Doug gave his day’s stack of paperwork a hard stare, then creaked back in his chair and yelled for Fisher. “Hey, bring me my coffee, will you? It’s five past nine, and we’ve already got a line down the hall.”
“Are you kidding?” Fisher smirked. “That’s Amanda’s job. Why else would we hire an intern?”
“Smart guy, are you?” Doug couldn’t help grinning. “I don’t care how the stuff gets here, as long as it’s here. And none of that cheap stuff, or you’ll hear about it.”
Fisher raised an eyebrow. “And since we have to put up with each other all day? I won’t chance it.”
A precise seven and six-tenths of minute later, Doug gave the chipped mug an experimental sip. “Not bad, Fisher. You didn’t skimp this time, did you?”
Fisher shook his head. “Thank Amanda. That girl really knows her stuff.” Twisting in his chair, he waved at the crowd behind the glass doors, a grand conductor’s sweep. “You know, we really should let them in. It’s twelve, almost thirteen past nine, and the boss won’t be happy.”
Doug heaved himself from his chair, balancing the stack of papers atop his mug, and headed for the private interview room. “Take it easy, okay? We get through the list, the boss’ll be fine.”
Fisher reached for his key ring and took four long strides to the door. “Our funeral if we don’t,” he said.
“Too late for that,” Doug chuckled. “Worst case, we get transferred downstairs.” Fisher, just about to swing open the doors, gave him the usual look, and he added, “But since neither of us want to trek downstairs, start sending them in.”
As Fisher unlocked the door, Doug settled into the interview room. Bracing himself with a long swallow of coffee, he studied the first file from his stack. “Looks like a clean case,” he muttered. “Shouldn’t have any trouble, unless he starts complaining.” He sighed. “Don’t know if I can stomach that this early.”
Fisher opened the door to the interview room, ushering in the day’s first customer. Doug gave the man a practiced once-over, from his untrimmed hair and scrubby beard to his sagging shoelaces. He sat down in the chair like a kid who’d been caught snitching the last cookie from the jar, and Doug nodded. This one hadn’t been ready to come in, obviously.
“Morning, Mr. Jones,” he said, extending a hand. Mr. Jones didn’t take it, only glancing up when Fisher joined Doug on his side of the table and began scanning the file.
“Look, I know I’m not in trouble,” Jones insisted. “My record’s clean, you can check it all right there.”
Fisher smiled slightly. “This isn’t your record, Jones. It’s your reassignment.”
Jones’ eyes widened. “But I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t know my time was up, and I—”
Doug spread his hands, trying for a more beneficent smile than Fisher. The more the clients felt at ease, he reminded himself, the easier the process. “Mr. Jones,” he said, “you know that all our clients should be ready for reassignment at any moment. And if you’ll take a look at this file here, you’ll see that your destination is—comfortable.”
Fisher slid the file across the desk, flipping it open with one finger. Jones stared at the documents inside, then inspected each one like a valuable antique.
“As you can see,” Doug said, “it’s all there. Identifying documents, personal mementos, and the requisite funds. I’m sure you’ll have a pleasant assignment.”
Jones glanced up. “No offshore account, huh? The papers are all square, but the funds—”
Doug brought out his depreciating smile. “Mr. Jones, you know our firm is absolutely above-board. Offshore accounts—”
Jones raised his hands. “Okay, okay. This gig looks much better than my last one, even without extra funds. I’ll take it.”
“Wonderful!” Doug said, heaving an internal sigh. “I’ll be happy to inform the management of your continuing service.”
Jones reassembled his file, half-nodding as Fisher opened the door for him. Fisher watched Jones shoulder his way out the door, then glanced at Doug.
“That,” he said, “was our simplest case of the day.”
Doug scanned the next file. “Oh, don’t spoil my coffee,” he mock-groaned. “What could be more complicated?”
“The next case,” Fisher replied, turning to escort the next client.
Doug took another long sip of his coffee, attempting to postpone the inevitable, until the voice of the next client forced him to look up.
“See here, young man,” she began, “there’s been some mistake. It’s not my turn at all, it’s Dahlia’s. I told your man here that we were just talking the other day about how her time was up, and—”
Doug wasn’t sure if his smile made it to the surface. “Ma’am, our firm never makes mistakes. You’re Doreen Smith, aren’t you?”
She frowned. “Mrs. Smith to you, young man.”
“Of course, Mrs. Smith.” Doug tried to recover his smile. “Now, if you’ll examine this file here, you’ll see that your next assignment—”
“It should be Dahlia’s assignment,” she persisted. “I heard just the other day how much she was looking forward to this new opportunity, and—”
“Mrs. Smith,” Fisher interposed, “if you’ll take a look at the file, you might find the proposed assignment much more agreeable than you assume.”
She blinked at him, and slowly took the file from his outstretched hand. As she studied papers and photographs, Doug looked over the edge of his mug at Fisher. His partner’s poker face was impassible, but he felt himself relaxing. Fisher could take this one.
“Well,” Mrs. Smith admitted, “it looks very nice. I’ve always wanted the chance to travel, but Alfred always said there wasn’t enough money for that.”
Doug chuckled. “There’ll be no Alfred this time, ma’am. Fancy free, that’s what you’ll be.”
She didn’t smile, but she allowed Fisher to escort her from the room. While waiting for the next client, Doug drained his coffee and skimmed the upcoming files.
“West, Braun, Martin, Jenson,” he muttered. “At least they’ve had more assignments than Smith and Jones.” Squinting slightly, he skipped to the last file. “And Adder’s up again. That’ll be a treat for Fisher.”
But he didn’t think about Adder for the next six-and-a-half hours, while he and Fisher dealt with all levels of doubt, disbelief, obstinacy, and acceptance. Whichever clients he couldn’t soften with his array of smiles, Fisher disarmed with a custom-tailored approach. Each client left the interview room with a file, and the line outside the door dwindled.
At eight and three-fourths minutes to five, Doug studied the dregs of his innumerable cup of coffee. “Don’t tell me how many of these Amanda’s made today, okay?”
Fisher half-smirked. “I won’t, if you tell me who’s in that last file.”
Doug leaned forward in his chair. “The last one outside the doors? You’ll be the escort in a second.”
Fisher glanced at the lone figure standing outside the glass doors. “Just tell me,” he said. “After all, the firm never makes mistakes.”
Doug sighed. “It’s Adder—again. Beats me why the management doesn’t stick a permanent assignment on that one, but what do I know about upstairs?”
“I’m sure we’ll have a grand old time,” Fisher said. He moved to exit the interview room, but Adder walked through the glass doors and across the office. Stepping past Fisher into the interview room, Adder sat down and took the last file from Doug’s side of the desk. Doug swallowed hard, but Fisher’s blank expression offered no encouragement.
“It’s my job to give the once-overs, Adder,” he managed, “not you.”
“I’m the one being reassigned,” Adder said, dropping the file on the desk. “Shouldn’t I know where I’m going?”
“People like you, the management prefers to send in blind,” Fisher replied. He stood behind Adder’s chair, his arms crossed. “You cause—disturbances—wherever you go.”
“Fisher,” Adder smiled. “I didn’t know they still kept you here. You should know by now that cutting a piece or two of red tape is my hobby, and the management doesn’t seem to mind.”
“If I were the management,” Fisher said, reaching for the file, “I would send you downstairs without option for promotion.”
“But you aren’t management,” Adder said, holding the file just out of Fisher’s reach, “and they have to allow me some leeway. It’s in my contract, you know.”
“I’ve read it,” Fisher snapped, “more than once. Now, you know your protocol. Give me that file, please.”
Adder laughed. “I don’t think so. I’ve had quite the experience this time, but I’m looking to step it up. A hint wouldn’t break protocol, would it?”
Adder turned to look up at Fisher, and Doug snatched the file. “You’re the only one who isn’t allowed to view files, Adder,” he said. “A hint would definitely break protocol.”
Adder stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Whatever it is, I’m sure this assignment will be—adequate. Management knows how to keep me happy.”
Fisher laughed. “Threats won’t improve your chances, Adder. You know that one step too far will send you to the bottom of those stairs.”
“Who’s threatening?” Adder asked, leaning back to smile at Fisher. “Management never pins anything on me, no matter the assignment.”
“Especially not this time,” Doug muttered, “but I wish they would. We could pin half the world’s trouble on you before Amanda could make another cup of coffee.”
“Now, Doug,” Adder murmured. “Don’t complain, please? With an attitude like that, I’ll be sitting in your chair, and you’ll be back in the assignment cycle with the rest of us poor souls.”
Doug took a deep breath, and then spread his hands as his deprecating smile surfaced. “You’re welcome to the paperwork. Amanda makes excellent—”
He looked past Adder at Fisher, who stood with his poker face back in place. Surprising himself, he laughed. “No, you and Fisher wouldn’t get along,” he said. “And I’ll stay for the coffee. Amanda’s is too good to miss.”
As the time shifted to twelve past five, he inserted Adder’s file into the shredder under the desk. Adder’s fists clenched, but she smiled.
“Until my next assignment, then,” she said. “A pleasure to see you, Doug—and Fisher, as always.”
Declining Fisher’s assistance, she rose from her chair and strode out of the room. Without looking back, she crossed the now-deserted office, and the glass doors swung shut behind her. For a full minute and a half, neither man spoke. Then Doug looked up at Fisher.
“Last case,” he said, “and they had to send her. Glad I’m not around to see the havoc she causes this time.”
Fisher’s expression hovered between a smile and a smirk. “We just process the paperwork.”
“If we supervised the clients—” Doug shook his head. “Good thing that’s not our department.”
As they left the interview room, Fisher flipped the lights. Doug swirled the last of the coffee in the pot, but replaced it without filling his mug. “You know, I feel like celebrating,” he said. “Adder’s out of our court for who knows how long.”
They pushed through the glass doors, and Fisher locked them. “At my place or yours?” he asked.
Doug grinned. “Either, or both—as long as it’s more than coffee!”