Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 19

We're picking up steam now, with another of my favorite chapters.  I wish I could say that I haven't seen a slap fight (or spitting) in the office, but I'd be lying.  Sometimes, the truth is almost as funny as fiction.

Chapter 19

Just hear those sleigh bells jinglin’, ring-ting-tinglin’ tooooo

Come on, it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you….

Not even the vaguely Victorian carolers strolling through the Prudential Center mall could get Stephen into the Christmas spirit, and that made him mad.  Christmas was his favorite time of the year, and now these lunatics were even fu— screw— messing that up!  He stomped through a knot of teenage window shoppers clustered outside one of the many trendy boutiques, sending shopping bags flaring in all directions as they spun out of his way.  Ignoring their glares and threats to text his picture to mall security with their matching pink iPhones, he continued on his stormy way through the mall and out into the bitter cold.

The whole city of Boston seemed to be ready for Christmas.  The streets and sidewalks shone with a fresh coating of snow, kept crisp and white by the single digit temperatures.  Every store, restaurant, and pub was festively decked out in wreaths, menorahs, candles, and angels.  Ebenezer Scrooge himself would grab the nearest street urchin and give him a hug after looking at the scene.

So why do I want to punch a Santa?

He knew the answer -- or rather, answers -- to that question, too.  As he trudged eastward -- into the wind, of course -- Stephen indulged himself once more with a list of his woes.

In the two weeks since the bizarre design presentation by Gotterdammerung, Ricky and David had struggled feverishly to create a web-based representation of what they had seen.  Unfortunately, they had wasted several days trying to find a subtle way to work the beheading concept into the background design of the membership cancellation pages until Stephen had seen their initial designs.  That was when he decided that it was time to lay down some ground rules.  "No beheadings, no tie lynchings, no death of any kind.  Their clients are neurotic enough without you pushing them over the edge."  David and Ricky had grudgingly accepted the guidance, bowing to Stephen’s greater commercial expertise.  David was heard grumbling later about "selling my muse for thirty pieces of silver," but Stephen trusted that he would stay within the boundaries.  He would still have to approve every page before it went to CouldBU, though:  trust only went so far with artists.

 Things were little better on the West Coast.  Richard had made good on his promise to take a firmer hand with the engineers, though he was mysteriously unavailable whenever Stephen called for details.  Everything Stephen knew of events in the LA office came secondhand, through the lurid accounts of both his team and the CouldBU engineers:

"we have to come in at 8 now so we can have half an hour of calisthenics and a pep talk before we start work," Frank had groused in a recent email.  "i don’t know what he’s talking about half the time, but it’s certainly not software development.  he goes on about taking hills, charging beaches, and executing plans violently.  all I want to do is code.  why won’t he let me?  [sigh]  at least the jumping jacks and running in place charge my wearable gear, if i remember to wear the right pants."

"Is there really somewhere in the Bible where Jesus tells his disciples to kill their parents if they get in the way of the mission?" Thomas had asked in some confusion late last week.  "Richard said that’s the kind of commitment he wants from us.  I don’t remember much from catechism, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t in there."  Stephen had assured him that it wasn’t, but he had done a quick word search in one of the online gospel databases just to be sure.  To his relief, "kill NEAR parents" had turned up nothing.

Craig, surprisingly, was the most pragmatic about their new situation.  "He’s just a bully, and I’ve dealt with them before.  Eventually they get tired of hitting you and they go away.  The worst part, though, is that with him watching us like a hawk we can’t get any more work done on our own project during the week.  We’ve been working nights and weekends to try to get it done.  Did I tell you that we have almost a half a million in pre-orders from several studios based on the prototype alone?"

While his thoughts were in sunny LA, his feet had taken him to the icy banks of the Charles.  Stephen scrubbed a hand through his frozen hair and turned left, walking upriver.  He hated to admit it, but at the moment he would rather risk frostbite than go back to his desk and face another barrage of emails and voicemails.  Stu and Kelvin plodded stoically onward through Richard’s alleged motivation attempts, and Mark claimed to welcome the morning exercises as a nice cool-down after his run, but the others seemed to see Stephen as the sole outlet for their frustration.  It had taken him all morning to wade through the weekend’s accumulation of electronic angst.  Saddest of all, he was starting to feel that this was the only contribution he had left to make.

In the distance, he saw the Citgo sign rising above Fenway Park.  He rubbed his right arm thoughtfully.  Maybe I should just ask Jack to send in the relief.  Someone who could be there full-time might be able to get this back under control.  He thought about who was available:  Dailey, Kokoszka, Paine… a bunch of mavericks.  They’ll charge in there with guns blazing, thinking I’ve just gone soft.  He smiled grimly, At least, that’s what I would have done in their place six months ago.  They won’t believe me when I tell them how crazy everyone is, so they’ll try to handle it just like any other assignment.  We’ll be lucky to get everyone out alive.

So there it was:  he actually was the best man for the job, if only because he was already in the job.  He couldn’t be there in person full-time, but he could certainly make his presence felt, no matter where he was.

He gave the Citgo sign a salute and turned back toward the office.  It was time to get back to work.

***

One of the things that had initially attracted Stephen to ADD was its vacation policy.  On top of providing the standard three weeks of paid vacation for each employee, the entire company shut down for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Anthony and James’s reasoning was simple:  nothing got done during that week anyway, so why not let people spend it with their families instead of in the office?  The policy stood firm, even with clients who wanted a holiday death-march to meet a year-end deadline.  With the difficult clients, Anthony usually got on the phone and explained a simple fact: "A pissed-off coder is a bad coder.  Do you want it done a week earlier or do you want it to work?"  If a client remained recalcitrant at that point, he offered to go off his medication and do all of the programming himself.  So far, no one had taken him up on that offer.

This year, Christmas fell on Friday, so everyone at ADD was trying to do ten days’ worth of work in four.  Stephen’s week was further foreshortened on Tuesday evening when he made the mistake of answering his phone. It rang just as he was putting on his layers and getting ready to go home.  Halfway through pulling his sweater over his head, he answered with a muffled, "Hello?"

"Good, you’re still there," said Thomas.  "I know it’s…" during the slight pause, Stephen pictured him squinting across the room at his row of clocks, "6:15 there, but I was hoping to catch you.  What are you doing Thursday?"

Stephen popped his head through the top of the sweater and rested the phone on his shoulder as he struggled to pull it down the rest of the way.  "Shopping, most likely.  I still haven’t found a present for Jen."

"Perfect!  I’m sure you can find her something on Fifth Avenue.  Saks always has nice gloves and things."

"We don’t have a Saks here.  In fact, we don’t even have a Fifth Ave—no.  No, no, no!  Christmas Eve?!?  What’s the matter with you people?"

"We don’t know what we want."

"Well that’s pretty obvious.  Why don’t I just save us all some time and tell you?  You want a good, hard kick in the—"

"Temper, temper, son," Thomas said, in a pretty good imitation of Rod’s drawl.  "You don’t want to say anything that I might cause you to regret later."  Returning to his normal tones, he added, "You think I’m happy about this?  Now I have to go spend Christmas with Tim’s parent’s in Connecticut.  We were going to get out of it this year."

Stephen slumped back into his seat, his sweater still bunched up around his chest.  "Why?" he asked, wishing his voice didn’t sound so plaintive but unable to change it.

"I told you:  we don’t know what we want.  We realized today that we have no idea which features are in and which are out, how the front end connects to the back end, or how long it’s all going to take.  Meanwhile, the deadline isn’t moving.  Richard, Rod, and Chuck talked it over and agreed that we should pull everyone together to hash out a final work plan.  Did I mention that they added more client channels?"

Stephen made a small sound, somewhere between a groan and a whimper.

"Each new group has its own home office, too," Thomas continued relentlessly.  "Musicians are based out of Nashville, musical theatre actors are in London and New York, alternative theatre actors are based in Edinburgh, performance artists are in San Francisco, and I believe you already met our VP of mime relations.  His office is in Paris.  I can only imagine what a freak show that place must be.  Oh, and they wanted to include Spanish-language soap opera actors, but no one could figure out where those were produced."

Stephen whispered in horror, "We have to stop them!"

"I know," Thomas agreed.  "My wall’s not big enough for all these clocks!"

***

The next morning, Frank and Kelvin arrived at the Boston office, looking tired but otherwise fit.  In fact, Stephen thought he saw a hint of definition in their previously flabby upper arms.  "The pushups seem to be paying off, at least," he observed, gesturing with an enormous Starbucks cup at their improved appendages.  His eggnog latte sloshed against the sides and fountained cheerfully out of the hole in the lid, scalding his finger, which he quickly stuck in his mouth.

Frank looked down at his arms.  "I suppose," he muttered, "but my carpal tunnel has been acting up again.  I think the pushups are aggravating it."

"You need to try that hand stretch that I showed you," said Kelvin.  "and try making a fist when you do pushups.  It’s a little harder that way, but it dampens the wrist-fires."

"So you’re both back early.  Are you coming to this summit meeting, too?"  Even as he asked, Stephen realized that he should probably already know the answer to that question.  He was shocked at how much control he had unconsciously ceded to Richard.

"Yes," said Kelvin.  "I didn’t think it was necessary for both of us to come, but Frank insisted.  Apparently," he arched a thin eyebrow in Frank’s direction, "he thinks that I have a problem controlling scope creep."

"I think you have a problem recognizing scope creep, much less controlling it," Frank corrected him.  "You just look at it as another opportunity to prove how perfectly your architecture handles a new feature and forget that someone has to build the damn thing."

Astonishingly, Kelvin refused to rise to the bait.  Instead, he shrugged and admitted, "It’s possible, I suppose.  Anyway, this will give us a chance to draw the line.  If you look at the rate at which we’re building features and compare it to the rate at which they add new ones, we should be done in," he performed a quick calculation in his head, "42 months."

"I get 38," said Frank.

"Did you include load testing?"

"Oh, right.  42."

"Well, clearly that’s not going to work," said Stephen.  "So let’s start trimming, and I don’t mean the tree.  I’d like to have our own recommendations in hand before we go down there tomorrow so we aren’t completely at the mercy of their brain trust.  We should talk to Ricky and David, too.  I know they have some ideas about what fits and what doesn’t."  He turned to lead the way toward where the two designers sat, then paused momentarily to add, "Oh, and don’t ask Ricky about his hat.  We don’t have time."  Frank and Kelvin followed him, shooting puzzled glances at each other behind his back.  Their puzzlement turned to disbelief as they rounded the corner and came within sight of Ricky’s desk.  A guffaw escaped Frank’s lips, quickly muffled at a look from Stephen.

Across the sea of desks, Ricky towered like a multi-flamed lighthouse even though he was seated.  He was dressed all in white flowing robes, though that wasn’t unusual enough for Ricky to excite interest.  What caught the eye and gave him his air of otherworldliness was his headpiece:  a giant wreath adorned with seven lit candles.  He had filled the inside of the wreath, and therefore covered his head, with tinfoil, presumably to catch errant drops of wax.  The silver foil glinted in the fluorescent office lighting whenever he moved, surrounding his already luminescent head with a sparkling fire.

"He looks like the angel on top of my parents’ tree," whispered Kelvin in awe.

"Remember:  we don’t have time," Stephen reminded them, but Frank was already charging forward, a look of cheerful mayhem on his face.

"Let me guess," he said as he approached Ricky from behind.  "You’re the Ghost of Christmas Past, right?  I mean, size-wise you’re closer to Christmas Present, but that doesn’t explain the flaming headgear.  Did David draft you into his Christmas Anti-Pageant or something?"

"Mock if you wish," replied Ricky archly, not turning around.  "Thus have the religions of my people always been ridiculed by heathens with no understanding."

"And besides," David briefly looked up from his tablet to add, "it will take me at least a year to write a masterpiece to surpass this year’s production."  He sighed, “I am finding that it is not as easy as creating a new wardrobe."

 "But since you asked, I’ll tell you," Ricky continued, turning too quickly and upsetting his wreath.  The candles dipped perilously close to a stack of singed papers on the corner of his desk, but he caught it with one hand and quickly righted it, ignoring the hot wax that splattered down to join a growing collection of droppings on his desk, chair, and shoulders.  "This is a Lucia wreath.  It commemorates Santa Lucia, bringer of light and giver of gifts to the poor.  She is honored every year at the solstice by my people in Norway."

"Norway?" asked Frank, but then he remembered.  "Oh, right:  off-course Viking raiders."

"Exactly," Ricky replied.  "And, as an Italian saint who is honored in Norway, Sweden, and other parts of the world, she represents the unique fusion of peoples that I find in myself every day.  I thought it only fitting that I, as the only Norwegian-Italian-English-etc.-American in the company, should dress to honor her during the Christmas season."

"And the fact that she was a woman…" Frank left the inquiry hanging.

"Well, we all have a little bit of man and woman in us, don’t we?"

"Some more than others," Frank muttered.

"Oh, and Stephen," Ricky continued, turning his head more carefully this time, "I’ll be taking the next two weeks off for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the solstice celebration, and, of course, New Year’s Day.  It’s a busy time for me."

"Apparently," Stephen observed dryly, "but didn’t Hanukkah start last week?  And the solstice was Monday."

"I’ve learned to be flexible with the calendar," Ricky answered placidly.  "When you’re a minority of one, you sometimes have to bow to secular pressures and take your holidays when you can.  But I always make it work; don’t worry about me."

"Oh, I wasn’t," said Stephen.

The rest of that day was spent in intense whiteboard work as plans were proposed and discarded, compromises made and broken, and Kelvin’s magnificent technical design stretched to its theoretical limits.  They called in gurus from other teams, pressed interns into service as scribes and sandwich fetchers, and, in a moment of desperation, even asked the opinion of a woman from Marketing.  Night fell, and the sparkle of sun on snowy roofs outside their conference room window was replaced by the twinkling of office lights.  Still they struggled on.

Stephen lifted his head from the table, a streak of red and green dry erase marker across his forehead where it had been resting on his hands.  "So where are we?" he asked, interrupting Frank in the midst of his third attempt to explain some esoteric point of Java subroutines to David.  "Do we have an answer that we think will get us to a launch in March or are we trusting CouldBU’s hundred-and-one VPs to figure it out for us?  By which I mean, of course," he added wearily, passing a hand across his eyes and smearing the ink further, "praying for a miracle."

"There’s no logical way to do it," said Kelvin.  "Not by this March.  Next March, maybe, if we cut corners."

"They’re trying to fit ten pounds of rocks into a five pound bag," added Frank, "and every new person they hire shows up with another armload of rocks."

"So should we order dinner and keep working on this?" Stephen asked wearily.  His whole body suddenly felt ten times heavier than normal.

"Honestly, I don’t know how the answer would change," said Kelvin.

"Forget it, then.  Let’s get some sleep so we’re fresh for the festivities tomorrow.  I’ll meet you at the train station at 5:00."

"You know, that’s 2:00 our time," grumbled Frank.  "Might as well not even go to bed."

"Your call," said Stephen.  "As long as you’re able to stay awake during the meeting tomorrow."

***

As soon as the reality of a Christmas Eve day trip to New York sank in, Stephen had called Amtrak to book tickets.  The train might be packed, his reasoning had gone, but at least he wouldn’t have to wait through three hours of airport security checks behind a family with five screaming children.  Plus, they could get some work done on the train.

Twenty minutes into the trip, reality dawned:  there truly was no good way to travel during the holidays.  Packed into a row that he shared with a woman, her seven year-old daughter, and approximately 40 cubic feet of presents, Stephen tried for what seemed like the hundredth time to get comfortable.  He shifted his legs slightly, causing a precautionary tremor in the mountain of brightly wrapped boxes towering above him.  One more rash movement like that, they seemed to say, and he’d be buried in another Yulevalanche.  Stephen subsided with a sigh and allowed the weight of the booty to press him back up against the window.

He had already given up the thought of using his laptop after several unsuccessful attempts to clear enough space on his tray to open it.  The third such attempt had occasioned a sharp exclamation from the woman in the aisle seat, who barely caught a present that came tumbling off of the top of the pile on her side.  Shoving it forcefully back into place -- and sending a shower of smaller gifts back down on Stephen -- she had called in a New York accent as broad as the Hudson, "Do you mind, buddy?  That was a Waterford crystal donkey for Aunt Harriet.  It’s the last piece for her crystal crèche, and I don’t have time to go find her another one before Christmas if you break it."

Now, faced with the possibility of another two hours of being slowly smothered to death by someone else’s Christmas cheer, Stephen decided to make a break for it.  "Excuse me," he said to the child next to him, "I need to go to the bathroom."

"Whatever," she replied without taking her eyes from her phone.

Stephen picked up his briefcase and slipped the shoulder strap over his head.  Carefully, he began to pick presents out of the pile towering over his head and place them behind him, slowly tunneling toward freedom and allowing the pile to fill in behind him.  As he neared the aisle, he carefully pressed upward on the large, flat box -- a snowboard for Obnoxious New Yorker Junior, he guessed -- that acted as the keystone to the Arch of Excess and squirmed out from beneath the pile.  The tower of presents teetered threateningly and sent a few small jewelry boxes skittering downward, but remained upright.  With a quick sigh of relief, Stephen turned to his seatmates. "I have to go to the bathroom," he repeated.  "I’ll be back in a little bit."

He worked his way up to the next car, where Kelvin and Frank were sitting together.  Behind him, he heard the woman say, "Quick, Celia, take the window seat and pile the presents between us!"

Frank and Kelvin had fared much better than Stephen.  Their lone seatmate was a bookish young man, obviously a college student on his way home for the holidays.  When Stephen approached, all three men were engaged in vigorous discussion.

"What are you arguing about now?" Stephen asked as he approached.

"Whether a 17th level paladin gets all of the cleric spells appropriate to his level, or just a subset," replied Kelvin.  "I maintain that it’s just a subset, but Frank wants the full boat."

Frank waved a piece of paper covered with pencil and erasure marks at both Kelvin and Stephen.  "I spent three hours rolling for this guy, and I’m not going to let you cheat me out of the full benefits of his class just because you only remember the second edition rules!"

"This is all online now, isn’t it?" asked Stephen.  "You don’t have to decide how to interpret the rules.  It’s programmed into the game engine."

Frank waved a hand dismissively and made a sound that, in a much older man, would have sounded suspiciously like, "Bah!"  He held the paper closer to Stephen’s eyes.  "Computer D&D is for wimps.  After a few hundred hours you get bored of just pointing and clicking.  Last year, we went old school again, playing a paper-based campaign with a group of friends in Cambridge during the winter break.  Max here," he jerked a thumb at the other man, "has his own group going at Harvard.  This is the way it was meant to be played:  dice clicking, pencils writing and erasing every time you level up, the whole deal!"

Stephen pushed the paper back gently, afraid that he would poke a hole in it if he weren’t careful.  It had been erased so many times that he could see through it in places.  "OK, but don’t they have rule books for the old paper-based games?  Why don’t you just go and look it up instead of arguing about it?"

Frank and Kelvin glanced at each other in embarrassment, then Frank said, "Well, the thing is, we all sold -- or threw away -- " here he glared viciously at Kelvin, who shrugged, "our books when the massive multiplayer online games got so good.  We figured that we’d never play on paper again.  Now no one has a full set of books, and you can’t even buy them anymore.  I looked on eBay and a set was going for something like five hundred bucks.  None of us are willing to pay that much."

Max nodded and added, "I asked for the books for Hanukkah.  If I get one a night, that might be enough to complete my set.  Mom’s been looking all over the island for the Fiend Folio."

Stephen could hardly believe this.  Did I ever have this much free time?  "So you’re…"

"Playing from memory," Kelvin confirmed.

"Amazing."  Stephen decided to continue on to the dining car in search of a bagel and some slightly more sane people.  Behind him, the argument arose again.

Several hours later, the three men arrived in the Manhattan office.  They were immediately met by one of Chuck’s administrative assistants, a short, thin young man with spiky purple-black hair, false eyeglasses, and designer clothes.  He ushered them through the glass maze to a conference room on the far side of the floor.  "Almost everyone else is already here," he said as they walked.  "Chucky is just thrilled to be hosting this get-together.  It seems that his plans are all coming together perfectly."

"Chucky?" asked Stephen.  "Are you talking about Chuck Marquette?"

"Little Napoleon?  Yeah, that’s who I’m talking about."  Noting Stephen’s shocked expression, the young man waved a hand dismissively.  "Listen, sweetheart, when you’ve been in the fashion and entertainment business as long as I have, you get enough dirt on all of the bigwigs -- or little wigs, in this case," he choked out a mocking laugh, "that you don’t have to worry about being fired unless you’re caught stealing.  As long as you’re polite to them in person and take care of their, ahem, needs, then they don’t care how you talk about them behind their backs."

"You don’t look that old," observed Kelvin.  "How long have you been in this business?"

"Oh, aren’t you the flatterer!" the assistant squealed cheerfully.  "I assure you, though, darling, that I’m ancient."  He turned over his shoulder and put his hand beside his mouth to whisper conspiratorially, "I’m 34, but I still tell people that I’m 28.  Everyone knows you’re lying if you say you’re 29."

"Oh, right," said Stephen, suddenly very aware that he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  "Um, smart move."

"Besides," added the assistant breezily, "this is just my safety job until my stage career takes off.  I was in two Off-Off-Broadway shows this year.  One of them might be going regional."

"Congratulations."

"Fingers crossed!"  The assistant stopped before a glass door and spun around to wave them past him.  "Here you are.  Let me know if you need anything.  Bye!"

Shaking his head in bemusement, Stephen pushed the door open and entered the large conference room.  Like everywhere else in the office, it was surrounded on all sides by glass walls, leaving the large obsidian conference table floating in space like a toppled monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Around the table was the oddest collection of people that Stephen had ever seen in a boardroom, which was becoming an increasingly difficult category to top.

The usual suspects -- Chuck, Thomas, Brad, Robert, and Richard -- were joined by a rogue’s gallery of representatives from all of CouldBU’s would-be clientele.  Dan presided over the proceedings from the head of the table, whiteboard marker and PowerPoint presentations in hand, clearly in consultant heaven.  Marcel, seated toward the foot of the table beside a man in a denim shirt and bolo tie, waved to Stephen and returned to what he had been doing:  mimicking Brad’s every move when he wasn’t looking, much to the amusement of his neighbors.  Brad, on the far side of the room didn’t notice because he was too busy chatting up a woman who, from a distance, appeared to be conservatively dressed in a tight-fitting business suit.  Upon closer inspection, though, Stephen discovered that the suit was actually painted onto a full-body leotard.  At least, he thought with some discomfort, he hoped she was wearing a leotard under the paint.

"That’s Divinia, our VP of Performance Art," observed Robert from behind Stephen.  He gestured to a seven foot tall wooden cross leaning against the wall behind her.  "That’s her briefcase."

"Uh-huh."  Stephen moved to the only open seat at the table, several chairs down from Marcel.  Frank and Kelvin were already seated nearby, staring wide-eyed at the scene surrounding them.

"OK, everyone, let’s get started," Dan called from the front of the room.  The murmur of conversation quieted for a moment before flaring up again almost immediately.  "This room isn’t terribly well-suited for projector work, so I’ve printed out the 40 or so slides that we’ll use today.  Please take one and pass it down."

Brad finally stopped talking with Divinia and noticed Marcel for the first time.  He cocked his head curiously at the little man, who mirrored the action.  He raised his right hand and wiggled the fingers experimentally.  Marcel did the same with his left.  Brad stood and walked around the table towards Marcel, who rose with an exaggerated drunken swagger and walked in the opposite direction, keeping the table between them.  Brad stopped and pointed at Marcel.  Marcel stopped behind Kelvin and pointed back.

"You think that’s funny, huh?" asked Brad.  "You can’t act like a real man, so you have to imitate one?  Fine!  Try to do this!"  He whipped off his suit jacket and flexed his muscles, straining the buttons of his too-tight silk shirt.

Marcel paused a moment in mock admiration, then stuck his thumb in his mouth and blew into it, inflating imaginary muscles.  He checked the results, then, seemingly unsatisfied, blew several more times into each thumb and flexed again.  Then he pulled out the waistband of his pants and blew in there as well.  His face registered disappointment as nothing apparently happened, so he blew several more times with similarly disappointing results.  Finally, he grabbed Kelvin’s pen and stuck it down his pants before he returned to flexing at Brad.

With a roar of rage, Brad launched himself across the table.  Marcel skittered backwards several steps and stopped with his fists in the air before him.  Brad scrambled up from the floor, scattering notepads and handouts everywhere, and charged.  Marcel struck the first blow, popping Brad directly in the nose before Brad could close with him.  Then the two men engaged, rolling to the floor in a blur of hair-pulling, nose-tweaking, slapping, and spitting.  When it was clear that no one else was ready to stop them, Stephen rolled his eyes and waded into their midst, lifting Marcel off of Brad and setting him down behind Frank, who restrained him with one hand while Marcel pranced around, waving his fists in the air.  Stephen next grabbed Brad by the lapels and dragged him to his feet, holding him firmly while Brad cursed and tried to get around him to spit on Marcel one last time.

"Calm down, now, Brad.  Hey!  I said calm down!"  Stephen emphasized his words with a hearty shake that rattled Brad’s teeth.  "I haven’t seen Dan’s agenda yet, but I’m pretty sure that this isn’t how we’re supposed to work things out."

"He started it," Brad retorted sulkily, pulling free of Stephen’s grasp and trying vainly to smooth his shirt, which was now missing two buttons.

"Well, now I’ve finished it.  If you two want to take this outside later, that’s fine with me, but right now I would like to get through this meeting as quickly as possible so that I can make it back to Boston tonight."

"Aw, he’s not worth it," snarled Brad as he returned to his seat.  Marcel replied with a rude gesture, but he, too, sat down again.  Stephen bowed slightly to Dan, indicating that he should proceed.

Momentarily flustered, Dan quickly recovered as he skipped down his agenda.  "OK, now that we have the… um… introductions out of the way, let’s jump right in.  I just need to dial Rod in on the conference line and we’ll get down to brass tacks…."

Stephen resumed his own seat, his heart slowing as the adrenaline wore off.  He suddenly felt so very tired.  As Dan droned on, Stephen’s mind slipped into neutral, conserving energy for the endurance test that he knew lay ahead.  Looking around the room, he was struck with the notion that he and his team had stepped into some bizarre custody battle and could now only observe the fight for ownership of the sad latchkey child that this project had become.  His eyelids drooped lower, while in his mind, Robert stood and pointed to Brad:

"Its father and I demand weekly visitation rights at a minimum.  We brought this brainchild into the world and we intend to see it grow up!  We won’t be denied our paternal rights or the attached stock options.  You must see that we are the only ones who love this project!"  He pointed across the table at Chuck.  "He only wants to take advantage of it!  He doesn’t love it at all!"

Rod, wearing a judge’s robes, sat at the head of the table in a large chair.  Stephen looked with interest to see his face at last, but it was hidden deep within a hood.  He stood and pointed a gavel at Chuck.  "What do you say to these charges, little man?  Why should I give you care of this child?"

Chuck, seated in a high chair on the opposite side of the table from Robert and Brad, pounded his tray and yelled, "Because it’s mine!  I saw it first and I want it!  I know the market, I know the demographics, and I called dibs!  He has to give it to me!"

Rod’s hooded form nodded thoughtfully.  "Excellent points, all.  I hadn’t considered the legal precedent of dibs, but that must be taken into account."  He paused at howls of protest from Robert and Brad.  "I said I would consider it!  Dibs are not everything, and we still have the witnesses to hear.  Call the first witness!"

Richard, wearing a five-star general’s uniform, stood up beside Rod.  "First witness!" he bawled.  

The door opened and David entered, wearing a tuxedo jacket over a starched white shirt and a tutu and smoking a thin cigarette in a long black holder.  "Ze child, she ees mine," he said.  "Whatever anyone else says, I like women, and I sired zees one weeth my girlfriend from Canada."

"This custody hearing is not for a child, but for a project!" Rod corrected him.

"Oh.  Een zat case, you should geeve eet to Sharles.  Ze smelly one, he eensulted my designs."  Chuck gave a little yelp of glee before burying his face in a bowl of oatmeal.  David turned on his heel and strode out, wafting scented smoke behind him.

"Next witness!" bawled Richard, adjusting his epaulets.

Bob entered, carrying Puck’s head by a chain that went from both ears to the piercings in his nose.  Together, they stood before Rod and chanted, "Could be you!  Could be you!  Could be you!"

Rod raised a hand and they stopped their chanting.  "That is enough," he intoned.  "Speak, spirits of dark neo-Bavarian Bohemianism.  Who should receive custody of this sad mutant project?"

Of its own volition, the head of Puck turned slowly toward Robert and Brad, and then slowly back toward Chuck.  Then, somehow, it shrugged.  Stephen wasn’t sure how, since it had no shoulders, but that was the sense that he had.  A definite shrug.  "We don’t care," said Puckhead.  "We just want our commission so we can go back to our real jobs as waiters."  Bob nodded violent agreement, so vigorously that she lost her grip on Puck’s head, which struck the table and rolled back toward the door with Bob chasing it.  It spoke as it rolled, though the words were hard to make out since half the time it was rolling on its mouth.  "Remember, it’s all about the gestalt!  Or was it the zeitgeist?  I can’t remember…."  The door slammed behind it.

The slamming door startled Stephen awake, and he realized that someone was still talking.  Blinking foggily, he raised his chin off of his hand and looked toward the other end of the room, expecting to see a hooded Rod seated at the head of the table.  But all he saw was Dan, flipping to the next page of his presentation.

"So much for our classification methodology.  On slide 26, you’ll see a sample of a MoSCoW prioritization matrix…"

***

 Eight hours later, Frank, Kelvin, and Stephen stumbled out into the biting, windy cold of a New York night.  To them, it smelled like freedom.  Well, freedom and burnt chestnuts.

"I can’t believe that they agreed to that," Stephen exclaimed, "Half the scope, a third of the customer groups, and even time set aside for testing!  It’s a Christmas miracle."

"I have to hand it to Dan," exulted Frank, "he may be a smarmy little parasite, but he got through to them.  All of the logic in the world couldn’t convince them it was impossible to do 42 months of work in three, but he beat them into submission with his charts and diagrams and sticky notes."

"So who’s left?"  Kelvin ticked off the surviving groups on his fingers.  "Actors, musicians, dancers, stand-up comedians, and performance artists."

"Yeah, Brad fought hard for that one, didn’t he?"  Frank smirked.  "Like it’s going to help him.  The only way he’ll get into that woman’s painted-on pants is if she makes him part of her act."

"I still can’t believe they cut the mimes," said Kelvin, shaking his head as he raised a hand to hail a cab.

Stephen shrugged.  "No one spoke up for them."




Continue to Chapter 20




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