Chapter Thirty

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What if Carter had a crisis of conscience? What if Elite soft-pedaled the more wacko elements of their program and his doubts had been mounting all day, and finally my challenge nudged him over the edge? What if he walked into Jim Davis's lair—wherever it is they're set up—and said he wouldn't do it anymore? Forget the cash, forget the deal. He wanted out.

What if Davis said no?

What if he's crammed into that dumpster with Mikhail?

I ask Paul, "Have you seen him lately?"

Paul shakes his head.

"Was Carter involved when they locked you up in the kitchenette?"

Paul says he wasn't.

"Okay. That's a few hours then." I gulp. "We should find him."

"Absolutely," Susan agrees. "If he wants to keep his job, he'd better have some good answers for me."

It's mildly encouraging that she's talking about Carter keeping or losing his job, as though such issues will be important in the post-Elite universe. To Susan, who's just been lecturing corporate titans from four different continents about New Economy innovation, all this is manageable.

I tell myself she's right. Of course Susan's right. Blackquest 40 is a blip. A big, scary, dictatorial blip, but a blip. Next week we'll be back to sweating midterm elections and MySQL vs. PostgreSQL. Won't we?

Carter's office is a stone's thrown away. Susan leads. His lights are off and she nearly walks right past.

"Stop!" I whisper. "Something moved in there."

I peer into the murk behind his desk, pulling Susan back by the sleeve. She and Paul squeeze beside me to look through his door, which is cracked a few inches. The dim outlines of a figure rise and fall above his glass-pane desktop. I hear sniffling.

Susan calls, "Carter?"

She pushes inside and flicks the light switch. Carter looks up, a shambles. The blue eyes crunch up in sobs. The Gatsby slickback is all mats and flyaways. I've been catching hints of his stress throughout the day, but this is different. This is meltdown stage.

Susan stalks to a central point under the art deco chandelier. Nothing in her manner suggests sympathy.

"Did you pad your sales numbers with money from this Elite gang?"

Carter nods.

"Is it actually a training exercise?" Susan's elbows stick straight out from either side, forearms 90 degrees off her hips. "Or are we building them something?"

Carter snivels, nods again.

"Which one?" Susan says, adding an expletive phrase.

"B—building. It's a deliverable. We have to deliver."

"Or?"

Carter glances dismally to the hall. "We should close the door."

"No! I don't care what these hoodlums hear. What're the terms of this deal? Why did you have to sneak it through journal entries?"

His neck snaps straight. "Wh—how do you know about the journal entries?"

I worry that he seems not to know about my database intrusion. They didn't tell him, which points to a relationship with Elite that's less collaborative—and more antagonistic—than Paul and I figured.

"Doesn't matter." Susan's calves are flexed, a pair of tightly-strung harps. "I am responsible for the welfare and safety of every employee in this building. I need to know what's going on—and I need to know now."

Carter splutters a few moments without making a sentence, eyes flitting between his lapels and the hallway.

"Oh, close the damn door," Susan says, and Paul moves for it. "Now talk."

Carter waits for the door to clap shut.

"It was ... I mean, the upside was enormous," he starts, "and I'm seeing this gaping hole in the budget, and so ... y'know, one of these impossible choices ..."

Much as I've loved watching Carter squirm in the past, I cannot enjoy this. The man's lips are melting. His thumb is turning white against the glass desktop. I notice a folded cot leaning against one of his blue-velvet chairs, and somehow this—skuzzy green canvas encroaching on his prized luxury—drives home the dizzying speed and extent of his fall.

"... and the thing mushrooms," he goes on, "and Davis is taking heat himself and passing it down the chain ... and for that kinda money? It just got ... I—I got in way over my head—"

"How?" Susan says. "Over your head in what?"

"I don't even know where to start."

"The truth. Start there."

Through several non-answers, Susan thunders away, advancing on Carter until she is literally shouting in his face.

Paul steps in like a referee. "Okay, alright—we'll get straightened out." He ushers Susan back, then turns to their former classmate. "How about a glass of water?"

Carter coughs his appreciation. Given what I know now about the history between these three—the lowball buyout, the icky love triangle—it's fairly astonishing Paul is the one coming to Carter's aid. Susan is coming at the situation fresh, with fresh outrage and a desire for scalps, whereas he and I have lived under Elite's yoke for something like eighteen hours. Indignation and shock have been whipped right out of us. We just want it to stop.

Before Carter gets that glass of water, the door opens.

The action is brisk—displaced air ripples through the spikes of my hair—and isn't preceded by a knock, or knuckle, or hesitant query from the hall.

Jim Davis enters, trailed by Katie Masterson and the flattop-eared goon. They walk five feet into the office, stopping in a perfect triangle that puts me in mind of fighter-jet formations. Their energy is different. Davis isn't smiling, quite, but the consternation that seemed to dog him down on Two is gone.

"Excuse me," Susan says. "When an office door is closed, it means you knock. Or go away and come back later."

Davis gives a low, possibly sarcastic moan. "Is that so?"

"Yes. This isn't your company, regardless of the arrangement you made with Carter here. Please wait outside, Mr. Davis."

The man looks at his stressball in one hand, flips it coolly to the other. "The time for artifice has passed, wouldn't you agree? From this point forward, you may call me by my real name: Oleg."

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