This is a sneak peek at Chapter One of my new novel “Dare Not Blink” which is currently scheduled for a November release.
The office door was closed, hinting that something was stirring, something big and essential and not widely known—something only for those privileged few who were deemed worthy to hear in advance.
“The Old Man’s got cancer, and it’s spreading out of control.”
Jeff Wylie, president of Atlanta-based Elerbee Engineering, a consulting engineering firm, took an ominously deep breath and exhaled slowly. His two closest associates, anxious and close-mouthed, sat across the big desk from him.
It was April, 2002.
Wylie cleared his throat and took a sip from a plastic water bottle. He looked over each of the two men carefully, deliberately, knowing full well that his own demeanor was likewise being closely scrutinized. He quickly glanced at his open laptop, then at some scribbled notes on a legal pad atop his desk before finally removing his glasses and straightening in his thick leather chair.
“I can’t be much more specific than that, except to add that it apparently started in his lungs.”
His two associates were dumbstruck. The firm’s vigorous, indomitable, sixty-six-year-old founder and chairman, Langdon Elerbee—the Elerbee in Elerbee Engineering—had been such a forceful presence for such a long time that the very prospect of his sudden, permanent departure seemed highly implausible. It defied all that was customary and natural, akin to a Federal Reserve proposition to drop the U.S. dollar and adopt the Norwegian kroner as the new monetary standard of value.
“It doesn’t look good, gentlemen. The time line’s in days and hours, that’s how quickly the disease is overtaking him.”
“My God!” gasped Jim Ogden, a senior executive and Wylie protégé. “How did you find out?”
Wylie shrugged. “I’ve known for several weeks that something wasn’t right. He’d had some problems, underwent a series of tests, and then his mood changed, almost as if he’d suddenly lost interest in an entire lifetime of work. His coughing was nearly constant, and with his shortness of breath, his arriving late and leaving early, I knew something was up. His wife called last night to tell me he had been hospitalized, that things were serious and that, well, the doctors were now advising things were moving toward a bad outcome.”
Don Burroughs, another corporate officer, could only shake his head in disbelief.
Wylie took another sip of water, then fidgeted with a cell phone on his desk. Ogden leaned forward, alternately glancing at his boss and his feet.
Burroughs shook his head again, his face a bright crimson, his shoulders sagging heavily, his mouth forcing a self-conscious half-grin. “What the hell happens now?” he asked in a voice unintentionally louder than usual.
Wylie turned and stared out a window to the side. “I think it would be an understatement to say we’re in for some challenging days ahead.”
Ogden sighed loudly. “No kidding. Who else in the firm knows?”
“Nobody, although Grace Elerbee did ask me to contact Dave Paige and Larry Collier to make sure they understood the severity of the situation.”
“Have you done that?”
“Are you going to?”
Wylie turned and glared at Ogden before sharply replying, “No.”
Ogden and Burroughs were suddenly bewildered and unnerved, as much by Wylie’s tone and body language as by the news itself.
Wylie reached up and opened the top button of his starched white shirt, loosening his red-striped tie—an uncharacteristic move that hardly slipped the notice of his two hyper-attentive colleagues.
“I should tell you both that I’ve been planning for and anticipating this very opportunity, which incidentally I’ve shared with no one else, not even my wife,” Wylie added. “Langdon Elerbee had a plan for the continuance of this firm after his eventual retirement, of course, but now his departure seems likely to occur before his final imprint can be put into place. And I should also tell you that my plan differs considerably from Langdon’s, especially with regard to the people that he and I see as vital to this firm. He has his preferences, and I certainly have mine.”
“But the Board’s already approved Langdon’s plan to name Dave Paige as Executive Vice President,” countered Burroughs after a weighty silence.
Wylie’s expression hardened. “I’m well aware of that, thank you. Do you not remember that I sit on that same Board?”
Burroughs swallowed and looked away.
Ogden leaned closer to Wylie’s desk. “What the hell’s going on here, Jeff?”
“What’s going on here is simply that a rare moment of opportunity has arrived, and I don’t intend to squander it. Langdon will soon enough pass from the scene, leaving an obvious void at the very top of the firm. I will be elevated to Chairman and C.E.O. by a Board of Directors that I will now lead. I will then proceed to put into place an organizational structure of my own design, and with people of my own choosing.”
Wylie hesitated a moment before adding, “Let me say once more: I do not intend to let this opportunity pass, gentlemen.”
Wylie then sat back and watched. He carefully studied the faces of Ogden and Burroughs as his words were absorbed and comprehended. His two associates were experienced veterans of the intrigue and stealth warfare so common to corporate America, especially at a headquarters level. Wylie’s own arrival two years prior had brought with it a sort of ruthless, zero-sum, internecine style that the traditionally conservative Elerbee Engineering had yet to fully emulate or widely embrace. The gentlemanly, consummately professional approach of Langdon Elerbee still remained the behavioral model throughout the vast majority of the company. Wylie understood all too well that his detached and secretive management style was distasteful to most of the old Elerbee hands, but he also knew that many of the firm’s top executives could be easily browbeaten with a string of smoking-hot expletives or a strategically arranged display of temper.
Wylie also knew that only one top manager, Dave Paige, could not be so easily cowed. But he would deal with Dave Paige in his new plan, in his own way, and on his own terms.
The reckoning for Paige would come on day one, page one, paragraph one. It was all in the plan. Things would come roaring at Paige like a runaway locomotive, at once so swift and powerful and unexpectedly that an instant replay would be needed to reconstruct exactly what had transpired. Jeff Wylie could not, would not tolerate the presence of Dave Paige in Wylie’s new order of things. Again, it was all in the plan. And for all practical purposes, it was the plan.
That rarest of moments will soon arrive, Wylie now knew, filling his head with a dizzying array of rich possibilities, accelerating his pulse like an astronaut’s on the launching pad, triggering his predatory impulses like a tiger stalking its prey. The day would soon be his to win or lose.
And he had every intention of winning.
Wylie suddenly rose, and as he did so he buttoned his collar and straightened the knot of his tie. Ogden and Burroughs also stood, not knowing what else to do.
“Enough of the preliminaries, gentlemen,” Wylie said, his hands now resting upon his hips, his words coming faster than usual. “Like myself, you are about to hear a knock on the door. If you are bold enough to answer, you will find yourself face-to-face with a magnificent and unequalled opportunity of a sort that, if you are indeed fortunate, will come along only once or twice over an entire career. If you choose to ignore that knock, you will most likely lose your one and only chance to make some serious noise in this company. And I mean serious noise, gents, with all the influence and prestige and remuneration that the term signifies. The decision is yours alone, but the rules are such that you will be required to make it in the next three minutes.”
Wylie stopped and stared at his two associates, sensing the shared tension in the deathly silent room, shifting his icy gaze from one man to the other, feeling his own heart rate quickening inside his chest.
“Are you gentlemen hearing me loud and clear?”
Both nodded their understanding, each then cutting a quick glance at the other.
“Good, because you two are the only people in this firm—hell, on the planet earth!—that I’ve revealed my intentions to. I am going to take control of this organization and drive it to places it never dreamed it could go. There will be new service offerings, new acquisitions, new markets, and unprecedented levels of revenue and profit. I am going to do what I came here to do and overturn the institutional reluctance to take risks and stir up the industry. I am going to reinvent this firm, to change its culture, to put it on a fast track. And I’m going to need a team around me who sees what I see, feels what I feel, wants what I want. And you two are the very first members of that prospective team that I’m approaching. But you must keep silent about this conversation, as I have thus far, for to do otherwise will result in all manner of unpleasantness crashing down upon you. There are those on this executive team who absolutely do not need to hear about this. This has the potential—no, the certainty—that a lot of feelings will be hurt and a lot of careers altered before all is said and done. Be that as it may. I’ll do what needs to be done, you can be sure of that. But I will be the only one to make the decisions as to who needs to hear and who doesn’t. Am I making myself crystal clear?”
“Yes,” they both said in unison.
Wylie then glanced at his watch. “Time is up. I need to know here and now. And then, either way, I will need your silence until I instruct you otherwise. And if you’re thinking that I’m asking you first because I value you and want you with me, well, you’ve guessed correctly. That is why I’ve called you here. That is why you’re hearing this.”
Wylie then smiled slightly, sliding his hands into his trouser pockets.
“Gentlemen, your moment has arrived. You’ve heard the knock. Now you must answer.”
Wylie nodded, his slight smile still attached, his eyebrows arched.
“So, are you with me?”