Eric Erikson answered his cell phone without looking up from his computer screen at work. His desk was a shambles of a half-eaten vending-machine sandwich and too many bags of Fritos.
What blocked number would be calling him at two in the morning on a Friday night? He was just getting down to the second level of tonight’s guilty pleasure, indulging in a new Internet role-playing game. He’d gotten in on the beta release of a new project with the weird name of Chraze that looked cool, but he wasn’t very far into the world yet.
Well, that told him who the caller was. Only his boss, Valerie McKenzie called him that. Everyone else still called him Eric-Squared, for Eric Erikson but she had edited his name down a year ago, before his job interview with Ms. Incredibly Erudite had even ended.
“Hi, Mac.” That was the nickname he’d tagged her with during his first week at McKenzie Book Publishers. It had started as “Mac hold the cheese” because one thing about Valerie McKenzie, she wanted it her way. And she got it. She hated New York, so had convinced a major publisher to let her run her own imprint from Seattle. And then, against all projections, she had turned it into a very successful concern.
Now, everyone called her Mac, and “McHell” was a whispered warning that permeated down the halls just moments before she swooped in and touched down like a personalized whirlwind at some poor fool’s desk.
“You’ve got to help me.”
Boss in distress. Her voice sounded really wound up, even more than usual. Eyes still glued to the screen, Eric shoved the mouse around to avoid a can of root beer and an unopened bag of peanuts on his desk, barely saving his on-screen avatar from being skewered by a black knight riding a Harley in full armor across a grassy plain in Spain where, according to the stats bar down the side, it hardly ever rained.
“What’s up, boss?”
“You know that cookbook?”
No one in the office could avoid “that cookbook.” The Mac had torn through the office on a rampage just three days earlier. Mathilda Reeves had finally delivered her latest cookbook manuscript, six weeks late and in miserable shape. The layout team had tried to put it together, but it was a total train wreck. On Wednesday morning, The Mac had grabbed the manuscript, a laptop, and stormed out in order to work from home.
“I know that cookbook.” Eric kept his tone carefully neutral. No one had heard from Valerie for three days. Which had made the office calm and peaceful for a pleasant change of pace. Though he did kind of miss her tornadoing around the thirtieth floor of the Two Union Square building, she certainly kept things interesting.
He whacked the black knight’s helmet with a handy caveman cudgel, which he’d bought cheap from an on-screen dealer in Neanderthal artifacts. It made the knight’s helmet ring like a church bell. Very satisfying.
“Well, the cookbook now insists that it’s looking for God.”
That froze his hand on the mouse, at just the wrong moment. The knight gunned the Harley’s engine and ran over Eric’s figure, flattening him into the sod. Then he circled back and rolled over Eric again crosswise. That sucked. This game handed out some serious retributions when your avatar died.
The Mac took his silence as rapt attention rather than cursing to himself.
“I was working on editing and laying out one of the very last recipes, a typical Mathilda dessert, Flan with Lingonberries. What the Hell is a lingonberry anyway, it’s not as if any normal grocery in Hell-and-gone Missouri is going to have them in stock, and suddenly the laptop made a gagging sound, like a loud retching. Next thing I know I’m looking at a recipe titled ‘Flogging with Lingonberries’ and there’s an embedded video of some giant red berry wielding a cat o’ nine tails on an apple pie holding up its crust to defend itself. When I tried to hit Undo, the berry turned to me and asked me, by name, if I knew where to find God? The thing called me Valerie McKenzie for crying out loud. I’m totally creeped out. You’ve gotta help me. I was almost done and I haven’t backed up in days.”
It was impressive. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t taken a single breath in all that.
“Uh, I can try to fix it.” He was still trying to piece together the image of a lingonberry knowing its editor’s name. And that she’d used words like “totally” as an adverb and “gotta.” And contractions. She was rarely desperate enough to use contractions.
“Good, thanks! Can you… Oh God— No! Wait, I didn’t mean to say that. Good thing the software can’t hear me or it might start asking me more questions.”
Eric wondered if she’d been drinking.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t notice the time. Could you come by as soon as you can in the morning? I don’t care what time. Pretty please, E-Squared?”
Eric had never heard The Mac apologize, let alone beg. He agreed and instantly she was gone.
He looked back at the screen where the black knight had broken into song, singing harmony on a Norse drinking song with the thudding reverberations coming from the Harley’s big exhaust pipes, about how he’d been born to be wild. All the while he kept circling around in different directions to run over Eric’s figure that foolishly kept trying to get up from his body-shaped hole in the sod. The wheel patterns over the sod were making the shape of an infinity symbol. Eric shut down the game.
One thing for sure, he wasn’t going to wait for the morning. He’d never heard The Mac so flustered. Angry? Often. Perhaps too often, though not usually at him. But genuine distress? That was new.
He grabbed his bicycle helmet. He’d ridden in this morning and then stayed at the office to take advantage of the high-speed connection, and the big screen, to beta test the new game. From McKenzie Book Publishers’ Westlake Avenue office to Ravenna was only a couple miles and the Seattle streets would be quiet in the middle of the night.
He hit the street and was already moving before he noticed that the pavement was wet. Eric considered going back to get his rain slicks, but it wasn’t raining at the moment, so he just downshifted and hurried north along Westlake, past all of the sailboats and houseboats, up to the Fremont Bridge.
He hit the draw bridge and rolled past the sign, “Welcome to Fremont, the center of the Universe. Set your watch back five minutes.” The problem he had was that he didn’t wear a watch anymore. Instead, he used his cell phone that stayed in perfect sync with the cell provider’s signal all on its own. Fremont had, through no fault of its own, gone from arcane to archaic and he felt bad on its behalf.
He cut across town on Thirty-Fourth so he could wave at the concrete troll squatting under the Aurora Bridge. The troll had the remains of a VW Beetle clutched in one mighty fist. As usual, he didn’t wave back at Eric.
The neighborhoods were all quiet as he sped through. He’d always liked this time of night in Seattle. Most people only saw the bustling city that had doubled in size over the last few decades. But in the middle of the night, there was a silence so deep that he could hear the quiet spatter of his bike tires on the rain-wet streets and the ticking clunks as relay boxes flipped streetlights from red to green just for his passage.
He’d never actually been to The Mac’s new apartment. He’d been to the estate she used to have out on Bainbridge Island for last year’s Christmas party. A big place filled with canapés and ostentation, that both had and hadn’t fit its occupant. Super-editor, The Fearsome Mac, the Woman of Steel, would of course have a sweeping view of Liberty Bay and the Olympic Mountains isolated by large stands of timber along the shore of Port Orchard Bay. And of course she’d be married to some useless guy like Landau McKenzie. He’d been a weird Scottish guy, who looked like a laird and acted like a dweeb. And no sense of humor at all. Not that Mac had one either.
But The Mac had this other side to her, one he spotted only rarely, the human Valerie McKenzie. Sometimes, when exhausted but pleased with herself at shipping off another soon-to-be bestseller, she’d drop by his desk. The woman would collapse in his guest chair and chat for a few minutes. Still perfectly coifed, chestnut-dark hair in a tight French chignon, power suit sharp and expensive, but a smile would emerge and light up her face. Eric had to admit to feeling secretly superior to the rest of the world, as he suspected he was the only one who got to see that life-altering smile.
Everyone else told him he was fantasizing, The Mac never smiled except the way a shark might. So he’d learned to keep his mouth shut, but he’d become more and more intrigued by the Valerie he glimpsed behind The Mac.
Then six months ago she’d divorced Landau f*****g McKenzie, as she now unfailingly referred to him, and life around the office had really become Hell. Her mood swings had gone from lethal, to chaotic and lethal.
Her current gripe was that changing back to her maiden name wouldn’t do any good because she’d “for reasons unknown” thought it cute that she and Landau f*****g McKenzie had the same last name before she was dumb enough to marry him and how in the world could she have ever thought that was charming? Then she’d launch into yet another diatribe on Landau’s character.
Eric considered riding north around Green Lake and getting his car, but he was already so close, he just rode to her house on Ravenna. She’d gotten a place just past the shop that had custom-built his road bike, costing him most of a month’s pay, over the crest and down toward the park. She lived in a giant Victorian house from Seattle’s heyday, now cut up into six or eight apartments.