This is the fourth installment of the thriller “LiveCell,” written by Belfast author Eric Green.  Find the previous installments on VillageSoup.com (Soup Select) or cadentpublishing.com. “LiveCell” is also available in local stores or from any online bookstore. To join the contest, go to cadentpublishing.com.

 

Chapter Two, Part One

Mary greeted Manuel at the front desk — that ever-present whiff of cologne or hair oil — and walked across the polished marble to the elevators. Once again she tried to ignore the huge tangle of modern sculpture in the lobby. It wasn’t easy. She stood waiting for an elevator but changed her mind and returned to Manuel. Handing him the cue case, she asked if he would look after it until that evening. No one at the office knew about her other life, and she wanted to avoid explanations. Manuel confirmed her hunch.

“Oh my, a musical instrument?”

“Kind of. Let’s hope it plays sweetly tonight.”

“Sweetness is good, dear.”

As she approached the elevators a second time, a bell dinged, doors whispered open, and she entered without breaking stride. Maybe she was back on track? Pressing the button for the fifth floor, she glanced at her watch. Eleven minutes until Wendell’s declaration.

She figured Wendell Alden III had never experienced a bad moment. Until recently. He’d come to San Francisco from Connecticut and started Clicksave.com a little over six years ago. The company provided Internet marketing, and with the strong financial backing he’d brought with him from the East, Clicksave had grown rapidly. As he liked to tell everyone, he’d outperformed his peers since prep school. His education and business decisions were guided by his father, an investment banker, and everything had gone exactly according to the family’s plan. She had to admit, he possessed the height, the build, and the self-assurance of the archetype. If he lacked anything, maybe it was heart. But what use had Boy Wonder, as she privately called him, with such a thing? This wasn’t the Wizard of Oz. About a year ago, an Alden family friend at Goldman Sachs had overseen the release of Clicksave’s initial public stock offering, and the IPO had performed miraculously. The Aldens were heavily invested, and everything had run perfectly.

Until now.

Mary had a theory about what destroyed Clicksave.com. When the IPO was launched, the stock price doubled the first day, then leveled, fluctuating but generally climbing. After months of this pattern, it surged unexpectedly. While everyone at the office celebrated, she researched online and found some revealing traces. She suspected their main competitor, Buynow.com, of purchasing large blocks of stock using surrogate investors to veil the transactions, then salting Internet chat rooms with false prophesy about Clicksave’s potential earnings. She told Wendell and a few coworkers, but they dismissed her fears, said she worried too much, but if she hadn’t been obligated by her lockup agreement, she would have sold all her stock. While everyone else in the office was still grinning, Buynow yanked the stopper, selling all their Clicksave holdings. The same henchmen peppered the Internet with predictions of doom. Clicksave’s stock plummeted.

With his family holding 60 percent of the company, Wendell stepped in and bought back shares, but the other stockholders panicked. Wendell insisted publicly, “Clicksave is a sound company. It’s growing daily. The stock will rebound.” It didn’t. In the past weeks, a rumor that Buynow would be investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission circulated around the office, and her theory suddenly had credibility.

On the fifth floor of the Harcourt Building, a narrow room next to the elaborate grid of work cubicles was designated as a lounge. A few molting sofas, a pink wicker rocker, two kinds of coffee makers, a small fridge, a standing lamp with a dented shade, sea-green walls with some Edward Hopper prints — Mary considered the room a subtle, or not so subtle, dig at Wendell, who had sent an office memo requiring that the door always be kept closed. The rest of the floor, and those above and below it, reflected Wendell’s taste: off-white walls, chromed chairs, pickled hardwood floors, brushed metal desks, recessed fluorescent ceiling lighting, and the paintings. She stepped into the lounge and closed the door.

“Why are you so late?” It was Duncan; otherwise, the lounge was empty. Duncan hated to sit in the boardroom waiting for meetings to start. “You want some coffee?”

She nodded. His espresso with foamed milk balanced out some of his other traits. Duncan had trouble meeting her eyes and blushed if she caught him staring at her, made comments behind her back about Vermont dairy farms not just producing great milk. Obsessed with the fact that she’d grown up on a farm, he repeatedly questioned her about it, as if being a farm girl might mean something unusual sexually. “Do cows do it the same as horses?” “Cows don’t do it, Duncan.” She knew he didn’t have a social life, but she wanted him to stop hoping for one with her.

Duncan was the only one who’d taken her Buynow subterfuge theory seriously, but when Wendell had asked his opinion, he hadn’t spoken up. He was far too shrewd for that, realizing no one ever wanted the truth of failure when they could have the illusion of success. He’d never be shot for being the messenger. Yet if Clicksave was restructured, he might be let go. With his quirky personality, unsavory humor, and sloppy appearance, he probably wouldn’t impress new owners.

“So, any brilliant insights?” said Duncan. “What’s your old dowsing rod say?”

“I think you should consider a new career… dairy farming. You could milk cows every day.” She regretted the comment immediately, and it triggered his self-conscious giggle, belly shaking uncontrollably. She noticed he’d trimmed his goatee and was wearing a new suit. Though the fabric was expensive, it still looked grabbed off the rack, reminding her of a kid dressed by a grandparent, and she felt a ripple of tenderness and pity. Did he buy the suit to impress new owners? Where had he gotten the money? Actually, he probably saved every dime he’d ever made; after all, he still lived with his mother in Santa Rosa. Mary wished again that she’d saved. No one in upper management had been paid in months, and she’d maxed out her cards. Wendell had begged them to “fight along with him” as he deferred their checks, promising he would make it right in the end. Today they should be paid their back wages, hopefully with a nice bonus. She could finally pay off some of her debt. Otherwise she’d simply have to win the pool tournament tonight.

When Mary and Duncan walked into the boardroom, the other senior executives were already inside, most seated. She greeted a few and nodded to the others. Chet Simmons had his electronic notebook lined up exactly with the table edge, his glass of water exactly in front of that. Cliff Thompson looked like a cadaver, probably hung over, and who could blame him considering the stress they’d been living under. Nancy, the only other female, was as usual stationed next to Wendell’s chair. She certainly didn’t have on jeans. For the third time that morning, Mary questioned her decision to wear jeans to the office. She wanted them for the pool tournament — she played best in them, a superstition — but they’d bug the hell out of Wendell. Something had made her wear them anyway. The hell with Wendell’s dress code.

The boardroom continued the bleached Clicksave look; it certainly had the worst paintings. To avoid them, she took a seat facing the picture windows, preferring the middle floors of other buildings and the pinch of bay in the distance. The conference table, a massive slab of oiled cherry beginning to crack at one of its glue joints, floated on spindly legs in the center of the room. She rather liked it — at least it was raw wood. By now, everyone had taken one of the chrome and black leatherette chairs. Duncan, who read Wendell’s habits like a weathervane, always took his seat moments before he appeared, a door between Wendell’s office and the boardroom reserved for this.

First thing she noticed about Wendell was that his hair, as on every Monday, sported the same expensive haircut, and though it looked great, it annoyed her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had her hair done. He greeted everyone solemnly, allowing Nancy his secret little glance even today, and opened the meeting.

After the usual formalities, he clasped his hands together and said, “This is not a pleasant day for me. You have all worked very, very, hard. All of you. And I thank you for that. Clicksave is a viable concept. I know that. You know that. It’s a great company, and what has happened, should not have happened. But it did. And if there had been any other way out of this, I would have taken it, believe me. I am not happy with the way things have turned out. Know that. We all deserved better.” He scanned their faces. “I have sold my family’s sixty percent of the company.”

He took a long sip of water.

“My suspicion is that Buynow is the purchaser, though the on-paper name is LiveCell. My lawyers have been unable to ascertain the identity of this Live-Cell or what they do. LiveCell doesn’t seem to exist. Therefore, it must be Buynow using another name. We certainly know how dirty they can be.”

Something is not right, she thought. Something false in his face.

Wendell reached up and touched the knot of his tie. “All financial responsibility will be absorbed by the new owners.”

A grumble ricocheted around the table. Feeling as if she’d been run over, not merely backed into, she realized he wasn’t going to pay their back salaries or leave them with any kind of severance. Her devalued stock was to be the sole legacy of four years of constant work. Duncan looked wilted. Chet Simmons, exhumed. Cliff Thompson and Randy Dyer had been with Wendell from the beginning; they looked outraged. Jack Wingham and Wendell golfed together at The Presidio every weekend. Jack looked ready to kill. Even Nancy’s cover-girl serenity was majorly disturbed. No one was on the inside. Everyone had gotten screwed.

But before anyone could confront Wendell, the boardroom door opened, and a stranger walked in. The pursuing receptionist, Deirdre, a big surfer girl, said, “Sir! You can’t like, go in there. Sir! I’m so sorry, Mr. Alden, he just won’t listen.”

Wendell seemed relieved to have their attention diverted, and Mary wondered if the disturbance was a set up.

In a faded blue T-shirt, jeans, worn loafers, his skin pallid and pocked along the temples, the stranger contrasted with the tanned and suited group around the table. Though of ordinary height, his body was proportioned like a gymnast’s, his arms and shoulders the kind that would normally have a few tattoos. Mary’s impression was that he’d just gotten out of jail and might be dangerous. She couldn’t stop staring at him, though something self-protective in her wanted to turn away. As if he sensed this, his eyes found hers. And sh e— Mary of the cool gray gaze — looked down.

Wendell was by now in front of the stranger. Cliff Thompson and Jack Wingham were on their feet.

“What’re you doing in my boardroom?” said Wendell.

The stranger’s voice was calm and straightforward, without emotion. “Are you sure it’s your boardroom?”

Wendell hesitated but only for an instant. “I want you out of here immediately.”

The stranger didn’t move.

Mary glanced at the others. Cliff said, “Who is that guy?” Duncan, still seated, shrugged.

“Did you hear me? I want you out of here,” said Wendell again.

“Mr. Alden, it’s you who’re leaving.”

“Should I, like, go get security?” said Deirdre halfheartedly.

The stranger answered though she’d been talking to Wendell. “There’s no need. Mr. Alden will go quietly.”

“Who the hell are you?” said Wendell, his face slack.

“Jay Chevalier.” He pronounced it Cheval-yer, something guttural yet sensual in his tone. Likely a New England voice, thought Mary, though she couldn’t quite place it.

“And that’s supposed to mean something to me?”

“It’s not your company any more.”

“How the hell do you know that?”

“Because I own half.”

“You?”

The interest in Jay Chevalier magnified. Even the lanky Deirdre straightened her posture. Some of the executives moved toward the new owner, wanting to be introduced. Others got up from the table.

“You’re going to believe him?” said Wendell, his face contorted. “Look at him.”

“Mr. Chevalier, I’m Cliff, Cliff Thompson, head of investor relations. This is….” and he started to introduce the others who clustered around Jay.

Mary remained seated. She was still reeling from her financial ruin. At least now there was some hope, but there was something about Jay Chevalier that bothered her. She realized she was attracted to him and resented it. He’d looked at her as if he could see right into her, as if he knew her secrets. She didn’t want to introduce herself.

Wendell pushed into the group. “What are you people doing? Cliff, come on…. You don’t know who this guy is. He could be some nut.”

Jay Chevalier faced him again. “Mr. Alden, I purchased your half of Clicksave. Now, please, if you would,” and he gestured toward the door. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more for you to do here.” He grasped him by the arm the way an orderly would assist someone confused or hurt, and he guided him firmly out the boardroom door. From there, Wendell Alden seemed to exit their lives.

Mary figured it wasn’t completely his fault. After all, she’d worked four years for him, and knew he was spoiled, but not a total bastard. She had a strange intuition that there was more to the failure of Clicksave than anyone realized, even Wendell. Why hadn’t the father stepped in and helped? With his power and money he probably could have, yet he’d let his son and the company fail. She’d met the man once and he’d truly frightened her. Unlike Wendell, he was of common stature and ordinary handsomeness, scrupulously polite, generally bland in manner, almost bored. But under that unassuming manner, she had sensed evil. At the time she’d dispelled the reaction, but now she wondered. Wendell had even told her once: failure wasn’t tolerated in his family. Maybe the father had wanted to prove something to someone, perhaps Wendell’s mother? It made her almost feel sorry for Wendell, even if she never wanted to see him again.

To be continued….