Life Raft Blues
Judith Schiess Avila
You have no enemies, you say?
Alas, my friend, that boast is poor.
For he who has mingled in the fray
Of duty that the bold endure
Must have made foes.
If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You've hit no traitor on the hip.
You've dashed no cup from perjured lip.
You've never turned the wrong to right.
You've been a coward in the fight.
Jules felt the weight of Maggie's hand on her shoulder.
"Earth to Julia.""
Jules turned from the window to look at her best friend, the serene beauty of that face hardly changed in eleven years. "W-What?"
"You just drifted off, right in the middle of a sentence." Maggie's dark eyes narrowed. "You feeling okay? You've been a bit tepid all evening."
"I'm fine. Just tired."
The murmur of polite voices rushed over Jules like brook water. She stood outside the tight eddies of conversation, inattentive to the flood of industry jargon. Her usual energy for commercial social gatherings had dissipated early in the evening, leaving her floating on her own, far from the corporate shore.
Are you doing what you love? Her mother's question circled in her mind like a bird in search of a perch. She'd tried to set it down, telling herself that of course she loved her work. But an internal critic knew she stood irresolute. Outside the snug brownstone house, a hiss of tires on wet asphalt and the constant low hum of the city of Boston provided a familiar backdrop to her mental revolutions.
Jules glanced around the room. "Do you still love it, Maggie?"
"Love?" Maggie rolled her eyes. "I think 'endure' would be a more appropriate word."
"God! I'm exhausted by all of this … this corporate gathering of the clan. The hearty handshakes. The empty eyes. Look around you."
Maggie glanced over one shoulder, then the other. "No different from normal." She smoothed her lustrous brown hair, looping it back behind one ear. It hung to her shoulders, a dark, fluid mass.
"No. No different from normal. Which is exactly the problem." Jules swallowed some pricey champagne and shrugged. "Don't mind me. It's just getting to me lately. The futility."
"I figure if I get my paycheck it's not futile." Maggie tapped Jules' arm. "C'mon, girl, snap out of it."
"I know I'm a drag." Jules dipped a finger into her champagne and ran it around the rim of her glass. The crystal produced a faint ringing tone. "Remember that huge argument in staff last week? Over a lost report. All those high-powered people listening to that drivel and - "
"Wasting their time."
"Exactly." Jules sipped the champagne. "I mean, a report, one that could be reprinted in a matter of minutes. And that kind of thing happens all the time. Everything's become so insular, so petty."
"Not like when we started." Maggie shrugged. "But what can you do?"
"Something - get out of here, change our lives, save humanity as we know it. I'm sick of, well, that." Jules nodded in the direction of one of the upper level managers, a loud, bald, self-assured man flashing a heavy diamond ring and surrounded by five young executive wannabees. The eyes of his admirers locked onto his face like tracking devices. "I'm sick of people like Dorchester, over there - and his flock."
"God, Jules, you're not feeling well, are you? You usually chew these guys up and spit them out."
"Hah! Hardly. I just … " A horn blared outside and she glanced at the window. Water streaked its surface, silver on black, creating a work of non-objective art. The party hummed on around her.
Maggie elbowed Jules sharply in the ribs, jostling her out of her trance. "Look," she whispered. "Cahill's staring at you again."
Jules lowered her head to glance sideways at Peyton Cahill. He stood in the doorway between the living room and kitchen. "I think maybe he's looking at you, Maggie."
"No, definitely not. He's been staring at you all night. Men love red hair, you know. A rule of nature." Maggie picked a stray strand of short, newly-red hair from Jules' shoulder, and dropped it on the floor. "He's a little strange, but sort of sexy, don't you think?"
Jules shrugged. "There's something weird about his eyes."
"Maybe so." Maggie squinted.
"All the engineers say he's a control freak," Jules said.
"But even so, kind of sexy."
Jules frowned. Maggie gripped her arm and stared meaningfully into her eyes. "How long has it been, Jules?"
"Ha! Better alone than with another Mr. Wrong." Jules tossed back her champagne and placed the empty glass on the coffee table. "Let's sit. My feet are killing me." She sank down into the overstuffed couch, and Maggie sat beside her.
When Jules looked up, Cahill smiled with those heavy-lidded eyes and nodded.
She barely smiled back at him, pulling her long wool skirt down over her calves, hugging her knees, suddenly needing warmth.
"Actually, Jules, I think he's kind of intriguing." Maggie tilted her head and studied the engineering manager. "His wife left him last year. Maybe that's why he seems - you know - aloof." She squeezed Jules' arm. "He's lonely. Besides, he makes scads of money."
"A recruiting poster for the upwardly mobile corporate manager." Jules frowned. "He's perfect: Tall, white, male, probably bright, but - if you believe statistics - definitely not brilliant."
"You're impossible. He likes you. Give the guy a break."
"I can't get past the eyes."
As he watched her, Jules wondered what it was about those eyes that troubled her. Blue. Achingly blue. Like the sea on a RayBan day. Cahill's eyes roved over the people in the room, seeing and dismissing them. Useless as barnacles. Once or twice the eyes wavered, then stared. A potential snack?
Snack. The predatory quality demanded Jules' focus. How had she failed to see it before?
Maggie stared openly at Cahill. "A guy that good-looking. Why'd we never get to know him?"
"He doesn't look like the type you can be friends with," said Jules.
So why was he watching her now? Maggie was right. He'd been sizing her up from a safe distance all evening. She shivered. A tray laden with full champagne glasses sat on the end table. She helped herself. What, her third? Time to stop, to leave, but like a deer caught in headlights she stayed, transfixed.
Oh God! He's heading this way.
"I'm going to the ladies' room," Maggie said. She pushed herself up from the couch.
Jules stood and smoothed her cashmere skirt. "Me, too."
Maggie turned. Her eyes rolled towards Cahill. "Stay here."
Jules watched the approaching man. He is good looking. Devastating, actually. That honey-colored hair, the easy height, the confident stride. She raised her glass of champagne in a half-toast. "Nice party."
Cahill flashed a smile. Jules couldn't stop her pulse from racing. "Not bad, as these things go," he said.
She dropped back onto the couch, sitting at one end so there was room for him. "Care to sit?"
He lowered himself to the coffee table, facing her, his long legs bent like an oddly-jointed insect. He spoke quietly, his voice deep and sexy. "So, I hear you've been assigned to the internal audit. Plant chairperson, right?"
"Congratulations." He cleared his throat and smoothed that perfect blonde hair with the palm of one hand. "Any idea which departments will be under the microscope?"
Jules gripped her champagne glass. "Engineering got passed over rather lightly in the last internal. And sales, too. I haven't developed a comprehensive plan yet. Just got assigned a few days ago."
He narrowed his eyes. Jules felt strangely shriveled and found herself squinting back at him. But he spoke with a friendly assurance. "Well, Jules, sales is where you should really concentrate your efforts. And QA."
"Quality Assurance? They got grilled last time."
"Still serious procedural problems there. But I'm sure you'll be able to find them."
Is that supposed to be flattering, or is he trying to rat them out? "As I said, I still need to develop a plan."
"Yes. Well, engineering is doing some government contract stuff. Critical to Macrotech. Can't waste time with an audit."
"I don't think your time will be wasted," Jules responded, her grip tightening on her glass. "Procedural audits find roadblocks. We correct them, and the process speeds up - even the engineering process." Easy, Jules, she warned herself. Why does this man make me feel so defensive?
His smile revealed perfect teeth. "Spoken like a true corporate soldier." He lowered his voice to almost a whisper. "I warn you, I will not cooperate with an audit. Administrative crap. We're behind as it is."
"Yes. Really." His perfect smile grew wider, and he placed a hand lightly on Jules' shoulder.
She had trouble catching her breath. Anger? Or his good looks?
"I'm telling you this as a courtesy," he said, squeezing her shoulder lightly. "Don't embarrass yourself. The audit could hold up delivery on critical products."
Jules looked at him long and hard. She had no idea how to categorize this guy - charming one second and, well, disconcerting the next. And movie star handsome. She laughed as though this were all a joke, and in a voice louder than she'd intended said, "You're saying, if you miss your deadline, you'll blame it on the audit?"
His breath came in short, fast bursts. Jules could almost hear him counting to ten. When he spoke his voice was calm. "We won't miss the deadline. You will stay out of my department." He raised perfect gold-flecked eyebrows.
"Peyton, this is a party." Jules took a deep breath and continued more quietly. "Why don't we talk after I've put a plan together? I can arrange a meeting for next week." When her mouth clamped shut, the muscles in her jaw ached.
He pulled her toward him, his hand on her shoulder creating a warmth that she tried to ignore. His next words erased the warmth.
"You will arrange a meeting for me? Who the hell do you think you are?" Then he appeared to catch himself. He laughed, a forced sharp sound. "Are you one of those women who gets a little authority and ends up drunk with power?"
One of those women? That's it! This guy's a jerk. "Let go of me." Jules tried to speak quietly, but her agitated voice carried across the room. She saw Maggie, who stood in the hallway by the bathroom, turn to listen.
Cahill released Jules' shoulder. "Sorry. Just teasing you." His voice was soft now. "It's just that my engineering projects are important - to me and the company."
Jules noticed that many of the women in the room watched them. Because they're intrigued by Cahill, or because they feel the tension? Jules looked past him. Maggie still stood in the hallway, her eyes intent on Cahill.
He bent forward, his face very close to hers, and spoke in a controlled voice that only she could hear. "I'm serious. For the good of the company." He smiled.
Jules pulled back, but said nothing - her angry retort dissolving in the face of another radiant smile.
"Okay?" he said, bestowing smile number three. "We're in agreement?"
Don't push your luck, Mr. So-Damn-Charming. I know you're trying to manipulate me. "I intend to do my job," she said. She smiled her most alluring smile. See? Your own medicine!
"Don't just think of yourself. Think like a man. Think of Macrotech." Peyton looked into her eyes with those cold baby blues.
Jules' composure snapped. "If doing my job means I audit your precious little fiefdom, then so be it. Now get out of my face." Jules' voice shook with rage. Jeez! Tame it, girl.
But it was too late. Several of the women called out, "You tell 'im, Jules! Atta girl!" The conversation around her took on a new, excited buzz.
Cahill stood and walked out of the room, the tilt of his powerful shoulders exuding confidence. He glanced back once and winked at Jules. A few seconds later she heard the back door click closed.
She slumped against the back of the couch, her head spinning. Maggie returned to sit beside her. Her eyes were pinched at the corners. "What was that all about?"
"He doesn't want me to audit engineering. God! He was so charming - and then so hostile." She stared into Maggie's sympathetic eyes. "Jockeying for power. Exactly what's wearing me down."
"You okay?" Maggie asked.
Jules nodded and smiled weakly. "Guess he wasn't interested in my bod."
"That asshole," Maggie said.
"I think he threatened me."
Had he actually threatened her? The strange encounter had left Jules unsure. "Well, he said I'd regret it if I audited his department. I think."
Maggie's eyes shot off sparks in the dim room. "I could murder him."
"Don't bother. I'm outta here for the weekend. Sunapee. A couple days at the lake and I'll shrug this off."
"Yeah, well, I could murder him anyway." Maggie stared in the direction of the kitchen, as though sheer willpower could force Cahill to materialize for his execution.
"So," she turned her attention back to Jules, "you're headed to New Hampshire. Good. Tonight?"
Jules smiled, then spoke from the side of her mouth like a gangster. "Think I'm gonna blow this joint right now. Two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead of me, and I'm tired already."
"Okay." Maggie reached out and pulled Jules toward her. She hugged her. Hard. "You be careful, Jules."