Rough Sketch – Chapter 1

Rough Sketch

Chapter One

Neera

There was another bird on my desk.

A wooden one, but a bird nonetheless.

The fifth bird to find its way into my office in as many weeks.

I’d paid little mind to the first carving. It was a simple gesture, of that I was certain, and nothing more. Wasn’t that what artists did? They created lovely things and shared them with people. There was nothing special about it.

But then they kept coming. No note, no explanation. Just one beautifully carved bird after another. Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about those damn birds.

I had an idea who left them but I couldn’t imagine why he was doing it, or how he gained entry into my office. It was no great mystery, and if I wanted answers, I had only to access the company’s surveillance network. Snatching my tablet from my bag, I was ready to do exactly that. But my finger hovered over the icon, a beat of hesitation holding me back. Even if I confirmed my suspicions about the who and the how, the why would linger unresolved.

And I wanted to know why.

On a better day, I would’ve set the carving aside and gone on with my work. After spending the past six days blocking and defending my boss against every asshole with an idea at the Aspen Institute’s think tank festival, I had plenty of work waiting for me. That was on top of managing four pre-dawn crises, sitting through two waste-of-time meetings before noon, and enduring one unnecessary lunch meeting featuring a poor excuse for a niçois salad.

I was behind schedule, annoyed, and hungry.

Today wasn’t one of my better days.

I set my tablet, bag, and tea on my desk and marched out of my office. As I reached my assistant’s desk, I announced, “I’m stepping out for a moment.”

“You just got here,” Heath said.

“And I’ll be stepping out now,” I said, pausing at his desk. “Do you have any idea where I can find Mr. Guillmand at this hour?”

Heath tapped at his keyboard before swiveling to face me. “The artist guy?”

Swallowing a sigh, I said, “Yes.” I caught myself before adding, The one sneaking into my office and leaving sculptures all over the place.

When it came to presiding over the company’s rumor mill, Heath was unparalleled in his skill. That was half the reason he was my right hand. But I wasn’t prepared to give him fresh material on Mr. Guillmand. Not until I knew why he was leaving birds at my door like some kind of obedient house cat.

“Beats me,” Heath replied. “Haven’t seen the guy since that first day when he was introduced at the all staff convocation last month. I hear he likes to hang out near the gardens but I’ve never seen him there.”

“So, then,” I started, drumming my fingers against my hips, “he hasn’t stopped by? Hasn’t asked to see me?”

“Nope.”

Heath dug a purple carrot out of the feed bag he kept under his desk, and bit into it. He grew his snacks at a community garden plot on the far side of the campus, and foraged for wild mushrooms on the weekends. He was phenomenal at his job and knowledgeable about every facet of this company, but he was an unusual fellow. Around here, unusual was the norm, so much that I barely registered it anymore. Quirky, eccentric types were standard issue in Silicon Valley. It often seemed that the people around here leaned into those quirks and eccentricities as if they were required elements of their personal brand.

Mushroom foraging. Cross-stitching. Urban chicken farming. It was always something.

“Haven’t seen him,” Heath continued between bites. “Do you want me to call over to the studio?”

I shook my head, already moving toward the hallway. “No, thank you,” I replied. I stopped, calculating the time it would take to reach the studio and garden. I hadn’t formulated a course of action for handling Mr. Guillmand, and wasn’t certain I’d make it back to meet with the chief financial officer and his team as planned. “Reschedule my three o’clock meeting.”

Not waiting for a response, I stepped into the hall and headed toward the stairs. For better or worse, my office was housed in the flagship building, the central hub of activity. It was a grand, glass enclosed space bathed in warm California sunlight and scented with mossy green. With native trees and plants, and a softly babbling stream running through the atrium, it seemed our headquarters grew up among nature rather than us bending the environment to our preferences. It managed to feel energetic and serene all at once. Not the ideal place for stomping or scowling.

On a better day, I would’ve stopped to properly greet the people who waved and called “good afternoon” as I passed. I could only manage a quick smile as I continued toward the doors, my hands balled into fists and my shoulders tight. I was getting to the bottom of this bird situation and resetting expectations with Mr. Guillmand.

I could manage damn near anything—a corporate coup d’etat, large-scale foreign hacking attempts, lawsuits by the dozen—but something about this sculptor drove me straight over the edge.

On paper, Mr. Guillmand was exactly the type of rising star artist we wanted to celebrate and support with a yearlong residency. His accomplishments were with raw materials sculpture but several of his paintings fetched respectable price tags in up-and-coming galleries. He favored striking new spins on origin stories and creation myths, his portfolio ranging from Popol Vul, the history of the K’iche’ people of the Guatemalan Highlands to the Hopi’s Fourth World story to the Homeric Hymns. The man knew and respected culture, he lived an unpretentious life in northern Arizona, and his social media following numbered in the millions.

It helped that half his Instagram posts featured him shirtless, smiling, covered in clay.

Not that I’d dedicated much time to studying Mr. Guillmand’s bare chest but it was difficult to vet his online presence without catching a glimpse or two.

It didn’t matter, of course. Plenty of pretty faces and washboard bellies belonged to obnoxious men who didn’t know their place.

And this man, with his lurking and sneaking and bird carving, didn’t know his place. I realized it the day he arrived at the company’s campus. He’d been arrogant, his arched eyebrow nothing short of contemptuous as he scanned the ten thousand square foot studio built to his specifications and then turned his unimpressed gaze toward me.

It was a moment, an exchange over before it started, but it burned long enough to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. After that, I’d made a point of avoiding Mr. Guillmand’s corner of the campus. Frankly, I had more important matters at hand than a condescending artist. I served as executive vice president and chief of staff to the company’s founder. My days were packed with real priorities, and the moods of one inconsequential man didn’t rank among them.

“This isn’t an effective use of my time,” I murmured to myself.

I knew this, but I didn’t turn back to my office. If there was one thing I did well, it was shutting down problems, and I intended to do just that.

The campus was vast, many hundreds and thousands of times larger than the tiny offices we’d shared with two other start-up ventures back before our initial public offering. There were moments when I missed fighting for desk space and electrical outlets, and waging war on anyone who dared to microwave fish in the communal kitchen.

Most of all, I missed knowing every single member of the team. We were a family in those early days, a scrappy little group willing to do whatever it took to get off the ground. With more than fifty-three thousand employees in offices all around the world, we were a different kind of family now.

And that scrappy little group was scattered to the winds. Most of the original outfit had moved onto new ventures and passion projects. Others left the company courtesy of a swift kick in the ass. Even the man who made me believe in the beauty and power of innovation, Cole McClish, pulled up his Silicon Valley stakes and settled a world away in Maine.

It was Cole’s idea to develop an artist-in-residence program. He argued it was small money for easy PR, and I bought that reasoning. I bought it, sold it to key stakeholders, and saw it through to fruition. It was a solid plan, but it never accounted for Mr. Guillmand’s arrogant birds invading my days.

Or his bare chest.

Rough Sketch is a standalone novel releasing in 2018.

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