Paranoia (051 of 170)

—of —
by Joseph Finder
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Macmillan: Paranoia

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


Saturday afternoon, dressed in tennis whites (which I'd bought that morning—normally I play tennis in ragged cutoffs and a T-shirt) and wearing a ridiculously expensive Italian diver's watch I'd recently splurged on, I arrived at a very hoity-toity, very exclusive place called the Tennis and Racquet Club. Alana Jennings was a member, and according to the dossier she played here most Saturdays. I confirmed her court time by calling the day before, saying I was supposed to play her tomorrow and forgot the time, couldn't reach her, when was that again? Easy. She had a four-thirty doubles game.

Half an hour before her scheduled game I had a meeting with the club's membership director to get a quick tour of the place. That took a little doing, because it was a private club; you couldn't just walk in off the street. I had Arnold Meacham ask Wyatt to arrange to have some rich guy, a club member—a friend of a friend of a friend, a couple of degrees removed from Wyatt—contact the club about sponsoring me. The guy was on the membership committee, and his name obviously pulled some weight at the club, because the membership director, Josh, seemed thrilled to take me around. He even gave me a guest pass for the day so I could check out the courts (clay, indoor and out), maybe pick up a game.

The place was a sprawling Shingle Style mansion that looked like one of those Newport "cottages." It sat in the middle of an emerald-green sea of perfectly manicured lawn. I finally shook Josh at the café by pretending to wave at someone I knew. He offered to arrange a game for me, but I told him I was cool, I knew people here, I'd be fine.

A couple of minutes later I saw her. You couldn't miss this babe. She was wearing a Fred Perry shirt and she had (for some reason the surveillance photos didn't really show this) bodacious ta-tas. Her blue eyes were dazzling. She came into the cafe with another woman around her age, and both of them ordered Pellegrinos. I found a table close to hers, but not too close, and behind her, out of her line of sight. The point was to observe, watch, listen, and most of all not be seen. If she noticed me, I'd have a major problem next time I tried to loiter nearby. It's not like I'm Brad Pitt, but I'm not exactly butt-ugly either; women do tend to notice me. I'd have to be careful.

I couldn't tell if the woman Alana Jennings was with was a neighbor or a college friend or what, but they clearly weren't talking business. It was a fair guess that they didn't work together on the AURORA team. This was unfortunate—I wasn't going to overhear anything juicy.

But then her cell phone rang. "This is Alana," she said. She had a velvety-smooth, private-school voice, cultured without being too affected.

"You did?" she said. "Well, it sounds like you've solved it."

My ears pricked up.

"Keith, you've just slashed the time to fab in half, that's incredible."

She was definitely talking business. I moved a little closer toward her so I could hear more clearly. There was a lot of laughter and the clinking of dishes and the thop thop of tennis balls, which was making it hard to hear much of what she was saying. Someone squeezed by my table, a big guy with a huge gut that jostled my Coke glass. He was laughing loudly, obliterating Alana's conversation. Move, asshole.

He waddled by, and I heard another snatch of her conversation. She was now talking in a hushed voice, and only random bits floated my way. I heard her say: "... Well, that's the sixty-four-billion-dollar question, isn't it? I wish I knew." Then, a little louder: "Thanks for letting me know—great stuff." A little beep tone, and she ended the call. "Work," she said apologetically to the other woman. "Sorry. I wish I could keep this thing off, but these days I'm supposed to be on call 'round the clock. There's Drew!" A tall, studly guy came up to her—early thirties, bronzed, the broad and flat body of a rower—and gave her a kiss on the cheek. I noticed he didn't kiss the other woman.

"Hey, babe," he said.

Great, I thought. So Wyatt's goons didn't pick up on the fact that she was seeing someone after all.

"Hey, Drew," she said. "Where's George?"

"He didn't call you?" Drew said. "That space shot. He forgot he's got his daughter for the weekend."

"So we don't have a fourth?" the other woman said.

"We can pick someone up," said Drew. "I can't believe he didn't call you. What a wuss."

A lightbulb went on over my head. Jettisoning suddenly my carefully worked-out plan of anonymous observation, I made a bold split-second decision. I stood up and said, "Excuse me."

They looked over at me.

"You guys need a fourth?" I said.


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