Hollywood.Bomb, Chapter 8

It's been a while since I posted the last chapter, but here it is.  Enjoy.  As always, you can go here for the full chapter list.


Chapter 8
Stephen returned home in the small hours to find his mother-in-law in the kitchen warming milk in a saucepan.  Without a pause in her stirring, she greeted him with a cheerful kiss on the cheek.  Stephen checked his watch to be sure that he had reset it to Eastern Standard Time before asking her why she was up.

"The baby’s hungry, dear," she whispered, "so Jenny is upstairs feeding her now."

"How much is she eating?" Stephen asked in alarm, looking at the saucepan.  Knowing that the help would be leaving soon, he envisioned himself warming milk by the gallon in the dead of night, while upstairs a monstrous child roared for its midnight snack.

"About as much as Jenny can produce, I suppose.  They’re very much in synch."  She saw Stephen eyeing the hot milk and added, "Oh, this isn’t for Sarah.  It’s for you.  I knew you’d be jet-lagged and would want to get right to sleep, so I’m making you some caffeine- and sugar-free hot chocolate."

"Well, thank you," Stephen began, when a thought occurred to him.  "Wait, doesn’t chocolate naturally contain caffeine?  How can you have caffeine-free hot chocolate?"

"Oh, there’s no chocolate in this.  It’s an all-natural blend of carob, spices, and sleep-inducing herbs that one of my vegan friends told me about.  She drinks it with soy milk, of course, but I thought that you’d prefer the real thing.  I suppose that, technically, you would call it sugar-free hot carob milk, but that hardly sounds as good as hot chocolate, does it?"

A few minutes later Stephen entered the bedroom with his luggage in one hand and a mug of hot carob milk in the other.  He gently set the bags by the door, eased out of his shoes, and tiptoed over to the bed.  "Right where I left you," he said, seeing that Jenny was awake.  He reached down to brush Sarah’s head as she nursed, marveling anew at the incredible softness of her silky dark hair.

"We didn’t spend the whole week here, you know," Jennifer whispered reproachfully.  "We have been very busy.  I’ll tell you about it in the morning, though.  I’m sure you want to get to sleep."

"No, go ahead, as long as you don’t mind talking," Stephen said.  He lifted his mug aloft.  "I have a whole mug of sugar-free hot carob milk to drink before I can go to bed, anyway."  He took a sip and grimaced, "And this may take a while."

Jennifer brightened.  "Oh, good!  Well --  oops, hang on.  Come over to the other side, will you?"  She detached the baby, which set off a sort of snuffling, whining sound from the vicinity of her chest, and rolled over.  Once she was settled on her other side, she readjusted so that Sarah could continue eating.  The snuffling and whining were replaced by contented sucking noises as the meal recommenced.  Stephen, looking on, could only think, Lucky kid.  It had been a long week.

"So anyway, we had a great time while you were gone.  Not that it wouldn’t have been better with you around, of course, but still.  Sarah has to be the most gifted child that was ever born.  Did my mother tell you how sensitive her hearing is?"

"She mentioned something about it, yes.  I was afraid to call after that."

"Well, I think she’s exaggerating a little.  Sarah didn’t even move when you came in, so she can’t be that sensitive.  Not to mention, if her hearing were really that sensitive she would have been deaf after a week of having your mother here.  What’s really amazing is how quickly she learns new things!  Just today, I taught her how to hold a ball."

"How’s her slider?" Stephen joked, but then saw that this was one of those Things About Which We Do Not Joke.  "Hmm, a ball, really?  Does she… do anything with it?"

"Drools on it, mostly.  But that’s not important.  What’s important is that she’s doing it three or four months early!  I checked a couple of my childhood development books, and this is fifth or sixth month territory.  She’s off the charts!"

"And you expect this to continue, this... ball-holding and other advanced behavior?"

"Absolutely.  It’s not the only thing she did, either.  I mean, it’s not like I spent a week just trying to make her hold a ball."

"Of course not, that was just play time.  What other important skills have you been developing?  Are we getting close to potty training, I hope?"

"Ha, funny man you are.  No, we haven’t begun potty training, a fact which I will give you ample opportunity to experience for yourself this weekend.  It’s about time you changed some diapers."

"Lovely."  Forgetting himself, Stephen took another sip and made a face.  "This had better put me to sleep, or else the aftertaste will keep me up all night.  What is carob, anyway, potting soil?"

"I never touch the stuff.  When Mother offered it to me I just told her that the pregnancy books said to avoid herbal supplements while nursing.  So I’m safe for at least the next ten months."

"Lucky you.  Is lactating the only way out?  Guess I’ll have to just learn to take my medicine like a man."  He tossed the rest of the drink off in one large swig and began undressing.  "Should I sleep in here or go down to the couch?"

"I think we’re done here," Jennifer said, pulling back from a sleeping baby and pulling up the flaps on her nursing gown.  "Move her to the cradle, would you?  And be careful of her head, please.  She’s not a football."

"I know, I know," grumbled Stephen.  "A football bounces better.  Ouch!  Don’t hit me when I’m holding our child."

"It’s good to have you home," Jennifer said, settling back under the covers.

Stephen looked down at the little girl in his arms, and then at the big girl in his bed.  "It’s good to be home."

***

By the time Monday morning rolled around, Stephen could feel the IQ points slipping away faster than his giant cup of Dunkin’ Donuts’ hot java could catch them.  Stifling yet another yawn, he went to find the Brothers Grim.  They shared a desk pod, and Stu had been placed nearby so that they could help him get acclimated.  Stephen shambled over and wearily pulled up a beanbag.

"So, what have you boys been doing to keep yourselves busy while I was gone?"

Frank made a face.  "Documentation."

Stephen nodded sympathetically.  "Necessary evil.  At least it’s nearly done."

Frank rolled his eyes.  "Right, and Sysiphus was just looking for a light workout.  Have you seen the Department of Defense’s documentation requirements manual?  It’s twice as thick as the documentation we wanted to deliver.  We delivered ten copies of the first draft on Friday, and now Keith is trying to get them to stop comparing the copies to each other looking for discrepancies."

Mark agreed, "These guys are far worse than that bank in New York.  At least they trusted us to know how to run a copier."  He thought for a moment, “Of course, the DoD only ruins the economies in other countries, so maybe it’s a wash.”

"Well, I’m sure it will get better now. The only people at the new client who will understand the docs are engineers too, so as long as they still like you they shouldn’t ask for more than basic descriptions and breakdowns of each component.  Just try to stay on their good sides."  This was directed to Frank, as usual, who acknowledged the warning with a nod that didn’t necessarily indicate assent.  Stephen took what he could get and turned to Stu.  "How about you?  Are you ready to start building on our tool set?"

Stu wheeled over on his chair to join the conversation.  "I think so.  I installed the environment and built my first Hello World, with a little help from these two."  He thanked the Brothers with a nod.  "I’m sure I’ll still have to learn as I go, but I won’t slow you down too much."

A Hello World application was an engineer’s way of testing whether he could use a new technology.  The most basic of programs, it essentially demonstrated that the engineer had installed his software correctly on his computer and was able to access the functionality he needed.  The name came from early programming languages, where the basic test of a functioning application was to make the words "Hello, World" appear on the computer screen.

Frank leaned forward.  "So how did it go out there?  Are they starting to make any sense yet?"

Stephen chose his words carefully, not wanting to alarm anyone.  "They’re not the worst clients I’ve ever worked with, and it’s definitely a nice change from the glacial pace of the DoD.  Kelvin already has a basic architecture roughed out, so you’ll have something to work on in the meantime…."  He trailed off as he saw the looks on their faces.  "You’ve already talked to Kelvin, haven’t you?"

Frank smirked.  "We sure have... Steffy."  Mark guffawed, and even Stu smiled quietly.

"OK, look:  first of all, Dan never actually called me that, and secondly, it wasn’t as bad as Kelvin made it sound.  It’s not like they’re all certifiable.  Just, well…" he paused to review the prior week, "OK, maybe they are all certifiable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t control them.  We just have to find a way to make their craziness work for us.  What?!?"

All three men stared at him, aghast.  Frank said, "Kelvin only told us about your new nickname.  He said that you could fill us in on the project itself.  How crazy are we talking about here?"

Stephen slumped and laid his head back on the beanbag.  He was tired.  He never would have slipped up like this three months ago.  Engineers were, by nature, a pessimistic lot, and it took little for them to see a tidal wave of disaster looming just over their shoulders, waiting to inundate them.  It was the project manager’s job not only to make sure that the tidal wave never came, but that his team never saw one on the horizon.  Fear was a costly distraction that led to over-engineering, hyperventilation, excessive blogging, and other evils of the technical world.  It was time for damage control.

"Look, I’m just tired.  This is nothing more than a mildly extreme case of client brain, and that’s what they pay me to handle.  You guys don’t have to worry about it, since you don’t have to go to the design meetings unless I feel like punishing you.  David and Ricky and I will get you a nice clean design, and Kelvin already has your architecture.  We’re still in charge of the technical side of this project, so it’s not like you have to deal directly with the creative types at CouldBU, and the engineers are just like you guys, more or less.  Plus, you get to spend part of the winter in California.  How bad can that be?"  Through the fatigued haze in his mind, he realized he was perilously close to babbling, so he stopped to judge their reactions as best he could.  Frank looked unconvinced but not panicked, which was more or less normal.  Mark, after checking Frank’s reaction, decided that he, too was willing to let it slide for now.  Stu was inscrutable behind his beard, which Stephen was coming to recognize as his default state.  Disaster averted, for now.  He’d have to slow down his speech a bit from now on, though, to allow his fogged brain time to catch up with his mouth.  Time for a change of subject, and some penance.

"So, Kelvin told you about Dan, huh?  He’s a piece of work, but at least we finally found out what makes Kelvin laugh.  Who knew that it would turn out to be picturing me as a woman?"  The others relaxed and enjoyed a laugh at Stephen’s expense, and he knew that they would be fine.  Now he just needed to find a way to keep his promise.

***

"Hi, it’s Thomas again.  Can you give me a call back today?  I had some questions about the designs you sent over, and we were also hoping Kelvin could help us with a couple of sticky spots in our… prototype.  It’s Tuesday at about 5:15, and I’ll be here for another hour or so.  Thanks."

Stephen yawned hugely as he punched the key to delete the voicemail, the third one that CouldBU’s Technical Director had left since he went home the previous evening.  Even after a couple of weeks of conference calls, Thomas seemed to be having trouble with the concept of time zones and Stephen wasn’t quite up to trying to explain it to him for the second time that week.  Stephen checked his watch:  8:30 AM.  Although it might drive the point home if I call him on his cell phone now.  No, I’ll save that trick in case he still doesn’t get it after I explain it to him next time.

Hanging up, he rose from his desk and headed to the Caf for some coffee.  He was halfway there before he realized that he still hadn’t finished his coffee from the train station and was, in fact, still carrying it.  He stared at the large white Styrofoam cup for a moment, thinking, Is it me, or is this stuff getting weaker?  Shrugging, he tipped the rest of the cup’s contents down his throat and kept walking.  Since he was up, he might as well make the rounds.  He’d only get drowsy if he sat back down now, anyway.  Management by Walking Around is one thing, but Management by Staying Awake?  MBSA… maybe I can start a hot new management trend.  Then again, I don’t know if it’s that different from the technique of most executives I’ve seen at our clients:  Management by Sticking Around.  A smile quirked at the corner of his mouth.  Same acronym, even.  Darn, they beat me to it.  Oh well, back to making my millions the old-fashioned way: through stock options.

His train of thought pulled into the station at David’s desk.  Or perhaps "pulled into port" would be more appropriate, as David was sporting a decidedly nautical theme this morning, from his feathered tri-cornered hat down to his shiny buckled shoes.  In between, he wore a flowing white long-sleeved shirt underneath a carefully tattered vest, accompanied by black fingerless gloves and knee-length breeches over shiny stockings.

Stephen saluted.  "Permission to come aboard, Cap’n?"  At David’s grave nod, he perched on the corner of his desk.  "Feeling feisty today, are we?"

"I am prepared to storm the mizzen-tops of our deadlines, if that is what you mean, yes," replied David.  "As though my works of clothing art need any explanation at this point.  However, I will condescend to inform you that I am also celebrating with Ricky, as he has found a new ancestor."

"One of his ancestors was a gay pirate?" Stephen asked with mock incredulity.  "I have some questions about that, both conceptually and logistically."

The power of David’s withering stare was greatly reduced by the happy bobbing of the feathers in his hat.  "You are very funny, Stephen, at least compared to the average tree.  No, his forebuccaneer was none other than William Teach.  This is my ironic homage to that rascal of the Spanish Main."

"Blackbeard?"

"Or one of his crew," amended Ricky, garbed in his own puffy shirt, with a red bandanna holding back his shoulder-length black hair.  "We don’t know for sure, since they never came back after the one pillaging.  They were blown off course on the way to intercept an armada of gold ships coming from Mexico, and they stopped off at our island just long enough to raid for supplies and relieve some, er, pent-up pressure on the women before they were on their way.  Several babies came from that visit."

"Being blown off course seems to be a theme in your homeland," observed Stephen, "as does raping the women, unfortunately."

Ricky shrugged.  "When superior forces arrive on your shore, you give them what they want and hope they’ll go away.  Fortunately, most of them did.  Go away, that is."

"I don’t suppose there are any pirate holidays I need to be aware of?"

Ricky looked disappointed.  "No, just Boxing Day."

Stephen started to ask, but thought better of it.  "OK, so back to the mizzen-tops of our deadlines.  How are you two coming on the new designs?  I’d like to have at least one more call to review this before we go back out there again.  Brad and Robert seem much more agreeable at a distance, so I’d rather have this all nailed before we have another meeting in person." 

David leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment, idly twirling a tassel on his vest as he added up the work yet to be done.  "We should be ready for you to review everything by the end of the week, so you could schedule another design meeting with the scurvy clients for the beginning of next week."  Stephen stared at him in silent expectation until he added, "Arr."

Stephen turned to Ricky, who confirmed, "I’ll be ready by then, too.  Um, avast ye?"

Slapping his legs, Stephen stood.  "That be good.  Back to work, ye swabs, and let me know if ye hit rough waters."  He stumped off to check on the left-brained side of the team.  Not that the conversation is likely to be any less strange.

 He found them in a workroom, Frank and Mark splayed out on beanbags and Stu seated on a couch while Kelvin filled the whiteboards on three side of the room with diagrams.  Stephen watched through the window for a few moments before entering at what looked like a reasonable stopping point.

"Steffy," Kelvin greeted him.  As humorous milestones went, this was still apparently the high point for Kelvin.

"Kelly."  Two could play at that game, Stephen had decided.  "How’s it going?" he scanned Kelvin’s work.  It looked like they were working through something with the data model.

"We’ll be fine, as soon as Frank agrees that I know what I’m talking about," replied Kelvin, with a sidelong glare at Frank.

Frank slouched down further in the beanbag so that his long frame covered half of the floor.  "Listen, Mr. Abstraction-for-Abstraction’s-Sake, I’m just saying that there’s a time for third normal form and there’s a time to just build the damn thing.  In most cases, the time for third normal is in a classroom, when you want to prove that you’re smarter than the professor.  The rest of the time, you build what you need now and change it later if you have to.  Why do we need to create a generic object for everything when all we’re dealing with is people and their stuff?  Are we going to have different kinds of people?  Are they each going to have n number of different things associated with them, each with their own set of relationships?  I seriously doubt it."  He ticked the items off on his fingers.  "People, media, personal data.  That’s it."

"That’s how you’d do it, maybe," retorted Kelvin.  "And then if it didn’t work you’d just rebuild it in a weekend, right?"

Frank shrugged.  "Probably."

"Well, some of us prefer to build things right the first time, so we don’t have to work every weekend.  I’m not saying we’re going to need all of this structure, but we just might, and I’d rather have it than not.  Right now, we’re just guessing."  Kelvin rounded on Stephen.  "Which makes your timing perfect.  How’s it going with you?  Do you have any functional requirements yet?  What’s this thing supposed to do besides look flashy?"

Stephen was used to refereeing arguments like these, but he usually didn’t get sucked into them himself.  This time, though, all he could do was smile lamely and say, "I’m working on it.  We know that don’t like red or green, though."

Kelvin threw up his hands.  "So we’re still making a best guess based upon our own ideas of what a talent search site should do.  And since the closest any of us has come to a talent search is an online dating site," here Mark blushed, "we’re in danger of building a beautiful monument to technology that doesn’t do anything useful."

"All the more reason to take my approach!" stated Frank from the floor.  "We’ll build a lightweight prototype first, let them see what it could do, and then make any necessary changes after they see it and hate it.  It’s a balsa-wood Trojan Horse:  expend the minimum energy to get past their defenses, then wage the campaign from there."

Kelvin stared down at Frank for a moment.  "The Greeks wouldn’t have had to build their hobbyhorse if they had been prepared for any eventuality before they left home.  We need a firm foundation to build on, one that allows us to adjust on the fly without having to tear the whole thing down first.  The wise man built his house upon a rock, after all, not on a foundation of shifting sand."

Stu spoke for the first time.  "Grecian battle tactics and Biblical allusions aside, can we find a compromise here?  Stephen obviously needs some help getting the requirements, and from what I’ve heard it’s pretty clear that no one at CouldBU is able to conceptualize, well, anything without some visual aids.  What if we build a small throwaway prototype of some of our best ideas to get them started?" Frank smiled smugly and crossed his arms behind his head.  "Meanwhile, Kelvin can work on a more robust data model that covers what we know today as well as a reasonable extrapolation of other things they might ask for."  Here Stu looked at Kelvin, who thought for a moment and nodded acquiescence.  "We can jump-start development if we guess right, and at worst we find out what they don’t want it to do."

Frank pulled his legs in like a spider and bounced up from his spot on the floor.  "Sounds like a bakeoff to me.  I’m in, and may the best developer win!  What are the rules and stakes?"

Stephen thought for a moment before speaking, unsure if this was the best course.  If he let Frank run with this, he knew that he wouldn’t rest -- or let anyone else rest -- until he was forced to stop.  Nothing fired Frank up more than a challenge, and no challenge was greater than a head-to-head competition with another developer.  But Stu was right:  this would give them a great head start, if they guessed correctly at what Brad and Robert wanted.  Big if.

He looked at Kelvin.  "You game?"  Kelvin nodded slowly.  Stephen clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly, thinking as he spoke.  "OK, here are the teams.  Mark, you’re with Kelvin on this one.  Stu, you’re with Frank."  Both men began to object, but Stephen cut them off.  "No, I know what I’m doing.  Mark, it will do you good to see something other than sawing the branch while you sit on it, and Stu will benefit from some rapid development on our toolset.  And to be honest, Frank, I think Stu can take you if you push him too hard."  Frank opened his mouth to object again, but looked at Stu and shut it with a snap. 

Bingo, thought Stephen, and continued, "Ground rules.  It’s Wednesday now.  You have until the end of next week to complete the prototype.  We’ll show it to them when we all go out there the week after that.  I can’t stop some of you from working weekends," here he fixed a gimlet eye on Frank, "but I can keep you from forcing anyone else to work them with you.  No forced marches.  This is just the beginning and I’d rather save it for when we need it.  Got it?"

Noises of assent (grudging ones from Frank), followed by, "Terms of victory and spoils?"

 "We will pick a winner based upon feedback from the client, which I will gather.  I doubt you could bully these guys anyway, but I’d prefer to keep the meeting as friendly as possible.  If they like the prototype so much that they just tell us to finish it, then Frank’s team wins.  If they hate it, or if they have so many changes that we have to start completely from scratch, then Kelvin wins.  Assuming, of course, that his architecture is flexible enough to accommodate the changes."

"Obviously," replied Kelvin gravely.

Frank was nearly hopping with eagerness to begin, or perhaps he was merely charging his pants computer in an attempt to get a jump on the competition.  "And the stakes?"

Stephen paused, both for dramatic effect and because he was curious to see if Frank would actually combust right there.  He thought carefully.  "This is our first bakeoff in a while, so I think the prize should be worthy of the event.  How about a case of their favorite micro-brew to the winners?"

"Can it be a mixed box?" asked Stu, "I doubt anyone else likes Smutty Nose."

"How about we just make it two cases, one for each person?"  suggested Frank, grimacing at the thought of his beer touching anyone else’s.

"Sounds fair to me," agreed Kelvin, and Mark nodded.

"Done!"  Stephen confirmed.  "Shake on it and get baking."  Kelvin and Frank shook hands, as did Mark and Stu, and then Frank and Stu left to begin their planning.  Stephen caught them at the door.  "Hey, do you guys want to get lunch out today?  I was thinking about Bukowski’s.  Non-work talk only."

"I don’t think we’ll have time…" Frank began.

"I’ll treat," added Stephen.

"We’re there."

"See you at 12:30, then."

***

"So I’ve been reading this Da Vinci book," said Mark, wiping the peanut butter from his burger out of his whiskers.  "Did you know that he was part of a secret society?"

"Congratulations, Mark," offered Frank, "for once again being the last person in the world to jump on a fad.  Everyone else read that book a decade ago, and some of us read the book it’s based on about ten years before that.  The guy’s a hack!  All of his alleged ‘secrets’ and ‘revelations’ have been kicking around since the second or third century, and no one except a bunch of crackpots believed them then.  Not only that, he basically plagiarized most of that stuff from -- "

"That case was dismissed!" Mark shouted, bringing his hand down on the table with a meaty smack.  "The burden of evidence was on the plaintiff, and they failed to prove their case to the court’s satisfaction!  What you’re saying is libel!"  Heads turned in their direction.  While shouting matches were far from uncommon in Bukowski’s Tavern, they generally centered on music, politics, or choice of sports tattoos.  This was the first time that the word "libel" had ever been shouted in this venerable establishment.

Frank held up his hands.  "Whoa, easy there, big fella.  No one’s libeling anyone.  I’m just saying that the ideas aren’t exactly groundbreaking.  Take it easy, will you?  Jeez…" he crammed a mouthful of fries into his mouth while still somehow managing to look offended.

Mark slumped back into his seat, glancing around with some embarrassment.  "I just thought it was really interesting, whether it’s true or not.  I mean, if they can keep JFK’s real assassins a secret, why shouldn’t the Catholic Church be able to sweep a couple of kids under the carpet?  Besides," he hurried on, "the whole ‘sacred feminine’ idea really spoke to me.  I never really knew my mom, so I feel like maybe I need to examine the feminine side of my life."

 "I’m not sure I even want to know what that means," mumbled Frank around his fries.

"Frank, be nice," chided Stu.  "If Mark feels something is missing in his life, then by all means he should pursue it."  Mark smiled his thanks, but the smile faded as Stu continued, "Not that I buy into any of that Merovingian dynasty stuff, by the way.  It sounds too much like an attempt to return to divine right of rule to me."  He shrugged.  "It doesn’t really matter, though.  Like Frank, I question the scholarship more than the ideas presented.  He casts a pretty wide net, and catches only a few ‘facts’ in the process.  The rest is conjecture and fancy, meant to amaze the ignorant."  He looked at the others, who were staring at him.  "What?  I can’t read a few book reviews too?"

"All right, so maybe it’s not a life-changing work of art.  At least it made me think," grumbled Mark.  "Forget it."

"I agree with Stuart," said Kelvin.  "Explore the ideas and see where they take you.  It never hurts to be inquisitive."  He winced and rubbed at a bare patch in his left eyebrow.  "Unless you’re playing in your mother’s lab, that is.  I learned that lesson the hard way."


Continue to Chapter 9
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