Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 20

Chapter 20

The warm glow of Christmas break lasted for 6 minutes and 40 seconds once Stephen returned to the office, just enough time for him to take off his coat and walk to the Caf for a fresh cup of coffee.  As he returned to his desk, he saw a cluster of people surrounding it – or in technical terms, a trouble of engineers.

“I assume you’ve seen this,” Frank called, waving two pages of paper at Stephen as he approached.  “I was so angry that I printed it!”

“This is a big deal,” Mark agreed.  “He hasn’t printed an email since the Abortive Dress Code of 2010.”

“2009,” Frank countered.  “The copy is still in my HR file.”

Stephen set his coffee cup down and took the papers.  “I have no idea what you two are babbling about.  I haven’t checked my email yet.”

“But this was sent a couple of days ago.  How could you miss it?” Frank asked.

“I didn’t check email all week.”  Stephen shrugged at their dumbfounded expressions.  “I promised Jen.  Plus, to be honest, I needed a break from the crazy.”

“Well, the crazy has found you,” Kelvin observed.  “Read.”

Stephen read:

To:  All CouldBU employees, contractors, and consultants 
From:  Rod Smith  
Subject: Happy Holidays & Important Plans for the New Year 
The holidays are a time of togetherness:  a time to be with family and friends, to gather around the tree and give gifts of love.  My kids love Christmas at our lodge in Vail, but I love New Year’s even more, because it presents the opportunity to examine what we have learned from the last year and how we can do better in the year to come. 
What did we learn this year?  Well, I learned that good visual design is in the eye of the beholder, that software development takes a lot longer than you might think, and that conference calls with mimes just don’t work.  As a company, I think that we learned that a little discipline goes a long way and that it takes sacrifice and hard work to make it to the top, even in the entertainment industry. 
Some members of our company have already made their sacrifices and will not be part of Release 1 of CouldBU.com.  I would like to personally thank them for their hard work and ask for their patience as we try to accommodate the unfortunate realities of building a new technology.  We look forward to your inclusion in Release 2. 
Now it’s time for the rest of us to make our sacrifices.  Beginning Monday, I am instituting a six-day work week in all CouldBU offices.  I’m sure that everyone will agree that this is a necessary step towards the goal of launching our company in March.  To ensure compliance, we will be installing cameras in all of our offices, starting with Los Angeles, so that I and the rest of the executive team can monitor progress from anywhere in the world. 
Have a safe and happy New Year, and I look forward to seeing all of you in the office on Monday.  If you have any questions about the new work schedule, please ask your local HR representative when he or she takes attendance next Saturday.

Stephen looked around the circle of expectant faces.  “Let’s see what Jack has to say about this.”

***

“It comes down to this,” Jack said, pacing the conference room, “our contract only allows overtime at our discretion.  As long as we meet our commitments, the client can’t dictate our hours.  We can meet out commitments, can’t we?” he looked around the room amidst an uncomfortable silence.
"Was that with or without the Saturday hours?" Frank finally asked.

"You see," Mark elaborated, "we’ll probably have to work some weekends anyway just to meet the schedule.  We just don’t like being told we have to work or that we have to come into the office to do it.  We have personal lives, too, you know."

Jack looked at Mark in mock surprise.  "You do?  Since when?"

Mark rubbed his throat uncomfortably and made a face at Jack.  "Ha, ha.  Seriously, I already have some weekend plans for when I’m back in LA, and I don’t think they should be ruined if I can deliver my code on time.  Tell Rod to go pick on one of his other companies for a while."

“Start showing some progress and he probably will.  From what I’ve heard, he doesn’t have the greatest attention span.  Now, as for the cameras: there’s not much we can do there.  Their building, their rules.  As long as they’re watching everyone and not singling us out for special attention, you’re stuck with Big Brother in the office.  Just go outside if you need to pick your nose.  I talked this over with Anthony…”

“Hey, where is he, anyway?” Stephen asked.  “I thought he was going to join us.”

“He’s on an upswing.  Spent New Year’s Eve and most of New Year’s Day in the rub planning the next disruptive shift in technology.  Unfortunately, his laptop only made it to Hour 12 before it shorted out, so he’s dictating all of his ideas to a roomful of engineers and analysts while it’s still fresh in his mind.  He said he’s swing by if they needed a break.  Anyway, Anthony and I have scheduled a call with Rod to discuss this.  He and his family are in Vail for another week…”

“Good to see the executive team is making its sacrifices, too,” Frank grumbled.

“… but he agreed to a quick call on Wednesday night between skiing and dinner.  We’ll let him know that ADD is committed to this project, but that he needs to let us manage our own people.  Don’t worry, I won’t hang you out to dry.”

A buzz of voices rose to a crescendo outside the conference room as Anthony opened the door and stuck his head through the opening.  Behind him, the team saw a crowd of admins and analysts carrying tablets, computers, and large sheets of paper densely covered with drawings and Anthony’s untidy scrawls.  Anthony spoke quickly, “We needed a bathroom break and the markers were running dry, so I came to check in on you.  Everything under control?”

Stephen nodded.  “Yes, Jack’s helping us sort things out.  Thanks for making time to talk to Rod for us.  I’m sure he’ll be more willing to listen to you than to me.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I’ll try.  Hey, is anyone else hot?”  Anthony’s hand appeared from behind the door, dabbing at his flushed brow with an ink-stained paper towel.  One of his admins snatched it away and replaced it with a clean one, but not before he had spread a streak of blue ink across his forehead.  “Can I help with anything else?  Maybe a code review?”

"No!" replied Stephen, Frank, Mark, and Kelvin simultaneously.

"I mean, not right now, thanks," Stephen continued quickly, "We’re right in the middle of coding, so it wouldn’t make much sense to give it to you now."  He shot a desperate glance at Jack, who held up three fingers.  "We won’t have anything to show until Thursday or Friday."

"Oh, that’s too bad," said Anthony.  "I’ll be in London by then and won’t have time to give it the proper attention.  Let me know if it’s ready earlier, though."  He glanced at his watch.  "They’d better be done peeing by now.  I’ll catch up with you later."  He ducked back out of the conference room and walked off at a swift pace, his cloud of helpers scuttling along behind him.

Everyone in the room let out a long sigh of relief except for Stu, who looked confused.

"Why don’t we want him to review the code?" he asked, "Isn’t he some sort of uber-programmer?"

After glancing at the others to see who wanted to explain, Kelvin spoke, "He knows more about programming than all of us combined, but he doesn’t know when to stop.  The last time he did a code review for one of our product teams, he decided that their code wasn’t efficient enough.  He took the entire code base home over the weekend and rewrote it in Fortran."

"And did it run faster?" Stu asked.

"Of course it did, but that’s hardly the point," replied Kelvin coolly, "No one else knows Fortran anymore, so he was the only one who could maintain it.  That, and it only seemed to run reliably on Anthony’s Linux box at home.  He never was one for details."

"So I gather," said Stu, as they saw Anthony and his assistants pass the conference room again going the opposite direction.  "So, having him do a code review on our project would be… challenging."

"If we were lucky."

The team rose to leave, but Jack waved for Stephen to stay seated.  As he closed the door, he shook his head.  “An executive mime, really?  I thought I’d heard it all.”

“You have no idea.  Did I mention the woman in the body paint?”

“That I would have paid to see.  Of course, so would my ex-wives, if the pictures would have improved their settlements.”  He sat on the couch across from Stephen.  “So, how are you holding up?”

"Believe it or not, I kind of miss closing projects.  I’m starting to see the appeal in cleaning up someone else’s mess."

Jack chuckled.  "Sure, because then it’s not yours."

Stephen grinned back wryly.  "Exactly."

"You know, this was one of the reasons I gave you this project: so that you could see what it’s like from the other side.  It’s easy to call the other guy an idiot when you don’t know what he had to deal with.  Not that you needed to be knocked down a peg or anything, but then again, a little humility is good for the soul.”

“Gee, thanks, Papa Jack.  What was the other reason you handed me this ticking time bomb?”

“Because I knew you were the only one who could handle it.”

“Oh,” Stephen felt a flush rising in his cheeks.  “Well… thanks.”

 "Don’t get sappy on me, kid,” Jack said briskly, “we’ve got work to do.  When you’re neck-deep in crap it doesn’t really matter how you got there, only how you plan to get out.  Let’s see if we can get you out before the crap rises any higher."

Stephen had a terrible thought.  "What if we can’t?"

"We will."

"But what if we can’t?  What if Rod won’t agree to any concessions for our team?  What if this becomes a death march and at the end of it we still don’t finish on time?  What if people quit because they can’t take the pressure?  What if Frank goes postal and modifies his pants computer to use as a targeting mechanism for a high-powered assault rifle?"

"I find most of those scenarios highly unlikely," Jack replied, "except that last one.  That boy’s one modification away from becoming the Terminator."  He smiled to show that he was kidding.  Mostly.

"OK, but hypothetically, what if the worst comes to pass?"  Stephen shuddered.  "Short of, you know, bloodshed.  Would we consider pulling out of the project?"

Jack considered it briefly.  "Nope."

"Never?  What if there were mudslides?  I hear they have those in California all the time."

"We’d put on hip waders and go to work."

"Earthquake?"

"We’d work from here."

"Alien invasion?"

"Slap on our tinfoil hats and keep coding.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Frank already had one in his bag, just in case."

"So we’re seeing it through to the bitter end."

"That’s what we do.  We’ve never quit on a project yet and we’re not going to now, no matter how weird they get.  I think that if you asked the rest of the team, they’d agree with me."  Jack gazed searchingly at Stephen for a long moment before slowly adding, "Of course, if you want out, we can always pull in some relief.  I think Sully’s coming free soon…."

Stephen sat up quickly.  "No, I can handle it."

"You’re sure?"  Jack waited for Stephen to nod.  "All right, then let me give you some advice, one old project manager to another:  the only way you’re going to survive this is if you focus on the things that are under your control and let go of the rest.  My Polish grandmother used to tell me a story when I started worrying too much…"

"You’re not Polish, Jack," Stephen interrupted.

"Did I say I was?  I said that my grandmother was Polish."  Jack smacked Stephen on the leg.  "Pay attention.  Anyway, she told me this story:  A man was driving down a lonely country road when he got a flat tire.  He got out to fix it, but discovered that he didn’t have a jack to raise the car off of the ground.  Looking around, he saw a farmhouse in the distance, across a large muddy field.  As he walked across the field, it began to rain.  He continued to trudge across the field, bemoaning his bad luck.  It was getting dark, he was soaked to the bone, and he was ruining his best shoes walking across this stinking field.  Looking at the house, he wondered whether anyone was even home, and it they were, whether they would be willing to help a stranger who showed up at their door.  What if they didn’t have a jack?  What if they refused to help?  What if they wouldn’t even come to the door when he knocked?  He decided that this farmhouse had a decidedly unfriendly look to it.

"By the time the man reached the door to the house, he was an angry, frightened mess.  He pounded on the door and a man answered.  Shaking his soggy fist in the startled farmer’s face, the man shouted, ‘I don’t want to borrow your lousy jack!’  Then he turned and stomped off into the night."

Jack stopped and looked at Stephen expectantly, waiting for enlightenment to dawn.  After a moment, Stephen asked, "So, did he call AAA then, or what?"

Jack frowned.  "No, that’s the end of the story."

Stephen grunted, "If all Polish folk tales are this pointless, I can see why you deny that part of your heritage."

Jack let out a loud, put-upon sigh.  "The point of the story, my truculent young friend, is that the man was so worried about what might happen, so focused on the misery of his situation, that he abandoned his one chance to get out of it.  He decided that it wasn’t going to work before he even tried."

"Ohhhhh!  I get it now," Stephen rolled his head back and looked at the ceiling.  "You think that’s what I’m doing."

"Roughly, yes."

"Well, tell your Polish grandmother that I wish she had passed on more wisdom to her grandchildren along with all those lovely fables."  Stephen lay down on the couch and put a pillow over his head.

"You’re welcome."  Jack rose to go, slowing briefly at the door when a muffled voice called:

"Thank you."

***

The team returned to Los Angeles the next day.  Given the current environment out west, Stephen thought it prudent to check in with them at least once a day by phone until things settled down.  Everyone agreed that lunch time in LA seemed the best time to get the whole ADD team together to talk, since the catered lunches were one thing that had not changed or been taken away.  They were a soy-based constant in a suddenly uncertain world.

Stephen was still thinking about Jack’s Polish grandmother’s advice when he got on the phone Wednesday afternoon, and he was prepared not to worry about anything that was out of his control, a resolution that was immediately tested.

"Code reviews," growled Frank as soon as Stephen was on speakerphone.

"Excuse me?"

"Sgt. Dick has instituted daily code reviews.  He read somewhere that the longer a bug lives in the code, the more time it takes to fix, so now he wants to review our code daily before we leave the office."

Stephen felt the by-now familiar gnawing in his stomach, but he pushed it away, hard.  "I thought you said he couldn’t read code.  What’s he going to do, guess?"

"No, he wants us to do the work with peer reviews.  We review Thomas’ team’s code and they review ours."

The gnawing eased.  "Well, that’s easy enough, then.  A little professional courtesy goes a long way."

"We’re way ahead of you, chief," said Frank.  "I talked to Thomas and we agreed, sight unseen, that our code is beyond reproach.  We don’t expect to find any bugs today, tomorrow, or the day after that."

"Won’t Richard be suspicious if no one ever has any bugs in their code?"

"He’d have to be capable of higher brain functions to achieve suspicion, wouldn’t he?" Frank asked nastily.

"Frank…"

 "All right, all right.  We thought of that, too.  We’ll throw him a bone once in a while, just to keep him quiet.  Not too many, though.  Did I mention the punishment if you have a bug in your code?"

"No…" Stephen wasn’t sure he wanted to hear this.

"Ten pushups for a first offense, 20 for each additional bug in a given day.  If it’s a showstopper, you get 25 right off the bat."

"Oh boy."  Even given their recent calisthenics, Stephen wasn’t sure if any of his engineers could do 25 pushups.  Well, maybe Stu.  Chopping his own wood all winter had to build up some arm strength.

"So you see why we have our non-aggression pact in place."

"Yeah.  Well, try to keep it in place, all right?"

"Of course.  When have you known me to cause trouble?"

Thursday’s call started somewhat better; everyone was anxious to know how Jack and Anthony had fared with Rod, so they let Stephen speak first.  Before starting, he checked, "Who’s in the room now?"

"Just us," replied Mark.  "Thomas and the rest of the CBU guys went out for lunch.  I think they’re meeting a prospective client for their… other project."

 "Oh yeah, how’s that going?  They can’t be happy about losing half of their weekend work time, too."

"Craig was livid," said Kelvin.  "He said that this could push the IPO back another six months."

"Do they have a name for this thing yet?" Stephen asked.

"Not yet.  I think that they’re kind of superstitious about it," Kelvin answered, "as though not having a name won’t give CouldBU anything to put in the court papers when they file the inevitable non-compete lawsuit."

Stephen gave a short, humorless laugh.  "Let’s hope we’re out of there before that blows up, anyway."

Frank couldn’t wait any longer.  "What about us?  Are we stuck in this airless hellhole on Saturdays now, too?"

"I take it the cameras aren’t up yet.  The short answer is no, we don’t have to come to the office to work on Saturdays."

"I notice your precise phrasing," observed Kelvin dryly.  "What’s the long answer?"

"Well, since we already agreed that we’d probably have to do some weekend work anyway, and since the CouldBU employees still have to come in every weekend, Jack couldn’t exactly argue that we shouldn’t work on the weekends at all.  We can work from home if we want, but we don’t have to come into the office."

"And by ‘we,’ you mean…"

"All of you," Stephen admitted sheepishly.  To be honest, he wasn’t sure how much benefit he provided to the project during the week anymore.  He had no idea how he would help on a weekend, short of ordering pizza to be delivered to their apartments.

Frank sighed.  "Well, it’s something, at least, and it could be worse."

"Frank!  Get that pencil out of your ear!  You’ll puncture your eardrum!" Mark shouted.

Immediately, Stephen knew what was going on.  "The Danger Pencil?"

"Yes.  That’s the second time today he’s started playing with it," said Mark wearily.  During their project at the Department of Defense, Frank had become enamored with the pencils that were issued to all employees.  On one side of the pencil was printed, "PROPERTY OF UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT."  On the other side was a warning:  "WARNING:  SHARPENED PENCIL MAY CAUSE PERMANENT EYE DAMAGE."  Frank had stolen one of these pencils at some point during the project, and he kept it needle-sharp.  He had actually used it to take notes for a while, until it wore down to read only "WARNING:  SHARPENED PENCIL."  Now he kept it as a souvenir, a pointy reminder of how absurd a client environment could become.  Unfortunately, he often forgot how sharp it was when he started playing with it, adding an unintentional layer of irony to the Danger Pencil’s legacy.

"This doesn’t really help me much, you realize."  It took Stephen a moment to recognize the husky, morose voice on the phone as Stu’s.  "I can’t work at home, so I’ll need to come in here anyway."

"I’m sorry, Stu."  Stephen was immediately remorseful.  "I forgot to mention your unique work situation to Jack.  We can probably go to their HR department for a special dispensation for you, if you want."

Stu sighed.  "No, I don’t want to make a fuss and I certainly don’t want to let the team down.  I was just hoping to have some time for other things on the weekends."  He sighed again.  "I’ll make it work."

"OK," Stephen agreed reluctantly.  "Let me know if you want me to take it up with HR.  It would give me something constructive to do."

They were about to hang up when Frank suddenly shouted.  "No!  This will not stand!  Absolutely not!  I cannot let this pass!"

"Um… what’s going on?" Stephen asked, imagining the worst.

"This code that Greg wrote!  I have ignored some things, but I this is unforgivable!"

"I thought that you weren’t actually going to review anything," Stephen said.

"I never said that.  I said that we agreed not to find any bugs.  This one, though, I cannot ignore.  He forgot to check for null pointers!"

"That’s easy to fix," Kelvin began.

"Everywhere!"

"Oh."

"This is Programming 101.  He should be locked up and have his network permissions revoked!"  Frank’s ravings faded as he walked out of the room.  Moments later, Stephen heard what sounded like a police whistle blowing.

"What’s that?"

Mark answered hurriedly, "That’s the Bug Whistle.  We’re supposed to blow it when we find a bug so Richard can oversee the punishment.  I’d better go deal with this.  We’ll check in with you tomorrow morning."  He abruptly disconnected the call.

Carefully, Stephen returned his telephone handset to its cradle before rubbing his stomach.  I wonder what an ulcer feels like, he thought.

***

By Friday morning, Stephen’s inbox was overflowing with bug reports.  Looks like I’m back in the loop, he thought as he scanned through them.  Clearly, the war was on.  By his count, Frank had done at least 100 pushups on Thursday after breaking the code review truce.  Greg had done 25, Craig 30, and Thomas 50.  Kelvin and Stu remained unscathed, though he doubted that could last long.  Mark had done 60, but the most surprising thing was that two of his bugs had been reported by Frank.  Probably getting back at him for yelling about the Danger Pencil.

He tried several times to call someone at the LA office before their usual lunchtime call, but no one answered and the bug reports began flowing again just after 12:00 his time.  His best guess was that the war continued as soon as calisthenics were over.  His email and instant message queries were also ignored.  Clearly, no one had time for anything outside of CouldBU’s halls right now.

Finally, 3:30 came and Stephen’s phone rang.  He dove for it, catching it halfway through the first ring.  "What the heck’s going on over there?" he cried.

"Hello to you, too."  Frank sounded winded.  "We’ve declared a cessation of hostilities until after lunch."

"I’m glad to hear it.  You’ve probably worked up quite an appetite doing all of those pushups."

"We had to switch to sit-ups since our arms don’t really work that well anymore.  By the way, do you mind if I put you on speaker?  The phone’s getting a little heavy."

"Sure, go ahead."  Stephen heard his voice booming back through the speaker before he completed the sentence.  "So it’s getting a little crazy there, huh?"

"We’ll stop when they do," Frank said fiercely.  "Craig said that I failed to properly close a nested loop!  I always close my loops!"

A faint voice called, "You do not!"  Apparently, the CouldBU engineers had elected to stay in for lunch today.  From nearby, Thomas said, "You guys are even starting to make bugs up!  I mean, come on:  ‘failing to parse a Jabberwocky statement?’  That’s not even real!"

"As far as Richard knows, it is," Mark replied stubbornly.  "Like you should talk.  I had to do 20 sit-ups for…" Stephen heard Mark rummaging through a pile of papers, "fornicating a command line?  Really, he should have known that one was a fake."

Stephen tried to step in.  "Come on, you guys, I thought we were all on the same team.  Can’t we go back to working together to keep management at bay?  When did the insanity slip through the door?"

"Right after you called Greg a programming baby," replied Craig.

"Oh really, Frank," Stephen admonished.

"That’s not what I said!  I said that he needed to go back to developer nursery school if he was going to write code like that."

"Do you really think that’s any better?"  Greg asked, astonished.  A hubbub arose in the room as negotiations broke down.

"We need to find a way to settle this!" Stephen shouted into the phone, startling the people around him.

"Well, you’re not here, are you?" asked Craig nastily.

Ouch.  Stephen took a deep, steadying breath.  "Can you at least stop filing bugs against each other for the rest of the day?" he asked at last.  "I can’t imagine that any of you want to do any more sit-ups or pushups today."

Grudgingly, they assented, agreeing to cease the code reviews until Monday.  Stephen hung up and put his head down on his desk.  After several minutes of deep breathing, he came to a decision and raised his head, reaching for the phone again.  "Sometimes you try not to worry about the things you can’t control, Jack," he muttered through clenched teeth as he dialed, "and sometimes you have to take control of the things you’ve been worrying about."

He waited through several rings before his wife answered.  "Hi babe.  Listen, you’re going to have to reschedule dinner with the Stigbergs next week.  I have to go to LA on Monday."

Friday, May 09, 2014

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




Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 18

Even though I originally wrote this chapter almost ten years ago, I wouldn't be surprised if I saw a scene like this in HBO's Silicon Valley.  Time passes, but over-the-top "creativity" never goes out of style, at least in the high-tech sector.


Chapter 18 

Stephen, Ricky, and David arrived at CouldBU’s 81st floor office on Monday morning.  Stephen was enjoying the view down Fifth Avenue when a diminutive figure entered his peripheral vision.  His first thought was, The New York schools must have already started their Christmas vacation.  He turned to offer the child his spot at the window when he realized that it was wearing a suit and had the shadow of a cleanly shaven beard on its cheeks.  His second thought was, Wow, that’s not just short, that’s freaky short. 

The newcomer stuck out his hand and spoke to a point directly in front of him, approximately level with Stephen’s groin.  "Good morning.  I’m Chuck Marquette, and you must be Stephen."  He spoke slowly and distinctly, and while his voice was not squeaky, as Stephen feared it would be, neither was it deep.  It reminded Stephen of a recording of a baritone that had been sped up slightly by a poor tape recorder.  Chuck looked at the others.  "David and Ricky, right?  A pleasure."  All three men bent down to shake his outstretched hand in turn, Ricky looking like an elephant trying to pet a puppy.  "Richard arrived last night.  He’s waiting in my office."

He led them through the office, a glass maze that was already bustling with activity.  Though nearly everyone had a private office, there were no solid walls anywhere in sight.  Instead, floor-to-ceiling soundproof glass enclosed each office space, giving Stephen the queasy impression that he had either gone deaf or acquired X-ray vision.  He was almost relieved when Chuck continued talking.  "We found that the glass walls encouraged collaboration while minimizing disturbances.  Now we can feel like we’re all working together," he waved at a woman as they passed her office, and she waved back before returning to her soundless typing, "without having to actually share space.  We think that all the top firms will start doing this soon.

"It’s the perfect system," here he turned abruptly to his right.  Ricky, following closely behind him, smacked face-first into a nearly invisible wall, "once you figure out where all the walls are.  I’ll give you a hint:  there are little diamonds just at eye level, there."  He pointed straight ahead at the wall.  Stephen looked where he was pointing but saw nothing.  Scanning up and down the wall, he finally saw a small diamond shape etched into the glass, about three feet above the spot indicated by Chuck’s finger.

"Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind," Ricky said nasally, rubbing his sore nose.  David smirked silently behind him.

After several more abrupt turns -- Stephen began walking with a hand slightly in front of him, just in case -- they came to Chuck’s office.  It was difficult to see anything at first through the light of the bright winter sun glaring through the windows, but as their eyes adjusted they saw Richard sitting and waiting for them in an oversized easy chair.  He struggled for a moment to get out of it, but eventually succeeded and strode over to envelop each person’s hand in an enthusiastically crushing grip.

"Have a seat," said Chuck, walking over to his desk.  "I just have a couple of things to do before we go to Gotterdammerung.  Make yourselves comfortable."  He indicated the area where Richard had been seated, where two large easy chairs flanked an enormous couch.  Richard returned to his seat and Stephen settled cautiously into the other chair.  David and Ricky perched on the front edge of the couch cushions, afraid that they would be swallowed whole if they leaned back.  Looking around, Stephen realized that nearly every piece of furniture in the room was abnormally large.  The sole exceptions were Chuck’s desk and chair, which were sized to his exact dimensions.  The combined effect created a kind of forced perspective, as though Chuck were very far away.

"All right, I’m done.  Let’s get moving," said Chuck.  Everyone fought free of the embrace of their respective resting places and they left.

Walking out, they passed a tall, thin man cleaning the walls.  This seemed a practical, if rather annoying, additional task for the office custodial crew, but two things caught Stephen’s attention.  First, the man was wearing black suit pants, a white shirt, and a black and white striped tie.  Second, he appeared to be cleaning a wall that hadn’t been there when they had passed through that corridor on the way to Chuck’s office.  He was facing toward them, so Stephen stopped just before passing him and called a question to Chuck, who was already well ahead.  Ricky and David stopped as well.  "Are some of the walls mobile?  That would be an interesting way to make the space more flexible, but isn’t it a little dangerous?"

"No, that’s just Marcel, our VP of Mime Relations," called Chuck, his voice fading as he rounded an invisible corner.  "He loves that joke."

Stephen turned to Marcel.  "Funny," he said, not completely sincerely.  "Do you do that to all the newcomers?"

Marcel put a hand to his ear as though having trouble hearing Stephen.  Silently, he mouthed an exaggerated, "What?  I can’t hear you!"

Stephen rolled his eyes.  Reaching up, he pretended to knock on the invisible wall.  "Solid, huh?  Yeah, that’s cute.  You know, I took a mime class back in grade school.  I could never get past the fake tug-of-war."

Marcel placed his hands flat in front of him, groping around as though seeking an opening in the air.  Eventually, he seemed to fasten on something, which he grabbed with both hands and pulled, sliding open an invisible door.  Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out an invisible business card and handed it to Stephen.

"Oh, thanks, that’s great.  Here’s mine."  Stephen reached into his own pocket and proffered a real card, which Marcel took with great ceremony before offering a hand to shake.  Stephen took it, asking, "Say, don’t you guys usually wear makeup, too, and that funny unitard?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mime out of uniform before."

Marcel shook his head vigorously, pointing at his face and clothes.  Then he leapt into a series of vigorously balletic dance moves, followed by a sort of robotic marching.

"I’m—sorry, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say," said Stephen.

"He’s not a classic mime.  He’s from the modern, or progressive, mime school," offered Ricky.  Marcel mimed wiping his face and using scissors to cut invisible suspenders.  "They believe that mime should not be bound by the restrictions of the past."

"Oh, OK," Stephen said.  "So what’s with the black and white color scheme?"

Marcel climbed an imaginary mountain, pushing a series of gigantic stones ahead of him.  When he had finished that exercise, he used an imaginary chisel on one of the stones, working at it for several minutes before polishing it with a white handkerchief.  Then he turned and bowed down before the image he had created.

"It’s an homage," said Ricky.

"OK, then," said Stephen, clapping his hands together loudly.  "Well, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, Marcel."  He shook Marcel’s hand again.  Marcel smiled and tipped an invisible hat.  Stephen resisted the urge to respond in kind.  "We have to catch up with Chuck now, though, so perhaps we’ll see you later."

Marcel winked, then made a surprised face and jumped behind an invisible desk.

Ricky said, "Not if he sees you first."

Stephen laughed humorlessly.  "Right.  Well, let’s go."  Marcel offered a little wave before pulling out his handkerchief to polish a spot on his invisible wall.  After they had walked far enough that Marcel was no longer visible through the walls, Stephen turned to Ricky and exclaimed, "Meetings with that guy must be exhausting!  How did you know what he was saying, anyway?  Don’t tell me you’re part mime, too."

"Mime is an art form, not an ethnicity," Ricky responded archly.  "You can’t be ‘part mime.’  I speak mime, though."

"How can you ‘speak mime?’  They don’t speak!"

"Exactly.  I worked for a while after college as a translator for a mime troupe in New York that performed for blind children."

Outside on the sidewalk, Stephen raised a hand to hail some cabs, but Chuck stopped him.  "We can take the subway.  It’s only a short walk to the station and it will get us there just as quickly.  I’d rather not waste the money on cab fare: we need to start keeping a better eye on our expenses."  Turning, he walked down the street, leaving Stephen and the others watching him curiously.

As they walked toward the subway entrance, Stephen mused, "I get the feeling that Chuck has a special talent for sensing changes in the wind before they happen."

"Well, he’d have to, wouldn’t he?" asked Ricky.  "Otherwise, it might pick him up and blow him right back to Oz."

Stephen chuckled.  "I meant that more in the political sense, but good point."

Twenty minutes later, they were walking through a trendy Tribeca neighborhood toward what appeared to be a large multi-storied warehouse.  A sign over the entrance read:

Gotterdammerung Designs.  Abandon all preconceptions, ye who enter here.

"Well, at least they aren’t pretentious," Stephen muttered, even as David said, "I must use that in my next performance."

 The front door opened into a dark, unfurnished room with a rusty iron staircase spiraling upward in the center.  They climbed it and came to a large reception area, where a thin young man with carefully tousled hair sat at a small desk before imposing double doors.  He wore black jeans, a black long-sleeved shirt, and black horn-rimmed glasses.  As soon as the visitors entered his domain, he rose to stand before the double doors.

"You are expected," he said.  "Welcome to Gotterdammerung!"  He flung the doors open and stepped aside so that they could enter.

"Wow," Stephen whispered, "so this is what a creativity factory looks like."

The dimly lit space before them took up the entire width and breadth of the building.  It was populated by row upon row of computer desks and drafting tables, with rollaway whiteboards scattered about at random.  The rows of ergonomic workstations radiated precisely from some sort of amphitheatre in the center of the room, with enough space between them for the whiteboards to be wheeled through without hindrance.  This also left enough room for people to ride scooters from station to station rather than walking, an activity which appeared to engage fully a third of all of the denizens of the space at any one time.  Everywhere they looked, they saw people leaning over their drafting desks, staring intently at graphics on their huge computer screens, arguing intensely around whiteboards and easels, or zipping around on scooters.

At regular intervals, the configuration was broken up by seating areas, where painfully hip beanbags and couches clustered around a circular glass and chrome table.  Each area had a specific purpose, designated by a sign hanging by wires from the high ceiling.  Ricky squinted through the twilight and read a few aloud:

"‘Toy station:  build a clever creation or stay out.  Minimum time commitment:  15 minutes.’  ‘Scooter repair:  all squeaks must be eliminated.’  ‘Idea generation pod.  Thinking caps are required headwear.’  ‘Mandatory relaxation zone.  Clove cigarettes may be lipped but not lit.’  Um, this place scares me a little."

"Gut.  The act of creation should be terrifying," said a voice from the darkness.  They peered in that direction as a head slowly resolved, floating disembodied in the darkness.  As it drew closer, the black-clad body attached to it separated from the shadows.  A tall, incredibly thin man with lank black hair and rimless glasses marched forward, stopping directly in front of Chuck.  "I am Dieter.  You are here.  We are here.  Let us engage in the act of creation together."

"Did he just ask us to…" began Ricky hesitantly.

"No, that’s procreation, and that requires a woman last time I checked."

"Right.  I knew that."  Ricky sounded relieved nonetheless.

"Come.  We go now to the Ring.  We will eat pastries and make ourselves merry before the event," said Dieter.

"Event?" asked Stephen.  "I thought you were planning to present your visual design for the web site."

"We do not, as you say, ‘present’ our creations," said Dieter scornfully, managing somehow to make the quotation marks audible.  "That is so crude, so like a female baboon in the jungle making herself available to all of the males.  No, we create and allow you to participate in the creation with us.  We live, and through us you live as well.  We—"

"I get the picture," interrupted Stephen, massaging the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger.  "Will the… event be starting soon?"

"I had several more metaphors, but come," huffed Dieter, "we begin soon."

They followed him to the glass-walled amphitheatre in the center of the converted warehouse.  Here, five rows of theater seats surrounded a sunken stage, providing enough seating for at least 50 people.  After they entered, the doors closed behind them with a quiet hiss, completely muting the noise of the office beyond.  The stage was bare except for a small table with coffee and assorted pastries.  There was one bagel, which Dieter quickly claimed after glaring balefully at Stephen.

After everyone had taken food and drink, they scattered to various sides of the stage and sat, looking out the windows to the office beyond and returning the mostly incurious gazes of the dreadlocked, pierced, and goateed employees outside.  Stephen fought a perverse urge to make monkey noises and fling imaginary poo at the impassive faces beyond the glass before deciding that he was more comfortable looking at the stage.  A few minutes later, he was joined by Ricky and David, who had finally tired of making faces at their observers.

"I want to hate them," said David around a mouthful of scone, "but for some reason I find myself drawn to that Dieter.  Perhaps I sense in him a kindred spirit."

"Or perhaps you have a scorn fetish," grumbled Stephen.

David considered that.  "It is possible," he conceded, "but if so, it is merely a platonic one.  Please recall that I prefer the companionship of women."

"A platonic scorn fetish?" asked Ricky.  "Oh, I doubt there’s a treatment program for that."  He thought about it for a moment.  "Unless you lived in France."

The conversation was mercifully cut short by the appearance of two women in kimonos, who ran into the room with mincing steps, grabbed the refreshment table from the stage, and ran out with it.  As soon as they cleared the doorway, two men in lederhosen entered and held the doors wide for four black-clad figures -- two men and two women -- who rode in on matching chrome scooters.  They glided down a ramp in single file and swung to a stop at stage center.  In perfect unison, they kicked up the scooters, folded them, and passed them down the line to their shortest member.  Staggering slightly under the weight, she carried the scooters to the corner of the stage and stored them under a seat before rejoining the line.

"Behold your Creators!" declaimed Dieter, striding onto the stage.  He walked down the line and pointed to each in turn.  "Sven, Puck, LaShanda, and Bob!"  He finished near the short woman, whose jaw-length pink hair bobbed as she nodded her head.

"Bob?  Her name is Bob?" asked Richard.

"When she came to us, she was called Monica," replied Dieter, "but we already had a Monica.  We christened her ‘Bob.’  If that is too unconventional for you, you may comfort yourself by pretending it is short for Roberta."

"Is it?" asked Richard.

"No!  It is short for Bob!  We continue!"  Dieter clapped his hands and the lights dimmed.  Since there was no way to stop light from pouring in from the surrounding office, the lights in the office dimmed as well.  Glancing out, Stephen saw a sea of disembodied heads, lit a sickly bluish green by the light of their monitors and bobbing in time to the music on their iPhones.  Light slashed down from the ceiling high above, illuminating the stage as Dieter quietly withdrew.  The four figures stood for a moment, their clothing seeming to suck in all of the light without giving any back.  Then they began to move.

Sven, a tall thin man with wire-rimmed glasses and white-blond hair, and Puck, a brawny collection of piercings whose shaven head crawled with tattoos, covered their faces and ran from the stage.  From the darkness, they began to wail.  Bob lay on her back on the floor with her arms and legs in the air while LaShanda covered her ears and stood over her.

"Alone!  I am alone!" cried LaShanda.  "Forsaken!  This desolation is never-ending!"  In the darkness, Sven and Puck’s wailing rose in pitch, then lowered, then rose again.  LaShanda began to sob.

"Beep," said Bob, "you’ve got mail!"  She wiggled her feet at LaShanda.

"Mail?  Mail?  How can mail end this torment?" sobbed LaShanda.  "But wait!  Perhaps I can soothe the pain that suffuses my soul by chatting with my invisible friends on ‘the Internet!’"  She reached down and began rhythmically slapping the soles of Bob’s feet, which danced in the air before her.

The wailing offstage stopped, replaced by the sound of two men saying, "Blah blah blah. LOL!  LOL!  LOL!  Duh….  UR cool.  UR GR8.  Blah blah blah…"  This continued for some time, until Sven and Puck ran back onto the stage.  Sven was now carrying a giant round smiley face that covered his entire upper body, while Puck carried a frowning face of the same size.  They approached LaShanda slowly from opposite sides, Sven shouting, "LOL!  LOL!  LOL!" while Puck shouted, "Blah blah blah!"  When they reached LaShanda, they both stopped.

"Could be you," said Sven, pointing at LaShanda from the right.

"Could be you," said Puck, mirroring Sven from the left.

LaShanda smiled dreamily while Bob thrashed on the floor making gagging noises.  "Could be me."

Stephen leaned over to David and began to whisper a comment, but David shushed him while furiously scribbling in a small notebook.  "Wait!  I almost have it!"

So Stephen leaned the other way to whisper to Ricky, "What did that mean?  Are they going to use a computer virus to advertise the site?"

Ricky shrugged.  "I don’t know.  Maybe they want to add chat rooms as a feature.  Or maybe they thought they were supposed to develop a commercial for the site."  David shushed them again, and now Dieter stood up in the front row to glare back at them.  The performance continued.

Now Bob had risen from the floor and run into the darkness, pink hair flaring out behind her.  Sven and Puck had dropped their faces and were now running in circles, barking, while LaShanda tried to lasso both of them with a lariat made of silk ties.  She finally caught Puck, who fell to the floor gasping for breath and muttering about deadlines and ROI spreadsheets.  Sven paused to catch his breath and laugh at Puck, but was lured toward LaShanda by a large foam wedge of cheese.  As soon as he was within reach, she grabbed him and bound his hands with the cord from a computer mouse.  Bound thus, he slumped to the floor beside Puck moaning and chanting web site addresses.

As their muttering and chanting reached a crescendo, Bob ran back onto the stage wearing a plastic Viking helmet, complete with long curved horns, and carrying a plastic broadsword.  She stomped over to LaShanda and mimed killing her, which took an uncomfortably long time and involved many wet gagging noises from the supposed victim.  Her foe vanquished, Bob strode over to Sven and Puck, who paused in their liturgy to look up at her expectantly.

"I really hope she’s not about to break out into an aria," Stephen whispered to Ricky, who waved him off without taking his eyes from the stage, the performance apparently resonating with his Nordic blood.  Stephen sighed and settled back into his seat, folding his arms with disgust.

Bob leaned down gently to Sven and touched the sword to his throat.  "Could be you."

Joyously, Sven leapt to his feet and threw off his silken noose.  "Could be me!" he yelled, and began to dance.

"For a German, he’s not a bad Irish step-dancer," commented Ricky.

Bob stood over Puck and touched the sword to his bound wrists.  "Could be you," she crooned gently, but Puck shook his head without looking up at her.  "Could be you," she repeated more firmly, rapping the flat of the sword across his forearms.

Puck drew his arms in and hunched his shoulders, chanting, "www.irs.gov.  www.microsoft.com.  www.hotbabes.com!"

Bob shrugged and looked up at the audience.  "Could be you."  She gripped the sword with both hands and swung it high over her shoulder before bringing it down in a sweeping motion, striking Puck’s head from his shoulders.

For a brief moment, the audience sat aghast, waiting for the spreading pool of blood to form on the stage, for Puck had pulled his head into his shirt just as Bob had swung and then toppled over, apparently headless.  When no blood geyser was forthcoming -- I guess they decided that would be going overboard, Stephen thought wryly -- everyone realized the trick and let out shaky sighs of relief.  Puck lay motionless, holding the moment as long as he could.

"I guess that’s why they call it a turtleneck!" laughed Richard from the other side of the stage.  Dieter glared at him and looked around for something to throw, settling eventually for chucking the remainder of his bagel at Richard’s head.  Fortunately for both of them, Dieter threw like a girl, so the bagel bounced harmlessly across the stage before sliding under the first row of seats.

Loud techno music thumped from hidden speakers and a dance break ensued.  Sven and Bob whirled and jumped together, while the corpses of LaShanda and Puck did a slow grind to the heavy beat as they worked their way off the stage.  After approximately five minutes of frenzied leaping and writhing, Bob and Sven threw themselves to the floor in a pile at center stage again.  In unison, they cried:

"COULD… BE… YOU!!!"

Blackout, followed by hesitant applause from the seats.  The black-clad inhabitants of the office beyond had left their seats and now surrounded the auditorium, music players in hand and headphones in ears, pressing against the glass on all sides and bobbing their heads to their individual beats.  Seeing this, the audience applauded harder, whether from fear or appreciation, it was hard to tell.

The lights came up to reveal Sven, Puck (complete with head), LaShanda and Bob, lined up as at the beginning and holding their scooters.  Placing a hand over their hearts, they bowed slightly to Dieter, snapped their scooters open, and rolled back up the aisle and out the double doors, which were opened again by the lederhosen-clad attendants.

Dieter stood and clapped his hands once.  "Go.  Do not speak.  You must give the concept time to germinate.  We will speak again tomorrow."

Everyone stood and hurried out of the amphitheatre, out of the office, and down into the street.  Rather than risk another bagel-throwing, they all chose to keep their thoughts to themselves until they were outside.  As soon as his foot touched the sidewalk, though, Stephen could contain himself no more.  "What the hell was that?"

Ricky shook his head.  "I don’t know if I’m comfortable with executing people if they don’t subscribe to our service."

David cut in irritably.  "That was only a metaphor.  They aren’t actually suggesting we kill people."  He paused.  "They are German, though….  No, it was definitely a metaphor," he concluded firmly.

Chuck hustled up behind them and reached up to put a hand on David and Stephen’s lower backs.  "So, what did you think?  Can you build it?"

Wordlessly, Stephen deferred to David, who clearly had more experience with this sort of performance.  David thought for a few steps and looked at his notes before replying, "I think I have captured its zeitgeist, but I am not yet sure how to translate it to HTML."



Continue to Chapter 19



Monday, May 05, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 17

Chapter 17


The snow started falling early in the morning, just hard enough to give a magical air to the Thanksgiving Day parade.  Stephen had wanted to take Sarah to see it, but all three of the mothers who were currently in his house overruled him.  He settled for sitting on the couch with his daughter, flipping between the New York and Boston parades on TV while she happily chewed on her foot beside him.  From the kitchen, he could hear Jenny’s tired voice alternately translating and refereeing the conversation between the grandmothers, who were trying for the first time to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner together.

"No, Mom, we don’t have a paisley kitchen towel.  No, we don’t need one.  She said to put parsley over the turkey."

"Well, that makes a lot more sense, dear.  For a moment, I thought we were going with semi-formal dressing for the turkey!  Wash your hands before you touch the baby, sweetie.  We have raw poultry here."

"But I haven’t touched anything!  All you’ll let me do is sit here at the kitchen table chopping celery."

"Well, I bought the celery at the same time as the turkey, so some e coli bacteria could have been transferred through the cart.  They never clean those things, you know."

"Your mother’s right, Jenny.  You can’t risk the little one’s health over a dinner."

"There, see?  Especially such a brilliant child as Sarah is.  The world would be a poorer place without her.  Not too much butter and cream in the sweet potatoes, Margaret.  Jacob just got his cholesterol numbers back from the doctor, and, well, they weren’t as good as they could have been.  We’re trying to have a low fat holiday season this year."

"Sweet Mary Mother of God," Margaret exclaimed.  "And that’s not a curse, Jenny, it’s a blessing.  If you can’t eat anything you want on Thanksgiving, when can you?  It’s our sacred duty as Americans to eat until stuffing comes out our ears on this day!  This is the traditional family recipe that I make every year.  And Jenny needs all of the fats she can get, so she can pass those good calories on to the baby.  She’s making cream these days, right dear?"

"Judging from the way Sarah’s filling out, yes."

"So there you go," Stephen heard an emphatic slap as another pat of butter was drilled home in the mixing bowl.  There was a pregnant pause, punctuated by vigorous stirring sounds.

After a few moments, Janice said mildly, "Well, I suppose I could just make a separate dish for Jacob using canola oil and yogurt."

Stephen glanced over at his father-in-law, who had fallen asleep in an easy chair fifteen minutes after arriving at the house.  At the age of 66, he still worked full-time running a wealth management firm in New York.  In order to take the Friday after Thanksgiving off, he worked until the small hours of the morning on Thanksgiving, leaving behind enough emails and requests to keep the rest of the company busy in his absence.  He usually had enough energy to make the four-hour drive through holiday traffic and get through the door to the chair, but that was it.  It was easy to see where Jenny got her business sense, as well as her ability to enforce her will upon others.

Lean and trim, Jacob Weston didn’t look like a man who had to watch his fat intake.  His engine ran fast, burned hot, and left no spare fuel behind.  In fact, Stephen thought, if I’m in that kind of shape when I’m 66, then I’ll consider myself a lucky man. He reminded Stephen of an older Jimmy Stewart, if he had ever played a ruthless baron of industry.  The lifestyle took its toll, though, and ever since he had awakened in the middle of the night with chest pains a few years ago, his diet and habits had been strictly monitored by his doctors and his wife.  He would eat his special dish of sweet potatoes without complaining, and then he would sneak into the kitchen for the real thing when no one was looking.  This, too, had become a family tradition, and Stephen was willing to play the part of accomplice when the time came, in the name of strong paternal relations.

The parades had ended, so Stephen switched over to the football pre-game show.  It felt so good to just sit, without anything bigger to worry about than how many servings of stuffing he was going to eat.  When the first game highlight appeared on the television, Sarah gave a small coo.  Surprised, Stephen glanced down at her.  Maybe she is a prodigy, after all, he thought.  Then he realized that she had just discovered the other foot, which she now began to gnaw vigorously.  Gently, he reached down and wiped the drool from her chin with her ever-present bib.  "That’s OK, kid, you take your time growing up.  You’re my excuse for sitting still, after all.  So you chew your foot, I’ll watch the game, and everyone wins."  Sarah cooed agreement, so he shifted her to his chest and settled deeper into the couch with a contented sigh.

When their guests arrived later that afternoon, the snow was coming down hard and fast.  Stephen could just barely see the three shadowy forms trudging up the walk from the street.  Rising from the couch slowly so as not to wake the baby sleeping on his chest, he gently transferred her to her grandfather and went to open the door.  The mostly cheerful noise from the kitchen continued unabated.

When he opened the door, the three snow-covered figures resolved into Mark and Stu, whom he had been expecting, and Frank, whom he had not.  Noting his questioning glance, Mark explained, "Frank was still in town, so I invited him to come, too.  You said that two or three more wouldn’t matter, so I figured now we were just hitting the upper end of the range."

"No, that’s fine.  We’re glad to have you.  Come on in so I can close the door."  Stephen said, and then added in a whisper, "We’re a little oversensitive to chills these days."

"They know that has no basis in scientific fact, right?" asked Frank as he brushed snow from his shoulders and shook it off of his hat before stepping inside.  He removed his duster to reveal a black silk shirt and black jeans.  "It’s an old wives’ tale that you can get sick from being cold."

"I know, but I’m outnumbered by the old wives.  They just keep saying, ‘There must be some truth to it or they wouldn’t say it.’"

"Hmph.  That’s what they said about the moon being made of cheese until we landed there."

"Assuming we actually did," Stu interjected half-jokingly.

"Don’t start," Frank warned.  "Anyway, thanks for allowing me to crash the party.  I just couldn’t stand another Lasher family holiday.  My family gets into the wine by about noon to make sure that they have room on the table for the bourbon and brandy at dinner.  By the time we get around to carving the turkey, everyone’s arguing over whose turn it is to carve, whose turn it was to bring the pies, and who has to sit at the kids’ table this year.  And then when we have to go to the emergency room, Mom makes everyone go, because it’s a family holiday and we’re supposed to be together."

Stu was aghast.  "It’s like that every year?"

Frank shrugged.  "We’ve been to the hospital so many times, they named a wing after us."

Mark elbowed Frank in the ribs.  "Come on, that’s not true."

"OK, it’s not a wing; more like a waiting room.  When’s dinner?"  Frank turned and went into the living room.

Several hours later, Stephen slipped out of the hot and noisy house and stumped through the snow to their detached garage to get a shovel.  It took a few minutes to find it buried behind the rake and the lawnmower, not yet having completed its annual pilgrimage to the front of the seasonal tool pile.  Pausing for a moment in the middle of the driveway, the fog of his breath wreathing his head, Stephen reveled in the magical silence of the snow-covered neighborhood.  There were three or four inches of snow on the ground, but only a few drifting flakes now came from the sky.  He could hardly believe that only days ago he had been wearing shorts and eating Mexican food in Santa Monica, but it was moments like this that reminded him why he loved New England.

"Can you believe this crap?"  His neighbor’s voice shattered the magical silence.  "All day long I gotta move dirt, and then on my one day off what do I do?  Move snow.  Thank God I quit the plow crew this year.  How was your holiday?"

Richie Salvatti was what Jennifer’s mother politely called "the salt of the earth."  A backhoe operator, he had spent his entire 21-year career working on the Big Dig, Boston’s ill-fated effort to bury Interstate 93 beneath the city, and he had just kept digging after the project was finally complete.  Short and barrel-chested, generous with both his tools and his opinions, he was a good person to have around in a crisis, if not for a dinner party.  Stephen allowed himself a small sigh in mourning for the quiet moment lost, then began digging as he answered Richie.  "Uneventful, really, at least until the baby threw up on my father-in-law.  He’s trying to play the loving grandpappy and shrug it off, but it was one of his best suits.  Even if he gets it cleaned, I doubt it will ever smell quite the same again."  Stephen shrugged as he threw a shovelful of snow over his shoulder.  "I’ll never understand why he insists on dressing for dinner, anyway, when no one else does.  Sarah threw up on me, too, but I just changed my sweater."

"Yeah, what’re you gonna do?"  Richie offered philosophically.

"I’m actually glad that it snowed," Stephen continued.  "It gave me an excuse to get outside for a few minutes without looking like I was escaping.  Did I tell you that we have both families together for the first time this year?"  Richie snorted in disbelief.  "They’re actually behaving themselves pretty well so far, a few recipe-related squabbles aside.  Still, it’s really loud in there.  Better to come out and spend some quiet time with the driveway.  And I get a little workout in the process!"  He threw another shovelful in the air to demonstrate his point.

Richie spat in the snow.  "It’s all dirt, as far as I’m concerned.  The leaves are tree-dirt, this is sky-dirt.  The seasons change, but the dirt’s still here, and I gotta move it.  Ah, I don’t care!  It could be worse, right?  We could have had a nor’easter and your parents could all be stuck here overnight."

Stephen shivered.  "Bite your tongue."

The two men stood in silence for a few minutes, watching the snowflakes drift down from the gray sky.

“So, how do you think the Sox will do this year?” Stephen asked.

“Either win the Series or break our hearts, same as always.”

“Yeah.”

The front door banged open and Frank stood there, wearing an apron and carrying a dishtowel.  "Stephen, your mother told me to remind you that we have to leave in about twenty minutes.  Are you going to have the driveway cleared by then?"

"Yeah, I’ll be done in ten.  Will you be done drying the dishes, honey?"

Frank grinned and mimed a curtsy with his apron.  "Yes, dear.  Assuming your mom doesn’t find any more for us to wash, that is.  Mark and Stu have a good assembly line going in there, but she just keeps pulling things out of the oven, the cupboards, and the dining room.  I’m starting to suspect that we’ve washed some things twice, just for good measure."

"Well, I’ll pick up the pace here.  Do me a favor and make sure Jen gets the twenty minute warning, too, OK?  Experience says she’ll need at least that long to find the right pair of shoes."

"Will do."  Frank disappeared inside and Stephen put his back into the shoveling.

Thirty minutes later, Stephen, Jennifer, Frank, Mark, and Stu were crammed into Stephen’s car and driving carefully through the snowy streets toward a small theater in Brookline, destined for they knew not what kind of an experience. 

David had made good on his vow to bring avant-garde theatre to the masses of Boston.  After deep thought, he had decided that normal people didn’t avoid truly daring theatre because it was strange or, God forbid, incomprehensible, but because they didn’t understand it.  Thus came about "Theatre des Normales," or as Frank called it, "Avant-Garde for Idiots."  David’s first show was scheduled to open on Friday, to take advantage of, in David’s words, "the suburban need for post-gluttony entertainment."  David had invited the entire ADD project team to the final dress rehearsal.  Jennifer, seeing her first opportunity in months to leave the house in the company of adults, had cheerfully invited herself along as well.

They arrived late, and the rehearsal had already begun by the time they entered the small basement theater off of Brookline Avenue.  Even before opening the door, they could hear David berating someone in strident tones, anger thickening his accent to near unintelligibility.  As they slipped into the back of the theater, his voice became clearer.  They saw him standing before the stage, dressed in knickers, a vest over a silk shirt, and a beige beret.  He was shouting at a mime and a dejected clown.

"No, no, it is all wrong!  You cannot simply drop the dead flowers down her pants; you must fling them there with joie de vivre and abandon, yet with precision!  If you do not do it correctly, how will the fat lady in the fourth row know that this means you are gay?"  He gestured toward an empty seat, "She has come, wearing her flowered dress and that ridiculous large hat, tired from a day of chauffeuring her fat children from band practice, soccer, and therapy, and she does not have the perception to pierce the fog of your imprecision!  She will never understand!  Minotaur!  You must come and explain it to her.  Yes, sit in the aisle and tell her exactly what is happening.  Answer her questions.  Be her Greek chorus, her guide, her muse.  Help her to keep up with us.  And tell her to remove the hat.  It bothers me!"

A Minotaur who had been attempting to hang itself upstage right set aside its noose and ran down into the theater, seeking the imaginary patron.  It stopped near the fourth row and turned back to look at David.  A muffled voice called, "Here?"

David waved him away irritably, "How should I know where she is?  She could be sitting anywhere.  Find her and make sure she understands.  No one leaves here without achieving a higher level of consciousness."

Stephen caught David before he could go back to berating the mime.  "Sorry we’re late.  Should we just sit back here, out of the way?"

David brightened slightly at the sight of them, and then considerably more when he saw Jennifer.  "Ah, you have brought the beautiful Jenny!  Bon soir, my sweet, I have missed your face at our company soirees these past months.  No, no, you must sit right in the middle to truly benefit from the blocking.  Just move the traffic cones and whipped cream over to one side.  We will not use them until the fourth act, anyway."

Three hours later, four dazed men and one bemused woman stumbled out of the theatre, closing the door quickly to cut off another Franco-artistic tirade.  They walked slowly back to the car, all five of them silent as they tried to process the experience they had just shared.  After about five minutes, Jennifer reached behind Stephen’s ear and swiped away some leftover whipped cream.  Licking it off of her finger, she said, "Maybe I’m just starved for entertainment, but I thought it was pretty good."

***

Stephen’s return to work after the long weekend was like being ambushed with buckets of ice water on the way out of a sauna.  Before he even sat down at his desk, he saw the voicemail light on his phone blinking furiously at him, its display announcing seven messages awaiting his attention.  He decided to get coffee first.  Outside.  When he returned from the Starbucks -- not the one right next door, but the one around the corner, because he liked their scones better -- he decided that he had stalled long enough.  Repressing a sigh, he settled into his chair, took a long pull from his cup, and resolutely pressed the voicemail button.

Fifteen minutes later, two things were clear:
  1. He needed to order his coffee "extra hot" in the winter if he wanted it to survive the walk back to the office.
  2. The advent of the holiday season had done little to improve the moods of his colleagues in LA.
A quick check of his email filled in the details.  Friday had clearly not been an extra day of rest for the crew at CouldBU.  The engineers had worked hard to make progress on their side project, which now appeared to be nearing completion, and Richard had worked equally hard to catch them at it.  All that either group managed to do was get in each other’s way and annoy everyone.  Frank and Kelvin would be relieved to know that the ADD team had not fallen behind in their development race by taking Friday off, but Stephen did not envy them the mood that would greet them when they returned to the office this afternoon.  He fired off quick messages to Frank, Kelvin, and Mark’s phones, warning them of storms ahead in LA.  They wouldn’t receive the messages until they landed, but this would at least give them a chance to brace themselves for the onslaught.  He trusted them to tell Stu, who refused to carry a cell phone even during work hours.

Stephen checked his watch.  He had a couple of hours yet before he could return any phone calls to LA.  It was time to bite the bullet and act like a project manager for a while.  With a sigh, he pulled up the project schedule on his computer and set to work trying to distill the chaos that this project had become into a neat chart of names, dates, and estimated work efforts.  Normally, he enjoyed this part of his responsibilities.  There was something soothing about seeing all the crazed creativity, the dead ends and backtracking, the logjams and breakthroughs of software development fall into nice, neat lines on a page.  It was like personally challenging the entropic forces of the universe to a duel and winning, at least on paper.  In this case, though, the pieces just wouldn’t fall together.  There were too many open questions, too many unknowns for even the grandest of assumptions to cover.  As an exercise -- and possibly a new stall tactic -- Stephen began to list some of them:
Assuming that:
  • We have no more distractions
  • The engineering team learns to work together
  • The entire cadre of Vice Presidents of Impractical Ideas locks the doors to the asylum long enough for us to catch up with everything that they’ve already asked for
  • Sgt. Dick refrains from placing key technical personnel in either the hospital or a special boot camp for engineers
  • Chuck, our latest friend in high places, finds a credible design firm that’s able to quickly produce a visual and user interface design that can be easily integrated with our currently programmed functionality without creating major rework
  • We don’t accidentally meet Rod face-to-face, thus avoiding the risk of being struck stone dead on the spot by his glory
  • LA is not struck by major earthquakes, mudslides, wildfires, coastal flooding, tsunamis, or apocalyptic traffic jams that delay our team in getting to work by more than fifteen minutes on any given day
…we have a 50% chance of completing this project on time.
Stephen looked at his list for a moment.  Sadly, it appeared that the last assumption was the most likely to be realized.  Resting his chin in his hand, he took a sip of cold coffee.  "Oh yeah, we’ll be fine."

***

Two days later, Stephen received the kind of surprise he had ceased to believe in since the summer:  a pleasant one.

"We’re done," Kelvin’s echoing voice stated definitively in Stephen’s ear.

Stephen checked the volume on the headset and then switched ears, just to be safe.  "Say that again.  I think the speakerphone distorted your words."

Mark, Frank, and Stu joined Kelvin in smug chorus, enunciating carefully.  "We.  Are.  Done."

Stephen shook his head in disbelief.  "Now, have we had the conversation on this project about what ‘done’ means?  It doesn’t mean, ‘done except for the twenty components I stubbed in and plan to finish when I’m supposed to be testing,’ or ‘done in the sense that it worked once on my laptop, but no one else could reproduce my results,’ or ‘I’m tired of this feature so it’s done.’  It means ‘done,’ as in ‘I have no more programming to do.’"

"Oh, well, in that case, we’re not ‘DONE done,’" said Kelvin.  "Not in the ‘you can all go home now, and thanks for your time’ done.  The prototype’s complete.  We won the race."

Stephen relaxed.  "Oh, OK… that makes more sense.  And hey!  You’re..." he checked the project calendar, "six hours ahead of schedule."

"We would have been done yesterday," offered Frank, "but Kelvin ‘one more thing’ Tsong had to slip the mimes in."

"Excuse me?  Did you say, ‘mimes’?"

"Yes, mimes.  You know:  skinny guys in white makeup, always walking into the wind or getting trapped in invisible boxes…"

"Ooh!  I like the one where the box starts shrinking and he can’t get out!" Mark jumped in.  "I saw a guy down on the pier who could fold himself smaller than a carry-on.  I gave him a dollar."

Stephen interrupted, "What does this have to do with us?"

"Oh, didn’t you get the memo?" Frank asked innocently.  "The VPs of Marketing have had another brainstorm."

Great: someone left the lock off of the asylum door again.  "No, I haven’t seen any memos yet.  They always seem to ‘forget’ to include me in the distribution list these days.  What’s the damage?"

Frank’s hesitation spoke volumes.  "I’ll, uh, forward it to you."

Stephen found he was actually tugging at the hair on the side of his head.  He carefully relaxed his grip.  "You know, in the jokes, they always open with, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’  You guys ought to try that next time."

"Now where’s the fun in that?"  Stephen heard a faint rustling as Frank spoke, as though several people were pointing and gesturing at each other.  Then Frank added, "Oh, there’s something else…" his voice trailed off again.

Stephen sighed loudly, and he didn’t care who heard.  "Just tell me already."

"They want a demo."

"Who, Thomas and his gang?"

"Oh, no, they don’t know we’re done yet.  We wanted to tell you the good news first."

"Words cannot express my gratitude," Stephen replied dryly.  "Who wants a demo, then?"

"The execs:  Rod, Robert, Brad, and—" Frank’s distaste was audible, "Richard.  Some VPs of something-or-other might also join us if they can be dragged away from whatever it is that they do.  Sarge came into the room right as we decided that everything was complete and heard that we had a prototype ready.  He ran and called Rod, so now we have a demo scheduled for tomorrow afternoon."  Frank perfectly mimicked Richard’s tones, "1600 hours sharp!"

Stephen quickly did the math.  "That’s 1900, er, 7 o’clock here!  Are they trying to cut me out of the picture?"

"I don’t know if you can try to cut someone out of a picture if you don’t see him in it in the first place," Stu observed quietly.  "Out of sight, out of mind.  More and more, Richard acts like he’s running the show here.  To be honest, I think most of the time he forgets that we work for ADD and not him."

 Stephen felt he should be stunned, but honesty compelled otherwise.  For a brief moment, he was tempted to give Richard his wish.  Fine, you want this whole mess on your shoulders?  Go for it, soldier-boy!  The moment passed, though, and he realized that he would never abandon his team to the less than tender mercies of a client that, if it were a person, would have been institutionalized for its own safety some time ago.  Stifling the sigh this time, he asked, "Any way we could reschedule it a little earlier, for the East Coast members of the team?" 

After a surprised pause, Kelvin said, "I’ll ask, but I doubt it.  I think that this was the only time Rod was available.  Apparently, he’s leading a takeover effort in Kuala Lampur.  Of a company, not the city; I confirmed that.  We weren’t scheduled to get his attention for several more days, but he was excited enough to make an exception."

Somehow, the idea of an excited Rod did little for Stephen’s already raw nerves.  "OK, see what you can do.  I’ll call Richard and Thomas and remind them that I’m still being paid to manage this project.  You go break the news to your buddies that they owe you dinner, and we’ll see how things go tomorrow."

***

To Stephen’s surprise, the demo actually went well.  Rod even started the meeting by apologizing to Stephen for the lateness of the hour.  This was astonishing not only because this required Rod to realize that he was inconveniencing someone else, but also to acknowledge that there were time zones other than whichever one he was in, what Stephen had come to think of as Rod Standard Time.  Considering this an auspicious omen, Stephen actually relaxed enough to eat the slice of pizza that he had picked up from his favorite Boyston Street pizzeria while Kelvin ran the presentation.  

His computer screen flickered in the half-light of the near-empty office, showing images transmitted from the other side of the country, many of which he was seeing for the first time right along with the CouldBU executives, all 20 of them.  While he had reviewed the development plans and the technical architecture of the product with Kelvin and Frank, the team had simply been moving too quickly for him to see the finished prototype.  Even today, despite being "done," the developers had made several last-minute tweaks that they thought would improve the demonstration.  As he watched Kelvin run it through its paces, Stephen was impressed.  He expected a lot of his team, but they had outdone themselves this time.  

The interface was stripped down and simple, typical of an engineering prototype, with few graphics and only hints of a color palette, but this only served to emphasize the powerful functionality of the application.  Stephen hoped that the crowd of faceless vice presidents who had joined the call could see that as well.  They were evidently well coached.  Before the demo had even begun, Stephen had explained the current situation with the visual design of the application, and they seemed to accept his explanation at face value.  One woman named Marie-Claire suggested alternate color schemes for every separate user group, insisting that dancers would be more comfortable with strawberry blonde rather than a simple light pink, and that musicians required cornflower blue as their dominant color, but after reassurances that her notes would be taken under advisement she settled down also.

Kelvin finished with the latest addition to the application.  "As you can see, the newest customer segment, mimes, has also been added.  We included database entries for both formal education and apprenticeships, as well as an option for listing mime styles, sub-styles, and which school of thought they subscribe to, based upon Jean-Claude’s recommendations.  The trickiest part for this section was muting all sound on video clips so as not to offend our clientele.  I figured out a way to do it, though," someone gently cleared his throat, "with Mark’s help.  That concludes the demo.  Does anyone have any questions or comments?"

Stephen found he was holding his breath as he waited for the ceiling to cave in on them again.  He almost wished that Kelvin hadn’t opened the floor, but his rational side realized that it wouldn’t have made any difference.  After a few moments’ silence, Rod spoke.

"Well, boys, this looks great, just great.  I can hardly wait to see it out there on the World Wide Whatchamacallit."  Stephen would have sworn he could hear Rod rubbing his hands together.  "So you figure it’ll be ready to launch in a week or two, just as soon as we slap the pretty pictures on?  Hell, we might even be able to offer gift subscriptions for Christmas!"

"No," replied Kelvin.

Rod’s gloating was drawn up short.  "What d’you mean, ‘No’?"

"We have months of work yet to do before this is production-ready," Kelvin explained.  "This is just a prototype:  there’s nothing behind it.  No database, no search engine, no credit card processing or fulfillment.  The code works, but it’s an empty shell.  Now that we know that we’re on the right track, we can start the real work of turning this into a product."

"The real work?  What the hell have you been doing the last three months?  Rod told me you said you were done!"

Stephen tried to break in, "Well, you see, there’s ‘done,’ and there’s ‘done.’  We’ve been trying to work on our definitions…"

"Screw your goddamn definitions!  When you tell me you’re done, then you goddamn well better be done!" Rod yelled.

Robert spoke up, "See, this is why you can’t trust engineers.  They’re tricky!"

"Shut up, Robbie!" said Craig.  "You’re one to talk about tricky, the man who makes his living off of other people’s talent and ideas!"

"Now, that’s not fair, Greg," said Brad, obviously calling in from a different room.

"Craig."

"What?"

"This is Craig, not Greg."

"Oh.  You two really are starting to sound alike, you know that?  You should consider introducing yourself before we talk when we’re on a conference call.  It’s only polite."

"Stick it, Brad."

"Well, that was uncalled for.  Anyway, Craig, Robert contributed to the business plan as much as anyone.  When I took my idea to him—"

"Our idea, you twit.  It was our idea, not yours, and we asked you for help finding an investor.  You were so high at the time, I’m surprised you could even remember the idea long enough to steal it."

"That’s not how I remember it," Brad huffed.

A general hubbub of accusations, maledictions, condemnation, and confusion broke out, with Marie-Claire’s voice briefly rising above it to ask if paisley could be a color option for folk musicians.   

"ENOUGH!" Rod bellowed.  "Everyone shut up and get off the phone except Richard, Stephen, and me!"  A flurry of clicks followed, accompanied by several mutters of "good-bye" and "thanks," and one "good meeting, everyone."  When they stopped, Rod spoke again.  "Who’s left?"

"I’m here, sir," Richard barked.

"I know.  I can still see you standing next to my chair.  Stephen, are you still on the line?"

"I’m here," Stephen replied tiredly.  He looked at his watch: 8:45.  He needed to be in bed soon.

"Son, this just won’t do.  I have a company -- well, several companies, actually -- to run here, and I can’t be getting people all excited about a launch just to tell them it’s off for a couple of months.  It looks bad, you understand?"

"I apologize for the confusion, Rod, but this has been on the project schedule for months, and it hasn’t changed.  I just sent you an updated schedule yesterday.  Did you see it?"

"Aw, I hate those things:  all those lines and bars and diamonds and lists of details that I don’t need to know.  I never look at them."

Glad I spent three hours on that yesterday, Stephen thought, but he said, "Well, let me summarize for you:  we’re still on schedule to launch at the end of February, in time for the Oscars, as you and I discussed.  Any confusion from other quarters," here he sent a psychic jab at Richard, hoping that he would feel it but realizing that it would probably never get through the thick skull, "while unfortunate, hasn’t affected that plan."

"I appreciate your confidence, my boy, but I don’t know if I share it.  This incident has shown me that we need better communication between the development team and upper management.  I’m going to ask Richard to take a stronger hand in the day-to-day management of the team while you’re away in Boston.  You can still manage the team’s general direction as well as the integration with the design team in New York, since you’re out there.  Richard will own the relationship between all of the engineers and the rest of the company and make sure that they all work at top efficiency.  We need to steer into the skid here and start showing some real progress."

"I’m not sure how that will help—" Stephen began, but Rod cut him off.

"Gotta go:  they need me here too.  You and Richard can work out the details later.  And tell Chuck I said hi when you see him.  We go way back."  He hung up.

After a moment of silence, Richard said, "I apologize if there was a miscommunication, Mr. Connelly.  In the field, you can sometimes be at a tactical disadvantage, especially when trying to run a squad remotely."  Stephen sensed a hint of triumph in his voice.  "I am sure we will straighten it out."

I’m sure we could, if you would stop running to Poppy every time you think you have a bit of news.  "We’ll find a way to make this work, though I would ask that you check with me before making too many more changes.  Engineers are highly logical creatures, but they have to be creative as well.  If you screw with their environment too much, you could see the exact opposite of the results you were hoping for."

"I think I know which buttons to push, Mr. Connelly.  You may know engineers, but I know men.  I know how to get the most from them, and now I will.  My way.  I’ll take it slow, but I still intend to turn these boys into the highest-performing team that the software world has ever seen.  And we will have no more miscommunications.  Everything will be crystal clear and in regulation order from now on.  Trust me on that."

Stephen ran his hand through his hair and fought the urge to lay his head down on his desk.  He was too worn out to fight this any further today.  "OK, why don’t you write up your ideas for changes and we can discuss them tomorrow by phone."

"I have a better idea:  I have several new regulations to put in place, so I will share them with the team over the next few days.  You and I can discuss them in New York next week, after your crew has had time to settle into the new routine."

"New York?  You’ll be coming out here?"

"Yes, I will be standing in for Rod at the visual design meeting next week.  Chuck’s new design firm has already created a new conceptual design for CouldBU and they are ready to present next week.  I assumed someone had already notified you."  Richard almost sounded genuinely puzzled.

Stephen pressed his lips together in a grim smile.  "No, no one has notified me.  I’m glad to hear that things are moving so quickly on that front.  OK, I’ll keep in touch with my team this week and see you next week in New York.  I don’t suppose you could send me the information about where and when we’ll be meeting?"

"I will be glad to.  See you in New York."

"I can hardly wait."