When he left home in the grey light of dawn Patricia still hadn’t returned. He wasn’t surprised. She and her friends reckoned all-night parties meant exactly that, and God knows where they might have ended up. In many ways he was relieved. He wasn’t a morning person, and had a severe aversion to emotional scenes before breakfast. In any case, there would be more than enough histrionics later on. Domestic tiffs couldn’t hold a candle to the squeals of outraged professional dignity that he’d get when he started to dig up the drains at Delta Oil.
The Lufthansa flight was on time, and after he’d disposed of the plastic breakfast he pulled his notes out of his briefcase and started to get his brain into gear for the day ahead. For once his passage through Frankfurt’s congested airport was relatively painless. The taxi queue was short, and the Mercedes wafted him effortlessly to the new monolith of an office block that shielded Blake and Moorfield’s German operation behind its acres of reflective glass. But that, it seemed, was as good as things would get. The local client partner, Gunther Kolb, and Joe Weiss, his American counterpart, intercepted him the moment he walked in.
“David, it’s good to see you,” Gunther said in his almost accentless English. “I think you know Joe.”
“Morning, Gunther.” David shook the outstretched hand. It was sweaty, and the German’s strained expression gave the lie to the calm words. The man looked like someone greeting the undertaker after a death in the family. He switched his gaze to the American.
“Hi, Joe, it’s good to see you again. Sorry you’ve been dragged all the way over here for this.”
Joe’s handshake was firm, dry, and accompanied by a waft of airline cologne. He’d got straight off the overnight plane, David guessed, as visiting American partners frequently did. Which was all very well, except that he’d be crippled with jet lag by mid-afternoon.
“I could have done without the trip,” Joe said with a shrug, “but there you go. These things happen, I guess.” But not on my watch, was the unspoken rider.
David’s antennae twitched and he looked sharply up at Joe. Anger was natural in these situations. Personal animosity too, sometimes, aimed at those you thought had dropped you in the shit. Part of his job was to re-channel those energies and make people attack the problem instead of each other. But long experience had taught him that there was always a certain undercurrent of fear. Fear of unknown but almost certainly unpleasant consequences. Fear of blame being laid at your door. Sometimes, just fear of your judgement being called into question. He studied Joe’s face. He could see tiredness from the overnight flight. He could see the stress from long hours and difficult clients that was the hallmark of every senior partner. Interestingly, though, he couldn’t see the most common emotion of all. Whatever Joe’s agenda was today, he wasn’t afraid of the outcome. And that was very peculiar indeed.
He cast his mind back to his last meeting with Joe a few years ago in New York and dredged up a memory that might help break the ice.
“It could be worse,” he said. “At least this time I hope I’ve not dragged you away from a baseball game.”
“No time for that these days.” Joe flashed him a grin that was only skin deep. “The world’s moved on, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
I’ll bet, he thought. These days Joe Weiss came with a reputation of a man on the make, close to the inner circles of the US firm. And a hard man to do business with internally, especially if you were European. He fell back a little as they made their way down the corridor towards the meeting room, and eyed the tall, athletic figure who strode ahead of him. From the hand-stitched black shoes to the close-cropped blonde hair Joe fitted the stereotype of an aggressive American. A far cry from the laid-back baseball fanatic he remembered. It was a good job he’d done his homework. It was always a mistake not to check out the people you had to deal with, even when you thought you knew them.
The morning lived down to his expectations, as Joe detailed every real and imagined deficiency of the work the local team had done and resisted any suggestion of shared responsibility. The remains of the lunchtime sandwiches had long since curled up at the edges and the conference room table was littered with documents and discarded plastic coffee cups before he managed to bring the real issues to a head.
“So how do you see the way forward, Joe?” he said
"The bottom line is that Delta’s head office won’t accept the system design specification your guys have put forward for Europe.” Joe repeated for the umpteenth time. “That means for starters, we have to rework the whole of the first phase to fit what my team in New York told you guys to do in the first place.” He glared at Gunther. “I assume you have actually got some people over here who can follow simple instructions?"
“Anything else?” David kept a tight rein on his temper. He’d just about had it with the snide remarks, but it would be a mistake to let it get to him.
“Bet your ass there is.” Joe leaned forward with his elbows on the table and a mean expression on his face. “Your local engagement manager, Barclay. He screwed up. Delta want him off the job like yesterday and one of our top guys from New York to take over.”
David winced. The fact that Michael Barclay’s career could be wrecked by such a move did not seem to have even crossed Joe’s mind. Nor, apparently, had the possibility that Michael’s views on the system specification might be correct. He turned to Gunther.
“And how do you feel about that?”
“Well... er... I suppose we’ve got no choice, if that’s what the client wants,” Gunther muttered.
“So you agree with Joe that Michael’s got it wrong?”
Gunther’s eyes flickered round the table with a hunted look. “Well… er...” He paused, and looked up at Joe.
“You can’t have it both ways, buddy.” Joe gave Gunther a hard stare. “You’re in this up to your neck. You’d do well to remember that.”
The naked threat in Joe’s voice seemed to hang in the air, and Gunther visibly wilted. The hairs on David’s neck prickled. Some hidden agenda was being played out between the two of them. But there was no time to puzzle it out now.
“Wait a minute.” He held up his hand to stop the by-play and take control. “One step at a time, please.”
He picked up the offending document and tossed it over the table to Gunther. “You supervised Michael’s work. When did you review his report, check back with the client and sign off the recommendations?" he asked.
It took a while, but in the end Gunther had to admit he’d done none of those things. But it still didn’t mean that Michael Barclay had got it wrong. David turned to Joe.
“Right, I think it’s clear how we got into this situation. Let’s look at it from Delta Oil’s point of view. What exactly have they said they want done?”
“I told you.” Joe said. “Change the team and rework the specification, or they’ll can the whole job and sue us.”
“And you think they’re serious?”
“You’d better believe it,” Joe said with relish. “They’re a real tough bunch. And you’ve just demonstrated that your team’s screwed the job up over here. You haven’t got a leg to stand on.”
Alarm bells rang again in David’s mind. This didn’t sound right. What was that hint of sly satisfaction in Joe’s voice? Why all the focus on pointing the finger instead of finding a way forward? He frowned. This had the smell of internal politics. But if this was some sort of set-up it was a dangerous game to play with a major client. He took a hard look at Joe’s eyes. They were watery and red-rimmed. The jet lag was beginning to bite and eastward travel was the worst kind. He decided to take a gamble.
“Well, no,” he said, “that’s not quite what we’ve demonstrated.”
Joe thrust his head forward and scowled. “What do you mean? From where I sit it looks real clear-cut. You guys screwed up, the client’s going to sue. Period.”
David looked him in the eye and raised his eyebrows. “So where are the legal papers?”
“Huh?” Joe struggled with the sudden change of subject. “What legal papers?”
“You say they’re going to sue us. Clients don’t say things like that. They get their lawyers to write and say it for them. Where’s their letter?”
Joe shifted in his seat. “It hasn’t come to that yet.”
“So we’re not being sued?” David scratched his head and pretended to be puzzled. Jet lag blunted even the sharpest intellect, a fact that business travellers frequently overlooked, and the best way to exploit the weakness was to keep your opponent off balance.
“Yes. I mean no. Well, not yet, maybe, technically. But they will, believe me. Unless we do what they want.”
David’s suspicions hardened, and he recalled yesterday’s training course. It appeared that clients were no longer the only ones whose motives had to be thoroughly understood.
“Why?” he said.
There was a pause, and he saw the blood rise in Joe’s cheeks.
“What kind of question is that? You know damn well why.” Joe snatched up the report from the table and waved it in David’s face. “Because this crap doesn’t fit their global system design, that’s why.”
“Your design,” David said. “Not theirs.”
Joe’s face turned even redder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You and your team specified the global system architecture. Suppose Michael Barclay is right, and it can’t handle some of the local accounting and tax issues over here?”
“Is it?” David resisted the urge to add that part of Joe’s responsibility in the project was to oversee Gunther to prevent exactly this kind of conflict. If Joe had done that job properly, this mess would never have happened. “We have to look at all the possibilities,” he said. “When I talked to Michael about it the other day, he made a convincing case. So does his report.”
Joe banged the table with his fist. “You sons of bitches can’t wriggle out of this by trying to dump the blame on us.”
David showed his teeth in a smile, but made sure it didn’t reach his eyes. Finally he could hear worry in Joe’s voice. Now they could get down to the real business. “It’s not a question of blame,” he said. “We’re all on the same side here.”
“But Delta have already signed off our global design,” Joe said. “We’re on the hook to deliver. We can’t go back and tell them we want to change it at this stage.”
“I can see why it might be difficult.” David kept his voice calm and reasonable. Softly, softly, catchee monkey. “I take it you haven’t told them about any potential changes yet, then?”
“Hell, no, they’d hang me out to dry if....” Joe’s voice tailed off as he realised what he had said.
The bastard. David struggled to keep his face impassive. Delta Oil had nothing to do with this, they probably didn’t even know what was going on. Joe bloody Weiss was playing politics for some reason. Well, he wasn’t about to let the American get away with that.
He nodded as though nothing was amiss. “So it’s really you and your team that want the European specification reworked. That’s good news. It takes some of the pressure off if we can keep the client out of it until we’ve agreed the best way forward.”
Joe shot David an evil look. “I’m telling you, I know Delta well,” he said. “They’ll react just like I said.”
There was something about the look in Joe’s eye that made David uneasy. He’d made an enemy, though he wasn’t sure why. But whatever the cause, it ran deep, deeper than Delta Oil could account for. He’d better watch his back in future. He shrugged. One thing at a time.
“In that case we’ll just have to persuade them it’s in their best interests not to, won’t we?” he said. “Now why don’t we call Michael Barclay in, and start to work out exactly what those best interests really are?”
Much later that night he switched on his laptop to access the local wi-fi network. He glanced round while he waited for the connection. The hotel bedroom was bland and anonymous, like a fast-food restaurant. It could be anywhere in the world, and he suddenly struggled to remember which country he was in today. His itinerary might read like a holiday brochure, but the unglamorous reality was collecting his e-mail off the firm’s secure VPN facility at midnight, after a hard day's work. Life consisted mainly of offices, hotels and airports when you were a partner. The firm’s divorce rate was eloquent testimony to that.
His laptop beeped to tell him that the download from the London e-mail server was complete. He saw the flashing red star against one of the messages and groaned. The urgent classification usually meant bad news. At this time of night it was the last thing he wanted, but it was not in his nature to ignore it. Reluctantly, he pressed the keys to bring the message up on the screen.
From: Ted Willis, B&M London
To: David Tyler
Re: Risk Management Committee
Please attend a priority risk management review of a major potential engagement at PetroProm, to be held in room 1127 Moorfield House at 2 p.m. tomorrow. Client and prospect summaries are attached.
The peremptory summons was typical Ted Willis. He had the authority to go with it though. In a competitive world, risk assessments had to be done fast. Ted’s job was to pull together a team with the right expertise to make that judgement. You couldn’t argue with the logic. Once contracts were signed, the firm was on the hook to deliver and it was too late to have second thoughts. All the same, there was no call to be so damned arrogant in the way he went about it. To be fair, Ted had warned him. But he hadn’t expected the summons to come so fast, and he felt his dinner congeal into a lump under his breastbone at the prospect.
He shut down the computer, stripped off his clothes, and climbed into bed. To hell with PetroProm. Enough was enough. It had been a long, hard day and he had earned some badly-needed sleep.
His subconscious disagreed. Indigestion and nameless fears kept him awake most of the night.