Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Crash: Chapter Two

Last week I posted the first chapter of Jason's story.  Since the story was inspired by Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and I'm posting it in a serialised form, I'll introduce this week's instalment with a summary of the previous chapter in my best attempt at a Dickensian style.

Chapter One: In which the tyrannical Jason Jackson-Jones finds himself losing both a Personal Assistant and an Engineering Manager, and is reliant upon the dubious skills of his pretty receptionist to replace them.

And now for Chapter Two...

Gaby was reading the paper when the call came.  She hardly hesitated before agreeing.  This company, Triple J Auto Parts, sounded like a challenge, and Gaby was never one to shrink from a challenge.  In a few minutes, she'd put on her trusty black suit, popped the essentials in her leather shoulder satchel, squeezed her feet into the high-heeled pumps she reserved for 'first impressions' moments, and headed out of the door.
It didn't take her long to get across Sheffield to the office, nor was the office difficult to find.  So it was a little before ten when she stepped through the door into the dimly lit foyer, watched by the hidden security camera and the blonde receptionist.
“Hello,” the pretty blonde greeted her.  “Can I help you?”  She didn't sound as bored as most receptionists.  Her hair was smooth, her make-up carefully applied, and her suit smart.  She smiled as she spoke, but still Gaby sensed her carefully hidden discomfort. 
“I'm here to see Mr Jackson-Jones,” she said, smiling back.
“Could you sign in, please?” the blonde woman requested, pushing a visitors’ book across the desk towards her. 
Gaby signed in with her full name and the time, drew a line through the space for car registration, and pushed the book back across the desk. 
“Here you are,” she smiled at the receptionist, whose name, she now saw, from a shiny brass badge on her lapel, was Donna.  “Do I need to wear a badge?”
'Yes.  I'll just make you one up.' 
Donna struggled to tear out the perforated slip from the book, and Gaby commented, “Those perforations are tricky little things, aren't they?”
Donna laughed: the laugh of one put-upon employee to another.  Suddenly, from treating Gaby suspiciously, as a possible rival, she seemed to have reassessed her and placed her in the ranks of possible friends. 
“Thank you,” Gaby smiled.  “Everything looks very smart here.  Is it a nice place to work?”
Donna considered this as she folded the slip of paper to fit inside a clear plastic badge sleeve.  “In some ways.  It's a good office and I suppose JJ's a fair man, but... well... he's a bit of a robot and he seems to expect everyone else to be the same.  The milk of human kindness doesn't exactly flow round here.”
“It must make a lot of difference to have somebody so warm and welcoming on reception, though.  After all, you're the first person that visitors see when they arrive, so when you greet them in such a friendly way, they must feel that it's a nice place to be.”
“I suppose so,” Donna said, sounding uncertain.  “I don't know.  Nobody else seems to notice.”
“Maybe not,” Gaby said soothingly, “but I bet they'd notice if you weren't doing it!”
Donna laughed out loud.  When she laughed, her blonde hair swung and her green eyes sparkled.  Gaby thought that watching her unfold under the warmth of an unexpected compliment was like watching a flower soak up rainwater after a drought.
It was a sight Gaby had seen and never forgotten.  She'd been spending time in Australia during a deep drought when the ground cracked and the grass, such as it was, withered.  Watering plants and washing cars was banned, unless it used rinse-water from the two-minute shower that was all that was recommended.  So keeping a garden going meant lugging buckets of old shower and washing-up water outside and painstakingly pouring them over the wilting plants.  The only things that thrived were the cacti and succulents, their fat leaves holding enough of the last winter's rains to carry them through the drought.  And then, when the clouds finally burst in torrents that made taking a step outside feel like walking into a waterfall, they burst into flower in a rainbow array of huge, bounteous blooms.
A lump came to Gaby's throat as she thought of all the beauty she'd seen in the world.  It was sad that so many people went through life thinking only of their next paycheque or chance to go out drinking, starting the evening with a good time which would gradually be forgotten in a haze of alcohol and then replaced with a raging headache and hangover.  Sometimes people were puzzling, but Gaby still loved almost everyone she met.  Everyone deserved a bit of beauty in their lives, and she noted with approval the vase of bright autumnal blooms on the reception desk - cheap at this time of year, but cheerful enough - and the motivational poster on the wall, which pictured an eagle hovering over a rocky outcrop, its talons outstretched and the wind lifting its feathers just a little.  It was a superb piece of photography, and the inspirational quote beneath it, although tacky, did fit the picture perfectly: 'Be an eagle: let life's breezes lift you higher.'
“Pretty flowers,” Gaby commented, and was rewarded with another smile.  Donna seemed like a nice girl, and it would be pleasant to have a friend and ally in the company.  Sometimes things got challenging, and then it was not only nice, but almost a necessity, to have a friendly face and some moral support. 
Encouraged by Donna's openness, she followed up her earlier question with, “Anything else I should know about working here?”
This time the smile was more guarded, almost cynical. 
“What can I say?  It's a job.”
Gaby thought it was a pity that so many people thought a job was a necessity at all costs, and that this fact, if fact it was, necessitated putting up with such unpleasant ones.  Surely there was somewhere else they could go?  She herself never seemed to be short of work.  But maybe it was different in other lines of work, especially with what everyone was saying about the economy.
Maybe, but in her heart Gaby didn't believe that.  She was sure things could be different.  Wasn't that what the poster was trying to say?  You could be a tree and let the cold winds break you, or you could be an eagle and find a way for them to help you fly.  Gaby thrived on challenges.  But she supposed everyone couldn't be the same. 
Donna was already starting to look uncomfortable, as if she thought she'd said too much, so Gaby rapidly backtracked and reverted to a more formal mode. 
“Is Mr Jackson-Jones available?”
“He's in a meeting at the moment.  Shall I show you where you'll be working?”
“Yes, please, if you don't mind.”
Donna led the way out of reception and up two flights of ringing metal stairs.  Gaby made a mental note to leave the high heels at home the next day.  
“This is your office, and through there is Jason's office.  You can call him Jason to his face, he doesn't mind, but to outsiders it's Mr Jackson-Jones.  Don't ask me why.  Anybody would think it was some time last century.”
“Or the century before,” Gaby laughed with her. 
Donna turned on the computer and showed Gaby how to log on.  Not having been instructed on what Gaby was to do once she arrived, Donna suggested that she spend a bit of time familiarising herself with the computer system and filing cabinets, and she'd bring up some company literature for her to read. 
“Oh,” Donna finished, “and do you want a cuppa?”
“Why don't you let me do that?” Gaby suggested.  “I can start to learn my way around.”
So Gaby's first job for Triple J Auto Parts turned out to be finding her way through the finance office to the small upstairs kitchen, and making a green tea for herself and an ordinary tea, white with sugar, for Donna, which she then carried back down two flights of stairs to reception.  Probably not the easiest way of doing it, but she accomplished the task successfully, despite her heels, and was still back at her desk before Jason emerged from his meeting. 
In his absence, she sneaked a quick look through the glass panelled door of his office.  It was crisply decorated, with plain cream walls, a sturdy black desk and office chair, and a huge brown leather sofa.  Curiously, since it was otherwise impersonal and functional, there was a small TV set up in one corner.  Gaby peered in and realised that it was set to display stock prices.  She hadn't thought anyone did that any more, when you could just set them up to appear on your computer at the press of a button.  Maybe Jason was more old-fashioned than the decor suggested. 
Apart from the television, there was little to indicate the room was owned at all, just a framed copy of the company's latest ad campaign on one wall, facing an identically framed certificate on the other wall.  The only letters Gaby could make out on it were 'APMA'.  A college?  A company?  She went to the computer and pulled up a web browser.  Or rather, she clicked on the icon for the web browser, only to be greeted with a pop-up window which demanded that she agree to the company's IT and Internet Policy before it would let her go any further.  She skimmed over the policy, typed in her name and clicked OK, and then the computer kindly permitted her to access a search engine.
A few seconds were sufficient to establish that APMA stood for not only Atlanta Professional Management Association (unlikely) and Arlington and Porlock Museum of Archaeology (even less likely) but also Auto Part Manufacturers' Association.  That'd be it, then. 
In just a few minutes, she'd learned that her temporary employer was a proud, practical man, with an interest in finance and a prominent place in his professional association.

Any more than that would probably have to wait until he decided to put in an appearance.  

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Review: The Tenderness of Wolves

The Tenderness of WolvesThe Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ for no better reason than that I’d just read Maggie Stiefvater’s superb shifter novel, Shiver, and had wolves on the brain. I’d vaguely heard of it some years back when it won the Costa Book of the Year Award, but I had no idea what to expect. If I’d even bothered to read the blurb I might never have tried it – I’m not always a huge fan of historical fiction and the first line of the blurb is ‘1867, Canada’ – so it’s a good thing I grabbed a copy on impulse on the way out of the shop and didn’t look properly.
Though neither the setting nor the style is what I would have chosen, they both drew me in immediately. The wild, frozen north is the perfect setting for an inexplicable murder, and the lawlessness of the environment paves the way for one of the most dramatic murder investigation stories I have ever read.
The dead man, Jammet, owned a bone tablet, marked with mysterious carvings, which may or may not have been valuable, which may have been the motive for his murder, but is now nowhere to be found. The story blends multiple viewpoints, including one of the company men assigned to the investigation of French hunter Laurent Jammet’s murder, and the adoptive mother of one of the main suspects, young Francis, who inexplicably fled the small town of Caulfield in the wake of Jammet’s violent death.
Stef Penney manages the complex pattern of the narrative seemingly effortlessly, and intertwines the various threads of the investigation with a number of superb character studies and even several hints of romance. ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ is a brilliant story, dazzlingly told, the kind of book that leaves after-images on the mental retina for days to come.

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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Crash: Chapter One

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.
"Perfectoffice?"
"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."
"OK."
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.  

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Book Review: The Chemist

The ChemistThe Chemist by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was quite a departure for Stephenie Meyer - a thriller / romantic suspense novel in the vein of Nora Roberts' The Witness, but a bit darker, more intense, and more technical. She's certainly done her research, and her literary writing background shows in a few wonderfully lyrical and thoughtful speeches, but the driving force behind this book is the relentlessly cruel and complex plot that drives the heroine (she of many identities, including Alex and The Chemist) into the arms of her unlikely but wonderful hero. Unputdownable.

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