Saturday, April 18, 2015

Chapter 16: Gold

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 

          Atom Green was on the cusp of sleep but something kept pulling him back. He lay searching the dark ceiling and eventually it peeked through the cloud of daily routine, and he could no longer deny the time had come to move again, even though he was still top salesman. He shut his eyes but they blinked open. Reflection did not come easily. He’d set a course and devote his energies to pursuing it. Sleep came when the body shut down to re-energize and on waking he engaged the activities of the day.
          Nonetheless he knew the value of planning, which had after all brought him from restaurant management to sales, and then through sales job to sales job selling A to Z before settling on financial products. At Slade Insurance he believed he’d soar to the top and realize his potential. Circumstances were telling him otherwise.
          Earlier, he had his first look at his new sales territory; mostly light industrial with pockets of trendy boutiques in gentrifying areas. They were small businesses that had to be courted individually for premiums a single bad claim might dwarf. The wax on his wings was melting.
          A confounding image twisted his mind. Flying in blue sky toward the sun weighty mountains around him spring and on the peaks the sales staff are smiling and waving. He fills in the thought bubble: “We’re equal.”  He tried to shake it off, unwilling to accept the idea, not with the work he’d put in, not with his talent and aspirations.
          True, the changes affected everyone, who now had to devote time improving productivity of the new sales teams. No doubt he’d be near the top. The challenge was to be prominent individually. Elimination of the Top Ten chart worked against that.
          The nagging image flashed again. This time he feels the quaking rumble of mountains growing and the pull of gravity sucking him down. What if the rules changed again? A company might effect change to align goals to overall objectives, but if the objectives were coming unhinged then the goals might keep changing too. His energies would be sapped pursuing someone else’s concept of gold.
          Stephen Slade wanted to take the company public for a cash infusion. The company might grow by expanding lines of coverage or buying other companies, or the cash could be a boon for investors looking for a payoff. Through Helen Roy he knew that the CEO had been aggressively enlisting short-term investors, holding before them the prospect of the golden IPO. The condo figured into that scheme.
          His pulse quickened thinking about Helen. Her fresh face and unaffected manner charmed him, and her optimism was an inspiration. The idea of increasing the distance between them pained him, but it didn’t have to be. He reached for his cell phone and texted a message, “Get together later?” So late at night, he didn’t expect a quick reply but the clock was ticking for that and more. If he left, he wanted to take her with him.
          Resolved, the sleep overtook him.


The next chapter will be posted by May 24. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Chapter 15: Angle of Ascent

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                              and the woman important to each 


           Jeremy Port stepped from the edge of the room to the podium. Conversations tailed off and eyes shifted to the man with the white hair and the sunny smile stamped on a tanned face. That morning, his smile was less bright for being tasked with communicating something he didn’t fully comprehend.
          Before him, the sales force was attractive, dressed in expensive suits and smelling of aftershave, hair oil and perfume. Always intense, they looked annoyed at being called to a meeting they knew wouldn’t help them close the next deal, which made him proud to be their sales manager and sensitive to what he asked of them.
         The company had rented the conference room in a city of Carson hotel to avoid time wasted driving to downtown headquarters. Twenty rows of cushioned chairs radiated from the front. On a long table in back were two large coffee urns, a set-up of cups and saucers and ice water sweating in silver pitchers.
          He linked faces to names and performance. A few climbed at steep angles and exceeded their personal best each quarter, like Dave Forester and Atom Green. They sat toward the front: one, his high forehead capped by sandy brown hair, had the boyish charm. The other had olive skin, black hair parted down the middle and electric vitality. Their camaraderie fascinated him. In the old days competition precluded friendship. Most of the others were still climbing, though their leveling off point had already been prefigured by the angle of ascent: somewhere in the middle. The rest, hunger diminished, were circling as if to land. He put the percentages at five, sixty-five and thirty.
          “I appreciate you being here on such short notice.” Someone hooted, setting off a wave of disgruntled laughter and then a reaction. “Get on with it.” “Shhhh!” “Come on!”
          “For a long time Slade Insurance has operated on the principle that high performers lead the way, and others succeed by emulating them. Then everybody’s fortune rises. Certainly, we have the high flyers…” He nodded toward Forester and Green who affected not to notice. “And we’ve been giving some thought on how to help others break out. To that end, we’re making some changes.” 
          The gathering leaned forward, and he raised his left hand. “What hasn’t changed is that commissions will still be paid according to your annual contracts. These changes are focused more on intangible incentives.” He raised a finger to count off. “One. We’re eliminating the Top Ten Sales Chart for individuals. From now on, the Top Ten will track the top ten sales teams.
          “Two. Teams will be a mix of high and low performers.
.         “Three. The company is contracting for team-building services to help those teams succeed.
          “Four. The format of the annual sales conference will now emphasize the teams. Those are the changes. Any questions?” He grasped the podium with both hands, as the sales force paused to take it in.  He beamed, the hardest part being over no matter what they asked, since he didn’t know much more than what the CEO had scratched on a cocktail napkin. Slade had ordered change, and change there would be.
         A groan came from the back. “Teams, Jeremy. Really?” Laughter precluded the need for response, but the next question was dear to every salesperson’s heart. “Will this affect our territory?” He was careful. “I can’t say it won’t. We’ll have to see how it plays out.” His answer unsettled them, and they looked around as for someone who would know.
          A man he recognized as Patrick Hamel stood up. He wore green-tinged designer glasses and held a smart phone before him like evidence. “Why is this happening now? Sales have been up every quarter against the previous year’s result, and horizontally too.” Someone laughed. “You’re right, Pat. Overall, sales are up. With these changes, we hope to mine untapped potential.”
          “How will the teams be selected?”
           He improvised an answer. “Randomly…by computer.” More grumbling. Conversations buzzed throughout the room, and then a voice boomed, “Will there be sleepovers?” Laughter ruffled them, and Port picked up the vibe. “If it means more sales, we’re for it!”
          “What about SOQ parking?” At the mention of the tangible intangible only the top salesperson possessed, the room became quiet, which served to underscore his words.  “Effective immediately SOQ parking does not exist. Sorry, Atom.” The salesman flinched at the mention of his name, and seemed surprised to find himself the center of attention. He waved to dismiss the perk and eyes shifted back to the manager. 
          “We’ll keep you posted on the particulars.” He stepped from the podium to encounter a crush of people who demanded more answers but diminished on learning he had none. Already he had already said too much, because from his perspective sales was an individual sport. He wondered what the chairman thought and considered placing a call, but that could wait. When he reached his convertible in the lot, he steered toward the flying club near LAX. He had some friends there and could blow off steam.

The next chapter will be posted by April 26. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Chapter 14: Paralyzed

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                               and the woman important to each 


          After securing the checks in the safe, Helen showered and then dressed in black designer jeans, white cotton blouse and trim suede jacket with matching boots. Her auburn hair was pulled into a ponytail, and her sole cosmetic was gloss to the lips. She looked like a college coed going around the corner to Starbucks, but on her return she'd report for work to do record keeping and prepare the checks for deposit. Out of mind was the lover she chased away two hours before. 
          The long carpeted hallway always made her feel isolated and alone because she’d hardly ever encountered other occupants, though the leasing company asserted all the condos had been sold. At the door she punched in the code and waited for the click. When it didn’t come, she entered the code again. Still the lock did not release. She entered every digit deliberately and then stood dumbfounded when it wouldn’t open. Her cell phone held the number for Client Services, but feeling vulnerable she took the elevator down.
           Off the opulent lobby, a constricted hallway with bare floors led to the small, bright office; unoccupied. A pair of steel-frame chairs was set before a desk and phone. With practiced motion, she extracted the cell phone from her hip pocket and set fingers to work like a web-spinning spider.  After pressing send a shrill ring filled the room, making her feel the fool. But after three rings the line hiccupped and the call was forwarded to someone with a pleasant female voice that said, “Client Services.”
            She learned that Stephen Slade had ordered the code changed during the short while she was away, and only he could convey the new one. She thought it strange he would do so without letting her know. She called his cell and got voicemail. She tried his office and reached his secretary who said he was in but unavailable. Helen told her she’d be right up.
          She waited nearly thirty minutes in executive reception, aware of Betsy Murray’s scrutiny and tormented by speculative questions that set her heart racing. Why did he change it? What did he know? How did he find out? Though lacking any certainty, she already regretted bringing Atom over, while at the same time hoping for another, less personal explanation. When told she could go up, she resolved to be strong. 
            The elevator doors opened into his office, and she saw Slade seated behind his desk. Thin-lipped and grim beneath trim dark hair, his hooded eyes tracked her advance. An involuntary shiver rattled her forced smile and words stumbled from her mouth. “Stephen, I can’t get in.” He motioned to a chair and waited for her to settle in. Then he spoke.
          “The condo’s where we do the company’s work. Only people I authorize are allowed.”
          “Of course, but---”
          “No exceptions.”
          He was the rational manager with the business plan and list of workplace dos and don’ts to corral the wayward instincts of employees. He fixed his eyes on her and walked around the desk. She looked straight ahead. Circling, he came from behind to wrap his fingers around her head, ring and little hooked under the jaw, thumbs behind the ears. Four free ones drummed her cheeks. She tried slipping away, but her stretched neck threatened to tear. “Stephen!”
          He readjusted his grip to palm and squeeze it. She was paralyzed, whimpering. He touched his head to hers and spoke low and slow. “You’ve made yourself at home, and I like having you near. For me, and no one else.” His right hand clutched her throat. The other cupped her chin then wandered to caress her face. “For me and no one else,” he repeated, like words murmured in a dream. “Understood?”
          Tears streamed down her face. She nodded. He released her and wrote the code on a slip of paper that he gave her. Sobbing, she flew into the elevator and stabbed at the buttons. Falling back against the wall, she gasped: the doors weren’t closing. Beyond in the office, she could see him watching. 
          He pointed with the index finger of his right hand. “Compose yourself. What goes on between you and me stays between us. Understood?” She wiped her face with the back of her hand and struggled for calm. After some long moments, he made a motion under the desk. The doors closed.
          Her agitation being so obvious to her, she didn’t know how anyone else could miss it as she made her way back, trembling and flushed, to the condo. The unfamiliar numbers seemed like a violation yet they granted access, to a new horror: the bed was undone, the bedspread spilling onto the floor. Dresser drawers lay open, revealing her personal things and lending meaning to his words. The feeling of being violated resurfaced, as did the sense memory of his fingers gripping her head. She pushed in the drawers, trying to restore some semblance of order to the room and to her mind.
          “Take it all and haul it to my car,” is what she thought she should do, but a small dissenting voice inside questioned whether she was being too precipitous. “Think of what you have. Are you willing to give it up?” 
          She liked the flexibility an abundance of free time and money lent, and being close to the CEO made her feel important, part of the action. If she walked out, she’d have to start all over. Then her mind gamboled over to thoughts of Atom Green and a pleasurable glow radiated through her body. He hadn’t mentioned him by name, and not bringing him to the condo would be an easy condition to meet. They could make love at his place or anywhere other than the condo. Easy. 
          After straightening the sheets, she lifted the bedspread back onto the bed and pulled on one end and then the opposite to line them equidistant to the floor. Done with physical tasks, she had also concluded her deliberation. She would not throw it all away. She’d draw a line and call him out if he transgressed, and meanwhile restore herself in his eyes by doing her job well.
         Resolved, she went to her workstation in a corner of the bedroom. Below the table that held her laptop, she reached down to twirl the dial of the safe: a couple of spins right, and then stop on the first number, then left for the second, and right again. Something felt off though, a sense more than a thought. She pulled down on the handle and when it wouldn’t open, the reality hit. She lowered her head and cried.

The next chapter will be posted by April 19. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Chapter 13: Stay

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                            and the woman important to each


          Helen had felt cold. “Stay,” she said to his back. Atom twisted around to train his soft brown eyes on her. He smiled and fell back into bed where she wrapped arms around him, pressing against his heat.
           She had made the condo her home, though much was in storage, and squirreled personal items into drawers and closets. Maid service helped maintain a tidy, unlived-in look. On her increased salary, she could afford her own place but hated the idea of paying rent when the condo was free. Atom was unaware because he never saw her “at home”. Usually, they made love at his place, but that Sunday night the condo was closer, so he parked his Mercedes coupe in the SOQ spot in the underground garage. The absence of the limousine signaled it was clear.
          Another thing Atom didn’t know of was her intimate relationship with the CEO. Their liaisons often took place after investor parties. Then, Stephen always had someplace to be and left first, which suited her. Even before moving in, she made it clear she’d rather leave in her own car than be dropped off. Now he never offered and she’d sit on the settee in the expansive bathroom, wearing a green silk robe and brushing her auburn hair until sure of his departure. Only then did she prepare for the next day, and sleep.
          But that next morning with Atom beside her, she panicked. Monday meant Bill coming over with investor checks. She shook him by the shoulder. He wouldn’t rouse so bringing knees to her chest, she pressed the soles of her feet against his back and thrust. He tumbled onto the floor. His head popped up with a look of sleepy astonishment. “You’ve got to go. Hurry!”
          He grabbed his briefs and t-shirt on the way to the bathroom, where he splashed water on his face then returned to the bedroom to finish dressing. Helen was smoothing the zebra-motif bedspread. He tucked a white cotton shirt into pre-faded designer jeans then approached from behind to buss her neck. She pulled away. “Go!”
          Departing with an amused smile and body aglow from the passionate night, he thought it just as well: he had calls to make if he were to repeat as Salesman of the Quarter. He ran a hand over his dark hair with the part in the middle. His clean-cut good looks were such that he could have stepped into a business meeting right then but for the clothes. In the garage, he passed the limousine on the way to his car. He noticed a thin thread of smoke coming from its window and the smell of tobacco.
          Bill waited for him to drive away before exiting the limo. His eyes winced, not from the smoke but from the unfamiliar sight of Atom Green leaving early on a workday morning. “From where?” He had an idea and dropped the butt to the ground and snuffed it out with his shoe. After adjusting his black suit coat, he reached inside the cab for the manila envelope.
          He had gotten used to Helen being in the condo on Mondays, so instead of going in and putting the envelope in the safe, he simply handed it over. The difference was less effort on his part and of no consequence. He pressed the buzzer. When she opened the door, he scrutinized her less-than-neat hair, bulging eyes and sweatshirt and jeans.  She took the envelope and shut the door. He thought of the salesman and made the connection. How would Slade take that news, when pilfering of a valuable statue couldn’t faze him?
          Stephen Slade, seated in a high-backed leather chair, displayed a sneer on his pale angular face. Others did not intrude on his routine. He didn’t offer a chair and gestured with his right hand: get on with it. Bill didn’t like what he was feeling so served it raw: “That salesman, Atom Green, is screwing Helen in the condo.”
          “How do you know?”     
           Bill’s black-and-white worldview and the desire to make him squirm erased any doubts he had in the telling. Slade leveled dark opaque eyes on the chauffeur. His sneer arched, growing sinister. “What else?” Bill shook his head and left.
          The chief executive officer in the expensive gray suit and highly polished burgundy loafers went to the back wall and ran his finger along the wainscoting, as if checking for dust. A button triggered the release that revealed the hidden door. He passed through into the corridor leading to the skywalk and the Wayfare Hotel.
           Bearing the confidence that came with ownership, he punched in the code and entered the condo. The panoramic window admitted a city view into a front room ready for the next investor party. His nose twitched at vapor in the air, which he followed unannounced into the bedroom and then into the bathroom. Steam still coated the shower walls, but she wasn’t there. He returned to the bedroom to stare at the bed. His mind sketched in the pair of them, Helen and him. Then he reached across to strip away the bedspread. Wrinkled sheets and the thought of someone else infected his thoughts. He exploded. “Not on my dime!”
          Then in a frenzy, he searched for proof of what he didn’t want to believe. Instead, he found more proof of Helen: silky panties, assorted socks and neatly folded jeans. In the closet hung the dresses she’d worn to the parties. Though logical her things would be there, the quantity surprised. To his way of thinking the condo was a workplace but these indicated a private dwelling space --where unwanted people might visit. He had to set her straight.

The next chapter will be posted by March 22. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Chapter 12: Compassion

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 


           Bill drove the limo up the curving drive to the mansion with the pale rose-tinted facade. Two columns framed heavy double doors of the front entrance. They did not appear to get much use, and that put him in an even fouler mood.  Already he was pissed that Stephen Slade had interrupted him to demand a pick-up, making a ragged edge of a week off. Now the mansion reminded him of those above ground shrines in New Orleans cemeteries, and death. His brother recently passed and the family was caught short of money to bury him. That pissed him off too.
          Aching bones laid into a tub, and he never came out. Police and EMT arrived and then the coroner who hauled the dead weight to the mortuary. That ringing in the ears was the register scoring another profit. Bill lived on a cash basis without much of value to pawn, so he fell back on what he knew. Calling in a favor, he took possession of a brick, cut it then dealt it. He was in and out before anyone could respond, which was a good thing: the streets were more vicious now.
          Switching off the engine, he stepped outside where the King County heat swamped him. The sun reflected off his shaved head and his dark suit clung like a winding cloth. At the door, he leaned on the bell but the oversized tomb did not respond at once. About to blast the bell again, he heard soles slapping hard surfaces and then the door swung open to reveal a small gray-haired woman in floor-length white robe. He knew her as Slade’s mother, Rhea. “Can I help you?” He explained and she invited him in. On entering, two adolescent boys peeked around a corner to scrutinize him before disappearing. “Have a seat in the library. I’ll tell him you’re here.”
            Shelves of books filled the walls around leather armchairs beneath a high ceiling. He felt out of place, and then he spotted a small statue on a round table. About six inches tall, it was jade green and female, apparently though not certainly. Two hands held an upturned vessel. The sharp edges of its gown conveyed motion.
          “That’s Kuan Jin,” said Rhea, returning with a glass of lemonade. “The Bodhisattva of Compassion. Bodhisattvas vow not to enter nirvana until all the other beings of the world do before them.” She gave him a what-do-you-think-of-that look.
          “I don’t know nothing about bootyfatwas or nervyana.” He sipped the cool beverage as an indulgent smile crossed her face. “Being compassionate is the point. I’ll see what’s keeping Stephen.”
          Alone again, Bill stared at the statue and thought of his other job as bouncer: “Crowds behind the rope line don’t wait to be last. ‘Me first. Damn the rest.’” His stubby finger tapped its head. “Toys for rich people.”
          Heavier footsteps approached and he slipped it into his pocket before turning to see Stephen Slade. He was dressed in tan slacks and an open collared striped shirt. With blue blazer draped over one arm, he held a briefcase and Blackberry in his opposite hand. “Let’s get going.”
          Down the long drive and through the gate that closed remotely behind them, Slade focused his attention on his mobile device until a pothole rocked the limo. He shot a look at Bill who was unapologetic and thinking, “Go to the sticks and this is what you get.” Thirty minutes later they reached the highway leading to the interstate and Bill held up the statue. “Look familiar?”
          Annoyance then mocking scorn flashed on Slade’s face. “Don’t tell me you want to stick it to the dash.”
          “You don’t know everything you own. This was in the library.”
          “What’s it doing here?”
          “Mrs. Slade was telling me about compassion.”
          “Keep it.”
           “What’s it worth?”
           Slade was dismissive. “Ten.”
           Bill slid its base across the dash until the head bumped the windshield. “I don’t want it.” Slade’s eyes narrowed.
           At Slade Insurance, the CEO entered the lobby holding the figurine like a soda bottle. “Worth enough,” Bill thought, “to bury someone but they wouldn’t suffer if it broke.”  Thinking how Mrs. Slade would alert her son to the theft, a laugh rumbled inside him. “Been blamed for worse.”      


The next chapter will be posted by February 8. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Chapter 11: Pools

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 


             Rhea Slade lay on turquoise water and gazed into the deep azure sky. In the surrounding distance, the sun burned summer grasses brown and scattered groves of trees offered sacred shade. The sandstone mansion that was the Slade vacation estate blended columned porticos into the austere landscape, and poolside luxury put her on top of the world, far from working-class Kansas whose memories lingered despite living three-quarters of a life as corporate spouse. Petite and pewter-haired in a modest one-piece bathing suit, she splashed the water about.
“What you doing, Grandma?” shouted Gerald.
“Cooling off,” answered his matter-of-fact brother, Malcolm.
            Paddling the air mattress around, she brought them into view.  The thirteen-year-old hung onto the rim, blond hair flat across his head, looking down after his older sibling who sank to the bottom then propelled himself upwards to breach the surface. Hovering nearby, Delfina sighed, grateful for another tragedy-averting experience. Graham sheltered under an umbrella reading his paper. The monotonous disembodied voice coming from the terrace belonged to Stephen, whose telecom link encroached on the family retreat.
            Drifting to the rim, she splashed a volley that splattered against Graham’s paper. “Ha, ha,” he deadpanned. “Ever a girl at heart.”
“A girl!” mocked Gerald.
                 “Your grandfather’s silly.”
“She called you silly!”
Malcolm pounced on his brother and pushed him under. Delfina cried his name. When they resurfaced, she cried again on her own behalf. They blitzed her and dragged her in. Rhea paddled to center pool but to no avail: the underwater boys pursued. Water sloshed, the air mattress slipped away and they held her down. Delfina shouted without effect. Graham’s stern “Stop it now!” rescued her. Reaching for his hand, she forgave the boys for not knowing how fragile a grandmother could be, and Delfina for being ineffectual, but not Stephen, who should have been there.
Inside, the boys donned t-shirts and flip-flops while the women changed into white robes that skirted marble floors, transforming them into temple priestesses. All bore traces of the water, except the men: Graham’s gray crew cut was spiky sharp and the imprint of a fine comb lined Stephen’s dark hair; they wore khaki shorts, collared shirts and loafers without socks.
Around the table they helped themselves to sandwiches, cold pasta and lemonade. Delfina and the boys sat at one end, Rhea at the other with Graham to her right. When Stephen entered, he paused a moment before sliding into the vacant seat beside his father.
            “Stephen, I wish you’d get into the vacation spirit.”
            “You shoulda seen, Dad. We dunked mom, then grandma!”
            “THAT was not a highlight, Gerald,” said his mother. “You should know better. Both of you.”
            “You’re still breathing,” retorted Malcolm. “What’s the problem?”
            “Your attitude, young man,” said Graham. “You don’t roughhouse with them like you do your friends.”
            “Different pools,” said Stephen, surprising them, “would keep the sharks apart.”
            “I’m a shark!” gloated Gerald.
            Rhea shook her head. “Separation?”
            “If you can take it, get in, then everyone knows what to expect.”
            The boys raised hands like dorsal fins, then clashed. “Not at the table, “ Delfina pleaded.
Graham whispered into his son’s ear. “You don’t hide it well, you know. Your game of ‘Keep away, it’s mine’. Quite a performance before the board. They might be intimidated, but I’m not. Devour everything in your pool, then you’ll want to jump into another. Beware bigger and meaner sharks!”
            Stephen’s eyes glazed over. Aware that the table had gone quiet, he pointed at his sons. “Respect your elders. Someday you’ll demand the same.” He grabbed a sandwich and spooned some pasta onto his plate.
                 “I think,” said Rhea, “we should be happy together in one pool.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“A wedding’s a celebration of coming together for two people and, in the larger sense, everybody. All of us, together, at Dave Forester’s.”
            “Were you counting on going?”
            “If it concerns Slade Insurance, we are,” Graham said.
            “It’ll be sales and the management team.”
            “And other interests?”
            Delfina cleared her throat. “I hear the Palisades mansion is beautiful.”
            “I bet there’s a pool!”
            “For sharks!”
            Stephen set down his fork. “It’s primarily business, but as long as everyone knows what to expect.”
            Back outside, the boys splashed as their mother watched. Grandparents sat beneath the umbrella, and their son was back on the telephone. “Childhood was so simple,” Rhea thought, not having to navigate between father and son, husband and wife, chairman and CEO. She gazed into the gem-like water and into the infinite sky, searching for elusive calm, then closed her eyes.

The next chapter will be posted by December 28. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chapter 10: Hands Up

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 

At just past the hour, the board of directors sat around the oblong table waiting for the chairman to call the meeting to order. The CEO was not present despite their invitation, and his absence made them uneasy.
Graham Slade, chairman, company founder and former CEO, had dominated for nearly thirty years when no differences separated guiding and operating principles. The board rubber-stamped his wishes and the company prospered. But when son Stephen became CEO, it faced a new reality –conflict-- and found trying to satisfy both was like bending backwards till shoulders touched the ground then springing into somersaults.
Jeff Simmons, managing partner of a law firm, had boyish charm which had encouraged strangers to ruffle his hair and, later, colleagues to beam favorably. Now his hair was lacquered black but that charm still showed through. He avoided declaring the absence a slight without further evidence and tried to mollify the chairman with conversation about his grandkids.
Peter Morgan, owner of a string of banks, was the oldest member and started life with a different name. His manner suggested an Old World background, often alluded to but without details. “Past is past,” he liked to say, which was a nod to the prosperous present that afforded rich suits to clothe his expansive figure. His mane of silvery hair and self-satisfied demeanor suggested everything would work out.     
Life insurance was Joseph Parker’s business and his faith in actuarial tables the foundation of a backslapping nature: the tables delivered the hard news, allowing him to focus on the sunny side. Height and weight corresponding to recommended guidelines, he believed he’d age the prescribed 82.57 years. Only infrequently did worry fret a chevron between his brows.
Mark Storts, the newest member, was Stephen Slade’s college buddy and an ally in wanting to take the company public, which he sought to underwrite. Stephen’s failure at communication concerned him, as he believed perfect information best served the marketplace.  He checked his watch and at fifteen after punched a number on his cell --voice mail. Then he stood, his dark, curly hair a statement in that room. “I’ll see what’s keeping him.”
He made his way through the C-suite hallway to executive reception, where Betsy Murray greeted him professionally then frowned at his request. “He went up this morning and hasn’t been down since.”  She pantomimed summoning the elevator: the button refused to light. She pushed the intercom button on the phone, which did light and flash until pushed again. He returned to the meeting. They listened to his report, to which Simmons said, “I don’t like the idea of locking it from upstairs. What if he’s injured?”
“The code requires another exit.” piped up Parker who, on considering the CEO’s age and good health, reasoned it wasn’t time. “He must have gone another way.”
“Of course, he’s okay,” said Morgan, waving a sagacious hand.
Irritation tweaked the chairman’s granite face. “Let’s get started. Mark Pointer is the company’s long-time claims manager, and I’m advised that his impending retirement is not entirely voluntary. Assertions have been made of unsatisfactory performance, and the inability of adjusters to handle the volume of claims. At the same time, his requests to expand staffing have been denied. I’ve known Mark a long time. He gets the job done, if allowed to. Slade Insurance will suffer for losing him.”
The room lapsed into silence, until Storts spoke up. “According to the numbers, Slade would be better off.”
“Numbers?” The chairman glared.
“Mister chairman, certainly the claims manager is worthy of your support, and I don’t argue against him as a person but as a kind: a high-salaried manager. Through retirement and other means we can reduce expenses and increase our profit margin.”
“Have you talked to him about Mark Pointer?”
                 “Not in particular, but he endorses the strategy.”         
 “Strategy requires vision, and I don’t see it. Mark is a leader who has nurtured many fine claims adjusters who interface with our customers and contribute to a robust company. Financial statements don’t capture the whole picture.”
“Wall Street doesn’t care about that.”
“Good reason, then, to avoid it.”
Around the table, small gasps and body language urged restraint.
“If you’re not in the market, you’re not anywhere. It’s just the way things are. Slade’s value will increase on the exchange, which we can maximize by getting our financials into shape.”
The chairman looked ahead at no one in particular.  “Thank you for your insight. I only wish Stephen had the grace to argue for himself. His absence, I think, supports my position that figures on a page are well and good, but don’t compel like a flesh-and-blood leader. I’m not convinced about ending Mark’s career.”
“That’s not on us. He can go someplace else!”
The chairman raised his hand. “Enough. I move that we re-issue our request to the CEO.”
“I second that,” said Simmons.
“In favor?” Hands shot up as the door opened. “The motion is carried--“
“Unanimously.” Stephen Slade stood within the doorframe and watched the raised hands fall. He took a seat at the farthest end from the chairman. His dark gray suit enveloped him neatly and the satin blue of his tie reflected off a pale neck. Smooth dark hair and narrow-set eyes contrasted with the chairman’s crew cut and visionary gaze. “Here I am.”
At one end, Simmons sat to the right of the chairman who had Morgan on his left, and then Parker. Storts was on the other side between Simmons and the CEO. Looking for someone to reset the meeting, the directors gazed from left to right and back. 
“Thank you for attending,” said Simmons. “We had just finished discussing Mark Pointer’s situation. The chairman expressed that he contributes necessary leadership, which would be missed and impact customer service. Director Storts pointed out that high-salaried managers inflate expenses and reduce profits. The board desires your input.”
“That’s a fair recap,” said the banker with a salute to the attorney.
“Thank you,” said the CEO.  “Mark Pointer has served Slade long and well, but salaries like his are a burden. Human Resources has identified areas of high cost where the company can seek advantage through attrition.”
“Mark Pointer doesn’t want to retire,” growled the chairman.
“At my direction, HR has presented available options to certain managers. Retirement would be their choice. If enough accept, we won’t have to take other measures.”
“If this is about expenses,” the chairman said, “I don’t see how it squares with those in other areas, such as the private elevator, the limousine and the chauffeur.” The chairman leaned forward; the CEO did not blink.
“I hope you will grant that the company is well run and profitable. Pay attention to the numbers that matter, and you will see the proof. It’s easy and tempting to grasp at the odd figure or expense and make of it something more than it is. Easy and hurtful. I am hurt at the lack of trust.
“True, I seek to make of Slade something more. The chairman founded and made a success of the company that provides for his retirement. If Slade is to grow and provide for others, changes must be made.
“Since the company’s founding, jet travel for business and pleasure became the norm, the Concorde came and went, and hijacked jets brought down the Twin Towers. Does it make sense that Slade should remain static while the world shifts? The future demands change.”
“If I aim higher and step quicker, it’s because I want Slade to succeed. Everything I do benefits the company. See it in the results.
“The board owes me the same trust and support it gave my predecessor. Don’t fracture or snipe. Stand united. If you do, the sky’s the limit.”
 Without awaiting a response, he stood and vanished as suddenly as he had appeared, having silenced them though the chairman still glowered and the directors still yearned for consensus. Once again, the meeting needed resetting.
“He did show up,” said Simmons. Parker added, “I knew he was okay.”
“A flesh-and-blood statement,” chuckled Morgan.
“Leading where?” asked the chairman.
Nothing remained but to schedule the next meeting and close. The board went through the motions, the while aware of the quirk in its DNA: impotence against an aggressive CEO. The directors sought to make the best of it, but verbal gymnastics failed to convince anyone they weren’t witness to power wielded by one man. 

The next chapter will be posted by October 26. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.