"I don’t mind that the whole place is going mad. I just wish they weren’t so hell-bent on taking everyone with them." Frank lounged sideways across a patio chair and took another sip of his iced mocha, clearly relieved to be out of the CouldBU offices. He sucked contemplatively on his straw for a moment before adding, "So what if Sgt. Dick enforced a business casual dress code? I don’t even mind that we have to be at work by 8:00 every morning. Hell, I haven’t set my watch back to Pacific Time anyway, so I can still pretend I’m coming in at 11:00. No, what I mind is how he keeps looking over my shoulder when I’m trying to work, like he’s afraid I’m going to slip terrorist chatter into the display code. And he can’t read without moving his lips, so I have to listen to him muttering, ‘Get… parenthesis… java… dot lang… dot… memberclass… parenthesis.’ It’s maddening! Sometimes, I throw in a bunch of extra parentheses just to see if I can make him seize up. Thank God we’re going home for Thanksgiving soon." He lapsed into silence and let his head hang back against the chair.
Looking at him, Stephen reflected that Frank was indeed looking a little mad. Despite the beautiful LA weather, he was incongruously dressed in a full-length black overcoat. The resultant beads of sweat, combined with a long ponytail made frizzy by the humidity and a black leather hat that he had picked up at some open-air craft market, provided the perfect look for an afternoon of sniping at passersby with a scoped rifle. Fortunately, there were no bell towers nearby to complete the picture.
The moment that he’d returned to LA, Stephen had rounded up his team and herded them out of the office to a nearby Starbucks -- not the nearest, lest they run into someone from the ever-growing CouldBU staff -- allegedly for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. They were clearly in need of a good old-fashioned bitch session and a change of scenery was called for. The fact that it came with coffee was pure coincidence and not a sign of his growing addiction, or so he tried to tell himself. Yeah, sure, he thought wryly as he sucked down the last of his Venti triple mocha, I can quit anytime I want to.
He looked at the rest of his team over the rim of his coffee cup. Though they had made more weather-appropriate choices in outerwear (i.e., none) they were all dressed in chinos and collared shirts. Stu’s shirt had a particularly garish orange checked pattern that had been out of style for the past decade, if in fact it had ever been in. As they sat there sipping their drinks and gazing enviously at the shorts- and sandal-clad patrons surrounding them, Stephen had to feel sorry for them. His plan was clearly working, though. The conversation, which at the outset had been energized with annoyance bordering on outrage, had mellowed after about fifteen minutes of complaining and taken on a more contemplative tone.
Frank snapped out of his reverie and sat up. "Maybe this isn’t a real job at all. Maybe it’s one of those social experiments, like where they keep turning up the heat one degree at a time to see when the subjects snap." He leaned forward, warming to his theory. "Or maybe it’s some new hyper-reality show, where they don’t even tell people that it’s happening and just film them. I think I saw something like that on one of those entertainment web sites that Thomas is always reading."
"They already have those," interjected Stu. "They’re called documentaries."
Frank flashed him a look of annoyance. "I’m not talking about some shaky handheld exposé of workplace life. I mean studying people while you play with their minds, but without telling them that you’re doing it."
"They have those, too," Stu observed sourly. "They’re called secret government experiments."
Now Frank looked at Stu with something like admiration, sensing a kindred spirit. "You really are a ticking time bomb, aren’t you?"
"If I weren’t such a mellow individual, I might take offense to that," Stu replied, sucking calmly at his straw. Not being a coffee drinker, he had ordered some sort of fruity frozen confection and was enjoying it immensely.
"Seriously, though, think about it," pressed Frank. "Ever since we got here, they’ve been steadily making life worse for us. First, they tell us that we have to do all the work ourselves, then that maniac Brad starts shouting at people, then they fire half the team...."
Stephen raised a hand. "Hold on, there. Our designers aren’t officially fired. The client is just reconsidering the design."
"Oh, really?" Frank raised one eyebrow. "And how much work have Ricky and David done for the project this month?"
Stephen subsided. "Point taken. But I’m still billing them."
"Anyway, after they ‘reconsidered the design’ and isolated us here, they started moving us into smaller and smaller rooms. Now we’re practically working in a sweatshop, complete with overseer! And it’s starting to smell like a sweatshop, too, I might add." He looked significantly at Mark.
"I’m sorry, all right? I only have the two dress shirts and the one pair of slacks, and I haven’t gotten to the laundry this week. They don’t really smell that bad." Mark sniffed his leg and grimaced. "OK, maybe they do."
Frank was on a roll. "Maybe it’s a big study funded by the Marketing Executives of America to try to find the exact point at which an engineer’s will can be broken. Then they could make us try to build whatever harebrained products they could think up! Scratch-and-sniff web sites! Solar-powered windsocks! Cars that get better mileage in reverse!” He raised a fist in the air. “We have to hold out! They must not break us!"
Stephen leaned forward and squeezed Frank’s shoulder reassuringly. "Be strong, my friend."
Frank eyed him narrowly. "You’re mocking me, aren’t you?"
Stephen thought about it for a moment. "That depends: are you taking this theory seriously?"
Now it was Frank’s turn to think. "No, I guess not. It would explain a lot, though, wouldn’t it?" He flopped back into his chair with a sad little sigh.
Kelvin had been lying back with his eyes closed throughout the entire conversation, and had been silent so long that Stephen had assumed he was asleep. Now he spoke, though his eyes remained closed. "There’s a simpler theory."
"Oh yeah? What’s that?" Frank asked.
"Business people are nuts."
Stephen guffawed. "I liked Kelvin’s better. Occam’s Razor wins this match."
Frank folded his arms and put his own head back. "At least my theory might have gotten us on TV," he replied, and tipped his hat down over his face.
Mark stretched his arms above his head, exposing significantly less stomach than he had had a month ago. He was not only fitter, Stephen realized. He was… shinier somehow. Stephen couldn’t put his finger on it. "It’s not all bad," Mark said. "The apartment complex has a pool, and the weather is nice for running."
In his surprise, Stephen swallowed a gulp of coffee too quickly, scalding his throat. Despite his choking, he tried to make his voice casual as he asked, "You’re running? Have you ever done it before?" What he didn’t ask was, shouldn’t you have checked with your doctor first? Stephen’s legs had paid for four years of college, running cross-country and middle distances for Boston College. He was suddenly ashamed to realize that he couldn’t remember the last time he had gone for a run. That’s it: I’m running tomorrow morning. May as well take advantage of the fact that I’ll be up at 6:00.
Mark ducked his head self-effacingly. "I ran a little in high school, but not since then. I started again a couple of weeks ago. It just seemed a shame to let these beautiful mornings go to waste. Stu wanted me to ride with him, but a pair of shoes was a lot cheaper than a bike."
"I offered to help you build one," Stu protested. "I already have almost all of the parts."
Frank grimaced. "If you ask me, getting out of bed early to run is a perfect way to waste a morning." He sucked noisily on his straw, rattled the ice inside the cup to see if any more coffee was trapped within, and slurped one last time. He shook the now-empty cup at Stephen inquiringly. "Are you still buying?"
Stephen nodded, yawned, and handed him his credit card. "Get another for me, too, will you? And bring back the receipt!" he called as the door closed behind Frank. Turning to the others and jerking a thumb over his shoulder, he asked, "What’s with the duster?"
The smile behind Stu’s cup looked suspiciously like a smirk. "It’s an upgrade to his wearable computer. He sewed a solar energy collector into the fabric of the coat so that he didn’t have to provide all of the power with his legs. Unfortunately, that was the only coat that he could find that was large enough. He wins style points for the cowboy look, but I think he’s actually sweating more now than before."
Mark rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and he complains about my smell. We’ve taken to calling him Extremely Pale Rider. I think he likes the nickname, though. He’s always wanted one."
Kelvin nodded in agreement and cracked one eye open. "Remember when he tried to make one up for himself? What was it?" He stared upwards as he accessed old memory files, then snapped his fingers. "The Mad Coder. Much as I appreciated the double entendre, I told him, ‘You can’t give yourself a nickname.’ Didn’t stop him from trying, but it never stuck."
Laughing, Mark added, "He signed all of his emails that way for months, until I started addressing him by his full name to make him stop."
Stu was puzzled. "Why would that make him stop anything?"
"Oh, he hates his middle name."
"What is it?"
Mark checked Frank’s progress in the line. Frank was still five people from the front and had his computer viewfinder over one eye, oblivious to the curious looks he was receiving from the other patrons. Still, Mark spoke sotto voce, "Eleanor."
Now it was Stu’s turn to choke. "Frank Eleanor Lasher?" he spewed.
Dismayed, Mark looked over his shoulder and made shushing motions with his hands. "Franklin, actually. His parents were big Roosevelt fans, and his mother was disappointed that she didn’t have a girl. She apparently had quite a large hat collection all ready for her daughter, and she put them on Frank when he was a baby. I’ve seen pictures."
Wiping fruity ice off his front, Stu muttered, "Well that explains a lot."
A meditative quiet fell upon the group, punctuated by occasional slurping sounds. A tall, busty blonde swayed past, surveying the patio briefly through her imitation Versace sunglasses to see if anyone looked important. Judging by the total lack of expression on her face, no one did. While Stephen, Kelvin, and even Stu nearly pulled muscles trying not to stare, Mark watched her openly as she passed, craning his neck to follow her around the corner. Scratching absently at his forearm, he muttered, "Man, I have got to get me some of those."
Stephen grinned. "Well, this sea air really does agree with you. You’re getting downright feisty!"
Snapping his head around, Mark flushed scarlet. "No, I didn’t mean that I wanted— I meant— oh, damn…" he trailed off as he began to work on the other arm with his fingernails.
"Why are you so itchy? Are you developing a rash or something?" Stephen looked at Mark suspiciously. "You haven’t been hiking, too, have you?"
Mark’s hands snapped to his sides, as though Stephen had just caught him picking his nose. "No, it’s not a rash or anything. I, um—"
"He had his body waxed." Frank said, returning with the drinks. "They should really have an express line for refills in there."
"Everyone’s getting refills," Kelvin pointed out, "so you’d just be stuck in the express refill line with all of them and no one would be in the other line. Unless you put on a disguise. Hmm…." He drifted into a thoughtful silence, rubbing his jaw as he worked through the probabilities of various express lines combined with sunglasses, false mustaches, and hats.
Stephen ignored the interruption as he realized why Mark was looking so shiny: the pelt was gone. "You… had your body waxed? The whole thing?" He looked under the table, forgetting that Mark was wearing pants. "Didn’t it hurt?"
"Not as much as you might think. Well, the first two or three strips really hurt, but after that I think I was in shock. And no, I didn’t wax everything, so eyes up here, mister."
Stephen sat up again. "Dare I ask why you did this? You’re not turning into a cover model on us, are you?"
Mark laughed uncomfortably, "No, I don’t have the figure for it." He paused, as though he had been about to say something more, then addressed Stephen’s real question. "Connie suggested it. She’s a swimmer, too, and I had been complaining to here that I couldn’t seem to get any faster in the water. She suggested that I could significantly reduce my drag if I smoothed down. She was right! I felt like a seal when I got in the pool the next night! As an added benefit, I’m much cooler now."
"You can see his muscles now, too," Frank needled. "I think that was the real reason that Connie suggested it."
"Shut up, Frank!" Mark snapped. "I told you, Connie and I are just friends! Just because you don’t have the balls to ask her out—"
"Balls?!? I’ll show you balls, Mr. Clean!" Frank tried to leap out of his chair, but got tangled in his overcoat and fell back heavily. Stephen was on him before he could try again, placing a firm hand on his chest to keep him down. With the other hand, he pointed at Mark, trying to hold him in place with a quelling look. Whether or not he felt quelled, Mark showed no signs of standing. Stu watched the exchange placidly, as though it was nothing new. Kelvin, lying back again, didn’t even crack an eyelid. Other patrons glanced over, but lost interest as soon as they saw that no blood had been shed.
"That’s enough, you two!" Stephen hissed. "We have enough trouble with the loonies back at the office; we don’t need to start going after each other, too!"
"Well, it’s true," Mark muttered sullenly. "He’s had the hots for her ever since she jumped on him the first day we were here. That’s the most action he’s had in a year!"
"That’s not true!" Frank flared, trying again to rise. Stephen held him in place easily, though, so he subsided. "All right, maybe it is. So why did you move in on her the first chance you got?"
Mark groaned with exasperation. "I told you, you dolt! We’re friends, she’s helping me with my journey of inner discovery, and that’s it. I’m not interested in her!"
"Well why not?" Frank cried indignantly. "What’s wrong with her?"
Stephen glared at Frank. "You know what? I might hit you if you keep this up. Mark has explained more than he needed to, and you need to lay off of him. I don’t really care if you ask Connie out or not, as long as you don’t create a sexual harassment lawsuit for us. But I will not let you screw up the whole team over some jealous fantasy. Got it?" Reluctantly, Frank nodded. "Good. Now kiss and make up, you two. It’s time for me to go meet Sergeant Dick."
Frank was right: Richard did look like a life-size G.I. Joe action figure, or perhaps a recruiting poster for the Nazi party. His blond hair, bleached nearly white from the sun, was trimmed close on the sides and formed a perfectly flat top exactly half an inch above his head. His muscles bulged under his crisp blue shirt as he pushed away from his desk to rise as Stephen entered the room. Stephen had to suppress an urge to peer around the desk and check for jack boots.
Richard raised his hand and, for a horrified moment, Stephen thought he was going to salute. What do I do: salute him back? Bow? Wait until he releases and then shake his hand? All of Stephen’s military experience was summed up in one memory: his father being carried out of the house by two burly merchant marines after his shore leave had expired. Dad, who hadn’t quite finished celebrating his safe return home from rough seas, attempted a sloppy salute as he and his escort passed seven-year-old Stephen. Unfortunately, his saluting hand being still occupied by a half-empty bottle of whisky, he only succeeded in knocking himself unconscious again. He never let go of the bottle, though. Since that day, Stephen had never been entirely comfortable around people who liked to salute.
Fortunately, Richard merely ran his hand through his hair, as though he had felt a bristle out of place, then enveloped Stephen’s hand in an unsurprisingly crushing grip. Wishing that he had lifted something heavier than a suitcase in the past month, Stephen squeezed back as hard as he could, but was left with the nagging feeling that his manhood had been measured and found wanting in that one moment.
"A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Connelly," Richard said in a parade ground basso profundo that ricocheted off the walls, seeking an exit into large, unfenced spaces. "We expected you earlier, but better tardy than dead, I suppose. Haw!" He fired off a warning shot of a laugh.
Stephen retrieved his hand from Richard’s grip and put it at his side, consciously refusing to flex or rub his sore fingers. "Yes, I suppose. I wanted to check in with my team before I talked to anyone else. It’s always good to get a temperature check when you haven’t seen people in person for a while."
"I agree: gathering status is important when you regroup halfway through a mission." Richard placed his hands behind his back and paced toward his desk, where he performed an about face and stared intently at Stephen. "And what is the status of your team?"
"Well, they’re a little stressed, which is to be expected at this stage in a project. They’re adjusting to the new schedule and dress code, though we might have to do something about their wardrobes. They can’t keep rotating the same two shirts every day. It’s just sad."
Richard regarded Stephen coolly. "That’s interesting. I wore the same uniform every day for ten years. It didn’t seem to affect my morale, and no one told me that I was sad."
Stephen was astonished to find himself blushing. "I apologize if I offended you. I didn’t mean to imply that wearing the same clothes every day was sad. Especially if it’s a uniform. I mean, then you’d have to wear it, right? That’s not sad, that’s… regulations." He scrubbed a hand through his own hair, which now felt shaggy and unkempt. This guy is, what, maybe five years older than me? Then why does he make me feel like I’m back in junior high talking to Father Maloney? This is ridiculous!
He took a steadying breath and tried again. "Look, can we try again? You and I are going to have to work together, and I’d rather not start on the wrong foot. My boys are fine. They’re not ecstatic, but they’re adjusting, and if we leave them alone to do their jobs, then I’m sure that the project will remain on schedule. And by the way, please call me Stephen."
Richard unclasped his hands from behind his back and leaned forward to place them firmly on his desk. "Your boys are not fine, Mr. Connelly. They are soft."
"Soft?" Stephen barked a short laugh of disbelief. "Of course they’re soft: they’re engineers! If they took enough interest in other things that might make them not soft, they wouldn’t have time to write all that code!"
Richard shook his head. "You see, that is exactly what I am talking about. They think that because they are smart that somehow exempts them from the rules of common courtesy and appropriate business behavior. They also think, apparently, that it is acceptable to work for a month with nothing to show for it. I am here to disabuse them -- and you, sir -- of that notion."
He stood again and began to pace behind his desk, a drill sergeant before a troop of one. "This is not a country club, Mr. Connelly. It is a place of business. We are not here to piss away our investors’ money on fancy chairs and catered lunches. We are here to make this company a smashing success!" Richard emphasized these last words by smacking his fist into a meaty palm. Then he pivoted toward Stephen, swinging his hand around until it pointed like a pistol at Stephen’s chest. "And we have hired you, sir, and your smart boys to build the means of our success. We cannot take the risk that you and they will fail, however, which is why Pop— er, Rod has brought me in. I am here to whip these boys into shape, to teach them the discipline they need to control those big brains of theirs. In short, I am here to turn them into men."
Richard softened his voice slightly, taking a fatherly, if still uncomfortably loud, tone as he continued. "You see, Mr. Connelly, a team, any team, is only as strong as its leader. If the leader has the perseverance, the leadership, the sheer guts to get a job done, then his team will, too. I have led men through desert landscapes that would make your balls shrink up like little dried raisins. I did it because I had to, and my men did it because I did it. That is what leadership is all about, Mr. Connelly: having the balls to do whatever you need to do, even if you don’t understand why you’re doing it. It may not make sense at the time, it may even seem counterproductive, but when you reach the top of that hill and look down upon your enemy, you will know that you have done the right thing. I will take your boys to the top of the hill, where I will turn them into men. Then you can have them back." He paused in his pacing and suddenly spun toward Stephen, as though trying to catch him not paying attention. Seeing that he was, Richard seemed confused for a moment, but then he continued in a more conciliatory fashion.
"Don’t worry that I will take your team away from you. You are still their platoon leader, and must provide the day-to-day direction that they will need to complete this mission -- er, project. I will provide oversight and regulation, adding structure to the work day and ensuring that morale is high. I want to inspire these boys to attain great heights, Mr. Connelly, great heights!" He paced over to Stephen and put his hands on his shoulders. "We will work together, you and I, and bring this project to its glorious conclusion!"
Over the course of this speech, the discomfiting aura of authority around Richard had faded in Stephen’s eyes and been replaced by an overwhelming sense of absurdity. Stephen could only gape in silence at this man and think, Mister Sergeant, sir, you are so far out of your element that they’re going to have to send a recon team out here to find you.
Fortunately, Richard took his silence as awestruck agreement and, striding back to his desk, began snapping off orders. "We have a conference call with Rod," he seemed to relish using the name, as though it were unfamiliar somehow, "at 0800 hours tomorrow morning. We will take the call in his office." He stopped to fix Stephen with a stern look. "Please be prompt. That is all for now. I will check in on your team in a little while, and I am sure that everything will be ‘to code.’" He smiled at his little joke. "Dismissed."
Stephen stood for a moment, confused. Did he really just dismiss me? Even at the Department of Defense, no one ever dismissed me. I’m a civilian, dam -- darn it! You don’t dismiss me! I dismiss myself! Finally, not knowing what else to do, he turned and left.
Walking out of Richard’s office, Stephen saw Greg coming down the hall toward him. He slowed his pace as Greg ducked quickly past Richard’s office. Jerking his head toward the closed door, Stephen commented, "I can tell that he’s going to be a real asset to the organization."
"Asset?" Greg rolled his eyes. "Well, you’re half right."
When Stephen returned to Thomas’ crowded office, he found everyone there, if not all hard at work. Mark sat on the corner of Connie’s desk, chatting with her and her assistant. As Stephen entered, Mark was saying, "You didn’t tell me it was going to itch this much! I can’t stop scratching at my arms, and I’m about ready to go back to the janitor’s closet to find a scrub brush to use on my legs. When does it stop?"
Connie heaved an exasperated sigh. Stephen noticed that her hair was black now. "I told you to moisturize! Between the dry air in here and the chlorine from the pool, you’re like Death Valley in a tacky shirt. You have to find a nice hypoallergenic cream and put it on within five minutes of getting out of the shower. Otherwise, you’re going to start shedding enough skin to make a second Mark. Here, you can try some of mine." She handed him a bottle with a label that read, Madame Ovary’s Screaming O Wet Cream. "It’s organic," she added unnecessarily.
Mary eyed the bottle distrustfully. "Aw, I don’t want to moisturize! I hate it when people go in the pool with all that junk on. They leave an oil slick behind them wherever they swim."
Connie punched Mark, none too gently, on the shoulder. "I didn’t say to put it on before you swim. I said to put it on after you shower. And don’t do it after the pool, either. The chlorine reacts badly with the ingredients. I turned green all over once." She looked at him meaningfully. "And I mean, all over."
Mark gulped. "I don’t know if I’m ready for moisturizing," he said in a small voice.
Stephen started to chuckle, but caught himself when Connie shot him a withering glance. "Better listen to your spiritual guide, there, Mark. I don’t know anything about moisturizing myself, but that’s pretty much all my wife did for her entire pregnancy. She said she had to stay ‘emollient.’" Stephen shrugged. "I’m from Southie. I thought emollient was what you used to clean paint brushes." He glanced again at Connie, who had decided he was mocking her and was now glaring at him murderously, "Yeah, so that turned out to be wrong, as my wife explained in much stronger terms than even you could, Connie. The point is, her skin stretched to twice its normal size and now has gone back again, and I never saw her shed. So, there must be something to this moisturizing thing." He slapped Mark on the shoulder as he passed and added, "And why not? You already waxed your whole body. In for a penny, in for a pound."
Sidling between two desks, he maneuvered to the corner of Thomas’ desk that he had claimed as his work area for the week. Thomas had his headphones on and was deeply engrossed in reviewing a page from his team’s studio portal on his computer. Noticing that Stephen was looking at the screen, he glared and tilted the flat screen so that only he could see it. Unfortunately for him, the only available angle that ensured that no one else had a clear view required him to crouch down and put his head nearly on his desk to see the screen himself. Stubbornly, he kept the screen that way and put his chin on his hands to keep working, occasionally sliding a hand awkwardly out to the side to move his mouse.
Looking at him over Stephen’s shoulder, Kelvin observed dryly, "I think Thomas is tired of sharing his office. All day, he’s been trying to pretend we’re not here. If he turns up the music any louder, I’m afraid he’ll cause permanent hearing loss."
Stephen paused to listen, and he found that he could indeed hear loud music leaking from Thomas’ headphones. "At least this way you can tell me how we’re doing. Are we going to finish our prototype before they finish theirs?" If it took a competition to keep this project moving, Stephen wasn’t above fanning the flames.
Kelvin stared at the whiteboard behind Frank’s head, where a neat list of features, components, and subcomponents had been written, with an engineer’s initials next to each item. "We’re getting close. I just need to make a few more tweaks to the design to ensure stability—"
"No! No more tweaks!" Frank cried. "Your last ‘tweak’ cost me three days of work! I had to rewrite an entire subsystem!"
"Well, if you had taken my suggestion in the first place and designed it with tighter interfaces and more configurability, we could have just changed some of the parameters," replied Kelvin calmly. "You wouldn’t have had to rewrite anything."
"If I’d done it your way, I wouldn’t have had to rewrite it because I’d still be writing it for the first time. When are you going to get it through your Vulcan head that we aren’t building the Eiffel Tower here? It’s a prototype of an online talent search application that will probably change completely before we ever launch it. These guys can’t even decide who their customers are. What makes you think anything else is stable?"
"That’s why we have to design for change. Every feature must be configuration-driven, so we can change it with a few quick clicks rather than rewriting the whole thing. We have to have a powerful admin interface that allows even a business person to make these changes. Otherwise, we’ll be here adding new features until the end of time."
Frank turned to Stephen. "To answer your question: no, we’re never going to finish. We will, however, have the best toolkit for building an online talent search application that the world has ever seen. It won’t have any screens or actual features, but the potential for features will be infinite." He turned to Kelvin. "Does that about sum it up?"
"No!" Kelvin replied indignantly, but then he thought for a moment. "Actually, yes, sadly, it does." He looked at Stephen. "We really need a user interface and some requirements. I’ve gone about as far as I can go on my own. The car’s engine is here, but it needs a body and a dashboard."
Stephen nodded. "I’m meeting with Rod and Richard tomorrow. I’ll see what I can do."
Continue to Chapter 16