This is the first chapter of a novel, completed by the author in June of 1997. The edited version can be found below.

Oxana's Pit
Chapter 1

Vincent pulled the office door closed and turned his key in the lock. He tested it to be certain it was secure and then brushed his fingers over the newly engraved plate on the door. "Andalucia Publishing," it read.

When he turned away from the door, he found himself facing three women, standing side by side. They were smartly dressed in trim business suits with respectable-length skirts, frilly high collars and identical black purses that complemented the charcoal gray of their not-too-expensive jackets. They had long brown hair, very little makeup and appeared to be in their mid-twenties---and, they were obviously triplets.

Vincent had seen a lot in his thirty-two years, but he never ceased to marvel at the variety and texture of life as it ebbed and flowed around him. He had a keen eye for detail and immediately began trying to find features in the women's faces to separate them from each other. And knowing that exceptional people probably found it a bit tiresome for others to display their surprise at seeing them, he was determined to pretend he saw nothing odd in their appearance.

"Excuse me, ladies." He stepped sideways to make his way around them.

"We're here about the management positions," said the one in the middle.

"Are they still open?" The one on the right continued as if she had spoken the first statement.

Vincent looked at the third one, expecting her to pick up where the others left off. But she remained silent as all three waited for his response.

"Yes," he said. "The positions are open, but Mrs. Applesauce...I mean Mrs. Applegate, has all ready left for the day. She's conducting the interviews."

They didn't seem to be amused by his mangling of the woman's name.

"Perhaps if you could come back in the morning..." he moved away and started down the hall. "I really must be going."

"No," said the middle one. "That's not possible."

"By this time tomorrow, we must be employed." It was the one on the right again.

Vincent turned, but didn't bother looking at the third one this time. "Why?" he asked the middle one. She seemed to be in charge.

"Because," said the third one, glancing at the other two, "if we're not gainfully employed by five, tomorrow afternoon, we'll lose our apartment."

Well, thought Vincent, a chink in the armor, and the third one does know how to speak. But does she realize how much she told me. Perhaps Miss Middle is aware that I know they are broke and behind on their rent, and probably behind on lot of other things as well.

"Are you the manager?" Naturally, it was the middle one asking the question.

"You might say that," Vincent replied.

"Does Mrs. Applegate report to you?" asked the right one.

How do they do that? he wondered---continue each other's thoughts? "Yes, she does."

"Then you can interview us." It was more of a demand than a request, and of course, it came from Miss Middle.

"That's not possible." Vincent glanced at his watch---it was almost six p.m.

"It won't take long." It was Miss Number Three, and with a smile, too.

Vincent sighed and set his briefcase on the floor. "Suppose for the sake of argument, that I all ready have two applicants in mind who are fully qualified for the positions and I only need one more person. Which of you would be applying for the ONE remaining position?" He was pretty sure he knew the answer to his question.

"Not possible," said Miss Middle.

"We went through every single want ad in the paper," said Miss Right.

"And," said Miss Left, spreading her hands to help her explain, "we called all the employment agencies, looking for a company with openings for three managers." She glanced at the name plate on the door. "Andalucia Publishing, and two other companies were the only ones in the entire city who were looking for three managers."

"Who were the other two?" He noticed none of them wore wedding rings.

"We decided to give you the right of first refusal." It was Miss Middle intercepting the question---of course.

Vincent looked from one to the other. "You ladies look hungry. Do you have plans for dinner?"

Miss Middle's eyes narrowed and she began to speak, but Miss Left cut her off. "No plans and we're starved." Apparently she was the only one who could smile.

"Hang on a sec." Vincent pulled out his cellphone and pressed a button. He put the instrument to his ear and spoke into the mouthpiece, "Home." The autodialer dialed his home number. After a moment someone answered.

"Hi, Miriam," he said. "Have the Hendersons arrived yet?" He listened. "When they get there, fix them a shaker of martinis, feed them dinner and then make them comfortable, I'll be along as soon as I can. And make the usual excuses for me." He listened for a moment. "Yes, I know they've heard all my reasons for being late. You're a sweetheart." Then he said, "Yes, you did know that all ready." He smiled at the three women as they watched him intently. "That will be fine. I'll see you later."

He pressed the OFF button, put the phone away and picked up his briefcase. "This way, please."


When they reached the parking garage, Vincent pressed a button on the transmitter attached to his key chain. The lights came on inside a long, sleek, midnight blue car a few feet in front of them. He pressed the button again and the two doors slowly swung open as the car's alarm system chirped twice to verify it had been turned off.

Vincent went to the passenger side and folded the seat forward to allow two of the women to get into the back. He dropped the seat in place and the third woman got in. He had no idea how they decided who would ride in the front, but there had been no discussion or confusion about the arrangement---they just did it.

After he put his briefcase in the trunk and slipped into the driver's seat, Vincent slid his key into the ignition and turned it. The twelve-cylinder engine roared to life and then smoothed out to a powerful purr.

As they pulled into the heavy traffic and turned west into the setting sun, someone in the back asked, "Can we put the top down?"

"If you can stand the wind." He looked into the rearview mirror to see who had asked.

"We can," the two in the back answered.

"All right," he said as he popped open a compartment at his right elbow and took his cap out. "You asked for it." He put the hat on and pressed a button on the dashboard.

As the top was lifting and folding itself back into the boot, the woman sitting next to him asked, "What kind of car is this?"

He glanced over to find her looking at the bird's-eye maple trim on the dashboard and the soft Cordovan leather of the seats, armrests and door panels. She had a severe look on her face.

"Jaguar," he said, and thought, hello Miss Middle.

His car phone rang and he glanced at the caller ID display to see who it was. Miss Middle looked down at it also. Angela Kilingham was the name on the screen. Vincent let the call roll over to his home phone. Miss Middle glanced up at him and then looked out her side window.


Vincent was accustomed to attracting attention when he drove his shiny new car down the street. It was an exquisite automobile with soft flowing lines and it carried a very sophisticated, expensive air about it. And with the top down, it looked even longer as it glowed in the late afternoon sun and exuded a deep, glossy elegance. But with the triplets in the car with him, he turned every head on the street.

Strangely enough, the women didn't seem to notice the stares of everyone they passed. They just watched the scenery and occasionally chatted about this or that building or what movies were playing at the theaters along the way.


After they were settled in the restaurant and began poring over their menus, the drink waiter came to the table.

"Good evening, Mr. Tramain, will your party be having drinks tonight?"

"Ladies?" Vincent said as he looked from one to the other.

"Red wine," said Miss Left.

Vincent and the waiter looked to the next one.

"Red wine," said Miss Middle.

The waiter nodded and looked to the third one---a knowing smirk on his face.

"Do you have Bud Light?" asked Miss Right.

Both Vincent and the drink waiter were startled by the question, but Vincent stifled a smile and pretending to study his menu.

"Uh, yes, of course," said the waiter.

"Then I'll have that," said Miss Right.

"Ice tea for you, Mr. Tramain?"

"Yes, Herman. Thank you."

The women looked around at each other---they seemed perplexed and somewhat concerned about their orders for drinks.

"Very good, Sir." The waiter bowed slightly to the ladies and sauntered off.

"Now then," Vincent said as he laid his menu down. "Why should I hire you people to work for me?"

"We have a degree in business management," said Miss Left.

For some reason, this sounded humorous and Vincent was tempted to ask if the three of them had worked on a single degree. But he thought better of it---Miss Middle surely wouldn't see anything funny about it. Then he wondered if they had arranged themselves in the same order as they had been in the hallway outside his office. He glanced at Miss Right, the one who had ordered the Bud Light. She smiled at him. No, she must have been Miss Left before. He looked from one to the other and still couldn't find anything to distinguish them---they were exact carbon copies. They all had deep brown eyes with precisely the same intensity. Their noses had identical shapes, and with the exception of Miss Right who seemed to be the only one who could smile, their lips had matching curls to them.

"Work experience?" he asked as he looked at Miss Middle.

"We just graduated last week," said Miss Left.

Vincent groaned audibly. "Oh," he said.

Miss Left didn't give him a chance to voice his concern. "What are the three positions you have open?" she asked.

Vincent sighed. He couldn't possibly hire three inexperienced managers, he didn't care if they had MBA degrees. One of the three positions might be filled with a green college graduate---he and the other managers could train him, but three people with no work experience---no, that was totally out of the question. Now he just wanted to get this meeting over with and move on to other things. However, he couldn't be rude to them---it wasn't in his nature.

"I actually have twenty positions open." He decided to tell them about his operation- --it would help him think through his plans and get organized for the first day of business. "There will be three departments, each with a manager, five clerks and computer operators."

The drinks came and the waiter placed the Bud Light in front of Miss Left. She didn't say anything but only waited until the waiter walked away, then she picked up the beer and handed it to Miss Right who handed her the red wine.

"That's only eighteen positions," said Miss Left after she sipped her wine. "What are the other two?"

"Well, I would like to have a secretary for myself." Vincent stirred a packet of Sweet'N Low into his tea. He took a sip. "She, or he, will also double as our receptionist."

"Then Mrs. Applegate is the twentieth person?" It was Miss Middle this time.

"No. Mrs. Applegate is a business consultant who's only working for me temporarily until we're staffed up. She'll be gone after thirty days."

"Then, what's the twentieth position?" asked Miss Right.

"Wait a minute," said Miss Left.

Vincent looked at her as did the other two women.

"This is a start-up operation?"

Vincent nodded. "I thought you knew."

"No, we didn't know." She was thoughtful for a moment. "I think we've made a mistake." The other two didn't disagree.

"A mistake?" Vincent said.

Miss Left went on. "We don't want to work for a new company that might not be in operation very long."

"Seventy-five percent of all new companies fail within the first year," quoted Miss Middle.

"We were actually looking for a bigger company, one that will be around for a while." Miss Left again.

Vincent could feel his pulse quicken, but he subdued his rising temper. Miss Left was definitely the previous Miss Middle. "Well," he said, "I hate to disappoint you, Miss..."

"DuBois," said Miss Left.

"...Miss DuBois. But I plan for Andalucia Publishing to be in business long after the three of you are rocking away at the old folks' home." He wasn't doing very well at controlling his hot temper. "And furthermore, I don't need three uninitiated college graduates telling me how to run my company." So much for decorum and restraint.

There was dead silence for thirty seconds before anyone spoke.

"What's the twentieth position?"

Vincent looked at Miss Right. She smiled and sipped her Bud Light. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out.

"That job will go to my vice president. He..." Vincent paused but didn't bother adding the words; or she. "...will have to run the operation on a day-to-day basis. I don't intend to be there every day. And, for your information..." He looked back at Miss Left. "...I plan to fill that position by letting the three managers compete for it. I'm sure they taught you in business school, that interdepartmental friction is good for the overall health of the management staff. I want the best to rise to the top. The ones who can't take the pressure can drop out and I'll replace them with people who can do the job. With all due respect..." He looked from one to the other. "...I don't think the three of you could compete with each other for any of the jobs."

Fortunately the waiter chose that particular moment to take their orders. The man looked from one frowning face to the next and finally said, "I can come back later."

"No," said Miss DuBois-Left, and she shot a piercing look at Vincent. "We're ready to order." She grabbed her menu and popped it open. After a quick scan of the items, she said, "I'll have the veal filet mignon with crab filled morel mushrooms." She dropped her menu to the table, folded her arms and fixed Vincent with her icy stare. "Medium rare," she said before the waiter could ask.

Miss DuBois-Middle ordered the roast duckling with orange and fig chutney and dropped her menu to the table.

Vincent looked down the list of entrees and noticed they were ordering the most expensive items on the menu. After a moment, he realized Miss DuBois-Right hadn't ordered yet. He looked up to find everyone else watching her and waiting to see what she would order. Let me guess, Vincent said to himself---Alaska King Crab. "How's the fried chicken?" Miss DuBois-Right asked the waiter.

"Delicious," he whispered. "And it comes with your choice of two vegetables."

Vincent glanced up at her and then at Miss DuBois-Left.

"Okay, I'll have that," said Miss DuBois-Right. "With mashed potatoes and black- eyed peas."

"Very well. And you, Mr. Vincent. The usual?"

"No, Nelson." He dropped his menu and looked over at Miss DuBois-Left. "I'll have what she's having." He waited for Nelson to write veal filet mignon on his pad and for Miss DuBois-Left to blink. She didn't. "Rare," Vincent said.

Miss DuBois-Left sipped her wine. "Do you have a business plan?"

"Of course."

The waiter picked up the menus and made his escape.

They talked about the business plan for a few minutes and then Miss DuBois-Left asked, "What's your capitalization?"

Good question. Vincent hesitated. Was it any of her business how much money he had set aside for company operations? Was it anyone's business? He saw her look him over for the first time. He guessed she was studying the cut of his suit and the quality of the material, and, when she inspected his hands---looking for rings, perhaps a wedding band? He picked up his tea with his left hand, being sure she had to tilt her head to get a good look at his fingers. She's sizing me up, he thought.

After putting his drink down he answered her question. "Five hundred thousand."

The three women exchanged glances. "Is that cash or equity in other assets?" asked Miss DuBois-Left.

Another good question. "Cash. All ready deposited in the company checking account, just waiting to be spent."

"What's your company's product?" asked Miss DuBois-Right.

Their food came and the four of them leaned back so the server could place the meals in front of them. When everything was set and the three women had exchanged plates, they started on the food.

"It's a new magazine," Vincent answered the question.

There was a moment of nothing other than the sound of silverware on china as they cut their food and ate. None of the three women seemed impressed with another magazine hitting an all ready glutted market.

"What's it called?" asked Miss DuBois-Middle. She cut into her roast duck.

"Orphan," he said as he took a bite of veal. It took him a moment to realize something had happened. When he looked at them, he found all three had stopped dead in their tracks. Food halfway to their mouths or a knife poised over a piece of meat. They all stared at him.

"What?" he said as he looked back to his plate and cut a piece of meat from his steak. "It's a magazine called Orphan," he explained and dipped the meat into a pool of steak sauce. He put the bite in his mouth.

The three women went back to their food. Eating slowly now, and quietly. They seemed absorbed in the last words he spoke.

"You mean," began Miss DuBois-Left and then she paused to chew a bite of food. "It's a magazine without a parent publication?"

"Or," said Miss DuBois-Middle, "a magazine about orphans?"

"I guess you could say it's both," said Vincent. "There is no parent publication, but actually it's a magazine for and about orphans."

After a few seconds of silence, the floodgates opened and all three of them spoke at once.

"Have you done any market research?"

"Are you on the Internet?"

"What kind of ads will you take?"

"Who's going to write the editorials?"

"Will you print letters to the editor?"

"What's the cover price?"

"Have you contacted distributors and bookstores yet?"

"Will you give free copies to orphanages?"

"What do you know about orphans?"

Vincent laid his knife and fork beside his plate, picked up his napkin and sat back in the seat. He was overwhelmed by the questions and the sudden enthusiasm of his three dinner guests. He took a sip of tea and answered the last question first.

"The only thing I know about orphans, is that I am one."

Miss DuBois-Right swallowed.

"So are we," said Miss DuBois-Left and she smiled for the first time.











Oxana's Pit

Chapter 1
(Edited by Marilyn Grandi in November, 1997)


Vincent locked his office door and turned away to find himself facing three identical women, standing side by side. They were smartly dressed in trim business suits with respectable-length skirts, frilly high collars and black purses that complemented the charcoal gray of their not-too-expensive jackets. Their long brown hair was in a simple layered style, blunt cut along the bottom. They wore little makeup and appeared to be in their mid-twenties.

He had experienced many things in his thirty-two years, but Vincent never ceased to marvel at the variety and texture of life as it ebbed and flowed around him. With a keen eye for detail, he immediately began trying to find features in the women's faces to separate them from each other. Supposing that exceptional people might find it a bit tiresome for others to display their surprise at seeing them, he was determined to pretend he noticed nothing peculiar in their appearance.

"Excuse me, ladies." He stepped to one side, making his way around them.

"We're here about the management positions," the one in the middle said brashly.

"Are they still open?" said the one on the right picking up where the other one left off. She sounded just as impetuous as the first, but prudent as well.

Vincent looked at the third one, thinking she would continue. Surprisingly she didn't, and the three faces adopted an identical expectant look as they waited for his answer. The three of them carried an air of suppressed elegance that seemed a bit sedate for their age.

"Yes," he said. "The positions are open, but Mrs. Applesauce...I mean Mrs. Applegate, has already left for the day. She's conducting the interviews." They didn't seem to be amused by his mangling of the woman's name. "Perhaps if you could come back in the morning..." he moved away and started down the hall. "I really must be going."

"No," said the middle one. "That's not possible."

"By this time tomorrow, we must be employed." It was the one on the right, prudently trying to temper her sister's forwardness.

Vincent turned, but didn't bother looking at the third one this time. "Why?" he asked the middle one. Brash was the only word that kept coming to his mind. And she seemed to be in charge.

"Because," explained the third one, speaking for the first time as she glanced at the other two, "if we're not gainfully employed by five, tomorrow afternoon, we'll lose our apartment."

A chink in the armor. He watched them for a moment. What did he have here? Three young ladies clearly in distress, but only one willing to show weakness. And she was not rude or blunt; tactful was a better description of the third one. Yes, Miss Tactful, Vincent thought. Did she know how much she had revealed? Perhaps Miss Brash in the middle was aware that, by now, he had figured out they were broke and behind on their rent, and probably late on a lot of other things as well.

"Are you the manager?" Naturally, Miss Brash asked.

"You might say that."

"Does Mrs. Applegate report to you?" asked Miss Prudent from the right.

He wondered how they did that---continued each other's thoughts? Was it just one mind multiplied in three bodies?

"Yes, she does."

"Then you can interview us." It sounded like a demand rather than a request, and of course, it came from Miss Brash.

"That's not possible." Vincent glanced at his watch---it was almost six p.m.

"It won't take long." It was Miss Tactful, the quiet one, and with a smile, too.

Vincent sighed and set his briefcase on the floor. He noticed Miss Tactful's eyes following his every move. Watching with interest each gesture and motion as if trying to glean some tiny bit of intelligence from everything he did. What a threesome, he thought, so identical and yet so remarkably different.

"Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I already have two applicants in mind who are fully qualified for the positions and I only need one more person. Which of you would be applying for the ONE remaining position?" Vincent was pretty sure he knew the answer.

"Not possible," said Miss Brash.

"We went through every single want ad in the paper," said Miss Prudent.

"And," explained Miss Tactful, spreading her hands to emphasize her words, "we called all the employment agencies, looking for a company with openings for three managers." She glanced at the newly engraved name plate on the door. "Andalucia Publishing, and two other companies were the only ones in the entire city who were looking for three managers."

"Who were the other two?" he asked, looking at their hands; none of them wore wedding bands.

"We decided to give you the right of first refusal." It was Miss Brash intercepting the question---of course.

Vincent looked from one to the other. "You ladies look hungry. Do you have plans for dinner?"

Miss Brash's eyes narrowed and she began to speak, but Miss Prudent cut her off. "No plans, and we're starved." Miss Tactful smiled in agreement.

"Hang on a sec." Vincent pulled out his cellphone and pressed a button. While Miss Tactful glanced from his hands, to the phone and then to his eyes, he put the instrument to his ear and spoke into the mouthpiece, "Home." The phone automatically dialed his home number. After a moment someone answered.

"Hi, Miriam," he said, smiling at Miss Tactful. "Have the Hendersons arrived yet?" He listened. "When they get there, fix them a shaker of martinis, feed them dinner and make them comfortable, I'll be along as soon as I can. And make the usual excuses for me." He waited for a moment and then added, "Yes, I know they've heard all my reasons for being late. You're a sweetheart, of course you did know that already." Now all three ladies were watching him intently. "That will be fine. I'll see you later."

He pressed the OFF button, put the phone away and picked up his briefcase. "This way, please."

When they reached the parking garage, Vincent pressed a button on the transmitter attached to his key chain. The lights came on inside a long, sleek, midnight blue car. He pressed the button again and the two doors slowly swung open as the car's alarm system chirped twice to verify it had been turned off.

Vincent went to the passenger side and folded the seat forward to allow two of the women to get into the back. He had lost track of who was who. The third one got in the front after he dropped the seat in place. He had no idea how they decided which one would ride in the front, but there had been no discussion or confusion about the arrangement---they just did it.

He put his briefcase in the trunk and slipped into the driver's seat, slid his key into the ignition and turned it. The twelve-cylinder engine roared to life and then smoothed out to a powerful purr.

As they pulled into the heavy traffic and turned west toward the setting sun, someone in the back spoke, "Can we put the top down?"

"If you can stand the wind." He looked in the rearview mirror to see who had asked.

"We can," the two in the back answered together.

"All right," he said as he popped open a compartment at his right elbow and took out his cap. "You asked for it." He pressed a button on the dashboard. The blue baseball cap he put on, had an embroidered logo displaying a large drop of rain water with a stand of trees reflected in it. The words "Echo Forests" were stitched in a half-circle under the logo.


When the top started lifting and folding itself back into the boot, the woman sitting next to him asked, "What kind of car is this?"

He glanced over to find her looking at the bird's-eye maple trim on the dashboard and the soft Cordovan leather of the seats, armrests and door panels. She had a severe look on her face.

"Jaguar," he said, and thought, hello Miss Brash.

His car phone rang and he glanced at the caller ID display to see who it was. Miss Brash also looked down. Vincent let the call roll over to his home phone. She glanced at him and turned to look out her side window.


Vincent was accustomed to attracting attention when he drove his shiny new car down the street. It was an exquisite automobile with soft flowing lines and it carried a very sophisticated, expensive air about it. And with the top down, it looked even longer as it glowed in the late afternoon sun and exuded a deep, glossy elegance. But with the triplets in the car with him, he turned every head on the street.

Strangely enough, the ladies didn't seem to notice the attention they attracted. They just watched the scenery and occasionally chatted about this or that building or the movies that were playing at the theaters along the way.


Once they were settled in Le Fontaine's and began poring over their menus, the waiter came to the table.

"Good evening, Mr. Tramain, will your party be having drinks tonight?"

"Ladies?" Vincent said as he looked from one to the other.

"Red wine," said the one seated on the left.

Vincent and the waiter looked to the next one.

"Red wine," said the one in the middle.

The waiter nodded and looked to the third one---a knowing smirk on his face.

"Do you have Bud Light?" she asked.

The question was startling, but Vincent stifled a smile and pretended to study his menu.

"Uh, yes, of course," said the waiter.

"Then I'll have that," she said.

"Ice tea for you, Mr. Tramain?"

"Yes, Herman. Thank you."

The women looked at each other---they seemed perplexed and somewhat concerned about their orders for drinks.

"Very good, Sir." The waiter bowed slightly to the ladies and sauntered off.

"Now then," Vincent said as he laid down his menu. "Why should I hire you people to work for me?"

"We have a degree in business management," said the triplet on the left.

For some reason, this sounded humorous and Vincent was tempted to ask if the three of them had worked on a single degree. But he thought better of it---Miss Brash surely wouldn't see anything funny about it. Then he wondered if they had arranged themselves in the same order as they had been in the hallway outside his office. He glanced to his right at the one who had ordered the Bud Light. She smiled at him. No, she must be Miss Tactful. He looked from one to the other and still couldn't find anything to distinguish them---they were exact carbon copies. They all had deep brown eyes with precisely the same intensity. Their noses had identical shapes, and with the exception of Miss Tactful who seemed to be the only one who could smile, their lips had matching curls to them.

"Work experience?" he asked as he looked at the one in the middle.

"We just graduated last week," quickly answered the one on the left.

Vincent groaned audibly. "Oh," he said and ran his fingers through his hair on the side of his head as if it were mused.

She went on and didn't give him a chance to voice his concern. "What are the three positions you have open?" she asked.

That had to be Miss Brash on his left. He sighed---he couldn't possibly hire three inexperienced managers, even if they had MBA degrees. One of the three positions might be filled by an unseasoned college graduate---Vincent and the other managers could train him---but three people with no work experience...no, that was totally out of the question. Now he just wanted to get this meeting over with and move on to other things. However, he couldn't be rude to them---it wasn't in his nature.

"I actually have twenty positions open." He had decided to tell them about his operation---it would help him think through his plans and get organized for the first day of business. "There will be three departments, each with a manager, five clerks and computer operators."

The drinks came and the waiter placed the Bud Light in front of Miss Brash. She didn't say anything but only waited until the waiter walked away, then she picked up the beer and handed it to Miss Tactful who passed her the red wine.

"That's only eighteen positions," said Miss Brash after she sipped her wine. "What are the other two?"

"Well, I would like to have a secretary for myself." Vincent stirred a packet of Sweet'N Low into his tea. He took a sip. "She, or he, will also double as our receptionist."

"Then Mrs. Applegate is the twentieth person?" It was the middle one this time, Miss Prudent.

"No. Mrs. Applegate is a business consultant who's only working for me temporarily until we're fully staffed. She'll be gone after thirty days."

"Then, what's the twentieth position?" asked Miss Tactful with a smile.

"Wait a minute," said Miss Brash.

Vincent looked at her and so did her two sisters.

"This is a start-up operation?"

Vincent nodded. "I thought you knew."

"No, we didn't know." She was thoughtful for a moment. "I think we've made a mistake." The other two seemed to agree.

"A mistake?" Vincent said.

Miss Brash went on. "We don't want to work for a new company that might not be in operation very long."

"Seventy-five percent of all new companies fail within the first year," quoted Miss Prudent.

"We were actually looking for a bigger company, one that will be around for a while." Miss Brash again, naturally.

Vincent could feel his pulse quicken, but he subdued his rising temper. "Well," he said, "I hate to disappoint you, Miss Brash."

"Bravant," she said, and added ironically, "But you were close."

"Miss Bravant, of course. I plan for Andalucia Publishing to be in business long after the three of you are rocking away at the old folks' home." He wasn't doing very well at controlling his hot temper. "And furthermore, I don't need three uninitiated college graduates telling me how to run my company." So much for decorum and restraint.

There was dead silence for a few seconds before anyone spoke.

"What's the twentieth position?"

Vincent looked at Miss Tactful, on the right. She smiled and sipped her Bud Light. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out.

"That job will go to my vice president. He..." Vincent paused but didn't bother adding the words; or she, "...will have to run the operation on a day-to-day basis. I don't intend to be in the office every day.

"And, for your information..." He looked back at Miss Brash, on the left. "...I plan to fill that position by letting the three managers compete for it. Then when one of them is promoted to vice president, he will hire a replacement for his old department. I'm sure they taught you in business school, that interdepartmental friction is good for the overall health of the management staff. I want the best to rise to the top. The ones who can't take the pressure can drop out and they'll be replaced with people who can do the job. With all due respect..." He looked from one to the other. "...I don't think the three of you could compete with each other for any of the jobs."

Fortunately the waiter chose that particular moment to take their orders. The man looked from one frowning face to the next and finally said, "I can come back later."

"No," said Miss Brash-Bravant, and she shot a piercing look at Vincent. "We're ready to order." She grabbed her menu and popped it open. After a quick scan of the items, she said, "I'll have the veal filet mignon with crab filled morel mushrooms." She dropped her menu to the table, folded her arms and fixed Vincent with her icy stare. "Medium rare," she said before the waiter could ask.

Miss Prudent ordered the roast duckling with orange and fig chutney and dropped her menu to the table.

Vincent looked down the list of entr‚es and noticed they were ordering the most expensive dishes. After a moment, he realized Miss Tactful hadn't ordered yet. He looked up to find her two sisters watching her, waiting for her order. Let me guess, Vincent said to himself---Alaska King Crab.

"How's the fried chicken?" Miss Tactful asked the waiter.

"Delicious," he whispered. "And it comes with your choice of two vegetables."

Vincent glanced at her and then at Miss Brash.

"Okay, I'll have that," said Miss Tactful. "With mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas."

"Very well. And you, Mr. Tramain. The usual?"

"No, Nelson." He dropped his menu and looked over at Miss Brash. "I'll have what she's having." He waited for Nelson to write veal filet mignon on his pad and for Miss Brash to blink. She didn't.

"Rare," Vincent said.

Miss Brash sipped her wine nonchalantly and inquired, "Do you have a business plan?"

"Of course."

The waiter picked up the menus and made his escape.

They talked about the plan for a few minutes and then Miss Brash asked, "What's your capitalization?"

Good question. Vincent hesitated. Was it any of her business how much money he had set aside for company operations? Was it anyone's business? He saw her look him over for the first time. She was obviously studying the cut of his suit and the quality of the fabric, and she inspected his hands---looking for rings, perhaps a wedding band. Making sure she had to tilt her head to get a good look at his fingers, he picked up his glass with his left hand. He knew she was sizing him up.

Putting down his drink, he finally decided to answer her question. "Five hundred thousand."

The three women exchanged glances. "Is that cash, or equity in other assets?" asked Miss Brash.

Another good question. "Cash. Already deposited in the company checking account, just waiting to be spent."

"What's your company's product?" asked Miss Prudent.

Their food came and the four of them leaned back to give the waiter room to place the meals in front of them. When everything was set and the three women had exchanged plates, they started on the food.

"It's a new magazine," Vincent answered the question.

There was a moment of silence except for the sound of silverware on china as they cut their food and ate. The three women probably weren't very impressed with another magazine hitting an already glutted market.

"What's it called?" asked Miss Tactful. She took a bite of black-eyed peas.

"Orphan," he said as he took a bite of veal. It took him a moment to realize something had happened. When he looked at them, he found all three had stopped dead in their tracks. Food halfway to their mouths, silverware poised---they all stared at him.

He cut a piece of meat from his steak. "It's a magazine called Orphan," he explained and dipped the meat into a pool of steak sauce. He put the bite in his mouth.

The three women went back to their food. Eating slowly now, and quietly. They seemed absorbed in the last words he spoke.

"You mean," began Miss Brash and she paused to chew a bite. "It's a magazine without a parent publication?"

"Or," said Miss Prudent, "a magazine about orphans?"

"I guess you could say it's both," Vincent said. "There is no parent publication, but actually it's a magazine for and about orphans."

After a few seconds of silence, the floodgates opened and all three of them spoke at once.

"Have you done market research?"

"Are you on the Internet?"

"What kind of ads will you take?"

"Who's going to write the editorials?"

"Will you print letters to the editor?"

"What's the cover price?"

"Have you contacted distributors and bookstores yet?"

"Will you give free copies to orphanages?"

"What do you know about orphans?"

Vincent laid his knife and fork beside his plate, picked up his napkin and sat back in the seat. He was overwhelmed by the questions and the sudden enthusiasm of his three dinner guests. He took a sip of tea and answered the last question first.

"The only thing I know about orphans, is that I am one."

Miss Tactful swallowed.

"So are we," said Miss Brash. Her smile was surprisingly sweet.


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