WIP: The Short Cut

Chapter One

“I’ve got to go,” said Emily Finningley.

She stood up. There were five other people around the table in the small office. They were all men. The first thing they did was look at their watches. The next thing they did was look at each other. The last thing they did before she left was look at Emily. Emily didn’t bother to look at any of them.

“You said we’d be done by lunch-time,” she said, to nobody in particular, stuffing papers into a plastic wallet folder. “It’s now gone six and I’ve got to get all the way over to Buxton, where I’m supposed to be meeting someone at five.”

One of the men said “Emily -.”

She waved away his words while shoving the folder and a laptop into a backpack. “Don’t bother, Dave. I’m going. I’ve done all I can do here. The project file is all made up: resources, assets, plans, risk assessments, everything. It’s in the project archive, and you all know where that is and how to get to it. I suggest each of you look through it over the weekend, and then come back with the completed work packages that I gave you to do. Because I’m not doing your job for you. I’ve carried you this far. It’s time for you lot to pull your weight. Over to you.” She looked out of the window at the black winter sky and put on a long fur-trimmed parka. “Over and out, actually.”

David Elmsall, the chief executive of the company, rose from his chair and came over to her. He was a tall man with a pleasant but slightly patrician air.

“Emily, you can’t just walk out,” he said. “We need to sort this out. If we don’t have a viable proposition for the board by the end of next week… well, we’ve just got to have one, that’s all.”

Emily nodded. “Yes, Dave, I understand that completely. That’s why I gave you all those things to do. But you haven’t done them, have you? And until you have, we can’t move things on. That work is the foundation. Without it, we have nothing to build on.”

“But that’s your job, Emily. That’s what we’re paying you for.”

She stopped putting things in her backpack. The ligaments in her cheeks stood out for a moment as she clenched her teeth. She turned to face him.

“No, it isn’t, Dave,” she said. “You pay me to produce plans and manage projects and bring them to a successful outcome. You don’t pay me to decide on strategic issues and priorities for your company. That’s your job, you and the senior management team.” She sighed. “I do understand, though.”

“Understand what?” said Dave.

“How useful it would be to have someone like me do that for you. Because, if something went wrong, it wouldn’t be your fault, would it, Dave? It would be mine. You could just blame me and your reputation stays intact, while mine gets shot to pieces. I’m not going to do that, Dave. I’m a good project manager. I’ve earned a good name in the business and I’ve got a good track record. I’m not going risk them for you, or anyone else.”

She finished putting her things in the backpack. Dave’s face was stony, his lips tightly pursed.

“If you walk out now, we’re going to have to think seriously about whether you’re the right person for this job,” he said.

Emily paused. “I’m the right person, Dave. You know it. You all know it. I can deliver this project, even now, after all this messing about. I’m just not willing to give you the easy way out. It’s time for each one of you to stand up and be counted. If you don’t have things ready for Monday morning, you will miss your deadline, and the new website will not be ready for the launch date. And, if that’s the case, I won’t be coming back.”

Emily opened the heavy glass door of the office and walked out. The men were still looking at her.

The evening was cold and wet and the lights of the street lamps shone down on her and up from the puddled tarmac between the office and her car, a scruffy but sound Skoda Fabia VRS. The car didn’t belong to Emily. It was a courtesy car, though she felt there was little courtesy in being given it. Her car was a Skoda Octavia, the top of the range model with all the gadgets and grunt that she liked. A couple of weeks ago the Octavia had suffered a mystery encounter in a car park that had left a dent in the front offside wheel arch. It was now in the repair shop. She wouldn’t get it back until Tuesday next week. She missed it every time she got into the Fabia and cursed the shit who had hit and run away and left her with the rattletrap that she now had to endure once more.

Throwing her bag into the boot, Emily pushed herself into the driving seat and belted up. She sighed and then turned the key in the ignition. The engine bit straight away, as usual. Dull but reliable, she thought. Just like me. She smiled and then frowned, wondering if that was what the people in the meeting thought of her, too. She began to actively dislike the car.

Emily was thirty-nine, divorced, childless and relatively happy. A little overweight, a little behind on her career plans, a little more unfit than she’d like to be, but she was okay. She had her own home and car, owed nothing to anyone, and had established a reputation as a fearsomely effective project manager. She was comfortable in her own company, and had come to the realisation that this was how she wanted to live. On her own terms, doing what she wanted, when she wanted, with whoever she wanted to do it with. And tonight she wanted to go and meet her best friend and kick back and get giggle-happy drunk.

The office was in the centre of Sheffield. Buxton was a fairly simple trek up Ecclesall Road and along the A625 and A6, about an hour’s run at this time of day. She’d already called Jane to tell her she’d be arriving later than planned. Jane said she didn’t mind. Jane was cool about most things, had been since they were at school together. It was her fortieth birthday party, and she’d told everyone that today was the day she would begin to grow old disgracefully, beginning with a toga party that she promised would evolve into a Roman orgy. Emily was sure that she wasn’t being serious. Jane didn’t know enough available men these days, for a start. There was a toga in the boot of the Fabia, though. Just in case.

The rain had thickened already, sleet sloshing across the windscreen. The wiper blades were knackered. They left horizontal streaks of wet across the screen. The lights of cars coming east along Ecclesall Road dazzled through this prism of smeared wetness, forcing her too squint, making her eyes hurt and her head begin to ache. Emily hated driving in the rain, and in the dark, and in an unfamiliar vehicle. She gritted her teeth and turned on the radio. When she realised that no stations had been preset, she really turned against the Fabia. She growled to herself as the autotune went about its business for ten minutes and then picked the first station she could find. And then the next. And the next. She tried six stations and didn’t like the sound of any of them. Accepting defeat, she put on a BBC news channel and listened to other people’s unwanted opinions.

Just after Calver the RDS kicked in and told her that there were major roadworks around Ashford in the Water that were causing delays to traffic in both directions. Emily hated queuing traffic more than anything. She wasn’t too familiar with the area, though, but she knew Buxton was vaguely west of where she was now, and that west was to her right.

She turned right at the next junction.

The darkness was almost immediate. Away from the main roads and villages, the Derbyshire countryside was a black canvas with only occasional sprinkles of light. The roads were narrower and the bends were sharper, and the driving was much more demanding. Emily pulled into a passing space and got out her phone. She started up her SatNav app and entered Jane’s address. The reassuring voice of an unknown American male told her to go straight ahead. Placing the phone in the rickety dash cradle, she did as she was told.

Her mind was still occupied by the events in the office. Emily was a contract project manager. The company she was working for was a financial start-up looking to break into a fairly crowded market. Their offering was fairly good, competitive with the bigger already established players. The problem was that the management team had no idea about how to differentiate their offering, or how to brand the company in any way that might actually make customers notice them. Vincenzo, their marketing manager was really an unreformed salesman, and a lazy sod to boot, but he had the ear of Peter, the chief executive. Neither of them were particularly computer literate, so it had been difficult to get either of them to think about things beyond margins, bottom line and (obviously but not blatantly so) how much they each might legitimately pillage from the business. They were desperately keen to avoid any significant expenditure on infrastructure or brand-building. Emily had a suspicion that what they were really doing was setting up the company in such a way as to be prime buyout fodder a year or two from now.

Frustrated at the lack of progress, she’d pushed work back onto the members of the management team. The work had been constructed in such a way that the team themselves would have been forced to the conclusion that significant expenditure was unavoidable. Or they would have, if more than two of them had actually done the work she’d given them. She’d bitten her tongue at the time, and she’d been fair with them in spite of this. They’d tried to sort things out this afternoon, but all the way through Peter and Vincenzo had been coming up with obstructions and questions and but-but-but. There was only so much of that she could take. After a cooling ten minutes in the ladies toilets she’d decided what she was going to do. That was when she’d walked back in and walked out. Her plan was to let them stew for a while, to stay away for a few days so that they could have time to think about what she’d been telling them. Right now, she wasn’t sure if she was even bothered about going back. This had all the hallmarks of a project being set up to fail, and that would do her hard-won reputation no good at all.

Emily drove on into the wet night, still thinking about the problems with the finance company. She passed through a large village, and then a smaller one, and then she was back in the dark sea of the Derbyshire countryside. She realised that the American man had stopped talking to her. Peering at the screen of the phone, she saw that there was no reception. She took it out of the holder and waved it around the cabin of the car. Swearing quietly, she wound down the window and held the phone out, in spite of the cold sleet. There was no sign of an improvement so she brought the phone back into the cabin. While she was looking at the screen to check the signal, she crashed the car.

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