"Welcome to the inner workings of your favorite network, KHEL, everyone! Please stay in line, keep together, and we'll begin our tour."
"Daddy, I want a drink of water," a small red-haired child asked her bedraggled father.
"Not now!" he snapped. "We waited in line all day for this damned tour, so shut up!"
A woman's wrinkled hand stroked the child's curls. "I'm sure there's a water fountain somewhere on the tour, dear," she whispered.
"No talking, please," the tour guide interrupted, eyes riveted on the woman. "And you, grandma. Keep your paws to yourself. OK! Are we all ready? Step this way, and I'll take you to our first stop, Emu Lugosi's studio!"
"Wasn't he canceled?" the old woman asked her aging male companion.
"Button it, Granny!" the guide warned again, fire igniting her small amber eyes. "Do I have to call security?" The terrified woman shriveled against the old man's shoulder, shaking her white head. "Good," the guide replied with satisfaction. "And Emu wasn't canceled. His contract just ran out."
The group straggled after their bipolar hostess, carefully keeping toes inside the lines and all lips sealed tightly. Behind them, the company's solitary elevator opened up, revealing a tall brunette in sensible shoes and a white knit beret.
"Main floor," the operator announced. The descending car had jolted to its stop a full foot shy of the marble floor, and the gangly newcomer nearly fell as she jumped toward the hard surface.
"Watch your step," the shadowy elevator man added. "Going down."
The doors closed with a hush, and the young woman took a deep breath. "Is this KHEL," she asked a deadpan receptionist?
"What do you think," the girl asked, pointing one blazing red nail toward a row of gigantic bronze call letters that covered the lobby's back wall?
"If you want to see any of the hosts, take a number."
"No, no! I mean, well, I'm Mary Truegood. You know, the new intern from - from upstairs. I'm supposed to, uh, work with - let's see," she mumbled and fishing through a white leather purse. "I have transfer papers. Temporary of course," she added with an embarrassed smile. "Not that it's all that bad here," she continued, fanning her face with her free hand.
The receptionist glanced up from filing her long, curved nails. "You're from - up there?" she asked, pointing toward the ceiling with her file. "I should have known. You reek of honey and milk. Ok, ok, you have to check in with personnel first. Take this hallway, follow it to the No Smoking sign, turn left. Third door on the right. Can't miss it."
"Thank you!" the young woman answered, closing her bag. "I didn't catch your name."
"I didn't throw it. Now get your honeybread butt out of here before I puke."
"Nice to meet you, too!" Truegood called back as she headed toward the No Smoking sign. Two porcine men stood near the large black and white sign, idly chatting and puffing on hand-rolled cigarettes. As Mary passed, each sniffed the air and wrinkled his long snout in disgust. "Another one of them," one man snorted. "White and bright and dumb as a post," quipped the other, sucking deeply on the odd-smelling tobacco.
Mary stared at the first man. "Doesn't that sign say non-smoking?"
"Doesn't that sign say non-smoking?" he echoed in a high-pitched mockery of the girl's soft voice. "You ain't gonna last the day out, sister!"
Mary waved the smoke away and managed a smile. "Now now. Oh! I think I see personnel's office. I guess we'll have to talk later."
The pair blew smoke into her face and snorted with laughter, the first one choking on his own spit. Mary walked away to the sounds of slaps to the man's back and she thought she heard his friend laughing. An odd pair, she thought.
With her thoughts trained on the men behind her, Mary failed to notice that a studio door had opened to her left, and she ran headlong into a middle-aged woman with strawberry blonde hair.
"Watch it, kid!"
"Oh, I am so sorry!" Mary cried, straightening the woman's apron.
"I didn't see you!"
The woman bent to pick up a fallen butcher's knife. "You're lucky I didn't run you right through!" she said, deep dimples appearing in her rosy cheeks. "Hi there! I'm Shrew Ann! Why, you must be new here! Say, you're pretty - in a plain sort of way."
Mary blinked. "Thanks, I think. I'm the new exchange intern from upstairs. I'm looking for Mr. Grand's office."
"Grand? Oh, I don't think so! Blue doesn't see anyone before six!"
"Blue? Well, you must know him well enough to call him by his first name. I - uh, well, I guess I'll be working for him."
Shrew Ann's dimples disappeared, and her cherubic face grew dark. She leaned into Mary, and though Shrew Ann stood much shorter, she seemed to loom over the gangly intern.
"Stay away from Blue, if you know what's good for you," the woman seethed through clenched teeth. "He's mine."
"Morning, Shrew Ann!" called a male voice from the end of the hallway.
The friendly call broke the tension, and Shrew Ann stepped back, her dimples suddenly reappearing beneath dead eyes.
"Morning, Dead," she sang back with a twirl of her pinafore.
"I heard your newscast this morning. Dreadful as usual!"
"Gee, thanks, Shrew Ann," the man replied in a practiced baritone. "Are you coming by for the party tonight?"
"I wouldn't miss it, Dead! Will Porkette be there, or are you a bachelor this evening?" she asked provocatively.
"Oh, uh, I mean - well, yes, Porkette's home. Gee, I don't think we've met," he said, stroking his silver hair as he turned to Mary. "Dead Thaxter. I'm the anchor for KHEL News."
"I know," Mary gushed. "I'm a big fan. I'm here from - well, you know, up there," she said, pointing toward the ceiling with bashful grin. "But I hope to be a big part of the news here! I'm supposed to see personnel, I think, but I'm assigned to Blue Grand. Is he here today?"
"You don't want to see Mr. Grand, Mary. Trust me," Thaxter whispered, his head cocked toward a studio across the hall. "He's very angry!"
"Angry? Why would anyone ever be angry?" Mary asked innocently.
"Dead, you should keep that dithering trap of yours shut," Shrew Ann muttered, lifting the butcher's knife toward Thaxter's light blue sport coat. "Oh my, looks like I forgot to clean my cutlery!"
"Is that blood?" Mary asked astonished. "You do a cooking show, right?"
"That's right. I cook things. You know, cut him up, put him into a pot, and cook him."
Thaxter gulped and cowered toward Mary. "Gee you have a nice hat," he mumbled in a high-pitched voice. "Why don't I take you to see Blurry? He's head of personnel. Come on, Mary! We don't want to bother Shrew Ann any longer!"
Thaxter tugged on Mary's jacket, and she tripped after him toward the third door on the right. She could still hear Shrew Ann's cackling long after the large black door slammed behind them.
Safely inside the inner office, Dead wiped his sweaty face and laughed tensely. "She's such a kidder! We'd better steer clear of her for the rest of the day. Blurry should be here in a minute or so. I'm sure I'll have a chance to talk to you later, Mare."
"Ok, Dead. We'll have lunch!"
Thaxter shut the door, leaving Mary standing alone in a room with two desks and a copy machine. Truegood set down her polished leather bag on one of the desks and took a moment to gather her thoughts. Shrew Ann's split personality had surprised the intern, but Mary had learned long ago to use obstacles as a leg-up to opportunity. She'd do her best to impress.
"Ditch the white," a man's voice called from a doorway.
"I didn't hear you come in," Mary blustered. Where had that doorway come from? Hadn't that been a solid wall when she came in?
"Fill out these forms," the man said, idly scratching a scab on his balding head. "We'll need thirteen copies of each, so be sure to push down hard."
Mary smiled and took the thick stack of papers. "Oh, they're hot!" she cried, nearly dropping them.
"Hot off the copier. Boy, I love that unit. Careful with the ink - it's fresh - and it might run. Which is more than can be said for its owner!"
Truegood spread the papers on the desk next to her purse. "Red ink?"
"Yeah, Type O. That's a little clerical joke, Miss Truegood."
"Call me Mary," she said, her button nose wrinkling. "Would it be possible for me to fill these out over lunch? I was supposed to check in with Mr. Grand before ten."
"He's over on the news set settling a dispute. He could be awhile. Sit down. I understand you met Shrew Ann Knife-in. You'd be wise to give her a wide berth."
"Oh, I'm sure we'll be good friends once she gets to know me, Mr. Blurry."
The bald man laughed and grabbed two donuts from a table near the copier. "Not Mister! Just Blurry - my last name's Slaughter. You know, I have to admit that I'm perplexed as to why one of you would want to work down here - even short-term," he said, licking powdered sugar from his fingers.
Mary glanced through the contract, reading each paragraph. "I have my reasons," she said without looking up.
"You know, you look familiar to me," Blurry said as he reached for a third donut. "Weren't you a dancer on the Dick Van Helsing show once?"
Mary turned to the final page of the contract. "I get that all the time. No. I might ask you the same thing though. You look a lot like a man I met aboard ship once. Oh, but that was years ago. Do you suppose Mr. Grand's free now?"
Blurry took the contract from Truegood and checked each page. "You've forgotten to sign."
"Have I? Well, I can take care of that later."
Blurry shook his head. "Nope. Rules are rules, Mary. Upstairs or down, the law is the law. We'll need your signature."
Mary's smile faded, and she stared into Blurry's shoe-button eyes. "Do I really?"
Blue Grand barreled through the double doors to his plush office at half past ten. "Damn that Thaxter! I'll have his idiotic head on a platter if he so much as shows his fat face in here again!"
"You must be Blue Grand," a soft voice spoke from the chair behind the desk.
Grand smiled for the first time in weeks.
"Don't tell me! That syrupy little voice must belong to my new intern. You're late, Truegood! And get the hell out of my chair!"
Mary turned toward Grand, her white knit beret gone, and her dark waves falling seductively across her shoulders. "Did I hear you say something about Dead's head on a platter?" she asked. "Will this do?"
From beneath the massive desk, Mary's left hand appeared holding a silver tray. Dead Thaxter's lifeless head decorated the highly polished dish, nestled in a bed of Swiss chard and cherry tomatoes.
"Care for a snack before lunch?" she asked in a carefree voice.
Grand's mouth went slack. "Wait a minute! You're from - from up there! You know - upstairs!"
"Did I say that? Well, well. I lied!" Truegood laughed. "Shrew Ann Knife-in might have told you - if she'd lived long enough to challenge me. And poor Blurry. He tasted so sweet. Gee, Blue. You look positively pale."
The network executive staggered backward. "This can't be happening!" he moaned, falling into a wingback chair. "Who the hell are you then?"
Mary stood up, her body grown longer and her teeth sharp. Pitch black hair cascaded past her waist, growing even as Blue stared, unbelieving. She removed a white cotton glove from each hand, revealing sharp claws. Her dark eyes began to glow red, and her pale skin glistened. "Don't you remember me, Blue? I came here three years ago with my cousin, Emu. I asked you for a job, and you said no."
"Emu? What the hell?"
"As you've guessed, my name's not Mary Truegood. Oh you did have an intern coming in from upstairs all right, but I paid off the elevator operator, and together we - shall we say stole her identity? A little honey perfume and an appearance spell were all I needed to fool your pathetic receptionist. I've hated you for years, Grand, but I might have let it slide - that is until you fired my cousin. That show was all he had, Grand. And you took it from him. That's why I'm here to take from you the one thing that matters. Your miserable life - such as it is."
Grand laughed. "Go ahead! I'm dead! That's what hell is, you dumb broad! I'm dead, and so are you!"
The Mary creature leaped up on the desk. "I've been dead for centuries, Blue! Don't you think I know all that? The Lugosi family dynasty goes back to royalty - Dragon royalty if you get my meaning. And we have pull that you can only dream of. You know that job I wanted from you years ago? Well, my uncle Lucky has given me your sweet job. And you, dear Mr. Grand, you have a new job - a new life, so to speak."
Grand could feel his chest tighten. "Uncle Lucky?"
"We call him that. It's a nickname. Short for Lucifer. Does that name ring a bell?"
"Ah, hell!" Grand cried, his mind suddenly grasping his situation. "I can call Emu! I can rehire him! You can have your own show, too!"
"I'll have whatever I choose, Blue. And you - well, you get to turn the world on with your smile. You might recognize this costume," she said, holding up a hideously colorful outfit. "The seltzer bottle goes with it."
"No!" Grand screamed, falling to his knees. "Anything but that!"
Mary's sensible shoes tapped the expensive desktop, and she dropped the costume at the broken man's feet. "Suit up, Grand. Or should I say - Chuckles?"
"Nooooooooooooooooooo!" echoed throughout KHEL's marbled hallways, and the tall woman known as Mary lit up a cigarette.