With her hand placed against the folder, Esmeralda smirked with that pontifical superiority of hers. Staring down at me, with vacant eyes that even still belied the coldness of her heart, she had the kind of snide confidence of a hunter - staring down their prey as it bounced against the walls of an inescapable cage. She spoke softly, yet the undertones of her voice betrayed any sense of sincerity. Her words and actions were - in their truest sense - self-serving. Everything about her was.
"Get off my file," I said to her.
"Not until you listen to what I have to say, Malarie," Esmeralda replied. "I am afraid that I cannot simply allow a woman like you to squander an opportunity, one that could save both you and Vincent from the clutches of reincarnation."
"Save us?" I laughed. "You put us in this mess, Es. I know you're the one who talked to the boss and put me on the ropes in the first place."
"I am also the only person able to free you from the ropes," Esmeralda stated. "Need I remind you of that?"
As we stared up at one another, the tension was palpable, ire congealing upon the air between us like it were coagulant - blood-red rage steaming in the air as if it were humid wrath, the kind that suffocates the soul. Between her supercilious gaze and my unforgiving anger, it seemed as if the air itself were being suffocated beneath the weight of our vehement opposition.
However, I knew that at present, I was at her mercy. That was the spider's web that she'd weaved, and as much as I might hate her for it - the simple fact that I was stuck beneath her thumb anyway was not lost on me. I pulled my hand back from the manilla folder on my desk. My rage didn't dissipate, but in that moment, I'd at least surrendered myself to her explanation. It was a move I would perhaps come to regret, but I could do little about it now: not while I was trapped in her web, at least.
"You know, Malarie," Esmeralda said. "It would be wisest not to shoot yourself in the foot, for everyone's sake. I wish to offer you nothing more than an opportunity to do me a favour. It would not require you to compromise upon your values, it would not require you to become a person you do not want to be - I simply want you to help someone live a good life, that's all."
"And what's the catch?" I asked.
"Well, the person I want you to help live a good life is Dalton's current client," Esmeralda replied. "I want you to find out who they are, and make a life for them that they'd enjoy. You try help people, don't you? Well, all I want is for you to help Dalton's client, to ensure they don't suffer."
I tapped my pen against the desk, as I stared up at Esmeralda. I didn't trust Es as far as I could throw her. She was a conniving monster, but granted, I knew she was a woman of her word when it came to her deals. I knew what the ultimatum meant. She wanted me to ruin another of Dalton's cases by saving another life, tanking his reputation to the point that she could overtake him and get that coveted top-spot. Frankly, I didn't like the thought of either Dalton or Esmeralda having that position, the kind of immunity that came with being the indispensable "employee of the month". Nor did I like the thought of being particularly cozy with Es in the first place.
As I sat there, I couldn't help but feel as if I was trading away my principles for this, even if it would help others. However, at the end of the day, if I could help others - then maybe it was worth it? I detested the entire situation, and yet, I couldn't help but become embroiled in it - ensnared by that enticing possibility of saving someone from Dalton's grasp, and of saving Vincent and myself from Esmeralda's grasp.
"You said you'd be able to free me from the ropes," I asked. "What did you mean by that?"
"Well, if I gain the top spot, I can set conditionals as part of my terms," Es answered. "I would be the face of the company, meaning they would need to listen to my demands, or suffer the penalty. If one of those demands happens to be making you untouchable, I'm sure it'd be of minimal cost to them."
"What happens if Dalton doesn't fall beneath you in the rankings after this case?" I said. "That'd still leave me on the hook, Es. If I spend the next three hours on this case and it falls flat, they'd probably skip the blackboard step entirely and just reincarnate me."
"That is your problem, Malarie, not mine," Es replied, a darkened look tinting the crevices of her face as she stared down at me. "If you wish to make sure you avoid the chopping block, then it is up to you to do the best that you can. I will have more than enough opportunities to overtake Dalton. However, you've only got one shot to save yourself..."
Esmeralda leaned in close, as she spoke softly with a somehow soothing yet biting voice. Her words were like a sinister siren's song, laced with the poison of her silvered tongue, and as she leaned in close - I felt a cold shiver across my neck, her quiet yet frigid words seeming to make the air itself cold.
"...You'd best make it count, Malarie," she whispered. "For your own sake."
As she leaned back and stood up once more, I shuddered. A part of me didn't want to take the deal, fearing that taking up that sinister offer would be tantamount to a treachery of my values. However, I knew I had few choices. The inevitable possibility that I would be reincarnated in the next three hours was beginning to sink in, and in that sense, this was an opportunity to gain immunity. A chance to help more people. Even if she betrayed me in the end, I could still help one final person escape the clutches of this place.
"If I'm going to do this, and get involved with your mess, I want one more thing," I said.
"Yes?" Esmeralda replied.
"I want you to provide immunity to Vincent as well, under the terms of your contract," I stated. "After all, it isn't a big deal for you, isn't it?"
Esmeralda gave me a condescending frown as she stared down at me.
"Might I remind you that you're the one currently at risk of reincarnation, not me," Esmeralda replied. "You're in no place to be making demands."
"Frankly, I'd rather reincarnate than work with you," I stated. "So, you can grant both Vincent and I immunity, or I'll volunteer myself for a one-way ticket to the pits and get this whole charade over with. The choice is yours."
Annoyance was written on her face as she stared down at me. I could see, beneath her cold exterior, a fiery chagrin deep within her eyes. I smiled back at her, the kind of smile that one wears as they defy their position within the jaws of defeat. It frustrated her to be dictated to, especially by me. After a moment, Esmeralda let out an exasperated sigh in resignation, as she stared down at me - with a disgruntled look upon her face.
"Fine," she stated, extending her hand toward me. "We have a deal, then?"
I took her hand and shook upon it, hesitantly gripping the skin of her hand, cold as ice. I had my compunctions and misgivings about the whole arrangement. However, perhaps in that moment, I'd resigned myself to the cold reality of office politics that I'd spent so long fighting to avoid. I had no other choice, and perhaps, as I stared up at Esmeralda - that was by her design.
"I guess so," I replied.