About an hour later, I found myself in the gazebo, watching Paul dance to old country music. Kumar was standing next to me, nibbling on a cookie. Dawson had re-appeared some time
earlier, and was now dancing with Annie, though he didn't really look like he knew what he was doing.
"Ain't this a party?!" I jumped as Morgan shouted in my ear.
"Yes?!" I shouted back over the music while trying to figure out where he had come from.
"Albert couldn't throw this kind of shin-dig if he tried!" Walsh laughed and disappeared back into the crowd.
"He was awfully friendly!" Kumar said, trying to keep his voice above the music so I could hear him.
"Yeah! He's one of Paul's friends!" I shouted back.
"We should probably get out of here before we go deaf!"
We made it outside with little trouble, since most of the people were in the center of the structure. As we walked, we talked. About small things mostly, but eventually, somehow the conversation turned to Kumar himself.
"My parents were born in India." He smiled. "I was born in America." We stopped by a blue cooler and a man handed us two sprites. "I lived in Florida for most of my life before I moved up here two years ago." He continued. "I was fresh out of college, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was pure chance I walked in to The Lab." I noticed he used Paul's nickname for it. "Mr. Moore gave me a job as... well, an errand boy." He chuckled, a little embarrassed.
I thumped him on the shoulder. "Nothing to be ashamed of! Its better then being a human test subject anyway..."
"Fuck you." We both laughed.
We wandered the picnic, watching kids play with each other while their parents raided the dessert table. I learned more about Kumar's job, as well as more about The Lab. Kumar had an office on the 5th floor, near the break room I had met him in. Anytime anyone needed something, they pressed a small intercom-like button that was found throughout The Lab, often in odd places. The person would then talk through a speaker, either to Kumar or one of the other people who ran errands. Apparently the people in the laboratories needed a lot of them.
Kumar knew every inch of The Lab like the back of his hand. When I asked him about the lowest levels of the building and the red haze I had seen, he shuddered a little. "I hate it down there. That's where they make chemicals and materials that shouldn't even exist. The red light is so people know to be careful; there's a lot of dangerous stuff down there. Most of that area is powered by steam, so that was probably a leak in one of the pipes you saw."
I nodded and gulped down the rest of my sprite. "How far down is it?" I asked as I walked over to a small trashcan.
"I don't know. The bottom floor of the building is a long way down there though. The place is huge! Its kind of like a hotel/office building/mansion/laboratory/factory/space ship."
I chuckled a little. That was the best description I ever got of The Lab. Suddenly, the sound of a microphone screeching sliced through the air. I saw more then a few people duck their heads and cover their ears. When the sound stopped, there was a muffled "sorry."
It had come from a small stage that was downhill from us. People were gathering around it. Me and Kumar shrugged at each other and joined them.
The stage had been decorated to match the rest of the park. Long live Paul! a banner across the top of the stage proclaimed. A thin man in a black suit was standing behind a microphone. I didn't have to get any closer to know he was drunk.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know about you, but this is the best time I've had in weeks!" The man laughed, and was joined by the majority of the crowd. I had a feeling this guy was well known, both for who he was, and for being intoxicated. I wondered whether this was the 'Thomas' Paul had mentioned earlier.
"And both you and I have one man to thank. Give it up for Paul Moore!" The man stumbled away from the mic as people applauded.
Paul stepped up to the mic, shaking his head and laughing. "Now now, Tom you know perfectly well I couldn't have done this without help! How about we give a round to those who helped set up, organize, and, of course, brought food!" This was followed by cheers and more applause.
"As always, thank you everyone for coming. Now, some of you may have heard I won't be here much longer, and, though this may or may not be true, I think it's best if we all put that out of our minds and enjoy the picnic instead. Am I right?"
"You're damn right!" Morgan shouted from somewhere in the crowd. People nodded their head's and clapped some more.
"Now, first of all, I want to say that-" He stopped suddenly, his smile fading. I tried to follow his gaze, but the crowd was too... well, crowded. Then I realized I could hear someone laughing.
"You really draw an audience in, don't you Paul?"
Thomas, who had been tottering dangerously close to the edge of the stage, looked around, his eyes wide and wild. "Where are you?! I know you're there! Show yourself you, uh... uh..." He blinked in confusion, and promptly fell back on his butt.
"Hello Albert." Paul narrowed his eyes. The crowd parted to reveal the man I had disliked before I'd even met him.
He walked forward, his mouth spread in a wide, arrogant grin. He wasn't as 'large' as I had first assumed, but the picture in the newspaper hadn't done his ugliness justice. He seemed to have lost more hair since then as well. Albert Campbell stopped at the stage, starring up at Paul.
"What's the matter?" He asked. "Was I not invited to this little pow-wow of yours?"
"Get the hell out of here you chickenshit!" I was pretty sure that was Morgan again.
Paul's hand twitched. "How about you just turn around and walk the other way so we can keep things civil." It wasn't a question, it was a command. Paul showed no anger in his face, instead, he seemed to tower over Albert like an alpha wolf. Everyone knew he was in charge without having to be told so.
Except, perhaps, Albert. "I heard you caught yourself a bit of a cough. Down right shame isn't it? That we should loose our beloved Paul Moore after so many years. Tell me, Mr. Moore, where is this famous replacement of yours? I'm dieing to meet him."
Then, everyone's eyes were on me. No one spoke. I couldn't even hear the music from the gazebo anymore. I swallowed, all of my confidence gone. Kumar didn't appear to know what to do either, seeing as he just silently stood next to me. I spotted Annie and Dawson through the crowd. Dawson was grinning at me, while Annie offered a thumbs up. It didn't help much, but there was no time left for anything else.
Albert followed everyone else's gaze and spotted me; the twenty six year old wearing a rented suit and the only tie he owned. "That's him? He's just a boy!" He turned back to Paul. "You're going to hand over a million dollar company to some kid?" He scoffed. "Maybe your judgment isn't as good as it used to be."
Now people were whispering. Paul suddenly looked defeated, weak. He wasn't looking at me. I looked at Albert, and felt angry. How dare he talk to him like that! I stepped forward, my head held high.
"He wasn't much older then me when he started." Everyone else stopped talking. Campbell looked back at me, his eyebrow raised. "And besides." I continued. "I think he'd rather hand the company over to someone young, rather then someone old, someone who won't last much longer." I narrowed my eyes. "Someone like you."
There were a lot of "ooo"'s and "uh-oh"'s from the crowd. We were glaring at each other now, and I was barely aware of anything else. He looked like Dawson had before, frustrated, but holding back. Then, he smiled, but it wasn't a kind smile.
"You're certainly something, that's for sure. Maybe you wont be a complete failure after all." He shrugged. "But who really knows." Albert began to walk away in the same arrogant style as before, his large belly swinging a little. Just before he left completely, however, he turned back to me. "Oh, and, if and when you realize that taking care of a research facility is no cake walk, just come to me. I'd be happy to rid you of it."
"Never." I said simply. He shrugged again, as if I had no idea what I was talking about, and disappeared behind the crowd of people.
Another applause was started. I looked back to the stage, and Paul was smiling at me. That smile was all I needed.
"That was bad ass my friend." Kumar said next to me. I couldn't see Annie, but I had a pretty good idea she'd have some witty comment about how silly the two of us looked; a blond and a fat guy starring at each other. That was alright. That day would be a day I'd never forget.
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