COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
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 I approached—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.