COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
The Executive Briefing Center was on the seventh floor of A Wing, just down the hall from Goddard's office. We trooped over there in a group, the mood pretty low. Nora said she'd join us in a few minutes.
"Dead men walking!" Chad sang out to me as we walked. "Dead men walking!"
I nodded. Mordden glanced at Chad walking beside me, and he kept his distance, no doubt thinking all kinds of evil thoughts about me, trying to figure out why I wasn't giving Chad the cold shoulder, what I was up to. He hadn't been stopping by my cubicle as often since the night I'd sneaked into Nora's office. It was hard to tell if he was acting strangely, since strange was his default mode. Also, I didn't want to succumb to the situational paranoia—was he looking at me funny, that sort of thing. But I couldn't help wondering whether I had blown the whole mission with one single act of carelessness, whether Mordden was going to cause me serious trouble.
"Now, seating's crucial, big guy," Chad muttered to me. "Goddard always takes the center seat on the side of the table near the door. If you want to be invisible, you sit on his right. If you want him to pay attention to you, either sit to his left or directly across the table from him."
"Do I want him to pay attention to me?"
"I can't answer that. He is the boss."
"Have you been in a lot of meetings with him?"
"Not that many," he shrugged. "A couple."
I made a mental note to sit anywhere Chad recommended against, like to Goddard's right. Fool me once, shame on you, and all that.
The EBC was a truly impressive sight. There was a huge wooden conference table made of some kind of tropical-looking wood that took up most of the room. One entire end of the room was a screen for presentations. There were heavy acoustic blinds that you could tell were supposed to slide down electrically from the ceiling, probably not only to block out light but to keep anyone outside from hearing what went on inside the room. Built into the table were speakerphones and little screens in front of each chair that slid up when a button was pushed somewhere.
There was a lot of whispering, nervous laughter, muttered wisecracks. I was sort of looking forward to seeing the famous Jock Goddard up close and personal, even if I never got to shake his hand. I didn't have to speak or make any part of the presentation, but I was a little nervous anyway.
By five minutes before ten, Nora still hadn't shown up. Had she jumped out of a window? Was she calling around, trying to lobby, making a last-ditch effort to save her precious product, pulling whatever strings she had?
"Think she got lost?" Phil joked.
Two minutes before ten, Nora entered the room, looking calm, radiant, somehow more attractive. She looked like she'd put on fresh makeup, lip-liner and all that stuff. Maybe she'd even been meditating or something, because she looked transformed.
Then, at exactly ten o'clock, Jock Goddard and Paul Camilletti entered the room, and everyone went quiet. "Cutthroat" Camilletti, in a black blazer and an olive silk T-shirt, had slicked his hair back and looked like Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. He took a seat way off at a corner of the immense table. Goddard, in his customary black mock turtleneck under a tweedy brown sport coat, walked up to Nora and whispered something that made her laugh. He put his hand on her shoulder; she put her hand on top of his hand for a few seconds. She was acting girlish, sort of flirtatious; it was a side of Nora I'd never seen before.
Goddard then sat down right at the head of the table, facing the screen. Thanks, Chad. I was across the table and to his right. I could see him just fine and I sure didn't feel invisible. He had round shoulders, a little stooped. His white hair, parted on one side, was unruly. His eyebrows were bushy, white, each one looked like a snow-capped mountaintop. His forehead was deeply creased, and he had an impish look in his eyes.
There were an awkward few seconds of silence, and he looked around the big table. "You all look so nervous," he said. "Relax! I don't bite." His voice was pleasant and sort of crackly, a mellow baritone. He glanced at Nora, winked. "Not often, anyway." She laughed; a couple of other people chuckled politely. I smiled, mostly to say, I appreciate that you're trying to put us all at ease.
"Only when you're threatened," she said. He smiled, his lips forming a V. "Jock, do you mind if I start off here?"
"Jock, we've all been working so incredibly hard on the refresh of Maestro that I think sometimes it's just hard to get outside ourselves, get any real perspective. I've spent the last thirty-six hours thinking about pretty much nothing else. And it's clear to me that there are several important ways in which we can update, improve Maestro, make it more appealing, increase market share, maybe even significantly."
Goddard nodded, made a steeple with his fingers, looked down at his notes.
She tapped the laminated bound presentation notebook. "We've come up with a strategy, quite a good one, adding twelve new functionalities, bringing Maestro up to date. But I have to tell you quite honestly that if I were sitting where you're sitting, I'd pull the plug."