Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Hollywod.bomb, Chapter 5

The story starts here.

I'm not sure about this chapter.  It's fun and gives us a chance to meet the rest of the cast, but I feel like we aren't moving the story forward quickly enough.  Got to pick up the pace...

Chapter 5

The next morning the team met in the hotel restaurant for breakfast and then trooped out front to wait for the valets to bring their cars. After the valet disdainfully handed Stephen the keys to the van, he pulled out of the driveway and began following the GPS through the streets of Santa Monica. David asked, "Why do you not park your car yourself? It seems like a waste of time to have to wait for the valets every day, and I think he objected to the smell."

"I don’t think you’re allowed to park your own car in LA," Stephen replied, vainly scanning both sides of the road for a Dunkin’ Donuts. The hotel coffee had been so weak that he had been unable to drink it, and he felt the beginnings of a headache coming on. "The entire Los Angeles economy runs on tips. If people started parking their own cars, then thousands of would-be actors would be out of work and the economy would be thrown into chaos. I’ve never seen an open parking space on the street here. In fact, I’m half convinced that all the cars that are parked on the street are just props stored there by the movie studios.

"The last time I was here, I asked about parking the car myself. By the time they got done giving me the directions to the self-park garage and showing me the foot-long waiver I had to sign to park it myself, I gave up. The valet was waiting right behind me, ready to take my keys." He slapped the steering wheel in frustration. "Have you seen a single Dunkin’ Donuts anywhere since we got here? I need some coffee now."

"Non, but there is another Starbucks," said David. "Wait, it is on the wrong side of the street. Keep going: there is one on our side another block up."

"That’ll have to do," grumbled Stephen, remembering to signal so Kelvin would know he was pulling over. "There’s nowhere to park, so I’ll pull into the no parking zone up there and leave you in the car, if you don’t mind."

"That is fine. I have no need of those drugs to get me started in the day." Without a hint of irony, David pulled out his cigarettes. "Plus, this way I can have a quiet smoke without you complaining."

"Just leave the windows open, all right?" Stephen jumped out of the car and ran back to the other car. "Do you guys want coffee? I’m buying."

"I’m fine," replied Kelvin.

"You’re buying?" asked Ricky. "OK, I’ll have a triple Venti skinny no-whip mocha, with a shake of cinnamon and a shake of nutmeg."

Stephen stared at him. "Is that a drink or a gourmet meal?"

"Do you want me to write it down for you?" Ricky offered.

Stephen sighed. At this rate, they were going to be late. "Why don’t you just come inside and order it yourself?" Before Ricky could ask, he added, "I’ll still buy."

"OK," Ricky agreed brightly, and jumped out to follow Stephen inside the café.

They emerged fifteen minutes later, with Ricky still trying to explain gourmet coffee orders to Stephen.

"You can’t just grunt, ‘Medium, regular,’ at the barista and expect her to know what you want. Tastes vary by region, and while ‘regular’ in Boston means with cream and a scoop of sugar, here it means black. And I don’t think that you needed to be that surly when she explained the different sizes to you. She was only trying to help."

"If I wanted to learn Italian I’d have taken it in high school," Stephen grumbled. "All I wanted was a cup of coffee. And what’s this little paper sleeve thingy? It’s getting in my way."

"It’s there to protect your fingers so they don’t get burned."

"Why can’t they just use Styrofoam cups like Dunkin’?"

Ricky just stared quietly at Stephen for a moment, shocked and a little hurt. "Stephen, that’s not very eco-friendly."

"Whatever. Let’s get going or we’ll be late. Did you guys get a GPS, too, in case we get separated in traffic?" Stephen called to Kelvin.

"It’s built into the car. This really is a very nice vehicle. We should hurry, though."

"I know, I know." Late or not, Stephen paused to take a long swig from his coffee cup, gasping with pain as the extremely hot liquid hit his tongue, but then sighing as the bitter warmth flooded his body. Logically, he knew that the caffeine wouldn’t take effect for at least 30 minutes, but he already felt the fatigue losing its grip on his nervous system. He stole one more sip and jumped back into the van. After fruitlessly scanning everywhere around the front seat for a cup holder, he finally handed his coffee cup to David. "Here, make yourself useful."

"Do you get nicer after the caffeine hits your system?" David asked with a sniff, stubbing out his second cigarette.

"Hold that thing steady and you might live to find out." Stephen grunted. Leaning out the window for a better view, he gunned the engine and pulled back into traffic. They needed to make up some time.

Twenty minutes later, they arrived at CouldBU’s office. Like hundreds of other office buildings in that area, it was three stories tall and shaped like a demented starfish, making it nearly impossible to identify a main entrance. There was, Stephen was glad to see, ample parking space in the lot, though all but two rows at the far end were reserved by name and, in many instances, title.

"There’s Brad’s space," David pointed as they drove toward the unreserved spaces. Stephen looked and saw a metallic blue BMW Z-Series convertible parked in a space with an extra-large sign that read: Brad Richards, Chief Visionary Officer, CouldBU.com.

"Somehow, I’m not surprised at his choice of cars," Stephen observed wryly.

"Why?" asked David.

"He just strikes me as a man who needs to impress people, heavily," Stephen explained. "Subtlety is not Brad’s strong suit."

"That is good to know," David replied thoughtfully. "I will take that into account when I start to work on my designs. We will need bold colors and strong statements!"

"Let’s save any statements until we actually hear what they want to do," Stephen suggested. "Maybe Brad will surprise me."

But I doubt it, he didn’t add.

"As always, I will withhold my own opinions until I have heard the client’s wishes," David replied haughtily. "It is my job to bring their vision to life, not to impose my own upon them." They got out of the car and began walking quickly toward the office building. "Will you please hold your own coffee now?"

After walking all the way around the building looking for a front entrance, they finally gave up, entered through the first door that was open, and proceeded to wander through the building for another fifteen minutes in search of the CouldBU offices. Finally, Stephen called the receptionist on his cell phone and asked her to talk him through the halls. There was some brief confusion over which floor they should be on, and Stephen had to go into one of the men’s restrooms to see if it was the one with the green, yellow, and blue urinals ("And how would she know?" Kelvin wondered), but they eventually made it to the large reception area.

"OK, we made it. Thank you for your help. Good-bye," Stephen said, and hung up his cell phone.

"Good-bye!" chirped a young blonde behind a high-walled reception unit that vaguely resembled a medieval castle, in both size and coloring. "Oh, hello!" she continued upon seeing them, "Welcome to CouldBU! May I help you?"

"Um, yes," Stephen said, "We’re the people who couldn’t find the office. We’re here to meet with Brad Richards. I’m afraid we’re a little late, what with getting lost and all. I hope he’s not waiting for us."

"Oh no, Bradley -- um, Mr. Richards hasn’t arrived yet, which isn’t surprising for a Monday. We expect him within the next hour or so."

"But wasn’t that his car in the parking lot? If not, someone’s using his space, which I doubt he’d appreciate. It’s a BMW, if that helps."

She looked puzzled for a moment as she tried to recall what type of car Brad drove -- or possibly what a parking space was -- but then the clouds cleared. "Oh, he probably called a car to drive him on Friday night," she said brightly. "He’s very conscious about driving under the influence, especially after the first two incidents. Now, the rest of the team is here and I know that they are excited to meet you. Would you like to wait here or shall I show you back to their offices?"

Stephen looked at the others and took a quick opinion poll: two shrugs and a nod. The ayes had it. "We might as well meet them now," he replied.

"Wonderful!" she beamed. "Just give me a moment to put the phone system on hold…." She pressed buttons for several minutes -- lifting the telephone handset every couple of seconds to check for a dial tone -- left herself a message to be sure that calls were being forwarded to voicemail, wrote a note to herself to delete the practice message, and finally climbed down the steps from her booth to lead them into the depths of the office.

The long hallway from the reception area was punctuated by offices on each side. Most had doors with small windows and space enough for a large desk, two guest chairs, and some standard-issue office wall art. Everything, including the art, had clearly come with the space, so that setting up the company had been merely a matter of moving the people in and painting a company name and logo on the double glass doors out front. Stephen wondered idly if tenants had a choice of pictures on their walls or if they chose their offices based upon a preference for generic landscapes or abstract color splotches.

After taking enough turns to ensure that none of the team would be able to find their way back to the lobby again, the perky receptionist finally bounced to a halt. "Here we are," she announced, "the CouldBU brain trust! These guys are really smart, so I’m sure you’ll get along well. If you need directions again, just call me!" She turned to go, but then stopped and turned back. "Only, give me a few minutes to make sure the phone system is back off of voicemail, OK? All right, bye!" She flounced off and was soon lost over the dim horizon of the hallway.

Stephen checked the others, snapping several times to get David’s attention. He eventually succeeded in tearing the artist’s eyes away from the now empty corridor. "Later, David. Right now, we need to meet the other half of our team."

"I know," David sighed. "Client faces."

They knocked and were invited into an office that was somewhat larger than the others they had passed and occupied by two desks in opposite corners. In the far corner, facing them, sat a round, tanned man with a small goatee, typing furiously on a laptop. He glanced up briefly as they entered but quickly looked back down, saying nothing. They were greeted instead by the woman at the other desk, which stood directly in front of the doorway.

"Hello, you must be Stephen," she said, sweeping bright pink hair out of her eyes and rising to shake Stephen’s hand. Slightly taller than average, her eyes were just level with Stephen’s chin; her plump curves made Stephen think longingly of home. "I’m Connie. Are you feeling better now that you’ve had your coffee? I know how hard it is to go without sleep."

Taken aback by this rather prescient greeting, Stephen shook her hand and decided to roll with it. "Much better, thanks. I’m sorry we’re late. We had a little trouble finding the place."

"That’s all right, everyone does," she replied, looking past him to the other three. "And you are Kelvin, and you…" she stopped before Ricky, stared hard at a point just to the left of his ear, and then stood on tiptoes to wave her hand from one side of his head to the other, "with so many colors, you must be David, the designer."

Ricky looked behind him to see if there was something else there before saying, "No, I’m Ricky Nilsson-Martinez, the UI developer. I don’t design the site; I just build it. …Um, what colors?"

Ignoring him, Connie swept over to David. "You’re right, how could I have missed the brooding grays and complex patterns of the artist? Forgive me, please." She took both his hands in hers, then jumped as though receiving a shock, "Oh! Well, you are full of surprises, aren’t you? Don’t worry," she added in a theatrical whisper to David, "I won’t tell them."

"What are you talking about?" David asked, trying to extricate his hand from hers. "Since we have clearly never met, what secret of mine could you possibly possess?"

"Again, I apologize," Connie said, swooping back to her desk and sitting on its edge, "The gift can be unnerving to those who are unused to it, but when it is strong upon me I can’t hold it back. Your auras appear especially brilliant to me today." She waited for comprehension to dawn on their faces, giving a small irritated stamp of her foot after a moment when it failed to come. "Hellooo! I’m psychic!"

Before anyone could formulate a suitable response, the other man spoke. "Connie," he called, without looking up from his computer "is that the ADD project team here to see me?"

Connie sighed, "Yes, Tom. Are you going to stop pretending not to see them now, or do I need to announce them?"

"Announce them, please. It makes me happy. And call me Thomas."

Connie sighed again. Then, with exaggerated patience: "Thomas, the team from ADD is here to see you. Do you want to meet them here, or should I take them to the conference room?"

Thomas considered for a moment. "I suppose that here will do, and could you call the others and ask them to join us, please? We might as well get the meet-and-greet over with now, before Brad comes in. And ask if they want coffee or a drink. We have both soda and juice."

Connie rose to leave. "Come in and make yourselves at home. I’ll bring in some more chairs, or you can use the beanbags if you prefer." She made to leave, but Thomas cleared his throat, loudly. "Oh, and would you like anything to drink? Coffee, soda, or juice?"

"I’ll take a cranberry juice, please," replied Ricky, still nettled at her greeting. "With ice. Crushed. And a wedge of lime if you can find it."

"Anyone else?" she asked, staring levelly at Ricky. The others quickly declined.

After Connie left, Thomas stood up and came around the desk toward Stephen with his hand extended. "A pleasure to meet you. I’m Thomas Antorelli, Director of Technology. The rest of my team should be here soon and we’re eager to get started. We’ve already been playing with your technology for some time, so I think you’ll find that the ramp-up period is fairly short. I’ve been working with these guys for years, and they’re quick studies. We won’t slow you down, I promise."

"I’m sure you won’t," said Stephen. "We’ve done this before, so I’ll make sure that your engineers have enough to keep them busy. I expect that my team will do most of the heavy lifting, though, at least in the beginning."

"Yes… well, we’ll see," replied Thomas noncommittally. "As I said, we’re quick learners. By the way, did Brad mention our role in the genesis of CouldBU?"

"Of course he didn’t," called a voice from the doorway. "That would require giving someone else credit, and we all know that little Bradley doesn’t share well."

Thomas leaned around Stephen to see who had come in. "Be nice, Craig. We don’t need to start the morning with a catfight, and the last thing I want to do is to have to separate you and Brad again. Everyone, this is Craig, the Senior Director of Engineering. Behind him is Greg, our chief of IT and the best sys admin in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Timothy, our Creative Director, should be coming along in a moment." He looked around. "Has anyone seen Dan?"

A tall, thin man with thinning brown hair poked his head around the doorway. "Meeting time?" he asked.

"Dan, come on in. This is Dan Sullivan, our management consultant. He’s helping us to -- what was it again, Dan?"

"Harness your synergies to create a stronger go-to-market strategy. That, and make the coffee," Dan replied with a blindingly white grin. He laughed loudly at what had apparently been a joke and set to passing out agendas to everyone. "I also run most of the meetings around here, since that’s what I’m trained to do. I typed up some agendas for this one and will have another set ready for the creative meeting once Brad arrives."

Stephen looked at the agenda Dan handed him. Below the list of attendees, it had four items:
  1. Introductions
  2. Meet and Greet
  3. Project Overview
  4. Next Steps
Kelvin leaned over to whisper, "Aren’t introductions the same thing as ‘Meet and Greet?’"

David leaned in from the other side, "That is what I was going to ask. And what are synergies and how do you harness them?"

Out of the side of his mouth, Stephen replied, "Don’t worry about it: it’s the language barrier. You don’t speak Consultantese. Trust me, this can only get worse. Just follow my lead and nod whenever he stops talking."

Connie had followed everyone else in, loaded down with two chairs in each hand. She dropped them off in the middle of the room and hurried out, returning with several more. Ricky stood by his chair and looked at her, waiting for his drink to arrive. Connie, seemingly unaware of his stare, sat down at her desk and began to brush her hair, checking the brush occasionally to see if any hairs had broken off. The hairs she pulled out of the brush were a rainbow of various hues, which gave Ricky a shudder. After several moments, he gave up and took his seat.

Dan was ready to convene the meeting. Looking to Thomas and Craig for permission, he began:

"I’m glad everyone could make it. We’re all very excited about this project, and I think, just from looking around the room here, that we have a solid team assembled. I won’t take up a lot of time." He smiled ingratiatingly at the team from ADD. "I don’t want to get in the way of the real talent. I do want to make sure that we’re all strategically aligned, though, with a shared vision that can guide us to the big win. Once the bullet’s left the gun, it’s kind of hard to aim, you know?" He paused, waiting for acknowledgment. Thomas, Craig, and Greg, apparently used to these opening remarks, nodded and waved for him to continue. Kelvin and David, after glancing at Stephen, nodded also. Ricky just looked thirsty.

Dan continued. "Let’s go around and put some names to faces, shall we? I heard Tommy-boy introduce Craig-man and the Gregster, so we just need to meet the ADD folks. Let’s see," he looked down at the agenda to read through the names, then turned to Stephen, "you must be Stefan. Steff, since you’re the project manager, it probably makes sense for you to introduce the rest of your team. Wanna go for it?"

Stephen sat up straight in his chair and tried to contain his annoyance. "Sure, Dan. It’s Stephen, though, with a ‘V’ sound, not Stefan, with an ‘F.’ I definitely would prefer to be called Stephen rather than Stef, thanks. I have part of the team with me here today, and you’ll meet the rest in a couple of weeks…." He trailed off, distracting by a choking sound on his right. Turning, he saw Kelvin doubled over in his chair, emitting great wheezing and gasping sounds.

Alarmed, he leaned over and slapped him on the back. "Kelvin, are you all right?"

"I’m fine," Kelvin gasped, "Stef." The wheezing began again, accompanied by some snorting and the occasional squeak. Stephen realized what he was hearing: Kelvin was laughing!

"All these years, and this is what finally breaks the drought?" he asked quietly. "Frank will be mortified that he missed it."

Kelvin just wheezed, “OK, Steffy!”

"Is he all right?" Craig asked. "He looks ill."

"He’ll be fine," Stephen responded, glancing at Kelvin in annoyance. "He has these spells sometimes. They usually pass within a few moments and he hasn’t hurt anyone for at least a year. Could someone maybe get me a glass of water, preferably with a lot of ice? That might help."

"I’ll get it," called Connie, and ran out.

"Could you get my juice while you’re up?" called Ricky.

While they waited for Connie to return, Kelvin’s wheezing slowly subsided. Then he looked up at Stephen and burst into a new bout, doubling back over until his head was between his knees. In between gasps, they could hear him muttering, "Stef! Steffy!"

"Is he calling for you to help him?" Thomas looked as though he might call for an ambulance, but Connie came running back with a glass of water. She handed it to Stephen.

"No, he’ll be fine. Just give me one more moment. This usually does the trick." Stephen took a large sip of the water, looked at Kelvin thoughtfully for a moment, and dumped the rest of the glass on his head. Kelvin shrieked and bolted out of his chair, shaking his head and giving little hoots as the ice cubes slid down his shirt. Then he abruptly stopped, gathered himself, and turned to Stephen.

"Thank you, Steff. I feel much better now."

"My pleasure. Maybe later we can talk about adjustments to your medication." Stephen turned to Dan. "As I was saying, this is Kelvin, our technical lead. He’ll be designing the architecture and leading the engineering team. Occasional episodes aside, I assure you that he is a very talented engineer who will build you the best application that money can buy."

Nonplussed by the sudden reversion to sanity, Dan could only nod mutely. Stephen filed that tactic away for future reference, since it appeared to be a rare event. Continuing the introductions, he turned to David and Ricky. "This is David…"

"Pronounced ‘Dah-VEED," interjected David with a stern look at Dan.

"…yes, and Ricky. They are our design team, and will work with Brad and you to create both the visuals -- graphics, color palettes, etc. – and the overall user experience, so that it has the look and feel that you want while being easy to use."

"We’ll want them to work with Timothy as well," added Thomas. "He’s our creative director and chief designer, and I know that he already has some interesting ideas for how the site could look."

"Oh, good," muttered David under his breath, "another chief. Are there no Indians in this place?"

Speaking over him, Stephen responded to Thomas, "We’ll do our best to work with all of you, but of course we’re going to need to determine who has the final say. You know, in case any conflicts should arise."

"Oh, I’m sure we won’t have any of those, Thomas, will we?" Greg asked innocently. "We all get along like one big, loving family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of you fight before. Why, we’re like the Jackson Five before the nose jobs."

Somehow, Stephen was not comforted by that comment. "We can talk about that later. I expect that everything will go smoothly, but it never hurts to be prepared. Right, Dan?"

"Absolutely, Steve-o! We’ll make sure to document all of the escalation procedures and then put them in a safety deposit box for that rainy day that we hope never comes. After all, we’re in LA, right? It never rains here! OK, moving on…"

Mercifully, he was interrupted by a loud crash in the hallway, followed by a string of loud profanities. Brad had arrived.

"Who put that water cooler right in the middle of the hallway where anyone could trip over it?" he demanded as he stomped into the room, dabbing ineffectually at the water on his linen pants. Today, he looked as though he were headed for his island resort as soon as the work day ended, wearing a floral print Hawaiian shirt that brought a gleam to Ricky’s eyes. The dark sunglasses that he still wore had probably contributed to the watery collision.

Craig sighed. "It’s been there since we moved in, Brad," he explained with exaggerated slowness, as though addressing a recalcitrant three-year-old. "The rest of us only walk up to it when we need a drink. Other times, we walk around it."

"Right," said Thomas, standing up, "It’s getting a little crowded in here. Shall we let everyone get settled and then move this to the small conference room?"



Continue to Chapter 6

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 4

Hey you, the one jumping into the middle of the story!  Try reading from Chapter 1!

Chapter 4


Not long after their plane touched down at LAX, Stephen, David, Ricky, and Kelvin waited in bright sunlight for the rental car shuttle, Stephen already regretting his choice of clothing. Wool slacks and long sleeves had been a good idea in Boston, but he was already craving air conditioning here. David had shed his bomber jacket as soon as they walked outside, but he had kept the white scarf and weather-beaten fedora despite the fact that he was clearly overheating. Ricky, with his panama hat, linen pants, and massive floral print shirt, was by far the most appropriately dressed of the group. Kelvin wore the same combination of gray shirt and gray slacks that he always wore, but he seemed unperturbed by the temperature.

Two nuns walked by, soliciting donations. David turned to Kelvin. "That reminds me: I am supposed to tell you a joke about a rabbi, a priest, and two penguins. Frank suspects that my accent will make it funnier. Can we spare ourselves the embarrassment and just tell him that it did not work?"

Kelvin nodded. "Yes, though I would like to hear it anyway. I have a guest lecture coming up at Boston College, and the Jesuits love a good joke. It doesn’t involve an egg beater, does it?"

"No," now David was intrigued, "though you might have to tell me that one later, as well."

As they boarded the shuttle, Stephen and Kelvin handed their preferred membership cards to the driver, who swiped them through a handheld computer. Two receipts quickly slid out of the top with the stall numbers for their cars. Rather than having all four of them navigating the highways of Los Angeles separately, they had decided to rent just two cars on this trip so that each driver had his own navigator. Stephen had won the coin toss and chosen David, more for space considerations than anything else. Kelvin, who had already spent the flight squeezed in next to a sleeping Ricky and fending off his somnolent advances, looked less than happy about sharing a rental cat with him as well.

The shuttle dropped them off at the lot and they compared stall numbers and separated into pairs to find their rides. Stephen and David followed the signs to the far end of the row, where they saw a subcompact waiting in their slot.

"This will not do!" said David, "I cannot ride all cramped up like a sardine!"

"No kidding," agreed Stephen, "I’m not sure I can even get into one of those. I’ll have to go talk to someone at the counter." He looked across what seemed miles of shimmering asphalt and waved vaguely at a smudge on the horizon. "I think it’s over in that direction."

Just then, a loud honk from behind them made both men jump. They spun around to see Kelvin and Ricky riding in a large black SUV. "I always appreciate the free upgrade," said Kelvin. "Couldn’t you find your car?"

"This is it," replied Stephen, waving a hand at the miniature vehicle.

"Where?" asked Kelvin, unable to see it over the hood of his machine.

"Down there," pointed Ricky.

Kelvin backed the SUV up to get a better angle. "Oh. It’s somewhat small, isn’t it?"

"Yes, I know it’s small," Stephen replied testily. "Obviously, they made a mistake. Can you just give us a ride back to the customer service counter, please?"

"Sure. It’s nice and cool in here now that the air conditioning has had a few moments to work. You can throw your bags in the back, too. There’s plenty of room." They climbed in and rode off across the parking lot.

"I’m sorry, sir," replied the teenager behind the express counter after Stephen explained the problem, "we don’t have any other cars available. There’s a large technology convention in town, so all of our other vehicles have been rented. The car you have now is the biggest that we have. Oh, wait," she tapped for a few minutes on her keyboard, paused, then tapped some more, "we just had a van come in. Hmm, it was supposed to be back two days ago. It hasn’t been cleaned or refueled yet, but I can give you a discount for the fuel if you’d like."

Stephen sighed and looked at David, who shrugged. A van was better than a clown car, if barely. "I’ll take it."

Fifteen minutes later, he and David stood before a faded blue Volkswagen Vanagon. "They can’t be serious," Stephen said in dismay. "I mean, is this even street-legal?" He kicked a fender experimentally. Somewhat to his surprise, it didn’t fall off.

"Would you like to return and ask her for another vehicle?" David asked.

Stephen looked around the nearly empty lot and sighed. "No, it’s not worth it." Gingerly, he opened the door. "Let’s see if it starts up."

"Phew, what is that smell?" asked David, wrinkling his nose. "It smells like burning rubber."

"I think that’s pot. I’m surprised you didn’t recognize it."

"Pot?"

"Marijuana, Mary Jane, dope." Stephen adjusted his seat and began searching for his seatbelt. "Don’t even try to tell me that you spent eight years at your artsy schools and never came across it, because I’ll know you’re lying."

"Ah, cannabis," said David. "Yes, I have heard of it, though I never tried it. I prefer to let my art open my senses rather than any drugs.” He paused. “Do you mind if I smoke?"

"It couldn’t smell any worse," Stephen replied. "Just let me open the windows and get moving first, OK? I prefer to get my lung cancer the old-fashioned way, by breathing smog." He stuck the key in the ignition and started the car. Reggae music blared from the speakers. He turned down the volume and began scanning the frequencies, looking for a jazz station. David, black cigarette in his mouth, lighter in hand, stared at Stephen, waiting impatiently for him to start moving. Stephen noticed his glare. "One more moment, OK? I need to get some proper music playing in here. Believe me, a little jazz will improve my mood immensely."

"I will make you a deal," David said. "I will find the music for you, if you will simply start the car moving and allow me to light this cigarette!"

"Fix the presets, too," Stephen instructed, putting the car in gear and pulling out as quickly as he could. "I need jazz on one, classical on two, rock on three, and classic rock on four. You can surprise me with five, as long as it’s not rap, hip hop, techno, or anything else that doesn’t use real instruments."

"You give me so much room to play," David muttered around his cigarette. He got to work, though, scanning the channels and occasionally locking one in. Kelvin and Ricky were waiting by the exit, so Stephen followed them out of the rental lot and onto the main airport road toward Interstate 405. Soon they were cruising north toward Santa Monica and the hotel. David, making up for lost time, followed his first cigarette immediately with a second, so Stephen opted to keep the windows down as they raced along the highway. As they neared the heart of Los Angeles, though, traffic slowed to a crawl and eventually they had to put up the windows and switch to air conditioning.

"The traffic is lighter than I was told to expect," David commented, blowing out a last cloud of clove-scented smoke before raising his window. "This is nowhere near as bad as Boston’s rush hour."

"It’s only 2 o’clock," Stephen reminded him. "I don’t know how anyone ever goes anywhere around here. What do they do at rush hour, pull barbecues out of their trunks and tailgate?"

They eventually reached the hotel, checked in, and went to their respective rooms, agreeing to meet in a couple of hours for dinner. Stephen threw his bag on the bed and immediately unpacked his clothes, unrolling them and hanging them in the closet to start unwrinkling. After this many trips, this was mindless habit, just as rolling the clothes into tight tubes to minimize the wrinkles in the first place had been. He was a busy man and he had no time for ironing. Another side benefit of working in software: as long as his clothes were relatively clean and had few holes, he would be the most dapper man in the room.

Once the clothes were unpacked, he flopped down sideways on the bed with his arm over his eyes. It was all he could do after a few minutes to lift the arm and reach for his cell phone on the bedside table, but he needed to check in before he could even consider a nap. He thumbed the speed-dial and lowered the phone to his ear, still lying half on the bed and half off.

After three rings, his mother-in-law’s voice whispered, "Hello?"

Stephen sat up so quickly he fell off the bed, then scrambled back up and sat on the edge, his back straight. Despite her respectable Protestant bloodline, there was still something about Janice that reminded Stephen of the nuns in his Catholic high school. Whenever he spoke to her directly, he reverted to the schoolboy manners that had been driven into him over 16 years of parochial schooling. It wasn’t that he was scared of her, precisely, just… respectful. "Hello ma’am, er, Mom. This is Stephen. Is Jenny home?" He smacked himself on the forehead. Man, I sound just like I’m back in high school again. She’s been my mother-in-law for six years, for Ch-- Heaven’s sake!

"Hello, Stephen. Jenny and the baby are sleeping right now. That’s why I had the ringer turned off. How was your flight?"

"Uneventful, thank you, just the way I like them." Stephen found he was whispering, as well. He continued at a normal volume. "Wait, you had the ringer off? Then how did you know I was calling?"

"Oh, I didn’t. I knew you would be calling, though, so I’ve just been answering it every minute since the time you were scheduled to land. I figured that would be the correct interval to catch you before you went to voicemail."

"Since I was scheduled to land? That was three hours ago! You’ve answered the phone 180 times to see if I was calling?" Stephen suddenly felt irrationally guilty for not calling as soon as he got off the plane.

"195, actually. I wanted to play it safe in case you arrived early."

"Well, um, I’m sorry to have put you through that. I would have called sooner if I’d known."

"That’s all right, Stephen. It was a pleasant break from cleaning." Janice replied. Her whisper took on a slightly echoing quality. "I wouldn’t go to such lengths normally of course, but little Sarah seems to have supernaturally sensitive hearing. I am certain that she heard me come in from the store this morning, even though we had one floor and two closed doors between us. By the way, would you mind speaking more quietly? She’s upstairs and I’m out in the garage now, but I don’t want to wake her."

Stephen rolled his eyes, but lowered his voice again. "Sorry. I’ll let you go back to what you were doing. Well, not exactly: you can probably put the phone down now. Just ask Jenny to call me when she has a chance, OK?" He gave her the hotel number and his room number and hung up, shaking his head. He had never seen this side of her before. "Uptight" doesn’t begin to describe it.

He set the alarm, lay back down on the bed, and was asleep before he could even kick his shoes off.

***

It was a longstanding tradition for Stephen and his team to gather the night before they started an engagement and make sure everyone was mentally prepared for what was to come. While some of the more cynical engineers he had worked with referred to these meetings as "pep rallies," Stephen preferred to think of them as war councils. He, the general, made sure that every member of his elite squad knew his or her role in the battle to come and that no one had any doubt that they would emerge victorious. They formed a battle plan against the forces of chaos, discussed ways that the plan could go awry, and then everyone got a good night’s sleep. Tonight, though, he found himself wishing that he could just skip to the sleep part.

Their hotel was near the Santa Monica Pier, so there were plenty of restaurants to choose from. They decided on a small Mexican place near the beach and settled in with margaritas, chips, and salsa while they waited for their food. Everyone had changed into more comfortable clothes, and Stephen was bemused as always by the sight of Kelvin in a t-shirt. David, of course, wore linen pants, a flowing white silk shirt, and a red sash, as though he expected a tango to break out at any moment. Ricky had opted for a tank top, looking more at home in this climate than he ever had in Boston.

"Ahhhh," Stephen let out a long sigh as he slumped in his chair, margarita in hand. For the first time in a week, he felt calm and relaxed, and even though there was a good chance that was mostly due to the tequila hitting his empty stomach, it was a pleasant feeling.

"I could definitely get used to this weather," Ricky agreed. "I usually have to crank my heater up to eighty degrees in my apartment if I want to wear shorts and a tank top in October, and I can’t afford to do that very often. How many times will we get to come out here?"

"Probably two or three times for you, but the length of the trip could vary. If we need to work more closely with the client, then you could stay here for a couple of weeks at a stretch if you’re willing," Stephen replied.

Ricky reached for the chips and took a huge scoop of salsa. "I want to work very closely with this client."

"Do you have any more thoughts on what we can expect tomorrow?" Kelvin asked Stephen.

"It will probably be the usual meet-and-greet, followed by more than the usual amount of tail-sniffing," replied Stephen around his own mouthful of chip. "Their technical guys won’t just be testing to see if we know our stuff; they’ll also want to start determining the pecking order on the team. I hope we can avoid any actual chest-beating."

"I see now why you didn’t bring Frank this time," Kelvin observed.

"Yeah, we’ll save that battle for another time. For now, we need to play nice with the new kids and let them know that we aren’t here to rule their world. We are, however, the experts, so let’s make sure they know that as well."

"Sounds reasonable."

"Good." Stephen turned to Ricky and David. "You’ve already met Robert and Brad, so you have some idea of what you’re getting yourselves into. I don’t know whether this designer of theirs will be a help or a hindrance, but he at least knows them so maybe he can help translate. Be nice. I don’t want to have to break up any artistic slapfights."

"Why do you look at me when you say that?" asked David, offended. "And I resent the implication that I cannot throw a punch."

Ricky smirked, "Down here in the Lower 48, that’s what we call missing the point."

Stephen just stared at David, waiting.

Finally, David gave a small sigh of exasperation and conceded, "There will be room for all in my vision." But after a moment he added, "as long as it is my vision."

"Exactly," Stephen said. "Though let’s focus on their vision this week and make it ours once we get back to Boston, OK?" David nodded reluctantly. Ricky merely shrugged. He didn’t really care whose vision it was, as long as he could code it.

Stephen took a deep breath and another sip of margarita. This one was almost gone, he noted. He’d need another when the food arrived. "This may just be the tequila talking, but I’m getting a good feeling about this project. I think we’re going to have fun."

The rest of the meal passed in small talk as everyone discussed the things they wanted to do while they were in LA. Over the years, Stephen had found that there were two types of business travelers, which he roughly categorized into "sales guys" and "everyone else." To sales guys, every trip was a road trip of the sort that they used to take with their fraternity brothers in college: a chance to drink like Vikings in a different city and try to have sex with women who lived too far away to expect a commitment. Although -- unlike college -- they had to work during the day, they were well-compensated for that by the fact that work paid for the trip and most of the drinks, if not the women.

Sales guys were pathologically afraid that there was a better party going on somewhere else and spent enormous effort in each new city to find it. They then returned to the office with stories that convinced the other sales guys that they had missed the best party ever, which gave them the incentive to find a better one on their next trip, thus completing the cycle. Stephen theorized that this was why sales guys always seemed to know at least one other sales guy in every city: so that they could party together and expense the drinks.

Everyone else, which included Stephen and most of the people he worked with, tended to spend their rare off hours sightseeing, trying new restaurants, and sleeping. Some, like Kelvin, preferred reading over playing tourist. And while they might still wake up with hangovers occasionally, they were in more danger from food poisoning than sexually transmitted diseases, which seemed to Stephen to be playing the odds correctly.

On this trip there would be no Nordic drinking songs. Ricky planned to visit Grauman’s Chinese Theater one night and see if he could find the handprints of Woody Allen, whom he had recently discovered was a distant cousin. He talked David into going with him, but Kelvin was determined to finish his book before he did anything else. As for Stephen, he only wanted to sleep.

After dinner, as they walked back to the hotel, Stephen asked Ricky, "So, you’re cousins with Woody Allen now, huh? How exactly did that happen?"

Ricky nodded beatifically, "He’s something like my sixth cousin twice removed, but still family. Back in the 17th century, a galley full of Jewish slaves from Spain mutinied on a trip back from Mexico. They rowed the ship to our island and scuttled it so the Spaniards wouldn’t be able to find them. The few who still had any genitalia left, including two brothers, converted some island women and married them. My family came from one of the brothers, and Woody’s came from the other. I wrote to tell him about it, but he never wrote back."

Stephen nodded sympathetically, "Well, he probably gets that a lot."

"Yeah," Ricky agreed. "Oh! That reminds me: I’m going to need to take Hanukkah off."


Continue to Chapter 5