She only heard the final words, "...they didn't pick you. They went with Helen Campiana."
"You were passed over, babe. Sorry."
She said nothing, having learned well the executive mantra: keep your mind open, your mouth closed, and stay non-defensive in stressful situations.
Whitworth went on, but she had trouble following: his ideas so foreign that her mind seizes a single one and worries it while the rest flow past her.
Finally, when she adjusts, a measure of common sense overcomes her executive training: when attacked in the jungle, defend yourself or be eaten, "Fred, this just isn't fair. Nothing you've said has any..."
"Please Laura, this is very hard. Let me get the rest of it out, then we'll come back and kick it around, see what can be done."
The message becomes clear. After 11 years of fast-track progress she has been passed over, she has missed an exceptional chance for promotion because of mediocre performance in her current assignment. This is all news, and shocking.
The disaster started earlier with a call from Fred Whitworth, Chief Scientist of the Laughlin Corporation. Fred was well published, well read, well regarded and well fed: at 5'10" and 275 pounds he was indeed a heavyweight, carrying five pounds of weight for each year of his life. Whitworth resembled the medieval character Falstaff. Portuguese-Irish ancestors had given him a thick head of blue-black hair that grew low on his forehead, bright black eyes like a snowman, and a wide mouth given to smiling at the friendly and the not so friendly.
Laura Kahl, Director of Analysis, went to his office and sat down. After a moment he looked up at the beautiful woman, grinning faintly, "Love you, kid. She smiled and nodded, "I love you too."
She meant it. They met years ago at a meeting on Renaissance Master Painters, where she presented a paper on automated image-processing methods for detecting fraudulent oil paintings - high quality paintings that plagued the world of art collection.
Her methods were new and sophisticated, based on statistics taken from the entire painting. Traditional techniques focused on brush strokes, use of light, oil chemistry, color, canvas, and frame materials. The traditional methods were elegant, but not always enough in the increasingly high-tech world of art fraud.
A gallery in Carmel, California allowed her to apply her novel technique to three verified Masters. A national insurance firm supplied three phony paintings they had paid dearly for,
Laura's comparative results were impressive and Fred took instant notice. He extended an offer of employment on the final day of the meeting, successfully hiring her away from an unchallenging engineering position with the Federal Aviation Agency.
After some small talk he came to the point, "Laura, did you know Bobby Rehall is retiring at the end of the year?" She did know, "Everyone knows it Fred, you need to get out to the water cooler more. But isn't he a little young for the bone-yard?"
Fred shook his massive head, "Yep, but he's crapped out. I guess its a case of too many hours at work and too much travel. Life is brief, he claims. He has the bucks now, he'll be OK". He paused for a moment, seeming to develop an interest in something on the wall over Laura's shoulder.
After an overlong silence he cleared his throat, uncharacteristically ill at ease, "The Executive Committee met with Bart yesterday to consider his replacement. It's a VP position, so Bart couldn't make a direct choice. He presented three candidates: Ed Force, Helen Campiana, ... and you.
Confidence spiraled downward into a strangely hollow vacuum in her chest: her heart suddenly thumping loudly within it. If she was the winner President Barton Roberts would be talking to her now, not Fred, "I kind of guessed I was in the hunt, Human Resources called last week with some weird questions. "
Fred lowered his already low brow, "Bart recommended Helen, but he also told them he'd be OK with any of you; he thought you all could do the job. You were last on his list and the Board went with Helen... I'm sorry."
Laura sat still, struggling to hide disappointment and shock. She felt a familiar drawstring pulling tight inside her lower lip, a reaction when she was under strain. She hoped her lip wasn't visibly trembling. Tears tried to come, but she choked them back severely.
She closed her eyes and reopened them. Anxiety morphed Fred into a monster, malformed and hungry. She crossed her legs and attempted to retain dignity, "OK, what else?" She immediately regretted the glib response.
Lethal calmness and a trace of raw hurt glittered in Fred's eyes; "Jesus, Laura, you have everything necessary to go to the top here, if you decide to make the effort." He paused and raised his eyebrows as if expecting a response.
She remained silent - the anger that now was never far below the surface threatened to erupt. He produced a grim smile that set her teeth on edge, "Laura, I'm on your side here you know. Like a big brother I guess. "
He came to the hardest part, "Your fire has faded the last couple of years. You can't do that. You can't leave one oar out of the water and realize your potential, at least not around this joint. Cut it or die, Kiddo; there's not much slack, the bottom line rules with us. Always has, always will."
He leaned toward her, looking at her but not really seeing her, "I've heard youre spending nights and weekends doing volunteer work for a goddamned dog pound. I hope I heard wrong Laura, because if that's why you're slowing down, you're killing your career for the most trivial of reasons."
She studied her hands, trying to remain open, reminding herself that he was a friend, "It's not a dog pound, Fred. Its a no-kill animal shelter owned by Hazel Stein. Her husband Allen died three years ago and Hazel wanted to do something she felt would be caring and helpful. You may have known Allen, they owned the Masters Limited Gallery in Carmel; Ive purchased art from them for years. The Steins recommended me for that limited-enrollment graduate program in Art History at Pepperdine. They made my graduate degree possible. I could never have carried my job plus all that schoolwork without their support. I owe Hazel a lot."
Fred was not about to be sidetracked by a requiem for Allen Stein at this critical juncture, "Let's talk about this, I guess I'm missing something here. Why are you doing this volunteer stuff, don't we keep you sufficiently occupied?"
She felt a deep lancing stab of avoidance; this was not something she cared to discuss. How could she explain behavior she didn't understand herself? "Do you have some time Fred? I need some time. Its not easy for me to explain."
He looked at his watch and shook his head, "No. I want to go slow here, and I really don't have time today. How about tomorrow at eleven? We can talk through lunch."
She stood stiffly, feeling faint and self-conscious, "I guess, but you have me worried now..." She paused, hoping he would relent and end the suspense.
He shook his head gently, "I know, but this is important, we need to do it right. Trust me, it'll keep until tomorrow."
Laura gave a small wave and left the office, faking composure. She went to the elevator and absently punched the button, but when the doors opened she turned away and went into the fire stairwell for privacy. Halfway down she sat on the dirty iron steps and broke down; she had always thought she loved her work. She needed this career - she was alone in the world.
Then came a moment of such impact that she would always look back on this stairwell pause as the watershed of her adult life.
With clarity and finality, she suddenly understood that she did not like the life she had chosen. She did not like the insane time demands. She did not like living alone, no matter how much easier it made devotion to her profession. She did not like having no one to care for: living her hard, creative, successful, selfish life without love. She had a thousand professional acquaintances, a dozen past lovers, and not a single intimate friend to share with.
She did not like the toughness she had developed after years of struggle in this male-dominated industry.
Now suddenly it seemed that her whole life was a lie, a series of wrong choices. But it was perilously late in her career to make a change; there was no margin for error.
She sat on the harsh cast-iron steps, panicked, soiling her Donna Karan suit as she sat on layers of cigarette ash, spilled coffee, and soft drinks that had dried and hardened over years. The tears flowed and her head shook in an unconscious negative. She felt old and desiccated, and she wondered where she had found the energy to come so far in a career she did not love.
She remained in the stairwell for forty-five minutes until the emotional storm was exhausted. No one came to her, no one saw.
Her secretary Dorothy looked up smiling as Laura returned to the office, saw the devastation, and discreetly returned to her word processor, lips compressed. Laura closed the office door and flopped in her chair, too stunned to do anything remotely connected with work.
Dorothy came on the intercom a moment later, "I'm sorry Laura, but there's this guy on the phone, third call since this morning. Says he's a lawyer over in Arizona. I think you should talk to him."
Laura knew this was a tactic to pry her from the funk she was in, " I know what you're doing Dorth. OK, put him on."
A deep cultured voice with slight traces of New York City came through; definitely not the regional accent she was expecting. "Ms. Kahl? I'm Pablo Beckman. Your great aunt Sarah deVry passed away last Friday. I hope I am not the first to tell you. I serve as her executor. Her estate was modest, but there's something she wanted you to have."
Laura knew Sarah, but had not seen her in years, "I'm so sorry. I haven't seen her since I was a child. How old was she?"
"She was 99. She left a note for you. I can read it if you wish."
"Please do Mr. Beckman, but we need to move along. I have a meeting here in a few minutes". She could hear him rummaging among papers for a moment before replying, "I'll be quick. The note reads, 'There is a box for you in our safe deposit at Cattleman's. You were our smart one, Laura, maybe you can do more with it than Dad and I did.' Is any of this message familiar to you Ms. Kahl?"
"Not at all Mr. Beckman - and please call me Laura."
"Thank you. I haven't opened the safe deposit box, but the key is here and I am authorized access. Would you like me to mail the contents? Laura looked quickly at her schedule book, thinking he should just mail the package over to her. This was no time to be off the job, "Yes, please. Let me give you my home address. Thank you for contacting me."
"The package should arrive some time next week. Good luck to you."
"Believe me, Mr Beckman, I could use some luck right now."
* * *