The menu at Borgia Pizza was a catalogue of culinary atrocities, each worse than the last, and Annelise knew better than to take advantage of the employee discount. It did not do to examine too closely the origins of the meats used in their sandwiches, let alone the meats that went into their tomato sauces, pasta dishes, and pizza toppings. The pizza itself was so greasy that at least one enterprising mechanic had ordered an extra-large pie for the sole purpose of extracting the oil for use as small engine lubricant, and individual slices got served on ceramic plates because too many customers had showed up demanding reimbursement for their dry cleaning bills.
She tried to lend no credence to her friends' oft-stated belief that Borgia Pizza got away with serving the worst pizza in New York because so many of its critics ended up at the bottom of the East River. While she had no doubt that many of Borgia Pizza's unhappy customers had suffered unfortunate accidents, she suspected they were of an embarrassingly personal nature that condemned their victims to a life of shame when they occurred before witnesses.
This had almost happened to Jessica, who had been in Annelise's acting classes at NYU. Fortunately, she had made it to the ladies' room in the nick of time, taking the stall next to Annelise's.
Though Annelise had done her best to ignore her temporary neighbor's plight, the sounds coming from the next stall had begun to frighten her. One did not commonly pray for deliverance in the toilet. Then there was the smell; it was not the first time Annelise had shared a ladies' room with a student who could not take care of such business at home, and the resulting smell had occasionally been noxious, but she suspected that the next time the janitor's rounds brought him here, he'd want to call in an exorcist for assistance.
There was a knock, as if the woman in the next stall was rapping on the wall. "Hey, I'm out of paper over here. Can you spare some?"
Detaching one of the spare rolls from the caddy in her stall, Annelise passed it under the partition. "Everything OK in there?"
"Hell, no. Wait. Is that you, Annelise?"
"Jessica? What the hell happened? It sounds like you're filming a horror movie in there."
"It's the revenge of Borgia Pizza."
"You ate /there/?" Annelise shuddered; she had known to avoid that establishment since childhood. Even the most desperate of the neighborhood's homeless refused to accept handouts.
"I was hungry and almost broke, and—" Jessica's groan did not quite mask the other sounds. "They have an employee discount, and it tasted fine. I didn't think it would be this bad."
"You want help getting to the hospital?"
"I think the worst is past," said Jessica. After a courtesy flush, she continued. "I should probably stay here for a bit, but I'm gonna miss my shift. You're looking for a job, right?"
"Yeah." Annelise tried to keep the suspicion from her voice. "You really think they'll let me cover for you?"
"Hell, they'll probably give you my job. That's how /I/ got a job there. I covered for my sister."
Jessica had been right. Not only did they let Christabel cover her shift, but they put her on the payroll. Though it did not pay well, the work demanded little of her no matter how busy Borgia Pizza when people forgot that the cheapest takeout in New York was also the worst. Because she had witnessed the Revenge of Borgia Pizza, she had never made the mistake of using her employee discount. It was how she outlasted everybody else the proprietor hired, and came to recognize the two classes of regulars: those possessed of such intestinal fortitude that they need not fear the consequences of eating there and those who kept telling themselves that their previous experience had been a fluke.
The man in the white suit who faced her over the counter was of neither class. "A slice of meat lover's and a draft beer, please," he said, in the cultured accent of one who could afford far better fare in finer establishments. He handed her two banknotes worth a milligram of gold each, and Annelise kept her opinions to herself.
She did not expect to see him again. Nevertheless, he was back the next day, and the day after that. He soon became a regular of the first class, for he seemed capable of eating anything Borgia Pizza had to offer without the usual consequences. Stranger still, he came away utterly spotless.
One day, she lingered by his table. "How do you do it?"
The man in white looked up at her with slit-pupilled eyes the blue of a winter sky at noon. "Care to elaborate?"
"You're wearing a white suit that must have cost you at least as much as I make in a year working here, and you should be covered in grease after eating that pizza. Yet I've yet to see you leave with so much as a drop on your tie."
"It's a cravat."
"What's the difference?"
"Anybody can wear a tie." A cigarette case appeared in his hand, but Annelise did not see him reach into a pocket. "It takes style to get away with wearing a cravat. Style, and audacity."
"Indeed," said the man in white as he lit a cigarette. Rather than use a lighter, he snapped his fingers and the tip flared alight.
Annelise put her hands on her hips. She hardly got paid enough to challenge the customers, which was why she tolerated the occasional greasy hand on her ass, but the boss had made it plain that the 'No Smoking' signs were to be taken as literally as some people claimed to take their holy scriptures. "Is smoking indoors your idea of audacity?"
He smirked around the cigarette in the corner of his mouth. "You wanted to know how I come away spotless after eating here. I am attempting a demonstration. Now, kindly observe the smoke."
Obeying, Annelise watched the thin column of smoke rise from his cigarette. She expected it to rise until it reached the ceiling, but instead it seemed contained in an invisible globe, growing darker and thicker as it accumulated. It was if the man in white was somehow condensing the smoke, but she could not see how he went about it. "Is this some kind of magic?"
"If you like." Taking the cigarette from his mouth, he ground it out on his plate. The smoke cloud coalesced into a sooty marble and fell into the palm of his outstretched hand. He placed it in hers, where it warmed and befouled her palm. As Annelise dropped it and wiped her hand on her apron, he produced a business card. "Perhaps I should introduce myself. I'm a man of means, if not of tastes commensurate to said means."
Annelise examined the card. It had been printed on a finer grade of cardstock than that used to make Borgia Pizza's business cards, and used an ornate typeface that looked at least two centuries out of date. It identified him as Isaac Magnin, CEO of the AsgarTech Corporation, and for some reason it reminded Annelise of the calling cards gentlemen used in the Regency romance serials her mother liked to watch. She alternated between the card and his face thrice before finding her words. "If you're who this card says you are, why are you eating /here/?"
Isaac shrugged. "I'm in town on business, and the food here is better than one might expect for the price."
She glanced around, sure that the owner was counting the seconds she spent talking with this particular customer, but nobody seemed to care that she was lingering at Isaac's table. "A guy like you can surely afford better."
"I have indeed have had better," said Isaac. "Better food and accommodations alike. However, I am not here for the food. I am here because of /you/."
Annelise withdrew a step, unsure if she should be flattered or thoroughly creeped out. Good sense demanded the latter; a man as wealthy as Isaac Magnin would not date a not-quite-broke student like her, let alone fall in love with her and offer to marry her. Such unequal matches no longer happened in romantic comedies, let alone real life. Nevertheless, there was something about him that drew her. His frost-blond hair would have fallen in waves over his shoulders if he had not bound it into a ponytail with a blue satin ribbon that matched both his cravat and his eyes. They also matched the sapphires in his cufflinks and the platinum studs piercing his ears. The confidence needed to dress like this in a working-class neighborhood drew her, as did his insouciant smile. "Bullshit. There's no way somebody like you would have anything to do with somebody like me. You wouln't even give me an unpaid internship."
"You sell yourself short, but let's put that aside for now. While you are not unattractive—you have the girl-next-door vibe going for you and you would doubtless clean up nicely—it is not your looks that interest me."
Annelise withdrew another step. If Isaac thought she was attractive enough for a one night stand, that would have been a motive she understood. He would not have been the first rich guy to think a student like her might be amenable to sex work for the right wage. "Then, why?"
"Please sit down, and I'll explain."
Annelise obeyed, for this was not a man who had any obligation to say 'please'—not when he had fuck you money—yet he did so anyway.
This drew the owner's attention, who came lumbering out of the kitchen. "Sir, I can't have you flirting with the help."
"Of course not," said Isaac. He rose, and shook the man's hand. "But surely this young lady is due a break."
The owner shoved whatever it was that Isaac had pressed into his hand into his pocket. "Yeah. Annelise, you haven't had your break yet, right?"
"Not yet, Mr. Borgia."
"OK. Take fifteen. You want a slice?"
"No thanks," said Annelise, suppressing a shudder. Whatever Isaac Magnin's interest in her, she doubted it would survive a headlong dash to the ladies's room once the Revenge of Borgia Pizza was upon her.
Once Mr. Borgia had left, Annelise met Isaac's piercing gaze. "So, what is it you see in me?"
"I see potential," said Isaac. "It is a long-established fact in the field of sociology that the work you do is grueling not only because of its physical aspect; you're on your feet for hours, bustling to and fro because everybody wants their food thirty seconds ago."
"You sound like you used to wait tables in college yourself."
He lowered his voice and leaned forward. "I have done many things, but forget me for the moment. It is not the physical labor you do that is of interest to me, but your emotional labor. Your boss treats you like a disposable automaton that has somehow exceeded its mean time to failure. The customers ignore you when they aren't groping you or yelling at you because their food isn't just so. You know full well that this is the greasiest, nastiest pizza currently available in New York. And yet you continue to present an amiable, cheerful manner. You have never once yielded to what is doubtless an all but irresistable temptation to warn patrons away. You, young lady, are well on your way to being a consummate actress."
"What's the deal, then? You need a booth babe for the next electronics show?" As much as she wanted to be flattered, her suspicion was too strong to ignore. He could have asked around and learned that she was studying theatre at NYU. A physics major she had taken out on a pity date in exchange for getting her computer fixed had warned her about con artists as if she had never heard of them before, but called it 'social engineering'. "I don't exactly have the build for it."
Isaac chuckled as if she had said something clever instead of protecting herself with base sarcasm. "I had in mind for you a rather more demanding role on a far grander stage—the stage of history in the making."
"I think I ought to get back to work now."
Isaac spread his empty hands. "You may, if you wish, but if you but hear me out I will pay you handsomely for your time. Lend me an ear and as open a mind as you can bear tonight, and you will never have to work here again. Nor will you have to take another loan to pay for tuition."
"You've got nothing better to do with your money?"
"Wealth exerts an almost gravitational pull, and once you've accumulated sufficient capital it tends to attract ever more wealth, until it becomes impossible to fritter away on your own despite your most extravagant efforts. As I mentioned earlier, I am a man of means."
"That's what makes me nervous. I could disappear into your limo, never to be seen again, and even the Phoenix Society would refuse to investigate."
The smirk that tugged at Annelise despite her better judgment reappeared. "Funny you should mention the Phoenix Society. I serve on its executive council, and the work I would have you do is related to the work I do for the Society. Are you sure you wouldn't like to know more?"
Despite the better judgment that warned Annelise against finding Isaac attractive, she found that she did indeed want to know more. "You know what? I would. But I've got to finish out my shift."
"Allow me," said Isaac. There was a crash and a meaty thud, followed by a scream. Smoke began to pour out of the kitchen. One of the cooks stumbled out, demanding that somebody call the paramedics and the fire department. "It would appear that Borgia Pizza just went out of business."