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The Panther's Rival by Emilia Hartley (55)


This sucks, Jo thought to herself, biting back a bored yawn as her boss prattled ceaselessly into her ear from the rickety headset she wore. 

“You absolutely must get this artist on board,” Brian insisted. “If we want to keep my little gallery running, pulling in the big names is paramount!”

“Don’t you mean our little gallery?” Jo muttered back into the mouthpiece, taking small pride in the way her boss spluttered on the other end of the line to cover his tracks.

“I, well, of course. Though you do work for me, I try to make everyone I employ feel that they are… apart of something bigger,” he rambled, his voice taking on a horribly synthetic British accent. “Which is why I need to make sure you understand how important this prospective client is!”

“Yeah, yeah, I kno…”

“I certainly hope so, Jo,” Brian interrupted. “I don’t want your lack of experience mucking things up!”

Bastard, I’m your best scouter! Jo growled inwardly, barely stopping herself from saying the scathing retort aloud. “You do your job, and I’ll do mine,” she opted to say into the mike.

She could almost hear his empty head rattling in an arrogant nod. “And I expect nothing less than success.”

“You know,” Jo said, shifting her weight as she leaned against the side of her car, “it’d be easier to do a perfect job with a more realistic traveling budget. Just a thought.”

She could hear Brian’s heavy sigh over the phone. “We’ve been over this,” he replied, voice clearly annoyed. “The budget was meticulously crafted with all of the current expenses carefully taken into account! It’s quite nuanced in ways I couldn’t possibly explain to you.” Jo knew this was Brian speak for, ‘I’m a cheapskate who doesn’t care how you get the work done, as long as it’s on as little of my dime as possible.’

“Trust that if we had even a penny more to spare, we wouldn’t hesitate to put it towards your trip,” he finished in a mock sincerity that made Jo’s lip curl.

“Right.” Her tone clipped.

“Yes, right, right.” She could hear a bit of unease seep into Brian’s voice, and she knew the conversation was pretty much over. “Well… at least this way you get to see the sights! Keep me posted.” With a beep, the line went dead without either saying goodbye.

Jo groaned loudly, grateful that the gas station lot was nearly empty. She could let out her frustrations in peace without disturbing the general public.

Sights? What sights?! The drive to San Francisco, California was two slow-moving days of alternating forestry and farmland. Two days! Apparently that wasn’t long enough to warrant spending the extra dollars for a plane ticket, so here she was, a day into the trip, kicking herself—both in frustration for not standing up to Brian and just to keep herself from dying of boredom.

But hey, as least she would get to ‘see the sights!’

“Pathetic,” Jo spat. Brian just didn’t want to admit that he’d been caught pinching pennies at the expense of her suffering.

Taking a deep breath, she tried her best to ignore the agitation she had for her boss. Already a day into her two-day drive, it was much too late to stew about it now. We’re going to have a really long talk when I get back to Chicago, though. Brushing a stray lock of wind-tousled brown hair from her eyes, she strolled into the gas station convenience store to pay for a full tank of gas.

Jo welcomed the cashier’s peppy voice, allowing it to wash away some of her chagrin. “Heading anywhere nice?” the high school aged girl asked?

Jo shrugged. “Not really. San Francisco, for work.”

“Oh wow! Quite the drive,” the girl replied, holding out Jo’s receipt.

You’re telling me, kid. “That it is.” Jo took the proffered paper from the girl. “But at least I’ll get to see the sights!” she said in mock enthusiasm.

The girl smiled in response, but Jo could see her confusion underneath. Instead of explaining, she gave a half-hearted wave and left the store. She hadn’t expected the cashier to get the joke, anyway.

“Drive safe!” Jo heard the girl call, as the door closed behind her.

***

“At least it’s quiet,” Jo said, eyeing the empty road as she drove. It had been two hours since she departed from the gas station, and she hadn’t seen a single car, bus, or even a hitchhiker. “That’s probably because they had the common sense to fly,” she muttered, grimly.

Wallowing in her sadness once more, Jo let out a deep sigh. She used to love this job. Being an Art Liaison had always been her passion. She was good at it; she had a natural eye for potential, and when Liberty Art had scouted her for her talents, it had been like a dream come true. When did it all go south?

“Brian,” she groaned, gripping the steering wheel tightly.  She’d been happy at her job until titles shifted hands about a year back and she suddenly found herself under the direct order of Brian Koenig, the cheapskate Gallery Manager. From that moment onward, trips that used to warrant a booked flight were made solely in her car. Hotels turned to motels or whatever hovel Brian could scope out for a few scarce dollars a night. Food had been stricken from the budget entirely! Jo bit back another groan as she recalled the first time she had to dip into her own pocket for a gas station sandwich.

She’d tried to argue for a bit of leniency from Brian time and time again, only to be met with the usual placating words of, “We’ll get right on it!” and, “We’re doing everything we can!” Still, nothing had changed, and here she was yet again, driving insane distances in her tired car to the next big thing in art, hoping that maybe this time her hard work will warrant the tiniest bit of luxury in future travels. Fat chance.

“I could just leave. Strike out on my own.” She nodded like it was a good idea, but knew she’d never make good on it. As Brian never ceased to remind her, her job was to ‘liaise,’ and as much as she wanted to oppose him, she was inclined to agree. Being a liaison was what she was good at. She didn’t know anything about the ins and outs of the Art Galley business as a whole, nor did she have the skill-set necessary to start the business and keep it running. She couldn’t risk walking away from a good job doing what she loved on the very off chance that she’d be okay on her own. Tolerating Brian was preferable to being homeless.

On that depressing note, Jo decided it was best to move her thoughts elsewhere. As if on cue, something shot out of the tree line in a blur of brown, heading straight for her car. With a shriek, she slammed the brakes hard, swerving roughly towards the shoulder of the road. The brown blur slid to a stop in front of her car, narrowly missing direct impact with the hood.

“What the hell.” Her fingers gripped painfully at ten and two. She peered warily over her dashboard into the road beyond, fearing that she might have hit… whatever the heck that thing was.

Just as she found where it lay, the thing rose to its large, furred paws, wobbling slightly from the shock of its fall. Jo saw it give one full-bodied shake of its coarse brown coat before it turned.

In more shock than fear, Jo met the clear dark eyes of a great brown bear as it took its first terrifying step towards her car.

 

 

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