"...So that's how it went. Goddamn opportunist. I'll make him regret it one day." After telling Georg what had occurred during the meeting, the anger surged back up within him.
"I guess this means you'll have to rework the proposal."
"Yeah, it does. Jesus. I even did unpaid overtime for this. Screw him."
Freddie banged on the desk, but all it did was cause himself pain.
"I guess this means I won't have any work for a while."
Georg was a member of Freddie's development team. The company was partitioned off into a variety of divisions such as development, general affairs and accounting. He and Freddie were in development. There were further groupings of desks for teams within the development division, primarily composed of four kinds of role: planner, programmer, CG production and producer. The number of people in the teams would grow and shrink depending on the scale of the game that was being worked on, but there was generally an average of six or seven people on each. Since Freddie's team was not yet officially working on a project, only Freddie and Georg had temporarily been assigned to it.
And how annoying Georg was. The man had made his name as a programmer by flattering his bosses and being good at subsisting.
"If there's nothing for me to do, I suppose I'll be off for today."
Georg put his machine into sleep mode and began his preparations to go home. As programmers worked on flexi-time schedules, they could generally go home whenever they wanted to. At first glance it may look like an easy profession but, due to being trapped in the office for days on end when deadlines approach, it evens out in the end.
"Huh? You're goin' home?" Freddie grumbled, an image of Stella appearing in his mind's eye.
Did she go home in the end? Is she still sitting around nonchalantly, treating my house like her office?
"I wanna go home, too." He'd have to buy some body wash later.
"You only just showed up late. I don't think that will fly." Georg chortled. "And anyway, it looks like someone's here for you."
Freddie glanced at his PC monitor and saw that the icon indicating the arrival of a new company email was blinking. Clicking it with his mouse, he saw that the sender was Daryl. It said, Come here. I need a favour.
"Why can't he just say it out loud?"
Daryl's seat was right underneath his nose. He could shout to him and be heard, and yet irritatingly would insist upon sending emails. When he was around the president his tongue would wag as if freshly oiled, but he did not believe that he should be carelessly speaking with his subordinates. According to the testimony of a colleague, he had apparently said while out drinking that this was because it made him seem more commanding and dignified. What a joke.
Glancing over at his seat, Freddie saw that he was pretending to enthusiastically read an economic magazine, as if he hadn't summoned Freddie at all.
"What a moron. Should I pretend not to have noticed?"
"If you do that, he'll just start up with the sarcasm again."
"Don't have a choice, then, do I? I guess this is part of the job, too."
"Well, I'll be off now. See you tomorrow."
Putting his hands on his hips and hunching his back, Georg left. His chronic lower back pain seemed to be particularly bad lately. Back pain and stiff shoulders were the occupational hazards of being a programmer. Gastroenteritis was the planner's. It always plagued Freddie, and these days he even had a headache to go along with it.
"You wanted to see me?" He approached Daryl, working hard not to let his emotions show.
Daryl set the magazine down on the edge of the desk, still spread out, and shot a glance at Freddie through his glasses.
"What a shame that was earlier. Don't let it get you down." He repeated the words, as if they were all he knew. Feeling as though it would be foolish to reply, Freddie stood in silence. "So, uh..." Daryl cleared his throat purposely, as if unsure what to do, looking up at Freddie with deliberately linked hands as if in prayer. "I know this is sudden, but I'd like you to come up with a new proposal."
"A new one? You mean I'm not going to be reworking the astrology one?"
"No good will come of you dirtying your hands trying to make something of that proposal now. The president is placing his faith in our abilities. We have to come up with a more revolutionary idea to win back his trust."
You're the one who lost it in the first place.
He barely managed to stifle the grumble as it threatened to spill from his mouth. Instead, he let out a short cough.
"What is this new proposal, then?"
"What are you talking about? It's your job to come up with that, isn't it? You can't go around acting like a newbie forever."
He fought to keep his trembling fist hidden in the desk's shadow. Calm down. There's no point getting pissed off at a moron. Morons should just fall from the tower.
Daryl the "moron", unaware of what Freddie was thinking, proudly resettled his glasses on the bridge of his nose.
"I'll lend you my wisdom this time, though. What do you think about a virtual dating sim game, hm?"
"There are things like virtual idols and all that, right? Games where you can use your phone to have a make believe romance with your favourite heroine are apparently all over the place overseas. We can't sit around without jumping on the bandwagon, can we?"
Perplexed by the sudden comments, he spied an article about Japanese-made romance simulators in a corner of the economic magazine. He must have been suckered in by the headline saying that young people were addicted to them. He was amazed by how simplistic it was.
"Are you sure it would work out?"
He spoke ambiguously. He might have conveniently forgotten about it, but it was Daryl who had been so strongly in favour of the new astrology game at last month's departmental meeting. That must have been inspired by the media, too.
"I'm not sure they'll go for a rehash..."
"What do you mean? You can make anything look new; it's all down to the appearance. Presentation is what really matters, presentation."
Yes. He'd forgotten that whenever Daryl heard a critical opinion from an underling, he would become more and more stubborn. He tutted mentally.
"Anyway, there's no time. I've told the president that we'll redo the planning meeting in a week from now. I'd like you to submit a proposal before then."
"You don't think a week is a bit short?"
"I'm thinking of you when I say this. If you mess up this time, I see a very dark future in store for you. Work hard and give it your all so that doesn't happen. That's all."
Daryl forcibly brought the conversation to an end. If we get tossed out on the streets, I'll have your head as well as mine, Freddie vowed.
He didn't end up working at all that day. He tried browsing through the websites of some companies who developed romance simulation games, or whatever they were called, but couldn't come up with any creative images. All he could think was, Where's the fun in getting together with a woman? and couldn't figure out what would make the game enjoyable. Even if he were to show the users convenient, imaginary women unlike the irritating, troublesome women the real world was crawling with, who wanted to waste their time and money on one of them?
He was only half serious with Stella himself. Just like the other women he had been skin-on-skin with, he was simply dating her in order to sate his primal desires, and she must have known it.
"God, this is boring. Maybe I should pack it in for today."
He checked the clock, seeing that the hands had ticked past 6PM. Daryl had left long ago. It looked like he had accompanied the president to some kind of party. Even sycophants seemed to fit in there. Freddie was grateful not to have to look at his sarcastic face any longer.
Freddie put his PC into sleep mode and stood up. The neighbouring development team, in the face of next month's deadline, had entered crunch time mode. He pitied the shrieks and bellows from their last spurt of work, but was also envious. At this rate, there was no guarantee that his spot would still be there next month. It was better to have hard work than to have no work at all.
Hearing energetic conversation from behind him he sighed, punched his time card and went outside.
He turned up the collar of his coat. The weather had been strange this year since the spring. Downpours. Tornadoes. Intense heat. Even though the coming of winter was still a way off, a thin layer of ice formed on top of the lake at the park once night fell.
The silvery light of the waxing moon shone down. It looked like a pockmarked face sneering down at Freddie, set in front of a blue curtain.
He kicked away an empty can in frustration. The flattened cola can struck the gutter and rebounded, causing a crow that had been scavenging through the rubbish to fly away, startled.
He took out his phone and searched for Stella's number. Despite hardly being a best-seller, Stella was an author by trade. She might be able to give him some ideas with her own interpretation. That morning, she had been talking about some kind of fairy tale. Maybe he might ask her how the rest of the story went, just as reference. But...
His finger hovered over the call button. He couldn't help but be hesitant about seeing her for two days in a row. If he called her, there was no way it would end there. He would end up eating with her, then going back to his apartment and showering. After that, he could see things progressing the way they usually did.
Stella really was the ultimate woman in terms of letting out his sexual urges, but he didn't want her in his house any more than she had to be. He had only just managed to make it peaceful, and he didn't want a woman reeking of make-up coming in and messing it up.
In the end he didn't call her, stuffing the useless phone back into his coat's inner pocket. Still, he didn't feel like going straight home. Fragments of the planning meeting ran through his head, increasing his irritation to the point where he thought he might throw up. He didn't think he would be able to get to sleep without a drink tonight.
Suddenly, he found himself walking in the opposite direction from his apartment. Passing through gaudy neon side streets, he turned west at a construction site and two blocks later found himself in front of an establishment.
The Stray Sheep. It was a bar he had come upon recently by chance. He had never been inside but, despite its location, it seemed to have quite a number of patrons. In this town, without any proper form of amusement, what was there to do besides stay home playing games or drink? And games were a pile of shit. That left only one choice.
He opened the door as if drawn in. The bell attached to it let out a sound like the rattling of teeth inside a skull. The interior, swathed in dark brown, was lit with calm lighting. For Freddie, however - who had been walking through a dimly-lit world - it seemed bright enough to burn his eyes.
"Welcome," a man standing on the other side of the bar said in salutation.
Was he the owner? His silver hair was combed back, his white tuxedo and black sunglasses leaving an impression and making him feel strangely unsettled.
"Oh, my. Is this your first time here?"
There was a jokey hint in his elegant voice. It was the kind of voice that seemed to envelop all of the world and everything in it in a sense of black humour.
He slid into an empty seat at the bar. "Gin and lime."
"Yes, yes. Coming right up." He played the fool as he took his order.
Still, he was obviously skilled, plopping ice cubes into an old-fashioned cup, pouring in dry gin and lime juice and stirring, decorating it with a green lime once it was ready.
He took a sip of the proffered cocktail. He wasn't a heavy drinker, but drank down almost half of it in a single gulp. The cold, sweetly acidic liquid trickled down his throat, gradually warming it. It felt like his body was burning from the inside, but it was this pain that Freddie had been seeking. Abusing his body like this allowed him to fall into a thoughtless sleep.
"Is there something on your mind, sir?" the barman asked, peering at him. He reflexively leered back, and the man put his hands out in front of him as if flustered. "Goodness. I didn't mean to pry. Yes."
Freddie drained the remaining contents of the glass and turned around, looking around the bar. There was no one else at the counter, but he could see several groups of patrons seated at the inner tables. Looking at their clothing told him at a glance that they were from the area. What would tourists want with a dump of a town like this, anyway?
"Where's the bathroom?"
"Down there on the left. Yes."
The drunkenness flooded him faster than he had anticipated. He staggered unsteadily towards the restroom, bumping into a man who had just come out.
"Watch where you're going."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
The other man bowed his head, flustered. Much like Freddie himself, he was a sullen man in his early thirties with black hair like a bird's nest, wearing a white leather jacket. However you looked at him, there was no way he was a normal salaryman. Just like Freddie, he reeked of someone who stood out from the crowd.
"Hey, Vincent. What're you up to?" one of the similarly-aged men sitting at the bar, apparently the man's companions, called. One of the men, wearing a red hat, was flourishing a folded bank note. They must be gambling.
"Sorry. I'm comin' now."
As the man called Vincent passed him, Freddie took his place in the restroom. After taking a piss, he turned on the tap at the sink and washed his face, clearing his head a little.
"I wouldn't be so sure."
He looked up, feeling as if he had heard a whisper but, of course, no one was there.
"Shit. Am I drunk?"
To get drunk after a single cocktail meant that he couldn't take nearly as much as he used to. When he was young, he could drink until the sun came up without a problem.
It seemed like a good idea to get some fresh air. He pushed the door open, excusing himself to the barman and heading for the exit. His legs began to drag, and he staggered.
"Hey, are you okay?" The man called Vincent he'd just met supported him. "You look like shit. Why don't you rest up at our table?"
"No. That's not necessary."
He waved him off, but his knees collapsed under him with the next step he took.
"Come on, over here."
Usually, he would rather die than accept someone else's help, but tonight he decided to quietly go along with it. After all, he was quite drunk, and the sullen man did seem like a good person.
He let Vincent help him into a seat. Sinking back into the chair, he felt considerably more relaxed.
"Should I order a mineral water?"
An Asian man sitting across from him glanced at him with concern. The red-hatted man beside him concentrated on counting out his money as he watched the large TV screen on the other side of the counter. It seemed like a women's wrestling show was broadcast at this time. Two women clad in risqué bikinis were locking up on the screen. The one with long hair straddled the other, wrapping her arms around her neck and squeezing. There was a scream and then a roar, followed by cheers. The vividness of her pale, exposed skin made him feel sick again, and Freddie casually averted his gaze.
"You... don't look much like a gambler."
The red-hatted man introduced himself as Orlando. The Asian man was Jonny. They both seemed to be Vincent's friends.
"There's usually another guy called Toby with us, but unfortunately he's got a cold today. You don't have anyone with you?"
"Nah. I like drinking by myself," he said, but didn't feel like getting up right away. Maybe the vague sense of distance between Vincent and the others fitted with Freddie's preferences.
Neither too close, nor too distant. These men knew the principles of companionship.
"I'm Freddie. I make boring games for a boring games company."
The flow of the conversation gave him no choice but to introduce himself. Most people would look at him with suspicion or misplaced envy when they heard that he made games, but the three of them reacted in a different way.
"Well, all jobs are boring as hell, right?"
"There are no easy jobs."
"That's why we've gotta drink like this."
His attitude - as if he somehow got by in life by going with the flow, rather than philosophising about it - was relieving. Perhaps that was why he so easily opened up about his troubles. The way he had to conjure up a proposal for a game within the space of a week. That he might be fired if he didn't. Half of it, naturally, was the alcohol's influence.
"Fuck my scummy boss for forcing all of this work onto me. He can go straight to hell."
"A game about dating? Isn't that your area, Vincent?"
Jonny tilted his water towards Vincent. It seemed like Vincent was a systems engineer, too. Their employers and job types differed, but the fact that they both worked with computers filled him with a sense of familiarity.
"Unfortunately, I don't have any experience with that kind of game."
"Huh. You're so useless," Orlando complained and fiddled with the brim of his hat, then clicked his fingers as if a lightbulb had gone off. "Although... if it's a dating game you're making, I guess you have plenty experience with that kind of thing."
"'That kind of thing'?"
"This." He stuck out his little finger suggestively.
"I won't deny it, but I can't stand women. Fundamentally... no, absolutely."
"Quite the guy, aren't ya?" With an expression of disbelief on his face, Vincent tipped ash from the cigarette he held. Both envy and sympathy showed in his eyes. "I don't think I could ever leave my girlfriend, in the end."
Oh. So he had a woman. What a shame for him, being caught up with a woman. He felt pity for the man, who seemed like a good guy.
"Well, you've gotta have a lot of experience with romance if you're making a game about it. I know. How about this? Call it Saucy Housewife Conquest."
"Stop screwin' around."
Even disgusting Jonny wasn't enough to put Orlando off. Seemingly absorbed in his idea, he banged on the table as he argued his case.
"No one gives a damn about innocent romance these days. The assholes of the world want more exciting encounters and relationships than that. Why don't you try making that kind of game?"
"I'll give it a think." He nodded with a wry smile.
"So, what kind of girl is your type?" Orlando asked out of curiosity.
"I don't have a type," he said, casually dodging the question.
"What? You must have one. Okay, fine. Let's talk about his type first." Orlando tapped Vincent, who sat next to him, on the shoulder.
"Why do you have to make this about me?"
Shrugging off Vincent's annoyance, Orlando began painting a picture of the kind of woman he liked.
"Blonde, for starters, and fair-skinned; also, she's gotta be pretty young. You like a touch of devilishness too, right?"
"I never said any of that."
Vincent sulkily took a gulp from his glass, but seeing him not totally refuting the statement made Freddie think that Orlando's views were pretty much dead on.
"Hey, Vincent," Jonny cut in, amazement on his face. "Isn't that nothing like your girlfriend? Won't she be pissed if she finds out?"
"I told you, I never said any of that. Cut it out, Orlando."
Vincent pushed down on Orlando's head through his hat. They really were good friends. But... right. So that was Vincent's type, huh? Thinking that it might come in handy somehow, Freddie decided to make a mental note of it.