No Way Back: Exclusive Excerpt

An exclusive excerpt from No Way Back by Matthew Klein, a thriller featuring a newly sober CEO who grows suspicious of the company he's hired to turn around when he learns of the former CEO's disappearance (available April 15, 2014).

Jimmy Thane thinks that his new job as the CEO of a failing company will help turn his life around. He should think again.

Jimmy Thane knows all about crossroads. Every time he’s faced with one he’s taken the wrong path. At the peak of his career, he chose alcohol. When his job became shaky, he turned to drugs. And when his wife lost faith in him, he turned to other women. Now, Jimmy’s clean, and he’s at a new crossroad: he’s landed the job of a CEO at a failing company in South Florida and has seven weeks to turn it around.

Except, from the moment he enters the building, he senses there’s something very wrong—the place is too quiet, too empty. When the police come calling about the disappearance of the former CEO, Jimmy begins to wonder what he got himself into.

Then he discovers surveillance equipment in his neighbor’s house, looking straight into his living room. And he begins to notice that his wife isn’t just tired, she’s terrified, and trying to hide it.

Nothing is as it seems. Jimmy no longer feels like he’s living the dream. Instead, he’s plunged into the worst kind of nightmare there is. And when he finally gets to the truth, it’s more shocking and terrifying than could be imagined.

Chapter 2

A corporate turnaround is like a murder investigation. The first thing you do is interview the suspects.

I ask Amanda where is the most convenient place to hold a series of private meetings. She points to the conference room right across from the reception area.

At first, I think the engraved plaque on the door – the one that proclaims ‘Boardroom’ – is an ironic joke, a small-company jibe at big-company pretension. But once I enter, I realize no irony was intended. Like every other space at Tao, the room is overwrought, designed to impress. There’s a long black table, twelve Aeron chairs, a sideboard that may or may not hide a wet bar. Everything in the room is state of the art: two flat-panel video screens on opposite walls, remote-controlled halogen lighting, recessed audio speakers built into paneling, a huge whiteboard with colored dry-erase markers.

I station myself at the center of the table, on the long side of the oval. My message here – by not taking one of the two power seats at the ends – is that I’m just a regular guy who wants to shoot the breeze. Which isn’t true, of course, but it’s a CEO’s job to be aware of appearances.

Each meeting lasts twenty minutes, and each follows roughly the same format. First, five minutes of pleasantries. A little friendly laughter on my part, to show that I am not an inhuman monster and that I have a heart, or at least that I can superficially simulate this fact. Then, the important question, which I ask gently, as if afraid of causing offence: What, exactly, do you do here at Tao?

Perhaps not surprisingly, no one who works at this sinking ship can give me a simple and straightforward answer. Randy Williams, VP of Engineering, tells me his job is to make sure ‘great software gets built’. Since Tao’s new software version is nine months late, and nowhere near completion, I’m tempted to ask him if he has a second job somewhere else where he puts that skill to use.

Dmitri Sustev, VP of Quality Assurance, tells me through Coke-bottle glasses and a thick Bulgarian accent that his job is ‘to make it all very very good, very very solid’.

Kathleen Rossi, the VP of Human Resources, tells me her job is to make sure Tao is a great place for people to come to work. I think, but do not say aloud, that her job will soon become making sure that Tao is a great place for people to leave work.

And David Paris, the elfin VP of Marketing, refuses to answer my question directly, but instead asks if he can take a moment to describe his ‘strategic vision for Tao.’ When I say indeed he can, he rises from his chair, circles the table, and approaches me. At first, I think he’s coming to give me a hug, but at the last moment, he grabs a dry-erase marker from the whiteboard just behind my head and begins sketching a diagram. By the time he’s done, fifteen minutes later, he has either laid out a startling strategic vision for our company, or he has sketched a nickel defense for the San Francisco 49ers. In either case, he has managed to convince me that he is worthless, and so I thank him, and shoo him from the room.

My most important meeting of the morning is with Joan Leggett. Joan is (according to the organizational chart I keep in front of me) ‘Acting Controller’ of Tao Software. Which means that Joan knows the one critical fact that I must now learn: how much cash is left in the bank.

Joan Leggett is a petite woman, dressed in one of those sharp Donna Karan outfits that you usually see on ambitious female go-getters on the rise. But the lines etched in her face, her once-blonde – now grey and mousy – hair, and the freckles that have melted into age spots betray her: the only thing Joan is going and getting is older.

Joan is the first person I’ve met at Tao who is competent and prepared. She greets me crisply, sits down across the table, and slides a packet of information that she has prepared specifically for this meeting. She walks me through it.

It’s a twenty-minute business presentation, but – as Joan catalogues the company’s financial problems – it feels more like a two-hour horror movie. The kind of movie where you want to walk out in the middle and ask for your money back.

‘Revenue growth over the past three quarters has been negligible,’ Joan says. ‘We hired a lot of people at the beginning of the year, to get ready for the new product launch. But the product is late. So now we have the people, and the burn rate, but no product. Which is expensive.’

‘How expensive?’

‘We’re burning $1.4 million every month. We have $3 million in the bank. No other liquid assets.’

‘So we have enough cash for two months,’ I say.

‘Seven weeks.’

The answer, then. Seven weeks of cash. I have seven weeks to turn around Tao. At the end of those seven weeks, I will either succeed, or I will slink back to Silicon Valley, a failure once again, having proven everyone’s predictions – including my own – correct.

Joan says, ‘Maybe you can convince our VCs to give us more time.’

She means I should ask Tad Billups and Bedrock Ventures for more money. I had the same thought, and it lasted approximately five seconds. I could barely convince Tad to pay for my coach flight on Air Trans. The chance of his sinking another five or ten mil into this shit hole is remote indeed. But I say: ‘Yes, of course that’s always a possibility.’

‘Page eight,’ she says. She waits for me to turn to the page. Now I see a pie chart. It’s labeled: ‘Expense by Department’.

Joan says: ‘Speaking of burn rate, here’s where all the cash goes. Four hundred thousand per month to Engineering. Two to Sales. Three to G&A. Four to Marketing. One to QA—’

‘Wait,’ I say. ‘Back up. Fourhundred thousand dollars each month for marketing?’

Joan looks at me coolly. If she disapproves of this spending, she doesn’t show it. ‘That’s correct.’

‘What the heck are we spending money on? Super Bowl ads?’

‘David has very elaborate marketing plans,’ Joan says. Her tone is without judgment. ‘I assume he went over the details with you.’

‘No,’ I say. ‘He discussed his… strategic vision.’ I point to the diagram on the whiteboard behind me. Joan regards it thoughtfully. She has the sharp look of a museum curator trying to determine a new piece’s provenance. Finally, she says: ‘If you like, I can print an itemized transaction report. You can see where the money actually goes.’

‘That would be very helpful.’ I like Joan already. Super-competent, quiet, authoritative. I say, ‘You’re good, Joan.’ What I want to ask is: How did you wind up in a place like this? But it’s a question that could easily be thrown back at me. And one I’d rather not answer. So I say instead: ‘Why only “Acting Controller”? Why not CFO? Or VP of Finance?’

She presses her thin freckled lips together and looks down. This is apparently a sore subject. She says, ‘There was a CFO. Ellison Jeffries. He left a few months ago. It was all very sudden. I never found out why. Charles was going to hire a replacement, but he never got around to it. So I took over the CFO responsibilities, just not his title.’

‘Well then,’ I say. ‘Congratulations. You’re the new CFO of Tao Software.’

She studies me, trying to decide if I’m joking. When she realizes I’m not, her face brightens. ‘Really?’

Sure, I think silently, why the hell not? Enjoy it while it lasts – seven weeks. But I say aloud: ‘Absolutely. Congratulations. No pay raise, though. Not right now.’

‘I understand. Thank you,’ she says. She stands suddenly. She leans over the table, holds out her hand awkwardly. ‘Thank you,’ she says again.

I take her hand. ‘Work hard,’ I say, trying to sound dour and serious. I don’t want anyone at the company to think I’m a softy.

‘OK,’ she says, and nods grimly, ‘I will.’

She gathers her papers, stacks them into a neat pile, and turns to leave.

As she heads to the door, I say, ‘Joan?’

She stops, with her hand on the knob, and turns to me.

I’m not sure what prompts my next question. Maybe it was Joan’s remark about the Chief Financial Officer, whose role at Tao she assumed when he suddenly departed the company. Or maybe it’s my sketchy knowledge about the CEO who preceded me, and his own sudden disappearance. That’s a lot of mysterious departures, for one tiny company.

In fact, I know very little about the company I now run. I was so relieved to be given this job, I didn’t ask many questions. A restart job in West Florida? Sure, why the hell not, I said.

What was my alternative? Running down the last six months of my and Libby’s savings? Taking out a third mortgage on our Palo Alto house? Continuing my daily routine of flipping through old business cards, dialing lost friends and begging for second chances? No. They could have offered me a position in the seventh ring of hell, acting as chief bean counter for Satan, and I would have said yes.

But now that I’m here – and the job is mine, for better or worse – I might as well learn what I’ve gotten myself into. I say to Joan: ‘What happened to Charles Adams?’

Joan’s response is surprising. Her smile disappears. She looks down at the floor. Her face turns dark and troubled, as if I’ve brought up an uncomfortable topic, like masturbation or necrophilia.

I know almost nothing about Charles Adams, or about his disappearance. I know only the broad outlines, as related to me by Tad Billups the day I signed my employment contract: one Wednesday morning, nine weeks ago, Charles Adams, CEO of Tao Software, vanished.

That’s how Tad described it – he ‘vanished’.

‘Vanished?’ I asked Tad.

Yes, vanished, Tad said. He left his car idling in his suburban driveway, its driver-side door open. He left his house unlocked. He never showed up for work. He left no note. He literally vanished from the face of the earth.

Now, back in the boardroom, whatever warmth I stoked in Joan when I promoted her to CFO thirty seconds earlier has dissipated, as if I’ve wrenched open a window to a gust of wintry December air. She looks at me warily. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well,’ I say. I think: Isn’t my question clear enough? What happened to Charles Adams? I try to think of a different way to restate it. I come up with nothing better than: ‘What do you think happened to Charles Adams?’

‘He didn’t show up for work.’

‘Right,’ I say. ‘Got that part.’

‘I don’t know,’ she says. She takes one step towards me, as if to sit once again. She decides against it, and instead remains halfway across the room, an awkward distance for an intimate conversation. Maybe that’s the point.

She says: ‘The police came around at first, interviewed everyone. I answered their questions. But they haven’t been back in a while. I don’t even know if they’re still looking for Charles. Last I heard, they seemed to think he ran away.’

‘Ran away?’ I think to myself: Teenagers run away. Young girls who aren’t allowed to date their boyfriends run away. High school students abused by stepfathers run away. Chief Executive Officers at technology firms do not run away. ‘Ran away from what?’

‘I don’t know,’ Joan says. But her expression indicates otherwise.

I try a different tack. ‘Joan, I’m on your team. I just want to know what’s going on. Any information you have could be really useful.’ I add: ‘Haven’t I already shown you a little good faith?’

This last, not-so-subtle reminder of Joan’s recent promotion does the trick. She sighs. ‘Look,’ she says, ‘Charles Adams had… problems.’

‘What kind of problems?’

She shakes her head and sighs. ‘He was a weak man,’ she says finally. ‘A nice guy, deep down – heart of gold – but he was weak. He had a personal tragedy in his family, and then… ’ She stops.

‘And then… ?’

She looks thoughtfully at me, as if deciding whether she can trust me. At last she says: ‘Things went downhill pretty fast. He got involved with bad people.’

My expression must be blank, because she adds, ‘Not software people.’

‘Ah,’ I say.

‘Tough men,’ she continues. ‘You know, out of place at a company like Tao. They’d come into reception, and wait for him to show up. They wore suits, but it was obvious they didn’t fit. Like they were costumes. Charles would come out and greet them, and then he’d leave with them, into the parking lot. And they’d drive off somewhere. He’d come back hours later.’

A familiar-sounding story. Something I had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand, back in my gambling days. ‘Did they hurt him?’

‘Not that I could see. But when he came back, he was always very pale and very quiet. He’d lock himself into his office, and he wouldn’t come out until the end of the day. Sometimes, when I’d leave the office at eight o’clock, he’d still be in there. I knocked once and asked if he was all right. He wouldn’t open up. He just shouted through the door, and said he was fine. That he was working.’

‘What did he get himself involved in?’

‘I really don’t know.’

She’s telling the truth. I see that. ‘Well,’ I say. ‘Thanks for telling me.’

She turns to the door. She stops again, with her hand on the knob, and looks at me. ‘My turn to ask you a question?’

‘Shoot.’

‘What are the chances of turning this place around?’

I think about it. My first instinct is to play hero – to sit straight in my chair, puff my chest, and say forcefully, ‘Excellent. We’re going to do it!’ That’s what the restart executive needs to do: show confidence – everywhere, all the time, to everyone. To make them believe. To hypnotize them with his own will.

But I can’t do that. Not to her. I say, more quietly than I mean to: ‘Not very good. But we’re going to try. I have a lot riding on this, personally. I really have to make it work. I don’t have a choice.’

I’m thankful when she doesn’t ask what I mean, but instead just nods and says, ‘Yes,’ as if what I told her were perfectly obvious.

Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Klein.

Excerpt from No Way Back reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.

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Matthew Klein is the author of Con Ed, which received extraordinary reviews, was sold for films and published in over a dozen foreign countries. He graduated from Yale in 1990 and founded several technology companies in Silicon Valley. He lives in New York City.

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