I glanced at the clock on the dash one last time as I climbed from my car. 8:56AM, just four minutes until I would be late. I locked the door as I scrambled down the ramp of the parking garage and made my way to the exit. I was really lucky to spot a space on the first floor; that almost never happened. Especially not on a day when I was pressed for time. The fact I was pressed, of course, was my own fault. I was a terrible morning person and had a bad habit of turning the alarm off and closing my eyes for just a few minutes. A few sometimes turned into about thirty. When that happened, I'd find myself in the position I was currently facing.
I bounced on the balls of my feet, impatient for a break in traffic. Though there was a pedestrian crossing from the entrance to the garage to the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, complete with a warning sign that state law requires motorists to stop for foot traffic, cars whizzed by without so much as tapping their brakes. Seeing my chance I dodged across the street, balancing my coffee cup, and why the hell did I still have my keys in my hand?
I crossed the lobby and managed to get on a nearly full elevator which got me to the second floor with less than a minute to spare. Now that I was in the office I felt more relaxed. Relieved, actually, to have dodged the being-late bullet. Of course, this meant that tomorrow I'd be back to my old tricks. I hung my coat on the hook in my cube, took my laptop from my carry bag and then hung my bag from its strap over my coat.
After placing the laptop on the docking station and turning it on I headed to the break room to see if coffee was on offer.
“Morning, Brandon.” The young blond woman with the long hair and contacts that changed the color of her eyes smiled at me. Jesus, those teeth were unnaturally white.
“Good morning, Lacy,” I replied. “How are you? Still hitting the gym?”
“You bet!” she smiled. “I met this guy there last week. We're supposed to go out but, you know,” she said while wrinkling her nose, “I don't know.”
I moved around her and filled a cup with coffee. “I keep telling you, go back to school.”
“I know, but the guys in the gym are so hot!” she said and laughed.
“Mmm hmm. All they see are your physical assets, dear,” I replied. I hoisted my cup toward her in mock salute and headed back to my desk. As I crossed the office space I was thinking about Lacy and her perpetual dating carousel and, thus, wasn't fast enough to dodge my first real problem of the day.
“Bran, morning. Hey listen, we had a downstate shipment and the vendor is complaining about the reporting. Can you have a look?” The voice came from Rodney Zales, the big boss. He started to turn away and I spoke up before he got away.
“Mr. Zales? Do you know which shipment it was? Or do you have the serial numbers?”
He frowned lightly. “You know, I don't. Why don't you check with Mark in shipping, okay?” He nodded at me as if he'd imparted great wisdom and walked back toward his office.
Shit. That was typical of the man. He had a very 'macro' view of our business but insinuated himself into 'micro' issues with little information and no idea how things worked. Although he'd said downstate, it wasn't to be trusted – in fact I'd question if reporting were the actual issue. I headed back to my desk and logged in. My first order of business was to send Mark Gelman in shipping a quick email about the machines the boss was asking about. I did that, then sent another email to sales in order to see if anyone there knew the specs the machines in question were supposed to have, assuming I could figure out where they were sent in the first place. 'Downstate' could encompass a wide area but that assumed Zales had got that much right.
“Hey, Bran,” said Travis Whitman, the guy who worked in the next cubicle over.
“Morning, Travis,” I replied distractedly.
“What'cha working on? Hey, were there any bagels in the break room?” he asked as he hung his coat and placed his laptop on the docking station.
“Um,” I turned to look at him. “Holy shit, Trav. What happened to you?”
“Ugh,” he said and waved a hand at me. “Played a pick-up football game with the boys and their friends. I was gonna catch one for a touch down but the ball was wet from the snow and it slipped through my fingers – boinked me in the eye.”
I winced. “Ouch.”
“Yeah. Lacy in? I'll tell her there were at least three guys I fought with before one of them got this lucky shot in,” he said with a grin.
I shook my head. “You're wife is going to kill you, one day.”
He snorted and laughed. “She's doing her best now! What about those bagels?”
“I didn't see any. Grab me one if you do? I have to track down some phantom machines that allegedly have some sort of reporting problem,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
“You got it,” he replied and headed off. Travis returned at some point and dropped off a bagel with cream cheese at my desk. I grunted my thanks and went back to studying the spreadsheet showing the last three weeks' worth of deliveries. You'd think someone would know if they had malfunctioning machines in the field!
“And this is Brandon Crosby and Travis Whitman. Guys, this is Hal Fremont. He's joining the sales staff today.” I glanced up, ready to give a cursory greeting but was drawn up short. I started to stand up and banged my thighs into the desk. Wincing I finished standing and held my hand out.
“Nice to meet you, Hal,” I said.
“Pleasure,” Hal said as he smiled and shook my hand. He repeated the gesture with Travis, and if there were ever a study in contrasts between people, it was Hal and Travis. Travis was about six-foot-four, around two hundred and seventy pounds and had tattoos lacing up and down his forearms; they were on display due to the Henley shirt he wore. Hal was a diminutive five-foot-five, slender and was dressed in a tan suit that looked the tiniest bit big on him. His blond hair was short and spiky and his green eyes sparkled, while Travis's dark hair was buzzed with an ever growing portion of it that was going gray. Travis's eyes were a warm brown, but again a complete contrast.
“So if you need help with any IT related issues, these are your guys,” Harvey Givens, the sales manager said to Hal.
“Great. I look forward to working with you guys,” he said, flashing a smile that rivaled Lacy's in white wattage. Hal and Harvey walked on, I assumed to continue Hal's tour of the office.
“Bran.” I glanced at Travis who brushed the front of his shirt and looked meaningfully at me. I glanced down to see my shirt coated in crumbs from the bagel.
“Ugh, dammit!” I groused and wiped my shirt off. Travis chuckled and we both got back to work.
At six I finally gave up. No one knew which machines Mr. Zales was talking about and I'd spent a fair amount of my day trying to track them down. I powered down my laptop and grabbed my coat and bag. On the way home a sports radio program washed through the car, but I barely paid any attention. I hated not knowing what Mr. Zales was talking about, and I knew he'd ask at a later date and I wouldn't have an answer. Of course if he wasn't so goddamn mysterious about it, that would help.
I jingled my keys as I walked down the hallway to my apartment. As I reached to place my key in the door, a bang from behind me caught my attention and I turned to see a neighbor, Mona Shelters, having just slammed her door. She glanced around, noted me and gave an apologetic wave and headed down the hall. Her apartment door opened immediately and a girl stuck her head out.
“Mom! We need butter, too!”
Her mother waved over her shoulder and turned the corner.
“Bitch,” the girl muttered. She turned and noticed me watching the spectacle. “Never see someone go out for groceries before?”
“Not like that, no,” I said. I turned and pushed my key home and entered my apartment. Mona Shelters had moved in a few months ago with her son and daughter. Mona struck me as someone who wasn't going to be around very long – always living on the edge, it seemed. Being a single parent played a part, I'm sure. The daughter was a little rough around the edges, but then I'd heard teenage girls can be a real nightmare. The son was a little on the thin side and wasn't as vocally rude as his sister. That's not saying much since he didn't even bother to acknowledge people around him from what I'd seen.
Once inside I dropped my coat over the back of the couch and tossed my keys onto the table by the door. I flipped on the lights in the kitchen and opened the fridge.
“It's leftovers or leftovers. Well, wine will make that better,” I said aloud and pulled out a plate of food and popped it into the microwave. Then I took a bottle from the fridge and a wine glass and walked into the living room. I turned the light on and looked down at a photograph on the table by the sofa. A man smiled back, a young girl tucked beside him.
“Well, guys, Zales struck again. Wasted my whole day,” I said to the picture as I half-filled my glass. “He just tells me about some random problem and doesn't tell me little things like where the machines are.”
The microwave dinged as I took a sip. Walking toward the kitchen, I kept talking to the picture. “A new guy started today. I'm sure Lacy is already sharpening her hooks.”
I pulled the food from the microwave, and after grabbing a fork, sat down in the living room. Between bites and sips I told the picture about my day. I groused about Zales and moaned about Lacy and how she'd never pull her head from her ass. I chuckled about Travis and our easy friendship. When my meal was done I poured another half glass and then corked the bottle. After dropping the plate in the sink and returning the bottle to the fridge I went back to the living room and picked up the photo.
I sat on the sofa and sipped from the glass as I looked at them, frozen in time in the frame and smiling back at me.
“Sometimes, Ray, I'm glad you and Amber went together. She was always closer to you than she was me.” I tipped the glass toward the image. “But you spoiled her. I was the rules guy.” I took a sip and then sighed. “Sweetie, I wish I'd spoiled you, some. I really do.”
I replaced the picture and changed from my work clothes. I put on some music to wind down by. After staring at a computer screen all day I wasn't really big on spending much free time with a TV, though I'd give in to spend some time gaming as the mood struck me. I cleaned up from dinner and turned the music down before picking up my current read. It wasn't long, though, before the text blurred and I decided just to rest my eyes for a moment.
I awoke with pale light coming in through the blinds. I yawned and stretched, my body unhappy at spending the night in my recliner. I glanced toward the kitchen to check the time on the microwave. 8:10. Oh, my God. I raced through my morning routine and barely made it to work on time. Once more, as I settled in, I grew calm at not having actually been late. I really had to avoid nights in the recliner, though. I was a touch achy.
Once seated with my coffee I checked email to see if anyone else had gotten back to me about these machines with reporting issues. Travis showed up a few minutes later and soon dropped a bagel on my desk.
“Thanks,” I said absently.
“You look like crap. Find those machines?”
“Gee, thanks! I guess that means no going to prom?” Travis laughed and I moved on to his question. “Yeah, I think so.” I scanned the pertinent email. “I hate our delivery company. They just drop things off and if they aren't working, they don't really seem to care. Shouldn't that be part of their contract? Deliver and set up?”
“Well, don't hold your breath,” Travis said as he leaned toward me. “I head Zales likes 'em because they work for peanuts.”
“Great,” I muttered. We hadn't shipped a great number of machines from our location, so I started with the last few week's worth of deliveries. I dug through the software load the machines were supposed to have and then reached out on the network to see what was actually on the units in question. With a tired sigh I found that some idiot had loaded the wrong software bins - the ones that related to taxes and identifying non-taxable items as well as adding in taxes for things like gasoline. I figured the client would be screaming at sales so I headed over to their department to explain the situation to the sales rep and start working on a solution.
“Harvey,” I said as I poked my head in his office. “Got a sec?”
“Oh, sure! What's happening?” he asked, waving me in and pointing to a chair in front of his desk. Harvey was a good guy, pushing retirement age and fighting it because he didn't want to spend all that time with his wife.
“Mr. Zales told me yesterday about some machines that were reporting incorrectly and I just tracked them down – he didn't know where they'd been delivered or what the serial numbers were.”
“He still thinks the Bulls are the team to beat,” Harvey said with a chuckle. “I tried to tell him Jordan retired but some people like their fantasies. I'm off topic; what about these machines?”
I handed him a printout. “It looks like they went to South Carolina. I've highlighted the important—”
“They loaded the wrong accounting package? Are you kidding me?” he moaned and slapped the pages onto his desk. “These warehouse guys are killing me. Didn't delivery run a setup check? I thought we were a technology company for cripes sake!”
“Yeah, tell me about it. So, I figured the sales person should know and my first plan was to see if I can connect remotely and load the new software over the network. The machines will be unusable while I do that, though. On top of that it's over the satellite network so the load will take in excess of twelve hours. I figured the sales person would want to speak to the customer.”
“Okay, I'm glad you have a plan. Ah, let's see,” he said as he glanced at my paper work and tapped a few keys. “Crap. Figures.”
He leaned back and sighed, pulling off his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Lance McKee. You know him?”
I thought for a second. “Yeah. Started in the warehouse, moved into sales part-time, right?”
“Right. Well, he didn't stick. Cocky bastard walks in to see me a week ago and says I have to give him a raise because he wants to buy a house. Can you believe that?” he asked, his mouth hanging open. “He didn't say his sales numbers were up or his efficiency in the warehouse had improved, no. He comes in and says his girl is preggers, he's going to buy a house and I should just cough up a raise – like I have that kind of authority to begin with!”
“Wow. Ballsy,” I replied.
“No shit, right? Well, he didn't get his raise, and he headed out in a huff. I told the warehouse they could keep him. Get this,” he said as he leaned forward. “His warehouse supervisor had fired him earlier that day. He was trying to get into sales full time without mentioning he didn't work for us anymore. I mean the chutzpah of this kid!”
I chuckled as I searched my mind for an image of Lance. I think he'd been a thin young guy with dirty blond hair. He'd always struck me as someone who wasn't playing with a full deck.
“Well, I just gave Hal the accounts Lance had worked. Can you fill Hal in on the details? He's going to need a hand soothing that customer and knowing the options for solving this will be critical.”
“Oh, uh, yeah. I can do that,” I told him.
“Great, thanks, Bran. I appreciate it. I have to head over to the conference room. It's time for the weekly meeting of the no-minds,” he said with a wry grin as he grabbed a legal pad and a couple of pens. I preceded him out of his office and glanced around at the sales floor. There were about six people in the bullpen looking at computers or on the phone. I didn't like the clear plexiglass stripe that let you see into their cubes at about chest level. Absolutely no privacy, even when you ate your lunch at your desk.
I spotted Lacy sitting on the corner of a desk, smiling and apparently being attentive. As I approached I wasn't surprised to find Hal as the object of her attention.
She spotted me and grinned. “Hey, Brandon. Have you met Hal Fremont?”
Hal stood and smiled at me. “Yeah, we met yesterday, right? It was kind of a whirlwind of introductions!”
I smiled back at him. “I'm sure it was. Don't worry if you forget, it'll take a little while to learn everyone's name.”
“Except mine,” Lacy said with a wide smile. “See you at lunch, Hal?” She turned without being answered and strutted away.
I looked at Hal and he was looking around a little uncomfortably. I was guessing Lacy had come on too strong. Hal sat down and then seemed to remember I was there and looked up at me. He had a heart-shaped face and his expression was of mild apology.
“I'm sorry, did you need me?” he asked.
“I'm afraid so,” I told him and cleared my throat. “According to Harvey, you have the South Carolina sales territory?”
“Uh, yeah, I think I do,” he said and glanced at a list taped to the wall. “Yes, I do,” he confirmed and looked back to me expectantly.
“Your predecessor sold them a set of five units. They are supposed to be a test group for a possible statewide rollout. Unfortunately someone loaded those units with the wrong accounting files and the customer isn't happy.” As I told Hal this, his face sagged slightly and I couldn't help but feel a little for him.
“Crap. Okay, so I have to call the customer to advise them, I guess. What about a fix? Is there anything I can tell them about how we're going to correct this? That would be the first step, right?”
“Right. I can see the machines on the network because they're logged in. I can load the correct software but the machines will be down for over twelve hours because loading over the network is kind of an intensive load.” He rubbed his face lightly.
“Okay. Um, is there a second option? Anything faster?”
I lifted an eyebrow in approval; the guy had some brains. “Yes and no. We could overnight flash sticks with the proper programming and send a local third party tech in to load the software. Or we could place the proper files on a shared drive that the third party can access and burn onto sticks. Takes an extra day either way, but with a tech on site we get confirmation the load is correct.”
“What about an overnight download, outside of their business hours?”
I winced. “It's possible. I mean, yes, it can be done if that's what makes the customer happy,” I told him. If they wanted that, yours truly would be stuck with that job. “Again, we can't see the terminal physically so if it's misbehaving due to a missed packet or something, we won't know.”
“Huh. Well, I guess I shouldn't push toward anything in particular, but give them a choice, right? If I bring up the faster one second they'd probably like that because it minimizes loss of sales, right?” he asked, almost as if to himself.
“I guess so, but you're the rep for this account. Let me know what you want to do, okay?”
“Okay,” he said and smiled widely. “Thanks. I'm not too excited to have to make a call like that but at least I have the right details, now.”
I nodded and headed back to my desk. I dropped heavily into my chair and took a sip from my coffee cup. Ugh, lukewarm.
“So. Where'd you go?” Travis asked.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “To Harvey's office, why?”
“Oh, headed over to sales, did you?” he asked in a teasingly superior tone of voice.
“I did,” I replied suspiciously. “Why do you ask?”
“Ohh, maybe just because we got a certain new employee that might just be right up your alley,” he said smugly. “Oh, and because you always call me a pig for hanging out by Lacy. Your turn, piggy,” He snorted as I felt heat rushing to my face.
“I did not go over to gawk at him,” I retorted. “He's the sales rep for this account Zales told me about yesterday.”
“Well,” he said, pushing his tongue into his cheek. “Isn't that convenient?”
“Hey, guys,” Lacy said as she suddenly appeared in the aisle between our cubes. “We're ordering in for lunch today to welcome Hal.”
“Oh yeah?” Travis asked as he leaned back in his chair. “What did you talk Zales into?”
“We're having pasta salad, cold cuts with a cheese platter and cookies for dessert,” she said, taking the idea that she'd flirted her way into an office lunch as her due. “Make sure you let everyone know, okay?”
“Bran, do you think Hal knows about lunch?” Travis asked.
“Oh! He does,” Lacy jumped in. “I told him.” She looked at me and said, “And you know, he doesn't go to my gym. You're always telling me to stop trying to get dates at the gym!”
“Yes, but, an office romance, Lace? That's...asking for trouble.” I shook my head as she happily bounced off, ignoring me.
“You're just jealous,” Travis stage-whispered.
I snorted. “I am not. Guys like him aren't gay and if they are they go for guys that look the same way they do, not like me with my gut.”
“Oh, come on, Bran. That little guy is right up your—”
“Brandon? Hey! I got a hold of the corporate contact. He says they are using a workaround right now, but he'd like to have the software sent down and installed to minimize down time. How do I get that to happen?” Hal's face was slightly flushed and I wondered if he'd just overheard Travis and his big mouth. Well, I'll have to figure that out another time.
“I can burn the sticks for you. Lacy can overnight them to our vendor. Let me see who we use out there,” I said as I turned from him and accessed a database of third party contractors. He stood beside my desk and looked at my screen. From the corner of my eye Travis was pantomiming a blow job, the jerk.
“Um, I'd avoid Premier Tech. Conway tends to get things done, but my first pick would be Prescott Digital. They usually jump for us and are reasonable.”
“Great. Do I need to route this through anyone?”
“Talk to Harvey; I'm really not sure.” I gave him an apologetic look and shrugged. “I'll have the sticks burned within an hour for you.”
“Thanks, Bran!” he said and headed back toward the sales pit.
“Thanks, Bran,” Travis mimicked in a falsetto.
I frowned. “You need to get laid. You're less annoying when you're getting some.”
“I'm married,” he deadpanned. “That's ancient Egyptian for 'never getting laid again'.”
When lunch rolled around I made my way to the break room to make a plate. Lacy was standing next to Hal and smiling a lot. I rolled my eyes and made myself a sandwich, grabbed some pasta salad and a couple of cookies to take back to my desk.
As I was putting on my coat to leave at five, Travis threw a wad of paper at me. “Bran, coming to darts tonight?”
“I'll be there,” I told him. He turned away from me to get his own his coat and I quickly emptied my wastebasket on his desk.
“Dick!” he said with a laugh. I grinned and headed for the door as he pushed the papers from my wastebasket into his own.
Darts was a weekly event. I belonged to a casual dart league with Travis, his wife Dawn and their friend Kim. We played faithfully once a week, and while we liked to win it was more about hanging out and enjoying a few beers along with a plate of spicy chicken wings. Well, Kim did the spicy ones - I went mild or I'd get heartburn.
“Hey, Bran,” Dawn greeted me with a quick hug. “So tell me about the new guy at work. Trav says you're hot for him.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled a little. “Hi, Dawn. He's cute, name is Hal, and Lacy is planning to eat him for breakfast. Besides, you know Trav is my work husband.”
She rolled her eyes. “Lacy better land a man soon or she's going to end up being a cougar with nothing to offer a younger man,” she said with a snort.
“Like what? I don't get it,” I asked as I poured from the pitcher at her table.
“You know, like if she had money she could afford to keep a young man? This guy, Trav says he's young, right?” she asked and took a drink.
“Yeah, I guess he's maybe about twenty-five or so.”
“Right, and he's working sales. Commission sales. Lacy wants to be a kept girl. If she doesn't land someone soon, she's going to have to be the one looking to do the keeping if she wants to get laid.”
“Wait,” I said with a grin. “Trav says marriage means you never get laid.”
“His birthday and our anniversary,” she said with a nod and then burst out laughing. Travis joined us with Kim in tow.
“What's so funny? Bran, you stealing my girl? Please say yes, please say yes,” he said with a grin and Dawn lightly smacked his chest.
“I was asking Bran about the new guy,” Dawn told him.
“Bran wants him,” Travis teased. “Hey, I ordered wings for you; you're having wings, right?”
I adopted a low voice. “It's Tuesday. On Tuesday we drink beer and eat wings.”
“Can we try to win this week? We stink,” Kim asked and then laughed as she took a swig of her beer.
We whiled away a relaxing evening drinking light beer, eating wings and throwing the occasional dart in the general direction of the board. Kim was late to the party with respect to teasing me about the new employee, and Travis hammed it up about me helping him out earlier in the day. In between Kim told us the latest in weird things her kids were doing.
“Speaking of kids,” Dawn said and looked meaningfully at Travis.
“Do we have to? Can't we just leave them at your mom's house forever?” he said with a smile yet managing to whine all at once.
“Then we could have beer and wings every night!” Dawn said with a laugh. We broke up shortly afterward and I drove home with the window down, savoring the cool night air. In the parking lot of my building I passed the rude girl from the night before, Mona's daughter. She had a backpack and a bag in each hand. She climbed into a crappy car that was blaring music. I remember those days where the radio was the most valuable thing in your car – figuratively and literally. The tires chirped on the pavement as the car pulled away and I headed inside, dismissing her from my thoughts.
I don't really remember getting undressed, but at least this time I managed to climb into bed. As I closed my eyes I thought about Travis and his teasing. It was pretty fair, to be honest, as I busted his nuts in good fun. He and Dawn were tight, but that never stopped him from being a little bit of a pig. He wasn't wrong, though. Physically, Hal was right up my alley.
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