Adam Cassidy is twenty-six and a low level employee at a high-tech corporation who hates his job. When he manipulates the system to do something nice for a friend, he finds himself charged with a crime. Corporate Security gives him a choice: prison - or become a spy in the headquarters of their chief competitor, Trion Systems.
They train him. They feed him inside information. Now, at Trion, he's a star, skyrocketing to the top. He finds he has talents he never knew he possessed. He's rich, drives a Porsche, lives in a fabulous apartment, and works directly for the CEO. He's dating the girl of his dreams.
His life is perfect. And all he has to do to keep it that way is betray everyone he cares about and everything he believes in.
But when he tries to break off from his controllers, he finds he's in way over his head, trapped in a world in which nothing is as it seems and no one can really be trusted.
And then the real nightmare begins...
From the writer whose novels have been called "thrilling" (New York Times) and "dazzling" (USA Today) comes an electrifying new novel, a roller-coaster ride of suspense that will hold the reader hostage until the final, astonishing twist.
"A high octane thrill ride!" - San Francisco Chronicle on Paranoia
Joseph Finder's New York Times bestseller Paranoia was hailed by critics as "jet-propelled," the "Page Turner of the Year," and "the archetype of the thriller in its contemporary form."
Now Finder returns with Company Man - a heart-stopping thriller about ambition, betrayal, and the price of secrets.
Nick Conover is the CEO of a major corporation, a local boy made good, and once the most admired man in a company town. But that was before the layoffs.
When a faceless stalker menaces his family, Nick, a single father of two since the recent death of his wife, finds that the gated community they live in is no protection at all. He decides to take action, a tragedy ensues - and immediately his life spirals out of control.
At work, Nick begins to uncover a conspiracy against him, involving some of his closest colleagues. He doesn't know who he can trust - including the brilliant, troubled new woman in his life.
Meanwhile, his actions are being probed by a homicide detective named Audrey Rhimes, a relentless investigator with a strong sense of morality - and her own, very personal reason for pursuing Nick Conover.
With everything he cares about in the balance, Nick discovers strengths he never knew he had. His enemies don't realize how hard he'll fight to save his company. And nobody knows how far he'll go to protect his family.
Mesmerizing and psychologically astute, Company Man is Joseph Finder's most compelling and original novel yet.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||784 KB|
About the Author
Joseph Finder is the author of several New York Times bestselling thrillers, including Buried Secrets, High Crimes, Paranoia and the first Nick Heller novel, Vanished. Killer Instinct won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Thriller, and Company Man won the Barry and Gumshoe Awards for Best Thriller. High Crimes was the basis of the Morgan Freeman/Ashley Judd movie, and Paranoia was the basis for 2013 film with Liam Hemsworth, Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. Killer Instinct is also in development as a major motion picture. Born in Chicago, Finder studied Russian at Yale and Harvard. He was recruited by the CIA, but decided he preferred writing fiction. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Association for Former Intelligence Officers, he lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
This one's for Henry: brother and consigliere and, as always, for the two girls in my life: my wife, Michele, and my daughter, Emma.
Fix: A CIA term, of Cold War origin, that refers to a person who is to be compromised or blackmailed so that he will do the Agency's bidding.
--The Dictionary of Espionage
Until the whole thing happened, I never believed the old line about how you should be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.
I believe it now.
I believe in all those cautionary proverbs now. I believe that pride goeth before a fall. I believe the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, that misfortune seldom comes alone, that all that glitters isn't gold, that lies walk on short legs. Man, you name it. I believe it.
I could try to tell you that what started it all was an act of generosity, but that wouldn't be quite accurate. It was more like an act of stupidity. Call it a cry for help. Maybe more like a raised middle finger. Whatever, it was my bad. I half thought I'd get away with it, half expected to be fired. I've got to say, when I look back on how it all began, I marvel at what an arrogant prick I was. I'm not going to deny that I got what I deserved. It just wasn't what I expected--but who'd ever expect something like this?
All I did was make a couple of phone calls. Impersonated the VP for Corporate Events and called the fancy outside caterer that did all of Wyatt Telecom's parties. I told them to just make it exactly like the bash they'd done the week before for the Top Salesman of the Year award. (Of course, I had no idea how lavish that was.) I gave them all the right disbursement numbers, authorized the transfer of funds in advance. The whole thing was surprisingly easy.
The owner of Meals of Splendor told me he'd never done a function on a company loading dock, that it presented "décor challenges," but I knew he wasn't going to turn away a big check from Wyatt Telecom.
Somehow I doubt Meals of Splendor had ever done a retirement party for an assistant foreman either.
I think that's what really pissed Wyatt off. Paying for Jonesie's retirement party--a loading dock guy, for Christ's sake!--was a violation of the natural order. If instead I'd used the money as a down payment on a Ferrari 360 Modena convertible, Nicholas Wyatt might have almost understood. He would have recognized my greed as evidence of our shared humanity, like a weakness for booze, or "broads," as he called women.
If I'd known how it would all end up, would I have done it all over again? Hell, no.
Still, I have to say, it was pretty cool. I was into the fact that Jonesie's party was being paid for out of a fund earmarked for, among other things, an "offside" for the CEO and his senior vice presidents at the Guanahani resort on the island of St. Barthélemy.
I also loved seeing the loading dock guys finally getting a taste of how the execs lived. Most of the guys and their wives, whose idea of a splurge was the Shrimp Feast at the Red Lobster or Ribs On The Barbie at Outback Steakhouse, didn't know what to make of some of the weird food, the osetra caviar and saddle of veal Provençal, but they devoured the filet of beef en croûte, the rack of lamb, the roasted lobster with ravioli. The ice sculptures were a big hit. The Dom Perignon flowed, though not as fast as the Budweiser. (This I called right, since I used to hang out on the loading dock on Friday afternoons, smoking, when someone, usually Jonesie or Jimmy Connolly, the foreman, brought in an Igloo of cold ones to celebrate the end of another week.)
Jonesie, an old guy with one of those weathered, hangdog faces that make people like him instantly, was lit the whole night. His wife of forty-two years, Esther, at first seemed standoffish, but she turned out to be an amazing dancer. I'd hired an excellent Jamaican reggae group, and everyone got into it, even the guys you'd never expect to dance.
This was after the big tech meltdown, of course, and companies everywhere were laying people off and instituting "frugality" policies, meaning you had to pay for the lousy coffee, and no more free Cokes in the breakroom, and like that. Jonesie was slated to just stop work one Friday, spend a few hours at HR signing forms, and go home for the rest of his life, no party, no nothing. Meanwhile, the Wyatt Telecom E-staff was planning to head down to St. Bart's in their Learjets, boink their wives or girlfriends in their private villas, slather coconut oil on their love handles, and discuss companywide frugality policies over obscene buffet breakfasts of papayas and hummingbird tongues. Jonesie and his friends didn't really question too closely who was paying for it all. But it did give me some kind of twisted secret pleasure.
Until around one-thirty in the morning, when the sound of electric guitars and the screams of a couple of the younger guys, blotto out of their minds, must have attracted the curiosity of a security guard, a fairly new hire (the pay's lousy, turnover is unbelievable) who didn't know any of us and wasn't inclined to cut anyone any slack.
He was a pudgy guy with a flushed, sort of Porky Pig face, barely thirty. He just gripped his walkie-talkie as if it were a Glock and said, "What the hell?"
And my life as I knew it was over.
The voice mail was waiting for me when I got in to work, late as usual.
Even later than usual, actually. I felt queasy and my head thudded and my heart was going too fast from the giant cup of cheap coffee I'd gulped down on the subway. A wave of acid splashed over my stomach. I'd considered calling in sick, but that little voice of sanity in my head told me that after the events of last night the wiser thing to do was to show up at work and face the music.
Thing is, I fully expected to get fired--almost looked forward to it, the way you might both dread and look forward to having an aching tooth drilled. When I came out of the elevator and walked the half-mile through the lower forty of the cubicle farm to my workstation, I could see heads popping up, prairie-dog style, to catch a glimpse of me. I was a celebrity; the word was out. E-mail was no doubt flying.
My eyes were bloodshot, my hair was a mess, I looked like a walking JUST SAY NO public service spot.
The little LCD screen display on my IP phone said, "You have eleven voice mails." I put it on speaker and zipped through them. Just listening to the messages, frantic and sincere and wheedling, increased the pressure behind my eyeballs. I got out the Advil bottle from the bottom desk drawer and dry-swallowed two. That made six Advils already this morning, which exceeded the recommended maximum. So what could happen to me? Die from an ibuprofen overdose just moments before being fired?
I was a junior product line manager for routers in our Enterprise Division. You don't want the English translation, it's too mind-numbingly boring. I spent my days hearing phrases like "dynamic bandwidth circuit emulation service" and "integrated access device" and "ATM backbones" and "IP security tunneling protocol," and I swear I didn't know what half the shit meant.
A message from a guy in Sales named Griffin, calling me "big guy," boasting of how he'd just sold a couple dozen of the routers I was managing by assuring the customer that they'd have a particular feature--extra multicast protocols for live video streaming--that he knew damned well it didn't have. But it sure would be nice if the feature was added to the product, like maybe in the next two weeks, before the product was supposed to ship. Yeah, dream on.
A follow-up call five minutes later from Griffin's manager just "checking on the progress of the multicast protocol work we heard you're doing," as if I actually did the technical work myself.
And the clipped, important voice of a man named Arnold Meacham, who identified himself as Director of Corporate Security and asked me to please "come by" his office the moment I got in.
I had no idea who Arnold Meacham was, beyond his title. I'd never heard his name before. I didn't even know where Corporate Security was located.
It's funny: when I heard the message, my heart didn't start racing like you might expect. It actually slowed, as if my body knew the gig was up. There was actually something Zen going on, the inner serenity of realizing there's nothing you can do anyway. I almost luxuriated in the moment.
For a few minutes I stared at my cubicle walls, the nubby charcoal Avora fabric that looked like the wall-to-wall in my dad's apartment. I kept the panel walls free of any evidence of human habitation--no photos of the wife and kids (easy, since I didn't have any), no Dilbert cartoons, nothing clever or ironic that said I was here under protest, because I was way beyond that. I had one bookshelf, holding a routing protocol reference guide and four thick black binders containing the "feature library" for the MG-50K router. I would not miss this cubicle.
Besides, it wasn't like I was about to get shot; I'd already been shot, I figured.Now it was just a matter of disposing of the body and swabbing up the blood. I remember once in college reading about the guillotine in French history, and how one executioner, a medical doctor, tried this gruesome experiment (you get your kicks wherever you can, I guess). A few seconds after the head was lopped off he watched the eyes and lips twitch and spasm until the eyelids closed and everything stopped. Then he called out the dead man's name, and the eyes on the decapitated head popped open and stared right at the executioner. A few seconds more and the eyes closed, then the doctor called the man's name again, and the eyes came open again, staring. Cute. So thirty seconds after being separated from the body, the head's still reacting. This was how I felt. The blade had already dropped, and they're calling my name.
I picked up the phone and called Arnold Meacham's office, told his assistant that I was on my way, and asked how to get there.
My throat was dry, so I stopped at the break room to get one of the formerly-free-but-now-fifty-cent sodas. The break room was all the way back in the middle of the floor near the bank of elevators, and as I walked, in a weird sort of fugue state, a couple more colleagues caught sight of me and turned away quickly, embarrassed.
I surveyed the sweaty glass case of sodas, decided against my usual Diet Pepsi--I really didn't need more caffeine right now--and pulled out a Sprite. Just to be a rebel I didn't leave any money in the jar. Whoa, that'll show them. I popped it open and headed for the elevator.
I hated my job, truly despised it, so the thought of losing it wasn't exactly bumming me out. On the other hand, it wasn't as if I had a trust fund, and I sure did need the money. That was the whole point, wasn't it? I had moved back here essentially to help with my dad's medical care--my dad, who considered me a fuckup. In Manhattan, bartending, I made half the money but lived better. We're talking Manhattan! Here I was living in a ratty street-level studio apartment on Pearl Street that reeked of traffic exhaust, and whose windows rattled when the trucks rumbled by at five in the morning. Granted, I was able to go out a couple of nights a week with friends, but I usually ended up dipping into my checking account's credit line a week or so before my paycheck magically appeared on the fifteenth of the month.
Not that I was exactly busting my ass either. I coasted. I put in the minimumrequired hours, got in late and left early, but I got my work done. My performance review numbers weren't so good--I was a "core contributor," a two band, just one step up from "lowest contributor," when you should start packing your stuff.
I got into the elevator, looked down at what I was wearing--black jeans and a gray polo shirt, sneakers--and wished I'd put on a tie.
When you work at a big corporation, you never know what to believe. There's always a lot of tough, scary macho talk. They're always telling you about "killing the competition," putting a "stake in their heart." They tell you to "kill or be killed," "eat or be eaten," to "eat their lunch" and "eat your own dog food" and "eat your young."
You're a software engineer or a product manager or a sales associate, but after a while you start to think that somehow you got mixed up with one of those aboriginal tribes in Papua New Guinea that wear boar's tusks through their noses and gourds on their dicks. When the reality is that if you e-mail an off-color, politically incorrect joke to your buddy in IT, who then cc's it to a guy a few cubicles over, you can end up locked in a sweaty HR conference room for a grueling week of Diversity Training. Filch paper clips and you get slapped with the splintered ruler of life.
Thing is, of course, I'd done something a little more serious than raiding the office-supply cabinet.
They kept me waiting in an outer office for half an hour, forty-five minutes, but it seemed longer. There was nothing to read--just Security Management, stuff like that. The receptionist wore her ash-blond hair in a helmet, yellow smoker's circles under her eyes. She answered the phone, tapped away at a keyboard, glanced over at me furtively from time to time, the way you might try to catch a glimpse of a grisly car accident while you're trying to keep your eyes on the road.
I sat there so long my confidence began to waver. That might have been the point. The monthly paycheck thing was beginning to look like a good idea. Maybe defiance wasn't the best approach. Maybe I should eat shit. Maybe it was way past that.
Arnold Meacham didn't get up when the receptionist brought me in. He sat behind a giant black desk that looked like polished granite. He was around forty, thin and broad, a Gumby build, with a long square head, long thin nose, no lips. Graying brown hair that was receding. He wore a double-breasted blue blazer and a blue striped tie, like the president of a yacht club. He glared at me through oversized steel aviator glasses. You could tell he was totally humorless. In a chair to the right of his desk sat a woman a few years older than me who seemed to be taking notes. His office was big and spare, lots of framed diplomas on the wall. At one end, a half-opened door let onto a darkened conference room.
"So you're Adam Cassidy," he said. He had a prissy, precise way of speaking. "Party down, dude?" He pressed his lips into a smirk.
Oh, God. This was not going to go well. "What can I do for you?" I said. I tried to look perplexed, concerned.
"What can you do for me? How about start with telling the truth? That's what you can do for me." He had the slightest trace of a Southern accent.
Generally people like me. I'm pretty good at winning them over--the pissed-off math teacher, the enterprise customer whose order is six weeks overdue, you name it. But I could see at once this wasn't a Dale Carnegie moment. The odds of salvaging my odious job were dwindling by the second.
"Sure," I said. "The truth about what?"
He snorted with amusement. "How about last night's catered event?"
I paused, considered. "You're talking about the little retirement party?" I said. I didn't know how much they knew, since I'd been pretty careful about the money trail. I had to watch what I said. The woman with the notebook, a slight woman with frizzy red hair and big green eyes, was probably there as a witness. "It was a much-needed morale boost," I added. "Believe me, sir, it'll do wonders for departmental productivity."
His lipless mouth curled. "'Morale boost.' Your fingerprints are all over the funding for that 'morale boost.'"
"Oh, cut the crap,'Cassidy."
"I'm not sure I'm understanding you, sir."
"Do you think I'm stupid?" Six feet of fake granite between him and me and I could feel droplets of his spittle.
"I'm guessing ... no, sir." The trace of a smile appeared at the corner of my mouth. I couldn't help it: pride of workmanship. Big mistake.
Meacham's pasty face flushed. "You think it's funny, hacking into proprietary company databases to obtain confidential disbursement numbers? You think it's recreation, it's clever? It doesn't count?"
"You lying sack of shit, you prick, it's no better than stealing an old lady's purse on the fucking subway!"
I tried to look chastened, but I could see where this conversation was going and it seemed pointless.
"You stole seventy-eight thousand dollars from the Corporate Events account for a goddamned party for your buddies on the loading dock?"
I swallowed hard. Shit. Seventy-eight thousand dollars? I knew it was pretty high-end, but I had no idea how high-end.
"This guy in on it with you?"
"Who do you mean? I think maybe you're confused about--"
"'Jonesie'? The old guy, the name on the cake?"
"Jonesie had nothing to do with it," I shot back.
Meacham leaned back, looking triumphant because he'd finally found a toehold.
"If you want to fire me, go ahead, but Jonesie was totally innocent."
"Fire you?" Meacham looked as if I'd said something in Serbo-Croatian. "You think I'm talking about firing you? You're a smart guy, you're good at computers and math, you can add, right? So maybe you can add up these numbers. Embezzling funds, that gets you five years of imprisonment and a two-hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar fine. Wire fraud and mail fraud, that's another five years in prison, but wait--if the fraud affects a financial institution--and lucky you, you fucked with our bank and the recipient bank, your lucky day, you little shit--that brings it up to thirty years in prison and a one-million-dollarfine. You tracking? What's that, thirty-five years in prison? And we haven't even got into forgery and computer crimes, gathering information in a protected computer to steal data, that'll get you anywhere from one year to twenty years in prison and more fines. So what have we got so far, forty, fifty, fifty-five years in prison? You're twenty-six now, you'll be, let's see, eighty-one when you get out."
Now I was sweating through my polo shirt, I felt cold and clammy. My legs were trembling. "But," I began, my voice hoarse, then cleared my throat. "Seventy-eight thousand dollars is a rounding error in a thirty-billion-dollar corporation."
"I suggest you shut your fucking mouth," Meacham said quietly. "We've consulted our lawyers, and they're confident they can get a charge of embezzlement in a court of law. Furthermore, you were clearly in a position to do more, and we believe that was just one installment in an ongoing scheme to defraud Wyatt Telecommunications, part of a pattern of multiple withdrawals and diversions. It's just the tip of the iceberg." For the first time he turned to the mousy woman taking notes. "We're off the record now." He turned back to me. "The U.S. Attorney was a college roommate of our house counsel, Mr. Cassidy, and we have every assurance he intends to throw the book at you. Plus, the district attorney's office, you may not have noticed, is on a white-collar crime campaign, and they're looking to make an example out of someone. They want a poster child, Cassidy."
I stared at him. My headache was back. I felt a trickle of sweat run down the inside of my shirt from my armpit to my waist.
"We've got both the state and the feds in our corner. We've got you, pure and simple. Now it's just a matter of how hard we're going to hit you, how much destruction we want to do. And don't imagine you're going to some country club, either. Cute young guy like you, you're going to be bent over the bunk someplace in Marion Federal Penitentiary. You're going to come out a toothless old man. And in case you're not current on our criminal justice system, there's no longer any parole at the federal level. Your life just changed as of this moment. You're fucked, pal." He looked at the woman with the notebook. "We're back on the record now. Let's hear what you have to say, and you'd better make it good."
I swallowed, but my saliva had stopped flowing. I saw flashes of white around the edges of my vision. He was dead serious.
In my high school and college years I got stopped fairly often for speeding, and I developed a reputation as a virtuoso at getting out of tickets. The trick is to make the cop feel your pain. It's psychological warfare. That's why they wear mirrored sunglasses, so you can't look into their eyes while you're pleading. They're human beings too, even cops. I used to keep a couple of law-enforcement textbooks on the front seat and tell them I was studying to be a police officer and I sure hoped this ticket wouldn't hurt my chances. Or I'd show them a prescription bottle and tell them I was in a rush because I needed to get mom her epilepsy medication as quickly as possible. Basically I learned that if you're going to start, you have to go all the way; you have to totally put your heart into it.
We were way beyond salvaging my job. I couldn't shake the image of that bunk at Marion Federal Penitentiary. I was scared shitless.
So I'm not proud of what I had to do, but you see, I had no choice. Either I reached deep inside and spun my very best tale for this security creep, or I was going to be someone's prison bitch.
I took a deep breath. "Look," I said, "I'm going to level with you."
"Here's the thing. Jonesie--well, Jonesie has cancer."
Meacham smirked and leaned back in his chair, like, Entertain me.
I sighed, chewed the inside of my cheek like I was spilling something I really didn't want to. "Pancreatic cancer. Inoperable."
Meacham stared at me, stonefaced.
"He got the diagnosis three weeks ago. I mean, there's nothing they can do about it--the guy's dying. And so Jonesie, you know--well, you don't know him, but he's always putting on a brave front. He says to the oncologist, 'You mean I can stop flossing?'" I gave a sad smile. "That's Jonesie."
The note-taking woman stopped for a moment, actually looked stricken, then went back to her notes.
Meacham licked his lips. Was I getting to him? I couldn't really tell. I had to amp it up, really go for it.
"There's no reason you should know any of this," I went on. "I mean, Jonesie's not exactly an important guy around here. He's not a VP or anything,he's just a loading dock guy. But he's important to me, because ..." I closed my eyes for a few seconds, inhaled deeply. "The thing is--I never wanted to tell anyone this, it was like our secret, but Jonesie's my father."
Meacham's chair slowly came forward. Now he was paying attention.
"Different last name and all--my mom changed my name to hers when she left him like twenty years ago, took me with her. I was a kid, I didn't know any better. But Dad, he ..." I bit my lower lip. I had tears in my eyes now. "He kept on supporting us, worked two, sometimes three jobs. Never asked for anything. Mom didn't want him to see me at all, but on Christmas ..." A sharp intake of breath, almost a hiccup. "Dad came by the house every Christmas, sometimes he'd ring the doorbell for an hour out in the freezing cold before Mom let him come in. Always had a present for me, some big expensive thing he couldn't afford. Later on, when Mom said she couldn't afford to send me to college, not on a nurse's salary, Dad started sending money. He--he said he wanted me to have the life he never had. Mom never gave him any respect, and she'd sort of poisoned me against him, you know? So I never even thanked the guy. I didn't even invite him to graduation, 'cause I knew Mom wouldn't feel comfortable with him around, but he showed up anyway, I saw him sort of hanging around, wearing some ugly old suit--I never saw him wear a suit or a tie before, he must have got it at the Salvation Army, because he really wanted to see me graduate from college, and he didn't want to embarrass me."
Meacham's eyes actually seemed to be getting moist. The woman had stopped taking notes, and was just watching me, blinking back tears.
I was on a roll. Meacham deserved my best, and he was getting it. "When I started working here at Wyatt, I never expected to find Dad working on the fucking loading dock. It was like the greatest accident. Mom died a couple of years ago, and here I am, connecting up with my father, this sweet wonderful guy who never ever asked anything from me, never demanded anything, working his fucking fingers to the bone, supporting a goddamned ungrateful son he never got to see. It's like fate, you know? And then when he gets this news, he's got inoperable pancreatic cancer, and he starts talking about killing himself before the cancer gets him, I mean ..."
The note-taking woman reached for a Kleenex and blew her nose. She was glowering at Arnold Meacham now. Meacham winced.
I whispered, "I just had to show him what he meant to me--what he meant to all of us. I guess like it was my own sort of Make-a-Wish Foundation. I told him--I told him I'd hit the trifecta at the track, I didn't want him to know or to worry or anything. I mean, believe me, what I did was wrong, totally wrong. It was wrong in a hundred different ways, I'm not going to bullshit you. But maybe in just one small way it was right." The woman reached for another Kleenex and looked at Meacham as if he were the scum of the earth. Meacham was looking down, flushed and unable to meet my gaze. I was giving myself chills.
Then from the shadowed far end of the office I heard a door open and what sounded like clapping. Slow, loud clapping.
It was Nicholas Wyatt, the founder and CEO of Wyatt Telecommunications. He approached as he clapped, smiling broadly. "Brilliant performance," he said. "Absolutely brilliant."
I looked up, startled, then shook my head sorrowfully. Wyatt was a tall man, around six foot six, with a wrestler's build. He just got bigger and bigger as he got closer until, standing a few feet away from me, he seemed larger than life. Wyatt was known as a sharp dresser, and sure enough, he was wearing some kind of Armani-looking gray suit with a subtle pinstripe. He wasn't just powerful, he looked powerful.
"Mr. Cassidy, let me ask you a question."
I didn't know what to do, so I stood up, extended my hand to shake.
Wyatt didn't shake my hand. "What's Jonesie's first name?"
I hesitated, a beat too long. "Al," I finally said.
"Al? As in--what?"
"Al--Alan," I said. "Albert. Shit."
Meacham stared at me.
"Details, Cassidy," Wyatt said. "They'll fuck you over every time. But I have to say, you moved me--you really did. The part about the Salvation Army suit really got me right here." He tapped his chest with a fist. "Extraordinary."
I grinned sheepishly, really feeling like a tool. "The guy here said to make it good."
Wyatt smiled. "You're a supremely gifted young man, Cassidy. A goddamned Scheherazade. And I think we should have a talk."
Nicholas Wyatt was one scary dude. I had never met him before, but I'd seen him on TV, on CNBC, and on the corporate Web site, the video messages he'd recorded. I'd even caught a few glimpses of him, live, in my three years working for the company he founded. Up close he was even more intimidating. He had a deep tan, shoe polish-black hair that was gelled and combed straight back. His teeth were perfectly even and Vegas-white.
He was fifty-six but didn't look it, whatever fifty-six is supposed to look like. Anyway, he sure didn't look like my dad at fifty-six, a paunchy, balding old man even in his so-called prime. This was some other fifty-six.
I had no idea why he was here. What could the CEO of the company threaten me with that Meacham hadn't already pulled out? Death by a thousand paper cuts? Being eaten alive by wild boar?
Secretly I had this fleeting fantasy that he was going to high-five me, congratulate me for pulling off a good one, say he liked my spirit, my moxie. But that sad little daydream shriveled as quickly as it popped into my desperate mind. Nicholas Wyatt wasn't some basketball-playing priest. He was a vindictive son of a bitch.
I'd heard stories. I knew that if you had any brains you made a point of avoiding him. You kept your head down, tried not to attract his attention. He was famous for his rages, his tantrums and shouting matches. He was known to fire people on the spot, have Security pack up their desks, have them escorted out of the building. At his executive staff meetings he always pickedone person to humiliate the whole time. You didn't go to him with bad news, and you didn't waste a split second of his time. If you were unlucky enough to have to make some PowerPoint presentation to him, you'd rehearse it and rehearse it until it was perfect, but if there was a single glitch in your presentation, he'd interrupt you, shouting, "I don't believe this!"
People said he'd mellowed a lot since the early years, but from what? He was viciously competitive, a weightlifter and triathlete. Guys who worked out in the company gym said he was always challenging the serious jocks to chin-up competitions. He never lost, and when the other guy gave up he'd taunt, "Want me to keep going?" They said he had the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger, like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts.
Not only was he insane about winning, for him it wasn't sweet unless he also got to ridicule the loser. At a companywide Christmas party he once wrote the name of his chief competitor, Trion Systems, on a wine bottle, and smashed it against the wall, to a lot of drunken cheering and catcalls.
He ran a high-testosterone shop. His top guys all dressed like he did, in seven-thousand-dollar suits by Armani or Prada or Brioni or Kiton or other designers I hadn't even heard of. And they put up with his shit because they were disgustingly well compensated for it. The joke about him that everybody's heard by now: What's the difference between God and Nicholas Wyatt? God doesn't think he's Nicholas Wyatt.
Nick Wyatt slept three hours a night, seemed to eat nothing but Power Bars for breakfast and lunch, was a nuclear reactor of nervous energy, perspired heavily. People called him "The Exterminator." He managed by fear and never forgot a slight. When an ex-friend of his got fired as CEO of some big tech company, he sent a wreath of black roses--his assistants always knew where to get black roses. The quote he's famous for, the one thing he repeated so often it should have been carved in granite above the main entrance, made into a screen saver on everyone's desktop, was "Of course I'm paranoid. I want everyone who works for me to be paranoid. Success demands paranoia."
I followed Wyatt down the hall from Corporate Security to his executive suite, and it was hard to keep up with him--he was a power-walker. I had toalmost run. Behind me followed Meacham, swinging a black leather portfolio like a baton. As we approached the executive area, the walls went from white plasterboard to mahogany; the carpeting became soft and deep-pile. We were at his office, his lair.
His matched set of admins looked up and beamed at him as we caravaned through. One blonde, one black. He said, "Linda, Yvette," as if captioning them. I wasn't surprised they were both fashion-model beautiful--everything here was high-end, like the walls and the carpeting and the furniture. I wondered if their job description included nonclerical responsibilities, like blowjobs. That was the rumor, anyway.
Wyatt's office was vast. An entire Bosnian village could live there. Two of the walls were glass, floor to ceiling, and the views of the city were unbelievable. The other walls were fancy dark wood, covered with framed things, magazine covers with his mug on them, Fortune, Forbes, Business Week. I looked, goggle-eyed, as I half walked, half ran by. A photo of him and some other guys with the late Princess Diana. Him with both George Bushes.
He led us to a "conversation group" of tufted black leather chairs and sofa that looked like they belonged in MOMA. He sank down at one end of the enormous sofa.
My head was spinning. I was disoriented, in another world. I couldn't imagine why I was here, in Nicholas Wyatt's office. Maybe he'd been one of those boys who liked to pull the legs off insects one by one with tweezers, then burn them to death with a magnifying glass.
"So this is some pretty elaborate scam you pulled off," he said. "Very impressive."
I smiled, ducked my head modestly. Denial wasn't even an option. Thank God, I thought. It looked like we were going the high-five, moxie route.
"But no one kicks me in the balls and walks away, you should know that by now. I mean fucking nobody."
He'd gotten out the tweezers and the magnifying glass.
"So what's your deal, you've been a PLM here for three years, your performance reviews suck, you haven't gotten a raise or a promotion the whole time you've been here; you're going through the motions, phoning it in. Not exactly an ambitious guy, are you?" He talked fast, which made me even more nervous.
I smiled again. "I guess not. I sort of have other priorities."
I hesitated. He'd got me. I shrugged.
"Everyone's got to be passionate about something, or they're not worth shit. You're obviously not passionate about your work, so what are you passionate about?"
I'm almost never speechless, but this time I couldn't think of anything clever to say. Meacham was watching me too, a nasty, sadistic little smile on his knife-blade face. I was thinking that I knew guys in the company, in my business unit, who were always scheming how to get thirty seconds with Wyatt, in an elevator or at a product launch or whatever. They'd even prepared an "elevator pitch." Here I was in the big guy's office and I was silent as a mannequin.
"You an actor or something in your spare time?"
I shook my head.
"Well, you're good, anyway. A regular Marlon fucking Brando. You may suck at marketing routers to enterprise customers, but you are a fucking Olympic-level bullshit artist."
"If that's a compliment, sir, thank you."
"I hear you do a damned good Nick Wyatt--that true? Let's see it."
I blushed, shook my head.
"Anyway, bottom line, you ripped me off and you seem to think you're going to get away with it."
I looked appalled. "No, sir, I don't think I'm going to 'get away with it.'"
"Spare me. I don't need another demonstration. You had me at hello." He flicked his hand like a Roman emperor, and Meacham handed him a folder. He glanced at it. "Your aptitude scores are in the top percentile. You were an engineering major in college, what kind?"
"You wanted to be an engineer when you grew up?"
"My dad wanted me to major in something I could get a real job with. I wanted to play lead guitar with Pearl Jam."
"No," I admitted.
He half-smiled. "You did college on the five-year-plan. What happened?"
"I got kicked out for a year."
"I appreciate your honesty. At least you're not trying that 'junior year abroad' shit. What happened?"
"I pulled a stupid prank. I had a bad semester, so I hacked into the college computer system and changed my transcript. My roommate's too."
"So it's an old trick." He looked at his watch, glanced at Meacham, then back at me. "I've got an idea for you, Adam." I didn't like the way he said my first name; it was creepy. "A very good idea. An extremely generous offer, in fact."
"Thank you, sir." I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew it couldn't be good or generous.
"What I'm about to say to you I'm going to deny I ever said. In fact, I won't just deny it, I'll fucking sue you for defamation if you ever repeat it, are we clear? I will fucking crush you." Whatever he was talking about, he had the resources. He was a billionaire, like the third or fourth richest man in America, but he had once been number two before our share price collapsed. He wanted to be the richest--he was gunning for Bill Gates--but that didn't seem likely.
My heart thudded. "Sure."
"Are you clear on your situation? Behind door number one you've got the certainty--the fucking certainty--of at least twenty years in prison. So it's that, or else whatever's behind the curtain. You want to play Let's Make a Deal?"
I swallowed. "Sure."
"Let me tell you what's behind the curtain, Adam. It's a very nice future for a smart engineering major like you, only you have to play by the rules. My rules."
My face was prickly-hot.
"I want you to take on a special project for me."
"I want you to take a job at Trion."
"At ... Trion Systems?" I didn't understand.
"In new product marketing. They've got a couple of openings in strategic places in the company."
"They'd never hire me."
"No, you're right, they'd never hire you. Not a lazy fuckup like you. But aWyatt superstar, a young hotshot who's on the verge of going supernova, they'd hire you in a nanosecond."
"I don't follow."
"Street-smart guy like you? You just lost a couple of IQ points. Come on, dipshit. The Lucid--that was your baby, right?"
He was talking about Wyatt Telecom's flagship product, this all-in-one PDA, sort of a Palm Pilot on steroids. An incredible toy. I had nothing to do with it. I didn't even own one.
"They'd never believe it," I said.
"Listen to me, Adam. I make my biggest business decisions on gut instinct, and my gut tells me you've got the brass balls and the smarts and the talent to do it. You in or out?"
"You want me to report back to you, is that it?"
His eyes bore down on me, steely. "More than that. I want you to get information."
"Like being a spy. A mole or whatever."
He turned his palms open, like, are you a moron or what? "Whatever you want to call it. There's some valuable, uh, intellectual property I want to get my hands on inside Trion, and their security is damned near impenetrable. Only a Trion insider can get what I want, and not just any insider. A major player. Either you recruit one, buy one, or you get one in the front door. Here we got a smart, personable young guy, comes highly recommended--I think we got a pretty decent shot."
"And what if I'm caught?"
"You won't be," Wyatt said.
"But if I am ... ?"
"If you do the job right," Meacham said, "you won't be caught. And if somehow you screw up and you are caught--well, we'll be here to protect you."
Somehow I doubted that. "They'll be totally suspicious."
"Of what?" Wyatt said. "In this business people jump from company to company all the time. The top talent gets poached. Low-hanging fruit. You're fresh off a big win at Wyatt, you maybe don't have the juice you think you should, you're looking for more responsibility, a better opportunity, more money--the usual bullshit."
"They'll see right through me."
"Not if you do your job right," said Wyatt. "You're going to have to learn product marketing, you're going to have to be fucking brilliant, you're going to have to work harder than you've ever worked in your whole sorry life. Really bust your ass. Only a major player's going to get what I want. Try your phone-it-in shit at Trion, you'll either get shot or shoved aside, and then our little experiment is over. And you get door number one."
"I thought new product guys all have to have MBAs."
"Nah, Goddard thinks MBAs are bullshit--one of the few things we agree on. He doesn't have one. Thinks it's limiting. Speaking of limiting." He snapped his fingers, and Meacham handed him something, a small metal box, familiar looking. An Altoids box. He popped it open. Inside were a few white pills that looked like aspirin but weren't. Definitely familiar. "You're going to have to cut out this shit, this Ecstasy or whatever you call it." I kept the Altoids box on my coffee table at home; I wondered when and how they got it, but I was too dazed to be pissed off. He dropped the box into a little black leather trash can next to the couch. It made a thunk sound. "Same with pot, booze, all that shit. You're going to have to straighten up and fly right, guy."
That seemed like the least of my problems. "And what if I don't get hired?"
"Door number one." He gave an ugly smile. "And don't pack your golf shoes. Pack your K-Y."
"Even if I give it my best shot?"
"Your job is not to blow it. With the quals we're giving you, and with a coach like me, you won't have any excuse."
"What kind of money are we talking about?"
"What kind of money? The fuck do I know? Believe me, it'll be a hell of a lot more than you get here. Six figures anyway." I tried not to gulp visibly.
"Plus my salary here."
He turned his tight face over to me and gave me a dead stare. He didn't have any expression in his eyes. Botox? I wondered. "You're shitting me."
"I'm taking an enormous risk."
"Excuse me? I'm the one taking the risk. You're a total fucking black box, a big fat question mark."
"If you really thought so, you wouldn't ask me to do it."
He turned to Meacham. "I don't believe this shit."
Meacham looked like he'd swallowed a turd. "You little prick," he said. "I ought to pick up the phone right now--"
Wyatt held up an imperial hand. "That's okay. He's ballsy. I like ballsy. You get hired, you do your job right, you get to double-dip. But if you fuck up--"
"I know," I said. "Door number one. Let me think it over, get back to you tomorrow."
Wyatt's jaw dropped, his eyes blank. He paused, then said, all icy: "I'll give you till nine A.M. When the U.S. Attorney gets into his office."
"I advise you not to say a word about this to any of your buddies, your father, anybody," Meacham put in. "Or you won't know what hit you."
"I understand," I replied. "No need to threaten me."
"Oh, that's not a threat," said Nicholas Wyatt. "That's a promise."
There didn't seem to be any reason to go back to work, so I went home. It felt strange to be on the subway at one in the afternoon, with the old people and the students, the moms and kids. My head was still spinning, and I felt queasy.
My apartment was a good ten-minute walk from the subway stop. It was a bright day, ridiculously cheerful.
My shirt was still damp and gave off a funky sweat smell. A couple of young girls in overalls and multiple piercings were tugging a bunch of little kids around on a long rope. The kids squealed. Some black guys were playing basketball with their shirts off, on an asphalt playground behind a chainlink fence. The bricks on the sidewalk were uneven, and I almost tripped, then I felt that sickening slickness underfoot as I stepped in dog shit. Perfect symbolism.
The entrance to my apartment smelled strongly of urine, either from a cat or a bum. The mail hadn't come yet. My keys jingled as I unlocked the three locks on my apartment door. The old lady in the unit across the hall opened her door a crack, the length of her security chain, then slammed it; she was too short to reach the peephole. I gave her a friendly wave.
The room was dark even though the blinds were wide open. The air was stifling, smelled of stale cigarettes. Since the apartment was street level, I couldn't leave the windows open during the day to air it out.
My furnishings were pretty pathetic: the one room was dominated by agreenish tartan-plaid sleeper sofa, high-backed, beer-encrusted, gold threads woven throughout. It faced a Sanyo nineteen-inch TV that was missing the remote. A tall narrow unfinished-pine bookcase stood lonely in one corner. I sat down on the sofa, and a cloud of dust rose in the air. The steel bar underneath the cushion hurt my ass. I thought of Nicholas Wyatt's black leather sofa and wondered if he'd ever lived in such a dump. The story was that he came up from nothing, but I didn't believe it; I couldn't see him ever living in such a rat hole. I found the Bic lighter under the glass coffee table, lighted a cigarette, looked over at the pile of bills on the table. I didn't even open the envelopes anymore. I had two MasterCards and three Visas, and they all had whopping balances, and I could barely even make the minimum payments.
I had already made up my mind, of course.
"You get busted?"
Seth Marcus, my best buddy since junior high school, bartended three nights a week at a sort of yuppie dive called Alley Cat. During the days he was a paralegal at a downtown law firm. He said he needed the money, but I was convinced that secretly he was bartending in order to maintain some vestige of coolness, to keep from turning into the sort of corporate dweeb we both liked to make fun of.
"Busted for what?" How much had I told him? Did I tell him about the call from Meacham, the security director? I hoped. not. Now I couldn't tell him a goddamned thing about the vise they'd got me in.
"Your big party." It was loud, I couldn't hear him well, and someone down at the other end of the bar was whistling, two fingers in his mouth, loud and shrill. "That guy whistling at me? Like I'm a fucking dog?" He ignored the whistler.
I shook my head.
"You got away with it, huh? You actually pulled it off, amazing. What can I get you to celebrate?"
He shook his head. "Nah."
"How about a draft? They don't keep track of those."
I shrugged. "Sure."
He pulled me a draft, yellow and soapy: he was clearly new at this. It sloshed on the scarred wooden bar top. He was a tall, dark-haired, good-looking guy--a veritable chick magnet--with a ridiculous goatee and an earring. He was half-Jewish but wanted to be black. He played and sang in a band called Slither, which I'd heard a couple of times; they weren't very good, but he talked a lot about "signing a deal." He had a dozen scams going at once just so he wouldn't have to admit he was a working stiff.
Seth was the only guy I knew who was more cynical than me. That was probably why we were friends. That plus the fact that he didn't give me shit about my father, even though he used to play on the high school football team coached (and tyrannized) by Frank Cassidy. In seventh grade we were in the same homeroom, liked each other instantly because we were both singled out for ridicule by the math teacher, Mr. Pasquale. In ninth grade I left the public school and went to Bartholomew Browning & Knightley, the fancy prep school where my dad had just been hired as the football and hockey coach and I now got free tuition. For two years I rarely saw Seth, until Dad got fired for breaking two bones in a kid's right forearm and one bone in his left forearm. The kid's mother was head of the board of overseers of Bartholomew Browning. So the free tuition tap got shut off, and I went back to the public school. Dad got hired there too, after Bartholomew Browning.
We both worked at the same Gulf station in high school, until Seth got tired of the holdups and went to Dunkin' Donuts to make donuts on the overnight. For a couple of summers he and I worked cleaning windows for a company that did a lot of downtown skyscrapers, until we decided that dangling from ropes on the twenty-seventh floor sounded cooler than it actually was. Not only was it boring, but it was scary as hell, a lousy combination. Maybe some people consider hanging off the side of a building hundreds of feet up some kind of extreme sport, but to me it seemed more like a slow-motion suicide attempt.
The whistling grew louder. People were looking at the whistler, a chubby balding guy in a suit, and some people were giggling.
"I'm going to fucking lose it," Seth said.
"Don't," I said, but it was too late, he was already headed to the other end of the bar. I took out a cigarette and lighted it as I watched him lean over thebar, glowering at the whistler, looking like he was going to grab the guy's lapel but stopping short. He said something. There was some laughter from the whistler's general vicinity. Looking cool and relaxed, Seth headed back this way. He stopped to talk to a pair of beautiful women, a blonde and a brunette, and flashed them a smile.
"There. I don't believe you're still smoking," he said to me. "Fucking stupid, with your dad." He took a cigarette from my pack, lighted it, took a drag and set it down in the ashtray.
"Thank you for not thanking me for not smoking," I said. "So what's your excuse?"
He exhaled through his nostrils. "Dude, I like to multitask. Also, cancer doesn't run in my family. Just insanity."
"He doesn't have cancer."
"Emphysema. Whatever the fuck. How is the old man?"
"Fine." I shrugged. I didn't want to go there, and neither did Seth.
"Man, one of those babes wants a Cosmopolitan, the other wants a frozen drink. I hate that."
"Too labor-intensive, then they'll tip me a quarter. Women never tip, I've learned this. Jesus, you crack two Buds, you make a couple of bucks. Frozen drinks!" He shook his head. "Man."
He went off for a couple of minutes, banging things around, the blender screaming. Served the girls their drinks with one of his killer smiles. They weren't going to tip him a quarter. They both turned to look at me and smiled.
When he came back, he said, "What are you doing later?"
"Later?" It was already close to ten, and I had to meet with a Wyatt engineer at seven-thirty in the morning. A couple days training with him, some big shot on the Lucid project, then a couple more days with a new-products marketing manager, and regular sessions with an "executive coach." They'd lined up a vicious schedule. Boot camp for bootlickers, was how I thought of it. No more fucking off, getting in at nine or ten. But I couldn't tell Seth; I couldn't tell anyone.
"I'm done at one," he said. "Those two chicks asked if I wanted to go to Nightcrawler with them after. I told them I had a friend. They just checked you out, they're into it."
"Can't," I said.
"Got to get to work early. On time, really."
Seth looked alarmed, disbelieving. "What? What's going on?"
"Work's getting serious. Early day tomorrow. Big project."
"This is a joke, right?"
"Unfortunately no. Don't you have to work in the morning too?"
"You becoming one of Them? One of the pod people?"
I grinned. "Time to grow up. No more kid stuff."
Seth looked disgusted. "Dude, it's never too late to have a happy childhood."
After ten grueling days of tutoring and indoctrination by engineers and product marketing types who'd been involved with the Lucid handheld, my head was stuffed with all kinds of useless information. I was given a tiny "office" in the executive suite that used to be a supply room, though I was almost never there. I showed up dutifully, didn't give anyone any trouble. I didn't know how long I'd be able to keep this up without flipping out, but the image of the prison bunk bed at Marion kept me motivated.
Then one morning I was summoned to an office two doors down the executive corridor from Nicholas Wyatt's. The name on the brass plate on the door said JUDITH BOLTON. The office was all white--white rug, white-upholstered furniture, white marble slab for a desk, even white flowers.
On a white leather sofa, Nicholas Wyatt sat next to an attractive, fortyish woman who was chatting away familiarly with him, touching his arm, laughing. Coppery red hair, long legs crossed at the knee, a slender body she obviously worked hard at, dressed in a navy suit. She had blue eyes, glossy heart-shaped lips, brows arched provocatively. She'd obviously once been a knockout, but she'd gotten a little hard.
I realized I'd seen her before, over the last week or so, at Wyatt's side, when he paid his quick visits to my training sessions with marketing guys and engineers. She always seemed to be whispering in his ear, watching me, but we were never introduced, and I'd always wondered who she was.
Without getting up from the couch, she extended a hand as Iapproached--long fingers, red nail polish--and gave me a firm, no-nonsense shake.
"You're late," she said.
"I got lost," I said, trying to lighten things up.
She shook her head, smiled, pursed her lips. "You have a problem with punctuality. I don't ever want you to be late again, are we clear?"
I smiled back, the same smile I give cops when they ask if I know how fast I was going. The lady was tough. "Absolutely." I sat down in a chair facing her.
Wyatt was watching the exchange with amusement. "Judith is one of my most valuable players," he said. "My 'executive coach.' My consigliere, and your Svengali. I suggest you listen to every fucking word she says. I do." He stood up, excused himself. She gave him a little wave as he left.
You wouldn't have recognized me anymore. I was a changed man. No more Bondomobile: now I drove a silver Audi A6, leased by the company. I had a new wardrobe, too. One of Wyatt's admins, the black one, who turned out to be a former model from the British West Indies, took me clothes shopping one afternoon at a very expensive place I had only seen from the outside, where she said she bought clothes for Nick Wyatt. She picked out some suits, shirts, ties, and shoes, and put it all on a company Amex card. She even bought what she called "hose," meaning socks. And this wasn't the Structure crap I usually wore, it was Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna. They had this aura: you could tell they were handstitched by Italian widows listening to Verdi.
The sideburns--"bugger's grips," she called them--had to go, she decided. Also no more of the scraggly bed-head look. She took me to a fancy salon, and I came out looking like a Ralph Lauren model, only not as fruity. I dreaded next time Seth and I got together; I knew I'd never hear the end of it.
A cover story was devised. My co-workers and managers in the Enterprise Division/Routers were informed that I had been "reassigned." Rumors circulated that I was being sent to Siberia because the manager of my division was tired of my attitude. Another rumor had it that one of Wyatt's senior VPs had admired a memo I'd written and "liked my attitude" and I was being given more responsibility, not less. No one knew the truth. All anyone knew was that one day I was suddenly gone from my cubicle.
If anyone had bothered to look closely at the org chart on the corporate Web site, they'd have noticed my title was now Director of Special Projects, Office of the CEO.
An electronic and paper trail was being created.
Judith turned back to me, continued as if Wyatt had never been there. "If you're hired by Trion, you're to arrive at your cube forty-five minutes early. Under no circumstances will you have a drink at lunch or after work. No happy hours, no cocktail parties, no 'hanging out' with 'friends' from work. No partying. If you have to attend a work-related party, drink club soda."
"You make it sound like I'm in AA."
"Getting drunk is a sign of weakness."
"Then I assume smoking's out of the question."
"Wrong," she said. "It's a filthy, disgusting habit, and it indicates a lack of self-control, but there are other considerations. Standing around in the smoking area is an excellent way to cross-pollinate, connect with people in different units, obtain useful intelligence. Now, about your handshake." She shook her head. "You blew it. Hiring decisions are made in the first five seconds--at the handshake. Anyone who tells you anything else is lying to you. You get the job with the handshake, and then the rest of the job interview you fight to keep it, to not lose it. Since I'm a woman, you went easy on me. Don't. Be firm, do it hard, and hold--"
I smiled impishly, cut in: "The last woman who told me that ..." I noticed she'd frozen in midsentence. "Sorry."
Now, head cocked kittenishly to one side, she smiled. "Thanks." A pause. "Hold the shake a second or two longer. Look me in the eye, and smile. Aim your heart at me. Let's do it again."
I stood up, shook Judith Bolton's hand again.
"Better," she said. "You're a natural. People meet you and think, there's something about this guy I like, I don't know what it is. You've got the chops." She looked at me appraisingly. "You broke your nose once?"
"Let me guess: playing football."
"It's cute. Are you an athlete, Adam?"
"I was." I sat down again.
She leaned forward toward me, her chin resting in a cupped hand, checking me out. "I can tell. It's in the way you walk, the way you carry your body. I like it. But you're not synchronizing."
"You've got to synchronize. Mirror. I'm leaning forward, so you do the same. I lean back, you lean back. I cross my legs, you cross your legs. Watch the tilt of my head, and mimic me. Even synchronize your breathing with mine. Just be subtle, don't be blatant about it. This is how you connect with people on a subconscious level, make them feel comfortable with you. People like people who are like themselves. Are we clear?"
I grinned disarmingly, or what I thought was disarmingly, anyway.
"And another thing." She leaned in even closer until her face was a few inches away from mine. She whispered, "You're wearing too much aftershave."
My face burned with embarrassment.
"Let me guess: Drakkar Noir." She didn't wait for my answer, because she knew she was right. "Very high school stud. Bet it made the cheerleaders weak at the knees."
Later, I learned who Judith Bolton was. She was a senior VP who'd been brought into Wyatt Telecom a few years earlier as a powerhouse consultant with McKinsey & Company to advise Nicholas Wyatt personally on sensitive personnel issues, "conflict resolution" in the uppermost echelons of the company, certain psy-ops aspects of deals, negotiations, and acquisitions. She had a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, so she was called Dr. Bolton. Whether you called her an "executive coach" or a "leadership mastery strategist," she was kind of like Wyatt's private Olympic trainer. She advised him on who was executive material and who wasn't, who should be fired, who was plotting behind his back. She had an x-ray eye for disloyalty. No doubt he'd hired her away from McKinsey at some ridiculous salary. She was powerful enough and secure enough here to contradict him to his face, say shit to him he wouldn't take from anybody else.
"Now, our first assignment is to learn how to do a job interview," she said.
"I got hired here," I said, feebly.
"We're playing in a whole new league, Adam," she said, smiling. "You're a hotshot, and you have to interview like a hotshot, someone Trion's going tofall all over themselves to steal away from us. How do you like working at Wyatt?"
I looked at her, feeling stupid. "Well, I'm trying to leave there, aren't I?"
She rolled her eyes, inhaled sharply. "No. You keep it positive." She turned her head to one side and then did an amazing imitation of my voice: "I love it! It's totally inspiring! My co-workers are great!" The mimicry was so good, it weirded me out; it was like hearing your voice on an answering machine tape.
"So why am I interviewing at Trion?"
"Opportunities, Adam. There's nothing wrong with your job at Wyatt. You're not disgruntled. You're just taking the logical next step in your career, and there are more opportunities at Trion to do even bigger, better things. What's your greatest weakness, Adam?"
I thought for a second. "Nothing, really," I said. "Never admit to a weakness."
She scowled. "Oh, for Christ's sake. They'll think you're either delusional or stupid."
"It's a trick question."
"Of course it's a trick question. Job interviews are minefields, my friend. You have to 'admit' to weaknesses, but you must never tell them anything derogatory. So you confess to being too faithful a husband, too loving a father." She did the Adam-voice again: "Sometimes I get so comfortable with one software application that I don't explore others. Or: sometimes when little things bother me, I don't always speak up, because I figure most things tend to blow over. You don't complain enough! Or how about this: I tend to get really absorbed in a project, so I sometimes put in long hours, too long, because I love doing them, doing them right. Maybe I work on things more than is necessary. Get it? They'll be salivating, Adam."
I smiled, nodded. Man, oh man, what had I gotten myself into?
"What's the biggest mistake you ever made on the job?"
"Obviously I have to admit something," I said nervously.
"You're a fast study," she said dryly.
"Maybe I took on too much once, and I--"
"--And you fucked it up? So you don't know the depths of your own incompetence? I don't think so. You say, 'Oh, nothing really big. Once I wasworking on a big report for my boss and I forgot to back up, and my computer crashed, I lost everything. I had to stay up till three in the morning, completely re-create the work I'd lost. Boy, did I learn my lesson--always back up.' Get it? The biggest mistake you ever made was not your fault, plus you made everything right."
"I get it." My shirt collar felt too tight, and I wanted to get out of there.
"You're a natural, Adam," she said. "You're going to do just fine."
The night before my first interview at Trion I went over to see my dad. I did this at least once a week, sometimes more, depending on if he called and asked me to come over. He called a lot, partly because he was lonely (Mom had died six years earlier) and partly because he was paranoid from the steroids he took and convinced his caregivers were trying to kill him. So his calls were never friendly, never chatty; they were complaints, rants, accusations. Some of his painkillers were missing, he'd say, and he was convinced Caryn the nurse was pilfering them. The oxygen supplied by the oxygen company was of shitty quality. Rhonda the nurse kept tripping over his air hose and yanking the little tubes, the cannulas, out of his nose, nearly ripping his ears off.
To say that it was hard to retain people to take care of him was a comic understatement. Rarely did they last more than a few weeks. Francis X. Cassidy was a bad-tempered man, had been as long as I could remember, and had only grown angrier as he grew older and sicker. He'd always smoked a couple of packs a day and had a loud hacking cough, was always getting bronchitis. So it came as no surprise when he was diagnosed with emphysema. What did he expect? He hadn't been able to blow out the candles on his birthday cake for years. Now his emphysema was what they called end-stage, meaning that he could die in a couple of weeks, or months, or maybe ten years. No one knew.
Unfortunately, it fell to me, his only offspring, to arrange his care. Hestill lived in the first-floor-and-basement apartment in a triple-decker I'd grown up in, and he hadn't changed a thing since Mom died--the same harvest-gold refrigerator that never worked right, the couch that sagged on one side, the lace window curtains that had gone yellow with age. He hadn't saved any money, and his pension was pitiful; he barely had enough to cover his medical expenses. That meant part of my paycheck went to his rent, the home health aide's salary, whatever. I never expected any thanks, and never got any. Never in a million years would he ask me for money. We both sort of pretended that he was living off a trust fund or something.
When I arrived, he was sitting in his favorite Barcalounger, in front of the huge TV, his main occupation. It allowed him to complain about something in real time. Tubes in his nose (he got oxygen round the clock now), he was watching some infomercial on cable.
"Hey, Dad," I said.
He didn't look up for a minute or so--he was hypnotized by the infomercial, like it was the shower scene in Psycho. He'd gotten thin, though he still had a barrel chest, and his crew cut was white. When he looked up at me, he said, "The bitch is quitting, you know that?"
The "bitch" in question was his latest home healthcare aide, a pinched-faced, moody Irish woman in her fifties named Maureen with blazing fake red hair. She limped through the living room, as if on cue--she had a bad hip--with a plastic laundry basket heaped with neatly folded white T-shirts and boxer shorts, my dad's extensive wardrobe. The only surprise about her quitting was that it had taken her so long. He had a little Radio Shack wireless doorbell on the end table next to his Barcalounger that he'd press to call her whenever he needed something, which seemed to be constantly. His oxygen wasn't working, or the nose-tube thingies were drying out his nose, or he needed help getting to the bathroom to take a pee. Once in a while she'd take him out for "walks" in his motorized go-cart so he could cruise around the shopping mall and complain about "punks" and abuse her some more. He accused her of trying to poison him. It would drive a normal person crazy, and Maureen already seemed pretty high-strung.
"Why don't you tell him what you called me?" she said, setting the laundry down on the couch.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," he said. He spoke in short, clipped sentences,since he was always short of breath. "You've been putting antifreeze in my coffee. I can taste it. They call this eldercide, you know. Gray murders."
"If I wanted to kill you I'd use something better than antifreeze," she snapped back. Her Irish accent was still strong even after living here for twenty-some years. He inevitably accused his caretakers of trying to kill him. If they did, who could blame them? "He called me a--a word I won't even repeat."
"Jesus fucking Christ, I called her a cunt. That's a polite word for what she is. She assaulted me. I sit here hooked up to fucking air tubes, and this bitch is slapping me around."
"I grabbed a cigarette out of his hands," Maureen said. "He was trying to sneak a smoke when I was downstairs doing the laundry. As if I can't smell it throughout the house." She looked at me. One of her eyes wandered. "He's not allowed to smoke! I don't even know where he hides the cigarettes--he's hiding them somewhere, I know it!"
My father smiled triumphantly but said nothing.
"Anyway, what do I care?" she said bitterly. "This is my last day. I can't take it anymore."
The paid studio audience in the infomercial gasped and applauded wildly.
"Like I'm going to notice," Dad said. "She doesn't do shit. Look at the dust in this place. What the hell does the bitch do?"
Maureen picked up the laundry basket. "I should have left a month ago. I should never have taken this job." She left the room in her strange lamepony canter.
"I should have fired her the minute I met her," he grumbled. "I could tell she was one of those gray-murderers." He breathed with pursed lips as if he were inhaling through a straw.
I didn't know what I was going to do now. The guy couldn't be alone--he couldn't get to the bathroom without help. He refused to go into a nursing home; he said he'd kill himself first.
I put my hand on his left hand, the one with an index finger hooked up to a glowing red indicator, the pulse oximeter, I think it was called. The digital numbers on the monitor read 88 percent. I said, "We'll get someone, Dad, don't worry about it."
He lifted his hand, flung mine away. "What the hell kind of nurse is she anyway?" he said. "She doesn't give a shit about anyone else." He went into a long coughing fit, hawked and spit into a balled-up handkerchief he pulled out from somewhere in his chair. "I don't know why the hell you don't move back in. The hell you got to do anyway? You got some go-nowhere job."
I shook my head, said gently, "I can't, Dad. I got student loans to pay off." I didn't want to mention that someone had to make money to pay for the help that was always quitting.
"Fat lot of good college did you," he said. "Huge waste of money, all it was. Spent your time carousing with all your fancy friends, I didn't need to spend twenty thousand bucks a year so you could fuck off. You coulda done that here."
I smiled to let him know I wasn't offended. I didn't know whether it was the steroids, the prednisone he took to keep his airways open, that was making him such an asshole, or just his natural sweet nature. "Your mother, rest in peace, spoiled you rotten. Made you into a big fat pussy." He sucked in some air. "You're wasting your life. When the fuck you gonna get a real job, anyway?"
Dad was skilled at pushing the right buttons. I let a wave of annoyance pass over me. You couldn't take the guy seriously, you'd go whacko. He had the temper of a junkyard dog. I always thought his anger was like rabies--he wasn't really in control, so you couldn't blame him. He'd never been able to control his temper. When I was a kid, small enough not to fight back, he'd whip off his leather belt at the slightest provocation, whomp the shit out of me. As soon as he finished the beating, he'd invariably mutter, "See what you made me do?"
"I'm working on that," I said.
"They can smell a loser a mile off, you know."
"These companies. Nobody wants a loser. Everyone wants winners. Go get me a Coke, would you?"
This was his mantra, and it came from his coaching days--that I was a "loser," that the only thing that counted was winning, that coming in second was losing. There was a time when that sort of talk used to piss me off. But I was used to it by now; I barely even heard it.
I went to the kitchen, thinking about what we were going to do now. He needed round-the-clock help, no question about that. But none of the agencies would send anyone anymore. At first we had real hospital nurses, doing outside shifts for money. When he'd chewed through those, we managed to find a series of marginally qualified people who'd done two weeks' training to get their nursing-assistant certificate. Then it was whoever the hell we could find through ads in the paper.
Maureen had organized the harvest-gold Kenmore refrigerator so that it could have belonged in a government lab. A row of Cokes stood, one behind the other, on a wire shelf that she'd adjusted so it was just the right height. Even the glasses in the cabinet, usually cloudy and smeared, sparkled. I filled two glasses with ice, poured the contents of a can into each. I'd have to sit Maureen down, apologize on Dad's behalf, beg and plead, bribe her if necessary. At least she could stay until I found a replacement. Maybe I could appeal to her sense of responsibility to the elderly, though I figured that had been pretty much eroded by Dad's bile. The truth was, I was desperate. If I blew the interviews tomorrow, I'd have all the time in the world, but I'd be behind bars somewhere in Illinois. That wouldn't help.
I came back out holding the glasses, the ice tinkling as I walked. The infomercial was still going. How long did these things go on for? Who watched them anyway? Besides my father, I mean.
"Dad, don't worry about anything," I said, but he'd passed out.
I stood before him for a few seconds, watching to see if he was still breathing. He was. His chin was on his chest, his head at a funny angle. The oxygen made a quiet whooshing sound. Somewhere in the basement Maureen was banging stuff around, probably mentally rehearsing her exit line. I set down the Cokes on his little end table, which was crowded with meds and remote controls.
Then I leaned over and kissed the old man's blotchy red forehead. "We'll get someone," I said quietly.
The headquarters of Trion Systems looked like a brushed-chrome Pentagon. Each of the five sides was a seven-story "wing." It had been designed by some famous architect. Underneath was a parking garage filled with BMWs and Range Rovers and a lot of VW bugs and you name it, but no reserved spaces, so far as I could see.
I gave my name to the B Wing "lobby ambassador," which was their fancy name for the receptionist. She printed out an ID sticker that said VISITOR. I pasted it onto the breast pocket of my gray Armani suit and waited in the lobby for a woman named Stephanie to come get me.
She was the assistant to the hiring VP, Tom Lundgren. I tried to zone out, meditate, relax. I reminded myself that I couldn't ask for a better setup. Trion was looking to fill a product marketing manager slot--a guy had left suddenly, and I'd been custom-tooled for the job, genetically engineered, digitally remastered. In the last few weeks a few selected headhunters had been told about this amazing young guy at Wyatt who was just ripe for the picking. Low-hanging fruit. The word was spread, casually, at an industry convention, on the grapevine. I began to get all sorts of calls from recruiters on my voice mail.
Plus I'd done my homework on Trion Systems. I'd learned it was a consumer-electronics giant founded in the early 1970s by the legendary Augustine Goddard, whose nickname was not Gus but Jock. He was almost a cult figure. He graduated from Cal Tech, served in the navy, went to work forFairchild Semiconductor and then Lockheed, and invented some kind of breakthrough technology for manufacturing color TV picture tubes. He was generally considered to be a genius, but unlike some of the tyrant geniuses who found huge multinational corporations, he apparently wasn't an asshole. People liked him, were fiercely loyal to him. He was kind of a distant, paternal presence. The rare glimpses of Jock Goddard were called "sightings," as if he were a UFO.
Even though Trion didn't make color TV tubes anymore, the Goddard tube had been licensed to Sony and Mitsubishi and all the other Japanese companies that make America's TVs. Later Trion moved into electronic communications--catapulted by the famous Goddard modem. These days Trion made cell phones and pagers, computer components, color laser printers, personal digital assistants, all that kind of stuff.
A wiry woman with frizzy brown hair emerged from a door into the lobby. "You must be Adam."
I gave her a nice firm handshake. "Nice to meet you."
"I'm Stephanie," she said. "I'm Tom Lundgren's assistant." She took me to the elevator and up to the sixth floor. We made small talk. I was trying to sound enthusiastic but not geeky, and she seemed distracted. The sixth floor was your typical cube farm, cubicles spread out as far as the eye could see, high as an elephant's eye. The route she led me down was a maze; I couldn't retrace my steps to the elevator bank if I dropped bread crumbs. Everything here was standard-issue corporate, except for the computer monitor I passed by whose screen saver was a 3-D image of Jock Goddard's head grinning and spinning like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist. Do that at Wyatt--with Nick Wyatt's head, I mean--and Wyatt's corporate goons would probably break your knees.
We came to a conference room with a plaque on the door that said STUDEBAKER.
"Studebaker, huh?" I said.
"Yeah, all the conference rooms are named after classic American cars. Mustang, Thunderbird, Corvette, Camaro. Jock loves American cars." She said Jock with a little twist, almost with quotation marks around it, seemingly indicating that she wasn't really on a first-name basis with the CEO but that's what everyone called him. "Can I get you something to drink?"
Judith Bolton had told me to always say yes, because people like doing favors, and everyone, even the admins, would be giving feedback on what they thought of me. "Coke, Pepsi, whatever," I said. I didn't want to sound too fussy. "Thanks."
I sat down at one side of the table, the side facing the door, not at the head of the table. A couple of minutes later a compact guy wearing khakis and a navy-blue golf shirt with the Trion logo on it came bounding into the room. Tom Lundgren: I recognized him instantly from the dossier that Dr. Bolton had prepared for me. The VP of the Personal Communications Sector business unit. Forty-three, five kids, an avid golfer. Right behind him followed Stephanie, holding a can of Coke and a bottle of Aquafina water.
He gave me a crusher handshake. "Adam, I'm Tom Lundgren."
"Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you. I hear great things about you."
I smiled, shrugged modestly. Lundgren wasn't even wearing a tie, I thought, and I looked like a funeral director. Judith Bolton warned me that might happen, but said it was better for me to overdress for the interviews than to go too casual. Sign of respect and all that.
He sat down next to me, turned to face me. Stephanie shut the door behind her quietly as she left.
"So working at Wyatt's pretty intense, I bet." He had thin, thin lips and a quick smile that clicked on and off. His face was chafed, reddened, like either he played too much golf or had rosacea or something. His right leg pistoned up and down. He was a bundle of nervous energy, a ganglion; he seemed overcaffeinated, and he made me talk fast. Then I remembered he was a Mormon and didn't drink caffeine. I'd hate to see him after a pot of coffee. He'd probably go into intergalactic orbit.
"Intense is how I like it," I said.
"Good to hear it. So do we." His smile clicked on, then off. "I think there's more type A people here than anywhere else. Everyone's got a faster clock speed." He unscrewed the top of his water bottle and took a sip. "I always say Trion's a great place to work--when you're on vacation. You can return e-mails, voice mails, get all kinds of stuff done, but man, you pay a price for taking off time. You come back, your voice mailbox is full, you get crushed like a grape."
I nodded, smiled conspiratorially. Even marketing guys at high-tech corporations like to talk like engineers, so I gave some back. "Sounds familiar," I said. "You only have so many cycles, you've got to decide what to spend your cycles on." I was mirroring his body language, almost aping him, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Absolutely. Now, we're not really in a hiring mode these days--no one is. But one of our new-product managers got transferred suddenly."
I nodded again.
"The Lucid is genius--really saved Wyatt's bacon in an otherwise dismal quarter. That's your baby, huh?"
"My team, anyway. I was just part of the team. Wasn't running the show."
He seemed to like that. "Well, you were a pretty key player, from what I've heard."
"I don't know about that. I work hard and I love what I do, and I found myself in the right place at the right time."
"You're too modest."
"Maybe." I smiled. He got it, really gobbled up the fake modesty and the directness.
"How'd you do it? What's the secret?"
I blew out a puff of air through pursed lips, as if recalling running a marathon. I shook my head. "No secret. Teamwork. Driving consensus, motivating people."
"The basic idea started as a Palm-killer, to be honest." I was talking about Wyatt's wireless PDA, the one that buried the Palm Pilot. "At the early concept-planning sessions, we got together a cross-functional group--engineering, marketing, our internal ID folks, an external ID firm." ID is the jargon for industrial design. I was jamming; I knew this answer by heart. "We looked at the market research, what the flaws were in the Trion product, in Palm, Handspring, Blackberry."
"And what was the flaw in our product?"
"Speed. The wireless sucks, but you know that." This was a carefully planned dig: Judith had downloaded for me some candid remarks Lundgren had made at industry conferences, in which he confessed as much. He was blisteringly critical of Trion's efforts whenever they fell short. My bluntnesswas a calculated risk on Judith's part. Based on her assessment of his management style, she'd concluded he despised toadyism, grooved on straight talk.
"Correct," he said. He flashed a millisecond of a smile.
"Anyway, we went through a whole range of scenarios. What would a soccer mom really want, a company exec, a construction foreman. We talked feature set, form factor, all that. The discussions were pretty free-form. My big thing was elegance of design married to simplicity."
"I wonder if maybe you erred too much on the side of design, sacrificing functionality," Lundgren put in.
"How do you mean?"
"Lack of a flash slot. The only serious weakness in the product, far as I can see."
A big fat pitch, and I swung at it. "I absolutely agree." Hey, I was totally prepped with stories of "my" successes, and pseudofailures I managed so well they might as well have been battlefield victories. "A big screwup. That was definitely the biggest feature that got jettisoned--it was in the original product definition, but it grew the form factor outside of the bounds we wanted, so it got scrapped midway through the cycle." Take that.
"Doing anything about it in the next generation?"
I shook my head. "Sorry, I can't say. That's proprietary to Wyatt Telecom. This isn't just a legal nicety, it's a moral thing with me--when you give your word, it's got to mean something. If that's a problem ..."
He gave what looked like a genuine, appreciative smile. Slam dunk. "Not a problem at all. I respect that. Anyone who leaks proprietary information from their last employer would do the same to me."
I noted the words "last employer": Lundgren had already signed on, he'd just given it away.
He pulled out his pager and quickly checked it. He'd gotten several pages while we were talking, on the silent vibrate mode. "I don't need to take any more of your time, Adam. I want you to meet Nora."
Nora Sommers was blond, around fifty, with wide-set staring eyes. She had the carnivore look of a wild pack animal. Maybe I was biased by her dossier, which described her as ruthless, tyrannical. She was a director, the team leader of the Maestro project, a sort of scaled-down Blackberry knockoff that was circling the drain. She was notorious for calling seven A.M. staff meetings. No one wanted to be on her team, which was why they were having a hard time filling the job internally.
"So Nick Wyatt must be no fun to work for, huh?" she began.
I didn't need Judith Bolton to tell me you're never supposed to complain about your previous employer. "Actually," I said, "he's demanding, but he brought out the best in me. He's a perfectionist. I have nothing but admiration for him."
She nodded wisely, smiled as if I'd selected the right multiple-choice answer. "Keeps the drive alive, hmm?"
What did she expect me to say, the truth about Nick Wyatt? That he's a boor and an asshole? I don't think so. I riffed a bit longer: "Working at Wyatt is like getting ten years of experience in one year--instead of one year of experience ten times."
"Nice answer," she said. "I like my marketing people to try to snow me. It's a key component of the skill-set. If you can snow me, you can snow the Journal."
Danger, Will Robinson. I wasn't going there. I could see the teeth of that jaw trap. So I just looked at her blankly.
"Well," she went on, "the word has certainly spread about you. What was the hardest battle you had to wage on the Lucid project?"
I rehashed the story I'd just given Tom Lundgren, but she sounded underwhelmed. "Doesn't sound like much of a battle to me," she countered. "I'd call that a trade-off."
"Maybe you had to be there," I said. Lame. I scrolled through my mental CD-ROM of anecdotes about the development of the Lucid. "Also, there was a pretty big tussle over the design of the joy pad. That's a five-way directional pad with the speaker built into it."
"I'm familiar with it. What was the controversy?"
"Well, our ID people really keyed in on that as a focal point of the product--it really drew your eye to it. But I was getting major pushback on that from the engineers, who said it was near impossible, way too tricky; they wanted to separate the speaker from the directional pad. The ID guys were convinced that if you separated them, the design would get cluttered, asymmetric. That was tense. So I had to put my foot down. I said this was cornerstone. The design not only made a visual statement, but it also made a major technology statement--told the market we could do something our competitors couldn't."
She was lasering in on me with her wide-set eyes like I was a crippled chicken. "Engineers," she said with a shudder. "They can really be impossible. No business sense at all."
The metal teeth of the jaw trap were glistening with blood. "Actually, I never have problems with engineers," I said. "I think they're really the heart of the enterprise. I never confront them; I inspire them, or try, anyway. Thought leadership and mindshare, those are the keys. That's one of the things that most appeals to me about Trion--engineers reign supreme here, which is as it should be. It's a real culture of innovation."
All right, so I was pretty much parroting an interview Jock Goddard once gave to Fast Company, but I thought it worked. Trion's engineers were famous for loving Goddard, because he was one of them. They considered it a cool place to work, since so much of Trion's funding went into R&D.
She was speechless for a second. Then she said, "At the end of the day,innovation is mission-critical." Jesus, I thought I was bad, but this woman spoke business cliché as a second language. It was as if she'd learned it from a Berlitz book.
"Absolutely," I agreed.
"So tell me, Adam--what's your greatest weakness?"
I smiled, nodded, and mentally uttered a prayer of gratitude to Judith Bolton.
Man, it all seemed almost too easy.
I got the news from Nick Wyatt himself. When I was shown into his office by Yvette, I found him on his Precor elliptical trainer in a corner of his office. He was wearing a sweat-soaked tank top and red gym shorts and looked buff. I wondered if he did steroids. He had a wireless phone headset on and was barking orders.
More than a week had gone by since the Trion interviews, and nothing but radio silence. I knew they'd gone well, and I had no doubt that my references were spectacular, but who knows, anything could happen.
I figured, wrongly, that once I'd done my interviews I'd be given time off from KGB school, but no such luck. The training went on, including what they called "tradecraft"--how to steal stuff without getting caught, copy documents and computer files, how to search the Trion databases, how to contact them if something came up that couldn't wait for a scheduled rendezvous. Meacham and another veteran of Wyatt's corporate security staff, who'd spent two decades in the FBI, taught me how to contact them by e-mail, using an "anonymizer," a remailer based in Finland that buries your real name and address; how to encrypt my e-mail with this super-strong 1,024-bit software developed, against U.S. law, somewhere offshore. They taught me about traditional spy stuff like dead drops and signals, how to let them know I had documents to pass to them. They taught me how to make copies of the ID badges most corporations use these days, the ones that unlock a door when you wave them at a sensor. Some of this stuff was pretty cool. I wasbeginning to feel like a real spy. At the time, anyway, I was into it. I didn't know any better.
But after a few days of waiting and waiting for some word from Trion, I was scared shitless. Meacham and Wyatt had been pretty clear about what would happen if I didn't land the job.
Nick Wyatt didn't even look at me.
"Congratulations," he said. "I got the word from the headhunter. You just got parole."
"I got an offer?"
"A hundred seventy-five thousand to start, stock options, the whole deal. You're being hired in as an individual contributor at the manager level but without any direct reports, grade ten."
I was relieved, and amazed by the amount. That was about three times what I was making now. Adding in my Wyatt salary took me to two hundred and thirty-five thousand. Jesus.
"Sweet," I said. "Now what do we do, negotiate?"
"The fuck you talking about? They interviewed eight other guys for the job. Who knows who's got a favorite candidate, a crony, whatever. Don't risk it, not yet. Get in the door, show 'em your stuff."
"Show 'em how amazing you are. You've already whetted their appetites with a few hors d'oeuvres. Now you blow 'em away. If you can't blow 'em away after graduating our little charm school here, and with me and Judith whispering in your ear, then you're an even bigger fucking loser than I thought."
"Right." I realized I was mentally rehearsing this sick fantasy of telling Wyatt off as I walked out the door to go work for Trion, until I remembered that not only was Wyatt still my boss, he pretty much had me by the balls.
Wyatt stepped off the machine, drenched with sweat, grabbed a white towel off the handlebars, and blotted his face, his arms, his armpits. He stood so close to me I could smell the musk of his perspiration, his sour breath. "Now, listen carefully," he said with an unmistakable note of menace. "About sixteen months ago Trion's board of directors approved an extraordinary expenditure of almost five hundred million dollars to fund some kind of skunkworks."
He snorted. "A top-secret in-house project. Anyway, it's highly unusual for a board to approve an expenditure that large without a lot of information. In this case they approved it blind, based solely on assurances from the CEO. Goddard's the founder, so they trust him. Also, he assured them the technology they were developing, whatever the hell it is, was a monumental breakthrough. I mean huge, paradigm-shifting, a quantum leap. Disruptive beyond disruptive. He assured them that it's the biggest thing since the transistor, and anyone who's not a part of this gets left behind."
"What is it?"
"If I knew, you wouldn't be here, idiot. My sources assure me that it's going to transform the telecommunications industry, turn everything upside down. And I don't intend to get left behind, you follow me?"
I didn't, but I nodded.
"I've invested far too much in this firm to let it go the way of the mastodon and the dodo. So your assignment, my friend, is to find out everything you can about this skunkworks, what it's up to, what they're developing. I don't care whether they're developing some fucking electronic pogo stick, point is, I'm not taking any chances. Clear?"
"That's your job." He turned, walked across the vast expanse of office toward an exit I hadn't noticed before. He opened the door, revealing a gleaming marble bathroom with a shower. I stood there awkwardly, not sure whether I was supposed to wait for him, or leave, or what.
"You'll get the call later on this morning," Wyatt said without turning around. "Act surprised."
PARANOIA Copyright © 2004 by Joseph Finder and COMPANY MAN Copyright © 2005 by Joseph Finder. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.