Last call for KND free Thriller excerpt:
by Glenn Ogura
Young idealist Zack Penny usually gets to work early to take in the surroundings and breathe in the crisp, mechanically filtered air, knowing that one day his own company will be very different from Display Technik. As he follows the vision of his highly successful, results-at-all-costs mentor and CEO Allen Henley, Zack quietly nurtures a big dream–to create a new company of high morals and values, one that will revolutionize the world through the creation of wallpaper-thin displays to completely surround a viewer.
That dream is set into motion one morning when he realizes an important paper has been taken from his office. Moments later, Zack learns someone has turned him in. After his boss, who also happens to be the father of his girlfriend, Mary Anne, gives him one last chance to pledge his loyalty, Zack resigns. Determined to realize his vision, he soon steps into his new facility with high hopes and no idea that Henley has already put a plan into action with the intent of systematically destroying Zack, his perfect company, and, most of all, the relationship between Zack and Mary Anne, who is unwittingly caught in the cross-fire.
In this fast-paced thriller, a young entrepreneur faces moral dilemmas in Silicon Valley, a place where the inner working of the legal system favors the aggressor.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
When Mary Anne turned the knob, Zack’s home-office door swung open without a sound and was immediately swallowed up by the darkness inside. Standing in the dim hallway, she had to clench her hands to stop their trembling.
This was so stupid, she told herself. Despite her father’s claims, despite what he had shown her, she didn’t believe that Zack could be a traitor to DisplayTechnik. Ever the master manipulator, Allen Henley, CEO and founder of the family corporation, had backed her into a corner, and now she was on the verge of betraying her boyfriend to prove his innocence.
Although her father had soft-pedaled it as “counterintelligence,” breaking and entering while her lover slept in a nearby room seemed much less dignified than that—and far more shameful. And she wasn’t sure what she’d do if she found something incriminating: hand it over to Allen, or confront Zack with it?
If she turned back now, Zack would never know; and when Allen asked her what she’d discovered, she could tell him to go screw himself—though in words more carefully chosen. For once, she could end one of their arguments having taken the high ground.
But she knew in her heart it was too late to retreat. She had already crossed a line.
She closed the door behind her, exhaling at the soft click of the handle. She’d been holding her breath since she’d slid the key filched from Zack’s pants pocket into the lock. Oh, God, there’d be hell to pay if he walked in now, she thought. But maybe that would be better; maybe then it could all be out in the open.
A few weeks prior, Allen had brought up his suspicions in one of their father-daughter “debates.” He’d managed to get under her skin as always, and as always, she’d taken the bait. Before she knew what was happening, she’d agreed to search her boyfriend’s home office, determined to show Allen that he was wrong about Zack.
Earlier in the evening, she’d tried one last time to elicit the truth from Zack, but he kept dodging her questions about his future plans. Why couldn’t he just trust her?
She inched forward in the dark until her shin bumped the side of the desk. Afraid she’d knock something over, she carefully reached out, feeling for the lamp. Her fingers touched papers, a pen, and then bumped the lampshade—hard. For an instant, she imagined the lamp teetering over and shattering on the floor, but that didn’t happen.
She found the toggle switch and clicked it. The burst of bright light hurt her eyes. She leaned over the desk, cluttered with heaps of file folders and documents.
God, she thought, how do professional thieves do this?
# # #
Fifteen minutes later, she closed and locked the door behind her, a single piece of paper folded in her hand. She quietly retraced her steps down the hall. She’d left the bedroom door partially open. She slipped through it and tiptoed across the darkened room. Zack was barely visible on the bed, a long lump under the covers. After returning the key to his pants pockets, she picked up her purse and took it into the bathroom, closing the door after her. In the glow of the nightlight, she put the slip of paper in her purse. Then she flushed the toilet and turned on the water in the sink for a moment.
She shuffled back across the room and then got back into the warm bed. A carefully placed poke with her elbow made Zack roll over, and he wrapped a protective arm around her, giving her a gentle, half-awake squeeze before he sighed and slipped back to sleep.
Mary Anne lay beside her fiancé, muscles clenched, heart pounding. Maybe there was some other explanation for what she’d found, but she couldn’t think of it. The last thing she wanted was to be touched by this man, this sudden stranger, but if she got up and left, Zack would know something had happened. He’d want answers. Her father had convinced her that it was in their interest and the interest of DisplayTechnik to keep whatever she discovered a secret from Zack until the proper moment. And her father was always right.
Upon entering the mirrored-glass and stainless-steel lobby of DisplayTechnik, most people’s eyes were immediately drawn to the immense mobile hanging thirty feet overhead. It revolved ever so lazily, its burnished metal dazzling in the California sun. Ultrathin suspension cables concealed by the mosaic pattern on the wall behind the display created the illusion that the massive structure was simply hovering, perhaps by some trick of magnetism.
The mobile reminded Zack of scimitars and guillotine blades. As far as he was concerned, the truly magnificent work of art in the entranceway was the vast floor of highly polished black marble. Walking across it was like stepping into space: looking down at the pinpoints and streaks of glittering white, one strolled through the stars of the heavens, passing by galaxies, and the streamers of some gaseous nebula. Beneath the steel and glass homage to Allen Henley’s vanity was the constancy of the universe—immoveable, immutable, and terrible in its beauty. A plush burgundy carpet surrounded the receptionist’s area, which stood like an island in the sea of black.
Engineers like Zack weren’t supposed to use the main lobby entrance, and he didn’t most days, but it was only six thirty and any of the flock of senior vice presidents who might care if he were violating company protocol were probably still in bed. He usually got to work early, though not merely to avoid the crawl over Highway 680. He liked to take in the surroundings, soak them up, and breathe in the crisp, mechanically filtered air, knowing that one day his own company would never, ever look like this.
But he did hope to have someone as cheerful as Jan as his receptionist. She flashed him her beaming smile and waved him over to her island.
“Yes, okay. Hold, please—” she said, and put the caller on hold before he or she could object. “Hiya, Zack, how was your weekend? You look tired—didn’t you get in any sleep?”
“Of course,” Zack said. “Whenever I wasn’t working or awake.”
“You know, weekends mean taking time off, not just not going to the office.”
“I know, but the work doesn’t get done if someone doesn’t do it. I am planning on going skiing next weekend …” His voice trailed off when Jan disappeared behind the desk, and he leaned forward to see if she’d fallen through some sort of trapdoor.
She popped up with a rectangular block of aluminum foil in her hand. “This is for you,” she said. “It’s a loaf of banana nut bread I made. It was supposed to be for Jimmy, but you’re looking thinner and thinner lately. Haven’t you been eating?”
Zack knew better than to argue or refuse the gift. He was about to defend his appetite when Jan turned back to the flashing lights on her board. “DisplayTechnik, how may I direct your call? Oh! Have you been holding all this time?”
Zack mouthed a thank-you as he picked up the package. It was heavier than it looked. Jan gave him a wink and wave as he turned for the bank of glass elevators. He walked past them and swiped his access card to the door to the stairs. Walking up to the third floor, he sampled Jan’s bread. He hadn’t had breakfast, unless two cups of coffee with cream and sugar counted. The bread was worlds above the preservative-loaded cinnamon roll from the vending machine that he usually had around nine.
At the third-floor landing, he swiped his card again and walked down the hallway to his office. He fumbled in his pocket for the key, and when he couldn’t extract it while juggling everything else, he set down his briefcase. The heavy case leaned against the door, and it swung slowly open. He was positive he’d locked it. He always locked it before leaving on Fridays.
Zack nudged it wide-open with his knee, reached in, and slid his fingers up the wall until he found the light switch. The overhead fluorescent light flickered and then came to life.
Everything on his desk looked just the way he’d left it, but he immediately noticed that the pine bookcase stood at a slight angle away from the wall. The filing cabinet’s key lock appeared untouched. He’d been concerned that someone had been going through his things lately and it bothered him, even if he knew they wouldn’t find anything here.
Well, maybe it was the damn careless cleaning staff again, he told himself. It would have been the second time in three weeks that they’d failed to lock his door. The company had, after all, just hired some new staff. And it wouldn’t be the first time that they’d gone nuts with their massive industrial vacuums.
He tossed his keys onto the desk and then set his briefcase on the chair. As he opened it, he took another look around. Everything seemed secure. Wait a minute! Panic fluttered in his stomach like he’d reached the crest of a roller coaster’s first climb and was about to go over the summit. Had he left the drawing here that Dimitre had scratched out at lunch on Friday, the one with the latest specs for the polymer formulation?
Jesus, if someone found that and realized what it meant, he was screwed. They were all screwed.
Then he remembered sticking it in his briefcase before he left. He was going to work on it over the weekend but never got to it with everything else he’d had to do.
As Zack turned to place the briefcase on his desk, his hand slipped, and the contents spilled onto the floor.
He got down on his hands and knees and started piling it all back in the case, checking each scrap of paper and CD as he went—overdue laundry second notice, trade magazines, candy bar wrappers, the latest bulletin from marketing about how they desperately needed specs and colors. He scooped together the half-dozen file folders containing reports he was supposed to have finished up on Saturday and flipped through them, thinking Dimitre’s napkin might have gotten mixed up with them. Boy, wouldn’t that have been sweet.
Zack sat in the middle of the floor, reconstructing events. Okay, the last place he remembered seeing it for sure was here when he put it in his briefcase. So, obviously, it still had to be here, right? No, wait a second. Mary Anne had shown up early on Friday night, and he’d slipped it into his desk drawer at home, along with some other papers he’d been working on that he didn’t want her to see. He remembered now seeing the edge of it poking out of the stack. He’d wanted to put it all in the safe later that night but didn’t get a chance to because she’d distracted him with that new nightie. He smiled, thinking what they’d—
Zack jumped at the voice behind him. It was Phyllis, the administrative assistant for the engineering staff.
“So is that what you call filing?”
Zack stood up. “Did you come into my office over the weekend?”
“You kidding me?” Phyllis wrinkled her nose. “Come in here on the weekend? That’s not my idea of a fun time. I’m not as crazy as you boys from engineering.”
“How about this morning?”
“I don’t have a key, remember? Why?”
“The door was unlocked.”
“Maybe you didn’t lock it.”
“I always lock the office.”
“Uh-huh.” Phyllis waved at his cluttered desk. “And you always keep your office tidy as well.”
Zack bent down and started to clear the desk.
“Too little, too late,” Phyllis chided him. “Anyhow, you don’t have time for that. Julie told me to keep an eye open for you. Said to tell you Mr. Henley wants to see you as soon as you came in, but you were to swing into her office first. Think she has the hots for you?”
Phyllis winked at him. There were a lot of rumors about Julie Reynolds’s hots. She was a key member of the inner Gestapo of DisplayTechnik, exactly the type of person who would invade his office.
Zack ran a hand through his straight brown hair. It was usually a little ruffled and just long enough to make it difficult to manage. This morning he’d seen a unicorn staring back at him in the mirror, and even after a shower, it had still been sticking up a bit.
He hurriedly ushered Phyllis out into the hall, and he made a show of locking the door after him. Arms folded across her chest, she rolled her eyes as he turned for Julie’s office.
Why would the Human Resources manager want to see him? She only called in people when she was firing them, or fishing for reasons to fire someone else, or giving them a lower-than-deserved rating for their latest evaluation. In the latter case, she claimed she wanted to head off any problems with poor performance, but the twinkle in her eye hinted at sadistic pleasure.
And what the hell did their esteemed founder and CEO want? He wasn’t exactly the type to have personal chats with his engineering team, even though Zack was the head of the department. Maybe this was about the new line of monitors due out next month? They were still having problems with a residual flicker and didn’t seem to be any closer to isolating the problem.
Bill Bennet, the general counsel, came out of nowhere and nearly collided with him. Bill clutched a pile of papers to his chest and held out his coffee mug as it slopped over onto the rug.
“Jesus! Watch where you’re—oh, hi, Zack.” He clutched the papers a little tighter and then turned them upside down onto a nearby desk, shaking the coffee from his hand. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“I could ask the same thing. So, how are the plans coming along to get traffic lights installed on these dangerous intersections?”
“Seen Julie yet?” Bill said.
Zack frowned. “What, are they broadcasting my morning’s meetings on the Bay Area Early News?”
“You’re the second person who’s told me that Julie wants to see me.”
“Oh, well, you know. We’re all supposed to be communicating better.”
Sure, Zack thought. DisplayTechnik was such a warm, wonderful place, and management only wanted the best for employees.
“Actually, I was off to see, uh, Mr. Henley first,” Zack said. “You know, start at the top. Apparently he wants to meet with me too, in case that didn’t make the broadcast this morning.”
Bill stared at him blankly and then said, “I just came from the tower, and he’s going to be busy for a while. An interview with Silicon Valley Business, I believe. Why don’t you go see Julie first?”
“Hey, catch that Giants game?” Bill said as he started in the opposite direction.
Attempts at small talk by Bennet always seemed forced. The man was more comfortable talking about patent law than even the simplest of human connections. His eyes were cold and judgmental, constantly weighing just how valuable talking to you really was. And if at some point in the conversation you’d somehow confirmed that you were worth more than the carpet he was standing on, he always tried to end with something that would make him appear a real person, a regular guy. He was a perfect fit for DisplayTechnik.
“Yeah, I did,” Zack said, “the last four innings anyway …” He was instantly sorry he’d opened his mouth. Bill turned the corner and walked out of sight without a word.
Zack took the stairs up one floor to the Human Resources department. He knew that a media interview with the CEO could easily take an hour or more, and it might even stretch on to lunch. Typical that Allen had made his stopping by a top priority and then failed to leave the time open for their meeting.
Julie was on the phone when he stepped into her office, which had all the pizzazz of a funeral home. The only bright spot was a calendar of Caribbean beaches. She waved him to a seat at the conference table.
The Human Resources manager could have easily modeled for a calendar herself—the kind usually found in a men’s locker room. As Zack sat down, Julie leaned back in her chair, arching her back, which made her ample chest look like it was erupting from her business jacket. He grabbed a nearby magazine. It was ironic that someone who inspired such anxiety in her fellow employees should be so irresistible to look at. She had the most wonderful skin, like Bernadette Peters, which made her blue-green eyes look like jewels in a milk bath. Her long dark hair, pulled back from her face by a clever assortment of clips, cascaded around her shoulders.
Julie shifted in her chair. Zack peered over the top of the magazine and watched her cross and uncross her legs, which were regrettably mostly hidden by the desk. He couldn’t help but smile remembering a recent, late-night, development-group engineering session at his apartment. Jimmy had recounted his latest Julie fantasy. He had it bad for her. “So, Mr. Morgan, now that you’re no longer an employee,” he’d said, imitating her voice in breathless fashion, “why don’t we get down to business?” With that, she’d cleared her desk for them in a single swipe. The room had erupted into a mix of laughter and catcalls. Someone threw a half a piece of pizza and hit Jimmy smack in the middle of the forehead, and it had stuck there for a good three seconds—
“Mr. Zack Penny. How are you?”
“Hi, Julie.” He cleared his throat. “So, what’s up?”
She joined him at the conference table. “You know Brett Davis, don’t you?”
Brett was the Southwest sales rep. “Of course. What’s going on?”
“Is he a friend of yours?”
His eyes narrowed. “Yeah. Why?”
“You stoutly defended him in your report after the HP deal collapsed last year.”
“I didn’t defend him because he was my friend; I defended him because we weren’t treating a valued employee right. Okay?”
“Sure, Zack,” she said quickly. “But we lost the account to a competitor with an inferior product, and Brett’s coming up for another performance evaluation.”
Ah, so this was a fishing expedition. Zack studied those blue-green eyes. “And your point is?”
Julie leaned forward, pressing her left hand against her jacket to keep the top from opening. “Are you familiar with our company’s employee handbook? It is, after all, considered an addendum to your contract, just as it is with everyone else’s.”
The contract he’d signed five years ago? Yeah, sure. Like he’d remember everything in a document the size of the New Testament. The first time he’d even glanced at the handbook was three years ago to look up rules for personal days when he’d managed to get tickets to a Monday night game between the Niners and Cowboys. [Since then, he’d only ever taken one other personal day, and that had been just a month ago.]
“As I’m sure you’ll recall,” Julie said, “the handbook clearly details that employees are to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times and also to report any behavior that might be detrimental to the company. Our competitors come up with all sorts of ingenious methods of winning.”
“Are you accusing Brett of something?”
“Why? What do you know?”
“I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”
She blinked slowly at him. She had very long lashes. “You should take this seriously.”
Zack could feel his cheeks heating up.
“I repeat,” she said, “what do you know?”
“You’re accusing Brett of what, conspiring with the competition to lose the account on purpose? Do you know how insane that sounds? Sales reps earn big bonuses by bringing in accounts.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a competitor has paid someone to not make a sale, especially if they have a directly competing product that they might be trying to rush to market or to gain a foothold with. It’s an insane world out there. Our competitors are stealing our employees, and worse, stealing our ideas. My job is to ensure loyalty, to find out where our own employees stand. And if you can be honest and simply tell me what you know about the competition out there, then it would do a lot to reassure DisplayTechnik of your loyalty and commitment.”
The lilt in her voice made him decidedly uncomfortable. “My loyalty is to people,” he said. “I’m not going to backstab Brett because of some far-fetched suspicion of yours. And that’s all it seems you have—suspicion. As for my commitment, I easily work sixty hours in a slow week, so why don’t you just back off?”
The faint smile on her face was frozen in place. After a few moments of silence, she arched her eyebrows slightly, looking past him, as if she’d come to some sort of determination.
There was a tiny knock on the door, followed by Julie’s administrative assistant popping her head in.
“Sorry to bother you, but¾”
“Yes, Tiffany?” Julie said.
“You told me to interrupt the meeting when Mr. Henley was free. Well, he’s free. The camera crew is just packing up their gear, and Louise said that¾”
“Fine, fine. Thank you.”
Tiffany retreated, and Julie stood up abruptly. “So I take it that you won’t help us?” she said.
“If you mean, will I rat-fink on Brett to promote your excess paranoia, the answer is no.”
“Then I will see you later.”
Not if he could help it. Zack got up and walked past her, out the door, heading for management’s elaborate corporate offices.
God, he hated what this company had turned into. It was infected with warrior politics and the credo of questioning everyone if their motives weren’t completely aligned with General Allen’s objectives.
Zack took a shortcut through a cluster of gray cubicles. They were arranged so workers couldn’t see each other or the hallway traffic. He made his way through the beehive maze to the hallway that led to the Ivory Tower. He had no idea what this meeting was about, and that was unnerving. Despite the fact that he’d been in countless social settings with the man over the years, despite the fact that Allen made a point of telling others Zack might one day succeed him as CEO, Zack was still never completely comfortable in his presence.
He was dating the man’s daughter, and so it was only natural to feel scrutinized by him. He knew he’d be analyzing anyone his own daughter was seeing too, but it seemed Allen noted his every comment and action, evaluated and stored it away for future use. It had been more than a year since he and Mary Anne had started going out, and he’d hoped at some point the man would let up, but if anything, of late he had become even more intense. Perhaps word that he and Mary Anne had probed each other’s thoughts about marriage had reached him.
God, there was so much going on, he really didn’t have time for this. He looked at his watch. Good Lord. Eight fifteen, and he hadn’t even checked his e-mails yet.
He thought very briefly about swinging down to Mary Anne’s office to see if she could give him a heads-up on whatever it was her father wanted, but he knew that was out of the question. Fraternizing during office hours was strictly forbidden at DisplayTechnik and both of them were aware of the many eyes on them, so they limited their contact to only the most pressing of business issues.
Zack pushed down on the brass lever and pushed the solid walnut door open with his shoulder. The thick burgundy carpet flattened as the door swung inward, revealing a softer cast of light and a quieter mood. The grand-entrance foyer connected the rest of DisplayTechnik to the Ivory Tower, where long-range, strategic business plans incubated. Standing at the base of the stairs, he looked up eight stories to the domed top of the tower. Wind chimes played softly from somewhere; they had to be electronic–there was no breeze.
The gleaming, sculpted wood paneling, textured wallpaper, and avant-garde murals of historical battles, all floodlit from above and below, restated the obvious: there was money here—big money. It was the same feeling he’d had when he and his partner in the secret start-up, Paul Ryerson, had visited New York and California investment banks and venture capital firms last year on his vacation days—or when Mary Anne was out of town on her scuba diving trips to the Caribbean and Mexico.
Unlike most of their competitors, DisplayTechnik’s upper managers did not share office space with lower-level employees. Instead, the high-ranking employees were closeted here, like drones surrounding the queen bee, in cavernous offices appointed with deep, L-shaped mahogany desks and matching bookcases. Each spacious room had been meticulously arranged using the best feng shui consultants in the Bay Area. Water was featured prominently, but so too were the large potted plants cared for by invisible minions who only crept into the offices long after they’d been deserted for the night.
The Ivory Tower was only four stories, but each level was double the normal height. Tall, narrow, cathedral windows allowed solid angles of light to penetrate the reception area. The foyer, where Zack now stood, was the site for lavish corporate receptions and entertaining important guests, not for morale-boosting Christmas parties.
The system Allen Henley had created was downright feudal, and he ruled over it by what he considered his divine right. According to Mary Anne, her father had told the architect he wanted the top stories to dazzle prospective clients, creating an instant home court advantage, much like the White House. For his part, Zack found the ostentatious display of corporate wealth and autocratic power sickening.
He started the ascent up the stairway to where the executive management team resided. At the landing at the top was a nearly bare desk, behind which was the first gatekeeper, a woman who hardly glanced up at Zack’s approach. After all, he was expected.
Zack turned left and took the next set of stairs; these were much narrower and followed the circular line of the inner wall and mirrored an identical set of stairs opposite. The two staircases converged at the top, spilling out into an open area. A short walk along the balcony took him to another pair of staircases, which led to the highest level.
Allen’s executive secretary, Louise, gave him what appeared to be a genuine smile as he approached. “Go right in,” she said.
When Zack entered the palatial office, he was struck by the strong scent of tropical vegetation, coupled with the soft, white noise of the two waterfalls on either side of the door. This was indeed the holy of holies.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Please, have a seat.” Allen Henley motioned him to a deep blue, leather chair next to a large rubber tree plant. His head was closely shaven, a relatively new development intended to disguise the spreading bald spot at the back of his head. Abandoning his massive desk, which was off to Zack’s right in a recessed alcove, Henley sat next to a small pond filled with koi, the wide stone edge of which served as a side table to his chair.
The CEO and president of DisplayTechnik was one of the most recognizable businessmen in America, though not quite as successful as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Andy Grove of Intel, or Lee Iacocca of past Chrysler fame. He was a distinguished icon of corporate America because he actively sought the publicity. Some first-year MBA student could write a paper and argue that he hungered for media attention because he wanted to put the spotlight on DisplayTechnik, but in reality, the flat-panel display market was a relatively small field. Everybody knew everybody. Unlike the hamburger industry, where plastic toys and party packs¾not the actual taste or quality of the product—defined the market strategy, a mega advertising blitz wasn’t necessary to convince people to choose a particular product.
Zack sat down and was immediately swallowed by the chair. “So, I heard that the local news boys from Silicon Valley Business were here,” he said to try to head off the nervousness he was feeling.
“Yes. I believe that SVB might even do a follow-up piece on us,” Allen said. “They can’t believe we’re actually going toe-to-toe with the Japanese on the FPD market and gaining ground on Toshiba and the lot. The reporter said it was like the USA kicking butt again after we got reamed by the Asians in the DRAM memory market.”
Zack expected Allen to smile at the remembered compliment, but he didn’t.
“So what if Japan or Southeast Asia tries to ream us with their technology?” Allen said. “After all, we live in a competitive society. Sun Tzu, had he been alive today, would have said that the art of business is war. Yes, most definitely.”
Zack had heard this monologue before and knew once Henley got started, he could go on for a long time. He really should have been a televangelist, except that he had no beliefs in a higher power—other than himself. “Is there something in particular you wanted to talk to me about?”
A slight smile played at the corners of Allen’s lips. “Yes, Zack, I did have something particular in mind.” He gripped the arms of his chair and pulled himself out. He turned his back to Zack as he walked slowly toward the expansive window.
“When you fight a war against an enemy, generally he’s in front of you,” Allen said. “But then again, all warfare is based on deception.”
Zack had a hard time believing he was here for a lecture on Sun Tzu. He didn’t like the references to “an enemy.” What was Allen getting at?
“When able to attack, we must seem unable,” Allen went on, hands clasped behind his back as he paced the floor. “When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away. When far away, make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder—then crush him.”
Allen turned abruptly to face Zack. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Zack didn’t, but he nodded in the affirmative anyway. It seemed to satisfy the CEO, at least momentarily. Wasn’t there anything in Sun Tzu that addressed taking care of your troops in order to assure victory? This was a man who thought nothing of his own employees; they were mere commodities to him, expendable and replaceable. And yet, Zack thought, how could he have raised a daughter as wonderful as Mary Anne and be all bad? If there was a small seed of good in Allen Henley, he hadn’t seen it yet.
“The military devices that lead to victory must not be divulged beforehand,” Allen said. “Are we clear?”
“Not really,” Zack said, standing up. “To be honest, I really don’t put much stock in Sun Tzu. I just don’t think that’s the way things need to operate anymore.”
“You don’t?” Allen chuckled. “Well, you should. You should.”
The scalp on the back of Zack’s head started to tingle.
“Sun Tzu is business, young man. You’d best learn that, and soon. Anyone who wants to start a business had best learn that.”
Start a business?
Allen laughed at the stunned reaction he could not hide. “You see? Sun Tzu is working. Appear when you are not expected; attack the enemy when he is unprepared.”
Had Allen Henley somehow found out about his plans to leave DisplayTechnik and start his own company, Imagination? But who would have told him? Zack’s partner, Paul Ryerson, had been careful to get nondisclosure agreements from the potential investors he’d lined up, but he knew they weren’t truly binding. Paul had also picked venture capitalists who had no ties to Allen. Could it have been someone on their design team? Zack doubted that. Every one of them had a serious grudge against Henley and DisplayTechnik. They wouldn’t have revealed anything, at least not intentionally. Had he somehow slipped and said something to Mary Anne? No. He was positive he’d never even hinted at it.
Allen was watching him, clearly enjoying his consternation.
“I called you in here to verify if what I thought was true,” Allen said. “And I can see by your face I’m right, you ungrateful bastard. I made you who you are, and you repay me by stabbing me in the back! You were nothing. Right out of college, and yet I brought you here and put the world at your feet, eventually promoting you to director of new technology. For Christ’s sake, I even gave you my daughter, my own flesh and blood, and look how you treat my gifts.”
Say something, Zack told himself. But his mouth was so dry it was hard to swallow. He dropped back into the chair. There was no doubt about it: someone had turned them in.
As though reading his thoughts, Allen said, “Just as you can be surprised by your enemies, you can also be surprised by your allies. Sun Tzu said that the best way to defeat your enemy in a battle is to never fight the battle at all. Break your enemy before he can mount an attack. Try to find alliances with parties or people or even a single person that your enemy trusts the most. If his forces are united, separate them. Try to create confusion in your enemy’s ranks to drain the will of your enemy to fight. Do everything you can to destroy your enemy before you must resort to taking to the battlefield and risking harm to yourself or your friends.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“I am giving you a last chance,” Allen said. “So we can stop this battle before it starts. Renounce it. Renounce your plans, and I’ll let it go. I will, I really will. I just need your word that you’re with us. That you’re with me.”
Screw the pompous ass. The whole point was to get away from him.
“I quit,” Zack said and walked out of his mentor’s office.
“Come back here! Come back here this instant!” Allen shouted at his back. “If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. Do you hear me, Zack? No rest!”
Zack ignored a wide-eyed Louise, making for the staircase.
“You’re history!” Allen bellowed down at him as he took the steps two at a time. “I’ll destroy that silly little dream of yours, and you’ll never work in the Valley again. Never! I’ll bury you, you son of a bitch!”
Zack sidestepped the foyer’s gatekeeper, who had risen from her desk. As he reached the walnut doors, they burst open in front of him. In stormed Julie, flanked by Frank, a security guard who ran a football pool that Zack participated in, and another, beefier security guard that he didn’t recognize.
“Mr. Zack Penny …” Julie began, a smile playing at the corners of her lips.
“Shut the hell up!” he said. “I don’t want to hear it.” He tossed his employee access card at her feet. That wiped the smug grin off her face. “You can’t fire me; I already quit.”
“So I’ve been notified. I’m here to escort you from the building. Follow me, please.” She turned on her heel.
Zack hustled to keep up with her while the security men brought up the rear. The little convoy plowed down the hall. Astonished employees ducked into side corridors or tightly hugged the wall when there was no escape.
When they reached the engineering section, Phyllis sat behind her desk, a sad, worried look on her face. She didn’t say a word. Someone must have tipped off the engineers because their doors were all closed. All except Zack’s.
Inside, Bill Bennet was sitting in his chair, scrolling through the files on his computer. There was an empty cardboard box on the floor at Bill’s feet.
Julie pointed at the box. “Put your personal things in there.”
“If you don’t mind,” Bill said, “while you go through your desk, I need to take a look in your briefcase to verify, of course, that no company property leaves the premises.”
“Knock yourself out,” Zack said.
He started piling things in the box: Jan’s loaf of bread, pictures, paperweights, books, and a matched set of bookends. From the shelf by the window, he retrieved a small sculpture of a mermaid arching her back, arms gracefully extended as she rose to the surface. Mary Anne had given it to him ten days ago as a one-year anniversary present. It was a beautiful piece that captured a moment of motion. He’d smiled at the time, thinking it a bit ironic that it was titled “Imagination,” and had looked forward to being able to share the private joke with her when it was all out in the open. Now the mermaid went ingloriously into the box with the other remnants of his DisplayTechnik career.
He opened the middle drawer and grabbed a fistful of pens, including a fountain pen from his father.
“Wait a minute,” Julie said. “You can’t take those.”
“What do you mean? These are my pens.”
“According to your contract,” Bill said without looking up from his task, “unless items deemed personal can actually be verified at the time of dismissal, all such items shall be assumed to be the property of DisplayTechnik. Do you have a receipt?”
“What? Who the hell keeps receipts for their pens at their desks? And you’re telling me the company hands out fountain pens now?”
“I can’t say we don’t. Tell you what. We’ll hang on to these for now, but if you can show us a receipt for it, we’ll happily return them.”
Bill held up a stack of rewritable CDs from the briefcase. “And these are …?”
“Those are all company files except for the one that doesn’t have a label. It’s music.”
“Is it now?” Bill suspiciously eyed the blank silver side.
“Yes. Now if you don’t mind—”
“According to your contract,” Julie said, “DisplayTechnik retains the rights to search your personal property before you leave the building.”
“How about we just take a little look at it?” Bill said. “If it’s yours, we’ll know soon enough.”
When Zack made a step toward him, Frank clamped a hand on his shoulder. He shook his head, his lips tight.
Bill put the CD in the drive. The autoplay engaged, and a Santana tune started to play. Bill frowned. “You realize,” he said, staring straight ahead at the screen, “that music piracy is an extremely important issue. Companies lose millions over it.” He slowly turned his head and looked at Zack. “I could report this, you know.”
“Be my guest,” Zack said. “I own the CD. I’m allowed to make copies for my own use, thank you, and I always keep the originals at home.”
Bill closed the window and ejected the CD. He placed it in the box with the other items for DisplayTechnik.
“You put it in the wrong box,” Zack said.
“No, I think we’ll keep it too. It looks a great deal like the other CDs that are DisplayTechnik’s, so I imagine it came out of the company storeroom.”
“This is ridiculous. I’m sure that’s my disk; I have stacks of them at home. Hell, probably all those disks with DisplayTechnik files are actually mine.”
“Show me a receipt, and I’m sure we’ll reimburse you,” Bill said, staring at the screen as he searched through Zack’s files on the computer. “Besides, you shouldn’t use personal property for company business. Bad for tax purposes.”
“Jesus! You people really have gone nuts. What’s come over this place? I’m not talking about a fifty-cent CD; I’m talking about the principle of all this.”
“Yes,” Bill said, appraising him through narrowed eyes. He snorted derisively. “We all know about your high principles.” He turned back to the computer. “Well, fifty cents times a thousand employees every week can add up rather quickly. Show me a receipt, and you can have it back.”
“Are we done here, or are you going to want to do a cavity search?”
Bill visibly stiffened. “Julie, see him out of the building.”
Zack snatched up his briefcase and the box. Julie led the way while Frank and the other guard bracketed him. He was surprised when they didn’t take the stairs but instead headed for the lobby elevators. It occurred to him that the idea was to make an example of him, parading him past as many employees as possible.
Fortunately, the lobby was mostly deserted. Jan met his eyes as they crossed the floor, tears brimming. The few other employees who were there looked away. The only person who stared was a visitor just leaving the receptionist’s desk. He stopped in his tracks. The beefy guard sidestepped the man and in the process bumped Zack’s arm carrying the box. It tilted, the contents slid awkwardly to one side, and as Zack made a grab for it, his foot caught on the corner of the rug.
The box slipped from his hands as he stumbled and fell. He landed heavily on the marble floor, and the box’s contents scattered. He remained there, motionless for a few seconds, his face inches from its glossy surface. His elbow screamed in protest as he pushed up.
“This is far enough,” Julie announced. With that, she turned and left with the guards in tow.
Zack knelt on the floor, sweeping up his spilled property. The mermaid’s decapitated head was halfway to the front doors, still slowly spinning.
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