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Authors: Eliot Peper

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BOOK: Cumulus
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Closing her eyes, Huian let her attention drift along with the tumbling melody and acoustic bassline. Vera had insisted they live in Oakland. She thrived in the roiling medley of hipsters, yuppies, do-it-yourselfers, aging hippies, and ruthless gangbangers. Huian could still remember the conversation from years ago. Huian had been about to suggest that they consider Pacific Heights, an upscale residential neighborhood not far from Cumulus headquarters. But the words had died on her tongue when she saw the steel in Vera’s brown eyes. Since then, Huian had come to appreciate the place. It reminded her of the lag between today and tomorrow, the vast amount of work still to be done.

Which was why it was so frustrating when obstacles cropped up. People had such trouble giving up their petty intrigues in pursuit of a larger goal. Tectonix would have given her the bargaining chip she needed to sway at least a half dozen senators. Foreign leaders too—oil states were always desperate to reinvigorate the supply of black gold that kept their oligarchies running.

With a new lawsuit brewing, she’d need that political capital more than ever. As always, the Europeans would blow it all out of proportion, and try to smear on yet another layer of useless regulation. She’d have to replace Richard too. It was getting harder and harder to find good people. That was the problem with being at the top—so many people wanted to impress you that it became ever more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The restraints pressed into her shoulders as the chopper slowed. Huian opened her eyes and saw the Oakland hills rising up before her from the urban clutter of the flats that led down to the bay. The crests of the hills were parkland, and the neighborhoods on their western slopes were solid Green Zone, streets carving through groves of oak and eucalyptus to connect McMansions, early twentieth century Edwardians, and the occasional estate. They swooped lower, aiming for an exposed shoulder of ridgeline.

They came to rest on a discreet helipad that had been included in the landscape design of the plot from the beginning. Huian unclipped her restraints and jumped out onto the decomposed granite surface as the door slid open for her. As soon as she was clear, the chopper leapt back into the air, and shot off for its next pickup or preventative maintenance stop.

She smiled as it faded to the size of a bird, and then a dot. Fleet was very, very good at maximizing utilization. Their vehicles didn’t waste time just sitting around. It was hard to imagine how much overcapacity had been locked into the old system of individual vehicle ownership. There were a few holdouts, of course. People who romanticized the Route
66
ideal while ignoring its deleterious impacts. Fleet could optimize every individual vehicle and trip, vastly increase safety, and minimize wasted fuel and time. What Fleet had done for transportation, Cumulus would do for society as a whole.

The dust had settled. Huian sucked in a deep breath of fresh air laced with honeysuckle and lavender. The Robert Glasper album, rife with pathos, continued in an uninterrupted refrain from the hidden outdoor sound system. The garden hummed with bees and birdsong. Olive trees flung out their branches like classical ballet dancers. Bright-green vines covered the high wooden fence that surrounded the hilltop property, young grapes hanging off them in tight bunches. A thin stream gurgled down its circuitous bed. Flowers highlighted the landscape with contained riots of color. Hidden paths wound their way toward and around the house that rose up in the midst of it all, a minimalist masterpiece of wood and glass.

The tranquility of the scene seeped into Huian, slowing down the spinning wheels in her head. Home. She was home. Gravel crunched underfoot as she made her way up toward the house. Vera would help her sort things out. Ask the right questions and put things in perspective. There was a Fleet car parked in the wide drive, trunk open. Vera had probably just returned from the farmers’ market. Huian entered through a side door that provided the shortest route to the kitchen.

The kitchen was the focal point of the first floor. Wide windows revealed a view of the entire bay, almost directly across from Huian’s office in the Presidio at the tip of San Francisco’s peninsula. Matte stainless steel appliances gave off a mute gleam. Vera stood with her back to Huian at the massive center island, framed by the view.

Something stirred inside Huian. Vera’s thick brown hair tumbled free over her shoulders. A baby-blue summer dress hugged her hips, setting off her smooth olive skin. Suddenly all Huian could think about was tearing the dress off her and taking her right there in the kitchen. That was what they needed, an afternoon exploring each other in bed. Smoldering frustration transformed into libido, steam inside a pressure cooker.

“Honey, I’m home.” Huian gave the words a singsong lilt as she stepped forward, gave Vera’s shapely ass a playful squeeze, and then wrapped her arms around her. She kissed the soft skin of her neck and inhaled deeply, Vera’s subtle scent of citrus and wet earth enflaming her even further. Huian felt her own nipples stiffen, and was suddenly aware of the blood roaring through her veins. The sensual soundtrack she and Graham had overheard earlier replayed itself inside her head in all its transgressive glory. “I missed you,” she whispered, nibbling an earlobe. “I love you. I want you. You’re the hottest woman I’ve ever seen.”

But Vera was oddly stiff, not relaxing into the embrace. Instead, she pressed her hands against the edge of the granite island and twisted away from Huian, turning to face her in the process. Huian took a faltering step back and frowned. Tears filled Vera’s big brown eyes, dowsing Huian’s lust.

“Huian,” said Vera, her voice breaking. “Honey, there’s no easy way to say this.” She swiped angrily at the tears as if they were mosquitos.

“I want a divorce.”

 

 

 

9

 

 

 

“CAN I BUY YOU A DRINK?”
Graham slid onto the worn bar stool.

Richard looked up blearily from the tumbler in front of him. It took a moment before his eyes focused. He frowned in recognition.

“What’s your name again?” His words were ever-so-slightly slurred.

“Graham.” He looked around the bar. The place was tucked into an alley in the wealthy bedroom community of Sausalito. The salty smell of the marina across the road filtered in whenever patrons opened the door. Grime covered all available surfaces, classic rock blared from an ancient sound system, and old fishing gear had been hung up on the walls.

Graham held up two fingers to the grizzled bartender. “Two Macallan
25
s, neat.”

The old man poured the whiskys and pushed them across the bar without comment.

“Thanks,” said Richard, finishing the last of his previous drink before taking a swig of the Macallan.

“Hell of a day,” said Graham.

Richard snorted. “You can say that again.”

Silence stretched between them as they sipped on the scotch.

“Un-fucking-believable,” said Richard, shaking his head. “Un-fucking-believable.”

“I must admit, I was shocked to see you walking out of Cumulus as I was walking in. Huian told me you had been let go.”

“That
bitch
,” said Richard, slamming a palm on the bar. The bartender gave them a look. “That arrogant, fussy little bitch. Riding her high horse, thinking she knows better than anyone else. Trying to tell me how to negotiate an acquisition.
Me
. I was doing deals when she was nothing but a nerdy Chinese twat in high school algebra. Someone should teach her a goddamn lesson.”

Graham repressed a grin. This was going to be even easier than he had anticipated. He was fairly certain that Huian Li had blazed through advanced algebra in elementary school. He also knew that her parents were Chinese Indonesian, not from mainland China. Huian herself had been born and raised in Palo Alto. But once the racism started flowing, all you needed to do was smile and nod.

“Firing
me
. All because of motherfucking Tectonix.” Richard swallowed the last of the glass. “Martín Sanchez is a goddamn wetback. He’s going to come back to the table crying, you mark my words. Then she’ll see the value of someone who actually knows how to buy a damn company. She’ll come crying back to me. I’ll let her suck my dick and then tell her to fuck off.”

Graham raised a finger and the bartender poured another slug. He could imagine few things less likely than Huian Li sucking anyone’s dick, much less Richard’s. Despite the various quiet contributions Richard had made to marginally legal white-power groups, Graham hadn’t anticipated that he had so much boiling right below the surface. If anything, he was surprised that Richard had hung onto his position for as long as he had. Losing him now would likely be a net benefit for Cumulus. It would
definitely
be a net benefit for Graham.

“I personally added billions in enterprise value to Cumulus,” said Richard. “Billions. And this is how I’m thanked for it. Can you believe it?”

Graham grunted and sipped his drink. The whisky was smooth and balanced. Richard’s ego, less so.

“I am going to fuck Cumulus so bad, the bitch won’t know what hit her.”

“I could help you there,” said Graham. It was time to close.

Richard looked up, startled at the interruption. “What?”

“I said, I could help you there.” He looked straight into Richard’s red-tinged eyes, holding his gaze steady.

“But,” said Richard, his face twisting into a scowl. “You… you still
work
for Cumulus.”

“I work for myself.” Truer than this idiot could understand.

Richard guffawed and leaned back on his stool, drawing another look from the bartender.

“I like your attitude,” he said, throwing an arm around Graham’s shoulder. “That sounds about right. But how would you actually help me?”

People always asked the wrong questions. They were so interested in their own goals that they didn’t stop to consider what those around them might be working toward. If someone offered Graham unsolicited help, he didn’t ask how, he asked
why
.

“Well,” said Graham, “relationships are the world’s fundamental currency. Engineering-minded people like Huian just don’t fully appreciate their value. But
you
understand how important relationships are.”

Richard nodded.

“This isn’t my first time around the block,” said Graham. “I’ve had friends move from one executive position to the next. But when they move from company to company, their relationships and experience travel with them. Am I right?”

Richard nodded again.

“Occasionally, they bring… assets along with them when they leave. Not stealing, of course. Just contact information, critical notes, strategic insights, insider details, that kind of stuff. Sometimes, they keep that kind of information stashed off-network, just in case. Just to help them remember exactly what went on behind the scenes. You never know when that kind of information might come in handy, right?”

Richard stared at Graham for a long moment. His eyes were suddenly sharp beneath the film of alcohol. He rubbed a thumb along the line of his jaw.

“You’re one sneaky son of a bitch,” said Richard.

“All I’m asking you to do,” said Graham, “is consider what this sneaky son of a bitch might be able to accomplish with a treasure trove of information like that.”

Graham raised his tumbler. The amber liquid seemed to glow from within in the low light. The bell on the door tinkled as a regular stumbled home. Jimmy Page ripped through “Stairway to Heaven.” The bartender wiped down a table in the corner. Richard chewed on the inside of his cheek and drummed his fingers against the edge of the bar.

Then he raised his own glass and clinked it against Graham’s.

“Fuck it,” said Richard. “You better put it to good use.”

They both shot the rest of the whisky.

A notification appeared in Graham’s contact lens display. Richard Huntman was giving him access to a private folder.

Bingo.

 

 

 

10

 

 

 

THE WORLD CRUMBLED AROUND HUIAN.
Horror and disbelief vied for dominance inside her, their shock-and-awe battle leaving her emotionally vacant. This simply couldn’t be.

“Sweetie, what are you talking about?” said Huian. She stepped toward Vera, trying to take her hand, but Vera shied away. Huian, doubly rebuffed, awkwardly clasped her own hands in front of her. “What are you saying?”

Vera was clearly trying to contain her own internal strife, and only partially succeeding. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I just can’t do it anymore.” Her voice had steadied, but her slender hands were shaking. “I’m done. I’m just done.”

Huian looked around the room, trying to get a grip on a situation spinning wildly out of control. The vista outside the window was balmy and peaceful, at odds with this madness. The kitchen was spotless. Dishes sat in the drying rack. Colorful fruit was piled high in a handwoven basket. The central island where Vera had been standing wasn’t covered in farmers’ market produce as Huian had anticipated.

BOOK: Cumulus
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