Jason is a stressed-out manager and engineer in a Portland, Oregon software firm. Overworked, behind schedule, hassled by his crazy employees and impudent assistant, he snaps when he sees an ad for an oceanside B&B. He was supposed to work through the weekend, but instead drives to the coast for a solitary getaway—which turns out to be anything but lonely, because one of the hostesses is just as deranged as the people he left behind.
The B&B is run by two women friends. Robin is quiet, intelligent, and repressed except when she’s banging out her emotions on the piano. Sheila has never repressed an impulse in her life: athletic, loud, aggressive, and uninhibited, she grabs Jason before he even gets through the door and claims him as her prize, forcing him to spend what he thought would be a quiet weekend hiking in the hills above the seaside.
The B&B has an alter-ego at night. With Sheila asleep, Robin is free to bake the mountains of fresh cakes, muffins, and rolls that she offers to their guests every morning. Jason is also an incurable insomniac, and wandering down to find a snack discovers Robin’s secret world, a flour-dusted cinnamon heaven that’s also inhabited by her dancing dog, Bear.
This sets the pattern for his future visits: reluctant adventures with Sheila during the day, lively conversations with Robin as she bakes at night.
With his friends back in Portland overjoyed that he’s finally found a life, any life; his over-bearing mother insisting that he marry one of the women instantly; and Sheila herself beginning to think about marriage, Jason is in danger of being forced into a commitment with a woman that he’s not even sure he likes. Meanwhile his midnight talks with Robin have become the best thing in his life, but he discovers that one of her neighbors has been pursuing her for years and she’s on the verge of saying yes. Somewhere in the chaos of the Wild Sands B&B there must be a key to everyone's happiness.
When the MAX train reached the Rose Quarter, Jason closed up his laptop and put it away in his worn leather backpack. He always spent the last few minutes of each day’s half-hour ride watching his fellow commuters, wondering where they were headed and what they were thinking. Outside, the sky had that determined, bluish-gray look that meant there would be no sun today, and so the people-watching would be dour. Train riders are different on gloomy days than on sunny ones: they hunch more, talk less, shake their soggy newspapers irritably.
Jason recognized a few people, though he didn’t know their names. A middle-aged woman with long, silver hair clenched a baby blue umbrella between her knees and read a paperback romance novel, as she did every day, while she slowly nibbled a muffin. A boy who looked too young to drive, or to shave, was nevertheless dressed in an expensive charcoal gray suit; he stared out the window, clutching a black umbrella in one hand and a long, black overcoat in the other.
As the train approached Old Town, street people became more numerous. The homeless, and the teens who pursued cool by pretending to be, huddled up against the buildings, trying to escape the drizzle. The structures in this part of town were made of brick, once blackened by soot but recently power-washed almost clean; misbegotten, graceless, mostly untenanted mid-century hulks, they crouched two or three stories over the street, waiting to be useful once again.
The MAX slowed and stopped. Jason grabbed his backpack and his hat and crab-walked to the nearest exit, then stepped out onto First Avenue.
He was not dressed like a businessman: he wore a waterproof, wide-brimmed leather Aussie hat and an unbuttoned duster over his jeans and open-necked Oxford shirt. In place of the dirty white tennies his colleagues wore religiously, he had black leather walking shoes. His hair was long enough to curl up in back. Instead of a briefcase he carried the scuffed backpack he had used in college.
Anyone in the software business would have recognized him instantly as one of their own.
It was only a ten-minute walk from the MAX stop to the reclaimed warehouse where he worked. The Pearl District was in the early stages of gentrification. Empty buildings were slowly filling up with art galleries, specialty furniture stores, trendy bistros, and condos for hip urban Generation Whatever types. The top two floors of a full-block, four-story brownstone had been taken over by Zebra Software Inc.
Jason ran up the stairs to the third floor and waved at Wendy the receptionist, who smiled vaguely and turned back to her computer screen. He swiped his badge and slipped through the security door. It was about a quarter to eight, too early for most of his late-rising troops to be in yet, so he had a little time to try to get some work done before Chaos descended on him.
The office was arranged into three concentric circles. In the window offices around the perimeter, which had real doors, managers and senior programmers could think or play solitaire, theoretically in privacy. The cubicles filling the interior held swarms of drones, grunts, and newbies. In the very center was an open space with desks for the secretaries, programming assistants, and interns.
Jason walked around the outside corridor to his corner office and closed the door behind him. He took the laptop out of his pack, awakened it and his desktop computer, and started the synchronization process that would transfer all the e-mails he’d written overnight to his primary computer and then out into the network. While that chugged along, he shrugged off his coat and hung it and his hat on the back of the door.
The screen of his computer still displayed the program code for the bug he’d been struggling with last night. Sometimes he’d wake up with the solution to difficult problems like this one fully formed in his mind, but not today. He dropped into his chair and focused his mind on the glitch, trying to tease out where it was hiding in this suspect page of code.
Someone pounded on his door and banged it open before he could respond. Two of his team leads, Bryan and Patrice, tried to rush in at the same moment and bounced off each other and the doorframe. Bryan was in his early twenties, rumpled and short-haired, with a two-day beard. Patrice looked as if she’d just stepped out of an L. L. Bean catalogue. Both of them were red-eyed and shaky—up all night, obviously, fueled on coffee and acrimony.
“Hey, boss,” Bryan panted. “We’re hosed. The determinant we’re using in the goal-seeking module is utter, fragrant bullshit, and it’s shaking the tree downline—”
“It’s not the determinant,” Patrice said, “it’s just the relative weights, it has no effect on the design, and I can fix it.”
“Then why haven’t you?”
“Because I’ve had my hands full trying to keep you from gutting six months of work.”
“I’m just trying to fix the damned thing.”
“Keep your grimy hands off my files.”
Jason’s stomach churned as he listened to them bicker. Their arguments were running in smooth, well-worn ruts. They weren’t going to be able to free themselves on their own.
“Shut up,” Jason said mildly. It took a few seconds for them to register what he’d said and run down. They squared off to face him and waited for orders. “Bryan, we’ve simulated this until the CPU is worn down to a stub. I can’t believe the determinant is wrong.” Bryan started to protest but Jason held up his hand. “And you know the project rules. No one changes someone else’s code without the owner’s knowledge and permission.” Patrice beamed smugly at Bryan. “Go home, get some sleep, come back for the bug bash tomorrow.
We’ll figure it out on Monday.”
“It won’t be much of a bug bash,” Bryan said, “with this big, fat goober squatting right in the middle of the—”
“Out,” a new voice said.
The programmers turned. Jeanne, Jason’s assistant, was standing in the doorway, holding two large Starbucks cups and wearing her drill sergeant frown. She was twice as old and twice as fierce as either of the drones.
“Our fearless leader has spoken. Go home.”
They managed to leave the room without bumping into anything. Jeanne held out one of the cups to Jason.
She was in her late forties, half again as old as Jason—older, in fact, than everyone else in the department. She was of average height, average build, and usually rather plain in appearance unless, as now, her face was transformed by a smile and a twinkle in her piercing green eyes.
“It’s started already,” Jason said. He sipped the still-scalding coffee.
“They’re gone now,” Jeanne said. “If you’re lucky, you’ve got maybe fifteen minutes before the next one. Enjoy it while you can.”
She closed the door behind her. Jason went back to the bug, but he had a premonition that he wouldn’t find the solution today, and maybe not tomorrow either.
Jeanne had been optimistic. The next interruption came at 8:03 and they continued, in clusters and singletons, throughout the day. People brought him code problems, jokes, personal disputes, organization and staffing issues, schedule crises, and urgent purchase orders that needed his signature immediately. One young guy, after just six months at the company, was concerned because his career was stalled. Meanwhile Jason dealt with nine urgent e-mails, and skipped forty-seven less-urgent ones that he would synch onto his laptop and read and respond to that night.