Paranoia (098 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.


Goddard's car was a perfectly restored 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible, sort of a custardy ivory, beautifully streamlined, with a chrome grille that looked like a crocodile's mouth. It had whitewall tires and a magnificent red leather interior and it gleamed like something you'd see in a movie. He powered down the cloth top before we emerged from the garage into the sunshine.

"This thing really moves," I said, surprised, as we accelerated onto the highway.

"Three-twenty cubic inch, straight eight," Goddard said.

"Man, it's a beauty."

"I call it my Ship of Theseus."

"Huh," I said, chuckling like I knew what he was talking about.

"You should have seen it when I bought it—it was a real junk heap, my goodness. My wife thought I'd taken leave of my senses. I must have spent five years of weekends and evenings rebuilding this thing from the ground up—I mean, I replaced everything. Completely authentic, of course, but I don't think there's a single part left from the original car."

I smiled, leaned back. The car's leather was buttery-smooth and smelled pleasantly old. The sun was on my face, the wind rushing by. Here I was sitting in this beautiful old convertible with the chief executive officer of the company I was spying on—I couldn't decide if it felt great, like I'd reached the mountaintop, or creepy and sleazy and dishonest. Maybe both.

Goddard wasn't some deep-pockets collector like Wyatt, with his planes and boats and Bentleys. Or like Nora, with her Mustang, or any of the Goddard clones at Trion who bought collectible cars at auction. He was a genuine old-fashioned gearhead who really got engine grease on his fingers.

He said, "You ever read Plutarch's Lives?"

"I don't think I even finished To Kill a Mockingbird," I admitted.

"You don't know what the devil I'm talking about when I call this my Ship of Theseus, do you?"

"No, sir, I don't."

"Well, there's a famous riddle of identity the ancient Greeks loved to argue over. It first comes up in Plutarch. You may recognize the name Theseus, the great hero who slew the Minotaur in the Labyrinth."

"Sure." I remembered something about a labyrinth.

"The Athenians decided to preserve Theseus's ship as a monument. Over the years, of course, it began to decay, and they found themselves replacing each rotting timber with a new one, and then another, and another. Until every single plank on the ship had been replaced. And the question the Greeks asked—it was sort of a philosophers' conundrum—was: Is this really the Ship of Theseus anymore?"

"Or just an upgrade," I said.

But Goddard wasn't joking around. He seemed to be in a serious frame of mind. "I'll bet you know people who are just like that ship, don't you, Adam?" He glanced at me, then back at the road. "People who move up in life and start changing everything about themselves until you can't recognize the original anymore?"

My insides clutched. Jesus. We weren't talking Buicks anymore.

"You know, you go from wearing jeans and sneakers to wearing suits and fancy shoes. You become more refined, more socially adept, you've got more polished manners. You change the way you talk. You acquire new friends. You used to drink Budweiser, now you're sipping some first-growth Pauillac. You used to buy Big Macs at the drive-through, now you're ordering the ... salt-crusted sea bass. The way you see things has changed, even the way you think." He was speaking with a terrifying intensity, staring at the highway, and when he turned to look at me from time to time his eyes flashed. "And at a certain point, Adam, you've got to ask yourself: are you the same person or not? Your costume has changed, your trappings have changed, you're driving a fancy car, you're living in a big fancy house, you go to fancy parties, you have fancy friends. But if you have integrity, you know deep down that you're the same ship you always were."

My stomach felt tied up in knots. He was talking about me; I felt this queasy sense of shame, embarrassment, as if I'd been caught doing something embarrassing. He saw right through me. Or did he? How much did he see? How much did he know?

"A man has to respect the person he's been. Your past—you can't be a captive to it, but you can't discard it, either. It's part of you."

I was trying to figure out how to respond when he announced breezily, "Well, here we are."

It was an old-fashioned, streamlined, stainless steel dining car from a passenger train, with a blue neon sign in script that said THE BLUE SPOON. Beneath that, red neon letters said AIR CONDITIONING. Another red neon sign said OPEN and BREAKFAST ALL DAY.

He parked the car and we got out.

"You've never been here before?"

"No, I haven't."

"Oh, you'll love it. It's the real thing. Not one of those phony retro-repro things." The door slammed with a satisfying thunk. "It hasn't changed since 1952."


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