BY GIRL INCOGNITA
Vera Adler had a face like a pit bull terrier: thin lips; eyes beady and close-set; nose just another corner in an already pinched, white face.
She bit her lip as she wrote, nodding slightly. Above those fiercely-plucked brows towered a theatrical, preened quiff, which, shining glossy black in the fluorescence, bore startling resemblance to the spread wing-case of a beetle poised for flight.
Looking up suddenly, she glowered at me from beneath creviced brow, shifting in her chair.
'Well, Mister Pound, have you had a chance to read the contract?'
She rested her hands on the papers before her, black-painted nails clicking vilely against the cool granite of her desk. Her office was grey: dull metal walls, glass, grey carpet, spindly silver lamp beside a charcoal monitor. The ceiling was lost somewhere high above; the monotonous purring of air conditioning droned in the silence.
'Y-yes,' I said. 'I have.'
'Good,' Vera Adler replied, her tone reminding me of her business card - cold, impersonal, impregnable. Inherent in that voice was the block font they'd used to print her name and title - "Consultant" - on the cards, ten or so of which sat in a small brushed steel holder to my left, imposing their credentials upon the south-eastern corner of her office.
'And are you ready to join us?' She asked, an interrogative gleam in her eye.
I looked around feverishly. My collar was suddenly too tight; I'd begun to sweat.
'I did have... a couple of questions...'
She gave me a cold smile, clasping her hands calmly, and said 'And what might those be?' with vulpine rapture.
I sighed. It hadn't always been like this.
Once, creatives were highly prized. In what was once glamorously termed the "Information Age" (though what a quaint little joke that title seems now), people with ideas were in real demand. Programmer, writer, designer - it didn't matter. We were all "Thinkers", coming up with new ideas that solved problems. Real problems.
In the hey-day, it had seemed that there were more problems than Thinkers. We'd been an elite group, revered, admired, and head hunted by our employers' jealous competitors. And, in what, looking back, was obviously a move charged with our own self-importance, we'd established the Thinker's Guild.
In reality, this was nothing more than a trumped-up workers'-union-cum-talent-agency that went around decreeing all kinds of rules with which the business establishment, held to ransom by customers on the one hand, and the Guild on the other, were forced to comply.
But we liked to think of the Guild as our own little community, a place where we belonged. Its Board was our divine protector in a world where full-time work was sin, an office, hell, and an employer, Beelzebub himself.
The Guild instigated all manner of policies - exorbitant benefits, extravagant entitlements, a mandatory clause in all employment agreements that "the Thinker (named in Exhibit A) would be allowed telecommuting privileges as and wherever practical, by the Employer (named in Exhibit B)." But this was just the beginning.
Their biggest coup had been the instigation of a royalty scheme that applied automatically to each member of the Thinker's Guild. Not only were these creatives to be paid salaries, but the employer was required by law to negotiate with the Thinker a generous royalty to be paid regularly for the duration of their employment-and, potentially, beyond. Because of the strong demand for ideas, Thinkers found they could negotiate extremely comfortable terms, many, for lifetime royalties.
'Well,' I cleared my throat. 'I've had a look at the benefits package-'
'Which is not inconsiderable, Mr. Pound.'
'True,' I said, slowly. 'But at the same time, there are other companies offering far more at the moment. This is well below the average rate.'
'But very generous of Bond International,' she added smoothly. 'We offer so much more than simply monetary compensation, as I'm sure you'll agree.'
'Yes,' I said without enthusiasm.
The thing was that these days, the Thinking business had become so cut-throat that the "extra benefits" employers claimed to provide - career advancement, status, a strong work ethic, camaraderie - consistently turned out to be no more than sugar-coated lies.
The royalty plan put together by the Guild had worked well, and in our favour - there was no denying that. Many had made their fortunes, along with their fortunes-in-advance, in unimaginably short periods during the Guild's reign. They'd set up, got out, and were now able to sell their best ideas for vast sums - sums for which they, realistically, had no actual need, given the considerable royalty cheques they received at the close of each month.
But there were many of us Thinkers who got in too late. We enjoyed a few of the benefits of the Guild's work, but by the time we'd achieved a serious earning capacity, having established a track record and the proven ability that would allow us to negotiate excellent royalties, the scene had changed.
The reason for this was simple: the businesses had accumulated enough original ideas from which they could spawn half-baked revisions, to be able to dispense with fresh talent, except when it came to the most challenging and important of tasks.
The reiteration of original ideas was (courtesy of a small but effective loophole in the standard contract that the Guild, in its well-meaning but self-serving inefficiency, had managed to overlook), legally untouchable. Big business found it could employ at considerably lower salaries, university-trained Thinkers who, while not nearly as capable as their natural counterparts, were able to revamp those original ideas sufficiently to make them "legally separate", perfectly commercial, and ready for re-release - and who wouldn't ask for royalties.
This was what I was up against: some cheap, green, wanna-be, fresh from the schoolroom.
These pseudo-Thinkers had put my generation - rich with Thinkers (some said it was due to the proliferation of drugs in the 60s and 70s - one thing for which we had to thank our parents) out of business in a big way. But, I remembered, as renewed fervour boiled up in me, despite those chilly corporate surroundings, I had the benefit of experience, and a respectable track record to my credit. I might not be cheap, but I was quality.
'Well, the thing is,' I continued, in spite of Vera Adler's cold glare, 'the lack of financial benefits makes it difficult to compare Bond International against... well, other employers.'
'Oh?' said the woman, raising an eyebrow in sarcastic delight. 'Really? Well-' she put her elbows on the table and leaned forward. 'Just how many other offers are we competing against for your "services", Mister Pound?'
'Ah,' I said, suddenly taken aback - of course, there were no other offers, not in this climate. 'I'd rather not say,' I muttered in what I'd hoped was a casual manner, but which sounded - to me, and, it seemed, to Vera Adler as well - like a disappointingly pathetic lie.
'Look,' said the woman, rather sharply. 'We're offering you the standard rate for our company-'
'But I have years of experience!' I yelped. 'You saw my portfolio-'
'Indeed, I did, Mister Pound. Indeed I did.' She was straightening the papers on her desk like a newsreader during a bulletin's closing credits. Then suddenly, without warning, she impaled me with a venomous gaze.
'The point is, Mister Pound, that your last three ideas have been, well, shall we say sub standard? You haven't exactly been up to par, have you?'
'That's not true!' I whimpered. 'I've had some good freelance work in between those three-'
'All small jobs, for friends. Am I right?'
She was like a dog with a bone - relentless, exhausting. I knew I couldn't win.
I glanced down to the contract that sat on the desk between us. It would sign me to the company for the rest of my life, for minimal benefits, insulting royalties. Any ideas I had would belong to them. There was an exclusivity clause as long as my arm, while the royalty section eked out just a few meagre sentences beneath the rather dubious heading of "Staff Advantages".
But my rent was due, along with my insurance and, laughably, my Guild membership.
I'd not only run out of money, but my credit cards were all comprehensively overdrawn to their absolute limits. Health insurance, loan repayments, a red bill from the power company. They were all due.
What choice did I have?
I looked up. Vera Adler was smiling poisonously across the desk. She swished a piece of paper - the contract - across the expanse of black granite towards me.
'So, Mister Pound. Have you decided?'
I swallowed, noticing a pen at my right.
'You know,' she inclined her head, 'I think that you will like it here.'
I reached for the pen.