By the end of the day, I’d been shown everything I’d need to know to start work. At any rate, I knew how to get at my files, what programs I’d need, and been told multiple variations on, “You can’t tell anyone about this.”
Around five I got a text from Vaughn saying, “Copter’s leaving late—6:30. Execs going to old hotel to get hammered.”
I texted back, “Are you going with them?”
“No choice. Family. Higher Ground’s going too. U?”
“Don’t know. I’ll ask.”
I’d been sitting in my cubicle—the one in the main office not the lab—when I got the text. I looked up from my phone to find Stephanie standing next to my cubicle.
“Thought I’d let you know—Higher Ground and the Hardwick execs are meeting for drinks at the old hotel. It’s a way of showing them the people their money supports. With any luck they won’t talk to them very much. Some of our people don’t know when to shut up.”
I held up my phone. “Vaughn was just telling me. They’re even inviting me? I can’t legally drink yet.”
She laughed. “I’m sure they’re not checking ID. The last intern was underage too and she didn’t let that stop her. But that’s not why I’m telling you. I was thinking that we could take a walk down the beach and talk.”
Guessing that she meant “talk about work,” I said, “Yeah. I’ll check with Vaughn. He might want me there to distract him from everything.”
I didn’t know if Vaughn needed help to keep himself away from drinking anymore, but it seemed worth checking.
I texted Vaughn. “I’m invited. Meet you there?”
Vaughn texted back. “Dude, no. U really want to drink with my Mom and my Uncle? I’ll get away if I can.”
I wrote back, “OK.”
Looking up at Stephanie, I said, “It sounds like Vaughn won’t be able to get away. So, if you want to talk, it’ll just be me.”
“Fine with me. Let’s get out of here.” She turned and waved to a couple guys a few cubicles away. “See you there.”
We walked out of the door, talking about the day as we walked down a well-worn dirt trail in the woods around the complex.
The forest wasn’t anything special—just Michigan woods—leafy trees, green shrubbery, sandy trails, ivy, and the occasional rotting log.
We came out south of the old hotel. Long with white painted walls and large windows facing out toward the lake, it had a wraparound porch that was wide enough for the bar and the growing number of people drinking on it.
It struck me as a strange mixture—all of the suits from Grand Lake on the beach with Higher Ground’s jean and t-shirt crowd. The two groups kept to themselves with a few exceptions. Sandy and a number of the managers at Higher Ground stood in a group that included Hardwick Industries executives. One or two executives had wandered into the groups of Higher Ground employees.
I couldn’t hear the conversations from this distance, but they seemed happy enough.
“We can talk now,” Stephanie’s voice broke into my thoughts. “We’ve made enough of an appearance that people know we’re here and we’re far enough away that no one should be able to hear us. Plus, I’ve got a couple things going that should distract anyone trying to listen in.”
I glanced over at the hotel again, noticing Emmy standing next to the bar and then talking to the staff before going back to Russell Hardwick.
“Sure. What do we need to talk about?”
She glanced back at the hotel as we walked down the beach, crossing the sand to walk near where the waves washed up on the shore.
“We need to get our story straight. I’ve had a couple people ask me how we know each other. I’ve been telling them that we were in a scholarship program. What have you been saying?”
“The same thing. They set up the program that way so that we’d have cover to know each other if we had to. There’s no reason not to use that.”
She nodded. “Good. That’s what I thought too, but there’s another wrinkle here. We need to define what kind of relationship we had. Were we friends, enemies, or casual acquaintances?”
I thought about it. “Acquaintances? That’s closest to the truth and if anybody asks me about you, I can just say I don’t know.”
She stopped to pull off her shoes, stuff her socks inside, and walked in the water. I followed her example. We were close enough to the lake that I knew a wave would soak my feet sooner or later.
Tying her shoelaces together, she said, “Makes sense, but we could go another way. I’ve already had someone ask if we were dating. If we pretended to be, we’d never have to look for an excuse to disappear at the same time again. That works almost as well for friends, but, on the other hand, if we pretended not to get along, anyone who noticed anything weird about me might mention it to you. Then you might be able to deflect it.”
“I like the idea of pretending not to get along. People wouldn’t expect us to be working together then. The problem is that I don’t think I could manage it. I’m pretty easy-going and I don’t hold grudges that long. Um… Pretending to be dating would get weird because I’m actually dating Haley. Pretending to date you opens up the potential for weird misunderstandings.
“Plus, Victor just asked me if you were dating anyone and I told him ‘no.’ So that might cause problems.”