Under fluorescent lights everything looks a little bit more grey. Grey walls, hard grey carpeting, portraits of birds and flowers cast in greyish pastel, all of these things driven down upon by that blue-shifted flicker, negating any pretensions of color they ever may have had. One night Naomi dreamed that she had changed to match her surroundings, a chameleon-girl who lost control of her skin. There was a mirror in her cubicle in her nightmare in her slumber, and when she looked in it she saw herself as cast in blanched porcelain, the grey and paper white of a Zenith with its contrast turned to full.
So goes Naomi's train of thought right now, concentrating (as ever, an ex-high-school teacher might interject) on something other than the situation at hand. Likely because this is the sixth time today the fine idiots of Order Entry have sent up a half-done job, and Naomi has already settled into her most tolerable balance between frustration and boredom, the one that lends itself to hardcore daydreaming. Still, she knows that remaining motionless more than a few moments longer will attract one of the guys-in-ties of management, who will sidle up to her and make sure everything is all right, the unspoken question about her work ethic hanging in the air between them as still and noxious as a silent fart. Then she will have to make pretty with smiles and eye-contact and tell him "Yes I'm just fine" and "This job-order is kind of a bear" and "Excuse me, I need to get it back to the fourth floor now." Our heroine can really pile it on when the situation demands....
Fortunately, this reverie too breaks before it is noticed, and Naomi stands up with the job folded under her arm. Through break room, to lobby, to elevators she goes, only to find them out-of-order for the second time that day.
"Sorry, they're broken again," says the rentacop, "somebody's fixing it in the basement right now."
Naomi replies "Thank you" with a half smile and half nod, and walks through his personal space to the stairwell. As she passes he smells first lavender, lavender and citrus in her cologne, then detergent-clean cotton, faintly, then the slightest hint of acrid (though not altogether unpleasant) indoor stress-and-stairs sweat and finally a long finish of herbal melange that wafts from her straight, brown black hair. Thank you, he thinks to himself. All of this is a calculated effect on Naomi's part, she can play the part of the sex-goddess with aplomb. Often she wonders if they ever remember her, the men whose paths she crosses; never having been a straight male she has no idea how perfectly they often do.
Down the stairs and back up again: with exercise the body's metabolism speeds up, burns sugar to ATP to energy in her calves; painful lactic acid builds up there and stokes the baseline dopamine levels in her brain. The net effect is exhilaration. So, even after convincing the reject in Order Entry that she was, indeed, wrong, once Naomi gets back upstairs she feels good again despite herself.
Actually, if she trusted you in a way she's never trusted anybody, she'd say that she is feeling better than any garden-variety "good," that she is even feeling hopeful. Nature's most elusive feeling, hope, and it had been building inside her unbidden for the past week or month, surfacing now and then to bring a smile to her eyes and make her wonder actively about her future rather than pushing it under altogether. At the periphery of her soul a voice has been shouting Something Big is Going to Happen! Something Big and Soon! This excites Naomi like nothing else has for some time, like it's Christmas eve and she is nine, like it's prom, like it's her first night in the dorms. Something Big, she repeats to herself, a mantra, Something Big.
There is another job jacket on Naomi's desk when she arrives back to it, with a small red RE-CHECK label. Today is not Naomi's day. Or maybe it is. (Something Big.) This time it seems somebody forgot to check which inks are in stock and sent the order on to Graphics, as though the company keeps HeNe Orange and Peach Eggshell pre-mixed in cans in the fucking factory. This means the job must generate a phone call to the customer from Client Services, which is down on four with Order Entry.
Sighing is primarily a form of communication like speech or blush or foreplay, one more sequence of noises and gestures acquired from our peers or parents without ever realizing it or knowing why. Even though there's no one in her cube to communicate with, Naomi sighs, a packet of particularly relevant information sent unaddressed into the ether.
As Naomi leans back in her chair, about to close her eyes and dream of leaving town forever, she sees what? What the hell is this? A tiny matchbox camera has sprouted on the ceiling some time over the past couple of weeks, aimed squarely down into the quad of cubes she charmingly thinks of to as her cell block. Oh yes indeed, some executive comptroller type must have noticed a larger than normal usage of office supplies, a short-but-sharp peak in one of his troublesome tables of twice-derived tangents. Big worries in cell block 7, perhaps an inmate is trying to escape? So they've put in a camera, doubtlessly two orders of magnitude more expensive to install and maintain than the pens and staplers that would be stolen in its stead; another big win for manage-think.
Standing on tiptoes, Naomi scans the ceiling of the big grey room for other cameras and sees only a couple, and those in corners over hallways and by the restroom. Odd, their placement seems almost random. Making sure nobody's head is prairie-dog-popping over their own cube walls, she steps silently out of her pumps and on to her desk, raising slowly to squint into the little black lens, looking looking hard and deep into its shiny glassy black eye, but most assuredly not seeing ...
_ _ _ _ ________________ _ _ _ _
... Terry Fassler jump right out of his seat when he looks over at the monitor bank and sees her face there, nine inches across in black-and white, her wide, three-quarters perspective eyes looking right back into his own. Years and years of this spooky shit under his belt and he still sometimes discovers nerves of jello where he's least expecting them. Since he's out his seat anyway, Fassler takes the opportunity to smooth down the masking tape "Naomi" label on that particular monitor, taking care not to smear the block caps writing penciled onto it. He doesn't break eye contact with the girl though, not until her head darts to the side and she gets down off the desk. Co-worker looked up at exactly the wrong time, probably.
Jesus Christ she's smart, and curious too; sometimes one of the company's clients can pick real a winner, somebody he wouldn't mind meeting himself. Regardless, arranging meetings for one's self is prohibited in the black ink of every employee's contract with Executive Coincidence. He would feel funny about it anyhow, finding traces of attraction to a customer's "ambition" was one of the many parts of this business he has never gotten used to.
Ambition was the word the company used for the women they studied, where "target" or "mark" would bathe the goal of the operation in reality's harsh light, bringing it too close to the surface for the clients and operatives to stomach. That fact and thousands more Fassler has learned since he started at the company, his every question about legality, morality, predestination and true love answered one by one by the people who he works for.
Anne Behringer, the day after she hired him, explained what would become his mission best with these words: "You can't buy love, Terrence, it's the absolute truth. But you can create an environment in which it may sprout and develop easily. Executive Coincidence designs those environments professionally, candidly, and at a reasonable price. Our company is as noble as any dealing in architecture or landscaping, perhaps even more so because our goal is the life-long fulfillment of love for every one of our clients." She summed up the company entirely with those words, and did so with conviction -- she really believed them. Caught up in her minor-league reality distortion field, he probably believed them too.
The client, Donald Anderson, gave answers in his test battery showing that he doesn't think this is going to work at all, that he considers it as much a lark as putting an ad in the personals section, albeit a lark which costs a cool 50k. After trying so many other avenues, and coming so close a couple of times, who could really blame him for a smidgen of defeatism? Fortunately for Anderson the psychological workup also indicated that he will give it his best shot despite the skepticism; if he had given signs that he wouldn't Executive Coincidence would never have taken on the case. As it stands, working with Anderson has been a pleasure, and Fassler would be overjoyed if all of the clients he met were of the same caliber. He's happy for Naomi too, as she shows every sign of being a nice girl, and he shows every sign of being a nice guy -- arranging coincidences for men who register, however subconsciously, on his intuitive scumbag scale is always vaguely unpleasant.
Against company policy, Fassler has (a very few times) watered down or even downright mis-written the script given to a client, in hope of souring the outcome of the coincidence. Short of making contact with an outside party or an ambition, this is one of the worst things he could do in the company's eyes -- it is only out of respect for his overall success rate and moral stature that they have let him get away with it, he assumes.
"Script" is probably too broad a category for a document like Fassler has sent to Mr. Anderson; Executive Coincidence refers to it as a Personal Summary, though realistically it is more along the lines of an intelligence product. Regardless of semantics, the document contains less than a hundredth of the information that the company's investigation has turned up -- only enough to "allow quick establishment and some further facilitation of a strong client-ambition relationship," in the jargon Ms. Behringer would use.
The script states that Naomi "Enjoys candy at the movies more than popcorn," but leaves out that she "Spent her first few independent years trying to write professionally." It also mentions her "Semi-secret enjoyment of corny off-Broadway musicals," but spares the details of her "Fantasies about European travel, involving Italy and Greece in particular." It even contains the juicy nugget "Keeps a brand-new set of of silk sheets in her linen closet for an anticipated perfect sexual encounter," but doesn't go so far as to mention the "Abusive relationship with stepfather, with little to no chance of sexual abuse." Distilling two-hundred pages of findings about Naomi's past, present, and probable future into a single page of suggestions on what to say and not say is difficult, intricate work, and Fassler is proud of the job he has done.
Looking toward the monitor, Fassler sees that Mr. Anderson has gotten on the elevator right on schedule, and is riding it up and down, up and down. The timing has been off for the last couple of tries, first Naomi made an unexpected trip to the restroom, and later Anderson was signaled to get off the elevator before another worker saw him on it for the third time in the same half hour. The false shutdowns have gone fine, though, and maintenance is convinced that the problem is now permanently resolved.
Elevator #2 has stopped on the sixth floor, heading down. Naomi stands before the glowing Down button, glaring balefully up at the camera. At these times, Fassler feels like the embodiment of third person omniscient, knowing it all, seeing it all, and moving it all with merely an act of will.
This is showtime.
When Naomi gets on, Fassler can almost feel himself in Anderson's place: heartbeat rising, slight sweat, two deep breaths in a row, weight shifts from left to right foot. If Naomi had any investigation experience herself -- which Fassler knows she does not -- she would be able to pluck his anticipation from the air like her cellphone picking up a call. Instead, Naomi has her head cocked to the side, staring remotely into the brushed chrome doors, seeing things too private for any amount of investigation to uncover. On the monitor they look as mismatched as any two people could be, a young space cadet and a grey-hairs-dyed-brown exec, each waiting for their floor.
Instead of hitting the little chrome switch that has been causing the elevator problems thus far, Fassler depresses a red button all the way to its aluminum mounting. Somewhere in the sub-basement a tiny piece of magnesium flashes blinding white for half a second, which brings a few grams of thermite well within their temperature of ignition. At a toasty 3000 Kelvin the thermite vaporizes its plastic casing, then melts through four centimeters of iron motor housing, and into the motor's heart of spinning copper wire. The motor whines loudly for just a moment, then stops with a loud click. When the workers visit the maintenance room for elevator #2, they will find a full-coil burnout; rare, but not rare enough to require further investigation.
On the monitor, a man and a woman stumble simultaneously and then look toward the ceiling as the safety latches fire on each side of the cabin. They are both trying to figure out if they are about to fall five stories in a polished silver box. Fassler knows his business: stress makes for faster and more intimate bonding. The woman turns to face the man -- Executive Coincidence tries to ensure that the ambition speaks first as often as possible -- she opens her mouth ...
_ _ _ _ ________________ _ _ _ _
... and she says, "What ... what just happened, are you okay?"
And he says, "Yes, I think so. Something must have gone wrong with the elevator."
"Yeah, and the doors aren't opening either, I guess."
"That sound must have been the safety locks, so maybe we aren't going to fall."
"Heh, great, so we only have to worry about running out of air."
"Well, presumably a red light is flashing on a security desk somewhere, we could be out in less than an hour. Glad I'm not claustrophobic!"
"Me too, that'd be pretty awful right now."
"So, um, what's your name? I'm Don."
"Hi, I'm Naomi. Wow, what weird circumstances to meet someone under. I'm glad somebody else is here with me, though, or this might be too much. Say, shouldn't a rentacop
be calling us on that elevator phone right about now?"
"It seems to be dead. I sure love this building's elevator policy ..."
"Yeah, I've been fighting with it all day. Speaking of, I guess I don't need to be holding on to these papers just right now"
"Looks like I've got quite the death-grip on my briefcase, too. While we're relaxing, do you mind if I sit down on the floor?"
"No, hey, that looks pretty comfy, I'm coming down there too."
"Care to split a Three Musketeers? I swear, this briefcase carries more food and water than it does anything else. Sometimes I can't help thinking of it as my executive lunchbox."
"Ooh, a little sugar rush would
hit the spot. Do you really like Three Musketeers? I've always kinda thought it was like eating the frosting
off a cake -- which isn't to say I don't want to help you eat yours."
"I don't know; I've been switching candies lately, trying to find the right one for me."
"Wow, weird, I've never thought about candy that hard, I've just loved Reese's Cups
stuff since I was a kid. I guess I probably would enjoy exploring the options, now that I think about it. So, do you work in this building?"
"Yes, I'm one of the vice-presidents of EnerTech down on the fourth floor. I was just on my way back from the accounting firm we work with on eight."
"Oh, I work here too, at Smith Sign and Decal, which is split between the fourth and sixth for cheaper floor-space. Say, we've probably passed each other in the lobby without even noticing."
"I think I may have seen you there. Would you like to get some dinner after our eventual rescue? There's a satay bar close by on ninth street that serves a spectacular pad Thai"
"Yeah, Lulu's, I love that place! I think I better stand up, the floor is getting pretty cold."
"Wait, here Naomi, you can borrow my jacket. Say, what do you know about musicals? I won these tickets to La Prima Taza in an office pool, and I have no idea what it's even about..."
She pauses, and looks over into his eyes, and smiles.
And he smiles.
And in a dark closet not far away, Terry Fassler smiles too.