The crash, not the curse, from Mr. Sanderson’s office woke Tabitha—not that she usually fell asleep on the job, it was just that Mr. Sanderson had her work late tonight. And it wasn’t as if Mr. Sanderson was known for cursing. He kept that for after office hours, when he could be sure clients wouldn’t hear him talk about how unintelligent he thought they were. No, it wouldn’t be good for the South Brook Insurance Agency for their top, most senior agent to be heard cursing like a drunken sailor.
Mr. Sanderson had asked Tabitha to stay late to file the frankly shocking amount of life insurance policies that had been filed in the wake of the escalation of tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S. (“Doesn’t matter a good God damn,” said Mr. Sanderson. “If the Ruskies drop their bombs, we’ll drop ours, and there won’t be a damn person on the Earth whose life insurance policy will be worth a whiff of shit.” That hadn’t kept him from selling them off to everyone who was concerned, though. And everyone who was concerned seemed like it was everyone in South Brook.) Tabitha didn’t mind. She was glad it gave her that much longer in his office. Something about him did something for her. Perhaps it was his rough way of speaking, or the slightly salacious grin he wore whenever the last client of the day left. Whatever it was, it contributed to Tabitha dressing in tighter-than-modesty-asked office wear and her put-on music-tinted voice.
“Damn it all,” shouted Mr. Sanderson again, precipitating another metallic clang from the interior office.
“Do you need help, Mr. Sanderson?” Tabitha asked.
“Yes,” his bass voice responded, slipping through the crack in the door separating the lobby—a small room that barely held Tabitha’s desk, phone, and notebook and crammed-in coffee table and settee. “Please do come in here, Miss Reed. I need an extra pair of eyes.”
Tabatha gently cleared her throat, stood up, smoothed out her dress, and walked towards the interior office.
The office, the other room in the small building that housed the Agency—located next to the railroad tracks and the pharmacy—was in complete disarray. Mr. Sanderson’s desk—a nice, richly-colored oak piece—was covered in forms, the desk lamp’s shade was askew, Mr. Sanderson’s chair had been knocked over, the trash can was toppled over, and several bookshelves had been ransacked. As if that weren’t enough, the green metal filing cabinet that stood against the wall underneath the Monet reproduction had been gutted. Drawers were out on the floor, spilling their contents everywhere.
Mr. Sanderson was bent over, his red striped tie flopped back over his shoulder, rifling through all of the files.
“Was there a break-in that I missed?” asked Tabitha.
Mr. Sanderson looked up. His face shot from panicked to resigned in a moment as he said, “What? Oh, yes, funny. I’m, um, having a bit of trouble finding something in here, Miss Reed. I was hoping you’d help me look.”
“Well,” she said, “certainly. You should probably call in a cleaning crew, though. I don’t know how much help I’ll be looking for a file if the cabinets aren’t in order.”
Mr. Sanderson grinned. “Yeah, that’s true. How about you take a look at that drawers over there,” he said, nodding at one of the drawers laying sideways on the floor, “and have a look for—well, you’ll know it when you see it.”
Tabitha crouched down on the floor and started looking through the cabinet. “Mr. Sanderson,” she said, flipping through the files that were still left inside, “I think I need to tell you something. You see, for the past few months, I—”
“I’m afraid I can’t give you a raise right now,” he said, overturning another drawer and spreading the files out over the floor like a cat and cat litter. “It’s going to be tight until headquarters approves these policies. Talk to me about it in a month, would you? I—hey, is this—?” He held a piece of paper up, looked at it, and said, “No. Damn. Barker account. Cheap bum only bought a half-term.” He balled up the paper and tossed it on the desk.
“No, that’s not qui—”
“Miss Reed, please. This is very important. You’re looking for a—well, it’s a sheet, you see? At the top right corner of the sheet, there’s a box with a, well, drawing in it. It’s really something you’ll notice off the bat.”
Tabitha sighed and went through some more files. She made it half-way through before a little voice spoke up again and told her to just go out there and say it. It wasn’t like he was married, or even dating anyone. (At least she didn’t think so. There wasn’t a photo on his desk, and all of the other agents’ secretaries kept talking about how they spent a good amount of time putting up a new photo of their employer’s family. It seemed like married agents were required to appear as family men.) “Mr. Sanderson. You’re a man.”
“Very astute,” he said, scratching at the five o’clock shadow and standing up. He looked her over. “You know, you’re quite lovely. Did you know that?”
Tabitha blushed. “That’s—well—that’s part of what I wan—”
Mr. Sanderson snapped his fingers. “Got it!” He leapt over to the desk and Tabitha’s heart sunk.
The agent opened up the calendar on his desk and shook it vigorously. A sole sheet of paper fell from the back and wafted from the floor. “Oh, thank God,” he said, holding it in the air, displaying it to the world—or in this case, the office. “You have any idea what this would have meant if I’d left it somewhere?”
“Well, I’d have to re-roll another character,” he exhaled deeply and grinned. “Takes a bitch of a long time, let me tell you.”
Tabitha cocked her head to one side. “I’m sorry?”
“It’s a game. Well, sort of. Role-playing sort of thing. Anyway, a group of friends and I get together every couple of weeks and play. It’s—do you ever read?”
“I read a few books, yes. I’ve just finished reading Sense and Sensibility and—”
“Oh,” said Mr. Sanderson, his manic grin disappearing. “That’s a shame.”
“Why? Do you have a book I should read?”
The grin came back. “Oh, I’ve got three—no, four—books for you to read.” He bounded over to the bookshelves and took out four paperback books, stacking them on the sheet and bringing them back to Tabitha.
She gave up trying to appear attractive in her current position, so she stood up with an ever-so-silent sigh. She took the books as they were offered. “The Fellowship of the Ring? I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”
“Oh, they’re the best books I’ve read. Sort of required reading for Dungeons and Dragons.”
“I think I’ve heard of that. Father Riley said Dungeons and Demons leads people astray.”
“Not in the slightest. It’s sort of like writing an adventure book, except you’re acting it out with other people. Understand?”
“I think so.” Tabitha sensed that she wasn’t going to make any headway with the man this way. Why did men have to be so dense sometimes?
“Great. Hey, tell you what: How about you come along one night? It’d be great. I’d have to check with the guys first, but I’m sure they’d welcome another warm body—no offence—not that’d you’d take offence—I don’t think—I just don’t want to appear too informal or—” he looked aside and coughed into his hand.
Tabitha smiled. “Sure. I’m interested.”
“Great, here,” he dashed back to the bookshelf and pulled out the largest book Tabitha had seen. It was like a coffee table book, but much thicker and printed oddly. On the cover, there was a small thing that looked like a man who’d had a very rough encounter with a mallet on his head. Then there was the issue of his skin being green, which struck Tabitha as odd. Mr. Sanderson offered it out. “Have a look through that. It’ll get you acquainted with some of the particulars.”
She took it and flipped through the pages. Images of dragons that reminded her of children’s fairy tales stood out alongside tall men with freakishly long ears. “Oh. Okay. I will.”
“Great,” he said, grinning again. He glanced at his watch. “Shit, I have to run. Look, I’ll talk to the rest of the group and I’ll let you know what they say on Monday, okay?”
“Sure,” Tabitha said. She nodded slowly.
Mr. Sanderson threw on his suit jacket and hat and made to leave before snapping his fingers. “Oh, one more thing: Would you mind coming in a bit early on Monday and helping me clean up the mess?” He gestured at the floor. “I’ll count it as time-and-a-half, of course.”
“Not at all, Mr. Sanderson.”
“You’re the best,” he said, dashing out of the front door.
Tabitha spent a few minutes looking through the odd book some more, before stuffing it awkwardly in her bag and heading out herself. Monday seemed somewhat far away.