Read The Big Boom Online

Authors: Domenic Stansberry

Tags: #Mystery

The Big Boom (10 page)

FOURTEEN

T
he light was too balmy, too beautiful. When the fog lifted, there was a hallucinatory light over the city. It built in intensity as the day went on. It was a lotus light, honey-colored, that at once filled you with desire and made the world seem an illusion—a balmy light full of suggestion. It was horrible, insufferable. It was gold light, a beautiful, divine light that made you feel as if you were standing in hell, looking though the window glass at a place you could never enter.

Dante crossed Stockton, into Chinatown.

The light was overhead here—playing off the balustrades, the faux pagodas, the ragged neon—but it did not reach to the streets, to the stooped women, all in gray, fussing over the vegetables, or to the old Chinese men with their berets and baggy slacks, their checked shirts and high-buttoned collars.

He headed across Market, to the Utah Hotel.

It was a long walk. Past the Third Street flophouses into the heart of SoMa—a warehouse district South of Market in the
shadow of the Bay Bridge, where the old railroad lines gave out and there were still fragments of the turn-of-the-century neighborhood scattered among the concrete warehouses and glass storefronts and retro buildings converted to loft apartments.

Up Bryant, it was a wall of white noise.

The heart of the boom.

SoMa had been a residential enclave, grand houses on sloping hills. The neighborhood had drawn its wealth from the waterfront, but all those houses were gone. After the gold rush, the city engineers had plowed down the hills, laying it level, laying down a grid. A new neighborhood had been built on the grid, but most of that was gone, too.

The heart of the boom.

Giant pieces of white concrete, upturned rubble. Brick buildings torn in two by the crane.

The Utah stood up Bryant, in the shadow of the freeway—a surviving Victorian in gaudy Italianate. It did not appear quite real in the current light, but perhaps it never had. A small crowd mingled on the sidewalk—a hip crowd, paisley brights and slit skirts and heavy shoes with big soles. It looked like an art opening, but the murmur, if you listened, was of stocks, gainers and losers, of technology, of baud speed and platform and scalability. At the door, a young woman handed out the latest issue of
Wired.

Everything has changed, the magazine proclaimed. The old rules don’t apply.

Inside, the Wonder Lab from Menlo Park had a holographic display showing how computer gaming techniques would change the world. How it would soon be possible to conduct a war via remote control. How the terminally ill would store their brain waves on the Web and talk to their children from the grave.

If not true, it would be true soon.

Only the doubters would be left behind in this yellowing light.

Solano’s group was on the second floor. There was a table at the front of the room and several dozen folding chairs, and behind the table a projection screen that was blank at the moment. After a while Solano came in, along with a handful of others. The audience craned about in their chairs. Bill Whitaker was on the program, but Dante did not know which of these people he might be.

Solano took the podium.

His manner was not so different from what Dante had observed earlier, self-assured, yes, but with a hesitancy underneath. His lips turned in that smile of his, a smile like cut glass, and his hair was mussed. Solano’s eyes, though, had a certain fixity, and he possessed, in his gestures, the manner of someone who had penetrated an inner realm.

Solano’s glance passed over Dante. If the man had seen him, Dante couldn’t tell.

Solano began. His presentation was a recitation of names, spoken slowly, with an offhand charm.
Gutenberg.
He smiled to himself, as if he had a secret he could not reveal.
Whitman. Dinah Shore.
It was a ragged smile that suggested whatever you saw in front of you was only a part of what he possessed, that there were other things he was holding back.
Sigmund Freud.
That part of him mocked the very names—
Cleopatra, Che Guevara
—that he now mentioned, as well as the images on the screen behind him.
Fritz Lang.

The juxtapositions were arbitrary. People of the sword, people of culture.
Mr. Ed.
Scientists with real-life entertainers and cartoons.
Katherine the Great.

Meanwhile the screen filled with pictures, but the faces on the screen did not coincide with those of the people he named.
The Dalai Lama.
Rather they were faces of the anonymous. People at offices and schools. Workers on the job. They were not particularly stylish photos. They were instead somewhat mundane—
Bessie Smith
—the kind of photos that might be taken out of annual reports or school catalogues or brochures for the Water Department. Through it all was Solano’s droll voice, somewhere between mockery and reverence.

Malcolm X.

On the screen the images no longer focused on individuals but groups, streets scenes, people in a crowd, the crowds growing larger, a sea of people—then zooming in—
Adam Smith
—tight focus, a solitary face that seemed neither man nor woman. Then a randomizer took over, taking the colors of that last, anonymous face, with no relation to the name he uttered, and scattering them over the screen.

“A lot of people,” said Solano. “A lot us are working on a vision. One that breaks down the barriers between those who have access, between those who have the power of knowledge, and those who don’t.” The tone in his voice was ambiguous, so that you could not tell if he was making fun of those barriers, or those who wanted to knock them down. Then he was earnest. “This is not a vision I created. It’s not a vision of one company, or one person. Our goal today is not to take credit but to let you know the contribution the people at our company are trying to make.” He gave the crowd his smile again, and in that instant the fixity in his eyes gave way, revealing something beneath the surface almost, but not quite. Unhinge this world, Dante thought, and the man will fall apart. “Now,” said Solano, “let me introduce you to our team.”

Dante leaned forward then, looking to see which one was Bill Whitaker. But he was disappointed.

Whitaker was not here. Or if he was, he was not among the handful at the front of the room.

Solano fell quiet, and his underlings took over.

Solano Communications, they explained, was creating its own private communications network and the content to go with it. The goal: to deliver custom material to people in the workplace. Based on proprietary technology. Faster than the existing Internet. Drawing its material from archives that were growing exponentially.

An intuitive system … offering scalable solutions… interactive capabilities… operating on multiple platforms.

They went on, for Dante’s money, a bit longer than he cared to listen. At the end, he knew little more about what Solano was doing, precisely, than when he had sat down.

Dante approached one of Solano’s people: a young woman playing a role similar to the one Angie had played—a kind of press liaison who gave everything a down-to-earth spin.

“I was wondering if you could tell me how I might get in touch with Bill Whitaker.”

“Bill couldn’t be here,” she said. “He’s up against some pretty tight deadlines. But it if you could give me your name and number—”

“How about Jim Rose?”

“I don’t know if we have anyone by the name.”

“How long have you been working here?”

She looked at him blankly.

“Did you know Angie? Angela Antonelli?”

Solano appeared now and inserted himself between them. He had the faintest line of sweat over his upper lip, and his voice carried a chill.

“I don’t know if this is the time,” Solano said to him. “Or the place.”

“I called your personnel office, looking for Rose. But I haven’t had much luck.”

Solano and the woman glanced at each other, and Dante saw something pass between them. He saw how this pretty young woman, with her red hair and her green eyes and her flame blue suit, was enamored of Solano—in maybe the same way Angie had been enamored—studying his face in a crowded room, looking forward to that moment later, away from here, when his guard fell and something was revealed, maybe, in the shallows of his eyes.

“How about Whitaker?” Dante asked. “When can I talk with him?”

Solano’s presence had drawn a small crowd. Potential customers, perhaps. Investors. People looking for jobs.

“Yes,” echoed one of them, “where is Whitaker? I was hoping to ask him a question or two.”

“On deadline,” said Solano.

The young woman leaned in to the group. “I’ll have Bill get in touch with you,” she said. Then she touched Dante. “And you, too. If you give me your card. I’ll make sure he gives you a call.”

She was lying. Whitaker was not going to give him a call. Meanwhile Solano had slipped away, separating himself from the crowd, and now he stood talking to a man across the room. The man was in plain clothes, but he was security, Dante guessed. Someone to keep troublemakers at bay.

O
utside, the light was gone. The sky was black, and Dante headed through SoMa. There were some fashionable clubs South of Market, and some not so fashionable ones, too, but in between the blocks were long and the sidewalks empty. Dante knew
this area from when he was a cop; out-of-towners would come to hit the clubs, then find themselves lost in the empty space. A couple of kids swaggered by as if it were 1980, done up in spiked hair and leather jackets, and some dykes hung out in front of a bar across the street. There were some hard cases sleeping in doorways, and ex-cons just off the bus from Quentin. Under the freeway, he spotted a deal going down and a gang of smokers hunkering in a circle. It wasn’t grass they were smoking, and it wasn’t crack, either. The ground was littered with foil.

He thought of what Barbara Antonelli had told him, about the mess on Angie’s floor.

“Come on down here, old man. Come get some.”

The man was a dealer. Dante could tell by the switchblade swagger, by the rotten teeth and the acne scars on his face. Dante felt the old ache inside himself. He felt the craving in his blood. He did not like to think much about the life he’d led those years he’d been away from The Beach, but the truth was he had not liked thinking about it even then, and he’d succumbed to certain temptations. He had taken comfort how he could. So there was a part of him now that wanted to slug the dealer in the face, but another part wanted what he had. Part of Dante wanted to be down on his knees with those Tenderloin junkies, those welfare moms, those runaways.

“What’s the matter with you? You some kinda cop?”

“Yeah,” Dante said. “I’m some kinda cop.”

The dealer backed up. He laughed, ha-ha. Dante laughed, too. It took all his effort not to put his fist in the man’s stomach, or bring an elbow around and knock out all his teeth.

He glanced at the foil.

He didn’t want to think what he was thinking.

He headed toward The Beach.

FIFTEEN

L
ater that night, inside Angie’s apartment, Dante once again went to the armoire and looked at her clothes. He thumbed through them as he had done before and found himself overwhelmed in much the same way. There was a certain perversity in it, he supposed, but it wasn’t perversity alone that had brought him here. There were things that still rankled at him. The missing computer. The stained nightgown.

What had happened?

One explanation, he guessed, was that Angie had had the laptop with her that night she’d disappeared. Perhaps it had been on her arm, in its carrying case, and had fallen with her into the bay. He supposed that was possible. But there was something else that made him wonder otherwise. The way things were arranged haphazardly in the drawers. The dirty clothes on top of the clean. At first he’d thought it had been Barbara Antonelli, rearranging. But there was too much disorganization.

Someone had searched the place, maybe. Someone had torn it

up. But it hadn’t been
anyone professional, because they’d left too many traces.

The jism. The bottle of wine. The empty glasses.

He went to kitchen. Under the sink he found the wine bottle Barbara had mentioned. Now he took the rest of the trash can and dumped it out. Aluminum foil, burned at the edges. He unwrapped the foil and held it up to his nose. He recognized the smell. It was a smell he would have recognized even if he hadn’t just been down there under the I-80 interchange.

And everything shuffled in his head.

Angie in another world. On her knees, like those people beneath the underpass. Angie bringing someone here to fuck. To get high.

Then stumbling into the water.

He went to the window and looked out at Mortuary Row. No, he thought, this didn’t add up, either. Something else nagged at him, but he wasn’t sure what, and then he saw someone lingering in the shadows across the way.

Whoever it was, they pulled away suddenly, and Dante bounded down the stairs. Moving too quickly, perhaps. Allowing himself to get carried away.

Jim Rose, he thought.

The alley was empty, but up Powell he spotted a figure receding, head down, a man the same size and build of whoever had been in the alley, maybe, he couldn’t be sure, the same build as Rose, perhaps, but he didn’t know that, either. He had only the one picture to go on, Rose leaning slope-shouldered against the boat railing Dante started after the figure, not running quite, but almost, closing the gap. Was it Rose? Yes! No! And when he was within hailing distance, he felt it a near certainty. A feeling based on instinct, on the
swarming feeling in his gut. Then the man, hearing Dante’s footsteps perhaps, glanced over his shoulder and started to run. Dante’s certainty became absolute. He bore down. He grabbed the man by the collar and threw him against the brick. He was mistaken.

The man at his feet, lying on the sidewalk, was not the man in the picture. He was not Jim Rose.

The stranger rolled way from him then, yelling as he rolled, waving his arms and flailing in a manner so ridiculous, so ineffectual, that Dante wanted to kick him, to chase him down and stomp him until he was quiet. He’d felt the impulse before, back when he was a cop. He feinted now in the man’s direction, but at the last minute held off. The stranger rolled to his feet and scampered down the hill.

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