A while ago I introduced one of my favourite characters to the world on my friend Angela's blog, and a lot of people have asked me when they'll get to read more about him. Since I can't imagine Jason's genre-defying novel ever getting picked up by a traditional publisher, I thought it might be fun to give him some space on my blog instead. So here's the first chapter of Jason's story, 'The Crash'. Pop back next week for the next instalment, or follow my blog to make sure you don't miss one.
The clocks had just changed but Jason Jackson-Jones hadn't bothered to switch his watch or alarm clock. Consequently, he arrived at work an hour early, as he would continue to do for another week or more. An extra hour in the workday never hurt anyone.
As he sat down at his desk opposite the dark window, he simultaneously turned on his computer and switched his phone off divert. The two movements, one with each hand, were made with the smoothness of long practice. As the computer went through its start-up ritual, Jason ignored the images moving on the screen before him. His mind was already on the work of the week and the images conjured by the messages he heard.
Two had been left late on Friday by fellow auto-industry executives even more dedicated than himself - or, more likely, ones so dedicated to appearing hard-working that they were willing to interrupt their family dinners to place calls from their mobiles to others' office phones to create the illusion of dedication. After all, both had his mobile number and were well aware that his Blackberry linked into the most state-of-the-art sound system and hands-free kit that his local Audi dealership could afford. They could have called him on his commute out of Sheffield to his Peak District home, but they had chosen not to.
It was all about playing the game, and Jason was an expert at the game. It was what had brought him to the peak of his profession; at forty-two he was ten-year Managing Director of Triple J Auto Parts and the youngest ever chair of the Auto Part Manufacturers’ Association. It was the reason his top floor office, in which he sat on this dark autumn morning, was the largest in the building and the most luxurious even when compared to those of his older colleagues on the committee of APMA. He didn't even need to walk the shop floor to check on the progress of the latest batch of part manufacture. He could just switch the display on screen, as he did now, to any of the seventeen cameras that monitored security and productivity. He even had an information assistant whose job was solely to keep the two dozen process spreadsheets up to date in case he should need to know exactly how many hinges, springs or sockets were already stacked in boxes in the shipping area, how many in progress, and how many yet to be begun. And if the latter number exceeded the former, it was a fair bet there would be letters issued by the end of the day, and the company's Office Manager-cum-HR person would be calling the agency for a fresh batch of temps.
Jason was, he considered, a tough man but a fair one. His staff were paid the going rate and although he expected total dedication to the work in hand, he gave nothing less himself. By the time the night shift left and the receptionist came on duty at eight thirty, he'd already returned the two calls on his answerphone, although only one of them had resulted in a conversation with a human being. Slack, some of his colleagues. Of course, Hudson might have been on his way to a meeting, but then why wasn't his office phone diverting to his mobile? Time was money, and in an industry where margins had been shaved to the bone, you didn't waste a penny, or an instant.
At eight thirty and some five seconds, Jason put a call through to Donna, on reception. The CCTV camera trained on the foyer showed the pretty blond settling her handbag on the back of her chair and reaching for her coffee mug. Coffee could wait. Jason needed an answer now.
"Good morning, Triple J Auto Parts, how may I help?" Donna greeted him, having obviously not noticed that the red light for Jason's office line was illuminated.
"Where's Lucy?" he asked.
"I haven't seen her," Donna stated the obvious. "I'll check my messages now. If she hasn't phoned in, I'll chase her up and get back to you."
"By quarter to," Jason specified. "I've got the Japs in at nine, but they'll be early."
"OK. I'll get on to it straight...” Jason put the phone down while Donna was still wittering.
Where was Lucy? The girl wasn't really up to the job, but she was the least flaky assistant he'd had for a while, and at least she normally turned up on time. But not today. Surely she couldn't have gone through the whole of Sunday without noticing the clocks had changed. Could she? He mentally reviewed what he knew of the freckled redhead, and concluded that it was unlikely, but possible. The alternative was that she'd rung in sick before eight thirty and Donna would relay the message once she'd checked her phone. The CCTV camera on reception showed him that she was doing so now. Good. She could get herself a coffee while she was getting refreshments for him and his nine o'clock visitors. Unless of course Lucy turned up by then, in which case he'd have her get everyone's drinks, including Donna's, as a reprimand for her lateness.
His phone calls for the moment completed, he clicked into his Inbox, deleted thirty or so industry newsletters and filed another five for later reading. As he began the serious business of answering supplier and customer emails, his computer gave an irritated bing, and a small envelope flashed up the 'you have mail' icon. He signed off the email he was writing and clicked on the envelope.
He saw that it was from 'Reception' and sighed. Why was Donna wasting time typing when she could have just picked up the phone?
The subject line read, 'Re: Lucy.' There was his answer. The girl was afraid he'd shoot the messenger when she came to explain the absence of his P.A. When would the agency manage to find him a girl with backbone?
There was a message on my phone, the email read. Lucy is not coming in due to illness this week, and she's handing in her resignation, which is a week's notice because she is still in her probationery period.
Jason swore, not particularly quietly. Lucy wasn't perfect, but she was useful, and he could ill afford the time to look for a replacement. Maybe he'd have Donna do that. It would serve her right for chickening out of giving him the bad news verbally. And for forgetting there was such a thing as a spell-checker.
Jason hit last number redial, and Donna answered instantly. Clearly, she'd been waiting for his call.
"What can I do for you?" she asked this time.
"Find me a P.A."
"Do you want me to ring FasTemps?"
"They're expensive," Jason snapped.
"The last girl they sent was wearing ripped jeans and had a nose ring. No, FasTemps will do. Usual contract."
It was a sad reflection on the state of the labour market, Jason thought, that this had happened so often that even Dozy Donna knew the drill. Unemployment had never been higher, but that didn't make it any easier to get and keep decent staff.
As if to reinforce his impression, there was a timid tap at the door of his inner office, and the sandy head of his Engineering Manager, Nick, appeared around the sturdy oak door.
"Lucy wasn't at her desk, so I didn't know whether to interrupt you or not." Nick always sounded nervous and breathless, but he seemed to be halfway reasonable at keeping to production schedules, so Jason kept him on.
"You're here now. You might as well come in. But make it quick. I've got a nine o'clock with the Japs."
Nick came in and perched on the edge of the big leather sofa.
"It's about the steel sheet we're getting from Metalworx."
"What about it?"
Nick twisted his fingers nervously and didn't answer for a moment.
"It's not good enough quality. It's OK for the CX40s, but our failure rates for CX85s are creeping up."
"So get onto the suppliers."
"I've tried but it's within the grade we're paying for. If we want better, we'd have to go to premium, and we can't afford that. It'd be cheaper just to keep them for the 40s and go elsewhere for the 85s."
"We've got a solus deal for a reason. It's cheaper, it's more efficient, and it keeps them loyal. If they want to keep the deal, they need to sort out the quality. End of." Jason pulled his chair closer to his desk and put his hand on the mouse, signalling the end of the meeting.
"Jesus," Nick said quietly, almost to himself.
Jason ignored him and started skimming the seventeen emails that had come in while he was dealing with his receptionist and Engineering Manager. As he clicked on one and waited for it to open, he looked up. Nick was still there.
"What's the problem?" Jason asked.
"I can't do this. I've had an offer from my old boss to go back to the forge. I wasn't going to - the money's not great - but this is ridiculous. You expect me to work miracles on quality, but without letting the price rise by a penny. It's just not possible. Something has to give. If you can't get real, then I'm out of here. Take this as my notice, and I'll put it in writing when I get back to my desk."
Nick stood and left with a weary sigh.
Jason leaned back in his chair and picked up his phone.
"Donna?" he interrupted her polite greeting. "Get me an Engineering Manager. As soon as. And have security escort Nick out. He's on garden leave, banned from the factory, as of now."
"Uh, OK." Donna put the phone down without asking what Nick had done to deserve his fate, but Jason wasn't fooled by her apparent innocence. The news would be all over the company in half an hour, if that, accompanied by a rash of speculation. That was how Jason liked it. Feed the rumour mill, and keep them on their toes. It wasn't likely that anyone would believe Nick's protestation that he'd jumped rather than being pushed. Not when he was escorted from the building by the two burly bruisers in black Belstaffs that Jason's CCTV display already showed converging on the production corridor.
The thought gave Jason a feeling of power. The feeling behind it, the slight fear that after all Nick had somehow got the better of him, he shoved aside.
Time to call Hudson again.
This time, Hudson was in his office, and made feeble protestations about not having heard the message Jason had left. But Jason was able to get his agreement, as he'd known he would, to the changes Jason had proposed to the APMA constitution. Which meant that Jason had his majority.
He smiled as he put the phone down. It was no sooner at rest in its cradle than it rang again. He snatched it up.
"Hello?" No need to identify himself. Everybody knew. Anyway, it was only Donna again.
"Your visitors are in reception."
"Good. Get them teas or coffees. And one for me - black coffee, two sugars. What's happening with the P.A.?"
"They said they'd send somebody by ten o'clock. Do you want them to call back once they have a name?"
"No. I don't want to be interrupted in this meeting. Whoever they send will have to do. We'll get an ad out for someone permanent this afternoon."
Jason hung up.
He stood up, massaged his aching shoulders for an all-too-short moment, and then tugged on his jacket ready to head for the boardroom. If he was lucky, his visitors and his coffee would be waiting for him there.
As he passed, he surveyed the lightening view from the window and let his mind review the day so far. His P.A. and Engineering Manager gone in one morning. Surely the day had to get better from here on in. If only the agency could manage, for once, to send someone good – or, failing that, at least someone who could read and write, and didn’t think it was appropriate to come to the office dressed like a refugee from one of his teenage daughter’s favourite bands.