Octavia Wilde leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms over her head.
She let out a slow, silent yawn, dropped her hands to her lap, and surveyed the multitude of lines on her computer screen in satisfaction.
It always felt good when her code worked the exact way she had planned.
After spending the last five hours sitting hunched over her laptop, drinking cup after cup of coffee, her butt felt like it had become fused to her seat.
If she had run her program and the results didn’t come out as predicted, she would have been pissed. Not to mention her ass would have been sacrificed in vain.
Octavia picked up her cold mug, tipped her head back, and poured the last few drops of dark liquid down her throat. By now, those last few drops were disgustingly cold, but Octavia was too happy to care.
Among the other few people in the coffee shop, Octavia did not look out of place.
The softly lit shop located at the corner of one of the busiest downtown intersections aspired and succeeded in being the ideal meeting spot for hipster-ish youth.
Indie-pop hits played softly in the background. Posters advertising live shows with up-and-coming artists yet to sell their souls to the mainstream gods covered spots on the brick walls.
The baristas—a colorful collection of youths with piercings, tattoos, dyed locks, or haircuts that seemed like an experiment in abstract art—moved back and forth between hissing, frothing coffee machines.
A few other millennial-type youths took up seats around the small circular tables, most with laptops open before them; one anomalous redhead actually had a book.
A lone middle-aged man sat in a corner shielded behind his laptop, but clearly, he was lost.
The whole place had an atmosphere that welcomed the free-spirited and culture-norm-defying.
It was a Wi-Fi accessible safe haven where one could embrace the freelancer, gig-worker lifestyle and where potential anarchists could gather to plan which industry to destroy next.
Octavia did not stand out in her faded gray oversized hoodie, which she had paired with black tights and thick rainbow-colored socks stuffed into her ragged All Star Converse.
Her thick-framed, red-with-pink-polka-dots glasses added a flash of color to her look.
She only had one piercing in each of her small, plump earlobes, though, and her dark, curly hair was in a simple but distinct form of woven rows running from the front of her head to the nape of her neck.
She’s Black, by the way. Or African American. Whichever term applies.
Octavia shut the lid of her laptop and stuffed it into the book bag sitting next to her chair.
She’d go back to her apartment building, maybe spend the rest of the day curled up in bed, binge-watching that new detective series she just found.
As she was winding up her laptop cord, she noticed the girl sitting in the far corner of the store.
Like Octavia, she didn’t seem out of place, though her clothes did seem a bit more professional than that of the average store patron.
But Octavia didn’t pause from the sight of the girl’s clean navy slacks and gray silk blouse.
She had one hand resting across her forehead, propping her head up as she stared at the screen of her phone on the table before her.
Octavia noticed a small shudder of the girl’s delicate shoulders as if she was fighting to hold back tears.
Octavia paused, looked around self-consciously, and then scrunched up her face the way she did whenever she found a bug in her code.
She seemed to be wrestling with herself. Within seconds, the fight ended, and she sighed and walked to where the girl was sitting.
“Hi,” she said simply, dropping into the chair across from her without invitation.
The girl’s head jerked up. She quickly brushed away the glistening drops that were just beading on the edges of her eyes.
“Uh…hi,” she said hurriedly. She glanced nervously at Octavia in confusion. “Hi,” she repeated. “Do I…know you?”
“Nope,” Octavia said. She gave a small smile, hoping to make the girl feel more comfortable. “I have no idea who you are. I just saw you from where I was sitting and…well, I wondered if you were okay.”
The girl blinked and smoothed her short brown hair out with her fingers, “Oh! Yeah, that. I’m fine…really”—her gaze dropped to the surface of the table—“…it’s just…you know, rough day at work.”
“Hey, we all have those,” Octavia said helpfully. The girl said nothing but continued to stare at the table’s surface. Octavia could see the despair the girl was only just keeping reined in.
“I’m Octavia,” she said finally.
The girl looked up, almost seeming surprised that Octavia was still there.
“Lauren,” she answered.
“Nice to meet you, Lauren,” Octavia replied. She gave her an encouraging smile. “You want to talk about what happened?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Lauren said hurriedly.
“All the same, talking about it might make you feel better. And I’m a pretty good listener.” Octavia prompted.
Lauren seemed dubious but eventually gave a small sigh. “It’s over. It’s all over. Everything I’ve worked for. Gone. Just like that.”
“Sounds serious,” Octavia remarked.
Lauren’s eyes clouded in desperation.
“It is. I finally got the job that would lead to everything. I finally got a chance to make something of myself. And it was going…well…okay. And then I”—she choked on a sob—“and then I blew it!”
“What happened?” Octavia asked.
“I did it. I wasn’t paying attention. I was so stressed out with all the other things I had to keep track of.” Lauren stared at Octavia through glazed eyes.
“It was one stupid mistake. I should have been more alert. I just…I was so tired, and…I was in a hurry.”
Octavia nodded in understanding. She waited.
“And…that’s when I did it,” Lauren said.
“The biggest mistake of my life.” Lauren’s head drooped. “I…I…I deleted his entire itinerary.”
It took a minute for Octavia to register the words. “You did…what?”
Lauren gave a weak shrug, “I deleted it. His entire itinerary for the whole month—gone. I was trying to add the presentation at the World Technology Summit next month.
“But I was also on the phone with the magazine editor trying to schedule an interview and photo-op. And I was supposed to delete the invitation to the charity event next week.”
She threw up her hands. “One click and poof! All gone.”
While Lauren rambled, Octavia had been piecing together what she could.
“I see,” she said, “So you deleted your boss’s itinerary, right?”
Lauren glumly nodded.
“That sucks. But I’m sure you could just make some calls and re-create it, right? Someone else must have access to it.”
Lauren was already shaking her head.
“He’s…he’s very private. Only his secretary and himself have access to his schedule. She told me—Adelaide did, his secretary—she told me to update the itinerary while she went with him to a business meeting.
“She’d said they’d be back by about three o’clock in the afternoon. I was supposed to finish up a bunch of things and have the new report ready by then. And then I did that.”
“It doesn’t…sound so bad. Maybe if you explain it to him…and this Adelaide person, of course…maybe they’ll understand. They might be annoyed by that, but…I mean, come on, it’s an honest mistake,” Octavia reasoned.
Lauren’s eyes, stricken with a sudden fear, shot to Octavia’s face.
“He doesn’t tolerate mistakes. Honest or otherwise. I’ve seen him fire people for much less.” She shook her head solemnly, tears again welling up in her eyes. “Once he finds out about this—I’m done for.
“I’ll never be able to work anywhere else ever again. People who get fired by him leave in disgrace and live in disgrace for the rest of their lives.”
While Octavia felt that kind of drama should be reserved for TV, she withheld that opinion from Lauren. Instead she said, “Did you talk to anyone in the IT department? Maybe they could retrieve it.”
Again, Lauren shook her head.
“I tried that. Once something gets deleted off his personal system, it’s gone forever. That’s how he does things.
“When it comes to his information, only a few people have access to it, and it’s guarded by the strongest security. Even his itinerary.”
Lauren sighed and picked up her phone. She glanced at the screen, the numbers reading 2:27 p.m.
“It’s no use. When he gets back, they’ll find out, and I’ll be fired. I panicked, so I came out here to get away. To try and think of…something. But—it’s pointless. I’m done for.”
She bit her lip nervously. “I really needed this job. I really wanted to be good at it too. I worked so hard. Now it’s all over.”
Octavia stood suddenly, nearly tipping her chair over by the motion.
“How far away is your office?” Octavia asked.
Lauren looked up at her, somewhat bewildered. “Not far. About a five-minute walk.”
“Can you give me access to the computer you used?”
Lauren was silent, thinking. She replied, “Yes, I think so. I could get you a visitor’s pass, I guess. And get you up to the office. But…why?”
“I think we can still fix this. Let’s go,” Octavia said.
Still looking puzzled, Lauren nevertheless got out of her seat and followed Octavia out the door.
They stepped into the crisp, chilled outside air, breaking out of the still, soft sounds of the coffee shop into the tumultuous chaotic soundscape of the busy city.
Lauren pointed down one street, and the two started walking, each taking brisk, quick steps down the pavement.
“I…appreciate you trying to help, but…I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do,” Lauren said as they walked.
“We’ll see,” Octavia replied.
The downtown area of Sanatio City was alive with the bustle of business. Cars sped past them on the busy street as they weaved between slow- and fast-moving pedestrians.
Octavia followed Lauren’s lead and turned a corner, and within minutes, they were walking up slabs of granite that formed the grand steps up to a towering steel-framed building.
It rose high above them, straight and angular, yet its edges were sculpted into slow-curving lines.
Sunlight glistened off the metallic panels that covered the building’s edges making it appear like a giant silver monument.
But the two did not spend any time admiring the architecture as they rushed inside the building, stopping at the front desk where Lauren requested a visitor pass for Octavia.
“She’s the…um, software consultant…here to redesign the, um, new product,” Lauren said to the security guard at the enormous desk in the echoing hall of the first floor of the building.
Octavia had her driver’s license scanned under a metal-looking box thing with an eerie blue light spilling out the front, and then she was handed a blank plastic card.
“Thank you!” Lauren said happily.
They made their way to the elevators where Lauren hit the topmost button once they were inside.
The elevator opened up to a floor ablaze with white fluorescent light, formations of gray cubicles on one side and doors opening to empty conference rooms on the other.
All around, rooms were partitioned by crystal glass panes in steel frames.
As Lauren led Octavia down a hall to the very end of the office, a few people dashed by them, but no one paid any attention to her.
Everything she wore stood out among the suits, ties, and heels.
Most of the people around her seemed too preoccupied with their own work-related stressors to care about the walking manifestation of wrinkled laundry that was interrupting the seamless pattern of office wear in their midst.
Lauren led Octavia to a clean, spacious office with a single desk and chair against one wall and the adjoining wall providing a view of the city skyscrapers nearby.
Octavia sat down at the computer monitor on the desk after Lauren logged in and pulled open the cursed itinerary.
Octavia quickly scanned the program.
“See?” Lauren said nervously, raising the fingernails of her right hand to her teeth. “It’s all gone.”
“Looks like it,” Octavia agreed, clicking through a few of the tabs. “Let’s see what we can do here.”
The only sounds to be heard for the next few minutes were Octavia’s fingers on the keyboard and mouse.
Lauren stood behind her, arms crossed around her middle, still biting the nails off one hand as Octavia worked.
Octavia’s eyes narrowed in determination as she stared at the screen, clicking through different prompts at times and stopping to enter a command on the keyboard.
Seconds ticked by. Minutes. The silver clock on the wall opposite where they were displayed the shift in time with its blinking numbers.
“Done!” Octavia said suddenly.
Lauren’s head snapped up. She stared eagerly at the screen. There, in the program that had become the living image of her worst nightmare only moments before, was the sight of her sweetest dreams.
“That’s it! You did it!” Lauren exclaimed.
Octavia looked proud of herself. “Yup. You’re right about him using the best stuff. Had to jump through flaming hoops to find a cached version of the itinerary. But…oh well! Here it is.” She stood.
Lauren looked ready to cry again, only this time tears of joy. “I…I don’t know what to say. I think you just saved my life!”
Octavia seemed amused as she shrugged. “It was nothing. As for your incredibly unreasonable boss, well, that I can’t save you from.”
Lauren said, “I have to pay you back…somehow. Don’t know what but…I’ll do something. I have to!”
Octavia placed a reassuring arm on her shoulder.
“I’ll settle for a cup of coffee. For now, you better get back to work, and I better get out of here.” She slung her book bag on and started for the door.
“Yes!” Lauren said. “Oh, god, what’s the time? Shit, it’s almost three. I need to get that report—wait!” she called after Octavia just before she walked out the door.
“I don’t have your number or anything.”
“I’m usually at the coffee shop most days. We’ll probably run into each other,” Octavia said.
Lauren gave one last grateful smile. “Thank you again. Thank you so much! I swear I will repay you Octavia…um, I didn’t get your last name?”
“Wilde,” Octavia responded. “Now seriously, I should be going. And you have the report.”
Octavia found her way to the elevators without any problem. She returned her badge to the front desk and started toward the exit.
She felt her phone buzzing in her pocket, so she pulled it out of the kangaroo pouch of her hoodie.
As Octavia typed in a response to the text she received, she walked through the automatic sliding doors of the entrance and started down the steps.
Her fingers flying across her phone’s touch screen, she didn’t notice the figure also just starting up the stairs of the building.
His head was bent over the sheet of paper in his hand. Octavia was focused on the text message she was just about to send off.
She mindlessly took what was supposed to be the last step off the granite stairs to the sidewalk. Then there was the collision.
“Oof!” Octavia exclaimed, her phone tumbling out of her hand.
She was almost thrown back, but given the careless speed at which she was descending the steps, she ended up ramming into the man. Octavia crashing into him merely budged him sideways.
Octavia, on the other hand, was not so lucky. Her body swung past him, and she toppled onto the sidewalk in an unladylike pile.
Like anyone who is suddenly transported from an upright walking position to lying on the ground, it took a few minutes for Octavia to realize what had just happened.
“Can’t be bothered to watch where you’re going, can you?”
The deep voice broke through Octavia’s stupor, causing her to look up at the face that towered over her splayed form.
To any casual observer, the man standing before Octavia was enough to turn a casual gaze into a riveted one. His broad form stood well over six feet from the ground Octavia lay sprawled on.
Though a long, charcoal coat covered his body, the bulges of muscle filling out the space within it were clearly evident.
His clothes were immaculate; a dark metallic gray suit lay under the coat. The starched white shirt buttoned up to his neck and black patterned tie fastened at his throat folded neatly into the suit jacket.
Had Octavia bent over his shoes, she would have seen her reflection in the polished leather.
His were the kind of clothes that didn’t need labels; everything about them advertised their costliness. And they shouted to the world just what kind of caliber whoever wore them possessed.
But proclamations of caliber died away at the sight of his face, giving way to an awe that could only be expressed with silence. A chiseled jawline held a firm, grim mouth set in a hard line.
The sharp outline of dark facial hair spread in a thin layer over the lower half of his face, covering an exact area around his angular jaw and just passing over his upper lip.
His lightly bronzed skin was smooth and taut, a surface that anyone would have reveled in running their fingers over.
Dark furrowed brows sat on top of even darker, penetrating eyes. His eyes seemed capable of spilling fire, though for the moment they were caverns of smoldering flames, waiting to be released.
His whole demeanor created a distinct presence in the air around him. It was an overpowering presence that demanded subjugation.
Everything about him seemed sculpted to perfection or cut from cloth of the finest there was. Clearly, this was not a man to be messed with.
He commanded respect, even adoration, with merely a glance of his eyes. And who wouldn’t be eagerly willing to give it?
This, however, was completely lost on Octavia. At the sound of his voice, she came to her senses and picked herself up off the ground.
“Neither can you, apparently,” she said in a huff, dusting herself off.
He narrowed his eyes at her.
“That doesn’t sound like an apology,” he said.
Octavia was searching the ground for her phone as she replied, “Because it wasn’t.”
The already cold look in his eyes intensified. He responded, his voice hard, “I’ll give you the next ten seconds to rectify your foolish actions…and even more foolish words.”
Octavia’s eyes spotted a dash of turquoise blue with yellow polka-dots by the edge of the steps, only a few feet from her.
“There it is!” she exclaimed, diving for her phone. She picked it up and, holding in a breath, turned it over. She sighed in relief.
The screen was still intact. Octavia stuffed her phone back into her pocket and turned back to face the stranger.
He was still staring at her, his face even more cold and terrifying than it had been seconds ago.
Octavia frowned. “Look, I think we were both in the wrong here. So let’s just call it a truce and go our separate ways.”
He did not respond to this. The only movement he made was a muscle twitching by his jawline.
He stood a mere foot away from her, looking down at her upturned face with eyes that displayed nothing other than contempt.
“Do you know who I am?” he breathed, his voice cold and impersonal.
“Obviously not,” Octavia scoffed. “Do you know who I am?”
“Someone in need of a lesson.”
“There, you see? We don’t know each other.” She slid her hands into her pocket and continued complacently. “And given the current situation, I don’t think we want to.”
The coldness never left his eyes, but he seemed to change his mind about something. He shook his head and stepped away, moving back toward the steps.
“You’re not even worth my time,” he said dismissively. “But I better not see you around here again.”
“I can’t promise that,” Octavia responded. “One never knows where one will end up, you know?”
He stopped and turned back to face her.
She continued. “If we do cross paths in the future for whatever reason, I promise I’ll pretend I don’t know who you are,” Octavia offered.
His scowl deepened. “Very accommodating of you. But I will not give you any reason to be within ten feet of me.”
Octavia seemed to muse over this for a few seconds. “Fine by me.” She adjusted the straps of her book bag, turned on her heel, and started walking away.
Her phone beeped, alerting her to another text. As she read through the message, she instantly forgot about her incident with the stranger. His words, his face, his magnificent form—all faded from her mind.
After all, whoever he was, it was unlikely that they’d ever meet again.
As she started to the nearest train stop, she did not even think to look back at the tall, dark figure whose eyes never left her as she walked away from him.