DAYS SINCE LAST INCIDENT

“Then what happened?”

“He shot me in the shoulder, ma’am.”

My fingers pause on the keys, bright pink fingernails catching the soft glow of the lamps in the office. The golden glow warms them a touch, but they still stand out against the black of the computer. “Professor Paine did this?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I see.” Typing replaces silence as I note the charge. The computer hums with the press of the enter key. It’s more than a few years out of date and the poor thing is having difficulties keeping up with the workload. Another thing that I’ll have to replace soon. We just replaced the coffee machine last month. “Thank you for coming to see me, David. I promise I will handle this with the utmost importance. You are vital to this company and I’d hate to lose you.”

Meet his eyes. Smile.

He smiles back. Perfect.

And Mother said I’d never master diplomacy. To add to it all, I walk him to the door. In the normal thug way, he’s built like a brick-house and towers over me with a brush of hair that borders between blonde and brown. His features squint into a pinched look that is supposed to look threatening, but I see it on all the thugs so it’s become neutral by this point. Still, it makes the grunts feel good to be recognized that they are an individual. It’s why I send David off with a platitude to keep up the good work and that if he has more problems to come to me.

He will have more problems. Professor Paine is a nightmare.

“Dameon,” I say, examining my nails. The pink was a rash decision, given the all black wardrobe requirement, but it’s growing on me. My receptionist, a tall, lean man who looks like a gust of wind could snap him in half, turns away from the internet and whatever scandal grabs readers today. Mother’s doing, most likely. She’s decided to move the master plan up a few hundred years. Mid-life crisis, or something. The soft lighting I insisted on for our little corner catches in his dark hair, giving him a halo. His dark eyes are calm to match his soft smile. All a facade to hide his deadly accuracy with a gun. I love it.

“Yes, Madam?”

I smile. The grunts are terrible with the title, but Dameon knows what makes me happy. “Do we still have that pamphlet from the Smith, Smite, and Smote company?”

“I filed it a few weeks ago. Would you like me to get it?”

“Yes. I’ll need it immediately.”

He bobs his head. “Yes, Madam.”

I return to my desk and pick up the hand-painted teacup holding my coffee: black with two sugars. The redbuds dance along the curved porcelain and stand out like blood drops. It’s gone lukewarm due to David’s report. There’s a microwave in our small kitchenette, but I can already hear the voice of my mother scoffing at the idea. She would demand a new cup. But, that is wasteful. I’m just finishing it with a grimace when Dameon steps into my office and holds out the pamphlet.

The glossy tri-fold is garish. A group of diverse smiling people adorns the cover as if they’re actually glad to be receiving the training. Marketing built on a lie. No one likes workplace training. Still, it might help morale a bit. I settle the cup back in its matching saucer next to the ceramic dog statue I bought on a whim in Paris and take the pamphlet.

“I’ll be a quick moment. Please make sure lunch is ready when I return.”

“Of course, Madam.”

Professor Paine’s office is at the tip-top of the mountain. Egomaniacs. What can you do? Through the grey cubicle maze of quietly clacking keyboards, I head towards the elevator. I should take the stairs as I’ve missed my last two appointments with the personal trainer, but I’m also wearing my Louboutin heels.

The elevator doors slide soundlessly open to reveal three women and two men. From head-to-toe, they’re dressed in black with well-kept hair and subtle makeup. Even the men, although the one in the back’s foundation is a tad dark. Still, it’s good. I don’t have to deal with dress code infractions today. Their eyes dart to my face before falling to the ground. All of them desert the elevator, leaving me a private trip up with only the gentle classical music for company.

When the doors slide open once more, after a very smooth ride of a minute, I’m met with black floors and walls that contrast heavily against the open office and white we have below. Fire crackles in long troughs on either side of the entrance way, casting flickering shadows and causing the temperature to climb several degrees. Mandy, a bubbly receptionist who we snagged from Doctor Rage during his last imprisonment, sits behind a large black desk. She could almost be my sister with her dark hair and striking grey eyes, but there’s a softness to her face that makes her approachable. I’ve looked severe and standoffish since birth. Dameon joked once that I possessed resting bitch face. The look I gave quieted him for a week. Mandy looks up from her phone as I approach, smile already in place. Mother would love her.

“Madam, what can I help you with?”

Dameon’s influence is the best gift. “I need to speak with the Professor.”

“I think he’s busy.”

I give the sweet dear a smile. Mine destroys hers, making it wilt into a soft frown. A bit too sharp, then. Having my first incident of the morning be dealing with the foolish actions of the boss has soured everything. Might as well lean into it.

“Too bad,” I say. “I’ll just pop in for a moment.”

Mandy says nothing as I round her desk and walk down another fire clad hallway—and really, no wonder finance is complaining—to the set of large, dark doors waiting at the end.

I knock once and enter to find Professor Paine leering at a new weapon the engineers have whipped up. It’s all shiny metal and coils. Something that is supposed to be destructive and beautiful. Most likely it was prohibitively expensive. Or stolen. Did we send out spies recently?

Professor Paine turns at the thud of his door closing and frowns at me. He’s a chiseled cut man that looks like he should be gracing magazine covers rather than laughing maniacally and playing with fire, but here we are. His all black suit hugs his shoulders and narrow waist, but it is ruined by the pocket watch he insists on wearing. Something about branding. I wasn’t listening.

“Madam, to what do I owe this pleasure?”

I cross the dark marble in time to him sinking into the chair behind his massive desk. He steeples his fingers together under his chin, something I know he’s practiced, and raises a brow when I slap the pamphlet down on his desk.

“I’m hiring a consultant to come in and teach a crucial conversations class.”

“W-what?” He blinks at me, icy blue eyes going wide.

“You shot one of your grunts in the shoulder.”

The grunts standing guard behind him glance at one another. Poor darlings. I hope they didn’t think this job was without injury. The sign outside my door proclaiming “DAYS SINCE LAST INJURY” has been at zero for two years.

“Major America escaped with the Doomsday Device! I was angry.”

“We have to pay the medical and I should be writing you up.”

“Writing me up? I’m in charge!”

I tap the pamphlet. “You still have to abide by workplace rules. I’m scheduling this. Everyone is attending. Do you want to read it?”

“No.” Professor Paine sulks in his chair like a child. With a sigh, I grab the pamphlet and make for the door. Dameon should have had enough time to heat up my risotto by now.

I’ve open the door a crack when Professor Paine calls after me. I turn with a smile.

“I could have you killed.”

My smile widens. “I’d love to see you try, darling.”

The steel reinforced door to my office opens to a darkened interior Monday morning. I fumble with the light switch and the lamp in the corner brightens to illuminate the path. With one hand, I flick on the desk lamp while the other drops my Prada bag on the desk. Only it doesn’t hit mahogany. Instead, the smooth, buttery leather rests on a stack of paper that wasn’t there Friday evening.

“Dameon.” My call is soft, barely disturbing the misery of a Monday morning.

Soft steps answer and Dameon appears in my doorway wearing a delightful sweater vest ensemble that is more dark grey than black, but I’ll allow it. “Yes, Madam?”

“What are these?” I trail a grey nail—the pink was far too much—up the stack of paper. The ruffling of pages is a disgusting noise in the silence of the office. A raspberry of disappointment.

“Reports made over the weekend, Madam.”

“What happened over the weekend?”

“The League of Wonderful Women broke in and stole the Power Stone.” Dameon bites his lip after delivering the news.

I take in a centering breath, the one my therapist has been teaching me. “How many did the Women injure.”

“Two, Madam.”

There are over thirty reports. “I see.”

“Anything else, Madam?”

“Yes. Please make me a cup of coffee. Use the Italian roast.”

Dameon pales. This killed the last machine, but like a good assistant, he says nothing about that. “Yes, Madam.”

As he turns to go another thought occurs. “Oh, and Dameon?”

He pauses, eyes wide. “Yes, Madam?”

“Please use the good china.”

As I was taught in finishing school, one’s cup does not rattle on the saucer as one walks, no matter the height of one’s heels. Through the cubicle maze I drift, leaving the scent of perfectly roasted beans in my wake. It stops the clacking for a moment as the employees take in the scant smell of perfection, most likely wondering if someone’s brought free coffee today. But no, no one has. That’s only for superheroes.

Since I did go to the gym this weekend, on top of a wine tasting, a blind date, and a conversation with my mother, I take the elevator. Again, it opens on the hideously decorated hallway and to Mandy’s dark head. She’s curled her hair and has one strand wrapped tight around her finger. Dameon must have called ahead for she only gives me a worried smile and continues to strangle the curl.

“Mandy?”

“Y-yes, Madam?” Poor thing is quaking. Dameon definitely called ahead.

“Be a dear and get the door.”

She’s out of her seat like a gazelle, long legs carrying her down the hallway ahead of me. She opens the large, black door to a scream from Professor Paine demanding an answer to why she is disturbing him. He shuts up when I enter. Mandy flees.

“Madam, why are you here?”

The coffee is hot against my upper lip as I take a sip. Dameon has made it into utter excellence, there is a slight sweetness to the spiced notes. “Do you know how many reports I had on my desk this morning?”

“Um,” he pauses, eyes darting around the room. “Three?”

“Thirty-seven. Of those, only two were due to the break in this weekend.”

His eyes drift to the coffee in hand. “Those foolish Women are to blame—”

I set the saucer on his desk and place my hands on either side of it. A thin smile spreads across my face. The color drains from his. “Professor, never, ever blame someone else for your issues.”

“I am trying to be a super villain!”

“I am trying to keep you in business.” I do not raise my voice. I am not crass. Instead, the coffee between my hands begins to bubble, the darkened miasma of its depths reaching towards the white lip of the china. “We covered this last month, but it seems you need a refresher.”

Professor Paine’s eyes flick between the cup and my face, which is still wearing the smile my mother taught me. She’d be so proud right now.

The coffee continues to bubble. It eats at the empty space above it, expanding and rolling over the rim of the cup. Liquid spreads across the black surface of the desk; gorges on the darkness there. Still more comes. Far more than what could fit inside the tiny cup. The flames in the room darken as the blackness spreads until shadow covers everything and comes to rest against me like a cape. It plays against the french twist of my hair, trying to undo the spiral. The darkness has always had a flair for the dramatic.

“Professor, last week we discussed how you will treat your grunts. You will not shoot them, maim them, or kill them. Think of the optics.”

His pupils have shrunk to pinpricks.

“If you keep this up, I will find a replacement for you that works well with my mother’s master plan. Do I make myself clear?”

The darkness creeps up his wing-backed chair. It loops around his arms and caresses the side of his face. Professor Paine whimpers and nods once.

“Good.” I take my hands off of his desk and the blackness folds itself back into the cup. “The crucial conversations class begins at ten. Do not be late.”

The following Monday my purse lands on mahogany. A serene smile flits across my face. Mother will be pleased. And I am pleased because for the first time in two years the sign outside my door reads a big, bold number seven in black. I’ve just flicked on my desk lamp when Dameon appears at my door dressed in black button-up and slacks.

“Would you like some coffee, Madam?”

“Yes please, something light today, I think. The Italian is lovely, but has such a flair for the dramatic. No surprise there with what Dante churned up.”

Dameon gives a soft chuckle and disappears.

I’m checking my email when he reappears with coffee. He sets it down in a periwinkle blue teacup with matching saucer next to my dog statue.

“How was your weekend? You had a date with Mandy, didn’t you?”

Dameon sighs in longing. “Could have gone better. She wasn’t a fan of the forked tongue.”

“Aw, that’s too bad. You’ll find someone. Grant in accounting eyes you up.”

Dameon considers it for a moment before giving an elegant shrug. “At least the optics are looking better.”

I take a sip of the coffee and hum in appreciation. “Yes, there’s that.”