Thanks…. To all the usual suspects and a few first-time offenders.

Stuart and Elka, my brother and sister-in-law, helped inspire this book by telling me about the day they walked into their therapy office to find themselves sharing space with an Internet startup company. For allowing me to poke gentle fun at their profession and helping me invent the Affirmation Bear, all my thanks.

Thanks also to Pat Tracy, who convinced me to study Kenpo; Jim Harbour, my teacher; and Al Tracy, his teacher (and Pat's husband). If they'd been in charge of Rob's martial arts training, Meg would have had a much easier time foiling the villain in this book.

I continue to be astonished and grateful for the patience of my friends, none of whom have ever thrown anything at me when they heard die familiar words, “Ooh, in the next book, I could have Meg….“ For brainstorming with me, straightening out my mangled facts, and reading manuscripts, usually on Very short notice, many thanks to Elizabeth Sheley, Lauren Rabb, Mary Bird, David Niemi, Kathy Deligianis, Paul Thomas, Suzanne Frisbee, and Maria Lima.

I should note that the strange and unruly staff of Mutant Wizards are, of course, not based on any real programmers I have known. Especially not any of the ones who could figure out my password if they didn't like the way I portrayed them. For that matter, no specific therapists, police officers, family members, or other real beings were used in the making of this work of fiction, with the exception of Meg's dad and Spike, the small evil one. And they're used to being in my books.

Finally, thanks to all the online friends who keep me sane during those long hours at the keyboard, and to all the readers who make it seem worthwhile by continuing to tell me how much they enjoy visiting Meg's world.

“Mutant Wizards,“ I said. “Could you hold, please?“

I switched the phone to my left ear, holding it with my awkwardly bandaged left hand, and stabbed at a button to answer another line.

“Eat Your Way Skinny,“ I said. “Could you hold, please?“ As I reached to punch the first line's button and deal with the Wizards' caller, I heard a gurgling noise. I looked up to see mat the automatic mail cart had arrived while I was juggling phones. A man lay on top, bis head thrown back, one arm flung out while the other clutched the knife handle rising from his chest. He gurgled again. Red drops fell from his outstretched hand onto the carpet.

“Very funny, Ted,“ I said, reaching out to press the button that would send the mail cart on its way again. “You can come back later to clean up the stage blood.“

I could hear him snickering as the cart beeped and lurched away, following an invisible ultraviolet dye path that would lead it out of the reception room and into the main office area. I'd gotten used to seeing a set of metal shelves, six feet long and four high, creeping down the corridor under its own steam, but I was losing patience with the staff's insatiable appetite for playing pranks with the mail cart.

Ted leaned upside down over the side, waggled the rubber knife suggestively, and made faces at me until the cart turned to the left and disappeared.

I scanned the floor to see if he'd shed any more valuables this time – after his first tour through the reception area, I'd found eighty-five cents in change and his ATM card, and a coworker had already turned in a set of keys that were probably his. No, apparently his pockets were now empty. I wondered how long before he came looking for his stuff – I wasn't about to chase him down.

Then I glanced at the young temp I was teaching to run the switchboard. Uh-oh. Her eyes were very wide, and she was clutching her purse in front of her with both hands.

“What happened to him?“ she asked.

“Ignore Ted; he's the office practical joker,“ I said. “He's harmless.“

I could tell she didn't believe me.

“What about that?“ she asked, pointing over my shoulder.

I followed her finger.

“Oh, that's just George, the office buzzard,“ I said. “He's harmless, too.“

When he saw me looking at him, George shuffled from foot to foot, bobbed his head, and hunched his shoulders. I suspected this behavior was the buzzardly equivalent of a cat rubbing itself against your ankle when it hears the can opener. At any rate, George had started doing it on my second or third day here, when he realized I was the one delivering his meals. I'd actually begun to find this endearing – doubtless a sign I'd been at Mutant Wizards too long. The temp edged away, as if expecting George to pounce.

“Don't worry,“ I said. “He can't fly or anything. He's got only one wing. One of the staff rescued him from some dogs and brought him back for a company mascot.“

I vowed once again to try convincing my brother that a buzzard was an unsuitable mascot for his computer game company. Or at least that the mascot shouldn't live in the reception area, where visitors had to see him. And smell him.

“He stinks,“ the temp said.

“You get used to it.“

“You've got four lines lit up,“ the temp said, pointing to the switchboard, and then jumped as a loud snarling noise erupted from beneath the counter of die reception desk. I knew it was only Spike, the nine-pound canine- shaped demon for whom I was dog-sitting, testing the wire mesh on the front of his crate, but the sound seemed to unnerve die temp.

“Why don't you take over now?“ I suggested. “I can stick around until you get die hang of it, and dien – “

“I'm sorry,“ she said, backing toward die door. “I probably should have told die agency not to send me out at all today; I'm really not feeling very well. Maybe I should – “

“Meg!“ my brodier, Rob, shouted, bursting into die reception room. “Take a look!“

He proceeded to fling himself about die room, performing a series of intricate shuffling movements Tvidi his legs while flailing his arms around, hunching his shoulders up and down, and uttering strange, harsh shrieks at irregular intervals.

Normally, die appearance of my tall, blond, and gorgeous bromer might have provided some additional incentive for a temp to stay. At least a temp diis young. Under die circumstances, diough, I wasn't surprised, diat die temp fled long before he ended up, perched on his left toes widi his right leg dirust awkwardly out to die side and bodi arms stretched over his head.

“Ta-da!“ he said, teetering slightly.

I sighed and punched a ringing phone line.

“Meg?“ Rob said, sounding less triumphant. “Was my kata okay?“

“Much better,“ I said as I transferred the call. “I just wish you wouldn't practice in the reception room.“

“Oh, sorry,“ he said, breaking the pose. “Who was that running out, anyway?“

“Today's temporary switchboard operator,“ I said. “She decided not to stay.“

“I'm sorry,“ he said. “I guess I did it again.“

I shrugged. It was partly my fault, after all. I was the one who'd invented the fictitious Crouching Buzzard kata – named, of course, for our mascot, George – and taught it to Rob in a moment of impatience. Or perhaps frustration at his unique combination of rabid enthusiasm and utter incompetence.

And to think that when Rob first became obsessed with the martial arts, I'd encouraged him, naively

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату