Nicholas Wyatt was one scary dude. I had never met him before, but I’d seen him on TV, on CNBC, and on the corporate Web site, the video messages he’d recorded. I’d even caught a few glimpses of him, live, in my three years working for the company he founded. Up close he was even more intimidating. He had a deep tan, shoe polish-black hair that was gelled and combed straight back. His teeth were perfectly even and Vegas-white.
He was fifty-six but didn’t look it, whatever fifty-six is supposed to look like. Anyway, he sure didn’t look like my dad at fifty-six, a paunchy, balding old man even in his so-called prime. This was some other fifty-six.
I had no idea why he was here. What could the CEO of the company threaten me with that Meacham hadn’t already pulled out? Death by a thousand paper cuts? Being eaten alive by wild boar?
Secretly I had this fleeting fantasy that he was going to high-five me, congratulate me for pulling off a good one, say he liked my spirit, my moxie. But that sad little daydream shriveled as quickly as it popped into my desperate mind. Nicholas Wyatt wasn’t some basketball-playing priest. He was a vindictive son of a bitch.
I’d heard stories. I knew that if you had any brains you made a point of avoiding him. You kept your head down, tried not to attract his attention. He was famous for his rages, his tantrums and shouting matches. He was known to fire people on the spot, have Security pack up their desks, have them escorted out of the building. At his executive staff meetings he always picked one person to humiliate the whole time. You didn’t go to him with bad news, and you didn’t waste a split second of his time. If you were unlucky enough to have to make some PowerPoint presentation to him, you’d rehearse it and rehearse it until it was perfect, but if there was a single glitch in your presentation, he’d interrupt you, shouting, “I don’t believe this!”
People said he’d mellowed a lot since the early years, but from what? He was viciously competitive, a weightlifter and triathlete. Guys who worked out in the company gym said he was always challenging the serious jocks to chin-up competitions. He never lost, and when the other guy gave up he’d taunt, “Want me to keep going?” They said he had the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger, like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts.
Not only was he insane about winning, for him it wasn’t sweet unless he also got to ridicule the loser. At a companywide Christmas party he once wrote the name of his chief competitor, Trion Systems, on a wine bottle, and smashed it against the wall, to a lot of drunken cheering and catcalls.
He ran a high-testosterone shop. His top guys all dressed like he did, in seven-thousand-dollar suits by Armani or Prada or Brioni or Kiton or other designers I hadn’t even heard of. And they put up with his shit because they were disgustingly well compensated for it. The joke about him that everybody’s heard by now: What’s the difference between God and Nicholas Wyatt? God doesn’t think he’s Nicholas Wyatt.
Nick Wyatt slept three hours a night, seemed to eat nothing but Power Bars for breakfast and lunch, was a nuclear reactor of nervous energy, perspired heavily. People called him “The Exterminator.” He managed by fear and never forgot a slight. When an ex-friend of his got fired as CEO of some big tech company, he sent a wreath of black roses-his assistants always knew where to get black roses. The quote he’s famous for, the one thing he repeated so often it should have been carved in granite above the main entrance, made into a screen saver on everyone’s desktop, was “Of course I’m paranoid. I want everyone who works for me to be paranoid. Success demands paranoia.”
I followed Wyatt down the hall from Corporate Security to his executive suite, and it was hard to keep up with him-he was a power-walker. I had to almost run. Behind me followed Meacham, swinging a black leather portfolio like a baton. As we approached the executive area, the walls went from white plasterboard to mahogany; the carpeting became soft and deep-pile. We were at his office, his lair.
His matched set of admins looked up and beamed at him as we caravaned through. One blonde, one black. He said, “Linda, Yvette,” as if captioning them. I wasn’t surprised they were both fashion-model beautiful-everything here was high-end, like the walls and the carpeting and the furniture. I wondered if their job description included nonclerical responsibilities, like blowjobs. That was the rumor, anyway.
Wyatt’s office was vast. An entire Bosnian village could live there. Two of the walls were glass, floor to ceiling, and the views of the city were unbelievable. The other walls were fancy dark wood, covered with framed things, magazine covers with his mug on them, Fortune, Forbes, Business Week. I looked, goggle-eyed, as I half walked, half ran by. A photo of him and some other guys with the late Princess Diana. Him with both George Bushes.
He led us to a “conversation group” of tufted black leather chairs and sofa that looked like they belonged in MOMA. He sank down at one end of the enormous sofa.
My head was spinning. I was disoriented, in another world. I couldn’t imagine why I was here, in Nicholas Wyatt’s office. Maybe he’d been one of those boys who liked to pull the legs off insects one by one with tweezers, then burn them to death with a magnifying glass.
“So this is some pretty elaborate scam you pulled off,” he said. “Very impressive.”
I smiled, ducked my head modestly. Denial wasn’t even an option. Thank God, I thought. It looked like we were going the high-five, moxie route.
“But no one kicks me in the balls and walks away, you should know that by now. I mean fucking nobody.”
He’d gotten out the tweezers and the magnifying glass.
“So what’s your deal, you’ve been a PLM here for three years, your performance reviews suck, you haven’t gotten a raise or a promotion the whole time you’ve been here; you’re going through the motions, phoning it in. Not exactly an ambitious guy, are you?” He talked fast, which made me even more nervous.
I smiled again. “I guess not. I sort of have other priorities.”
I hesitated. He’d got me. I shrugged.
“Everyone’s got to be passionate about something, or they’re not worth shit. You’re obviously not passionate about your work, so what are you passionate about?”
I’m almost never speechless, but this time I couldn’t think of anything clever to say. Meacham was watching me too, a nasty, sadistic little smile on his knife-blade face. I was thinking that I knew guys in the company, in my business unit, who were always scheming how to get thirty seconds with Wyatt, in an elevator or at a product launch or whatever. They’d even prepared an “elevator pitch.” Here I was in the big guy’s office and I was silent as a mannequin.
“You an actor or something in your spare time?”
I shook my head.
“Well, you’re good, anyway. A regular Marlon fucking Brando. You may suck at marketing routers to enterprise customers, but you are a fucking Olympic-level bullshit artist.”
“If that’s a compliment, sir, thank you.”
“I hear you do a damned good Nick Wyatt-that true? Let’s see it.”
I blushed, shook my head.
“Anyway, bottom line, you ripped me off and you seem to think you’re going to get away with it.”
I looked appalled. “No, sir, I don’t think I’m going to ‘get away with it.’ ”
“Spare me. I don’t need another demonstration. You had me at hello.” He flicked his hand like a Roman emperor, and Meacham handed him a folder. He glanced at it. “Your aptitude scores are in the top percentile. You were an engineering major in college, what kind?”
“You wanted to be an engineer when you grew up?”
“My dad wanted me to major in something I could get a real job with. I wanted to play lead guitar with Pearl Jam.”
“No,” I admitted.
He half-smiled. “You did college on the five-year-plan. What happened?”
“I got kicked out for a year.”
“I appreciate your honesty. At least you’re not trying that ‘junior year abroad’ shit. What happened?”
“I pulled a stupid prank. I had a bad semester, so I hacked into the college computer system and changed my transcript. My roommate’s too.”
“So it’s an old trick.” He looked at his watch, glanced at Meacham, then back at me. “I’ve got an idea for you, Adam.” I didn’t like the way he said my first name; it was creepy. “A very good idea. An extremely generous offer, in fact.”
“Thank you, sir.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew it couldn’t be good or generous.
“What I’m about to say to you I’m going to deny I ever said. In fact, I won’t just deny it, I’ll fucking sue you for defamation if you ever repeat it, are we clear? I will fucking crush you.” Whatever he was talking about, he had the resources. He was a billionaire, like the third or fourth richest man in America, but he had once been number two before our share price collapsed. He wanted to be the richest-he was gunning for Bill Gates-but that didn’t seem likely.
My heart thudded. “Sure.”
“Are you clear on your situation? Behind door number one you’ve got the certainty-the fucking certainty-of at least twenty years in prison. So it’s that, or else whatever’s behind the curtain. You want to play Let’s Make a Deal?”
I swallowed. “Sure.”
“Let me tell you what’s behind the curtain, Adam. It’s a very nice future for a smart engineering major like you, only you have to play by the rules. My rules.”
My face was prickly-hot.
“I want you to take on a special project for me.”
“I want you to take a job at Trion.”
“At . . . Trion Systems?” I didn’t understand.
“In new product marketing. They’ve got a couple of openings in strategic places in the company.”
“They’d never hire me.”
“No, you’re right, they’d never hire you. Not a lazy fuckup like you. But a Wyatt superstar, a young hotshot who’s on the verge of going supernova, they’d hire you in a nanosecond.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Street-smart guy like you? You just lost a couple of IQ points. Come on, dipshit. The Lucid-that was your baby, right?”
He was talking about Wyatt Telecom’s flagship product, this all-in-one PDA, sort of a Palm Pilot on steroids. An incredible toy. I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t even own one.
“They’d never believe it,” I said.
“Listen to me, Adam. I make my biggest business decisions on gut instinct, and my gut tells me you’ve got the brass balls and the smarts and the talent to do it. You in or out?”
“You want me to report back to you, is that it?”
His eyes bore down on me, steely. “More than that. I want you to get information.”
“Like being a spy. A mole or whatever.”
He turned his palms open, like, are you a moron or what? “Whatever you want to call it. There’s some valuable, uh, intellectual property I want to get my hands on inside Trion, and their security is damned near impenetrable. Only a Trion insider can get what I want, and not just any insider. A major player. Either you recruit one, buy one, or you get one in the front door. Here we got a smart, personable young guy, comes highly recommended-I think we got a pretty decent shot.”
“And what if I’m caught?”
“You won’t be,” Wyatt said.
“But if I am . . . ?”
“If you do the job right,” Meacham said, “you won’t be caught. And if somehow you screw up and you are caught-well, we’ll be here to protect you.”
Somehow I doubted that. “They’ll be totally suspicious.”
“Of what?” Wyatt said. “In this business people jump from company to company all the time. The top talent gets poached. Low-hanging fruit. You’re fresh off a big win at Wyatt, you maybe don’t have the juice you think you should, you’re looking for more responsibility, a better opportunity, more money-the usual bullshit.”
“They’ll see right through me.”
“Not if you do your job right,” said Wyatt. “You’re going to have to learn product marketing, you’re going to have to be fucking brilliant, you’re going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your whole sorry life. Really bust your ass. Only a major player’s going to get what I want. Try your phone-it-in shit at Trion, you’ll either get shot or shoved aside, and then our little experiment is over. And you get door number one.”
“I thought new product guys all have to have MBAs.”
“Nah, Goddard thinks MBAs are bullshit-one of the few things we agree on. He doesn’t have one. Thinks it’s limiting. Speaking of limiting.” He snapped his fingers, and Meacham handed him something, a small metal box, familiar looking. An Altoids box. He popped it open. Inside were a few white pills that looked like aspirin but weren’t. Definitely familiar. “You’re going to have to cut out this shit, this Ecstasy or whatever you call it.” I kept the Altoids box on my coffee table at home; I wondered when and how they got it, but I was too dazed to be pissed off. He dropped the box into a little black leather trash can next to the couch. It made a thunk sound. “Same with pot, booze, all that shit. You’re going to have to straighten up and fly right, guy.”
That seemed like the least of my problems. “And what if I don’t get hired?”
“Door number one.” He gave an ugly smile. “And don’t pack your golf shoes. Pack your K-Y.”
“Even if I give it my best shot?”
“Your job is not to blow it. With the quals we’re giving you, and with a coach like me, you won’t have any excuse.”
“What kind of money are we talking about?”
“What kind of money? The fuck do I know? Believe me, it’ll be a hell of a lot more than you get here. Six figures anyway.” I tried not to gulp visibly.
“Plus my salary here.”
He turned his tight face over to me and gave me a dead stare. He didn’t have any expression in his eyes. Botox? I wondered. “You’re shitting me.”
“I’m taking an enormous risk.”
“Excuse me? I’m the one taking the risk. You’re a total fucking black box, a big fat question mark.”
“If you really thought so, you wouldn’t ask me to do it.”
He turned to Meacham. “I don’t believe this shit.”
Meacham looked like he’d swallowed a turd. “You little prick,” he said. “I ought to pick up the phone right now-”
Wyatt held up an imperial hand. “That’s okay. He’s ballsy. I like ballsy. You get hired, you do your job right, you get to double-dip. But if you fuck up-”
“I know,” I said. “Door number one. Let me think it over, get back to you tomorrow.”
Wyatt’s jaw dropped, his eyes blank. He paused, then said, all icy: “I’ll give you till nine a.m. When the U.S. Attorney gets into his office.”
“I advise you not to say a word about this to any of your buddies, your father, anybody,” Meacham put in. “Or you won’t know what hit you.”
“I understand,” I replied. “No need to threaten me.”
“Oh, that’s not a threat,” said Nicholas Wyatt. “That’s a promise.”