“There’s been a change of plans,” Haworth said as he straightened his loose notes. “We’re meeting Miss Byng today, not the General.”
Verloc frowned. “Is he sending her instead as a message?” he asked.
“I don’t believe so. I think he’s just giving her more responsibility over the Executive Committee’s liaison with the labs so he can pull back on his,” Haworth surmised. “All us old guard are making our plans, aren’t we?” he said, regarding Verloc fondly. “Miss Byng is obviously his. She lives in the Village so she’s better positioned to keep more regular tabs on us than he is.”
“We might have already solved the supply problem if we didn’t have to take time out to give them progress reports so often,” Verloc complained.
“They’re under just as much pressure to deliver as we are,” Haworth said as he took a small flask from his jacket pocket. “We’re all on the same deadline.” Verloc eyed the flask reproachfully, but Haworth didn’t notice as he was too busy unscrewing the cap. He took a quick swig and screwed the cap back on, wincing at the bitterness before a look of inordinate delight sprung up on his face.
Just then, the intercom on his desk beeped and a woman’s voice said through the crackling static, “Miss Byng is here for your two o’clock appointment.”
Haworth stuffed the flask back into his pocket, pressed the button on the intercom, and said, “Right on time! Send her in, Dottie.”
“Make sure to smile,” he whispered hurriedly before the door opened. Verloc forced his own face into a too wide grin for the occasion.
“I think she was impressed. You did very well.”
“Of course I did,” Verloc asked, smug.
“I was a little concerned when she started calling you Tony,” Haworth admitted with a chuckle. Then, after a beat, he added, “She’s going to call you that from now on, you know.”
“Yes,” Verloc acknowledged, his annoyance evident. While he was not especially talented at navigating the nuances of traditional English propriety, Haworth had taught him enough to recognize there was nothing to be done about this. Verloc couldn’t have corrected her in the meeting. It would imply that she and he were not at a level of familiarity for her to give his name a short form. Since her standing was higher, interrupting his presentation to draw that division would have created an awkward situation. It would have embarrassed Haworth. Or it should have; Verloc didn’t think Haworth would actually be embarrassed if he had corrected Miss Byng, but that he should have been would have only added to this hypothetical discomfort.
So now he was stuck being called Tony.
“I bet the General taught her that,” Haworth said. “It’s a basic subordination trick. She can call you Tony, but you can’t risk trying to call her Vickie back.” He leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk. “You see what she’s doing, don’t you?”
“Putting me in my place,” Verloc grumbled. “Making sure I know I’m just a research chemist right now.”
“Oh, it’s worse than that,” Haworth said cheerfully. “She’s setting a precedent for how she’ll treat you once I’ve left you in charge. If she establishes your deference to her now, she won’t have to do it later, when you’ll be in a position closer to hers with more room to push back.”
A look of indignant panic rose up on Verloc’s face. “What do I do to counteract that?”
“You could pretend to prefer her to be that casual with you. That would disarm her a bit, make her second-guess if you’re playing her game or if she’s playing yours,” Haworth suggested. “When you demand rigid decorum out of people, it only gives them the power to choose not to give it to you. Like when you insist that people call you doctor, and then they deliberately don’t to undermine your confidence. That’s why I’ve never been too bothered about standing on ceremony like that.” He shrugged, unconcerned. “It’s all politics. You just have to play the game well enough to keep the Byngs and the Executive Committee out of your hair.”
Politics? Verloc thought in outrage. He was a chemist! He had no interest in playing mind games or doing intricate dances of antiquated etiquette. He was here to do chemistry, to solve their problems for them and they wanted to waste his time with these petty tricks?
“These people have a lot of goddamn nerve!” Verloc spat. “Who do they think they are? Joy is the only thing that keeps Wellington Wells running, we’re the only people who know how to make it, and they think they can just come in here and take us to task? And not just that, but address us like secretaries while they’re at it? When they’re nothing but bureaucrats? They should be crawling in here on their fucking knees and thanking us profusely for not leaving them twisting in the wind and trying to solve the town’s morale problem through paperwork and meetings! The absolute audacity!” Verloc realized he was flying off the handle and calmed himself down. He took a deep breath and finished his tirade. “They would be fucked without us,” he concluded, “Totally and completely fucked.”
Haworth stared at him for an entirely too long pause before he burst out into uproarious, hearty laughter.
“It’s not funny,” Verloc said over his cackling. “Do they even realize what happens to the town if we were to decide that this is not our problem anymore?”
“Perhaps,” Haworth said, fighting off the last of his chortles and trying to take Verloc’s complaint seriously. “But they know we won’t.”
“And why’s that?” Verloc said, crossing his arms and grumping.
“Because we have a duty to our people,” Haworth said lazily, “same as they do.”
“It’s a town full of ingrates,” Verloc harrumphed. “You’ve already saved them from themselves once. We don’t owe them anything.”
Haworth started snickering again and Verloc scowled, but not at him.