The Fortunes of Ruby White - Excerpt
If Ruby White had known of the strange turn her life was about to take, she may not have been so quick to quit her day job. Unfortunately, while she stood and watched her very-soon-to-be-ex-boss try to bite through three layers of packing tape, no portent, no omen, not even a tiny twinkle on the horizon foretelling repercussions to come gave her pause.
"You can't be serious."
Sonny Knobbe Jr took the plastic fork out of his mouth. "Ruby, it'll take you less than five minutes."
Ruby White, long-term employee of Knobbe & Sons and long-suffering secretary of the youngest Knobbe, stood in Sonny's doorway, her hands full of folders.
"I'm not writing a break-up letter to your…" Ruby struggled to think of a polite way to phrase it. Girlfriend? Mistress? Paramour? "…friend."
Sonny leaned back, dipping a finger in a pot of blue cheese dressing left over from his abandoned take-away salad, his chair creaking under his weight. "Think of it more as a memo. Remember those bereavement guidelines you did last year, with the sliding scale? 'The affected staff member's leave should be duly considered in direct proportion with their term of employment rather than their relationship to the deceased'? Very popular with the board." Sucking his thumb, he looked around for his napkin, which was tucked into his shirt.
"Well, Janie's been doing some winter eating; she can hardly get into the end-of-financial-year garter set I bought her..."
"Please, God, don't tell me stuff like that." Any further personal information would make Ruby's elevator encounters with Janie even more uncomfortable than they already were.
"...and I think my wife is beginning to suspect something. All I need is a short document, one paragraph max, just letting her know that she's fulfilled her obligations to a satisfactory standard but her contract won't be renewed."
"She has a contract?"
"It's on the G drive." Sonny abandoned the dressing as a courier staggered in and dumped a package on his desk. The wrapper was purple, with gold lettering. Ruby couldn't make out the address.
"Did you get into Hogwarts?"
"This is," said Sonny, tugging unsuccessfully at the binding, "a pyrographion."
"Is it alive?"
"It measures the amount of goodwill you contain in your personal space, so you can monitor the success of your interpersonal relationships." Seizing a letter opener, Sonny stabbed the top of the box.
Ruby drew back in case the parcel was actually a letter bomb from Sonny's wife.
The resulting wooden box, stamped with a large gold J on the lid, was almost disappointing.
"OK. The memo," said Sonny, using the letter opener to prise the box open. "No real rush, but if you can get it to me by four, that would be great. Use her surname, so it's Ms… Ms…" He paused for a moment before resuming his levering. "Check the staff folders."
Ruby clasped the folders to her chest. "I'm not doing it, Mr Knobbe."
"'It is with great regret...services no longer required…' et cetera. The usual stuff."
"I'm not doing it. It's a push even for my ethical—"
"I'm sure it will be fine." He pushed the button on his phone earpiece and dismissed her with a wave.
After emailing a very different memo to the head office before four that day, Ruby gathered her things and then stopped by Janie's desk for a brief but illuminating chat. As the elevator doors were sliding shut a few minutes later, the last sight Ruby White saw of Knobbe & Sons was her ex-boss being pursued between the cubicles by his enraged ex-mistress, who was wielding a hole punch.
"You know I don't believe in this stuff."
Zelda the Magnifique smirked and kept shuffling the cards. Despite the cool of the night air, the kohl around her eyes was seeping into her crow's feet.
Ruby clutched her drink like a lifesaver and looked around the decking. Normally she loved parties, but after the day's events, she had hoped to spend the evening eating herself into a carbohydrate-induced coma in front of the television. The fact that it was her best friend Anise's birthday was the only reason she had unstuck herself from the couch. At least the food was amazing. Ruby popped another crumbed risotto ball into her mouth.
After spending a happy hour or two downing martinis, and a less happy hour prising someone's hands off her posterior, Ruby had had just enough time to appropriate a gin bottle from the kitchen before the birthday girl had frog-marched her outside to the decking to have her fortune told. Anise had now abandoned her and was flitting among the party-goers crammed into the lounge room. Among them, Ruby saw the Tony Soprano clone whose roving hands had cornered her by the kitchen. She shielded her face with the bottle.
"So how does this work, again?"
"The cards speak," purred Zelda, laying them out across the surface of her Stable Table, "and I leeesten." Dropping her gaze, she began to make sweeping gestures in the air. Ruby stretched out a hand to pick up the card closest to her but was stopped short by a glare from Zelda's heavily frosted eye.
"You will eeenfluence the reading." When Ruby sat back, Zelda the Magnifique went back to her sweeping gestures, the tiny coins on her headscarf tinkling.
The chatter from inside grew louder as more people crammed themselves into Anise's flat. Ruby only recognised a few people, and most of those were staff from Anise's cafe; the rest must be customers. Some thoughtful person decided to crank up the stereo. Ruby added more gin to her glass and watched the crowd to the accompaniment of Zelda's humming. Drunken dancing was always an excellent spectator sport; even more so when it involved a costume party. The pope was lugging a busty belly dancer around, while a guy in 70s running shorts and a fake moustache looked as if he was auditioning for Break-dance Four: Electric Failure.
Extracting herself from the squeeze at the doorway, Anise belted back to Ruby's side, cocktail in hand, and pulled up a chair. "How's it going?"
"She's been doing that," Ruby pointed, "for a while."
In response, Zelda stopped sweeping. "The cards weell now reveal their myyyysteries," she intoned, and peered at the coloured surfaces.
Anise held her breath. Ruby didn't.
"Loss," Zelda announced after a brief silence. "There ees much loss here."
Ruby blinked. "What, that's it? My fortune is loss?"
"I don't theenk you're eenterested een what I have to say." Zelda looked piously heavenward.
"Oh, for fu—"
Anise interrupted. "Zelda, Ruby doesn't mean that."
"I don't care about my fortune," grumbled Ruby.
"Well, then I don't care to read eet," retorted Zelda, folding her arms.
"It's my birthday. Humour me." Anise took a slug from her martini glass and pinched a handful of tiny canapÉs from a passing waiter.
Ruby relented. "I'm sorry, Zelda. I'm a bit cranky because I quit my job today."
Examining the cards, Zelda said, "I know."
Ruby looked at Anise and bared her teeth.
"I steell see loss…" the Magnifique One went on. "Loss of a loved one… And a party. " For a moment, she looked genuinely surprised. "With cake?" She quirked an eyebrow at Ruby, who remained silent. "Anyway, theees eees the past. But eeet shows good fortune now. You are coming to the end of a cycle. Work ees on your horizon. Eemportant work. Eenteresting work." She jabbed a brightly polished false fingernail at Ruby. "You'll help people."
"I'm going to be a counsellor? That's not interesting."
Zelda held up her hand, rings glittering. "I see travel as well."
"No," Zelda said, battling on, "but there weeell be romance…"
"…a tall, dark, handsome stranger will cross your path…" said Ruby, laying her head on Anise's beaded shoulder. Anise fed her a piece of chorizo.
Zelda's lips, wearing a thick layer of Maybelline Maroon Dream, clamped into a single line. "I see nothing else here," she snapped, gathering up her cards in one swift movement and temporarily losing her accent.
"Amazing! Wasn't that amazing?" enthused Anise. Ruby rolled her eyes so hard they disappeared into her skull.
The fingernail was pointed in Ruby's direction again. "You weell be OK, deespite your efforts to the contrary. You are a teepical Cancerian. Teeepical." Zelda bestowed a gracious smile on Anise, and swept off into the lounge, tinkling.
"Is that good or bad?" Ruby's forehead creased.
"I'm not sure."
The music changed to hideous urban hip-hop. Anise, straightening the black bobbed wig that covered her blonde hair, stood up and held out her hand. "Wanna boogie?"
They abandoned their drinks and began the elaborate dance routine they had created in Ruby's bedroom when they were fifteen, and had been doing at festive occasions ever since. Always changing but always deliberately awful, it involved a lot of windmilling and pointing. The key to success was keeping a slightly pained expression upon one's face.
Hardly having a chance to complete the 'ants in the pants' section of the routine, Anise was collared by her sister, Siobhan. Both feared and revered by her colleagues, Siobhan was a very young partner in a very large law firm and had the ability to draw blood with her tongue. She was dressed as Harlequin, which was odd for someone who had no sense of humour. Standing next to Anise, who was wearing a flapper's outfit, they looked like a therapist's nightmare.
"Anise, I want you to come and meet somebody. Hello, Ruby. What are you supposed to be?" She frowned at Ruby's outfit, which looked suspiciously like Ruby's usual clothes but worn with a tiara.
"Great," said Siobhan, not caring. "Come on, Ani."
"Great party, hon," Ruby said, retrieving her bag. "Many happy everythings."
"Aw, are you going?" said Anise, ignoring Siobhan's efforts to pull her away.
Ruby gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I've got to get home while I can still see straight or I'll end up making out with one of your pot plants. I need some sleep."
"Why? You've got nothing to get up for now," said Siobhan, turning to wave at someone across the other side of the room. Ruby made a face at her diamond-patterned back.
"Bye-eee," said Anise, her empty cigarette holder flailing as she was finally towed away. "I'll call you tomorrow."
It took almost ten minutes for Ruby to cross two rooms due to the crowd and her unsteady footing. After nearly losing an eye to a pair of fairy wings made out of coat-hangers, she finally catapulted into the front hallway, tiara askew.
"Hi! Ruby, right?" A tall guy whose face she couldn't quite place popped up in front of her. "Vould you like to thuuuck thome bloood?" He waved a cocktail shaker at her and waggled his mascara-ed eyebrows. Beneath his black hair, he was pale enough to not need face whitener.
Ruby leant back on the wall. "Are you supposed to lisp with a Transylvanian accent?"
"It'f the teeef! Vey are hard to talk vif."
"Good costume." The room seemed to be getting hotter. She pushed her hair out of her eyes, some of it sticking to her cheek.
"It'f not a coftume," said Dracula, waggling away madly.
Dimly she remembered being served several lethal martinis by a vampire earlier in the evening. "You're the bartender."
Tucking the gin bottle under her arm, she shook his hand.
"You've abandoned your post."
"Actually, it vaf taken from me by forfe." He prised the plastic fangs out of his mouth. "Force, sorry. A giant panda teamed up with one of the priests." Glancing through the doorway, they saw that the panda was now slumped over the blender, its paws stained with daiquiri fruit.
"I saw you got trapped by the Soprano guy."
"Yeah. Hands of an octopus, breath of an old sock." Ruby could feel the sweat starting to run down the small of her back. She hoped at least some of her eyeliner had lasted. "So," she cocked her hip jauntily, though the effect was somewhat spoiled when her knee gave way, "sired anyone yet?"
Before Damien could answer, Jonathan, Anise's assistant manager, emerged from the heaving bodies in the lounge room. He was dressed as a Catholic priest and clutching the hand of a tiny blonde girl in clinging blue and white.
"Ruby, dear heart. Love the effort you almost made. This is Bessie. She's our newbie."
Bessie gave Ruby a smile as brief as a camera flash and turned her attention on Damien. "Hi-ii."
"What are you dressed as?" said Damien. "The Virgin Mary?"
The girl gave a high-pitched snigger. "I don't think so. I'm Persephone. You know, the Greek goddess?"
"I did her costume," said Jonathan, fussing with his cassock.
"Where's your pomegranate?" Ruby asked Bessie, who stared at her blankly in response. "Never mind."
They all turned to look as a party-goer in a George W. Bush mask attempted break-dancing and almost took out one of the patio doors.
"I don't think the costume is to blame for that one," said Jonathan.
"For the second time this evening, I've got to get home before I start dancing like that guy." Ruby waved goodbye as Jonathan dragged Bessie off in search of panda-free drinks.
"Do you need a lift?" Damien still hovered.
Ruby turned to decline but thought better of it as she staggered sideways. "Sure. OK... Thank you," she added, as her good breeding kicked in.
"Cool. Let me just go get my cape."
"Now that's something I haven't heard before."
Several minutes later they were puttering home in Damien's ancient car, Ruby's head lolling out the window.
"Are you sure that's good for you?" said Damien.
"Makes… me...feel...better..." gasped Ruby as the wind assailed her nostrils at 70 kph.
"Do you want some water or something?"
She pulled her head back into the car, hair standing on end. "Turn right up here."
"We could go to a service station, get a drink or…some chips? Are you hungry?"
Ruby shook her head and then clutched it. "Gaaaaherrrlmmmmg," she mumbled. Trying again, she gritted out, "Got to…get home."
By waving and mumbling she managed to direct him the rest of the way to her block. As the car cruised to a gentle stop, she opened one eye and tried to focus. "Thanks for the lift, David."
"Damien, right. Like in The Omen. I have to go now." She clawed at the door handle and fell out onto the footpath.
Damien scrambled out of the car and tried to help Ruby to her feet, but was groggily slapped away. Ruby had obviously decided that standing was not an option by this point in the evening; she started crawling up the footpath towards the block of flats.
After gallantly steering her away from some broken glass on the footpath, he returned to the car to collect her bag, which had spilled its contents all over the floor, and spent a good two minutes gathering up what seemed like an interminable number of tampons which had flung themselves under the passenger seat. By the time the bag was together, Ruby had found the stairway entrance to her flat. It seemed unwise to offer further physical assistance; instead Damien followed at a discreet distance as she pulled herself up the stairs, continued on all fours down the corridor, and collapsed against the door of Number Three.
Realising she wasn't going any further, Damien found her house keys, unlocked the door, and caught Ruby as she slid down the wood panelling into her hallway. He picked her up and deposited her on the couch where she lay sprawled, her t-shirt riding up over her stomach, her cheeks flushed, out cold. Perhaps he should stay for a moment or two, just to make sure she wasn't going to have a seizure or throw up.
He surveyed the room. Black shelves ran the length of one wall, holding a haphazard mix of books, DVDs, photos, and knick-knacks. Texts on philosophy and cultural studies were jammed in with trashy paperbacks, the latter well-thumbed. A pile of CDs revealed a penchant for lounge music. Pictures ripped out of magazines were stuck at random along the edges of the shelves; he noticed a common theme of girls in long dresses in strange settings. In between were photos of Ruby and Anise, always with their heads together, always smiling as if in the middle of a private joke. Another picture showed Ruby between an older couple; they must be her parents. She'd inherited her father's grin.
There was a cough behind him. Ruby had turned towards the back of the couch, leaving a black mark from her eyeliner across one of the cushions.
He looked at her for a long minute, then unhooked his cape, draped it over her, and closed the front door behind him.
Ruby was aware of a strange feeling in her head, as if she was lying at the bottom of a pool of glycerine. A sharp ringing tone invaded her ears, reminding her unpleasantly of the way her mother used to burst into her bedroom first thing in the morning and lecture her about some vague teenage indiscretion, ignoring the fact that she was still asleep. Ruby would inevitably wake up in time to see her mother's back retreating and hear something thrown over her shoulder along the lines of, "…and it's just not good enough!"
She never felt confident enough to ask what the lectures were on. The one time she did she received another rousing rendition of You Never Listen to Me (subtitle: What Do I Have to Say to Get Through to You) Part VIII.
Blinking, she shrieked and clapped a pillow to her face as the light streaming through the window pierced her brain like a needle. Gingerly extending a hand, she felt around to see where she was. The sheets felt strange, slippery. Slitting her eyes and lifting the pillow, all she saw was red and black satin.
Oh my god. I'm in a bordello. What the hell was in those martinis?
Lifting the pillow another inch, she realised she was in her own home, on her own couch. Wearing a vampire cape.
The sharp ringing tone was cut short by a click. "The person you are trying to reach is not available at present," droned an automated voice, "Please leave a message after the tone." The machine emitted a piercing BBBBBRRRRRRREEEEEP!
Ruby shrieked again and clutched her ears. "Jesus!"
"Hello gorgeous girl!" It was Anise. "Just checking to see how you are, where you are, who you're with. Anyway, when you've surfaced, give me a ring. And, for the love of god, change that damned message. You've had the machine for a year. Bye-eeee!"
The machine let out a howl of static as Anise accidentally dropped the phone before hanging up. Ruby winced and tried to figure out how long it would take to saw her own head off and stop the pain.
(C) Weston, L. The Fortunes of Ruby White. (Simon & Schuster Australia, 2010.)
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