A Simple Modification

by Yisroel Goodman

Bill stopped by his office and packed his personal belongings in his briefcase. They didn't take up much room, particularly when he dumped out all the papers dealing with Orange Bank on his former desk. This was it, he thought as he looked around his office for the last time, an eleven year career down the drain. He tried not to think about the new house they had bought. Surely Debbie's salary could cover the mortgage while he looked for something else. As he walked out, he heard a commotion from the computer room and saw the other programmers putting on their coats.

"You won't believe this!" Paul shouted to him excitedly, "Jean told us that until further notice, we will all work directly under Owen and we all quit!"

"Are you sure that's what you want to do?" Bill asked.

"It was hard enough when you were running interference between Owen and us. Work under Owen directly? I'd rather go on workfare and clean public restrooms. Besides, at the salary they pay us, we can find jobs that require a lot less hours."

"Well, good luck. You have my home number. Keep in touch."

"Wait a minute," Jean said, coming toward them, "Don't make a quick decision you'll regret later." She had just envisioned her project collapsing and losing her biggest client. Her career would go down along with Owen's and Bill's.

"Seems to me that you're the one who was hasty," Paul reminded her, "firing the only real manager we could work for."

"Maybe I was," she said through gritted teeth. "Okay, Bill, what will it take to get you back on board?"

"First, we all need today off. After last night's marathon session, we deserve it and we're too exhausted to be of much use today anyway."

"Okay. It'll be hard explaining to my V.P. why I gave the whole team off when you're behind schedule, but I guess I really don't have a choice. Anything else?"

"Yes. A decent budget to hire another programmer analyst to replace Mark. We were paying him fifty a year. Why was I only given thirty to replace him? To expect to get someone really high caliber for that is impossible!"

"We have budgetary constraints."

"I'm not asking for a bigger budget, just the same one I had before."

"When Mark left, we took some of the money we saved and reallocated it."

"For what, a bonus for Owen for getting rid of our best programmer? Take his bonus and reallocate it to saving this project."

"All right," Jean conceded, "You can hire another analyst at up to fifty thousand. Is that all?"

"One last thing. All project changes must be given to us in writing. No more secret promises between Owen and the client. If Owen can't produce a memo or E-mail showing that he informed us of the change, then it will be up to him to explain to the client and his own superiors how that happened. I speak for the whole team when I say we will not be put through another night like last night and another bunch of surprises like this morning. And I don't think the client appreciates it either."

"Wait a minute!" Owen shouted, "I will not waste my time putting every little thing in writing. It's silly and demeaning."

"It's also necessary," Bill said, "especially considering today. Do what you want. Write it down or don't write it down. But I want it understood that what's in writing is the priority. Anything you tell us verbally or claim that you did will be put on the back burner for when there's extra time. In short, if you want it done, we want it in writing."

"That sounds fair," Jean said, in an unusual show of support for Bill's position. "Then you'll all be coming in tomorrow?"

"Bright and early," Bill promised, "and I suggest that Owen can spend the day arranging the remaining tasks in priority order so that we can get started right away."

He took the commuter train home and dozed off most of the way. By the time he arrived at his destination, he was no longer tired. Since Suzie was at school and Debbie at work, he decided to drop by Mark's apartment. Mark was surprised to see him, until Bill explained what had happened.

"I can't believe it! Jean crumbled? What did you do? Pour water on her and watch her melt?""

"I've figured it out. Jean survives by using dictator tactics, the kind the Nazis and the communists called divide and conquer," Bill explained. "She picks one scapegoat at a time, so everyone learns that if you open your mouth and talk against her or Owen, you're the one who's not a team player and the next to go. She just wasn't ready for the whole team to walk out."

"But what does this mean for the future?" Mark asked, "Does it mean that as long as you're united, you can actually work efficiently despite Owen?"

"I'd like to think this whole thing will blow over, but knowing Owen and Jean, I doubt it. They don't like to be challenged, even if the challenger is correct. I suspect they'll go along with it for now, but behind the scenes they're making plans to replace me. Maybe even the whole team."

"What are you going to do?"

"I guess I'm going to have to start circulating my resume."

"And give up a eleven-year career? That stinks!"

"I don't see any other way. Sooner or later they're probably going to sacrifice me for the good of the project."

"You mean for the good of Owen and Jean."

"Aren't Owen and Jean to the project what the king is to chess?" Bill asked sarcastically, "for without them the project is over, or at least, that's what they believe."

"Don't give up, Bill. Think of what Vincent the Magnificent said. Everything happens in cycles."

"Who's this Vincent the Magnificent you keep mentioning?"

"He was and maybe still is the greatest magician who ever lived. There have been numerous rumors about his death, but none have been substantiated and every so often there's another sighting."

"Just like Elvis," Bill commented.

"But Elvis is really dead. No doctor ever pronounced Vincent dead. There's never been a funeral. He just kind of faded out of sight at the height of his career. But every so often, there's a sighting, usually in one of the many franchises he owns all across the country. And the team of lawyers and managers running his business still get instructions from him in letters written in his handwriting. But what he's famous for is his miracles and his unique theories. One of his beliefs is that we live in cycles. Everyone gets a chance to be both prince and pauper, sometimes during one lifetime and sometimes across incarnations."

"That's not a unique theory," Bill pointed out.

"It's not just that theory, it's all the details he added. He claimed that we can live more than one life simultaneously. That there are other worlds going on in which we play a part. While we sleep, we are unconscious here, but we are actually living out another life somewhere else. And some of these lives are rehearsals for what happens here. For example, someone might be granted a fortune in the rehearsal world in order to see what he'll do with it. If the outcome meets whatever plan is in store, then he's given that fortune in the real world. He theorized that when you have a dream that you were rich or poor or whatever, you might actually have been left with a fragmentary memory of another life that took place while you slept."

"Now that's pretty unique," Bill agreed.

"He went further than that. He said that it's possible that this world is the rehearsal and the real world was the one we're in when we sleep Or maybe that was only for some people."

"I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

"He said that it's possible that we live in cycles. For example, someone is granted wealth. Then he misuses it. So God rolls back time to before he got the wealth and then sends him along a different path. That's why sometimes people have distinct memories that other people who shared those times remember very differently. Some people still remember fragments of what happened before time rolled back."

"This is really getting into Twilight Zone material here."

"Bill, did you ever look at Debbie or Suzie and suddenly get an urge to just grab her and hold on? Did you ever have the need to just call Debbie at work and make sure everything was okay? And you must have heard stories about people who suddenly had the need to check on a relative just at the moment that person was in some sort of trouble and this scientifically unexplained need for contact saved the other person's life."

"Sure, it's called intuition."

"Yes, they call it intuition or a sixth sense or even ESP. Vincent theorized that sometimes the person died and then time was rolled back to just before it happened. The relative who had survived the first time still had a fragmentary memory of it and felt the need to check on the other person so the second time the tragedy was averted. He called it the First Chance."

"First chance? Why not the second chance?"

"Because he said that there were too many factors needed to allow it to happen, which is why there are still so many tragedies. Only if the person really wants it and really deserves it and really believes it can happen and it won't affect the rest of the world adversely, can it happen. And when it does, you only get one chance. If you blow it, you don't get another one."

"You said he did some miracles. What kind of miracles did he do?"

"He did a lot of benefits at orphanages and hospitals. There have been documented cases of spontaneous recoveries immediately following one of his visits. There have been too many to simply dismiss it as coincidence."

"Did he try to explain them?"

"He said that sometimes a person was stricken as a test, or because it would have a greater effect on society beyond just that person. He claimed that everyone had to have a certain average amount of good and bad and if you get too much of one, you're going to eventually get too much of the other. Sometimes, he said, the wrong person received the misfortune. But he said that it was sometimes possible to force that First Chance to happen, so that the calamity would simply go away. He claimed that it was too complicated to try to explain to the layman, but sometimes he was able to put all the parties together in just the right places at the right time and send everything to where it belonged."

"Do you believe that?"

"I've read everything I can about him and though I don't understand it all, I can't simply dismiss it either. Ever notice that sometimes it seems that very rich people have a lot of personal problems. That the children of very rich people are sometimes severely disturbed or physically handicapped? The greater the good fortune, the greater the bad fortune."

"But there are poor people with handicaps and rich people who seem to be happy," Bill pointed out.

"First of all, we can't see everything about a person to know who's truly happy. Remember the poem 'Richard Corey'? The guy had everything and then went home one find day and killed himself for reasons no one knows? Until that moment, everyone else thought he was happy. Second of all, how can we evaluate good fortune? Maybe if you add up a bunch of smaller bad luck, like having your car break down and your house needing a thousand dollars of repairs and a few other things, on a cosmic scale it's the equivalent of breaking your leg. We can't choose our bad luck. If you had a choice between losing your house or losing your child, which would you pick?"

"The house of course," Bill answered without hesitation.

"But if you go home right now and your house just burned down, would you say that you're lucky? You don't know that it was your house instead of your daughter. And if you win the million dollar lottery, you're going to celebrate. Then when something happens to Suzie next year, you're not going to connect it with the fact that winning the lottery raised your good fortune average so you needed some bad luck to balance it out. And then there was always those other worlds he talked about. If someone seemed to have only good luck or only bad luck, it was because when he slept and inhabited the other world, he was getting just the opposite."

"These beliefs sound almost like a religion," Bill commented.

"To some it is. He never tried to start one, but some of the people who have read his works have tried to form a religion around these beliefs."

"What kind of franchises did he own?"

"Well, I told you that he believed it wasn't good for someone to be too rich, so he tried to put his money to good use. He wanted to do something for the good of mankind and particularly for children," Mark explained, "so he opened a bunch of service areas along major highways with fast food places and activities for kids. They became very profitable. So he opened zoos and amusement parks with very low admission. But there were still profits from the food and souvenirs. He invested in businesses that he believed in, particularly family-run businesses and most of them prospered. It was like he had a golden touch. His corporation now owns restaurants, real estate, hotels, hospitals, clinics. He's given millions to charity and his foundation still does."

"And these businesses are run based on instructions from letters bearing his name?"

"While he was known to be alive, he left all sorts of instructions on how his affairs should be run. If a letter in his handwriting or a phone call in his voice is received, containing certain code phrases, then the instructions must be followed. And over the years, this has happened several times, even though Vincent himself has never made a public appearance and is believed to be dead. He'd have to be in his nineties if he's alive today."

"I can see why you consider him the greatest magician. Who do you think is behind these letters and calls?"

"There are rumors that Vincent gathered a group of apprentices and taught them what he knew and they're out there doing things he would have approved of."

"That's a good theory. Do you know a magician who can fix my situation with Debbie?"

"I did what I could, Bill. I suggested that I drive her to the restaurant and you meet us there, figuring it would give you an extra ninety minutes. Then when you didn't show and we couldn't reach you, I suggested that you meet us at the theater. When it was show time and you still weren't there, I ran out of suggestions. Debbie insisted that she was staying for the show and I didn't want to take the chance that she would sit through the whole thing alone and then have to go home alone, so I stayed. I spent the drive home calming her down, making excuses for you. I hope it helped."

"She did let me spend the night at home, even if it was on the couch."

"I hope you plan on making it up to her."

"I sure am. And to Suzie, too. Speaking of Suzie, she'll be getting out of school soon and I want to be there to pick her up."

When Suzie came out of the school building, Bill almost didn't recognize her. In her school uniform, she was a clone of all the many other girls her age. She had a maturity that he had never seen in her before, probably because he only seemed to see her when she was asleep. He watched her chat animatedly with her friends, blue eyes sparkling and could not believe that this perfect little doll was his child. He smiled at her and waited to catch her attention. Her eyes passed right by him as she continued talking. Bill felt a pang. He had neglected her for so long that she could not even pick him out from among the other parents here to collect their children. Then suddenly she stopped in mid sentence. Her eyes widened in surprise and returned to stare at Bill.

"Daddy!" she shouted, running toward him, "What are you doing here?"

"I thought I'd surprise you and pick you up from school," Bill said, catching her and lifting her into the air, "Are you surprised?"

"Yes. I'm supposed to go home with Amy's mom."

"Maybe we should ask Amy's mom if you could go home with your dad. Do you think she'll say yes?"

"I think so. But why do you have to ask her if you're my daddy?"

"Because she promised Mommy that she would take you home. You always have to ask the adult who's supposed to be taking care of you before you go somewhere else."

"There's Amy's mom!" Suzie called out and ran toward a woman who had just left her car, parked across the street.

"Suzie, wait!" Bill shouted, loping after her as his daughter stepped into the street, which was jammed with cars driven by parents picking up their children.

But in her excitement, Suzie didn't hear. She darted between two cars and stepped out into the path of a station wagon. For a second, time stood still as she froze in shock right in front of the car's left bumper. Bill stood paralyzed in shock, realizing that there was nothing that he could do. A split second later, his brain forced him into action, telling him that he had to at least make an attempt. He leaped over the hood of a car and stretched, snagging the back of her coat and yanking her to safety just inches before the impending collision. It took several minutes for their hearts to stop pounding.

"Suzie," Bill gasped as his breath returned, "could you be a little more careful next time. You almost killed me!"

"Killed you?" she asked, "I was the one who was almost hit."

"Just stay out of the street. Okay?"

"Okay, Dad. I was only going to Amy's mom. Here she is."

Amy's mom had arrived to inquire if everything was okay. After Bill informed her that he was taking Suzie, he turned back to his daughter. "Now that I surprised you once, should I surprise you again?"

"Yes, Daddy!"

"Then how about some ice cream?"

"Yayyyyyyyyyyyyyy!" she shouted, in that unrestrained way children have of making the one syllable last for a minute.

"Then I guess I have your permission. That's good, because Mommy's not here to ask."

"Mommy doesn't take me for ice cream after school. She says then I don't eat supper."

"But today's a special day, so we'll make an exception."

"Good!" she said, then "What special day is it?"

"It's the day your father starting getting his life back," he told her as he walked her to the car.

"Did someone take it away?"

"Yes, Arthur Mitchell did."

"And did you call the police and they made him give it back?"

Bill laughed as he buckled her safety belt. "You can't give back a life, honey. It's not a physical thing like a book or a ball."

"So how did he steal it?"

"Arthur Mitchell wanted me to spend all my time at work," Bill explained. "I couldn't spend any time with Mommy or with you. Every time I wanted to do something with my family, they made me work instead. That's why I missed your school play and last night with Mommy."

"That made me sad," she admitted, "but how did you get your life back?"

"I just decided that from now on, you guys are coming first and Arthur Mitchell's gonna take a back seat."

"Is Arthur Mitchell big? Because when Mommy's in the car, I have to take the back seat."

Bill laughed aloud. Why hadn't he realized before how much he enjoyed spending time with his daughter? He resolved that he would be spending much more time with her in the near future. They stopped at the ice cream parlor and spent a leisurely hour sharing a large banana split and just talking.

"Now you can tell your mother that I gave you a healthy snack," he said, "even she can't complain about a banana. Speaking of your mother, she should be getting ready to leave work soon. Do you want to surprise her?"

"Another surprise? Yeah!"

"Then let's go and catch her before she leaves."

Debbie was preparing to leave when her intercom buzzed and her secretary announced that she had a visitor. Moments later, Suzie came running into her office.

"Suzie! How did you get here?" Bill followed on Suzie's heels, smiling sheepishly. "Bill, why aren't you at work?"

"Mommy! Daddy picked me up from school and took me for ice cream!"

The smile faded. "Is this supposed to make up for last night?"

"I thought it might make a good start."

"It's not enough."

"But is it working?"

She tried to maintain an angry expression but failed. "Yes," she admitted with a smile.

"Good, because I didn't have a backup plan."

His heart picked up at the sight of that elfin face transformed by that smile. He couldn't bear to think of what would happen if he lost her.

"What are you doing here? Did you leave work early?"

"Actually, I was invited to leave."

Her eyes widened. "Were you..?" she mouthed the word "fired" so Suzie wouldn't hear.

"You might say that."

"What are we going to do about it?"

Bill was heartened by her use of the word "we." "I still have some options. We'll discuss it without the presence of little pitchers. How about we go out to eat?"

"Are you sure that's what you want to do?"

"Absolutely," Bill said emphatically, "I've got a lot of catching up to do."

They had a leisurely dinner at their favorite local family restaurant and Bill remembered what it was like to be a family. He resolved that there would be many more nights like this one. Dinner complete, they returned home. Bill insisted on putting Suzie to sleep and telling her a bedtime story. He made up a funny one about two mean, lazy bears named Owen and Jean and how the zoo kicked them out for being too lazy and they had to find their own food, so they mostly went hungry. Suzie found the story hysterical. When Bill was finished, he gave her a goodnight kiss. She hugged him back and whispered, "Today was the best day ever."

"There will be many more like it," he told her, "I promise."

Debbie caught the look in his eye as he left Suzie's room. "Remembering what it was like being a father?"

"And remembering how much fun it is," Bill said, "particularly when compared with sitting through lousy demos and Jean's tirades." He proceeded to fill her in on the office events, stopping just after Jean had fired him.

"You mean Owen sprang the demo on you as you were leaving?" she asked incredulously.

"That's exactly right. So I called the team together to let them know. Then we had to reschedule priorities and somehow during that crisis, I lost track of time."

"I can see why. Didn't you tell Owen it was our anniversary?"

"I did. But the demo was already scheduled. My choices were to save the demo or quit or to walk out without quitting, let the demo fail and lose my job. I opted for saving the demo."

"And got fired anyway."

"Not exactly." He told her about the team quitting and Jean rescinding his termination.

"So where do you stand with them?"

"I believe I've just received a stay of execution," Bill answered. "If I can make it last for two months, I'll have been there twelve years. That gives me one more week severance pay when they fire me."

"You say 'when' like it's a foregone conclusion."

"I've learned that Owen and Jean forget nothing, except for promises made to clients and their team's bonuses. And they forgive nothing. I forced Jean to make concessions she didn't want. I showed Owen up as a liar and now he's got to put everything in writing. They're going to have to live with that every day until they make sure I'm gone. The only thing that's keeping me there is the fact that the project is so behind that they can't take the time to find replacements. But they're going to start working on it, believe me."

"What countermeasures can you take?"

"Wait to get fired and collect unemployment while I sue or start circulating my resume or both."

"No magic tricks left?" She was referring to Bill's past prowess at suddenly coming up with a last minute scheme to put a project back on schedule.

"Mark's the magician, not me. And it's hard to work on magic tricks to save a career I don't really want. I can't spend the rest of my life dealing with Owen and Jean. At least you're doing okay."

"I hope so," she said with some hesitation.

"Is there a problem at work?"

"There's no problem at work exactly. But remember I told you that Wolf Media has been sniffing around WIND? It looks like there might be an acquisition in the works."

"How would that affect you?"

"New management always means change. They might take us over and leave everything in place or they might decide to replace the WIND people with their own."

"When will you know?"

"Not for weeks or even months. These things take time."

"That makes it even more critical for me to keep my job." The telephone rang. "If that's the office, I'm not home."

Debbie answered the phone. It was Mark. "I've been thinking about your office problem," he said, "and I just might have a solution. If you could produce the currency conversion function at the next demo, would it make your job more secure?"

"Are you kidding? It's be more secure than Fort Knox. I'd be Jean's golden boy! But let's be realistic here. I have a better chance of winning the lottery."

"No, actually you have a better chance of producing the conversion."

"You sound like you mean it."

"I do. Remember my back burner projects?" When Mark found a proposed program function intriguing, he would work on it in his spare time just for the challenge. In with the past he had sometimes put the project back on schedule by announcing that he had already worked out the solution to a tricky requirement before being asked.

"Sure, I remember. You saved my hide with them before."

"Well, I guess I'm about to do it again."

Bill's eyes lit up. "The currency conversion?"

"I played around with the concept. I've got it as a function you can call. You must pass it a numeric field, the code for the currency it's in and the code for the currency you want to see it in. It uses a database for the lookup and current exchange rate. With one line of code, you can plug it into any of your current screens."

"Mark, you're a lifesaver. How much do you want for it?"

"It's not for sale, Bill. It's a gift."

"Don't be silly. It's not for me. It's for AMI. They fired you, now if they want your work, they should have to pay for it."

"And how exactly are you going to arrange that?"

Bill's mind began to conceive one of the clever plans that were his forte. "I just thought of something. Something really good. I'll get back to you. And thanks."

"You look really happy," Debbie commented.

"Did you hear that?" Bill asked her.

"Enough to understand that Mark wrote the program you need."

"It wasn't due until the next release. If we can demo it to the client now, it will really put us ahead."

"Are you running to Mark's apartment to go see it?"

"Sometime over the weekend."

"Not right now?"

"I thought tonight was our night."

Debbie smiled. "Maybe you are learning. So I guess we have do something to celebrate."

The next morning, Bill entered the office with a new spring in his step. When he greeted his programming team, they seemed to have caught the excitement as well. Everyone realized that things would be different now, at least for a while. Bill unlocked his office door and entered the room he had not expected to see again. The pile of papers he had dumped out the day before still lay heaped on his desk. He began to go through them when Owen came in. Bill braced himself for some sort of tirade, but Owen greeted him with his usual perfunctory 'hello' and dove right into business.

"I've reassessed the task priorities based on yesterday's demo," he said, "and I've compiled a list in priority order. As we agreed, I'll present them to you in writing. My office, five minutes."

"Just because it's in writing does not mean that I automatically agree to it," Bill said, after Owen had returned to his office and couldn't hear him. Deciding to reserve judgement until he had seen Owen's list, Bill quietly entered his boss's office.

"Here's the list of all outstanding tasks," Owen said, handing bill several sheets of paper. "I've grouped them by phase and within each phase by priority. Phase one tasks are due for next week's demo. Start with the priority one tasks and work your way down the list in order. Each succeeding priority represents another week of development. I took the whole day yesterday to come up with a schedule that I believe even you can agree to."

Bill bristled at the implication that another manager would have had no problem with Owen's schedules, but he said nothing as he read Owen's list.

"I appreciate the effort that you've out into your schedule this time," he said. If Owen could make implications, so could he. "However, sometimes it takes more than just counting tasks and assigning numbers to manage a project."

"What's wrong with it?" Owen growled.

"Nothing on the face of it. But you have eight phase one, priority one tasks all due next week. Three of them were originally scheduled for phase two."

"Assign two to each programmer and they can all be done this week."

"But some of them cross multiple modules that other programmers are working on. I can't assign two programmers to work on the same module simultaneously. And I can't expect one programmer to handle all those modules in that time frame. You can save yourself time by giving me the tasks and phases. It's my job to assign programmers and priorities."

"Then how do you suggest that we meet our schedule?"

"I'm glad you mentioned that," Bill said. "Yesterday, I went over to my wife's radio station, WIND. They had a custom system designed from the ground up by a consulting firm. My wife managed the project from the client end. She raves about this firm. They've produced a system that is everything WIND wanted and they did it on schedule and within budget."

"What does that have to do with our project?" Owen interrupted.

"I was getting to that. As I understand it, I have a budget of fifty thousand dollars to hire a new systems analyst. On top of that fifty thousand, you have to budget for the headhunter's commission of about ten to fifteen grand and another twenty-odd thousand for benefits. So our fifty thousand dollar analyst actually costs us close to ninety grand the first year. And then there are no guarantees that he'll actually last long enough to be productive. Rather than waste hours of my time interviewing candidates, hiring one and then bringing him up to speed on the project, I'd like to suggest an idea that will save us all that time and a significant amount of money. Let's hire the consulting firm."

"We have hired consultants before," Owen pointed out, "But only for short-term projects where they had an expertise we lacked. This is a long-term project and requires basic programming skills."

"That's where I think we went wrong," Bill said, diplomatically using the collective 'we', "We've been hiring people with basic programming skills. But this position requires some extensive business knowledge as well. It's one thing to bring in a coder who has some general coding experience. It's another to bring in an expert who has written so many different and complex systems that he can handle just about anything we throw at him."

"If he's so good, how can he do it for less than the salary of an employee?"

"Because he charges based on how many hours a job will take him and it will take him a lot less time than an inexperienced programmer. He'll probably have a library of routines ready to be used, which will save him time. He won't need training, won't attend all of our many meetings and won't get paid for sick days. We give him a list of functions. He quotes us a fee. We can either accept it or reject it. If we accept it, we pay upon delivery of a working product."

"Sounds like you've given it a lot of thought."

"I've been doing little else since Debbie showed me the system at WIND."

"What's the name of this firm?"

"Landmark something. It's either Landmark Consulting or Landmark Systems. If we get the go ahead, I can always call Debbie for their number." Bill, ever the glib salesman, felt very clever about his answer. First, by pretending he was unsure about the name of the company, he removed from Owen's mind any possible idea that Bill had any involvement with the firm. Second, by using the collective 'we', he was already including Owen in the scheme, as if it were a foregone conclusion that Owen agreed.

"How long have they been in business?"

"I'll have to find out. I know that WIND has been using them for close to five years now." It was a slight exaggeration but not by much.

"Five years? Sounds like a project that may be behind schedule."

"They haven't been working for WIND full-time," Bill said quickly, "They first developed the advertising sales system. WIND liked it so much that they hired them to develop the logging system that tracks when the ads are scheduled to run. That worked so well that they hired them to produce other systems. WIND received a proposal and quote for each system and each was developed separately. So though it's been five years, it's been a number of separate projects. Each went according to schedule and WIND is very satisfied."

"I'm beginning to like the idea," Owen said, "Let me run it past Jean and see what she says."

As his tires hydroplaned across wet asphalt years later, Bill decided that meeting may have started it, for in making the suggestion to Owen, he had set events into motion that had inexorably led to his present situation.

Jean had several meetings with Owen, after which Owen would have a meeting with Bill to discuss questions that Jean had asked. Owen would return to Jean with the answers and she would ask more questions. Then Jean finally called Bill in on the meeting during which she asked him to call his wife and get specific information.

"The firm is called Landmark Computer Services," he reported, "the manager I spoke to is George Hazelwood. I also spoke to the programmer who's working on the WIND system. His name is Chris Barnes. Since the WIND project is not full-time and Chris has experience writing systems with requirements similar to ours, he'll be happy to make us a proposal. He's even written an import-export package that needed currency conversion."

George Hazelwood was Debbie's brother and the accountant for Landmark. Because Bill could not deal with Landmark issues during the work day, George had assumed the role of General Manager. Other than the accounting, he occasionally took client calls and then passed the messages along to Bill. He had agreed to allow his name to be used as a Landmark account manager on the paperwork that Bill would present Owen. Chris Barnes was George's wife's maiden name. Bill simply wanted to avoid using Mark's name until Owen was committed too far to stop.

"So what's the next step?" Jean asked.

"Since Chris lives up in my part of the state, I'll meet with him tonight and give him what I've got on the currency conversion and some of the other functions we need that no one's working on. He'll get back to us with a proposal and a time frame. Then it's our move."

"Sounds good to me," Jean said, "Keep us posted."

Mark and Bill worked out a realistic schedule for completing the tasks required. Despite the fact that Mark could only devote part of his day to it, he knew that he could complete it in the time estimated since the currency conversion, which was a major part of the work, had already been done. Bill sat at the word processor, typed up a proposal on Landmark stationary and signed it with George's name. The next morning it was on Owen's desk.

"This guy really thinks he can have the currency conversion finished in two weeks?" Owen asked.

"That's what he says," Bill answered, "and after speaking to him, I believe him. He's very quick and sharp. He anticipated my questions before I asked them, asked me all the right questions. There's no doubt in my mind that he's experienced. In with any case, as you can see from the way this contract is worded, we only pay for results. So what do we have to lose?"

"If we can have currency conversion in two weeks, we'll finally be ahead of schedule on something. The client will love us."

"Owen, please do us all a favor and don't even mention it to the clients," Bill pleaded. "Let's wait until we have the program up and running and then we'll spring it on them. It's better to deliver more than we promised than to promise more than we deliver."

"Very well," Owen agreed, "this whole deal with the consulting firm is your baby. You hold full responsibility. If it doesn't work, you'd better be prepared to handle it."

"And if it does work, you'll take all the credit," Bill said, but he said it to himself. Aloud he said, "I fully understand. So let me manage it and let me determine when to make any announcements."

Once the contract, signed by Owen and Jean, was returned to Bill, he brought it to Mark to file along with Landmark's copy of the original proposal.

"I'm a little nervous about all this," Debbie said, "couldn't you get into trouble if they find out that you're a partner in Landmark?"

"I took some steps to prevent them from discovering that. In any case, what's the worst they can do?" Bill responded, "fire me? They're going to do it sooner or later. This way I at least buy us some time. And we really need it. With the acquisition of WIND by Wolf Media definitely happening, you don't know where you stand yet."

Since Mark had already designed the currency conversion routine, he spent the next two weeks creating the next few functions on the list. This way he was able to stay ahead of his own schedule. Bill had learned long ago that it was not good business practice to turn a product over to the client ahead of the due date. The client could then get the impression that it had been easy to produce and that he had been overcharged. As experienced programmers learn, whatever time is saved on one part of the project gets lost on another. Overall, entire systems were rarely completed ahead of schedule.

Bill was very careful to arrange the deal in such a way that the entire income from Arthur Mitchell would pass through Landmark's bank account and be paid directly to Mark. He did not want any part of it remaining in the company account. As the person at Arthur Mitchell who had recommended Landmark, he wanted to be able to prove that he had not benefitted in any way from the arrangement, in the event that he was accused of a conflict of interest. But there was one benefit that he did get and that was a reduction in the number of late nights he had to put in at AMI. Now he could leave the office at five and claim truthfully that he was on his way to a meeting with the consultant concerning the project.

Two weeks later, Bill came in early one morning and met with Paul, as they had prearranged. Paul made some quick modifications to the system, replacing the lines of code that prompted for monetary amounts with a one-line call to Mark's routine. By the time the rest of the group arrived, the code had been tested. For once it was Bill's turn to go to Owen's office and call him to a demo.

"Watch this," Bill said, smiling as he brought up the transaction screen.

After entering the date and choosing the account, the cursor moved to the amount field. A bar floated above it with the legend "Entered Currency." Next to it was another amount field that was display only and could not be changed by the user. Above it floated a bar with the legend "Display Currency." "US Dollars" was currently highlighted in both bars. Bill entered "1000" and "$1000" was displayed in both amount fields. He changed "US Dollars" to "British Pounds" in the display bar and the second amount was now shown in British pounds at the current exchange rate.

"He actually did it," Owen said in astonishment "and right on schedule."

"I told you he was good," Bill said.

Within a few days, Bill had a check for Landmark to deliver to Mark and some additional work Owen had agreed to hand over. Over the next few months, Bill and his team began to relax. With Mark taking over the more complex functions and Owen making fewer rash promises since they now had to be in writing, the project began to move along at a respectable pace. Their backlog actually decreased until they were only a month and a half behind schedule instead of three. But as pleased as Jean, Owen and Mike was at the progress, the inevitable occurred. The client wanted some modifications in the routines that Mark had written. These affected code written by the other programmers and they had questions. Owen insisted that "Chris Barnes" come in for a meeting.

"You have to understand that Landmark gave us a good rate because Chris can do the work in their office and still be available to handle WIND," Bill pointed out, in an effort to avoid or at least delay the confrontation that was sure to follow. "If you want Chris to come in, Landmark is going to bill his time at a hundred dollars an hour, including travel time."

"I think it's important that he be here for the meeting," Owen insisted.

"I agree," Jean stated emphatically.

"Then let me set it up."