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- 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 "offsite" 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 croute, 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 break room, 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.
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 led into 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-dollar fine. 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 picked one 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 to almost 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 a Wyatt 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."
Excerpted from PARANOIA: A Novel © Copyright 2005 by Joseph Finder. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved.