If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve resolved to finish my first novel his year. So how am I doing with this resolution? Well, I’m at the half-way mark. I’m 55 thousand words into my story. I know where it’s going and I know how I want it to end. But, at this point, I feel that I need to hit the pause button before I continue. I want to read through what I’ve written so far and make sure that I’m happy with it. I’m dedicating the next two weeks to this task. It will give me a chance to review my work, add in anything I may have missed out, and take out anything that may be superfluous.
Now that you know where I’m at with “Postcard from Paris”, here’s the first chapter. I hope you’ll enjoy it! And, please, let me know what you think.
A sharp knock on the glass door of my shoebox-sized office alerted me to my boss’s presence. He wore a somber expression on his lined face. His rowdy mop of silver curls was even more disheveled than usual. Judging by the creased state of his dark suit, which sagged on his wiry frame, he must have spent the night on the couch in his office again.
“It’s time,” he announced in a grave tone of voice.
A wave of anticipation washed over me, making my spine stiffen.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I replied, managing to sound more certain than I felt. “I’m sure.”
When I started working at Belle Cosmetics twelve years earlier, my boss, Larry Granger, took me under his wing. I saw him as a trusted mentor and over the years he became my friend. Now he was a couple of months shy of retirement and he had nominated me to take over his position as the Senior Marketing Manager. According to Larry, the imminent meeting with the Chief Operating Officer was a formality. My promotion was a done deal.
I squared my shoulders and walked up to Larry. He was shifting his weight from one leg to the other like a racehorse at the starting gate.
“Let’s go,” I said, boxing up my anxiousness and shoving it to the back of my mind.
Larry spun on his heel and began leading the way down a long corridor. We passed by dozens of glass-fronted cubicles similar to my own. Transparency was the company motto at Belle Cosmetics. Upper management believed that the lack of employee privacy fostered productivity. I was used to it. The fishbowl-like environment didn’t bother me. But I often overheard new recruits whisper complaints to each other about it in the communal kitchen.
At the end of the corridor, we came to a halt in front of a massive sheet of reflective glass. It was the only non-transparent door at Belle Cosmetics. The room on the other side of it belonged to Ms. Isabelle Marchand, our fearless leader, the Chief Operating Officer. She was also the founder and sole owner of Belle Cosmetics.
Standing in front of the reflective door, my teal eyes stared back at me, wide and unblinking. I pulled myself up to my full height, which brought me to just under six feet tall. Then I checked my charcoal pantsuit for errant lint or specks of dust and tucked my dark shoulder-length hair behind my ears. The harsh overhead lighting gave me an anemic complexion but I couldn’t do anything about that.
Much to my annoyance and despite my best efforts, I still looked tense, almost frazzled. I reminded myself that this meeting was a formality. All I had to do was accept my promotion in a gracious and businesslike manner. Then I could return to my fishbowl and get back to work.
Taking a deep breath, I adjusted the gold-plated name tag attached to the lapel of my jacket. All Belle employees were presented with a name tag on their first day of work. Mine was inscribed with the words “Poppy Parker – Marketing Coordinator”.
That was me. Poppy Parker – Marketing Coordinator. I had been a Marketing Coordinator for six years now. It was time to climb higher up on the corporate ladder. I just needed to get through this meeting with Isabelle Marchand. She had the ability to strike the fear of God into her employees with a single, withering look. I took a small measure of comfort from the fact that even the most senior and self-assured among the staff quivered at the prospect of an audience with her.
Isabelle Marchand had spent thirty years of her life building her cosmetics empire. She started out with a small boutique in Boston’s Back Bay area. When the internet was launched upon the general public back in the 1990s, Ms. Marchand had the foresight to utilize it as a business tool. She became one of the pioneers of online shopping. By the time the new millennium arrived, Belle Cosmetics was offering a personalized online shopping experience to millions of shoppers in North America and Europe. Meanwhile, many other cosmetics companies were struggling with the term “search engine optimization”. Now Belle Cosmetics still had just one store. It was a glamorous spectacle of a flagship in the Copley Place mall. The company headquarters were located in one of the seven office towers behind the shopping facility.
Larry reached out and gave my elbow an encouraging squeeze.
“You’re the best woman for the job, Poppy,” he said while making a futile attempt to tame his curls by tugging at them with a brutal amount of force. “I’ve made my recommendation. There aren’t any other candidates for the position. It’s yours and you deserve it.”
I raised my chin, assembled my features into a composed mask, and stepped into Ms. Marchand’s lair.
Ms. Marchand sat behind an enormous antique mahogany desk in the center of the room, which was at least ten times larger than my own humble workspace. Afternoon sunlight filtered through the floor-to-ceiling windows, glinting off her flame-red hair. She rose to her feet in a fluid motion and proceeded to glide toward me on stilettos sharp enough to double as murder weapons. Her emerald green silk blouse matched the color of her shrewd gaze.
Even though I knew that Ms. Marchand had celebrated her seventieth birthday a couple of months earlier, I had a hard time believing it. She looked more youthful than most people twenty years her junior. Her creamy skin was smooth and glowed with health. There wasn’t a single pound of superfluous fat on her petite frame. She was the epitome of an elegant Frenchwoman. Sophistication emanated from her pores and she carried herself with the grace of a ballerina.
“Sit down,” she said, pointing a long, slim finger toward a pair of burgundy couches behind her desk. After more than thirty years in America, I could still hear a trace of France in her voice. “You too, Granger.”
Larry and I trotted over to the nearest couch. We sat down like a pair of obedient dogs, eager to do our master’s bidding. Ms. Marchand remained standing up in her killer heels. Neither Larry nor I said a word. We sat holding our breaths, waiting for our boss to take charge of the conversation. She studied us in silence with an inscrutable expression. It took every ounce of discipline I possessed to keep myself from fidgeting under her scrutiny.
At last, she clapped her hands together, and said, “I called you both in here today to introduce you to Granger’s replacement.”
A hysterical laugh threatened to escape through my lips. I had already met me. I was more than well acquainted with myself. I didn’t need a formal introduction.
I turned my head to glance at Larry. It was obvious from the tense set of his jaw that he didn’t find Ms. Marchand’s turn of phrase amusing. In fact, something akin to rage shot from his eyes to a point across the room. Following his gaze, I spotted a figure lurking in the shadows in the far corner. It was a man in a navy pinstripe suit with too long, dirty blonde, slicked back hair touching the collar of his baby blue shirt.
“Come here, Gus,” Ms. Marchand called over her shoulder. “Meet Granger and Poppy, the man you will be replacing and your future right-hand woman.”
My jaw dropped. I shook my head in confusion and denial. This had to be a mistake, a breakdown in communication. The man striding toward us with a smug grin on his face could not be Larry’s replacement. I was the heir to that throne. Me. Poppy Parker. Not this man who took his fashion cues from Wall Street circa 1980.
“Gus Weasel,” said the still grinning man. He picked up my limp hand from my lap and shook it between both of his with nauseating enthusiasm. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
At that moment, I lost the ability to speak. I blinked up at him as reality sunk in. This smug weasel of a man had stolen my promotion.
He lived up to his name.
Ms. Marchand began explaining that the weasel had previously worked for one of our strongest competitors. She said we were fortunate that he had decided to join us. I tried to listen to what she was saying as she continued, but it was difficult to hear anything other than the ringing in my ears. My initial bewilderment was giving way to disappointment bitter enough to make my tongue curl. Anger followed, burning so hot that I feared I might succumb to spontaneous combustion.
A few minutes later, Larry shot to his feet.
“I believe we’re done here,” he growled in a voice I didn’t recognize. His fists were clenched at his sides. He looked as though he wanted to punch something or someone. “Poppy and I have work to do.”
“You can go, Granger,” Ms. Marchand replied, unperturbed by Larry’s undisguised fury. “Take Gus with you and show him around. I need to have a private word with Poppy.”
I cleared my throat, and said, “I’ll catch up with you later, Larry.”
With his lips set in a thin line, he nodded in reply and then headed for the door. The weasel gave me another smarmy smile before following Larry out of Marchand’s office. I decided right there and then that I would never work for that man. I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it.
“Poppy,” Ms. Marchand began, joining me on the couch. “Granger speaks very highly of your capabilities. He says you’re indispensable to him. I trust you will make yourself equally indispensable to Gus when the time comes.”
“No,” I said without hesitation.
“No?” Ms. Marchand raised an eyebrow in askance. “What do you mean?”
“No, I will not make myself indispensable to Gus Weasel,” I clarified, emboldened by my anger. “For two years, I’ve been led to believe that I would take over Larry’s position when he retires. I would rather quit than work for Mr. Weasel. In fact, you can consider this my two weeks’ notice.”
Ms. Marchand leaned back as her lips twitched upwards in bemusement.
“No,” she told me.
“No? No what?”
“No, I will not accept your resignation.” With the small smile lingering on her lips, she continued, “You will not quit. However, you will take a six-week paid leave of absence. The Human Resource department has informed me that you have accumulated at least six weeks of unused vacation days during your time here at Belle Cosmetics.”
That sounded plausible. Extended vacations did not appeal to me. I never knew what to do with all the free time. Until Mr. Weasel showed up, I had actually enjoyed working at Belle Cosmetics. I liked my job.
“I don’t need a vacation.” I stood up and folded my arms across my chest. “I’m quitting.”
“This is not a discussion.” Ms. Marchand rose, placed a hand between my shoulder blades, and ushered me out of her office. “You’re a valuable employee and an asset to the company. I will not let you quit. But you will leave now and return in six weeks.”
Before I could formulate a reply, the door slammed shut inches from my face. My reflected complexion was no longer anemic. It was the color of molten lava.