Unlike for her brother, Sophia couldn’t find an acceptable excuse for her colleagues’ stupidity. She kept her head bowed, propping her forehead in her hand as her thumb and forefinger gripped her temples. The door swooshed open, sucking the air out of the room as an IT technician hurried in. The nine others in the room sat motionless, watching how the stony-faced woman at the head of the table would greet him.
Sophia looked up. “It’s been working for the last forty-two minutes,” she snorted.
“You still have eighteen minutes then,” the IT guy replied.
She opened her mouth, on the verge of saying something about not appreciating his tone, but he cut her off.
“Hello? Is this working?” He turned to the two people on screen. As they leant forward to respond, the room held its collective breath, but the virtual attendees shook their heads, shrugged, and tapped their ears.
“Seb,” Sophia sighed. “Sebastian!” She raised her voice when he didn’t respond. “Is this going to be fixed today?”
The technician dead-eyed her for a second longer than necessary before running his finger down his notepad again: mute off, volume up, internet connected, microphone on. He repeated what must be the most common greeting in any video conference. “Can you hear me?” His voice was muffled as he spoke into the microphone. “One-two. One-two. Two-two.”
The people on screen responded with the same shaking of heads and tapping of ears.
Seb shrugged. “Looks like it’s the audio cables. Gotta raise a work order.”
Sophia knitted her eyebrows and raised her wrist for a closer look at her watch in case he hadn’t realised how displeased she was. “So, you’ve taken six and a half minutes to do precisely nothing.”
“Just use the phone.” Seb gave a dismissive wave as he walked out of the room.
She shot a reply as fast as she could, pretending that his obvious suggestion hadn’t caught her off-guard. “I was going to say if you can’t fix it, I’ll just use the phone.”
She dialled the two remote attendees from the conference speakerphone and turned back to the woman staring at her laptop at the other end of the table. At least pretend to listen this time. “What were you saying?”
“So,” May replied, looking up, her eyes wandering around the room. Anywhere but at the person grilling her. “We’ll have the first cut of numbers in three business days. It’ll take another—”
“That was the same update you provided a week ago,” Sophia interrupted. “No. Nine days ago.”
May sat up straight, leaning forward as she folded her arms and drilled a stare into Sophia. “You only requested it yesterday…” But her voice gave way as Sophia mirrored her forward posture and dug her elbows onto the table, propping her chin in her hand.
May cleared her throat and composed herself. “And I was out of the office, sick. I’ll chase them again.”
Sophia sat back in her chair. “Guys, do I need to repeat what I said at the kick-off? I don’t care about your—”
“If you’re talking to me, the name’s ‘May’. Senior Manager of Strategy.”
Sophia trained her stare at the woman who dared to talk back before diffusing it around the room. “Guys, I don’t care about your personal issues. Work is work.” She raised her voice so there could be no mistake she was speaking to everyone. “The Chairman will deliver a flawless update on our results, so Project Panda needs to be ready by the fourth or I hope you have an up-to-date CV.”
Sophia paused, letting the message marinate in the silence. She tried to catch the eyes of those in the room, but all found better places to look. As she opened her mouth to continue, the vibration of a phone interrupted her. Taking a deep breath, she counted to three in her head, trying to restrain herself, but it didn’t prevent the pencil from snapping in her hand. The attendees exchanged nervous looks. Some darted their eyes to their phones idling on the table, whilst others patted their bodies to locate the noise. “Why can’t—” Sophia started before spying a message on her phone.
She rolled her eyes. Not again. The necks of the attendees might have been saved this time, but she wondered about her own.
The waiter cleared the bowl of peanut shells and replaced it with a fresh supply. Sam looked up from his mindless thumbing of the menu and politely smiled – the fake kind where he scrunched his face and pursed his lips. He checked his watch again, deshelled another peanut and popped it into his mouth. For the fourth time, he flicked the menu back to the front cover.
Heels tapped rapidly towards him against the wooden floor. Sophia caught her breath as she pulled out a chair opposite.
“Sorry, I thought you meant Yaki. The one next to Saint James,” she said, scanning Yoko, a small bustling restaurant that was a mix of modern and traditional Japanese – a good balance of East meeting West. Without so much as a glance at him, she picked up the menu, leafing through it. “Have you ordered?”
Sam swallowed his peanut starter. “Uhh… hello, I’m good, and yourself?”
“Sorry I couldn’t make drinks the other night. I had… this… thing.”
“Thing?” He raised an eyebrow; he wasn’t born yesterday.
“Anyway, Project Panda’s a nightmare.” She shook her head, not wanting to talk about it.
“Lucky I have the best person on it.”
“I told you, I’m only helping out for another five weeks.”
But it wasn’t the response he was after. “So, how’s things?” he asked, changing the topic.
“I haven’t even started Project Lithgow,” Sophia said, still scanning the menu.
Sam plucked the menu from her and placed it on the table. “I’ve already ordered.”
As if on cue, a bento box of prawn tempura, miso soup, rice and assorted sushi and sashimi served on a charcoal platter arrived.
“Always remind me of school lunch boxes,” Sophia said, pointing to the compartments in the box that demarcated each food as she tucked into the salmon sashimi. “Didn’t have breakfast.”
He looked at her wondering if she had an off button. “You’re welcome,” he said sarcastically. Not getting a reaction, he dug into the sushi and tried a different angle. “I spoke to the CEO.”
She looked up from her lunch. He always knew how to get her attention.
“Well, you know we have cost pressures, so every promotion is being scrutinised. Our investors have been vocal about our performance over the last quarter, so it wasn’t an easy conversation. I mean, I’ve had several discussions with Henry, and then with HR to justify the cost increase. Once I got through that, the CFO asked what this was all about, so I had to—”
“Sam! Is it a yes or no?” Sophia demanded, her mouth agape, ballooning with food. Her eyes grew bigger as his pause grew longer.
“Congratulations.” He flashed his white teeth. “You’re going to be the youngest programme director in Eastle’s history.”
“Yes, yes, yes!” She pumped her fists, drawing stares from neighbouring diners. She lowered her voice but still struggled to contain the screams in her head that tried to burst out. “Thanks, Sam. You have no idea what this means to me.”
“I think I’ve got a good idea. You mention it almost every day.”
“I’m not that bad.” She chomped on the ginger garnish.
“Seems like your plan for world domination is finally coming together. Now you can put a deposit on that place in… in… where is it?” he asked, clicking his fingers.
“There’s nothing on the market,” she responded a little too fast before reining in her reply. “I mean, I’ve been too busy to look.”
“Well, now you don’t need to worry about if you should have extra pepperoni on your pizza or choosing between standard or next-day delivery for your online shopping.” Sam chuckled at his poor attempt at a joke, but Sophia had already zoned out, glancing at the time on her phone, sighing. “Relax,” he said, “enjoy your lunch first. Project Panda will still be there when you get back.”
He expected more energy from her given she had finally landed her coveted role, not to mention the trouble that he had gone through to secure it. His long-winded explanation about justifying her promotion to the Chief Executive, Chief Financial Officer and Human Resources was partly in jest but all of it was true. It was a significant step up even for the best of performers, but no one was more deserving than Sophia. Her emails and messages to him at odd hours in the evenings and weekends were regular reminders of the hard work and dedication she had shown since she joined the firm as a management trainee straight out of university.
However, desperate conversational times called for desperate measures, so he reached for the tried-and-tested conversation starter. “So, any plans for the weekend?”
All he could elicit from Sophia was her going through the motion of eating and synchronising her nods with ah-has and mm-hmms. It was the start of a faltering conversation, during which the silences stretched ever longer. The remainder of the lunch felt longer than the forty-five minutes they had left but soon enough, they were standing at the counter.
“You must’ve been hungry,” Sam said to Sophia as he waved his credit card at the cashier.
He frowned. “Everything okay?”
“May’s going to be pissed off,” she said, glancing at her phone.
He tracked her gaze through Yoko’s French doors, and wondered when the downpour had started. “How long were we here for?” he asked. Sophia peered out for a taxi, which were usually in abundance but just like toilet paper in a public lavatory, her ride wasn’t there when she needed it most. “Meeting?”
“In twelve minutes,” she said, checking the Uber app. Her jaw hit the ground when 3.5x flashed across her screen.
“You’ve got to be kidding. The surge is three and a half times the price?” Sam asked. Uber sure knew how to maximise its marginal utility, or, in plain language, screw passengers over. “Just cancel the meeting.”
“Can’t. It’s with May. It’s been rescheduled twice already, and we need an answer on our target customer segments ASAP.”
“Do you want me to call her?”
Sophia blew out a resigned sigh before accepting the price of the Uber. “It’s fine.” She tracked the car on the app like a hawk, willing the little icon to move faster. As the downpour became a deluge, brake lights lit up synchronously, and slowed traffic to a crawl. With every passing minute, the lines on Sophia’s face folded deeper as she wrung her hands to relieve the anxiety.
“I’ll give May a call,” Sam insisted, pulling out his phone from his pocket. As he dialled, a car tooted its horn. He looked over to Sophia, but she was already making a dash to the car. He trailed behind her, slamming the door as soon as he dove onto the seat. As the car pulled away, Sophia turned her phone to selfie mode to check how much of the little makeup she was wearing had smudged.
“It’s your fault!” she cried.
Sam laughed, brushing the water off her clothes to emphasise the triviality of it all. “It’s nothing.”
The windscreen wipers squeaked, flapping at full speed. Visibility was poor, compounded by the condensation that had accumulated in the car despite the air conditioning trying its best to evaporate it away.
He grabbed her hands, clasping them into his. “You’re freezing!” he said, rubbing her arms. “Driver, mind if you switch on the heater instead?”
Sophia recoiled, surprised by his contact, but she had more urgent things on her mind. “Come on,” she said under her breath, willing the driver to slice through the traffic faster.
After a ride that took two and a half times longer than usual, the Uber pulled up at the headquarters of Eastle Financial Group, a sleek fifty-five-storey glass building that projected power and wealth. She opened the car door and ran towards the office but stopped before making it to the entrance, soaking up the rain. She looked back at Sam, surprised that he was still in the car. She turned out her palms, shrugging, but he stayed put. He waved to her and slammed the door shut.
“Let’s go for another spin,” he said, catching the eye of the driver in the rear-view mirror.
A pair of hazel eyes stared back at him. “You mean, come back here? Okay, but it’ll be extra.”
Sam smiled, the fake kind where he squinted his eyes and pursed his lips. “It won’t break the bank, I promise.”
Sophia disappeared into the building lobby as he reminded himself that he shouldn’t be seen with Sophia in an Uber together, particularly after lunch, wet from the rain. Imagine the rumours. No. He was a professional.