A cab cut her off. She laid on the horn, and a trickle of perspiration slid between her breasts. She glanced at her watch. 10:50. She tried to remember if she'd put on deodorant after her shower. Of course she had. She always put on deodorant. She lifted her arm to make sure, but just as she took a sniff, she hit a pothole and her mouth bumped against the buttercup yellow lapel, leaving behind a smudge of tawny lipstick.
She gave a cry of dismay and reached across the vast front seat for her purse, only to have it slip off the edge and tumble into the Grand Canyon below. The light at Halsted and Chicago turned red. Her hair was sticking to the back of her neck, and more curls were springing up. She tried to do her yoga breathing, but she'd only been to one class, and it wasn't effective. Why, when Annabelle's economic future was at stake, had Mouse picked this day to pass out under her car?
She crawled into the Loop. 10:59. More of Chicago's permanent road construction. She passed the Daley Center. She didn't have time to follow her customary practice of cruising the streets until she found a metered parking space large enough to accommodate Sherman's bulk. Instead she wheeled into the first exorbitantly expensive parking garage she could find, threw Sherman's keys at the attendant, and took off at a trot.
:05. No need to panic. She'd simply explain about Mouse. Surely the Python would understand.
A blast of air-conditioning hit her as she entered the lobby of the high-rise office building. 11:08. The elevator was blessedly empty, and she punched the button for the fourteenth floor.
“Don't let him intimidate you,” Molly had told her over the phone. “The Python feeds on fear.”
Easy for Molly to say. Molly was sitting at home with a hottie football player husband, a great career of her own, and two adorable children.
The doors crept shut. Annabelle caught sight of herself in the mirrored wall and gave a hiss of dismay. Her raw silk suit had turned into a limp mass of buttercup wrinkles, dirt smudged the side of the skirt, and the lipstick smear on the lapel stood out like a light-up Christmas pin. Worst of all, her hair was uncoiling from the Aqua Net curl by curl, with the hair spray weighing it down just enough so that the escaping locks hung lank around her face like bedsprings that had been tossed from a tenement window and left in an alley to rust.
Usually when she got upset about her appearance—which even her own mother described only as “nice”—she reminded herself to be grateful for her good features: a pair of very nice honey-colored eyes, thick lashes, and—give or take a few dozen freckles—a creamy complexion. But no amount of positive thinking could make the image that stared back at her from the elevator mirror anything but horrifying. She scrambled to tuck a few curls behind her ears and smooth her skirt, but the elevator doors opened before she could repair much of the damage.
In front of her, she saw a glass wall imprinted with gold letters, champion sports management. She hurried across the carpeted hallway and entered through a door with a curved metal handle. The reception area held a leather couch and matching chairs, framed sports memorabilia, and a big-screen TV muted on a baseball game. The receptionist had short, steel gray hair and a thin-lipped mouth. She took in Annabelle's disheveled appearance over the top of half glasses with blue metal frames. “May I help you?”
“Annabelle Granger. I have an appointment with the Py— with Mr. Champion.”
“I'm afraid you're too late, Miss Granger.”
“Only ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes was all the time Mr. Champion had available in his schedule to see you.”
Her suspicions were confirmed. He'd only agreed to see her because Molly had insisted, and he didn't want to upset his top client's wife. She glanced in desperation at the wall clock. “I'm really only nine minutes late. I have one minute left.”
“Sorry.” The receptionist turned back to her computer and began tapping away.
“One minute,” Annabelle pleaded. “That's all I ask.”
“There's nothing I can do.”
Annabelle needed this meeting, and she needed it now. Pivoting on her heels, she rushed toward the paneled door at the far end of the reception area.
Annabelle dashed into an open hallway with a pair of offices on each side, one of them occupied by two buff young men in dress shirts and neckties. Ignoring them, she headed for an imposing mahogany door set into the center of the back wall and turned the knob.
The Python's office was the color of money: lacquered jade walls, thick moss carpet, and furniture upholstered in varying shades of green accented with bloodred pillows. An assortment of news photos and sports memorabilia hung behind the couch along with a rust-streaked white metal sign with faded black block letters that said beau vista. Appropriate, considering the sweeping wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan in the distance. The Python himself sat behind a sleek, U-shaped desk, his high-backed chair turned toward the water view. She took in a state-of-the-art desktop computer, a small laptop, a BlackBerry, and a sophisticated black telephone console with enough buttons to land a jumbo jet. An executive headset lay abandoned next to it as the Python spoke directly into the receiver.