She didn’t notice when he approached her, intent on wiping down the headrest inside the Suit with a soft cloth to remove all traces of Hartmann’s earlier presence. He didn’t know what he wanted to accomplish, exactly, but he laid his hand on her shoulder and startled her. When her head twisted around, their eyes met for the first time.
“Can I help you?” she asked, fidgeting uncomfortably as her knuckles turned white around the cloth. He stared, taking in the strands of brown hair stuck to the side of her face, and the awkward water spill that soaked the front of her thick, baggy t-shirt. It was a shame that she was oblivious to her appearance, he considered, because the curves of her neck and jawline weren’t half bad.
“You ever been inside?” he asked, nodding towards the Suit. Compulsively, his fingers found the crook of her neck, but she flushed and pulled away.
“Of course not. I’m not authorized,” she replied sharply, though her voice trembled. Hartmann was satisfied to know that she was afraid.
“You know who I am?” he asked, and he grabbed her arm to keep her pinned.
She had to swallow hard before she could hoarsely reply, “One of the pilots.”
“I’m the fucking pilot,” he hissed, pushing her back against the door frame of the Suit. “Master sergeant Hartmann. You’re just the fucking cleaning lady.”
She nodded and squeaked, “Okay.”
“You have no right to love the Suit – you’re a nobody.” He wondered why she didn’t scream. The back of his neck prickled as others in the bunker were beginning to take notice, but as long as they kept their distance he didn’t care. Something kept her paralyzed, even as he pulled the stuck strands of hair loose from her cheek. “You’re going to quit this job,” he said softly.
“No!” She jerked against him then, but he easily pushed her back.
“I better never fucking see you near the Suit again.” His voice was low and dangerous.
Somehow, she slipped through his grip like water, and was inside the Suit before he could stop her. For a split second he considered yanking her back out, but her eyes and expression no longer matched the woman he had spent weeks watching. The look she gave him triggered his battle instincts, and he reflexively drew back, narrowly avoiding being caught by the Suit doors as they closed. His heart stopped as he realized what had happened, then he shouted,
“The Suit’s been hijacked!”
Hartmann drew his sidearm, knowing full well how futile it would be if the cleaning lady decided to blow him to smithereens. He very carefully backed down the ramp for the Suit, then moved to stand with the other soldiers who gathered with their guns held ready. Captain Lambert appeared at his side and growled, “What the fuck is going on?”
“I was messing with the cleaning lady, sir,” Hartmann replied slowly. “She jumped inside, sir.”
“The fucking cleaning lady?” Captain Lambert was surprised. “I want her file! The rest of you, keep ready but don’t move.”
“Sir, there’s something wrong with that bitch,” Hartmann muttered, narrowing his eyes at the Suit. So far it had remained motionless, and it was impossible to tell what was happening inside.
“Shut up,” Lambert snapped, then snatched the manila folder that had been brought to him. He skimmed over it, slapped it against Hartmann for him to take, then moved forward as he cussed, “We’re in for a fucking shit storm over this.” He boldly climbed the ramp and pounded on the Suit as he shouted, “Carol Smith! Get out here this instant!”
Hartmann watched in disbelief as the doors opened and the cleaning lady practically spilled out onto Lambert’s chest. She was dazed and unsteady as the captain helped her down, as if she had been drugged. Lambert’s eyes met the master sergeant’s, and he said gruffly, “You. Come.”
He took them to a small meeting room with a table and chairs, and ensured that Carol was seated before stepping back and folding his arms. Hartmann remained standing.
“You wanna tell me what the hell happened?” Lambert demanded.
Hartmann shrugged. “Already did, sir.”
Lambert rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Carol, what’s your side of the story?”
Hartmann expected her to let loose and demonize him in every possible way, but instead she echoed his shrug and murmured, “I don’t know.”
“How could you not know?” Lambert couldn’t keep himself from raising his voice.
“Something came over me, I think.” Carol nervously began to pick at her fingernails.
Frustrated, Lambert slammed his hand down on the table, causing her to flinch. “I selected you for this job based on your psych eval, and in all this time there hasn’t been a single incident. You expect me to believe that ‘something came over’ you?”
“I was … overwhelmed.” She squirmed and stared down at her hands as she bit her bottom lip. “The master sergeant told me to quit my job.”
“So you decided to get yourself fired instead?” Lambert scowled as he looked over at Hartmann. “Look, I know that MSG Hartmann was probably being an unreasonable prick towards you, so you need to focus on protecting yourself, not him. Got that?”
“I honestly don’t know how I ended up in the Suit.” Carol’s mouth twisted downwards and her chin quivered. “I was really scared that he’d find a way to force me out of my job, and I love cleaning the Suit.” For a moment she choked on her words, and Lambert’s expression softened. “I don’t know what happened,” she finished weakly.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Lambert murmured, putting a reassuring hand on her arm. “I have to file a report on the incident, and someone is going to take the blame. That was a breach in security, and it’s not going to blow over on its own.”
Hartmann looked between Carol and Lambert with his eyes narrowed, mulling over the possibility that the captain was attracted to the cleaning lady. It was no secret that Lambert had suffered a nasty divorce several years back, and as far as anyone knew it had completely destroyed his interest in anything outside of work. It occurred to Hartmann that his hadn’t been the only gaze focused on her as she cleaned.
Out of curiosity, he opened the personnel file he still carried. Carol had a long history of showing up on time and following all the rules; she was described with words like, ‘respectful,’ and, ‘content,’ all of which boiled down to a polite way of saying that she was easily controlled and had no big dreams in life. Hartmann looked back up at her, noting the way she hunched over and kept her elbows close, and he thought that she likely considered any clothing brighter than beige to be too flashy. Carol was someone who had perfected invisibility, so why had the captain noticed her as well?
“I didn’t mean to cause any trouble, sir.” Her voice was growing smaller.
Lambert sighed. “I’m going to recommend that your clearance be revoked, and that you’re reassigned. Wait here while I bring in your supervisor.” He then turned to Hartmann. “Your ass, on the other hand, is entirely at my mercy.”
“Go ahead and satisfy yourself, sir. I like it rough.” Hartmann smirked at the way Lambert’s eyes flashed angrily, then nodded at Carol as he tossed her file down onto the table. She was too shocked and pale to do anything other than stare.
“Move it, soldier!” Lambert barked, and pushed him out the door. “Consider yourself reprimanded for disrespecting your commanding officer.” He continued to shove Hartmann down the hallway. “Now, I want a detailed report on everything that happened, then you are to go home and await further orders. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Hartmann wasn’t thrilled at the idea of being removed from the Base, but the fact that Carol had jumped into the Suit on her own, combined with his status as the best pilot, made him expect that he wasn’t going to get more than a slap on the wrist for harassment in the end. The best part was, Carol was never going to be allowed anywhere near the Suit again. It was a small price to pay for the victory.
Lambert spoke into his radio, then informed Hartmann that someone would escort him off Base as soon as they were done, and a few minutes later they were in another small room. Hartmann wrote a glib statement, then signed his name with an exaggerated scrawl. Lambert’s radio crackled, and he stepped outside to answer it. Hartmann set his pen down then followed, but discovered that Lambert was already jogging down the hallway. He raised an eyebrow, but an MP approached him, and he knew that he wasn’t going to be privy to whatever had lit a fire under the captain’s butt.
He was going home to enjoy a little R&R before returning to duty.