Note: Well, it took just over 13 months (somehow), but this is the conclusion of the story started here. Enjoy.
Dawn was still a few hours away when preparations for Vague Magazine’s Annual Spring Picnic began. A large section of the city park had been cordoned off for the lavish event, sure to be the highlight of the month on the society-circuit. Decorators, caterers, landscapers, and others worked in near darkness to set up for the occasion, transforming the prime patch of park between the duck pond and the little botanical garden. Dozens of people were employed to ensure the event went off without a hitch.
In a curious case of coincidence, only a few blocks away from the park, an artisan baker was in his shop, putting the finishing touches on his first big project of the day. It was a special order for a pair of banana cream pies. Although this particular baker was a thirty-year-veteran of his craft, he was hardly a renowned pastry chef. What he did have, was a reputation for tackling even the most outrageous orders with aplomb, which he personally suspected had a lot to do with his receiving this particular job. The request had been for two cream pies, big, but not unwieldy, and piled high without being unstable. Stranger still, the customer wanted the crusts baked longer than usual, until brittle. The baker had warned that over-baked pie crusts risked shattering with any attempt to cut them, but the customer assured him that would not be a problem. Perhaps oddest of all, this unusual patron had gone to some lengths to remain anonymous, even arranging for a courier to pick up the finished desserts. Oh well, the baker pondered, flicking lovely peaks into the piles of cream with a small spatula, the customer was always right… He slid both pies into a large refrigerator, where the cream would set, making the pastries perfect to be served by early afternoon.
Cora Huff tossed a stack of revenue reports onto her desk and glanced at the clock. The stainless-steel face read quarter-to-twelve. Even though it was a Saturday, not to mention the day of the magazine’s annual Spring Picnic, Cora had been in her office since seven. No eyebrows would rise at the thought of the notoriously-reserved Vice President of Finance skipping a fancy party in favor of busywork. However, Cora found herself uncharacteristically unable to focus on the papers she’d been staring at, much less the numbers they represented. There was just too much riding on today; too much riding on events she could not personally oversee. It was exceptionally irksome given her meticulous nature and compulsion towards control. There was nothing for it. She just had to get over the discomfort. With a sigh, Cora rose from her desk. It was time for lunch, and distracted or not, Cora was hardly one to deviate from a routine. Despite following what had been a sporadically rainy week, the weather today was beautiful. She left her jacket on the hook, but began shuffling papers into her attaché case. Maybe she’d be able to get some work done at the restaurant.
As Cora Huff was preparing to leave the Vague Magazine Headquarters, Marlowe Philips was just arriving. Unlike Cora, it was far less believable that Marlowe would willingly miss the annual Spring Picnic, so her absence required a bit more preparation. She had secretly arranged for an important advertising project to languish until it became an emergency, tragically necessitating she and a couple of her staff come into work rather than attend the picnic. Marlowe understood why it made sense for her to stay away from the event, but she did dearly wish she could be there to watch the fireworks in person… Oh well. She was going to have to settle for obsessively monitoring social media and using her imagination. She gave security an exaggerated frown as she passed through the lobby, hunching her shoulders and dragging her feet, much to their sympathetic amusement. Once in the elevator, she punched the button for the forty-eight floor, where her office was located. She took a moment to savor the fact that soon, very soon, she would have a much nicer office, on a much higher floor. Her takeaway from this devilish little conspiracy was to be the official number two spot at the magazine. Fortunately, that spot would be conveniently vacated when Samantha Bogey took control, holding the strings to Charlie’s puppet regime, and assuming whatever made-up title came with that position of potent power.
At nearly noon, on the Saturday boasting the annual Vague Magazine Spring Picnic, Charlie Dash was asleep. The stunning model and renowned beauty icon was splayed across a white satin futon in the middle of her living room, snoring. She was wearing a purple silk robe over a flower-patterned bikini. The remnants of the prior night’s intense and lengthy party were strewn throughout the petite yet elegant luxury condo, located in a gated community at the edge of the city. Debris included a wide variety of empty bottles, an assortment of abandoned clothing, as well as a number of guests, slumped over furniture and floors, all young and attractive and unconscious, in keeping with their host. Charlie was taking her duty to the secret group, namely NOT attending the Spring Picnic, very seriously. She had overindulged at her own party to ensure that she would not be in attendance, while also providing a good excuse for her absence, or at least what passed for a good excuse in her gilded universe. Due to her care-less nature and alcohol-fueled hibernation, Charlie was not the least bit nervous or curious about what was going on at the Vague Magazine Spring Picnic.
Brigid Oster felt as though her insides had undergone some kind of terrible transformation, and were now composed entirely of concentrated nervousness. The funny thing was, on any other day, in any other situation, she would have considered this party one of the most divinely stress-free settings imaginable. Somewhere deep inside Brigid the extreme juxtaposition of her environment and her frame of mind, coupled with the convincingly relaxed smile she was forcing her face to maintain, was downright hilarious. Hilarious in a slightly unhinged, adrenaline-spiked sort of way. Brigid refused to even allow herself to fake a chuckle at any of the mundane party banter, as she worried it would spin out of control into a fit of maniacal laughter. Obviously that would be a disaster. No, she just had to focus. Come on, keep it together, she chides herself, just another hour or so, then it will all be over.
Plucking a mimosa from the silver tray of a passing server, Brigid downed half the drink in a single gulp. She glanced at her phone for the two-hundredth time since the party began. Fortunately, as this was an industry event, she was by no means the only personal assistant present and blatant digital-dependency was displayed freely, so her endless screen checks were hardly suspicious. Of course, there were still no updates. She had to remind herself, once again, that at this point in the game, no news was good news.
The sudden sensation of fingers on her bare shoulder nearly made Brigid hurl her drink into the air. It was only her boss. The Director of Operations for Vague Magazine, also the ringleader of their conspiracy, looked fabulous. Samantha Bogey was wearing a strapless cocktail dress slit high up the thigh. The dress was black, an unconventional choice for a spring party, but the bold color was offset with a dense pattern of small red polka dots. Her long black hair was up in a chignon studded with pins sporting little rubies, and bright red heels kept the theme. Her expression, just then, straddled amusement and concern.
“You ok? You almost jumped out of your skin. Are you nervous about something?” Samantha’s lips curled into a wicked smile.
Brigid let out a long breath. She allowed her boss’ aura of cool confidence absorb some of her anxiety. Unlike Samantha, Brigid had dressed more conventionally for the event. She wore a seafoam-green sheath dress which fell, barely, to her pale knees, with beige ballet flats and her strawberry hair in loose curls. Downing the rest of her mimosa, she shrugged.
“Nope. What on earth could go wrong at a place like this?” She gestured to the lavish party going on around them with her empty glass and the two women shared a secret smirk.
In fairness, it really was difficult to find this party stressful. No expense had been spared in its production and execution. Beaming servers milled through the clusters of well-heeled guests, offering an abundance of cocktails and canapes. A full bar with a staff of five was located at one end of the party, for the more discerning day-drinkers. At the opposite end from the bar, a small stage had been set up and currently featured a six-piece ensemble providing auditory ambiance; mostly garden-party standard classical fair, but with the occasional coy instrumental arrangement of a popular radio hit sprinkled in for flavor. Imported flowers decked everything, in bouquets and garlands, saturating the park with their perfumes. Draped above their heads strings of paper lanterns dangled dark, waiting for sunset, and matching the floating lanterns bobbing on the small duck pond that edged the party. It was an unqualified success so far, laughter and idle chatter burbled in the background as fashion moguls and media mavens mixed with celebrated models, designers, and photographers.
A silent staffer with an earpiece and a clipboard stole up next to them and whispered something to Samantha then vanished into the crowd. Samantha finished her gimlet and handed Brigid the glass.
“Well, she’s here. The toasts will begin soon, I’m going to go freshen up.” As she turned to depart, Samantha added under her breath, “You should inform our friends.”
Brigid placed both empty glasses on a nearby table, where they were swiftly bussed by unseen hands, and took up her phone once again, a tingle of excitement now mixed with her nervousness.
Cora was waiting for her check when the message arrived.
“The toasts are about to start.”
Despite the desperately dull content of the message, especially to someone not even attending the event in question, Cora allowed a catlike smile to spread across her face. Right on schedule.
Pushing aside the remnants of a Caesar salad, Cora began gathering up the papers she’d strewn across the restaurant table. If she hurried, she could make it back to the office in time to watch the inevitable social-media-fireworks with Marlowe…
As Marlowe set her phone back down on the table, she must have been wearing a particularly smug smile.
“What’s that? You’re making that face. Is it something about the party? Ugh. I’m still gutted we had to work today.”
Angela Westwood was one of the anchors of her advertising department, and her missing the Spring Picnic was just unfortunate collateral damage of their scheming.
“Oh it’s nothing Angie, just a dumb inside joke. And don’t sweat missing that party. From what I hear, it’s going to be a total snooze-fest…”
The message from Brigid caused Charlie’s phone to vibrate five times before the insistent buzz cut through her hung-over slumber. Snatching it from the floor, she rolled over and tried her best to focus on the screen, despite the brutal glow.
Of course, having slept well into the afternoon on the day of an important work event, Charlie had nearly thirty messages languishing in 4G-limbo. She got through five of them before tossing her phone on the futon and padding through the condo, hunting for someone conscious enough to go on a coffee run.
Heeding soft-spoken instructions from the staff, the party guests were now gathered in a loose semicircle beside the pond. Across a small stretch of grass, the editors and the board of directors of Vague Magazine stood gathered together while a clutch of photographers snapped and flashed. The battalion of ever-joyful servers was in the process of issuing everyone with a champagne flute. Brigid’s hand tremble slightly as she took the stemmed glass. It was so close now.
From her position toward the front of the crowd, between a man with an immaculately wrinkle-free suit and skin like a dried apricot, and a decidedly matronly woman in a disconcertingly flirty skirt, Brigid had an excellent view of the proceedings. The toasts, offered by major players at the magazine, were a grand tradition of the Spring Picnic. Samantha would be going first.
Across the span of many clandestine meetings, as their plotting evolved from fantasy pipe-dream to concrete plan, they had discussed at length about when would be the best moment to strike. Obviously, doing it during the toasts made sense, as that practically guaranteed the attention of the crowd. Also they had concluded it would be wise for the hit to go down during Samantha’s toast, giving her a good chance to look shocked and adding one last layer of deniability down the line. Finally, Marlowe had championed the notion that it should happen as early into the toasts as possible; partially because the marshalling of the crowd and the distribution of booze would help ensure their contractor could enter unnoticed, and partially because nearly everyone was going to be zoned-out by the third toast. So, when the opportunity arose, Samantha graciously volunteered to be the first speaker.
Now Samantha was stepping forward, a slender hand raised to quiet the murmurs of the audience. As her own boss moved, Brigid caught sight of their target. The editor in chief of Vague Magazine, wearing her trademarked mirrored-sunglasses, stood in the center of the group of executives and bigwigs. A short woman, Mallory Winters looked positively tiny in her current company. However looks were deceiving, as this small aloof-looking middle-aged woman wielded a startling amount of power in the world of fashion and culture. But that was all about to change.
“Welcome, everyone! We’re just so thrilled you’re all here sharing this beautiful day with us,” smiling disarmingly, Samantha began her toast, “on behalf of the entire magazine and all out corporate partners, I want to personally… I’m sorry… What’s that sound?”
As Samantha trailed off, the faint sound of music floated in, growing louder as it drew nearer. Everyone in the park seemed to turn in unison toward the source of the interruption. A lone figure was approaching from opposite the pond skipping along blithely.
Brigid gasped, not at the appearance of an interloper, but because she barely recognized the girl who called herself Minx. Gone was the rude, scruffy character they’d met at the diner, in her place was a polished professional performer. All of her piercings had been removed, and her lavender-colored hair looked bright and shiny, styled pin-straight and curled up at the ends. She wore a black sequined tuxedo jacket, with matching pants, bowtie, and a glittery purple vest underneath, which left a swath of her taut pale midriff exposed. As she skipped, she swung a large wicker picnic basket from one arm; the basket was closed, but the corner of a purple and white checkered blanket peeked out. The music, a pinging, tinkling version of the iconic circus theme, seemed to be coming from the basket. Her outfit was completed with a purple-banded top hat, a violet rubber clown-nose, and a dazzling smile.
The mysterious and brazen party-crasher reached the patch of grass separating the two groups gawking at her and set down her basket. Doffing her hat, she threw it high into the air, leapt quickly into a cartwheel, sprang back to her feet and caught the hat as it fell. Replacing the hat, she began a series of short bows to the audience. The befuddled party-goers were at a complete loss, but a number clapped politely none-the-less. Even more of them laughed lightly when, as the girl bowed deeply, her hat tumbled to the grass. By now they were hooked; whatever this was, her confidence and the peer-pressure to appear in on the joke kept the crowd playing along. At this point, nearly everyone was clapping and laughing, waiting to see what surprise would come next. No one was smiling wider than Samantha Bogey.
Minx tossed her hat aside and crouched to open her basket. As the circus music petered out, the girl stood up with a mischievously-angelic smile and an enormous cream pie balanced in each hand. There was some nervous whispering from the crowd. Brigid felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
Out of nowhere, a trumpet bleat cut across the park. For the second time, the thoroughly nonplussed crowd swiveled curiously. A little brightly painted cart, drawn by a white horse with a plumed head-piece, rolled to a stop nearby. A very tall, very thin bald man in a patchwork coat hopped off the horse. In addition to the harshly-colorful coat, he was wearing a large green Zorro-mask patterned with gold sunbursts and a traditional red clown nose. Raising his empty, white-gloved hands to his mouth, he pantomimed playing a trumpet, and once more the sound echoed through the park in a short burst. He rapped twice on the cart and a girl emerged from the rear. She was tall and thin like the man, but clearly considerably younger, her lithe figure filling a pair of gold shorts and a loud peacock-paisley shirt. She wore a mask as well, hers was gold with green moons, but skipped the rubber nose. Her hair was a wild golden-blonde mane, a blend of loose locks and slender braids, some of which had tiny bells attached at the ends, causing her to jingle softly as she walked. Both new additions to this impromptu show curtsied to the crowd, who in turn applauded, welcoming them happily as their preconceived expectation for the party continued to erode.
Brigid’s brows knit. This was an unexpected turn. She tried to make eye-contact with Samantha, but the other woman was staring hard at the trio of clowns, her smile tight. Unexpected didn’t necessarily mean bad. Minx had been given a lot of leeway in how she got the job done, so this had to be part of her plan… However, Brigid couldn’t help but doubt herself when she looked at the purple-clad clown. Previously the very picture of bold confidence, Minx was maintaining her smile, but couldn’t quite keep the uncertainty out of her eyes.
While the thin man began unloading a variety of things from the cart, the blonde girl took a jingling hop and launched into a string of one-handed cartwheels that put Minx’s prior display to shame. The purple haired clown rolled her eyes and made a beeline for Mallory Winters, moving as fast as she could without looking suspicious or dropping the pies. But before she was in throwing-range, she was intercepted. The girl in gold did series of tumbles and popped up right in front of Minx. That was the precise moment that Brigid knew, in her heart, that their plan was shot to hell. Even then, it took a few more minutes for her brain to get onboard.
To her credit, Minx made a couple of very smooth, seemingly-casual attempts to juke around the other girl, but each time she was cut off. The crowd assumed this was all part of the show, and both clowns did their best to keep them thinking that. The ducked, dodged, and darted, and if you didn’t know any better, it did very much look like a rehearsed choreography. The biggest giveaway, if you were close enough to notice it, was the rising flush coloring Minx’s cheeks. As her frustration approached to point where she was ready to spend one of her pies to clobber this up-stager, Minx seemed to catch a break. The girl in gold appeared to lose her balance, her feet spreading wide and her arms pin-wheeling. As the other girl bent back into a contortionist’s bridge, Minx shuffled around and past, unable to resist sticking her tongue out at her secret opponent. Her victory was short-lived however. In a single fluid motion the girl in gold brought her legs up and over into a handstand. As she dropped out of the pose, she deftly clipped Minx’s left elbow with her heel, causing the gloating clown to fumble one of the oversized pies, forcefully, right into her own face.
As an aghast Minx pawed at the cream and crust suddenly covering her, the crowd cheered gleefully. Brigid felt the pit of her stomach drop out. The thin man appeared to be setting up some sort of folding table, but she couldn’t get a good look due to the press of people watching the ‘performance.’ The girl in gold had produced a comically large handkerchief and was trying to help an irate Minx clean her face. Minx, in turn, was doing her absolute best to keep the remaining pie away from this mystery girl. It was difficult; whoever she was, she was damned good.
Brigid could see Samantha, on the other side of the improvised stage. Her boss was still smiling, but it was looking strained. She’d dropped her champagne flute and her hands were now at her sides, balled into tight fists. Brigid scrolled frantically on her phone, not looking for anything in particular, but with a vague and faint hope that maybe one of the others had some kind of update. Maybe one of them could explain what on earth was happening…
Cora tucked a few errant strands of blonde hair behind her ear as she descended the stairs to the subway platform. The platform was slightly crowded, full of office workers returning from lunch. She found an open spot on a bench and sat down, keeping her attaché case clutched close under one arm.
A little ways down the platform, a busker dressed as a robot was making the rounds, beeping and doing little dances for spare change or the odd small bill. Cora prepared to avoid any eye contact, but queued-up a withering glare just in case.
The robot moved closer, and she could see just how shoddy the costume was. Constructed entirely of cardboard boxes and plastic tubing spray painted silver, it had a slot cut into its flat front, with the equation $ =🙂 inked above. The box that formed the head had two small flashlights serving as eyes, which flashed seemingly at random. Moving with committed stiffness, the robot reached the part of the platform where Cora was waiting. She dropped her gaze to her lap and ignored it.
However, she was surprised when the robot paused directly in front of her bench. Risking a glance, she was surprised once again when the robot, in a rigid and jerky manner, produced a flower and presented it to her. Granted, it was a clumsy origami flower crafted from a sheet of aluminum foil, but Cora was caught off guard all the same.
She sat still, blinking behind her glasses, for a few moments. Suddenly she was aware that the rest of the commuters were watching them. Cora brought out her best diplomatic smile and daintily accepted the flower with her free hand.
Before she could mutter ‘thanks’ or fish in her pockets for a few quarters, the robot’s other arm came around from behind its back. This one was moving fast, and very un-robotically. In its hand it held a silver pie tin brimming with whipped cream. Cora saw the pie headed at her, her eyes widened, but she didn’t have any more time to react.
The pie smushed into her face, muffling her yelp. Cream and thick chocolate sauce, which had previously been hidden by the topping, oozed out from around the edges of the tin. The silver hand delivering the dessert slid the tin up over her forehead and back into her hair, leaving it propped and dripping upon her tight blonde bun.
Cora could feel cold cream and sticky chocolate dribbling down her neck. Normally downright unflappable, she couldn’t muster a peep. There wasn’t even any point in removing her pie-slathered glasses, as she was basically blind without them. Had she been able to see clearly, she would have noticed a large number of people on the platform trying to discretely snap pictures with phones. She also might have seen the robot hopping onto a train just before the doors closed and waving mechanically as the train left the station.
Sitting on a subway platform bench in a puddle of pie, clutching a tin foil flower, Cora’s first concern was not cleaning off her glasses, nor even was it the thought of walking back into the office looking like a disaster… Her primary concern was finding out what was going on at the Vague Magazine Spring Picnic.
Brigid gave up scanning her phone. No one had reached out, and even if they did, how could they possibly explain any of this?
The girl in gold, thus far silent save for the jingling bells in her hair, was making repeated, gracefully over-blown, attempts to take the remaining pie away from Minx. Their sequined contract-clown, still dripping with cream and peppered with crust, was trying valiantly to keep that pie. It all seemed somewhat futile though, as the gold-masked clown was clearly the superior one, both acrobatically and in terms of comic timing. Each time it looked like Minx would be able to make her escape, the other girl did some seemingly-coincidental twist or turn, and messed everything up. It still looked more like an elaborate production than duel of performers, but Brigid was worried about how much longer that would last.
She cringed as Minx, tripped up by a classic slapstick bait-and-switch, tipped over and landed on her rear, barely catching the pie before it fell to the ground. The crowd was eating it up though, laughing at all the right places and having a grand time.
Marlowe was bored stiff. As much as she was willing to be a team player, she desperately wished Samantha or Brigid would send her another update. The anticipation was brutal. She had just decided to scan social media for juicy tidbits about the party when she was interrupted.
“Jeez, you’re terrible. If you can quit mooning over Twitter for five minutes, we might be able to finish this stuff up in time to make the end of the party…”
Marlowe grinned guiltily at Angela and set her phone aside.
“You’re right, you’re right!”
Angela heaved a sigh and spun around in her desk chair.
“You were supposed to say ‘Let’s just ditch and head over there.’ Bummer. I’m going to grab a coffee, you want one?”
Marlowe waved her off. The worst part was, she’d have loved nothing more than to race over to the park as fast as they could. But the plan was the plan for good reason. She’d just have to suck it up. Turning in her own chair she gazed longingly out the window at the spreading city, wishing she had a giant telescope… and that they were in a room on the other side of the building.
Angela returned with a large box instead of coffee.
“Were you expecting something? This was dropped off downstairs. It’s kind of really heavy.”
“Huh. I have no idea. Put it on the table.”
She complied, setting the rectangular box on top of the spreads they were reviewing at the long work table. Marlowe was glad to have any sort of distraction. She grabbed a steel letter opener from her desk and returned to the table. She slit the packing tape on either side and opened the thick cardboard flaps.
Angela sniffed the air quizzically, “Hey, do you smell curry?”
Outside on the window ledge, a brace of pigeons took flight in a flurry of feathers and alarmed coos, as something thick, wet, and yellow splattered against the inside pane.
On the other side of the window, Marlowe suddenly found her face, her dress, her hair, her everything, coated in some kind of runny, lumpy slop. She wiped her eyes with her index fingers and caught a strong whiff of cumin and turmeric. It was dhal. Bright yellow lentil dhal. And it was all over the place.
It had exploded from within the box still sitting on the now-yellow table. Sodden pulses dripped down from a splashed patch of the drop-tile ceiling. Angela appeared frozen in a prolonged gasp, half her face and one side of her head smeared with the projectile dhal. Over by the door, the receptionist was staring, her jaw in her lap.
Marlowe pushed a handful of her curry-soaked hair off her face, shivering as the slimy side-dish squished inside her ample chest. She just couldn’t even. Somehow, though she would’ve denied the possibility not ten minutes ago, Marlowe now even more fiercely curious about what precisely was going on at the Spring Picnic than ever before. She eyed the mess on the table. Now if only she could find her phone…
As Minx got to her feet, practically hissing the girl in gold, Brigid couldn’t stand to watch any more. This mystery clown was just toying with the girl in purple now, like a cat with a rubber mouse. Brigid got up on her toes, trying to get a good look at whatever it was the thin man was doing.
It looked as though he’d set up a small table and a couple of folding chairs, and was now proceeding to dress the table with a few gaudy settings. He brought a sort of limber grace to the menial tasks, like a lesser version of the economy of movement the girl in gold was using to drive Minx into a frenzy. Brigid wished the other members of their secret group were here with her, if for no other reason than to help figure out what was happening.
Charlie had managed to find someone to send for coffee. Now she sat and sipped it in an overstuffed armchair, half dozing and half wondering about her future. For example, when she became editor in chief at the magazine, would she have to show up at the same time every day? That seemed excessive.
She was engaged in the dozing part of this exercise when her phone rang. Rang, as in, received a call. It was a somewhat novel thing for Charlie, as easily ninety-percent of her communication not taking place in person was conducted over text or email.
“Hello?” She made it a bit more of a question than it needed to be.
The voice on the other end was chipper and nondescript.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m calling about your hot tub.”
“Oh?” Charlie had the hot tub installed on the balcony about six months ago, but she rarely used it. In fact it spent most of the time under a tarp. “Is there a problem?”
“Well, that’s what I’m calling to find out. Our system is giving us some abnormal readings for your unit. It’s protocol to alert the owner and see if any maintenance is required.”
“I see…” Charlie paused, mulling that over, “I don’t think I was aware the hot tub was being monitored.”
“Oh sure, 24/7. It’s a standard feature of the premium package.”
That explained it. Charlie wasn’t always great about remembering details and specifics, but she absolutely knew that if there was a premium package available, that was the one she would have picked.
“So what’s wrong with the hot tub?”
“Well ma’am, I just make the calls, you’re going to have to take a look at it and let us know what you see.”
Charlie scowled slightly. This was beginning to feel a lot like work.
“Fine… I’ll call you back.”
“Terrific. We can be reached at this number between…” She didn’t wait for the sentence to end before hanging up.
Ironically, had she in fact tried to call back, she would have discovered the number went to the courtesy phone in the lobby of a hotel four blocks from her condo. Even Charlie Dash would have found that to be suspicious.
But instead, she left her phone in the chair and went to go check on the hot tub. Charlie shook out her glossy brown hair and rolled her neck, feeling it pop. Slinking through her condo, stepping around party-debris, she didn’t bother to belt the robe she wore over her bikini. Some of her over-night guests had already left, the ones that remained mostly loafed around drinking coffee and bloody marys. Someone was in the kitchen making eggs and burning toast.
Reaching the balcony, she slid the door open and slipped outside. The hot tub was sunk into the center of the wide balcony. A control panel was built-in beside it; there was a remote too, but Charlie had misplaced it. A light blue cover tarp was stretched across the whole tub.
With a disinterested sigh, Charlie grabbed one end of the tarp and pulled it off. Something immediately struck her as very strange, but she didn’t really have time to process what it was. As she removed the tarp, she activated an air-horn which had been tucked into the shadow of the control panel and attached to the cover. The horn let out a loud, flatulent blat, thoroughly startling Charlie. She spun around in a shocked half-turn, over-corrected, and toppled backward into the hot tub.
It really was a premium model tub, a long roomy oval nearly four feet deep throughout. Therefore, fortunately, there was plenty of cushion to keep Charlie from getting hurt. Less-fortunately, the strangeness that she had detected but not had the chance to identify, was the fact that the water in the hot tub had been entirely replaced with oatmeal.
Charlie landed in the gloopy cereal and disappeared beneath the grainy surface. She burst back up, spraying oats and slime over the balcony. For nearly a minute she was stuck flailing in the mire, trying and failing to extricate herself from the heavy, sucking folds of her robe without the benefit of sight. Her famously-beautiful body was practically buried in squelching mounds of over-boiled grains.
Finally wriggling free of the robe, Charlie managed to get to her knees. The gorgeous model pressed her hands together and drew them up across her face in a squeegee motion, clearing clumps of oatmeal and slicking back her hair. Her eyes fell on the door back into the condo, where a sizable group of last-night’s party guests were grouped, staring at her in various states of disbelief. A number of them smiled sheepishly at her, phones in hand and still pointed at the hot tub.
Feeling something akin to embarrassment for the first time she could recall, Charlie groaned, allowing herself to sink back into the oatmeal up to her neck. In the following days, Charlie would be asking herself a lot of questions, about how this had happened, and whether or not this bizarre mishap had anything to do with her first ever attempted-coup… However in the moment, one thought dominated all the rest; at least oatmeal is gluten-free.
Brigid’s attempts to figure out what the thing man was setting up were spoiled when the crowd around her erupted in a particularly loud bout of applause. She turned back, just in time to see Minx flying briefly through the air, the second pie plastered firmly on her butt. Their utterly-defeated lavender-haired contract-clown landed in the duck pond with a tremendous sploosh. The sodden girl sat in the pond, rivulets of watery cream running down her face, jacket, and vest, her rubber nose floating a few feet away. She threw up her hands in surrender and the crowd cheered once more.
That was it. It was over. Brigid was speechless. What happened? While the girl in gold took her bows, Brigid could see Samantha backing away slowly. But before the Vague Magazine Director of Operations could slip away unnoticed, the masked clown spun on her heel and harpooned Samantha with a pointed finger. She gestured for Samantha to come over. The dark-haired executive smiled broadly and shook her head, doing her best impression of a polite declination. The girl in gold did not accept this. Bouncing on her toes, she encouraged the crowd to goad Samantha, the bells in her hair jingling with the movement. Still smiling, but looking supremely tense, Samantha acquiesced to the crowd, stiffly joining the girl.
The thin man joined them too, and when Samantha reached the center of the ‘stage,’ he raised both arms into the air. With a pop, confetti and streamers shot from his cuffs. The girl pranced over to their cart and returned, bearing an enormous pink and white cake, with “Happy Birthday!” iced across the top. The crowd applauded happily.
Samantha Bogey was a rather private person, as such, Brigid knew that very few people knew when her birthday was, and those people also knew that it was nearly four months ago. Whatever this game was, the crowd was clueless, and Samantha had little choice but to play along. The girl set the cake on the little table and pressed something on the cart. The music to the Birthday song started up, and the thin clown, waving his hands like a conductor, coaxed the audience into a halting rendition of the song. Samantha’s smile was starting to look a bit queasy, Brigid could only imagine what she was thinking. None of this was supposed to be happening.
Brigid’s phone vibrated. She pulled it out as the crowd sang. Well before everything had gone off the rails, Brigid had set a Google-alert for internet stories tagged ‘Vague Magazine’ and ‘pie-in-the-face.’ When she saw the story that had tripped the alert, her stomach turned a flip. Cora had been hit with a pie while waiting for a train downtown. A quick-on-the-draw gossip site already had a blurb up about it, complete with a gallery of pictures showing the frosty blonde financial wizard smeared with cream and what looked like chocolate. Her heart in her throat, Brigid did a sweep of social media. Nothing more about Cora, but her blood ran cold when she came across an entire Instagram thread full of pictures of Marlowe, coated in some greasy yellow gunk. Finally, her knees went weak when she tapped a Vine, and was treated to a six-second-loop of Charlie Dash floundering in what certainly looked like a pool full of porridge. There were dozens more posts for each event.
Her eyes shot up to Samantha, still standing hesitantly beside the two clowns as the crowd wrapped up their song. She glanced at Mallory Winters, standing back with the rest of the executives. Normally the woman was as impassive as a statue, but Brigid could swear she was grinning. This was no longer a coup, it was a massacre of the conspirators.
She tried to get Samantha’s attention, as subtly as possible, but just as her boss seemed to notice her, the clowns were directing her gently over to the little table while the crowd cheered her on. The thin man pulled the chair out for her with a bow and Samantha gingerly took a seat.
The girl in gold placed an over-sized candle in the huge cake and produced a lighter. She flicked it twice, and a poof of flame shot into the air. The audience laughed and Samantha cringed. The girl tossed aside both the lighter and the candle, giving Samantha an apologetic gesture. She placed a bowl and spoon on the table and snapped her fingers as though just remembering something. Pulling out a pair of large pointed party hats, she put one on and quickly placed the other on Samantha’s head. As Brigid watched, her boss straightened up peculiarly. The girl in gold now had a big silver ice cream scoop, and was looking around frantically, like there was something she couldn’t find. With a twitch, Samantha grabbed the party hat and lifted it off her head. As she did, a deluge of pale green pistachio ice cream poured from the hat, spreading over her dark hair and leaking down her ears.
As the girl in gold clapped a hand to her head, Samantha squealed. She put her hands on the table and moved to stand up, snarling.
“ALRIGHT! That is IT…”
Just as Samantha began to rise, the girl in gold very delicately used her foot to tip the chair forward at a sharp angle. This canted Samantha abruptly, cutting off her tirade. Brigid covered her eyes as her beautiful boss plunged face-first into the giant pink and white birthday cake on the table.
The crowd gasped, but then a few chuckles grew into outright laughter. Obviously this was all part of the show. Samantha slowly lifted herself from the trough she’d ploughed in the dessert, practically unrecognizable under a thick mask of frosting and crumbled cake. She made a half-hearted effort to wipe some of the sugary mess from her face, but only managed to blend it with the ice cream coating her head. Samantha collapsed heavily into the folding chair with an exhausted sigh, while the girl in gold kept the laughter rolling by trying to scrape some of the smashed cake onto a plate.
Brigid suspected the right move might have been to go assist her boss… But instead, she allowed her legs to lead her away from the merry crowd. She went back, past the bar and the stage and the tables, heading for the park exit. Of course, it was silly to think anyone would waste any time with her. After all, she was just an assistant! Barely a part of this silly little conspiracy in the first place…
Her excuses and justifications hit a wall, when she reached the entrance to the park, and found the tall thin masked clown, lounging against a drinking fountain and holding a large cream pie. She gulped.
“Ah, uh… Hello…”
The clown tipped an imaginary hat.
“Hi.” His voice sounded older than she would have guessed. “Leaving already?”
“Yes, well… I have to… Um…” Brigid bolted mid-sentence, sprinting as fast as she could into the woods near the entrance.
Dodging trees and climbing over logs, she risked a glance over her shoulder. The thin man was on her trail, loping along quite casually, whistling what she was pretty sure was “Nessun Dorma.” He called out to her, as he carefully side-stepped a patch of poison ivy.
“Hey look, it’s nothing personal, just business. You know what you did.”
Brigid turned her head, ready to deny everything, when she tripped over a crooked root. She pitched forward, splashing into a wide, shallow puddle. Sputtering and soaked with muddy water, Brigid rolled over and turned to face her pursuer. The thin man reached the edge of the puddle, propping one foot on the root and giving her a wry smile. He still held a particularly sloppy-looking pie balanced expertly in his hand.
Faint-jingling heralded the arrival of the girl in gold. She appeared next to her partner in clowning, also smiling, and also holding a pie.
Brigid gulped nervously, trying to smoother her soggy hair and put on her most charming smile.
“Wait, hold on! Look, wait! You don’t have to do this. Nobody will know! I’ll tell everyone you did it. It can be our secret!”
The girl with the bells in her hair was quite stunning up close, it bothered Brigid that a pang of jealousy would hit her at a time like this. The girl in gold tapped her chin, pulling a pensive face.
“Hmm…” Her voice was quite soft and very pretty. “I wonder… If a pie splats in a forest, and no one is around to see it, does it make a mess?”
The girl shrugged, and grabbed both pies, hurled both of them at Brigid in rapid succession. Even from a few meters away, her aim was perfect. The first pie crashed into her forehead and the second hit her square in the face. Creamy filling and pulverized crust showered her. Brigid’s mouth hung open, as the combined shock of a day packed with surprises finally settled.
Her reddish curls dangled limply, loaded down with pie pulp and puddle water. Her seafoam dress was now a soggy greyish color, splotched with white cream. Pleased with her efforts, the girl in gold revealed a glowing smile. With a cheeky flounce, she turned and walked away. The thin man smiled after her with something that looked like paternal-pride. He gave Brigid a grin that was nearly apologetic.
“She takes her work very seriously.” He gave her a wave and turned to go, leaving Brigid stewing in the puddle.
Following the events of the annual Vague Magazine Spring Picnic, which came to be known as both a complete disaster and the best one ever, Samantha Bogey resigned her position with the magazine. She left the fashion world altogether and nearly disappeared from the public eye, going on to make a fortune in television. She parlayed her experiences into an executive producer’s spot on a wildly successful cable program, a show combining competitive pranks with extreme baking.
Cora Huff had always considered it a possibility that their coup would fail, so her personal plans were not significantly affected. She kept running the finance department for several years, until she was offered a seat on the magazine’s board of directors. However, she was never again able to ride the subway without squirming slightly in her seat.
Despite different circumstances than planned, Marlowe Philips did end up succeeding Samantha as Director of Operations at the magazine. She was happy to keep Brigid on as her assistant. The two of them worked well together, provided each of them remembered to adhere to their mutual pact. Under no circumstances was pie or Indian food to be allowed in the office.
Charlie Dash did not become editor in chief of Vague Magazine, much to no one’s chagrin, including her own. Instead, she continued modelling and generally floating through life, eventually going into acting. In fact, the only lasting consequence of her bid for power, was a small cultural footnote; Charlie can be identified as the origin of a short-lived fad for filling hot tubs with oatmeal.