He reached for her lunch box. Confused by the gesture, she handed it to him without thinking. Then she kicked herself, because being her boss (for the moment) gave him no right to handle her things.
The metal lunch box clanged as Paul set it on his desk, and its hinges creaked when he raised the lid. He lifted her Thermos bottle out of it, then unscrewed the red cup at its top and uncorked the bottle.
Somehow, this was the arrogant move that prompted her to protest. "That's not your lunch box. Give it back."
He ignored her, holding the open bottle beneath his nose. "Coffee. Nice choice."
Still holding it in his left hand, he used the right one to fish a scrap of waxed paper, wiped clean and neatly folded for reuse, out of the lunchbox. He sniffed it, too. "Tuna fish. Also a nice choice."
Dropping the waxed paper back into the lunch box, he gave the Thermos bottle a little shake while he picked up the white cloth napkin she'd used as a luncheon plate. Justine heard a distinct rattle. Why would an empty Thermos bottle rattle?
Forgetting her humiliation for a moment, she leaned forward to see what was making the noise. Paul held the napkin below the mouth of the bottle and shook out a round wooden disk. It looked like the buttons that closed her coveralls. One hand went to her belly and the other went to the hollow between her breasts. She ran both hands up and down the front of her body, but she felt no gaps. All of her buttons were in place.
"If you'll permit me," he said, reaching toward her waist, but with none of the lasciviousness that Ronald had used to do the same thing. She felt his hand grasp something behind her, and she felt him pull it forward where she could see it. It was one of the fabric tabs that could be fastened to make her coveralls fit tighter or looser, depending on which of the buttons spaced across the waistband that she used. It seemed that she'd lost the button that she usually used to fasten that tab.
No. She hadn't lost it. The person who put it in her lunchbox to taunt her had made sure of that.
She reached for the spot where the button had been and felt an even bristle of unfrayed threads. They had been cut by the person who slipped the button into her thermos.
"Was Ronald a plant? The man who worked beside me all week. Did you and Ronald set me up?"
"It seems so, doesn't it? You let somebody get close enough to you to poison your coffee and you're still alive, so it certainly wasn't the enemy playing tricks with your buttons."
Through gritted teeth, she said, "Is it really necessary to drag out the humiliation? Why don't you just go ahead and fire me?"
Paul wasn't looking at her, and he wasn't answering her. He was peering into his file drawer. "Where did I put that—oh, there it is." He handed her a large hand mirror that looked like the ones that hairdressers used to let women look at the back of their freshly coiffed hair.
"And there's the other one." Paul reached back in the file drawer and pulled out a second mirror just like the first. "I'll hold this one just so—"
He held it behind her back, a few inches above waist level. "—now you can use this one to get a good look at this spot." With one finger, he gently touched the center of her back, right between her shoulder blades.
She wondered why she continued to obey his commands. Nevertheless, she maneuvered the mirror into place. Unable to believe what she saw, she let out an audible gasp. Paul didn't react and, for once, she was grateful for his impassive face.
Dead center on the torso of her pale blue coveralls was a blood-red blotch the size and shape of a man's hand, the heel of its palm just above her waist and its fingers reaching halfway to her neck.
"The man who did that could have slid his knife between your vertebrae and dropped you to the ground. Forever."
"It was all a setup? Everything that happened at the shipyard?"
"You thought I would send you into danger without making sure you were up to the job? You thought I would risk Jerry's life like that?"
She moved the mirror to and fro, studying the reflection of the stain that marked her back. "I can't believe Ronald did this."
"Oh, Ronald snipped off your button and dropped it in the dregs of your coffee, but it wasn't Ronald who put that mark on your back. And it wasn't anybody working with you on the ship. Think, Justine. Somebody would surely have said something if you'd walked through a sea of coworkers with an apparent bloodstain covering your back. You couldn't have ridden the bus here with your clothes in that condition, either. It had to have happened after you walked into this building."
Her breath left her in a rush and carried a name with it. "Jerry."
She could feel Jerry's warm, friendly pat on the back as he said hello.
Paul gave her a single nod. "Yes, Jerry."
"Why would he do that to me?"
"Because he cares about you. As do I."
"Doesn't seem like it," she muttered.
"You let two men get close enough to you to stab you to death. One of them could have poisoned you, too. If I were to be so foolish as to let you keep your job, how do you propose to stay alive?"
She didn't have an answer for him.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the paperback edition.
Monday, May 29th, we begin the book The Favor by Adele Griffin.