Monday, September 01, 2014

The end of an odyssey

For the past 10 years, I've been working on a little side project that has come to be known in our house as "The Book."  I've committed regular "writing nights" (Tuesdays, if you're curious) to it to force myself to complete chapters even when I wasn't feeling particularly creative or funny.  I've washed dishes until my hands cracked to give me something to do while my mind wandered and tried to find its way around obstacles in the story.  Then, after several years of nights and weekends, breaks and restarts, I finished the last chapter, only to realize that now I had to go back and edit it.  I printed out a copy and put it away, because I couldn't bear to look at it anymore.

Then, after taking a year or so to work up the courage to dive back in, I started the editing process.  That, too, took a couple of years, as my children grew up and my job became more demanding.  I had to update the technology references.  I looked for places where the main character "flipped his phone open" and made sure he was swiping instead of pushing buttons.  I agonized over particularly funny sequences that slowed the story down and I groaned over particularly unfunny sequences that seemed like a good idea at the time.  As I worked, I found typos made by tired fingers, misnamed characters caused by toddler interruptions, and plot points that needed tightening.  I also found a bunch of scenes that still made me laugh, as well as sequences that had become so embedded in my brain that I had started to think that they were real memories until I saw them on the laptop screen again.  I enjoyed visiting my characters again and helping them tell an even better story.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I also did what every writer is supposed to do: I tried to find a publisher.  I wrote and rewrote my query letter and sent it to friends asking, "Would you buy this book?"  Or course, they're my friends, so most of them said, "Yes!"  Unfortunately, the publishers and book agents weren't so friendly.  I received polite form letters in some cases, echoing silence in most. The book industry wasn't ready for my masterpiece.  Just for fun, I reached out to a friend in the film industry who had connections with a studio or two.  He submitted my manuscript for consideration to be turned into a movie, mainly as a way for me to get some semi-professional feedback.  I was unsurprised when the studio passed on the opportunity to adapt it for film, and I chose not to be offended that the studio's reader put the word "humor" in quotes in his evaluation.

Somewhere along the way, Amazon offered an alternative for aspiring authors, and I chose to take it. Kindle Direct Publishing gave me the chance to put my book in readers' hands without the need for a publisher, so I decided to take it.  I know that there's some stigma associated with self-published books, and I've read enough of them to know why.  I don't know whether my book is good enough to rise above the noise, and in some ways I don't care.  All I want is for people to read it, to share in a story that has kept me and my close friends and family entertained for years, but with the added benefit of being able to read the whole thing at once rather than chapter by chapter.  I want to share it, with the hope that it will entertain, that readers will laugh a little, chuckle a few times, and maybe even guffaw once or twice when a phrase take a surprise swipe at their funny bone.

I also want to share this crazy world that I've inhabited for the last 15 years or so, full of intelligent, quirky, and painfully honest people who are more interested in solving problems than making anyone feel good about them.  Software development is a world where nudists can work the night shift, where cursing someone out in Russian is just the prelude to a stirring debate on application design, and where it doesn't matter how you look or how you sound, as long as you can build cool stuff.  I love this industry, and I expect I'll spend the rest of my career here, solving incredibly complex problems with a group of hyper-logical oddballs who challenge me every day to deal with the fact that I'm not the smartest guy in the room (although I'll still force them to prove it).  I can't bring everyone into the office, but I want to give them a glimpse -- albeit a satirical, exaggerated one -- into this amazing industry that I call home.

Here's my book.  I hope you enjoy it.

Hollywood.bomb, the novel, now available on Amazon.com


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"A Passionate Drama for the Ages"

Passion: it's a good thing.  I, for example, am passionate about caring for my family, about living out my faith, and about building great software products (that last one's even on my resume, so it has to be true).  I also really enjoy biking, hiking, writing, reading, and, sometimes, just sitting in the dark by myself, but I wouldn't say that I'm passionate about those things.

Passion is food and light, fuel and fire.  It sustains us, it drives us, it consumes us.  It's the difference between "YEAH!" and "meh...."  If you're passionate enough about something, we're told, then you can do anything, be anything, achieve anything.  It's like a one-way ticket to the stars, with an unlimited supply of rocket fuel.

In my years (OK, decades) working with startups, I've heard the same phrase in almost every company pitch: "We're passionate about waste management/online book sales/mobile crowdsourced snipe hunting, so there's no way we can fail!"  In the early years, I thought, "Exactly!  That's what it takes to make this sort of dream a reality!"  Now, I think, "Well, maybe.  What else have you got?"

What I've learned over the years is that passion by itself isn't enough.  You also need focus, you need skills, and you need help.  I can jump up and down all day, shouting, "I'm passionate about restoring classic Maseratis!!!" but that's not going to rebuild an Italian carburetor.  Nor does my passion guarantee my success if I actually open the hood and start poking around.  If I don't know what I'm doing, then blindly following my passion is more likely to get me hurt than to help me accomplish anything useful.  If I can focus that energy over time, though, then I can probably gain the skills and the help I need. Focused passion becomes vision, and vision inspires others to make your passion their own.

Passion is like a fire hose: if you focus it and direct it toward a goal, then you can do a lot of good.  If you just let go of it and let it spray all over the place, then you'll make a mess and probably hurt someone in the process.

So, passion plus focus equals success.  What does passion without focus lead to?

Drama.

Drama is the dark side of the passion coin.  It's what you get when you let your passion run unchecked, when you make the feeling more important than the outcome.  It's the mess you make when you measure people based on their "commitment" instead of their output.  It's why so many personal and business relationships don't just fall apart, they explode in a conflagration of misery, lawsuits, and recriminations.  Passion was why I joined several startups.  Drama was why I left.

Every teenager knows this, because they have all kinds of passion and nowhere to put it.  What are your teenage years other than a chance to "find yourself," to take all those things (and people) that you're interested in and decide whether or not you want to spend your life pursuing them?  What is a first date other than an experiment in focused passion, and what is a first fight if not the logical dramatic conclusion of that experiment?  For teens, life is hyperbolic.  Everything is "the best thing in the world" or "the worst thing ever," sometimes in the same day.  That song you couldn't stop playing yesterday is so overplayed today, and the person you were planning to spend eternity with last week is a stuck-up jerk this week.  Teens are full of passion and bursting with drama, usually more than one house can contain.

This is a natural part of growing up, but the problem is that some people never leave those teenage tendencies behind.  Instead of finding a balance between passion and drama, they let go of the firehose and look for ways to turn up the water.  "More passion!" they cry, but more drama results.  Instead of pointing them toward a solution, their passion creates more problems, to which they respond with more passionate demonstrations, which lead to more drama.  Eventually, unfocused passion always turns inward, and instead of inspiring others to join you, it isolates and alienates.

I once worked for someone I'll call "Jack," who had more energy than any three other people combined.  He was brilliant, insightful, and he rarely slept more than a few hours a night.  The rest of us were convinced that he was also clinically insane.  But boy, was he passionate.  He could see what was coming in software over the next few years and he knew what products people would want.  He just couldn't build them, because when it came time to do the necessary work he got bored and moved on.  He left a trail of half-built and broken product behind him, each of which would make someone else rich in a few years.

Or as one of his long-time colleagues put it, "Jack's successfully predicted every technology trend for the last ten years, and has f***ed up every one."

Jack had passion, but he lacked focus.  He had energy to spare, but he wasted most if it jumping from place to place, idea to idea, team to team.  He drew people in with his energy, then he drove them away with his drama.  When projects failed, he told us we "lacked commitment" because we slept more than 3 hours a night.  When people questioned his ideas, he yelled.  When no one else was around, he called them at home to tell them that they were the reason that the company was struggling.  Needless to say, we had a lot of turnover at our little company.  Drama comes with a high recruiting budget.

I worked for another company who said, "We want to do one thing and do it better than anyone else." One of the founders of that company owns half an island now, and he's pursuing other passions.  They had focus.

So what's ruling your life: passion or drama?  Are you focused on the goal or worrying about the obstacles?  Are you drawing people into your vision or telling them that they couldn't possibly understand it?  Do you spend your days drawing new and better ideas out of the people around you or telling them why yours is the only one that will work?

Passion finds the positive.  Drama obsesses about the negative.
Passion includes.  Drama alienates.
Passion inspires.  Drama tires.
Focused passion created the automobile, the electric light, and the computer.  Drama created the anti-anxiety pharmaceutical industry.

I'll take focused passion any day.  You can keep your drama.





Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 25


Chapter 25

"I still can’t believe that worked!" Jack roared, startling a couple of MIT students a few tables away.  They glared at him, but he showed his teeth and they quickly returned to their discussion of the relative impacts of Archimedes, Shakespeare, and Sergey Brin on Western civilization.  "When I saw you run into that building, I was sure I was going to have to find another favorite project manager."  He took another long pull of his coffee-colored stout ale.  "In case you were wondering, I would have chosen Miller."

"Thanks, Jack.  It’s good to know I would have been missed," Stephen replied sardonically.  He sipped gently at his own beer, an amber with just a hint of blackberry.  He hadn’t been drinking much lately, since it got in the way of his training.  In the two months since “The Waxed Cheese Event,” as they had taken to calling it, he had started running seriously again.  He knew he’d be watching the Boston Marathon on television this year, but he hoped to be ready for New York in the fall.  He had little hope of actually qualifying for Boston as a competitive runner, but stranger things had happened.  In fact, if he managed it, that would be the least strange thing that had happened this year.

Stephen looked around.  This had to be the smallest project wrap party ever:  just him and Jack.  There would probably be another gathering when everyone got back to town, but Jack hadn’t been willing to wait.  "A project like this deserves at least a couple of beers to celebrate its passing," he had growled, grabbing Stephen at 3:00 in the afternoon and dragging him out of the office.  Now, as they sat at the bar at the Cambridge Brewing Company, Stephen had to agree.  Though the project had actually driven him away from drink, thinking about it certainly made him glad to have a cold beer close at hand.

"I wanted to thank you, by the way, for sticking around in LA until everything wrapped up," Jack said, punctuating his gratitude with a relaxed belch.  "I know that it must have been difficult for Jenny and the baby."

"Oh, no, they had a great time out there," Stephen demurred.  "I mean, how many feet of snow did you get in those two blizzards?"

"Three-and-a-half," Jack grunted sourly, "and my snow blower broke after the first one.  I had to pay a kid twenty bucks to dig out my driveway.  Can you believe that?  It’s extortion, taking advantage of people with weak backs."

"Or large stomachs," Stephen grinned as Jack scowled at him.  "The snow had all melted by the time we got home, though I hear that my neighbor ‘borrowed’ a backhoe from his company after the second blizzard and dug us all out, anyway."

"Right, so as I was saying:  thanks for getting a tan on company time.  We appreciate it."

"Don’t worry, I worked my butt off, but at least the baby got to see sand for the first time while I was doing it.  I had to stay for a couple of weeks anyway.  Until the investigation was complete, the police politely asked us not to leave town."

"’Politely?’"

"Well, once they stopped shouting and threatening to shoot everyone in sight, yes, they were quite polite to everyone except Richard.  Though I can’t blame them for being a little upset, especially when they found out that they’d called out half of the LAPD over a couple of blocks of cheese."

"So how much time did he spend in jail?"

"Just a week.  Rod let him cool his heels there for a day or two before Miriam convinced him to set his pack of lawyers on the case.  Turns out that it’s a federal crime now to call in a bomb hoax.  Dan visited Richard several times in jail, and now I hear that they’ve cooked up a whole new career for old Sgt. Dick.  Dan’s booking him on the inspirational speaker circuit, telling his tale of how his time in the military left him paranoid and delusional.  I hear he’s a big hit at peace rallies and West Coast high schools.  There’s a rumor that he might even swing through New England during the next election year."

"All that trauma from two years of ROTC?"

"I assume he shapes the facts to fit the narrative.  People hear what they want to hear, Jack."  Stephen took another sip of his beer.  It tasted better than he remembered.

"At least Stu managed to avoid joining him in prison.  I’d hate to see those two as a double bill."

Stephen nodded.  “He was so embarrassed by all of the attention that he just wanted to get out of there after the police released him.  He harvested his garden, loaded up his bike, and took off.  Last I heard from him, he was somewhere in Louisiana.  He says thank you, by the way, for letting him know that he’s welcome at ADD if he ever wants to return, but I don’t know if we’ll see him again.  For now, it’s just him, the road, and his funny little bike."

"He’s a little crazy, but he’s a good engineer."  Jack sighed.  "Funny how often I say that, but it’s true:  as long as they deliver the code, I don’t care if their hobbies include sword collecting, medieval re-enactments, or naked line dancing.  If we only hired normal people, we’d have the dumbest engineers on the planet.  Which reminds me:  when are our other strange birds flying home to roost?"

"Well, Ricky’s back already -- "

"Right, with orders to avoid all airports for the next six months if he wants to keep his job,” Jack interjected.  “That guy’s a PR nightmare!"

"Did he really try to get himself deported?" Stephen asked.

Jack chuckled.  "Yeah.  Strangest case our lawyers have ever had to handle, with a client fighting for deportation.  The LAPD gets one or two crazies at every major incident, so they assumed that Ricky had just come to preach.  He could have walked away if he hadn’t insisted that, as a member of multiple oppressed minorities, his civil rights had been violated.  He even called the ACLU!  We finally got him to calm down and come home by offering to make Multi-Ethnic Day a new company holiday."

"When’s that?"

"Ricky chose the end of March.  There’s a dry period there in between President’s Day and Memorial Day."

"I look forward to celebrating it.  Maybe I’ll track down my ancestors, too, and find out how many different counties in Ireland we cover."  Stephen took another swig of beer in tribute to his forefathers.  "Anyway, everyone else who’s coming back will start trickling in within a couple of weeks.  They all needed some time off after we wrapped the project, so I told everyone to take a couple of weeks’ vacation, on the company.  Hope you don’t mind."  Stephen sipped his beer innocently, knowing that, at least for a week or two, he could do no wrong.

Jack made a half-hearted effort to look annoyed, but he was too pleased to pull it off.  "Fine, take advantage of me while I’m in a good mood, since we both know it won’t last.  You did good work, though, kid.  Not only did you keep everyone alive, but you even delivered the application on time.”

"Nothing like a life-threatening crisis to focus the mind, I guess.  Even without Stu, we were able to bring the product live two days before the deadline.”  Stephen waggled his fingers in the air.  "The magic of software development:  it all comes together when it has to."

Jack took the last swig of his porter and, noting that Stephen’s glass was empty, too, signaled the bartender for two more.  "Impressive.  Too bad it never saw the light of day."

"Not true, oh cantankerous one," Stephen replied, feeling a warm glow in his stomach where the beer sat.  "Our site was live for a whole week before they ran out of money.  It was a heck of a launch party, too:  simulcast video from both the New York and LA offices with a cash bar, live bands, and dancing all night long.  I’m pretty sure that I even saw some of the Oscar losers drowning their sorrows with Robert and Brad at the oxygen bar in LA.  At least, I assume that was oxygen coming through the respirator masks.  I didn’t try it myself."

"But they never got any customers, right?"

"Well, no.  They used Gotterdammerung to produce the commercial, so it was this strange mix of web memes, World War II file footage, and women in body paint singing opera.  They got a ton of traffic the first couple of nights, but judging from the emails most people thought they were hitting some kind of fetish site.  They were extremely disappointed, to say the least, and not inclined to provide their credit card numbers.  CouldBU spent the last of their cash on the commercial and the launch parties, so now they have until the end of month to liquidate the office furniture and clear out their offices."

"Brutal," Jack murmured wiping a brown foam mustache from his upper lip.  "Extraordinarily dumb, but brutal."

"Rod came out unscathed, of course.  He made Chuck Marquette the new company president one week before the product launch, and I assume one day after seeing the current state of the finances.  He’s already moved on to his next company, some Australian sport fishing company that’s trying to open up new markets in Alaska and Greenland."

"And Brad and Robert, the self-appointed brain trust of CouldBU?"

"After the fight with the mime, Brad’s parents cut him off.  He had a choice of coming home and working in the family business or striking out on his own.  Last I heard, they had him working an oilfield east of Austin.  Robert’s salvaging what he can from the wreckage, once again with Dan’s help.  The brilliant little worm bought all of the surveillance tape from CouldBU, which included all of our video conferences and conference calls.  He and Robert edited it together into a pilot for an Internet-broadcast pseudo-reality show that they’re tentatively calling Programmer’s Paradise.  They already have the first season sold, though I’m not sure what they plan to do for a second season.  They offered us scale for our parts in the show, as long as we agree to film some pick-up scenes and record any additional dialogue that they write to flesh out the plot."  Stephen shrugged.  "It could be enough to pay for Sarah’s piano lessons in a few years."

Jack grunted, "I expect a thank-you in your Emmy acceptance speech."

"I’ll try to remember," Stephen grinned and took another swig of ale.  "The Fab Four did a little trash-picking, too.  They bought all of CouldBU’s intellectual property for around $10,000, so now they own all the source code and ideas for the product and infrastructure."

"Why would they want that?" asked Jack.  "They barely worked on it."

"Exactly," said Stephen.  "They own the rights to whatever they worked on while employed by CouldBU, which was primarily their casting company and production studio portal.  They’re litigation-proof."

"Not bad," said Jack, impressed.  "I’d ask them to come work for us if this weren’t further proof that they’d make lousy employees."

"It’s a good thing that they figured this out," observed Stephen, "since they already have over a million dollars in revenue.  They’re planning to launch it in a couple of months, after the dust has settled, and are already thinking IPO in a year or so."

"Which also explains Mark’s -- sorry, Mary’s -- decision to join them, I suppose," Jack said glumly.

"That, and their benefits," Stephen agreed.  "All of the rest of her treatment and operations are covered under their medical plan.  They’re very open-minded about that kind of thing, as you might imagine."  Stephen took another sip, while Jack nodded his agreement.  "It’s more than that, though.  She wants to start a new life, and doesn’t want to spend the rest of it listening to people like you and me calling her ‘Mar-- Mary.’  Plus, I just think that she likes California.  The climate agrees with her."  Stephen was very proud of himself for getting through the entire statement without tripping over his pronouns even once.  It seemed that he was adjusting to his friend’s new status more quickly than he’d hoped.

"Whatever."  Jack dismissed Mary’s new life with a disgruntled wave of his hand.  "I just want to know who’s going to keep Frank in line now that Mark’s gone."

"I’m pretty sure Connie will take care of that," Stephen said with a grin.  "She’s already had a remarkable mellowing effect on him.  You’ll barely recognize him when you see him.  He smiles."

"Ugh," Jack recoiled in mock horror, "I don’t know if I’m ready for that."

"Neither was he, but spending a day at death’s proverbial door seems to have clarified his thinking, too.  He’s planning to bring Connie back to meet his parents when he comes back to Boston."

"Great," muttered Jack.  "Everyone gets a happy ending, but no one comes back to work."

"They’ll be back, don’t worry.  Where else could we have this kind of fun?"

"Nowhere outside of a mental asylum, as far as I know."

Stephen smiled and turned back to his beer, and both men sat staring contemplatively at the TV above the bar for a few minutes.  The Red Sox were in spring training and it looked like they were going to have a good team this year.  The pitching was suspect, as usual, but he hoped that they’d purchased enough sluggers in the offseason to make up for it.  What they really needed was a good closer.

"Hey Jack?"

"Yeah, kid?"

"What was it about that last project that finally pushed you over the edge?"

Jack gave Stephen a sidelong smirk.  "Worried that you’re getting close?"

"More like worried that I might already be gone.  They say that the craziest guys don’t even know that they’re crazy."

Jack turned to face Stephen, a serious look on his face.  "Take comfort in the fact that you’re still asking the question.  When you decide you’re the only sane person left in the building and the rest of us need some forceful correction, then I’ll start worrying about you.”

"Is that how you felt, just before you jumped that customer in the conference room?"

Jack rubbed the back of his neck ruefully.  "You want to know the truth?"

"Well, that’s kind of why I’m asking.  Look, if you’re not comfortable talking about this, just tell me.  I don’t want to send you back into another year or two of therapy."

Jack laughed.  "No worries there.” He looked around the bar before he continued.  “Don’t tell anyone, but the whole ear-biting thing never happened.  I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore:  all of the customers wanting everything right now, changing their minds at the last minute, never understanding that they were undoing months of work in the process.  I was afraid that I might snap, so I walked into James’s office and told him that I quit.  He talked me out of it, said that we’d find a role that took me off of the front lines.  We made up the story to explain the change so I wouldn’t lose the developers’ respect."

Stephen gave Jack a strange look.  "Does it bother you that biting off a man’s ear seemed to be a better explanation than simple client fatigue?"

Jack shrugged unrepentantly.  "I have to manage over fifty engineers.  Can you think of an explanation that would have made that easier?"

"You have a point," Stephen conceded.

"Keep this to yourself," Jack warned.  "I have an image to maintain."

"My lips are sealed."  Stephen downed the last of his beer and stood, pulling on his jacket.  "Thanks for the beers, Jack, and for your support.  I don’t think I would have made it through this without you and your Polish grandmother’s stories."

Jack stood, too, though he didn’t finish his beer.  He showed no signs of leaving yet.  "Yeah, about that…"

Stephen raised a hand to forestall another confession.  "Stop!  Let me believe, Jack.  She helped me through a tough time, so I choose to believe in the power of your Polish grandmother."

Jack chuckled.  "Glad she could help.  When will we see you again?"

"In a week or so.  I want to reacquaint myself with my family and see all of the amazing things that my daughter can do.  Jenny tells me that Sarah’s singing opera now."

Jack raised an eyebrow.  "Really?"

"Yep.  Just yesterday, she swears that Sarah sang three or four measures from Bolero right after I left for work."

"That must be something to hear."

"I plan to find out."  With a wave, Stephen put on his jacket and left the bar.

It was time to go home.




THE END

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 24

Chapter 24

This time, Stephen jogged away from Richard’s office, deeper into the CouldBU maze.  If he was running more quickly than before, he told himself that it was because he felt a sense of urgency to bring this crisis to a close, not because he was running away from… anything.  Every sense was alert now, every nerve frayed.  The sight of Mary had shaken him far more than the news reports painting Stu as a mushroom-crazed eco-terrorist, but he had to stay focused.

He rounded a corner just in time to see a flash of green and brown fabric disappearing at the end of the next hallway.  He leapt back and peered around the edge of the wall, but no one else appeared.  Proceeding more cautiously now, he crept past several closed and locked doors, gently trying each handle as he passed.  If someone was in one of those rooms, there was nothing he could do about it, so he chose not to worry about the possibility of leaving another person behind to sneak up on him.  His only path lay forward now.  As he approached the end of the corridor, he heard a loud clatter, followed by muffled cursing and the thump of swiftly retreating steps.  Whoever was trying to hide from him wasn’t doing a very good job of it.

He jumped around the next corner, hoping to surprise the other person, but just as he arrived the lights went out.  Wonderful, they’ve cut the power, he thought, because this wasn't difficult enough already.  His quick movement had been partially successful, though:  another distant crash announced that his fellow hall-runner had been moving when the lights went out and discovered an unseen wall with his face.  Moments later, the emergency lights came on, their dim, widely spaced pools of light only serving to deepen the darkness between them.  Stephen began moving again before his eyes had completely adjusted to the dimness, following the soft rustle of clothing and trailing his hand along the wall to maintain his balance.  His time in the glass-walled New York office served him in good stead now, as he trusted senses other than sight to guide him around obstacles.

He moved swiftly across several intersections and around more corners, gaining steadily on his as-yet-unseen opponent, who seemed to be having more trouble in the darkness than he was.  He was certain that he wasn’t chasing Stu by now:  the tread was too heavy, the movements too clumsy.  Even when learning his way through this maze on his first visit, Stu had moved smoothly and confidently, his solid connection to the earth beneath him unaltered by the bewildering walls around him.  He was fairly sure that it wasn’t a member of the LA SWAT team, either, though the thought had occurred to him, too late, after he had peered back around the corner after catching his first glimpse of the other person.  If this person were SWAT, Stephen likely would never have known he was there, or else would have found out rather abruptly when he was ordered to hit the floor.  He had decided not to think about a third scenario, where the hypothetical SWAT team member decided he was a threat.  Like having a bat in the house, it was easier to go on if he assumed that the other person was more afraid of him than he was of them.

They were deep in the heart of the building now and had left the CouldBU offices behind.  Stephen was struck again by the how deserted the rest of the building was.  Richard has some serious explaining to do, he thought grimly.  He increased his speed, eager to end this game of cat and mouse so that he could get back to finding Stu.  He was close enough now to hear the other person’s labored breathing, but he still hadn’t caught sight of him.  The corridors were short here, with a turn or intersection every ten paces or so, the product of years of subletting and remodeling.  Whoever this guy is, he knows this place at least as well as I do, Stephen thought, panting slightly himself.

A little later, the hallway began to look familiar again and Stephen realized that they had turned around and were heading back toward CouldBU’s part of the building.  A few minutes after that, Stephen found himself sprinting back down the same hallway where he had first glimpsed his quarry.  I sincerely hope that this is the bell lap, he thought, putting on another burst of speed.  Even though he had started jogging again, he wasn’t in shape for an indoor cross-country race, so he could only hope that the other person was as tired as he was and would go to ground soon.

As though sensing his thoughts, the other person stopped running, the sudden cessation of pounding feet echoing down the hallway.  Stephen charged around one last corner, just in time to see a camouflaged leg disappearing through an office door.  The door slammed shut with finality, followed by a loud click as it was locked.  Stephen stumbled to a stop outside the door and leaned against it, gasping for breath.  He could just barely hear the other person doing the same on the other side.

"You can’t hide in there forever!" he called.  "Why don’t you just come out and tell me what you’re up to?"

"No!" a man’s muffled voice answered.  He sounded familiar, but Stephen couldn’t hear well enough past the blood roaring in his ears to recognize it.

"Fine," he gasped.  "I’ll wait."  He stood up and moved to the other side of the corridor to lean on the opposite wall and watch the door.  Just as his back touched the wall, the door next to him opened abruptly and a grizzled head poked out, startling him so badly that he let out a small squeak.

"Stephen?" Stu rasped.  "I’m glad you’re here, but why are you yelling at me?  I’d rather not have everyone know where I am right now."

"Stu?" Stephen swallowed hard to force his heart out of his throat and back in his chest where it belonged.  "Not you.  Someone else.  I didn’t know you were here."

"Well, why didn’t you?  I told you where I was when I called."  Stu gestured to the sign on the wall next to him, and Stephen read:  Janitor’s Closet Conference Room J.

"Oh.  Now that you mention it, I don’t think I actually knew where this room was.  I mean, who keeps track of where the janitor’s closets are?"

"Janitors?"

"Besides them."

"Um, do you mind if we talk inside?  I’m not really comfortable in the hallway right now."

"Oh, sure."  Stephen glanced at the other door, watching for signs of movement as he slipped into the makeshift conference room behind Stu.  "Do you mind if I leave the door open a crack, though?"  He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.  "Just in case he tries to bolt."

Stu shrugged.  "I suppose.  Just keep your voice down, please."

Stu walked slowly to the other side of a small conference table that looked as though it had been recently used to test various brands of furniture polish and cleaner.  The names of the brands were written in indelible pen all over the table, above circular patches of discoloration where each product had been applied.  As he settled into a chair near the door, Stephen noted several products that he used at home and made a mental note to change brands.  Stu squeezed past a wooden bookshelf full of cleaning supplies and sat in front of one label that read Simply Green.  Then he whispered, "Why were you chasing that person, anyway?  Did you think it was me?"

"Well, no, not really," Stephen answered, unconsciously lowering his tone to match Stu’s.  "I mean, it occurred to me at one point that this definitely wasn’t you, but I was already chasing him by that point."

"Then why were you chasing him?"

Stephen shrugged.  "I don’t know.  It might have been because I was mad that someone else was sneaking around the halls when everyone was supposed to have either left or stayed in their offices, or maybe because I thought he knew something that could help me."  He shook his head, then shrugged again.  "It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time."

"Well, maybe it was.  After all, that’s how you found me.  I’m just glad that you did it before anyone else did."

"No one’s looked in here?" Stephen asked, surprised.

"Someone opened the door and peeked in once, but I hid under the table and they went away.  I think it might have been Richard, because I heard him yelling down the hallway a little while later."

 "Yeah, he seems to have been doing a lot of that today."  Stephen’s smile was quickly replaced by a worried frown.  "Stu, he told the police that he saw you with plastic explosives.  You don’t have a bomb, do you?"

"Of course not!  Do I look like the kind of person who would blow up a building just because he had to work weekends?"  Stu noticed Stephen’s hesitation.  "Fine, I’ll rephrase that.  From what you know of me, do you think that I would knowingly hurt anyone, especially people with whom I have worked closely?"

Stephen answered slowly, choosing his words carefully.  "From what I know of you, no, I don’t think that you would hurt anyone.  But people have secret lives, Stu, you see it on the news all the time…"

"I wouldn’t know.  I don’t watch the news."  Now Stu was frowning, but not necessarily with worry.

"Well, trust me, it’s on there all the time.  The quiet, slightly different guy -- I didn’t say ‘strange,’ I said different -- who turns out to have the bodies of the last five temps stored in his basement in a big freezer chest."  Stu’s frown deepened as Stephen hurried on. "My point is, I don’t think you would hurt anyone, but seeing those old photographs and hearing about this ‘Sons of Peace’ group, well, it planted a little seed of doubt."  Stephen waited, hoping that Stu would assuage his fears, but ready to flip the table over on top of him if he made any sudden moves.

Stu sighed heavily and slid down further in his chair, pressed down by the weight of the day.  "You know, as strange as my habits may seem to you, there’s a method to my madness."  Stephen winced.  "Sorry, poor choice of words.  One reason I’m glad not to watch the news is because they either fill your head with information you can’t use or distort the information you really need.  Yes, I was part of a group called the Sons of Peace, but we weren’t -- what did they call us?"

"Eco-terrorists."

"Right, eco-terrorists."  Stu emitted a short, seal-like bark, the closest he could come to a bitter laugh.  "Well, it’s better than ‘Ultra-Green Berets,’ or ‘Non-Toxic Avengers,’ I suppose.  That’s what the media called us back then.  We liked the attention, even though they never really understood what we were doing, or why.  All they ever reported were the pipe pluggings and the tree spikings.  They were never around when we nailed a polluter to the wall with a little piece of paper, a soil report or a pH test.  Too technical, I suppose, or not in keeping with the times.  It was all about profits and trickle-down economics then, and if a few carcinogens trickled down along with those profits, well, nobody wanted to think about that while they were eating dinner, did they?"

"So, you were, what, environmental activists?  Like Greenpeace, or something?"

"Greenpeace?  Pfft!"  Stu snorted dismissively.  "Bunch of sissies, crying for the whales while their neighbors got cancer from their drinking water.  And what good did they do, racing around in their little dinghies and getting shot at by Japanese whalers?  We fought the battle right here at home, on our own turf!  We took on the big chemical companies and manufacturers, finding their hidden outflow pipes and plugging them with whatever we had at hand.  We caught the timber companies logging in the wildlife reserves, right under the noses of the BLM, and we stopped them.  What could they do?  It’s not like they could call the cops and say, ‘Excuse me, while I was poaching timber over here, some guys stole all of my saw blades.’  I’ll admit that our methods weren’t always strictly legal, but we were outlaws fighting bandits.  Sometimes you have to use the tools of the devil to stop the spread of his works.  But we never hurt anyone, Stephen, never!  Not knowingly, at least."

Throughout this speech, Stu’s voice had grown stronger as passion replaced fear.  By the end, he was nearly shouting.  Stephen thought that he heard stirrings across the hallway as he raised his hands in what he hoped would be taken as a placating gesture.  "OK, Stu, let’s try to stay calm, OK?  If the news folks have the story wrong, then I’m sure you’ll have your chance to straighten things out.  You don’t need to convince me, I believe you.  The only people you really have to convince are the police outside, and I’m sure that they’ll listen to the facts, not to some media half-truths."

Stu snorted.  "Are you kidding me?  This is Los Angeles, Stephen, where fantasy is reality.  The one person who has to be afraid of a trial here is the man who’s actually innocent, and the LAPD don’t exactly have a sterling record of thinking things through before they open fire."

Stephen had to concede that point.  "Fair enough.  So how do you propose that we get you out of this without any shooting?"

Stu slumped, the anger leaking out of him.  "If I’d figured that out, do you think I’d still be sitting in an old janitor’s closet?"

They sat for a moment in silence, then Stephen commented, "I’m surprised that you’re still here, actually.  Why haven’t you moved somewhere a little more out of the way?"

Stu gestured above his head vaguely.  "No cameras.  They didn’t bother, since no one was using the room anymore."

Stephen nodded.  "Ah, good thinking."  They lapsed into silence again, punctuated by their soft breathing, the quiet buzz of the emergency lighting, and the occasional rustling from across the hall.  In the quiet, it almost sounded as though it were coming from within the room.

After several minutes, Stu stirred.  "Hey, do you want to see my ‘bomb?’"  He leaned down suddenly, the movement punctuated by a sharp squeak from somewhere on his side of the room.

Stephen tensed again and reached out, ready to flip the table.  "Excuse me?"

"My bomb.  The thing that started all of this.  Do you want to see it?"  Stu’s head was still below the table, so Stephen took the opportunity to see if there was anything within reach that he could grab quickly and swing to incapacitate his friend.  A mop that had been leaning against the bookshelf suddenly toppled toward him and he leaned forward to grab it just as Stu sat up again holding a small cardboard box.  Stephen froze, mop in hand, and tried to look harmless when Stu looked up at him.  "Thanks for catching that.  The darn things fall on me whenever I bend down to pick this up.  I’ve wedged them in there a couple of times, but they just keep working their way loose."  He set the box on the table, holding the flaps back to afford a clear view.  Stephen stared at it for a moment and sighed deeply before putting the mop back and returning to his side of the table.

"That’s a first for me," he commented as he took his seat.  "I’ve heard the phrase, ‘angry enough to spit nails,’ but never ‘nervous enough to eat plastique.’"  He nudged the box with one hand, pushing aside some napkins and scraps of paper to reveal the contents more clearly.  Inside, he saw a collection of wires, bike cables, and gears, along with two rectangular blocks tightly wrapped in white wax paper.  One was still wrapped and labeled C-4.  The other, half-eaten, lay in the remains of its wrapper, the label C-5 still visible on the top.  Some crumbs and flakes of crusty bread could be seen on the bottom of the box.  The pungent odor of cheese filled the room, making his mouth water.  "It could be considered tampering with evidence at this point, but may I try a taste?"

"Help yourself," said Stu, handing him a large pocketknife.  Stephen leaned forward to cut off a hunk and stuff it in his mouth.  As he leaned back, grunting appreciatively, he asked, "You make this yourself?"

"Yes, though this is the first batch that turned out well.  The first two were terrible.  Something’s different about the milk here.  I don’t know if it’s different breeds of cow, or whether the guy who sold it to me was actually giving me goat’s milk, or what.  I finally got the curd right this time, though."

"Yes, it’s quite good," Stephen said around another mouthful.  His stomach gurgled appreciatively.  "Third batch, you said?  I don’t suppose these are the fourth and fifth blocks that you cut?"

Stu smiled through his beard.  "You figured out my labeling system."

"It’s too bad Richard couldn’t."

Stu sobered again.  "Very much so."  A loud gurgling sound came from his side of the room, and Stephen hurriedly put the cheese down.

"You’re not ill, are you?  I thought you said that this batch turned out well."

Stu shook his head slowly.  "That wasn’t me."  Another small squeak issued from the vicinity of the supply shelf.

Cautiously, Stephen rose and slid around the table while Stu quietly rolled out of his way without getting up from his chair.  Still holding the pocketknife in his left hand, Stephen grabbed the mop with his right and used it to poke behind the bookshelf.  "You know," Stephen said conversationally, punctuating every other word with another jab of the mop handle, "I’ve been doing a mental roll call ever since I got inside the building, trying to figure out who was missing.  Assuming that Brad and Robert don’t come into the office anymore, there are only two people who should be here but haven’t appeared yet:  Richard…" he reared back and gave an extra long stab with the mop, reaching in with his arm until he hit the far wall, then swiping the handle downward until he was rewarded with a satisfying thwack and a loud yelp.  "… and Dan."

After a moment or two or rustling and scraping, Dan’s tousled head appeared behind the converted bookshelf, bits of lint and dirt stuck in his hair.  "Hi guys!" he said nervously, showing his teeth in an ingratiating smile.  "Imagine us all choosing the same hiding place!"  He crawled out behind the shelf and made a half-hearted attempt to brush himself off before giving it up.  He leaned around Stephen, who still hadn’t put down the mop and looked as though he weren’t done using it, and asked Stu, "Hey, do you mind if I grab a bite of that cheese, too?  It sure smells good, and it’s at least an hour past lunchtime now, isn’t it?  I don’t suppose the caterers will be coming in today."  He looked so forlorn that Stephen relented, backing away and putting the mop back in its corner.

"Help yourself," Stu offered, "but please don’t touch the other package.  I have a feeling that I’ll need to present that to someone outside, assuming that I’m not shot in the process."  Dan gratefully dug in while Stephen and Stu watched, their thoughts turning dark again.

"What were you doing in here, anyway, Dan?" Stephen asked when he could take no more of the consultant’s eating habits.

"Thinking about the go-to-market strategy," Dan answered around a mouthful of cheese.  Noting Stephen’s skeptical glare, he revised his answer.  "Fine, sleeping!  Ever since my other nest in the big conference room was discovered, I’ve been looking for a good place for my naps."  He waved a hunk of cheese at Stu and then at the ceiling before speaking around another bite.  "I chose this room for the same reason you did:  no cameras."

"That explains why I kept finding nibbles taken out of my lunch," grunted Stu.  He glared at Dan, who affected a look of injured innocence.  "I thought we had mice.  That’s why I double-wrapped everything."

"Why were you hiding your lunch all the way down here?" Stephen asked.  "In fact, why bother to bring lunch at all when it’s catered every day?"

"A man can only eat so much tofu, Stephen," Stu said, with Dan nodding fervently beside him.  "I was hiding it here to keep it away from Frank.  He gets hungry around eleven every day and starts poking around for a snack.  He found my food no matter where I hid it in the office, and I don’t believe in refusing to feed a hungry man.  So he kept eating my lunch."

"It’s wrong to deny a hungry man food, but it’s OK to hide it from him?" Stephen observed.

"Admittedly, it’s a gray area, but sometimes it’s just easier to avoid the ethical conundrum.  Especially when it involves Frank.  I thought I’d found a place that no one else knew about, so I started hiding my lunch here, along with the occasional bike project.  It’s very soothing to take a break in the middle of the day and work with your hands in peace and quiet for a little while."

"Yeah, they pretty much forgot that this place existed after they moved you guys out of it and into Thomas’ office," Dan said, popping the last piece of cheese into his mouth and licking his fingers.  "It’s a perfect hidey-hole."

"You seem to have a talent for finding them," observed Stephen sardonically.  "I don’t suppose that you know of a secret passage out of the building, do you?"

"No, but wouldn’t that be cool?  You could go for a latte whenever you felt like it!"

"Like now, for instance?"

"Yeah, I could really go for a mocha…" Dan trailed off.  "Oh, I see what you mean.  Nope, the only way out of here is through the LAPD."

"Bang," Stu said.

"I wish you’d stop saying that," Stephen said.

"I don’t know why it bothers you.  You’re not the one with a big target plastered on his forehead."

"There has to be some way to get you out of here.  What if we had someone create a diversion and snuck you out the back door?" Stephen offered weakly.

"A diversion?  Like telling them there’s a bomb somewhere else?  They think I’m holding my coworkers hostage, Stephen.  They’re not going to just go away if we shout, ‘Hey, look over there!  Something shiny!’  Richard has them convinced that I’m a complete psychotic."

"Richard," Stephen muttered, leaning back to peek through the cracked door.  He stood up.  "I’d forgotten about him.  He has some explaining to do, and it’s about time he started."  He swung the door open and left the room.

Dan looked at Stu.  "How does he know that’s Richard?"

Stu shrugged.  "He’s the only one left."  They rose and followed.

Stepping across the hallway, Stephen pounded on the door, a loud and continued thudding that reverberated through the darkened hallways.  "Open the door Richard!" he shouted.  "I know you’re in there!"

"Step away from the door!"  Richard called from within.  "I’m armed!  I don’t want to shoot you, but I will defend myself with lethal force if I must!"

Stephen shook his head and pounded on the door again.  "You’re not armed, Richard!  Now open this door before I kick it in and send you the bill!"

They waited for a long moment before Richard answered sulkily, "I could be armed."

"OPEN THIS DOOR, DICKIE!" Stephen roared, and was answered almost immediately by the gratifying snick of the lock releasing.

The door opened slowly and Richard’s dirty face peered out.  He was wearing camouflage pants and a tight olive-green T-shirt, and looked as though he might have been crying.  "Hello, gentlemen, how are you?  Mr. Connelly, I see that you’ve managed to get your rogue employee under control, so why don’t we just step outside and let the proper authorities take it from here…."

"If you don’t stop talking right now, Richard, I’m going to beat you like your mother should have," Stephen said quietly.

Richard’s mouth snapped shut, but then his lower lip began trembling as tears leaked from his eyes.  After a moment of quivering silence, he burst out, "I didn’t mean to cause all of this trouble, I swear.  I just panicked when I saw the bomb, and then I was afraid we’d lose a day of work because of all the fuss.  I didn’t want to have to explain it all to Poppy.  I was afraid he’d fire me again, and then Miriam would divorce me like she threatened to do last time.  I’m sorry, really sorry, and I won’t let it happen again!"  He subsided into gasping sobs, leaning against the doorjamb for support.

"Please tell me that you weren’t actually in the Marines," Stephen said sadly.

Richard slowly got himself under control, pulling his shirt up to wipe his eyes.  "ROTC for two years in college.  I quit when I heard we might go to war with Iraq.  That’s where I met Miriam.  She was my drill sergeant."

"Still is, apparently," observed Stu, who could be excused for feeling less than charitable at the moment.

Richard looked hurt.  "I said I was sorry!"

"Yes, well, sorry doesn’t get the laser sights off of my forehead, does it?" Stu roared back.  "You’re going to get me killed, Dick!"

"All right, calm down," said Stephen.  It unnerved him to hear Stu, the icon of calm, snapping like this, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep everyone together if they didn’t leave the building soon.  Now that the air conditioning had been off for over an hour, it was becoming uncomfortably stuffy, which wasn’t helping anyone’s tempers.  "No one is going to get shot."  He ran his fingers through his sweaty hair.  "And if you give me a minute, I’ll figure out how to make sure of that."

During this entire conversation, Dan had been staring at Richard’s pants.  He had been doing so for long enough now that it began to make everyone uncomfortable.  Suddenly he snapped his fingers.  "I’ve got it!" he cried.

"Got what?" Richard asked, reaching down surreptitiously to cover his genitals.  "And what are you planning to do with it?"

"The way out!  I figured out how to get all of us out of here without it turning into the OK Corral!"

"I’m open to any suggestions," Stephen said, not adding, even from you.

"It all comes down to the first two rules of consulting," said Dan excitedly.  "I learned this in my online MBA courses, and I can’t believe that it took me this long to remember them!"  He turned to Stephen.  "It was a great course.  You could really benefit from it.  It was the University of Barbados, online campus.  Great professors.  At least, I assume they were professors.  They typed really well…."

"You were telling us how to get out of here without getting me killed, remember?" Stu said, his voice tinged with hysteria.

"Oh, right.  Sorry.  The first two rules of consulting.  One:  always blend in with the crowd, and two:  as long as you’re carrying something in your hands, you’re safe."  Dan looked triumphantly at the others, receiving blank stares in return.  "Oh come on, don’t you get it?" he raised his hands in frustration and began ticking points off on his fingers.  "We need to get the box of cheese to the police as quickly as possible, so they can see that this has all been a mistake.  Stu can’t walk out there all by himself holding a box without being targeted by snipers and probably taken down before he goes three steps."  Stu gulped audibly at this point.  "They already think that he’s holding hostages, so the thing that’s most likely to relax their guard is to see people being released from the building.  Plus, they’re not going to do anything to risk setting off mass murder in front of the TV cameras."

Dan waited again to see if they had caught up with him yet.  To Stephen’s relief, Richard was the first to say, "I still don’t get what you want us to do."

"Do I have to spell this all out for you?"  Dan rolled his eyes theatrically, though it was clear that he was enjoying being the one with the answers for once.  "Fine.  We gather up everyone who’s left in the office and we get a bunch of boxes, one for each person.  Stu brings his cheese box, but puts it inside a bigger one so it looks the same as everyone else’s.  Then we all walk out the front door carrying the boxes.  The police can’t start shooting because they don’t know who’s carrying what.  They have to give us time to get out there, and then you," he pointed at Richard, "can go over and explain things to them."

"Me?" Richard squealed, looking as though he might start crying again.

"Yes, you," Stephen answered, warming to the idea.  "You started this, so now you can finish it."

"But they’ll probably arrest me for calling in a hoax!"

"Then you can call Poppy and have him send over a team of his high-priced lawyers," Stephen replied remorselessly.  "In this town, you’ll be out of jail within a couple of hours."

***

When the four men returned to Thomas’ office they found a similar, if sweatier, scene to the one Stephen had left.  Stephen quickly showed Stu’s cheese to everyone and explained Dan’s plan for getting them all out of the building.  When he was finished, Kelvin shrugged.  "It’s better than anything I’ve come up with, and your forecast of the police response fits within standard operating parameters in a situation like this."  At Stephen’s questioning glance, he explained, "I looked into our options on the small chance that you were able to talk Stu out of killing all of us."  He saw Stu behind Stephen and nodded.  "Hey, Stu."

"Hello."  Stu waved back, but quickly wrapped his arms around his box again.  He still looked nervous, though clearly relieved to be taking some action.

"We’re going to need to move soon," Kelvin observed, glancing at a live video feed on his laptop screen.  "They look like they’re gathering for some kind of charge."

"All right, everyone spread out," ordered Stephen.  "Connie, Tammy, Mar -- um, Mary:  you go get everyone else who’s left in the office and bring them up to the main reception area.  Everyone else, grab all the medium-sized boxes you can find.  There are a bunch of paper boxes in the copy room.  Open them up and dump out most of the paper, but leave a couple of reams in each one.  They can’t look like they’re empty."

Thomas raised his hand.  "I hurt my wrist doing pushups.  Can I go with the women to round everyone up instead of moving boxes?"

Stephen raked his fingers along his scalp so hard that he feared he might have drawn blood.  "Fine.  Just go quickly!"

Within fifteen minutes, everyone was gathered in the main reception area, standing in front of a stack of boxes that nearly hid the monolithic reception desk from view.  Since he still didn’t know half of the people there, Stephen deferred to Dan and Richard, who between them seemed to know everyone.  They quickly described the plan without fully explaining why it was necessary, only telling everyone that this was part of the police instructions for an orderly evacuation.  When they had finished giving their instructions, one of the women from HR raised her hand.

"Is this some sort of a new layoff strategy?" she asked suspiciously.  "Because if it is, then I just have to tell you that placing our severance packages into paper cases and forcing us to carry them out by ourselves is not a dignified approach to a mass reduction of staff.  As your head of Human Resources, I have to advise you against this course of action.  Plus," she sniffed, "I should have been involved in the planning."

Stephen acknowledged her input with a nod.  "When we get to the front door, you can go first."  Under his breath, he added, "just in case there is any shooting."

Everyone chose one box and filed through the hallways toward the building’s front entrance.  As they walked, Stephen could feel his hands forming damp palm prints on the sides of his box.  He glanced over at Stu, who had stayed by his side the entire time, to see how he was faring.  Stu walked slowly, staring straight ahead, a faint sheen of sweat visible on his forehead.  This is what a man walking to the gallows looks like, Stephen thought.  He leaned over and whispered, "Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.  I think Dan’s plan will work."

"If it doesn’t, make sure to kill him for me, OK?" Stu whispered back.

As they approached the front doors, a deep thrumming vibrated through the floor and in their chests.  "Helicopters," said Kelvin.  "They added two more since you came in."  They kept walking until they were within ten feet of the doors, just out of sight through the tinted glass.  They could hear police bullhorns and the roar of a crowd.  Peering out, Stephen could see that the police presence had more than doubled, as had the size of the crowd.  The entire group stood in silence for a moment, taking in the scene before them.

Frank broke the silence to ask, "Hey, do any of you guys ever wonder what people will say at your funeral?  I hope I get a nice eulogy."  He looked around in surprise at the stony glares directed his way.  "Not the right time to be thinking out loud?"

"Gee, you think?"  Stephen looked out through the glass doors one last time.  There was no point in waiting any longer.  He nodded to Richard, who signaled for the head of HR to lead the procession outside.  She and one of her cronies stepped forward and shouldered both doors open simultaneously, letting in a flood of Los Angeles sunlight and a whiff of smog.  Then they walked out, carrying their boxes, and were greeted by a roar from the crowd and a jumble of shouted orders from the police bullhorns.  After a moment, the rest of the CouldBU crowd, with Stu, Stephen and the rest of the ADD team in their midst, filed out carefully, blinking in the glaring afternoon sun.

"At least it stopped raining,” Stephen observed to Stu as they crossed the threshold.  Maybe I’ll get to enjoy that convertible after all."



Continue to Chapter 25 and THE END

Monday, July 07, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 23


Chapter 23

The first dark, rich sip of coffee sharpened Stephen’s senses even as it heightened his sense of urgency.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket and called his voicemail again.  This time, the new message was from Frank.

"Uh, Stephen, I don’t know where the hell you are, but you should be here as soon as physically possible.  It’s not entirely clear what’s going on, but no one can find Stu and Richard has ordered everyone to stay in their offices until further notice.  A VP who actually has windows in her office said that a bunch of police cars are outside, but no one has come in yet to tell us what the big fuss is about.  I can’t think of anything that I might have done lately to set off a manhunt, but this much blue fuzz all over the building is making me tense.  That, and Richard’s incessant screaming.  Get your ass over here, will you?  Or at least call and let us know where you are."  In the background, Stephen heard a keening sound that steadily grew in volume.  "Ugh, he’s starting again.  Bye."

So they knew that something was up, even if they didn’t know about the bomb scare yet.  It was only a matter of time before someone thought of going online and checking the news, though, and that’s when the panicking would start. He erased Frank’s message and replayed the other message from the hoarse mystery caller.  This time, he recognized Stu’s voice and remembered the hysterical laryngitis attack that had struck him when he was asked to present to CouldBU’s executives.  Stu wasn’t going to be talking his way out of this situation, either.

Before leaving the coffee shop, Stephen grabbed a napkin and a pen and wrote down the number Stu had given him.  Then he turned and, with Ricky close behind, walked swiftly through the airport while he punched it in.

"Who are you calling now?"  Ricky asked.

"Stu, I hope.  I think that he’s mixed up in this bomb scare somehow."

Ricky stopped cold, forcing Stephen to do the same.  "Wait, that was real?  I thought you were just making that up to get us out of there more quickly."

"No, that was real.  The office is surrounded by cops, Richard’s roaming the halls yelling, and Stu, as far as I can tell, is hiding somewhere in the building.  He gave me a number where I could reach him, though, so he must not be moving around."

"If all that’s going on, why aren’t we running?"

"Because I already had to talk my way past security once.  I don’t want to tempt fate by running through the airport followed by an Arabic-looking fellow carrying a big black duffel bag.  A fast walk will have to do."

"That’s a rotten way to think," Ricky grumbled.

"I know, but it’s what they pay me for.  What do you think risk mitigation is:  a grown-up version of spin-the-bottle?"  Stephen finished dialing and began walking again while he waited for a connection.  

Stu answered the phone on the first ring with a whispered "Hello?"  Stephen maximized the volume on his phone, but he could still barely hear him.

"Stu?  It’s Stephen.  What’s going on?"

"Stephen?" Stu squeaked.  "Oh, thank God.  I was afraid that they’d gotten to you somehow.  Where are you?"

"I’m at the airport."

"You’re leaving?  You can’t leave!  Do you know what’s going on here?"

"No, no, I’m not leaving.  I had to come and get Ricky."

"Couldn’t he have taken a cab or something?  I really need you here now."

"No, I’m not just here to give him a ride.  He had a little run-in with Homeland Security.  It’s a long story."

"Well, I know how he feels, but I don’t think I have time to hear the whole thing right now.  How quickly can you get here?"

Well, Stephen thought, he’s still polite.  That has to be a good sign, doesn’t it?  "I don’t know:  twenty minutes, maybe, if the traffic’s not too bad.  It was terrible coming out here, though, so maybe longer.  I suppose I could try the surface streets.  If I caught the lights, then it might be just as fast as the 405…."  He shook himself free of his Bostonian obsession with alternate routes.  "Never mind, I’ll get there as soon as I can.  Stu, what’s going on?"

"I don’t know exactly.  I came in early this morning to try and beat the rain, and I took my laptop into our old office -- you know, the one that used to be a janitor’s closet? -- to try to get some peace and quiet.  I got into the zone when I was coding, so I don’t know how long it was before I heard Richard shouting in the hallway.  He was yelling for me, and I was about to go out when he started saying something about a bomb.  I decided not to go out after all and called you instead.  I’ve been sitting here ever since."

Stephen wasn’t sure how to phrase the next question, so he decided to stick with what was working: he charged ahead.  "Stu, do you have a bomb?" 

"What?!?" Stu squawked, sounding as though he had popped a vocal cord.  He grunted in pain and quickly lowered his voice back to a fierce whisper.  "No!  Is… is that what they’re saying?"

"Well, no one’s saying anything yet…" Stephen slowed as he and Ricky passed another restaurant, all of its TVs tuned to the cable news channel.  Under a banner reading, "BREAKING NEWS:  HOLLYWOOD.BOMB," the screen was split into two frames.  The left frame showed a live helicopter shot of the CouldBU offices, while the left showed a grainy black-and-white photo of a younger Stu in a flannel shirt, a crooked smile just visible through a square, black beard.  The picture appeared to have been blown up from a group photo, because Stephen could see the shoulders of two other men on either side of the young Stu.

The same female newscaster said, "The suspect, Stuart Troyer, also known as Stuart the Bear, is a former member of the ironically named Sons of Peace, a suspected eco-terrorist group.  He is currently employed by Accelerated Dynamic Development, a Boston software firm, and is in Los Angeles working for a hot young Internet startup called It Might Be You.  It’s not clear what precipitated this attack, but our staff psychiatrist, Dr. Dave, suspects a psychotic episode triggered by the ingestion of organic mushrooms.  We’ll have more on the mushroom story tonight at 8:00 in a special news center investigative story:  ‘Killer Pizza:  could your toppings turn you into a psychopath?’"

"Stephen?  Are you still there?"  Stu sounded panicky.

"OK, now they’re saying something," said Stephen.  "Who are the Sons of Peace?"

Stu sighed deeply, and Stephen could almost see him slumping down against the wall in the office/broom closet.  "Oh boy," he said, so quietly that Stephen barely caught the words.  He was so silent for several moments that Stephen pulled the phone away from his ear to confirm that he hadn’t lost the connection.  Finally, he spoke.  "That was a long time ago, Stephen.  I was young and foolish, and I got mixed up in something that quickly became bigger than I ever thought it would be.  We never hurt anyone, though, no matter what the government said, and I left the group when some people started talking about going outside the law."

"I believe you, Stu," Stephen said softly, and meant it.  He couldn’t imagine Stu hurting anyone, or going along with anyone who did.  Still, a nagging little voice in the back of his head whispered, But isn’t it always the quiet ones that no one suspects?  "He never bothered anyone until the day he ate the Clogstons."  He ignored the voice as best he could.  "What about the bomb, Stu?  Why do they think that you have a bomb?  This isn’t happening because some federal agent has been hunting you down.  Someone called the police and told them there’s a bomb on the premises."

"I don’t have a bomb, Stephen!  I don’t have anything that even looks like a--  oh, wait…" Stephen heard him scrabbling to the other side of the room.  A loud crash announced that he had gone too far and pulled the phone off of the table, but he didn’t apologize for the noise.  He was clearly looking for something.  "Oh," he finally said in a puzzled voice, "I see….  Oh, that does look bad, doesn’t it?"

Suddenly, the phone went dead.

"Stu?  Stu!"  Stephen looked down at his suddenly inert phone in time to see the battery icon give one last feeble flash before disappearing.  Three hours of talk time, indeed.  He looked wildly around the terminal.  All around him, people were yammering on their cell phones, desperately proving their indispensability to themselves by pestering people at the office.  God, I hate business travelers, he thought, staring out across the sea of gelled hair and in-ear headsets.

"Stephen?  What’s going on?" asked Ricky, breathless from their long walk through the terminal.  "Stephen?"

"Hang on," Stephen replied, still scanning the crowd.

Nearby, a nasal voice cut through the hubbub.  "I need that meeting tomorrow, Angie!  I don’t care if he already has a lunch scheduled!  I’ll be in New York today and then I’m back in town for one day before I have to jet back to D.C. for a face-to-face with the Congressman.  He needs to know what his position should be, and I have to get that from Bob.  You don’t want me to make it up myself, do you?"

Stephen spun around to locate the source of the voice and spotted a short, muscular man in a shiny olive-green suit sitting about thirty feet away.  His brushed-steel phone and matching headset not only nicely complemented his suit, cufflinks, and laptop computer, but the headset also avoided mussing his artfully spiked hair.  Stephen hated him immediately.  There was one thing about the man that he liked, though:  he had the same model of phone as the one in Stephen’s hand, encased in an extended-life battery case.  He marched purposefully toward the man, who remained wholly absorbed in his quest to get past his personal Cerberus.

"Aw, c’mon sweetheart," he cajoled in what he probably assumed was a cute whine.  "You know he’ll want to see me.  How about if I bring you a Yankees cap?  What?  Not a Yankees fan?  Who isn’t a Yankees fan?  I mean -- ow!"

Deep as the emotional hurt of Angie’s rejection might have been, the more tangible source of his current pain was having his earpiece yanked from its home.  Stephen took the phone, too, unplugged the headset, and put the phone to his ear.  "Just book the goddamn meeting, Angie," he growled, and hung up.

"Hey!" shouted the man as he attempted to leap to his feet without disturbing his laptop and file folders or stepping on his designer messenger bag.  "What the hell, man?  I mean, what the hell?"

"I’m taking your battery," Stephen replied calmly as he worked the case loose and popped the phone out.  “I need it more than you do.”

"And why the hell should I let you do that?"  The man finally untangled himself from his mobile workplace and stood, the spikes of his hair coming nearly to Stephen’s shoulder.  His gym-bred muscles twitched spasmodically beneath his shiny suit as he mustered up his most threatening look, a look which had probably sent many a drunken Yankees fan looking for somewhere else to spill his beer.

Stephen failed to notice it.  He had his phone in the case now, and was pleased to note that the battery still had a decent charge.  "Because," he replied, still not looking up as he powered up his phone, "otherwise you’ll mess up your hair, what with the blood and all."  His phone turned on, its battery gauge now satisfyingly full, and Stephen returned the man’s now-naked phone to him.  "Oh," he added, "it looks like you need a charge."

The man’s hand clenched around his phone while his display-only muscles sought a level of coordination that was never required of them during a workout.  For the moment, he was incapable of speech.  Stephen started to hand him the headset, too, but then he remembered the complicated drive ahead.

"I’ll need to keep this, too," he said.  "I’d trade you for mine, but I don’t have one."  He shrugged and turned to go, already dialing Stu’s number again.

The man grabbed his arm as he turned and yanked on it, expecting that he would spin Stephen back to face him and succeeding only in momentarily stopping his progress.  "You can’t be serious," he blustered, “Do you have any idea who you’re messing with?”

Stephen turned back and drew up to his full height.  He had, he reflected distractedly, been slouching a lot lately.  He looked down at the man and, just for a moment, let all of his South Boston hatred for entitled rich brats like this burn through.  "I am," he said quietly, "deadly serious.  And right now, I don’t give a damn who you are.  You wanna try me, Harvard?"

They stood frozen for a moment before the man dropped his hand.  "Whatever," he muttered, "I’ll just send email."  He dropped heavily back into his seat, which was unfortunately occupied by his laptop.  The laptop protested this treatment with a loud crack and the man groaned.

"Good choice," Stephen observed as he turned again to leave.  He gathered up Ricky, who still stood where Stephen had left him in the middle of the terminal walkway, a boulder in the babbling stream of pedestrians.  "Let’s go.  Stu needs us.”

***

Stephen called Stu several times while he raced to the office, but no one answered.  He tried Mark’s phone again, with no luck.  Finally, he got through to Frank.

"Hi Stephen," Frank said numbly, sounding like he had gone straight past uptight and into catatonic.  "Things are getting really weird down here.  Richard’s locked himself in his office and Mark… well, I don’t know exactly how to describe what’s happened to Mark."

"Oh, no.  He’s not hurt, is he?"

"Hurt?  No, he seems to be physically, um, OK….  Listen, do you mind if I work from home tomorrow?"

"I think that we’ll probably all get tomorrow off, Frank.  Let’s just get through today."

"OK… I’ll get back to work then.  I have a lot to do if I’m going to take tomorrow off."  Frank set the phone down and walked away, but forgot to hang it up.  Stephen heard Kelvin’s voice coming from across the room, asking who was on the phone.  When he heard that it was Stephen, he rushed over to pick it up.

"Stephen, are you still there?"

"Yes, I’m here.  Ricky and I are on our way there now."

"About time.  We’ve been trying to reach you all morning.  Did you turn your phone off so you could sleep in?"

"Not exactly.  I had some trouble with the battery, but I fixed it," Stephen replied.  In the passenger seat, Ricky snorted.

"Well, it’s good to see you finally displaying some technical aptitude," Kelvin said.  "Now please get in here.  I think everyone here except me is losing his or her mind, and they still won’t let anyone leave.  I assume that you know about the bomb?"

"Alleged bomb.  And why won’t they let you leave?  I would think that standard procedure would be to get everyone out of the building as quickly as possible."

"I don’t know.  We haven’t spoken to anyone except Richard.  He says they’re afraid that the bomber might detonate the device prematurely if he sees people leaving, or that the suspect might slip out in the crowd.  He suggested that we keep working to take our minds off of it."  An uncharacteristic snort said what Kelvin thought of that suggestion.  “Speaking of suspects, is it true what they’re saying about Stu?"

"Which part?" Stephen hedged.

"Well, how about the part about him being a fugitive ex-terrorist, for starters?"

"I don’t know," Stephen replied candidly.  "I asked him about it when I talked to him, but all he would say was that they had it all wrong.  I don’t think he’s capable of hurting anyone, do you?"

"Technically speaking, we’re all capable of hurting someone," Kelvin replied clinically.  "We just need to feel threatened enough to justify it.  Which brings me to the other part:  does he have a bomb?"

"He says no."

"And how comforted should I be by that declaration?"

"Given your previous response and current proximity to him, I guess not very."

"Thank you, this has been a very comforting conversation."

"Hey, I’m doing my best, OK?"

"No, I mean it.  I just needed to get a clear assessment of the situation.  I feel better now that I can calculate the statistical likelihood that we’re all going to die in a giant ball of flame and makeshift shrapnel."  Behind Kelvin, Stephen heard someone whimper loudly.  "The calculations should keep my mind off of things for a while, so thank you."

"Do me a favor?"

"What?"

"Don’t share your results with anyone until I get there."

"Hmm?  Oh, sure.  That’s probably best."

"Yeah.  We’re almost there, so I’m going to hang up.  I need to concentrate on getting through the traffic."

"OK.  See you soon."

The streets around the office were so choked with news vans, police cars, and onlookers that Stephen had to stop several blocks away.  In the distance, he could see that the police had cordoned off the area to keep the crowds at bay.  At least six local news crews had each staked out a spot near the barriers that would provide a suitably dramatic backdrop for their field reporters as they conjectured upon what was happening inside the building.  A crowd of people filled the rest of the space, despite the imminent threat of more rain.  Three helicopters hovered low overhead, jockeying for the best camera angles and trying not to ram each other.

Stephen parked the car and paused to marvel at the sight.  "Do you ever wonder why they would need to hold people back from a building that supposedly contains a bomb?" he asked Ricky in wonder.  "Common sense should be telling all of these people to get as far away as possible."

Ricky shrugged.  "Maybe they’re hoping that some actors are in there and they’ll catch a glimpse of them running out."

"Yeah, maybe."  Stephen shook himself.  "I’m going to go see if I can get into the building and find Stu.  You stay in the car for now."

"Stay in the car?  Why?" Ricky whined.  Stephen just looked at him and waited for the light to dawn.  Finally, it did.  "Oh," Ricky said, looking down at his outfit.  "Risk mitigation."

"Right," Stephen nodded firmly, "unless you have some normal, er, Western clothes in your bag."

"No, you made me so mad that I decided I was only going to wear traditional garb for the whole trip.  I don’t suppose you have any clothes I could borrow?"

Stephen shook his head.  "My bag’s at the hotel."

"OK," Ricky agreed, crestfallen, "I’ll wait in the car."

Stephen opened the door and got out.  "And try not to look like you’re lurking," he called over his shoulder.

"All right!  Just go!"

"I’m going."  Stephen ran toward the office building, cutting quickly through the gawking crowd.  He scanned over people’s heads until he saw a tense knot of officers off to one side, inside the barricade.  He pushed through the crowd, ignoring the protests of those he forcibly removed from his path, and ducked under the barrier.

One of the officers turned immediately and approached him, hands up to push him back.  "I’m sorry, sir, but you need to stay behind that line.  Only official personnel are allowed in here right now.  We think that there might be a bomb inside that building."

"I know.  That’s why I’m here.  I’m the supervisor of the team working inside there.  I need to get inside and talk to them."

The cop was having none of it.  "Well, you’re not much of a supervisor if you’re out here, are you?"

"I had to go deal with -- something," Stephen replied, refusing to be goaded.  Was there something about him that just annoyed cops?  It must be genetic, he thought, remember his father’s traditionally contentious relationship with law enforcement.  "Listen, if you let me in there, I think that I can defuse things."

"Defuse!  Ha, that’s a good one!  Hey Captain, we got a joker on our hands!  Defuse!  Next, you’re gonna tell me I got an explosive situation on my hands."  The false humor dropped like a mask.  "Listen, son, we have this under control.  We’re LAPD.  We deal with stuff like this all the time.  Now step back behind the line and let us take care of it."

Stephen was not ready to be put off.  Heartened by his success at the airport, he pressed on, raising his voice so that the police captain could hear him.  "Don’t you think you’re being a little overzealous?  How do you even know there’s a bomb in there?"

"We have a verified statement from an experienced eyewitness who saw the device, sir.  He’s ex-military, so he should know C-4 when he sees it.  He also told us that the bomber has at least 30 hostages, so the last thing I need is for you to make it 31."

"Ex-military….  Richard?  Your eyewitness is Richard?  Now I really have to get in there."  Stephen started to walk forward, but was stopped short by the officer’s baton across his chest.

"I’m sorry sir, but I simply can’t allow it.  Now, for your own safety, please step behind the barricade and stay there.  We’ll call you if we have contact with the bomber."

Disgusted, Stephen turned away and ducked under the barrier.  He strode angrily back to the car and threw himself inside, slamming the door behind him.

"Well?" Ricky asked.

"They wouldn’t let me in, obviously.  Richard’s the one who called them.  He told the police that Stu had a bomb made from C-4 plastic explosives."

"C-4?  Where would Stu get that?"

"Exactly.  Richard has a better chance of having access to that kind of thing, assuming that the Marines had a remedial demolitions class."

"You have to get in there and stop this.  If they think Stu has a powerful bomb like that, they’ll shoot him on sight."

"I’m aware of that.  There’s a small problem of a line of cops between me and there, though.  I’m open to suggestions."

They sat in glum silence for several minutes, pondering their predicament.  Then Ricky snapped his fingers and sat up.  "Go around to the back," he said.  "The smokers’ entrance, by the dumpster."

"They have that covered, too.  I saw them scouting it on the news."

"I know, but they won’t in a few minutes."  Ricky reached inside his robes and pulled out his keffiyeh.  Setting it firmly on his head, he said, "Go.  I’ll give you five minutes."

"Until what?  What are you going to do?"

"Give you an opening.  Now go."

Stephen stared at Ricky for a moment.  "Are you sure?  You’ll get arrested, at least."

Ricky nodded.  "I’m sure.  Just end this."

Stephen opened the door.  "I’ll do my best.  Do me a favor and try not to get shot, OK?"

"No promises," said Ricky, smiling weakly, “I come from a long line of agitators.  You never know what might come out.”

Stephen exited the car and ran back toward the office, this time angling to his left, toward the back.  As he neared the barricades again, he slowed, trying to blend in with the crowd even as he slowly worked his way to its front.  After four minutes, he was in position just behind the front row of onlookers.  He stopped there and surveyed the open parking lot between him and the building.  The police hadn’t bothered to remove the cars, so the lot was nearly full.  If he ran doubled over, he could get within about thirty feet of the building without being seen by anyone on the other side of the lot.  That last thirty feet, though, were completely exposed until he could get behind the dumpster that covered the back entrance.  Anyone glancing in his direction would see him and probably put a warning shot in his back.  He tensed, ready to start the sprint.  Fat raindrops began splattering down again.

Suddenly, an earsplitting ululation began on the other end of the parking lot, drawing the attention of the entire crowd.  Looking in that direction, Stephen saw Ricky running across the street toward the police barricade, yelling at the top of his lungs.  He had apparently been practicing his desert battle cries at home during vacation.  Emitting those ear-piercing wails, his robes flapping in the wind of his passage, he looked like a lone extra from Lawrence of Arabia, charging across the asphalt desert.  He wisely kept his arms high above his head as he ran, hands in plain view, as though calling upon Allah to strike from heaven.

As the crowd moved toward Ricky, hungry for new entertainment after an hour of watching a motionless and rather undistinguished building, Stephen sidled closer to the barricade.  He scanned the parking lot for police.  Officers were starting to move toward the disturbance, wary of this new potential threat.  Two poked their heads around the back of the building and followed their fellows.  Stephen ducked under the barricade and began to move, slowly at first, watching to see if any more officers were stationed along his path.

Ricky had stopped just short of the barrier, and now was climbing onto the roof of a car.  He began to yell at the crowd.  "Come, infidels, and meet your doom!  You have angered Allah for the last time, and now you will face his wrath!  Why do you continue to oppress the poor of the world with your wicked consumerism?  Why do children go hungry in the streets while the rich and powerful stuff themselves with the bread of iniquity?  Seek justice or burn!  Show mercy or you will be shown none!  Ah, yes, come to me!"  This last comment was addressed to the police officers who began to surround his perch.  All of the news cameras were now trained on him, so the police were careful to show restraint even as they called for him to come down.  Some had their guns out and pointed at him, just in case he showed any signs of having a weapon.

Stephen checked his path one more time and saw no one between him and the back entrance., the two officers who had been there having joined their brethren in trying to contain this new threat.  Bent double, Stephen ran.  In moments, he had reached the end of the aisle of cars.  Ricky was still yelling, but Stephen didn’t dare to look back to see whether he was still on the car.  Taking several quick breaths, he dashed across the open space toward the dumpster, sneaking one quick glance over his shoulder just as he rounded the corner.  Ricky was still on top of the car, yelling at the top of his voice about vengeance and injustice, surrounded by more than a dozen police officers.  The last glimpse that Stephen had of him, he was dancing on top of the roof, pulling his robes up so that the cops couldn’t grab them and pull him down and cursing them in some pseudo-Arabic language.  

Then Stephen was safe in the shadow of the dumpster.  He reached out to open the door, praying that it wouldn’t be locked.  It wasn’t.  Breathing another prayer of thanks, with a request for protection thrown in for good measure, he slipped inside and quickly pulled the door shut behind him.

***

It was deathly quiet inside the building.  The incessant murmur of the crowd outside was replaced by the quiet hiss of the ventilation system, a sound that Stephen had never noticed before today.  He slipped stealthily down the first few corridors, but quickly traded stealth for speed when he realized that the place was empty.  Apparently, the non-evacuation order hadn’t been relayed to the building’s other tenants.  He moved quickly, head swiveling from side to side to scan each darkened room he passed.  No one.

As he approached CouldBU’s section of the building, though, things changed.  The lights were still on, and every third office or so was occupied by a cluster of worried employees who jumped when they saw him.

"Is it safe to come out?" one woman called out from a huddle of other women whom Stephen vaguely recalled as being part of the HR department.  "Have you come in to tell us that it was a hoax?"

"That’s what I’m here to find out," he called without stopping.  "Just wait here for a few more minutes."  He was nearly past their office when a thought occurred to him.  He stopped and backtracked to stick his head in through her doorway.  "Who told you to stay here?"

"Richard Jolley, the CIO.  He said that he was in communication with the police and that they wanted us to stay in the building until they could apprehend the suspect.  He suggested that we might find work a soothing distraction."

Stephen glanced around the room at the five women gathered there.  "I take it that you didn’t find his advice very helpful?"

"No, this is what we would have been doing if we were working, too.  We’re getting hungry though.  Do you think that it’s safe to go to the kitchen for our yogurts?"

Stephen nodded.  "I think so, but be quiet.  You don’t want to startle anyone."  He moved on, thinking furiously.  It was clear to him that CouldBU’s staff were the only people left in the building, and that Richard was the common thread.  Why, with all of his vaunted military training, would he keep civilians in a danger zone?  Stephen could picture him sending all of the women and children out of the building and leading the remaining men in a daring if clumsy lightning raid to apprehend a suspect himself, but this behavior made no sense at all.  Richard had effectively made hostages out of everyone in his office.

Stephen picked up his pace further, trotting through the maze of hallways toward the center of the labyrinth where his team was located.  He briefly considered going to Richard’s office first, but decided that he needed more information before bearding the lion in his den.  He slowed just before the last corner, heeding his own warning about not startling anyone.  There was always the chance that he was wrong about Stu, or Richard.

A quiet sobbing was the first sound that he heard from behind the closed door to Thomas’ office.  Stephen pressed his ear to the door before he opened it.  Surprisingly, the sobbing sounded more like Connie than Thomas.  Listening closely, he also caught the sound of at least one person typing, along with the quiet murmur of conversation.

Slowly and gently, he eased the door open.  Not gently enough, apparently, as the movement was greeted by a quickly stifled shriek from Connie’s assistant.  Connie herself was slumped down on her desk, weeping, though carefully positioned to keep an eye on Frank as she did so.  Connie’s assistant and another woman sat next to her, rubbing her back and making soothing noises.  She looked up when Stephen entered and cried, "Our hero has arrived at last!"

"Well, I don’t know about that.  I’m just here to see if I can stop this before it escalates any further."

Connie shook her head firmly, rubbing her hand across her tearstained face.  "No, you’ll do more than that.  I can see it in your aura.  You’re all… red and powerful, but with a soothing blue tinge around the edges.  It suits you.  You had been getting all green and brown, like a wilted leaf of romaine.  I like this better."  Her assistant nodded agreement, staring just over Stephen’s shoulder where she imagined an aura might be.

"Well… thanks for the vote of confidence," Stephen replied.  "How’s everyone here?"

"Oh, fine, just fine," cried Thomas, "for people with a --  what?"  He looked at Kelvin.  "45% chance of dying in a blazing fireball!"

"47%," Kelvin corrected.  He glanced at Stephen apologetically.  "I tried not to tell them, but they pried it out of me.  Now that you’re here, though, I would say that our odds have improved significantly."

"Really?" asked Stephen wryly.  "By how much?"

Kelvin tapped at his keyboard for a few moments and replied, "2.75%.  We’re almost at break-even."

"Again, thank you for the vote of confidence."  Stephen looked over at Frank, who sat facing the wall, headphones on, typing furiously.  "What’s he doing:  generating an alternate algorithm to rival yours?"

Kelvin huffed.  "As if.  He’s just sitting there coding.  Hasn’t spoken to anyone since he got off the phone with you."

"Really?"  Stephen walked over and put his hand on Frank’s shoulder.  He lifted one earphone and said, "Frank?  You in there?  How’s it going?"

"Can’t talk.  Working.  Richard said we should work," Frank replied woodenly.  He reached up to brush Stephen’s hand away as though he were a fly, his other hand still typing rapidly.

"What are you working on?" Stephen asked.  He leaned forward to read the laptop screen and saw two lines of code repeated over and over again:
10 PRINT "All work and no play makes Stu a homicidal maniac."
20 GOTO 10
"Oh, no.  He’s gone BASIC," Stephen moaned.

Kelvin shouldered his way in and looked at the screen.  "Well, that’s not good.  Clearly, the stress finally got to him.  I’ll take care of this.  It might take a while, but I think I can get him back to Java, or at least C++.  You find Stu so we can all get out of here."

"That’s my plan.  That reminds me, though.  What did Richard tell you, exactly?"

"I already told you:  that we weren’t to leave the building because the police were afraid that the bomber would see us leaving and detonate the bomb, or that the bomber would blend in with the crowd and escape."  Kelvin paused and thought.  "Only, that doesn’t make much sense, does it, if they already knew that it was Stu?  It’s not like he’s hard to pick out of a crowd."

"That thought occurred to me," Stephen agreed.  "And what else did he say?"

"Frank just said it:  keep working.  He suggested that it might take our minds off of things, but the way he said it, it sounded more like an order than a suggestion.  Plus, he was looking a little like a madman himself by that point, so we weren’t inclined to argue with him."

Stephen nodded and looked around the office.  "OK.  Anything else?"

"No," said Thomas.  "He just kept asking if any of us had seen Stu.  At least, he kept walking up and down the hallway yelling, ‘Where is he?’  At first, we assumed that he meant you, but once we saw the news reports online we figured out that he meant Stu.  Do you think that Stu’s even here any more?  I mean, I would have expected Richard to have found him by now, with all that yelling and running around."

"I don’t think Richard played much hide-and-seek as a kid," Stephen said.  "I’ll take a turn at being It and see if I can do better."

"Good luck."

Back out in the hallway, Stephen stood for a moment, undecided.  Finally, he turned toward Richard’s office.  After a few steps, though, he reversed course and returned to Thomas’ office.  He quickly opened the door -- eliciting another shriek from Connie’s assistant -- stepped inside, and shut it firmly behind him again.  

"Where’s Mark," he turned to the other woman sitting next to Connie, "and who are you?"

The heavily made up woman in a short-sleeved purple turtleneck and short black skirt stared at him in silence for a moment before moistening her lips and saying in a low, throaty voice, "If you think for a moment, I’ll bet that you can figure out the answer to both of those questions."  She swiped a lock of blonde hair from her eyes and sat back to wait.

Something about the movement tugged at Stephen’s memory, but he was too busy struggling to recall the voice for it to register.  That voice:  he had heard it just today.  When?  At the hotel?  No, after that… in the car.  This was the woman who had answered Mark’s phone!  OK, so he was halfway there.  This was obviously Mark’s new girlfriend.  But why was she here when he wasn’t?  And how did she know Connie?  Were they friends?

Now that his mind was off of the voice, the motion of brushing her hair out of her eyes came back to him.  Who did that remind him of?  Then he had it:  he had seen Mark take that impatient swipe at his hair many times when he was coding.  It was a motion that said that the physical world was merely an obstacle to the clean flow of ideas from mind to machine; that if he could, he would have just leaned into the computer and breathed life directly into the circuits rather than wasting time with this slow clay.  It said that Mark was truly in the flow, that there was nowhere else he would choose to be at that moment.  So why was this woman doing it?  The whole room was silent, waiting for epiphany to strike.

Then he had it.  "You’re Mark’s…" the woman brightened and sat up straighter, "…sister!"  She slumped down again in disappointment.  Clearly, he had missed it.  Maybe she was his girlfriend.  Then lightning struck.  "Oh no.  Wait… you’re…  Mark!  You’re Mark!"  The woman sat up again, beaming.  Stephen bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, unsure what to do with the energy of this revelation.  "You’re… Mark?"

"I prefer Mary now, thank you," she replied demurely.  From Frank’s corner, there came a small whimper, followed by more furious typing.

Stephen squeezed his eyes shut, pressed his palms against them, and opened them again.  No change.  "So, you, um, look a little different since I last saw you…"

"Yesterday?" she completed the sentence for him.  "That’s why I decided to complete the change last night."  She lifted some of her newly bleached hair before swiping it back into place.  "I thought you had figured me out when you kept asking about the bandage on my neck, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t spoil the surprise for everyone else."  She pouted slightly.  "I guess you’re not as perceptive as I thought."

Stephen forced himself to stop rocking back and forth, folded his arms, and studied Mark -- Mary -- more carefully.  "There are some things that no one sees coming, I guess," he replied absently.  "You make a pretty good woman.  You had me fooled."

"It’s not a trick, Stephen.  I really am a woman, or I will be soon.  I’m not quite done with the procedures, but, as you can see, the hormones have begun to work."  She leaned back, proudly displaying the beginnings of a real set of breasts.  "I may even have them enhanced at some point.  Tammy used to date a good plastic surgeon, so she gave me some recommendations."  She gestured to Connie’s assistant, who blushed and giggled.

"Well, um, take your time with that decision," Stephen replied carefully, finding himself in truly uncharted social territory.  "You don’t want to rush it, and it looks like, um," he looked away and waved his hand in Mary’s general direction, "everything’s developing just fine, so far."

"Do you really think so?  Oh thank you!"  Mary jumped up and, for a moment, Stephen was terrified that he/she would hug him.  He really was not ready for that yet.  "I so wanted my coming out to be special for everyone, and I was afraid that it might be strange because I had rushed everything."   Her expression turned stormy again.  "Of course, who knew that Stu would decide to have a coming out party of his own today?"  The new and improved Mark was certainly mercurial, Stephen observed.  Probably the hormones.

A low rumbling sounded from outside the room, and Stephen was more than a little relieved to have the urgency of the greater situation impinge upon the weirdness of the current one.  "I’d better get going.  We still don’t know where Stu is, and I don’t want to wait to find out the hard way if he really does have a bomb."  He made for the door again.

"But I have so much to tell you about my journey to the sacred feminine!" Mary called as Stephen slipped into the hallway.  She turned back to Connie and Tammy.  "You see?  We -- I mean they -- never want to talk things through.  They’re so task-oriented!"