Friday, March 28, 2014

Free Souls, Chapter 4

The phone was ringing. Eric, intent on his work, ignored it, so Sandy sprang to the task. "Eric Baumann's office! . . . Oh, hello, Leah," she said with a pleasantness that was remarkably unforced. "Yes, Eric's here.
"Eric, it's for you. Leah."
"Oh, hello, Leah! . . . What? Yeah, I saw it.  It was great, wasn't it?"
His voice was gay, enthusiastic, and Sandy labored to beat down an upstart jealousy.  She was well aware that Eric and Leah had been carrying on an off-again, on-again romance since well before she'd met him.  But Leah Matthews wasn't the type of woman who would be content to let her boyfriend put her second or third after his work; she also had a strong grasp on reality. Since he'd started the new office and it began to consume most of his time, she had let their relationship lapse into mere friendship.
Even so, they were still close friends and if anyone had the right to be resentful of another woman's demands on his attention, it was Miss Matthews.  Funny, then, how it was Sandy who felt her rights infringed upon whenever Leah would call.  It was silly, she knew, and she wasn't going to afflict Eric with it.  But neither would she deny her own feelings.
He and Leah talked for awhile and then Sandy heard him say, "What?  Next Friday night? I really can't, I have a deadline like you wouldn't believe . . . . You would believe? Well, yeah, you know me . . . "
Charity was a lost cause as she smugly contemplated the magazine design award submission he would be devoting his weekend to-- instead of to Leah Matthews. It was painfully true that he didn't take her out, either; he'd ruled that out as unprofessional. Their relationship, Sandy knew, would have to be much more or much less than it was for him to see her socially.  But as it was, his work prevented him from seeing much of anyone socially, and she was an intrinsic part of his work.
"Yes," he now said, "We should do that sometime. No, I can't say when . . . Well, you go and tell me about it later. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I'm sorry I can't go myself."
"I'm not!" thought Sandy with unholy glee. He'd asked yesterday if she would be willing to come up to the office that weekend to help crank out the competition presentation.  As if her willingness were in question!  "Sorry, Leah, that'll give me even more time with him!"  It was unchristian of her to feel such self-satisfaction: she allowed that. Nevertheless, when Eric went down to the snack bar she permitted herself a nice greasy wallow in it. "I'd better watch out," she thought luxuriously. "I'm liable to be punished for this."
A shadow towards the doorway startled her. Eric returning with their candy?  But no. It was Nick Hardt, but this time he'd stopped not just inside the door but, exuding a defiant pride of ownership, had settled himself into one of their conference chairs.
"Vengeance is swift," Sandy thought ruefully. If all the powers of the universe had not interdicted, she would have sworn aloud.  Instead, "Salva me, fons pietatis!" was her inward cry as she made herself advance to greet him.
"Where's Baumann?" the man snapped.
"He's stepped out for a moment, sir."
"He's got to learn not to waste my time. If I didn't think he was the only architect for this job, I'd . . . "
"I'll fetch him for you, if you like, sir."  And without waiting for a reply she darted into the hallway.
She met Eric by the elevator. "Eric, guess who's here?"
"Um, Santa Claus?"
"No.  Mephistopheles."
"Mephistopheles. I mean, Nick Hardt.  I mean-- good grief, he's like the devil in The Damnation of Faust: pops in, pops out, looks so contemptuous, and acts like he owns everything!"
"What an imagination! Well, I suppose he'd like to speak with me? Really, Sandy, you are being polite to him?"
"Of course!"
"Well, I want you to be, because we need this job. We can overcome our distaste for a client's personality if his project gives us a chance to do some good architecture-- and to keep ourselves above water.  Understand?"
"Yes, sir."
They were back at the office.  "Good afternoon, Mr. Hardt. What can I do for you?"
"About time," the man muttered as Eric seated himself across the table. "Listen, couldn't--no, I remember, you told me that girl's in on everything. She may as well hear now as later; she can stay."
"Well, I hope so!" Sandy thought as she went back to her drawing. Eric, she could tell, was trying to look friendly, even amused.
"I've brought you my requirements for the house I want. Take it all down; I won't waste my time or yours on repetitions."
Careful not to be obvious about it, Sandy listened as much as she could while continuing with her work. It intrigued her how, in describing the grand vision for his subterranean house, Nick Hardt kindled from sullenness into a manner that was expansive, even fervent. Clearly this was to be no ordinary home. The large meeting room, the extensive kitchen, the many bed cubicles reminded her more of a college dormitory than of a private residence. But hadn't he said he was to live there alone?
Hardt paused for breath and Eric offered, helpfully, "Will you be requiring much storage space, sir?"
"Ah, yes, you anticipate me!  Indeed, storage space! And not just little broom closets, either. I want storage space!"
"A wine cellar, perhaps?"
"Yes, dammit, yes: space for wine, for food, for general supplies and provisions-- enough for weeks, no, months at a time. And there is to be a tunnel, running from just inside my property line, into the deepest, remotest part of the house. Just off that tunnel will be--my gun room, Baumann!"
Sandy stole a glance over. She didn't like the perfervid look in Hardt's eyes. But Eric just said stolidly, "Gun room, Mr. Hardt?"
"Yes, gun room. No ordinary gun room, either. I want-- I need-- room to properly store at least a thousand carbines, the same number of repeating rifles, two thousand automatic pistols . . . "
Sandy stiffened as he recited his index of high-powered weapons, most of which were forbidden to private citizens. Eric seemed wary, too, though he hid it admirably.
" . . . and room for more in boxes in rooms adjacent, and of course several thousand rounds of ammunition for all of them. Do you understand?”
"Yes. Uh, sir, do you hunt?''
"Do I hunt?" he repeated, his tone again grown steely cold. "Yes, Baumann, I hunt, and when I hunt, I don't fool around.  It may be awhile, but when I hunt, you'll hear about it, believe me.''
"Yes, sir, I see.''
"You see what? You'll see what I want you to see. I think you can do this job; you're probably the only one I'd see doing it. Don't worry about a contractor: I have men of my own, men I trust, that I'll use. And in case you were wondering, yes, you may see the site, but I'm afraid you'll have to go there in a closed van.  Just you.  Not even Miss. . . um, anyway," he dismissed her.
Eric cleared his throat. Before he could speak, Hardt ripped off a check and threw it on the table. "There. That's your retainer. Don't worry, I have enough for this, if that's what's bothering you. You'll get more when the job gets underway."
"No, Mr. Hardt, but we need to consult with each other to decide if we're capable of taking on a job this large.  This extensive an underground house . . . well, the technology required is really vast. I appreciate your confidence in our abilities, and we'd hate to get started and then disappoint you."
"No," Hardt said steadily, "I will not be disappointed." Why did it sound more like a threat than a commendation? "I'll be back soon to learn when you can start."
And with a slight nod, his sole condescension to politesse, he scraped back his chair and silently left.
Sandy rose from her seat. "How much is it for?" she asked, coming around to stare at the check lying baldly on the table.
"Ten thousand dollars. And he's right.  I made a couple of calls last night: He can afford this. He may be mad but he's not just a dreamer."
"Mad? You mean, you felt it, too?”
"Oh, yes. But don't worry. Men like this usually leave the business relations to an underling once things get going. I figure we won't have to deal with him personally much after this."
"I don't want to deal with him at all."
"Oh, you won't have to.  You heard what he said."
"You didn't hear what I said.  I meant I don't think either of us should have anything to do with him, or this project, either."
He stared at her, astonished. "Sandy, be reasonable! You like your job, don't you?  Can't you get over your distaste for the sake of keeping the business afloat?"
"It's not distaste, Eric!" she almost exploded, poised precariously on the verge of anger.  "It's-- well, I've tried to keep my behavior as free from religiosity as I could while still giving this job the benefit of my Christianity.  But I can't be tactful or discreet about this.  What he wants us to do is not only illegal, it's immoral.  You heard what he wants to store in that hellhole!  Possession of most of those is illegal, and even if it weren't, those weapons have only one purpose-- to kill people! A great many people!  And don't tell me he'll be keeping them for self-defense, either," she added bitterly.  "All that about hunting.  You know it's not animals he wants to go after.  He intends something, something terrible, and how you of all people could think of helping him, I-- !"  She broke off helplessly, her hands extended to him in appeal.
"Sandy, be reasonable!"
"I am being reasonable! You can fire me or throw me out or whatever, but I can't and won't do this job and I don't want you to do it, either!"
He refused to reply. Silence slammed its icy barrier between them as the advance check, so brazenly lying there, mocked them from the table’s surface. Eric put out a hand to pick it up, but abruptly pulling back he stomped back to his drawing board and with ostentatious busyness returned to work.
The frigid stillness imprisoned them in the the room, bristling bayonets at point, for one hour, two hours . . . so oppressive that she wished to flee, but so ominous that she dared not go even to the restroom, lest she return to find the door locked unappealably against her. She prayed within herself frantically, her thoughts refusing to cohere. “Oh, God, don’t let him– Make him– Please, God, oh, in Jesus’ name, please– !”
The late September day had nearly expired when Eric decisively arose. Sandy cringed. "Here it comes. I've had it. I'll be a martyr for the faith." But the absurdity of such melodrama struck her so that she was forced to giggle despite her anxiety.
"What's so funny?" Eric inquired, and she was amazed to see he was smiling, too.
" Oh, me. Wallowing in self-pity."
"I'm afraid you've had no monopoly on that this afternoon. I want to apologize and say you're right: we can't do that job for Nick Hardt.  Questions of Christian morality aside--I'm an agnostic, remember-- it probably is illegal. 'Accessory before the fact,' I think it's called.  Things might be rough not taking this job but they'd be a lot rougher if the government found out we'd connived at his little scheme.  And believe me, they'd find out."
"Thank God! Listen, I'll take a cut in pay, anything, to make it up to you. But we just can't--"
"Don't be an idiot. A cut in pay? I tell you you're right. I'll tell Hardt next time I see him, ok?"
"You're not mad at me, then?"
"Certainly not. You've probably saved us from a Fate Worse than Death.  And speaking of which, this day has about had it. Are you ready to go home?"
"Yes, but oh, I almost forgot. Here's something I got for you yesterday."  And she pulled out the sack containing the little mechanical dog.
"It's wonderful! Where'd you get it?"
"At that little store on 34th off Adams Street."
"Oh, I know it; they have fascinating stuff, don't they? This'll make a great 'watch' dog.  Look, you wind him up in just the same way!"
And they looked and laughed as the little contraption hopped and yelped with mechanized ferocity about Eric's table.
"Look at how the ears and tail spin!" he said.  "What shall we name it?"
"Up to you. He's your dog!"
"Oh, come on."
"How about . . . no . . . oh, wasn't it Le Corbusier who called a house a 'machine for living'? Well, this is a 'machine for dogging.'  Let's call him Corb!"
"Well," responded Eric, smiling, "I don't know if that's quite an appropriate memorial, but yes, the point is well-taken.  His name is Corb."
Sandy looked up at him as he watched the toy, his face again clear and serene.  She knew he would do as he had promised.  The ice was melted; she had him back.
by Catrin Lewis, 1983, revised 2013, all rights reserved

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