Chapter One

 

CRAP. CRAP. Crap. No bonuses—fuck, maybe no paycheck.

Wendell “Wen” Darling gripped his hands under the conference table and plastered a smile on his face. Each image in their ad campaign flashed on the screen—handsome couples with adorable children eating peanut butter. Make that white couples with blonde children eating daintily. Rap music, significantly cleaned-up, played in the background—the one accommodation to cool or trendy. Wen glanced at the frowning client and tried hard not to sigh.

Graham Henderson, CEO of Comfort Foods, aka the most important client on the planet as far as Wen was concerned, flicked a hand toward the PowerPoint. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen. This isn’t going to cut it. I ask you for new, fresh, and groundbreaking and you give me the same old crap.” He made a noise like peanut butter might be stuck up his nose. “I mean, I’ve seen variations on this ad on every channel for the last five years. I want Comfort to break ground, dammit, and my account’s going to whichever agency can get me there.” Henderson stood and grabbed his notebook from the conference table.

Mark Allworth, agency CEO, leaped to his feet. “Graham, we’ve been your agency for two years. You’ve always appreciated our work.”

Henderson paused and scanned the room full of breathless account and creative people. “Yes, well. I’ve got better taste now, and you’ve got worse creative work. I need something revolutionary, Mark, or I’ll take my five million and walk.”

Mark followed Henderson toward the conference room door, cast a vicious glance back at the assembled account team, and swept out.

Silence. Stunned was the word—though not surprised. Everyone’s eyes glanced off the others and mostly ended up gazing at the floor. They’d hoped the idea would win the account—not believed it, but hoped.

Arnie Borsinski, head creative director on the account team, snarled, “Everyone get back to the department. I’ll see you in there.” Yeah, Arnie needed to worry. He practically had his name painted on the office of chief creative officer for the agency, and that promotion would blow up if he lost the Comfort account. Wen was assistant creative director on Comfort, and he had less potential upside but just as much downside. Shit, maybe more, since Arnie would throw Wen under a parade of buses to deflect blame and keep his own job.

Laila, Wen’s favorite art director, whispered, “Can I stop off for a bottle of scotch on my way to the department?”

Wen tightened his jaw. “Only if you get two.” He buttoned his suit coat. The creatives seldom wore suits, but he needed help looking like a grown-up. His blond curls and big blue eyes made him resemble a sixteen-year-old choirboy, and that significantly decreased credibility.

With Laila beside him, Wen walked out of the big room and turned left toward the art department. She glanced at him. “You told him it wasn’t going to work, that it wasn’t enough, and Arnie wouldn’t listen. Mark should give you a crack at a new campaign for Comfort.”

Wen shook his head as he walked. “I’m not sure you should wish that on me. Henderson’s already unimpressed. It would take da Vinci and Jay Z rolled into one to change his mind. We may not get more chances from the client.” He tried to sound matter-of-fact, but his stomach knew he was lying and wanted to empty its contents in the middle of the hall. Was anybody hiring? Especially after the industry got word that his team lost the Comfort contract?

“Arnie’ll find some way to keep himself employed by getting us fired.”

“Not everyone. Probably just me.”

They stepped through the department doors and hurried to their desks—heads down, butts up until told otherwise. Yeah, that would work. Sure.

For about five seconds.

Arnie’s voice screamed across the big room and over the cubicle dividers. “Get into the brainstorming room, and bring your fucking brains for a change.”

Wen sighed. Sadly, Arnie wouldn’t recognize a brain if he found one in a jar. He grabbed his laptop and headed down the aisle, members of other client teams looking at him with a mixture of compassion and relief that they weren’t on his account and didn’t have to work with Borsinski.

As he hit the door to the brainstorming room, the cell buzzed in his pocket. Shit. Bad timing. He glanced at the screen. Michaela. He never refused a call from his little sister. “Hi, dear. What’s up?”

“Just checking to see if you’ll be home for dinner.”

He sighed really quietly. Disappointing Michaela—again—counted as his least favorite thing to do. “I’m so sorry. We just got really, uh, got news on a client, and I imagine I’m going to have to work late—again.”

The smile in her voice seemed forced. “I’m making mac and cheese and broccoli.”

“Darn. My loss. At least your other brother will be in ecstasy.”

“Okay. See ya when we see ya.”

“Maybe we can do a movie on the weekend.”

“Sure. That would be great.” Her voice said she didn’t believe him, and with good reason. Weekends amounted to just another workday at Allworth Communications, and Michaela got stuck with eleven-year-old John more often than not. Too much work for a sixteen-year-old.

Wendell glanced up to meet the narrowed eyes of Arnie Borsinski and the wide stares of three art directors, an account executive, an account coordinator, and a social media specialist. “Gotta go, baby girl.”

She sighed softly, but it still made him gag with guilt.

He clicked off as he stepped into the room and walked to the open chair beside Arnie—the one reserved for the assistant creative director.

“Sorry to interfere with your busy social life, Darling.” Arnie tapped his electronic stylus on the tabletop.

Wendell’s last name made every conversation a parody of a romance novel—and sadly, his looks matched it. “Sorry. My sister.” He pulled off his jacket and hung it on the back of the chair.

Arnie, who always wore jeans and a turtleneck like a West Coast software developer despite the fact that they were in the middle of Manhattan and Arnie had no neck, surveyed Wen’s attire with a mocking glance. “If we can get to work.” Arnie sat back. “Mark tells me that the client is open to giving us another chance since Allworth is their agency of record. He’s still going to take other presentations, but we get one more crack for old times’ sake.” He sneered to the assembled team. “Not that I think we can come up with anything this asshole likes, since he’s got the taste of an armpit.”

Jersey, one of the art directors, said, “What about a cartoon, like a dog who gets peanut butter on the roof of his mouth? That could be funny.”

“How does that target the audience the client wants to reach?” Norris, the account exec, asked, and it was a damned good question.

Laila said, “We could make it a live dog. That would get to the millennials and post-millennials.”

Arnie whipped sideways. “What do you think, Darling?”

Wen tried to look calm and thoughtful. “I think we need something brand-new. A look nobody’s seen.”

“If nobody’s seen it, how the fuck are we supposed to draw it?” Arnie picked up an empty paper cup and threw it at the wall. It managed to splash the dregs of someone’s coffee on the social media person’s hair, and she squealed.

Wen’s jaw muscle jumped, and he passed some tissues from his pocket down to her. “We need to search the world for an artist with a unique style that we can exploit. If we can find it, we can give peanut butter a new market and a new lease on life.”

“We haven’t got a fucking year.”

“That’s why we need to do it fast. I don’t think we can come up with the big idea until we see the look we need.” He glanced around the table. “This person probably won’t be a known name. Look for new talent. Dig.”

Arnie’s hands gripped his chair arms. He sprang up and stomped out the door muttering, “Fucking wild goose chase. The campaign we presented was great.”

Everyone watched him go in silence. That was so Arnie—leave them now, blame then later.

Finally Laila said, “So should we start looking, Wen?”

“Yeah, do it now.”

They leaped out of their seats and headed for their desks, obviously excited to have a direction. Four hours later, Wen turned off the light on his desk, plunging himself into the gloom of the near-empty department. The account team had been forwarding samples and portfolios to him all afternoon and evening. Some good, great even, but nothing that blew his curly hair back and convinced him that peanut butter was the holy grail of the next generation. Shit, he probably expected too much, wanted the unachievable. Ya think? How about making that the definition of Wendell Darling?

It was nearly 9:00 p.m., too late to have dinner with the kids. If he hurried, maybe he could still check their homework. He closed the department door behind him and walked toward the entrance to the office that occupied most of the twelfth floor of the high-rise. Lights shone from the row of executive offices.

He set his briefcase on the reception desk and pulled on his trench coat. The weather report had promised rain for the city—but hell, it could have come and gone for all he knew. Not like his cubicle had windows, and he hadn’t looked up in hours.

“Wendell.”

He glanced back toward the sound of the voice—and swallowed a surprised breath. “Hi, Mark.” Not every day he talked with the agency CEO.

“Got a minute?”

“Sure.” He walked back toward the big boss’s office like he didn’t have two kids waiting for him. Asshole that I am.

In his office, Mark pointed at a leather guest chair, and Wen sat. Mark ran a hand down his long, slightly hound-dog face that managed to look smart and sincere at the same time. “Want some coffee?”

“Thanks, but I can’t give blood anymore unless they’re looking for type Columbian with Arabica positive.”

Mark snorted. “What happened on Comfort?”

Shit, the man did get to the point. “Uh, you saw, I guess. We underestimated the client’s commitment to change.”

“What really happened?”

“Too much same old, same old.”

“Why? Who?”

“I don’t talk about my team, sir. That’s why we’re a team.”

Mark leaned against his desk. “Arnie wouldn’t hesitate one second to throw you under the last train to Queens.”

And probably already had. Wen sucked a breath. Here comes the firing. “Arnie can do what he wants.”

“Not in my agency.”

Wen just nodded.

“I spoke to Arnie, and I spoke to a number of members of your team. Shall we say their stories don’t exactly meld? What everyone except Arnie said was that you tried to push the creative in a more innovative direction and he wouldn’t listen.”

“Hindsight and all that, sir. If the client had loved the campaign, everyone would have told you I was an idiot.”

“But the client didn’t love the campaign, did he?”

“No.”

“And you weren’t surprised.”

Wen said nothing.

“I watched your face.”

He still said nothing.

Mark sighed and sank into his desk chair. “If we’d even come close, I think Henderson would have given us the benefit of another try without seeking other proposals for Comfort. As it is, he’s going to Wellington, among others.”

Wen grimaced. “Tough competition.”

“Yeah, we have to hit it out of the park or lose the account. And we have to do it against them and every other major creative agency in America.”

Had to hand it to him. He sure could delineate a problem.

“I want you on this.”

“I am, sir.”

“I want you on this more.”

Wen shook his head and couldn’t quite care that Mark heard his big exhale. “Arnie already has us working fourteen hours a day. I have a family. I can’t leave them entirely.”

“You do?” He looked genuinely surprised. “I thought you were gay.”

“I am. I raise my brother and sister. They’re only eleven and sixteen, so they still need supervision.” He raised an eyebrow but still smiled. “And by the way, gay men have families too, you know. Supreme Court and all that.”

“Sorry. Of course I know that. You’re just so—” He laughed. “—serious about the job. I guess I thought you were footloose and married to the company.”

“The opposite of footloose, I’m afraid. The married part may be right.”

“Look, I’ll be frank. Arnie has some big fans among our clients. It appears Henderson isn’t one of them, but I don’t want to rock any other boats in case the Comfort account goes away. I’ll tell Arnie to give you your head on this and see if you can pull it out of the fire.”

Wendell swallowed. “Uh, sir, that’s no slam dunk now that Henderson thinks we suck eggs. We’re starting a lot of steps back.”

“Yes, well, that’s why you’re getting the chance. Otherwise it’d be all Arnie Borsinski now, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

Mark rose. Dismissed. “Come on, Wendell, smile. In the movies, this is where the understudy goes on for the star and gets great reviews.”

Wen managed to turn his lips up. “Thanks.”

“I think you can do it.” He slapped the desk and grinned.

Wen gave Mark a studied gaze. That was likely a lie. Mark just didn’t want Arnie to be seen failing. “Thank you. I’ll try to not let you down.” He turned and left the office. Why did he feel like a knife was sailing toward his back?

On the elevator, he leaned against the wall. Set up to fail? Mark wanted to keep the account, sure. Hell, even huge agencies didn’t sneeze at five-million-dollar budgets. But Mark had to know how unlikely that success was, and he didn’t care about trashing a dime-a-dozen assistant creative director. Shit!

At the ground floor, Wen strode across the marble lobby to the revolving door and pushed out into the warm night. No rain, just humidity that made you gasp and grab your chest, and car lights shining off still-wet streets. Stripping off the trench, he hurried toward the subway. Thanks to Mark, he’d missed John’s bedtime, but he could still spend a few minutes with Michaela.

Down the subway platform, his shoulders sagged as he watched the other tired working stiffs heading home. He wiped a hand over the back of his neck and spied a seat on a bench beside a woman—girl, actually—who appeared to be her own performance art.

He shuddered involuntarily. Man, she reminded him of his mom and how she was toward the end—beyond eccentric to wacko. This woman was wearing a green tutu over striped leggings, held up by red suspenders, and she carried a parasol. Her hairstyle might have been called an Afro if it weren’t pink.

It didn’t take therapy to know he had a love-hate relationship with people like his mother. Mostly hate. She’d been worthless in the taking-care-of-kids department. If he was being supergenerous, he’d admit he had to have gotten his creativity from somewhere. Certainly not from his poor, gray accountant of a father. Oh, what the hell. He stared at his shoes, marched over, and took the empty seat.

For a second, Parasol Girl met his eyes, then looked away and seemed to shift over a bit. Okay, so she didn’t want to get any conservative on her. Figured.

He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Man, what the fuck am I going to do? Sometimes anonymity meant safety, and he’d just lost his at the agency. The team had spent something like twenty-four collective hours this afternoon looking for a unique design approach online, and he got nada. At least, nothing he felt confident showing Henderson.

He leaned back, and a shard of broken metal in the bench stuck him. Shit. He jumped, twisted, and—his eyes rose slowly. What? His heart skipped, fists clenched, and mouth slackened. Holy shit!

There on the wall a few feet behind the bench screamed—art! Soaring flames, rising birds, exploding mountains, and colliding planetary systems of creativity filled every space from bench back to ceiling. Not the usual airbrushed, bulbous tagger’s creation, this looked like it had been done in oil by some anonymous da Vinci who could change the world—at least Wen’s world.