Billy the Kid rolled his demo cart into the elevator, forcing the two men already there against the back wall. It was a power play for sure. This cartload of computer hardware had granted him Big Stud status down in the software lab moments before. The feeling hadn't followed him out of there, though. Here with two slick Suits from the Marketing department, Billy was out of his league. He wasn't wearing anything obvious like glasses held together with adhesive tape, but he was still a nerd from the basement.
Billy the Kid he'd been moments before. Now he was Willie the Wimp. Jim Slattery sensed the transformation. He grinned and tossed his head.
"Relax, Billy. You'll do fine."
Billy squirmed and adjusted his tie, imagining that it was a noose, doubting Slattery's glib reassurance. The other man in the elevator looked him over darkly. Like Jim, he wore the marketeer's uniform: tailored three-piece suit, mirror shoes, silk tie. He also had Jim's self-confidence. But his face held a contempt that Jim's did not. He was convinced that this kid half his age would fall flat on his face. Billy wished he were invisible.
The other man squeezed past the demo cart to the control panel and punched Emergency Stop. The car lurched to a halt. He looked at Billy but addressed Jim, as if the kid were merely a slogan scrawled on the wall. "This is our programmer?"
"He is," Jim confirmed. "Billy Tryon. Billy, meet Roger Applegate."
Roger laughed. "Tyro would be more appropriate. You don't seriously expect him to help?" Still looking at Billy, he finally his directed his words in the same direction. "You ever been to a marketing meeting, kid? You have any idea what to expect?"
Billy shrugged amiably. "Jim explained it to me. I demonstrate the program and you folks argue about how to change it." Roger took this in with bemused skepticism. "Don't worry," Billy assured him. "I've given plenty of demos. I can handle criticism."
This was perversely funny to Roger. "Plenty of demos! You hear that, Jim? He's given plenty of demos, and he can take criticism!" Roger could barely stand up, it was so funny. "That's absolutely classic."
Jim smiled and let Roger get it out of his system. "Yup, Rog, it is indeed classic. But trust me. The kid's got potential."
"Yup," Roger agreed, "and you explained everything to him really well, I see." He turned back to Billy. "Can you swing a bat?"
Billy looked at him quizzically. "A bat?"
Roger mimicked a ballplayer swinging for the fence. "A bat. As in baseball. I hope you can, tyro, because that's what these guys play. Hardball. Maybe Jim here needs to be reminded of that."
Jim pulled a real baseball from his coat pockethow did he keep it in there without showing a bulge?and turned it over in his fingers.
"Hardball I know, Roger. And you know how well I play."
The ball carried an autograph. Jim held it still long enough for Billy to read. Nolan Ryan. "I always play hardball," he grinned.
But Roger wasn't placated that easily. He pushed the equipment cart out of his way, almost crushing Billy against the door with it, and charged Jim. "I hope you've got two more of those down where it counts, Jimbo! Because Patterson will be jumping on them before this meeting's over!"
He was bigger than Jim by a head. He stiff-armed the smaller man against the elevator wall and leaned. "You hearing this?"
Suddenly he was against the wall himself, gasping for breath. Jim pinned him there by pushing the baseball up against his throat. "I won't have to hear another word if I jam your adam's apple into your spine," he said tightly. He eased up with the baseball. "Now cool it before I decide to make an example of you. Give the kid a chance."
Roger remained defiant. "Try that again and you'll be pulling that baseball out of your ass." He looked over at Billy. "Close your mouth, kid, before Jimbo here decides to fill it with his Nolan Ryan special."
Billy's mouth clapped shut, but his eyes remained wide. Jim shrugged.
"Hey, relax. Roger and I are just tuning up. It's a pit of vipers we're walking into. Gotta stay sharp." He threw the baseball at the control panel. It bounced in a tight arc off the Go button, around the corner and back into his hand before Billy could blink. "Sharp," Jim repeated, and pocketed the ball.
The elevator continued up and Billy wished for the safety of his basement, his cube and his neat, ordered algorithms.
Jim offered a final revelation at the conference room door. "There's one more thing, Billy, and you won't like it. Your demo doesn't mean shit in the scheme of things at this meeting. It's nothing more than an old-fashioned war. Us and Them. They don't want to ship your product and we do. Simple as that."
"I spent a year on this project," Billy protested. "They haven't even seen it!"
"Doesn't matter," Jim assured him with chilling seriousness. "Even down in your little basement nirvana, you know that this company isn't engineering-driven anymore. It's marketing-driven. This meeting is the real battle. If we win, the product gets published. If they win, it's dead. Just keep in mind that we're on your side. Okay?"
No, it's not okay, Billy thought. "I'm gonna put on the best damn demo you ever saw," he told Jim. "I'm gonna do whatever it takes to get this product out the door."
"I'm counting on you for exactly that, Billy. Whatever it takes. You remember that promise when the time comes."
The conference room didn't look much like a battleground, but the air was thick with tension. Billy felt as if he were pushing his demo cart uphill. Three other Suits were already there. The Opposition, Billy supposed. And who was The Opposition but a different group of marketing people? Why couldn't everyone simply work together toward a common goal? Maybe that would be too obvious.
One of The Opposition was a woman, carefully coifed and dressed for success. Billy found her immediately attractive. But her eyescold as driving winter rainshut him down with a single glance. She had been browsing Marketing Week. She looked up at Billy and smiled menacingly.
There were introductionsBilly to the Opposition, since everyone else knew each other. Their leader was Arlo Smith, about Jim's age and size. His lackeys were Frank Talbot and Carrie Patterson. The three looked him over with disdain.
Billy decided that the conference room wasn't a classic battleground; it was a jungle. The marketing people wouldn't stand still. They paced and shifted positions constantly, as if they were predators circling each other for the perfect angle of attack. And they were about to tear each other apart to decide who got the meat.
Billy decided that his best move was to be himself, the software nerd that they all expected. So he put on a confused-by-the-world look and started the demo. It didn't involve much acting, anyway. What was so terrible about being a nerd?
Okay, what stunk was his position in the food chain. If these people were predators circling the meat, Billy was that meat.
Billy ran his program through its paces. Spreadsheets, memos and conferencing windows flashed across the screen like fireworks. He knew the presentation was raw, but hellthe product's merits were easy to see. In the hands of the right marketeers, this presentation would wow the most jaded executives. But the Opposition wasn't paying attention. They wouldn't let him go thirty seconds without an interruption.
Jim was right; it didn't matter that Billy and his team had cut data access to fractions of nanoseconds. No one cared that they'd beaten every known bottleneck in live conference linking. These people hated his product. They had hated it before they even knew what it was, and their only mission was to deep-six it.
Talbot acted as the point man. He banged his fist on the table and barked "Stop it there!" in exaggerated annoyance whenever he didn't like the color of a display border or wanted the screen split a different way. It was pure bullshit. Billy dutifully halted the demo each time the war of words raged. But his patience wore thin.
Smith played the scribe. He used a felt marker to scrawl each objection on an oversize tablet of blank pages. Patterson played the concerned design specialist who agonized over the inconsistencies that Talbot pointed out. "What about the poor users?" she whined. "Will they understand this?"
Jim and Roger bided their time, allowing the Opposition to cut Billy's demo to pieces. What in hell was their strategy? Why didn't they step in? Finally, Billy could no longer contain himself.
"Will you let me run the fucking demo?" he shouted at Talbot. "It only takes fifteen minutes! Just shut up and let me run through it once. Then you can say whatever the hell you want! Okay?"
That was Smith's cue. Smith the scribe, Smith the arbiter. "I've got a better idea. Let's just cut the crap and get down to real business."
Billy found the response disturbing. All five marketing people dropped their pacing and tensed like cats arching their backs. Smith knocked the blank tablet from its perch. He collapsed the stand and hefted it in his hands like a club. Roger closed his briefcase and stood with it protecting his torso as if it were a shield.
Patterson rolled her magazine into a tight cylinder. Jim's hand slipped into his coat pocket for the Nolan Ryan special. Talbot grasped the back of a chair as if he would snatch it up in the air and play lion tamer at any moment.
Billy decided that he'd rather be somewhere else. He started toward the door. "Listen, why don't you folks just figure it out and get back to me"
"Get back here, Billy!" Jim shouted at him. "It's time to close the sale!"
The words were a trigger. Smith lunged at Roger's face with the end of the tablet stand. Roger jerked his briefcase up just in time to deflect the blow. He kicked at Smith but his knee struck the table edge before he could complete the motion. He was hobbled.
Billy saw Jim's arm snap out and heard a loud bop! as the baseball bounced off Talbot's forehead. Talbot went down and stayed there.
Now it really was time to go. Billy backed into Carrie Patterson. She didn't hesitate. She spun him around and jerked her knee up into his crotch. Billy dropped to the floor gasping. His universe shrank to an incredible stabbing pain. As his agony subsided, Billy followed the continuing fight dimly.
Smith feinted at Roger with the tablet stand and then nailed him in the leg when Roger brought the briefcase up to protect his face again. Roger went down and Smith dispatched him with a wing-tipped kick to the chin.
Jim didn't have his baseball back, so he grabbed the edge of the table and pushed hard. The edge on the other side slammed into Smith's thighs and pushed him against the wall. Billy's demo computer slid to the edge and dropped off, pulling the monitor and keyboard with it. Billy crawled painfully over to his equipment to assess the damage.
Jim pulled the table back and allowed Smith to drop to his knees. Then he smashed it forward again. This time the edge caught Smith in the chest. He gasped and went down.
But Jim had forgotten about the woman. She swung the rolled magazine and caught him in the back of the head. Jim bent forward with the impact and his face met the table top violently. She was on him in an instant. She grabbed him by the hair and slammed his face into the table repeatedly.
We're losing, Billy thought suddenly. We can't lose! He felt thick and awkward; he moved in slow motion, as if underwater. He struggled against his pain to get up. Rising unsteadily, he found the keyboard in his hands. He gripped it and lunged dreamily toward the woman. "Hey, bitch!"
She turned quickly, but Billy was ready this time. The scene played in slomo. He swung the keyboard like the baseball bat that Roger had mimicked in the elevator. It connected with her face. Home Run! She dropped like a stone.
Billy stood there, breathing hard, and surveyed the room as time sped back up to normal. Three opposition marketeers down for the count. Roger out cold. And Jim bleeding all over the table. So this is hardball. It wasn't until Billy moved that he remembered his own pain.
"Nice job, kid," Jim said as he picked himself up. Blood ran freely from his nose. It was going to need some serious reconstructive surgery. He held a handkerchief to it and dialed a number on the room phone.
"Slattery here," he said into the phone. "The meeting's over. Get a cleanup crew right away. We had a good one."
By the time the crew arrived, Smith, Talbot and Peterson were all conscious and groaning. They made no effort to stand until medics helped them up. None of them made eye contact with Billy or Jim. They'd lost; they knew their place. Billy wondered if the rules were actually written down somewhere.
Jim retrieved his baseball and watched Roger leave the room on a stretcher, still unconscious. Jim nodded at his partner wistfully. "Too bad," he told Billy. "Now I'll have to tell him how you did. I wanted him to see you perform for himself."
"I guess I did do pretty well," Billy admitted. The ramifications of this experience were still sorting themselves out. He needed time to think.
Jim flashed a bloody smile and repocketed his baseball. "You got what you wanted. Your product will ship." He put his arm around Billy's shoulder as they left the room, as much for support as camaraderie. "You did well, kid. There's a future for you in Marketing."
At the door, Billy turned and gestured toward his wrecked computer equipment. "Have someone cart that junk back to the lab," he told the cleanup crew officiously. "And be careful with it, okay?"
The crew nodded obediently. Billy smiled. Power.
The pain in his crotch lingered. He bore it stoically. As they stumbled into the elevator, he exhaled loudly. "You do this at all meetings? It's pretty brutal."
"It's a living," Jim shrugged. "But these days, I do this kind of business as rarely as possible. Wears you out. One meeting like this per month is about all I can handle. I'm no longer twenty-one."
"I am." Something incandescent flashed in Billy's eyes. The safe confines of the software lab would never be the same again. He felt a strength that he never knew he had. He wasn't sure what to make of these new inner muscles, but there they were. Flex!
"Tell me, who else needs convincing?"
copyright (c) 1993 by Steve Schlich