Story: Winner! Carla
Jesse’s story won the Cassandra Contest. I love the way the myth is transferred to a business setting, with corporate espionage taking the place of prophecy. The character of Carla really jumps off the page even before we meet her, and the main character Matty has a strong voice and put-upon presence throughout the piece. Thanks Jesse!
The cool, fresh air fluttered through the endless rows of cubicles on the 37th floor of the Boston Net National corporate skyscraper. Through the windows spilled in bleak winter sunlight.
Matthew Carmichael sat engrossed in his report, fingers flying over the keyboard on his sleek, standard-issue MacBook Premier—only one of a hundred given to employees.
Another benefit of being part of the country’s largest stock market connections platform, I guess, Matty thought. He adjusted his glasses perched askew on his nose, and glanced over his writing. Reports weren’t exactly Matty’s forte. He was the PR team’s secretary, though, so weekly updates to his boss were necessary.
“Matty,” Gale said from her cubicle tiredly. “What was the status on the new software team last week? Rigby keeps nagging at me about it.”
Matty rubbed his sore eyes. “Um…I dunno. I’m pretty sure that John wasn’t all too impressed with them, he said the was considering moving them over to a different department.”
Matty looked at his report, biting his lip. Everything looked okay. Sighing, Matty saved it and moved it to his NetNatMail account’s outbox. He pushed away from his desk and stood up, legs sore from lack of usage for three hours and running.
He checked the clock. Only three forty-two. Still another couple hours until he left for his small apartment.
“I’m getting coffee. Want any?” Gale said after exasperatedly throwing up her hands in frustration at one of Rigby’s inquiring e-mails. Matty hid a smile.
“Sure, Gale. Thanks.”
A few other murmurs of assent went up, and Gale tottered out of the room in her heels and pencil skirt. Matty neatened up his papers and tucked them into a file for the conference later that day. Apparently it was important, because the CEO, Huxley, was going to be there and had assembled all department officials.
Lately Huxley had been more involved with the company’s affairs. It was necessary, of course, what with Net National’s rival, Delphic Marketing, Inc., having been so aggressive in trying to destabilize the company. Still, the sensation of intense scrutiny, having the proverbial breath of someone on your neck as they peered over your proverbial shoulder all the time, was unpleasant.
Gale returned to coffee just as their break alarm went off. Relieved to have an excuse to procrastinate from his inbox of further reports to complete, Matty took his coffee gratefully as they all headed for the cafeteria downstairs. All around him complaints and grumbles reached his ears about the intense workflow lately. Gale was dramatically retelling her story of Rigby, exaggerated hand motions and wide eyes unnerving her work partner.
As they headed down the stairs, Matty noticed a new guy standing edgily near the elevator. Matty knew nearly everyone in the company—he had to, he was the information-guru for PR—but he hadn’t seen this guy before.
He wasn’t all that tall, his cheap suit wasn’t regulation-cut, and his nervous eyes darted all over the place. He gripped his briefcase as if it were a lifeline.
First day? Matty wondered, pondering the man’s nervousness. They passed him, and their eyes met briefly. The man swallowed, eyes widening slightly, before he looked away quickly.
Shrugging it off as just a weird encounter, Matty finally slipped into the cafeteria, where he worked on some loose paperwork as he ate.
“How’re you and Carla?” Gale piped up suddenly as she broke off from a conversation with Bill. Matty groaned, shooting her an exasperated look. Why did she have to bring that up now? Carla was always a touchy subject.
“We’re fine,” he said lightly. Gale narrowed her eyes.
“Uh-huh. I know a lie when I see one, Matty. Really, how are you two? The last I heard about her was when you two broke up last month.”
Matty winced, reminded bluntly of the unfortunate circumstances that had caused it. Matty had just been promoted to secretary, and with the new workload Carla had gotten angry because she felt like Matty hadn’t been paying enough attention to her. Which was ironic, because Carla was flighty and kind of shallow. Case in point: after ranting for nearly an hour, she shooed Matty from the house angrily. He had returned two hours and a beer later to find Carla locking lips drunkenly with some random guy off the street. In his apartment.
“Fine. Carla’s being just as frigid as usual, she’s got another boyfriend—“
“Her third in sixty days,” Gale muttered.
“—and she works at a clothes store,” Matty finished dully.
“Oh. Well. Do you think that you two’ll ever get back together again?”
Matty was spared having to respond, because of the commotion near the buildings’ front door. Someone sprinted down the stairs, chased by two angry security guards. Matty recognized with a shock the nervous-looking man with the briefcase.
“The hell?” he stood up as the cafeteria burst into a frenzy of questions. As they watched the man tripped on his own two-sizes-too-big suit’s ankles, sending him flying across the marble floor. He scrambled to get up, only to have the guards snatch him back.
The man struggled to break away, but the guards cuffed him, already barking into their radio.
“This is Walters, we just got a rat here, trying to escape with some rather important business files. Get Huxley down here, would you? This idiot interrupted my lunch hour, and I want him to pay for that.”
A shiver ran down Matty’s back as muttered broke out along the cafeteria. A rat—a corporate spy, sent to infiltrate and steal a company’s secrets. That explained the man’s nervousness.
“Huh. That sure wasn’t part of the agenda,” Gale said quietly, her phone already snapping as many pictures as she could. Gale was the PR team’s reporter, which meant that she carefully selected the information to feed the public.
“You’re not actually considering giving them this?” Matty demanded incredulously as they walked towards the guards, a crowd gathering.
“Well, why not? If anything, we can spin it so that they focus on how we stopped the vile thief from stealing information for a top-secret plan,” Gale said absently, texting at high speed on her Nokia.
“Which will just put more attention on our plans,” Matty retorted. “Anyway, I wonder what he did take.”
As they watched, a man with cropped gray hair—Huxley—and his secretary and aid exited the elevator. They huddled around the man, arguing heatedly. Finally Huxley turned around wearily.
“Alright, everyone, let’s calm down. There’s nothing to be alarmed about. Apparently, one of the company’s newcomers was a mole,” Huxley explained, glaring at the man. “This is, as well all know, a very serious crime. Rest assured that the authorities and courts will be informed.”
“Who sent him?” a voice shouted.
“Delphic Marketing, Inc., naturally,” Huxley said in a humorless voice. A furor exploded from the crowd as he continued.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t sue their asses, I suppose,” Huxley said. “Feed that to the public all you want, Ms. Carr,” he said to Gale loudly as soon as her face it up and her fingers blurred over her phone.
Matty let out a slow breath as the man was tugged away and Huxley retreated, talking to his aid.
This really wasn’t how he imagined his day going.
It was nearly seven by the time Matty left work. After the events of lunch, everyone’s mind had been elsewhere. The conference, however, had still commenced, just as planned. It had been two hours of debating, arguing, explanations, presentations, information dumps, and tedious details. Matty had hated every second of it.
Yet it had still been helpful. Mostly in that Huxley had presented his answer to the company’s problems with one solution, which he called the Plan, capital P.
“Our next public presentation slot’s in a week,” he explained. “During then, we’re going to present our ace in the hole, ladies and gentlemen. Our lawyers are already working on suing PM, Inc., which will be an even greater advantage.”
He had showed on the whiteboard their strategy: carefully releasing rumors of a jumpstarted alpha software package, so that the masses would sign up for their editions as soon as it came out, and then revealing not only the new software designs, but also offering a major discount on the presentation. That, combined with the bad rep DM, Inc. was sure to get, would boost Net National’s credit up by a couple hundred points.
The plan was carefully thought out, and everyone’s workloads had been spent unknowingly contributing to the assistance of the Plan’s overall results.
Matty was fatigued and weary but pleased with his days work. He got on the bus, wanting nothing more than a beer and a steak.
He had just gotten off when his phone rang. He checked the caller ID. It was Carla, much to his suspiciousness.
“Matthew?” a crisp, curt voice asked. Matty gnashed his teeth, considering hanging up.
“Don’t even think about hanging up, Matty, I know you’re there,” Carla said shortly.
“What do you want, Carla?” Matty demanded. Carla snorted.
“I did want to tell you that I quit my job two weeks ago. I just got hired for a secretary position at another company, but I haven’t been able to tell you yet,” Carla said, barely restraining the smugness in her voice. Matty furrowed his brow at her glee.
“Congratulations,” he said slowly.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice positively soaked with sweet, sugary venom. Matty waited, still walking home. He was about to hang up when she groaned.
“Ugh, you never could pick up a hint,” she sighed.
“A hint for what, Carla?” Matty demanded irritatedly.
“Normally you’d offer to go out for dinner to celebrate,” she said slowly. Matty stopped dead in his tracks.
“Seriously? Dinner?” Matty said. “You’re kidding me, right? You give me the cold shoulder for, like, two months, and now you come and ask me out to dinner to celebrate your new job?”
There was a pause.
“Fine,” she snapped, her voice almost guilty, weirdly, hidden behind frustration. “I get it; you don’t like me. Not like you’d want to go out anyway…”
“I’ll go to dinner with you,” Matty said, teeth grinding. Damned reverse psychology tricks.
“Thanks. I’ll see you at Martini’s at eight.” She hung up.
Matty stared at his phone. What was wrong with her? This was her being friendly, much to his amazement. Matty shook his head. At least he got a drink for free—Carla always paid for their dates, saying forcedly that it was sexist for the man to pay for dinner all the time.
He paused at his door. On a date with Carla?
“Maybe two drinks,” he muttered.
The Martini was a high-end little restaurant looking over the coast, very metropolitan in nature. A lot of politicians and entrepreneurs, maybe a capitalist or two. A lot of Republicans. Just the place Carla loved.
Matty had slipped into the restaurant to find Carla already sitting at their table on the roof. Despite himself, Matty had to admit that she looked nice, with her red hair in an elegant bun, little makeup, and a peach dress.
“There you are,” she said, examining her nails. “I ordered for you; figured you’d want your usual.”
“Usual” being the roasted pepper-avocado-shrimp shish kebabs, honey spice sauce, and steamed rice.
“Thank you,” he said politely, sitting down.
Carla sipped her vodka lightly. Matty nibbled on some of his food for a while, unsure what to say. Finally Carla spoke up.
“Aren’t you going to tell me about your day?” she said lightly. Matty raised an eyebrow.
What was he going to tell her? Well, ex-girlfriend mine, my day was perfectly splendid, disregarding a massive workload, a two-hour meeting discussing a secret plan to save the company, and a mole trying to escape with as-of-yet-unknown information. How about you?
Carla looked at him inquiringly. Matty sighed.
“I can’t really say. Business protocol and all that.”
“Oh.” Carla’s face fell. Matty narrowed his eyes.
“Why so curious, anyway?”
Carla shrugged nonchalantly. “I was wondering how you were doing. I haven’t seen you in a while. Still, if it’s ‘business protocol’…”
Matty sighed again—he did a lot of that around Carla.
He could trust her, couldn’t he? Yeah, maybe she was a little prickly, but she wouldn’t sell him out or anything.
“We had a mole try to steal some of our files,” he said quietly. Carla perked up, eyes wide.
“Really? Gosh, what happened?”
“It was a spy disguised as a new guy. Tried to head out with a briefcase full of papers. There was a lot of activity going on lately, but he admitted to being Delphic Marketing. We’re already working on suing them,” Matty admitted.
Carla nodded slowly. “Wow. That’s shocking.”
“Yeah. I can’t say much more about him, I forget his name—“
“Andy Paulo?” she asked. Matty raised his eyebrows.
“How’d you know?” he asked curiously. Carla flushed.
“I, um, read it on the news,” she said quickly. “So, what else happened?”
The sudden shift in subject made Matty suspicious, but he let it drop. When he registered Carla’s question he frowned. This was moving into uneven territory. Carla was a gossiper by heart, unable to keep a secret to save her life. Did he really want to tell her?
“Nothing much,” he said casually. He thought he saw Carla’s eyes narrow, but it passes before he registered it.
“Well, then.” Carla sat there, looking at him over the rim of her vodka, face blank. Matty sat there uncomfortably for a few minutes, shifting irritatedly, until he snapped.
“I’m gonna go,” he said abruptly, standing up and brushing his jacket off. Carla remained still.
“Don’t forget our anniversary date’s in two days,” she called after him loftily. Matty grumbled incoherently. That had to be one of the worst dates ever, and it had only lasted all of ten minutes. Screw the Martini’s roasted pepper-avocado-shrimp shish kebabs. Matty saw a Budweiser and a steak very soon in his future.
“So what are you doing for your anniversary?” Gale asked, taking a break from her incessant chattering about her aunt’s new dog.
Matty groaned, annoyedly flicking his hands across the keys. This was the fifth time he had been interrupted—two of them for various updates, one for a coffee request, and the other a call from Huxley’s secretary—and Matty’s nerves were frayed from lack of sleep, not to mention the hangover he still had from drowning away Tuesday night’s bad date in all variety of drinks.
“Why is it so important?” Matty queried. Gale shrugged.
“Nothing better to gossip about?” she suggested. Matty rolled his eyes.
“I hadn’t really thought about it, actually. I’ve been really busy trying to keep the PR team’s systems organized. You do realize that we’re the most important part of Huxley’s Plan?”
“Yes, but don’t change the subject. What are you doing for your anniversary with Carla?”
“I have no idea, Gale. All I want to do is crash on my couch with a pizza and a beer and watch the football game. Carla probably wants me to pay five thousand dollars on a ridiculously stupid spa treatment in Hawaii while I kiss her toes and give her thimblefuls of vodka while we chat about clothes,” Matty said.
Gale rolled her eyes. “Gee, and everyone but me wonders why such a cohesive couple broke up. So…what’s the compromise?”
Matty started editing a couple of paragraphs on his report. “Call in sick,” he said shamelessly.
“Matty! You can’t do that!” Gale squawked, hitting him upside his head with a rolled up tabloid.
“Agh!” Clutching his head, Matty spun around, about to retort with a few choice words about Gale’s aunt’s dog, when he saw the edge of the tabloid.
Irritation forgotten, Matty reached out.
“What’s on the back of that magazine?” he asked slowly. Confused, Gale unrolled it and flipped it over to the back cover. Her eyes widened.
“What?” Matty demanded, and she handed it to him. He looked at it, praying that what he thought he read he didn’t.
NET NATIONAL: STOCK PLATFORM OR CORRUPT DEBT-MONGER?, it read. Matty scoured the article, Gale reading over his shoulder. The words went on and on, nitpicking at Net National’s poor security and the attempted heist’s unsaid implications. As if it couldn’t get any worse, Matty then had to read the last paragraph.
“Net National lawyers sued for attempted corporate attack on Delphic Marketing, Inc.?” Matty shouted. “The hell? It should be the other way around!”
Gale shook her head. “How did anyone even know about this? Jesus, this is insane!”
“Call Huxley,” Matty said numbly. Gale grabbed the phone as a few nervous employees looked over at them Matty stared at the article. This was very, very bad. A large portion of their data, leaked to the public? But by whom? It had to be an insider, it had to be!
Matty shook his head, massaging his temples as the magazine was passed around, and mutters escalated into heated arguments.
A sick feeling in his stomach registered—confusingly—as subconscious guilt.
Matty’s anniversary came before he knew it, sadly. The two days in between were filled with long hours of reports, conferences, arguments, and heated discussions. A frenzy over the issue of Delphic Marketing having deflected Net National’s suing attempt had gone up. Angry comments, irritated answers, and annoyed grumbles populated the workspace.
But how did anyone know? They had to have a spy in their midst. But sorting through them would take forever. They had no choice but to be ver careful and pray that the person they handed a report to wasn’t a Delphic Marketing, Inc. mole.
The anniversary—which Matty had forgotten before Carla had reminded him at their “date”—was just another source of irritation. Why did Carla insist on being so strange? Who celebrated their anniversary when they weren’t even an item?
Carla had called him three times to discuss potential outings. Each time Matty had gotten more and more bored until he finally just said that he was going to take Carla to dinner again, and he would pay for it, no questions asked. He hung up on a flabbergasted, dumbstruck Carla feeling a little bit better.
Still, it was with no small amount of reluctance that Matty left his apartment, wincing at the work he had to do, to go and pick up Carla at her house. Yet he did, arriving in his 1999 Corolla up to Carla’s suburban mansion with her Porsche and manicured lawn.
Carla herself had put on a shiny, sequined scarlet ensemble with matching heels and purse—not to mention the vermillion eye shadow, lipstick and rogue. She looked like an advertisement for the color red.
“There you are,” she said vaguely, peering at her reflection in her phone screen as her fingers blurred their way across the keys. She hit the send button, stowed her phone and crammed herself into Matty’s car with surprising agility given she was wearing a movement-restricting skirt…and 3-inch heels.
They were silent for the first few minutes as they drove along. Then Carla spoke.
“So. I read that article,” she said, her voice a strange tone. Matty peered at her out of the corner of his eye.
“Yeah. Sorry about what happened. I know that your job is important to you,” she replied, without a trace of insincerity.
“Yeah,” Matty said again. “I just wish I knew who did it. I mean, Delphic’s attacking us, going for our jugular. What they did is illegal, and if we ever find out who sold our data…”
“Yep!” she said enthusiastically. “You should definitely, um, get them.”
Matty was unnerved by her strange behavior. Carla quickly changed the subject—like on our last date, Matty remembered vaguely—and Matty let her babble at him about her new job: sorting paperwork, delivering coffee, etcetera.
They arrived at their restaurant—a large Korean cuisine affair—and found their table. Carla had gotten quiet, and Matty noticed that she kept reading the same sentence on her menu over and over again.
What’s going on? She’s been acting almost…guilty, Matty thought. He shook his head slightly, returning to his menu.
Their food had just arrived when Carla finally spoke again.
“How’s work been so far?” she asked lightly. “I know that it must be really difficult, having so much on your plate because of the, um, incident.”
Again, that brief, guilty look.
Matty nodded as he sipped his water.
“It’s been pretty hard, yeah. We’ve been trying to piece our team together. Huxley —the CEO—said that there’s a court meeting next week. The whole company’s irate, and I don’t blame them,” Matty said heatedly. “I mean, Delphic Marketing’s been using illegal tactics, and they’re getting away with it!”
Carla nodded sagely. “I know. That really must be hard. I’m sorry, Matty.”
She put her hand on his wrist. Matty looked from it to her.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked quietly.
“Doing what?” Carla asked, her voice thick with flirtatiousness; but Matty noticed the panic in her eyes.
“Trying to connect with me. You’ve been acting really weird, and I don’t get it. I’d like to know what you’re doing,” he answered, pulling his arm away. Carla scowled slightly.
“Damnit, Matty, why do you have to be so damned suspicious? Can’t I just have one damn dinner with my ex? You’ve gotten so paranoid,” Carla snapped, hurt in her eyes.
Matty instantly felt bad despite himself.
“Sorry,” he said quietly. “You’re right. I haven’t been myself. I’ve just been so stressed out about work, and…”
“It’s okay,” Carla said, looking slightly mortified. “How about we just forget about it, alright? Tell me more about work, get the stress off your chest. I know there’s something you’re not telling me.”
Matty sighed, his caution gone. He spilled everything—Huxley’s Plan, the tension at work, how so many things were being tossed around, how Matty had to organize the PR team, which wasn’t easy what with Net National’s hot potato nature.
All through it Carla nodded sympathetically, voice empathetic, as Matty finally slumped back in his chair. He had had two drinks already, and he felt it more than usual. Exhaustion pulled on his frame like a heavy, cold, wet coat.
Carla sighed, texting something on her phone.
“We should probably get home, huh?” she asked. Matty stirred, trying to clear his head.
“What were you—”
“Calling my mom, I’m gonna go help her with a charity after you head home,” Carla said quickly, not meeting his eyes as she handed a waiter a check. Matty didn’t argue—his brain was getting more and more muddled by the minute. He stumbled from the table, not even noticing Carla’s quiet voice as she murmured quickly into her phone, guiding Matty away from the table.
Matty’s eyes shot open. He sat up sharply, hissed as his aching head pounded with the sudden pressure. Dizzy, Matty looked around. He was in his apartment, still clothed, slumped in his bed.
Carla…she brought me home, right? He struggled to remember. The details were still very, very vague. How many beers had he even had? Two? Matty didn’t even get tipsy until four. What had that been about?
Matty got out of bed very slowly and showered in frigid water. The icy liquid cleared his senses, woke him up. Feeling much better after he had shaved, dressed, and taken two Advil with his iced tea, Matty slumped at the kitchen table.
The events of last night still poked at the back of his mind. Matty was surprised to realize that that feeling and been aching him all week, almost all month—but what was it, anyway?
Matty pulled out his phone, dialed Carla. She picked up on the fifth ring—quite unlike her to do that.
“Yes?” she asked quickly in a slightly panicked voice.
“Carla? It’s me, Matty. What’s up?” he asked wearily.
“Oh, nothing. I’m at work, is all. Anyway, I have to go, bye!”
She hung up before Matty could respond. He set his phone aside, grumbling. Something was going on, and Matty so wanted it to end. Carla being so flighty, guilty, and vague, not even telling him where she worked—
Carla hadn’t told him where he worked.
She’d been acting guilty in all of their meetings.
The way Matty had been practically unconscious by his second drink…had he been drugged, for God’s sake?
“Damn it,” Matty whispered in horror. It couldn’t be—it had to be someone else.
Carla couldn’t be spilling Net National secrets. But who else could it be? Matty remembered his unconscious guilt, remembered Carla gently nudging him to get the stress of his chest…had that just been to manipulate him into telling her, so she could report to Delphic Marketing, Inc.?
“May God have mercy on your life insurance,” Matty growled. He got up, grabbed his phone, and stormed out of his apartment.
“Carla!” he snapped as he dialed her again.
“W-what?” she demanded shakily.
“Don’t play dumb,” Matty snarled. “Tell me everything—I don’t want any lies!”
“I don’t know what you’re—“
“Fine!” Carla wailed angrily. “You want to know? Fine. They hired me to get your secrets, okay? They figured that because I knew you I could get you to spill them. There. Happy, Matty?”
“How much did they pay you?”
“Five hundred fifty thousand.”
Matty stopped dead. Anger became tainted by shock and betrayal. “Why, Carla? Why?”
“Because we were broken up, and they offered good money, and you didn’t matter anymore!” Carla shot back.
Rage ripped through Matty.
“YOU USED ME!” he shouted at her.
“YES! So what?” she cried. Matty could hear her restraining tears.
“So what? Jesus, Carla! You just sold out my career!” Matty bellowed. He grunted in disgust. “Ugh…Delphic Marketing is so going to die this very day. I don’t care what I have to do, Carla—I will become a frigging lawyer if I have to, but I will make sure that you and every member of Delphic Marketing is sued until little butterflies fly out of their wallets!”
Carla sniffed. “Matty, it won’t come to that. They’re—they’re not going to let it.”
“No, really! Listen—they payed me to extort you, they tried to get me to threaten you—“
“Why didn’t you, then?”
“Because—because—that doesn’t matter! It wasn’t right!”
“And selling me out was?”
“Matty, please listen! It’s like that Cassandra story. They gave me money, they gave me information, they gave me knowledge of the future—they told me everything that they were planning! They just fired me because I didn’t do what they asked, but you have to listen to me, Matty!”
“Give me one reason why I should believe you. You’ve manipulated me, stolen my company’s secrets, lied to me, and now you’re telling me some bullshit story about how poor little you just got laid off? Let me guess: just another stab at getting me to feel sympathetic, so you can bend my arm into spilling more, huh?”
“No! Matty, I’m sorry, but this is important! They’ve got Net National trapped! Please, just—“
“I’m done,” Matty said disgustedly. He hung up and shoved his phone in his pocket.
Net National trapped, Matty sneered. As if…There was no way that Matty was going to let this go down. He hated having to be the one to tell Huxley, but it was worth it. Carla would pay. She thought of herself as Cassandra, huh?
Given the knowledge of the future in exchange for a favor in a deal that she backed out of? How fitting.
Well, Cassandra and Carla could go to hell. Matty had a job to do.
Excerpt from Memoirs of Net National: The Rise and Fall of the Corporate Empire
“We never even believed the informant’s source,” Huxley says. “We though that it was a ploy, a bluff. It wasn’t. It was like the Greeks invading Troy—we were utterly destroyed before we even knew it, all because of one cleverly planted little Cassandra.”
“Cassandra?” asks biographer.
“Oh, yes—it was something the informant had called his source. I believe he has a life sentence now, for corporate espionage—an incorrect charge, I might add.”
“You mean he was framed?”
“Not only that—he was blinded by falsities and ultimately betrayed.”
© Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of Jesse Campodonico.SUBSCRIBE