Christina Ng sat in her expensive office chair, staring at a framed photo on her desk. A clock over the closed door ticked seconds ominously in the otherwise silent room.
It was a sizable office, but spartan. Various marketing and business bestsellers lined a modest bookcase mounted on one wall. On the opposite wall hung a framed document–AlphaTech’s first approved letter of funding as a new start-up in Silicon Valley. A tasteful white orchid, to match a tasteful white throw rug. A few modern chairs in which to sit, also white. Occasionally, someone at AlphaTech would ask her about adding some character to her office, and Christina would point out the wall of windows overlooking the San Francisco Bay Bridge behind her. To her, the view was the only aesthetic needed.
The photo showed a younger Christina at her MBA graduation from Stanford University. In it, she wore a red robe and cap, hugging a classmate with eyes shut and smile wide. She could remember that day so well, perhaps the happiest day of her life. Graduating was an accomplishment, but even more a beginning. The day after graduation, Christina began sketching out the business plan that would lead to AlphaTech’s framed funding letter. Staring at the photo brought Christina peace, and hope in troubled times.
Someone knocked on the door twice and then opened it a foot. Samantha Winters, Christina’s executive assistant, stuck her head into the room. She was a young, plump, pale, blotchy, and generally unattractive woman with glasses, and she always had a perpetually startled look on her face. Wicked smart and capable, but easy to underestimate just looking at her.
Christina blinked from her reverie and looked at Samantha. “Hm?”
“Five-minute warning. Then they’ll escort us to the airport. I’ve got your bags ready.”
“Okay, thanks Sam.”
“Do you need anything?”
“No, thank you.”
Samantha stepped more fully into the room. She was wearing jeans and an unflattering floral top. “You okay?” she asked.
Christina blinked again and smiled with lightly-freckled cheeks. The freckles were the only blemish on her China-doll face.
“I guess. Just sort of thinking about beginnings. It’s a big day, right?”
“Yep. And a fun one. It’s going to be great. Let’s see how you look.”
Christina dutifully stood up and stepped around her desk. White blouse, gray business blazer and matching pencil skirt. She was a small woman–just barely topping five feet tall in her stiletto heels, and petite in every way. Her straight black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and fell to the middle of her back. She smoothed her skirt unnecessarily as her assistant looked her up and down.
Samantha cocked her head. “Beautiful and polished, as always. But…”
“But?” Christina quirked an eyebrow.
“For a Board meeting? Perfect. For today, though, I think the people at the studio are going to spruce you up a bit.”
“Spruce me up? What needs sprucing?”
“Just some color, maybe. A dramatic hat, or a scarf. Something for the audience to talk about.”
Christina smirked. “I’m not exactly aiming for the audience talking about me.”
Her assistant crossed meaty arms and smiled. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.”
“You are, frustratingly, rarely wrong, Ms. Winters.”
A male voice shouted from behind Samantha. “Christina!”
Samantha flicked Christina a look that said, “Want me to get rid of him?” and Christina flicked back a quick shake of her head. It was one of those near-telepathic interchanges both women valued about their partnership.
“And here’s Gareth!” Samantha said, falsely beaming. She stepped aside.
Gareth Graham was a medium-height, skinny Englishmen with perpetually unkempt-yet-stylish hair. He wore a navy-blue suit and a salmon tie, loosened to also look unkempt yet stylish.
“There you are! I’m glad I caught you. Listen, before you kick off this ridiculous enterprise I wanted to try one more time to tell you what a bloody disaster it’s going to be.”
Gareth always had a wild, insistent energy to him. Christina, meanwhile, exuded an aura of serene calm. Their two styles often clashed in AlphaTech’s boardroom. Christina crossed her hands behind her and met Gareth’s panting figure with a half-smile. A moment of silence passed.
Gareth straightened, and exhaled loudly.
“That is to say,” he said less emphatically, “I’d like a word, if you please.”
Behind him, Samantha smiled. “I’ll leave you, then. The studio folks will be here any minute so make it quick.”
“Thanks Samantha,” Christina said as the door closed. Christina backed up a bit and sat lightly on the edge of her desk, gripping the edge with her hands. “Now then, Gareth, we’ve been through this, and the Board agrees with me. You know that.”
Gareth grimaced. “I know. Of course I know. I’m appealing to you to step back and see the wider picture here, Christina. Everything is coming up roses for AlphaTech, and there’s no need to take away that momentum. This could ruin us.”
“I appreciate your concern.” Gareth started to say something, and she held up a hand, cutting him off. “And I appreciate it’s a risk. Companies take risks, Gareth. My job as CEO is to make these decisions. I made the decisions that brought us to such a rosy P&L, you may recall.”
“And if Alpha Squad is a disaster, well…”
“You’ll be out,” Gareth said violently. “You’ll be done. A laughing stock. This company you built will be taken away from you.”
Christina cocked an eyebrow. “Paving the way for a new, vibrant, visionary CEO, perhaps?”
“Dammit. If I wanted the job and wanted you to fail, I wouldn’t be here pleading with you. I’d let you bloody fall flat on your bloody face.”
“Fair point. So why come?”
“In hopes that on the precipice of this disaster that you’d see reason. Don’t do this. Please. I don’t understand why you’re so driven to make us such a public spectacle. I didn’t think you wanted to be a celebrity.”
“Is that what you think this is about? This is about building a brand, Gareth. AlphaTech’s, not mine. And doing some good while we’re at it.”
Someone knocked on the door.
“Well, I’m off to Los Angeles, it seems. I’m afraid the die is cast, Mr. Graham.”
“Mark my words,” Gareth said, shaking a finger, “this Alpha Squad nonsense will. Not. Work. You may have a meaningless reality TV show career at the end of this, but it will be the end of you leading a global enterprise.”
“I suppose we’ll see,” Christina said gently.
“I suppose we bloody will.”
The door opened, and Samantha stood there with an older, bald white man and several young people with tablet computers held to their chests. Gareth turned on his heel and pushed through them angrily. The group looked on briefly as he stormed towards the elevators, then turned their full, smiling attention to Christina.
“Big day,” the man said in a deep voice, stepping forward and extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Christina. You look beautiful.”
“Thank you, Peter.” Christina pulled herself away from her desk and met his grip, her hand comically small in his. “Well, let’s get going.”
As the two of them made their way out of the office one of the young people, a cute girl with sunglasses perched on top of her head turned to one of her young companions.
“I’m thinking we need color,” she said.
“Definitely. We’ll do that in LA. I have some ideas. A yellow scarf, maybe?”
Christina overheard and paused long enough to look at Samantha. Her assistant shrugged.
The group moved to the elevators, leaving the office door open. Only the ominous sound of a clock ticking filled the silence.