ONE LET OLD ACQUAINTANCES
More than anything, what Billy Stafford wanted to do right now was to smash Shawn Eagle’s smug little face in.
Shawn Eagle: former best friend and business partner. Shawn Eagle: founder, visionary, and CEO of Eagle Technology. Shawn Eagle: one of the ten richest men in the world. Shawn Eagle: lying, cheating, backstabbing scumbag.
Ten years since he’d seen Shawn in person, and just the imagined sound of his fist hitting that bastard in the face was enough to make Billy happy. He could hear it. The wet sound of flesh on flesh, the follow-through of his knuckles against Shawn’s teeth, the way it would sound both hollow and solid at the same time. He could picture it, too. Shawn’s head snapping back and bouncing off the plate glass window. Mashed lips and teeth jutting out at an odd angle, Shawn crumpling to his back on the plush carpet, frothy bubbles of blood bursting out the old kisser. Shawn wouldn’t be doing any kissing for a while after that.
There wasn’t anything Billy could think of that he wanted right now more than he wanted to cave in Shawn’s face, and he was trying to think of other things that he wanted more. Billy wanted to punch Shawn more than he wanted to drink a frosted pint glass of Ommegang Witte Belgian ale poured right from the tap. More than
he wanted a bucket of a dozen Yuenglings, the bottles of beer settling into the crushed ice. Billy wanted to hit Shawn Eagle more, even, than he wanted four neat lines of coke or, Jesus, most of all, a sip of a Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic in a heavy, cut-glass crystal tumbler full of solid squares of ice. And he wanted all of those things.
Nearly two years sober, and he hadn’t stopped burning for any of what he’d left behind. But he didn’t want to get high or drunk anywhere near as much as he wanted to punch Shawn Eagle in the mouth.
Best not to think of the booze—it was mostly booze—and drugs. No. Not booze, then. Punching Shawn would be more satisfying than . . . a blow job from Shawn’s ridiculously attractive personal assistant? How about that? Cindy or Sammy or Wendy or something? Was that a safer thing to think of than booze and drugs? Just the thought probably made him a misogynist, but sexual objectification and his long-suffering wife, Emily, be damned. Shawn’s assistant, a black woman of maybe twenty-five who looked like she could have doubled as a lingerie model, was hot. And he was sure she was smart, too. She was almost certainly an Ivy League graduate. She likely came from Cortaca University itself, his and Shawn’s good old alma mater. She probably had an IQ that could serve as a respectable batting average in the major leagues. But however smart she was, that wasn’t what Billy was thinking about; watching her ass sway while she led him into Shawn’s office had been one of the great pleasures of Billy’s life. Okay, fine. He was a sexist pig and a theoretical philanderer—though never an actual philanderer—and he was a terrible person to have the thought at all. He already knew he wasn’t going to win any humanitarian awards. The question, however, was would he take a blow job from Cindy or Sammy or Wendy or whatever her name was over the chance to punch Shawn in the face?
No. Not for an instant.
Billy glanced down and realized he already had his right foot weighted and back a step. All he had to do was cock his fist and let
go. Boom. Punch through your target. Punch through Shawn Eagle’s shitty smile. Punch through those capped and whitened teeth. Punch right through the grin that was part of the reason Shawn Eagle had last year been named one of People magazine’s sexiest men alive. In college, girls said he was beautiful. Shawn joked that it was because he was exotic looking, even if the one-eighth of him that was Indian wasn’t the sort of Indian you’d expect in a programmer. But at thirty-six, Billy thought, Shawn wasn’t beautiful anymore; he was, instead, harder, different. Shawn was handsome now. His black hair was collar length. He wore designer jeans and T-shirts that fit the body he kept polished with the help of personal trainers. He still looked exotic. No wonder People magazine picked him; no wonder Shawn was constantly on the “most eligible bachelor” lists. He was young, rich, brilliant, and handsome.
Young, rich, brilliant, and handsome? Billy could fix one of those things. There was security in the lobby, security outside the office. Shawn didn’t go anywhere without a couple of bodyguards. He had the kind of money where he couldn’t go anywhere without a couple of bodyguards, but none of the muscle was in the room. Billy thought he could do some real damage before they responded. Shawn wouldn’t be so handsome anymore. Not after Billy was finished with him.
But Shawn Eagle, seemingly oblivious to the murderous impulses swirling in front of him, kept talking. He turned his back to Billy, looking out the bank of windows that gave him a view over the construction of Eagle Technology’s new Fisker DeLeon–designed campus, and beyond that, to Baltimore’s harbor. They were in Shawn’s office, which was big enough so that it was divided into zones; they were standing in the lounge, a comfy pit complete with couches and a thick-pile rug, all somehow lower than the rest of the office. The lounge was sunk into the floor, three steps down from where the “real” work was clearly done. Up those three steps there was a desk the size of a whale. And in the open space in the middle, a conference table that could have doubled as an aircraft carrier. Even the bathroom suite was bigger than any apartment Billy had ever rented. The office was a riot of exotic-looking wood and metal. Shawn probably had
the accents carved out of unicorn horns or something, just because he could afford to. The office took up half the entire top floor of the twelve-story building, and the crazy thing was that this building was only temporary. According to Shawn, Eagle Technology had “thrown it up” on the edge of their old campus so that Shawn could have a view of the construction of their new corporate campus. The old Eagle Technology headquarters had the address of 1000 Digital Drive, Baltimore, Maryland, but the new campus address was simply “Mobius Strip.” No need for a street number.
Eagle Technology’s Mobius Strip headquarters was going to cost tens of billions of dollars. By the time it was done, it was going to make Apple’s campus out in California look like tract housing, and the address itself, Mobius Strip, was a dig at Apple’s Infinite Loop. Through the window, Billy could see the constant movement of cranes and cement mixers and trucks. It was scheduled to be done in six or seven more months, by the spring, but it didn’t look like they were that close. The rumors were that Shawn had driven the project wildly over what was already a wildly inflated budget. He demanded perfection that was nearly impossible even with modern building techniques. The architect, Fisker DeLeon, had publicly crowed that when it was done, it wouldn’t be a technology campus; it would be a work of art. Nearly 80 percent of the building material had been custom fabricated for Eagle, and Maryland had done everything but name Shawn the reigning monarch because of the money he was pouring into the state and into the city of Baltimore. For a city that had been on the ropes before Eagle Technology exploded, Shawn was a gift from heaven. Forget the construction. Forget the new roads and infrastructure that Eagle was paying for to make sure the campus was perfect. Forget the union jobs—Eagle Technology hired union crews!—by the thousands to make the buildings rise from the earth like ancient temples made of glass and steel. Forget the businesses that already existed just to serve the employees of Eagle Technology. Restaurants and upscale spas offering tea-oil massages finished off with chia seed smoothies. Dog walkers and lawn services and car dealerships. Organic grocery stores and shops devoted entirely to selling olive oil. Forget all that. Eagle
Technology alone already employed something like thirty thousand people in the Baltimore area, and once the new campus was finished, they’d be consolidating their operations, pulling more employees into the area so that they would have a full-time Baltimore workforce of nearly fifty thousand at Eagle Technology proper. Good jobs! Good jobs that paid well and got taxed at rates that made the politicians obsequious. Plus, Eagle Technology was like a magnet, with other tech companies opening satellite offices or talking about relocating to Baltimore themselves, turning Baltimore into Silicon Valley East. No wonder Shawn Eagle had been named “man of the year” three years running by Baltimore magazine. No wonder most people thought that Shawn Eagle, at thirty-six, had a perfect life.
But Billy still really wanted to punch him.
It had been an even decade since he’d seen Shawn. A decade of having to watch from afar as Shawn’s tiny company—what had once been Billy and Shawn’s company—did what Google and Apple and other tech companies had done before: go from nothing to everything. No matter how much Billy had tried to run away from Shawn, no matter how much he drank or what he put into his body, he couldn’t get away from Shawn. Eagle Technology’s market cap had shot past Apple’s and Google’s and Amazon’s, and Shawn was everywhere: On the covers of magazines. Newspapers. His name on the radio and as a good-natured punch line on late-night television. His face on the cover of that ridiculous biography, Learning to Soar, one of the biggest books of the year. But worse was that Billy couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a piece of Eagle Technology. The gold-infused titanium—another one of Shawn’s “brilliant” innovations, marketed as Eagle Titanium—on high-end phones and tablets and computers, the classic Eagle Red aluminum on cheaper devices. It wasn’t the phones or the computers or other devices that made Billy furious. It was what was inside them: Eagle Logic.
Eagle Logic. That had been Billy’s genius. The hardware was never what mattered. They both knew that. No matter how slick they looked, no matter how well they were engineered, the tablets and phones and watches, all of it—without Eagle Logic, they were
just pieces of fancy metal. Eagle Logic was the program that made everything work. A new computing language that Billy and Shawn had birthed into existence. Right away, Eagle Logic was different. More organic. Microsoft and IBM and C++ and Java and all the relics of the early years of computers relied on some sort of binary system. Ones and zeros. Off and on. But he and Shawn had come up with a more complex decision-making process. It wasn’t even really accurate to say that they’d invented a new computing language, because the language and the program were inseparable. One without the other was just as useless as Shawn’s hardware without Eagle Logic. But that was too complicated for most people—Billy had tried to explain it to Emily on more than one occasion—and most people, if they thought about Eagle Logic at all when they talked to their phones, thought of her as a program. But they didn’t think about Eagle Logic, because she actually worked. If you said, “Call Susan,” she could figure out which one of the five Susans in your address book you meant. If you told her to book you dinner for seven at eight at the Nines, she took care of that without a hiccup. It wasn’t that Eagle Logic could do anything particularly new, in the same way that Google didn’t invent the search engine and Apple didn’t come up with the MP3 player when they introduced the iPod, but Eagle Logic did it better. Shawn’s particular genius was in packaging all of it, in giving customers Eagle Logic, a clearly superior operating and support system, in a device that looked like it was better, too. But what made it all come together, the engine that drove everything? That was Billy’s work.
The name itself was a coin flip. Heads and it was Stafford Logic, tails and it was Eagle Logic. Shawn had won—then and other times, Billy thought—and given Eagle Logic her name. They agreed on that, at least, that it was indisputably her. There was no option for Eagle Logic to have a male voice. They didn’t agree on much else as time went by, but they agreed that the language and the program together combined to make something female. The joke that Shawn liked to make in interviews, until he got called out by a feminist group that threatened a boycott, was that Eagle Logic was female because, like most women, she was smarter than she seemed.
Because at first, Eagle Logic didn’t seem like she was working very well. They hadn’t even meant to make Eagle Logic. Eagle Logic was their failure. She was the less ambitious compromise, what they figured they could get to work when . . . Well, a lot of things had gone wrong. Things Billy didn’t like to think about.
Safest to say that their first project had imploded, but even then, they struggled to get Eagle Logic right. They’d tried to sidestep the logic gates of other technology. Yes. No. Those were the only two choices. Not for them, though. They’d made a program that was supposed to be equipped for dealing with something in between: maybe. Of course, Eagle Logic 1.0 didn’t work. And neither did Eagle Logic 2.0 or 3.0 or 4.0.
For almost two years he and Shawn had holed up in that shitty, terrifying cabin. It was pressed up against the decrepit, fallen down Eagle Mansion. Wind whistled through the holes in the walls at night, screeching in his ears. They used to joke about living next to a haunted house, but neither of them had really been joking; Eagle Mansion loomed over them like a bad dream. The trees creeping closer and closer. The whole thing claustrophobic despite being in the middle of nowhere. It was thirty minutes of twisting, tortured driving to the closest town, if you could call Whiskey Run a town, and forty-five minutes from there to Cortaca and what friends they had left at the university. The only truly great thing about the cabin was that it was free. It gave them a place to focus on their project. They’d worked their asses off there, in upstate New York, right up against the Canadian border. Sixteen, eighteen hours a day in that small cabin, the ruins of Eagle Mansion right above them, almost mocking them with its past glory.
They lived on beer and frozen pizza and boxes of macaroni and cheese, like they were still students. Twenty-three months of working together, of not enough sleep and too much beer and too many things gone wrong. Too many secrets to bury, too many things haunting them. Finally, things had fallen apart between them for good.
“I guess you get the girl,” Shawn had said as Billy was walking away.
Shawn had been right and he’d been wrong, too. Billy had gotten Emily, all right, but if Eagle Logic was indisputably feminine, then Shawn had ended up with a girl of his own, one that put a hell of a lot more in the bank.
He was still in love with his wife, Billy thought. He was.
“I guess you get the girl.” That had been the last thing Shawn had said to him before Billy and Emily drove off, away from Eagle Mansion and out of Shawn’s life forever. Or, at least until now. Oh, Billy had seen Shawn in the meantime—seen his smug mug on magazine covers and on television, seen Shawn across a courtroom nearly a decade ago, when Eagle Technology was just becoming something, up on the stand during Billy’s last, ruinous attempt to get what was his, that lying prick completely distorting the who and what and when of his success, the story of Eagle Logic and Eagle Technology drifting further away from the truth with every year.
No. Neither of them wanted the whole story to come out.
But Billy wanted what was fair. He’d suffered, too. Shawn owed him.
Good god, he wanted to smash Shawn’s face in. Not just to punch him, but walk over to the bar cart and pick up one of those heavy bottles of whiskey and use that to bludgeon Shawn. To hit him and hit him and hit him until no doctor on earth could reconstruct the bones of his face. And then, when he was done, he’d scoop some ice out of the bucket, let frozen water ring against the bottom of a highball, and pour himself a stiff one right from the bloody—literally, as in covered with Shawn’s blood—bottle.
Shawn turned from the window and looked at Billy.
“I’d offer you a drink, but my people tell me that you’ve been dry for two years,” Shawn said. “Congratulations, by the way.”
Billy reached his hand into his pocket. Old habits. He usually kept his one-year coin in there. He dug deeper. His pocket was empty. He felt a brief, bright moment of panic. He’d lost the coin somewhere between Seattle and Baltimore. He swallowed hard. It was just a talisman. A piece of luck to keep nearby. It wasn’t something he needed.
“Not quite two years,” he said. “End of the month will be two years. Twenty-three months right now.” There was no recognition from Shawn that twenty-three months meant anything, that when Billy said he was twenty-three months sober, it was the same amount of time the two of them had been holed up in that shitty cabin working together. Years ago. Back when they were friends. Back when living next to a spooky, rotting, haunted mansion and spending every waking moment working seemed like an adventure. Back when they weren’t going to let anything stop them.
But there was no reaction from Shawn. Nothing. In the same way that there was nothing in his pocket. No coin there. No marker of his sobriety. Like that first year of keeping away from alcohol and drugs had never happened. But that was fine. He’d wait for his two-year coin. In the meantime? “I’ll take a Diet Coke.”
“Isn’t the cliché from recovery meetings that everybody drinks coffee nonstop? We can do coffee. Or an espresso or whatever.”
“Diet Coke. If you’ve got it.”
Shawn laughed. “Whatever you want, Billy. In a can or a glass?”
It was surprisingly low-tech. Shawn walked to the door, which was an endeavor in itself given the size of his office, and stuck his head out, calling to his assistant. Wendy. Her name was Wendy.
“Anything else?” Billy shook his head. “Hotel is fine? And the flight was okay? Sorry you had to go commercial. I would have sent a jet for you, but I lent one of mine to Taylor Swift. She has her own jet, of course, but there’s something or other with an engine, and she’s a friend. And my other two planes are being redecorated. The board has been giving me a hassle about using the company jets for private business.” Shawn waved his hand in annoyance. “They don’t want me to treat Eagle Technology like it’s my own private playground anymore. Corporate governance crap.”
Billy didn’t say anything. Commercial. It’s not like he had to rough it. A limousine had picked him up at his and Emily’s squalid studio apartment in Seattle and taken him directly to the plane. The plane.
As in, drove out onto the tarmac at SeaTac, where a flight attendant was waiting to open a stairway at the base of the jet bridge so that he could go right on up and into the plane and take a seat in first class. He’d never even gone into the terminal. Another flight attendant, a young Latino kid with just a hint of a mustache, had greeted him by name as he boarded, calling him Mr. Stafford and making sure that he was comfortable, asking if he could get him anything.
It had only been one gin and tonic.
“I guess you probably want to know why I asked you to come?” Shawn said.
“Very astute of you, Shawn. We haven’t talked directly for a decade, since you screwed me over—”
“The court can go screw itself. And screw you, Shawn. Screw you!” Billy said. No. He didn’t say it. He yelled it. He realized he was shouting. And Shawn’s personal assistant, Wendy, was standing on the steps looking terrified. He bet Wendy was easily clearing a million a year plus stock options and whatever perks she wanted. She probably got to fly in one of Shawn’s private jets whenever she needed to go somewhere. She was staring at Billy, and he shut up and turned so that he could watch her in one of the mirrors on the wall instead.
He felt like shit. For thinking about her like she was just some sex object. For yelling and scaring her. For who he was afraid he might be. For the sobriety token missing from his pocket. For all the ways he’d messed up his life. For the things that he and Shawn kept buried.
He shouldn’t have come.
He saw Wendy look over at Shawn. Shawn shrugged, so Wendy stepped over to Billy and handed him the can of Diet Coke. Just what he’d asked for. What he needed. The cold metal was a relief. He pressed the can against his forehead for a moment before opening it. His temper. It had become worse since he’d gotten sober.
Shawn waited until Wendy was gone and then he held up his palms. A symbol of peace. “Hear me out, okay? I know that you and Emily are having some hard times.”
Hard times. What a colloquial way of putting it. They were flat,
dead-ass broke. Four months behind on their rent. Nine credit cards that Emily knew about, all maxed to the point where the plastic was in danger of melting. Four more credit cards that Emily didn’t know about. Their car, a piece of shit deathtrap that had been nice once, was more rust and holes than actual metal. It started most of the time, but the brakes were so shot that they were afraid to drive it on the highway. He wouldn’t have minded it so much if he’d still been blotto all the time. It would have made sense, then. Of course we’re broke! I’m drinking and snorting every dollar that comes in! No wonder we don’t even have enough change lying around to make our pockets jingle!
But he’d been stone-cold sober for two years. Not quite two years. He reached into his pocket again. Twenty-three months and . . . four days. No one-year coin. Not even lint in his pocket. That’s how broke they were. But there were no excuses: since he’d gotten sober, he’d stayed sober. Just that one gin and tonic on the plane. He deserved that. It was only one drink, which was nothing. Back before he got sober he could line them up and knock them down. One gin and tonic wouldn’t have even counted as a drink. It had been what, twelve years, thirteen, since he’d talked with Shawn Eagle like this, just the two of them alone in a room? He was fine. And it wasn’t fair to say that he couldn’t blame the drinking or the drugs; the money was good and gone by the time he sobered up. Not that there’d ever been that much money, but there’d been a period of time, five or six years, when, if he hadn’t been wealthy, he and Emily had been able to stay afloat. The rocket-ship rise of Eagle Technology had allowed his laughably small amount of stock to keep pace with his spending for a little while. If he’d kept all of it, if he hadn’t sold any of it, it would be worth just a shade under eleven million dollars now. Nothing compared with Shawn Eagle, the second-wealthiest man alive, but not bad for the son of a waitress and a drunk, abusive custodian. But he hadn’t kept all of it, of course. He hadn’t kept any of it. He’d sold it off in chunks great and small at prices that were criminal in retrospect. Maybe five hundred grand total before taxes? Not all at once, of course. He bled himself out. Booze and coke and some of it toward
the failed lawsuit. It would have gone quicker, and for less, if it hadn’t been for the magical Shawn Eagle, who, according to every hagiographic newspaper and magazine article, every ball-sucking interview, was a gee-whiz genius who’d turned Eagle Technology from an idea into a global behemoth all by his lonesome. Every time Billy thought he’d run the well of his shitty settlement dry, that the miserly bit of stock he had left was gone, that there was nothing left to bail him out, Eagle Technology would go on another run, hit a new record, split at 3 to 1, split again at 7 to 1, and again at 4 to 1. But the well had gone empty, eventually. At some point, a few years ago, when he was in the deepest reaches of the bottle, there was simply nothing left to sell. How different would things have been if he’d sat on that stock? He’d be looking at eight figures, enough money for him and Emily to live in luxury for the rest of their lives. Move someplace warm. An island somewhere. Open a coffee shop or a small restaurant. But instead he’d sold pieces of the stock at every opportunity, turning it into the cold clink of ice and gin and a wedge of lime.
They were deep in it. They had some money coming in, but it was like pissing on a bonfire. Emily was working at a preschool, and she was happy with the little moppets, and Billy had picked up part-time work on the night cleaning crew at a huge chain health club. Working as a custodian for minimum wage. Like his dad. But not a drunk like his dad. Not anymore. The pay was a joke and the work was a joke, but none of it was funny. He should have been sitting at a computer and conquering the world, but nobody would touch him. It was ridiculous. Picking up coding languages used to be as easy as breathing for him. Shawn had been a good programmer. A really good programmer. More important, Shawn had a terrific understanding of how people actually interacted with computers, what they wanted but didn’t know they wanted. The real magic, however, had come from Billy. He’d been the one who made Eagle Logic come alive. It had worked best when they were working together. Even at the beginning when it was Billy and Shawn and . . . After. It had worked best after.
They had come up with the idea of integrating a new coding
language and program to create something wholly different, but Billy was the one who’d seen the way to break a computer’s logic apart and give them something more. Without Billy there was no Eagle Logic, and without Eagle Logic, there was no Eagle Technology.
But there was no Billy anymore. Nobody but Shawn Eagle. Billy was in the dustbin of history, cast as opportunistic in the bestselling authorized biography Learning to Soar: The Story of Shawn Eagle and the Rise of Eagle Technology. What little space was given to him described him as a parasite, the entire lawsuit framed as an extortion attempt, with the author’s barely disguised glee at Billy’s walking away with a few thousand shares and Shawn’s vindication. No, in the story of Eagle Technology, Billy barely existed, and to the extent that he did exist, it was as the villain. Shawn was the prince. Shawn was the hero. Shawn deserved all the credit, all the praise, and Billy deserved what he got: nothing.
Which was why he wanted to punch Shawn in the face.
He took another sip of his Diet Coke and then very deliberately sat on one of the white leather couches. If he decided to punch Shawn, he’d actually have to get up and stride across the room. It would be a decision. Not a reflex. Standing there, with Shawn so close to him, it would be too easy. So he sat down and listened.
“It’s been too long,” Shawn said. “Too long like this. Do you remember what it was like? That ridiculous cabin in the woods? In the winter, the wind would come through the cracks in the boards like a freight train. It would shriek at us. Just howling, screaming through the cabin. What did you call it? The freeze-ball express? And every time we got the woodstove hot enough to heat the place up, it would glow cherry-bomb red at the hinges and we’d double-check to make sure the fire extinguisher was ready. And remember when, despite how creepy it was, we tried going into Eagle Mansion, thinking we could light a fire in one of the grand fireplaces and that would be a good way to get warmed up? We busted up an entire set of chairs from the dining room, and when we actually got the fire lit, a whole shitload of bats came flying out of the chimney and we were running around screeching like little kids? Heck, man, we probably could have
just carted in one of those tables and a set of chairs to Cortaca and sold them to an antiques dealer for enough money to feed us for half a year. Oh, and I can’t believe I forgot about this,” he said, laughing, “when the electricity got cut off that first summer, and we jury-rigged solar panels so we could keep our laptops charged?”
Billy smiled. He didn’t want to, but he smiled. He didn’t want to admit it, but he’d been happy then. Despite everything that happened, he had been happy. “And it rained for a week so we couldn’t get a charge, and we were trying to work out the code by writing it on the walls?”
“It was like living in the worst, scariest, most rustic dorm in the universe. But worse, because Eagle Mansion was just looming there, taunting us, like, hey, I used to be an awesome place to live before I fell in on myself and turned haunted, and you guys are stuck in what probably used to be a servant’s cottage.”
“Yeah, well,” Billy said, “could have been worse. We could have been in the burned-out groundskeeper’s cottage that you grew up in. That place gave me the heebie-jeebies.”
A thin smile. “Yeah.” A real smile now. “And, shit. That first Thanksgiving, when we forgot that it was Thanksgiving, and we drove all the way from the cabin, over an hour into Cortaca, and Saigon Kitchen was, unbelievably, open, but they didn’t take credit cards, and neither one of us had our bank cards, so we had to scrounge change from the car? We barely had enough money to get one order of Sriracha chicken wings to go, so we put it on a plate and made that our Thanksgiving turkey.” Shawn laughed, and for a moment, Billy did remember.
It had been glorious. They’d been so alive and so young, still at that age when they couldn’t understand the idea of getting old. They’d work thirty days in a row, getting up at eight or nine in the morning and starting out with bowls of sugared cereal—if they were lucky, and the electricity was keeping the tiny fridge humming, they had fresh milk, and if they weren’t lucky, they ate it dry—and coding until two or three in the morning. They bought noodles and whatever meat was close to the expiration date at the off-brand grocery store in Whiskey
Run, and once a month, when the ridiculously small check came in the mail from Shawn’s aunt Beverly, they’d drive the extra thirty miles to Cortaca and get burritos and stock up on cheap beer. They’d take a day to mess around in the woods and get loaded and recharge themselves for the next push of trying to make the idea of Eagle Logic into a reality. The cabin was a single room within spitting distance of what used to be the grand Eagle Mansion, a Prohibition-era resort that had once been graced by the rich and famous.
The mansion. Thinking of it made Billy shiver. The mansion looked like something from a horror movie: the roof was caving in and missing in spots, vines grew in and out of shattered windows, the walls were crumbling in places, and the whole building loomed over them. It was haunted. They were convinced of it. A few times, Billy woke in the middle of the night and thought he saw lights flickering in the mansion. Shawn was convinced that, one night, during their first winter, he’d seen a dark-haired woman gliding across the roof. Dead things came to life in that building. Dark things. They were young and dumb and men, so they couldn’t keep themselves completely away from Eagle Mansion, but mostly, Billy had been leery of the old monolith. No way they would have stayed there if it hadn’t been free.
The estate itself felt sprawling and equally full of mischief. Trees had grown thick and dark. Hedges had gone wild. What was once a great lawn was scattered with thorns. It was easy to imagine getting lost in the surrounding wilderness. Swallowed alive by the forest. At night, it seemed like the woods inched closer to their cabin.
The cabin was better. Less . . . possessed? Possessed. That was the word, Billy thought. It was cold and dank, but it was just a building. Eagle Mansion and the scattered outbuildings, including the groundskeeper’s cottage, which had burned—with Shawn’s parents in it—when Shawn was twelve, positively seethed. Early in their residency, they’d dropped acid and wandered around the grounds. Billy had found himself inside Eagle Mansion, barely holding it together. The walls pulsed and seemed to breathe. He thought the carpets were made of blood.
No. The cabin was safe. By scavenging some wood and shingles from the other outbuildings, they were able to make it livable. Barely livable, but livable. Aunt Beverly was paying the taxes on the estate, such as they were. She insisted that Shawn keep the land, since it had been in his family for generations.
“If you want to sell it when I’m dead and gone, then by all means,” she had said during one of the times that she came to visit. Billy remembered it well. He’d liked the old bird, though she probably hadn’t actually been that old at the time, no more than fifty or fifty-five. She always brought groceries and often other items, like frying pans or blankets or other things they needed and that she “just happened” to find stored in her basement in brand-new packaging from Target. “But you hold on to it for now. It’s only twenty acres, and given how decrepit the old mansion is and that you’re in the middle of nowhere, the taxes are a pittance. Trust me. You won’t get much of anything if you sell, and you’ll always regret it. You’ve got a family history here, as dark as it might be, and you can’t walk away from that.”
All they had to do was pay for electrical service, which they mostly did, and not freeze to death, which was sometimes touch-and-go. It wasn’t much of a cabin, and Billy couldn’t imagine a meaner place to develop an idea as beautiful as what they’d been trying to code, but for twenty-three months, it had been their home, their headquarters. They’d slept on camping pads, in secondhand sleeping bags and under blankets they bought from Goodwill or that Shawn’s aunt brought them. They cooked on the woodstove and took shits in the woods, in an outhouse that didn’t have a door: they’d taken it off to use as a desktop. “For shit’s sake,” Billy had loved to say, “our desk is an outhouse door!”
Shawn shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was then,” he said. “The two of us working together in that cabin.”
“Three,” Billy said. The word just escaped from his lips. He hadn’t meant to say it.
“The three of us.”
He didn’t say the name.
There’d been three of them. Shawn and Billy and Takata. He’d wanted to forget. Or maybe he had forgotten. It was like the echo of a sound that he could almost hear. Takata. How had he buried that so deeply in his memory?
There’d been three of them until, one day, there were only two of them. And from that day on, things had gotten worse; to go outside at night was to feel the mansion breathing in and out and glaring down at them. It was as if what they’d done had flipped some sort of switch. The mansion and the grounds turned from simply scary to something malevolent: blood calling for blood. And yet they didn’t talk about Takata. The thing with Takata had come well before they’d even met Emily, well before Billy and Shawn had their falling out, well before Billy had heard Shawn say, as Billy walked away with Emily, “I guess you get the girl.”
Shawn stared hard at Billy, and Billy remembered something he’d read in an interview once. Shawn had been asked about a deal Eagle Technology had made with a supplier in Indonesia, a deal so advantageous to Eagle Technology that the supplier went out of business in a matter of months. “You don’t build a company like Eagle Technology by being the nicest guy in the room,” Shawn said to the woman interviewing him. And when Billy read it, he’d thought it was just another one of those glib things that Shawn had learned to say, just part of the polish of being Mr. Hot Shit CEO and on People magazine’s list of men who could get a blow job in an elevator any day of the week, but right at that moment, with Shawn staring at him, Billy felt cold. He felt like he had on those winter mornings in the cabin in the woods outside Whiskey Run, when the snow was piled up so high on the roof that the entire cabin creaked with every shift of the wind, when the metal of the woodstove screamed like a soul being torn from the body as the first fire of morning turned the newspaper and kindling into the promise of a better day. On those winter mornings, he’d wake up from the cold. He would sleep in so many pants and shirts and socks that he could barely move, a five-dollar sausage in a fifty-cent casing. Still, he woke up with his teeth chattering, his wispy
adolescent beard covered in a rime of frost, and he’d think it was possible that he’d never be warm again. That’s what it felt like having Shawn stare at him right now.
“Do you really want to talk about that,” Shawn said. “Do you really want to talk about”—he bit down on the name like his life depended on it, like it was a struggle to get out, like he hadn’t uttered it in years and years—“Takata?”
Billy thought he heard a sound behind him. The haunting echo of footsteps in a corridor. The ghostly brush of linen. He looked over his shoulder, expecting to see Wendy coming into the room with another Diet Coke for him, or an espresso for Shawn, her skirt making that soft kissing sound. But there was nobody there. Nobody behind him. Shawn’s office was large enough to have easily held a hundred people, but it was just the two of them. Just him and Shawn. Only them. Empty.
“I didn’t think you wanted to talk about it,” Shawn said. He walked across the thick rug and sat on the other couch so that he was at an angle from Billy. The coffee table was made of metal. Gold-infused titanium, Billy realized. Eagle Titanium. Jesus. It was like Shawn had designed the office as a shrine to himself, Billy thought. Shawn swung his feet up onto the coffee table and laced his hands behind his head. “Besides, that’s not why I brought you here.”
Suddenly, Billy was tired of it all. He wasn’t angry anymore. Just tired. “Why am I here, Shawn? Can we get it over with so that I can go home to my shitty job and my shitty life and my shitty apartment?”
“And Emily? So you can get home to Emily, too?”
Billy hesitated. And Emily. He wasn’t sure where she fell in the scheme of things. He’d known once, but not anymore. He didn’t know where his relationship with Emily stood on the ledger sheet. How far in the red had that balance gone? His marriage was like his credit cards: he’d spent more than he’d ever be able to pay off. He still loved Emily. Immensely. He hated admitting it, even to himself, but he would never have gotten sober if not for her, and the worst thing he could think of was her leaving him. Again. Leaving him again. For good this time. But that was none of Shawn’s business. Billy looked at
Shawn squarely and said, with a confidence he didn’t feel, “And Emily, of course. Don’t be a dick.”
“Up front, I should say this: I’m not over it. I’m still angry about what happened with Emily.”
“You got Eagle Logic. Things turned out just fine for you. Don’t complain to me about who ended up with Emily.”
Shawn stared at him. It was probably for only a few seconds, but it felt longer.
“I want to offer you a job,” Shawn said. He fidgeted and waved his hand a little. “I don’t want to make it sound like something it’s not. I want to be clear that it’s something off the books. But if it works out, it could be really lucrative.”
“We both know that you couldn’t hire me to work for Eagle Technology, even if you wanted to. Even if I wanted to. I’m radioactive, Shawn. Let’s not pretend we don’t both know it.” And it was true. So many reasons. A sexual harassment lawsuit that was completely unfounded but which he hadn’t had the energy to fight. Two assault charges, both of which were, admittedly, deserved, and both of which had left him within a hair’s breadth of jail time. And at his last programming job, sheer incompetence. He’d been a drunk and frequently snorting coke when those things happened, but it didn’t matter. Those were only the headlines. There was more stuff, too, plus the lawsuit that followed him around. There were only so many chances a man could have. Billy had used them all.
“Don’t underestimate what I can do, Billy. I am Eagle Technology,” Shawn said, and for a moment, Billy saw himself leaping off the couch, smashing Shawn in the face, and then wrapping his hands around the bastard’s throat and squeezing until he could feel the cartilage snap and pop so that Shawn never breathed again. Maybe Shawn saw it, too, because he rushed to the next words. “But that’s neither here nor there. I’ve got a lot of latitude, and you won’t be working at the main campus. Again, I’m telling you, it’s a project that isn’t on the books. Oh, there will be a contract and everything. It’s a real job. Advantageous terms for you, with a very generous compensation package. But you’ll be working directly for me, in a personal capacity.
You won’t be working for Eagle Technology. The board won’t know about it.”
“I’ll be working for you? In a personal capacity?”
Shawn nodded. “I know. I get it. It’s never going to be the same as it was back when we were at the old cabin, when we were working together. When we were partners. Too much history there. Okay? But hear me out. I want to make things whole.”
“You want to make things whole?” Billy heard how he sounded, echoing Shawn like a parrot. His voice broken in the same way that he felt broken, and once again, he came back to the idea that what he wanted, at this very moment, was to punch Shawn in the face.
Shawn stood back up, and for a moment Billy thought it was because he had seen something in Billy’s eyes and was scared. But no. It was only so that Shawn could walk over to the bar cart and pour himself a belt of vodka.
“I want to do it right this time. I want to hire you—and Emily—to live in Whiskey Run. Past Whiskey Run. Right where it all started. I fixed up the old mansion,” Shawn said. “I want you to go back to where it all began.”