Chapter One (partial)
Alice Cabot braced herself as her editor tossed his Ticonderoga #2 onto his desk. She was all too familiar with this signal of his exasperation.
The pencil bounced. Hard.
Abruptly aware that she might be in more trouble than she had thought, Alice caught it before it rolled off the edge of his desk and meekly returned it to his No News is Bad News mug-slash-pencil holder.
At least she hoped her expression was meek. These days her inside face was showing on the outside.
Ed Becerra’s voice was soaked in irony as he observed, “I would have thought, given your feminist principles, that you wouldn’t use a term like ‘douchebag.’ I thought douches and the bags they came in are tools of the patriarchy that serve no purpose.”
Alice spread her hands in acceptance. “You prove my case. The congressman is, quite literally, a douchebag.”
His snort might have held agreement, but Ed’s vexation wasn’t feigned. His remarkable bushy eyebrows were a single line across his untanned, lined forehead as he glanced at his computer monitor. No doubt he was consulting the email he’d received from a power-that-be about the trending #CongressmanDouchebag.
She braced herself for the compulsory lecture. The sooner it was over the sooner she could get back to her own desk and her deadline.
“You’re a journalist, Al. Or you used to be. You can’t call people names. There are always cell phones pointed at politicians, and those people don’t care you were having an off-the-record conversation. You know that.”
“He thinks ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all scientists are conspiring to lie about everything from climate change to viral vectors because it’s inconvenient to him financially.”
“You can’t call people douchebags in an interview and claim objectivity.”
There were days when she was convinced objectivity was kindling for the planetary inferno. Ed was right, of course. It was not a good mindset for a journalist or a scientist. This discussion wasn’t going like all the others, so she mentally stowed her notes for the article due this evening so she could focus on Ed. She’d no sooner logged out of the quantum computing summit than the phone had rung with his summons.
“Objectivity doesn’t mean there’s no right and wrong. I will never accept that his ignorance deserves the same respect and reporting as actual facts. Calling attention to how his deliberate ignorance hurts everyone else while he lines his own pockets is part of my job.”
Ed pursed his lips and waited.
She finally muttered, “But name-calling won’t happen again.”
“You’re right, it won’t. You’re moving to Style.”
Alice thought for a moment he’d spoken in Gallifreyan or Elvish. She pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose as if that would help. “What?”
“You heard me. S-t-y-l-e. You get one last chance to prove you can play well with others and be a journalist.”
Her feet thumped on the floor as she sat up straight in the chair. “What the actual fuck, Ed?”
He waved off her outrage with a thick-knuckled hand. “Nobody wants to work with you. The line editors hate you. You have no allies in management. You burn boats to prove you’re not afraid of fire.” He took a deep breath and lowered his voice. “What do you want from me? Get out of town for a while and get your head right. You’re not the only person hurting right now. We’re all hurting.”
Alice cleared her throat and nodded at the truth of his statement.
“At a minimum, take your potty mouth out of my office. I have better things to do than this.”
“It would be great to get out of Manhattan,” she retorted. “It’s like the inside of a microwave out there, and September isn’t going to be any better. Wait—you’re sending me somewhere? There’s money for that?”
“A very small sum of money. So small that sum is an overstatement. I’m hiding you, for all the good it’ll do me. There are other people here who want this assignment. You screw it up and there’s no point coming back.” He pushed a folder at her, good ol’ Ed, who still believed in writing on paper. “I want you to do it because if you can’t I have no use for you. We’ve been down this road for the last time and we’re only going down this road because there’s a journalist under there somewhere.”
She started to open the folder, but Ed added, “This isn’t negotiable. There’s no point looking it over. Yes is your only answer or you can rant into the wind somewhere else. Reality check, Al. Most newspapers don’t have a hard science beat anymore. You know how many people we lost and how many never came back from the last furlough. Grow up. You have to earn a place here, every day, regardless of who your mother is.”
She glared at him, pissed that he’d brought her mother into it. He knew she hadn’t earned this place with nepotism.
He glared back, not a muscle in his face moving an inch.
He meant it. Damn.
Closing his office door behind her, she maintained her poker face as she stalked between metal desks, following the gray path worn into the once-yellow 1970s linoleum. With mindless recall she turned left, right, right, left, left, and ended up at her own desk on the other side of the floor without bumping into anything or anyone. She sat down with relief. She’d managed not to look at the chairs that were empty.
Jobs gone forever.
People gone forever.
Funerals never held, memorials en masse—the room was full of ghosts whose names she wouldn’t allow herself to remember. At least not sober.
She tried to look busy as she purposely did not open the folder Ed had given her. Her mental notes about the article structure for the quantum computing conference call were jotted. The space limit for tomorrow’s article was verified. Social media pings from other journalists wanting a comment on #CongressmanDouchebag were read and ignored. Pencils were sharpened. The sweltering Manhattan street five floors below her was examined—alas, no sign of her favorite kebab vendor.
Finally, there was no choice left but to go out into the blistering, dank, foul-smelling late afternoon. The smell was not improved by the dirty, soapy water spilled across the sidewalk by a worker polishing the letters of “Media Holdings Group” on the side of the building. If she looked closely she could see the faded outline of the newspaper’s name, excised nine months ago in favor of the name of the conglomerate. She chose not to confront that particular reality today. She was as stubbornly defiant about it as a sports fan who deemed all attempts to rename ballparks and stadiums as capitulation to evil forces subverting all things good and right in the world.
As usual, she paused just outside the doors to wipe her lenses free of the condensation of fetid air on her air-conditioning chilled glasses. Every day of the humid summer she wished she could wear contacts. She didn’t put her glasses back on immediately as she was going to have to wipe them off again. Though the world was blurry, she could make the walk down Eighth Avenue to McGinty’s, including navigating around the broken curb at 35th Street. She’d need a drink before she could read up on her assignment with anything like equanimity.
After a block she resorted to a trick learned during the pandemic—peppermint lip balm and a mask. It made the world smell a whole lot better. There were always a few people wearing masks these days. She now kept one handy year-round, but mostly it came out during the smelly summer and whenever her Spidey sense felt something contagious could be incubating in crowded transit hubs—especially the subway. Plus she felt a little bit like QE the First, who’d held orange and clove pomanders to her nose to traverse the sewage-strewn streets of London.
Her humidity-soaked polo shirt had dried out and the barkeep had brought her a second Buchanan’s 12-Year by the time she opened the folder where Ed had scrawled “STB” on the tab.
STB—Some Total Bullshit?
One of the managing editors wanted an in-depth series into the corporate success of socialite entrepreneur women’s empowerment guru Helene Jolie and her brainchild lifestyle brand, Simply the Best. Deliverable the first week of December.
Holy mother of fuckall.
She wanted to set fire to the folder right then and there. Nevertheless, she had a hefty swallow of her single malt and persisted. The assignment was an in-depth series. The scope should include interviews with top corporate execs on handling whiplash ups and downs in the economy, product developers on market trends that had persisted in spite of pandemics and recessions, and local stakeholders in Los Angeles who had been delighted to lure the Long Island-born Jolie and her Manhattan-birthed company into the glittering landscape of Beverly Hills.
The folder slipped from her nerveless fingers onto the worn finish of the old oak bar. It was a puff series for a part of the paper where a managing editor’s daughter-in-law, who’d known Jolie since Wellesley, could suggest such coverage as “upbeat, good people news.” It would feature a woman and such series were done for men all the time, after all.
Alice had no problem with that—but it was not the kind of thing a science journalist like her did or wanted to do.
“You’re here early.”
“Shit, you startled me.”
She didn’t look at Simon as he slid onto the bar stool next to her. The bartender had a gin and tonic in front of him before he’d finished mopping his ruddy brown face with a napkin. She’d wait for him to take a few sips before telling him her bad news. She knew she could count on his sympathy since he was one of the colleagues who hadn’t survived the corporate changes. Sports had gone all freelance, and Simon had rebooted himself as a specialist stringer in local sports, particularly baseball.
She tapped her own glass for a top up. “I’m in hell.”
“Janet is back?” His deep voice gave her ex’s name the same intonation he reserved for pitchers who’d left the Yankees for the Red Sox.
“Much, much worse.”
“Really? The only reason I’m still friends with you is that you finally broke up with her.”
They toasted each other as testimony to the truth of his statement. Janet had had limited good qualities, all of which were private. It wasn’t as if Alice had ever had a lot of friends, but after six months coupled with Janet she’d realized the few friends she had, like Simon, weren’t turning up at drinks and were increasingly slow to respond to her messages.
By then she was also not entirely sure what she even saw in Janet, who was foul-mouthed, always sure she was right, and wore cynicism like a badge of honor. And was really good in bed. “We were way too much alike.”
“True. You’re both bitches. You in the good way.” Simon’s second sip from his glass ended with a low hum of pleasure. “I couldn’t handle the two of you at once. You at least make me laugh, so I picked you.”
“Thanks. My day is not complete unless I can pick at old scabs with you.”
“I live to serve. So, no evil ex—why the extra snarky attitude?”
“I got bumped to Style.”
He gave a philosophical grunt as he ran another napkin over his tightly textured hair, still as short as it had been during his long-ago stint in the military. “The video was great, by the way. I grabbed the popcorn and watched six times in a row. ‘Douchebag.’ So appropriate.”
Great, she was more viral than she thought if sports-focused Simon had seen it.
“And I enunciated it so clearly.”
“All in all, not the best move when Science and Tech staff are dwindling.”
A fact she ought to have remembered before she opened her big mouth. “I know. I think Ed was given the green light to can me, but instead, lucky me, I get to do a Style profile feature. In-depth. Major research.”
“It’ll be a change. Change is good, usually.”
“In Beverly Hills.”
He spluttered into his drink. “That’s a punishment? You get to go to California and you’re complaining?”
“It’s not the redwoods, or high country, or even Death Valley. Beverly Hills—where fake meets made-up. And this company…” She pushed aside the top sheet of the papers in front of her to read in a high-pitched whiny tone, “That, like, you know, highlights the attractor in every woman and, like, the perfection of the life ahead of her.”
Simon’s face scrunched into confusion. “What does that even mean?”
“It means a company worth three hundred million and change. If you take their vitamins, you won’t ever miss another day at the beach.” A glance at Simon’s face in the gilt-edged mirror behind the bar showed a pain in his expression to match her own.
Chapter 2 (Partial)
The day was under control until 10:14 a.m.
At 10:16, Pepper Addington ran the length of the second floor of the Simply the Best Laboratory Boutique with her phone in one hand and a clipboard snatched off a maintenance cart in the other. The elevator took longer, but it gave her a chance to finish chewing her belated breakfast and regain her composure before she’d be visible from the guest waiting area.
She smoothed back the tendrils that had escaped from her ponytail and dusted her lips free of crumbs from her aborted snack of an STB Power through Your Morning Bar. Using her reflection in the mirrored elevator doors she smoothed her dress and dabbed on Hint of Sunrise lip gloss. The doors parted and she strode briskly into the reception atrium as she consulted her clipboard.
Clipboards, she had learned, were almost as effective as a lab coat for conveying authority.
The pale stone floor echoed the tap of her kitten-heeled flats as she circled the central seating area. There were two women watching her with annoyed but hopeful expressions. At least it wasn’t a larger group. Ann, the Laboratory Boutique receptionist, smiled warmly from behind her curved workstation, but her eyes were screaming, “Save me!”
Using a pen from the holder on Ann’s desk, Pepper signed the top sheet on the clipboard with a flourish and handed it off to Ann with an air of finality. “All resolved now.”
Ann took charge of the clipboard as if Pepper always gave her such things to deal with. “I’m so sorry you were delayed by having to take care of this.”
Pepper gestured at what appeared to be the checklist for sanitizing the public areas. “Would you return this to the right people?” Under her breath she added, “Maintenance cart second floor.”
“Certainly. I’ll take care of it. No need for you to worry.” Ann gestured at the two waiting women as she slipped a piece of paper across the desk to Pepper. “Our Very Important Besties have been very understanding.”
Pepper glanced at the information, nodded, pushed the note back to Ann and turned to face Teena and Mary Kessler, owners of River City Gifts and Graces. Ann had also helpfully scrawled, “Soap scents scarves #1 in Iowa.”
In unison, the two older women rose to their feet. Their restrained annoyance quickly changed to genuine pleasure as Pepper greeted them.
“You must be Teena and Mary Kessler. I apologize for being late. You’re a long way from Iowa City.” Pepper didn’t mention that her boss was the one who was supposed to do the Very Important Bestie tours, but more and more of them were falling to Pepper. She usually found out Nikki was ghosting a tour when Ann called with the agreed-upon code of “Paperwork was due at 10!”
Nikki Cavanaugh’s laser focus was on a vacancy up the corporate ladder. As Nikki’s intern, Pepper could only hope that Nikki’s success would be shared with her staff. A Personal Assistant job would be much more secure than a series of three-month internships on a $500 stipend. It would give Pepper a chance to show that her MBA made her capable of more than fifty hours a week spent fetching samples, delivering lunch, and ferrying paperwork between buildings.
If there were actual dues which had to paid, she pretty darned well thought she’d paid them in full, twice over. Until that happy day, however, Pepper lived by the Golden Rule: Never, ever let the boss look foolish, lazy, or surprised—even if it was all true.
After introductions and apologies, she swept Mary and Teena into the patter of Simply the Best’s corporate philosophies of empowering women’s futures by offering them purity and only what they sincerely felt was the best. “We’ll start upstairs. Our first stop is the workshop where new scents and designs for our hand-milled soaps are crafted. Which is your favorite?”
Teena was partial to the Jaipur Pomegranate, while Mary couldn’t decide between Cotton in Tunisia or Eucalyptus Fog. Pepper made a mental note to be sure one of each was in their end-of-tour swag bags. Teena and Mary’s little shop in Iowa City was a top outlet, or they wouldn’t have been able to get the insider tour of the Lab. Swag bags, with hundreds of dollars’ worth of freebies, were a big part of Creating Satisfaction for the small retail stores in less-traveled areas that carried Simply the Best merchandise. Pepper would deliver the two women later to the main building, where they would briefly meet Helene Jolie herself and be featured in a Quickly the Best video clip for social media.
It had been made clear to Pepper that when Helene Jolie met the VIBs, she wanted to hear that her treasured guests had been lavishly rewarded. Nikki thought pampering guests was beneath her pay grade, and maybe it was. Pepper really only resented having to step up without warning and already late. That was no way to treat VIBs, and Pepper would make up for it with extras of everything, including charm.
“These particular soaps, as you both well know, start with pure Grecian olive oil. It’s saponified via our patented process.” Pepper stepped slowly along the main aisle, gesturing right and left at craftspeople and gleaming equipment. “The olive oil is poured into the laboratory beakers, and Tasmer here—” he returned her wave with a heavily gloved hand “—makes sure the oil is heated to exactly the right temperature before the beakers are transferred to the next stage. I love the way it smells in here, don’t you?”
“It’s making me crave fresh bread and tapenade,” Teena admitted.
“Or a pizza with extra olives.” Mary smiled at Teena and Pepper could see all in that one shared glance their mutual, indulgent agreement to make each other’s wish come true. Someday, Pepper thought, I’ll find someone kind and sweet and caring. But this was not that day. Or that year. Or that decade.
The thick, heavy scent of olive made Pepper’s stomach growl. She patted it into silence.
“Didn’t you get breakfast, dear?” Teena was all mother hen, which was absolutely adorable.
“I did, thank you, ma’am. It’s the aroma. I want flatbread smeared with roasted pepper and olive oil.”
Teena patted her arm. “Home cooking is what you need. If you’re ever in Iowa City you drop in for some of my peach pie.”
“That’s so sweet. I’ll hold you to that.” Her stomach threatened to growl again at the thought of food that wasn’t a nutrition bar. “Now that we’ve settled the important things in life, let’s continue, shall we? Over here, as you can see, there’s even more protective gear. There’s no margin for error working with lye.”
Both women nodded knowingly, and they moved on to where a goggled worker was blending the olive oil while dripping in small amounts of lye solution. “Olive oil creates a softer soap, and that has something to do with short triglyceride chains. It emulsifies very quickly but takes a long time to harden and even longer to cure. That gives us plenty of time to add scents and oils and create our unique patterns, and then adapt that to larger-scale production by our approved manufacturers.”
Pepper indicated the sign on the door to the next chamber. “Today they’re testing a variation on our Madagascar Vanilla Bean.”
“I like that one too,” Teena said. “It’s so delicate.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Pepper pulled open the door, and they were instantly surrounded by a cloud scented with rich, deep vanilla. Pepper battled her sudden craving for sugar cookies. “It’s so delicate that the emulsified olive oil has to be cooled before it’s added or it will kill all the scent. Vanillin from orchids is very fragile. We could use vanillin from wood botanical sources. It would be a lot hardier and far less expensive. Most commercially produced soaps use it. But the scent wouldn’t be as clear and unmistakable.”
“That aroma is divine.” Mary sighed fondly, one hand on her heart. “It makes me think of the best crème brûlée I ever had, and that was in Italy.”
“That was the best.” Teena’s twinkling glance suggested there were other fond memories, and Pepper averted her eyes. It wasn’t as if she was going to be having “crème brûlée” any time soon.
After watching a technician layer different colors of partially cured soap into narrow stainless-steel pans, they moved on to where another tech was cutting cured slices from the long logs to reveal an intricate mandala pattern. Her guests oohed and aahed and Pepper joined them. She’d seen a lot of soap over the past year, and this swirl of blue, orange, and green truly put the “art” in artisanal.
After the soap lab, they moved into the Parfumerie. The display showing how many stems of lavender it took to create a single ounce of essential oil always drew visitor interest. She shepherded the two women onward to the perfume showcase with sample bottles to smell and add to swag bags.
“I don’t mean to hurry you, but the jewelry design studio is even more interesting, and I think you’ll both want plenty of time there.”
“Lead on, dear.” Mary followed in Pepper’s wake back to the hallway. “This is all wonderful.”
Teena was already at the Best Body Jewelry door. “You’re right. This is really what I’ve been looking forward to.”
“The metals and stones used for design are not the real stones that will be in the final pieces, of course,” Pepper explained as they entered. “It means the designers can make mistakes and try again for our always inspired jewelry selection. I think it’s fascinating.”
“That’s one of the things we do like about the Simply the Best accessories line,” Mary said. “You don’t see anything like them elsewhere. But the price point is hard to stock, let alone sell, in our part of the country.”
Pepper nodded sympathetically. Her current budget didn’t extend to real gemstones and precious metals either. “It makes them a special gift indeed. My parents gave me a necklace last Christmas.”
“As we tell our customers,” Teena volunteered, “there’s Simply the Best items for everyday use, to make every day special. And then there’s these beautiful things.” She touched a wire and stone necklace set out in pieces, awaiting assembly. It looked as if the final would be thick, tightly woven gold strands with a teardrop centerpiece of a topazy stone. “This is going to be so lovely, I can tell.”
From Best Body Jewelry Pepper walked her charges down the stairs and across the atrium. Ann was flirting with the intern from Legal who’d scored high marks last week by dropping in with key lime sugar cookie ice cream sandwiches. No easy achievement on a hot August afternoon. She’d tease Ann later about adding yet another heart to her collection.
“Each of the buildings on campus has a water feature. They’re all different, but they all display one of STB’s product lines. This one has samples from our cut rock and crystals.” She let her guests admire the ceiling-to-floor glass sculpture that began at the top with a long pipette that dripped blue-tinted water into an alembic. Curved copper fittings served as the display shelves for desk and bookshelf carvings of quartz, tourmaline, and the latest addition of labradorite from Madagascar. The alembic emptied into a series of laboratory tubes that flowed into a rock-lined catch basin at the floor. “It’s mesmerizing, isn’t it? The sound of running water is so soothing.”
While the two women took in the fountain, Pepper allowed herself a mental vacation and envisioned her favorite spot on Malibu Beach where, right after it rained, a small waterfall tumbled down rocks before disappearing into the sand.
“My nephew would love this. He’s a rockhound.”
“Let’s take a peek at more of the crystal collection around the corner. Sometimes there are fragments available. Then we’ll spend some time in the Textiles Lab.”
Textiles always took a while, because guests loved to touch and swoon over fabric bolts and samples from around the world. Some were destined for table runners or scarves, others for future exclusive apparel licensed to specific designers. The two women were thrilled to load up their swag bags with autumn season Fallen Leaf hats, scarves, masks, and gloves that weren’t even available to order yet.
Their last stop was the Samples Bar, where they voted for their favorite bite from test flavors of ST-Best nutrition bars for morning, noon, and night. Samples were also free to employees, and Pepper lived on them. It helped make the rent, and she kept her roommate supplied too. She hated asking her parents for money and was currently engaged in a game of seeing how long she could make it totally on her own.
She had liked the Golden Persian Pistachio flavor, until, that is, it had become lunch day after day.
It was 11:22 when she tucked her VIBs safely into one of the golf carts they used to move between the five buildings of the Simply the Best campus. The August day was hot, but tempered by a fresh, lazy ocean breeze blowing over the adjacent fairways and greens of the Beverlywood Country Club. Pepper imagined it was probably heavenly out on the water. After an indirect journey that allowed her to point out the other buildings and some of the campus statuary, she handed her charges off to a personal assistant from Partnership Relations at exactly 11:30. The PA would whisk them Upstairs—the euphemism everyone used to indicate anyone and anything that came from Helene Jolie’s office.
She heaved a huge sigh of relief on her way back to the golf cart. Finally able to check her phone, she saw several messages from Nikki. None of them were an apology or thank you for taking the tour. Nikki skipped over such things, especially for interns. The last one was a request for lunch from the Simply the Best Café, and she hopped back in the golf cart to fetch Nikki’s kale salad. It was a quarter to noon by the time she was parked at the Lab with lunch and iced coffee doctored exactly the way Nikki liked it.
Ann met her almost at the door. “One of the VIBs left her swag bag somewhere!”
So much for thinking the day had calmed down. “Does she have any idea where? They both had bags when we left Textiles.”
“She thought maybe the restroom, but we’ve looked there.”
“Hang on to these for me.” She thrust the food into Ann’s hands and ran out to the golf cart again. Sure enough, there was one of the ST-Best recycled sailcloth shopping bags, its contents spilled out under the seat where it had slid. Damn—she ought to have noticed it, but she’d been too busy getting Nikki’s lunch order done.
She sprinted back inside. “It’s in the cart. Tell them I’ll be back ASAP.”
Ann already had her phone to her ear. “You got it.”
She took the stairs to the second floor, dropped off the food on Nikki’s desk, grateful that there was no sign of her boss or personal assistant. A new intern Pepper had met only yesterday said she’d pass on the message that Pepper had to take something Upstairs for a VIB.
First they’d kept the Very Important Besties waiting and now this.
Pepper had learned many things on the job. The salient lesson at the moment was that when something went wrong, regardless of her own culpability, Nikki would kick it downhill to where Pepper lived. On sudden inspiration she dashed into the Parfumerie, grabbed a boxed sample from behind the counter while breathlessly exclaiming, “Emergency… for Upstairs…”
She was deeply sorry she’d felt fancy this morning and worn her one silk dress to work because she had dinner plans. She was going to sweat through it at this rate.
She calmed herself by arranging the various soaps, perfume samples, harvest-patterned table square, nutrition bars, and autumn accessories back in the bag. On top she put the perfume she’d just liberated. She buckled it safely in place on the seat next to her and pushed the cart pedal all the way to the metal. She passed two other carts, which were sticking with the campus speed limit of seven miles per hour.
“Watch out,” one driver called.
Pepper hoped it wasn’t anyone important as she called back, “Sorry, sorry, emergency for Upstairs!”
She realized she didn’t know where the VIBs would be waiting for her. It was quicker to go in the back to the elevator if they were still on the second floor. However, if there was a merciful higher power in the universe, the missing bag hadn’t been realized until after they’d met with Helene Jolie. They would therefore be waiting at main reception on the first floor. She screeched to halt in front, smoothed her hair, and alighted from the cart with what she hoped would be seen as poised alacrity.
The two women were indeed waiting at main reception.
However, there was no merciful higher power, at least not today. Beside them was Helene Jolie herself, and the usually vibrant, charming smile was nowhere in sight as she watched Pepper approach.