If Maria Cortez hears the word “gorgeous” again, someone’s getting it in the nuts. Never been kissed and never will. She hides behind grandma glasses and unflattering makeup, but not even clothes that cover every inch of skin, besides her hands and face, can save her from the curse of beauty.
Maria sits in an executive suite with the feel of a teenager’s bedroom. A half-built Lego battle cruiser and robotic components clutter the elegant decor. Science fiction posters wallpaper the room. Near the door, a couple of dozen ants tunnel through space-age gel, in an ant habitat lit up like an alien world.
At the rear of the room is an enormous oak desk. Alvin Renquist presides in the seat of power. He is all teeth, a shark eater. If greed is good, he’s a saint. Six chairs surround the desk, for those who might seek an audience with him.
Maria wonders why James picked Renquist to buy the company. He acts like he owns the place, but he doesn’t yet. “The purchase closes today. Why haven’t your funds hit escrow?”
Renquist slips into the adjoining seat. “I want you as interim CEO, under my guidance.”
Maria eyes him suspiciously. “If I’m CEO, what about James?”
“I’ll make you the face of the company.” Renquist slides his hand onto her thigh.
She retreats a seat closer to the door. “Answer my questions.”
Renquist pursues and sits next to her.
Maria’s leg quivers.
He reaches towards her thigh again but pauses.
“Of course, a makeover!” Renquist undresses her with his eyes, imagining every hidden contour. “Take off those glasses. Add some makeup. Put on a big smile. I can see it now. Billboards. TV. You’ll be everywhere.” The words slither from his mouth as he tries to caress her cheek.
Renquist grazes her face before she swats his hand away.
Maria tries to stay professional and composed, but her whole body shudders. Is it fear, or rage, that stirs within her? She fends off his advances and stands. “Stop! Let’s pretend we have a safe word, and I used it.”
He closes in.
Maria won’t be a victim. She takes a karate stance.
Renquist withdraws, with his hands raised. “Fine. Grab James, and we’ll sort this all out.”
She flings the door open and strides outside. Tiny helicopters, inflatable sharks, and small drones buzz around an unremarkable cubicle farm. Nerf Darts whiz by Maria’s head. A six-inch helicopter crashes to the carpet. She smirks, but her apprehension remains.
James Wong advances down the aisle with a cardboard tower shield and homemade lightsaber. Software developers shoot him with Nerf guns. Their projectiles bounce off his tower shield.
More creative supernova than businessman, it’s moments like these where Maria isn’t the only one to see his inner child.
When he sees Maria, James drops his tower shield and sprints towards her. “Do you remember our first hit app?” He clicks a button on the hilt of his sword and thrusts. Fart sounds change pitch as he swings his weapon.
“May the fart be with you, always,” James says. Maria and James chuckle together. “From fart app to billion-dollar company. We did it. Today is the best day of my life.” James fist pumps.
Her smile crumples. “The buyer wants to see us.”
The intercom turns on with a hiss. “James Wong to my office now.” Over the speakers, Renquist’s voice sounds like an angry school principal.
James puts down his lightsaber. “Why does the Eye of Sauron have to summon me every time I’m having fun?” He grins. “At least it’s good news.”
The employees scatter. Cubicle airspace clears. The programmers put away their toys, slink into their Aeron chairs, and return to work.
Distress fills Maria with every step. It’s like a roller coaster rising farther and farther into the sky.
James seems too preoccupied with his perfect day to notice. He struts into the executive suite.
Maria follows closely.
Two burly bodyguards flank Renquist.
James checks his bank on his phone. “What is your bidding my…” He points to his empty bank account on the phone. “Oh wait, you’re not my master.”
Renquist rips an Aliens movie poster off the wall. James lunges at Renquist, but the security guards intervene.
“Every time you make a movie reference, I destroy a poster.” Renquist rips the poster into strips, and then into oversized confetti.
“This isn’t your office.” James takes a deep breath. “Not until the money clears.”
Renquist squints at the ant habitat. “Everything will be clear in a minute, but first, what kind of freak has ants in his office?”
James says, “Ants are my reminder that with determination and teamwork, anything is possible. As many as a million ants can work together in a colony. Imagine if humans could accomplish—”
“I didn’t ask for the whole Wikipedia entry.” Renquist shakes his head.
Maria retreats to the back of the room. She can feel her roller coaster about to plunge.
“Well James, I’ve got good news. You’re fired.” Renquist throws up poster confetti.
James does a double take. “I think I misheard you.”
“I didn’t say the good news was for you,” Renquist says. “I’m taking Adaptive Unlimited in a new direction, without you.”
“You said you wanted me, along with my company!”
“I lied. I tend to do that.”
James puffs out his chest. “You’ll never find a replacement who knows this company as well as I do.”
“I already have.” Renquist smiles.
James looks at Maria. How could she? Shock. Fear. Betrayal. “Maria? Maria.”
There’s an eon of silence.
Maria bolts from the room without a word. The door slams behind her.
She zips into the adjoining office and dashes straight to her desk. Monitor on. Keys clack. Live surveillance of the executive suite displays on the monitor. Maria listens, as she pulls a dusty box from the bottom of her cabinet. She opens the box and smiles at the provocative clothes and boots inside.
James pleads, in the other room. “This company is my life. I sleep more in the office than I do at home. Don’t do this!”
“You couldn’t even lead a Boy Scout troop. You’ve only muddled this far because Maria covers for you.”
Maria monitors events in the next room as she undresses. She flings her conservative outfit on the floor one item at a time.
“I built this company one crazy idea after another, a whole trainload of them,” James says. “Maria follows me. She’s the caboose on the crazy train.”
“Is that what you think?” Maria grumbles at her screen and scrunches her nose in anger.
“If you, Maria, or anybody, doesn’t want to ride the crazy train, this is your stop.” James points to the door.
Maria slinks into knee-high boots with stiletto heels. It’s the first step of a sensual self-makeover. She puts on her power suit. Form-fitted leatherette pants and a scandalous front-zip black bustier hug every curve. Her personality shifts, molts, leaving her old self on the ground. Confident. Powerful. Invincible.
James says, “I’m not selling!”
“Just hand over your $150 million cancellation fee, and you can have your company back,” Renquist teases.
“Fine. When does our $1.2 billion arrive?”
Renquist says, “The money’s never coming. You didn’t catch the resale clause. I can resell your company to another buyer before the purchase completes, extending the contract. Profits and control in the meantime go to the seller.”
“Right, and I’m the seller.”
“Wrong. During a resale, I’m redefined as the seller. So, your company will go through one resale after another, for years, decades, if it’s worth the trouble. I get the profits and control. You get nothing. Where did you get your lawyer? A park bench?”
“You reassigned variables on me,” James murmurs. He slumps to his knees like a deflated tire.
Maria springs up and pounds the table. She gets self-conscious, worried they might hear her in the next room. She scrutinizes the screen for a reaction to the noise.
He spreads out the fingers in his hand and stares at them, as he imagines all that cash slipping away. “Nuked from orbit. Game over.”
“That sounds like movie talk to me. Were you born in a theater or something? Talk normal.” Renquist rips an Avatar movie poster off the wall. He tears through it like an impatient child unwrapping a present.
Renquist circles James, a predator finishing off his prey.
Maria roots for him, riveted to the monitor. “Fight him, James. Don’t let him do this to you. To us.”
Renquist leans towards James. “Crazy smart works for startups, but not in Corporate America. You should know your place on the org chart. If I say wear a pink dress, or eat out of a dog bowl, that’s what you do. You don’t respect the chart. You don’t belong on it. That’s why security is gathering your toys as we speak.”
The bodyguards snicker and high five. Their body language suggests they no longer consider James a threat.
Renquist grabs his briefcase from under the desk. He opens it and removes a can of Raid Ant and Roach Spray.
Maria pulls a mirror from her desk. She fixes her makeup and applies ruby lipstick with deliberation as war paint.
James eyes the spray can. He pushes off the floor to lunge at Renquist. The guards tackle James before he reaches his target. Renquist steps over James, approaches the ant habitat, and flips open the lid. James watches helplessly on the ground, pinned underneath 500 pounds of hired muscle.
“You’re an ant, and I’m top of the food chain.” Renquist sprays into the ant habitat. The deadly liquid flows down the gel tunnels. Chemical odors waft through the air. The ants scamper no more.
Renquist crouches down towards James. “I’d say you were a worthy adversary, but even I have a limit on how many lies I can tell in a day.” He gets back up and motions to his guards. “I want people talking about it for weeks. Remove him.”
Each guard grabs an arm and drags James backward, beyond the edge of her monitor. Maria can no longer see him. She rushes to her doorway, just in time to see him dragged into the hallway.
James glares at Maria. He fixates on her lipstick and snickers. “You’re going to pay for your betrayal.” He tries to kick free, but only kicks metal filing cabinets along the hallway.
Bystanders peek their heads out of their cubes like gophers to catch the spectacle.
The guards yank James around the corner, out of sight.
Maria creeps back into her office. She pulls three external solid-state drives from under the desk. She covers them with bubble wrap and slips them into pre-addressed packages. Maria peers out to check if Renquist has his door closed. Confirmed.
Thelma, the company’s only executive assistant, sits at the reception desk across from the executive suite.
Maria slips Thelma the packages and nods.
Thelma nods back. She pushes the intercom button. “Maria Cortez is here to see you.”
“Thanks, Thelma, buzz her in,” Renquist says.
The door opens. Maria slinks in, fully transformed from drab female to sex goddess. She’s on the prowl for big game.
Renquist forgets who she is for a moment. The whole day is forgotten. He focuses on her.
“How’s this for a makeover?” she purrs. “I hope you brought a pill. I might need a full four hours.”
All the blood rushes from his brain. If he were any more brain dead, he’d require life support.
She saunters to his desk, one sensual step after another.
He fumbles for the intercom key. “Cancel all my meetings. I don’t want to be disturbed.”
“Is this seat taken?” Maria asks innocently, as she slides onto his lap. Her hand explores the contours of his chest. He gently inhales the scent of her perfume. His smile barely fits on his face.
She yanks at his tie and whispers. “Do you like it rough?”
He nods vigorously.
She chokes him with the necktie.
He turns red. A gasp. Panic. Renquist slams the table with his flailing right arm.
Maria loosens the tie. With a soft caress, she lulls him back to the fantasy.
Thelma buzzes the intercom. “Are you alright, Mr. Renquist?”
“Disregard any disturbances. It’s going to get noisy.”
“Understood.” Thelma sighs, with disgust. “Since I have you, the 11 o’clock mailman is here if you—”
“I don’t want to be disturbed. That includes you, the mailman, and everyone else. I don’t care if your hair is on fire. Don’t bother me.” Renquist disconnects the intercom.
“Nibble on my ear. Lick me like a dog.” He sticks out his tongue to the max and pants.
She strokes his ear and pats him on the head. “Good doggy.”
Maria rises off his lap and pulls him up. He attempts to embrace her, but she backpedals. The desk blocks her retreat.
Renquist shoves everything off the desk. His water pitcher shatters, creating a puddle. “I hope the carpet isn’t the only thing that’s wet.”
It’s too much. It’s all Maria can do to stifle a snort of contempt. She turns away and rolls her eyes. She turns back to Renquist and smiles seductively.
He heaves Maria into the air and plops her on the table. He leans in for a kiss. Maria shakes her finger no and points to the floor.
Renquist throws off his suit jacket, kneels down, and imitates a dog begging for food.
She tips him over onto his back. He loosens the top buttons on his shirt.
Hostility seeps through her facade. “I’m sorry about earlier. I must have forgotten to take off my ‘please fuck me’ sign.”
Renquist looks confused. He laughs nervously and unbuttons down to his navel, slower with each button.
Maria jabs Renquist playfully in the thigh with the toe of her boots. She circles him counterclockwise and kicks as she goes along as if tenderizing meat.
His face reflects a battle between a libido clinging to a fantasy and his brain attempting a reboot.
Sexy ends, anger starts. In an instant, fire in Maria’s eyes. “You want to fuck me? Am I meat, for you to devour? Did you think I was yours? I’m not for you. I have feelings. I. Am. A. Person.”
Her words hit him like an instant cold shower. He’s back. “You’re too hot to be a person.”
The assault escalates. Repeated blows crush his ribs. Crunch.
Renquist groans in pain. He scoots across the floor to flee. “I’ve never hit a woman, but there’s always a first time!”
“Security!” They aren’t coming. He eyeballs the intercom. Disconnected. He fishes his cell phone from his left pants pocket.
Maria punts the phone from his hand. It flies across the room and hits the wall. Shards break off, but it’s intact. She feigns an attack.
He cowers and holds hands up defensively.
“For months, I made vids of every dirty thing you’ve done in this office.” Maria towers over him with a cocky smile. “I’ll ask you for a favor someday. You pay up. I destroy everything. Until then, you owe me one.”
Renquist rises to his feet. “The only thing I owe you is an unmarked grave!”
Maria does a roundhouse kick to his head. Her right stiletto heel slices his cheek. The heel breaks on impact but remains attached to the shoe. She wobbles, then regains balance. “I’d better not get hurt. If this evidence gets out, they’ll bury you next to me.”
Renquist breathes heavily through gritted teeth. He clenches his fist and strains every muscle to hold back. Blood trickles down his cheek.
Maria stumbles out the door, with one high heel dangling. She leaves a small trail of bloody heel prints. After a few yards, Maria groans and intentionally breaks off the other heel. Maria lumbers away on her tiptoes. The heels flop with each step.
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