For additional insights into the fictional company, check out its "corporate website" at
I saw everyone that day.
That wasn't unusual at our little dot.com. Although the business plan that lured us to the company promised fifty people would be occupying our office space, one year later there were only eight of us divvying up the responsibilities to keep the venture afloat.
Archibald Lee, formerly of Lee Information, Lee Publications, Lee News, Lee Partners and Lee Advisors, had come out of early retirement at forty-one to live his dot.com dream. The rest of us were living a dot.com nightmare. We were interested in guaranteeing the quality of our product. Archibald was interested in guaranteeing the quality of our image. He made sure that the decorating looked hip, cool, and very downtown - even though we were stranded in the suburbs. For the past year Risk-eGames had occupied the offices of a venture capital firm that had ventured where no man had gone before and, apparently, no man should have. The investment daring that led to the firm's demise had not been matched by decorating boldness. The previous occupants had gone for an old-school, dark, paneled look. Our founder, Archibald Lee, had tried to update the space with exercise equipment and game tables in the central space that all the individual offices overlooked through glass windows. I'd turned my desk so I wouldn't be tempted to watch the constant comings and goings of the staff. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of my day peeking at the wide variety of activities, business and recreational, that took place in the play area.
Everyone passed through the play area that day -- even our educational consultant. I was surprised to see the former employee. When the educator stormed out of the office two months earlier she had vowed never to return. Seeing the pulsating veins at her temples, I had believed her.
I didn't know why she returned, but I did understand why she left. Although the former teacher had been brought on-board to guarantee the high standards in the educational games the company developed, she had been unable to detect any trace of instructional content in the products. Few disagreed. I know that I hadn't learned anything from the games - except that I had made a questionable decision when I allowed Archibald Lee to lure me away from my job at a well-established New York financial institution for the dot.com life.
All the employees of Risk-eGames were pretty much in the same boat. We'd been drawn to the company by the promise of hard work, big bucks, and early retirement. Our dreams vanished as the bottom fell out of the tech market and we got to know our boss a little better. Replaying my job interview, I recalled Archibald's extensive discussion of the products he was going to develop. I didn't recall his discussing selling those products. Archibald fantasized about the dot.com life, but apparently not about dot.com revenue. After a year, I wondered how long our investors would hold on.
Although everyone passed through, no one used the corporate playground that Thursday. No one was in a playful mood. Our prime competitor, All About E-Games, had released a product that not only foreshadowed our release scheduled for the following week, but copied some of the features exactly - including the program's extraordinary use of memory. As Director of Research, I got to deliver the bad news. I arrived at the office first, found the stories, and forwarded them by e-mail to my colleagues. Then I worked on my curriculum vitae as I waited for the explosion.
Victor Karinsky, the head of marketing, was the first into my office. He stormed through the door before 9 AM. I believed he had a printout of the story in his hand. But his arm was flailing so quickly in so many directions that I couldn't be certain. Victor was prone to angry explosions, but I'd never seen him so enraged. His frantic motions actually threatened to shake lose his heavily moussed black hair. "Isabella, what do you mean by this?"
"I don't mean anything. I don't write them. I just forward them." I reserved courteous customer service for all the other employees. Victor always brought out the worst in me - and just about everyone he met more than once. His ability to make a good first impression was what saved his marketing career.
"This is the third time this has happened. This," he slapped the page for emphasis, "is not a coincidence. This," he slapped the paper again just in case I missed his point, "is treachery. This," he slapped the paper one more time in case I had slept through the early part of his tirade "is treason. This," I braced myself for the sound of his fist hitting paper, "is going to end. Someone is going to pay for this." He punctuated the statement with a final jab at the paper. Then, without waiting for my reaction he turned on his heel and left.
As always, I was happy to see him go.
Eduard, a recent grad of a top ten business school and self-declared business development guru, was more philosophical. His main consideration was that he didn't want to be around when Anthony found out. "That poor kid is going to go nuts." Anthony was older than Eduard, but I couldn't argue with his characterization of Anthony as a kid. Anthony did not want to grow up and probably wouldn't have to. Since dropping out of Harvard he had easily found high paying positions designing online games. At Risk-eGames, the largest percentage of our first round funding went to enticing Anthony to join the company. Was he worth it?
Our founder, Archibald Lee, seemed to think so. I suspected he liked Anthony's work. I knew he liked Anthony's wardrobe. Whatever Anthony wore on Tuesday, Archibald wore on Wednesday - or Thursday if the clothing was new and a shopping trip was required.
I assured Eduard that Anthony wouldn't be returning from breakfast for at least an hour. Anthony ate all his meals in the coffee shop on the ground floor. Breakfast was his quiet time. He dined without his palm pilot or mobile phone and poured over the sports pages. Rumor had it that Anthony did not maintain an apartment. No one had ever seen him arrive at or depart from work. Anthony appeared to have no family, no social life, no interests - except the software. And, in season, football that he watched evenings and weekends in a bar across the highway. Anthony himself was not athletic. In fact, he raised clumsiness to an art form. He'd once been knocked to the floor simply walking past the treadmill. His only physical activity appeared to be playing table football with Archibald Lee. Even in foosball, he generally lost.
Recently, I had begun to suspect that Anthony had one other interest. Her name was Kim Smith and I could understand what a young guy might see in her. Kim had long slim legs, shiny dark hair, and the smooth skin of someone with little stress and less personality. I tried not to see Kim as the stereotype of a perennial A student, but she never betrayed any persona other than the focused, hard-driving, emotionless executive. Well, almost. She did display one emotion regularly: annoyance. Everyone and everything annoyed Kim. Including Anthony. He did not have a clue that was the case. He persisted in making clumsy small talk until he annoyed her even more -- especially when he interrupted her discussions with her partner in business development, Eduard.
Eduard and Kim would have been a much a more suitable match and sometimes I wondered if they had reached the same conclusion. With their dark good looks and self-absorbed drive, the two could have been fraternal twins. In three months they had melded into a cohesive team. Eduard was less than a year out of business school. Kim had worked in a New York investment bank and, based on appearances, thought she still did. Everyday in our decidedly informal environment she showed up in a trim dark suit and highly polished high heels. After a few weeks of working in shorts and t-shirts, Eduard had started mimicking her dress. It had been months since I had seen him without a heavily starched white shirt and power tie. The two were sartorial perfection as they conferred on how to react to the bad news.
"Why is everyone so upset?" Catrina plopped into the chair across my desk before 10 AM. "I mean, I know it's like bad news and all, but like being all grumpy and all isn't going to help."
Part of my reason for leaving the financial firm I worked for in New York was to avoid the stresses of managing a staff of twenty. It wasn't long before I missed the mentor role. I was happy when Catrina, the young designer Anthony hired, began coming to me for guidance. Catrina was young and enjoying her first job out of school. She didn't understand business. She certainly didn't understand what the news meant to the majority of Risk-egames' employees. Unlike the rest of us, Catrina wasn't working for equity.
It was while I was explaining the situation that I saw Anthony return from the coffee shop and bounce across the playpen. Anthony always bounced - quite frequently off walls and pieces of furniture. Bad eyesight didn't account for his inability to navigate the world. Anthony could spot a ship before it came over the horizon, but not notice a chair three feet in front of him. Perhaps the vacant smile he wore was a true reflection of his state of mind. He wore that grin as he headed for his office. He did not wear it long.
Across the hall I saw Anthony raving. Eduard and Kim were trying to calm him down. Victor rushed into my office. When he spoke, he sounded frantic. "When is Archibald coming?"
Soon it turned out. Archibald Lee, Risk-eGames founder and CEO, stormed down the hallway and headed straight for Anthony's office. I knew that his first priority would be to persuade Anthony to stay. Although the temperature was forty degrees, Fahrenheit, Archibald was wearing wide white shorts that revealed white hairy legs, Hawaiian shirt in shades of shocking pink and orange, and a team cap turned backwards. I'd seen Archibald in the days when he was living his 1980's Wall Street dream. The three hundred pound mound of muscle looked better in a dark suit and power tie. And, I was certain, might again - after he woke from his dot.com dream.
Things had seemed to settle down by 6 PM. Or at least that was the impression I got from Victor. He, Eduard, Kim, Archibald and Anthony had spent much of the day huddled together in various configurations and with various results. Sometimes I heard the laughter of happy camaraderie; other times I heard the roar of heated arguments.
The reading on the panic meter dropped considerably after Archibald ushered a still aggravated Anthony out of the office. Relative calm had descended on the office by the time Catrina and Kim followed.
"Not much more can be done here tonight that I can't do at home. Catrina is giving me a ride. I can't find my keys." Kim was almost pleasant as she made an uncustomary stop at my door to say goodnight. "I am sure tomorrow will be a better day."
At 7 PM, Victor dropped by and asked me if I could check on several companies. "I've got it under control, Isabella. Tomorrow we . . . Eduard, Kim and I . . . will share our recovery plan. Quite a day, eh?"
At 8 PM, I found Victor in my office when I returned from picking up a sandwich. He'd come back to remind me he didn't need the information that night. "I really think the crisis has passed. We can recover. I'm no longer worried. I'm fine." He never asked how I was. I didn't expect him to.
At 9 PM, Victor came back to make sure I knew that I would be the last one in the office. He was leaving. "I'll lock you in. Make sure things are locked up when you leave." I had no plans to leave. I worked late most Thursday nights in the hopes of an early departure on Friday. After the distractions of the day, I had a lot to do.
It was close to midnight when it started. I was alone. I knew from a trip to the copy room that all the offices were empty. The door to the conference room was, as usual, closed. No light shone under the door. The solitude was not at all surprising - or disturbing. Most Thursday nights I was the only one working late. Except, of course, for the omnipresent Anthony. But that Thursday the Webmaster was nowhere to be seen. After Archibald Lee walked his weeping employee out the front door hours before, I hadn't seen either of the men again.
As I approached my desk, it happened. I had just grabbed a tissue to compensate for the lack of paper towels in the ladies room. As I dried my hands, I absentmindedly checked my reflection in the mirror. Suddenly, my image disappeared. When it reappeared, my face combined shock, puzzlement and a fair dose of fear. All the lights in all the offices continued to blink. Not from a mechanical glitch. Repeatedly. As if somewhere someone held a hand on the switch and flipped it up and down. That was my first impression - and my last impression before I fled. I grabbed my bag and, dodging the amusements strewn across the floor, ran past the empty offices toward the exit. The lights continued to flash. I didn't wait to figure out why. I was moving fast as I rammed into the metal firedoor that opened to the stairwell. The force slammed the heavy door into the wall. I didn't stop to check for damage. I charged up the staircase. I had to climb two flights to my parked car. Behind me, I heard what I hoped was the echo of my own footsteps. Only at the first landing did I realize that I'd been holding my breath. I reminded myself to breathe. One flight to go. I huffed and puffed as I headed up to the roof.
At the top of the stairs, I charged through the exit to the rooftop parking. I heard the door bang shut behind me and prayed that I was the only person who'd come outside. I didn't dare turn to check. The inadequate lighting on the roof wasn't helped by the faint light thrown by a quarter moon. I dug out my overstuffed keyring as I ran past the few cars left in the lot. My fingers worked through the keys searching for the right one. In the dark, in a panic, they all felt the same. As I bumped into a jeep, the entire bunch slipped from my fingers. I stopped to pick them up as the car alarm alternated wailing with a plaintive call: Stop Thief. No one came to help the car - or me. I was alone. That was the good news.
After a struggle with the manual lock, I climbed into the driver's seat. I stuck the key in the ignition and pumped the gas. I cursed the old vehicle until the engine turned over and the car jerked out of the space. The engine sputtered to a stop. I cursed my driving. The engine stalled. I cursed the car. I got the engine started again and this time I didn't falter. I pulled away with screeching tires. The driver's door flung wide open as I turned. I didn't hesitate. I waited for the force of the next turn to move it close. Then I pulled it shut. I wasn't about to stop - or slow down. I spun down the ramps at high speed. Turns I generally took at twenty miles per hour, I took at fifty. I could still hear the pounding of my heart over the screeching brakes. Luckily there were few cars left in the lot. I cut across the empty spaces to shave seconds off my time to the exit.
I knew I faced a security gate at the bottom of the ramp. I gripped my access card in my hand. By the time the barrier came into view, I'd made a decision. If the restraining arm failed to open on the first try, I was going through. I waited to roll down the window until I was beside the ticket console. With one foot on the gas, I pushed the card into the slot. As I did, every light in the parking lot went out. I hit the gas.