ignore but the square-spectacled woman failed to register at all.
"As you can see, I am most concerned about terrorist attacks on my building in the wake of the twin towers..." The man was trying to place Ms. Vordonis' perfume but could only manage to think of mold. He was finding it harder to keep up his blather, which he erroneously attributed to the visual assault of her matted rat's-nest of hair. Incongruously, he felt the familiar sensation of excitement that accompanied the proximity of a sensationally gorgeous and alluring woman, but there was only this one seemly-disinterested and frumpy woman across the desk and the flash of a rather plump and scarlet Harriet assaulting a man with a stapler while shouting about some lost promotion. Yet, the arousal persisted.
He had come to elicit advice, but he felt like he was losing Lucretia's interest and potential insights. Between the unfamiliar sense of impending failure to achieve his purpose and the growing desire to find a more intimate way to understand feelings about this seemingly hideous woman, his prepared script was suddenly abandoned. "You must come to Kuala Lumpur yourself to inspect my building. Perhaps then you can better guide us in adjusting our insurance needs." In a totally unpredictable way, he found himself offering Ms. Vordonis first-class passage to Malaysia and a stay at his private estate. Alarms were sounding in his head, almost drowning out Harriet's shouting from the cubes, but he was powerless to stop the flow of offered enticements that he typically reserved only for international supermodels
Lucretia's attention seemed to wander back to Antonio's face. "Fine," she said flatly.
The man seemed relieved, pulled the handkerchief from his top coat pocket, and dabbed away uncharacteristic perspiration from his brow. "I will make all the arrangements." He rose less than gracefully, offered the woman his hand again, which she again blandly ignored. "Thank you for your help."
With a grateful waning of the peculiar swell of jumbled emotions, Antonio Midinar only vaguely noted his brushing against a wall in his escape and it was tearing a section from his coat sleeve. Going unnoticed in his private consternation, a bow-tied man and Harriet were locked in some physical struggle for dominance in the midst of cubicled and stunned prairie-dog on-lookers.
The slightly less sharp man marched resolutely to the elevator and nearly broke its down button with his fevered and repetitive mashing.