Shimmering pools of silver float above the pavement of Richmond’s long, broad avenues on this broiling summer afternoon. The pools dissolve as I approach, and new ones form a little farther off, always within view but just beyond my reach.
When I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the shop windows, I see someone else going through the motions of my life. He is well liked, well mannered, and polite. He shows no outward signs of the deep downward currents of my mind. And yet he looks at me like I’m the impostor.
Jamie’s car is in the lot up ahead, the little blue Ford by the repair shop entrance. The new tires are on, and a numbered ticket hangs from the rearview mirror. I step into the subarctic cool of the waiting room, with its gray tile floor and the table strewn with magazines beneath the muted television.
The mechanic in the oil-stained jumpsuit runs his blackened fingers line by line down the work order. “Tires, oil, filters, flush, and coolant.”
“She’ll make it to New York?” I ask.
“Oh, you could drive that baby straight to Costa Rica.”
I stare at him for a few seconds, until he looks uncomfortable, and he says, “I say something?”
“No, it’s just, why Costa Rica?”
“I’m just saying, that car’ll go a long way before it gives you any trouble.”
“Yeah, but why Costa Rica? I mean, you could have picked any place.” I know I’m pushing it too far, but when someone hits on the exact thought that’s at the top of my mind, I want to know how they got there.
The year before we got in trouble, the year before I ran away from San Francisco, Cred kept warning me: “He’ll get you to do things you wouldn’t do on your own.”
I knew that. Hacking into the big, high-profile targets was part of the thrill. Like walking a high wire.
I tried to brush off his concerns. “That’s how you grow, right? Taking on big challenges.”
“No,” said Cred. “That’s how you end up in jail.”
We got stoned that night and went out drinking. At the end of the evening, it was just Charlie and I throwing darts in the back room of some bar I’ve never since been able to find. There was a map of the world on the wall, and Charlie handed me a dart and said, “Close your eyes and throw. We’ll go wherever the dart lands.”
I hit the coastline of northern Siberia and Charlie said, “Fuck that!”
I said, “When are we going to this place?”
And he said, “Not this year.”
He closed his eyes and tossed a dart into the middle of the Pacific. When he looked at it, he said, “Shit! We’re gonna drown.”
Then I squeezed my eyes shut and threw the last dart smack into the little coastal town of Sámara, Costa Rica. Charlie looked it up on his phone and said, “Nice work, dude. The Mar Azul has four stars and a poolside bar. If we have to run, we might as well run to the beach!”
“Wait,” I said. “Why would we have to run?”
A year later, when I finally did decide to run, I chose Richmond, Virginia. It’s a full continent away from San Francisco. There’s more going on here than you might think, and the pace is slow enough that you can enjoy it all.
And Charlie? I haven’t talked to him in four years.
The mechanic says, “Shit, go to LA if you want.”
“But I don’t want to go to LA,” I say. “I want to go to Costa Rica.”
“Whatever, man,” he sighs. “It’s seven hundred thirty-three and tax. The keys are in the car.”
Tomorrow, Jamie and I will leave Richmond at 5:00 a.m. and drive to Long Island, and I’ll drop her off for a four-day retreat where she’ll uncover her true self and develop the tools for a purposeful life of self-actualization. Or something like that. You have to read the website. It’s full of testimonials.
I told Jamie I’d spend the night with her on Long Island and drive back Thursday. And I told my boss I’d be at work Thursday morning.
I did that on purpose. Overcommitted, so I’d be sure to disappoint someone.
On Thursday morning, I’m back at work. After I dumped Jamie off on Long Island yesterday, I headed straight back down I-95.
Jamie, the cheerleader, the optimist, the sorority girl who can talk enthusiastically about anything, because it’s all so exciting. Jamie who reads Vogue and Elle while she watches The Voice, and sits on the edge of her seat when the judges decide who will make it to the next round. Jamie, who needs her blush and mascara and eye shadow to be just right before she can even answer the phone. Who is sweet and kind. Who deserves better than me. She is in every way my opposite, the sunshine to my shadow. The dark currents can’t pull me down when she’s around, because she keeps us in waters too shallow to drown in. She is perfume and matching furniture and designer sheets; a lilting South Carolina accent, dark eyes, and a black band pulled across honey-blonde hair.
I’m sorry I was rude to her—and I really was rude—but she needed to know how I felt, and where we stood, and I didn’t know how to tell her in words. So I just pulled up in front of the hotel, and I didn’t even stop the engine. I didn’t help her with her bag. I didn’t say I love you or I hope you have a good time. I just said, “See you later.”
“You’re not coming in? You’re not going to stay?” she asked, with a mix of bewilderment and…I don’t know what that look was. It seemed like relief.
“No,” I said.
“Okay, Russ. Maybe you need some time alone.”
I gave her a little parting kiss that had no heart in it, and she turned away.
~ ~ ~
Work is a little software development shop in a one-story building that once housed an accounting firm. There are seven of us. Ethan, the founder. Thirty-six, short, skinny, and intense. Brad, the salesman and project manager, a tall, blonde-haired surfer boy with a square jaw, blue eyes, and a consistently positive attitude. He’s my age. Twenty-eight or twenty-nine.
Trish is the office assistant, but don’t call her that—and, no, she won’t get your goddamn coffee. I like her. She’s all efficiency and no bullshit. She’s twenty-four, with a broad face, unruly copper-brown hair, dark eyes, and freckles.
We have two junior developers, Tom and Marty, who look like twins out of the J. Crew catalog. Then there’s Karim, who’s quite a seasoned programmer at twenty-six. I’m the team lead. I have a little office in back, next to Ethan’s, with a window that looks out to the alley.
There’s not much in the way of decor around here. The developer desks are all pushed together in the common area. Trish’s desk is at the front. There’s a big TV for doing demos and code reviews, two whiteboards, a couple of plants, and a kitchen. Nothing to distract us from getting work done.
Ethan started the company to build mobile games, but it was impossible to make a living because so many developers give away games for free. To make ends meet, he helped a local newspaper build a mobile app. That was the pivot, as they call it back in the Valley. The moment when you make the shift from doing what you thought your company was going to do to doing whatever will bring in the money.
Now we help established companies build mobile apps and bring their back-end systems into the twenty-first century. In the two years since I started, it’s been stable and predictable. A big change from the old days in San Francisco, when Charlie, Cred, and I spent our evenings getting high and poking around inside corporate networks. The three of us made quite a team.
Cred, whose real name was Bill, was working at a start-up, building a mobile app to help people find parking spaces. The job bored the hell out of him, so in his spare time, he would disassemble commercial software and then spend days reading through the assembly code like it was Shakespeare. He had a knack for finding bugs. Every time he described a new exploit, Charlie and the other hackers who hung out in the IRC chatrooms would say his street cred just went up another notch. Eventually, they just started calling him Cred.
Charlie was Hatter, as in “The Mad Hatter.” He picked up contract jobs here and there, working for a few weeks at a time, but he could never bring himself to be anyone’s employee. No one was all that eager to hire him either, once they got a look at his code. Good developers try to write clear code, so that when other developers read it, they understand what the code is doing. Charlie liked to write obfuscated code, just to confuse other developers. It seemed like everything he wrote had to be a riddle.
In the evenings, he would hack into just about anything without regard to consequences. His recklessness, along with his intelligence and his disregard for the opinions of others, earned him an outsized reputation in the hacker community.
He was a tall, skinny guy, with long black hair that he rarely washed and was always pushing out of his face. He had an insatiable interest in software, painting, music, and film, and he could stay awake for ungodly stretches of time. He might code for twelve hours, take in a movie or two, go see a couple of live bands, and then drink until sunrise. I have no idea where that stamina came from.
He liked women too, and they liked him. He wasn’t particularly handsome or charming, but he had this confidence that would infect everyone around him. It wasn’t the kind of pep-talk confidence you get from the self-help gurus who pump you up with enthusiasm. It was more of a matter-of-fact certainty in his own abilities. He would say he was going to do something improbable, and he’d say it like it was the most natural thing in the world, because, in his mind, it was. And then you would buy into his point of view without even realizing you were doing it.
He was in an artist’s studio one day, looking at this guy’s paintings, and out of the blue, he said, “I’m putting together a show, and you’re going to display these three pieces.” He even gave the guy a date, which he just pulled out of thin air. Then he went around to a few other artists and said the same thing, telling them he had a bunch of bloggers lined up to promote the show. Which he didn’t. Yet.
He told the bloggers that the artists were on board, and they signed on and started writing about it. Pretty soon, there was a big buzz online. Only there was still no venue, so the bloggers couldn’t tell anyone where to go. But that just added to the mystique of the event, and people all over town started talking about it.
Then he found this big empty garage in Oakland with a For Rent sign. The owner was inside cleaning up, and Charlie walked in with one of his girlfriends—not Celia, but whoever he had ditched her for that week—and he told her to sketch out where all the pieces would go, while he persuaded the owner to rent him the place for two weeks.
In the end, he got a few hundred people to show up, and a bunch of the pieces sold. Charlie didn’t make any money off it, but he wasn’t in it for the money. As far as I can tell, he was in it because he got an idea to have an art show and that’s what he was going to do.
That was Charlie. Get an idea, talk it up, and then watch everyone fall in line to make it happen. But with his wide-ranging pursuits, he wasn’t always the most dedicated person. He didn’t even stay till the end of the show.
While his other enthusiasms waxed and waned, he maintained a consistent dedication to hacking, women, and drawing. Perhaps for the sake of efficiency, he combined those last two hobbies and started drawing nudes. He had a tremendous gift for it, capturing character and mood in sharp realistic detail. Maybe he was driven by love for his subject. Or lust. I never saw him draw any still lifes.
And then there was me, the last of the three amigos. By day, I was writing Rails code for a little start-up that could have become Tinder, if our founder had a little more business sense and our development team had a little more discipline. I could see early on the company wasn’t going anywhere, so I didn’t put much into it. Most developers at start-ups were working sixty-hour weeks. Companies would bring in lunch and dinner and let you have your dog in the office just so you’d never have to leave your desk. I used to walk out at 6:00 every day no matter what, and they wouldn’t fire me because I still cranked out twice as much code as anyone else.
Charlie used to call me Genie, in part because of my middle name, Eugene, and in part because whenever Charlie hacked halfway into a system and then hit a wall, I could figure out a way around it. He was always amazed when I got past some seemingly impossible obstacle. He’d say, “You’re magic, Genie! Fucking magic!”
In the beginning, we were like kids breaking into school on the weekend to go rummaging through the staff lounge. We played a few pranks, like posting fake announcements on company websites and forwarding internal corporate emails to the bloggers at TechCrunch. After a while though, Charlie started breaking into high-value systems like banks and government agencies that could get us into real trouble. We’d swipe a bunch of internal documents and dump them out on some public site. It was stuff even Wikileaks didn’t want, because it didn’t contain any useful information. We were just being dicks. Cred was the first one to get cold feet about it. And me…well, I can’t say I had the best judgment in those days.
My problem has always been an obsessive persistence. I’m the kind of person who, if I see a piece of string on the sidewalk, I just start following it. If it goes through a wall, I find a way past the wall. I follow the string to the end, even if that’s miles away, and when I get there, I’m done. There’s no more mystery to solve, and I walk away.
But where I had only curiosity, Charlie had intent. Charlie would follow the string to see if it led to something he could take. If he couldn’t reach the end, he’d dangle it in front of me, because he knew I couldn’t rest until I figured it out. Compulsive curiosity and relentless persistence were the exploitable bugs in my nature, and Charlie took advantage of them when he could.
He was a brilliant social engineer. Cred said it best. “He’ll get you to do things you wouldn’t do on your own.”
I think the guys at the FBI understood that too. That was part of the reason they let me go.
~ ~ ~
At 3:00 p.m., I’m in Ethan’s office, walking through the presentation I’ll be giving at the developer conference on Friday. Brad, the project manager, is taking notes.
If we land either of the big contracts we’ve been chasing, we’ll need to bring some new developers on board. My presentation, about a project we just launched, was designed to give us some cachet in the developer community, and maybe lure in a new programmer or two.
As I go through the slides, I start to get excited about the system we’ve built. I dive into the details of how we identified and fixed all the bottlenecks. Some of the solutions rely purely on good, solid coding and efficient algorithms. Others rely on the well-designed distributed architecture of the back end. It really is a thing of beauty.
It should take me about forty minutes to go through the slides. Brad is timing me. I’ll have an hour at the conference, and Ethan wants the last twenty minutes to be open to questions from the floor.
I know the presentation is going well, because Brad is totally drawn in. As I reach the end, he stops the timer and says, “Forty-two minutes. You’re right on target.” He has a big smile on his face. When he’s not worried, he loves his job.
Ethan, the owner, is not smiling. He leans back in his chair, measures me with a long stare, and finally says, “So what’s it going to take, Russ?”
“What’s what going to take?” I ask.
“What’s it going to take to keep you on board?”
I don’t have an answer for that. Has my restlessness these past few months been so apparent? Can everyone sense it? I look at Brad and see that he’s uneasy. I look back at Ethan, and he’s waiting for an answer.
I sigh and say, “I don’t know, Ethan. I honestly don’t know.”
And then my phone chimes, and there’s a text from Celia back in San Francisco asking if I’ve heard from Charlie. She sent me an email yesterday with the same question, and I realize now I haven’t responded. So I type “No” and hit send. I don’t have to say any more than that. She knows I don’t talk to Charlie.
I wish she’d just get over him. The way he’s been stringing her along all these years is disgraceful. She’s his girl, his one and only, until she’s not. Then he’s off with some other woman and she’s a crying, shaking wreck… who happens to produce a flurry of powerful, emotional paintings. And then when Charlie’s done with his fling, she takes him back, and she’s blissfully happy.
Some people—rational, intelligent people—are so damn stupid when it comes to love you just have to give up on them. All you can do is wait for them to come to their senses and try not to be too annoyed.
But I am annoyed, and I must look it, because Ethan asks what’s wrong.
I tell him my lunch isn’t sitting well and I need to use the bathroom.
Then I go around the corner and have a beer.
~ ~ ~
Someone’s hand is on my shoulder. I turn from the TV, where the Nationals game has somehow reached the seventh inning, and Karim says, “Dude, what are you doing?”
“How many pints have you had?”
“Come back to work,” he says. “Something’s wrong with that code we deployed this morning.”
It takes me two hours to figure out what’s wrong, because I’m not really focusing. As it turns out, the problem isn’t really in the code. The disk on one of the servers is full because we haven’t been rotating the logs, and that makes the whole system slow as molasses. If we had a decent ops person or a system administrator, this would not have happened.
By 8:30, I have it all sorted out. I put my laptop into my shoulder bag, lock up the office, grab a quick dinner at the Thai place down the street, and stop by Tom’s. He’s playing League of Legends with Marty and Karim. We drink a couple of beers and smoke some really powerful weed that makes me feel slow and tired. When I leave there, a little after ten, I’m hearing echoes and feeling paranoid.
But outside, the air is moist and pleasant, and it feels really good to be stoned. Floating down the sidewalk, among the hydrangeas and fireflies, I catch little snippets of conversation drifting from the porches and balconies. I’m happy to be in Richmond, where life spills out of doors on these balmy summer evenings.
The blue and purple hydrangeas remind me to stop by Jamie’s to water the flowers. That’s a good long walk. But it’s a beautiful evening, and I’ve shaken off the sluggishness I felt at Tom’s. The last vestige of paranoia is this nagging feeling that the little guy with the funny mustache on the other side of the street is following me.
I ignore him. Sometime over the course of this twenty-minute walk, he’ll turn off onto another street, and I’ll forget he ever existed.
Summer nights in Richmond are almost tropical. The air is thick with a comforting moisture, and the chirping of the crickets, fast and loud, is an audible measure of the evening’s warmth.
I close my eyes and pretend I’ve made it to Sámara, down on Costa Rica’s Pacific side. The waves lap the shore in a soothing rhythm. The leaves of the palms rustle in the breeze overhead, and the air is thick with the perfume of salt and hibiscus. I’m stoned enough to continue the fantasy with my eyes wide open. My body glides down the street on autopilot while the rest of me is in Costa Rica.
Now I’m going up the stairs to the second floor of Jamie’s building. Unlocking her door. Filling the black plastic watering can with the long, narrow spout. Crossing the big living room wearing the little green apron I found under the sink. I thought it would be funny to wear an apron while I watered the plants. It’s such a domestic task. I should dress the part.
The flowers grow in planters on the windowsills. As I move from one lighted window to the next, the little man with the mustache watches from across the street, and a perverse little part of me feels vindicated. It says, See, Russ. You’re not paranoid. He really was following you.
He’s short and stocky with a dark, bushy mustache and curly black hair. If you put him in overalls and dropped a red cap on his head, he would look just like Mario from the old Nintendo games.
He turns and pretends to walk away, but he’s obviously not going anywhere.
I look down at the flower I’m watering. With its tower of hanging purple blossoms, it’s quite beautiful. Jamie has a dozen of them. What attracted her to these particular flowers? It must be the color. In daylight, they’re halfway between light purple and her favorite pastel blue.
I rub the leaves between my thumb and index finger. What would Jamie say about that? “Don’t do that, silly! Just water them.”
At 10:45, I leave Jamie’s building. It’s nine blocks back to my apartment, and Mario is still following me. I walk at my normal pace and he keeps a steady distance, about half a block back, on the other side of the street. He’s talking quietly into the phone. I can’t hear what he says.
Then, two blocks from my apartment, he disappears.
I round the corner toward my building, and the street is empty. Moths circle erratically in the orange halo beneath the street lamp in the middle of the block, and the neighborhood is silent except for the sound of crickets and far-away traffic and the thump-thump-thump of my shoulder bag as it bounces against my hip.
As I walk into the pool of light, I pull the keys from my pocket and turn to take one last look down the street. Nothing.
Then I turn forward again just in time to see the big guy with the fat shaved head skipping kind of sideways toward me with the two-by-four wound up behind him, ready to deliver the big blow. Picture a baseball batter running toward the pitch as he swings. I am the ball.
Time stops, and a number of thoughts go through my mind. He’s wearing black pants and a black leather jacket, and it’s way too hot for that. He’s incredibly ugly, with rolls of fat on his bald head. His eyes are lost in shadow beneath a protruding brow. His size, his powerful build, and his ape-like brow make me think of Donkey Kong.
The blow is aimed at my stomach, and even though I’m stoned, my reflexes are surprisingly intact and my body recoils in anticipation. I bend at the waist, my head and shoulders going forward, so the target is moving away from the weapon.
Still, the two-by-four lands with more than enough force to knock the wind out of me. I crumple onto the pavement. Before I’m even down, he takes another swing. He might have been aiming for the back of my head, but I go down so fast, he winds up hitting me across the shoulder blades.
My face crashes into the pavement and hot blood gushes from my nose. I can’t move or breathe. How badly am I hurt? There’s no line between the fear and the pain.
My forehead scrapes the sidewalk as he lifts me by my belt and starts pulling stuff out of my pockets. He puts my phone and a little USB drive full of personal photos into his jacket. When he finds my wallet, he drops me, opens the wallet, and looks inside. Then he looks at my face and throws the wallet onto the sidewalk by my head. I’m just now able to get a breath.
He lifts me again by the belt with one hand, and I hang there like a rag doll. With his free hand, he grabs my shoulder bag and tries to pull it over my head. The strap catches around my left ear and chin. Instead of untangling it, he yanks the bag and wrenches my head around. It feels like he’s ripping my ear off.
He drops me again and unzips the bag and looks inside. I guess he’s satisfied with what he finds. It’s a MacBook Pro, top of the line. Over two thousand dollars new, and easily worth twelve hundred on eBay. He puts the bag over his shoulder without closing the zipper.
Then he picks up his stick and he does something that really pisses me off. He has everything he wants, and for no good reason at all, he raises the two-by-four and brings it down hard across the back of my right leg. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a sharp blow to the hamstring, but let me tell you this: It really fucking hurts!
I’m not sure which I feel more, the pain or the anger. I watch helplessly as the big bald Neanderthal lumbers off into the dark with my stuff.
In a few minutes, I’ll pick up my keys and limp back to my apartment, where I’ll assess the damage.
But I don’t want to get up just yet because, in addition to my bloody face and bruised muscles, I have a much bigger problem. The tingling in my right hand has moved up to my elbow, and I’m starting to feel sick. This isn’t from the beating I just took. This started back at Jamie’s.
I may have just done myself in. Tomorrow, I’ll either wake up in pain or not at all.