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Authors: James Calder

Knockout Mouse

BOOK: Knockout Mouse
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knockout mouse

a bill damen silicon valley mystery

knockout mouse

james calder

acknowledgments
I’m very grateful to my editor Jay Schaefer for his insight and guidance, and to Phil Cohen for sharing his time and expertise. Nurshen Bakir, Ted Conover, and Leslie Kogod were enormously helpful in reading early drafts. Many thanks also to Dr. Jeff Kishiyama for his expertise, and to Ralph King, Leslie Chao, Dr. Julia Gray, Suleyman Bahceci, Andy Black, Rita Roti, Lambert Meertens, Dr. Robert Leibold, Pam Strayer, Josh Crandall, KT Epstein, and Sasha for their generous help. Needless to say, any errors or shortcomings in this book are mine alone.  
—James Calder

Copyright © 2002 by Chronicle Books LLC.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, companies, products, and incidents are creations of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally.
Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or things is entirely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data available.

eISBN: 978-0-8118-7062-7

Book and cover design by Benjamin Shaykin
Cover photo by Victor Cobo

Chronicle Books LLC
680 Second Street
San Francisco, California 94107
www.chroniclebooks.com

For my parents

CHARLEY:
You’re pushing thirty, slugger, you know, it’s time to think about getting some ambition.

TERRY:
I always figured I’d live a little bit longer without it.

—On the Waterfront

1

I was not where I was supposed to be.
A crayon box of cartop colors glittered in the parking lot: Lexus gold, Boxster blue, cyborg silver. The hood of my own car, a sun-faded burnt orange, was propped open with an unbasketed ski pole. I was unscrewing the air filter’s wing nut when I saw the SUV go round a second time.

I was supposed to be in the woods today, not stuck in the Silicon Valley miasma. Wednesday rambles had become a ritual since I’d left all this behind. But a friend had asked me to shoot an industrial film for her, and I still needed to pay the rent, not to mention some debts my alleged partners had stuck me with from my last, truly last, venture in this neighborhood.

I lifted the air filter off and leaned in to examine the carburetor. The choke was closed. I inhaled deeply. My engine had an aroma all its own, rich in ancient oils, rubber, and steel. It was the only smell with any real texture in this freshly planted parking lot, which served a complex of new tech office buildings.

The SUV came around again. I saw it from the corner of my eye. A woodland green Lexus with smoke-gray windows. I might not have noticed it, but by this point in my life I’d developed an almost unconscious habit of playing cinematographer to my
day. I reflexively composed colors, patterns, shadows, and light into a frame. When I was here in the valley, it helped make order out of the disjointed landscape of freeways, corporate campuses, and commercial strips.

This was the third time the Lexus had entered the shot. I’d have felt better if I could see who was inside. I’d managed to make only one new enemy today, a small number on a job like this. Our client’s marketing guy had attempted to educate me on what the look of the picture should be: handheld camera, desaturated color, that “gritty independent look.” I told him he watched too much MTV.

Pressing down one side of the choke, I used an old cork to prop open the other side. As I straightened, I felt eyes on my back. The SUV was creeping down the row behind me. I turned to track it. My squint failed to penetrate the tinted windows. There were plenty of spaces in the lot, so why was he circling me like a cat on the prowl?

I tried the ignition again. The engine still wouldn’t catch. I slumped into the seat. The dials were dead circles on the dash. My skin stuck to the seat back. There was no way I should be having this kind of trouble on a warm fall day.

A smudge of woodland green flashed in the rearview mirror. It was coming down my row again. I adjusted the mirror and watched it roll by. No security emblems, no company names on the doors. What did it want?

When it had passed, I got out and opened the tailgate. Behind my camera cases was a small cardboard box. Inside the box was a gas can and a hair dryer. I grabbed the can, took it ‘round front, and slopped some gas into the choke. By the time I was back in the driver’s seat, woodland-green was gliding down
the row in front of me. I stared straight at him and cranked the ignition hard.

The starter huffed pitifully, a sign the battery was draining. I went back to the cardboard box. It contained one more option. As I unwrapped the blow dryer from its cloth, the SUV came ‘round the corner and back down my row. I took a couple of steps into the lane and waited. The vehicle jolted to a stop, not quite blocking me in. Two doors opened.

The driver was young, yet stood with an air of casual authority, as if he’d pulled me over in a patrol car. But he was too stylish and smug to be a security guy. He wore a tight-fitting silk crew neck and creased pants. His hair was golden yellow, several shades lighter than mine, and cut more expensively than the scruffiness on my head. A little blond patch sprouted from his chin. Wraparounds shaded his eyes.

We stared at one another. At six foot two, he had a couple of inches on me. Maybe I did look a bit suspect among the sleek cars in this mint-new lot, stripped down to my ribbed undershirt, tinkering with a battered old International Harvester Scout. But this would be the last car I’d pick to steal, and it was unlikely I was attempting a holdup with the blow dryer.

“Waiting for my parking space?” I asked him.

“Nah. There’s one with my name on it over there. You look like you need some help.”

I shrugged. “Ignition problems.”

He glanced at the dryer. “Guess you’ve got them under control.”

“Is there something you want?”

The driver’s stance remained casual. He steadied himself, as if on a sailboat, removed his glasses, and put out a hand. “Gregory
Alton. This is my partner, Ron.” He pointed to the passenger, who stood stiffly and waved. Ron was stockier, with short brown hair. Apparently he didn’t rate a last name. “We have a company called BioVerge.”

Right, BioVerge: one of the occupants of the office park in whose lot I was stuck, along with Stellar Micro Devices, Campton Systems, and Kumar Biotechnics. Each company had its own four-story building, glass-skinned arrangements of cubes reflecting a liquid version of the checkerboard lot back into our eyes.

I stuck my grease-stained, gasoline-scented hand into Gregory’s smooth palm. “Bill Damen.”

“You met with Arun Kumar this afternoon,” he said.

“That’s right.”

“Why?”

“To sign a nondisclosure agreement.”

He gave a woofing sort of chuckle. “I guess I wouldn’t want you to talk to strangers if you were working for me, either. You’re doing a job for Arun. That’s nice. He hires the best.”

His gaze shifted to the dark bag in the back of my jeep. “You’re the shooter. We tried to catch your boss—Rita, right?—but she took off. You guys are a good team.”

I remained silent, waiting for him to come out with whatever he was nosing around for. He stumbled over that a minute, then said, “We want you to do some work for us.”

“Oh yeah?” I stalled, debating whether I wanted to hear more. The guy’s method of introducing himself had not endeared him to me. With the Scout acting up, I was already late for Jenny’s dinner party. On the other hand, I knew I shouldn’t let a business opportunity go by.

“You should talk to Rita,” I said. “I’m just the camera operator.”

He eyed the camera bag in my cargo space again. “What’d you shoot today?”

“Not much. The real shooting doesn’t begin until next week.”

“I just wanted to see a sample of your work. What kind of gear you got?”

I sighed. They always wanted to see the gear. I unzipped the bag and hefted out the camera. “It’s a Sony 900 HD. Wide format, twenty-four frames per second, progressive scan.”

Gregory whistled appreciatively. I didn’t mention that it was rented. “Why not thirty frames, like most video?”

“That’s the point. It looks more like film at twenty-four. I can also vary the frame rate to shoot in slo-mo.”

“Sweet.”

He was trying to pull me in. Generally, the best way to get rid of tourists like Gregory is to point the camera at them. I powered it up and put it in his face. “Gregory Alton, who are you and what is BioVerge’s real mission?”

He grimaced for a moment, caught off guard. But then, just my luck, he proved himself a true member of the media generation by pulling a pose.

“As a matter of fact, Bill, we’re about to roll out some proprietary software that’s going to knock the sector on its ass. We’ll bust an IPO a year from now, and in two years we’ll be buying islands in the Caribbean and drinking daiquiris. You’re invited.”

He curled his lips into a smug grin. Smooth, no real information, ball back in my court. I zoomed in until the frame was filled with parallel lines of big, straight, white teeth. Rita would see it all on tape and be able to decide whether she wanted to call him back or not.

I lowered the camera. Ron-the-partner finally spoke up. “What kind of work are you doing with Kumar?”

“Nothing special. They’ve got a stockholder meeting coming up.” I figured this was public information. To keep them from prying any more, I hoisted the camera back to my shoulder, pivoted, and began to shoot the lot and the BioVerge building behind it.

A woman walked into the frame from behind a black Range Rover. She had long, ringletted dark hair and a troubled face. Her right shoulder was weighed down by a bulky leather bag. When she saw us, her eyes went wide and she ducked behind a car. The next thing I knew, she was moving quickly in the opposite direction.

“Those were some guilty eyes,” Ron said.

Gregory smirked. “Guilty or not, they rate a closeup.”

I ignored him and packed away the camera. “If you want to give me your card, I’ll pass it along to Rita.”

Gregory gave me his card and said, “Hey, why not come up to my office? I’ve got a keg. The beer’s always cold.”

I stowed the camera bag and took the hair dryer in hand again. “Sorry. I’ve got to blow-dry my car.”

He strode with me around to the front. “You don’t understand. We
seriously
want to work with you. We’ll double your fee. You and Rita are top guns. Your stuff is killer.”

The bullshit was on full blast now. First of all, Rita and I weren’t really a team. She was an old friend, and I liked to work with her, but we were no juggernaut. Nor were we widely known. Second, she only did tech industrials to support her real work. And third, every time I stepped foot into this world I was breaking a vow I’d made nine months ago. The catch was, my current financial situation didn’t leave me much choice.

“Fine. I just can’t talk to you right now. I’m late for a dinner party. I’ll give Rita your card.”

He frowned at me, then reached for the cell phone in his belt holster. The phone rang in his hand. He was delighted, as if he’d pulled off a magic trick.

“Gregory,” he answered. He turned his back on us and retreated to the SUV.

I got back to work under the hood, prying the clips from the distributor cap. Ron peered through the driver’s side window. “Look at that AM radio. A certifiable antique. You get anything on it?”

“My jeep does. Weather reports. Twenty percent chance of rain today. That means a 20 percent chance it’s not going to start.”

He laughed. I don’t think he had any idea what I was talking about. He moved beside me, hands stuffed in his pockets, and craned his neck at the cirrus-strewn sky.

“I’d say the delta for rain is approaching zero.”

“Yeah, but the Scout still heard this morning’s forecast in San Francisco.”

“Scout?”

“This thing,” I said, smacking the bumper with the palm of my hand. “International Harvester stopped making them in 1980.” I lifted the distributor cap, aimed the blow dryer at the points, and pulled the trigger. The batteries produced good heat and plenty of noise. I had to raise my voice. “Sometimes it just needs gas down the choke. If that doesn’t work, it means moisture’s the problem.”

BOOK: Knockout Mouse
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