Another eruption of cheers sounded, and the entire mole army began preparing themselves for their great march. Prue and Curtis froze in place; the frantic activity below their feet was such that any wrong step could result in another inadvertent smiting. They watched breathlessly as siege towers, no taller than coffee tables, were carefully erected by teams of laboring moles; battering rams, made of what appeared to be pencils rubber-banded together, were shifted into position; while trebuchets and catapults, the size of children’s toys, followed in the rear. The mole knights seemed well trained for this massive military action; they easily broke into their assigned phalanxes, with the halberd moles taking up the secondary position (wielding what looked like chopsticks with pieces of tin can attached to the tips), directly behind a veritable sea of needle-and-pin-armed infantry moles; the salamander-mounted cavalry moved noisily behind these two blocks of soldiers, their steeds snorting and bucking in a very horselike fashion. Once the thousands-strong army had arrived at its marching pattern, the entire chamber fell into a hushed quiet.
High Master Commander Sir Timothy Mole, his salamander a blazing black-dappled red, rode proudly up the side of the phalanx of soldiers. The only sound came from a single drum (an empty container of chewing tobacco) and the drummer, who beat a solemn, intermittent prrap-a-tap-tap-tap on its tin head. Each mole, regardless of their rank or station, stood rigidly still, their little black snouts held at a lofty angle. Sir Timothy, though blind, seemed to appraise his troops with a proud steeliness, the bottle caps of his armor (one read: LEMONY ZIP!) glinting in the Overdwellers’ lantern light.
“This is so cool,” whispered Curtis, enraptured by the proceedings.
“Uh-huh,” was all Prue could manage.
Sir Timothy reined his salamander in at the front of the mole host. “KNIGHTS UNDERWOOD,” he shouted. “WE MARCH!”
The drummers laid into their makeshift drums; a line of bagpipers took up a martialing tune. The thrum of a million tiny footsteps created a mighty din in the chamber as the mole army began their advance on the City of Moles.
Desdemona was sitting on the sofa. She was staring distractedly at the variety of magazines that lay on the side table and finding herself not tempted to pick up a single one. The 1% Journal? What did that even mean? She didn’t understand the industrialist sensibility; she never had. She’d fallen in with the crowd because she’d been attracted to the money—that was what her cousin Dmitri had advised in his email to her from New York. “If you’re going to try to make it here, Dessie,” he’d written, “you have to follow the money.” And so she did. And the money had led her to Joffrey Unthank and the Quintet of industrialists. She felt that cousin Dmitri’s advice had been sensible, though she understood now that there was more to success and satisfaction than just blindly following money. What that more was, she wasn’t sure. But she was determined to find out.
The girl at the reception desk had been eyeing her ever since she’d stepped into the lobby of the Titan Tower, level thirty. She looked very young, this receptionist; she reminded Desdemona of herself when she’d been in her twenties—full of ambition and grace. She’d arrived in Portland in the possession of a film acting résumé that included Odessa Drifters and The Godfather: Part Two. The latter had been an unlicensed Ukrainian remake—but still: It looked great on a CV. The dream was still alive in her. However, there was something in the receptionist’s occasional glare that made Desdemona think she was looking down on her; a decidedly there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I kind of sneer. But could she blame her? Sure, Desdemona, at the receptionist’s age, and seeing some poor woman in a secondhand gown and a plaster-cast of makeup to cover the encroaching menaces of age—wouldn’t she have shot the same withering glance?
She thankfully did not have time to consider this thought before the phone rang at the receptionist’s desk; the girl answered and, between smacks of her gum, said into the receiver, “Yeah, she’s here, Mr. Wigman. Should I show her in?”
Apparently the voice on the other end answered in the affirmative, because the young receptionist stood up from her desk, smoothed the fabric of her skirt, and walked toward Desdemona. “He’ll see you now, Miss…”
“Miss Mudrak,” she answered.
“Riiiight. Mr. Wigman will see you now. This way, please.”
Just you wait, little girl, Desdemona inwardly fumed. Life will beat you down eventually.
Together they walked to the large brass double doors at the other end of the lobby. The girl had some difficulty getting them open, but once she did, she gestured Desdemona inside. She was greeted by a booming and familiar voice.
“Dessie!” said Mr. Wigman. “Honey! Where you been all my life?”
“Hello, Mr. Wigman,” answered Desdemona, affecting a purr. It was one of her go-to acting tools—the charming purr.
“Please, call me Brad. Let’s drop the formalities here.” He was standing at the head of a massive ovoid conference table; his immense frame was backlit by windows that overlooked the expanse of the Industrial Wastes.
“Yes, Brad. Of course. Between old friends.”
Brad Wigman, Titan of Industry, laughed a resounding belly laugh, and the noise went rippling through the air of the conference room. The laugh was, in point of fact, the envy of the entire industrialist community. He’d actually been written up for it in the September issue of Tax Bracket. The cover line had read: “Brad Wigman’s Laugh—A Bellwether for Prosperity? Tips on How to Make Your Own.?
?? It always made Desdemona cringe.
“Old friends,” said Wigman, once the echoes of the laugh had subsided. “IN-deed. What can I do ya for, Dessie?”
“Well, Mr. Wigman—Brad—it is Joffrey. There is—something the matter.”
Wigman’s expression morphed into a deep frown. “Oh?” he asked.
“And you know how you say, every time we see, that if ever, ever I needing something—if I needing money or favor or just need some nice words, I come to you. Yes?”
“I do recall saying this, Dessie. And I meant it.” He walked over to where she stood and put an arm on her shoulder. “You’re a good girl. A fine girl. So: What’s up with your man, there?”
“It is still … It is Impassable Wilderness.”
Brad rolled his eyes and scoffed, “He won’t give it up, will he?”
Desdemona shook her head, her eyes dramatically downcast.
“Bammer, Jimmy,” Wigman called, snapping his fingers just over Desdemona’s shoulder; two stevedores in matching red beanies came lumbering up. “Get this lovely lady a spritzer.” To Desdemona: “How does that sound? A spritzer?”
“A spritzer would be very nice.”