The last thing Richard Hilzoy thought before
the bullet entered his brain was, Things are really looking
He was on his way to the Silicon Valley offices of his lawyer,
Alex Treven, who had arranged a meeting with Kleiner Perkins, the
Midases of venture capital who could increase a company’s
value a hundredfold just by offering to invest. And now Kleiner was
considering writing a check to him, Richard Hilzoy,
genius, inventor of Obsidian, the world’s most advanced
encryption algorithm, destined to render all other network security
software obsolete. Alex had already applied for the patent, and if
things worked out with the VCs, Hilzoy would be able to rent office
space, buy equipment, hire staff --- everything he needed to finish
commercializing the product and bring it online. In a few years he
would take the company public, and his shares would be worth a
fortune. Or he’d stay private, and become to security
software what Dolby was to sound, raking in billions in licensing
revenues. Or Google would buy him --- they were into everything
these days. The main thing was, he was going to be rich.
And he deserved it. Working for chump change in an Oracle
research laboratory, drinking Red Bull after Red Bull late at night
and shivering in the deserted company parking lot for tobacco
breaks, en- during the taunts and laughter he knew went on behind
his back. Last year his wife had divorced him, and boy was the
bitch ever going to be sorry now. If she’d had any brains
she’d have waited until he was rolling in money and then
tried to shake him down. But she’d never believed in him, and
neither had anyone else. Except Alex.
He walked down the cracked exterior steps of his San Jose
apartment building, squinting against the brilliant morning sun. He
could hear the roar of rush hour traffic on Interstate 280 half a
block away --- the whoosh, whoosh of individual cars,
trucks grinding gears as they pulled on from the entrance ramp at
South Tenth Street, the occasional angry honk --- and for once,
having to live like this, right on top of the freeway, didn’t
bother him. Even the cheap bicycles and rusting barbecues and
stained plastic garbage containers crammed together against the
side of the adjacent building didn’t bother him, nor did the
reek the autumn breeze carried from the overflowing parking lot
Because Alex was going to get him out of this sewer hole. Oracle
was a client of Alex’s firm, and Hilzoy was Alex’s
contact on patents there. Hilzoy hadn’t been overly impressed
initially. He’d taken one look at Alex’s blond hair and
green eyes and figured him for just another pretty boy --- rich
parents, the right schools, the usual. But he’d recognized
soon enough that Alex knew his shit. Turned out he wasn’t
just a lawyer, but had degrees from Stanford, too --- undergraduate
in electrical engineering, same as Hilzoy, and a Ph.D. in computer
science. He knew at least as much programming as Hilzoy, maybe
more. So when Hilzoy had finally worked up the nerve to pull him
aside and ask about patenting Obsidian, Alex had gotten it right
away. Not only had he deferred his fees, he’d introduced
Hilzoy to a group of angel investors who had put in enough money
for Hilzoy to quit his day job and buy the equipment he needed. And
now he was poised to take money from the biggest swinging dicks of
all. All in the space of a single year. Unbelievable. Of course,
there were aspects of Obsidian that the VCs might not like if they
knew about them. They might even have found them scary. But they
wouldn’t know, because there was no reason to tell them. Ob-
sidian could protect networks, and there wasn’t a Fortune 500
company out there that wouldn’t pay out the wazoo for that.
That’s what VCs understood. The rest... well, that would all
just be his little secret, a kind of insurance policy to fall back
on if Obsidian’s intended uses weren’t enough to
command the proper sums.
He looked at his watch. He was nervous about the meeting. But
there was time enough for a cigarette; that would calm him down. He
stopped at the bottom of the stairs and fired one up. He took a
deep drag, then put the pack and the lighter back in his pocket.
There was a white van parked next to his car, an’88 Buick
Regency he’d bought after selling his Audi during the
divorce. humane pest control, the van said. He’d noticed it
here, what, three times in the last week? Four? He’d seen a
rat once, under the Dumpster. And there were roaches. Somebody must
have made a stink with building management, and now the idiots were
trying to show they were doing something about it. Whatever. Pretty
soon that would all be someone else’s problem.
There were some scares along the way, existing inventions Alex
was concerned might prevent them from getting a patent. And
something about a possible secrecy order from the government, which
could slow things down. But so far Alex had always found a way
around the problems. The patent hadn’t been issued yet, but
the application itself was bankable.
Hilzoy had been worried at first about describing the source
code in the patent application because anyone who got hold of it
would know the recipe for Obsidian, but Alex had assured him the
Patent and Trademark Office maintained all applications in strict
confidence for eighteen months, at which point they’d have a
good idea about whether a patent would be forthcoming. And once the
patent was issued, it wouldn’t matter whether people knew the
recipe or not --- they couldn’t use it without paying him the
big bucks. And if they tried to, Alex would sue them into the
ground. That’s right, people, you want to play, you got to
pay. He paused in front of the Buick and got out his keys. What a
piece of crap. It had over a hundred thousand miles on it and every
one of them showed. It was the kind of car you could piss all over
and no one would even notice. A Mercedes, he thought, not for the
first time. Or maybe a BMW. Black, a convertible. He’d have
it detailed four times a year so it would always look new.
The pest control guy got out of the van. He was wearing a
baseball cap, coveralls, and gloves. He nodded to Hilzoy through a
pair of shades and moved past him. Hilzoy nodded back, glad he
didn’t have to kill rats for a living.
He took a drag on the cigarette, then tossed it away, enjoying
the feeling of wasting it. He blew the smoke up at the sky and
unlocked the car door. Yeah, baby, he thought. Oh yeah. Things are
really looking up.
Alex Treven was pacing in his office at the law
firm of Sullivan, Greenwald, Priest & Savage. Outside the
window was an expanse of hard blue sky and the gentle curves of the
Palo Alto hills below it, but Alex was oblivious to the view. It
took him five steps to reach one sun-dappled wall, where he would
stop, pivot, and repeat the process in the other direction. He
counted steps, imagining he was wearing down a path in the green
carpet, trying to distract himself with trivia.
Alex was pissed. Hilzoy, who ordinarily was even more punctual
than Alex, had picked today of all days to be late. They were going
to see Tim Nicholson --- Tim frigging Nicholson! --- and the
Kleiner partner wasn’t going to be impressed if Hilzoy
couldn’t make a first meeting on time. And it wasn’t
going to make Alex look good, either.
He checked his watch. Well, they still had thirty minutes.
Hilzoy was supposed to get here an hour early for a last rehearsal
of the pitch and some role-playing, but they could dispense with
all that if they had to. Still, where the hell was he?
His secretary, Alisa, opened the door. Alex stopped and fixed
his eyes on her, and she flinched. “I’ve called him at
least twenty times,” she said. “All I get is his voice
Alex resisted the urge to shout. This wasn’t her
“Go to his apartment,” he said. “See if you
can find him there. South Tenth Street in San Jose. I forget the
exact address, but it’s in his file. Keep trying him on the
way and call me when you arrive. We’ve still got a little
time before I have to cancel the meeting and we look like
“What do you---”
“I don’t know. Just call me as soon as you get
Alisa nodded and closed the door. Alex returned to his
God, don’t let him screw this up, he thought.
I’ve got so much riding on it.
Alex was a sixth-year associate at Sullivan, Greenwald, getting
close to that delicate “up or out” stage of his career.
It wasn’t as though anyone was going to let him go; his blend
of science and patent law expertise was too unusual, and too
valuable to the firm, for him to ever have to worry about
unemployment. No, the problem was much more insidious: the
firm’s partnership liked him exactly where he was, and wanted
to keep him there. So in another year, two at the most,
they’d start talking to him about the benefits of an
“of counsel” position, the money, the seniority, the
flexible hours and job security.
It was all bullshit to him. He didn’t want security; he
wanted power. And power at Sullivan, Greenwald, he knew, came only
with your own client base, your own book of business. If you
couldn’t eat what you killed, you’d always be dependent
on the scraps from someone else’s table. That might have been
fine for other associates. But it would never be enough for
Which was why Hilzoy was so damned valuable. Alex had grasped
the potential of Obsidian in a way he knew few other people could
--- not from Hilzoy’s pitch, but by actually getting under
the hood and examining the fundamental design. It had taken
maneuvering, and a level of political skills he didn’t even
know he had, to convince the partners both to defer the
firm’s fees and to list Alex as the originating attorney.
Behind their Bay Area casual attire and the first-name basis with
the secretaries and paralegals, these guys were all sharks. When
they smelled blood in the water, they wanted the kill for
Alex’s mentor was a partner named David Osborne, a shrewd
lawyer but with no formal tech background of his own. Over the
years, the strategic patent-counseling side of his practice had
grown increasingly dependent on Alex’s technical acumen. He
made sure Alex’s twiceyearly bonuses were the highest the
firm could give, but in front of the clients he always managed to
take credit for Alex’s own insights. He put on a confident
show in his trademark cowboy boots and fuchsia T-shirts, but
inside, Alex knew, Osborne felt threatened by people he suspected
had more potential than he. So despite the periodic noises he made
about backing Alex for partner “when the time was
right,” Alex had come to believe that time would never come.
Partnership wasn’t something they gave you, Alex had decided.
It was something you had to take.
So after several secret meetings with Hilzoy to ensure that he
really did own the Obsidian technology, or at least that no one
could prove otherwise, Alex had taken a deep breath and walked down
the short stretch of expensively carpeted corridor that separated
his mediumsized senior associate’s office from
Osborne’s gigantic partner’s version. Both offices were
in the main building, the massive round structure the partners
liked to refer to as the Rotunda but that was better known among
the associates as the Death Star. An office in the Death Star
rather than in one of the two satellite buildings conferred a
certain degree of status --- the kind of thing that mattered a
great deal to Osborne and, Alex had to admit, to himself, too ---
as well as putting its occupant at the geographical center of the
Outside Osborne’s door, he had paused to collect himself
in front of the massive wall display of Lucite tombstones
commemorating work done for Cisco, eBay, Google, and a hundred
others. There were framed photos of Osborne with various Valley
luminaries, with the celebrity CEO of a major telecom Osborne had
recently landed as a client in a major coup, and even one with the
prime minister of Thailand, where Osborne traveled three or four
times a year to work the project-finance practice he had developed
there. Alex tried not to think of the kind of power and influence a
person would accrue in doing all those deals and knowing all those
players. The trick was to convince yourself of the opposite ---
that the person you were about to face in negotiations was beneath
you, needed you far more than you needed him --- and Alex knew the
tombstones and photographs were as much about causing people to
flinch and abandon negotiating positions as they were about
He had psyched himself up, gone in, and made the pitch. The
balance was delicate --- it had to sound interesting enough to make
Osborne want to say yes, but not so interesting that he’d be
tempted to try to claim the origination for himself. After all, if
this went well, the patent would be just the beginning. It would
also involve a ton of corporate work, and that was Osborne’s
specialty more than it was Alex’s. When Alex was done,
Osborne leaned back in his chair and put his cowboy boots up on the
desk. He scratched his crotch absently. The relaxed manner made
Alex nervous. It felt like a feint. He knew that behind it, Osborne
was already calculating.
“What’s my client going to say about this?”
Osborne asked after a moment, in his nasal voice.
Alex shrugged. “What can they say? The invention
doesn’t have anything to do with Oracle’s core business
or with Hilzoy’s day-to-day responsibilities there.
I’ve already checked the employment contract. Oracle
doesn’t have any claims.”
“He invented it at home, on his own time, using his own
equipment. We’re okay optically, too.”
Osborne smiled slightly. “You did your
“I learned from the best,” Alex said, and then
immediately wished he hadn’t. Osborne would probably twist
the comment in his mind until it became You’ve taught me
so much, David. I owe you everything.
“Tell me how you met this guy,” Osborne said after a
“He called and asked if I could advise him about something
he was working on at home,” Alex said. He’d rehearsed
the lie so many times that he remembered it as though it had really
happened this way. “I met him at a Starbucks and he showed me
what he’d been doing. I thought it looked promising so I took
it from there.”
It wasn’t the answer Osborne had been hoping for, of
course. If Alex had told him the truth --- that he and Hilzoy had
first discussed Obsidian while Alex was at Oracle on firm business
--- it would have presented an opportunity for Osborne to make a
stronger But for me, this wouldn’t even have come to
you argument. Alex expected Osborne would probably check with
Hilzoy, discreetly, if he ever got a chance. But Alex had prepared
Hilzoy for this possibility. For both their sakes, the more this
thing seemed to have happened outside of Oracle and Sullivan,
Greenwald, the better.
“I don’t like it,” Osborne said. “The
client will say you met this guy through them. Even if they
don’t have a legal case, I’m not going to risk pissing
off a client like Oracle for something that’s pretty
small-time by comparison.”
“Come on, David, you know every company ever born in the
Valley at some point had a connection to a big established
corporation that was somebody’s client. It’s just the
way it works. And Oracle knows it, too.”
Osborne looked at him as though considering. Probably enjoying
the ability to take his time and make Alex squirm on the carpet
“Let me have this one, David,” Alex said, a little
surprised by the firmness of his tone.
Osborne spread his arms, palms up, as though this went without
question, as though he hadn’t spent every minute since this
conversation began looking for a way to freeze Alex out.
“Hey,” he said. “Who’s your
It wasn’t an answer, or at least not a definite one.
“Hilzoy is mine?” Alex said. “I’m the
“It seems fair.”
“Is that a yes?”
Osborne sighed. He swung his boots off the desk and leaned
forward as though he was ready to get back to whatever Alex had
interrupted. “Yes, it’s a yes.”
Alex permitted himself a small smile. The hard part was over.
Now for the really hard part.
“There’s just one thing,” Alex said.
Osborne raised his eyebrows, his expression doubtful.
“Hilzoy... went through a nasty divorce last year. He
doesn’t have any money.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Alex.”
“No, listen. He can’t afford our fees. But if we
incorporate him, take a piece of the company---”
“Do you know how hard it is to get the partnership
committee to go for that kind of speculative crap?”
“Sure, but they take your recommendations, don’t
This was a gambit Alex had learned in years of negotiating for
clients. When the other side pleaded that it wasn’t their
decision, that they had to check with the board or the management
committee or Aunt Bertha or whoever, you engaged their ego, and
then their desire to be consistent.
Osborne was too experienced to fall for it. “Not always,
“Well, this time they should. This technology has promise.
I’ve examined it personally, and you know I know better than
most. I’ll do all the work myself. Not instead of everything
I’m already doing. In addition to it.”
“Come on, Alex, you’re already on track to bill over
three thousand hours this year. You can’t---”
“Yes I can. You know I can. So what we’re talking
about is a percentage of something for the firm --- something that
could be big --- in exchange for effectively no investment. The
partnership committee won’t listen to you when you propose
Not if, when. Osborne didn’t respond, and Alex hoped he
hadn’t pushed it too hard. Osborne was probably wondering,
Why is he willing to sacrifice so much for something so
speculative? Is this thing going to be bigger than he’s
Alex tried again. “The committee listens to you,
Osborne smiled a little, maybe in grudging admiration of how
Alex had played his hand. “Sometimes,” he said.
“Then you’ll recommend it?”
Osborne rubbed his chin and looked at Alex as though he was
concerned for nothing but Alex’s welfare. “If you
really want me to. But you know, Alex, this is the first matter
you’ve ever originated” --- First one you’ve
ever let me originate, you mean --- “and if it
doesn’t pan out, you’re not going to look good.
It’ll show bad judgment.”
Bad judgment. At Sullivan, Greenwald it was the
ultimate, allpurpose opprobrium. Anything that went wrong, even if
it wasn’t the attorney’s fault, could be attributed to
bad judgment. Because if the attorney had good judgment, he would
have seen it coming no matter what. The bad thing wouldn’t
have happened on his watch. Alex didn’t respond, and Osborne
went on. “All I’m saying is, for a risk like this, you
want a margin for error, a cushion to fall back on.”
Alex was disgusted with the way Osborne presented all this as
though he were Alex’s best friend. He knew he was supposed to
say, You’re right, David. You take the origination.
Thanks for protecting me, man. You’re the best.
Instead he said, “I thought you were my
Osborne blinked. “Well, I am.”
Alex shrugged as though that decided it. “I couldn’t
ask for better protection than that.”
Osborne made a sound, half laugh, half grunt.
Alex took a step toward the door. “I’ll fill out the
new client form and a new matter form, run a conflicts
This was it. If Osborne was going to try to overrule him,
he’d have to say so now. If he didn’t, every day that
passed would create new facts on the ground that would be harder
and harder for Osborne to get around.
“If we’re not taking any fees,” Osborne said,
“I still have to take this
to the committee.”
“I know. But I feel confident they’ll listen to
you.” Alex looked at Osborne squarely. “This is
important to me, David.”
Unspoken, but clearly understood, was, So important that if
you screw me, I’ll be working at Weil, Gotshal next week, and
you can find someone else to make you sound as smart with your
clients as I do.
A beat went by. Osborne said, “I don’t want you
working on this by yourself.”
Alex hadn’t been expecting that and didn’t know what
it meant. Had he just won? Had Osborne caved? “What do you
mean?” he asked.
Osborne snorted. “Come on, hotshot. How are you going to
ride this to where you want it to take you if you don’t have
any associates working under you?”
Alex hadn’t thought about that. Mostly he worked alone. He
liked it that way.
“Look, it’s a little early---”
“Also,” Osborne said, “how are we going to
justify a big piece of this guy’s company if we’ve only
got one lawyer on it? We want him to know he’s being treated
Alex didn’t know whether to laugh or what. Osborne was
practically telling him to pad his time. But if this was what it
took for Osborne to feel he’d won a little victory in the
midst of the way Alex had played him, fine.
“I see what you mean,” Alex said.
“Use the Arab girl, the good-looking one. What’s her
Alex felt a little color creep into his cheeks and hoped Osborne
didn’t notice. “Sarah. Sarah Hosseini. She’s not
Arab. She’s Iranian. Persian.”
“You’ve worked with her before, right?”
“Once or twice.” Osborne looked at him. “Three
Christ, Osborne was no tech whiz, but when it came to who was
billing for what, he was all over it.
Alex scratched his cheek, hoping the gesture seemed nonchalant.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You said in your review she’s ‘unusually
confident and capable for a first-year.’”
The truth was, the description was an understatement.
“That sounds right.”
Alex shrugged. “She has a degree in information security
and forensics from Caltech.” He knew Osborne might sense a
mild put-down in this, but was annoyed enough not to care.
“Well, she’s not busy enough. Use her. Build a team.
Do you have a problem with that?”
Why was he pushing it this way? Would the extra lawyer give
Osborne a greater claim, maybe to supervise the work, start taking
it over, something like that?
Or was he just having fun, teasing Alex, forcing him to work
with Sarah because he knew ---
“No,” Alex said, cutting off the thought.
“There’s no problem.”
Osborne had pitched the partnership committee as promised about
taking on Hilzoy, and the committee had okayed the arrangement.
Osborne told him there had been opposition, but Alex suspected that
was bullshit. For all he knew, Osborne might not have needed to
pitch it at all. Maybe the committee loved this kind of shit ---
sure, get the associate to bill even more hours, while we keep the
profits if his work turns into anything. Maybe Osborne had just
positioned it as some Herculean task so Alex would feel in his debt
It didn’t matter. Alex didn’t owe anybody.
He’d gotten this far by himself. His parents were gone, his
sister was gone, his sole remaining family was his prick of an
older brother, Ben, who had caused everything and then run away to
the army after their father had... after he had died. Alex
hadn’t talked to Ben since their mother’s funeral,
eight years earlier. Even then, with nothing left but the two of
them, Ben wouldn’t say where he was or what he was doing. He
just showed up for the ceremony and left, leaving all the details
to Alex, just as he’d left Alex alone to care for their
mother during the last year and a half of her life. After
he’d finished the probate --- again, all by himself --- Alex
had sent Ben an e-mail explaining his share of the estate, which
was pretty big, as their father had done well and there were only
the two beneficiaries. Ben hadn’t even thanked him, just told
him to send the paperwork to an address at Fort Bragg, North
Carolina, saying he’d sign it when he could. For all Alex
knew, right now Ben was in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sometimes Alex
wondered whether he was even still alive. He didn’t care.
Either way he was never going to talk to him again.
Goddamn Hilzoy. Alex hated that he needed him, but he did.
Because if Obsidian was even half as successful as Alex expected it
to be, the seed money was going to be followed by a second, third,
maybe a fourth round of financing. After the acquisition or the
IPO, the firm’s share would be worth a fortune. And Hilzoy
would never forget who got him there. All the legal work afterward,
and all the billing for it, would be Alex’s and his alone.
His name would be indelibly linked with Obsidian, he would be the
lawyer who represented the hottest company of the year, maybe the
decade, and then the David Osbornes of the world would be begging
for the crumbs from his table.
Assuming Hilzoy hadn’t already blown it for them. Did he
understand just how busy these VCs were, how many proposals were
pitched at them every single day, how few they actually followed up
on? You get one shot for these people’s attention, Alex had
told him, just one shot. If Hilzoy screwed this up, Alex was going
to kill him.
Excerpted from FAULT LINE © Copyright 2011 by Barry Eisler.
Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights