Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 3

Robin slid limply down the side of the turbine until she could feel the cold tile floor through the seat of her pants. His fall played on repeat in her head. He was just a man, blood and flesh and bones like all of us, the power he held completely vanished — dispensed into the air like humidity. She’d had entertained a few fantasies about killing him, or at least having him disappear, but now, incredulously, someone had actually taken that ultimate step. A small smile found its way to her face.

She waited as the group filed down the stairs, shoes clanging on metal. Ladonna’s knees went wobbly on the staircase, and she fell backwards against the fire chief, who grabbed her by the elbows and guided her slowly down. Harmon stood back, away from the body and seemingly out of its line of sight. Robin realized that Harmon somehow wasn’t completely confident Paul wasn’t going to sit up, point his finger at Harmon and shout “murderer!” But Robin could see Paul’s eyes were closed and his neck was at a very unnatural angle. A trickle of blood ran down his chin. He was clearly dead.

The commissioners whipped out their cell phones in near unison to call 9-1-1 while the head engineer spoke intently into his radio.

“…horrible accident…”

“…I was scared of something like that when he suggested we go up there…”

”…the catwalk was slippery. I almost lost my balance…”

The police arrived, as did paramedics and some employees who were stationed at the power plant. The police shuffled everyone into the conference room. But they didn’t seem to notice when Robin peeled off to hide the camera.

She needed to think. From the way everyone was acting, it was clear that no one saw what happened but her. The right thing to do was to tell the police what happened. Because it was a terrible accident, right? But still, something held her back. Why hadn’t Harmon said anything?

A policeman in a stiff blue uniform stood at the door to the conference room with watchful eyes and a neutral face. The head engineer slouched in his seat, head tilted and resting on the chair back. Harmon sat by himself at the far end of the u-shaped conference table.

“Cup of coffee, Commissioner?” Robin said to Harmon, holding out a steaming paper cup. Up close, he smelled metallic, a scent Robin associated with fear and sweat and adrenalin. And blood. The armpits of his suit were stamped with damp rings and he’d loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his broadcloth shirt.

He took the cup with a nod, and peered at her through wire-rimmed reading glasses as if seeing her for the first time.

“I’m Robin. Paul’s assistant,” she said.

He took a sip of the coffee and shuddered. “Still very hot,” he said. “I’ll let it cool down.”

He set the coffee on the conference room table and gave her a quick smile as though she was dismissed. But when she didn’t move away, he tilted his head at her and raised his wooly eyebrows.

Her head was churning ideas so fast she was afraid they would pour out of her ears. Career blogs always talked about seizing opportunities. Should she seize this one? She had come to enjoy the small powers of invisibility, but didn’t she want to have the power to make real change? And, to be honest, to taste the pleasure of being extremely visible for once? To be someone who mattered?

“Terrible accident, wasn’t it?” she finally mustered.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I was right in front of him when it happened. If only I had turned around —  I might have been able to grab him…”

I’ve got you, old man, she thought.

Out loud, she said, “Really?”

His eyes, now cold and calculating, bored into hers, as though he could see into her soul. She held herself perfectly still, feeling her breath go in and out of her lungs, just like in yoga class.

“And where were you when this terrible accident occurred?” he said.

“You didn’t see me?” she said. She leaned on the edge of the table, but didn’t break eye contact. She wanted to see every one of his reactions.

“I’m not surprised you didn’t notice me. People tell me I just blend into the background,” she said.

His grey eyes were steady on hers, but his tongue darted out to quickly wet his lips, betraying his discomfort.

She smiled. “I’m always amazed what people do and say around me. Paul never understood that. I could have been a valuable asset to him, but he was too much of an asshole to see it.”

His eyes popped wide open at her profanity.

“Not a very kind way to speak of the newly deceased,” Harmon said, tapping the coffee cup thoughtfully. “But I understand what it is like not to be appreciated. Or maybe I should say to be to misunderstood.”

“I saw you two arguing.”

She was surprised how strong her voice sounded. It felt so good to have real power. To be in control instead of at the mercy of another. She saw it clearly now. Her invisibility was a defense mechanism. The way she coped with an impossible situation. And now, she felt she could shed it like a winter coat on an early spring day. She just didn’t need it any longer.

Harmon closed his eyes for a beat. When he opened them, she knew he wasn’t planning on confessing anything to the police.

“Perhaps there was a little spat about how a contract should be awarded. Just a little mix-up in the course of business, my dear. Barely worth mentioning.”

“Funny,” she replied with just the hint of a smile. She stood back up and planted her feet, thinking of yoga’s tree pose. She envisioned her legs growing deep roots in the ground, making her unmovable, connected to the earth.

“I was thinking it was barely worth mentioning what I saw today from the floor of the power plant. Where I was taking pictures of all the VIPs on their important tour,” she said.

She forced herself to keep her hands at her side so as not to betray her nerves under his glare.

“What a talented woman you are.”

He stood up with a grunt, taking advantage of his height by forcing her to look up instead of down at him. She could smell the coffee on his breath. He was a killer and he was trying to intimidate her. But she had leverage. She leaned into his coffee smell, close enough to see dots of white wax in his mustache.

She laughed.

“Like I said, you see a lot when you are invisible.”

Neither one moved for several beats. Harmon locked his eyes on hers as if waiting for her to back down or state what she wanted. Robin did neither. She just breathed and waited, the black silk camisole fluttering against her breastbone with each exhale.

Doors were opening for her she had never imagined. Just yesterday she was hoping Paul would grant her a merit increase on top of her cost-of-living pay raise. Now, she could take his job.

“Where’s the camera?” he said at last.

“It’s not with the police, if that is what you are asking.”

“How can I be sure it stays that way?”

This was it. The moment of truth. Robin told him she wanted Paul’s job, then waited. She reminded herself again of tree pose, the deep roots extending through the carpet, the building’s foundation, on into the soil and rocks below, but her branches reaching for the sky.

“Paul taught you well, didn’t he?” Harmon said with a curt nod.

A detective in a brown leather blazer opened the conference room door and spoke quietly to the uniformed officer.

“Can we see Robin Duffy next?” the detective said.

Robin tugged the seams of her blazer down and stepped away from Harmon and the conference table. She turned back to look at Harmon. He was staring at the tabletop like it was covered in hieroglyphics.

Two weeks later, Head Commissioner Harmon opened the regularly scheduled meeting of the commission in memory of former chief of staff Paul M. Boyce, a loyal employee of Creek City who died tragically in an accident at the city’s hydroelectric power plant. Harmon read from a bulleted list of Boyce’s accomplishments and tried to sound sincere.

“Now, for the next order of business,” he said, his hands shaking slightly as he turned the loose pages of his detailed agenda. “Appointing Paul’s successor.”

Robin sat in the first row, her knees pressed together and feet angled to the left. She smoothed her navy blue skirt across her legs and tried to project confidence and professionalism.

“As you know, I’ve taken a very personal interest in filling the chief of staff position,” Harmon said. “And on behalf of the committee, we think we have found the right person for the appointment from within the staff. Robin Duffy has worked for the city for fifteen years, most of those under the tutelage and guidance of Paul Boyce. Her job title of administrative assistant does not do her justice, for her work has gone far beyond that. In the past two months, she has demonstrated the ability and the knowledge to step into Paul’s wingtips. I can tell you firsthand that she has learned so much from her mentor.”

Harmon waited for a beat while David McNerney made the motion to appoint Robin to the position, and Ladonna Jackson made the second. Just as he’d asked them to a few days before, in exchange for chair positions on the finance and revenue committee, and handshake agreements to help move pet projects forward.

“All in favor?” Harmon said.

Twenty “ayes.”

“Any opposed?”

Silence.

Robin flashed what she hoped was a grateful smile at the commissioners. Some smiled generally in her direction, others looked at their papers or their laptops, a few checked their mobile phones. Two minutes into her new job and she was already becoming invisible again. She glanced over at Harmon, expecting the same from him. But he was sitting up straight, staring directly at her, unmasked hatred in his eyes.

Oh well, she thought. She could manage him. She’d found the dossiers Paul had prepared on each one of the commissioners. And Harmon’s was the juiciest one of all.

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