Paranoia (118 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.


The next day, Saturday, was Goddard's barbecue. It took me an hour and a half to get to Goddard's lake house, a lot of it on narrow back roads. On the way I called Dad from my cell, which was a mistake. I talked a little to Antwoine, and then Dad got on, huffing and puffing, his usual charming self, and demanded I come over now.

"Can't, Dad," I said. "I've got a business thing I have to do." I didn't want to say I had to go to a barbecue at the CEO's country house. My mind spun through Dad's possible responses and hit overload. There was his corrupt-CEO rant, the Adam-as-pathetic-brownnoser rant, the you-don't-know-who-you-are rant, the rich-people-rub-your-face-in-their-wealth rant, the whassa-matter-you-don't-want-to-spend-time-with-your-dying-father rant....

"You need something?" I added, knowing he'd never admit he needed anything.

"I don't need anything," he said testily. "Not if you're too busy."

"Let me come by tomorrow morning, okay?"

Dad was silent, letting me know I'd pissed him off, and then put Antwoine on the phone. The old man was back to being his usual asshole self.

I ended the call when I reached the house. The place was marked with a simple wooden sign on a post, just GODDARD and a number. Then a long, rutted dirt path through dense woods that suddenly broadened out into a big circular drive crunchy with crushed clamshells. A kid in a green shirt was serving temporary valet duty. Reluctantly I handed him the keys to the Porsche.

The house was a sprawling, gray-shingled, comfortable-looking place that looked like it had been built in the late nineteenth century or so. It was set on a bluff overlooking the lake, with four fat stone chimneys and ivy climbing on the shingles. In front was a huge, rolling lawn that smelled like it had just been mowed and, here and there, massive old oak trees and gnarled pines.

Twenty or thirty people were standing around on the lawn in shorts and T-shirts, holding drinks. A bunch of kids were running back and forth, shouting and tossing balls, playing games. A pretty blond girl was sitting at a card table in front of the veranda. She smiled and found my name tag and handed it to me.

The main action seemed to be on the other side of the house, the back lawn that sloped gently down to a wooden dock on the water. There the crowd was thicker. I looked around for a familiar face, didn't see anyone. A stout woman of about sixty in a burgundy caftan, with a very wrinkled face and snow-white hair, came up to me.

"You look lost," she said kindly. Her voice was deep and hoarse, and her face was as weathered and picturesque as the house.

I knew right away she had to be Goddard's wife. She was every bit as homely as advertised. Mordden was right: she really did look kind of like a shar-pei puppy.

"I'm Margaret Goddard. And you must be Adam."

I extended my hand, flattered that she'd somehow recognized me until I remembered that my name was on the front of my shirt. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Goddard," I said.

She didn't correct me, tell me to call her Margaret. "Jock's told me quite a bit about you." She held on to my hand for a long time and nodded, her small brown eyes widening. She looked impressed, unless I was imagining it. She drew closer. "My husband's a cynical old codger, and he's not easily impressed. So you must be good."

A screened-in porch wrapped around the back of the house. I passed a couple of large black Cajun grills with plumes of smoke rising from the glowing charcoal. A couple of girls in white uniforms were tending sizzling burgers and steaks and chicken. A long bar had been set up nearby, covered in a white linen tablecloth, where a couple of college-age guys were pouring mixed drinks and soft drinks and beers into clear plastic cups. At another table a guy was opening oysters and laying them out on a bed of ice.

As I approached the veranda, I began to recognize people, most of them fairly high-ranking Trion executives and spouses and kids. Nancy Schwartz, senior vice president of the Business Solutions Unit, a small, dark-haired, worried-looking woman wearing a Day-Glo orange Trion T-shirt from last year's Corporate Games, was playing a game of croquet with Rick Durant, the chief marketing officer, tall and slim and tanned with blow-dried black hair. They both looked gloomy. Goddard's admin, Flo, in a silk Hawaiian muumuu, floral and dramatic, was swanning around as if she were the real hostess.

Then I caught sight of Alana, long legs tan against white shorts. She saw me at the same instant, and her eyes seemed to light up. She looked surprised. She gave me a quick furtive wave and a smile, and she turned away. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, if anything. Maybe she wanted to be discreet about our relationship, the old don't-fish-off-the-company-pier thing.

I passed my old boss, Tom Lundgren, who was dressed in one of those hideous golf shirts with gray and bright pink stripes. He was clutching a bottle of water and nervously stripping off the label in a long perfect ribbon as he listened with a fixed grin to an attractive black woman who was probably Audrey Bethune, a vice president and the head of the Guru team. Standing slightly behind him was a woman I took to be Lundgren's wife, dressed in an identical golfing outfit, her face almost as red and chafed as his. A gangly little boy was grabbing at her elbow and pleading about something in a squeaky voice.

Fifty feet away or so, Goddard was laughing with a small knot of guys who looked familiar. He was drinking from a bottle of beer and wearing a blue button-down shirt rolled up at the sleeves, a pair of neatly creased, cuffed khakis, a navy-blue cloth belt with whales on it, and battered brown moccasins. The ultimate prepster country baron. A little girl ran up to him, and he leaned over and magically extracted a coin from her ear. She squealed in surprise. He handed her the coin, and she ran off, shrieking with excitement.

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