The wooden doors swished open as Michael got off the elevator at the third floor. He probably should have taken the stairs, but he liked the feel of riding up in the vintage elevator car. The building was one hundred years old, and the owners had decided to restore it rather than tear it down and put up something new. He was glad of that. This was one of the few buildings on the street that had real windows that you could actually open.
Michael had no sooner started toward his small office when he saw Justin coming the other way. ‘There you are,’ Justin said when he saw Michael. ‘You shouldn’t keep people waiting.’
‘But it’s not even –’
‘Save it. We need to get ready for the presentation. Trisha and Ben are already here, and Valerie’s on her way. We’ll just have time to go over everything before the client gets here. No thanks to you.’
Justin led the way to a conference room where two other people were already waiting. Ben smiled a hello at Michael, and Trisha gave a small wave. ‘OK,’ Justin strode over to the cherrywood table in the middle of the room. ‘We’re all here, so let’s get started.’
‘Val’s not here yet,’ Trisha pointed out.
‘Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed,’ Justin rolled his eyes, and Trisha lowered hers. ‘We don’t need to wait for her. She’s dead wood.’
‘She did a great job at the trade fair last month,’ Ben said.
Justin shook his head. ‘You know, you’re never going to make it here if you keep sticking up for people who can’t carry their weight.’
Just then, Valerie appeared at the conference room door. ‘I made it!’ she smiled. ‘With almost fifteen minutes to spare.’
‘Everyone else is waiting for you, Valerie,’ Justin snapped. ‘It would help us all if you actually showed up on time once in a while.’
‘Justin, she’s not late. It’s not even eight yet,’ Michael spoke up. ‘And you asked us all to be here at eight-fifteen.’
‘Oh, the genius speaks,’ Justin snorted. ‘I can tell time! Everyone knows we have an important presentation this morning. The least you could all have done would be to get here promptly.’
No-one said anything. They all knew Justin. It was useless to try to reason with him. The best you could hope for was to stay out of his way as much as possible. Valerie said it gave her stomach cramps just to be in the same room with him. Michael and Ben had both tried to talk with him, but he’d mocked their concern. And the last time Trisha had questioned anything Justin said, he’d told her to go home and bake a cake. Now, Justin looked around at all of them and said, ‘We need to go over this thing top to bottom. I’ll start. Then the girls can go, and then Michael, and then Ben will wrap it up and thank everyone.’ Valerie’s cheeks burned at his use of ‘the girls,’ and Trisha gave her a sympathetic glance.
‘You know, I was thinking,’ Ben responded, ‘How would it be if Val goes first? She’s the one with all the details on our proposal.’
‘That’s a stupid idea,’ Justin snapped. ‘Almost as stupid as Michael’s mock-up of the ad campaign. We’re never going to get this contract with that approach. We need to be bold! Aggressive! We wow them at the beginning, and then we give them the details. We go with the original plan.’
The others looked at each other. Ben gave a nearly silent sigh and the four started to rehearse the presentation.
Just before nine, they straightened up their materials and got ready for the client. This was a big restaurant account, and making these people happy was a priority. The company had even sent in a vice president to sit with the client and do some wining and dining later.
Justin began. ‘I’d like to thank you for being here today. I’ve put together a little presentation on some ideas I have for this new campaign. You’re going to love them!’ With that, he started explaining the team’s plan. Valerie stood up to do her part of the presentation. ‘I’ll handle this,’ he told her. ‘There’s no need for you to go through it.’ Then he waved her back to her seat. Her face turned bright red as she struggled to control herself. When Valerie had sat back down, Justin continued, ‘And here’s a mock-up of some of the ads that I put together. I know you’ll be impressed.’
At the end of the presentation, Ben thanked everyone, and the team left the conference room. Michael caught up to Justin. ‘Justin, that was my mock-up!’
‘Well, we all work together, you know.’ Justin spoke as though Michael were five years old.
‘But I put the thing together, and you gave me no credit for it.’
‘Don’t be so touchy, Michael. Everyone knows you try your best.’
‘And what you did to Val is inexcusable!’
‘What? She’d have blown the whole deal! I saved us!’
Too angry to say anything more, Michael strode off towards Valerie’s office to see if he could offer any help. She was leaning out the window, breathing deeply.
‘You OK?’ Michael asked.
‘I’m going to be fine,’ she smiled at him. Then she climbed up onto the windowsill and started to step out the window.
‘Don’t!’ Michael yelled.
‘You don’t understand,’ Valerie answered quietly. ‘I can’t take any more. It’s too much. I’m tired of hurting.’
Michael’s shout had brought Ben and Trisha running to Valerie’s office. Justin was close behind them. They burst in just in time to see Valerie jump. Michael felt sick at his stomach. He turned around and glared at Justin. ‘You did this!’ he pointed as he spoke. ‘You’re responsible.’
‘Me? I’m not the one who couldn’t handle working here.’
All of a sudden Michael got an idea. ‘You know,’ he said slowly, including Trisha and Ben in his glance, ‘I don’t know about you two, but I just saw Val get pushed out that window.’
Trisha caught on. She blinked away her tears and nodded. ‘That’s what I saw, too. I’ll swear to it in court.’
‘And me,’ Ben put in.
‘I say we call the police right now and tell them what we saw,’ Michael suggested. Trisha and Ben nodded as Justin’s face paled.