Read About Face Online

Authors: James Calder

About Face

about face

james calder

about face

a bill damen mystery

Many thanks to the following people for their help and expertise while I was writing this book: Jay Schaefer, Ted Conover, Patrice Gelband, Amy Critchett, Victoria Garzouzi, Maribeth Back, Greta Jones, Andrew Black, Bruce Hoyt, KT Wilder, Phil Cohen, Dr. Jennifer Beachy, Dr. Ann Leibold, Hansel Bauman, Nurshen Bakir, Shannon Gilligan, and Bill Reifenrath. Any errors are mine alone. —
James Calder

Copyright © 2003 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, products, therapies, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual people, places, products, therapies, or events is entirely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:
Calder, James.
  About face : a Bill Damen mystery / James Calder.
    p. cm.
1. Private investigators—California—Santa Clara County—Fiction. 2. Santa
Clara Valley (Santa Clara County, Calif.)— Fiction. 3. Biotechnology industries—
Fiction. I. Title.
  PS3603.A425A64 2003

Book and cover design by Benjamin Shaykin
Cover photo by Jean Laughton/Nonstock

Chronicle Books LLC
680 Second Street
San Francisco, California 94107

Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamour,
And you, deep read in hell's black grammar.

—Robert Burns

: You worried about saving your own skin?
: Yeah, I am. It covers my body.



There are certain looks
on certain faces that make you stop and think. I didn't know Alissa, but my opinion of her was not high. We had a film to shoot and she was an hour late. From the attitude of those around me, I inferred that waiting on her was customary. Anything to be done with Alissa was done at her pleasure and on her schedule. Well, I had a schedule, too.

Then Rod showed me her picture. I've been shooting for ten years and I've dealt with my share of divas. Good looks are no excuse for bad behavior. But there was something about this photograph. Alissa was curled in a bentwood rocker on a deck, feet tucked underneath herself, cobalt blue water and a careless blue sky behind her. The highlights in her almond brown hair caught the sun; a few wayward locks were feathered by a breeze. The setting was leisurely, yet her back was straight, her hands folded. Her green eyes looked down a fraction from the lens; the brows hinted at mischief. It was her smile that got me, the corners of the mouth turned up ever so slightly, the lips full, relaxed, a little amused. It was nearly a Mona Lisa, but more impish, offering much yet simultaneously retracting it. Like she knew that you knew that the smile was a mirage—but you'd fall for it, anyway.

And I did. The smile had a natural quality, free of guile. If she was a diva, she was the most dangerous type: sweet, sincere, and somewhat oblivious to her powers.

Before I knew him, I'd have thought it implausible that the man standing next to me would be the smile's recipient. Rod Glaser was older, not nearly as good-looking as Alissa, and not particularly rich—yet. We were standing on the lawn outside his company, Algoplex. He'd hired me to shoot an image piece for the company and today was the last day of the shoot. It was the day devoted to “the man behind the technology,” a subject with which Rod was not comfortable. He had plenty of intelligence, wit, and even genius, but it froze in front of the camera. Alissa's name had been uttered all week like a magic potion that would unlock his personality when she joined us on Friday. Now Friday had arrived and we were still awaiting results. In the meantime, we'd shot about an hour of the company's weekly Ultimate Frisbee game. Rod had fumbled the disk and made looping throws that somehow ended up behind him in a display of full-frontal nerdity. Then he'd come over to apologize again for Alissa and show me her picture.

Rod was a Silicon Valley engineer of the old school, a man who respected technique. When I complimented him on the picture, he blushed and proceeded to apologize for its deficiencies in craft. He hadn't treated me and my two-member crew like most executives do. Rod recognized my job required technical art, too, and treated me like a fellow engineer. In his world, there was no higher token of regard.

“It's still a great picture,” I said. “Alissa's photogenic.”

It was meant as a compliment. But Rod frowned and looked at his shoes—cross-trainers that showed little sign of use—as if ashamed of his luck with her. He tucked the photograph back into his wallet and tucked the wallet into his satchel.

My crew—Rita on camera, Alan on sound—kept shooting while Rod and I stood watching the game. Rod paced nervously, his hands searching for nonexistent pockets in his sweatpants, small loaf of a belly pushing out his Slashdot T-shirt. He was my height, about six feet, with sloping shoulders, thinning reddish-brown hair, and a superfluous mustache. Its color made it nearly invisible, as if he might have carrot juice on his upper lip. His lips were plump and his blunt features appeared to have been rounded down by some process of erosion. His gangly arms and floppy feet did not help him in Ultimate Frisbee.

I was feeling more patient now that I knew who we were waiting for. There was no harm in letting the camera roll: It was only video. The grass was thick and aromatic, the sun warm. The faux red sandstone and glass curtain walls of the Algoplex building furnished what passed for local color. But the more Rod paced, the more agitated he became.

“I can't imagine what's keeping her,” he said. “This is anomalous. She's been late before, but she's always come.”

“Why don't we just go pick her up at her place?”

Rod shook his head. “I've called her twice now. No answer.”

“Maybe her phone's not working. Or she left her computer online.”

“We're not going.” His voice took on a sudden severity, one I'd heard before only when he argued the utter wrongheadedness of a rival engineer's theory.

Now Rod was the one trying my patience. “Well, we've done all we can with this setup. I know you said Alissa likes Frisbee, but we need to move along. If you want a rough cut of this film in time for the dinner on Monday night, that is.”

Monday was the night Rod was set to sign a strategic alliance with a company called Plush Biologics. Plush was developing a
line of gene-regulating treatments for the skin, therapies that would renew elastin and collagen, producing not only the appearance but also the reality of youthful epidermis. Already there was a long waiting list for Eternaderm, the first in the line of ultra-lucrative products. Rod's star would rise with it.

Rod tapped his front teeth with a knuckle. It was a little habit that meant he saw your point. “This is anomalous,” he repeated. “She's never failed to keep an appointment with me.”

“Is there anywhere else we can check for her?” After his quick shake of the head, I said, “We'll have to move on to the next setup, then. Leave a message telling her to meet us at your house.”

Rod stood paralyzed, his back slightly hunched. He never quite looked comfortable in a standing position. Only when perched in front of a screen, mouse in hand, did he forget himself: A tranquil absorption came over his face, the tension left his shoulders, and he took on the look of one transported to a more perfect realm.

Mike Riley, the company's CEO, broke away from the game to join us. “Whatcha doing on the sidelines, Rod? We need you in there.” Sweat was pouring down Mike's temples in spite of a white headband. He had short, powerful legs and managed to rule the Frisbee field among employees who were younger and faster.

Rod's long face told him he would not be rejoining the action. Mike's expression turned sympathetic. “Still no Alissa, huh?”

Rod perked up with a new idea. “Maybe she emailed,” he said. He bent to retrieve his hiptop from his satchel. It was a compact device about the size of a camera that had replaced the array of gadgets once holstered on Rod's belt. It could browse the Web, send and receive email messages and files, make phone calls, and take pictures. Its top flipped open to become a screen, revealing a keyboard underneath.

“Don't you love this guy?” Mike said. “Engineer to the bottom of his toes.”

Following a series of beeps, Rod got a wireless connection to the Web. His lips pressed together in silent disappointment as he scrolled through his messages.

Mike touched Rod's elbow. “Don't worry, champ. She's probably just putting her makeup on for you.”

“Is everything—” I hesitated but had to ask. “Is everything all right between you and Alissa?”

Rod shrugged. “I haven't heard of any revisions.”

“We're always the last to know, aren't we?” Mike meant it as a buddy remark, but Rod's shoulders only drooped lower.

“Send her over to Rod's house if she shows up, would you, Mike?” I said. “We'll be there the rest of the afternoon.” Mike gave me a thumbs-up, then sprinted back into the game.

“Let's pack it up,” I called to Rita and Alan.

Rita gave a smile of relief. She wanted to keep things moving. Rod just nodded with resignation. He was staring out at the field, where the players swerved from one end to the other, like a flock wheeling over a meadow. “Frisbee up!” someone called, and there were whoops as players jumped for it. Spirits were high at Algoplex: The deal to be signed Monday night would guarantee its future. Yet Rod looked like the most forlorn man in the world, gripping his hiptop, grinding his jaw, as though he feared he might never see Alissa again.

» » » » »

Rod's company did data visualization and simulation. He designed software that navigated huge databases to represent in intuitive three-dimensional form veins of information sought by the client. In the case of Plush Biologics, the data represented
the epidermis and the genes that produced its tissues. Rod's algorithms could then take this data and simulate what would happen when new gene-related molecules were introduced.

Algoplex's product depended entirely on the genius of its engineers. Rod was Genius in Chief. As hesitant as he was in social situations, he was authoritative in algorithmic matters. He viewed himself as supreme in his field, and his rivals saw themselves in precisely the same way. It was a marvel how this unassuming man could shout down a colleague when the debate turned to code sequence.

Unfortunately, this did not automatically ensure Algoplex's profitability. As brilliant as Rod's work was, until now he hadn't found the killer app, the monster client, to make the company fly. At 43, Rod was old enough to have a track record and young enough not to have been beaten down. He'd done stellar, under-appreciated work at three previous companies—small, medium, and large—yet still had enough energy and idealism left over to believe his technology could change the world.

His fire and experience had convinced investors to entrust him with an initial infusion of cash. He'd burned through that first round laying down his code base. He then needed a second round to get his technology into play, but the capital markets had dried up in the post-dot-bomb era. Rod's pitch no longer had wings, and he hated the song and dance anyway. Four months ago he'd brought in Mike Riley as CEO. Rod relegated himself to Chief Technical Officer, though he was still the heart of the company and had the final word.

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