Winnowing the Herd

By Carrie Vaughn

Nobody was wearing perfume or fancy aftershave. It wasn't that kind of crowd. But I did smell patchouli, three different kinds of bathing products from the Body Shop, a recently changed baby, more patchouli covering up the smell of pot, and a shedding German Shepherd.

The German Shepherd belonged to Frank from marketing. He'd left the dog at home, cleaned up, didn't have a German Shepherd hair on him, and probably didn't even realize he smelled like dog.

". . . so I told him, no. Absolutely not. I mean, we're an NPR affiliate, why would we want to advertise a gun show? We'd be a laughingstock . . ."

I nodded politely and made appropriate noises of sympathy. I'd met the German Shepherd once. His name was Spirit, or Shadow, or something. He hadn't liked me much. That was because I could rip out his throat in a white hot second, and he knew it.

". . . you guys in programming have no clue what we go through."

I shrugged with mock apology. "I guess not. Hey, is that a meat tray?"

Ozzie's wife Cherie was bringing out another platter to the lobby from the break room. Ozzie was the KNOB station manager. The staff appreciation party was Cherie's idea. Ozzie didn't appreciate his staff.

At second sniff, it wasn't a meat tray. No, it was more hummus. All the party platters were vegetarian—crackers with hummus, pita bread with hummus, ten kinds of vegetables with three kinds of dips, something made of tofu. Not just vegetarian but vegan. Not even a chunk of brie in sight. None of it smelled like food to me.

The beer was free so no one complained.

I hoped my sigh wasn't too audible. For lack of anything that might have bled before being cooked, the only things that smelled edible were my co-workers.

This was one of those optional-but-not-really parties. Time to play nice, even though Ozzie was under pressure to make budget cuts and everyone was on the verge of stabbing each other in the back to make sure they weren't the ones who were cut. Frank had been making lots of noise about how much work he did and how little anyone realized it. Ann the programming director appealed to noble sensibilities: we were a public service, not a business, and programming should be the last thing to go. Who needed advertising? And every two-bit night-shift DJ was desperate to show how indispensable they were.

So, if the station was under budget pressures, why were we spending all this money on a party that didn't even have any meat? I moved through the evening smiling vaguely at little ironies.

Perry. That was who I'd go after first. If I were going to go after anyone, which I wasn't, because I had better control than that. Perry was the receptionist/secretary/bookkeeper. Small, delicate, big eyed, slouching warily in her baggy sweater. She wrote romance novels at her desk on the sly. She'd totally freeze in the face of an attack. Easy prey.

"Kitty? What do you think?"

"Hm?" I turned to find Ike and Sean staring at me.

"Weren't you listening?" Ike said.

"Sorry. What?"

"Who would you rather meet: Iggy Pop or Bowie?"

I narrowed my eyes. "That's a trick question, isn't it?"

KNOB ran a "diverse music" format when it wasn't running NPR, which meant the average DJ was as likely to follow up Ella Fitzgerald with The Chieftains as with The Clash. More than one programming meeting had degenerated into too-serious arguments about the merits of Velvet Underground versus They Might Be Giants.

I had to get out of here. I should have skipped the party, mandatory or no.

"Hey Kitty, can I get you a beer?"

"No thanks," I said and sipped my cup of water. I knew better than to get even a little tipsy the night before a full moon.

"So, any big plans this weekend?" Sean was talking to me. Ike had disappeared.

I had originally been scheduled to work tomorrow, Saturday night. I'd had to make a big stink about getting the night off. Called in way too many favors. But since I actually liked the night shift and had traded with people countless other times, I'd had a lot of favors to call in. In the end everyone knew I'd wanted Saturday off and everyone wanted to know why.

They all figured I had a hot date. I was the station's resident single twenty-something, always a topic of speculation.

"I'm going camping."

Sean stared blankly. "In March? Isn't it a little cold?"

"Yeah, but it's a full moon," I said with a straight face. He had no response to that.

I grabbed a handful of crackers to nibble, to give me something to do. Just another half an hour, then I'd leave. Frank and Bill the tech guy stood by the food table, chatting.

"I think the food's great. Takes courage, standing up for a vegetarian lifestyle like this," Frank was saying. "I didn't know Ozzie was a vegetarian."

"He isn't," Bill said. "Neither is Cherie for that matter."

Frank looked taken aback. "Really? Huh."

"Maybe she thought, it's public radio, everyone here must be vegetarian."

"So, is anyone here actually a vegetarian?" I said.

Frank shrugged. Bill said, "Ike is."

"He looks it." Ike was thin, gangly, pale. Vegetarianism only worked if you knew how to do it. Otherwise, it made you look sick. He probably tasted like tofu. Ike was the last person in the room I'd go after. If I ever went after people. Which I didn't. I said, "You know, cows were bred to be eaten. Same with chickens, pigs—all the major meat animals. Not to eat them is to deny them their purpose in life. Don't you think?"

Frank paused, scoop of hummus dip halfway to his lips. "I guess I never thought of it that way."

Bill said the only thing he could in the face of such a declaration. "Can I get you a beer or something?"

"No thanks, I'm fine."

He drifted off to the cooler anyway, and Frank turned back to the bowl of hummus, away from me.

Sheep. They were all a bunch of sheep.

I didn't usually feel this way. Usually, I could get through an entire day of work without making little baa-ing noises in my head in reference to my colleagues. I didn't always walk into a room and automatically winnow the herd in my mind.

Human: the other white meat.

The later the party went, the more everyone smelled like beer, the more people laughed, and the more I paced like a caged predator. I made myself sit in a chair and watch. Perry had left. So, I'd go after Ann next, because Ann needed getting. She was telling Beth from programming a complicated story about her partner's, i.e. long-time live-in boyfriend's, reprehensible behavior at her cousin's wedding, which was really a disguised rant about his not proposing to her years ago and thus depriving her of her own wedding. Being a free-thinking liberal feminist, Ann was not supposed to complain about such things.

"He's an animal!" Beth said commiseratively.

These people had no idea. My last boyfriend had given me six rows of inch-deep claw marks down my back. Pissed off, I'd returned the favor. We'd broken up shortly after.

It was all pretense, one way or another. The reason I wasn't kissing Ozzie's ass or worrying about my job was because if I lost this job, I'd have an excuse to run away and never come back. So maybe that was why I kept up the pretense. For the challenge. Because I wanted to believe that civilization was worth the effort.

"Kitty! What was that shit you were playing the other night?"

I blinked, startled, and searched the room for the heckler. Ozzie was standing on the other side of the sofa, hands on hips, glaring at me. The cluster of people seated on the sofa and nearby chairs fell silent, watching with big eyes like they'd just seen a car wreck.

What shit? was not the ideal response to that question. "Can you be a little more specific?"

"A couple nights ago. That spoken word stuff. That totally suicidal spoken word stuff."

I composed myself and said, "That was poetry. I found a recording of Sylvia Plath reading her poems. You know—literature."

With a scowl, he pulled a crumpled wad of cash from his pocket, smoothed out a couple of ones, and handed them to Bill, who grinned.

They'd had a bet going on one of my sets? Crazy.

Ozzie pointed at me. All ready to take his loss out on somebody. "Well, we can't have that."

Have what—literature? I raised my brows, inquiring.

He continued. "Suicidal shit on the radio. We might be held liable for—for something." He made a vague gesture.

My God, if the Plath estate were held liable for every suicidal teenager who got ahold of The Bell Jar . . .

I rolled my eyes. "It was two in the morning. Can you prove to me anyone was even listening?"

"Kitty, that isn't an acceptable attitude."

The air quivered. I wasn't being nice. I wasn't playing the game. I might as well have acquired a bulls-eye on my chest. My colleagues stared at me, nearly salivating. Like a pack of wolves moving in for the kill.

I supposed I should have been flattered that someone had listened to my shift.

"Can we talk about it at the next programming meeting?" I said. Nicely.

"Yeah, sure, whatever."

Ozzie didn't deserve to be alpha of this pack.

I stared at him. Hard. Almost, a growl started in my throat. I pursed my lips, to stop them from curling and baring my teeth. My shoulders tensed, like hackles rising. Frank's German Shepherd would have recognized the challenge. Ozzie almost did. His eyes went a little wide, but then he took a long draw from his beer and skulked off to the break room. He may not have understood that he was avoiding a challenge, but that was what he was doing.

I turned my lips into a wry smile as people nervously restarted conversations and stole twitchy glances at me.

I could eat them all. But I had a bad taste in my mouth. Time to blow this popsicle stand. I grabbed another handful of crackers, waved a half-assed goodbye, and stalked out the door. It was early enough that I could still find someplace to serve me a nice, rare steak.


Carrie Vaughn's stories have appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Talebones, and other publications. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. For more about her, see her website. To contact her, send her email.