COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
Around five in the morning I was awakened by a clattering noise. I bolted upright. The cleaning crew had arrived, wheeling big yellow plastic buckets and mops and the kind of vacuum cleaners you strap to your shoulder. There were two men and a woman, speaking rapidly to each other in Portuguese. I knew a little: a lot of our neighbors growing up were Brazilians.
I'd drooled a little puddle of saliva onto whoever's desk this was. I mopped it up with my sleeve, then got up and sauntered over to the exit doors, which they'd propped open with a rubber doorstop.
"Bom dia, como vai?" I said. I shook my head, looking embarrassed, glanced ostentatiously at my watch.
"Bem, obrigado e o senhor?" the woman replied. She grinned, exposing a couple of gold teeth. She seemed to get it—poor office guy, working all night, or maybe in here ridiculously early, she didn't know or care.
One of the men was looking at the scorched metal waste can and saying something to the other guy. Like, what the hell happened here?
"Cançado," I said to the lady: I'm tired, that's how I am. "Bom, até logo." See you later.
"Até logo, senhor," the woman said as I walked out the door.
I thought for a second about driving home, changing clothes, turning right back around. But that was more than I could handle, so instead I left E Wing—by now people were starting to come in—and re-entered B Wing and went up to my cubicle. Okay, so if anyone checked the entrance records, they'd see that I'd come in to the building Sunday night around seven, then came back around five-thirty in the morning on Monday. Eager beaver. I just hoped I didn't run into anyone I knew, looking the way I did, like I'd slept in my clothes, which of course I had. Fortunately I didn't see anyone. I grabbed a Diet Vanilla Coke from the break room and took a deep swig. It tasted nasty this early in the morning, so I made a pot of coffee in the Bunn-O-Matic, and went to the men's room to wash up. My shirt was a little wrinkled, but overall I looked presentable, even if I felt like shit. Today was a big day, and I had to be at my best.
An hour before the big meeting with Augustine Goddard, we gathered in Packard, one of the bigger conference rooms, for a dress rehearsal. Nora was wearing a beautiful blue suit and she looked like she'd had her hair done specially for the occasion. She was totally on edge; she crackled with nervous energy. She was smiling, her eyes wide.
She and Chad were rehearsing in the room while the rest of us gathered. Chad was playing Jock. They were doing this back-and-forth like an old married couple going through the paces of a long-familiar argument, when suddenly Chad's cell phone rang. He had one of those Motorola flip phones, which I was convinced he favored so he could end a call by snapping it shut.
"This is Chad," he said. His tone abruptly warmed. "Hey, Tony." He held an index finger in the air to tell Nora to wait, and he went off into a corner of the room.
"Chad," Nora called after him with annoyance. He turned back, nodded at her, held up his finger again. A minute or so later I heard him snap the phone closed, and then he came up to Nora, speaking fast in a low voice. We were all watching, listening in; they were in the center ring.
"That's a buddy of mine in the controller's office," he said quietly, grim-faced. "The decision on Maestro has already been made."
"How do you know?" Nora said.
"The controller just put through the order to do a one-time write-off of fifty million bucks for Maestro. The decision's been made at the top. This meeting with Goddard is just a formality."
Nora flushed deep crimson and turned away. She walked over to the window and looked out, and for a full minute she didn't say anything.