A Thriller About Love and Other Addictions


By Matt Richtel

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 1, 2007. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Nat Idle, a San Francisco writer with a medical degree, narrowly survives an explosion in an Internet cafe after a stranger hands him a note warning him to exit immediately.

The handwriting on the note belongs to his deceased girlfriend, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist whom he has obsessively been mourning. So begins Hooked, a pop thriller for the Internet Age, written with the force of an adrenaline rush and the pace of an intimate email dispatch you can’t stop reading. Each chapter of this novel will keep readers hooked as Nat Idle searches for the love of his life in the midst of manipulation and conspiracy.



I 'm guessing that the moment that your life begins to unravel is often unceremonious—heralded by a whimper. The bang should have told me something.

I remember mostly details.

The extra foam sliding down the side of the mocha. A couple arguing over whether to put the "Mighty OJ" juicer on their bridal registry. The rottweiler tied outside the café, standing on hind legs, paws pressed urgently against the window.

When she walked by, I was reading a languid description of a Boston river, somewhat guiltily speeding through the imagery to get back to the book's action. I wouldn't have noticed her at all had she not put a small, folded square of paper on the corner of my table. I registered graceful hands, and a ring on the index finger. Then I focused on the piece of paper. Was I being picked up?

When I looked up again, she was nearly out the screen door, purposeful, and not stopping to look back. I dog-eared a page in my book, picked up the folded note, and followed her.

I scanned the street. The young transplants who call San Francisco's Marina District home meandered with designer sunglasses and designer baby strollers, enjoying a fogless July afternoon. Through the crowd, I could see she was halfway into a red Saab parked in front of the Pita Parlor.

Something kept me from calling out. I figured I'd wave her down, but she was in the car and pulling away before I could get close enough to yell without making a scene. I looked at the textured beige stationery in my palm. I unfolded the corners, and saw words like a bullhorn:

"Get out of the café—NOW!"

The café exploded.

Smoke. Car alarms. Glass, ashes, a cloud of dust. A sound inside my head like a hangover delivered via freight train. I don't think I ever lost consciousness. The blast took me three feet through the air, dropped me on the pavement, but seemed to leave me intact.

I've seen footage of war zones, where the world seems to be coming undone. This was nothing like that—just a single moment of extraordinary violence, followed by haze. Like a bloody version of the time my father slammed a stainless steel pot on the kitchen floor to get my brother's attention.

The front window of the café was blown out, and a side wall was ripped, though not torn down, exposing metal and concrete innards. A couple wandered out from the screen door; he held an arm limply at his side, her bloody legs churned between step and stumble. The owner of the rottweiler checked his pet for wounds.

These days, you imagine the first thought at such a moment would be of terrorism.

My first thought was of Annie.

She was rarely far from my mind, even four years after the accident that took her life at the age of twenty-eight. Mostly, I'd thought of her at moments of transition—when I got up, climbed into bed, or on a long drive between interviews. It said as much about me as us; it was in those moments, the quiet instances when life lacked structure, that I most needed a place to focus.

I wouldn't defend my relationship with Annie as perfect, but it defined love for me, and endured. She was always chewing strong breath mints, causing our kisses to taste spicy, and I got sad when I smelled cinnamon. Sometimes at night, I told an imaginary Annie stories aloud and tried to guess at which point she would have sleepily asked me to wrap it up.

But it was more than longing that made me think of her as a thin layer of dust settled over me. It was the note I'd been handed. I'd know Annie's handwriting anywhere.

"Can you move your legs?"

The words came through my fog from a police officer, kneeling beside me. I waved my hand to say, "I'm fine." I started to stand, and he helped guide me up by the elbow.

"We need to get you out of this area."

As my awareness returned, so did the sounds and colors, and the chaos. Police and firefighters, the sound of radio chatter, helicopters. I was embedded in the evening news.

The officer led me toward an area apparently being set up for the wounded. Was I hurt worse than I thought?

"Mystic River," the police officer said.

I looked at him with confusion.

"Good book," he added. "But you really should invest in the hardback. It's a sign of a fully committed person."

I looked down and saw I still had the novel I'd been reading in the café. My white knuckles told me I'd been clutching it like a life preserver. The note. Where was it? I fished in my pockets, but came up empty. I turned around and headed back to where I'd been lifted off the ground.

"Hold on, pardner. We can't have you going back there. Too dangerous."

"I lost someone," I said.

"You lost someone?"

"Something. I lost something. Please."

"Well, you're not going back to get it now."

With a powerful hand on my shoulder, he turned me around, walked me down the block to a concrete patch cordoned off by yellow tape, and set me on the ground with the others.

The cop's name was Danny Weller, and he was a chatterer. He told me about growing up in Oakland, and learning to fish in waders in the Sacramento River with his father. His dad, he said, was a fierce wordsmith, the outer casing of a union man covering a dictionary. Danny stayed nearby—my personal caseworker.

He kept my state of mind numb, but his friendly rambling didn't slow the background din of questions. Who would do such a thing? Did someone try to save my life? Was that person connected to Annie?

And what happened to everyone else in the café? How many hurt? How many dead? Those questions I asked aloud.

"We have three fatalities and a couple people in critical," Danny said. "Not as miraculous as it first appeared."

"What do you mean?" I looked at a half dozen people sitting on the street around me, nursing various wounds. Each was attended by police and emergency medical personnel. The idea that anyone survived seemed miraculous.

"The explosion was confined to one area of the café—it's not as bad as we first thought," Danny said. "At this point, we don't know if it was intentional or an industrial accident."

"You mean it might not have been a bomb?"

"What makes you think it was a bomb?" Danny looked at me intently, with curiosity but not accusation.

I took him in for the first time. I noticed hair and gut; he had a lot of both. I figured him at around forty-five years old. Worn, blue-collar hands, no wedding ring, but that didn't mean anything anymore. He had soft, droopy eyes that reminded me somehow of the black and chocolate-brown-colored glass polar bear eyes from the taxidermist's office where I interned the summer before my senior year in college.

Before I could get out an answer to Danny's question, a paramedic knelt beside me.

"He seems okay," Danny said. "He was outside when it happened."

"Let's have a look," the paramedic said, tilting my chin up so I could look him in the eye. "I'm going to ask you some basic questions. Indulge me. What's your name?"

"Nathaniel. Nathaniel Idle."

"Nat Idle," Danny the cop said. I'd told him my first name earlier, but not my last.

The paramedic and I turned our heads to look. Danny turned his eyes to the side, the way a bad poker player fails to mask emotion, and I can't say I was surprised.

A year earlier, when I was researching an article about the HIV epidemic faced by the city's immigrant prostitution rings, I'd come across a disturbing tip. Several officers assigned to crack down on the residential brothels were sampling the fare rather than bringing the violators to justice. One of the cops, upon learning he might have contracted HIV himself, beat a twenty-year-old Malaysian prostitute with the battle end of a flashlight. The cop—Timothy Aravelo—and two colleagues were convicted.

Publicly, a number of police officers lauded my efforts. It was politically correct to do so. Privately, they said I had exaggerated the problems of one bad cop and his own domestic dispute and turned it into a crusade. I was viewed as a member of the corner-cutting sensationalist media.

"No obvious broken bones, a laceration on the forehead, scrapes to knees, elbows, and hands. Consistent with a forceful fall," the paramedic said.

"You did the right thing," Danny said.

The paramedic thought Danny was talking to him. I knew what he really meant.

"Thanks," I said. "Danny, look, something's not right. Something is very strange, and—"

Danny cut me off. "We're doing preliminary interviews with everyone who was in the area. We like to get impressions while they're fresh. You're our next contestant."

He pulled me up by the hand and bent in close. "Ordinarily, Lieutenant Aravelo would ask you a few gentle questions and then give you a pat on the back. But you might get slightly rougher treatment."


The cops had constructed a makeshift command center under a temporary open-air tent in front of the Kuma Sushi.

Law enforcement, especially the branches of the military, get a reputation for the ability to destroy—houses, front doors, villages. I'm equally impressed by their ability to construct things. Give a galvanized troop of men in uniform shovels, poles, and canvas for roofing and flaps, and within an hour you'll have a tent city complete with his and hers field toilets and showers.

Danny had walked me over to the command center. "Perch," he said. He left me outside the yellow police tape that surrounded the tent and wandered in, presumably to let them know their next interview candidate had arrived. I flashed on a memory of my barber analyzing the 1996 presidential election based entirely on Dole's and Clinton's respective haircuts. We can't help but see the world through the eyes of our daily pursuits, and sitting there, even having been nearly blown up and saved, I couldn't help but see the scene as a journalist. Stories everywhere, blossoming narratives, a boy wearing a too-long tattered shirt, with an image on the back of a frog playing drums, comforting his mother while she cried.

"Let's go," Danny said, guiding me through an opening in the police tape. "The lieutenant's ready."

Under the tent, a half dozen cops whirred with various tasks. Several barked commands into walkie-talkies, one typed into a laptop, another set up what looked like an industrial-strength radio, but they all shared an intensity. This was the moment these men and women had trained for and they met it with a palpable feeling of authority and purpose.

Danny steered me by the elbow to the corner of the tent and whispered, "I told him who you are, and that you're pretty shaken. I tried to warm him up, but he can be a bit unforgiving."

And, as it turned out, a lot large.

The Aravelos seemed to have been conceived after their mother mated with the side of a mountain. Big bones holding big chests, and the strong, meaty hands that make politicians. Maybe that's why I fixated on the one small thing—the lieutenant's disproportionately small Adam's apple. It looked like a genetic hiccup.

"Dodo," he said. I found him staring intently at me.

I turned to Danny.

"The lieutenant's a habitual nicknamer," Danny said. "It suggests intimacy but he's really letting you know who's in control."

"That'll be all, Danny boy. Beat it," the lieutenant said without a hint of self-awareness. "We can do without the surveillance."

Danny's jaw tightened. He turned around and walked away, and Aravelo pulled his chair nearer.

"The dodo bird—extinct. Like print journalists. You'll be killed off by the Internet and its much more efficient means of distribution."

In San Francisco, even the cops were fixated on business models, to say nothing of the double meaning of "dodo."

"The first thing is this: I'm not going to get screwed on this investigation," the lieutenant continued. "Within hours we'll have feds, and state investigators, and probably the goddamn Marines turning this place upside down. But I'm the point guy on this for the SFPD, and I do not intend to lose this assignment, however small our role may wind up being."

I must have squinted, indicating my confusion.

"I'm going to treat you like any other person in that café—not like the guy whose fancy prose took down my brother. As far as I'm concerned, that's in the past—or the future. Not now."

He figured if he had some conflict of interest, he'd be tossed off potentially the biggest case of his career. "You're the one who brought up my job," I said quietly.

Aravelo ignored me and turned to his underling note taker. "Start scribbling," he said, then turned to me. "What were you doing in the café today?"

The question was innocuous enough, but it had an unpleasant whiff.

"I was hanging out and reading a book."

"So that's why you came into the café?"

"Yep, like I just said."

Aravelo studied me. "No, you said that's what you were doing. You didn't say why you came into the café in the first place."

"Yes, I came in to read, drink coffee, and hang around other people doing the same thing."

"Do you often read in public?" The way he said it made me feel like I was an exhibitionist.

I shrugged.

Aravelo glanced at the note taker, then locked into my gaze. "Look, I've got more than fifteen people injured by a totally bizarre incident. This type of thing doesn't happen. So there are no dumb questions. Now, where were you when the explosion happened?"

I sighed. Much as I didn't like his style, he was right. "I was actually at the front door. I was . . . heading outside for a minute."

"You were leaving the café just when it exploded," he said, pausing momentarily. "Any reason you decided to leave just then?"

I'd known this was coming, but I wasn't sure what I'd say. If I didn't come clean, I could hurt the investigation. But I'd be implicated if I told everything precisely as it happened. I split the difference.

"I saw a woman," I said. "She walked by my table. She struck me as . . . "

I searched for the word. All that surfaced was an emotion, a worthless one, the simultaneous feeling of hope and intense loneliness.

"As what?" the lieutenant said. "Describe her."


"So you followed this random stranger out into the street?"

Maybe it sounded a little odd, but not really. Every guy has been struck by a woman, then followed her for a block, or sat beside her at a bar, hoping for an opening. I explained what happened—mostly. I told the lieutenant that I never got to talk to the woman, or even close to it, because she walked out, seemingly in a hurry, and jumped into a late-model red Saab.

Aravelo jumped on it. "All points search for a red late-model Saab driven by an attractive . . . "

He looked at me for help finishing his sentence. Without being sure of it, I said, "She had light brown hair."

"Brunette," Aravelo parroted forcefully to his note taker. "Now, go!" He looked at me. "One more question. What stories are you blowing out of proportion these days?"

I shrugged. Aravelo dismissed me and told me he'd be in touch.

I assessed my surroundings: countless emergency vehicles; high-tech law enforcement equipment; onlookers and media held back by blue barricades at the far end of the block; nearby, several lightly injured café patrons waiting for Aravelo's inquiries; and, across the street from the police tent, a blonde woman. She was pointing a telephoto lens at my head. Was she taking my picture?

I walked hurriedly in her direction. She stood behind yellow police tape, still shooting the scene. A scar that looked faintly like the coastline of California marked the tip of her chin. When I got close, I was struck by her camera. It was old, not digital, held in a leather case with a soft maroon lining, and, while it had a telephoto lens, not particularly sophisticated by professional journalist standards. I asked the woman if she was taking my picture, and why.

"Freelancer," she said. "Just doing my job."

She turned her camera on me. I waved my hands in front of my face, and, surprising myself, I blurted, "Do you know Annie Kindle?"

Just then, a boy and his father walked beside us on the sidewalk, holding hands. "Daddy, what happened to that man?" the boy said.

I looked down my torso to what had caught the boy's attention. My shorts and shirt were torn, my knees scraped, hands pink with dried blood, and my right elbow bandaged. Pebbles were embedded in my shins. A plausible target for a photographer.

I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and returned to a lost time, to Annie's laugh. I may have been the first person to ever fall in love at first sound.


It danced across Jeremy's Bar and Grill. It floated above the din of romancing couples. It froze me over my Guinness. Her laugh was pure, confident, free.

I didn't usually drink alone. But I didn't usually come to small mountain towns to make major life decisions either.

Kings Beach is three hours northeast of San Francisco. It calls itself a beach. I always thought "beach" implied "ocean." But it's really lakeside, on the north side of Lake Tahoe.

The town is a stretch of modest motels and eateries, and places that rent out kayaks in the summer and skis when the sun gives way to snow. It's a fun family spot, or, in my case, a temporary resting place for mixed-up graduate students.

The laugh belonged to a slender brunette with shoulder-length hair and a dark hue to her skin, as if one of her grandparents had been Asian. It might not have been beauty to everyone, but it was my definition. She looked soft, passionate, and kind, or maybe eager to please.

Her friend was another matter.

As they approached, I realized that the only open bar seats were right beside me. That gave me only seconds to act, and I did. I quickly turned away from them, raised my beer to my lips, and began staring intently at a baseball game on the TV. Had I reacted a moment later, they would have seen me staring at them. I'd have been locked up for leering, and, worse, I'd have lost the advantage of feigned indifference. A finger tapped my shoulder. The friend. "Are these seats taken?" she asked. Her tone discouraged anything more than a "yes" or "no."

"They're all yours," I said, turning to face them fully. "Welcome to the neighborhood."

The woman of my dreams smiled and said, "Thanks." Her friend sensed my interest and leveled a preemptive strike. "It's girls' night out, so we're not doing the flirting thing," she said, adding with at least a touch of softness, "Now return to your beer."

I hadn't planned on drinking more. Now I had no choice. I ordered another beer. I made small talk with the bartender and watched the game. I talked to a couple sitting to my right who, after spending six hours together on a mountain bike ride, were plenty happy for a third-wheel diversion.

I glanced at myself in the bar mirror—hoping for something less than haggard. In terms of pure physical attractiveness, I'm in the 80th percentile, but with wide fluctuations. I'm five feet eleven inches, fit, stocky, with more torso than leg. I'm an ethnic mutt—dark brown hair and a strong nose. I sometimes invited comparisons to the ethnic character actor of the moment. The observer would always seem to add, "in a good way," in a tone that made me wonder. The X factor in my looks is my haircut. With a good one, I creep up to the 90th percentile. With a bad one, I've seen the low 70s.

When I looked away from the mirror, I noticed I had at last caught a break. My beauty's friend stood and headed to the bathroom. I waited the customary ten seconds and pretended to discover the friend's absence.

"Are we allowed to talk now?" I said. "I want to respect the Geneva Convention and all other applicable rules."

"Only if we're very quiet," she whispered. "I can't spend another afternoon in detention."

I had read an article by some dating guru who advised you should wait for the woman to introduce herself. That way she's the one expressing interest. But this woman deserved better than parlor games, and I didn't have much time. "Nat," I said.

"I'm Annie."

I said, "I have an escape plan. Do you think it would be hard to tunnel through the bar?"

Annie picked up her drink—something red in a short glass. "Don't mind Sarah. She's just trying to protect me—from jerks, and men who don't know a real lady only escapes using duplicity and lies."

She smiled.

"Break it up, you two," came an approaching voice. Sarah was back, and she wasn't interested in our relationship going any further. "You were warned, young man. No conversation of any kind."

Annie shrugged. Was it indifference or resignation? She picked up her jacket too. "See ya," she said.

"You'll thank me later," said Sarah, and they started walking away.

I couldn't think of any way to stop them that wouldn't have made me seem like a desperate, obsessive loon. Then, just before they hit the door, Annie stopped awkwardly—if I had to guess, caught by thought or indecision—spun back, took two steps toward me, and just on the edge of earshot said, "Pink salamander," or at least that's the way it sounded. And she was gone.

If it was a salutation, it was lost on me, ditto if it was a coded message. I spent half a day looking in phone books, around town, and down alleys for a hotel, bar, restaurant, or anything else named the Pink Salamander, or any conceivable derivation of the name. The closest I came was a tattoo and nail salon called the Chameleon, whose frumpy, heavily pierced proprietor said she appreciated my "Don Quixote" quest but said I'd keep searching in vain until I found a relationship with God.

I spent another day driving around town, hoping to "run into" Annie. I spent an inordinate amount of mealtime at Jeremy's Bar and Grill. I asked around. No Sarah, no Annie, no luck.

I'd already extended my stay by one day. I had to give up. I packed up the 4Runner and began the rationalizations. She wasn't that pretty, she was a passive follower of her friend, or she didn't find me attractive enough. So what was the point?

In at least one respect, the trip had been a success. I'd decided to undertake a major career change—and to abandon my pursuit of becoming a doctor. I'd finished medical school two months earlier. I had to admit to myself that I hated the training.

The question I had spent the better part of a week in the mountains contemplating was whether to go ahead with a residency. Instead, I was thinking about becoming a medical journalist. Writing about public health issues, and trading pragmatism and respectability for the idea of helping to change things, and gaining relative control over my time—at least compared to playing doctor. The fact that I faced $100,000 in debt and was still considering journalism suggested to me I had just the kind of idealism necessary to make such a career blunder.

At town's edge, heading home, I drove by the entrance to the marina and was struck by a last-ditch thought to check the boat slips—salamanders living on the cusp of both land and water.

The slip rental office was at Ernie's Tackle and Dive Shop. The seemingly very stoned employee said he couldn't give me information on boats and their slip homes without the approval of a manager who was due in shortly. The idea of going slip to slip seemed one step too many, particularly given the numerous launch points around the lake.

I waited for the manager and tried on dive masks.

A voice said, "At last, my knight in shining scuba gear."

The Salamander, slipped nearby, was the boat on which Annie and Sarah had been bunking.

"I was really hoping we'd meet again," I said.

"Me too," said Annie.


For our first date, I had suggested a funky Mexican bar in the Mission District. The food was authentic. So was the mariachi band, which could cover the silence should wit evade us.

I am not generally superstitious, but when I was walking to the bar to meet her, I found a nickel with a jagged edge on the sidewalk, picked it up, and, figuring it five times more powerful than a penny, made a wish and threw it over my left shoulder. I'm pretty sure I was mixing rituals. I was clearer about the wish. There had to be someone who would let me lose myself so completely in a moment that I was no longer watching from the outside. Hopefully, that person liked margaritas.

Annie wore a snug, sleeveless T-shirt, looking confident enough to err on the side of casual.

"I'm so sorry I'm late," she said. "The traffic on 101 was murder."

Annie commuted to Palo Alto, the suburbs of San Francisco. The rest of the world knows it as Silicon Valley.

I set a drink in front of her. "Let us toast to a world where children don't go hungry, the homeless live at the Four Seasons, and the freeways have no stop-and-go traffic," I said.

She told me the basics. She was twenty-six. She grew up in San Francisco. She graduated from a fancy northeastern college. She wasn't big into dating because people took her laughter to indicate passion and she wound up with suitors whom she preferred as friends. She said she might try to steer future dates onto dire topics to forestall joviality.

"Like phobias."

She laughed. "I actually have one: Q-tips in the ear," she said.

"Fear of indented brain?"

"Not so much that. The inside of my head is the only private place left on earth."

"How about something that makes you sad?"

She had one of those too: the last thirty seconds of Saturday Night Live, when the credits roll and the cast is waving. She said it meant the host's dream week has come to an end and the workweek was coming.

Annie said she worked at her dad's investment firm, Kindle Investment Partners, to test the idea that she had a knack for putting money in small companies and turning them into big ones. It wasn't something she felt particularly suited to. She said her father felt otherwise. He was, she said without bragging, one of the Valley's most potent venture capitalists. When she talked about work, she sounded tired.

"So what would you be doing if you weren't getting rich and creating technology to change the world?" I said.

She chewed on it.

"Well, I majored in computer science."

"And your enthusiasm for it runneth over."

"I don't know, maybe I'd be a shrink. I got a minor in psychology," she said, then her eyes turned more whimsical, like she was discovering an idea. "I'd be a veterinarian."

"Or a combination—pet psychiatrist," I said. "I had a dog once who could have used a few hours on the couch."

"You always know where you stand with animals. Feed me, love me. Feed me. Feed me," she said. "They're easier to trust than people."

"People need to eat too."

"It would be amazing to be with someone incorruptible."

I told Annie my basics. I had grown up in Denver, the son of generous but middle-class government employees. I spent every possible weekend in the mountains—backpacking, climbing, fishing. Partly, I loved the outdoors. Partly, I needed escape. "My brother was all-everything."

"I've got one of those," she said.


"Shadow. My father. He's got big plans for me. He calls me his 'Smiling Assassin.' Do I look like I'm smiling?"

"More like grinning."

"He thinks I'm like him. He says I'm made of steel," she said, then lowered her voice an octave. "'Annie, the Kindles are conquerors!'"


On Sale
Jun 1, 2007
Page Count
304 pages

Matt Richtel

About the Author

Matt Richtel has covered technology and telecommunications in the New York Times‘s San Francisco bureau since 2000. Under the pen name “Theron Heir,” he writes the syndicated daily comic strip, Rudy Park, which is published in newspapers around the country. Dubbed by Newsweek as “a contender for comic strip of the decade,” Rudy Park revolves around the lives and employees and regulars of an Internet café.

Learn more about this author