The sun was shining on a clear spring morning as James Stevenson stepped out of his brand new Lexus outside the office. The car was an extravagance, he knew. He couldn't really afford it on his - currently - reasonably modest salary. But that wasn't going to worry him. It might be a stretch now, but soon he'd be buying them by the dozen. He knew he was a man on the up. He was going places.
It had been a long slog to get here, but he'd finally managed it. His own company. In a purpose built 30-man office. The paint was still wet on the sign outside, but already there was a lively buzz around the office as his employees (too few, far too few) zipped to and fro answering phones and scooting various clients into meeting rooms. He nodded at his secretary as he entered, and her perfectly made up eyes brightened before she gave him a welcoming smile.
"What have we got today Janine?"
"A fairly straightforward day sir. You have a board meeting at 10, a lunch with the Walters' account managers at 12.00, meetings with potential new clients this afternoon, and a presentation on Setting up a Business for the Young Entrepreneurs club at 7.00pm."
"You're keeping me busy"
She laughed, "it's not me sir! It's you who's managed to get your name on every fund managers' lips in the city. It's all we can do to keep up with the demand. You did say you'd hire some new staff once we got the new office up and running. Not to mention some higher salaries for your long suffering team" she accused, playfully.
"All in good time Janine, all in good time. We're a way away yet from being able to afford smoked salmon and caviar in the canteen"
"Not that far sir, if this demand keeps up." She handed him a bulging folder, "Your new business cards came through sir. A bit simple, aren't they?"
"Not at all Janine, they give all the information anyone could ever need. Besides, if they've met me, they know what I do." He pulled out a pack of cards and held the top one to the light. Bright, white, clean and clear. Exactly what he had wanted. Written in careful gold lettering, the words:
James Stevenson. Businessman
"Oh, one more thing sir" added Janine as Geoff turned towards away with a smile on his face, "a gentleman came in this morning. Said he was an old friend of yours from school and asked to wait for you. He's in your office sir. A Mr. Steph Johnson."
James' smile solidified briefly, but he waived acknowledgement at his secretary and headed towards his office. On opening the door he saw his old rival sat in one of the plush chairs in front of James' sleek, handmade desk - another little extravagance - and a flush of annoyance briefly suffused his features. He was all smiles though when Steph turned round at the sound of the door.
"Steph, how wonderful to see you! What are you doing here?" asked James, trying to avoid making the last question sound accusative.
"Jimbo my boy!" Steph stood up and grasped James' hand with genuine warmth, not apparently noticing James flinch at his old school nickname. "I'd heard you were doing well for yourself, and when I got wind that you were opening an office just down the street from mine, I just had to come and see how you were coming along. I confess I never expected to see such a bustle of activity! You really have mastered the art of marketing. You'll have to let me in to your secret someday."
"No secret, Steph, just good, old-fashioned networking. Getting out there, pressing the flesh. You know how it is", said James with a slight smile on his face. He knew he was the hottest name in town right now. A rising star. Which meant that Steph, with his poxy 30-man office down the street, was not.
"And it certainly seems to be working for you" Steph said, completely unabashed at being clearly outclassed. "We've been trying that for years, but never seem to have managed to create the buzz you've done. We were just about to try a new tack actually. It's called SEO."
"Essio?" said James, dismissively, "sounds like a management fad to me."
"Well probably," laughed Steph "but I thought I'd give it a go. It stands for Search Engine Optimization. Basically it means that your website pops up more frequently when people search for words related to your business. I don't pretend to understand it all myself. Apparently back in the 90s you could play the system just by packing the your website with the same words and phrases over and over, but it all seems to have got a bit more sophisticated. We're hiring an expert in to sort it out for us.
"Sounds unnecessary to me" said James "I know who my clients are, and they know who I am. If they don't you can bet that one of my staff or I will be knocking on their door before too long to tell them! You can't beat the personal touch in this business."
"Just as you say, Jimbo" another flinch, "but your clients have to find you first. The world is bigger than this town, glorious as it may be, and nowadays everybody starts from the internet. If you're not popping up when they search for you, you might as well not exist."
"Nonsense, it's just some cheap gimmick to get me to pay out exorbitant consultancy fees to some spotty kid to come and fiddle about on my website. I don't suppose your company is branching out? No Steph, I know what works. I know what sells. And our website is easy to find if you know what you're looking for."
"As you wish Jimbo, no need to get defensive," said Steph, ignoring the barbed accusation, "anyway, I just popped in to pay my regards as it were. Looking good Jimbo, and long may it continue. All the best"
Steph shook James' hand once more, then grabbed his briefcase and strolled out of the office. James scowled at his retreating back.
"Fat Git" he said, not quite under his breath. He sat down at his computer and quickly typed in his name and half a dozen words into a search engine. Almost instantly the responses popped up, and there he was. Right on the first page of results.
"See." He said to himself, "you just have to know what you're looking for". He knew he didn't need any gimmicks. He was going places.
James pulled up outside the office just as the summer sun began to bake the city. He smiled ruefully as he stepped out of his dependable Volvo. He had to admit that he'd got a bit carried away with the Lexus. It was still early days for the business, it had been barely more than a year after all, and these things take time.
He wasn't worried though, he knew he was the best at what he did, and he knew for certain that each and every one of his clients was satisfied. He couldn't help but wish there were a few more of them though.
"Morning Janine" he said brightly as he walked in and looked around the office. The team were gradually arriving, logging on to computers, brewing coffee, and making sales calls. "What news?"
Janine looked up at him and gave a little shrug. "Not much to report sir, the usual clients are placing their regular orders." She gave him a smile from under hastily applied make-up. "It pays the bills, eh?".
"That it does Janine, that it does" he replied, giving her a grin in return and heading towards his office.
Not all of the bills though, a treacherous thought reminded him. Oh, the business was ticking over well enough, but in a way they were a victim of their own success. They provided a dedicated, professional, and thorough service. The problem was that once they had done so, nobody needed them again for at least a few months. After the initial heady days of helping what seemed like every manager in the city, they reached a point where they pretty much had helped every manager in the city, and there weren't enough new clients.
He was going to have to make the rounds again, remind people what he could do, drum up some more repeat business. It always worked, and always gave them a temporary boost, but it did mean that he had less time for actually doing the work he was so proud of.
He's just sat down at his computer when Janine called through that Steph Johnson wanted to see him. A few moments later Steph knocked on the door and walked without waiting for an answer.
"Jimbo my friend, how are you doing?"
Steph's booming voice was not a welcome intrusion into James' thoughts, and James could not conceal his irritation.
"Busy. Steph. Very very busy.". He almost scowled at the overbearing figure, but just about managed to balance an icy grin on his features. "Did you want anything in particular?"
Steph appeared not to notice. Possibly, James reflected cruelly, that because Steph always annoyed people, he just assumed that annoyance in others was the ground state of normality. He'd known Steph for years and knew that being annoyed at him was like throwing snowflakes at an elephant, made worse by the fact that your hand would freeze off before he'd notice.
"Excellent news my boy. Busy is the measure of success for men like us, eh?" He ran his hand through his thinning hair, and James noticed the gleam of what appeared to be a new Rolex on the man's enormous wrist. "I know I can barely remember the last time I had an uninterrupted weekend."
"Hmph" growled James, grumpily. "Quite. So...?"
"Well that's more or less what I wanted to talk to you about. Got a Japanese fellow coming into town this weekend. Big client of ours. I understand the man wants to golf I've never been into that myself, just a damn silly way to ruin a good walk if you ask me, but I know that you were forever taking your big city clients off to some golf spot or other. I wondered if you could give me a few tips on where to take him?"
James quietly entertained the notion of sending Steph to the local community pitch-and-putt just to see his face, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do so. He disliked the man, but he wasn't a bad human being. Besides there's was a small world, one that for James was based almost exclusively on personal face-to-face relationships, and anything so obviously petty and spiteful would soon get around. He shelved his private fantasy for the moment, along with another one, even less briefly entertained, of smashing that grin of Steph's fat face with a nine iron and nicking his Rolex, and said "Sure thing, Steph, I'll get my secretary to send you details of a couple of courses I use"
"Top stuff Jimbo, shall I say I know you when I call?"
James thought for a moment about his lapsed green fees and said "better not, you know how people talk. I don't want people to think we're partnering up"
"Say no more Jimbo, completely understand. Discretion shall be my watchword." Steph paused, and added, "although if the idea ever did come up, I'd certainly be happy to give it serious consideration. Old friends running a business together eh? Together our companies could take over the world!"
James made a point of ignoring this. "Good luck with the game, Steph." He hesitated for moment before asking, in his best off-hand voice, "So where did you find this client? I thought all the Japanese firms in the city came though my office?"
"Oh we didn't find him, he found us. Not even based here. We're doing all the work remotely. He just contacted us out of the blue after finding our website. Honestly, the amount of work they're throwing our way has been a godsend. Keeps the business running and pays for a few little luxuries. You know how it is."
"Indeed" he said as annoyance burned behind his eyes. "but now if you'll excuse me" He indicated his computer with a wave of his hand.
"Of course Jimbo, no rest for the wicked eh? Many thanks, and see you around". He departed as blusteringly as he left, leaving the office door open and almost knocking over a picture on his way out. James got up to close the door and stared at his broad retreating back.
"Lucky Git" he said, just loud enough for his Secretary to hear. She threw a disapproving glance in his direction so he retreated into the safety of his office.
A partnership? With Steph? Ha! Oh he knew the man was fairly methodical and did a decent job, but he wasn't in the same league as James Stevenson! Not by a long shot. James Stevenson was going places.
As James stepped out of the subway into the windy autumnal air he grimaced at the increasingly shoddy office that represented everything that had gone wrong over the last year. One disaster after another. Even the repeat customers he'd relied on for so long had all but dried up, as the managers that James had invested so much into moved on or got fired or got promoted. Either way, they weren't the ones deciding the contracts any more, and the new blood seemed too lazy to use their legs to go out and find the best company to do the key work that James did. James went and knocked on doors, but in some cases was told they'd already found someone, other times that they'd just had it done, and sometimes - and these were the worst - he got turned away because they'd never heard of him.
He pushed gently at the door. Quiet inside now. He'd had to let most of the team go, just to make ends meet. It was just him and Janine now. Knocking around in this shell of broken dreams. He tried to smile at her as he entered, and she managed a smile in return. He wondered if his smile looked as forced as hers. Probably. From the looks of her red-rimmed eyes, she'd been crying.
"Morning Janine, anything today?" he asked, without much hope.
"Just one thing sir" she replied, not meeting his gaze. "This." She handed him a single sheet of paper, meticulously hand written and signed. Of course, the printer had been on the blink all week. He looked at it.
"You're resigning?" he asked, incredulously. "But, you can't! I need you."
"No sir, you don't. And I'm sorry. I wanted to be a part of this, but there is no this any more. And I've got bills to pay. And I've been offered another job. And frankly, the phone hasn't rung in two weeks. You don't need me. You don't need anyone. It's over." She finally looked up into his eyes and patted his hand. "I'm sorry sir, I really am. But it's over." She picked up he handbag and began walking to the door. Before she reached it she turned, gave him a gentle smile, and said, "in the circumstances, sir, I choose to waive my right to a severance payment."
He looked at her, mutely before giving an almost imperceptible nod of thanks. She looked around, one last time, and sighed. "It was nearly so good, wasn't it sir? We nearly made it. I wonder where it all went wrong." And with that, she wandered out into the street.
Later that afternoon, James began the journey home. He'd stayed behind long enough to see the bailiffs enter and begin taking away the furniture. Not much point in hanging around to watch his dream be dismantled. The power was still on hen he left, but surely that to was only a matter of time.
As he got to the subway line he opened his wallet and surveyed the meagre contents. How had it come to this? So little left that he now had to choose between buying groceries and taking the subway. His stomach opted for food, drowning out the meagre protests from his legs, so he turned around, head down against the wind, and began the long hard slog back to his apartment.
As he walked, he passed grocery store he'd never even seen before. He'd always bypassed this street by driving on the main streets or, more recently, by trekking through underground. It wasn't his usual one, but it was close enough to home. He might as well get the shopping out of the way.
After trudging around the aisles for a while, he had as much as his meagre budget would allow. Bread, milk, pasta, a few tins of tomatoes, a couple of soups for one and a few things from the bargain bin. This was not where he had seen himself a few years ago. What had happened? He knew he was good at what he did. He had been going places! So how had it come to this? How had he ended up here? How could this be any worse?
James turned to see the bulk of Steph bearing down on him. "What are you doing here my boy? Didn't realize you were a patron of my local supermarche!"
"Steph" said James, stiffly. He glanced down at Steph's overburdened trolley. A far cry from James' own basket, it was stuffed with the rich, high calorie food that had clearly made Steph the man he was today. And there, right there on the top staring accusingly at him, were lashings of smoked salmon and caviar.
Steph followed his gaze. "Oh these aren't for me, my boy" he said, laughing, "never had much of a taste for this posh muck you know. I'm buying it for the office. I wanted to give the team a little reward for all their work over the last year. It's been a good one you know. Work coming in from all corners of the world. That search engine optimization thing I tell you, best decision I ever made."
Something about James' stillness finally hammered its way though Steph's dense synapses.
"Oh, but you don't want to hear about that" he added awkwardly, shifting his gaze away. "I was very sorry to hear about your company. Damned shame. I always thought you did fine work. Almost as good as ours I used to tell people. Well obviously I didn't tell people that, what with you being the competition and all, but I always thought it. Still, chin up, eh? Could be worse and so forth."
James had not moved a muscle, except for a slight twitch around his eye, and continued to stare straight ahead.
"Well you don't want to hear me prattling on all day I'm sure" said Steph hurriedly. "I'd best be off. Good luck with the... Um, well with the... you know. All the best. Carry on."
Steph toddled away at high speed behind his trolley, glancing back worriedly until he rounded a corner and was out of sight.
James continued to stare for a while at the now empty supermarket aisle. He dropped the basket where it was, and trudged out of the store and down the street. As he walked he caught a glimpse of himself in the window of a dingy little shop. He didn't know what it had sold, but the empty display cases and locked door showed that the "going out of business" sign in the window was already defunct. He stared at the reflection of his haggard face.
"You stupid git" he said quietly.
A fine winter rain was falling as Sergeant Wilkins stepped out of the squad car outside the drab bedsit. He nodded to the uniformed constable on duty, who gave a wan smile from under tired eyes.
"What have we got constable?"
"Fairly straightforward one sarge. Suicide. Door locked from the inside, no-one seen coming or going, guy was known to be depressed. A rope job. Fairly clean."
"Slightly odd one. Looks to be the victim's own handwriting though, and he was clearly depressed when he wrote it"
The Sergeant stepped through the door and glanced at the emaciated figure swinging from the home-made noose. A quick look around showed nothing untoward - looked like an open and shut case, just as the constable had said. He looked at the table where a piece of paper lay askew, as if thrown down in disgust. He looked at the painstaking handwriting. Just 3 letters, over and over.
"What do you think SEO means constable?"
"No idea, Sarge. Old girlfriend maybe?"
The Sergeant grunted in acknowledgement. Next to the note lay a pile of business cards, grubby from constant handling. He picked one up and read:
James Stevenson. Businessman
"Listen Sarge" the Constable said, "I've just done a double shift covering Security for the game. "Would you mind covering for me if I nip out for 5 minutes to grab a bite to eat?"
The sergeant looked at the card again and glanced out the window. He wasn't in a rush to head back out into that weather.
"Why not?" he said, tossing the card over his shoulder. "He's not going anywhere."