The Alvarez Family
Murder Mystery Series
The CEO Came DOA Chapter One Excerpt
It had not yet been named Silicon Valley, but you had the defense industry, you had Hewlett-Packard. But you also had the counter-culture, the Bay Area. That entire brew came together in Steve Jobs.
Life was good. I was happy. Let me count the ways. Any day now my sister-in-law’s water would break, and my first niece or nephew would get on with things. I was dubbed Investigator of the Year by the Professional Private Investigators Association of California. No one was more shocked than my mother. I lost five pounds. No one was more shocked than me. And I was getting married in less than a week to a man who thought I was just about as great as I knew he was.
Meanwhile, I was doing my favorite kind of job, which is not chasing bad guys over rooftops, often my sad lot in life, but ferreting them out while sitting on my duff in the air-conditioned office of a small startup company. Looking for a saboteur, I was either sifting through documents via my laptop during the day or searching offices late into the night.
Called Read-Out—a dull but appropriate name—the startup was a bio-tech company claiming to have developed a ground-breaking computer chip. The scuttlebutt was that when said chip was placed under the skin of a human or other mammal, it detected a multitude of conditions and major diseases related to that particular species. In addition, the chip could predict potential problems for the next five-year period with eighty-nine percent accuracy. For a small fee, there would be monthly transfers of information to a medical data center or your doctor.
This last bit perked up my ears, because breast cancer has run through many of the women in our family. I lost both grandmothers to the disease. The Read-Out chip promised a whole new level of early detection. Consequently, there was a personal interest in my seeing Read-Out thrive. If only half of what they touted was true, I was committed to finding the saboteur of their upcoming IPO.
For those not familiar with the Mother’s Milk of Silicon Valley, an IPO or Initial Public Offering is the first sale of stock by a company to the public, mega millions in the making for investors and vested staff, none of which was me. Even though these ventures are Silicon Valley’s bread and butter, a lot of public offerings are pretty ho-hum.
This time, however, there was a slightly different slant on the proceedings. A trusted someone within Read-Out was trying to destroy it even before it gave birth to itself. Hard-won inside information was being systematically leaked to like businesses, compromising its very reason for existence. Millions of dollars had already been poured into this startup, so the powers-that-be were in a panic to find the culprit.
Enter Discretionary Inquiries, the family business, started by my now deceased Mexican immigrant father, Roberto Alvarez. Together with my mother, Palo Alto blueblood Lila Hamilton Alvarez, he started an investigative service like no other. We specialize in the apprehension of miscreants who steal intellectual property, software, hardware, patented inventions or otherwise, from companies who have the legal right to call them their own.
Speaking of calling, D. I. is what everybody calls Discretionary Inquiries. That is everyone except L. H. Alvarez, mother mine and head chieftess of the family business. D. I.’s leader is a woman who balks at abbreviations, chewing gum, or crossing milady’s legs anywhere but at the ankles. Her motto is, dress as if you are doing a photo shoot for the cover of Vogue or Esquire 24/7. And as I am but a lowly investigator, I do what she says…most of the time.
But despite her mandates, this time I got to do my ferreting in jeans and a sweater; not the standard getup required by She Who Must Be Obeyed. I would have looked even more out of place in a designer suit and heels than I already did, me being female and considered an Old Bag Geek at thirty-four years old.
Ninety-eight percent of the one hundred and forty employees at Read-Out were male, and aged somewhere between puberty and sprouting chin hairs. To try and fit in, I gathered my long, dark hair at the nape of my neck in a thick ponytail, donned horn-rimmed glasses, and gave the spinster aunt look a try. It didn’t work.
Recently one of the older techies – had to be twenty-two if a day – hit on me and told me he’d never seen violet-colored eyes as beautiful as mine, all the while staring at my chest. He then proceeded to ask me over to his apartment to play the newest version of Swords and Gremlins. I stopped wearing eye makeup immediately and took to very loose-fitting shirts. Just call me granny.
Other than that life was good, as I said. Maybe a little too good. That’s probably why I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a dead man hanging from the center beam of the boardroom, wearing nothing but his jockey shorts. And it wasn’t just any man, but the co-founder and CEO of Read-Out, D. H. Collier.
One of the recent celebrities on Dancing with the Stars, Mr. Collier had been eliminated in week two, told to go home, and work on his rhythm. I stared up at him. He couldn’t do that now.
Collier’s lifeless body strung up by a hemp rope was a shock to me. Not only because I found him dangling before I’d had my morning coffee, but I’d been told he was in Switzerland. I made sure he and I were the only two people in the room before I pulled out my phone and hit three numbers.
“This is 9-1-1. State the nature of your emergency.” The dispatcher’s voice was matter-of-fact but high-pitched. I recognized it immediately.
“This is Lee Alvarez, Amy. I’m in the boardroom of Read-Out, at 51461 West Caribbean Drive, Sunnyvale. Third floor. I’ve just found the body of D. H. Collier. He’s dead. Hung himself.”
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m sure. Several hours at least.”
“Are you in any danger?”
I looked around me again. “No, but thanks for asking.”
“Okay, Lee. Don’t touch anything. You know the drill. Someone will be there in five minutes.”
I did know the drill. As a PI, I had the criminal justice system and public safety protocols down pat. In addition, Amy and I took our Emergency Medical Service certificate together, she for Santa Clara County and me for D. I. Amy passed with flying colors; I scraped by. I’m not good with blood.
I disconnected and looked up at the specter-like view. Not to be graphic, but my insight into the man being dead for several hours was due to the accumulation of fluids in his hands and feet. They tend to settle when a body is at severe rest. Like dead.
My insight into it being D. H. Collier was due to living on this planet. But in case one had just arrived from Mars, a six by nine-foot headshot of the billionaire, flaring nostrils and all, clung to a wall of the lobby next to the elevators.
Unfortunately, the humongous photo had an IMAX effect on me, which was not good. Too much, too big, and a headache coming on. I found it a helluva way to start each morning. I don’t know how the permanent employees did it.
But nonetheless, here was one of the wealthiest and best-known men in the world, certainly one of Silicon Valley’s superstars. Fifteen years ago, at age forty-two, he’d even had a brief May-December marriage to a seventeen-year old who went on to become the legendary rock star, known as ‘The Scintillating Sharise’. Other than for dumping him, Sharise was best known for her long blonde tresses, abbreviated costumes, and red bowler hats. She could sing pretty good, too, but that always took a back seat to her outlandish lifestyle.
Their divorce shortly after the birth of their daughter created headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers across the globe. You still couldn’t open a magazine or watch ET without seeing Collier’s image at least once a week carousing with some long-legged beauty decades younger than him.
The other co-founder of Read-Out was Craig Eastham, Chief Technical Officer or CTO, and as different from Collier as you can get. Eastham was responsible for overseeing all technical aspects of the company. He was a quiet guy, and avoided the spotlight as fervently as Collier sought it out.
In fact, the only time I saw Craig Eastham was a few days earlier when he’d scurried to his office like a shy bird. Head hunkered down and shoulders slumped, he’d muttered a greeting so quiet, I wasn’t sure I’d been spoken to at all. And of course, he was married to the same woman for decades, a big bore for the media. They lived on a ranch in Woodside with their children, dogs, and llamas.
I hit one of my frequently called numbers, Frank Thompson, Palo Alto Police Chief and family friend. He answered on the third ring.
“What’s wrong?” His voice, although gravelly from sleep, sounded alert.
“Frank, it’s Lee. Listen, I—”
“I know who it is; I can see who it is. What’s wrong?”
“I’ve found a dead body, Frank.”
“What do you mean, again? I only found one…okay…two…no, three others and they—”
“Never mind that. Who is it? Where are you?”
“D. H. Collier. Read-Out. I’m here in Sunnyvale, but I’m calling you because he lived in Palo Alto.” I looked down at the stepladder lying on its side beneath the man’s hanging feet. “On the surface of it, it looks like he committed suicide, Frank.”
“I just wanted to give you a heads up. Being who it is, this is going to be huge.”
“Did you call 911?”
“On their way.”
“Are you okay?”
“About as okay as I’m going to be after finding a dead body before six o’clock in the morning.”
“Sit tight. I’ll be right there. I’ll give Hank Broas a call and formally ask permission to crash his party.” The Sunnyvale Chief of Police, Henrique Broas, was an old golfing buddy of Frank’s. He went on.
“And don’t let anybody else in the room. I don’t want anyone messing around with the evidence. And that includes you,” he said. Unnecessarily, I might add.
I hung up and switched on the camera part of the phone. For later reference, I took quick snaps of the body, stepladder, and clothing. Then giving the body a wide berth, I took close-up images of the clothes next to his shoes and socks, all placed neatly on the conference table.
My phone said five forty-seven am. I may have been the first person in on this fine Monday morning, but I knew others would be trouping in soon. Such was the life of a start-up, a devotion of twelve to fifteen-hour days, seven days a week. I placed another call on my speed dial, this time to mother mine.
“What’s wrong, Liana?” Apparently any phone calls from me before six am elicited this reaction.
“The founder and CEO of Read-Out, D. H. Collier, is dead, Lila.” I always address mom as Lila when we’re in work mode. She always calls me Liana. Period.
“David Harold Collier? Good Lord!” Leave it to Lila to not only know his full, given name, but to use it. She drew in a deep breath. “How?”
“He seems to have taken his own life. Hanged himself in the boardroom. At least, it looks that way on the surface of it. It’s a pretty bizarre set up.”
“Explain yourself. Other than it being a suicide, what makes the event bizarre?”
My mother has the annoying habit of stressing certain words in a sentence to make sure you get her meaning. Genetics being what they are, I pray every night this habit does not transfer itself to me. So far, so good. However, I explained myself.
“Clothes neatly folded on the conference table, shoes sitting beside them, socks folded and placed inside. He’s only wearing his jockey shorts. Baby blue, not white. And of course, the necktie. Your average sturdy hemp.”
“Don’t be flippant, Liana. It doesn’t become you.”
“Sorry. It’s my way of coping. This is very, very strange.”
I heard the rustling of fabric, as she moved around in bed. “I’ll get dressed and be right there. Give me twenty minutes. Is Gurn still in Washington?”
“Yes, he comes back tonight. But don’t bother coming here, Lila. Seriously. I’m just alerting you.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Of course. And I also called Frank. He’s on his way.” Chief Frank Thompson, aside from being a close family friend, was also my godfather. He could hassle me like nobody else, but I was like his second daughter, the one he fretted over.
“Good. Are you all right, dear?” Lila switched to mommy mode. I switched to daughter mode. Switching abounded.
“I’m a little shaken but fine, Mom. Thank you. I don’t know how long I’ll be stuck here. I’m sure I have to answer a lot of questions from the police. After that I want to talk to whoever will take over.”
“Isn’t that whomever, dear?”
I ignored her question. “It might be Rameen Patel. He’s the CFO, but I don’t know that for sure.”
“You don’t know that he’s the Chief Financial Officer or that he’s Rameen Patel?”
“I don’t know if he’s the one slated to take over. Maybe it’s Eastham or one of the other board members.”
“Then that’s what you need to say, Liana,” she said primly. “Otherwise, it is confusing.” In times of duress, L. H. Alvarez tends to lock in the proper and efficient way of doing a thing, never missing the opportunity to beat you over the head with it. Between the stressing and the duressing, I was getting a double-whammy.
“The police will be here any minute, Mom. I should go. I’ll call you later with any updates.”
“Yes, please do, dear. And try to stay calm.”
“I’m calm. Why wouldn’t I be calm? I’m calm.”
“You don’t sound calm.”
“But I am,” I said through gritted teeth. “Bye, Mom.”
I went back to the door and stood sentinel at the only way in or out of the conference room.