“I don’t mind parties, Norma, not ordinary parties. But that one didn’t look like an ordinary party.”
Norma stood her ground in front of the desk. This, after all, was important “But, Dr. Haenlingen, we—”
“Don’t try to persuade me,” the little old woman said sharply. “Don’t try to cozen me into something: I know all the tricks, Norma. I invented a good third of them, and it’s been a long time since I had to use a textbook to remember the rest.”
“I’m not trying to persuade you of anything.” The woman wouldn’t listen, that was the whole trouble: in the harsh bright light of morning she sat like a stone statue, casting a shadow of black on the polished desk. This was Dr. Haenlingen—and how did you talk to Dr. Haenlingen? But it was important, Norma reminded herself again: it was perfectly possible that the entire group of people at the party would be downgraded, or at the least get marked down on their records. “But we weren’t doing anything harmful. If you have a party you’ve got to expect people to—oh, to get over-enthusiastic, maybe. But certainly there was nothing worth getting angry about. There was—”
“I’m sure you’ve thought all this out,” Dr. Haenlingen said tightly. “You seem to have your case well prepared, and it would be a pleasure to listen to you.”
“Unfortunately,” the woman continued in a voice like steel, “I have a great deal of work to do this morning.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, but she didn’t sound sorry in the least. Her eyes went down to a pile of papers on the desk. A second passed.
“You’ve got to listen to me,” Norma said. “What you’re doing is unfair.”
Dr. Haenlingen didn’t look up. “Oh?”
“They were just—having fun,” Norma said. “There was nothing wrong, nothing at all. You happened to come in at a bad moment, but it didn’t mean anything, there wasn’t anything going on that should have bothered you...”
“Perhaps not,” Dr. Haenlingen said. “Unfortunately, what bothers me is not reducible to rule.”
“But you’re going to act on it,” Norma said. “You’re going to—”
“Yes?” Dr. Haenlingen said. “What am I going to do?”
“Downgrade the persons who were there?” Dr. Haenlingen asked. “Enter remarks in the permanent records? Prevent promotion? Just what am I supposed to have in mind?”
“Well, I thought—I—”
“I plan,” Dr. Haenlingen said, “nothing whatever. Not just at present. I want to think about what I saw, about the people I saw. At present, nothing more.”
There was a little silence. Norma felt herself relax. Then she asked: “At present?”
Dr. Haenlingen looked up at her, the eyes ice-cold and direct. “What action I determine to take,” she said, “will be my responsibility. Mine alone. I do not intend to discuss it, or to attempt to justify it, to you or to anyone.”
“Yes, Dr. Haenlingen.” Norma stood awkwardly. “Thank you—”
“Don’t thank me—yet,” Dr. Haenlingen said. “Go and do your own work. I’ve got quite a lot to oversee here.” She went back to her papers. Norma turned, stopped and then walked to the door. At the door she turned again but Dr. Haenlingen was paying no visible attention to her. She opened the door, went out and closed it behind her.
In the corridor she took one deep breath and then another.
The trouble was, you couldn’t depend on the woman to do anything. She meant exactly what she had said: “For the present.” And who could tell what might happen later?