Cost of Goods Sold: A Novel of Silicon Valley

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Series: Silicon Valley Quartet, Book 2
Release Date: June 2015
Author: Michael S. Malone
ISBN Hardcover: 978-1-941295-51-9
($22.95 USD)
ISBN Paperback: 978-1-941295-31-1
($13.95 USD)
ISBN eBook: 978-1-941295-32-8
($5.95 USD)
LCCN: 2015937591
Edited by: Sharon Smith
Cover Artist: Craig Jennion
Pages: 190

The saga of Validator Software and its Silicon Valley executive team continues in Cost of Goods Sold, moving onto a global stage in the second book of the Silicon Valley Quartet.

As the tech world threatens to slide into one of its regular bust cycles, Validator CEO Alison Prue decides to play a high-tech, high-risk game of chicken. While her faint-hearted competitors are hitting the brakes, Prue punches the accelerator at Validator in hopes of gaining market share—and profits.

The new strategy soon leads several of Validator’s senior executives to move beyond cutting corners to actual criminal conspiracy. Their plan puts particular strain on the company factory in China, where a young girl has left behind her country village and watched her dreams come true beyond anything she could imagine… until everything changes.

As Validator races towards the fate its executives have brought about, it may take the intervention of even more powerful forces to save the company.

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“Entertaining, informative, and filled with an insider’s knowledge of where the corporate bodies are buried (or should be).” —  Ron Hansen, author,  The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion

“Mike Malone captures the drama and the romance of Silicon Valley as only he could. His characters, while fictional, feel as if they walked right out of Sand Hill Road.” — Jeff Skoll, eBay founding president; chairman of Participant Media

“Malone has a grip on how Silicon Valley works that’s tighter than anyone I know. He manages to poke fun at the hyper-competitive valley without reducing its characters to cartoonish caricatures.” —Mike Cassidy, San Jose Mercury News

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From the day she could first remember, Zhou knew her parents wished she had never been born. She didn’t know why. Nor did she dare to ask. It wasn’t personal. In fact, her parents had always treated her with consideration, if not love. They seemed to understand that it wasn’t easy being the only girl child in the Valley—or within a day’s walk in any direction—and destined to be alone.

When they were all little, the boys would play with her. But the boys went off to the district school, and it wasn’t long before they had little to do with Zhou. She now spent her days helping her mother in the house with cooking, or joining her father out in the fields, planting, weeding, or harvesting the sesame plants that towered over her and waved their drooping white flowers in the wind.

In the winter, when the air was achingly cold and snow mottled the paths and the one dirt road through the Valley, Zhou and her father would bundle up with two or three coats and scarves and make their way out behind their cement brick house with its curved and mostly broken tile roof to a little wooden shed. There, her father would light some kindling in a tiny stove and set to work crushing the seeds into oil. The press was two small stone millwheels, with a spout cut into the bottom one, and a two-meter-long pole attached to the top. Zhou’s job was to use a scoop to feed the seeds into the center of the top wheel, and when the small bucket placed beneath the spout was full, to empty it into a stainless steel tank that stood outside the door.

She didn’t mind the work, especially because the little room was sometimes warmer than the house. But she dreaded that moment, about once every half hour, when the bucket was full. Her weary father would squat where he stopped, and it was her job to carry the load outside and dump it into the tank. The bucket was heavy when she was eight, not much less so when she was fifteen. She would carry it to the door, set it down on the dirt floor, open the door, and feel the shock of the cold wind. Then she would carry the bucket outside, setting it down again, closing the door quickly before her father shouted at her, then lug it over to the tank. The steel was cold enough to freeze her fingers and the lid rough enough to cut them. She would lift up the bucket, high as her shoulders when she was little, and pour the liquid—with the thick smell she had learned to hate—into the dark cavity.

Her father was as understanding as he could be. But there were days when the sleet blew through the cracks in the walls and the oil became as thick as honey in just the few steps from the door to the tank—and he would squat there beside the press, look at his daughter in disgust, and mutter that he had been a fool not to wait for a son. Twice as a little girl, Zhou had spilled the unwieldy bucket as she negotiated it out the door, and he had beaten her. Not for long, and not with much enthusiasm. When he was done, she was less hurt than ashamed. She never dropped the bucket again, even on days when she was sick and shaking with fever, or her hands were split open and bleeding.

Days, months, and years rolled into one another, and the little family grew accustomed to the demands of the seasons and the rhythms of daily life. They were not a particularly unhappy family, nor a happy one either. They knew their duties, and their world was safely small and rarely intruded upon by the outside world. In the spring and summer, after planting and before harvest, Zhou would have free hours from the farm work and she would help her mother by milking the cow or killing a chicken or climbing the trails up the sides of the Valley and gathering wood for the cooking fire and to store for the winter. Best of all, she would sit in the house with her mother and learn how to cook different kinds of breads, stews, and soups.

Unlike her father—who rarely said more than two words together, and those only a few times in a day—Zhou’s mother loved to talk, and especially to gossip about their neighbors and about important people in the big world outside the Valley. How she learned all of those things, Zhou never knew. She must learn them, she decided, on their monthly trips to market in the village on the far side of the Valley where it opened to the big world. Once the oil was sold, her father went go off to sit and smoke with a group of other old men, and her mother would disappear into the back room of a market where there was a loud television and an even louder group of women. Zhou would be given a small amount of money and a list of items to buy from the market stalls.

For her, these solo shopping expeditions, however brief, were the least welcome part of an otherwise exciting day. She was afraid of being cheated by the sharp-eyed tradespeople with their loud proclamations and insincere compliments. But worse were the young men who hung around the market, commenting on the passing women and sometimes grabbing their arms and trying to convince them to follow. She always tried to look out and stay away from these frightening young men, but sometimes they were right in front of one of the stalls at which she needed to shop. She learned to turn her head, ignore their compliments, and quickly walk away from their laughter.

There was one stall at which she always stopped, even when she didn’t need to buy one of their woven garlic strands. The girl who worked there was the only other teenaged girl she had ever seen. Her name was Minga, and she was stocky, with a wide grin and a voice like music, especially when she was talking a customer into buying her family’s produce. The two girls would talk—about their lives, their families, the boys they knew, anything they could stuff into ten minutes, all while Minga dealt with the occasional customer. Minga’s comments about her neighbors, her family, even the people passing them by were very funny, and Zhou would laugh as much in those few minutes as she would the rest of the month.

Minga had a brother who looked a couple years older than she was, and was thus perhaps three years older than Zhou. He worked behind the stall, unloading the wagon during its three trips to the town each market day and bringing the boxes of goods up to the front display of the stall. He was tall and thin, and Zhou thought him very handsome, but, like her, very shy. Once she caught him looking at her—but both of them quickly glanced away.

“Ignore him,” said Minga.

“Why?” asked Zhou.

“Because he’s a fool. He’s too shy to talk to customers, much less girls. That’s why I’m up here. I’m not afraid of anybody.”

“That’s for sure.”

“Ha! Well, at least somebody in this family is brave. If it was left to my brother and my father, we’d have all starved a long time ago. Good thing they didn’t drown me, eh?”

Zhou was taken aback. “Why would you say that?”

Minga stared at her friend for a long time. “You don’t know? Haven’t you ever wondered why we’re the only girls around here?”

“No. Well, maybe. I just thought that was how it was.”

“Does your hen only produce roosters? Why should the mothers of this Valley only give birth to boys?”

Confused, Zhou shrugged.

Minga gave her a wry smile. “Ask your parents. And if they won’t tell you, maybe I will. Now go, I’ve got a customer.”

Zhou finished her shopping laden with bags of fruit, noodles, and dried meat and found her mother, as always, still in the backroom of the market. On the television that rested on a shelf on the wall, a beautiful woman in a red gown was being helped into a sleek, low-slung silver car by a handsome young man with shiny hair, a white jacket, and a bow tie around his neck. Behind them was the skyline of a great city. “The party begins at nine,” said the handsome man, showing his perfect white teeth.

The beautiful woman gave a laugh like bells and replied, “Then there will be more than enough time.”

“Yes,” cackled a voice in the room, “to cheat on your third husband, you whore.”

Zhou followed the voice to an old crone sitting in a folding chair. Beside her was Zhou’s mother, who was alternately watching the television and thumbing through a photo magazine of movie stars which she held on her lap. “Is that true?” asked her mother. Zhou suddenly realized that her mother was even older than the crone.

“Oh yes,” said the crone. “Remember that singer I told you about? She was married to him for four days.”

“Days?” Zhou’s mother laughed. She couldn’t remember ever seeing her mother laugh. “He must not have what she needed.”

“Or,” the crone said, “she got all that she wanted.” She glanced up and spotted Zhou in the doorway. With a tip of her hairy chin, she gestured towards her. “Your daughter is here.”

Zhou’s mother’s smile disappeared. She turned slowly, saw her daughter, and snapped, “Wait for me outside.”

Zhou backed away from the door, but not before she heard the crone say, “My goodness. If you want to keep her, you’d better hide her. She’s much too pretty…”

The next market day, Zhou was told to stay home and clean the press. After a month of this, her parents relented, but only if she checked in with her mother every fifteen minutes while she was shopping. Now she would appear in the market doorway and wait for her mother to notice her—under the baleful eye of the crone—and silently wave her away. She hated that appraising look and that dismissive flick of her mother’s hand. But at least she could talk with Minga again, and catch her brother’s shy glances.

* * * *

The boys returned the next spring. They hadn’t really been gone, of course. Just away, far away, at school. They returned each January for the New Year and sometimes on other holidays, and they were always around in the early fall to help bring in the harvest. But they were busy with their families during the former, and Zhou was busy days and nights out in the field during the latter. So she almost never saw them during those years, and they rarely saw her.

This year when the harvest ended, one group of boys—more like men now—remained in the village. They had been the oldest of the group Zhou had played with as a little girl. Now they were tall and knowing… and they used every excuse to walk past her farm in groups of three or four and try to get a glimpse of her or talk to her. They were even more forward than the boys at the market, calling her Zhou-Zhou and asking when she was getting married and whether it would be to some sad-faced farmer. The most brazen asked her about her ‘Palace Lions’ after the two breast-shaped hills that flanked the entrance to the Valley.

At first she was friendly but polite—as a proper young woman should be. But as the comments grew more personal and she could no longer force a smile, she became embarrassed and angry. She fled to the house when the young men approached.

“Which one will you marry?” Minga asked with a laugh.

Zhou’s cheeks went red. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, Zhou,” Minga said, shaking her head. She hung a new garland of garlic on the open nail left by the last purchase, looked around as she wiped her hands on her apron, and leaned forward with her elbows on the old wood counter with its grain worn down beneath the edges of its whorls. She spoke with uncharacteristic softness. “Did you speak with your mother? No? Hmm. Well, this isn’t the place or the time. So let’s just say that you are a very special prize around here, as I am.”

“Why?” Zhou asked. “Why are there so few females around here, other than old women?”

“Because most of those old women went down to a clinic in the city and took care of their baby girls before they were born. And those that didn’t… just go up on the ridge east of here, and you’ll find a meadow. They say that when it rains it is covered with little white bones. Sometimes, there are cries heard at night in the meadow. Ghosts? New arrivals? Who knows…”

Zhou swallowed hard and closed her eyes for a second. She didn’t want to imagine the image, but she couldn’t help herself. “Why would they do that?”

“One baby. That’s all the government said they could have. And who would want a girl? They can’t run the farm.”

Zhou turned her bowed head slightly. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the market, filled with women, all of them old. And boys. Men. Little boy babies. Not another girl in sight. She looked again at the women as they passed one by one. She looked for a sign, any sign, of their sin in their faces.

She turned back to Minga. “Surely it isn’t still happening?”

Minga shrugged. “The trip to the clinic? More than ever, I think. And sometimes the other thing too. They find a dead girl baby under the bridge probably once a month. They’ve been washed downstream from… well, up your way.” For all of her nonchalance, this wasn’t a topic Minga wanted to discuss either, especially given the horror she now saw on her friend’s face.

Zhou stared down at the countertop for a long time, moving just enough to the side when customers arrived to let Minga do her job. Finally, when there was another break in the traffic, she moved back in front of Minga and looked up with an expression on her face that frightened her friend with its ferocity. “Why am I still here?” she asked. “And why are you?”

“My uncle is a party bureaucrat in the town where the boys go to school. He has money. And even more important, he has power. After my brother was born, my ­parents went to him and asked if they could have a second child. My uncle said sure, but only if it is a girl. Do you understand?”

Zhou shook her head. “No. Why would they want a girl… you?”

Minga stood and folded her arms protectively across her chest. “Because they had just had a boy. And they wanted to make sure that he had a wife when he grew up.”

“You?”

“I’ve been promised in marriage to my cousin since before I was born.”

Zhou was shocked. “Really? Have you ever seen him?”

Minga nodded and pursed her lips. “A few times. He’s okay. Fat and spoiled. Typical Party kid. Beats living in some hovel with a poor farmer without a fen or a future.”

“But you could have your pick of men in the Valley.”

“Pretty poor pickings, if you haven’t noticed. Especially among the ones who stay.”

Zhou didn’t understand that last remark, but she had something else to ask. “But wouldn’t you get this business if you married here?”

“My brother will, even though he’s a fool and I’m the one who runs everything. But I wouldn’t have this business even if my parents gave it to me.”

“Why?” Zhou asked. “You seem very successful.”

“I don’t care,” Minga said with finality. “The day I get married is the last time I ever see my parents. Even my uncle won’t be able to force me.”

“I don’t understand. They seem nice enough. Do they beat you?”

Minga shook her head. Her face was hard, her jaw set, but tears began to well up in her eyes. “No, it’s not that. It’s that I found out that… I wasn’t the second child.” She looked over her friend’s head, over the roof of the far stall and towards the fog-covered summit of the nearby Valley wall. “Or even the third.” She looked back down at Zhou, and said with blurred eyes and through gritted teeth, “Do you understand?”

* * * *

That evening, the orange sun set through the torn and jagged clouds above the rocky crest of the Valley directly before them. A brief squall had passed over an hour before, and their sandals made shallow prints in the thin mud of the road. As always, Zhou joined her mother at the wooden bar on the tongue of the family’s cart and together they pushed it slowly up the road towards their distant village and the farm. Her father trudged silently a few feet behind, a little drunk from rice wine and a little dizzy from too many cigarettes.

It wasn’t hard work, except for the last steep stretch to their house, because there were two of them and the cart was empty other than a dozen empty plastic jugs. In the morning, on the road down to the town and the market, Zhou’s father pushed the cart backwards—or more accurately, held it back because of the weight of the full jugs. Zhou and her mother would walk in front, just in case they had to jump in to help stop the cart from running away. They rarely talked during the trip home—nothing more than Zhou’s mother asking her daughter whether she’d completed the shopping list and berating her husband for being “a drunken old fool.” They trudged on past the other farm houses. Most had broken tile roofs like their own, a few had a motor scooter leaning against the wall, and many had candlelight glowing behind their sagging window curtains.

After her talk with Minga, Zhou’s mind was boiling with thoughts—most of them bad. She tried to keep her face empty and her mouth shut, but she couldn’t stop herself. Finally: “Why am I here, mother?” she asked abruptly.

Her mother’s face didn’t change, and she continued to look forward up the road. “What do you mean? You are our daughter.”

“Yes, but nobody else in our end of the Valley has a daughter. Why do you?”

“You’ve been talking to that brazen girl at the market, haven’t you? She has a loud mouth. And she puts the wrong ideas into your head.” There was a pause. “What did she tell you?”

“She said that all girl babies are killed around here. That it’s the law.”

Zhou’s mother shook her head. “It’s not the law. It’s just the way the law makes things.”

“So it’s true?”

Her mother finally turned and looked at her. “Does it matter? You’re here.”

“But why, mother? Why didn’t you… get rid of me and try for a boy? He would have been much more useful for you.” In her heart she prayed that her mother would tell her that it was because they wanted her, that they loved her, that they wouldn’t let her die.

Her mother stopped. When the cart halted, Zhou’s father dutifully stopped in place as well, looking around stuporously. She set the bar down on the ground, and only then turned to face her daughter. “These are not things that a good daughter would discuss,” she said. She wasn’t angry—it was as if she’d had this same conversation in her head many times.

Zhou put her foot on the bar as it rested in the mud so the cart wouldn’t roll backwards. “But I am asking, even if I’m not a good daughter. And I’ll talk to whoever I want to at the market.”

That made her mother squint slightly, as if she were seeing her normally docile daughter in a new light. Speaking slowly as if to make it hurt more, she said, “You were supposed to be a boy. I ate the herbs and the medicines. The midwife said it would make a boy.”

“What midwife? Who are you talking about?”

“You’ve seen her. I was sitting with her today.”

“Her? That’s who delivers babies around here?”

“She used to until she got old. Not many deliveries. They mostly do that at the clinic now. No… other things.”

“Like making girl babies into boys? Does that even work?”

“Not with you. I didn’t take the medicine right. I blame myself.”

She blames herself for me? Zhou felt a chill go through her entire body. She looked at the stooped form and wrinkled face of her mother. She saw the hard mouth and even harder eyes. She glanced back at her father, older even than her mother, standing and weaving, smiling at his feet. She tried to imagine them younger—and guess at their disappointment on the day she was born.

“I’m curious, mother. Why didn’t you get rid of me then? Like all the other families did. And then try again for a boy? Why am I here?”

Her mother shook her head slowly, as if her thoughts were someplace else. “I was too old. We thought it would never happen—that we would grow old with no one to serve us. It was a miracle when I became with child. We tried to make everything just right because we would never get another chance.” Her eyes focused again; she glanced quickly at Zhou, then away. “Then you came, and well… we had no choice.”

Zhou tilted her head slightly and looked up at the clouds, now turning purple black like bruises in the sunset. “Well, aren’t I blessed?”

Her mother didn’t look at her. She bent down and picked up the now muddy bar. She glanced over to see if her daughter would grab her side of the bar. “Yes, you are. Look around you, daughter: other than that loudmouthed friend of yours at the market, you are the only girl for many kilometers. That’s your blessing. That’s why the other wives in the Valley look at you with anger. You are a reminder.”

“So I should thank you?” She still hadn’t grabbed the bar; the cart hadn’t moved.

“You do as you wish,” said her mother. “It is a very hard world, daughter. Things happened here before you were born that were more terrible than you can even imagine. That’s why you have no kin. No grandparents or cousins or anyone. You can complain all you want. But at least you are here. You are alive. And that’s more than can be said about them. Or all of the lost little ones.”

Zhou began to cry silently. She refused to gasp or make any other sound. Finally she wiped her slick face with her sleeve, then turned and gripped the bar. After a momentary hesitation as its wheels broke loose, the cart moved forward, with Zhou’s father again dutifully tramping behind.

The two women looked straight ahead. Neither spoke. Before long, Zhou’s tears stopped and her face dried. By then she had already resolved to leave her parents. She would find one of the young men who would marry her—and make a new life, on a new farm. She would never come back.