The small anteroom opened up to a large meeting area a few paces in. As he neared the opening Sam could clearly overhear the conversations within the different groups of people beyond. He shook his head nervously, then took a deep breath to steady his thundering heart rate within his chest. Then he heard Mr. Pai's nasally and utterly annoying laugh – a girlish titter, really – and he cringed as waves of nausea tumbled around his stomach at the thought of the little despot regaining his coveted seat of power above Sam and the rest of the underlings. By the sounds of merriment wafting to Sam's ears, however, he didn't think his coworkers were too upset about the usurping of workplace harmony. He put his face in his hands and glumly shook his head. He reminded himself to smile; things were out of his hands, after all, so he might as well just learn to accept Mr. Pai's return as Executive Overlord and hope it wasn't a sign of the apocalypse.
He rounded the corner with his practiced grin and faked a look of surprise as he nearly ran into Stacy Grundenhall. Noticing the swell of possible commotion, the gathering herd of coworkers all looked up from their conversations. Almost immediately the mocking cry went up, “SAM!”
“Hi guys, sorry I'm late.”
There was some good-natured ribbing followed by a few hearty slaps on the back, all of which Sam endured silently. He caught Mr. Pai's eye and nodded, “Welcome back, sir.”
“I never left.”
“Huh. Must have been a nasty rumor then.”
Pai smiled a little wider than anticipated, then conceded sheepishly, “ I MAY have been testing the waters a little.”
Which could only mean one thing: the company to which Pai had attempted to jump ship had obviously seen the kind of scumbag he was and left him hanging.
Whatever. Sam wandered away and bordered on the periphery of “mingling”, trying to keep the happy face front and center for all to see. Meanwhile, the agony of seeing that fat little Mussolini's face burned and twisted inside his gut.
A tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see the one person he'd actually hoped to see at this stupid-ass event. His face legitimately brightened and he exclaimed, “CC!”
CC stood for Catherine Cranston. She was a stout blonde, sharply dressed and, despite her diminutive stature, seemed to tower above all the other workplace robots in the room. She moved with a natural grace and power, like a panther, and with a face much prettier than she realized. But Sam was fully aware. She was one of those rare salt-of-the-Earth people with whom he had immediately bonded, and even though they had only known each other eight months it felt like they had grown up together.
To make things interesting, she was also the bank president's daughter.