"Okay, I figured it out," Ian said on Friday morning, holding up his knit hat and waving it in front of Cee.
"What did you figure out?" she asked, leaning back in her office chair and crossing her arms.
"How to put a hat on one-handed by myself," Ian told her proudly. "You do like this..." he clenched the edge of the hat between his teeth, then pulled the rest of it up over his face and down across the crown of his head. "Nen oo leggit go..." he opened his mouth wide, reached back behind his head, tugged the hat down, and pulled the front up until his eyes were visible again. "And, hat!"
Cee applauded, which was flattering. "Good lateral thinking."
"Well, I try," Ian told her, taking off the hat and laying it down on his desk, shuffling some maintenance receipts from the building into a pile to keep the desk tidy. There was a ding!
from the elevator lobby, and he and Cee both looked up to find Zoe emerging, a tote bag slung over her arm. "Good morning!"
"Ian, I have a mission for you," Zoe said, soberly. Ian composed himself to be professional as she carefully took a nondescript box out of the bag and placed it on his desk.
"Does it involve explosives?" he asked, worried.
"No. It involves baked goods," Zoe hissed.
"Ohhh...kay..." Ian relaxed slightly, then frowned. "Wait, no. I still don't understand."
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to distribute these cookies to the staff," Zoe said. "They are molasses crinkle chocolate chip."
"I can't just put them out on my desk?" Ian asked. "I have a bowl for such occasions."
"There are enemy agents who are waiting to intercept these cookies," Zoe insisted, taking a slip of paper out of her pocket and passing it over. It was a printout of photographs of Erin and Jess from the staff webpage. They had melodrama-villain mustaches drawn on. "These operatives will attempt to bogart the supply train."
"Ah," Ian said, biting his lip as he stared down at the photographs. He flashed the paper at Cee, who snickered. "I understand. I accept your mission, madam."
"Good luck!" Zoe told him. "This message is self-destructing...now!"
She made a sort of boom-sizzle-boom-pop-fizz noise as she walked back towards her desk in Creative. Ian watched her go, head tilted.
"I don't think I'm ever going to get used to being subjected to these kinds of shenanigans while wearing a tie," he said thoughtfully.
"Cookies!" Cee commanded, snapping her fingers and waving for him to bring them over. Ian opened the box cautiously (just in case) and carried them to her desk.
"SARAH," Ian yelled.
"I KNOW!" Sarah yelled back. He heard, faintly, some order barked at the interns to 'stay put and try not to pee on anything' and then Sarah came down the hall to join them. Ian turned to offer her the box, eliciting a yelp of indignation from Cee, who apparently wasn't done yet.
"So what's your strategy?" Sarah asked.
"I thought I'd send you with emergency rations for the interns -- that includes one cookie each
, and you will give them five minutes to eat them," Ian said sternly. "Then I'll make a run to the Creative pod, nip past Outreach, drop some for Roxy and Naomi on the other side, double-back for Jess and Vicky, and deliver the last ones to Erin as a fait accompli
"You'd better come with me first," Sarah said. Ian opened his mouth to ask why, and saw The Eyebrow.
"Okay!" he agreed hastily, following her down the hall. When they reached Sarah's desk, she glanced at the interns to be sure they weren't eavesdropping.
"Did you notice John?" she asked softly.
"His presence, or something in particular?" Ian said.
"How did you
notice his clothes? You're on the other side of the office from him."
Sarah made a vague gesture.
"His clothes are nice. At least I think so," Ian protested. "A little informal, maybe, but he's a writer."
"They're the same ones he was wearing yesterday -- don't look, dolt!" Sarah said, as Ian turned to glance down the hallway. He turned back quickly.
"Scandalous," he grinned. "Guess he spent the night at Cee's. It's a nice change from the copier room."
"I think it shows a lot of commitment," Sarah remarked.
"How committed are we talking here?" Ian asked. "I thought staying the night just meant, it's fucking cold in Chicago in the winter."
Sarah gave him what he was sure was a pitying look.
"So young and innocent," she said, patting his head. "You go hand out cookies now."
Ian scowled and re-ordered his hair as he walked down the hallway. He gave Cee a friendly, super-casual passing wave, and tried to make sure she couldn't read his mind in his face.
Anna was his first stop, glued to her coffee cup and looking like she hated the written word. "Morning," she mumbled.
"It is," Ian agreed, popping the lid off the cookie box. He edged it over the wall, lowering it in one hand, and rattled it to get her attention.
Too late, he thought of also signaling her to be quiet; his good hand was holding the box, and he tried to lift his cast to get his index finger to his mouth, but Anna just stared at it for a second before looking into the box.
"Cookies!" she said, breaking into a wide and probably caffeine-fueled smile. Ian thudded his head against the ridge of the cubicle wall. "Who brought cookies?"
"Cookies?" Jess asked. She leaned out of her cube. "ROXY! ERIN! COOKIES!"
"Way to go, Ian," Zoe said from behind Anna. She took a handful of the cookies and dropped them on Anna's desk, then just barely beat Jess out for another handful for John.
"Oh, here, Ian, let me take that," Jess said. Ian tried desperately to cling to the box but, he thought as he released it, he was only one man. Jess, triumphant, turned around and offered some to Erin.
"Roxy, run!" Ian yelled.
"Why?" Roxy yelled back.
"LOW CARBING," Roxy shouted, sounding annoyed. Ian thought of Naomi, who didn't even know the cookies existed yet, and made a frantic last-ditch gamble.
"They're sugar free!" he yelped, and when Jess looked at him in confusion he wrestled the box back.
"Really? They taste great," John said, sampling one. Ian smacked the lid down on Erin's hand when she reached for another.
"Save some for Naomi," he said, clutching them to his chest. "Zoe, you owe me."
"I'm not the one that spilled the beans!" Zoe exclaimed.
"Wait a minute," he heard Anna say, as he took off at a reasonable speed for Naomi's desk. "These are molasses cookies. You can't make sugar-free molasses cookies. MOLASSES IS SUGAR!" she yelled, as Ian rounded the corner and made his getaway.
Naomi wasn't at her desk when he finally reached it, so he scrawled a note on the lid of the box and left it, and its sad two remaining cookies, on top of her budget reports. After craning his head to see how the company was doing, anyway. Probably not a raise in his immediate future, but it didn't look like Sparks was planning on firing anyone anytime soon.
He arrived back at in the lobby just as the elevator bell went again, and a tall, broad-chested man in an expensive-looking suit stepped out.
Ah. Union Arms himself. Ian frantically flipped through his mental contacts list for the name.
"Mr. Byron," he said, immensely pleased with himself, as the man walked into their lobby. "Good morning, sir."
"Good morning!" Mr. Byron boomed. "Chilly out, isn't it?"
"It is," Ian agreed. "You're here to see Mr. Sparks?"
"I think I'm seeing Miss Rostling. I'm early," Mr. Byron said. "Better than late though, eh?"
"Yes, sir," Ian said, picking up the phone and dialing Erin's extension. She answered on the second ring.
"Coogys emmy moof," she said, around what was apparently indeed a mouthful of cookie.
"Erin, Mr. Byron is here to meet with you," Ian told her. "He says he knows he's early."
"Moffill full," she managed.
"I see, I'll let him know. Thanks!" he told her, and hung up, turning back to Mr. Byron. "She'll be just a few minutes. Can I take your coat? Coffee, water, soda…?"
"I'm fine, thanks, stopped at Starbucks on the way here," Mr. Byron said. "Hey, I hear your people are in talks with Shelter House. They horning in on our game or what? You know we compete with them for donors."
"I wasn't aware, Mr. Byron, but I'm sure SparkVISION can help both of you to improve your donation levels," Ian said. Some days, being a receptionist and being a used-car salesman had very little to separate them.
"Well, I'll have to grill Rostling about it. Listen, if it's all right, I was wondering if I could go back and say hello to a friend of mine. Anna?"
"Let me just call and see if she's at her desk," Ian said, holding up a finger. He knew she was, but he felt warning her that Sugar Daddy was in the house might be wise. He picked up the phone.
"I know you have more cookies," Anna answered.
"Anna, Mr. Byron was wondering if you had a minute," Ian said.
"Hoshit, that's right, he's here. Uh. Uh. My hair sucks today. Can you tell him I died?"
Ian considered this. "No, I don't think so."
"Okay. Send him back. I'm going to go sew John's mouth shut," Anna said, and hung up. Ian replaced the phone on its stand.
"She'd love to see you," he said, beaming and pointing down the hall. "Straight back that way. She's on the left."
"Good man," Mr. Byron told him, and disappeared down the hall.
"Did he just call you 'good man'?" Cee asked.
"Technically true, but linguistically troubling," Ian said, just as Sparks's office door opened and the boss leaned out.
"Did I hear Trent Byron?" he asked, looking around.
"He's making friends in Creative," Ian said. "Erin's on her way out."
"Ah. Re-seducing Anna in the meantime?" Sparks beamed. "Cee, I'm ready now, come on in."New project
, Cee mouthed at Ian, as she gathered up her notebook and Sparks's calendar. Knowing Sparks, he was probably working on a theory of marketing based on cat physics or something. The sad thing was, knowing Sparks, it would also work.
"Hey, before you go in, did you hear anything about us landing the Shelter House account?" Ian asked. Cee paused.
"I knew we wanted to meet with them. Why, do you know what they want?"
"I can't imagine," Ian said. "Didn't they just run a new ad campaign? I should know this stuff."
"Nobody knows everything," Cee said.
"I know everything," Sarah called. "What's the question?"
"Shelter House," Ian said, as Cee disappeared into Sparks's office. "What do you know?"
"Be right back." Sarah stood up from her desk and headed in the direction of the bathrooms. Ian gazed after her, perplexed, until the phone rang.
If that was Sarah, he was prepared to be officially creeped out.
"Good morning, SparkVISION front desk, how may I help you?" he asked.
"Hi, this is Harriette Burton," said a voice on the other end. "To whom am I speaking?"
"Ah, this is Ian Butler," Ian said. "Front desk reception."
"Ian, hi. I'm calling on behalf of the Beckett family fund. We're a privately-funded foundation for college students. I had a couple of questions I wanted to ask about SparkVISION."
"Well, if I can't answer them, I can definitely connect you to someone who can," Ian said. "Are you interested in SparkVISION as a consulting firm?"
"I'm surveying several firms at the moment. I understand you're headed up by a Mr. Bo Sparks?"
"That's correct. I can give you her contact information -- "
"These are just general questions, I'm sure you can answer them. Do you like working for Mr. Sparks?"
Ian rolled his eyes. It didn't accomplish anything, but it made him feel better. "Yes. He has a very unique take on donor interaction. We really strive to be on the cutting edge of new fundraising philosophy."
"I understand you're very interested in social media. That's the direction we're trying to move in."
"Well, that's one way of putting it," Ian said. "We're very respectful of the impact of social media on culture. We try to make sure it's used to the best purpose for both fundraisers and donors."
There was a small laugh down the line. "That sounds like a party line. Come on, you can tell me honestly. Is it really true, or is it just all talk?"
"No, ma'am, it's absolutely true." Ian tried to sound convincing without sounding like he was annoyed she doubted him. "We're a wired office, and we do our best to integrate the internet as much as possible in our clients' strategies."
"SparkVISION has a blog, yes?" Harriette asked.
"We have two," Ian said. "One is a business blog aimed specifically at other industry professionals, and the other is focused on our volunteers and those interested in news about SparkVISION."
"Who maintains those? Who writes the entries, I mean."
"It depends on the post, and on who's free," Ian said. "We have two staff writers, as well as a legal consultant and an IT officer. Sometimes we feature guest volunteer writers."
"No interns?" she asked. Ian chuckled.
"No, we don't let the interns write pieces representing an established company."
"Does Mr. Sparks ever write a post personally?"
"Occasionally. Mainly he guides the discussion of what we want to publish."
"And does he keep a blog?"
"On the SparkVISION site? No, though he'd probably like the idea," Ian said, amused at the mental image. Lots of animated gifs, no doubt.
"What about a personal blog?" she pressed.
"You'd have to ask him. If he does, he doesn't talk about it with the staff."
"Does your staff follow this blog, NonProphetBlog dot nfp?"
Ian hesitated, then let a brief chuckle escape. "Yes, it's one of many we follow in order to keep current on local and national trends."
"Does SparkVISION have any kind of relationship with it?"
"Um. Relationship?" Ian asked. Sarah emerged from the hallway behind him and leaned on his desk, shamelessly listening in. He gave her a questioning look and she shook her head -- not urgent, he guessed.
"Do you comment? Or interact with Non Prophet at all?" Burton asked.
"No. Well. I don't comment to him, I don't think anyone else here does, at least not under their own name," Ian said. "Sparks is always pleased when SparkVISION is mentioned, though. If you're working on a fund for college students, digital outreach is definitely the way to go. I can connect you to our resident IT professional, if you like."
"I'll get back to you on that. Thank you, Ian, you've been very informative," Harriette said, sounding satisfied.
"My pleasure, ma'am. Call anytime," Ian said, and hung up. "That was strange."
"Strange?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah -- " Ian broke off as Cee emerged from Sparks's office and Mr. Byron came back down the hall, apparently satisfied with any trauma he'd inflicted on Creative.
"Trent!" Sparks called, sticking his head out. Mr. Byron crossed to his doorway and offered his hand. Ian watched covertly as Sparks winced a little with the pressure of it. "How are you?"
"Busy as usual, this time of year," Mr. Byron said. Sarah gave Ian a knowing look. Not too busy to take Anna out for eighty dollar steaks, apparently. "What about yourself?"
"Oh, getting by," Sparks said with a wide, white-toothed smile. "I hope Ian's been looking after you?"
"Ian, our receptionist," Sparks said, tilting his head in Ian's direction. "Ian, are you ignoring our guests for Sarah?"
"No, sir," Ian said, hiding a smile.
"Going to break the other arm if he does?" Mr. Byron asked. As jokes went, Ian felt it was in somewhat poor taste. Sparks probably agreed, but he laughed anyway.
"Ian did that to himself. He's too fast for his own good," he said, shaking a finger at Ian. "But like anyone, when he slows down I think we can expect great things from him."
"No pressure, boss," Ian called.
"What kind of great things do you expect to get out of a receptionist?" Byron asked. Ian noticed Cee's sour expression. Sarah was tense and silent.
"I expect great things of all my staff," Sparks enthused. "I hire them because of their potential. In ten years' time, you'll see John's name on the bestseller list. And Anna's and Zoe's on gallery walls. Erin will probably be my biggest competitor and if she's smart she'll steal Sarah when she goes. Besides, I can't pretend I'm going to be able to keep Cee much longer, when she gets a better offer," he added, rubbing her shoulder without looking down. It was a little thing, but Cee relaxed almost instantly. Ian narrowed his eyes at Trent Byron.
"I don't know what Ian will do, but I imagine it will be spectacular," Sparks finished. "Or at any rate explosive. Try not to break yourself again," he added to Ian, who gave him a smile.
"You'll need new staff," Byron pointed out.
"So it goes," Sparks shrugged. "When you hire the best, you don't expect them to stick around forever. Speaking of the best, I think Erin's signaling she's ready for you, let me walk you to her office," he added, as Erin's head popped out of her office doorway. "Stop by when you're done, let me know what you think."
There was an almost audible mass-sigh of relief when Byron finally disappeared from view. Sparks returned and crossed his arms, made a small noise that probably only Cee could interpret, and walked back into his own office.
"Well, that was awkward," Sarah said, still leaning on Ian's desk.
"That was rude
," Cee corrected, settling in to work.
"You were going to tell me about Shelter House?" Ian prompted.
"Oh! Right. So here's the deal," Sarah said, leaning in with a slight air of conspiracy. "Their last campaign was a huge fundraiser, but not cost-effective. Way too much money spent on the consulting agency. They're looking to retrench -- they want a smaller, more streamlined kind of place, like ours."
"Really," Cee said, intrigued.
"But they want to make sure that our campaign is going to be...respectful," Sarah said. "You know, we can go a little wild sometimes. Can you imagine Sparks trying his glad-handing routine in the middle of a homeless shelter?"
"That's not fair," Ian protested. "Sparks wouldn't be an asshole."
"No, but he's -- just really cheerful, all the time, and sometimes it's not the time for it," Sarah said. "Be serious when the situation calls for it, put out heart-rending calls for help, that kind of thing."
"Put John on it," Cee suggested. Sarah grinned at her, and she blushed. "What? He's good at serious and heart-rending."
"Hey, you're Sparks's PA, you tell him," Sarah replied. "Anyway, they're deciding today."
"Where did you get all this in the five minutes you were in the bathroom?" Ian asked suspiciously.
"I never reveal my sources to novices," Sarah said loftily.
"I'm not a mistress of the black arts yet," Ian told Cee, mock-mournful. "Sarah, as long as you're here, stand guard for a few minutes? I have to get some more coffee and tease Anna mercilessly."
"Oh! Tease her for me too!" Sarah said, as Ian carried his mug towards the kitchen. He stopped outside Anna's cube. She looked a little dazed.
"So, how's December?" he asked.
"What?" Anna glanced up at him.
"How's December, May?"
"You are so unfunny," she complained. "He confuses me."
"He's kind of a dick," Anna confided.
"No argument here. Apparently as a receptionist I shouldn't get above my station," Ian answered.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I admit
he's kind of a dick. But every time I see him he does one thing, one charming or sexy thing."
"It's the double-jointed, isn't it," Ian asked.
"It might be the steaks. Ian, the steaks are so good," Anna moaned.
"It's hard to sacrifice morals for sex and beef," Ian agreed sympathetically. "Well, carry on. He's Erin's problem now."
"Mr. Byron," Erin said warmly, gesturing to a pair of comfortable chairs in the corner of her office. "Please, have a seat."
Her office wasn't as big as Sparks's, and it had a view of the parking lot instead of bustling Michigan Avenue, but she'd done her best to make it homey for clients and efficient for herself. Beyond her cluttered desk was a little café table that Zoe and Jess had stolen from somewhere for her, and Sparks had given her the chairs second-hand after he bought a new living-room set without figuring out what to do with the old one first. Byron eased himself down into one of the chairs and crossed his legs, leaning back.
"I see Bo gave you the welcome-wagon treatment," she said, gathering up a folder full of papers and sitting across from him.
"He says in ten years you'll be his biggest competitor. Guess they'll have to add a women's restroom to the Chicago Club, huh?" Byron seemed pleased at the joke.
Erin debated several responses, including "I can pee standing up" and "No, we'll just convert the men's when the old white males die out" but settled for something more diplomatic.
"Actually, their women's restrooms are nice," she said, smiling at him. He looked a little startled. "I've been there once or twice. Bo's a club member, didn't you know? I don't know how he got in, but I'm guessing they were worn down by all the charm. So, let's get to business, shall we?"
Byron seemed to hesitate, as if he'd rather pursue their discussion of private social clubs, but he almost visibly switched gears, giving her a slightly chillier smile than before.
"I'd like to go over with you what our process was for this," Erin continued, opening the folder in her hands and taking out the first of several packets of paper.
"You can't just give me a list of new names for the organization?" Byron asked.
"It's a little more complicated than that. As long as you have the time, I'd really like to explain." Erin glanced at him as she spread the papers out on the little table. "If not, we can meet later."
"No, I have the time," Byron said, but he looked impatient. Erin pressed on.
"So, we started out trying to identify what exactly the name Union Arms triggers in peoples' minds, both those who are thinking of it as a charity and those who are thinking of the words objectively," she said, gesturing to the studies in front of her. "We worked with street teams for a while, but they proved ineffective and they don't hire very nice people, so we switched to focus groups and research. Mr. Sparks spoke to a professor of language semiotics about it, in fact. He was really excited. She gave us a copy of her book, if you'd like to read it," she added, offering it to him across the table. Byron ignored the book, flipping idly through the studies. Erin set it down and took out the final packet of papers. Now came the hard part.
"We also did work with name, logo, and ad recognition," she told him. "Your logo is highly visible and indicative. On a symbolic level...well, your people were right, it's militaristic. "
"We're aware," Byron agreed.
"…but." Erin said, and he looked up from the study he was paging through. "Despite a general trend towards dissociating the military from charitable work, people think that a charity that's organized like a military unit must be very efficient. Do you remember that ad from a few years ago, the television one you did, with the drummer boy and the homeless man?"
"Oh yeah. Filming that was a bitch," Byron said.
"It made an impact, though. People still remember it. And, when polled, ninety percent of people who give to charity on a regular basis recognized your name. Only four percent of those who didn't recognize you thought you were in some way associated with the military."
"You did all this in six weeks?" Byron asked.
"We outsourced a lot of it," Erin admitted. "That's the benefit of hiring a small organization like SparkVISION. Nobody needs a big consulting firm anymore; a few mouse clicks and you can have poll results in a week. I've listed the expenses..." she offered him the last packet.
"Listen, this is fascinating, but I just want the results," Byron said.
"Sorry!" Erin gave him a laugh that she was pretty sure didn't sound forced. "I'm getting there. The point of all our statistics is that we determined that most people who are inclined to give know your name and your logo. Of those who don't regularly give, seventy percent recognize one of those two, and that rises to eighty if they see your ads regularly."
"I'm glad to see the numbers," Byron sighed. "I just want to know what they mean for the re-brand. I could have done the polls myself."
"Well, as Bo would say, the trick is in knowing what questions to ask, and how to interpret what you get." Erin took a deep breath. She doubted that Byron was going to respond well to this. Still, that was why Sparks was having her do this -- to teach her how to deal with recalcitrant clients. "Which is why you're paying us to tell you this: don't re-brand."
He sat forward. "What?"
"I know, it sounds like a punchline, but we've done the work and that's the conclusion we've reached," she said. "In all honesty, based on hard data, we can't recommend that you re-brand. If you do, you are going to lose annual and occasional donor dollars."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Byron demanded.
"We're not entirely happy about it either." Erin smiled disarmingly. It didn't seem to work. "We would very much have liked to land a re-branding account with Union Arms. But we can't lie and tell you it would be good for your company. Bo would have my head if I did."
"I think you wanted to be paid for a consultation but didn't want to do the work," Byron said. Erin blinked. She'd been prepared for this, but not this
. Open hostility wasn't something she'd braced for.
"We did find examples of many not-for-profits who re-branded and then had to revert, or subtitle their new brand," she said smoothly, and kept going before he could interrupt again. "Look at this one. The Society for Peace. They re-branded to just Society
-- which is a genius brand on its own, but nobody knew what they were for or who they used to be. Now they're 'Society, formerly The Society For Peace', and people think they aren't even for peace anymore. I can show you others."
"I paid you twenty grand to tell me how to re-brand," Byron growled. His face was getting red. Erin noticed, with worry, a vein pulsing in his forehead.
"You're paying us for research and good advice -- " she tried, but Byron threw the papers aside, littering the shining hardwood floor of the office. "Mr. Byron, let's discuss this -- "
"I'm not going to discuss this
," he shouted.
"If you speak to some of your people, have them go over the data -- "
"Fuck the data! Twenty grand down the toilet!"
"I'm trying to offer you guidance -- " she stood up as Byron stomped to the door and wrenched it open.
"Fuck your guidance too!" he yelled. Erin hurried out after him. His shouting had drawn Sparks's attention.
"Trent," Sparks said, as Erin reached the lobby. "You look like you could use a cold drink. Ian -- "
"You're a hack, Sparks," Byron said. Ian, who'd been halfway out of his chair, hesitated. Cee was watching warily. "A con-man!"
Erin saw Sparks's mouth make a little 'o' of surprise. She watched her career begin to evaporate right in front of her, but she couldn't think of anything to do about it other than stare.
"I'll have your ass for this," Byron continued, and then he poked Sparks in the chest. Actually poked him in the chest. Erin waited for Sparks to grab his finger and break it, and she could see in his eyes he was considering it, but instead he took a deep breath.
"Are you dissatisfied with Erin's handling of the account?" he asked. "Or is it the results you're unhappy with?"
Byron poked him again. Sparks's fingers twitched.
"Twenty grand for you to tell me to sit on my ass and do nothing," Byron announced. He turned on Erin, who braced for a poking but stepped up to him anyway.
"Any time you'd like to go over the accounting and the results, please let me know," she said sharply. "Now, Mr. Byron, I think you'd better leave."
He turned back to Sparks, but Sparks had crossed his arms and was leaning against Cee's desk. He just shrugged. "Erin's account. Her call, Trent."
leaving," Byron rumbled. Erin noticed that Ian had his finger on the security call button under his desk, and he was watching her. She shook her head slightly as Byron turned to go.
The doors of SparkVISION's front lobby were glass and opened inward; the handles, however, looked the same on either side and had resulted in more than one person trying to open the door the wrong way. Erin watched in horror as Trent Byron stormed through the lobby, reached for the handle, shoved, and slammed into the still-shut door.
"Pull," Ian said, gently, softly. Erin covered her mouth to stop laughter from bubbling out. Byron shot him a glare, pulled the door open, and ran into the hallway just as an elevator arrived. Naomi walked out of it; Byron walked in, checking her in the shoulder as he went. She turned for a second, startled, and then turned back to the lobby as the door closed behind him.
"What the hell happened?" she asked. "He looked like he was about to bite through his veneers."
"He called Sparks a con-man and a hack," Ian said, voice dripping with voyeuristic horror.
"I think," Sparks said, speculatively, "That Trent Byron might need some anger-management education. Maybe there's a webinar he can attend."
"Boss, I'm really sorry -- " Erin started, but Sparks held up a hand.
"I'm assuming you didn't randomly swan-dive off the deep end," he said.
"Uh?" Erin said, baffled.
"You had a sane, rational conversation about the re-branding issue?" Sparks asked.
"Well, sort of," she hedged. "Until I told him we didn't want him to re-brand. Then he got...angry."
Sparks sighed. "He's a good old boy. I should have handled him myself, but sooner or later people are going to have to learn to put up with the idea that women have functioning brains. If it's any consolation, I probably would have pissed him off too."
"So, just to be clear, I'm not shunned?" Erin asked. Sparks shook his head.
"The numbers aren't your fault. Are you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah, he didn't poke me
," Erin said. "You should see my office, though."
Sparks lifted an eyebrow, brushing past her down the hallway.
"Holy crap," he said, when he reached her doorway. She peered around him to get her first objective view of the carnage; Cee looked around his other arm, Naomi pushing Erin's head down a little so she could see over her. Her café table was completely overturned, and papers and binder clips were scattered everywhere.
"Oh man, I need to go tell Creative what just happened," Ian announced, disappearing down the hallway.
"Tell them it wasn't my fault!" Erin called after him. Heads began to pop up out of cubicles.
"He didn't take it well, did he?" Sarah asked, arriving from down the hall. She turned back momentarily and yelled, "Sit! Stay!" at the interns. "Did I hear him call you a fuck?"
"Hack," Sparks said, stepping into the office. He crouched and gathered up a stack of paper thoughtfully. "Cee, call Vicky to help Erin clean this up and get everything sorted into a binder."
"Yeah, of course," Cee said, disappearing back towards the lobby.
"He didn't even want to look at the data," Erin said, accepting the papers from Sparks. He might not blame her, but the failure was starting to knot her guts up.
"Still, you were right," Sparks said. "You had the data. We had the data. Besides, nobody goes that crazy without some kind of pre-existing condition. We're a consulting firm. He wasn't paying us to tell him what he wanted to hear."
He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. Erin cringed.
"Maybe he was," Sarah said. "In his own mind."
"He shouldn't have shoved Naomi," Sparks muttered, digging a binder clip out of a glass of water on Erin's desk. "Or poked me."
"I'm going to go check the contract," Sarah announced. "I want to make sure our ass is covered. I'll look into Chicago assault laws, too, just in case."
"Union Arms is enormous; twenty thousand dollars isn't even a drop in the bucket to them," Sparks continued. "What Erin told him was worth twenty grand. Why was he so angry?"
"This is going to be awkward for Anna," Cee said, then shot a guilty look at Erin. "I mean..."
"Listen," Sparks said. "Tell everyone, nobody is to be mean to her or to Byron when we see him again. It's not professional or nice."
"Yeah, but he shouted at Erin," Sarah said.
"We will be the bigger people," Sparks decided. "If you meet him at an event, be polite and walk away fast. If he calls about wanting the data, we'll courier it over to him. If Anna wants to keep seeing him, I want you all to respect that. Nobody should be mean to Anna. She's delicate."
There was a yell from down the hallway.
"She's not that delicate," Erin said, trying to keep a sudden sulk out of her voice.
"Regardless, we will be utterly professional," Sparks turned around and straightened his tie as if to emphasize the point. Vicky appeared in the doorway. "Vic, I'm glad you're here. We need to pick up all this paper and make sure it's ordered and indexed."
Vicky looked, wide-eyed, from Cee to Erin to Sparks.
"Come in, I'm not going to poke you in the sternum," Sparks told her. "Help Erin get it off the floor, and then she'll show you how it all goes together."
He placed the wet binder clip in her hand, gave Erin what was probably supposed to be a reassuring look but ended up just seeming kind of deranged, and walked back to his own office. A serene-but-wary quiet settle on the office.
"Come on," Erin said to Vicky, with a cheer she didn't feel. "This won't take long, a lot of it was stapled."
"What happened?" Vicky asked, getting down on all fours to dig out some paperwork that had slid under Erin's desk. "I heard shouting."
"I think I just had some kind of rite of passage," Erin said, righting the table.
"Did you pass?" Vicky asked.
"I'll let you know," Erin sighed.
Beermaki was packed that evening, but the SparkVISION staff were regulars, and Cee had called ahead. When they arrived, she was pleased to see one long table made up of three smaller tables pushed together, covered with signs bearing the Beermaki crab-and-beer-glass logo and announcing that the tables were RESERVED FOR SPECIAL GUESTS.
Ian circled the table with one of the little sushi forms, checked off what everyone wanted as they sat down, and turned it in to the chefs while Vicky fetched the beer. By the time the food had arrived, Sparks still hadn't said much more than "Where are my chopsticks?" and had, after staring at his food for a while, gone to get another beer.
"I'm worried about him," Cee said in an undertone to Jess.
Jess pushed a piece of pickled ginger around on her plate, thoughtfully. "He looks all right. I mean. He looks sad, which is weird because it's Sparks, but everyone gets sad sometimes."
"It's not that," Cee told her. "He told me to call and cancel him for a function tonight. Sparks never blows off parties."
"That being the case, he can probably afford to miss one," Naomi observed, from Cee's other side.
"I think he's sadder than Erin," Jess said. "And Erin even said she didn't want to come out for sushi."
"It's okay, I talked to her," Naomi said. "She'll be all right. I think she just wants some peace tonight."
"He's coming back -- act cheery," Cee hissed, just before Sparks returned from the bar with three bottles, passing one to Sarah and one to Ian. He sat down heavily in his chair and picked at the label on his own.
"I think this is what failure feels like," he announced finally. The rest of the table exchanged glances. Cee wondered if Cheering Up The Boss fell under her job description. "I'm very unaccustomed to failure. I don't like it."
"I don't think you should see it as failure," Jess said, glancing quickly at Cee. "I tell our youth volunteers that it's not failure if you gave it your best. It's just a learning experience."
Sparks gave her a mournful look. "Does that work?"
Jess sighed. "Sometimes. On the really young ones."
"I don't blame Erin," he continued morosely. "But it would have been really nice to keep Union Arms."
"Honesty and accuracy should be banned," Cee agreed dryly. Sparks heaved another sigh.
"How's Anna taking it?" Naomi asked softly, and Cee turned a little to glance out the window where their Creatives were standing -- Zoe and John with their hands in their pockets, Anna gesturing wildly with a cigarette.
"Don't know," she murmured back. "I'm waiting to pump Zoe about it."
Jess, who had followed their gaze, tilted her head. "Have you noticed John doesn't actually smoke?"
"What do you mean?" Vicky asked, as more and more heads around the table began to turn towards the window.
"He just goes out there and stands around with Anna. Zoe too. It's like a vicarious smoke break. It's weird."
"Well, it gets them out of work for five minutes. Gets the creative juices going, I guess," Ian said. Outside, Anna flailed a little and nearly thrust her cigarette into the eyeball of a passing stranger. "She looks like she's...coping," he added, more hope than confidence in his voice.
"The good news," Sarah announced from the end of the table, where she'd been absently sipping her beer while paging through a large binder of legal documents, "is that we're on pretty solid ground. Listen to this: ARTICLE III: ADVISORY CAPACITY. In addition to providing the resources detailed above, Company is retained to offer non-binding advice regarding methodology of donor cultivation and to implement Client's decisions and methodology. Client has final say on all marketing decisions including use of brands and logos.
"What does that mean?" Vicky asked in a small voice.
"It means that as long as we support our advice, it's not our fault if they don't listen to it," Sparks said. "We don't have to implement anything without their go-ahead. So as long as Trent stays pissed off at us, we don't have to do anything."
"He's still got ten grand of our money," Naomi said. "They haven't paid the second installment."
"How much of that remaining payment have we already spent?"
"About a thousand dollars."
"Wait until after the holidays," Sparks said. "Give him time to simmer down. We'll go after him for the money then. If we don't get it, I'm comfortable writing that and the profits off as a loss. Taking on a big group like Union Arms, that's no good for anyone."
"What if they sue us?" Cee asked. It was a genuine worry that had been nibbling at the back of her mind all afternoon. "I heard words that sounded an awful lot like angryspeak for 'I'll see you in court'."
"Oh, countersue," Sarah said. "He assaulted Sparks. We can sue for damages and medical expenses -- "
"I'm not going to the hospital because some guy poked me in the chest," Sparks said.
"What if you develop long-lasting respiratory issues?" Sarah asked. "You should see a chiropractor. And I bet we could get Erin to cry in a deposition. That's emotional distress."
"We're getting a little ahead of ourselves," Sparks said. "Let's just see how this unfolds."
The sleigh bells tied to Beermaki's front door rang out as the Creatives came back inside. Everyone was suddenly interested in their sushi. Anna sat down, took Ian's beer away from him, and drank deeply.
"I'm dumping him," she announced. Cee saw everyone immediately relax a few notches.
"Well, thank God," Naomi said.
"I hope you appreciate I just gave up trips to Paris and top sirloin," Anna added.
"I'll drive you to Springfield and buy you a hamburger," Sparks offered.
"What's in Springfield?" Anna asked.
"Good hamburgers?" Jess suggested.
"And the Lincoln Presidential Library," Ian said. "It's not as good as the LBJ one in Austin, though. That one has a talking robotic LBJ. He tells jokes."
Sarah stared at him. "That sounds horrifying."
Ian shrugged. "It's funny if you're me."
"I'm officially changing the subject from Union Arms," Sparks announced.
"I just did that," Ian pointed out.
"I'm changing it again, then. I'm tired of talking about being sad," Sparks said. Cee rubbed her eyes. She was more or less used to his mood swings, but usually he swung between happy and happier. Watching him forcibly fling himself from depression to joy was giving her a headache. "So! Tomorrow! Our first event with Nations In Need!"
"Did you just get emotional whiplash?" Naomi asked Sarah.
"Chiropractor!" Sarah said, eating the crab stick out of her roll.
"The theme of this party is Getting To Know You," Sparks said. "We're not doing any actual fundraising, though of course everyone with Nations In Need is prepared to take donations. The point of tomorrow is for you to meet the staff and their biggest donors, so I want everyone to be getting a feel for things. Ask questions. Be interested."
"Banners are in," Zoe announced. "I'm hanging them in the restaurant tomorrow."
"The party room is ours, and the food's taken care of," Cee added.
"I want at least one person from Creative there," Sparks said. "John and Anna, you can arm-wrestle for it."
"Ten bucks on Anna," Naomi called.
"Are we arm-wrestling for who gets to go, or who gets to stay home?" Anna asked.
"Figure it out between yourselves. Naomi, you're mandatory."
"Zoe and Sarah, you're optional, but the food is good. Ian..." Sparks gave Ian a hopeless look. "I need you there, Cee can't make it."
"I'm not worried," Ian said, looking confused. Cee patted his cast.
"Don't flash your mortal injury around too much," she said.
"Ohhh. Fine, well, I'll lurk in the kitchen like I usually do," Ian said, smiling at her. "Can I have Vicky and the interns?"
"Great band name," Jess laughed, elbowing Vicky.
"Yes you can," Sparks said. "So everyone knows where they're going and what they're doing?"
"Yes, boss," they chorused. The other diners in Beermaki looked up in mild alarm.
"Excellent, then I'm declaring shop-talk off-limits until tomorrow," Sparks said. "So, what's everyone doing for the holidays with the very generous day and a half off I'm giving you?"Chapter Nine