Rathbone took a deep breath before entering the room. Unbelievably, his palm was sweaty as he wrapped his knobby little hand around the doorknob. The irony of it made him snort and choke back a low bark that nobody would ever mistake for laughter - except Rathbone.
As the door opened into a non-descript office that contained no photos, no pictures and no decorations of any kind, Rathbone was treated to the sight of someone hunched over a manila folder, whose contents were splayed across a very plain desk. Between Rathbone and the desk sat a single chair. Metal with a government green cushion.
“Stothers,” Rathbone acknowledged his supervisor.
“Rathbone. How nice of you to be on time.” Stothers' voice was raspy. Rathbone used to joke that he continually sounded like something was caught inside his throat. Praise maybe. Credit for others, surely.
Rathbone stood by the chair. Stothers had gone back to staring at his papers. Eventually he seemed to remember his guest standing there.
“Please, Rath, have a seat.”
Ahhh. The casual use of one's name in a familiar sense. Meant to put the person at ease. A standard practice in these types of evaluations. Rathbone sat in the chair.
For a bit, Stothers continued to pour over the last few lines of one of the pages. Then he abruptly gathered up the papers, and placed them methodically back in the folder, which he left squarely in the center of the desk, his fingers tapping gently on it's manila surface.
“This has not been your best of years, Rath. Messy business, that stuff with your latest assignment.”
“That is not my fault. My predecessor...”
Stothers' hand went up to halt whatever Rathbone was about to say next. “I'm not here to hear excuses, Rathbone.”
My, my. How quickly it went from “Rath” to “Rathbone”. Another technique, meant to keep him off kilter. He knew this, but still it worked. Rathbone was silenced.
“You once had such promise, Rathbone. You remember your last evaluation?”
“It's a little fuzzy. It was a long time ago.”
“Yes, it was. 1914, to be exact. As I recall, you were a bit puffed up over that Titanic, thing. You were so sure that by the next time, you'd be sitting on this side of the table. But here we are, more than 100 years later, and there you still sit, about to account for your failure with Irene Gentry.”
Rathbone visibly shrunk at the name “Irene Gentry.” For someone like him to be assigned a nobody – an old bitty – like her was an insult to begin with. That she had been almost completely immune to his coercion was unthinkable. He had been inside the heads of ship captains, SS officers and politicians over the past one hundred years. Experiencing wild success after wild success, Rathbone had climbed up the ladder of influential humans.
Then came Irene Gentry.
The pastor of your church is having an affair.
Irene prayed for him.
Lois James told everyone that you have a drinking problem.
Irene praised God.
Your son is doing drugs.
Irene read her Bible.
Over and over. Rumors, gossip, tragedy – none of it mattered. Irene prayed. She read her Bible. She praised God and told everyone how much she loved Him.
“Well?” Stothers brought Rathbone out of his musings. “Haven't you anything to say for yourself?”
“As I started to say earlier, my predecessor...”
“Your predecessor had things well under control.”
“That is not true! I looked it up. Demon after demon has been sent to their doom, wasting away some of their best years on this woman. Just tell me! Who did I make so angry that I was sent to bang my head against an Irene Gentry wall for the past twenty years?”
Stothers carefully set the file back down on the desk and folded his hands. He smiled. It was not a nice smile.
“Maybe you made an enemy or two along the way, Rath. Maybe you made someone unhappy with your smug conceit over some minor successes. Some strings were pulled – maybe. Or...maybe you've just gone soft. Irene's only got another twenty or so years left. It might do you some good to finish out with her. Toughen you up some.”
The rumor spread through hell quickly afterwards: An old woman had made one of the devil's best cry like a little girl.
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