In the morning Paul walked briskly into the plant and to Ben's office. Steve and Bill Schroeder were already there. They all shook hands. Several more engineers filed in. Ben asked about Pete, then broke into his opening salvo: "Gentlemen, I have great news. I've just learned that we and Northrop have won the first phase of the competition for the huge stealth contract. What we have to do now is to get ready for the next step, which is a clash of prototypes under field test conditions. We and Northrop have each been awarded a million and a half dollars to develop the prototypes."
"I want to take this opportunity to thank Bill Schroeder, who came out of retirement to help us with the Echo I project." He shook Bill's hand, and there was a round of applause from the small group.
"Back to the hearth fire," Bill quipped.
Each man shook Bill's hand.
"We now have a new project name with our one and a half million bucks," Ben said. "Our internal project name is Hopeless Diamond, and we're in direct competition with Northrop. We need to have a model the Air Force refers to as an Experimental Survivable Testbed or XST, meaning the model does not get destroyed during testing. Our first job will be putting the specifications together, but we know it will be around 40 feet long, so that should give you an idea. Our model, and Northrop's, will be stuck on a pylon at White Sands Range for competitive testing. Whoever wins gets one heck of a hefty contract. I want that contract, gentlemen, and I'm going to give everything I've got to nail it down."
Paul nodded as Ben's gaze fiercely made the rounds of his core group. It was Ben's third project as director of the Skunk Works. He'd done great on the first two, but this project, because of its outlandishness, was considered both a risk and a challenge for him. He still had Kelly Johnson looking over his shoulder a bit, but no amount of mentoring could save Ben if this thing went down in flamesnot only were huge sums of money involved, but the Skunk Works's reputation was on the line.
"First thing we need to do," Ben said, "is to grow this thing through a series of subscale models until we arrive at the full blown configuration at about 47 feet. We only have a few months to get to White Sands, gentlemen, so let's make every minute count."
There was a murmur of assent as the men rose, for the meeting was over.
Paul walked Bill Schroeder to his car and thanked him for his great support. They shook hands, and Bill drove off, looking a bit misty.
Paul returned to his lab. He still hadn't had time to unpack, and it looked as if there wouldn't be for some time. He made a mental note to return to Mr. Garcia's metal shop with a new design for Condor IV. He glanced at the wall clock. It was 10:45. He picked up the phone and called Marsha.
Probably out shopping. Funny, come to think of it, she hadn't mentioned anything about his coming over for lunch, which they'd been doing every day since her breakup with Fitch.
Paul stood back as a message cart arrived, bearing several rolled up blueprintsthe first specs for the subscale 25 foot model, still hot from the drafting room's plotter press. Paul unrolled the documents, placed metal weights on each corner, and began poring over the detailed measurements. He found two small errors right off, which he noted by circling them with a red china marker.
He was still going over the first drawing, when he noted a hunger pang. He picked up the phone and called Marsha again.
Grabbing his sweater, he walked out the door.
He felt more than a little hunger pang.
He got in his car and drove out of the parking lot.
He drove along the roads into Madeira, curious that their constant chain of contact over the past few weeks seemed to be broken at the moment.
He gasped as he approached his house. A small moving van stood parked in front of Marsha's house, with the garage door open. The realty sign had been taken down when the house went into escrow. This could not be someone moving in. The truck was too small, and the four men milling about her garage could not be the family that was buying.
Her car was gone.
What is going on? He parked in his driveway and got out in a daze.
He noticed the letter stuck in his front door screen, but in his shock, he walked over to her house.
The doors were tightly locked, the windows shuttered.
"Hello," he said, approaching the four men in blue overalls who were emptying her garage of everything that wasn't nailed down.
"Hi," said their leader, an older man with white hair. He showed Paul a memorandum from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Mrs. Kassner was permitting them to take away all the possessions she was placing for them in the garage
Paul jogged to his own door. He pulled the letter out, sat down hard, and peeled it open. He swallowed hard as he read, in her neat, precise penmanship:
"Dearest Paul, I'm sorry to bail out this way, but it's maybe the easiest for both of us. I am afraid to spend another night in this town with Peter after what just happened. Also, I care greatly about you, and I don't want to continue our relationship. This is not because of you, because you are a wonderful man, but I don't feel about you the way I felt about Jeffrey. I have been making a series of mistakes lately, and I don't want to make another one with you. I don't think I love you in that way, and I don't want to hurt you any more than I am doing today. I am looking forward to living back in Oregon, and I want to just make a new life for me and my son there. I want you to continue in your wonderful job, because I know you love it. Please let me go. I'm sorry to hurt you, and I wish you all the best. Sincerely, Marsha Kassner."
Paul slowly laid the letter down on the ground between his feet, where a light wind moved it about.
He planted his elbows on his knees and sank his face into his palms.
Suddenly, he found himself crying uncontrollably.
Blindly, with his face on fire and hurting from the salty sting and the insult to his mucus tissues, he unlocked the door and went inside to avoid the curious gaze of the four VFW workers.
He put on a kettle of water for tea. Listening to the kettle banging, he tried to catch the loosely spinning newsreel of his thoughts, but he felt as if he'd been smashed with a hammer. His hands trembled, and he sniffled uncontrollably for at least ten minutes. During that time he looked first out the east window at her house, now an abandoned and lifeless shell, then out the south window over the sink, at his now desolate radar emulation, where Pete had danced happily with the Condor planes for many hours.
When the kettle started to whistle, he turned it off.
He washed his face in hot water at the sink, breathing shallowly to relieve the reddened channels of his nose. His eyes felt as if they'd doubled in size and were full of peperoncini juice. He dabbed them gently with a clean, dry kitchen towel.
He dropped a tea bag in the cup, filled it with steaming water, added some honey, and went outside to sit on the back porch. If he was still hungry, he didn't feel it anymore. Clouds were moving in, and the yard looked as desolate as he felt.
After a while, he put his empty teacup in the sink. As he locked up the house, he noted the men and the van were gone, and it was all over.
He drove back to work.
He bought a dry sandwichbaloney with cheesefrom a vending machine as he walked through the plant. He bought a hot cup of acid coffee from another machine and carried these to his lab. It was going to be a long couple of months pushing out those prototypes, and he didn't plan to spend much of that time at home. He'd get over this because he'd always been a survivor, he knew, and this had really only been a fling of a few weeks, and hell, he'd spent much of that feeling bad as she traipsed around with dear old Alex Fitch. Maybe by Spring time, he thought, he'd be feeling a little better, maybe take a little time off and meet someone. Right now, he couldn't think of anything but Hopeless Diamond, and the wall of numbness looming all around him. Already, he was flexing some inner muscles to push that wall away. She was actually right, he thought; he deserved better than he'd gotten...and so he resolved to leave her be and push on with his life.