At Her Beck and Call
To my sister, Wendy Harling,
for her courage…and for being such a fan
Coming Next Month
IT WAS A MEASLY internship in a Podunk town, but Autumn Beshkin was dressed to kill for her interview. One thing you learned cold as a stripper: Appearance counts.
She wore a designer suit and pricey pumps, though the look at the Copper Corners town hall seemed to be casual. And not Friday casual, either. Saturday-washing-the-car casual, judging from Evelyn, the fiftyish secretary who’d ushered her to the folding chair outside the mayor’s office. Evelyn wore a tracksuit, ball cap and running shoes.
The phone rang. “H-e-double toothpicks!” Evelyn exclaimed, dropping her fluorescent green knitting to grab it. The fat tabby lolling in her in-box gave an irritated meow, whipping its tail through the loose paperclips on her desk.
“Mayor’s office.” Evelyn tucked the phone against her ear and clicked her needles into gear again. “Heidi. Oh, yes, your friend’s here.” Evelyn smiled Autumn’s way.
Autumn wiggled her fingers in greeting. Heidi had convinced Autumn to take this job to help Heidi’s brother, the mayor, who was “desperate, just desperate” for help, since his accountant was on an early maternity leave.
Autumn needed an internship anyway and she’d be able to room with her best friend and fellow stripper, Jasmine Ravelli, who already had a job here costuming the Founder’s Day pageant, so it seemed workable.
“Sure you can talk to him,” Evelyn said into the phone. “Hang on a blip.” She pushed buttons, then announced, “Mayor Mike, your sister’s on line one.”
Through the thin paneling behind her head, Autumn heard the mayor greet Heidi. She listened for him to express his gratitude to her for sending Autumn to his rescue.
Instead, he said, “How could you promise her, Heidi? I need a professional, not a college kid.”
Autumn sucked in a shocked breath.
“I don’t care how mature she is,” he continued. “I need someone who knows a P-and-L from the A & P. I don’t have time to explain basic procedures. Hell, I don’t know basic procedures….”
What the…? Not only was the mayor not grateful, he was bitching about her. Autumn’s cheeks heated, which made her feel weak. She hated feeling weak.
Already, going back to school at age thirty-four had stirred up the mud at the bottom of her self-esteem pond, mucking up the water with doubts and fears.
Autumn felt competing impulses. Screw this lame-ass job in this jerkwater town, followed swiftly by, If I don’t get this lame-ass job in this jerkwater town, I’ll just die. Not quite, but it would throw off her entire program, which she couldn’t stand.
“I know she’s desperate,” the mayor said. “Has to have an internship, yeah, right. Got it. Huh? I’ll talk to her, but I don’t see how it’ll work. What? Hello?”
His muttered “Damn” told Autumn that Heidi had hung up.
The man thought Autumn was desperate? So not fair. He was the desperate one.
With her grades, Autumn could easily have scored an internship with a prominent Phoenix accounting firm like the rest of her classmates, but she’d decided this job would offer a broader range of duties. At the big places, she’d be competing with tons of interns and was as likely to get clerical work as quality accounting experience. This had seemed the better choice.
“I’m sure he’ll be right with you,” Evelyn said to Autumn, smiling reassuringly. She’d evidently read Autumn’s alarm as impatience.
“No problem.” She managed a faint smile. She had to get this rinky-dink job. All the Phoenix slots had been filled in early June and it was already the nineteenth.
Her eye fell on the motivational quotes sticking out from Evelyn’s monitor on a knitted border: Winners Never Quit…Hang In There…Fake It Till You Make It….
They all seemed aimed at her. Autumn repeated them in her head, picturing a tiny cheerleading squad shouting out the phrases with a swish of pom-poms. If only she were as sure of herself in her new career as she was as a stripper.
She was doing well in school so far. Her straight A’s were the golden treasure she opened in her mind whenever she got scared.
She poked a loose strand of hair into the French braid she’d put her hair in and re-crossed her legs. Her stockings rasped and her garters dug into her thigh. One of the cats where she and Jasmine were house-sitting had snagged her pricey panty hose, so she’d worn the stockings from her Leather Girl dance costume.
Autumn had felt so much better, she’d donned the rest of the outfit—a leather thong and a bra with cut-out nipples. Under her conservative suit, the wild underwear made her feel confident and in control. That would have to do until the new Autumn felt more sure in her skin.
Autumn pasted on her game face—friendly, self-assured and relaxed—and inched her real self back into can’t-touch-me safety. Winners never quit…Fake it till you make it…Go, Autumn, go.
The fat cat from Evelyn’s desk prowled over to her and began to eye her stockings as though they were flesh-filled scratching posts.
Don’t even think about it, she silently warned, blocking her legs with her portfolio.
The cat looked at her with regal disdain—We are not amused—then launched its bulk onto her lap.
“Oh, excellent,” Evelyn exclaimed. “Quincy is particular.”
The cat gave her a look: Very particular.
Autumn set her portfolio on the adjacent chair and tapped the cat tentatively on the head. “I’m flattered,” she said for Evelyn’s benefit.
She was kissing up to a cat? A hot and heavy cat who was making her thighs sweat and streaking her expensive skirt with orange hair. It would be rude to push him off, so she jiggled her legs to make it less fun to sit on her.
Her move worked and Quincy shot her a jaundiced look, hitched to his feet and plopped onto the other chair, flat on her portfolio. Great.
Strangely enough, though, when next their eyes met, the cat seemed to want to reassure her. Relax. He’ll be putty in your hands.
She grinned. Oh, she was in trouble now, accepting a pep talk from a fur-covered blimp whose life likely consisted of long naps punctuated by catnip breaks and the occasional torture of a rodent.
All the same, she felt calmer and when she heard the mayor’s footsteps heading her way, she jumped to her feet, ready to demonstrate just how smart and quick and prepared she