Read an ExcerptWe All Fall Down
By Simon Wood
Dorchester Publishing Copyright © 2008 Simon Wood
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Saturday morning traffic was behaving itself, so Hayden would make good time from Fairfield to San Rafael. He hoped this weekend would be the start of something big. Marin Design Engineering only wanted someone on short contract, but if he impressed them, the contract might go from short to long. It wasn't an unusual occurrence for him. He'd built a solid reputation as a design engineering contractor over the last three years. He'd been twenty-five when he started contracting, which was a pretty bold move. But his rep hadn't gotten him the high-paying gig at Marin Design Engineering; his old college roommate had.
This gig would be a nice boost to his income. He'd been on contract at Macpherson Water since the beginning of the year and the plan was he'd work for Marin Design Engineering from home in the evening. It wasn't the first time he'd reaped the rewards of working double duty.
Hayden reached the limit of the radio station broadcasting out of Sacramento, and he switched to a San Francisco station. He caught the tail end of a song before the station went to the news. The discovery of Sundip Chaudhary's body was the lead story.
"The body of missing scientist Sundip Chaudhary was found late last night by a jogger on Muir Beach," the newsreader said.
At least they found him, Hayden thought. He shuddered at the thought of the condition of the guy's corpse.
The story had made a stir in the Bay Area. Chaudhary had walked into the ocean three days ago in an apparent suicide attempt. He hadn't left a note, but his car had been found on Stinson Beach with the keys in the ignition and the engine running.
Family and friends cited no problems in his professional and personal life that would warrant a suicide attempt. If it weren't for an anonymous eyewitness account of Chaudhary walking into the sea, foul play or an accident might have been suspected. Speculation centered on the possibility that the eyewitness had been involved in a fender bender with Chaudhary. Chaudhary's car exhibited fresh damage, and debris from a second vehicle was found on the beach. Speculation ended when it came to what had led Chaudhary to walk into the Pacific.
"The Marin County Sheriff's Department urges the eyewitness to come forward," the newsreader said.
Yeah, right, Hayden thought. No one would come forward if they feared any backlash.
Hayden pictured Chaudhary's body on the beach he knew well. Drowning. There were less painful ways of killing yourself. Hayden wondered if that had been Chaudhary's aim. The eyewitness had stated in the 911 call that Chaudhary had insinuated he'd committed an act so severe that he couldn't live with the guilt. The cops had yet to turn up anything to support the claim-or just weren't saying.
The whole subject left Hayden feeling queasy. His cell phone bursting into song provided the perfect reason to forget about Chaudhary's suicide.
"Where are you?" Shane Fallon asked.
"I just got on Highway 37, so I'm about half an hour out."
"I'm so glad you're coming aboard."
"It's going to be great catching up, man." Although college roommates, they'd lost touch over recent years. Work had taken them in different directions. Now it was bringing them back together. "This is going to be a great weekend. See you in thirty."
"In thirty," Hayden said and hung up.
Hayden found the upscale gated community where Shane lived easily enough. He'd known his friend had done well for himself, but not this well. Shane lived in a modest house compared to the monster mansions at the higher end of the price scale, but even so, this was high living and it put Hayden's '50s- built ranch- style home to shame. If Shane's firm treated him this well, they could definitely afford to pay Hayden two hundred bucks an hour for grunt work. He pulled into Shane's driveway.
Hayden was removing his overnight bag from the passenger seat when Shane came out to greet him. Hayden put out his hand, and Shane gripped it before crushing him in a bear hug. Shane didn't have much in the way of brawn, but he was tall and possessed a lot of inherent strength.
"Damn, it's good to see you. I can't believe we've let three years pass without getting together."
"Neither can I."
Shane relieved Hayden of his bag and dropped it by the stairs in the hall. "We don't have to be at the Giants game until midday, so we've got a couple of hours until we leave. Do you want coffee or something?"
"Yeah, coffee would be good."
"C'mon through into the kitchen then."
Hayden followed Shane into a custom kitchen clad in marble and stainless steel. It was all very upwardly mobile. Hayden took a seat at the kitchen table, while Shane poured fresh grounds into the coffeemaker.
"You've done really well for yourself. I'm impressed," Hayden said, surveying his surroundings.
"What can I tell you? Nice things happen to nice people." Shane looked about him. "It's a long way from the dorms at Cal-State and that AMC Gremlin, God rest its soul."
"Amen," Hayden said and wondered what ever had become of that car-it had probably long since been consigned to the crusher.
"Marin Design Engineering treats you well, then?" Hayden said.
"They do." The coffeemaker stopped wheezing, and Shane grabbed the coffees and joined Hayden at the table. "And they'll treat you well too."
Hayden thought of the premium rate they were going to pay him for this short-term contract. "Any chance this'll turn into something longer term?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. MDE takes on specialist design-build projects. No one else can do what they do, so the margins are always high. And because every project is different, they hire a lot of folks on contract. You do okay on this one and I'm sure you'll get a recall."
"So who do I have to impress for future work?"
"Me," Shane answered. "I'm the project manager."
Who said cronyism was such a bad thing? Hayden thought. He raised his coffee mug for a toast, and they clinked mugs.
They spent the next couple of hours catching up and reminiscing before Shane drove them to AT&T Park. San Francisco traffic was thick, and parking was impossible, but MDE had splashed out on a corporate box that came with reserved parking. They entered the stadium through a private entrance. Hayden could get used to this kind of treatment.
They met with Shane's colleagues from MDE for a pre-game lunch in the hospitality suite. A gaunt-looking man wearing a blazer over dress slacks spotted Shane and Hayden approaching and got up from his seat.
"Shane, you made it," he said. "Is this Hayden?"
"Yes, Trevor. Meet Hayden Duke. Hayden, this is Trevor Bellis, Marin Design Engineering's CEO."
Hayden shook hands with Bellis. His grip was surprisingly strong for someone who looked half starved.
"A plea sure to meet you, Hayden. Please call me Trevor. I've heard a lot about you. You're a welcome addition to our team. We'll discuss business after the game. For now, enjoy yourself," Bellis said.
Shane introduced Hayden to the assembled group. They were a mix of MDE employees and contract staff. Most possessed either engineering or scientific backgrounds. They welcomed Hayden in a genuine manner, and he slipped easily into conversation with them. He could see himself working very well with these people.
Hayden noticed an unoccupied place at the table. "Who are we missing?" he asked Shane.
"Our guest of honor, James Lockhart. He's a consultant employed by the client to oversee the project. He's very well-regarded and has done a lot of work for the government and the private sector. If things need moving and shaking, he's the guy to do it."
"Who's the client?"
"I can't discuss that until you've signed up for the job."
Lockhart arrived shortly before the meal ended. His coming brought a subtle change in the mood at the table, but Hayden felt it as strongly as a weather shift. Lockhart introduced an air of formality. He was obviously the big man on campus, and Bellis looked distinctly nervous in the man's presence. Hayden guessed MDE had a lot riding on this project.
Hayden understood the change at the table. Lockhart didn't look as if he'd come out for a ball game. He'd chosen to power dress in a tailored suit and tie instead of something more casual. He looked like he expected to be called upon to give a press conference at any moment. During the small talk over lunch, he weighed and measured each answer before giving it. It was very disconcerting.
Game time arrived, and everyone went to their seats. Bellis kept Lockhart segregated from everyone else, which lightened the mood. While the others got wrapped up in the game, Bellis and Lockhart talked. Hayden cast glances their way. Bellis remained tense around the man. Hayden guessed things weren't as rosy at MDE as everyone liked to make out. Maybe it was good he was working a short contract with these people. The last thing he needed was to sign on for something longer term if they were having problems on the business front. In situations like that, the first people to go were the contract staff. He'd think long and hard on any future offers.
After the game, everyone said their good-byes. Bellis put a hand on Hayden's shoulder. "Let's get you on our team now." Bellis's smile had returned once Lockhart had left. "I've got some paperwork at our offices for you to sign."
Hayden and Shane followed Bellis's Audi A6 back to the MDE offices in Corte Madera. The building was set into the hills and was clearly visible from US-101, making it its own billboard. It was a squat, two-story structure with the second story being octagonal in shape. It smacked of '70s architecture, but that didn't make it any less desirable as a working environment.
Bellis beat them at a stop light and by the time Shane and Hayden arrived, he had the building unlocked and stood waiting for them in the foyer.
"Welcome to MDE," Bellis said.
Hayden failed to acknowledge the welcome. His focus was on an easel, which held a poster-size headshot of an East Indian man in his thirties. At the base of the image was the caption, Sundip Chaudhary, a friend lost but not forgotten.
"That's the guy they found this morning."
"Yes," Bellis said. "Very sad."
"Am I his replacement?" The thought of filling a dead man's shoes took the excitement out of the position.
"No," Shane said. "He worked here as an instrument engineer."
"Let's talk about this in the boardroom," Bellis said.
Bellis took Hayden and Shane up to the second floor. At the end of the conference table sat a roll of drawings, a flash drive and a file folder. Shane and Bellis took seats next to each other, and Hayden took one opposite.
"Sundip Chaudhary was a valued member of this company," Bellis said. "Sadly, he let the stress of his work get to him and he took his own life. None of us saw the signs. If we had, then ..." Bellis let the remainder of his sentence go unfinished.
"That's not what I heard on the news," Hayden said.
"Out of privacy and respect for Sundip's family, we kept the truth from the press," Bellis said.
There'd been no mention of who Chaudhary had worked for in any of the news reports. Hayden wondered who'd pulled those strings-Bellis or Lockhart?
"Is Sundip's death a problem for you?" Bellis asked.
"No," Hayden replied. "It was a just surprise. No one mentioned him at the ballpark today."
"The project that Sundip was a part of is highly confidential," Shane said. "Our client is on the verge of a major technological breakthrough. So much so, they haven't even filled us in on the full purpose of the design."
"Hence the need for privacy," Bellis said.
"And James Lockhart?" Hayden said.
"The client has invested a lot of capital, and James Lockhart is here to ensure they get what they want," Bellis said.
No wonder Bellis was so jumpy around Lockhart. There was probably a lot of ass covering going on. Chaudhary's death may have prompted the client to consider switching firms. Bellis wouldn't want to lose such a high-profile job.
"Obviously, none of what I've told you leaves this room," Bellis said.
It sounded like overkill to Hayden, but it wasn't his problem. "Of course," he said.
"We'd better deal with the red tape," Shane said.
Bellis opened the file folder and removed a sheaf of papers and put them before Hayden. "This is a nondisclosure agreement. Should you divulge any project details to anyone outside of Marin Design Engineering, the firm will take severe legal action against you. The financial penalties we would seek are significant. In addition, our client would be entitled to take separate action."
Bellis's tone sounded like a threat, albeit dressed up in legalese. Hayden didn't like being pushed around, regardless of how politely it was done.
"We've all had to sign it," Shane said. "It's standard practice in this kind of situation."
"I would recommend you read the document before signing it," Bellis said. "You're welcome to run it by your attorney, but we are short on time."
Hayden had the urge to walk away. He liked to keep business informal and friendly. This was beginning to get a little too serious for his liking. But it was easy work for excellent money. In a couple of weeks, it wouldn't matter. Hayden scanned the twelve-page document. It was pretty much as Bellis had described. If he disclosed any part of his work, MDE would sue-and sue big. The document claimed MDE would seek ten million in damages. Hayden wasn't sure how much was legal bluffing, but it was enough to ensure he kept his mouth shut. He finished reading the document and decided the job was still worth doing despite the overlitigious contract. Bellis held out a pen, and Hayden signed.
With that out of the way, Bellis and Shane spent a half hour going through the marked-up plans with him before handing them to him along with the flash drive containing the drawings he was to correct. It was all straightforward enough, and the meeting broke up. Everyone shook hands and smiled, but the hard sell with the nondisclosure agreement had soured Hayden's mood. The enthusiasm he'd brought with him this morning wouldn't be making the return drive.
Bellis made small talk as he saw Shane and Hayden out. Lockhart's presence in the foyer ended the small talk. He stood before Chaudhary's image on the easel in deep contemplation. He seemingly failed to register anyone's presence in the room with him for a moment.
"A great shame. Sundip was a very talented young man. We should have done more for him," he reflected. "What's going on here?"
"James, this is Hayden Duke. He's joining the team," Bellis said.
Lockhart shook Hayden's hand. "Good to have you aboard. I look forward to working with you. Enjoy the rest of your weekend."
Lockhart couldn't have made his point any clearer. It was time for them to leave.
"Thanks for making the trip, Hayden. We'll talk next week," Bellis said, before ushering Shane and him out the door.
"Lock the door, Trevor," Lockhart said. "I don't want to be disturbed."
Bellis did as he was told, and Lockhart led the way to Bellis's office. He let Bellis sit while he perched himself on the window ledge. He took in the panoramic view and watched Shane reverse out from his parking spot and drive away.
"Do you know anything about this Hayden Duke?" Lockhart asked.
"Not much. He's a friend of Shane's. Why?"
"I noticed him eyeballing us at the game."
"What do you want?" Bellis asked.
"Watch your tone, Trevor. Just remember who you're speaking to."
Bellis said nothing. Instead he fidgeted in his seat.
"I came here to make sure we're all on the same page about Chaudhary."
"I got the message."
"Did you? I wasn't sure."
"I got it."
Lockhart glanced out the window. Beckerman was out there somewhere watching his back, visible yet invisible. He'd chosen to keep Beckerman out of sight today. He had a habit of agitating situations. Lockhart didn't want things agitated. Today, he wanted calm. More specifically, he wanted Bellis calm.
"You say that, Trevor, but I feel you have questions. If you have them, ask them."
"He'd expressed doubts about the project."
"Did he mention his doubts to you?"
"Only that we'd been lied to. He said the products we're designing weren't for the purpose we were told. He wanted to speak to you, and now he's dead. Did he speak to you?"
Lockhart came away from the window and settled into a chair opposite Bellis. Bellis stiffened and looked cornered. "I met with him. I thought I had set his mind at rest."
Excerpted from We All Fall Down by Simon Wood Copyright © 2008 by Simon Wood. Excerpted by permission.
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