COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
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 boars' 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.