In Three Minutes Flat

“Vituperative? Really, Steven?”

Steven’s lanky fingers slid across the screen, his knotted knuckle tapping on the glass. Bitter and abusive.

His client loved strong definitions. She’d purchased eight words solely by waving a good definition at her aquiline nose. She would hum, a rattling in her wrinkled throat, deliver a lame objection on alternative definitions and synonyms, before whipping out her checkbook.

Her pen emerged from her Fendi bag with no challenge this afternoon. “Maybe you have a point. How much?”

The second stage involved a lot of bickering; she could buy his office complex twenty times over, but her incessant parsimoniousness squeezed him for every credit she could. “Twenty-five thousand credits. No negotiation this time, Miss Havendish.”

“For that price? No need, my dear.”

Her atypical charitableness had Steven wondering if he was getting soft, or if his valuations were even close anymore. When he had succeeded Father, ticker tape still spooled in the corner, leases starting and ending as fast as paper could print. Fewer wordsmiths then had made tracking lease prices a simpler task. Computers had crowdsourced the leasing of words, and the magic of it all vanished with the tape.

With a flourish of her wrist, Miss Havendish freed two months of Steven’s business expenses from her tight pocketbook. Her first lease, “ostentatious” on a six-month term back before Father, still did her justice.

“Oh, won’t that make Ellen’s cheeks just ruddy!” The object of Miss Havendish’s eternal scorn, Miss Flexmon, bought twelve words a year, and as long a lease as she could nab, too. She’d coyly wink when she proclaimed that she didn’t much care what Miss Havendish bought. Their tacit bidding war kept Steven’s lights on – flickering, but on.

“You know, Steven, she rubbed my nose in invigorating during Archibald’s Pig Roast Dinner last September. Terribly uncouth, I must add. I was quite pleased when her lease expired on that one, quite pleased indeed.”

Miss Havendish loved telling her little stories; they made her feel important in Steven’s tiny office with the leaking pipe he couldn’t get fixed. So long as the check cleared, Steven let her. “Undoubtedly, Miss Havendish.”
Carved across his transom rested the sentence that kept him from chucking Miss Havendish square through his eighth-story window. The customer is always right. At eight in the morning sharp, a father said it to his son, branded onto Steven’s brain long before the office drywall. His eyes stayed locked to that spot whenever Miss Havendish visited.

“And did I tell you what she did at Percival’s lakehouse? She took shimmering! How else could one describe those crystalline lake waters?”

Steven held his tongue as she murmured about the sandy beach and azure horizon seen from Percival’s deck. Some greedily hoarded their words; others charged a use fee, which can fill up empty coffers with a three-hour lease on “the,” more enriching than gold or diamonds.

And then Misses Havendish and Flexmon would engage in a cold war of charges for their words. A bully time for them, less so for poor souls caught using “vituperative.”

“…and then, we reach the curb of Titus’s new restaurant, surely you know the Kobe steakhouse on Garner Street, and she steals succulent!”

“Of course, Miss Havendish,” Steven said with Havendish-inspired obliviousness. He watched her check clear and then disappear into the overdue bills clawing at his account.

Still, the check felt weighty between his fingers while his other hand typed random keys on his computer. Faking a message wasn’t too hard, as Miss Havendish struggled with the flip phone that squeaked whenever she phoned her driver.

“My apologies, Miss Havendish, but I have calls to make today.” Miss Havendish nodded and made a real call. Her limousine would arrive in three minutes flat, the longest three minutes of Steven’s day.

“Oh, no trouble at all, none whatsoever, Steven. Such a busy man, I’m sure.” Her voice carried the proper amount of condescension. Enough feigned care about his time, but not too generous. She deigned to let Steven have his afternoon, fitting of a good socialite.

He hoarded that time, even if he wasted it on false emails. She tittered away about another indiscretion from the horrid Miss Flexmon, her grumpy tone almost relaxing as Steven pretended to work.

Normally, her chair squeaked and her bones creaked upon exiting. But, his brows furrowed as her murmuring continued unabated. In rising frustration, Steven hammered the fat computer keys, and his eyes flitted from the screen and got trapped in the transom.

“How much for that?” His blood froze. She had noticed his gaze, and her finger pointed where it should never have been pointing.

Maybe he was mistaken. Foolish to think, but wordsmithing was a fool’s errand these days. Only needing another 45 seconds, he tried playing dumb. “For what, Miss Havendish?”

“The customer is always right. My, that would really boil Ellen’s blood, I say!”

A talented wordsmith could lease words indefinitely. The longer the phrase, the better the chance of favorably manipulating the lease. Father never understood, but his son knew his way around a bureaucracy. For five years, his prize of the system had lived on his transom. He took a special joy in whispering it to the mirror in his office before Miss Havendish’s visits. “I can’t let that one go. Sincerest apologies.”

“Not even for half a million?”

Despite her geriatric stoop, Miss Havendish rose formidably from her chair. A tough customer who often thought herself to be right. He peeked at his phrase and sighed, trusting that Father meant for his son to follow more the spirit of the law. “I….”

“Surely your office could use some additional funds? You deserve it, Steven, for your arduous work!”

She bounced in pursuit of this lease. Blood swirled in the water, an opportunity more delectable than Kobe beef. Steven’s phrase must’ve had her salivating.

He stared at his transom when he said no. “I can’t, Miss Havendish.”

Her tsk sounded haughtiest of all. “And you call yourself a wordsmith? For shame, Steven.” She muttered more shaming and expensive words under her breath. The door creaked as she started to leave.

She wanted that phrase, and nothing would deter the surprisingly cunning Miss Havendish from getting what she wanted. Miss Havendish’s parting words would expertly honey the musty air.

The pipe cracked further, and fat dirty water droplets plunked onto Steven’s scalp as he stood at his desk. He bit his tongue as he watched Miss Havendish wait in the doorway for the inevitable.

He owned those words. Even as the walls rotted and the pipes burst and the bill collectors hounded, he owned them.

Well, he had owned them. And he’d better get used to saying that. “Miss Havendish, I….”

“Three hundred thousand.”

Her shrewdness made his toes curl, and he clenched his fists as he hissed. “Fine.”

She applauded, and he almost rescinded his acceptance. But she had tantalized well, and the pipe had dripped on his scalp again. “I’ll expect the paperwork posthaste. Always a pleasure, Steven, truly so!”

He exhaled as the door mercifully closed behind her. His fingers worked robotically, combing his computer for the proper licenses. He looked at his mirror’s edge. There was no earthly way he could fight this deal now, though it could be grand fun to burn it down, to call Miss Flexmon first and see what would happen.

But his fingers didn’t comply and, with a lovely chime, away went the lease. Computers made things so much easier.


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