A Falling Body 1–1
Ten seconds passed in silence. Fifteen. It took all of my concentration to breathe without gulping, but I knew I had to say something.
“That’s a lot of money”, was the best I could manage. I mentally kicked myself. But M. Legrand just smiled.
“You’d be expected to earn it, naturally.”
“That’s one of the things that worries me.” I wondered if it was a mistake to admit to some worries, but then I caught myself on. I hadn’t applied for this job. I hadn’t known it existed, or that I’d been in the running for it, until just under two hours ago. If they kicked me out on my arse I’d be no worse off than I had been the previous evening. At least, I seemed to have my breathing under control at last.
Usually, at job interviews, the candidate is asked if she has any questions for the prospective employer. I decided to treat the question as implied.
“Your proven intelligence and track record, obviously. Those, combined with your truly remarkable good looks, your health and strength.” He was starting to sound like a surrogate for natural selection, which was ironic in the circumstances.
“You’re not an equal opportunity employer, then.” I didn’t inflect that as a question. M. Legrand emitted a brief wheeze which I interpreted as a laugh.
“There were seven young women on our shortlist. None of them has any more idea than you had when you woke up this morning that they have been under consideration for this position, or even that there is a position. An anti-discrimination lawsuit is the last thing I need to worry about.”
“And I’m your first choice?”
“Indeed you are. That makes you a very exceptional and special young woman. Of course, you understand that, even if you hadn’t been our first choice, I’d feel free to lie to you about it and you wouldn’t have any way of checking what I told you. I try to make it a practice to lie only when there’s no possibility of my being caught out. Of course, it isn’t always possible to stick to that rigidly. But in this case I don’t have to lie because you are, in fact, the first person to whom I’ve made this offer. And will remain the only one, I hope.”
He backed his wheelchair out from behind the desk and manoeuvered it in front of the big window. I had the impression that he barely took in the view of a wooded hillside running down to the Bay of Biscay, though he seemed to be studying it minutely.
“Since the other candidates are unaware of their candidature, there is no external pressure for a decision. On the other hand, rapidity of response to an unforeseen situation is one of the qualities that I’m looking for. That being so, I shall require your answer by 6 pm on Saturday.”
“I’d expect to be able to let you have it by the end of this meeting, but I’ve one or two more questions.”
“About the technology, naturally.”
“It’s new, it sounds like science fiction, and you’ve managed to stop any hint of it from leaking. I’m guessing that it can’t have been tested adequately.”
Legrand nodded, but not in confirmation. More an acknowledgement to himself that he’s correctly predicted my objection.
“We have satisfied ourselves that it works as intended. On human subjects who have been very well compensated for their participation and who will adhere to the obligation of confidentiality that they undertook as an integral part of the arrangement. You will be given access to the test results. Anonymized, of necessity.”
I thought this over, while I tried to remain impassive. The remuneration package that Legrand had outlined to me was pitched at a level calculated to overcome any mistrust that I might be feeling. That in itself was sufficient indication that mistrust was warranted. As against that, I’ve always been a sucker for new technology.
“Of course, as you’re perfectly aware, faked test results are well within our capability, so I don’t expect the tests to carry much weight with you”, Legrand continued. “Well, here’s something that should: I’m prepared to take the risk, which is real. So, if you’re tempted by our modest offer, you can feel secure in the knowledge that I’m not asking you to do anything that I’m not happy to do myself.”
“Forgive me, but I suspect that the risk to the, um, host, perhaps I should say ‘employee’, is rather greater than that to the employer. And even if the risks are identical, I have more to lose.”
This time, the sound that emanated from Legrand was clearly a laugh. He was evidently not amused, however.
“Because I’m elderly and immobilized. I should have expected as much from someone of your age. Let me tell you something. My greatly reduced life expectancy is of far greater — I almost said ‘infinitely’ greater — value than yours, which you certainly think is better than normal. Of far greater value to me, that is.”
I didn’t have a ready answer to that, though it seemed clear to me that he was using feigned anger to put me off balance.
“I think I’ve heard enough to be able to make a decision. I’m very gratified that you’ve selected me, and I wish you well with your project, but I’ve decided, for better or worse, to decline your very generous offer. But thank you. I’m flattered.”
Legrand didn’t look either disappointed or surprised.
“I said I’d wait until 6 pm Saturday for an answer. As you’ve made it clear that that answer is ‘No’, the offer is now withdrawn. Nevertheless, if you change your mind before the deadline, please be good enough to let me know. I do not promise that the offer will be renewed but I can assure you that I shall not appoint anyone else to the position in the meantime. In case we don’t meet again, you have my best wishes for your future career.”
Legrand turned to face the set of double doors that formed the main entrance to the room, and pressed a button on the right arm of the wheelchair, which responded by accelerating towards the doors. They opened just as he reached them and he continued through without a pause. Immediately, a well-groomed Irishman in his late 20s entered the room and, firmly but with perfect courtesy, escorted me to my car.