I had been receiving some fat bonuses in recent years. For every follow-up assignment I managed to bring in I was given a percentage of the returns, even more if the assignment was brand new. Sometimes this amounted to tens of thousands of euros. And suddenly now my future was uncertain.
No one had heard from me for two whole days. No colleagues, no clients, no one from management. Understandable for me, perhaps, but lethal for my job situation. It was a form of corporate suicide. HC&P gave its employees very little leeway, and I had gone way over the line. I was in the elevator, waiting for the doors to close. Clean underwear, clean shirt, white, no tie, dark blue suit with a narrow stripe, and enough gel in my hair to keep it in a state of high-spirited surprise. It wasn’t real, but it worked. I was still up to my eyeballs in alcohol. I looked neatly pressed, but inside chaos reigned, more than I could suppress. I needed all the help I could get, and until I got it I was shutting everything out, beginning with my family. Talking to them was out of the question, especially with Kurt. Not because Kurt didn’t say anything but because I couldn’t trust my own words. Everything I wanted to say meant something different than what I actually said, so I kept my mouth shut. Much better that way.
That strategy probably wouldn’t work at the office, since HC&P saw information as the firm’s primary concern. Not the people, not the equipment, not the building or the clients, but the information. People were no more than the information stored within them and made accessible by them.
Man is the information he carries.
That sentence is engraved on a polished, dark granite pillar in the reception area of each of the company’s seven hundred and twenty-three branches. It’s a small, stylish object, not garish or gaudy. On the contrary, if you didn’t know it was there you’d have to look for it, and that’s part of its attraction. It’s the company slogan, but perhaps more than that, it’s the basic principle behind its dealings in the world. Job applicants have to fill out long questionnaires and go through endless interviews.
‘If we don’t know what you know, then we’ll never know what we can do for each other.’ That’s how the leadership thinks at HC&P and that’s how the company works. Openness, and the sharing of knowledge and information: that’s the basis of collaboration. The company knows everything about me. It knows who I am, where I come from, where I live, my bank account number, what my favourite music is, what my strengths and weaknesses are, how high my IQ is (applicants with IQs under 140 are rejected out of hand), where my family lives, what illnesses I’ve had and when I last visited the dentist.
The company knows everything about me. It knows who I am, where I come from, where I live, my bank account number, what my favourite music is, what my strengths and weaknesses are, how high my IQ is, where my family lives, what illnesses I’ve had and when I last visited the dentist.
IQ is important. Partner IQ is 180 and higher. Partners are the men with the ability to see through extremely complex situations and facts and to formulate new possibilities. Jessica is the first woman in the company to think and work at that level. What she lacks in experience she makes up for in untamed killer instinct. She’s faster and more accurate than the best of them. She can be totally concentrated and still remain accessible to others, as if her brain had two separate functions, just like breathing and seeing. Jessica is an IQ tempest in her own body, and there’s nothing HC&P would rather do than make use of her fearsome capacities. All within the rules of the firm, of course.
The sliding door of the elevator was stopped by a strong, tanned hand. Dries van Waayen stepped into the gleaming, polished compartment.
‘Me too,’ he said. Partner-director, fifty-six, his watch cost more than everything I was wearing put together. His expression was solemn but happy. Everything he did was important, and therefore serious. He enjoyed his work so much that he simply radiated satisfaction. Always, under all circumstances.
‘Bellicher,’ he said. He had the ability to sound friendly in the chilliest way. ‘Is it just the two of us?’
‘Looks that way.’
As the door slid closed for the second time, Van Waayen placed a hand on my shoulder and gazed at me with a look that revealed nothing but the shameless pleasure he took in being himself.
‘That’s good,’ he said, ‘because we have to get together some time and talk about the future, don’t you agree?’ He pushed the button for the fifth floor with his forefinger. For a moment it looked as if the only effect of the elevator’s upward movement was his eyebrows, which rose to unprecedented heights. The smile disappeared from his face. ‘Because you understand, of course, that your future looks quite different than it did a couple of months ago.’ He did not expect an answer. The bad economy, the plummeting stock market, the encroaching silence with regard to mergers and takeovers, the collapse of telecommunications and the draining of the IT sector, along with my recent two-day hiatus—all this was reason enough to discuss my future at the firm.
I nodded, pursed my lips a bit and attempted a vague smile. It made little difference.
‘My office,’ said Van Waayen. ‘Around lunchtime, I thought. That work out for you?’ This was not a question. Make sure it works out.
‘About twelve-thirty,’ I said. We both knew what this was going to be about.
Van Waayen nodded. ‘Fine,’ he said.
The elevator came to a halt with a sigh. The gentle electronic imitation of a gong and a blinking number indicated that we had arrived at the fifth floor.
‘This is me,’ Van Waayen said. ‘Last in, first out. Goes for me, too. You see?’ He laughed and vanished down the corridor. His corridor. Distinctions are made to be drawn. And just as the elevator began moving again it hit me: I was going to be fired. Even the last dregs of alcohol were no solace. In point of fact I was already out. Virtual, maybe, but what were a couple of hours in the big scheme of things?
The elevator shot upward, pressing my throat down into my heart. When I swallowed, it squeezed the rhythm out of my chest and my body stiffened into a dry cramp. This was more than I could take on. I couldn’t get fired. It was impossible. My body seemed to resist the very idea. Being fired meant I’d be cut off from everything I had: the technology, the profession, the systems. Cut off from the assignments that had brought me to the heart of every major development. Mega-assignments that I could easily work on twenty hours a day, driven by the commitment to find solutions where often no solution had been found before. Where the solution didn’t even exist until I found it. Until we found it. Racing through the country for every client, every assignment a different team. Connected. With everything. If I no longer had that, then all that was left was the content. And content is for losers. The prospect alone took my breath away.
Panting discreetly, shallow panting, not too fast, I got out of the elevator on the ninth floor. My lips were so dry I was afraid they’d crack. Briefcase in one hand and chapstick in the other, I rushed to my hot desk. Gazing out over Amsterdam I spread the balm over the tiny, sharp flakes of skin and the stinging fissures in my lips. It relieved the taut dryness around my mouth, but no matter how I looked at it, the morning only grew shorter. Twelve-thirty was arriving as it had never arrived before. Inevitably. Twenty-five more minutes. Twenty. Fifteen.
I can’t let this happen, I thought, no matter what.
‘I’ve had more dissatisfied clients on the phone in two days than in the past fifteen years …,’ Van Waayen said. He looked at me in silence.
I didn’t respond.
Gazing out over Amsterdam I spread the balm over the tiny, sharp flakes of skin and the stinging fissures in my lips. It relieved the taut dryness around my mouth, but no matter how I looked at it, the morning only grew shorter.
‘… your clients,’ he went on. ‘Erik Strila from Justice has never called so many times before. If you leave a minister high and dry without letting him hear from you, you’re doing something wrong. And I’m putting this very mildly. I’ve had to spend two days tying myself up in the most awkward knots to make sure it didn’t get any worse. But don’t worry, all the clients have been reassured and they’re all sticking around. Which is more than I can say for you.’
My own problem was only third on the list, if that. The client came first and the firm came second. Rightfully so, perhaps, but Van Waayen exaggerated. The power of the client is that he can walk away and go elsewhere. That may be true, but in real life clients aren’t so quick to walk away. That wasn’t a factor here, either, but his having to come up with excuses for me was galling for him. Worse than I could have thought.
‘That’s not what I hired you for,’ he said. ‘Seriously. Yesterday I had to send Peter to The Hague at a moment’s notice. Preparations for the EU summit are continuing, whether you show up or not. I also discussed it with the other partners, and we can’t act as if nothing happened, you understand?’ He wasn’t laughing. The interests of a satisfied client were more important than ever. ‘The EU summit is our biggest assignment. Coordinating European security and integration policy puts us squarely in the middle of all the relevant ministries. Justice is crucial. And what do you do? Apparently this kind of responsibility is not in reliable hands in your case. So if I don’t step in now we’ll have no end of trouble, and what will we have to show for it?’
It was a conversation with lots of logical conclusions drawn from indisputable developments, but it wasn’t about having a conversation. It didn’t even look like a conversation. It was an offer of three months’ salary and a promise to spend the next six months helping me find a new job. In concrete terms: a good eighteen thousand euros, five interviews with an outplacement advisor and not the slightest prospect of work, since dismissed consultants are an almost unemployable group. Especially communications consultants. I’d be turning in my car, my cell phone, my laptop and my clients, knowing only too well that the combination of mortgage and flexible credit line would be ruthlessly pulled out from under me within four months.
I did not respond to the offer. I had already decided that. Subconsciously. Instinctively. I pursed my lips, shook my head slightly and raised my eyebrows.
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Maybe.’ But I didn’t go along with it, for the simple reason that I didn’t agree with it.
‘Take your time,’ Van Waayen said. There was an obligatory sort of reasonableness in his voice. ‘Then we’ll talk further. I always have time on Friday.’
‘Today is Wednesday,’ I said.
‘Whatever. You get what I mean. You don’t have to leave before lunch. That’s not how we treat each other here. But one way or another we have a conclusion to draw. You know that as well as I do.’
Twenty minutes later I was back in the corridor. I hadn’t agreed to anything, hadn’t admitted anything, and I hadn’t eaten any of Van Waayen’s sandwiches. All there was in my stomach was a corrosive pool of coffee and acid. Nothing was left of what I had once been so sure of. The immense HC&P building, which last week had still been the foundation of a rock-solid future, was now anything but. One decision would put me on the other side of glitter and security. If I let go now, I’d never get back in. That much was certain. So I didn’t go anywhere. In fact, I stayed.
After lunch I called my contacts and rescheduled all my appointments. With plenty of apologies and placation I managed to charm my old clients one more time. Why I don’t know, but there was nothing to it. I called Erik Strila, who seemed surprised to hear from me. Word of my departure had apparently gotten around. He listened to my excuses but skirted around them, as if he had heard other ones already. Better ones. And he had.
‘Erik,’ I said, ‘how often have we seen each other and talked over the past year?’
‘Too often to mention.’
‘And all those times I always showed up. I was always perfectly prepared. True or not?’
‘True, yes.’ He agreed, but it sounded like a forgotten memory. A consultant is as good as his last achievement.
I said it to make sure it got said. I wasn’t gone yet. Erik Strila was the client with whom I had the best working relationship. He was my contact at Justice. I had embarrassed him in front of his minister and he wasn’t going to forgive me easily.
‘We’ll talk sometime,’ he said. He even avoided saying goodbye.
All by itself, and almost imperceptibly, my subconscious came to a decision. My head was making assessments that I wasn’t even aware of. What I knew, what I had done, what I had heard—everything lined up in neat rows, vertical and horizontal, compared, tallied up, subtracted, weighed and turned over one last time before being approved or rejected. While I was making my phone calls and talking it struck me: somewhere behind my eyeballs, along the finely branched nerve cells in my head, among the hundreds of millions of contacts there was one that stuck out.
Clear as glass.
Hard as war.