It's been a while but I'm back with another chapter. If you want to catch up, there's a handle table of contents available to help. On we go with the further adventures of our intrepid Bostonians in La-La Land….
"Are you coming, Frank?" Stephen looked back over his shoulder and saw Frank gazing thoughtfully into the sky. "You’re going to fry your retinas if you keep looking at the sun like that, shades or no shades."
"Hmm? Oh yeah, I’m coming. I was just contemplating some upgrades."
"My wearable computer. Don’t worry about it; it won’t take time away from work."
"It’s not the work time I’m worried about. It’s the time in the hospital that always gets us." Stephen held the door for Frank and waved him through.
Frank made a face as he went by. "Ha, ha, and ha. You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?"
The ADD team walked through the building together. Stephen and the others who had been there the previous month wove through the maze of hallways with practiced precision, but Mark and Frank were lost within moments. Frank, in particular began speculating on whether he should bring a piece of chalk with him the next day to mark his path, and whether he could memorize key routes before the cleaning crew wiped his marks off the walls. Stu said nothing: he was busy counting left and right turns.
They bypassed the main entrance and went directly to Thomas’ office, but he wasn’t there. Connie and her assistant were, though, and looked up as they all trooped in. Connie started to greet them, but stopped short when she saw Frank.
"Oh, you poor, poor thing!" she cried, her hair a green blur as she rushed toward him and leaped up to grab him in a fierce embrace. "Such pain! I’ve never seen such anguish and self-hatred in one man before!" Frank did his best to brace himself against the onslaught, but was driven back through the doorway nonetheless, fetching up against the opposite side of the hall. Connie had gotten a good running start and some height on her jump, so she had his head in her arms and his face in her chest before he could even speak. As gravity regained supremacy over empathy, she returned slowly to the ground, until Frank was bent nearly double, his muffled attempts to speak emanating from the general area of Connie’s breasts.
"Hmmf me mep?"
Mark leaned in to tap Connie on the shoulder. "I think he’s smothering." Connie’s assistant giggled.
Connie held on still, but loosened her embrace enough that Frank could at least turn his head sideways and get some air. His face was flushed, but whether from embarrassment or lack of air was unclear. "Have we met?" he asked again.
"I don’t have to know your life story to read that flashing ambulance light you call an aura," Connie replied, squeezing his neck again. "The last time I saw someone in this kind of shape, he’d been dead for three weeks." She glanced over her shoulder at the others. "Don’t ask." Returning to Frank, she continued, "You’re worse. How come you haven’t killed yourself yet?"
"Um, I don’t know, the hope that the Sox can win another Series?" Frank slid both hands between his neck and Connie’s arms and tried to break her grip. "You’re stronger than you look, you know that? Would you mind if I stood back up now?"
Connie released him and stepped back, primly smoothing the meager material of her skirt. "So are you, to bear up under that mountain of pain. If you ever want to talk, I’m here." Her assistant, chewing on her pen and eyeing Frank, giggled again.
"Thanks, I’ll… keep that in mind." Frank stood, rubbing his neck and glancing sideways at the others, who were all grinning back at him. "Were we supposed to meet someone here, or what? I’d like to get to work, if I may." His eyes silently apologized to Stephen for every crack he had ever made about his family, his managerial skills, his intelligence, or his looks, and begged for help. Stephen considered letting his simmer for a bit, but decided he had suffered enough.
"Agreed. Connie, is Thomas around?"
"He should be back at any moment. We just had our weekly all-hands meeting and he stayed behind to talk to the new guy."
"The new CEO? What’s his name again?"
"Rod. Rod White. I hear he’s a decent guy, once you get to know him."
"So you haven’t gotten a read on him yet?" Stephen asked, waving his hands as though feeling the air around Connie. "No spiritual soundings?"
"To do that, I would need to actually see someone."
"I thought you just said -- " Stephen’s question was interrupted by Thomas and Greg’s bustling arrival. They looked distinctly unhappier than when Stephen had seen them last.
"Oh good, you’re here. Rod was asking about you," said Thomas. "He wanted to know whether our consultants were always late or if it was just the expensive ones. That reminds me: where’s Dan? He was right behind me at the meeting."
"Right here!" Dan poked his head into the room and grinned toothily when he saw the crowd inside. "You guys made it! Great! I can’t wait to get your take on the new head honcho." He gave Stephen what was probably meant to be a subtly meaningful look. "Let’s synch up for a brain dump later and strategize our next steps."
Thomas and Greg’s simultaneous eye rolls would have done Busby Berkeley proud. "Where did you disappear to?" asked Greg with unconcealed irritation.
"I wanted to type up the meeting minutes while they were fresh in my head. Here you go." Dan handed Greg a sheaf of paper.
"That was fast," Greg was impressed in spite of himself. As both a coder and registered network administration guru, he was honor-bound to recognize speed on the keyboard, even in an annoying consultant drone. Still, he handed the papers to Thomas quickly in case stupidity really was contagious.
"That’s not all just from today. I also printed out all of the minutes and agendae from all of our meetings over the past three weeks in case Stephen wanted to catch up. I know that we emailed them all to you already, but it never hurts to have a hard-copy backup just in case." He gave the room a two-gun salute with both thumbs and forefingers. "Gotta run, hombres. We’ll catch up offline, Steve-o." Blowing the "smoke" from both fingertips, he backed out the door and was gone.
"I hate that guy," said Frank, "and I just met him. That’s a new record even for me."
"Don’t worry, Frank," said Kelvin. "You won’t see much of him. He has a crush on Stephen, and real engineers seem to scare him. If he tries to talk to you, just look at him as though you don’t understand a word he’s saying and he’ll go away after five or ten minutes."
"Thanks for the advice," Frank said, rubbing the back of his neck absentmindedly. "I’ll try that if I have to. Better to just keep him away from me, though." He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Connie. "I’d hate to have to kill him and have one more thing weighing on my aura."
After riffling through the pages Dan had left, Thomas handed them to Stephen. "Well, as I started to say, we should get you in to meet Rod as soon as we can. We don’t want to keep him waiting."
"Has you hopping already, does he?" commented Stephen, setting the papers down on Connie’s desk. Connie took one look at them before handing them to her assistant, who added them to the top of a tall stack on the corner of her desk.
Thomas puffed up his chest until it was nearly even with his stomach. "I am not ‘hopping.’ I am trying to be respectful of a colleague’s time." He deflated a little. "Still, I’d rather not keep him waiting. Can we go now?"
"Sure, just let me put my stuff down in my office. Is it the same one as last time?"
Thomas grimaced apologetically. "No, we put the HR department in there last week. You guys will all need to share the small conference room. We’re trying to negotiate for more space, but we have to wait until the computer animation company next door finishes the post-production on their film and releases all of their contractors. They’re already two months late, so we hope they’ll be done any time."
"The good news is that we get to scavenge any computers they leave behind," added Greg. "Plus any cute contractors." He nudged Connie’s assistant, who giggled.
Thomas rolled his eyes again. "Keep it up and I’ll tell Craig about the mysterious man in black you’ve been sharing cigarette breaks with. Come on, Stephen, let’s go."
They walked back through the halls to the front entrance, waved to the receptionist in her oaken redoubt, and continued on through the double glass doors behind her. Behind the "large" conference room, now filled with the detritus of several days’ worth of all-hands meetings, was an extra-wide hallway with three sets of double doors. These executive suites were reserved for Robert, Brad, and storage, in that order. Stephen had never seen the inside of them, since Robert was so rarely in the office physically and Stephen was afraid to see what Brad had done to his. The third office, until recently, had stored excess art that Brad had purchased from attractive gallery owners, miscellaneous furniture, and Robert’s collection of memorabilia from stars he had represented in his agent days. Some of the souvenirs -- several embroidered crew jackets, two prop flintlock rifles, and a Styrofoam head with a toupee on it -- were sitting in the hall now. The rest, Stephen presumed, had been moved back into Robert and Brad’s offices, or else sold on eBay.
As they approached the open doorway, Stephen looked in to see a huge cherry-wood desk on the other side of a wide expanse of deep carpet. Behind it was a tall chair, apparently empty. He felt a brief pang of relief. "Looks like he’s not here. Oh well, maybe we can catch him later. If you need me, I’ll just be resting my eyes in the conference room." He turned to go.
"Hello? Is someone there?" a voice called from the direction of the desk.
Oh God, no. Stephen grabbed Thomas by the elbow and dragged him back out of the office, pulling the door shut behind them. "He’s not a pygmy or anything, is he?"
Thomas gave him a puzzled look. "Why, would that matter?"
"It’s just -- " Stephen paused, then finished in a rush, "Extremely short people freak me out a little bit. It’s their hands. They’re just so… tiny." He shuddered.
Thomas guffawed, then silenced himself, glancing back at the closed door. "You’re kidding, right?"
"Listen, Mr. Never Goes Anywhere Without Wearing Socks, we all have our little phobias." Stephen smiled at Thomas’ shocked look. "Timothy was mad at you one day at lunch," he explained.
"That passive-aggressive little weasel," Thomas muttered. "Anyway, bare feet are unsanitary. And they look disgusting! The toes, they’re like little stubby fingers. It’s nauseating!"
"So you can understand my feelings about the little hands," Stephen nodded.
A muffled voice called from the office. "I need to run in a couple of minutes, so if you two are done whispering in the hall, can we get this started?"
Stephen looked imploringly at Thomas, who smiled and whispered, "Don’t worry, he’s not a pygmy. At least, not as far as I know."
"What does that mean?" Stephen hissed.
Thomas grinned, "You’ll see." He strode quickly into the office, shaking his elbow free of Stephen’s attempted grab. "Sorry about that, Rod, we just had to deal with a couple of minor issues. We’re here now."
"Fantastic," said the voice. "Stephen, it’s a pleasure to meet you. How was your flight?"
"Um, fine," Stephen replied, approaching the desk slowly and trying to locate the source of the voice, "it makes for a long day, though, flying against the earth’s rotation."
"I can sympathize," Rod’s disembodied voice replied cheerfully. He spoke with a slight twang, Stephen noticed, though in his befuddled state he could place the accent no more easily than he could the speaker himself. "I cover so many time zones every week, I can never tell what time it is or what time it’s supposed to be. I finally decided to just keep Mountain Standard Time all the time, no matter where I was. It was the only way I could get a decent night’s sleep. It’s a little hard on my Asian colleagues, but they don’t seem to mind too much. Or maybe they’re just too polite to say anything. Frankly, I don’t really care. If they want to get up in the middle of the night to meet with a crazy white man, that’s their problem. So, how is the product that will determine the success or failure of our company coming along?"
This speech was long enough for Stephen to subtly triangulate Rod’s position in the room by pacing quietly back and forth in front of the gigantic desk, ducking occasionally to gauge both height and distance. He narrowed it down to a spot about three feet above the desk, just behind the high-backed leather chair. Glancing quizzically at Thomas -- who was cheerfully unhelpful -- he walked slowly around the desk as he responded.
"I think we’re really starting to get some traction, sir. We had some, er, trouble nailing down the creative vision for the site, but I’m hopeful that our latest designs will cover most of what we think Brad and Robert are looking for." He was almost around the desk when Rod’s voice snapped out.
"Watch your step!"
Stephen yelped and jumped back with an absurd vision of his foot coming down on a tiny CEO. Rod continued, "I don’t want you to trip on any wires. This sound system was incredibly expensive."
Thomas laughed again and finally confessed, "I didn’t tell Stephen that you were on the phone, Rod. He’s been trying to figure out where you were hiding."
"Haw! That’s a good one, Tommy!" Rod guffawed. Thomas’ lip curled at the nickname. "Did you tell him that I was invisible or just too tiny to see?"
Now that he knew what to look for, Stephen spotted the two tiny speakers set in the wall above the chair that sent Rod’s voice into the room. Looking around some more, he saw a microphone, which he had originally taken to be a gold pen, protruding from a stand on the desk. Raising his voice, he spoke directly into the mike.
"Yes, you got me. I guess when they told me that you wanted to meet me I assumed it would be in person."
"Ow! No need to shout, boy! I can hear you just fine. The mics are incredibly sensitive. I can hear a whisper anywhere in that office. I can hear you move. Hell, I can hear your hearts speed up when one of those pretty secretaries walks into the room."
"Well, that’s, er, comforting, sir. I apologize for shouting, and I’ll try to keep my voice down in future teleconferences. Out of curiosity, why don’t you use the video conference system in the main conference room for these meetings?"
"I don’t like those video things. They’re too intrusive, too Orson Wellesian," replied Rod. Thomas stifled a snort. "Gesundheit. Voice is good enough for me, thanks."
Stephen bit down hard on his tongue, then said, "I agree: video is no replacement for face-to-face. Will you be here in the office any time this week so we can meet in person?"
"I doubt it. You boys have things under control there, as far as I can tell, and I have some other pressing matters to attend to at my other companies. I don’t think I’ll get there this week."
"Other companies?" Stephen queried.
"Sure! You think this is the only fish I have to fry?" Rod’s laugh boomed through the suite. "Shoot, you’re barely even a mouthful right now! I’m running at least three other companies your size, plus two more multinationals! Don’t worry, though: you’ll get all the strategic guidance you need from me. I’m really a hands-on manager, in a distant sorta way."
Stephen rubbed his hands over his face, trying to scrub away the fatigue. He couldn’t decide if this was better or worse than he’d expected.
"By the way, son, you might want to shave soon," Rod commented. "If that scruff gets any louder, I’m going to ask you to sand my desk for me before I get in there. Haw! Just kidding. I already had Tommy polish it up."
Stephen shot an incredulous look at Thomas, who shook his head fiercely and mouthed the words, "cleaning crew," but moved nothing else. Apparently, he hadn’t known about the sensitivity of the microphones. Stephen tried to get the conversation back on topic. "So you’re the CEO of five companies simultaneously?"
"And on the board of directors for seven more! Companies don’t need day-to-day management from their executives anymore. All they need from someone like me is visionary leadership. It’s up to you boys to take care of the details. I’m big picture, you’re little picture, get it? It’s all in my book. There are some copies in the desk drawer, there. Help yourself."
Stephen walked behind the desk and opened the top drawer. Inside, he found several copies of a book with the title, If I Can Do it, Anyone Can. On the front cover was a picture of a tall man with a thick head of steel-gray hair, wearing a leather bomber jacket and giving a thumbs-up gesture while standing at the top of several ladders. Stephen opened the book and glanced at the title page. It was signed: To my favorite employee. –Rod White.
"Well, at least I know what you look like now," Stephen observed.
"Oh, that’s not me," said Rod. "That’s a model. They tell me that he does a lot of the executive clothing catalogs." In the distance, they heard what sounded like a horse whinnying. "My 3:00 is here, boys, so we’ll need to wrap up. Is there anything I can help you with right now?"
"As long as we can get approval for our designs and some confirmation that we’re on the right track, I think we’ll be in good shape. Anything you can do to help us keep Brad and Robert focused long enough to do that would be great."
"I’ll see what I can do, boys. In the meantime, you have my cell number if you need me. Don’t be afraid to call anytime, day or night. I won’t answer if it’s inconvenient, but don’t be afraid to try. Take care." A sudden silence filled the room as Rod disconnected.
Stephen looked at Thomas. "Well, I think he’s going to be a great asset to the company."
It took three tries to unlock the door to his room because he was too tired to pull the card out of the lock and push down on the handle at the same time. Finally, he made a desperate lunge for the handle, leaned against the door, and tumbled into the room. Dropping his bag in the closet conveniently located just behind the door, he let his momentum carry him to the bed, where he collapsed face-first into the musty bedspread. After a few minutes, it occurred to him that, since he hadn’t removed his shoes yet, that moldy cheese smell must be coming from the comforter. Rolling off the bed with a groan, he yanked the bedspread off of the bed and dropped it on the floor, then resumed his prone position with his face buried in the much cleaner pillow. Only then did he kick off his shoes and allow them to add their funk to the complex bouquet of the coverlet on the floor. With a Herculean effort, he raised one arm, dug his cell phone out of his pocket, and propped it against one ear.
After waiting several minutes for his wife to answer his call, Stephen realized that he hadn’t dialed yet. He waited several more minutes just to be sure before gathering the strength for a dialing attempt.
Jenny answered on the fourth ring. "Hello?!?" She sounded harried, and there was a sound like a siren behind her."
"Hey, Hon, I made it," Stephen said. "How’s the baby?"
"Wonderful. We’re all set for our audition for The Exorcist 3 tomorrow morning."
"Hmm? Isn’t she a little young to act?" Stephen wasn’t sure he had heard her clearly over the ringing in his ears.
"It was a joke, Stephen. She’s been crying and projectile vomiting for the past hour."
"Oh, OK." That made more sense. "Wait, is that normal?"
"How should I know? She’s never done this before. Your mother is here, though, and she says it’s nothing to worry about," replied Jennifer, though she didn’t sound convinced. "Not that she worries about anything," she added under her breath.
The siren sound grew louder and resolved into his daughter’s voice. Over the crying, Stephen heard his mother shouting, "She’ll be fine, don’t worry! Stephen did this until he was seven! Kept his kindergarten teacher on her toes, let me tell you! She just needs to work this gas out, and then she’ll sleep all night! Don’t worry, Stephen, we’re doing great!" The crying faded again as his mother took her granddaughter back out of the room and closed the door.
"So there you go: we’re doing great," Jennifer repeated flatly. "How are things in sunny LA? Did you meet any bathing beauties on the way in from the airport?"
Danger! The fight-or-flight response sent a shot of adrenalin through Stephen’s system, allowing him to sit up and think more clearly. He laughed weakly. "The only person in a bathing suit around here is Mark, and believe me, you don’t want to see that. He can’t wait to swim laps tomorrow morning. It’s part of his new weight-loss plan. Personally, all I want to do is sleep for about twelve hours and see if I can make this headache go away."
"Sleep. That would be nice." Jennifer’s tone failed to convey her vicarious joy for Stephen’s plan.
Still not out of danger, Big Guy. "Can you catch up, too? Mom will be there tonight to help with Sarah, right?"
"She will, but unless she starts giving milk again, I’m still on call for feeding time. Sarah’s refusing the bottle again."
"I’m sorry I can’t be there to help," Stephen said, and he meant it. Mostly. To assuage his guilt over that small twinge of relief, he added lamely, "You can call me tonight if you need to."
"I don’t know how that would help," snapped Jennifer, but then she relented. "I’m sorry, Stephen. This isn’t your fault, and I shouldn’t take it out on you. I’m just tired, and post-partum, and there are hormones just sloshing out of me all over the place. Wait, check that: that’s just some baby puke that I missed. Anyway, I’m sorry, and I’m glad that you’ll be able to sleep tonight. One of us should be able to, at least."
"Thanks, Hon. You know I would rather be there with my girls, sleep or not, don’t you? I hate missing a moment with either one of you."
"I know, but it doesn’t hurt for you to remind me once in a while. Speaking of missing things, you missed your daughter’s first recital today."
"Excuse me?" Stephen asked, baffled by the non sequitur.
"Sarah played the piano today. This was before she started throwing up, of course. I wouldn’t let her near it otherwise."
"She can’t even sit up. How could she play the piano?"
"Well, I held her, of course!" Jennifer replied, exasperated. "She can hold her head up pretty well. I held her in my lap, and she reached right for the keys. She couldn’t really press them down that well, but the keys she hit were a close approximation of the second movement from Beethoven’s Ninth. Or Mozart’s Requiem, I couldn’t be sure without hearing all of the notes. Regardless, we clearly have a prodigy on our hands, and you missed it." Stephen was pretty sure that he heard her stick out her tongue at him.
"I seem to miss a lot of those gifted moments when I’m on the road. Maybe I should get a job that requires less travel. Mom always wanted me to be an undertaker. What do you think?"
Jennifer laughed. "I hear it’s a steady business, and the clientele would certainly complain a lot less. Maybe we should think about it. I’ll ask your mother."
Stephen laughed, too, then quickly sobered. "You know I was kidding right? Don’t ask Mom."
"Promise to bring me a nice present."
Stephen smiled. "I promise. How about a new bathing suit? I could ask Mark to help me pick it out."
"Perfect. I prefer the big baggy trouser kind. They hide my potbelly."
"I miss you, babe."
"I miss you, too. Get some sleep, fella. You have a big day tomorrow."
Stephen yawned. "All right, I will. You try to get some sleep too, and let Mom try the bottle. She’s magic with that kind of thing."
"I will. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, love." Stephen hung up, lay back, and let the sweet darkness of sleep overwhelm him at last.
Continue to Chapter 12