COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
"Holy shit," Nicholas Wyatt said.
For a split second his polished, self-contained, deep-tanned shell of arrogance had cracked open. He gave me a look that almost seemed to border on respect. Almost. Anyway, this was a whole new Wyatt, and I enjoyed seeing it.
"You are fucking kidding me." He continued staring. "This better not be a joke." Finally he looked away, and it was a relief. "This is un-fucking-believable."
We were sitting on his private plane, but it wasn't moving anywhere. We were waiting for his latest bimbo girlfriend to show up so the two of them could take off for the Big Island of Hawaii, where he had a house in the Hualalai resort. It was me, Wyatt, and Arnold Meacham. I'd never been in a private jet before, and this one was sweet, a Gulfstream G-IV, interior cabin twelve feet wide, sixty-something feet long. I'd never seen all this empty space in an airplane. You could practically play football in here. No more than ten seats, a separate conference room, two huge bathrooms with showers.
Believe me, I wasn't flying to the Big Island. This was just a tease. Meacham and I would get off before the plane went anywhere. Wyatt was wearing some kind of black silk shirt. I hoped he got skin cancer.
Meacham smiled at Wyatt and said quietly, "Brilliant idea, Nick."
"I gotta give credit to Judith," Wyatt said. "She came up with the idea in the first place." He shook his head slowly. "But I doubt even she could have seen this coming." He picked up his cell, hit two keys.
"Judith," he said. "Our boy is now working directly for Mister Big himself. The Big Kahuna. Special executive assistant to the CEO." He paused, smiled at Meacham. "I kid you not." Another pause. "Judith, sweetheart, I want you to do a crash course with our young man here." Pause. "Right, well, obviously this is top priority. I want Adam to know that guy inside and out. I want him to be the best fucking special assistant the guy's ever hired. Right." And he ended the call with a beep. Looking back at me, he said, "You just saved your own ass, my friend. Arnie?"
Meacham looked like he'd been waiting for this cue. "We ran all the AURORA names you gave us," he said darkly. "Not a single fucking one of them popped up with anything."
"What does that mean?" I asked. God, did I hate the guy.
"No Social Security numbers, no nothing. Don't fuck with us, buddy."
"What are you talking about? I downloaded them directly from the Trion directory on the Web site."
"Yeah, well, they're not real names, asshole. The admin names are real, but the research-division names are obviously cover names. That's how deep they're buried—they don't even list their real names on the Web site. Never heard of such a thing."
"That doesn't sound right," I said, shaking my head.
"Are you being straight with us?" Meacham said. "Because if you aren't, so help me, we will fucking crush you." He looked at Wyatt. "He totally fucked up the personnel records—got diddly-squat."
"The records were gone, Arnold," I shot back. "Removed. They're being super-careful."
"What do you have on the broad?" Wyatt broke in.
I smiled. "I'm seeing 'the broad' next week."
"Like boyfriend-girlfriend stuff?"
I shrugged. "The woman's interested in me. She's on AURORA. She's a direct link into the skunkworks."
To my surprise, Wyatt just nodded. "Nice."
Meacham seemed to sense which way the wind was blowing now. He'd been stuck on how I'd blown the HR operation, and how the AURORA names on the Trion Web site were for some reason fake, but his boss was focusing on what was going right, on the amazing turn of events, and Meacham didn't want to be out of lockstep. "You're going to have access to Goddard's office now," he said. "There's any number of devices you can plant."
"This is so fucking incredible," Wyatt said.
"I don't think we need to be paying him his old Wyatt salary," Meacham said. "Not with what he's making at Trion now. Christ, this goddamned kite's making more than me."
Wyatt seemed amused. "Nah, we made a deal."
"What'd you call me?" I asked Meacham.
"There's a security risk in having us transfer corporate funds into an account for this kid, no matter how many shells it goes through," Meacham said to Wyatt.
"You called me a 'kite,' " I persisted. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I thought it's untraceable," Wyatt said to Meacham.
"What's a 'kite'?" I said. I was a dog with a bone; I wasn't letting this drop, no matter how much I annoyed Meacham.
Meacham wasn't even listening, but Wyatt looked at me and muttered, "It's corporate-spy talk. A kite's a 'special consultant' who goes out there and gathers the intel by whatever means necessary, does the work."
"Kite?" I said.
"You fly a kite, and if it gets caught in a tree, you just cut the string," Wyatt said. "Plausible deniability, you ever hear of that?"
"Cut the string," I repeated dully. On one level I wouldn't mind that at all, because that string was really a leash. But I knew when they talked about cutting the string, they meant leaving me high and dry.
"If things go bad," Wyatt said. "Just don't let things go bad, and no one has to cut the string. Now, where the hell is this bitch? If she's not here in two minutes, I'm taking off without her."