A Murder in Paris – Blake Pierce

Sipping from her I Survived Another Meeting That Should Have Been an Email coffee mug, Diana St. James shivered in the too-chilly air-conditioning. Who’d turned that sucker down again? Someone on the floor definitely had the constitution of a penguin just like her soon-to-be exhusband, Evan. All those years, she’d had to grin and bear it when he turned the thermostat way down. It was so much better to be able to do as one pleased, organize the house the way she wanted to . I should be happy to be getting rid of him! Diana stood behind her desk, contemplating the latest addition to the product line. Sure, there was MAC cosmetics, NARS cosmetics, e.l.f., and NYX. But the last thing they needed was to make Addict the butt of all jokes by naming their latest, greatest mascara after one. B. U.

T. Who the heck came up with that one? Diana sighed. It was another rainy Monday. It seemed like April showers had just given way to more May showers, and now it was a humid, sticky, waterlogged early June. The floor-to-ceiling windows in Diana’s corner office were steamed over, only partially blocking her view of the throngs of people dodging the puddles and raindrops on the busy Tribeca street below. She went to her intercom and buzzed Sandy, her trusty, just-out-of-college administrative assistant. Diana had chosen her because, with her blue eyes and freckles, she reminded her of her youngest daughter, Beatrice, who’d been in Japan for the past year. Most marketing executives would’ve questioned that hiring move—god knows, HR did, especially since Sandy didn’t have squat on her resume—but Diana hadn’t had the heart or the time to go through a lengthy hiring process. Anyway, it had turned out to be a good decision. Sandy was always cheerful, always willing to help, and always eager to learn. Plus, she always answered on the first buzz. “Good morning, Diana! How can I help?” “Hi, Sandy.

Can you please tell Phil that none of these names is going to work for the new mascara? They’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something different.” “Oh, really? Because I thought that B.U.T. one was cute! Ellie in graphic design came up with that,” she said in her too-happy-for-Monday voice. “Get it? Like, B-U-T. Beauty?” “I understand that,” Diana said with a wan smile, “But the last thing we want is anyone to associate Addict’s latest product with one’s derriere. Right?” “Oh. Yes. I understand.

Good point. I’ll tell him. Right away.” “Thank you. See if they can come up with anything new before the morning meeting,” she said, depressing the button and sighing as she scooted forward in her leather executive chair. Opening her email, she started to go through the two hundred that Sandy had flagged for her as Urgent. This was nothing new. She’d been the marketing director for Addict for over twenty years, almost since its inception, so now she ate, slept, and breathed the products. In the beginning when she was new to the company—though she’d been a marketing manager at Elizabeth Arden for ten years prior —Addict was young, hip, and fun; but now it was exclusive, refined, and sold at high-end boutiques. It had aged right along with the women it served.

A few years ago, against Diana’s better judgement, they’d tried to take back some market share among teenagers, even hiring a young YouTube star as their spokesperson—and what a disaster that had been. Now, Diana knew to trust her instincts. And her instincts were clearly saying N.O. to B.U.T. or any of their other less-than-buzzworthy ideas. After tackling the first few emails, a meeting alert popped up on the corner of her computer screen, telling her it was time for the morning briefing. Leaving her mug on her desk, she grabbed her pen and blank pad and headed next door to the massive board room.

On the way, she mentally ran through ideas for the mascara line. Lash Pump? Lethal Lengths? Incredi-Pop? Really, anything would be better than B.U.T. Her staff was already assembled, chatting. They quieted down when she came in. She wasn’t sure if that was something they did around all the executives, out of respect, or just around her, out of fear. She tried to be relatable and fun—and thought they liked her, but a supervisor never could tell what her employees whispered about around the water cooler. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t there to be their friends.

If they didn’t like her, they all did a good job of faking it, smiling and saying “good morning” as she sat at the head of the table. As she pulled her chair in, she let out a sigh. Same scenery, different week. “Hello, everyone. And how was your weekend?” she said, just as a formality. She didn’t care to know, and she sensed from their usual terse responses that they understood that. They all nodded and added their own version of “too short.” Short? Really, they didn’t know the meaning of the word. At least they’d left the office for more than a few hours. Diana hadn’t.

She’d stayed overnight Sunday into Monday, working on the new spreads for their Allure ad, and showered in the downstairs gym. She kept an entire closet of clothes in her office just for that purpose. So while her employees may have had lives outside of the Addict headquarters, Diana—well—didn’t. Not anymore, anyway. Among the group of twelve, a third were millennials. She related to them because of her own daughters. The rest were older, in their thirties and forties. And then there was Phil, branding director, who had come on board around the same time Diana had and was nearly Diana’s age. The two had clawed at each other, years ago, over who’d become a senior vice president and lead the creative group. She’d managed to come out on top.

Still full of piss and vinegar over the snub, Phil wasn’t going to be happy about her nixing all those brand-name ideas. But she’d been through that rodeo before. She knew how to cut through his crap. “How was yours?” he asked from his usual spot at her right elbow. He was busy nursing his usual extra-huge commuter cup of something, probably a necessity due to his commute in from Central Jersey. “Do anything fun?” he questioned in a lilting way that made her wince. He knew she hadn’t. “Yes. It was fun. Quiet,” she said, not looking at him.

Though she’d tried to keep the messy details of her pending divorce out of the office, it had a way of leaking in, anyhow. With all the phone calls Sandy had been taking from her lawyer and Evan, they likely knew something was up. She pointed to her notebook. After decades of running these meetings, she knew the agenda by heart, but she never came in without one. She couldn’t afford to let anything sidetrack her from the work that needed to be done, and side-conversations and tangents always seemed to bloat meetings unnecessarily. “Let’s get start—” She stopped when she realized she didn’t have the full attention of the room. A few of the millennials on the other side, Sandy included, were speaking in a low voice to one another, grinning. The three stopped talking and looked at Diana. “Sorry,” Sandy mumbled. “Am I missing something?” Diana asked.

Sometimes this was like dealing with a bunch of kids. Anything you’d like to share with the class? Sandy shook her head, “Marie was just telling us about her amazing vacation.” Case in point—the vacation tangent, that was the last thing this meeting needed. People always seemed to go on about them—where they were going, where they’d been, et cetera, et cetera. As if being at work was so awful, they’d rather talk of anyplace else. “Perhaps you can discuss that after the meeting,” she said with a smile. Sandy nodded, “Yes. Of course. I just wanted to know where she got that banging bracelet.” Macey, the willowy, messy-bun-wearing blonde from graphic design, always wore black turtlenecks, even in the dead of summer.

Now, she was wearing a bright red cuff with gold accents that was quite attractive. Not only that, but she had that just-back-from-vacation glow in her high cheekbones. Diana rarely paid much attention to the graphic designers since they were always squirreled away behind their massive Mac screens, but Macey had once looked sickly—exhausted. Now it was like she was a different person. She had to admit it was infectious. Being young and in love and away from the daily grind can do that for you. I was there, once. That was why they gave them four weeks of PTO to start. Diana had unlimited days off, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d used a single day. She was planning to skip this year’s vacation, much like last year, and the year before.

Something about sitting alone on a beach, while honeymooning couples traipsed around her, felt like torture. “Oh? You went to the islands with Blake, did you?” “Actually, my boyfriend had to work. I decided to take a solo trip. I hiked the mountains in Spain. You know, to clear my head,” Macey responded, holding up her wrist, the cuff jingling along with the other jewelry she had on. “And a craftsman was selling these in a little hut on the side of the road. Sixty euros.” “Oh?” Diana asked, flabbergasted. One could do that—just head out on one’s own? Macey had never sounded like the brave soul who’d solo vacation anywhere. In fact, she and the other girls usually didn’t venture to the bathroom unless they were in a group.

A whole other country? She had to give her props. “And did you clear your head?” “Oh, my gosh, yes!” the young woman gushed, smiling broadly and patting her heart as if it were about to explode from her chest. “It was amazing. I learned so much about the country. About myself. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” A little thrill stuttered through Diana’s own heart. Forgetting the boardroom walls surrounding her and the rest of her group lined up around the table, she blurted, “Really? And you did it entirely on your own? You didn’t know anyone?” “Not a single person on the entire continent. And I flunked Spanish in school. So it was really intimidating at first,” she laughed.

“Half the time, I didn’t know what anyone was saying!” “And you weren’t scared?” “To be honest, I was terrified.” Diana nodded, understanding. Even at just over fifty, she would’ve been scared, too. When was the last time she’d traveled alone, anywhere? Oh, Evan liked his vacations, but he usually chose those all-inclusive beach resort things, where their only responsibility was showing up and the staff took it from there. As a surgeon, he was used to using his brain so much at work that he didn’t want to have to use it on his vacations. Then, with the kids in tow, they’d gone to Disney, the Jersey Shore, or OBX. She’d never even entertained the thought of going out by herself. Some days, it was hard enough getting five minutes to herself. An entire “alone” trip? Insane. Well, it hadn’t been that insane of an idea—when she was younger like Macey.

She would’ve entertained such an idea with no qualms, once. Decades ago. Before Evan came and swept her off her feet, she’d had all those plans. Her biggest one? Paris. More specifically, Versailles. Oh, yes. She’d taken seven years of French in high school and college—committing to memory things like comment allez-vous and où sont les toilettes?—just waiting for the day when she’d be out on her own, able to travel the world. Right before she’d graduated from NYU, it all seemed to be coming true. The world, her oyster. She’d gotten that coveted invitation to the masquerade ball, from a dashing Frenchman.

And then . Major wrench—career, Evan, kids—all those early plans gone. Long years had passed. Now there was barely anything left of that idealistic girl. “But you have to understand . I was only nervous at first,” Macey continued. “By the time I stepped off the plane, I was fine. People love to help tourists. Everyone was so nice. You make a lot of friends with other solo travelers.

I got lost a few times, sure. But I had a total blast and made it back in one piece.” That was what her youngest daughter, Beatrice, had said when, a year ago, she up and went to Japan after graduating with her master’s degree. Don’t worry. Everyone here is so nice! She’d assured Diana of that without the least bit of trepidation at all. Diana had felt enough for the two of them . or maybe that was a tiny splash of envy? Which reminded her. She had to call Bea. Diana stared at Macey until she realized her mouth was hanging open. The entire room seemed to have darkened under shadow, becoming more depressing, the walls closing in.

As she scanned the faces of the people around the massive boardroom table, she suddenly remembered her purpose. “Oh. Nice,” she said, trying not to leak any of the jealousy that was currently bubbling inside her. “Glad to have you back, Macey. Now, let’s start with number one on the agenda. The name for the new mascara.” She glared at Phil, who smirked, “I thought the ones we came up with showed promise.” “Phil. Honestly? They’re terrible.” “You have any better ideas?” She opened her mouth, ready to tell him the handful of ideas she’d come up with during her tensecond brainstorming session earlier.

But suddenly, an image popped into her head of her at outdoor café enjoying a French pastry while romantic music swelled and the Eiffel Tower rose up in the background. And she realized she couldn’t remember a single one of her names for the new mascara. The thought of that vacation—that travel—had stirred something in her. She knew just what to do to talk herself down from the ledge.

.

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