It was the irony of the thing that Daria hated the most. The most accomplished wordsmith Lawndale High had seen in at least a decade was, less than a year short of her thirtieth birthday, working as an accountant. She yawned as she toted up the figures for the monthly income and expenses for the company. It was a large company, so the numbers she dealt with were very significant; errors could easily run into the hundreds of thousands or even millions.
Looking up at the horrible fluorescent lights, she sighed. Someone dealing with sums this big should really merit her own office, she thought, and not for the first time. Instead, she was trapped in a cubicle, just like millions of other young professionals trying to make their way in the world. Her workspace held very little to show that it was hers; in fact, it held very little at all, the table being dominated by a very large monitor and several old ledgers. The cubical wall behind her was bare, as the office had a rule against posting personal things.
For the nerve center of a multinational corporation, it was a surprisingly small space, dominated by two dozen cubicles set up in groups of six. Daria's own cube wasn't part of the farm; it stood alone between two of the dozen or so offices that lined the wall. She would have considered this a benefit, except for one thing.
"Oh, Daria," a familiar voice trilled, smug and hateful, as a red head popped out of the largest office, to the immediate right of her cubicle. "Can you bring me the numbers on the bank merger?"
"Can you blow it out your ass, Upchuck?" she muttered sotto voce, as she called up the information she needed. "Yes, Charles," she said for his benefit as she printed everything off. She could easily have emailed him the information, but he insisted that his employees bring him hard copies—well his female employees; she'd never actually seen him ask one of the men. He was Charles Stewart now, not Ruttheimer, for whatever reason, but he was still very much the same Upchuck.
With a sigh, she grabbed the documents from the printer. "Here you are, sir," she said, feeling his unclean eyes on her. She hurried back to her cubicle and looked at the time: 4:30. She told herself on an hourly basis that she to be here, but what she felt she really needed after dealing with her boss was a long, hot shower.
* * *
With a cheerful leer, Charles took the papers from her, and headed back into office. He quickly scanned them, confirming his thoughts on the deal. He'd called it a merger, but it was really a hostile takeover. He'd had a feeling East American could be useful, and the numbers from the last quarter told him it was.
He slipped the papers into the shredder next to his mahogany desk and sank happily into his imported leather massage chair. Life had been very kind to him, so he allowed himself many, many perks, from the deep pile carpet to the aged scotch whiskeys in the hand-crafted liquor cabinet. But his favorite perk was asking the lovely, lovely ladies to bring him printouts. He know that email would have been easier for everyone, but he couldn't resist having the ladies at his beck and call, sashaying over to delivery their information and then strolling back to their workstations. He enjoyed the view.
He enjoyed many things. Not yet thirty, he was a multimillionaire several times over, with a lean, efficient organization that was poised to move him into the stratosphere of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Charles Stewart was fast becoming a name to be reckoned with, something he felt was impossible for Charles Ruttheimer, saddled with a name that sounded like a sexual dysfunction. Stewart was a kingly name, and he intended to live better than any king.
And Daria Morgendorffer was the icing on the cake. He'd always found Daria attractive, but ten years and a willingness to acknowledge contact lenses and make-up had turned her into a willowy auburn-haired beauty with eyes a man could drown in. Every day, he blessed the luck that had brought her into his orbit three months ago.
Knowing it was close to five, he went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a drink, Johnny Walker Blue over ice. "Rank hath its privileges." he said and toasted himself.
* * *
Shortly after five, some of her fellow cube rats started heading out. By six, all but three of them were gone. At six-thirty, Upchuck left his office and gave her an oily smile. "Ah, my lovely Daria," he said. "Don't exhaust yourself on my behalf."
"Thank you for your concern, Charles," she said, and hated every word. "But I'm not going be here much longer. I'm just going to run the numbers again before I leave tonight."
"Ah, so devoted," he said. "I must find some way to show my," he paused deliberately for another leer, "appreciation. But meanwhile, good night my blossom."
"Good night, sir," Daria said and held her breath until he left. "Thank God," she said, and began going over the numbers again in earnest. Before she could get too far, the last other person on the floor strolled over. Megan was a plump redhead in her late thirties with an unfortunate fondness for pancake makeup and red shirts. Daria's sister Quinn had worn pink through high school and college, but Quinn could get away with it because she even looked good in sackcloth and ashes. Megan, on the other hand, just looked ridiculous.
She leaned against the "doorway" of Daria's cube, despite the obvious lack of invitation in Daria's eyes. "Boss has got a real thing for you," she said without preamble.
"He's going to get a real thing from me if he tries anything," Daria snapped. "Won't be the first time he's been on the business end of a can of mace."
"That's right, you went to high school with him. That must be how you got the job. Couple of the other girls thought you slept with him."
At the words "slept with him," Daria stiffened. "Don't tell me who said that," she growled, "since a murder rap would hurt my career." Maybe not all that much, Daria thought, but she wasn't going to tell Megan that.
"Hey, hey." Megan leaned away. "Don't kill the messenger. I'm just saying what I heard."
"Look," Daria said, voice like ice. "As far as I know, I got my job because I'm very good at what I do and I don't mind putting in extra hours to get the job done."
"Suit yourself," Megan shrugged. "I was gonna see if you wanted to get a drink, but never mind. I'll see you in the morning."
Daria nodded. "See you in the morning." She heard the ring of the elevator and peered out of her cube to confirm that Megan was gone. "Thank God," she said when she saw she had the floor to herself. "Stupid bitch," she added under her breath, as she got to work for real.
The columns of numbers she'd been adding made sense if you accepted them at face value. Everything added up across and down, after all. But if you knew something was wrong, as Daria did, there were discrepancies all over the records: incomes far higher than the volume of goods would suggest; outlays on assets that were massively overvalued; and costs that fit holes in the accounts, but were associated with nothing and recorded as "sundry." Daria had confirmed that "Charles Stewart," whatever else he was, wasn't on the up and up. The Agency had been thrilled to get that news.
She flipped open a command prompt, accessed several programs she'd very carefully buried in hidden files, and bunged a thumb drive into a USB port. Her accounting skills were real, and had gotten her in the door, but what she'd really needed for the job were hacking and detecting skills. Someone who had made as much money as fast as Upchuck had would be careful to protect himself any way he could, and the only way for her to find evidence of who he was working with was to circumvent those protections.
Her fingers flew across the keyboard. She'd finally found the path she needed early this morning and was ready to start downloading incriminating info. Setting up tool to crack the private keys was child's play; it was one of the things Agency training had stressed. Defeating the logic bombs buried in the system before they could wipe out the records she needed was something else again.
Finally satisfied, she ran her programs. First, the key was cracked, revealing the secret file hierarchies. Another program killed processes that would have wiped the files, while a third left the computer believing those processes were running. When she was sure everything was working, she opened a set of spreadsheets, and whistled at what she saw.
"Double books," she breathed. "He's at least going up for tax evasion. Probably fraud too. The Agency will have a field day with this stuff." Suddenly nervous, she closed the files and started the download. The records were extensive, which meant the download might take as much as twenty minutes. And she had to assume he wasn't stupid and would have other security measures and backups. Which meant that until she could get out of here and back to an Agency safe house, her life wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit.
* * *
Charles clicked his tongue against his teeth in disappointment. He lay on his bed, atop sumptuous silk sheets, watching the finest flat screen, high definition television money could buy. But it wasn't network or cable programming he was watching; it was the Daria show. He could see that she'd found the real files, which he'd used to bait the trap.
Sure, he could have made his money legitimately, but not as quickly, and he wanted to be young enough to enjoy his obscene wealth. And yes, some of the people with whom he did business were the lowest of the low, but then to Charles, most of humanity was the lowest of the low. "And even drug runners, embezzlers, and terrorists need someone to provide for them and launder their money," he said aloud with a chuckle.
To some extent, he'd hoped that his instincts about her were wrong, that she was a legitimate accountant and willing to work for him. He'd used the real files because he wasn't sure she'd be taken in by fakes, and because he wanted to give her a chance to show loyalty. She was, after all, a beautiful woman with a delightful and challenging wit, and he would have immensely enjoyed having her on his arm.
He let a few more minutes pass, watching her grow more nervous, before he pressed a button at the side of his bed. A female voice came through as clear as a bell. "Yes, sir?"
"The target's on the bullseye," he said. "You know what to do. I'll be down for the last shot."
"Yes, sir," she said. "I'll make sure to pin the target."
He smiled to himself as he slid the dresser drawer open and grabbed the 9 millimeter he kept there. He didn't usually dirty his hands, but in his line of work, it paid to be careful. Either way, he knew he would enjoy himself a great deal.
* * *
Information continued to scroll by as Daria watched. She was less than five minutes from finishing, but still she worried. "This is too easy," she said. "There's got to be another line of defense." She'd been opening files at random as the download continued, and they'd confirmed her worst fears. There were definite ties to drug cartels, la Cosa Nostra, and possible links to Al-Qaeda. She was sitting on a time bomb far larger than the Agency had thought when they sent her in.
If someone was going to turn up to kill me, she thought, this would be the time. She shut off the monitor and angled it to the doorway of the cube. The fluorescents above threw enough light to allow her to see a reflection in the screen. It was an old Agency trick to give her a way to improve her vision while convincing any watchers that she was paying so little attention that she'd let the screen saver start.
Sure enough, the reflection of a figure appeared within a minute. Daria waited, projecting an air of indifference. But when the hand came toward her mouth, she grabbed and twisted, shooting from her seat. A kick nearly took her in the midsection, but she turned and blocked it with her free hand. Unfortunately, this allowed her assailant to free herself from Daria's grip. She whirled and, to her shock, found herself confronting an angry looking Megan.
"Couldn't make it easy, could you?" The redhead flicked a karate chop at Daria's head, but Daria easily blocked it. "Now that boss is gonna have to clean up, and he hates that."
Daria counterattacked, snapping a kick at Megan's knee, but it was easily blocked. They exchanged testing blows, trying to get a feel for each other's technique, but Daria pressed harder. She knew time was on Megan's side, since Daria had to finish the fight, get the thumb drive and get the hell out before Upchuck or more goons arrived. The Agency couldn't and wouldn't send help. And cleaners were not an option. They wanted trials and convictions, not a bloodbath.
Daria shifted to a defensive posture, hoping to bait the other woman into an attack. Megan obliged, throwing a combination of punches at Daria's head. Daria dodged the first two and steeped inside the third and drove the heel of her hand into Megan's jaw. While the other woman was stunned, Daria cracked her in the temple, felling her. A kick to the head made sure Megan was out, and Daria checked her pulse to make sure she was still alive. "No fatalities, if possible," her superior had said.
She stepped back into the cubicle and flicked the monitor on. "Download complete," it said. She carefully ran the safe removal program and eased the drive from the port. Then she capped the drive and slipped it into a hidden pocked inside her blouse. She was taking no chances.
When she went to make good her escape, she noted a problem. The door was locked. After a couple of fruitless attempts, she turned to the windows, but they wouldn't budge. She grabbed a chair and heaved it; it bounds harmlessly off the window. "Maybe I should have come armed," she sighed, as the door slid open.
* * *
Charles loved to make entrance, and even with an audience of one, this was one of his best. "Hello, lovely Daria," he said, pointing the 9 millimeter at her, as he stood in a velvet smoking jacket over silk pajamas.
"Hello, Upchuck," she said, turning to face him from about four feet away. Her voice was deadpan, but her eyes were filled with loathing.
"Ah, ah, ah," he said. "We mustn't be impolite. It shows a lack of grace and decorum. And how can we hold our heads up in social situations without grace and decorum?"
"I didn't realize this was a social situation," she said. "I thought this was you making demands and me telling you to go to hell."
"Ah Daria. Feisty to the end." He laughed. It sounded villainous.
"So do you come by the laugh naturally or did you learn it at Evil Scumbag U?"
"You know," he said, ignoring her, "I had hoped that you were what you seemed and not what I expected. But now that I have time to think about it, I'm happier this way. After all, making love to you would have been wonderful, but outwitting you, my dear, is worth even more."
Daria said nothing, and considered her situation. Sooner or later, he would stop the banter and put a bullet into her, and the only escape route was the open door behind him. She was unarmed, because being caught with a gun would have compromised her. Besides, the Agency had tuned her into a lethal weapon. And then demanded no fatalities.
"Well, my dear? Should we have a drink or should I just kill you now? I'm especially partial to expensive scotches over ice. Johnny Walker Blue is a particular favorite."
Daria's mind raced. She wondered what she could learn if she kept him talking, or if maneuvering him to his office would help. She decided it wouldn't and in a blur snapped a punch at his hand. The gun went flying. "Thank God for agility training, she said and kicked him in the knee. "By the way, Charles," she said as he collapsed to the floor, "you still have the worst taste of any man I know. Smoking jackets and velvet pajamas?" She snorted and kicked him in the head. "And good scotch should be drunk with a drop of water, not over ice. Of course, Johnny Walker is just a blend, so it's not even good scotch, which you would know, you miserable little weasel," she said, punctuating her words with more kicks, "if you had the sense and class that God gave a cockroach."
She left him there, groaning, and strolled out the door and down the stairs. Even if he closed down the operation, they had enough to put him away, and a bunch of his evil customers. And if he ran, he'd be taken down anyway, if not by the law, then by the lowlifes he dealt with. Five minutes later, she was out a ventilation duct and on the street. And within two days, Charles Stewart's criminal empire was in ashes.
This was written for Round One of the PPMB March Madness challenge. The conditions of the challenge were as follows:
"Let's see a winner-takes-all power struggle. The stakes must be high, and no compromises allowed—there must be a winner and a loser. The participants in this struggle must be characters who would not socialize with each other on a regular basis. Any genre will work. You can focus on the lead-up to the struggle, the struggle itself, the aftermath, or any combination of them, just so long as there is the struggle and the winner."
Disclaimer: Daria and all characters are copyright MTV 1997–2002. I own nothing and am merely along for the ride.