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I stared at the screen. I felt like I’d been struck in the face. This couldn’t be happening. I wasn’t a terrorist or criminal. Sure, my mother had been born abroad, but she’d been dead for twenty-one years. My father was born in England but had been a naturalised American for nearly two-thirds of his life. He’d even been decorated for war service in North Africa. That kid being pissed at me couldn’t have gone this far, could it?
I started shaking.
God. What else could these people do to me?
The next morning, at my regular job, I drooped over my desk and shuffled papers in folders, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I worked Monday to Friday at Bornes & Black, a Connaught Avenue advertising agency handling niche inventor accounts. Pretty mundane in the two years I’d been here, but it was a job that nearly paid the bills and gave me – no – had given me precious free weekends in the park.
‘Hey, Karen.’ A paper ball landed on my right hand. I looked up. Across from me, Amanda, the other assistant account executive in our team, grinned and tipped her chin up at me.
‘What’s up? Eat a lemon, or did you get a tax bill?’
She rolled her large brown eyes, but before she could open her mouth to start an interrogation, the boss’s assistant materialised in front of me. This god-like being had never before looked at me, let alone smiled at me. Maybe calling it a smile was stretching it. I was to report to the boss ‘at my earliest convenience’ to talk about a special project. The immaculate figure turned about in a swirl of dark blue, the tail of a green and yellow silk scarf dripping down her curved, swaying back.
Amanda and I both stared.
I pushed my hair behind my ears, brushed the front of my skirt to ease the creases out, grabbed my notebook and scuttled after her. What could the boss want from me? I was nobody. With no college degree, I had watched with second-hand pleasure, but a twinge of envy, as others overtook me. But it hadn’t seemed so important; I had lived for the park. Maybe I needed to change that now.
I stumbled out of the boss’s office an hour later, head whirling. After nearly two years, they’d pulled me out of the herd and given me my chance. I was to make the pitch presentation to new, and important, foreign clients. Back at my desk, I stared at my notes, terrified at the responsibility, but thrilled to be chosen.
I slogged away researching, drafting and reworking my material over the following four days. I practised in front of the mirror to get it word-perfect. I worked on it over the weekend; I had nothing else to do.
Now the day of the meeting had arrived. I glanced again at my watch, checked my face again, happy that my hair was still in the elegant chignon I had persuaded it into this morning. I knew my new blue linen suit was right – the vendor in Nicholson’s had said so.
Unable to bear waiting any longer, I got up from my desk. Amanda squeezed my hand and said, ‘Go, girl.’
I had made the long walk into the conference room but my hands wouldn’t stop trying to rearrange the neat stack of paper in front of me. I gulped some water to relieve my parched throat. Hayden, the boss, glanced over at me, one eyebrow raised. He was English. Proper English, not one of the 1860s left-behinds. His old-fashioned sports jacket and pants made him look like a crusty old guy from a black and white movie, but he gave me a human-enough smile.
The new clients came from Roma Nova, in Europe, where my mother had been born. I couldn’t remember much from the Saturday Latin class my dad had insisted on, so I was curious about what they’d be like. Checking off ‘Latin (elementary)’ in the language ability section on my application had seemed so irrelevant two years ago. Now it was my springboard.
A buzz on the intercom, and the door of the glass-walled conference room opened. Hayden and I rose to meet them. A short, brown-haired man walked past Hayden and held his thin hand out to me. Hayden nodded at me, nursing a half-smile, and made the introductions. This was our inventor.
‘Salve, Sextilius Gavro,’ which was about as much Latin as I could muster at that precise moment.
‘My interpreter, Conradus Tellus,’ he said in a sing-song tone.
His colleague was more than striking – blond hair long enough to slick back behind his ears. And tall. Several inches taller than me, even. Above a smiling mouth and a straight nose marred by a scar, his eyes were tilted slightly upwards, red-brown near the iris, green at the edges. He fixed his gaze on me like he was measuring me up, assessing me. I refused to break, but felt warmth creeping up my neck into my face as he widened his smile. A little flustered,I eventually looked down at his outstretched hand but hesitated. I gave myself a mental shake, threw myself into businesswoman mode and took it.
Over the next two hours, the interpreter’s gaze tracked me as I moved to the screen on the back wall and around the table, giving out mock-ups and sales projections. He asked me to pause now and again so he could interpret, but each time he finished, he flashed me a half-smile. Sextilius Gavro scribbled notes ceaselessly, his fingers twitching with nervous energy. He kept looking up from his papers and fixing me with a stare. Although I described market segmentation, platforms and the importance of usability in full detail, they still asked so many questions. I was a prisoner under interrogation.
I only realised hours had passed when my stomach bubbled; it was running on empty. I stopped talking. I had nothing else to say.
After they’d left, I sank back into my seat and shut my eyes for a few moments. My pulse was still pushing adrenalin around my body.
‘Your research was excellent, Karen,’ Hayden said, his face serious. ‘More importantly, the Roma Novans were impressed by your ideas.’
I flushed. ‘I was just concentrating on getting my pitch right.’
I sipped my dose of coffee. I glanced over at the papers strewn over the large, gleaming table like so much ticker tape left after a parade. That was all it came down to after days of solid work.
I rode along more familiar ground that afternoon, briefing the art director and marketing team. I needed to have the draft campaign plan ready for approval for the next client encounter in two weeks, so I settled down and attacked my keyboard.
A while later, my stomach growled. It would be home-time soon. Amanda had gone a while ago. I glanced at the clock. How could it be past seven? I was alone in the open-plan office – except for the IT engineer in the corner, and he was a geek. I had gotten lost in my so-called boring job. I smiled and admitted it felt good.
I treated myself to a gnocchi marinara and a glass of red at Frankie’s on my way home. I didn’t run into anybody I knew. I didn’t really expect to: New York was a city of isolated strangers, smiling outwardly but all intent on their individual universes. I was savouring the fruit-laden tang of the wine when the interpreter invaded my head. Sure, his English was excellent, British-sounding, but just a little too perfect. He wasn’t an interpreter; that was way too ordinary. Self-assured, nonchalant even, he had watched everything and missed nothing.
Next morning, I was immersed in developing the implementation outline when the harsh ring from my desk phone broke through. I grabbed the handset and struggled with untwisting the cord.
‘I hope you don’t mind me calling you at work, but I wondered if you’d like to meet for a drink or some dinner on Saturday.’
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t date clients on principle.’
‘I didn’t mean a date; simply as colleagues.’
I heard an undertone of laughter in his voice.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ I said.
‘Out of your comfort zone?’
I gasped. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
‘Sorry,’ he said before I could slam the handset down. ‘That was rude of me. But will you still come?’
I hadn’t been asked out to dinner for six months. Why the hell not?
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