re you ready?” called Brendan.
“Almost,” came the reply. “What, are you in a hurry?”
Brendan checked his watch. “No, I just don’t want to be late for our reservation."
“You made reservations? You never make reservations,” observed Cora, Brendan’s wife.
“I’ve heard good things about this place. I wanted to make sure we got a table."
Cora stuck her head out the bedroom door. “It’s Tuesday.”
“I know,” Brendan said impatiently, “I’ll get Amie in the car.” He picked up their four-year-old daughter and carried her out into the garage. After placing her in her car seat, he started the car and pulled out. Brendan gazed at the small house that they rented. Buying a home was still out the question, despite the good salary that Brendan earned as a software engineer.
He sat in the driver’s seat, watching the door from the garage to the utility room, impatiently drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. What was she doing? He should have stayed inside, moving her along. Brendan shut the car off and began to get out when the door opened, and Cora emerged. He restarted the car, then got out to open the door for her.
“My, you are anxious,” said Cora. “This must be a special place.”
“It’ll change your life,” smiled Brendan. He pulled out of the driveway and headed down the tree lined streets of their Santa Clara neighborhood. It was a beautiful summer late afternoon and they were looking forward to their weekly family dinner in San Francisco. As they settled in on the 101, Brendan seemed lost in the traffic while Cora talked about her day at the flooring company where she worked as an accountant.
“Brendan.” No response. “Brendan!”
He looked at her in surprise. “What?”
“Have you heard a word I said?”
“Really? Repeat any of it.”
“Umm, okay, no, I didn’t. I’m sorry,” he admitted.
“Is there something wrong?”
“No.” No, indeed. “I was just thinking about a project at work that’s coming due. I’m really sorry. Tell me again.”
“You had a look on your face. Are you sure there’s not something else the matter with you?”
Brendan glanced at her and smiled. “I’m sure. Now tell me again.” He looked back at the road. “I’ll listen, I promise.” They settled into a pleasant conversation for the remainder of the trip, resulting in what seemed to be a quick arrival at the restaurant.
They made their reservation time with minutes to spare and followed the hostess to the upstairs dining room. Brendan and Cora quickly were enjoying a meal that was just as good as advertised, while Amie was more interested in watching what was going on outside the windows.
Near the end of their meal, Brendan’s cell phone rang. He glanced quickly at it, then said to Cora, “I’m sorry, it’s that work project, I have to take this.”
Cora stuck out her lower lip, then smiled sourly. “It’s okay. Go take your call. We’ll pick out some dessert.”
Brendan excused himself and went around a corner to the hallway leading to the bathrooms, ending his call a minute later. He returned to the table, again apologetic.
“Cora, I’m sorry, but I have to do something really quickly.”
“What is so urgent that it can’t wait until we get home?” Now Cora was beginning to lose her patience.
Brendan avoided the question. “I’ll be right back. I have to grab my laptop.”
“From the car? It’s two blocks from here.” Her unhappiness was visible. “It’ll take forever.”
“Honey, I’ll be back before the dessert arrives,” said Brendan. “Please don’t be mad. Really, I’ll hurry.”
Cora relented. “Okay, but you owe us!”
Brendan grinned. “You got it!” Then he hurried off.
Congressman Eric Pavel looked in the mirror and approved of what he saw. His tie was tied just right, something he had always struggled with but was by now becoming easier to accomplish. He put on his suit coat, then tossed down the rest of his bourbon. Eric was looking forward to tonight’s event, a speech before the Bay Business Association in which he would tout the progress that the automobile industry was making in developing driverless electric cars. He himself could envision a future where renewable energy was the primary source of automotive power and the roads were much safer than they were today due to driver correction features.
Eric made his way to the lobby where he saw the familiar face of Matt Sharner, the communications director for Vinci Motors, one of the dominant players in the autonomous automobile space. Matt was speaking with a man whom Eric didn’t know.
Eric approached them, catching Matt’s eye. “Hey.”
Matt stuck his hand out. “Congressman, good to see you.” He turned to make introductions. “Drew, Congressman Eric Pavel. Eric, Drew Penney.”
They shook hands. “Good to meet you, Congressman.”
“Drew is our head of programming,” explained Matt.
Eric smiled, “Ah. So, apparently, my fate is your hands?”
Matt and Drew both laughed. Drew said, “It’s not as dramatic as that. You’ll find that this one will be a fairly routine trip.”
“I hope so,” said Eric.
“Don’t you worry, piece of cake. Let’s get you going,” said Matt. They walked out to the valet station where a pristine silver Vinci S2 two-door sedan sat. Matt opened the passenger side door and folded down the front seat. Eric looked at him a long moment.
“You want me to sit in the back?” asked Eric.
Matt grinned. “That will be pretty dramatic, don’t you think? A car pulls up with no driver and the passenger gets out from the back? It would really prove the point that you trust the technology.”
“Um,” said Eric as he considered the wisdom of what they were asking. Did he really trust the technology, he wondered?
"Yeah, well, I guess I just want to be ready in case something goes wrong.”
Drew spoke earnestly, “There really is nothing to worry about. We have tested and retested and over-tested our programming. Our engineers have ridden in this car on this very street dozens of times to get ready for your trip. It’s performed flawlessly each time.”
Eric gave Matt a last look and got in the back seat. “Now what?”
“We’ve already programmed the address in. Just start it on the screen on the seatback in front of you.”
Eric still looked skeptical. “What if there’s a problem? I mean, it’s a computer, right? What if it goes haywire? You know, like the blue screen of death?” The two Vinci employees laughed nervously at the mention of the infamous Microsoft Windows operating system crash indicator.
“We prefer to not mention “death” with any system failure,” said Matt.
“Yeah, okay, I get that,” Eric said, laughing a little to show he wasn’t as scared as he really was. “But truly, what if the program goes bad?”
“Eric, for this vehicle, we do have a hard shutdown feature.” The congressman’s perplexed look caused Matt to continue. “In other words, see this red button on the screen?” He pointed to a large red circle in the upper left-hand corner of the driver’s video screen. “If the driver were to push that, it would cause the on-board computer to reboot. The driver then has full control of the car, and then an engage button will appear when the computer is ready to resume control of the car.”
“But,” interrupted Drew, “we’ve never had to do that. Plus, you won’t need to worry about that, because you’d want to be in the driver’s seat if that were the case.”
Noticing Eric’s still hesitant look, Matt reassured him. “You’ll be fine. Like I said, we’ve tested and retested. I myself have been in the backseat numerous times for this drive.” He didn’t mention that someone had always been in the front seat on those trips.
Eric started to relax, “Ok, guys, you convinced me. I’m ready to give it a shot.” He climbed into the back seat and settled in, looking at the video screen installed in the seatback in front of him.
“You can see the address on the screen and a map will appear. Just tap that green button on the screen when you are ready.” Matt shut the door and soon Eric tapped the screen.
“Have a great trip!” Matt called to the departing car. As it pulled out of the hotel parking lot onto Stockton Street, Eric started to panic a bit. He had been regretting ever having agreed to be driven from the hotel to Fisherman’s Wharf, an idea proposed to him by Vinci Motors. They felt that it would be a great publicity move. Matt’s staff had cameras ready at the hotel on the wharf to capture his arrival at the fundraiser, where he would deliver a speech lauding the safety of the driverless car.
As the car made its way down Stockton toward Chinatown, Eric began to relax. The movement was smooth and careful. He was even able to take his eyes off the road momentarily to read a text on his phone. His campaign manager, who was waiting for him at the fundraiser, wanted to let him know that everything was ready for his spectacular arrival. “I’d settle for a safe arrival,” he said aloud.
Aaron Leggett licked his ice cream cone. It wasn’t often that he got to relax at his favorite ice cream shop but a break in his workload had given him this opportunity. A scoop of mint chocolate chip made the world a better place. Well, that along with wrapping up a major case. Most people would opt for champagne, but when this FBI agent wanted to celebrate, an ice cream cone was his go-to.
He enjoyed watching the world, seated on a bench facing the street in front of the store. Lots of tourists were out tonight, you could tell. Aaron enjoyed San Francisco. His work was interesting and varied. He was still exploring and getting to know the area, having moved from the Minneapolis office after one particularly harsh winter and an even harsher divorce.
Chinatown was a fascinating place to Aaron, whose exposure to cultural diversity was seriously limited. In the small Minnesota town that he grew up in, it seemed that everyone was from a Scandinavian country. But here, beyond the Oriental theme of the neighborhood, the variety of persons visiting the area was remarkable and he never tired of just taking it all in. It was here that he met Barbora, a dark-skinned woman of unclear ancestry who had granted him a date, scheduled for tomorrow night. Two nights ago, he had wandered into an art gallery after seeing her through the window and made a gallant, yet failed, attempt to appear more interested in a piece of art than in Barbora. The resulting conversation, from his standpoint, had been very successful.
Cora Benjamin looked out the window of the restaurant facing Stockton Street. She had seen Brendan on the other side of the street, walking back from getting his laptop bag from the car. As Amie played with a number of fortune cookies, Cora watched Brendan through the plate glass of Pitney’s Roasting Bar, a local coffee shop, across the street. He was sitting at a table from which he had a clear view of Stockton and thus she could see his face clearly. He was intensely working away while glancing occasionally at the street. When more than a few minutes had passed, and Amie had become increasingly squirmy, Cora was done waiting. She waved at the waitress to get the check, laid down the cash to cover dinner and a tip, and headed down the stairs with Amie. They turned right upon leaving the restaurant, walking down to the corner to cross the street to meet Brendan, and waited for the light to change.
As usual, Eric’s email was overflowing, and he was quickly engrossed in reading and answering them. As the driverless car continued down Stockton, he lost track of his surroundings. One particularly critical email from a constituent had him quickly typing out a reply. His response was interrupted as he noticed a slight increase in speed. Looking up, he could see the green light up ahead at Washington Street change to yellow and then red. Two tow trucks directly in front of him were coming to a stop side by side, one in his lane next to the curb and one in the inside lane. He briefly returned to his email, despite having a sense that the vehicle should be slowing down.
Sitting on the park bench, Aaron watched the woman and girl begin to cross the street, losing sight of them as they walked in front of the stopped tow trucks. On the sidewalk across the street from him, he scanned the pedestrians as his head swept right to left. Far down the street, his peripheral vision caught a small silver car coming a bit too fast toward the intersection. “Better slow down,” he advised it quietly.
Inside the coffee shop, Brendan watched the code on his screen, occasionally typing in a command. He hated leaving Cora and Amie alone, but this was important. He looked up from the laptop, and to his right saw a silver car racing down the block, then he looked at the tow trucks guarding the intersection. He froze when he saw his wife and daughter crossing the street in front of the trucks, then swung his head back towards the silver car, which he recognized as a Vinci.
Eric Pavel was in full panic mode now. The car continued to speed up directly toward the backs of the two flatbed trucks. He could see the sharp edge of the towing deck at eye level. He leaned into the front seat and hit the reboot button. Nothing happened. He hit it again and then started hammering the video screen. He grabbed the steering wheel. In an instant, he realized he couldn’t get his legs into the front to step on the brakes, but when he turned the wheel, the course of the car changed for a moment. It quickly changed back as the onboard computer corrected the course. Eric saw the opening in the intersection ahead and muscled the wheel toward it.
Instinctively, Aaron got to his feet, the remainder of his ice cream cone hitting the sidewalk. As the silver car sped past him, he got a glimpse of the inside of the car. No driver, but he saw a person - male, Caucasian – leaning into the front seat holding onto the steering wheel. He instinctively began to run down the sidewalk to keep up with the speeding vehicle, swerving into the street as the car went out of sight beyond the tow trucks. A woman’s scream began and was instantly silenced.
Brendan stared in horror as the Vinci missed the two trucks, viciously upending Cora and crushing Amie. Cora bounced off the hood and roof, falling onto the pavement behind the car as it started to skid. The Vinci careened off another car on the other side of the intersection before spinning and slamming sideways into the back of a loading city bus.
Aaron was running full speed down the middle of the street as he passed the trucks and saw the bodies lying in the street. He heard the crash of the car into the back of the bus. He had his phone out, already dialing 911. He shouted the cross streets at the operator while reaching the first body. The girl was clearly dead, crushed by the impact with the bumper of the car. He ran past her to the woman, who was bleeding severely but was still conscious, moaning horribly. He knelt by her, trying to make sense of her injuries and to find out where the blood was coming from.
Immediately Aaron could hear running feet and shouts of "Cora! Cora!" Someone grabbed her out from under him, saying, "Cora, oh, God, Cora." He tried to tell the man to keep her still, but the man would not be stopped.
The woman whom Aaron gathered to be Cora seemed to have a moment of clarity and the name “Brendan” escaped from her lips.
Aaron looked up to see a vaguely familiar figure crawl out of the smashed window of the silver car and fall to the pavement. His head bleeding profusely, the man from the crash got up and hobbled his way quickly to where Aaron knelt by the dying woman and the sobbing man. Aaron looked at the man he took to be Brendan holding onto Cora. He could see Brendan watching the bleeding man from the car making his way toward them. The man tripped as he approached, and Aaron reflexively caught him as he fell. Aaron could feel that the man’s strength waning, so he set him down on his back, hearing him ask, "Are they okay?" before sliding off into unconsciousness.
s the police and paramedics were tending to the bodies of Cora and Amie Benjamin, Aaron walked a few steps away, pulled out his phone and called the office.
“This is Missy.” The resident tech genius.
“It’s Aaron. What do you know about Vinci cars?”
“Electric. Cutting edge. Soon to be autonomous. Why?”
“Accident at Stockton and Washington. A Vinci car killed two people.”
“Oh, no. Oh, my. I’m pulling it up.”
“The police say a congressman was in the car. He was hurt and is being tended to. He was riding in the back seat.”
"What about the driver?”
“Here’s the weird thing. There was no driver. I saw the congressman sitting in the back seat. Apparently, it was a test of a completely self-driving automobile. That’s what he keeps mumbling.”
“And that’s why you said a Vinci car killed two people. There was no driver.”
“What is a congressman doing in a test vehicle on a city street?”
“Sounds like the test was a complete failure.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“Ok,” said Missy, “what can I get you?”
“I’m not sure, but this feels bad. Something’s not right.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Just a hunch. I’m going to see if I can get any more information from him.”
“Wow, ok, I’m pulling up info on Vinci. Again, wow, the accident just hit the web. This says that Congressman Eric Pavel was scheduled to speak at an event tonight. The Bay Business Association. Yes, accident at Washington and Stockton.”
“Yes, that’s him.”
“Ok, let me see what I can find and I’ll send it to you.”
“Thanks, talk to you later.” Aaron hung up and called another number.
“Margie, it’s Aaron. Is Frank in?”
“He just left.”
“Ok, I’ll call his cell. Have you heard about the accident in Chinatown?”
“Oh, yeah, we have the coverage on. They’re saying the congressman might have been drinking.”
“He might have been, but he was also driving from the back seat,” said Aaron. He had indeed smelled alcohol when he caught the congressman.
“I’ll tell you later. I need to talk to Frank.”
“Call his cell.”
Didn’t I just say that? thought Aaron. “I will. Bye.”
Aaron hung up and quickly tapped Frank’s number. He got voicemail. He waited for the generic greeting to finish. “Frank, it’s Aaron, I wanted to let you know that I saw the accident here in Chinatown and there was something strange about it. Call me if you get a chance. Thanks, bye.”
Aaron clicked off and looked back over at the scene. The two tow trucks had already left, which he thought was strange. Two new ones arrived to collect the Vinci and the car it had hit, which didn’t make any sense. Why not use the ones that were there? Then Aaron decided that it did make sense because the police probably had their own towing company they needed to use. He was staring at the Vinci, still being combed over by investigators, when his phone rang with a familiar contact.
Aaron answered. “Hey, Willie.”
“What’s this about Eric Pavel driving from the back seat?”
“Talked to Margie, huh?”
“Yeah, the girl just couldn’t help herself. She had to tell somebody the bad news.”
“I don’t really know if it is bad news. I probably shouldn’t have said anything to her.”
“But you really saw it?” asked Willie, whose real name was Wilhelmina. “The whole thing?”
“I did. I was enjoying an ice cream cone in Chinatown and saw the car coming down the street and run down the woman and child. I just got done giving my statement to the police, and I am trying to get hold of Frank to let him know.”
A pause on the other end. “Why does Frank need to know?”
“Something wasn’t right. The Vinci is touted as a self-driving car, and here the congressman is sitting in the back. Supposedly he was making some speech tonight.”
“I think about cars that drive themselves,” said Aaron.
“Is he for them or against them?”
“Well, if he’s against them, this is taking it to extremes to make your point.”
“You got that right. Where are you?”
“Still at the scene. Trying to figure out what to do next.”
“I’m at the office. I’ll start digging. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“I’ll come there. My night’s shot anyway. See you in a bit.”
“Okay, bye.” Willie hung up. Aaron took a last look at the intersection and headed to his car. Before he got there, Frank called back.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I’m in Chinatown. I saw the accident.”
“I know, Margie told me.”
Aaron sighed. “Is there anyone she didn’t tell?”
“You know Margie. So, you saw it. What happened?” Aaron quickly reviewed what he witnessed and added his thoughts.
“I’m not saying that there was anything devious, but it was really obvious that Pavel was in the back seat on purpose. Vinci’s been testing these cars all over, and I think this was a publicity stunt gone wrong.”
“So, what are you saying?” asked Frank, emphasizing the word ‘are’.
“I want to look into it. Do some digging.”
“Did you give a report to SFPD?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Then we’ll let them do their job. If it falls into our jurisdiction, then we’ll get involved.”
“But we have plenty of other things to worry about. Like the Mason case. Remember that one? Let’s concentrate on our existing work, okay?”
Aaron knew he didn’t have an argument. “Okay.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Eric Pavel was aware of where he was, but he was not feeling any pain.
He was given an IV in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, his head splitting and a splint on his leg. He didn’t notice the officer sitting in the vehicle right away, and when he did, it didn’t occur to Eric that there might be a reason for the cop being there. Even when the officer escorted them into the hospital, all Eric felt was appreciation for the concern of the police department.
The visit by the emergency room doctor had gained him some pain meds, and by the time his chief of staff rolled through the door, the head and leg were no longer hurting. He had now become painfully aware, however, that there were police officers roaming the hallway outside his door, and not for a good reason.
The door opened. “Eric, you okay?” asked Michael Windom, his chief of staff.
“Better now. They gave me some drugs, thank God,” he said slowly. “I need to call Sara.”
“I already called her. Your wife is on her way. Man, what happened?”
“I don’t know. All of a sudden, the car started speeding up right toward a truck. I tried to reboot the computer, but it wouldn’t stop, so I grabbed the steering wheel to try to miss the trucks.” Eric closed his eyes. “Are they dead?”
Michael knew who he was talking about. “Yes, the woman and the child are dead. Both died at the scene. I’m sorry.” Michael wasn’t sure how to proceed. “Were you drinking?”
“What? No. I mean, I had a drink at the hotel, but just one.”
Michael sat on the bed. “They did a blood alcohol. It was a .04.”
“That’s legal. And besides, I wasn’t driving!”
“But it’s problematic. You were technically the driver of a car that killed two people.”
“This is crazy! Get Mitch on the phone.” Mitch Halsted was Eric’s lawyer.
“I called him on the way over. I left a message for him.”
Eric’s head started to hurt again.
“Eric. We’re going to need a statement for the press.” Just then his phone rang, he answered it and turned to Eric, covering the mouthpiece. “It’s Matt from Vinci.” Michael turned back to the phone. “He can’t talk right now…”
Eric reached for the phone. “Let me talk to him.”
Michael just looked at Eric. “No, he’s got a busted-up head and a broken leg.” He listened for a moment.
“Let me talk to him!” Eric shouted.
“Yeah, well, you should be sorry,” said Michael into the phone.
A policeman stuck his head in. “Everything alright?” A nurse pushed past the officer, going to Eric’s bedside.
“Give me the damn phone!” cried Eric.
“Sir, you need to stay calm,” said the nurse.
Michael moved away from them. “Our lawyer is on his way. We’ll call you back when he gets here. Then we’ll need some answers!” He hung up and looked at Eric. “He said he was sorry.”
“I wanted to talk to him,” said a depleted Eric. The nurse was taking his pulse. She looked at Eric and frowned her disapproval.
“You’re not talking to anyone until we get this figured out,” said Michael.
Miles away, in the Vinci offices in Sunnyvale, the news of the crash was hitting hard. Matt Sharner had called Michael from Stephanie Jenkins’ office. Stephanie, Drew’s boss, was talking on the phone with the CEO, relaying what they knew at this point. She hung up and glanced at Matt.
“This is bad. Really bad. Call Drew and get him out to the car.”
“He’s already there. He was still in the city and hurried down there as soon as he got the news.”
“Could it have been the onboard computer? I mean, could it have been our fault?”
“No,” Matt said emphatically. “No way. We tested it and retested it. I rode in the car myself and everything worked great. If there was an issue, then Drew would have said something.”
Stephanie shook her head. “Then what would cause him to take over and try to steer the car?”
“He was afraid. Pure and simple. He was nervous about the whole thing and somewhere along the way he panicked. In the beginning we had to talk him into getting in the car.”
“Matt. Should we have backed off?”
“No, I’m telling you, everything was fine. He just went rogue and screwed things up.”
“He won’t admit to that. How can we prove that it was his fault and that our car did what it was supposed to do?”
“We’ll have the logs from the onboard computer. We’ll be able to show that the car was behaving normally and was influenced by outside stimuli. Or just a stimulus. Meaning him.”
“Where are the logs? Are they here?”
“Well, they’re in our datacenter, and in the car. They are replicated in real time from the onboard computer to our reporting database.
“Who can get us a copy of those while Drew’s out at the car?”
Matt hesitated. “I agree we need them, but can I make a suggestion?”
“Sure, Matt. I rely on your input.”
“Before we do that, can we ask the legal department to be here? I don’t want to make a wrong move, you know, with what is sure to be evidence.”
“That’s a great idea. I’ll call Ray.” Raymond Willis was chief counsel at Vinci. Stephanie called his cell. “Ray, it’s Stephanie. Have you seen the news?” She listened to his response, then answered. “Sure, I have Matt with me. He was there when the car left. We’ll be right there.” She turned to Matt. “He’s in his office. Let’s go.”
Stephanie and Matt walked down the luxurious hallway of the C suite to Raymond’s office. Plushly furnished, this floor screamed prosperity and opulence. As nice as Matt’s spacious office was, every office on this level put his to shame.
Raymond’s secretary had already gone for the day and his office door was open. They walked in and were waved to two chairs facing the desk as Ray finished up a call. He looked at Stephanie. “This is a disaster,” she said.
“Yes, it is. The congressman has put us in a terrible position,” answered Ray.
“We have to prove that it’s his fault,” said Stephanie. “That he caused the accident.”
Raymond looked thoughtfully at her. “Well, not really. We don’t have to prove that he caused it, but we do need to be able to prove that it was not our fault.”
“Yes, that’s what we were thinking, and we believe we can prove that we did nothing wrong. We need to pull the logs from the onboard computer and Matt suggested we check with you first, before we made any moves.”
“Where are these logs? In the car?” asked Raymond.
Matt spoke up. “Yes, on the onboard computer, but they are also replicated to our datacenter into a database that we can access through a report manager server.”
“How secure are they? I mean, can these logs be altered?”
Matt shook his head, then shrugged. “Not that I know of, but we would need to check with Drew to know for sure.”
“Let’s find out. I suggest we review them thoroughly no matter what, but it is likely that they will be required as evidence eventually. There are two deaths here, so the police will put on a full court press to prosecute someone. More and more, drivers are blaming us and we are required to produce evidence that our product was not faulty. If the possibility that these reports can be altered even exists, we need to know that before we voluntarily produce them for anyone.”
Stephanie nodded. “Absolutely, I’ll get Drew and his people right on it.” As the vice president of operations, Stephanie was Drew’s direct superior. And as such, if the code somehow turned out to be defective, it was ultimately her butt on the line. “I’ll keep you posted,” she said as she got up and left, followed by Matt, who was browsing the emails arriving on his phone.
“The requests from the press for a statement are coming in hot and heavy,” he said to Stephanie. “I’m going to have to give them something.” As they got to her office, she stopped and turned around to face Matt.
“Start putting together a statement and run it past me for approval. I’ll take it to Jack and Raymond and get their okay on it so we can get something out within an hour or two.”
“Should we do a press conference or just release a statement?” As Director of Communications, Matt had been in front of the cameras many times and was not at all hesitant to face the reporters. He enjoyed it, as a matter of fact.
“Start with a statement. Very general and focus on sympathy for the family of the woman and the girl. I assume we have their names?”
“Yes, we do, as well as the husband.”
“Good. Use the names,” said Stephanie.
“How about the congressman? Shall I express sympathy for his ‘unfortunate accident’?”
“Yes, say we’re sorry that he screwed up in one of our cars,” said Stephanie with an edge.
“I like the concept, but I may phrase it differently,” said Matt seriously.
Stephanie gave him a tight smile. “Let me know as soon as you have something. We have to handle this carefully.”
“You got it,” Matt said as he left. “I’m on it.”
At the accident scene, Drew was busy arguing with the police.
“Look, officer, I just need to turn the car on for a few minutes,” said Drew. “I won’t touch anything except the ignition.”
“And I’m telling you, you ain’t getting anywhere near that car. It’s evidence and you ain’t touching anything.”
“I work for Vinci. I need to get the data from the car. Who do I need to speak with to make that happen?”
“You can tell it to your priest, but it ain’t happening. Now back off.”
Drew turned away and surveyed the fractured scene. Investigators were finishing up their work and a tow truck was waiting to take the Vinci away. It made his stomach sick to see where the bodies had lain. He looked at the cop. “How about when they are finished?”
“For the last time. No.” He turned and walked away from Drew, who tried to stare a hole in the cop’s back when his phone rang. It was Stephanie. “Hello.”
“Drew, its Stephanie. Are you still at the scene?”
“What’s going on?”
“Well, I keep trying, but they won’t let me anywhere near our car.”
“The officer keeps claiming that I can’t touch it because it’s evidence. I’m looking for a supervisor. They’re getting ready to load the car and take it.”
“How much time do you need with it?”
“Really just a minute. If the onboard is still working, I want to make sure the logs got replicated. Plus, I’m curious. I just want to take a look. I have no idea how this could have happened.”
“Matt thinks the congressman panicked for no reason and tried to take control.”
“Yes, it’s possible, but the logs will tell us what really happened. Stephanie, I think I see a supervisor. I’m going to go catch him.”
“Ok, go. Call me when you leave.”
Drew hung up and headed over to where a group of policemen were receiving direction from someone in plainclothes. “Excuse me.”
Plainclothes looked over. “I have no comments for the press. We’ll make a statement later.”
“I’m not with the press. I work for Vinci Motors and I need to see the car. You see, I supervise the software development department.”
“Is that right?” asked Plainclothes.
“Yes, it is,” answered Drew.
“Well, in that case, you can see it when we’re done with it.”
Finally, thought Matt. “Great, thanks so much. How long will that be?”
“Probably a week or so.”
Drew rolled his eyes. “C’mon, give me a break. I just need to make sure the computer uploaded the logs.”
“Buddy, I don’t know you from Adam, and you are not getting anywhere close to that car.”
One of the policemen spoke up. “I already told him that.” They argued for a few more minutes before Matt walked away, dejected. He pulled out his phone and punched a contact.
“Drew, I heard what happened.”
“Are you in front of a computer?”
“Pull the logs for the car and see where they stop.”
“Which car was used for the test?”
“E-09. If it’s still transmitting, I need to know. I’m at the crash scene but they won’t let me near the car.”
“Please give me ten minutes.”
“As fast as you can. They are getting ready to take it away and I don’t want to wait.”
“I will pull the logs, and I will call you back as soon I have the answer to your query.”
Drew hung up and watched the activity around the scene impatiently. His stomach flipped again as he saw the area where the bodies had been outlined and evidence markers still sat. He walked in the opposite direction and took some breaths. No more than three minutes later, Suneetha called back. Drew answered, “Yeah.”
“Drew, the car stopped replicating the logs.”
“You will not believe this.”
“They stopped replicating at 6:00 p.m. Exactly.”
“That was before Pavel left the hotel.”
“Drew. There is something else. There was a command executed to kill logging.”
“Yes. Logging was stopped on purpose.”
“Why?” A ball of ice suddenly formed in Drew’s stomach. “Who would do that?” Was it possible the accident was no accident? “Suneetha. We need to find out what’s going on.”
“I shall keep at it.”
rendan sat alone in the small dining room of the house that Cora had so lovingly furnished and decorated. His day had begun with calls from his church and the funeral home. An already awful day had gone rapidly downhill with the arrival of Cora’s parents after a flight from Denver. Understandably distraught, Cora’s mom had sought to comfort Brendan and in doing so receive some solace in her own right. Cora’s father, predictably, went in the backyard and spent most of the late morning and early afternoon on the phone with clients. After an awkward lunch, the couple left to go check into their hotel.
Brendan’s mind constantly whirled back to the events of the night before, when his life was changed forever. The feeling of helplessness came back continually as he could see the car striking down his wife and daughter over and over. He began to softly pound his fist on the table when the front doorbell rang. He wanted to ignore it but slowly got up and went to the door. He didn’t bother looking through the peephole, just opening it for whoever was there. In stepped his former college roommate who gave him an immediate bear hug.
“Bren, Bren, I’m so sorry, man. I can’t believe it,” said the six-foot-five, two-hundred-and-eighty-pound man as he squeezed Brendan tightly."
“Thanks, Kan, I can’t believe it either,” replied Brendan in a monotone voice.
“It’s just tragic,” Kanaloa said. He was a large Polynesian man who had been a constant joy to room with in college. There was never a dull moment. “And you saw the whole thing?”
Brendan looked at Kan for a moment before speaking. “I did. I saw it all.”
“Man, I’m so sorry. Are you okay? I mean, physically. It missed you?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“So, the news said the congressman was on some test with no driver?”
“And he was really in the back seat?”
“Yeah, until he reached forward and took the wheel.”
“Did they arrest him?”
“I hope so. They took him to the hospital but he better face charges.”
“Well, he should. And Vinci, too.”
Brendan turned away. “That’s probably not going to happen.”
“Well, then, we’ll sue their ass.” Kan was an associate at a large law firm based in Los Angeles but with a substantial office in San Francisco. While they were in college at San Jose State, Kan never backed down from a fight, and more than once was the cause of one. He was the sort to engage first and ask questions later. In law school, he suffered through property law and contracts, and excelled in torts and civil procedure. He was physically intimidating and charismatic. He had a bright career ahead of him.
“Sue them for what?”
“Little buddy, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought that up. That was thoughtless.” Kan was both a bear and a pussycat with fondness for teasing Brendan. “We’ll talk about it later.”
They sat in silence for a moment before Kan went rummaging in the kitchen. He came back with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. Brendan stopped him before he could pour.
“Not now. Cora’s parents are here. They went to the hotel and when they get back, we’re going to the funeral home.”
“Oh, then you definitely need a drink. How are Mr. and Mrs. Country Club?”
“Same as usual. He’s probably sealed three deals since getting here two hours ago.”
“He’s a cold bastard.” Kan finished his drink and poured another. “Want me to go to the funeral home with you?”
“Don’t you have to get back to work?”
“The money factory can get by without me for a bit. I’ll open the Vinci litigation file and bill the hours to that.” Brendan looked over at Kan and screwed up his face. Kan apologized. “I’m sorry. Again. I get a little ahead of myself sometimes.”
“Sometimes?” asked Brendan, managing a slight smile.
Kan’s face broke open. “Okay, a lot!” The break in the tension was welcome and Brendan was able to manage a laugh.
“Yeah, come with me in case they try to screw me. You can be my muscle.”
“Where will the funeral be?”
“At Cora’s church.” That’s how Brendan thought of it. Cora went regularly and encouraged Brendan to go with her. He had to be dragged along and Kan knew it. Church had never been a thing in Brendan’s family. Kan, however, grew up in a very spiritual family and had gone with the Benjamin’s several times. One of the staff pastors had already stopped by briefly that morning.
“The big guy doing it?” The lead pastor was a well-known author and speaker in church circles.
“No, not for us little people. Cora volunteered there and the guy she worked with is doing the service.”
The conversation veered into other non-painful areas and soon the doorbell rang. Brendan went to answer it. He wished he hadn’t.
Brendan opened the door and just looked at the man standing on the porch.
“Father.” Brendan started to chew on a fingernail. “I’m surprised to see you.”
Brendan’s father looked at him for a moment, then asked. “May I come in?”
Just what I need, thought Brendan.
“Yeah, sure.” He stepped back and his father came through the door, stopping when he saw the huge man with a business suit and ponytail sitting at the dining room table.
“Am I interrupting something?” he asked.
“This is Kanaloa Kalama. Kan, meet Solomon Benjamin. Kan was one of my roommates in college.”
Kan stood up to shake his hand. “Mr. Benjamin, good to see you again.”
“Have we met?”
“We have. At Brendan’s graduation.” With that, Kan glanced at Brendan, who shot him a warning look.
Sol Benjamin shook his head. “Well, that can’t be. I didn’t attend his graduation.”
Kan gazed at Sol for a moment and then smiled innocently. “Oh, my mistake.” Kan knew full well how much it hurt Brendan that his father couldn’t be bothered to even attend his graduation. Especially since he lived less than an hour away.
“Why are you here?” asked Brendan.
“I heard about the accident. I came to help.”
Brendan briefly looked with pursed lips at his father and then took a breath. “Well, thanks, but I don’t need any help. I didn’t expect you to come. We’ll be going to the funeral home in a bit.”
“While you’re doing that, I’ll be going through these.” He pulled two thick documents out of his briefcase.
Brendan eyed them warily. “What are these?”
“I had Carolyn print them up this morning. This is your lawsuit against Pavel and this is the one for Vinci. We should file them the day after the funeral for maximum publicity.”
Solomon Benjamin was a lawyer.
“We’ll punish them. Wrongful death, pain and suffering. The works.”
“How did you find out so quickly?”
“One of my associates spotted it. I made a few well-placed phones calls and got all the details.”
“I really don’t want to sue anyone.”
“What are you talking about? They took something away from you and they should pay. Loss of income. Your wife. And the kid.”
Kan could see that Brendan was about to explode so he grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the kitchen and out the back door.
“Breathe, man, breathe.”
“I really can’t stand him.”
“After seeing that performance I’m really sorry I brought up suing them.”
“Kan, you, I get. You’re just goofy sometimes. That man is evil,” said Brendan.
Kan gave Brendan an apologetic look, then they stood for a moment while Brendan calmed down. Then Kan said, “Your dad’s first name is Solomon?”
“Yeah, you knew that.”
“Congratulations on putting two and two together. What about it?”
“Are you Jewish?” asked Kan with an over-the-top astonished look on his face.
“Kan, don’t be a goof. You know I’m Jewish. What about it?”
“I guess I just never thought about it much.”
“And you pick now as the time to think about it? What does it matter?”
“The Jews killed Jesus.”
“Like you care. They didn’t kill King Kamehameha.”
“Hey, it’s cool that you’re an Israelite. The chosen people.”
Brendan’s mouth smiled slightly but his eyes did not. “Well, call your gods. Now that Satan is here, I can use all the help I can get.”
Eric Pavel could hear the arguing out in the hallway but wasn’t really able to piece it together. The pain meds were effective, and his cognitive abilities were certainly on a slower setting than normal. He recognized one voice but didn’t know the other one.
He gave up trying to listen and relived the accident once more. Through the fog in his brain, he could see the child disappearing beneath the car and the mother bouncing over it. He could hear the sickening thuds. He could feel the impact off the other car and then into the bus. He now knew that the man who ran out was the woman’s husband, and Eric grieved for his loss. He wanted to send flowers to the funeral home. His thoughts were interrupted when the door opened, and his office manager came in.
She had caught a flight at dawn from Washington D.C., arriving in the early morning due to the time change. She had come immediately to the hospital and had been assigned by Eric’s chief of staff to guard the room and make sure that no one questioned Eric without his presence. More than just an office manager, Molly Fitzpatrick was a force to be reckoned with. Eric, and his testimony about the accident, was safe with her on the front line.
The door opened and Molly walked in with Dr. Phillips, who had taken charge of Eric’s treatment.
“Eric, how are you doing?” asked Dr. Phillips. “Any pain?”
“My head hurts and my leg aches. And my back is a little uncomfortable.”
“We backed the afternoon dose off a little. You were pretty loopy this morning, and we like to get a realistic idea of your pain experience.”
“I feel pretty loopy right now,” said Eric with a sloppy, inappropriate grin.
“It’s normal. You wouldn’t want to drive on this stuff.” He stopped and looked up from the chart he was studying. “Sorry. That was careless.”
Eric shrugged. “That’s okay, it didn’t really register.”
Dr. Phillips smiled. “Thanks.” He scribbled on the chart. “We’ll keep you on this for the time being. If the pain gets worse, let us know.”
Molly addressed the doctor. “The detective is going to want to come in. I want the medically necessary answer to his request for an interview to be ‘not today’.”
“That’s correct,” said Dr. Phillips. “The congressman is in no shape to answer questions.” He turned to Eric. “Congressman, we’ll perform the surgery on your leg as soon as the swelling goes down a little more. In the meantime, get some rest.”
“Thank you, doctor,” said Molly to the departing physician.
Eric asked, “What was that all about?”
“Your leg needs surgery.”
“No, about the detective.”
“They want to interview you.” She shook her head. “Not going to happen.”
The door opened and Michael, his chief of staff, came in. “What’s not going to happen?”
“Mr. Detective out there wants to interview Eric.”
“That is definitely not going to happen. Not while you are on the good stuff.”
“Why?” asked Eric.
“Why?” asked Michael back at him. “Why? You might as well be on sodium pentothal. Your defenses are down. You’ll tell them the truth. That, we definitely do not want!”
“Why?” asked Eric again. “He needs to know that the car went wacky.”
Michael looked sideways at him. “Wacky, huh?” Then he said to Molly, “This is big trouble. He had a drink, got into a car with no driver, then took control of the car and killed two people. The optics are horrible, and the legal ramifications are worse.” He pulled Molly to a corner of the room where they could talk quietly. “He’s done with politics.”
“I can’t hear you,” said Eric loudly.
“That’s the point,” Michael replied to Eric. “Just close your eyes.” Michael turned his back on Eric. “He’ll go to jail,” he said to Molly.
“Vehicular manslaughter at least. But I tell you, this whole thing sucks. If he does nothing, he dies from the impact into a tow truck. If he takes control, he kills two people. Yeah, Molly, I think he’s going to jail.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What do you want me to do?” asked Molly.
“Don’t let him talk to anyone. Only you and me. And we can’t leave him alone. Even though the doctor has issued orders keeping him from being questioned by the police, they will have the room guarded 24/7 and as soon as he’s left alone, somebody will be in here. They will pounce if one of us is not protecting him. We can’t let that happen.”
“Okay, anything else we need?”
“Yeah,” Michael looked out the window. “One more thing. A good defense lawyer.”
“How will this impact the self-driving automobile industry as a whole?”
The interviewer was tossing up softballs.
Thomas Rand smiled. “The industry is resilient. When the pedestrian was killed in Arizona last year by an autonomous vehicle, it may have impacted a single company, but it did nothing to halt the progress that DataRoute has made in providing a safer, more economical method of transportation.”
“So, you don’t believe that your investors have anything to fear as far as any impact from this accident?”
“Absolutely not. Remember that we have the information advantage over Vinci and other players in the self-driving space.”
“And why is that?”
“Our vehicles are collecting data through LIDAR that is inherently better than the data collected by Vinci’s cameras.”
“And what is LIDAR?”
“Light detection and ranging. As opposed to Vinci’s use of stereo cameras.”
“I’ll take your word for that. But isn’t it also true that Vinci is collecting a considerately larger amount of data because of the larger number of vehicles it has on the road?” The softballs were ending.
Rand smiled tightly. “Vinci does have an advantage in quantity, but we definitely have the advantage in quality. Regardless, to answer your earlier question, our progress will continue to make driver’s commutes safer and more economical.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rand.”
“My pleasure. Thank you.”
They held their pose, and two seconds later, the producer said, “And we are out.”
Thomas Rand, the Chief Executive Officer and President of DataRoute, a rival competitor of Vinci Motors, took off his lapel microphone and got out of his chair. He smiled graciously at the interviewer. She smiled back and responded, “Thank you, Mr. Rand, we appreciate your time.”
“Any time you need it,” he responded. “You have my number.” Rand headed out of the studio, accompanied by Amos Jarvis, one of his vice presidents. They got into a waiting Mercedes rather than a DataRoute vehicle and were therefore not tracked by his own company’s computers.
Once they were comfortably out of the parking lot, Rand asked Jarvis, “What’s the latest?”
“Vinci’s in trouble, their stock is dropping. Our stock has taken a slight hit but not too bad considering. But sir…”
“We may have a real problem with our leverage. You know there was a woman and a child who were killed?”
“Yeah, I know that.”
“The husband and father was on the scene.”
“He works for us.”
Rand stopped short. “Who?”
Thomas Rand looked out the window and studied the landscape. “I heard the names but didn’t make the connection.” He turned back to Jarvis. “This presents a problem.”
“Yes, apparently they were crossing the street to meet him when the car missed the trucks.”
“Damn it. Have you talked to him?”
“No, sir. I had Human Resources call him and express our condolences.”
Rand said pointedly, “I want you to call him personally and give him the rest of the week off. Try to be really nice for once. Then make sure our tracks are covered.”
uneetha Laghari’s eyes were tired. Although she was used to looking at lines of code, in most cases she knew what she was looking for. This was worse than looking for a needle in a haystack because she didn’t know what the needle looked like. All she knew was that something was wrong with the code; a command or more likely a series of commands. She knew the language and the syntax, but there were multiple ways of doing it. And, perhaps it had been done maliciously. Logging had been turned off, and on purpose.
She had worked late into the night, stopping only when she found her head falling toward her keyboard. She had caught a couple of hours of sleep on a couch in the living room space of their work area, then grabbed a protein bar, a yogurt and a spring water before digging back in. The people arriving at the office left her alone, because by now everyone knew what she was doing, and the layer of concern was heavy in the room. Others had received similar tasks and had also spent the night hard at work to make some sense out of the malfunction of their programming code. The gap in logging was problematic and worrisome.
Suneetha was closely studying the results of a query when she sensed someone behind her.
“How’s it coming?” asked Drew’s voice. She turned to address him. He looked haggard, wearing the same slogan t-shirt that she had noticed him wearing yesterday.
“I have found nothing,” said Suneetha. “I apologize.”
“No need to. I know you’re working on it. There has to be some buggy lines of code somewhere. We missed something.”
“I do not think so Drew. Nothing accidental would have caused the demonstrated behavior of the car and to also cause logging to turn off. Forgive me for being forthright, but I believe there may be something deliberate here.”
“Again, no need to apologize. I need your input. We have to figure this out. Stephanie says we may suspend testing.”
“For how long?” asked Suneetha.
“Until we find something. Keep looking and don’t hesitate to bring anything to my attention.”
Drew left and Suneetha went back to her queries. It wasn’t long before Stephanie herself came by Suneetha’s cubicle. Stephanie looked serious. “Hi, Suneetha. How’s it looking?”
“I am afraid that I have not found anything helpful,” answered Suneetha.
“Hmmm. We really need to find out what’s going on. You’ve found nothing?”
“No. The problem is that the command to stop logging could have been entered at literally any time. The last month, the last six months, the last year.”
“Can’t you just search for the command to stop logging?” asked Stephanie. Suneetha patiently explained the difficulties in locating a specific command when there were different ways of scripting it.
“Combined with the lack of restrictions on a time frame, this could take a considerable amount of time.”
“We don’t have forever,” said Stephanie. “Our stock is dropping as we speak. Your job, along with everyone else’s, is in jeopardy. We have to find evidence that shows that we did not cause this tragedy.”
“I will try.”
“You have to do more than try. You have to succeed,” If Suneetha hadn’t been so intimidated by Stephanie, she would have smiled at the paraphrase of Yoda’s famous quote. Stephanie continued. “Or this company is toast.”
Suneetha nodded. “I will find it.”
Stephanie left and Suneetha bent to the task once again. No sooner had she refocused her attention when the next visitor to Suneetha’s cubicle showed up. Erin McKenzie was a fellow programmer who had been with the self-driving project from the beginning and appeared badly shaken.
“This is horrible,” said Erin.
“Yes, it is awful,” said Suneetha without taking her eyes off the screen.
“Poor Brendan,” began Erin. “To see his wife and daughter killed in front of his eyes.”
Suneetha answered absently, “Yes, it is,” while never looking up from the query results. Minutes passed while Erin sat on the edge of the workstation desk and dried her eyes.
“He’s such a nice guy,” Erin sniffed.
Suneetha looked up. “Who?”
“Brendan,” said Erin.
“Who is Brendan?”
“Haven’t you been listening to me?” said Erin. “Brendan, the guy whose wife and daughter were killed by our car!”
Suneetha sat stunned for a moment. Then she spoke carefully. “Erin, our car did not kill them. The driver caused that. But more importantly, how do you know this Brendan?”
Erin instantly backed down. “I’m not saying that we killed them, only that our car was involved.”
“Yes, that is better, and I ask again, how do you know this Brendan?”
Erin paused. “We met at a programmer’s networking event. We got to talking and he’s a nice guy. We’ve had several conversations since then at the Pirate’s Cove.” The Pirate’s Cove was a community workspace popular with remote workers who were feeling cooped up when working from home.
“Oh, really? Are these conversations of a personal nature?”
“No, nothing like that. He was married, you know.”
“That has not necessarily stopped you before,” grimaced Suneetha. This was not a new topic of conversation between she and Erin. Suneetha looked back at her screen and then at Erin.
“True enough,” replied Erin. “But I think he truly was happily married. Which makes the accident all the worse. I texted him but I haven’t heard back yet. That reminds me, I want to send flowers to the funeral home.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you.”
“No, he’s the thoughtful one. And a brilliant programmer. He helped me out with some problems I was having with the turn signal activation program.”
Suneetha looked at Erin seriously. “Erin, please do not say that to anyone else. Drew would be quite angry with you if he knew that you were sharing information with an employee from a rival company.”
“Oh, stop. It was really nothing. He didn’t see anything he shouldn’t have.”
“I hope not.”
“Stop here.” Kan obeyed, putting his foot on the brake pedal and halting the car in the driveway. Brendan and Kan had just left the funeral home.
“You okay?” asked Kan, who had done the driving.
“My father is still here,” said Brendan, glaring at the house. Kan saw Brendan turn to look at his father’s car, still sitting at the curb.
“That was a shocker, huh? Him showing up like that?”
“No kidding. I haven’t seen him but maybe a half dozen times since Amie was born. Even then I was surprised that he found the time to visit the hospital.”
“Maybe he does have a heart after all. I mean, he’s here, right?”
Brendan snorted. “He’s only here because he smells blood in the water. He’s a born litigator. He’ll go after a fight even harder than you will.”
“Then I’ll challenge him to a leg wrestling match. Winner gets to sue.”
“I don’t want him to sue. I don’t want to sue.”
“We’ll talk about it later. But, he’s right, file them the day after the funeral.”
“The two of you deserve each other.” Brendan crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the house.
“Are we going to sit here all day?”
Brendan sighed. “Maybe.” Then he rubbed his neck. “All right, let’s go in and face the devil.”
Kan pulled into the garage and they went inside the house. Solomon was yelling into a phone but quickly got off when he saw Brendan.
“Brendan, good news. I have Vinci on the run. Guaranteed they will cave to a settlement.”
“Damn it, Dad! I really don’t want to talk about it. I just came from the funeral home, for heaven’s sake!” yelled Brendan.
For the first time, Solomon Benjamin seemed to have some sympathy for his son. “You’re right, of course. We can talk about it later.”
“Much later,” said Brendan.
“Oh, and you had a call when you were out. Some guy from your work.”
Kan looked at Brendan. “Did you forget your cell phone?”
“No, we have a home phone.”
Kan stared at him. “You still have a land line?”
Brendan ignored Kan. “Who called?”
“Oh, Brendan, you work in technology, for crying out loud,” admonished Kan.
“Shut up,” said Brendan. He looked at Sol. “Who called?”
“I wrote it down.” Sol turned back a page on his legal pad. “Jarvis. I don’t know if that is his first name or his last name, but he wants you to call him back. He said it was urgent.”
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“No, he just said to call him as soon as you could.”
Brendan had ignored a call to his cell phone from Jarvis while at the funeral home so this wasn’t a surprise. He walked out of the room without a word and pulled out his cell phone to listen to the message.
Solomon and Kan looked at each other awkwardly. Sol broke the silence.
“So, do you work with Brendan?”
“No,” said Kan, “I’m an attorney.”
“No kidding. With who?” asked Sol.
“Poole, Case and Lord.”
Sol laughed. “Bastards. Which practice?”
“Well,” said Solomon Benjamin, “stick around. You just might learn something.”
Aaron was browsing websites, searching for information on the self-driving car industry. He was amazed at the amount of testing being done by these companies that was happening right on city streets and was even more amazed at the small number of accidents. Maybe it really was a good thing. Then he remembered the panic on Pavel’s face and thought, well, maybe it’s not such a good thing. Willie walked into the office area.
“What’s up, buttercup?” she said as she sat down. Willie’s desk faced his, so they could talk easily while they worked. “Working the Mason case?” The Mason file was their most pressing case at the moment. A financial firm had covered up the theft of client funds a decade ago, but their actions had just recently come to light. While the firm had reimbursed each client, crimes had been committed. Aaron and Willie were trying to unravel the twisted chain of events.
“No, I’m just trying to do some research into Vinci.”
“That is really bothering you, isn’t it?” asked Willie as she logged onto her laptop and started going through her email.
“Maybe it’s just my Spidey sense kicking in, but something’s fishy in Denmark.”
“And is there trouble in River City?”
“I’m serious. Pavel’s going to get nailed for that accident. But he was sitting in the back seat.”
“You didn’t see a girl get out of the car, too, did you? Maybe they were making out.”
Aaron ignored her. “Which implies that he was clearly depending on the car to safely get him to the event. There is no way he could control the speed of the car but yet it was clearly going way too fast.”
“But he had his hands on the wheel,” pointed out Willie.
“Because he was going to get beheaded when the car slammed into the flatbed of the truck.”
“Maybe. But even if he had no choice, as sad as that is, that’s not our problem, nor does it fall under our jurisdiction. Let the police take care of it. Like Frank said.”
“What if they get it wrong?”
“That’s not for you to decide.”
Aaron looked at her for a second. “Wow, that’s cold.”
Willie exhaled through her nose loudly. “No, it’s just that we have a lot of work to do and no mandate to get involved in this case.”
“I’m already involved.”
“As a witness.”
“I have a responsibility.”
“To keep your witness hat on,” said Willie. “Look, let’s work on Mason for a while and then I’ll listen to your take on the accident over coffee down at Putney’s.”
Aaron smiled and frowned at the same time. “Fine. You’ll probably regret that offer.”
Willie showed her shining teeth. “I know I will.”
Michael Windom, Eric’s chief of staff, stood alertly outside of the hospital room, taking his shift of protecting Eric from being questioned by the police. Michael had left a message for Eric’s attorney and was eagerly waiting for a call back. A police investigator had returned to try to talk with Eric about the accident and had been rebuffed once again with the help of Eric’s doctor. Michael knew at some point someone would return with a court order to compel them to at least give them access to Eric, so he was trying to stay ahead of it.
He pulled out his phone and called the attorney’s office again. He explained the reason for his call and this time was put right through.
“Mitch, it’s Michael Windom.”
“Michael, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get back to you sooner. How’s Eric?”
“Physically he’s injured but he’ll be fine. I’m not so sure about his legal situation.”
“From what I’ve heard, which is very little, it seems like the liability for the accident belongs to Vinci.”
“You’ve heard that he was in the back seat?”
“Yes, certainly he could not be expected to be in control of the car. I’d question his judgment, but it seems to me that’s his defense.”
“This is between you and me. He leaned over the front to grab the steering wheel.”
“Why in the world would he do that?”
“The car was heading toward a stopped truck and he turned the wheel to miss it.”
“And in doing so he hit the pedestrians.”
“Have the police questioned him yet?” asked Mitch, entering lawyer mode.
“No, but they keep trying to. I’m waiting for them to show up with a court order.”
“Are you at the hospital now?”
“Yes, guarding the room. Molly and I are taking turns.”
“Good. Stay there, I’ll be there soon. I have one phone call to make.”
“He’s in trouble, isn’t he?”
“The phone call I have to make? It’s to a defense lawyer I know.”
“Is he any good?” asked Michael.
“He had better be.” The phone went dead.
Michael took the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a moment. It was one thing for him to be a little freaked out about what was going on, but it was another thing for him to hear an experienced legal professional be concerned. He gathered his thoughts and entered Eric’s hospital room. Eric was sleeping soundly, and his wife Sara was struggling to read a magazine that she had found in the gift shop. Michael smiled hesitantly at Sara, with whom he had not had the best relationship in recent memory. They had pretty much been at war for Eric’s time since he had announced his candidacy for Congress five years ago, and it was a tenuous relationship at best. Today had not been pleasant by any means.
“Sara,” said Michael quietly, staying by the door.
Sara closed the magazine deliberately and glared at him. “Was the trip in the car your doing?” she said frostily. “What have you gotten him into?”
“Sara, no, I swear, this is something he wanted to do.”
“And you had nothing to do with it?”
“No.” He hedged. “Well, yes, I helped with the arrangements. But it was his thing from the beginning.”
“Why?” asked Sara.
“Why did he want to do this irresponsible thing? Why would he get in an experimental car and put himself at risk?”
Michael was torn between the politically correct answer and the soothing answer. His hesitancy cost him.
“I knew it! You did this to him! He would have never done this if you hadn’t pushed him into it!” She stood up and pointed toward the door.” Get out! Get out, now! You’ve ruined him. You’ve ruined us!” Sara dissolved into tears and when he tried to soothe her, her look drove a dagger into him. “Don’t. Don’t say a word. Get out before I have you thrown out!”
Michael backed slowly out while trying to put together words that would help. His exit was aided by the door being opened by the cop who was wondering what was going on. Once outside, he said quietly to the cop, “She’s upset.” The policeman gave him a look that clearly communicated that he thought Michael to be the reason.
Michael walked out into the hall, sitting down in a waiting room where he could still see Eric’s door, and pondered his next move. Based on the events, he would soon be looking for a job. He had no doubt that he would land on his feet, but he was perfectly happy where he was. He closed his eyes and sighed, exhausted at the radical change in his life the last twenty-four hours had brought.
His depressing self-centered thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of his phone. He didn’t recognize the number, a northern California area code. He answered it.
“Hello, is this Michael?”
“It is. Who’s this?”
“I’m a friend of Mitch Halsted.” The voice paused.
“I just talked with him.”
“Yes, I know. My name is Jeremy Lucas, and I’m a defense lawyer.”
Finally, thought Michael, the first good news of the day.
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