"The story is gripping as anything, and the characters are likable and funny and charming. I adore caper stories, and this stands with the best of them, a geeky version of The Sting." —Cory Doctorow, co-editor, BoingBoing, best-selling sci-fi author.
In return for Chloe's help, Paul agrees to create counterfeit comic books for one of her crew's criminal schemes. In the process he falls in for their fun loving, drug fueled "off the grid" lifestyle almost as fast as he falls head over heels for Chloe. Wary of the Crew's darker side, but eager to impress both the girl and the gang, Paul uses his game design expertise to invent a masterful con of his own. If all goes according to plan, it will be one for the ages. But can he trust any of them, or is he the one who's really being conned?
Inspired by author Rick Dakan's own eventful experiences in the videogame and comic book industries, Geek Mafia, satisfies the hunger in all of us to buck the system, take revenge on corporate America, and live a life of excitement and adventure.
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By Rick Dakan
PM PressCopyright © 2008 Rick Dakan
All rights reserved.
Paul Reynolds crisscrossed his sketchbook with furious strokes, filling the pages with images of the vengeance he would take on his former co-workers at Fear and Loading Games. He'd founded the company three years back, and, just a few hours ago, his partners and erstwhile friends had fired him without cause or warning. He concentrated hard as his pen brought to life demonic figures from one of the best-selling comics he'd created, scythe-wielding cyber-men called Myrmidons who tore into surprised computer programmers with fangs and claws. Elsewhere on the page, computers assembled themselves into 21st-century Golems, rising up against traitorous CEOs and producers to crush them to bloody pulp as they cowered beneath their desks. Sitting at the bar in Señor Goldstein's Mexican Restaurant in San Jose, California, Paul's own artwork engaged him for the first time in months, maybe years. Under other circumstances, that would have made him happy. But today's circumstances allowed only two emotions: despair and a burning desire for revenge. Not wanting to succumb to the former, and not quite wanting to find a gun and go back to the office, he instead drew.
He had turned to a fresh page and begun to sketch his most elaborate revenge-scheme yet when a woman walked into his line of vision. There were four or five other women in the restaurant already (most of them employees), but this one stood out. This one would've stood out anywhere. Her hair, cut short and spiky, was dyed a magenta so bright it nearly glowed. She wore a tight black t-shirt, baggy olive drab shorts that hung on shapely hips, and heavy black boots with two-inch thick soles. She had a faded black messenger bag slung across her chest, the strap pressing between her breasts. If Paul had to guess, she wasn't wearing a bra. She definitely wasn't your average Silicon Valley techie on an early lunch break, and certainly not a restaurant employee.
Grateful for the distraction, Paul focused on the newcomer, chilling his anger for a moment with a swift sip of margarita and melted ice. He ran a hand through his fine brown hair, brushed a few wrinkles out of his Green Lantern t-shirt, and sucked in his bit of beer belly before he turned back to the sketchbook and kept drawing. He didn't care what his pen pushed onto the page as long as he looked busy. As far as Paul was concerned, a sad man sitting at a bar before noon was not someone with whom striking young women with ruby hair engaged in random conversation. However, as past experience in many a coffee house and dive bar had taught him, a scruffy artist sketching away when normal folks should be working often attracted all kinds of interesting attention. And so, he sketched.
"I'm here to speak with the manager," the woman said to the bartender.
"Yeah, he's here," the bartender replied and skulked off to find the boss.
The girl leaned forward onto the bar, drumming a random beat on the wood with her knuckles while she looked around the room. Paul, who'd been watching out of the corner of his eye, took the noise as an excuse to glance over at her. She was looking right back at him, smiling.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey," he replied. He gave a smile, but inside he was suddenly embarrassed by the attention. He didn't want to hit on girls. He wanted to get drunk and figure out if there was any way he could avoid his looming fate. But he hadn't dated anyone in over a year, and some urges — and some women — refused to be ignored.
"What're you working on there?" she asked.
"Oh, just doodling you know," he said as he looked down at the page. He'd sketched the outline of a hydra-like monster with five heads and ten tentacles. Four of the heads were laughing as the tentacles strangled the fifth. "I'm a ... I'm a comic-book artist."
Was that true? Was he no longer a videogame designer then, just like that?
"Really? Very cool."
"But tell me something," she said as she came over and claimed the bar stool next to his. She smelled like soap and shampoo, clean and fresh. "Are you really a comic-book artist or are you, like, a comic-book artist in waiting?"
"You know, you meet guys all the time in bars or Starbucks or wherever who carry around their notebooks and sketchpads and say they're writers or artists. But really they're waiters or clerks or something." She paused to put a reassuring hand on his forearm. Her touch was warm and the feel of her flesh gave him a little internal twitch of arousal. "Not that there's anything wrong with that or anything. I'm all kinds of things in my head that I'm not actually in real life."
"No, no, I'm the real deal. I'm even published. Hell, I used to even get paid decent money for doing it."
"But not anymore?"
"Well no. I've moved up in the world, or at least my paycheck has."
"Sold out, huh?"
"Sold out, yeah. I left comics a few years ago and helped start a computer game company. I've been the lead designer on a game called Metropolis 2.0." He rubbed the tattoo on his arm, the company logo as he had designed it. Back in his apartment, Paul still had that first sketchbook from five years back when he'd scribbled those early doodles. Doodles that grew into the forthcoming online computer game that PC Gamer magazine had hailed as "the most anticipated release of next year." By contrast, his personal anticipation for the game had taken a precipitous nosedive in the last few hours.
She nodded in approval. "Very cool. Is it out yet?"
"Not yet. Comes out in August."
"So tell me something else ..." she started to say, but just then the bartender returned, interrupting her thought.
"I'm sorry, the manager's at the bank or something," the bartender said. "Do you want to leave a message?"
The pink-haired woman eyed the bartender for a moment and then looked back at Paul and winked. "How long do you think he'll be?"
"I dunno, fifteen minutes maybe? He should be back before the lunch rush."
"Ok, I'll wait for him." The bartender nodded and started to turn away, but she reached across the bar and tugged on his sleeve. "While I'm waiting, can I have a shot of Sauza and another margarita for my friend here?" She eyed Paul once more. Again, the wink. "Make that two margaritas and two shots. I've got to catch up."
Now she turned back to Paul, who had to admit that an already bizarre day had suddenly taken a strange new twist — but at least it was finally turning in the right direction. "Ok, so what were we talking about?" she asked.
"You wanted me to tell you something."
"Oh yeah! Right, I got it now. So," she said again, "Tell me something. Why did you say you're a comic book artist when you're a computer game designer? I mean, these days that's just as cool as being an artist, maybe cooler 'cause it means you probably actually make a decent living and can buy a girl a drink."
Paul looked down at his hydra sketch, a monster attacking itself. "Well, I guess because I've just been told I'm going to be fired tomorrow."
"Oh, yeah, well, that sucks. Good thing I'm buying this round of drinks then, huh? Even a better thing that I ordered those shots." She reached into her shorts' pocket and pulled out a weather-beaten black leather wallet. Paul caught a glimpse of red panties as the weight of her hand in her pocket pushed her shorts off their perch on her hip. "Speaking of which, here's my man now."
The bartender had arrived with the drinks. He spread them out before Paul and his new friend — a shot and a margarita each, saying "Sixteen dollars even." She pulled out a twenty and handed it to him and then picked up both shot glasses, giving one to Paul.
"Here's to getting fired and fuck the fucks who swung the axe."
"I'll drink to that," said Paul, and he did in one fiery gulp. He surprised himself by not coughing and sputtering as the liquor burned its way down his throat. He chased it with a sip of his margarita and then said, "But enough about that shit," anger and sadness blooming again, despite the pretty girl. Time to change the subject. "What're you here for, looking for a job?"
She made an utterly dismissive noise in the back of her throat. "Hardly. No, I'm here to make a deal." She opened up her shoulder bag and drew out a pair of small plastic figurines. They were little mariachi performers, with guitars. "Novelty salt and pepper shakers," she said. "They're all the rage with the jet set this season."
"You sell those?" Paul asked, surprised.
"Something like that," she replied with a smirk and took another sip of her drink. She quickly wiped her hand off on her shorts and then held it out to Paul. "Hi, by the way, I'm Chloe."
"Paul," he said, shaking her hand and looking her in the eyes for the first time. Deep green. She smiled back at him, full of enthusiasm. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you too, Paul. Go ahead and keep the little guys." She gestured to the figurines. "Think of them as my gift to you. May they keep you company in whatever your new endeavor might be." She raised a toast and they clinked glasses and drank.
Paul smiled — his first genuine smile all day if memory served. "I'm honored. Thanks." The two of them took the awkward moment of silence that followed to continue sipping. "So," he finally said, "What're you and your micro-mariachis doing here?"
Chloe put her drink down and said, "Oh, we're just out for a stroll, taking in the sights. No, actually I'm hoping the restaurant will let me put 'em on the tables for a day. I'm doing market research for the company that makes them. See if people think they're cute or annoying."
"How're they doing so far?"
"So far so good actually." Something over Paul's shoulder caught her attention as she spoke and her gaze drifted toward the front door. "This is my last stop before I take a break for lunch. And if I'm not mistaken, the guy I need to speak with just walked in the door. Will you excuse me a minute?"
"Watch my drink. Actually, order us another round." Chloe stalked across the restaurant to intercept the manager. Paul's gaze followed her as she walked and he decided pretty much right then and there that he was smitten. She seemed perfect, and he couldn't wait to find out how, as would undoubtedly be the case, she wasn't actually perfect at all. For now though, Paul ordered another round of drinks and watched her chat with the manager. He seemed dubious at first, in a hurry to get ready for the noonday rush. But she charmed him over quick, and then handed him a pair of shakers to look at. He smiled a few times and laughed loud enough for Paul to hear from across the room when she pointed to some apparently funny idiosyncrasy about the pepper mariachi. They chatted a few more minutes before shaking hands and parting ways with a smile.
She stopped midway between the manager and the bar and pulled a cell phone from her pocket. She moved it about the room trying to get a signal and then dialed it. She talked for a few minutes and shut the phone before coming back over to Paul, dusting her hands in the universal sign of accomplishment. "Done and done."
"Good work. He seemed to go for it pretty quick," said Paul.
"Oh, the guys are always easy, especially restaurant managers. They usually don't give a damn. As long as he's not a slave to some corporate overlord who decides decor or some crazy shit like that, then it's usually cool." She sat back down next to him again and downed the last of her drink just as the next round arrived. "Actually, he claimed to have remembered me from somewhere — although he didn't know where. Whatever. He said yes, and that's all the matters."
"You are pretty memorable."
"You think so? I dunno, maybe you're right."
"Trust me, you definitely make a memorable first impression."
She raised her glass to toast him. "Yep, that's what your mom said last night anyway."
"Really," Paul said, feigning indignity, "Wow, I can't believe my mom said that." He paused for dramatic effect. "After all, she was so tired after working your mom over, she said she fell right asleep when she got home."
Chloe laughed, more because Paul had played back at her than because what he said was funny. She adopted a British accent for a moment. "Well played, old chap, well played." Then, voice back to normal, "You're all right, Paul. Most people wouldn't pull the mom card that fast. Especially if they knew me and knew my mom died of breast cancer last year."
Paul was horror stricken. Was she serious? She couldn't be serious right? He started to apologize. "Oh, that's ... I'm sorry. I ..."
"I'm just fuckin' with you, kiddo," she said, laughing. "No worries. Mom's fine and livin' large in the suburbs."
Paul laughed along with her, although his had a tinge of nervousness that he tried to conceal. Who the hell was this woman? Still, he'd decided he officially had a crush on her now, and he wasn't about to let a bizarre sense of humor dissuade him from a much-needed distraction. So what if she made jokes about her mom dying of cancer? At least she was making them to him.
"You know, Chloe, you've got a pretty fucked up sense of humor," Paul said. "I like that in a woman."
"Hold your horses there, sport. Let's not get into what you like inside women yet — we just met after all." This sudden sexual spin on his comment conjured up a couple of graphic images he couldn't have ignored even if he'd wanted to, which he didn't.
Chloe stared at Paul for a long moment with something he hoped was attraction, or at least interest. Then her phone buzzed and she looked briefly at the display screen before turning her gaze back on him. "Paul, have you had lunch yet?" she asked.
"No, not yet," he said, liking the direction things were headed now.
"Well, I skipped breakfast and, quite frankly, I'm feelin' a bit more buzz from these drinks than I'd expected. I need to get some food in me."
"You want to get a table?" Paul asked, motioning toward the restaurant section.
Chloe dropped a wad of bills on the bar as she stood up. "This place? No fucking way. It's over-priced, under-spiced slop." She walked right past Paul toward the door, and he struggled to sweep up his sketchbook and belongings as he followed her.
"We're going to my place."CHAPTER 2
Chloe's house reminded Paul of a cross between a used bookstore, a computer repair shop and a college dorm. A wall of bookcases dominated the living room, each shelf crammed with two, sometimes three layers of books, videotapes, CDs and DVDs. More stacks of books and magazines stood in every corner. Paul was certain they would have taken over all the other flat spaces as well, were it not for the half-assembled computers and three dusty old monitors occupying the coffee table, end tables and everything in between. The only semi-open spaces were around the two couches that faced each other from across the room. A large red-and-black checkered blanket covered one of them, while the other was cracked but still serviceable brown leather. Thrift store purchases both, Paul thought.
"The computer stuff belongs to one of my roommates," Chloe said. "She's always fiddling with those things to get better performance or whatever. The books are mostly mine or my other roommate, Kurt's. Come on into the kitchen and we'll rustle up a sandwich."
Paul followed her back into the open kitchen area, which (given that he was ostensibly here to have lunch) he was relieved to see was clean. There was clutter in there certainly, but no dirty dishes or leftover foodstuffs appeared in evidence. Along the left wall was a cheap, plastic patio table with long wooden benches on each side and miss-matched chairs at either end. Newspapers, books and a laptop occupied most of its surface area, but the end closest to Paul seemed clear enough to see actual use as a place for dining.
"Is peanut butter OK?" she asked, motioning him toward one of the chairs.
"Sure," he said and sat down at the table. As she started to prepare a couple of peanut butter sandwiches on white bread she said asked, "So, tell me Paul, why are you getting fired tomorrow?"
"I'm not really entirely sure," he replied, although this was a stalling tactic. He knew pretty well why he was getting fired; he just didn't quite know how to put it into words. It'd only been a couple of hours since his high-school friend and CEO had told him what was happening. "I mean, they gave me reasons, but they're not really reasons. They're not things I did wrong."
"What does that mean? They didn't like your looks?"
Excerpted from Geek Mafia by Rick Dakan. Copyright © 2008 Rick Dakan. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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