She hustled through the doors of the café in an attempt to escape an afternoon rain storm. Shaking the dampness off of her green velvet jacket, Sera Ryan found a table near the back of the coffee bar. This provided two distinct advantages: easy access to caffeination and a good view of the stage that sometimes hosted souls brave enough to embarrass themselves. Blowing her messy auburn hair out of her face, she pulled out her laptop to begin work.
Sera had recently finished up her twenties and was now an awkwardly proud 30-something. She wore glasses not to improve her eyesight, but because they reminded her of a childhood spent playing detective with her junior investigator kit—something about using implements to look for details everyone else had missed. Though maybe it seemed childish, she’d never claimed to be a grown-up.
She kept meticulous notes in a haphazard manner; while they appeared cluttered, her organized mess made sense to her. She served as assistant editor-in-chief for a high-profile gaming magazine, and had unfortunately found herself in a serious situation: she believed her chief, Marissa Winters, was publishing fabricated information. Even worse, she and Marissa had once been good friends, though years of tight deadlines and Sera’s maudlin advances had eroded much of the intimacy of their relationship in spite of Marissa’s patience. Sera let loose a short sigh, opting to order the green tea that had aromatically drew her in from the street.
Looking back on the situation, Marissa had been a good (if not tough) editor-in-chief over the years, and had in fact hired and promoted Sera. She was also responsible for the magazine’s 65% increase in readership over the past year. Some claimed that Marissa had almost single-handedly saved the company in one of its most dire times. In spite of her often keeping employees several hours late to revise and resubmit pieces, Marissa was considered by many to be the magazine’s albatross. To accuse her of any misdeeds would be a foolish move at best, even if it was the truth. However, if Marissa was forging articles, then her “success” put all of the magazine’s staffers’ jobs in danger, and potentially implicated Sera as the assistant editor-in-chief. Sera ground her teeth as she sifted through her notes.
The event that first alerted her to Marissa’s possible transgressions was actually a simple one: Marissa had missed a phone call. The call was from an indie gaming blogger who wanted to know the source of an exclusive article introducing an upcoming video game. Sera reviewed the article Marissa herself had written, but found no mention of any sources. Sources were always listed for exclusive articles. Even if Marissa’s sources for the article had been confidential, they still would’ve been listed in the magazine’s database, which Sera checked twice.
When Sera later asked Marissa about where the information for the article had come from, the response she received was something along the lines of, “The game was cancelled.” No further explanation provided. Despite their erratic friendship, Sera and Marissa shared a mutual professionalism that kept Sera privy to information Marissa would never share with anyone else at the office, professional or otherwise. To Sera, it was obvious that Marissa was hiding something important.
The incident with the blogger wasn’t enough to implicate Marissa of fraud, though her reluctance to discuss the matter was unusual. What caught Sera’s attention was that she couldn’t find any mention of the video game or its “cancellation” anywhere else. No other staffer at the magazine had heard of it other than from Marissa’s article, and searching the internet turned up no other information. No matter how hard Sera dug, the game did not exist anywhere else.
Unable to make any headway with the first article, Sera began to review some of Marissa’s other pieces. She traced the history of Marissa’s work, and found mention of a few other titles that were at first high profile, but then seemingly died out. While some of them did have credible sources, there were a number that turned up untraceable—even using the magazine’s resources. Every time she approached Marissa regarding one of these dead-ends, Sera was stonewalled. Although she couldn’t find any substantive proof, as an experienced editor Sera knew something was up, and it was only a matter of time before other editors and eventually the members of the magazine’s board of directors caught on.
If Sera didn’t expose Marissa, there was a strong chance she’d be implicated with Marissa since they worked in such a close capacity. On the other hand, if she did attempt to expose Marissa, Sera would destroy the remainder of their friendship and almost certainly be the one to end Marissa’s career. Trying to expose Marissa also raised the possibility that Marissa might try to deflect the blame back to Sera, and all that was assuming that Marissa was in fact forging articles, which Sera still couldn’t prove. She couldn’t stop her leg from shaking as she considered how much time she had to weight her duplicitous options.
Sera closed her laptop and leaned back in the hardwood chair, watching the ceiling fan spin slowly as an exasperated breath passed softly between her lips. She was balancing the chair on its hind legs, flirting dangerously with a drop to the floor when she realized an unusual stringed performance was taking place on stage. She leaned her chair forward to see a scruffy older woman playing a guitar with what appeared to be a violin bow.
Taking a sip of her lukewarm tea, Sera watched the woman play what sounded like “Freebird” on a guitar with a bow. The performer appeared oblivious to the patrons of the café, and played her instrument well despite being dressed in little more than old rags. Though possessing no features Sera considered remarkable, the presence surrounding the woman while she played was intimidating.
A text message from the office asking where she was reminded Sera that she was no closer to a decision. She knew the details, and she knew the risks. One way or the other she would have to make a decision. She began to massage her temples as she glanced up at the stage looking for a distraction. She found the performer no was longer seated in the middle of the café, but rather a table away and glaring at her intently.
“What? You got a problem or something?” the performer said, scowling.
“Me?” Sera looked around before shaking her head. “Uh-uh. Was just watching you play.”
“Uh huh. Playing in shitholes like this is the only way I eat. Helluva life, huh?”
“Sure, I guess…”
“You rich folk come in here every day and judge me like yer better or something, but ya know what? I don’t owe you a damn thing. It ain’t yer business how I run my life.”
“Never said it was.” Sera laughed nervously and lowered her eyes back down to her laptop.
“Hey! I’m talkin’ at you!” the performer was persistent, causing Sera to raise her line of sight back to the aggressive woman as she prepared to respond.
“I don’t know what your problem is, but I’m not judging you ok? To be honest, I don’t really care about you or your issues. I don’t even know you. I have my own crap to deal with.”
Sera could feel the blood rushing to her face, and took a deep breath to calm down, remembering the cooling tea sitting in front of her. She took a sip as she felt the performer sizing her up. Sera’s body tensed as the ragged performer started chuckling to herself.
“Heh, I like you. Name’s Sandy.” the performer offered an insincere smile.
“Ok… I’m Sera.” She paused before she added, “You crazy or something?”
“Who ain’t? Part a’ livin’. I got a hard life like most folk. Figure it’s better to take it out on rich folk. Least they got mansions to go home to.”
“Uh huh.” Sera’s skepticism slipped out. “I’ll bite. So where do you go home to?”
“Not every woman’s got a home sweetheart. That’s how the man gets ya. One piece at a time.” Sandy sneered. “I live my life how I please ‘cause it belongs to me. Can’t let some bastard get’cha down.”
Sera couldn’t contain the laugh that abruptly escaped her lips. This woman, Sandy, was probably crazy. But the more Sera thought about it, she realized that Sandy might have a point.
“Said yer name was Sera? Can’t say it was a pleasure, but it was an experience.”
“Wait, you’re leaving?”
As Sandy stood up, the look she gave Sera made it clear that the question was apparently stupid.
“All right. Well, it was a plea—” Sera stopped herself, catching Sandy’s glare. “It was an experience.”
Sandy passively nodded as she slung her guitar on her back and headed out the door into the rain. Sera watched her through the glass until Sandy disappeared beyond the scope of the window.
“Good reason to not get fired,” Sera muttered to herself.
She stared at her laptop in a daze. The situation itself was an important career decision, and she couldn’t allow it to be made by some other staffer or a board member due to her own indecision. Sera considered the situation one last time, knowing that if she took action against Marissa she might be wrong, lose her mentor, and her job. Yet, if she chose to trust Marissa she might be an accomplice to fraud, tarnish her reputation, and lose her job anyway. There was no easy answer or right decision. At the end of the day she was going to have to make a choice and live with it. After all, if things were going to go to crap either way, it might as well be on her own terms. Sera pulled out her cellphone and hit “2” on speed dial, letting it ring before a sultry but assertive voice responded.
“Hey, Mari. Got a minute?”
“Sera, hun, look… I don’t have time right now, ok? I don’t know where you’ve been, but I have three pages that need to be filled by close of business, and we’re already running behind.”
“Just listen for a minute. I know what’s been going on with your ‘exclusive articles.’ The ones with no identifiable sources?” Sera could feel the palpitations in her chest as she spoke, and waited for Marissa’s response.
“I’m sure I don’t know—”
“Like hell you don’t. I looked into your latest article and the game doesn’t exist. I don’t know how you’ve been covering it up, but it’s only a matter of time until this gets out.”
“And so my protégé comes to blackmail me,” Marissa’s sigh was audible through the receiver. “Assuming your implications are true, there’s not much I can offer you. Guess I should think twice before ever getting on your bad side, hm?”
“Mari,” Sera hesitated. “I’m gonna help you. Whatever this mess you cooked is, you’ve done a lot for the magazine, and for me. Either we’re gonna get out of this thing together, or start our own bed and breakfast I guess.” Sera clutched the phone tightly waiting for Marissa’s response.
“You still there Mari?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just… thinking. Come back to the office and we’ll get all of this sorted out.”
“On my way.”
Sera finished her tea as she packed up her laptop, and sat for a moment staring at the clock that kept counting the seconds away. Each tick of the second hand reminded her of all the irreversible decisions she made that she couldn’t ever take back. Whether or not she regretted them, and this one, it was too late to change course now. All that was left was to move out and help her mentor try to salvage their careers, or end them all together. She pushed her chair in as she stood up, and headed through the doors of the café into the afternoon rain.