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Excerpt from “Midnight in Silicon Alley” by Denise Hamilton, from Los Angeles Noir

(San Marino)

They caught up with Russell Chen as he drove home from work, running his Lexus off the frontage road by the gravel pits of Irwindale. There were four of them, wearing reflective sunglasses and trucker caps pulled low, and for one terrified moment Chen though they meant to jack the car, kill him, and throw his body on the gray mountains of slag.

When they shoved him into a black Lincoln with tinted windows, his sphincter almost let go with relief. Then fear throbbed anew as he considered the endgame. The bleakness of his situation mirrored the landscape: industrial parks rising like toadstools from the desecrated earth. Looking up to the rearview mirror, Chen watched his computer chip factory shrink to a snowball panorama, then disappear.

“The captured pigeon trembles with fright,” the man in the front passenger seat said in Chinese. He craned his head and laughed uproariously to see Chen squashed between two thugs wearing cheap ties and wool-blend jackets. One of the thugs held a gun to his ribs.

The laughing man was the boss. For weeks his people had shadowed Chen, watching him kiss his wife and children goodbye each morning, clocking his drive to work, what time he arrived. Children were good, they liked that and took note. In the evening they watched it all in reverse as Chen’s car left the parking slot that read, Reserved for CEO. The gang had their mole inside too, a low-level employee who kept to himself, ate Hunan takeout each day from the same strip-mall restaurant on Garvey Avenue, and gave his fortune cookie away because he already knew the score. The mole had sketched out the factory layout, marking the doors and the alarm system and explaining how many seconds they’d have to disable it. They had the map with them now, singed brown where ash from the mole’s cigarette had fallen as he drew.

Yes, the boss had been patient. And thorough. He knew all about the garden apartment in Arcadia where Chen stashed his mistress and their newborn son. But he’d been surprised to discover the brothel that Chen visited each Friday noon, tucked inside a tract home in South San Gabriel where the scorched lawn fought a losing battle against the sun and polyester lace curtains stayed permanently drawn. He knew because he’d dispatched a man to pay the fee and climb the stairs to the rooms where a sad-eyed Mainland teen sat behind every door, brushing her hair at a table and gargling with an industrial bottle of mouthwash she kept next to her Hong Kong magazines, baby wipes, K-Y jelly, and condoms.

An hour later, Mr. Chen would emerge, looking pensive and smoking a cigarette.

Greedy, greedy, the boss said, shaking his head.

On Friday afternoon, he handed out ties, jackets, and machine guns, and the gang, now camouflaged in business attire, set off with military precision. There were fourteen men and four cars in all—one to retrieve Chen, two for the factory, and one for the special errand.

Pulling up to Chen’s building, whose discreet sign said RIC Corporation, the men swarmed the entrances, overpowering the $9-per-hour guards and disabling the alarms, which were right where the mole had said. After taking everybody’s cell phones, they herded the workers into a room and set two men to guard them.

They ignored the offers of purses and wallets and laughed as the hostages’ confusion turned to panic. This gang was after different quarry—tiny silicon chips, an exquisitely negotiable tender on the magnitude of diamonds, gold bullion, heroin, C4, and enriched uranium. Lacking serial numbers, chips were untraceable and no law prohibited their flow across borders. Best of all, twenty million dollars’ worth fit neatly into a slim briefcase, with room left over for a passport, airline tickets, and a paperback novel. You could stroll right through security and onto a plane winging its way over the Pacific. Within sixteen hours, the chips would be swallowed up by the gray market that thrived in the alleys off Hong Kong’s hi-tech district. Silicon Alley, they called it. Eighteen more hours and the chips would circle the globe, coming to rest in Zurich and Johannesburg and even boomeranging back to California and the insatiable maw of Silicon Valley.

Except in this case, the chips weren’t in the locked metal cage where the mole had sworn they’d be. They relayed the news to the boss, who cursed but didn’t despair. This, too, was a contingency he’d planned for. In the black town car inching through rush-hour traffic along Interstate 10, the boss applied the screws to Chen.

“In your office, there is a safe built into the wall,” he said, watching Chen the way a butcher assesses a slab of meat. “We need the combination.”

For emphasis, cold metal nudged further into his ribs.

Chen shrunk away, but succeeded only in pressing against the meaty shoulder of the man to his left, who shifted and released a gust of garlicky body odor. How was it that garlic could savor food so divinely, yet be such an abomination when released through human pores, Chen wondered. This question hovered at the edge of his consciousness as he considered their demands. Chen was amazed he could hold both thoughts at the same time. What a supple organ the brain was. He hoped he would not lose control of his bowels.

An eternity passed as Chen considered his predicament. The prodding grew more insistent. Oxygen ebbed out of the car, making his chest tighten. Was this what a heart attack felt like? If he died, they’d never get the combination. It would be a fitting trick from a god he’d stopped believing in five minutes ago. No. He wouldn’t tell them. He’d be ruined, his family turned out. This was his biggest order yet, twenty million dollars’ worth of chips with a bonus for early delivery, and he was days away from completion. He’d gambled everything, even borrowed money from loan sharks to hire more workers. He’d clear $500,000 after paying everyone back, and the next order would bring his big payday. How could success be snatched from him now? Chen would rather die. If he sacrificed himself, his wife could take over. At least his children’s future would be assured—all of them. He had amended his will last month to reflect the birth of a male heir. His mistress Yashi hadn’t believed it until he’d shown her the papers. Chen had even left a generous gift for Mieux Mieux at the brothel. But in a secret chamber of his heart, he knew this fatalism about death was mere posturing, more worthy of a Peking Opera coloratura than a San Gabriel Valley businessman. Of course he wanted to live. How could it be otherwise?

The butt of a gun came down against his temple so hard he felt his brains slosh inside his skull. His head throbbed and something splashed off his brow and trickled down his upper lip. He stuck out his tongue and tasted warm salty liquid. Red tears, he thought. I am crying red tears. He raised a hand to probe the wound, but someone grabbed his arm and pinned to his side. Other hands tugged at his tie and he felt a ripple as it slid loose. Now his hands were shoved together and the tie, still warm from the heat of his body, was looped around his wrists and tightened.

His wife had given him that tie. It was silk. Some Italian designer whose name he couldn’t pronounce. Now it bound their love together, he thought. What he would do to save his family.

“The combination,” the boss repeated.

Again Chen shook his head, bracing for further blows. He hoped he’d pass out if they hit him again. In the meantime, he formulated a plan. He’d convince them to drive back to the factory and let him unlock the safe. In the moment when they relaxed their guard, he’d escape. Or call for help. Chen closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, knowing that his life hung by a filament not much thicker than the fiber optics that wrapped his beloved and lucrative circuits.

“Open your eyes,” a voice ordered.

Chen did and beheld a blurry photo, taken from a distance, of himself, his wife, and the two girls, at a park near their home in San Marino. Chic and perfectly coiffed even on the weekend, Leila wore a quilted pink warm-up suit and clapped her hands as the children rocked on a seesaw. Chen stood off to the side in blue jeans, a white polo shirt, and tasseled loafers, talking into a cell phone and frowning as he checked his watch. He remembered that day. An unseasonably warm Sunday in February. They’d eaten dim sum at a new place on Valley Boulevard and then, bellies full and relaxed, had given in to the girls’ pleas and taken them to the park.

“We have people inside your house,” the boss said, his voice the sibilant hiss of a snake that Chen had been told lurked in the arroyo, with diamonds on its back and rattles that sang as it struck.