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Crowning design, p.16
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       Crowning Design, p.16

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “Oh, my,” John Turner said under his breath to Deborah as the gathering dispersed to the refreshment tables, “that bit of nicely-rendered hogwash should guarantee business through the year 2000. And the publicity certainly can’t hurt your chances of winning an AIA Honor Award, which I’m sure you’ve already thought about.”

  “I have to be nominated first, John,” Deborah reminded him, wondering if the engineer possessed any other color suit but brown.

  “What’s this you say?” inquired the mayor pleasantly, falling back to escort the pretty architect to the Champagne. His wife had already taken charge of Dan.

  “Oh,” explained John, “I was just telling my esteemed colleague here”—Deborah suspected a thorn beneath the rose—“that her design of the complex is liable to win an award given by the American Institute of Architects.”

  “How very splendid,” he said. “I’ll ask Randall to keep me informed. What a plum that would be for Denver, not to mention the Hayden firm.”

  Randall, who was always so enthusiastic about his clients’ ground-breaking ceremonies, seemed listless and unexcited about the one hosted by the Parker Corporation. “He’s not been himself lately,” Bea told Deborah when she remarked about his distant manner and preoccupied air at the luncheon that followed. “I don’t know what’s the matter with him.”

  Deborah wondered if Randall had guessed that she and Dan Parker had reconciled when she had declined his invitation to spend Christmas Day with him and Bea. “I am entertaining out-of-town guests for Christmas,” she had explained.

  “Which guests?”

  “No one you know.” It was the truth. Alicia Dameron was coming with her agent, the kindly man Deborah had met at Thanksgiving and to whom Alicia was now engaged.

  But if so, Randall had made no mention of his suspicions, and that kind of restraint was not typical of him. Deborah worried that he might be ill. He was nearly seventy now and had been looking unduly tired. At the luncheon, she looked down the table at him. He was usually so delightfully urbane and witty on these occasions. Today he looked drawn and contributed little to the conversation.

  As Christmas drew near, Deborah resolved to tell Dan about the events of eight years ago as soon as the steel support columns had been erected. Their delivery was due the day after New Year’s. Once the steel was delivered and the columns up, the worst of Dan’s anxieties about the complex would be over. The union representing the workers for the major steel manufacturing companies did indeed plan to strike the first of January. The steel inventories of local supply companies were already drying up due to the demands of builders and contractors for their orders before the strike deadline. Dan was worried that somehow, someway, there might be a glitch in his order that would delay the project. She would wait until it was safely at the site and those columns bolted to the foundation before she told him about Roger. Then, if his judgment proved harsh, she would withdraw from the project, request that John take over as the architect in charge, and remove herself once and for all from Dan’s life.

  Until then, there was Christmas to think about. Alicia and her agent were flying in late the twenty-third to say for three days. Deborah had a number of festivities arranged, including a skiing trip to Winter Park, a nearby resort.

  “Don’t plan anything for Christmas afternoon,” Dan told her one evening. “I have a surprise.”

  “Oh, you and your surprises!” Deborah laughed and hung a red tree ornament on his ear. They were decorating the Christmas tree, a seven-foot fir that filled the picture window. The night before, they had spent several mirthful hours selecting it, then came home to whittle its base to fit the stand. There had never been a Christmas tree in the picture window. Until now, the family tree ornaments had remained packed in their shipping crates stacked in the basement. Deborah had asked that Dan bring them up for her. Memories leapt out as she pushed back the protective wrappings and lifted the baubles from their tissue nests. Dan had sensed the poignancy in her mood.

  “You never talk about them, you know,” he said.

  “Who?” she asked.

  “You know who, Deborah. Your parents, that’s who.”

  Deborah found a spot on the tree for the ornament in her hand. Then, careful not to step on the boxes with their fragile contents, she made her way to Dan, sitting at the dining-room table. He was attempting, unsuccessfully, to make order of a glittering tangle of icicles.

  “Dan?”

  “Yes, honey?”

  “You know I love you.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “I have something that I must tell you, before…we can discuss the future.”

  “I suspected you did, but I know better than to rush you, Deborah, especially since I’m not going anywhere.”

  “I…want to tell you after New Year’s, once the columns are up.”

  “Suits me,” he said incuriously, glancing up, his expression lightly mocking her seriousness. He reached for her hand when she continued to regard him gravely. “Whatever it is, Deborah, it will not affect the way I feel about you. Believe me.” The blue eyes held hers steadily, and something strangely knowing glimmered in their depths. Deborah drew back a little, conscious of a chill sweeping her spine. In that instant, she thought she had read her secret in his eyes.

  Dan’s “surprise” arrived on two runners and eight legs Christmas afternoon. He had hired a driver with a team of two horses and a sleigh for a ride through the snow-covered countryside. He’d thought of everything. There were bells tied with red ribbons on the harnesses, thermoses of hot cocoa, and song books for carols. The memory of the sights and sounds and feelings of the outing—the clop of hooves down country lanes, the jingle of bells, the peals of laughter, the off-key carols, the companionship, the cozy warmth of blankets and cocoa, the biting air and fresh sun—made an incalculable gift. “One we’ll cherish forever, Daniel, you dear boy,” fluted Alicia, looking like a figure on a Christmas card in white ermine cloche and scarf.

  It was only after the laughter and fun of Christmas were over and the new year had begun that Deborah remembered the moment with Dan at the dining-room table. It was then that she comprehended the meaning in the clear blue eyes.

  Chapter Eleven

  The steel columns had arrived. They lay near the foundation of the headquarters building, stacked beneath tarpaulins to protect them from the lightly falling snow. Deborah left to Bill Williams, the construction superintendent, the job of measuring the lengths and went to join Dan in the site trailer.

  Wearing a dark, fleece-lined jacket, he was sitting at a desk poring over invoices when she entered. “Good morning,” he said, looking up with a smile. “Coffee’s on. Fresh pot.”

  “I want something else first,” she said, bending to kiss him.

  When they drew apart, Dan’s admiring gaze swept over her face, lingering on the snow in her hair. “You’re gorgeous,” he said.

  “Naturally,” she agreed, smiling. “I’m in love. How are things going?”

  “Right on schedule. So far, so good.” Dan tilted back in his chair with a satisfied stretch, making the statement more to Bill, who was at that moment entering the trailer, than to Deborah. Behind him was a man from the steel fabricating shop who had come to direct the erection of the columns. They brought in frosty breaths and dark looks. “You fellows ready to put ’em up?” Dan asked.

  Bill glanced at Deborah before answering. She was a fine young woman. He liked her even if she was a woman in a man’s profession, and he knew the boss was totally gone on her. He sure hoped she wasn’t responsible for this fine kettle of fish. “Not hardly,” he said flatly. “Them steel columns is at least four inches short.”

  Dan’s chair hit the floor, surprise hoisting him out of it. “What!” he said incredulously. “They can’t be!”

  Bill threw the industrial tape measure in its steel case onto the desk. “That thing don’t lie, boss. It says that every one of them columns measures nineteen feet, eight inches. They were measured
three times. We’re four inches short.”

  Fire in his eye, Dan confronted the steel fabricator. “Mr. Parker,” the man protested before Dan could speak, “unless my memory has completely gone bonkers, the structural drawings from the Hayden firm called for nineteen-foot, eight-inch columns. I was standing right there when our shop drawings were drafted from them. I called out the figures for the columns myself. Also, the shop drawings came back from the architect approved.”

  “Well, we’ll soon see who’s responsible for this,” Dan gritted, spinning around to pull out rolls of blueprints from pigeon holes above the desk. “Not that it will make a damn bit of difference to this mess. The damage is done.”

  Deborah, agape in a nightmarish immobility, stood with the coffeepot still in her hand. Dan’s apprehensions had not been unfounded, after all, but never in her darkest imaginings had she considered a disaster of this magnitude. For a steel fabricator to cut these particular columns too short was like a surgeon accidentally cutting the aorta. The entire support system of the headquarters building, which the rest of the complex adjoined, depended on the twenty-foot columns. Due to their unique features, they could not be extended at either end. The columns would have to be reordered. Not only would that result in a delay in construction prohibitive in cost, but to make Dan’s situation worse, this morning, as feared, the major steel unions had declared a strike.

  Slowly, while the structural and shop drawings were unrolled on the desk, she managed to return the coffeepot to its heating element. Watching the men compare the two sets of blueprints, one of which would prove conclusively whether the fabricating plant or the Hayden firm was at fault, she knew that John’s vertical dimensions would show no error. Although Tony had approved them, the fabricator’s shop drawings, taken from John’s specifications and from which steel is cut to order, would have to bear responsibility for the four-inch miscalculation. As the architect in charge, she was answerable for any error committed by any member of her team. But there was small consolation in knowing that she would be found blameless. Dan’s terrible predicament remained.

  Still, her heart skipped a beat as all three heads lifted at once and all eyes fastened on her. No one spoke. Then Bill said gravely, “The shop drawings show the height of the columns as nineteen feet, eight inches.”

  Deborah’s attention was riveted on Dan. Her flesh tingled with a chilly forewarning of his next words. “John’s read nineteen feet, eight inches, also,” he announced, incredibly.

  “That’s impossible!” She gasped.

  “See for yourself,” Dan invited tersely, thrusting out the roll of blueprints.

  Dumbfounded, Deborah rolled out the structural drawings and studied John’s computations of the columns. Nineteen feet, eight inches. “It can’t be possible,” she whispered, staring at Dan. “The figures have been altered from the originals! They had to have been! Somebody, somehow, tampered with them and changed the computations before they were sent to the fabricator so that the shop drawings would call for columns four inches short!”

  The silence was palpable in the small trailer. Deborah sensed the embarrassed shift of Bill’s eyes to the window, the fabricator’s intent concentration on the floor. Dan spoke evenly, a muscle jumping along his jawline. “You were working under enormous pressure, Deborah. Don’t you think it is possible that you overlooked John’s computations in the final check? You couldn’t have re-computed every measurement.”

  “No!” she protested. “For heaven’s sake, Dan! You know those columns are the most important feature of the design! I checked those figures a dozen times. When you picked up the construction documents, the structural drawings called for twenty-foot columns. I would bet my life on it!” Getting no response other than a doubtful stare, Deborah approached him and cried, “Don’t you understand what’s happened here? Somebody, somehow, altered John’s drawings to delay the project or—or—” An idea hit her, deepening her sense of horror. “Or to discredit me as the architect in charge!”

  The fabricator cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh, excuse me, Mr. Parker, but since there’s nothing else for me to do here today, I’ll just get on back to the shop. I sure am sorry about all of this.” He stuck out his hand to Dan, who offered a taut-lipped apology that he had thought his plant in error. “Oh, that’s all right,” the man assured him. “In these situations, the fabricator’s always the first one to be thought at fault, not the architect. I wish I could say that we could get you a reorder on those columns, but our steel supply is just about depleted. Every builder in town wanted to get a jump on the strike. I’m afraid I couldn’t even talk about a delivery date before two, maybe three months.”

  Dan accepted the information with stiff grace and thanked the man for coming out. Bill, with slumped shoulders and eyes averted from Deborah, retreated with the fabricator.

  When the door had closed, Dan demanded, “Do you know what you just did? News of this will spread fast enough, but you gave that fabricator quite a story to tell when he gets back to the shop! My God, Deborah, just admit the error and take the consequences. Don’t make matters worse by denying responsibility for it!”

  “Dan, you’ve got to believe me for your own sake,” she pleaded desperately, clutching the front of his jacket. “Somebody deliberately and maliciously altered John’s drawings to damage you financially or destroy my career—maybe both. I have a terrible feeling that someone in the firm is responsible. I don’t see how this thing could have been successfully pulled off otherwise.”

  Dan jammed his hands into the pockets of his jacket and said, fighting to control his inner rage and disappointment, “Now, who would want to do that? Who in the firm could afford to go to such elaborate trouble to injure you professionally, Deborah? What would be the point? And as for damaging me financially by delaying the project, that could have been done without involving you or the Hayden firm. So that brings us back to you. Who would go to such nasty lengths to discredit you?”

  Deborah thought immediately of John Turner. He wouldn’t hesitate to bring her down any way he could, but not at the expense of the Hayden firm. “I—I don’t know,” she stammered in confusion, “but somebody did.”

  Dan regarded her in skeptical silence, bleak eyes betraying his disappointment in her. “You don’t believe me, do you, my darling?” she stated in a small, lost voice, daring to place her hands on his mountainous shoulders.

  “Don’t you think I want to?” he said desolately. “Don’t you think I know that more is at stake here than this project or your career? But right now the only certainty I know is that if I don’t get another order of that specially rolled steel in here within the next week, I’m on the brink of financial ruin. Who did what to whom and who’s responsible for what is the least of my concerns at the moment. I suggest you get back to the office and inform Randall of what’s happened. Tell him to line up his attorneys. He’ll be needing them if I know Clayton Thomas.”

  “Oh, no.” Deborah breathed woefully. “He’s still a member of the corporation?”

  “Yes,” Dan said shortly.

  “Dan… I’m being… framed. That’s the only word for it. I don’t know why, but I am. John’s original drawings of the columns showed them to be twenty feet in height the morning I turned them over to Randall to be printed for you to take to the zoning commission.”

  “Then the thing for you to do is get back to the office and check John’s originals. If they show evidence of having been tampered with, then you’ll have a case. It also means that somebody in the firm is responsible. The tampering had to have been done before the prints were made that I picked up on the twenty-second.”

  “And if there is no evidence of tampering?”

  Dan contemplated the amber eyes, as clouded as a sunless autumn day. Closing his hands around hers, he clasped them tightly. “I don’t know, Deborah. I just don’t know.”

  Chilled from more than the near-freezing temperature, Deborah sailed past Bea into the production room to t
he flat file. All original drawings were stored in these drawers. Her hands were shaking by the time she located the ones she sought. Carefully, closely, she examined the mylar sheets with their pencilled lines. No doubt remained in her mind. With only a rubber-tipped pencil, someone had erased John’s original figures and substituted others that altered the vertical dimensions of the columns by four inches. But there was not a telltale trace to prove it. Her blood ran cold. Who hated her enough to do this? Who wanted to malign her reputation, stop the project, bring Dan to the edge of financial ruin? Who? She took the drawings with her to Randall’s office.

  He was standing at a window looking out at the snow, hands clasped behind his back. “Randall?” The face he turned to her was that of a very tired, depleted old man. Lines that she had never seen before etched the pale, delicate skin. “You’ve heard, haven’t you?” she said, shocked by his appearance.

  “Heard what, my dear?”

  Then he must be very ill, she thought, pierced by a cold dismay. She approached the desk, holding the drawings. “I think you’d better sit down, dear,” she suggested gently. “I have some bad news.”

  “Oh? What kind of bad news?” Carefully, as if his fragile frame might break, Randall eased himself into the desk chair. “Come, come. Spill it out,” he said when she hesitated. “Surely it can’t be that bad.”

  But by the time Deborah had related the details of the morning’s discovery, leaving out her suspicions about the alteration, Randall’s mouth hung slack. “Oh, dear me, Deborah. This is indeed bad news.” He stared off into space blankly, every now and then blinking as a consequence of the error was fully realized. Finally, he drew a deep breath and straightened resolutely. “We have weathered storms before,” he said. “We’ll ride this one out. Are those John’s drawings?”

 
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