Two and a half hours after hitching a ride into Los Gatos, Nick Aubrey had made it back to Mountain View, retrieved his car from the Dijjy-Mike lot, and driven to Palo Alto. Dusk faded into night as he parked the rented white Taurus on Hamilton Street, near Alma, and walked through the warm Palo Alto evening towards Emerson. In a few minutes he was in the back section of the Gordon Biersh mircrobrewery, chomping on a salty breadstick and watching the opening tip of the Knicks -Warriors game on the chest-high television. He had downed a pint of amber before the first time-out was called.
The interior of the beerhall was rectangular, more deep than wide, and decorated in ‘earth tones’ that Nick found abhorrently tasteful. Along the right wall and across the back there was an L-shaped bar behind which stood bartenders at regular intervals — improbably handsome men and women in crisp white shirts, like lifeguards at a very formal beach. Behind the back bar, framed by a two-story window, there was an enormous copper tank with pipes, tubes and gauges all about it. Nick was tall: from where he stood, even slouching with his back resting on the back bar, he could look over a standing pride of standard-issue Silicon Valley yuppies. They were mostly young, white, casually-dressed and smiling able-bodied people, all scrubbed and prosperous. The occasional Negro face (smiling like all the others), the clump of Japanese men in suits, the few people here and there who looked over fifty and vaguely chaperonish all added just the right California touch. Like the bartenders, they looked happy and confident, at ease in the material world.
Anybody who didn’t speak English would never have guessed that they had all just been through a respectably-sized earthquake. Nick, however, understood English, so he knew that the people around him were talking about the bridge collapse over 101 North, with attendant death, and what was worse, bad traffic. These people were as foreign to Nick as air was to a lobster. Beyond this gaggle Nick could see a dining area on a raised terrace, and beyond the terrace there were tables on the sidewalk near the front entrance. It was seven PM on Friday night; Nick’s flight left in three hours, which meant he had about an hour to kill.
He had come here out of habit: Gordon Biersch was a Dijjy-Mike hangout. Nick often came here with some of his Left Coast posse before heading for the airport. And why not? He had to go someplace, after all. The beer was good, and the alienation he always felt here was in its own way comforting. Right now Nick could stand some comforting. He was half hoping to run into Eduardo or Suzy or Maceo, half hoping he wouldn’t encounter anyone he knew. But the Valley was so incestuous that trying to avoid people you knew at Gordon Biersch was like trying to avoid people named “Lee” in Beijing.
Nick had been there another ten minutes, long enough to feel the kick from the beer diffusing into his arms and legs, when Maceo arrived. In his hopelessly tacky vest, with his razor-thin lips, androgynous features, pallid skin, and thinning hair pulled into an unstylish ponytail, he stood out in this crowd like Dracula at the beach. Nick approached Maceo from his blind side and poked him in the ribs with a bread stick.
“Is this a banana in my pocket, or am I just glad to see you?”
“So Nick, what gives? I thought your ass was out of California.”
“I’m on the red-eye tonight,” Nick said. He took a long pull on his third pint. “I stayed around for an extra day at Monty’s request. Big mistake.”
“A pox on that asshole,” Maceo said. “What’s he up to?”
“Nothing worth talking about.”
Or rather, Nick thought, nothing that I have the least idea how to talk about. But there were some subjects that he was able to talk about, that he would force himself to talk about in order to keep from thinking of what had transpired in the Santa Cruz hills just three hours ago.
“Did you ever meet Carl Swirsing?” Nick asked. “He used to work over in Marketing Communications.”
“I don’t talk to Marketing,” Maceo said. “It’s against my religion.”
“He started his own company a while ago. Public relations, market research.”
“Yuppie. Why are you asking about him?”
“I’m thinking of going to work for him.”
Maceo sucked on this factoid as if it were a sour candy. Nick, waiting for Maceo’s response, continued to watch the crowd. Actually he was only pretending to watch the crowd; in reality he was having a hard time keeping he eyes off one beautiful blond bartender—in particular, her neck, where it met her jaw: the spot where her earring touched her skin as she turned and smiled.
“What’s the gig?” Maceo finally spit out.
“Writing flack. ‘The Glorious History of Company X, from an idea in a Stanford Business School hallway to twenty billion annual sales.’ That kind of shit.”
He needed some reason to be asking about Carl. Maceo would forgive him a white lie.
“Since when are you a writer? You sling code.”
“English is code.”
“What are you telling me? You’re on the outs with Dijjy-mike?”
“Johnson got whacked today.”
Maceo turned his head to look where Nick was looking. On the tube above the earring’d goddess, Patrick Ewing drove to the hoop and was fouled.
“I guess we better watch our ass.”
“The Operating Systems group has a few open reqs. Grab a job while you can, brother. Our ship’s going down.”
“How about you?”
Yeah, Nick. How about you? He took another long drink.
“I’m alright,” Nick said.
Over Maceo’s shoulder Nick could see the ridiculously attractive blond bartender with the long earrings, each a silver spider web with miniature feathers dangling from it. What a great notion, he thought, the dream catcher:—sort of a still for the astral plane, modeled on the way a spider web catches dew, for catching dream essence from the lively air, distilling it into pure dream, and guiding it to the receptive sleeping mind.
“What I mean is,” Nick clarified, “I’m a fucking wreck.”
He looked away from Maceo and the angel over his shoulder to survey the bistro, now completely full. At the far end of the bar there was a man who appeared to be staring at him and Maceo, but when Nick returned his gaze the man quickly turned and left, as if afraid of the least hint of intimacy.
“White people,” Nick said. “They give me hives.”
“You’re white, Kimosabe.”
“You know what I mean. Yuppies.”
“You’re a yuppie too,” Maceo said. “We’re all yuppies now.”
Then Maceo, bored, drank.
“So you’re going to be a hack on retainer,” he said, not bothering to look at Nick.
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Why don’t you ask Monty for that job he keeps hinting at?”
Good idea, Nick. Why don’t you go work for Monty?
“No, thank you,” he said. “I just put myself on his shit list.”
It took all of Nick’s self-control not to scream out, ‘Monty’s a freaking madman, Maceo. Steer clear! Steer clear!’ But the encounter on the mountaintop would remain Nick and Monty’s little secret, for now. Not even Maceo got to hear the story. The question was, did Carl?
“Once you’re on Monty’s shit list,” Maceo said, “you’re on it for life.”
“I esteem it an honor. You got no more dope on Swirsing?”
It was funny, Nick thought, that of all the friends he had made in ten years with Digital MicroSystems, Maceo was the only person he cared to see now that he didn’t work there anymore. Nick had been Maceo’s boss for five of those years, and managing him had been like managing a mule. Maceo showed up for work whenever he felt like it, contradicted Nick in public meetings, interrupted him, put his feet on Nick’s desk, and sometimes answered Nick’s managerial directives with a fart. It was no secret that Maceo’s unconventional political activities sometimes followed him to work—when looking through the office window at Maceo staring intently at his computer screen, Nick had never been able to tell whether he was programming or writing another short extracurricular piece for The Nation or Cybertopia. Maceo had covered every subject from virtual sex to the politics of Laotian cocaine, and had lately finished Blood for Oil, a book about what he called the “the marketing extravaganza known as Desert Storm.” Nick was well aware of the real identity of the prankster known as Exxon Tanker. During the Gulf War “E.T.” had disrupted San Francisco rush-hours with life-sized puppet shows set up at busy intersections, using cohorts in the crowd to dismantle the stage and disperse within thirty seconds whenever police got close. ET/Maceo could sometimes be found patching a compiler while still dressed as an oil-soaked cormorant.
Maceo was basically unmanageable. But he also wrote mass quantities of the most solid code of anybody in the Silicon Valley. Maceo’s programs were on-time, bug-free, well-structured, commented, compact, and fast. So what if he was a pain in the neck? Nick was glad to have him on his team. With Maceo there was no bullshit, and that was an attribute that Nick had come to prize.
“I don’t know nothing about Swirsing,” Maceo said. “Want me to see what I can find out?”
“Yeah, do that.”
As Nick finished speaking, Maceo fixed his gaze on the front entrance.
“Oh no, here comes trouble.”
“Peter Barlow. He just walked in the door.”
“Crazy Peter. I know him from my Gulf War stuff. He used to be a technician for CNN, he says, but got fired for putting himself on the air to explain his theory about computer chips and multinational corporations and biological warfare and Saddam Hussein and you name it. Kind of a poor man’s Ross Perot.”
“A friend of yours?”
“He’s just some guy, a nut-case. He heard me talk at a symposium at the Santa Clara Research Institute, and ever since then he’s tried to adopt me.”
“What did you do to earn that high honor?” Nick said.
“I don’t know, Nick,” Maceo said, loudly. “I said he was crazy, didn’t I? For four years he’s been tracking down this imaginary professor that he says was behind the whole Gulf War. It’s like the fugitive tracking down the one-armed man, only this time the bad guy really is all in his head. He’s got some kind of proof he wants to give me for safe-keeping, and somehow I didn’t say ‘no’ loud enough. Says he’s got it hidden someplace and won’t give it to me until he’s sure nobody’s following him. He’ll lurk in a corner for ten minutes to make sure nobody’s on his tail—he usually thinks there is, but maybe he’ll manage to give it to me tonight. I hope so; he’s been on me like a god-damned leech for four months. So whatever you do, don’t say anything nice to him. This is not a friendship we want to encourage.”
There was no need for Maceo to worry about that. One Gulf War conspiracy crackpot at a time was quite enough, thank you.
Nick slowly looked around the room staring at first one face, then another, wondering if he could spot Maceo’s crazy friend among all these eminently sane yuppies.
It wasn’t hard. A short, stocky, perspiring man with thinning hair was hurriedly making his way toward Maceo, all the while pretending to look in a different direction. He was wearing a light tan suit, rumpled. His garish red polyester tie was askew, and he was carrying what appeared to be a manila envelope, soiled, about an inch thick. He seemed to take no notice of anybody other than Maceo, although certainly others had noticed him barging his way through the crush.
“Here,” the man said, placing the envelope in Maceo’s hands. “The professor’s going to be on the flight tonight. I’ll have to figure out which passenger he is while we’re in the air. But I’m sure he’s on to me, and will probably try to take me en route.”
He continued holding both of Maceo’s hands with his, staring into his eyes.
“Everything’s in here. The diskette’s in here too. Unix. Do not try to copy it; it will blow up your system. And remember: nine three two three three. A million soldiers are counting on you. Farewell.”
He turned and quickly made his way through the crowd.
Maceo placed the package on the bar, and Nick picked it up. It was covered with illegible writing in different inks smeared by what appeared to be coffee and water stains, and the frayed edges were taped. One note he could read, however: the block letters were large and thick, gone over with a ballpoint a hundred times:
Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and
the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18.
Nick tossed the envelope back on the bar. Maceo picked it up then patted it on both sides, feeling its thickness, then pursed his lips, opened the clasp and looked in.
“Balls,” Maceo said.
“What is it?”
“No diskette. Now he’ll tag around after me for another month until he finds a good time to complete the rest of the drop.”
©1999-2010 John Sundman.