Going to California

Author’s Note

One of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, in addition to being a novelist is also an advice columnist. When asked if the pen really is mightier than the sword, he said, “I choose my words so the least amount of people get hurt, but that’s also hard to achieve.”

I’ve been pretty busy with work these past three months, which is why there’ve been so few updates — regular bouts of 12- to 16-hour days, along with a strong schedule of time with family, keep me from feeling like I can set aside the time to write the more intense rounds that are coming up. There’s a lot of angles from which I could tell this last run of our story here, and a lot of ways in which I could tell it — though given that at this point I’m writing about the much less distant past, and about people with whom I’m lucky enough to still call my friends today, I haven’t had enough of those long, quiet moments from which I can choose my words well enough to hurt the least amount of people. There’s some stuff coming up that I’m afraid of writing off the cuff. I want to be deliberate in how it comes together. I’ve been super thankful for the continuing stream of “Go for it” messages that I’ve been getting these past couple of months from the people who know what’s coming up. It’s helped.

What’s also helped has been an editor making it all the way through to end of “Making Magic” — I’ll be folding in his changes as updates to the original posts. (Thanks, Mr. V.) Reviewing his notes made me remember how much tighter things were in the earlier session, and I’m inspired to begin shifting back toward that density of story and language as the story accelerates into its conclusion. Expect tighter, shorter stories, with more action.

I’m going to take both “Gray” and “Interregnum” offline for now, though. They inform a lot of the final third of our story, though only a few pieces directly join up with it, pressing on through from “Making Magic” directly. This time last year as all of that was coming together I was on a roll, pushing myself to write consistently, daily, for many weeks, and I was happy enough being successful. Only some of that material was culled from journals or from other writing projects, so I now have the confidence that I can write that much, and that well, for that long. Still, again having gone back and re-read the first third, I’m afraid that most of those two stories don’t feed into the core of the overall narrative. Those stories will find a home, it just may not be here.

The good news is that I’m about to take a short vacation from work, where I’ll focus on playing with the kids, cleaning my office, and writing. I actually returned to writing earlier this week, blocking out a tight outline of the rest of the story. I even wrote half of the second-to-last post, given that I want to make sure that I bring this thing in for a three-point landing. So you can expect new content to start appearing as early as next week, or if I wait to get a couple of posts in before I start throwing them online, you’ll see the story continue as late as the week after.

That’s where I am with it, and how I hope to be getting to the end. Thanks again for reading.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.6

“Hello?” said Dr. Ann, my chiropractor back in Austin. After the small talk, I explained how my jaw had been aching, and how I’d been getting headaches, and how bad I felt, and how happy I’d be with a recommendation — anything, anyone — for help in the Bay Area.

“Uh,” she said, her voice modulating as though she was waving someone down in the background on her end. “That’s very interesting. Where are you again—Bay Area, right? Well, that’s fortunate. You won’t believe how.” It turned out that not twenty minutes from my office was a chiropractic college, just on the other side of the bay, and one of the senior students there was interested in buying out their practice in Austin. My docs in Texas wanted to move back north to raise a family, and so had been looking to sell.

“It would be interesting,” my former doctor said, “if we could get you in touch with her, and you could tell us what you think — if you think she’d be a good fit for our practice.”

I agreed. She gave me the student’s number and some days later I was on my way to the chiropractic college. The doctor-in-training was young, if only a few years younger than I was. Also, she was blonde and fit and smiling with professional clarity. She was probably the most attractive woman I’d stood beside moving to California.

“How long has it been since your last adjustment?” she asked.

“Since I moved out from Austin. Maybe six months — no, nine months.”

“And how often were you seeing the Starks, your doctors in Austin?”

“For a while, maybe for a year, I was going once a week. After that, I only went when necessary — like when a guy accidentally stepped on my skull, and I had these terrible headaches until Dr. Stark — Bart; he has hands like two very gentle stones — popped the plates of my skull back in place.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah.” I rubbed the side of my head. “I remember when I had my first appointment, they told me that it was less about having bones out of place, though that’s a common misunderstanding of the value of chiropractic. The problem is that my muscles had been trained to stress my skeleton in ways that weren’t good, and that puled my jaw out of place.”

She nodded.

“They said it might be a long time before I finally got to the root cause of why that was happening. That it probably wasn’t something as simple as ‘don’t be stressed out.’ Like, maybe my jaw was crooked on one side because my shoulders were crooked on the other side, and that was because my hips were crooked back the other way.”

“Huh,” she said, pressing her fingertips into the pained side of my head. “Was it Dr. Ann or Dr. Bart who said that?”

“They’re both very canny, but I think it was Ann.”

“And did she say exactly that, what you just said?”

“I think so. I have a pretty good memory for what people say — I hang onto the gist of things, at least. But I believe that’s what she said.”

The younger doc-in-training ran what felt like a thumb down my spine. “And did you ever get to the bottom of it?”

I think I slumped a bit. She withdrew her hand. “No,” I said.

She popped my jaw back in place and instantly I felt better, like I’d been underwater for months and simply decided to come back up. There even seemed to be more of my brain that there had been before. Colors seemed brighter.

We stopped in the lobby on the way out. “So,” she said, crossing her arms and fixing me with a sharp look. “What do you think?”

I knew what she meant. “I think you’d be a good fit for their patients. They’ll like you. You’re a lot like my old docs.” I took a breathe in. “It’s no wonder you and they started talking, really. You’ve got a lot of the qualities I miss in them.”

She narrowed her eyes and tapped a ball-point pen tucked into the front breast pocket of her lab coat. There was a red logo on its white clip, “VIRGIN”-something. A quick check once I got back to a computer connected it to a group of women who were determined to remain virgins until marriage. That was how Dr. Ann had lived until marrying Dr. Bart — maybe these two ladies met through the organization.

“Unfortunately,” she said, snapping my gaze back to her eyes, “this will probably be the last time we see each other, unless you’re visiting Austin. I graduate next month and I move shortly after that. You’re one of the last patients I’ll see here.”

“Ah,” I said, suddenly wrestling with words in my head. “My problem is that I don’t really know anyone else out here in California, outside of work. And work is…weird. Is there anyone you could recommend me to?”

She looked at me, unreadable.

“Anyone at all,” I added. “I’m really pretty desperate, I’m sorry to say. I mean, I feel great now — thank you! — but I don’t think I can go this long again without some help.” I swallowed. “I’d love to be able to get to the bottom of this thing.”

She kept looking at me. “If you’re serious,” she said slowly, “I may have someone I could refer you to.”

“I’d seriously love that.”

“Hmm,” she said. “Okay. We close down the school for the summer, but when classes start up again in the fall, the new wave of seniors will be doing what I’m doing now, working on people like you when they’re not in class in order to get enough hours in before they graduate.” She looked out behind me. “They’re actually moving the school to a new location starting next month, so it’ll be in a different place — nice, they say.” She looked back at me. “I have a friend who’ll be graduating next year. Give me your number and I’ll pass it along.”

She handed me the virgin pen and a card. “I really appreciate it,” I said, scribbling.

Taking pen and card back, she nodded, a white edifice of doctorly distance. “Good luck,” she said, and I never saw her again.

On the drive back to the office, I was elated. I could think, I had my whole mind available to me, I wasn’t in pain. I pulled into the parking lot at work, realizing that the rainy season was finally passing — the sun was teasing us with long if distant glances.

When I got back upstairs to my cube, Mary called me into her office. She seemed excited.

“As you know,” she said once the door was closed, “we’re closing in on the funding we’ll need to take this company to the next level. And after thinking long and hard about the team we need to get us where we want to be, we came to a decision: we’d like you to be our Vice-President of Marketing.”

She smiled broadly, eyebrows raised for my answer.

I thought about how my dad had always said he wanted to be a vice-president — it had been his goal to be a VP by the time he was 45. Instead, after chasing the brass ring, he spent many years unemployed in the wake of the stock-market crash ten years earlier.

“Hmm,” I said.

Mary’s smile cracked. She’d been holding it in place for several quiet seconds.

I said, “I don’t see how I’m the right person for the job.” My friend Matt would’ve taken the position in a heartbeat — it was his dream. It was my dad’s dream. But it wasn’t my dream.

Mary leaned back against her desk, the muscles of her face sliding into a set of neutral states.

I thought about the Yahoo stock price, not far from free-fall. Another crash was coming, it seemed, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being promoted to First Officer just as the ship was going down — even if, extending the metaphor, our ship hadn’t quite yet even set sail. It wouldn’t get me another high-ranking position somewhere else after the crash, and it might actually work against me. Better to spend my time in the engine room figuring out how things actually work — hopefully I’d be able to help fix the ship enough to keep us going, learning enough to keep myself going regardless of what happens to the market.

I only saw one viable option.

“I’m flattered that you think I could do it,” I said, “but I think you need to keep looking.”

“If that’s how you feel,” she said. “Of course.” She made a light gesture toward the door.

Back at my desk, I felt wave after wave of thrill roll up my spine. I had dodged a bullet, I felt — and I had. I would quickly come to regret the decisions that brought most of our marketing staff into the company, though I’d never once envy the guy who got the VP role.

Would I have made the same decision if I hadn’t had my jaw popped back into place? Maybe. I hope so. But I can imagine a world where I hadn’t. It wasn’t that far away, that world, even if it was a much darker place.

That was the last time I’d speak to Mary in the office, though. Weeks later her office would be empty, her name plate taken down. There was no room for her in the hot new startup world. Our paths never crossed again.

Yahoo stock had fallen 40% in the past three months, a bell-weather of the era to come, yet we were about to get $34 million to spend building a company. I had spent the past month of my life interviewing people to hire into the new organization — I hadn’t done any research or development in at least that long.

The rainy season was ending. The sun was coming out.

Goddammit, I told myself, if this place is going down in flames, I’m going to have some fun first.

And so I did. After nine months of struggling with my own doubts and inadequacies, it turned out that having fun was easy, really.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.5

“Our Brad’s been a bad boy,” said Phil.

“Oh, really,” I said.

“Mucky, mucky,” Phil said. “Very poor decision-making.”

“Do tell.”

“It seems he was running a porn server in and amongst the Packet Storm machines.”

“That’s horrible.”

“And the server itself was taken from a client without their permission, and internal resources were used to secure it for public access.”

“Awesome. I mean, I can’t believe it. So what happened?”

Phil leaned forward. “Mary just had to call him — don’t know what time it was in Hong Kong, don’t particularly care. She flat-out told him about the server. He didn’t really deny it, so good on him, but then she told him he was being let go and he went completely mad.”

“Sure.”

“Completely. Started raving, all kinds of shit — ‘You’re at least paying for a plane ticket back, how am I going to get home?’ She said, ‘That’s your problem, buddy.'”

“That is kinda cold.”

“Hey, he wanted to party for an indefinite period of time in Hong Kong when he should’ve been working, after sticking a stolen server on company bandwidth to serve up porn, I think you made your bed and put one of those little chocolates on the pillow and everything.”

“So how’s he going to get back to, uh—” I’d only ever run into him a couple of times; he had a funny accent that wasn’t English, but I couldn’t place it. “—ah, fucking South Africa or wherever?”

Phil cocked his head at me. “Really: South Africa? Well, you’re only off by a hemisphere.”

“Jeez. Anyway, what happened?”

“Well, he asked for the server back.”

“No way!”

“He did. She said no. He said, ‘Can I at least have all the data off of it? I don’t have a backup!’ So she says no, and he says, ‘But people paid me good money to get to that crap!'”

“Oh my God,” I said. All I could think of was how the Packet Storm guy has stared at the floor as he rattled off all the crazy crap he found on that server. He ended with, “Granny porn, man,” shaking his head sadly. “Granny porn.”

“‘That’s your problem,’ she says, and got off the phone.” Phil mock-dusted his hands. “That’s that.”

“Wow. So you’re in charge now?”

His glow seemed to flicker. “The Packet Storm kids will report to me, yeah. But we’ve got a lot more hill to climb before we get Radar out.”

“Mmm,” I said, and as I walked back to my cube, the degree to which I’d let myself get wrapped up in pity and politics seemed super clear to me. I’d made it to Silicon Valley, and I was blowing my chance.

The truth was I was in pain, actual serious pain, and I needed help. There was only one person I could call, even if she was three states away.

I picked up the phone.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.4

Radar, our vulnerability-scanning project, still slogged along. But as the news began to spread internally about the impending buy-out and take-over and break-up, the slow-downs we’d already experienced were only amplified. We started spending more time talking about what might happen, or whether or not something was going to happen, than we did doing work. And in the face of uncertainty, when one of the possibilities was the whole thing closing down and everyone losing their jobs, a lot of people left.

Pretty soon, I realized it’d been a few weeks since I’d seen any of the Lear jet pilots in the kitchen. They’d all gone. One of our smartest guys, the lead on our work for Yahoo, actually moved on to work there with Arturo. To be fair, anyone who can glance at a slew of encrypted messages and realize that the crypto is super-weakly implemented probably deserves more money than we could pay. My team quickly lost its UI developer and our main back-end hacker. We had more and more empty offices.

It seemed like every day, just a little bit, the composition of our adventuring party changed — first by attrition and then, a month later on the other side of the deal going through, we began changing again as we brought on board the people who would help us grow out into the tech start-up it seemed we were destined to be. That is, provided Taher could scare up the money.

“Oh,” said Phil, who’d moved his office upstairs and started wearing nicer shirts, “he’ll get the money. For years, people have been begging to give Taher tens of millions of dollars. Look: the man did SSL at Netscape. The question is, what do you want to do with tens of millions of dollars, beyond spending it?”

“Pay us to do cool things?”

“Naive. But I like your style. Unfortunately, in order to get tens of millions of dollars, you need to be able to express your value very crisply, preferably in a story ending with the delivery of large, fresh stacks of real paper money.” He winced slightly. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t an expression I associated with him.

“What?” I asked.

“We have several internal projects, but we’re probably going to have to pick one to make a company out of. It may not be ours.”

“What? No one wants to care about how to run a scanner. Most people don’t even want to know their security profile.”

“You ain’t selling me on our chances, mate.”

“But if we let people know we can do it for them, and what good it’ll bring them, they’ll pay for it.”

Phil nodded.

“Does this have anything to do with Brad?” The Packet Storm manager was back out in Hong Kong again, partying with the detectives, last I’d heard. As we pressed forward into future plans, it would’ve been great to have had good help, and the Packet Storm team could clearly help, but Brad wouldn’t let us disturb them with anything. We saw them every day, hanging out in their dark little lab, speckled in disco-ball light, doing whatever.

“You’re friends with them,” he said. “See if you can get them to step up.”

“I did, actually. I got them all in a room to talk about projects we could work on together, and whether they had any good ideas about cool ways to move Packet Storm forward.”

“Promising. And?”

“They had a great idea: get a bunch of young people, over-excited college-age kids, and get them to recategorize all the files on the site. I told them I thought that was a good idea.”

“They didn’t realize that was the idea we already had, which is why they were hired in the first place?”

“They seemed to genuinely fail to understand that.”

“Pity,” he said. “Do they actually do any work?”

“Two of them do. The other two, I’m not sure.”

“Can’t you get them to do anything?”

I sighed. “You heard of Nessus?”

Now Phil sighed. “Yeah?” he said. Nessus was a new open-source scanner that had just launched. It was free, and not many people had heard about it yet, but if they could keep up delivering vulnerability data then it could seriously threaten the chances of Radar ever launching.

“One of the Packet Storm guys asked me why we were still working on Radar. I asked him what was so great about Nessus, so now he wants to set it up and see how it works. He doesn’t think there’s any real value in running scans anyway since the good vulnerabilities all take way too long to be made public, so people already would’ve been exploited —”

“I get it. So you got him to look at the competition. Let me know how it goes.”

I usually got to work before most people. I was working more slowly than ever, and showing up early at least let me appear more diligent. A scan would have shown me to be vulnerable.

It wasn’t too surprising to hear the oonce-oonce pounding out of the Packet Storm lab, as it’s easy to stay up all night on that much Red Bull, but it was curious-making when I saw one of our young Chicago hacker dudes slumped down in his office chair, the very picture of dread and regret.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He kept staring off into space.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”

He looked up at me. “Ran that scanner, man.”

“Uh huh?”

“We’ve got eight IPs in a half-rack at one of our little colos.” A colo was a co-location facility: one of many large warehouses with fat data pipes and backup power and a lot of air-conditioning. Think of these places as where the Internet actually lives. An IP is an address that uses the Internet Protocol to receive sprays of data from other addresses, likely sending their own sprays of data in response.

“Now, because I helped set them up,” he said, “I know that we’re only using four of those IPs. But when I scanned, I got responses from five hosts.”

“Does one of the machines have more than one interface?”

“No. Nessus reported the domain name lookup results for each host.” He pointed at his screen. “It’s not one of ours.”

On the screen was list of five hosts. Quick warning: These weren’t the actual hosts on the screen, but this is what the information looked like. One of those things really did not look like the other.

63.72.232.66 packetstormsecurity.net
63.72.232.67 mail.packetstormsecurity.net
63.72.232.69 incoming.packetstormsecurity.net
63.72.232.70 xxx4uuu.com
63.72.232.71 files.packetstormsecurity.net

“Holy Jesus,” I said.

“I don’t know what that box is doing,” he said, turning back to a terminal window, “but it’s nasty.”

“You really don’t have to show me.”

He kept typing. His phone rang. “Hello? Yeah. No, Derek’s here. Uh huh. Okay, so what do you got?” Covering the phone’s mouthpiece, he told me, “Lineman just got to the colo. It’s super loud in there so we have a hard time hearing each other. He just got to our rack, there’s an extra machine there.”

“Okay,” I said.

“What?” he called into the phone. “Nothing? No open sessions? What kind of bandwidth is it using, any idea?” His mouth fell open. He looked at me and said, “Motherfucker.”

“What?” I said. He pointed back toward his terminal window, where he’d run his own quick lookup of the host, which can also return such useful information as the name of the person who owned that domain name.

It was Brad.

“Probably set it up last month when he was back out for a couple of weeks,” he told me. “Dude has access to the colo, he could’ve done it.” He turned back to the phone. “What kind of machine was it? 3com? No way it that one of ours. Way too rich for our blood. Pull the plug, man. Totally, it’s not one of ours, unplug it.” He twiddled on his keyboard. “Yep, it’s down. Yeah. Okay, see ya.” He kicked back in his chair, steepling his hands over where his belly might have been had he been eating more than individually packaged cheese sticks. “So you’re right,” he said. “That Nessus thing — it’s pretty good.”

“You’re back to using cell phones?”

“For some things.”

“For this?”

“Sure. It’s just Brad. He’s an asshole, fuck him.” He pointed at me. “You guys, you’re cool. We like you.”

“You should tell Phil everything when he gets in.”

“Really?”

I thought about it. “What kind of machine was it? A 3com box?”

“Yeah.”

“And what did the Nessus report say?”

He scrolled down in a window. “Clean. Tight. Locked-down.”

“For all his talk of being a hacker, could Brad have done it?”

“No way. It’d have taken one of us to do it.” He narrowed his eyes and said as if correcting himself, “Well, it’d take either me or Lineman.”

“Or Tom,” I said.

“I guess Tom could do it, yeah.”

“A little while back when Tom got back from Hong Kong, Brad had a server sent to him from our client, 3com, with instructions to nail it down tight.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

I stepped away from the door frame on which I’d been leaning for too long.

“Tell Phil,” I said.

Later that day, I swung by the Packet Storm lab but it was locked and quiet.

“Hey,” I said, sticking my head into Phil’s office.

Phil radiated what I saw for a moment as a sort of yellow, sparkling energy. I think it was the purest expression of joy I’d seen up to that point in my life.

“Come in,” he said. “Close the door.”

I sat down.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.3

“Elves and dwarves,” Jim said, like an unconvinced person.

“You know,” I said, “like in Cryptonomicon.”

“I remember.”

“So a little over a year ago, Kroll, the expensive-suit-wearing, cigarette-smoking international detectives — the Elves — merged with O’Gara, the down-and-dirty, cigar-chomping armored-car manufacturers — the Dwarves — and for something like a year, the board of directors has been completely blocked, or at least this is what Phil told me.”

“Was Phil supposed to tell you?”

“Sure,” I said with a shrug, then, “Probably not.”

“Why did he tell you?”

“I don’t know. But the elves and the dwarves, they couldn’t agree on the direction of the company, after buying a bunch of little security companies — we do drug testing, background checks—”

“Anti-terrorist driving-technique training,” Jim reminded me.

“It’s one of my greatest disappointments that I haven’t gotten to take the first course yet. So after buying this first wave of companies, the board made up of elves and dwarves was unable to agree on what to do next.”

“Of course.”

“Of course. I mean, elves and dwarves. So growth has ground to a halt, the larger business had kinda ground to a halt. We’re bringing in some money — we did the outside security audit on the first Palm device with a radio in it, so you can get data on the road —”

“I know about that. I want to get one.”

“Me, too. Can you imagine being anywhere and being able to send email, or pull up a webpage?”

“A really crappy webpage.”

“Granted. And we did some big job for 3Com or somebody. As part of some follow-on work, they’ve got people like Tom building a secure server for them.”

“Tom?”

“Cool guy. I’ll introduce you. Anyway, we’re making money—”

“You’re working with Arturo,” Jim reminded me.

“Of course,” I said, making a flourished salute. “Thank you, Yahoo.”

“I had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Different part of Yahoo than I’m in.”

“But we’re doing a lot of work for you guys.” Though I wondered if Jim was tracking Yahoo’s plummeting stock price. “Anyway, it’s not enough. The scanning project I’m on is nowhere near taking off. We need more money to grow to the point where we can make the kind of money we think there is to be made.”

“You came out here to work for a detective agency, and it’s turning into a .com startup.”

“How did you know that?”

He shrugged. “Taher was at Netscape, he has a reputation. And taking on a round of big tech-company funding is how you get the money to do what you’re talking about.”

“Jesus. You make it sound so matter-of-fact.”

“Happens every day.”

“Well, it might happen to us. In addition to the elves/dwarves thing, there was a big, ah, financial misrepresentation by one of the sides, which has led to a sudden desire on everyone’s parts to simply be done with the thing. But they don’t have enough resources to simply break the thing up into its little component pieces.”

“So they’re talking with a big fund that breaks up companies.”

“This really happens all the time?”

“It happens.”

“But they don’t want to sell us. I think Kroll itself will remain independent, but everything else will be harvested or whatever, except us. They’re launching us as a startup, or they’re trying to. Starting in a couple of weeks, I’m going to be running three or more interviews a day, for maybe the next two months.”

Jim laughed. “Sounds like fun.”

“Oh, it will be. We may need to hire a lot of people, fast, if this thing with the Breakup guys goes through.” I thought for a moment. “If this goes through, my life is probably going to be a lot different.”

“You’re just now realizing that?”

“I’m just now realizing that. I only found out today.”

“That’s okay then. But, one thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Why the hell were they bugging you?”

“Oh! The Breakup guys are out here, but the main spy guys in the agency are in New York, mostly. So they were afraid we might take a meeting with the Breakup guys and make some kind of deal behind their back.”

“Okay, that is paranoid.”

“At the end of the day, man, don’t mess with Elves. They will fuck you up.”

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.2

“Welcome back,” I said to Tom. He’d been out at our Hong Kong office with a bunch of Brits and other ex-pat security consultants. “How was it?”

“Quite nice,” he said with gravelly sincerity. “Big work for big customers, drinking most every evening then back on the case by morning. Man, the Kroll people out there really can put it away — all night and three times a day as well. Not sure how they stay alive, eating so little.”

“You feeling okay?”

“Bit of the old jet lag, but actually, if you must know I’m slightly pissed off. My bloody boss backed away from his promise to let me buy a right fancy spectrometer. Before I left, not two weeks back, he said I could get one, now he won’t even bloody talk about it. Not like we don’t have money coming in — I helped see to that in Hong Kong.” He shot a coy glance. “Know what you can do with a proper spectrometer?”

“No, what?”

“If you spend about ten grand and know how to use it, you can sweep for bugs.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Evidently it’s huge here in Silicon Valley,” Tom said. “Taher once told me that while he was at Netscape, they used to sweep for bugs once a month and they’d regularly find at least one — from Microsoft, they presumed, though sometimes there’d be several different makes, from different sources. They’d pull them out once a month, usually from the boardroom, right before a board meeting, only to find more next month.”

“Jeez,” I said. “I wonder if the spies showing up to collect the tapes ever bumped into each other.”

“That’s not how it’s done, mate. The recorders are somewhere else, the bugs just radio off to some other location. That’s how you can spot them with a radio spectrometer. Heavy, unexpected source of radio waves in a lamp, or an electrical socket? It’s probably a little packet of evil kit.”

“That’s messed up.”

“That’s business. Anyway, it seemed like a decent service to be able to offer. Maybe even try it out here in the office.”

I blanched.

“What?” he asked. Then he laughed. “Oh, you are a right paranoid bastard.”

“It makes sense,” I said.

“Not everything that makes sense is real, mate. The JFK assassination nuts —”

“Do not get me started about the JFK assassination.”

“Okay, the moon landing nutters — please tell me you believe in the moon landing.”

“I want to believe.”

“Those people have some bent logic on their side, but they’re sure it makes sense.”

He looked at me for a moment. “Anything happen while I was out?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“That’s a little strange, but only a little. He smiled, shaking his head slowly. Now you’ve got me going.”

“Sorry, man.”

He shrugged. “Well, I’ll leave you to your psychosis. I have a secure server to build for a client.”

Later that day, I caught Phil.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He turned away from his laptop and faced me straight on, palms flat on his desktop. “Had a buddy in town. Old SAS mate. He got drunk, completely smashed, and tore off away from us, me and these two girls, and we were like, ‘Wait!’ Because he only just landed, he didn’t know his way around. I got to some Palo Alto cops and I told them the story, who he was and who I was and how to bring him home when they found him, and they did, they found him not forty-five minutes later, hiding behind a redwood tree over by Stanford. They shined a light over at him and said, ‘Sir, please step away out from behind the tree.’ And he said, ‘Okay, okay officer.’ And they said, ‘Do you know where you are?’ And he said, ‘No, you got me, I don’t,’ and they said, ‘Is your name,’ and then they said his name, and he said, ‘Yeah!’ And they said, ‘Did you just arrive here in the States a few hours ago?’ And his eyes got huge and he said, ‘Yeah!’ And they said, ‘Are you staying with a man named Phil, at,’ and then they said my address, and he stumbled toward them near tears and said, ‘You American cops are top notch! You know everything!’ So they took him home and that was that, all sorted.”

“That is crazy,” I said.

“It is. He had no idea how they knew all that shit.”

“Talked to Tom.”

“Tom’s back? Oh, of course he is.”

“His boss won’t let him buy a radio spectrometer. First he would, now he wouldn’t.”

Phil nodded. “The whole place is bugged now,” he said.

“This place.”

“Here. Some of it. Not right here, probably. Doesn’t matter, though — they can’t afford the staff to check anything the bugs might be picking up in any case.”

“Who?” I asked

“Kroll,” he said. “The main office, the detectives.”

“Why?”

And he told me. It all made sense, in a terrible sort of way. If it hadn’t, I’m not sure what I would have done.

That night, I saw Jim, and I told him.

“It’s all come down to the trouble with Elves and Dwarves,” I said.

“What?”

I took a deep breath, and I explained what I knew.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.1

During one of Jim’s short stays back in California between extended trips away — he wanted to use all his vacation time before leaving Yahoo to work full-time on his startup, Mojo Nation — there was time to get back to our preferred rib place, only to be confronted with a terrible reality. They were closing.

“They raise my rent,” said the restaurant’s proprietor, a massive, middle-aged Caribbean man. He was maybe a head taller and more than twice as wide as I was from any angle. We’d become “hey”-level friends after Jim and I had eaten enough ribs there that we didn’t strictly speaking need to order after sitting down — and it wasn’t because we stood out as the only two gringo dudes in the place, but because we were some of the only-ever dudes in the place. Once, I saw diners at as many as four other tables while we were there. Usually, the place was empty, or nearly so. This in itself should’ve been strange, just blocks from Stanford University and high-class downtown Palo Alto. Why was there never anyone else there? Never mind: we’ll have the ribs again, please.

“That sucks,” Jim said.

The big man gripped his heart and lowered his head, grimacing as if speared. “Closing party, end of the month,” he said. “Fifty dollars gets you in that night, and anything, everything. All the drink —” He waved his hand over the bar, and it was finely stocked. “—whatever you want.”

Jim knew what he wanted. “Aw, I can’t make it,” he said. “I’ll be out of town.” Africa, I think it was, actually, on safari with his father. “Can I get some of those ribs?”

The guy paused for a moment. “It will be a buffet, for all the food we have left. Will be much, but no ribs.”

Jim pulled out his wallet. “What if I paid you now for two orders of ribs? Could you wrap them up for me that night?” He pointed at me. “He can pick it up.”

The guy was a big man, like I said, but not so big as to avoid taking Jim’s money. I had enough love for the place that sure, I’d be there for its final night.

There’d been a lot of sketchy people working there, a revolving door of folk who didn’t seem interested in eye contact and who I may have never seen again, but there had been this one waiter who’d seemed like a decent guy, the kind of person who looked back at you honestly when you looked at him. I thought of him as the cool dude.

As I walked in the door that early Saturday evening for the rib-joint’s final party, with a friend who’d probably prefer to remain nameless, I immediately took it as a bad sign when the cool dude held the door open for me but wouldn’t look at me. Okay, I thought, maybe he’s preoccupied. He’s basically losing his job with no notice. It’s his last day of work, and it’s a party where everyone’s paid $50 a head to consume as much of what remains of the place before the doors close forever. He might not expect to rake in the tips. So I figured maybe that would explain it.

There were a surprisingly large number of people there. About two-thirds were white couples in their 60s, oddly, with a couple of black guys flanked by outrageously over-proportioned blondes and a small crowd of somber, younger Hispanic guys, with the occasional young woman darting in and around between them.

Huh, I thought. My friend had never been there before, so he didn’t sense anything out of sorts. Then one of the older guys approached our table, gripping a larger, old-style camera with a massive flash mounted on top.

“Do you mind,” he asked us, “if you, ah, end up showing up in the background of some of the pictures from tonight?”

My friend and I looked at each other.

“No,” we said. He smiled, mopping his brow, breathing more quickly, and walked off. An older woman at the table to which he retreated saluted us with a shaky thumbs-up.

“You have to admit that was weird,” I said.

“I’ll gladly admit it. When is the food coming out?”

“In just a bit, I’d guess. The kitchen looks busy as hell.”

“Will someone come by to take our drink order or what?”

I looked around. Cool dude was working the bar.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, and moseyed on over.

He smiled thinly as I approached.
“What are you having?” he asked, lips pursed.

“I don’t know. What do you recommend?”

“I make something,” he said, turning away, rustling through a three-deep shelf of half-empty bottles. Over his shoulder, without looking at me, he asked, “Are you planning on staying…for the whole night?”

“Sure,” I said, and it echoed in my head like the voice of the naive farm boy in the horror movie who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. “And you?” I asked, trying to shake the feeling.

He shook his head, cheeks creasing with a forced smile. “Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “I’m here for an hour, then that’s all.” He held up the drink he’d poured into a plastic, 64-ounce cup. “I’m gone.”

I stared at the drink. “Would you mind making another one? For my friend?”

He nodded, and much more quickly poured equal amounts of Coke and rum together into another equally large cup.

“Good luck,” he said, and turned to the next person approaching the bar. I left him a giant tip, and time seemed to slow as I walked back to the table. I rewound the conversation in my head as I walked.

I played back what I’d heard again for my friend.

“What?” he said. “Come on. You’re fine, dude. You’re making a big deal about nothing.”

“I don’t know, man. What about that camera guy? Wasn’t that a little strange?”

“He’s an old dude, dude. They act weird.”

Some food came out. They gave us little paper plates just big enough to fit in our palms, which we greedily piled with shredded chicken and fried plantains and grilled carrots. The lights dimmed. The Caribbean music grew louder. A lot more people must have shown up when I wasn’t looking.

Then another guy from the same table as camera guy came over to us.

“I haven’t seen you boys around here before,” he said, raising his voice over the music.

“It’s my first time,” my friend half-shouted. The guy’s eyes grew wide.

“I’ve been here a bunch,” I said quickly. “Made a few friends.” I waved at the massive proprietor, who’d taken up a position near the front door to welcome new arrivals. He wasn’t receiving anyone at the moment, so he waved back, a smile nearly as wide as my actual head.

“Oh!” the man said, shoulders relaxing visibly. “Oh. Well that’s fine, then.” He laughed. “How silly,” he said.

We smiled, nodding.

“So, are you boys staying…for the whole night?”

I avoided looking at my friend directly, but all the energy seemed to go out of his posture.

“Sure!” I said. “Sure, why not?”

The old guy laughed. “Why not?” he repeated back to me, striking a dance pose before shuffling off across the room. Three people back at his table waved at us, thumbs up.

“Okay,” my friend said, face down low against the table. “I did not like that.”

“There’s something going on here.”

“Oh, you think? You think? What the fuck, man?” He picked at a plantain. “They haven’t even brought out the good stuff, yet.” He took a sip of his drink and nearly spat it out. “What is this?”

“I think it’s all the rum they can’t sell after tonight.”

“Jesus Christ! Someone actually made this drink for you?” He leaned over to peer into my cup. “Did you really already drink half of that shit? Who made that?”

“The guy who also asked if were were staying for the whole night. Besides, my drink didn’t have nearly as much booze as yours.”

“Really?” he asked.

I glanced around. It had gotten dark in there while we were talking. A crushing paranoia descended upon me which in retrospect I’ll call the distant scream of good sense.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

My friend stood. “I gotta go to the bathroom,” he said.

“Cool.” I slapped my forehead. “Shit! Shit. Jim’s ribs.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Bathroom’s that way. I’ll see you over there.”

We split up. Walking over to the kitchen was like swimming through syrup. This was not the effect of alcohol. What the hell?

The guys in the kitchen did not speak English. I got it into my head that I could speak Spanish, and they didn’t understand that, either. I’d have to appeal to higher powers.

Massive man was still standing by the front door, though now he seemed to be greeting people who were leaving, not arriving. I was confused. He had his back to me, so I moved to tap him on his fat shoulder when suddenly a young, dark-haired woman, her face the portrait of fear, leapt in my way to wave me off. Then she stuck a smile to her face and spun around, facing the increasingly long line of dudes who were exit-greeting massive man. She discretely waved me over to one side, holding up a finger in the universal symbol of “please hang on” while helping attend the dudes. One by one they stepped forward to greet massive man, strongly shaking his massive hand. From my vantage point, I could see the swollen rolls of twenties and hundreds that each young Hispanic guy in turn pressing into his palm with each handshake, quickly passed off to the young lady, which she in turn was stuffing in a paper bag just as smoothly as she could.

Once the ritual line emptied out, she went up on her tip-toes and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing him over at me. For a moment, a frightened look passed across his face.

“My friend had paid for some ribs,” I said, pointing at the kitchen, “but the guys back there—“

He swept in, gripping me in a fierce hug. “You like-a my ribs!” he shouted, clapping me repeatedly on the back, pointing over to the kitchen and yelling something that was not exactly Spanish but which threw the cooks into a commotion. He slapped me once more on the back and like a partially tranquilized elephant turned away, lumbering back into the restaurant. I never saw him again.

The cooks passed over a pair of to-go containers, nodding fearfully, smiling hesitantly.

“Dude,” said my friend, returning from the bathroom. “I was wondering if maybe we should give it another—“

“Drug front,” I muttered, like a cough. “We’re gone.”

“What?!” he said, following me out the back door of the place. It was dark out, with rain coming down surprisingly hard. We bolted toward my car; I tossed him the keys — “You drive!” — and in minutes we were back at my apartment wondering what the hell had happened.

I don’t remember what time it was when it occurred to me that I should do something with the two boxes of ribs. My friend had only stayed for a little while before heading home — I think he only partly believed what I’d said I witnessed while he was in the bathroom — and the same album was playing that I’d put on when we’d come in. To be fair, though, it was the same music I’d been playing when we’d left originally, so it could just as easily have been on repeat.

Ah, crap: and, of course, there were the cats. Jim had been gone two days already, and I hadn’t stopped by to check on his cats. For whatever reason, it felt important to do it right then, slipping the ribs into Jim’s freezer at the same time. I still had no idea what had been in that drink — I wasn’t much of a drinker, but it didn’t feel much like the effects of alcohol — but I felt fine to drive. I probably wasn’t. I was probably doing something stupid. Jim didn’t live more than a quarter mile away, accessible through small suburban roads, so it felt low risk if my perception of my driving skill turned out to be skewed.

Jim lived on Rich Street, humorously enough. For a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, he’d kept his humble digs: a one-bedroom rental in a two-story complex that probably hadn’t seen much maintenance since the late 1980s. That was the weird thing about Silicon Valley at the turn of the Twenty-First Century. The fastest computers in the world? Check. The greatest storage density available to mankind? Check. Buildings less than ten years old? Hardly anywhere. The whole place seemed build in the mid-80s and left to fend for itself against an annual brushing of light rain. I reckoned it was smart because it probably made him less of a target, in any case.

I got there just fine, walking up to the back door through his apartment’s rear parking space. Unlocking and swinging the door open, though, my paranoia flared up again, like a black bird on my shoulder, cawing madly.

That’s when I realized I was looking into Jim’s small apartment, but I was also looking out at the night sky beyond. Across the living room from the back door, the front door was half open.

A backed out, closing the rear entry in front of me. Again, suffocating in what I thought at the time was my own paranoia but which now sounds a lot more like good common sense, my flight instinct was strong.

Naturally, I walked around to the front of the apartment to the open door. After all, I’d signed up to watch Jim’s apartment. This was my responsibility.

I pulled out my cell phone. “Yeah,” I said to no one. “Hello? Hey. Yeah. Me? Nothing. Stupid evening. Feeding your cats now.” With a soft toe press, I swung the door fully open before stepping inside.

“Uh, huh,” I said, scanning the apartment. It didn’t look like it had been ransacked though, meaning no disrespect to Jim, it could be hard to tell. When you’re the guy who picks up all the toys, it can be a hassle figuring out where to pile it all neatly. But I easily counted six things that I’d have taken if I were robbing the place. Maybe Jim had been in one of his usual hurries to the airport and didn’t swing the door fully shut? When did he use the front door, anyway?

I walked slowly toward the bedroom. My jaw began to jitter, teeth chattering.

“There’s this guy named Doug,” I said. “Oh, you know him. Yeah, well, he’s got a new girlfriend. Official photographer of some Indian cult guru. No, come on, I’m not kidding.” There was no one in his bedroom. The closets were closed. I wasn’t going to open them. If someone walked in on you robbing a place, and your first reaction was not to run out one of the two available exits when you had a chance but instead tucked yourself away in a closet packed tightly with startup t-shirts and tech toys, then you’re dedicated enough to get away with it.

I fed the cats. “Sure,” I said, “he seems happy. Of course that’s all that’s important. I agree, he certainly deserves to be happy after all the crap he’s been through.” I tucked the ribs in the freezer. “Oh, what’s that? You’re coming back tomorrow morning early? Ah, cool. So I’ll just lock up then.”

I drove back to my place, still holding the phone to my head.

“No, I can’t explain what happened at the rib joint. But I think we were the only people going there for the ribs. No wonder he loved having us. Cocaine, I’ll guess. And there had to be some sex angle. No, I’m not driving back over there.” I walked into my place, checking the clock. “I know it’s not even eleven. Sure, they’re probably still going at it. Yes, I know I’m just sitting here talking on the phone.” I pulled the phone away from my head. “And there’s not actually anyone on the phone, so I’m not sure who I’m arguing with. Yes, I know I sound like a paranoid delusional. You say that like it’s a new thing.”

I set the phone down on my dining room table and made sure the window blinds were shut tight. “Yes,” I said, “I know I’m still talking to the air. It’s because for weeks now, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that someone’s watching me, somewhere. And days like this do not help me, not at all.”

Wherever Jim was, he probably wasn’t paying attention to Yahoo’s stock price. For five days at the end of March, it had reached and then slightly exceeded it’s value at the time of early February’s denial of service attacks. It would never be that high ever again. After cresting 100, in three weeks it dropped to 57.

Still, that was the least frightening thing I heard all month. Only a few days later, I found out who was spying on me — on all of us — and why.

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