Panic City: A Silicon Valley Mystery

Chapter One

It’s always the same dream.

I’m running down the stairs. I reach the bottom, and there they all are. My mom, my dad, and…him.

He raises the gun. I drop onto the cold tile floor. Hold my hands over my ears. Squeeze my eyes shut. The tile is hard and unyielding on my cheek.

My mom is screaming.

“Please, please spare us,” my dad says.

The man looms over me. There’s a terrible click. Then a boom.

I press my fist into my mouth. Force my eyes open.

The blood spreads across the floor.

“No, no, no,” I say. “Mommy!”

The man comes towards me. I rise. Turn to run up the stairs.

He’s behind me now. My legs are like lead.

The stairs get steeper. The man’s hands are around me.

“Daddy! Save me!” I call.

The man picks me up. I kick my legs out. But he’s big. Strong. I weaken.

“You’re next,” says the man.

He tightens his grip on my chest. My breath is shallow. My heart races. I can’t feel my feet. I taste metal in my mouth.

He holds the gun up to the side of my head. It presses on my temple. Cold. Hard. Unyielding.

He pulls the trigger.

I wake up. I’m drenched in sweat.

My first thought. Relief that it was a dream. Then the memories. The real ones. Which is worse?

I was running late. This was my first job interview in six months. I couldn’t blow this one. Pete would make my life a living hell.

My platform sandals fought me every step of the way down the sidewalk. Why couldn’t I be like the women on TV who strode along in six inch heels without a problem?

By the time I arrived, my face was coated in sweat. Despite a half bottle of Sure, my armpits had begun to stink. I fumbled in my bag until I found some spray cologne. Doused myself with it as I walked.

I crossed the threshold to the office building. As I did, one of the straps on my left shoe broke. I tumbled forward and landed on one knee.

I scrambled to my feet. Heard snickering. A couple of thin, fashionable girls in their early twenties stood nearby, hands in front of their mouths. I glared at them.

“At least I’m VD-free,” I said to them as I walked by.

Shocked silence followed me. I smiled.

As soon as I’d reached the back of the lobby, I turned right. In my long experience, there was always a public restroom on the ground floor of these buildings. And it was almost always to the right. Sure enough, there it was.

As soon as I was inside, I checked my knee for signs of blood. It wasn’t too bad. I’d be bruised by morning, but then again I wouldn’t be in a job interview then.

I took a few moments to fix my makeup in the mirror. Then dug through my bag until I found what I was looking for. A roll of electrical tape. It worked in all kinds of emergencies, this one included. A holdover from my training as an electrical engineer. Training that had gone to waste other than this.

Having taped my shoe strap back together, more or less, I hobbled back out, all the while keeping my chin up.

My interview was for a marketing assistant job at a new startup I’d never heard of, called “GoldenY.” The concept, as I understood it, was that it was an app that watched your belongings for you. It was like a car alarm, only for everything else you owned.

I had no idea how it worked, but I knew both security and the Internet of Things were hot these days.

Once I got to the right floor and suite, I found that there wasn’t any receptionist. Just a big, open office that looked to be more than a little empty. I shuffled my feet.

After a time, a balding head bobbed up from within a cubicle.

“Can I help you?” asked a man’s voice.

“I’m here to see Jerry,” I said. “I have an appointment.”

“Oh, right, Jerry,” said the voice.

The man emerged from his cubicle. He was short, with a round face and the bleary eyes of a software developer.

“I’ll show you to a conference room and get Jerry for you,” he said.

He led me through a maze of cubicles, down a hallway that ended with a large, square, glass enclosed, windowless conference room. I thanked him and sat down in the chair at the end.

I’d read somewhere that you looked the most confident if you took that seat. But I didn’t feel confident. Most of my focus was on the pain in my knee, which was now taking on an aching quality.

While I waited for the mysterious Jerry, I messed around with the strap on my sandal. I got so involved in the task, I didn’t hear him as he entered.

“Not you,” said a voice.

A large man with a light brown complexion filled the doorway. He was about forty or so. His jet black hair was thinning on top. He had a barrel chest and large biceps that stretched the arms of his t-shirt.

His face had the appearance of a crumpled piece of paper. Lines zigzagged across its pockmarked landscape. His dark eyes were set into it, sad and wary.

“Um…do I know you?” I asked.

“You’re kidding me, Sarah,” he said.

I gulped. He did look familiar.

“Yeah, of course I’m kidding,” I said. My mind went into overdrive. Or tried, anyway. He knew me. The way he spoke to me. We’d been…well, we knew each other for certain. But where? And when? And how? I couldn’t think. My knee throbbed. My head ached. “You’re Jerry, right?”

“You really don’t know, do you? Wow, you were farther gone than I thought.”

“So, you’re not Jerry?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“I’m Amir. You remember now? Head clearing at all?”

My cheeks burned. I stammered something.

“Amir?” I cleared my throat. “Not the, er…last night? Party?”

He nodded.

“But you seemed so much younger,” I said. His face fell. “Sorry. That came out wrong.”

“Beer goggles,” he said. “Or maybe cocktail and coke goggles in your case.”

I swallowed. Memories of the previous night filtered through. The back bedroom. Doing lines. The man seated next to me. We’d flirted. A lot. He’d done a few lines off my chest. In a joking way, I seemed to recall. Had we kissed, too?

“Sarah, why did you take off so fast?” he asked in a whisper. “Couldn’t you at least have left me your number? Something.”

“Well,” I began. “I, uh, was in a hurry. I had to get home to my husband.”

“Your husband?” he asked. “You didn’t tell me you were married.”

“You didn’t ask,” I said.

He shook his head.

“Women in this country are unbelievable,” he muttered.

I cursed the host of that party. It was her fault I’d acted that way. She’d plied me with those cocktails. I never did coke unless I was blasted off my face.

“Look, um, Amir. It’s obvious I’m not going to get the job now. So, can I go?”

I stood up. My sandal held together until I’d reached the door. Then the strap flew apart.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Stupid shoe.”

“Let me,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“Take it off,” he said. “Electrical tape doesn’t work on something like this.”

I sat down on one of the office chairs and pulled my sandal off. He plopped himself next to me and began removing the tape.

“No, wait!” I said. “It’s broken, if you…”

“Give me a minute,” he said.

He got up and left the room, my shoe in his hand. What was he going to do? I couldn’t escape now. I’d have to walk around with one shoe.

What would Pete do when he found out I’d blown the interview? Make me take a temp job? Force me to wait on him hand and foot at home? Something even worse? Maybe he’d decide he’d had enough of me. I’d be on the street. Unlike him, I didn’t have rich parents to bail me out. I shouldn’t have signed that stupid prenup.

I could I lie and say I’d landed the job. That would free me up to wander around San Francisco all day. But there would be questions. He’d want to see the paycheck.

I stared at the wall. Pulled out my phone. Checked my email. Nothing. Looked at Facebook for a few minutes. Those cat videos that used to crack me up didn’t seem funny now. I texted my best friend Tootie.

“Mister Last Night here. One shoe down. Flipping out.”

She didn’t respond. Amir appeared in the doorway. He held my shoe in one hand.

“Here,” he said. “Should hold you until you get home.”

I took it. He’d somehow mended the strap with a plastic clasp of the type used to hold cables together on servers.

“How did you…?”

“Never mind,” he said.

His eyes were fixed on the far wall.

My stomach did a flip flop. I was being dismissed. That was it. I’d blown it. It was over.

“Look,” I said, grasping at whatever straw popped into my head. “What if we went ahead and worked together? Would that be so bad? You’re, what, chief of engineering here? Something like that? Marketing is a whole other department. We wouldn’t see each other. You could put in a good word with the CEO for me, you know how these things work.”

“I am the CEO, Sarah,” he said.

“You’re the…what?”

My face went hot.

I put my shoe back on. Fought back the tears that were threatening to well up.

“I guess I should go,” I said.

I stood up. He didn’t answer me. Didn’t look my way. I started out the door.

“Okay, you can have the job,” he said, leaning against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. “But we just met for the first time today, right?”

“Yes, right, just today,” I said, brightening. “Never seen you before.”

I strode out of the room. Felt his eyes on my ass as I went.

Sunshine Mugrabi’s memoir, “When My Boyfriend Was a Girl,” was called a “must read” by The Advocate Magazine. Find out more at sunshinemugrabi.

Top photo: Relaxing after work, Creative Commons: