Hoodie One had a name, it was Dennis Swerlow. Hoodie Two had one as well, it was Sam Kisinski. Together they had to decide what to do about a botched kidnapping and two hostages.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is the third chapter in the ongoing syndication of the first section of Ken Goldstein’s new novel, This Is Rage, published by The Story Plant. If you haven’t yet read Chapter One, read it here. Chapter Two, here. Or, if you’d like more background from the author himself, read Ken Goldstein’s welcome post, here.
Never Bet Against the Bozos
Hoodie One had a name, it was Dennis Swerlow. Hoodie Two had one as well, it was Sam Kisinski. As if it were not clear enough from the job they had just botched, neither was a professional criminal. Up until a few weeks ago, they were just part of the Silicon Valley bullpen. Now they had killed a man and taken two others hostage, neither of whom they had set out to nab.
Four hours following the Steyer soiree they were parked at a rest stop off Highway 101 about one hundred miles south of San Jose, on California’s central coast. Finkelman had regained consciousness but was still bleeding heavily, too weak to make any noise at all. Choy had been gagged and told by Swerlow to remain silent or Finkelman would be left roadside. Swerlow had been waiting for over an hour for his disposable cell phone to ring, after he had dialed the number for another disposable phone on the other end to let his number be captured. Now it rang, delivering a voice known only to him as Howzer.
“Howzer, what took you so long?”
“You’re not the only job we’re working,” said Howzer. “You got him?”
Swerlow hesitated, this was the question he had been dreading all afternoon. He steadied himself, took an even breath, tried to ease into it. “Well, what if I tell you we have something better?”
“We didn’t ask you to be creative,” blurted Howzer. “We asked for something specific. The deal is tied to that specificity. You have it or you don’t.”
“I’m telling you, what we have is better,” said Swerlow, sweeping into full sales mode. “Completely better.”
“Champ, we don’t have much time here. Your plane is gassed and waiting in an almond grove with the money onboard. If you’re where the GPS on your cell phone tells me you are, I can have you in the air in thirty minutes, then a plane change outside LA and you wake up in Hong Kong. For that to happen, I need Steyer. Do you have him?”
“It didn’t go quite as planned,” answered Swerlow. “We had him, but someone stepped in the way. We sort of killed him.”
“You killed Daniel Steyer, you imbecile? That’s our ticket to $20 million cash money. His wife would pay that by morning. You’re telling me he’s dead?”
“No, Steyer is alive. A little beat up, but he’s fine. We accidentally killed another guy who got between us. I mean, maybe we killed him. I mean, he’s dead, I’m pretty sure of that, but not so sure it was us who did it. It could have been. Hard to really know.”
“Excellent, now you have a murder rap to beat. If I were you, I would tell me that you are about to deliver Steyer to me, because you really need to get out of the country now. And you probably want to go to Singapore, easier to disappear there, we can get that done. Do you have him?”
“Like I said, we have something better,” continued Swerlow. “Two for the price of one.”
“The price was for one—Daniel Steyer. That’s who we want. That’s who we can exchange quickly and without a lot of hassle. If you don’t have him, we’re done.”
“Choy and Finkelman, we have both of them. They’re yours. Same price, no increase. All yours.”
“Your brain cells are without electrons,” said the voice of Howzer. “The founders of EnvisionInk, what the hell do you think we can do with them?”
“Same thing you’d do with Steyer,” replied Swerlow. “Only you pay once and get paid twice. Look at the margin improvement.”
“You may be the single stupidest person we ever hired off Craig’s List,” said Howzer. “This was a simple job. You grab a backroom player worth a ton of dough whose wife loves him, you deliver him to us, we make the trade. Choy and Finkelman are public figures, they aren’t married, and we don’t ransom kids back to their mommies. Good luck, asshole.”
“Wait,” begged Swerlow. “Half price. They’re both yours for a million. If you don’t want Finkelman because he’s bleeding, we’ll leave him here in the park.”
“Champ, we’re done, off you go. Thanks for playing.”
“Okay, last and best offer, both or one, yours for free, just fly us out of here. We really need to get out of here. You’ve got the plane. We’ll even pay for the fuel, we’ll work it off on a future job.”
“You screw this up at this level of insanity and you think we want you on another job? You’re not pros, you’re not even amateurs. You’re dunces. Good luck.”
The line went dead. It was clear that Choy and Finkelman were not in the same work-for-hire demand that had come with the much failed assignment for Daniel Steyer. It was time to improvise.
“We can’t stay here, Dennis,” said Kisinski. “This is a rest stop, Highway Patrol comes by, they expect people to move along. And we gotta do something about this guy’s leg or he’s not going to make it.”
“Mexico,” replied Swerlow. “We’re about eight hours from the border. We can get a doctor there.”
“We’re going to cross the US border with two hostages, one bleeding to death? I don’t think so.”
“Okay, let me think.”
Swerlow and Kisinski were not just friends, they were cousins. Their mothers were sisters and still lived in their home state of Oregon, in a working class suburb outside of Portland. Swerlow was five years older than Kisinski, punching in at just under twenty-eight years old. Kisinski had graduated about a year ago from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s in Computer Science and should have had a promising career ahead of him. He had interviewed via Skype at Microsoft and was offered an entry-level job in quality assurance on the next generation operating system team, which with his talent would have likely catapulted him to full developer status in a year. Cousin Dennis had told him this was an insult, if Microsoft thought so highly of him they would have hired him as a developer outright, just as they had hired him when he almost graduated from the University of Oregon, pending only a set of final exams that he refused to take on principle because in his mind they were unimportant and a cave to validating industry norms. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, none of them had college degrees. Worker bees had college degrees—along with students who actually attended their classes, and did not spend senior year day trading their student loan money until it amounted to zero, which is how he had chosen to end his college career.
What cousin Dennis also had failed to tell Kisinski was that three months after Microsoft had hired him those half dozen years ago as a developer without any degree whatsoever, they had fired him for lack of talent. Sun and Oracle had done the same shortly thereafter on a similar timetable. Swerlow had also been let go by two start-ups in high ramp mode that hired him on impulse right in the middle of his interviews without even taking the time to check his references, only to discover that he talked more than he typed, and what he typed appeared elegant on surface review but never fully compiled. True to the mold, Dennis Swerlow was a classic ninety percenter, competent enough to get his resume to the top of the pile, but not a detail guy, never able to deliver the goods no matter how convincing he sounded. In this respect he was consistent, and indefatigable. He almost always smiled, he never ran out of concepts to pitch, and he was resilient to a fault without any regard for learning from his mistakes except to sell harder and faster. He never had anything approaching Sam’s gift for programming languages, but he had learned most of the high notes of the money song. This made him an excellent candidate for the role he had proudly proclaimed himself: Entrepreneur.
Trouble was, Swerlow was not much better at being an entrepreneur than he was a coder. Sure he played back the jargon well enough, but in the same way his code never quite compiled, his company pitches had a sad way of always falling short. His first company idea had been for a set of fully customizable printer drivers that could be downloaded and configured in real time over the internet and address any printer on anyone’s desktop anywhere in the world instantaneously—you would just go to this destination and clink “Fix My Printer” and it would. Sounded good enough, but it didn’t work. After start-up job two dumped him jobless in Fremont, Swerlow had succeeded in getting a group of young programmers in the East Bay to work on the problem for nearly a year without salary in exchange for equity, hoping to quickly sell the company after he demonstrated its potential to the right acquirer. The small team of coders got to about a dozen driver examples, but when each installation inevitably failed when anyone who did not happen to have one of the dozen leading printers on the market tried to detect their printer, the subsequent system crash was enough to send interested parties scrambling. Swerlow referred to this as a “nit,” something to be worked out downstream by an acquirer with vision. When his programmers quit, he blamed the failure on lack of conviction and moved on.
Swerlow’s next start-up displayed equal moxie. Now based in Gilroy, he envisioned a set of music videos that would edit themselves. Any musician or would-be auteur would simply upload his song to a remote database, select a set of visual themes and queues, and voila, storytelling heaven. The incomprehensible mishmash that would output made no sense to anyone, the streams were less interesting than randomized screensavers. Meanwhile video sites across the internet were taking shape with every form of easy editing tool available as shareware. Swerlow had talked his mother out of $50,000 for this venture, which he spent on brochures and a tiny MacWorld trade show booth at Moscone. When he failed to get more than a few passersby to take his brochure or demo disk, he realized he might be a little late to market and again moved on. Mom was not happy. He had promised her a minimum twenty-five times return on her home equity loan withdrawal in less than two years’ time, and the odds had become clear this was not going to happen. It was time for Swerlow to move up the ladder, and besides, he knew the place to raise real money was Sand Hill Road. He was kidding himself if he did not make the full commitment, go to the real Silicon Valley and put down roots.
One thing Swerlow was good at was talent recognition, and looking at the architecture of his cousin’s senior project, he knew Sam was strong. By the end of his junior year, Kisinski had essentially completed his major in the computer science program, so he embarked on extra credit. Without anyone asking him, and without any thought to seeking permission or front door access, he had re-envisioned the entire university’s database environment. Late one night for giggles, he launched an overwrite of the university’s historical archive and back office. Swerlow had never forgotten the night his cousin called to tell him what he had in mind, as if seeking Swerlow’s blessing, which Swerlow was only too happy to offer. Unfortunately, Swerlow was too dense to see the looming flaw in Kisinski’s logic. Since Kisinski knew what he was doing, he had not seen or touched anyone’s data or personally identifiable information, that would have been a crime, but he had de facto made it inaccessible by putting his program in front of the existing program and making it the default. Proving that his program could access the safely protected data without ever having been part of its encoding, Kisinski had inadvertently made all campus data inaccessible to anyone on campus except himself, and he had no authority to access it without breaking the law so it was in fact “on ice,” a brilliant if largely academic proof of concept that baffled the school’s IT department with an impenetrable virtual firewall that was nowhere documented. When campus security showed up the next morning to request Kisinski come answer a few questions, he asked for a moment to log off, grabbed his mobile phone, typed one line of code and switched everything back. The university had been unable to tie the hack back to Kisinski, and a year later, after a thorough investigation, he graduated with honors.
Swerlow was so impressed with Kisinski’s ability to load and unload database systems on the fly that he helped his cousin file for a patent, sharing name ownership of the patent in exchange for his help in drafting the documents. Convincing his cousin that Microsoft’s insulting offer was outrageously beneath him, Swerlow led Kisinski and his source code to a seven-hundred-square-foot apartment in Sunnyvale, which they dubbed World Headquarters of DB-SAAS-SYS. They shared a split shift at Starbucks to keep the lights on—Swerlow played barista while Kisinski flushed out the architecture, then Kisinski knocked out cappuccinos while Swerlow drove his rusting Accord up and down Sand Hill Road knocking on doors for a meeting. After a year on the fundraising trail, there was no money, no interested parties, and the manager at Starbucks was losing patience with the endlessly tepid Grandes. Kisinski was making noises about calling back Microsoft and begging for the job. Swerlow begged him to be patient.
Swerlow knew he did not have much time. He had to raise some money or he was going to lose his mission critical partner, probably just as the patent would come through. No path was too desperate for him, and when he found a post on Craig’s List that suggested a seven figure payday for an afternoon’s work, it was music to Swerlow’s ears, sans video editing. The fact that the job listers wanted someone to “quietly kidnap” the renowned venture capitalist Daniel Steyer did not seem terribly outrageous to Swerlow. What he worried about most was how he would be able to operate after he snuck into a Silicon Valley party, abducted one of tech’s most powerful finance guys in broad daylight, swapped him for a pile of no-strings-attached cash, and then opened shop with an ongoing need for Bankers to do his IPO. The fellow who wanted Steyer, known to Swerlow only as “Howzer” via a cell phone number that changed at the end of every previous call, told him not to worry about it. In addition to paying for the safe delivery of Steyer, they would relocate Swerlow and Kisinski to Hong Kong, pin the crime on another pair of guys who looked like them, and then when the coast was clear bring them back to the US and fully capitalize their company. Maybe it was because he was an eternal optimist, or maybe it was because he just wanted to believe, but to Swerlow, it all sounded credible. His focus had been first on convincing his cousin this was doable, and second, on convincing himself how it was doable.
Any notion the entire plan could go upside down never occurred to Swerlow. It all was quite simple. He and Kisinski would walk into the garden where they would be confidently at home and unsuspected as scrubby up-and-comers, wait for the right moment to grab Steyer, and then with the utter chaos around them, drag him out and drive away in their own car, which had been gate checked. Swerlow had been right about one thing, that in the shock of the moment no one was likely to stop him. What he had not factored was what would happen if someone with a sprinkler handle did try to stop him, how he would overcome the obstacle, who might get hurt, and what would he do if he could not get Steyer in the car. Strangely, for the briefest of moments, he had actually convinced himself that he had traded in a scratch off lottery ticket for the Super Lotto Mega Prize when he left Steyer in the sculpted bushes and ended up with the titans Choy and Finkelman. If Howzer was willing to pay seven figures for Steyer, imagine what he might pay for Choy and Finkelman.
He had since learned the answer was zero.
“Come on, Dennis,” pushed Kisinski. “We’re losing Finkelman. We’re already responsible for one murder. I really don’t think we want another one.”
“Stop saying that,” said Swerlow. “We don’t know who killed that fat guy in the wet blazer. There was a struggle. It could have been anyone.”
“Right, it was our car, our gun, we were trying to get the hell out of Steyer’s driveway with his two best executives. It really could have been anyone.”
“Maybe it was Choy. He forced his way over the seat. How do we know he didn’t pull the trigger?”
“Fine, he pulled the trigger. What do we do now? We have no contract, no phone number, and a bleeding guy in the back of our car. Where do we go? And if you say Mexico again, I may kill you. What do I have to lose?”
“This is going to be okay, Sam. We just have to figure it out. Let’s look at the facts.”
“The facts are we are in way over our heads. We should leave these guys here, dial nine-one-one, and get as far away as we can.”
“And then what?” countered Swerlow. “We can be visually identified from the party. You have to believe they have images of us from every angle on Steyer’s security cameras. With no help, how do we get out of the country? How do we make a living? How do we get an identity change? We don’t have any choices here.”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Kisinski.
“Again, the facts. Steyer was worth over a billion dollars, a $20 million bounty from his wife was an easy ask. That’s less than 2% of his net worth. What do you think Choy and Finkelman might be worth? Three times that, six times that?”
“Who cares if they’re worth a hundred times that? We don’t know how to do this. We’re software engineers. What do we know about ransoming millionaire executives?”
“Did you ever think that maybe we already did the hard part?” asked Swerlow. “Think about it. What did Howzer hire us to do? To get him bait. We pulled that off. We walked into a party and exited with a pair of super high net worth individuals. Not one, but two. And not a mystery venture guy, but two guys who make the front page of the Wall Street Journal at least once a week. This has to be gold.”
“But Howzer didn’t want them,” argued Kisinski. “This is his livelihood and he passed. What part of this aren’t you comprehending? We screwed up, major league big time. We just screwed up.”
“You keep seeing the downside in this, Sam. Try to see it from a different angle. Sure, Howzer and his guys are pros. They trade bodies for cash all over the world. They knew how to make exchanges, but they still need the targets. They aren’t the only buyer on the market.”
“They seem to do just fine hiring an endless stream of idiots like us to go get their targets,” said Kisinski. “On the supply and demand curve, subcontractors like us seem to be in abundant supply. For god sakes, we found him on Craig’s List. He fronted us zero dollars and we said yes. Now we’re going to play hardball?”
“Targets are currency, and we have a prime pair—two genius tech execs who run one of the most profitable and highly valued companies in the world. They are irreplaceable. Howzer has no vision. We don’t need Howzer. He’s just overhead.”
“I can’t believe you’re going there. You think we’re going to negotiate directly with EnvisionInk for the return of their founders? Are you losing blood that I’m not seeing?”
“Of course not, negotiating with a Fortune 500 company would be absurd. We’re going to negotiate with their insurance company.”
“Dennis, there’s no longer a wired brain between the top and back of your skull,” said Kisinski. “I didn’t need to be a millionaire. I wanted a job coding at Microsoft. Now I can’t do that because I’m a murderer.”
“I told you to stop saying that, Sam. You have to stop saying it or you are going to start believing it.”
In the back of the SUV, Choy was tapping his head against the rear window to call their attention to Finkelman. It was just past sunset now, so it was harder to see through the windows, but it was clear that Finkelman was not getting any better. They had to do something or they were going to lose him.
“Do you know any doctors we can trust?” asked Swerlow.
“Trust, as in, will operate on a gunshot wound and then just let us walk away with the patient when they’re done?”
“Precisely, that’s what we need.”
“Doesn’t exist,” said Kisinski. “We need to take him to an emergency room. When we get there, they are going to ask questions. Those will be followed by police questions, which will be followed by our arrest.”
“So the answer is no, I got that. So the doctor has to be working with us, not against us.”
“Are we going to kidnap a doctor now? Dennis, we are the worst kidnappers on the planet. How bad can you make this?”
“Let’s get back to the payday. In exchange for Steyer, we were due $2 million, 100% on delivery, plane to Hong Kong waiting at the exchange site, no consolation prizes. Right?”
“Howzer’s take was $20 million, ours was 10% of Howzer’s. We’re talking way less than a quarter percentage point of Steyer’s net worth, about twenty basis points all in.”
“You’re negotiating with yourself. Finkelman is bleeding. How does this help?”
“Presume Choy and Finkelman are collectively worth several billion dollars. I think I’m being conservative here.” Swerlow paused to run a quick search on his smart phone. “At Friday’s trade and a six month average P/E in the mid-fifties, the company has an enterprise value of about $36 billion, plus or minus.”
“And . . . ?”
“A hundred million dollars is nothing, it’s a bargain. That’s our current valuation, what we can use for leverage.”
“To do what, Dennis? To do what?”
“To get help. If Finkelman dies, they lose a hundred million in market cap on the first trade down, that’s in a millisecond. By the end of the first day, they could be off 10%, that’s more than $3.5 billion. Wouldn’t you pay $100 million to save $3.5 billion? Of course you would, especially if it’s insurance money. It doesn’t even register as a fractional statistic.”
Kisinski paused. Swerlow was breaking through. Swerlow was good that way, relentless, not one to stop talking until the other side started hearing or otherwise begged for silence. Kisinski held up a hand to acknowledge he needed a breath. He took a few steps away from the SUV, toward the cinder block restroom structure, his eyes fixed on the highway traffic racing past the off-ramp, headlamps beginning to pierce the twilight.
Yep, Swerlow was sure he had him.
Kisinski exited the restroom, his hands only half dry from the eco-friendly wall blower. He retrieved a Mountain Dew from the vending machine beside the parking lot, surrendering one of the final dollar bills in his wallet, then another, the second can in his pocket. Was his cousin making any sense? The equation couldn’t be that logical. If it was, why hadn’t Howzer thought of it? Swerlow was taking all the emotion out of it, making it a transaction. Ransoming back Steyer to his wife, that was emotional. This was not Howzer’s style, he thought, it was something else. Pure Dennis, a Swerlow Special.
When Kisinski returned to the SUV, still quiet, he knew the decision was his. Swerlow could not do this on his own, he was only half the code library, probably less than half. He handed the open Mountain Dew to Swerlow, who smiled and took a sip.
“How do you propose we go about this?” asked Kisinski, his interest if not his confidence on the rise.
Swerlow continued on his methodical path. “All we need are a few people to help us, and they have every reason to offer their help. No backroom secrets, all daylight. It’s just business.”
“You’re always so sure of yourself, Dennis. Everything to you is a deal.”
“My confidence is grounded, Sam. The two gentlemen in the back of our SUV have extraordinary incentive here. We tell them what we need—starting with a doctor—they make a few calls, we move the dialogue along.”
The unending day was getting to Kisinski, exhaustion was taking its toll and time for recalibration was not on the evening program. That morning they had downed their lattes as aspiring criminals, with hope energizing ambition. By nightfall they were failed criminals, yet actual criminals nonetheless. Kisinski was not sure if Swerlow was making sense, or if he personally had crossed the logic barrier and was allowing desperation to overtake his good judgment. But what real choice did they have? If they abandoned Choy and Finkelman at the rest stop, it was entirely possible that Finkelman would die. While they were accidental murderers, this would be a fully conscious decision, one they could never escape in actuality let alone mind. With no money and no plan, life on the lam held little appeal. Not getting some help was a path that could not possibly end well.
“Suppose I buy into this,” said Kisinski. “Walk me through it.”
“I don’t have it all figured out yet, but we get Choy to call Steyer, set up an emergency room doctor for us, wire us some cash, and then we tell them to wait for instructions.”
“And you think they’re going to wait? What makes you think that?”
“You have to start trusting me, Sam. I managed to convince Howzer we were Valley insiders, didn’t I? That we could slip into Steyer’s backyard undetected and slip out with Steyer unnoticed. So we didn’t pull it off, so what? But I did sell it.”
“And your point is?” asked Kisinski.
“I can sell this,” said Swerlow. “I know I can sell this.”
“I want to believe that, Dennis. I really want to believe that. But you have been wrong about everything.”
“With learning comes experience, and with experience comes better decision making. You have to admit, we’re in a better place now than when Howzer hung up on us a half hour ago. That’s progress.”
“We’ve made a terrible mess, Dennis. We have to find a way out.”
“We have to get into a negotiation. Once we are in a negotiation, we can ask for anything: money, forbearance, safe passage. EnvisionInk has to want these guys back. They’re rudderless without their CEOs. Without a rebound story by the end of this weekend, come Monday morning the share price of EnvisionInk has to slide. Their board can’t let that happen. They need Choy and Finkelman on the job, safe and sound. We’re mouse-nuts at $100 million. We just have to get into position to make the offer.”
Kisinski looked into the back of the SUV and saw the condition of Finkelman continuing to slip. It was dark now, and on the corner of the rest stop parking lot they were quite alone.
“Let me talk to Choy,” said Kisinski. “I’m a programmer like he used to be. He might listen to me.”
“No ego, no pride of authorship,” said Swerlow. “We each do what we’re best at. We’re a team.”
“I wish it were otherwise,” snapped Kisinski as he stepped away from Swerlow and opened the back of the SUV. Kisinski looked into Choy’s eyes. Choy was silent, still gagged, not appearing afraid, but Kisinski could tell this could go either way. “It’s Calvin, right?”
Choy nodded. His stare was fixed, impossible to read.
“Calvin, we don’t want anyone else to get hurt,” said Kisinski. “Or more hurt. We want your friend to get some help. If I take off the gag, you promise not to make a lot of noise?”
Choy nodded. Kisinski looked at Swerlow for reassurance. Swerlow seemed confident that Choy was sincere. Kisinski took off Choy’s gag.
“I know this is going to sound strange, but we’re not really good at this,” said Kisinski. He reached in his pocket and handed Choy the second can of Mountain Dew.
“My friend is going to lose his leg if we don’t get him to a doctor,” said Choy, holding the sealed can in his bound hands.
“In fact, and you might find this ironic, we’re programmers,” continued Kisinski. “Well, I am, my cousin not so much.” Kisinski opened the soda can for Choy, who took a needed gulp.
“You looking for a job?” asked Choy, his sarcasm clear to the core. “Stephen and I run a very successful company. Maybe we could work out something. But he has to live.”
“Yeah, I’m guessing we’re a little far down the path for that,” said Kisinski. “But thank you, it’s a kind offer. This situation, you can probably tell, it’s not what we intended. We’re going to need some help.”
“I can do that,” said Choy. “But you have to take my friend to a hospital. You have to do it now.”
“Right, but we’re going to need you to make a few calls for us,” said Kisinski. “Does that work for you?”
“Do I have a choice?” asked Choy.
“None of us do,” said Kisinski. “We’re sort of in this together now. At least until we’re not.”
“Who do you want me to call?” asked Choy.
“That teacher of yours from Stanford, the one we met at the party,” interrupted Swerlow. “He’s on your board of directors, isn’t he?”
“George Yamanaka?” asked Choy. “Yes, he’s on our board—audit and governance committees. He chairs governance.”
“Yes, Professor Yamanaka. Let’s start with him,” said Swerlow. “Governance, perfect.”
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This Is Rage: Serialization Schedule
We will be serializing the complete first section of This Is Rage.
August 5……..In Tres Partes Divisa Est
August 12…….It’s Terrestrial
August 19…… Never Bet Against the Bozos
August 26…….Let’s Get Small
September 2….No Such Thing as CEO School
September 9….Live from the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
September 16…The House Checks and Raises
September 20…If There Were Rules Who Would Listen?
September 30…Show Me Your Bulls