Fani dressed carefully for the meeting. She wanted Ramon to see her the way she used to look, her dark eyes made enormous with kohl and her full mouth painted a rich crimson. Her last touch was to slide her blade inside the waistband of her jeans and button her grey linen jacket to conceal it.
She was never punctual. But this time, she planned to arrive thirty minutes late. Propped against the flaking, sunbaked wall of the Hotel Pacifico, watching the street urchins hustle while her thirty minutes ticked by, Fani amused herself picturing Ramon in a stew of offended vanity and resentment. This sharpened the anticipation she had been honing to a fine edge all day.
Fani took care to slam into Ramon’s office, flinging the heavy door open so it bounced hard against the wall, making the assistant seated outside jerk round from her screen to gape at the intruder. Inside, Ramon stood facing the door, a bulky silhouette against the huge picture window. Fani stared back at him across the expanse of white carpet stretched between them. The assistant scurried in, phone at the ready, but a gesture from Ramon pulled her up short. She dropped a folder on the small roundtable and left, closing the door soundlessly. On the ornate ceiling, the ceiling fans whirred and clacked.
Ramon turned his back without a word and went to his desk where he made a show of tinkering on his desktop screen. Fani strolled across the room to look out the window. Far below, the Hotel Pacifico squatted like a shabby dwarf, half-submerged in the ant-like stream of traffic. She watched one of Ramon’s SUVs dart like a miniature predator among the logjam of bicycles and rusted minibuses until it disappeared down the canyon of skyscrapers into the polluted sunset. The grey palm trees imprisoned along the thin ribbon of cracked paving below were tossing in the stiff breeze that always came off the mountains in the late afternoon. Fani turned away, weary at the sameness of every prospect in the run-down city. Under her jacket, she fingered her blade.
Ramon left his desk to plump down at the small roundtable with its elaborate bowl of pink orchids. He gestured at Fani to join him. She ignored him and slid uninvited onto the plush sofa, slouching back, crossing one booted foot over her knee, tucking a hand under her jacket. The familiar grimace on Ramon’s face told her he was struggling to control his outrage at her studied insolence. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse, as if he had to grind up the words to spit them out.
“You’re goddam late!” This gave her a bitter thrill.
“ You know why I called you in, ” he growled. She almost laughed aloud. Ramon had never cared what she knew. “You haven’t been pulling your weight around here for months. I talked to the others. They agree, you should go.”
Fani shifted slightly to stare out the window, her face blank. She thought of the years full of long nights when she and Ramon had struggled to fill orders, keep inventory moving, undercut competitors, complete shipments. Hanging out at the old Pacifico, without a spare centavo, recklessly in debt and cheating the weaker suppliers to make up the difference. She was good at finding new customers. He kept the money moving. They were a team in those days. Until he squeezed her into so-called accounting and out of the decisions that mattered.
Ramon leaned back in his chair and positioned his hands comfortably behind his head. As if proposing Fani should take a vacation, he announced, “You should quit.” He opened the folder lying on the table. It had obviously been prepared for the meeting. He pulled out a single sheet of paper.
“Here’s the letter for you to sign. There’s a big payoff in it. All clean and above board. You can retire.”
He leaned over and with fingers splayed, slid the sheet of paper slowly towards her across the coffee table in front of the sofa. His fingers were fat and heavy and the back of his hand was wrinkled, the skin tanned dark and furred by a mantle of wiry grey hairs. Fani pictured a younger version of that hand caressing her breast each time she and Ramon collapsed in exhausted passion. That hand brushing the glossy flank of their first secretary, as Ramon leaned over the girl to reach a coffee mug from above. The same hand so remorselessly, so shamelessly hidden for years behind the façade of their growing business and now, flaunted in this glittering office, opening and closing accounts, making hidden transfers, laundering millions.
Fani made herself break the silence. “So, what else is new?” she asked, as if nothing of importance had been said before. She would let him go on thinking it was no contest, that she’d go quietly; submissive, as always. He left the table to make himself a coffee from the expensive Italian machine behind his desk. The scent of coffee followed him back to the table like a forbidden treat. She could tell he thought she was finished when he changed the subject, frowning,
“I just got back this morning from the finance meeting.”
Fani examined Ramon. His gaze seemed to rest unseeing on her scarlet mouth. His eyes were small black points in his huge head set on bulging muscular shoulders. The contrast between this menacing body and his flaccid face with its drooping, red-veined jowls had struck her once, as suited to his kind of corruption. Now, she thought he looked sickly.
“They weren’t happy. They’d heard rumors, complaints about my …our deals with Colombia. That wasn’t so bad until Luisa had her say. You seen Luisa lately?” Ramon rapped out the question like an afterthought. Fani stared hard at the spot where Ramon’s chin disappeared into his fleshy neck , willing herself not to blink before he continued,
“Luisa gave them chapter and verse, she had everything on paper, numbers, every little thing needed to do me in,” Ramon continued. His voice rasped. “I want to know how she got that stuff.”
Fani shrugged. “Did you ask her?”
“Of course, I asked her! She’s not telling.”
“So, what happens now?” Fani leaned forward. This was what she was waiting for. She inhaled deeply, relishing the sharp fragrance of his coffee. She thought back to her evening with Luisa, drinking expresso in the dark corner of a street cafe under the breeze-tossed palms.
“After all I did for her!” Ramon slumped in his chair, mumbling, his voice querulous. “ I made Luisa. Discovered her, gave her all her chances, promoted her.”
Luisa’s furious complaints about promises easily made and quickly forgotten whispered in Fani’s head. At the café, Luisa had kissed Fani’s flash drive before she tucked it away and observed sourly that Ramon had forgotten what it was like to be used.
“They’re going to come after me... Me!” Ramon whined. “ I can’t understand how Luisa could do that!”
Fani recognized the fear leaking into his voice. It was as if nothing said about Fani quitting made any difference, as if she was still picking up the pieces. She stood up and went to the table, leaning across the extravagant orchids so she could peer straight into Ramon’s face. Astonishingly, tears of self-pity were welling up in his crumpled eyes so the pupils gleamed blackly like washed pebbles on a violent shoreline.
“Well, now you know what it feels like,” she said, her tone deliberately unkind.
He blinked at her, uncomprehending, while she moved closer, selected a tiny orchid from the bowl and threaded it into her shirt buttonhole. She sniffed the delicate, perfumeless flower indulgently, taking her time, readying the blade with her free hand.
“ What it feels like to be betrayed,” she explained. “You’ve done it often enough. Stabbed someone in the back.”
Shock at the blatant contempt in her voice and then at her meaning, crept slowly over Ramon’s face till his jowls wobbled with the effort of understanding. He shot up from his chair like a shark breaching from the ocean to grab its prey, both hands splayed for balance on the table’s edge.
“It was you!” Fury twisted his jaws so he could hardly speak. “You’re --”
“—Fired?” Fani completed his sentence and in the same moment, forced the point of her blade down violently, throwing her weight behind it. “Yeah. And you’re finished!”
She left the quivering blade pinning his hand to the table and went out the door.