He closed his eyes and listened to the distant noises that managed to drift into nook that held his desk. From far off, he heard the unmistakable click-click of a woman's high heels striking the concrete floor. The sound of a rivet gun was muted by distance and dampened by poor acoustics. It attempted to drown out the noise of her heels, but she had already entered his territory where the acoustics worked in her favor.
Anyone who had ever seen his office considered it to be the worst in the entire company and, for an enterprise that employed nearly a million people, that was saying something.
Part of what made it so horrible was the location. It was on the edge of a major aircraft production area at the dead-end of an access way that provided maintenance with the ability to change the air filters for the wire harness assembly room. He had no idea why the room required air filters and, quite frankly, he wasn't curious enough to ask. All he knew was that once every other month, a maintenance man opened the cover and replaced two air filters.
Reaching his desk required him to walk through a hallway that ran along the side of the wire harness assembly room and then turn a corner to walk down an even longer hallway that ran the width of the room. His desk was located at the end of that walkway. The advantage of the location was that the right turn tended to kill the sounds from where the fuselages of large passenger jets were assembled although it didn't seem to affect the smell of metal that hung in the air.
The fact that his desk was in such an out of the way place didn't matter to him. He took a perverse pleasure in the fact that he had few visitors and those that stopped by never stayed long. Part of the reason was that visitors didn't enjoy the dark trip to his desk or the poorly lit work area. On the other hand, he found having a poorly lit work area to be an advantage and he wasn't bothered by the oppressive walk through the dark to reach his desk. Truth be told, he liked his office.
In fairness to the company it must be said that the darkness of the hallway was not imposed upon him. Every ten yards, an empty light fixture hung down from the high ceiling. Every visit by the maintenance man who changed the filters included putting in new light bulbs in the fixtures. As soon as the maintenance man left, he removed the newly installed light bulbs. After years of this little game, he had an entire drawer of his squatty little file cabinet filled with light bulbs.
His desk would never have anyone in the company lusting after it. The beat up old steel tanker desk had been manufactured in the 1950s. It was topped with a single goose- necked desk lamp that had to be thirty years old if it was a day, an old computer monitor left over from nearly a decade ago, a keyboard with several keys missing, a single button mouse, and an old-fashioned telephone with a rotary dial. As far as he knew, his telephone was the last of its kind in the entire company.
The click of high heels grew ever louder suggesting that his visitor was about to turn the corner. He didn't have to look to know that his visitor was Melinda Davis. She was the only woman in the entire facility who wore high heels when walking around the huge aircraft assembly area to reach his desk. Safety regulations prevented her from cutting three quarters of the trip by taking a shortcut across the assembly area. He assumed that she made the long walk in heels just to be in a particularly foul mood by the time she reached him. He wasn't going to complain since the heels made her legs look great.
Melinda Davis turned the corner and paused to stare at the man hunched over his desk.
Every time she came here she expected to find some gnomish misshapen man with pale white skin from a life time of living in the dark. The reality of Mike O'Connor was just the opposite. He was tall, muscular, and tanned with chiseled facial features. When he looked at her with his brown eyes only one name came to mind — Clint Eastwood.
She approached his desk knowing that he knew she was there, but he studiously ignored her. The fact that he ignored her only feed fuel to her irritation. Stopping six feet behind him, she turned off the flashlight that had been necessary to see her way to his office. His hand snaked out to reach for the goose-necked lamp. Glaring at the back of his head, she said, "If you turn that light to shine it on me, I will kill you and leave your body here to be found by the rats."
Without saying a word, Mike swiveled the hood of the goose-necked lamp so that it was aimed at her. He spun around in his chair and looked at her. With a disappointed expression on his face, he said, "I keep hoping that you'll show up here naked. With that red hair of yours, I know that you've got a field full of freckles under those clothes. I'd really like to play a game of connect the dots with your freckles."
"One of these days, I'm going to fire you for sexual harassment," Melinda said unable to keep the flash of anger out of her voice. She knew for a fact that he hadn't attended any of the required sexual harassment training courses since starting with the company. The last time she had mentioned that he was required to attend a course once a year, he had retorted that he didn't need any lessons on how to harass someone; he was quite proficient in that department without training. He had followed up on that by asking her to remove her blouse. She was not amused.
"I didn't know it was possible for a lowly employee like me to sexually harass such an important vice president of a company this size like you," Mike said. He yawned while negligently covering his mouth with his hand.
"One of these days you're going to screw up big-time and I'll be able to get rid of you,"
Mike opened a drawer and removed a letter from inside it. For almost a minute, he made a huge production out of reading it. Looking up at her, he said, "This letter is from your boss. It appears that my last patent has been licensed for a hundred million dollars."
Melinda was well aware of that fact. The patent had turned what might have been a loss on her annual financial report into a year with a sixty million dollar profit. It wasn't the first time he had done that and it was highly likely that it wouldn't be the last time. She had read the report he had sent out three days ago and suspected that he was going to repeat that level of success with his most recent research results. She halfway expected his latest invention would bring in fifty percent more money than the last one. She asked,
"How do you do it?"
"I'm just naturally handsome and women throw themselves at my feet," Mike answered flashing a smile intended to impress.
"That's not what I'm talking about!" Melinda said giving him a look that should have killed him.
Amazed that such an attractive woman could get such an ugly expression on her face, Mike asked, "You weren't?"
"No. How is it that you come here two days a week, work in this dingy cave with an antiquated computer, and bring in millions of dollars every year?" Melinda asked.
Looking hurt, Mike said, "I resent that."
"Resent what?" Melinda asked unable to follow the logic of his reply.
"You calling my wonderful office a dingy cave," Mike answered with a grin.
Turning to look down the dark hall, Melinda asked, "What happened to the light bulbs that are supposed to be here?"
Mike opened a drawer of his filing cabinet and picked up a light bulb. Holding it up for her to see, he answered, "Here is one. I think there are a few more around here. You know, light bulbs don't walk off all by themselves. Someone must be stealing them for nefarious purposes."
Rather than rise to the bait, she bit her tongue. For a moment she entertained the idea of getting light fixtures that required a key to get access to the light bulb. She wasn't sure if such a fixture existed, but after two years of tramping through the dark to get to his office she was half tempted to find out.
She glanced down at the computer next to his desk. It was the size of a mini-refrigerator.
Unable to believe what her eyes were telling her, she pointed at it while asking, "What is that?"
"That is my computer," Mike answered.
"Is that an 8 inch floppy disk on your computer?"
"Yes, it is," Mike answered. He picked up the old floppy disk that had been on top of the computer and waved it around. Pointing a finger at her, he said, "You don't find many of these around anymore."
"Are you telling me that your computer has an eight inch floppy drive in it?"
Mike slid the floppy disk into a slot on the computer. He flipped the lever that moved the spindle onto the floppy. He answered, "Yes, it does."
"They haven't made those in decades," she said staring at the box. If his computer used eight inch floppy disks then it had to be at least twenty-five years old. They had employees who were younger than that computer.
"It does make it tough to get replacements. I did find a 30 megabyte Winchester hard drive the other day and was thinking of installing it in my computer."
"What computer do you actually use to do your work?" she asked.
"This one," Mike answered pointing to the machine.
She decided that his computer was going to have to get replaced along with the keyboard mouse, and monitor. She noticed another antique on his desk and said, "I thought that phone had been replaced."
"I found another one at a flea market just like the last one. They wanted a whole ten dollars for it, but I talked them down to five. I submitted an expense voucher to get reimbursed, but I think someone is holding up processing it," Mike replied. He ruffled through a desk drawer and held up the yellow copy of an expense voucher.
"What happened to the new phone that I ordered for your desk?" Melinda asked unable to believe that he would have done something like that.
"I installed it in the break room. You should have seen those guys. They were so appreciative that they didn't even care that I wasn't union. It appears that their requests to get a telephone in that room kept getting rejected," Mike answered with a grin.
"There was a reason their request was rejected," Melinda said.
"What reason?" Mike asked.
The company and the union needed some negotiating points that could be the subject of easy compromise. Placing telephones in break rooms was one of the points the company could graciously yield on without it costing much. Melinda answered, "That is none of your business. I'll have it removed."
"Well I wouldn't worry about it. It is a modern lightweight plastic phone and won't last three weeks. This one of mine is made of Bakelite with real copper and will last for years unless someone steals it," Mike said while pointing at her to let her know that he would blame her if his telephone went missing.
"Your phone has to go."
"It is a rotary dial phone. Half of our telecommunications equipment won't support rotary dial phones anymore. We're phasing out the old equipment," Melinda said.
"Pity that my little old telephone should require that we maintain more reliable equipment at the expense of being modern. You'll regret modernizing your equipment," Mike said dismissively.
Melinda bit her lip to keep from saying something that she would regret. The last time he had baited her with something like that he had been proven correct. It boggled her mind how someone who was able to advance the state of the art in the aerospace industry like he did fought modernization with such a passion.
In the absence of a retort, Mike asked, "So what brought you down here to see little old me?"
"We've got a problem," Melinda said. The CEO of the company had recommended that she give the problem to Mike O'Connor. She had protested, but her boss had given her a sound argument for bringing him in on the project. They both knew that Mike would solve her problem. Knowing that didn't make it any easier to give the job to him.
This trip to his office was an example of why she didn't want to work with him. She had asked Mike to come to her office, but he had refused on the grounds that he didn't like her office décor and that it would give him nightmares for a week. He had rambled on for fifteen minutes about a hostile workplace and how he would hate to be put in a position where it was necessary to sue the company for damages that would result from the emotional distress. That had been a week ago and she had finally caved into the inevitable.
"Of course you do," Mike replied with a smile. He was pretty sure that she had lots of problems and that he figured heavily in the majority of them.
Melinda ignored the gibe and said, "We're having engine failures on one of our experimental products."
"That's classified," Melinda answered.
She was about to explain that he would have to work against the specs without knowing why they were required when he said, "You must be talking about the Bird-4 prototype."
Melinda stared at him. He wasn't supposed to know anything about the Bird-4 prototype.
It was one of the black projects funded out of the Department of Agriculture on behalf of the Department of Defense. That particular line of funding had been arranged so that the project wouldn't show up on the books for the military oversight committees to see. The work on that project wasn't being done anywhere near here. She said, "I am."
"Why doesn't it surprise me that you're having problems with that piece of junk?" Mike asked dryly.
"What do you mean?" Melinda asked wondering how he always managed to say the one thing that would bug her most.
"I'm pretty sure the tolerances are too tight on that engine the three stooges designed.
Who was it — Wagner, Jones, and Gantry? Yes, that's right," Mike said. "There's no way to manufacture the turbines that meet those performance characteristics; at least, not without having to pay ten times as much for them as you're willing to pay."
Stunned by the fact that he knew who had designed the engine for it, the words came out of her mouth unbidden, "How do you know that?"
"I think I remember the numbers that were in their design," Mike said ignoring her question. He swiveled his chair to the side and opened the drawer of his desk. He pulled out a slide rule and started manipulating it almost as fast as the eye could follow.
Unable to believe that anyone still owned a slide rule, much less actually used it, Melinda asked, "What are you doing?"
"Making a quick calculation," Mike answered giving her look that she should have known the obvious.
"Use a computer," Melinda said. No one used a slide rule any more. She looked at the computer and realized he was probably better off using the slide rule.
"It would take longer to start the computer than to finish this calculation." Mike said while whipping the slide back and forth. After a minute, he stopped his manipulations and said, "Just as I thought."
"The tolerances on the turbines are way too tight. The blades are too thin for their length.
Considering the fact that there are always minor fluctuations in pressure inside a turbine engine, the blades are subjected to significant stresses. Even a small impurity in the metal will cause them to fail when the engine is run at full power. My quick estimate is that you'd be doing good to get it up to sixty percent power," Mike answered. He looked at her over the slide rule.
Melinda rubbed her forehead feeling the beginning of a major headache. She wasn't going to tell him that the engine ate itself whenever it approached sixty percent power.
They had spent months of computer time trying billions of possible design parameters in an attempt to get a reasonably fuel efficient design.
His forehead wrinkled while he thought about the problem. He absently scratched his chin with the slide rule. Staring off into the darkness, he said, "We'll have to redesign the whole engine."
"That could take years," Melinda said.
"Nah, just a couple of weeks," Mike said while turning to face his desk. He tossed a pad of paper on the desk and picked up a pencil. Within seconds he was scribbling notes over the topmost sheet. Calling over his shoulder, he said, "You're dismissed."
"You can't dismiss me," Melinda said. She stared at the back of his head for a minute and then muttered, "I guess he can."
"I'm going to get you moved out of here," Melinda said before she turned and stomped away. The neat little click-click of her high heels had an angry sound to them.
Mike listened to them recede away. In a voice loud enough to carry to the end of his hallway he said, "Just like a woman — she can't resist getting the last word in." He chuckled at the strangled shout his comment produced.
Confident that she was gone, he smiled and touched a switch on his monitor. An image of his computer desktop appeared on the wall in front of his desk. He slid the keyboard out of the way and touched the single button on his mouse. A red keyboard appeared on his desk. Dimming the light from the goose necked lamp, he said, "I would never get any work done if she moved me out of here."
Running his fingers over the keyboard projection, he muttered, "Where did I put the design for that engine? Ah, there it is. It will just take a few minutes to adjust the design for her requirements. I'll sit on it for a couple of weeks and then e-mail it to her with a note that she owes me a steak dinner. God she's a pretty woman."
The corporate headquarters were twelve miles away from the manufacturing plant where Mike O'Connor worked. Melinda couldn't help but feel nervous when she entered the office of Jack Armstrong. The fact that it was the nicest office in the entire company emphasized that he was a very important man. Jack Armstrong didn't need an office to convince others that he was an important man. Despite the fact that he needed a cane to walk, the man projected power and confidence just walking into a room.
Getting called to the office of the CEO was not necessarily a good thing for a person's career. Jack tended to praise success in public and reprimand failure in private. She was ready to wait for him to acknowledge her, but he rose from his desk the moment she entered the room. He said, "I heard that you went out on the floor of the assembly area."
"Yes, sir," Melinda answered. She didn't have to ask how he knew that. The people out there tended to get nervous whenever an executive walked through the plant without an escort of a dozen middle managers working furiously to hide whatever problems might be present. He probably got a dozen calls from the Union representatives for her little journey to Mike's office.
"I take it you visited with Mike O'Connor," Jack said.
"Yes," she answered curtly.
"It is about time you got him involved with your turbine problem."
"It would have been earlier, but he wouldn't come to my office."
The tone of her voice conveyed volumes. He said, "You don't like him."
"I detest him," Melinda said. Every time she had to deal with him, she felt like he was the one who controlled the situation. It didn't matter that she was Vice-President of Research and Mike O'Connor was just an engineer. She had six directors working for her.
Under them were section managers who oversaw district managers who oversaw unit managers. Mike O'Connor was at the far end of the chain.
Jack studied her for a moment and then asked, "Do you know what I like about him?"
"I have no clue," Melinda answered.
Jack smiled at her. After enough of a pause to get her full attention, he said, "My vacation cabin in Colorado."
"A cabin?" Melinda asked confused by his answer.
Jack answered, "His little contribution to the company last year added to my annual bonus an amount of money that was sufficient to pay for it. I like that little cabin. I like it a lot. The view of the mountains from my back porch is just amazing. I like it there so much, that I just have to like the man who got me the money for it."
"I can understand that."
"You should like him, too."
"You mean my bonus," Melinda said knowing exactly what he meant. Her division had always been run as a cost center rather than a profit center. Research and development was just that kind of business. Mike's little inventions had changed that around significantly.
"He put six million dollars in your pocket," Jack said pointedly.
"You should be nice to him."
"He's just so... , so... , ugh!"
Understanding her frustration, Jack asked, "Do you know what he calls me?"
"No, sir," Melinda answered afraid of what she was going to learn.
"He calls me the fucker at the top of the pyramid," Jack answered with a chuckle.
"He says it to my face even," Jack said. If asked he would admit that the first time Mike had said that to him had been a little shocking. There was nothing like stepping out first thing in the morning to appreciate the view of the mountains and having someone greet you like that.
"When did he do that?" Melinda asked.
Jack answered, "It just so happens that he has a little cabin in Colorado. We're neighbors."
"He's a lowly engineer. He shouldn't be able to afford that," Melinda said.
"He makes as much as a director," Jack replied.
Melinda said, "I never understood that."
"He put six million dollars in your paycheck. There's no reason he shouldn't see a little money for his contribution to the company as well," Jack said pointedly. He would never have promoted her if he had realized that she was so stingy with rewarding exceptional performance. Of course, he did have to admit that Mike was a special case. Lots of competent people hated the man with a passion.
Melinda said, "I'll try to be a little more patient with him."
"I'm going to insist that you do a little more than that," Jack said.
"You're going to have to be nice to him," Jack said. He knew that Mike was likely to save her ass with that Bird-4 project.
Mike listened to the voice for a moment and then asked, "What is so important that the fucker at the top of the pyramid deems it worth his valuable time to call a poor little mover of stone blocks?"
"What did you and Miss Davis discuss when she visited you?" Jack asked.
"Oh, we talked about a little of this and a lot of that. You know how it goes — a lot of words are exchanged but a great deal of the meaning is lost in the translation," Mike answered.
Jack cleared his throat and asked, "In what way does the meaning that you'd like to see her naked get lost in the translation?"
"It was meant as a compliment and she took it as an insult," Mike answered.
"You don't talk to women that way," Jack said.
"You do if you want to get laid," Mike said.
"You aren't supposed to hit on your boss," Jack said.
"Why not?" Mike asked. "Why waste a perfectly fine opportunity to sleep with a woman who has that kind of body?"
"You just don't do those kinds of things," Jack answered.
Mike replied, "Don't tell me that the idea of throwing her across your conference table and fucking the hell out of her hasn't crossed your mind."
Jack sighed knowing that there was no way he was going to answer that question. He asked, "Has anyone ever told you that you can be a real asshole?"
"Not in the last couple of hours," Mike answered.