Strikepoint: Part Three

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Dan Pollock spent a dozen years as an editor with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, leaving when his first thriller, Lair of the Fox, was published. Three more novels followed—Duel of Assassins, Pursuit into Darkness and Precipice, a “logistics thriller” commissioned by the Council of Logistics Management.

"I won't let it happen!"

Gan McManus slapped the table, rattling the espresso cups. "Dammit, we had the prize in our hands—manufacturing capacity, a bridge solution to our supply chain dilemma, the works! And now it's all whisked away by Ike Boone and his checkbook!"

"Bravo!" Ed Combs said from across the table. "I've been waiting for you to get off your even keel, Gan. How about you, Alex? Ready to vent, too? Come on. I've heard you bellow orders clear across a warehouse."

"I'm screaming on the inside." Alex Ordonez, Cornelius Footwear's stocky production chief, just managed a smile.

The three men were having coffee in the lobby cafe of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Kuala Lumpur—and all three were still in psychic whiplash from the morning's devastating one-two punch, delivered in Mary Ann Dugan's transpacific call. In an incredible sequence of events, Cornelius had first landed the Corners account at the direct expense of rival Zip, then lost the Bigger Scott endorsement rights to Zip, which effectively killed the deal with the worldwide discount chain.

"I guess it was just too good to be true," Alex said.

"No, it wasn't!" Gan insisted. "Sure, the Corners deal fell out of the sky right into our laps, but we've been working our tails off to be in position for exactly that kind of big break—and, by God, we deserved it! Dave Flynn at Corners has to be aware how this dormant little company with one hell of a product suddenly woke up and turned aggressive. You know Corners' reps have seen us hustling all over Asia, fighting to pry manufacturing capacity away from Ike Boone and being blocked at every juncture. Dave must have seen we were worth placing a bet on—"

"Except he just put his money back on Zip," Alex said.

"So we gotta convince Dave we're still a good bet—long term and short—that we're not going to lie down and play dead for Ike Boone or anybody. We gotta stay aggressive," Gan said.

The kid had turned into a real fighter, Ed Combs thought, refusing to acknowledge he was licked.

"Well," Combs said, "if it's turned into a war of checkbooks, we could offer Bigger Scott more money."

"Write him a 'bigger' check, you mean?" Alex managed another faint smile. "I'm for it. With the Corners business in my fist, I won't have to go begging for Asian contract suppliers. A lot of those factory honchos who took a pass on us these last weeks would suddenly find openings on their schedules. Heck, I could have them bidding against each other on price and delivery dates."

"You know, there may still be a way to get Bigger Scott back on our side where he belongs," Gan said. "But for now, according to Mary Ann, Enright is against raising the ante. Our checks just don't have room for as many zeroes as Zip's."

"Ike must have promised Scott the moon," Ed Combs said, "mainly to keep us out of Corners."

"Face it, the old buzzard outslicked us," Alex said. "He BS'd Bigger Scott."

"There's gotta be something," Gan said.

"Well, we could be philosophical about it," Alex said. "Because, in a way, Dave Flynn was just another Ike Boone. The Corners deal would save our hides for now, but down the road we'd find ourselves totally dependent on them. We'd just be swallowed by Dave Flynn instead of Ike Boone."

"No way, Alex," Gan said. "The Corners deal is only a means to an end. I would never let us rely on a single distribution outlet for Corn Dogs, no matter how big it is. Here's the way I see it."

Signaling the waiter for another espresso, Gan launched into a rapid-fire explanation of his plan. Piggybacking on the Corners distribution network would supply a short-term "crisis" fix, he said, though still requiring their own best logistics efforts and the help of Brannan. The Seattle-based 3PL would also step in to handle the increased demand from Cornelius' customers other than Corners.

"Sure, we want to get big," Gan emphasized, "but not clumsy big and pushy, like Zip. Zip's mistake is that it buys a ton of product to get the cheapest price, then can't move it. So it dumps excess inventory on its contract manufacturers and vendors."

"And manufacturers over here get flooded with returned Zips," Alex added, "which, if you ask me, has more to do with poor product design than quality control."

"But Ike Boone doesn't care," Gan said. "He ties up suppliers over here and floods retail outlets with his shoddy shoes, keeping competitors out. He's turned Zip into the 800-pound gorilla pushing inventory to vendors to hold until Zip gets paid. Meantime, from what I've seen, Zip is slow to pay its own contract manufacturers and vendors."

"Another reason they'd be quick to defect if we brought in Corners," Alex said. "Dave Flynn pays on time, while I bet Ike plays the float — even making Bigger wait for his royalty checks."

"Hold on now, Gan," Ed Combs said. "Let's say we've got your 'short-term crisis fix' in place, thanks to Dave Flynn and Corners. Now give us your 'long-term fix.' How are you going to wean us away from dependency on Corners."

"You tell me," Gan said. "The short-term benefits of piggybacking on Corners' distribution network are obvious. But how can we benefit long term?"

"You fixing to steal all their supply chain secrets?"

"Call it reverse engineering," Gan said with a grin. Having Corners as a customer, he explained, would allow them the unique opportunity of peeking inside the discounter's sophisticated supply network in order to meet its demands better than any competitor ever could. It would be a constant learning process, as their relationship with Corners evolved.

With his mind's eye, Gan conjured the giant retail chain's world-class distribution system. In a descriptive sense, of course, the vision was "real"; the only imaginary part was painting Cornelius into the picture. But, ever since the "good news" portion of Mary Ann's morning call, Gan had been unable to keep Corn Dogs out of that picture. They kept flowing massively through the Corners' supply chain and ending up, just in time, on clearly envisioned shelves, thanks to instantaneous point-of-sale data and inventory turnover feedback that triggered all purchasing, production and shipping decisions.

Gan could see the fluorescent-bathed acreage of a typical Corners Discount, the entire Corn Dogs line arrayed down heavily trafficked shoe aisles, with the good ol' boy grin of Bigger Scott on the endcaps, putter in one hand, basic walking shoe in the other. And beyond the walls of the mammoth, boxy store Gan could visualize the globe-spanning supply chain that fed it and all the hundreds of other Corners outlets. He could see ocean and airfreight container trucks backing up to the loading docks of Asian manufacturing sites—sucking finished Corn Dogs into their distribution system.

He visualized the great container ports of Singapore and Hong Kong, Kobe and Kaohsiung, knew from his early morning research that Corners imported 100,000 "cans" a year from Asia—the kind of cargo volume that got the very best rates from carriers. (By partnering with Corners, Cornelius would be able to plug into long-term contracts with transportation carriers for its other customers, as well.)

Gan conjured one of those floating steel leviathans—eight levels of containers below decks, five levels above, 16 or more across—smashing its way east at 21 knots on the Pacific run, ferrying Corn Dogs to market. Streaking overhead would be a 747-400 freighter, its belly full of more Corn Dogs—122 tons worth packed into igloo containers.

Getting all that product to the right stores would be Corners' challenge initially, not Gan's, but he'd make it his business to acquire expertise as quickly as possible. He knew that the shoes would be already packaged, labeled, and bar-coded by Cornelius' manufacturers. Within hours of docking, the big boxes would be flowing off the pier on wheeled chassis hauled by trucks or double-decked on rail flatcars, destined for the main railheads—Chicago, Memphis, Atlanta, New York.

Corners had its distribution centers hub-and-spoking every sales region, so it could service its stores with its own gigantic truck fleet…

"Hate to rain on your imaginary parade, Gan," Ed Combs said, "but how the heck can you adapt Corners' billion-dollar solutions to our penny-ante operation? I hear the computer room in their headquarters is the size of an average warehouse, and they maintain one of the largest civilian databases in the world, with a 65-week rolling history of each SKU, how many bought and sold in every region, district, and store. Shall I go on?"

"We'll do exactly what they do," Gan said, "but on a smaller scale. Like you say, information at checkout at each Corners' location is stored locally, aggregated by product, and transmitted electronically to that humongous database at Corners' HQ, which allows Corners to analyze replenishment needs and buying habits. So we reverse-engineer a scaled-down version of their system for our own use. That, coupled with Brannan's software, will allow us to plan ahead, forecast product demand, and react quickly."

Another way Cornelius could adapt Corners' sophisticated systems, Gan went on, was in automating production decisions. "Obviously, we don't have the resources, like Corners and the other big players, to get all our big suppliers on EDI. Face it, the bulk of our manufacturers—and even Zip's—are still relying on phone and fax to move numbers. Am I right, Alex?"

"Right, but at least we got rid of our telex machines," Alex chuckled.

"We can do better than that. With Corners, we can pry manufacturing facilities from Zip. Most of that capacity will be for Corners, but some of it we can use for non-Corners accounts. What we need is a Web 'black box' to translate EDI advice to HTML-readable information, so even the most unsophisticated contract manufacturers can match product flow to demand flow, just like Corners does."

"And Brannan can build it for us," Ed Combs said, "right, since they'll be serving as the back end for all those non-Corners customers anyway?"

"Exactly," Gan said. "And Mary Ann's customer service group can hold hands with those key accounts, so we're capturing all the necessary POS information. Of course, as far as production goes, we'll have to team with Brannan to manage exceptions and monitor inventory flow to make sure they meet demands."

"Back to that 'black box,'" Alex said. "You're saying we'll be able to convert all our supply chain participants from fax or phone to 'e'? Instantaneous access to readable information, eliminating language and time zone differences?"

"Most of that is doable, Alex," Gan said. "An EDI-Web converter was one of the bullet points in the requirements document we sent Jeb Brannan the night before we made our big pitch to John Enright. Brannan's EDI-Web converter will map EDI and e-mail messages right to our web supply chain system. That will take care of the sophisticated customers and vendors.

"But, Brannan also has a solution for our customers and vendors still using fax and phone—voice recognition software that can translate voice commands and keypad prompts into HTML code," Gan said. "Backed up by our usual customer service folks."

"As far as fax, Brannan has a team in place that can take inbound faxes from our customers and re-key them as close to real-time as possible into our web pipeline," he added. "At the same time, Mary Ann's team works with the customers using faxes—one by one—to wean them off old technology and onto the Web."

With input from his colleagues, Gan began jotting down other value-added services he expected from Brannan Logistics: For the first blast of product to market, the 3PL needed to arrange air shipments, then monitor any strategic pulses and emergency situations that might impact product flow and/or demand. Brannan would also arrange for and tweak logistics information technology so each member of the Cornelius team, pertinent contract manufacturers and larger vendors would have real-time visibility of product flow via the Web, Palm handheld devices, and their desktops. Again, they weren't asking Brannan for anything revolutionary. The 3PL already had this capability; Cornelius only had to plug into its existing system.

And, as before, Brannan could continue to field a multilingual team at key manufacturing sites here in Asia to manage distribution and training.

Alex held up his hand to stop Gan from proceeding. "You're saying Brannan would teach our manufacturers supply chain expertise and technology?"

"Yes," Gan said.

"They'll love that! I mean, Zip shares, excuse the expression, zip with its suppliers. And believe me, they're tired of being jerked around by Ike Boone. What they really want," Alex said, "is to be treated like business partners, not commodities. And it's not just a matter of respect. By forging long-term, close relationships with their clients, manufacturers would be able to maximize profits by being better able to plan for demand."

"And that kind of partnership would give us another advantage we could offer Corners that Zip can't, or won't," Gan said. "More reliable product flow."

""We should have been working on all this stuff long ago, with or without Corners," said Alex. "We could have taken market share away from Zip."

Gan nodded. "I guess it took a crisis to shake everybody up."

There were lessons to be learned all around, the three men agreed.

"But we'll never benefit from any of them," Ed Combs said, "if Enright can't rescue the Corners deal and decides to go ahead and sell the company to Ike Boone. Gan, me lad, I'm afraid you've been preaching to the choir. Our beleaguered CEO is the one you need to convert."

"And you'd better start preparing your sermon." Alex checked his watch. A Web teleconference with the home office was set for that night.

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At eleven p.m.—eight "yesterday" morning in L.A.—Gan sat by the window, turning his back on the soaring, fairytale lights from the Petronas Towers, hunched over his notebook PC, microphone plugged in. A dozen participants appeared on screen, represented by their company mugshots. Basically the same gang Gan had walked in on that fateful morning to give notice and learned about Bigger Scott sinking the incredible hole-in-one, winning the U.S. Open—then crediting Corn Dogs. Only now, a little more than two weeks later, the ball had lipped out.

John Enright's recap of events was short and bleak. With Bigger Scott defecting to Zip, Dave Flynn of Corners was regretfully withdrawing his offer.

"Darned right I believe in Corn Dogs," Enright quoted the Corners' chairman as saying, "but they gotta be a guaranteed velocity item to find space under my tent, and that means we gotta have Bigger Scott out front beating the drum."

"What about Dave Flynn beating the drum instead?" suggested Holly Needham. "Why not build an in-store campaign around his own endorsement?"

"Dave works hard at maintaining a low profile," answered Libby Skidmore. "He pays his publicists to keep his face out of the media."

"Flynn's own endorsement won't work anyway," Enright said. "Corners needs Bigger to propel its sports department from an also-ran to a competitor to the leader — Sports Wizard. Without Bigger, that initiative is dead in the water."

"There has to be some way to salvage the Corners' deal," insisted Serge Saunders of Operations. There was an uncomfortable stretch of silence before Gan, pulse racing and mouth dry, jumped in:

"Let's look at what else we can offer Dave Flynn that Ike Boone can't…"

Gan began spelling out for Enright and the others the solutions that he, Alex and Ed had been passionately discussing in the hotel café. But it was impossible, staring at a static Web conference home page, to get a sense of the "room" and gauge his effect. Had he spoken for 10 minutes or 15? He seemed to be racing through his talking points—and suddenly he was done. He felt his voice run down. His "sermon," he thought, wouldn't have brought many converts.

John Enright's voice filtered through the PC speakers: "An intricate and elaborate plan, McManus. I congratulate you. But the fact is, we need Corners to get any of it off the ground. And we need Bigger Scott to get Corners.

"I'm afraid our fallback position isn't as good as it was three weeks ago either," the CEO went on. "Ike Boone hasn't withdrawn his takeover offer, but he lowered it considerably. The initial $33 a share is off the table. The figure is now $24." A pause. "I haven't decided if I'm going to recommend acceptance...but whatever we decide, there's no reason for any of you to extend your Asian trip. Start packing. We've booked you back on the first flight out tomorrow."

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Gan was drafting an endless memo in his mind, with a million bullet points, all detailing what had gone wrong. The bedside clock showed 3:47. Why fight it? He could sleep on the plane. Twenty droning hours, with a stopover in Taipei. He sat up, switched on the light.

What a fool he had been! And it all traced back to that first morning, getting caught up in the conference room euphoria over Bigger Scott. The smart career move, obviously, would have been to act on his decision to defect to Zip. Too late now. What kind of slot would Zip find for him after the takeover? Not likely as a cutting-edge logistician. Would there even be a slot for him?

To turn off his brain, he turned on the room TV, remote-surfed through a martial arts flick, a fast-talking Malay car salesman, Fantasy Island, a bald geezer jogging through the woods, a Japanese animé cartoon—go back!

The old jogger was Ike Boone! He wore gray sweats, and had a towel around his neck like he was Rocky Balboa jogging through the streets of Philly. His gravelly drawl came in over the video: "I like getting up before the sun—or my rivals." A mini-logo at screen bottom read "Many Mansions." One of those celebrity lifestyle shows.

An upper-crusty voiceover took over: "Ike Boone typically logs 16-hour days, keeping his company on the extreme cutting edge. But when it's R&R time, Boone the Tycoon likes to kick back in this thousand-acre wooded estate in Marin County, California, just a half-hour's drive north of Zip's headquarters in a San Francisco high rise."

Ike again, with a deep chuckle: "It's a pretty cool place to road test the company product."

To the strains of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again," the screen flashed to a close-up of red, white and blue Zips pounding blacktop. Ahead, intertwining oaks provided an ornate natural frame for a Renaissance palazzo with a pillared portico.

Ike trotted up marble steps and high-fived his waiting trophy wife. The camera followed him down a museum-like corridor into a book-lined office, where he sank into an executive chair and levered his Zip-shod feet onto the corner of an antique desk, then proceeded to share snippets from his rags-to-riches life story.

Gan got suddenly excited. It couldn't be! He squinted, moved closer. But it was! Absolutely positively!

He snatched up his global phone, triggered a speed-dial sequence.

"Mary Ann, it's Gan. You sitting down?"

"At my desk, why? Shouldn't I be? And for that matter, shouldn't you be sleeping? Or packing?"

"I'm not packing Mary Ann. Because I'm not leaving. None of us are. Not yet anyway."

"Gan, what are you saying? You heard Enright."

"Enright doesn't know what I know now. I want you to set up another Web conference for tomorrow morning."

"Your time or ours?"

"I don't care. As soon as you can mesh schedules and round up the troops. I think Ike Boone just handed the ball back to us."

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Several hours later, nearing the end of a smoggy afternoon in L.A., the sixth-floor corporate conference room was packed, all eyes on the big-screen projection of the Web conference page. A half dozen more were dialing in from around the world, three from a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, where it was 7:45 a.m. (after a sleepless but productive night for Gan).

At precisely 8, Mary Ann Dugan launched: "Last night, Gan McManus saw something on TV that, he believes, can tip the scales dramatically back in our favor. He promptly canceled his flight home, and I managed to get hold of the footage, thanks to an ex-college roommate who works in the L.A. bureau of a cable news outlet. The folks in this room can look at the big screen, while those of you dialing in can watch your Web media windows."

Mary Ann keyed her laptop, projecting the streaming video of Ike Boone jogging around his private Shangri-la.

"Is this your idea of a joke, Mary Ann?" John Enright asked.

"Wait," said Mary Ann. She let it roll, then froze-frame as Boone's Zips were hoisted to his desk, enormous on the screen.

"Will everyone take a close look at the bottom of those running shoes?"

"Those are our soles!" Surprisingly Al Hirschorn, the CFO, had spotted it first, but several others were right behind, including Enright. The distinctive Corn Dog herringbone sole pattern was unmistakable, fixed on the big monitor.

"The old so-and-so has infringed our patent," said their corporate counsel, Holly Needham. "This one we will litigate."

"Worse than that," Gan's voice came through on the room speakers. "Or better, from our standpoint. Ike Boone hasn't glued Corn Dog soles on a pair of Zips. He's wearing our shoes with a Zip logo decaled on the side! I'm not sure there's anything to litigate, Holly. I don't think Ike's selling them. I assume they're just for his personal use, and he doesn't want anyone to know he's wearing our shoes."

"Why would he do that?" asked Hal Maatsura of IT.

"Because they're better than his," said Mary Ann.

"It could be just that simple," Gan said. "I did a Nexis-Lexis search and pulled up a story from several months back about Ike suffering from plantar fasciitis and giving up tennis."

"If we can't litigate," Holly Needham said, "just what are you proposing, Gan? Blackmail? Extortion?"

Enright waved his hand dismissively. "Don't be absurd. I mean, this is an interesting bit of gossip, no more—hardly worth a special conference, Mary Ann. There's no way I can go after Ike Boone on this, without damaging any takeover deal he might consider."

"With all due respect, Mr. Enright," Gan broke in, "I don't think you're quite getting our point. Ike Boone's not who you should be going after. At least not yet."

"Then who, exactly, do we go after?"

"Bigger Scott."

"Scott's in Ike Boone's pocket," Holly Needham said. "What's the point in talking to him?"

"Because Ike Boone can bury something like this, or spin it, or just stay under the radar until it blows over. He's a businessman. But Bigger Scott's going to be the public face of Zip footwear. The one that everyone who plunks down $80 for their shoddy product sees. He's a public figure, and he needs to be well regarded by the public. Does he really want to be backing a product that isn't even worn by its own CEO?"

"Why should he care," Enright asked, "with the big paycheck Ike Boone's giving him?"

"That's what I thought, too, when Zip offered me a big paycheck."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Three weeks ago—the very day this whole Bigger Scott thing broke—I came to work to resign from Cornelius and go work for Zip. More money, more perks, the whole package. Plus a chance to put my logistics ideas to work for a change. But I couldn't go through with it. I knew our product was superior to Ike Boone's, Mr. Enright. We all know it. I look at that statue of George Cornelius, and I'm inspired by all the things our products are that Zip's will never be. Bigger Scott knows it, too. He knows we saved his golfing career. He just needs a little reminding—from you."

"Me?"

"It has to be you. He'll listen to you—he knows what he owes Corn Dogs. Remind him how they sustained him on the golf course and resurrected his career. Let him know that Ike Boone knows it, too. Show him the video so he can see why Boone's doctoring our shoes to look like his, so he can wear the best damn product on the market. And ask Scott if that's the kind of man he wants to be speaking for...and the kind of products he wants his name and face to represent. You might just sort of mention that you know his endorsement deal leaves Zip room to bail when the shoes don't move—and you know they won't. So the endorsement won't be worth the paper it's printed on. Meanwhile, Scott's currency for endorsements will be devalued."

There was a long silence. Was Enright at least thinking it over? Gan wondered from nearly 9,000 miles away, staring at his laptop.

"You make some good points, lad," Enright finally said. "But the man won't walk away from that kind of money for nothing. And we can't match Ike Boone's offer."

"Give him stock." It was CFO Al Hirschorn's turn. "If we succeed, he's rich. If Zip buys us, he's still rich. It's his golden parachute. He'll see it's better business sense to sign with us."

"Ike will fight like hell on this," Enright said.

"Not this time he won't," Mary Ann said. "He'll want this kept quiet. And he'll want our help to make damned sure it is kept quiet. Once you've got Bigger Scott on your side, Ike will have no choice but to release us. But it's up to you to convince Bigger Scott."

Gan had to sweat out another long pause. Then: "OK. McManus, you and Mary Ann have sweet-talked me yet again." Another pause, then Gan heard Enright's chuckle. "I only hope I can be half as persuasive as you are."

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Gan lifted the lid on A BOX OF new business cards. New title, "Logistics Manager." New office, with a window and a door—which was suddenly pushed open. Ellie Rasmussen peeked around, blinking behind her owlish glasses and smiling.

"Great new digs! You da man, Gan!"

"Hi, Ellie. Want to see my view of the parking lot?"

"My God, I'm afraid I'd get a nosebleed this high up."

They kidded around until it was time for Gan to leave for a Century City press conference to announce Cornelius' endorsement deal with Bigger Scott. Enright and the others had already left in a stretch limo. Gan was hitching a ride with Mary Ann Dugan.

"We've got a long way to go," he said as she pulled out of the company garage.

"No, we don't. We'll be there in 15 minutes."

"I mean the company, logistics-wise. Some of the honchos, Enright included, think this is the finish line—the Scott signing, the Corners alliance, all the neat stuff Brannan is doing for us. But it's only a first step, or couple of steps. The ultimate objective is still to build our own logistics operations into a smooth-running, fully-linked supply chain and—"

"Uh-huh, makes sense."

Mary Ann was nodding, Gan saw, but not really listening. Probably daydreaming about her enhanced customer service operation, just as he, given his own department to run, was lost in logistics reveries—information from the demand side fed through the Web back to vendors and manufacturing facilities to ensure smooth product distribution.

"Penny for your thoughts?" he asked his former supervisor.

"Two words," she said. "Corn Pups."

"What the heck are those?"

"Corn Dogs—for kids."

"We don't make Corn Dogs for kids."

"But we could. With the way you've got product flowing, Gan, we can start seeking out other markets and experimenting with line extension. In fact, I've got a cross-functional team meeting with Marketing and Design tomorrow morning. See, logistics drives marketing too!"

Traffic slowed them down, but Mary Ann was still revving in high gear about her ideas as the valet opened their doors at the Century Plaza Hotel. As they quick-walked through the corridors toward the ballroom, Gan's Palm Pilot started beeping.

"You go on in, Mary Ann, I'll catch up."

"Gan, no, it's already started!"

"I'll just be a second."

It was a message from Brannan's handheld supply chain visibility system—proof-of-delivery received mere minutes ago. The first air shipment of Corn Dogs had arrived at Corners' West Coast hub DC! Gan gave a silent cheer, pocketed the handheld device and hustled after Mary Ann.

On the stage of the sectioned-off ballroom, Enright, prolonging his grip-and-grin with Bigger Scott for the cameras, was asked by a reporter how a company like Cornelius was able to respond so quickly with product to such an unexpected demand.

Enright pivoted from the microphone toward the Cornelius contingent in the wings. "I need McManus. Where is he?"

"He just walked in—way in the back."

Enright squinted, then swung back to the mike: "Good question. I suggest we ask the man who made it all happen, Gan McManus. Gan! Come on up here. These people have some questions for you."

Gan, hearing his name called out, froze. He wasn't scheduled to be part of this! But there was Enright beckoning from the lectern. Gan headed for the stage stairs, filled with apprehension and an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Of course! It was just like the morning he'd been summoned to the sixth floor meeting without the faintest idea of why he was wanted. Here he was again, like an actor who'd lost his lines, trotting up the stairs, walking across the stage into the quartz-halogen glare of video lights. Enright pumped his hand, motioned out toward a sea of faces apparently waiting for his words.

What the heck, Gan told himself. Logisticians were supposed to be good at thinking on their feet.

He stepped up to the microphone.

THE END

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