This is how CEO’s bicker: “Surely your plan can’t be that easy,” says Choy. “Compared to being shot dead in the next two hours, I’d call it a plan worth trying,” replied Finkelman.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is the seventh chapter in the ongoing syndication of the first section of Ken Goldstein’s new novel, This Is Rage, published by The Story Plant. Need to read other chapters first? Check them out here.
“Who the brain dead hell is Kimo Balthazer?” bellowed Daniel Steyer.
The language seemed unusual for a poised fellow like Steyer. He was on the phone with FBI Special Agent in Charge Kaamil Hussaini, a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton who usually specialized in counterterrorism. Hussaini was mighty upset to be yanked off a classified case of national importance and dispatched from Langley to Salinas when the call came Monday morning from the office of former Senator Henderson. Hussaini did not much consider it an honor to be made EnvisionInk direct liaison for the balance of the incident, but from what he could tell, he would be back at his desk by the weekend. There was not much to this—wait for the Director to call with the green light, send in the fire strike, mop up whoever was left and avoid all reporters. He could not tell Steyer this, but he gave Ben and Jerry about a 5% chance of survival, with Choy and Finkelman a point or two ahead of them. Those odds had been locked when he learned of Kimo Balthazer’s webcast debut earlier in the day, the joy of which he was now relaying to Steyer.
Hussaini’s briefing file had told him to expect a reasonable fellow in Steyer, classically stoic throughout a career of navigating bubbles, never one to let emotion cost him a deal point. At the moment, this was not the case. Steyer was a hair-on-fire Field Marshal, and the cliché hyperbole transmitted over the secure line seemed to be muffled by the thick bandaging around his chin. This Balthazer character had proven out of the gate he could have a disorienting impact on the otherwise controlled Steyer. For all Hussaini knew, Steyer would be as unknown to Balthazer as Balthazer should have remained to Steyer, but in an instant that was no longer possible. Steyer would have zero interest in a repackaged street performer like Balthazer, even less in his sad audience, but Hussaini had to make it clear the luxury of that ignorance had evaporated in internet time. The last thing Steyer needed at this strategic inflection point was to be on a collision course with a flunkout talk show host, and yet, the market forces had acted without his permission.
Despite his distaste for the assignment, Hussaini knew he had been the right call by Henderson. Counterterrorism had taught Hussaini the unyielding power of packet transfer, how quickly data moved, how much of it was flawed, and how unscientifically the public would react to media snacks. Hussaini was a polished thinker, he knew that content had a life of its own, and he understood more than most of his peers that speed was everything in reducing a potential catastrophe to a news cycle crisis. Within minutes of Balthazer’s sign-on—reported to Hussaini by his data center when first mention of the EnvisionInk tag triggered a keyword alert—Hussaini had ordered all the driveways and entry paths barricaded around Salinas Valley Memorial Medical Center. A half hour later, a parade of cars hauling in the spectator traffic he had anticipated were backed up into the surface streets of Salinas. In just over an hour, the freeway ramps leading to the hospital in both directions had to be closed and road traffic was being police directed to bypass the hospital for anything but a demonstrated medical emergency. That only served to push the crowds on foot to approach the hospital, and that required Hussaini to call for more local police to hold them back. Balthazer’s online antics had gone viral, igniting a free for all that invited all those within fifty miles of the vicinity with little better to do than come watch the live cop show.
Hussaini knew that on a better day Steyer might have admired how much he understood what he was dealing with, but he could appreciate that Steyer had reason to be on edge, awaiting response from Ben and Jerry to the company’s refusal to pay up. In their introductory exchange earlier that day, Hussaini had told Steyer to expect that Ben and Jerry would refuse to answer any further phone calls following the press release yesterday, until the very last moment as they approached the 6:00 p.m. deadline. That was how amateurs would play it, and from all the data he could observe, Hussaini was certain he was dealing with lightweights. That had not given Hussaini reason for comfort, true to form, the more foolish the criminal, the more havoc they could create. High stress and stupidity were as bad a combination in crime as they were in business. No question about it, with this much inexperience in play, speed was going to mean everything. The faster the strike force was allowed to move in, the fewer lives would be lost.
Steyer’s temper had been worsening as the clock ticked. It was only a few hours to the 6:00 p.m. ultimatum, and he had no idea what might happen next. He had been told by Hussaini, Henderson, and every subject matter expert he trusted that the board made the correct decision not to negotiate, that Ben and Jerry would inevitably break down with no other alternatives. As soon as they showed weakness, the FBI would pounce. Of course all that was before Balthazer had made the location public, welcoming the media circus that arrived on cue.
Steyer was in his understated but refined garden office suite at SugarSpring Ventures, two blocks off University Avenue in Palo Alto, about half an hour from EnvisionInk’s offices in Santa Clara. Most of the Silicon Valley Investor Class made camp in a renowned axis of low rise clusters along Sand Hill Road in adjacent Menlo Park, but Steyer always wanted SugarSpring to be a little different, physically annexed to Stanford’s academia, a less traceable place for entrepreneurs to be seen coming and going with their endless pitches. Sitting across his new world composite desk when the Balthazer advisory notice came from Hussaini was Atom Heart Entertainment CEO Sol Seidelmeyer. Steyer had not planned on Seidelmeyer’s visit, he just happened to drop by a few minutes after the studio’s Falcon 2000 landed in San Jose and a town car delivered him unannounced to SugarSpring’s beveled glass door. Steyer knew that to turn him away upon his unscheduled visit would not have made for a more productive dialogue—full service private jets these days, with operating costs above $5,000 per hour, had to be justified, even by CEOs—but he needed to consider what lines he might be crossing having Seidelmeyer on his sofa when the call came from Hussaini.
“We share this mishegas, put him on speakerphone,” said Seidelmeyer, gazing around Steyer’s unadorned working space, likely looking for anything that might be useful. “I promise to stay quiet.”
Steyer looked past his own bruises at Seidelmeyer’s primal, piercing eyes. What else could he do? He took the call with Hussaini live, but did not announce Seidelmeyer’s presence.
“So a fully masked worker bee blurts out the location on internet radio, just like that?” continued Steyer into the polycom. “Aren’t there laws that stop that sort of thing?”
“You know the internet as well as I do, Mr. Steyer,” said the special agent, his tone of displeasure professionally ambiguous. “You’re aware we can’t enforce laws if people are anonymous. That caller is long gone from Best Buy, which is as far as we could trace the IP.”
“What about the moron host, Balthazer, where was he?” asked Steyer.
“As far as we can tell, at a McDonald’s in Stockton,” answered Hussaini. “We haven’t completely tied down that piece, but we’re working on it. We do know he was fired from his last radio job in Fresno over a month ago. He burned his landlord for the rent, has a hearing pending with the FCC, and drives an Infiniti M. But he hasn’t really broken any law, certainly no federal statute that would let us bring him in. According to our lawyers, he’s safely within his First Amendment rights, particularly as a journalist.”
“A journalist, are you kidding me, where’d he study, the WikiLeaks School of Ethics?” blurted Steyer.
“Talk show hosts have the same halo,” qualified Hussaini. “As long as he doesn’t incite violent action, he is within legal bounds.”
“Outstanding,” proclaimed Steyer. “When they bring out Choy and Finkelman sideways on a stretcher, you can tell their moms all about the First Amendment. What happens now?”
“It’s their move, they set the deadline. If we don’t hear from them by 6:00 p.m., the Director should give us the order to move in. We are readying for position on that. We have a well-trained team on the ground and will do what we can to keep civilian impact at a minimum, including your guys. My crew is tight and will be ready to do what they’re good at. If we go in, it will be quick. Hopefully Ben and Jerry will negotiate and we’ll talk them out, but that’s their call. If they want to negotiate, they’ll let someone know.”
“Keep us apprised,” said Steyer as he clicked off the polycom. He probably had not noticed that he had said “us” instead of “me,” but then, Hussaini likely presumed others were listening in, though not corporate competitors bound by SEC regulations. Steyer shook his head in derision after another unneeded jolt, looking to the sun-worn Seidelmeyer for anything encouraging.
“You got a tough situation on your hands,” offered Seidelmeyer. “I’m not sure what I would do if I were you.”
“After this deal, you are me,” said Steyer. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“We don’t have a deal,” replied Seidelmeyer. “Last I looked we were about $6 billion apart, which I know in your world is not big money. Heck, you got almost half that on the lift this morning. My offer is still above market. The stock’s adjusted to a price the Street can swallow. I’m doing better than that, the deal should be easy for you. If you want to tell me the gap is closed, we can talk about what happens next.”
“Sol, don’t try to use this string of events to tell me you’re not paying the expected premium. That’s unbecoming, even for you.”
“I’m a showman, what do I know about asking for the wrong thing?” quipped Seidelmeyer. “You have a point of view and I have a point of view. The difference is, you have a problem and I really don’t.”
“Sol, you do have a problem. You’re old, and your company is old. Without EnvisionInk, you have no growth story. Your board tosses you out, sells to someone else and blames you for blowing the deal. Your legacy will be that of a failed Neanderthal. No one will remember what you did to put that company on the map, all those movie openings, all those shows and networks, all those dividends. All they will remember is that you were brushed aside, bitter and dusty, because you missed the shift to digital. No one remembers obsolete.”
“You’re a putz,” said Seidelmeyer. “You may have more money in the steel vault than me, but you haven’t created anything lasting. Dollars come, dollars go, who remembers, who cares? My company touches lives and we make a fine profit.”
“Sol, we can agree to disagree, or we can piss on each other, which isn’t going to win you another Academy Award. You want an Act Three, we’re your Act Three. You become chairman of a goliath industrial, my partners get liquidity and I go away, everyone’s happy. You want to retire as a goat, walk out the door and leave me to figure this out on my own. Right now I can’t even think about price. If I don’t get those kids back alive, we have nothing.”
“Funny, the Street doesn’t see it that way,” said Seidelmeyer, regaining an even tone. “The kids are tied to a bomb, you leaked our deal, and the Street is sending up balloons.”
“That’s because they’re confident we will get them back, and get a deal. That’s what we hinted. For big institutional holders to dump volume with Choy and Finkelman an unknown, and a clear path to a combination viable, that leaves money on the table, so arbitrage is indulging us. But we only have a few hours.”
“Those bumpkin punks are bluffing,” said Seidelmeyer. “The special agent has a mirror on the crown moldings behind their cards. They don’t even know what game they’re playing. This is ours to lose. You hold tight, they’ll cave. I’ve played at this table before.”
“You’ve had top executives kidnapped?” asked Steyer.
“I’ve been held hostage by the likes of you, not a lot different. We just have to figure how to get out.”
Getting out had to be a concept well understood by Sol Seidelmeyer. At sixty-eight years old, he was both legend and target. He was a monument of the traditional, with more framed top ticket one-sheets than wall space, but creative destruction had thrown him big time. Steyer knew from public record that Seidelmeyer had lost hundreds of millions of dollars on convergence folly, buying this and that inflated asset brought to him in time-strapped auctions by friends, enemies, and Bankers. When Seidelmeyer took over Atom Heart some twenty years ago, the world was a simpler place. No one back then called movies and television shows and magazines “content,” an appalling descriptor that purposely lacked respect. Even the term “media” was insulting to the old guard, suggesting undifferentiated, ephemeral stuff that was created to charge people admission or paste up with ads. What Seidelmeyer and his teams created was Entertainment, another of America’s greatest and singularly most unique twentieth century contributions to the global economy, after affordable motor cars and before computing power. The twenty-first century had come with promise that this new “digital paradigm shift” would make the half dozen surviving showbiz conglomerates even more at the hub of all knowledge transfer, as deregulation spilling over from the Reagan Revolution allowed production and distribution to legally consolidate with technology as the fulcrum that tilted the see-saw in favor of the studios.
Unfortunately it had not worked out the way the pundits called the breakthrough. Mergers like AOL Time Warner proved to be much better PowerPoint decks than they were companies to run. Young customers upon whom so much of entertainment’s unprecedented margins depended found stealing a much preferred alternative to paying. Fragmentation made audiences smaller, while talent manipulated the few big audiences remaining to drive operating costs higher. Failing to navigate this landscape had, as Steyer so gently articulated, destroyed more old world careers than it elevated, with almost all Hollywood obituaries now ending in sentences that said the subject had enjoyed a meteoric rise on the creative front but ultimately sunk to demise in the mash-up of digital carnage. Sol Seidelmeyer was the last old world body standing, and carnage would not be a concept he wanted in his obituary or backstabbing wine bar eulogies east or west of Rodeo Drive. He made it clear he never liked the idea of merging Atom Heart and EnvisionInk, but he liked every conceivable alternative less. In that spirit, the final chapter of his storybook seemed to be all he cared about, and in trying to draft those chapters he had become beholden to Steyer. Now for the briefest of moments, it seemed Steyer needed him, a carved path through the muck that he knew much better than Steyer, a place where surviving was winning and reality was interpretation.
“Daniel, I think a door just opened and we need to walk through it,” continued Seidelmeyer. “First you have to see it.”
“Tell me what I don’t know, wise man,” taunted Steyer.
“Kimo Balthazer might be the best thing we have going right now,” replied Seidelmeyer.
“That blowhard? I suppose you know him from social circles.”
“Not personally, but we own about three dozen radio stations that carried him. I know his act, his ego, what he likes on the menu. If we feed him what he eats, he’s our tiger in the cage. He can help.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” said Steyer. “You think that lunatic is going to get Choy and Finkelman out of there?”
“I didn’t say is, I said can.” Seidelmeyer saw that Steyer really was listening, another door had opened. “I’ll bet you the $6 billion he’s on his way to Salinas this very second. He’s a mud scavenger. He goes where the mud is and makes misery his triumph. It’s an old formula, and it pulls big numbers.”
“What are you suggesting we do?” asked Steyer, cautious but intrigued.
“Call back Special Agent in Charge Hussaini. Tell him when he sees the Infiniti to let it through.”
“What good will that do?” asked Steyer, still not following. “You heard Hussaini. In a few hours the whole hospital will be up in smoke.”
“Not a chance,” said Seidelmeyer. “You may know about bits and bytes and be able to remember every equation Newton saw in his dreams. My business is built on the backs of lies. All of LA is a house of cards. To be a remarkable asshole in LA requires aspiration, because to be an ordinary asshole is accomplished by everybody. The two schmendricks that have your CEOs, they’re bluffing. You keep your money in the pot, they will not plug your CEOs. No chance, not going to happen. I’ll put my new last, best, and final offer, $46.5 billion, on that. I’m right and no one else gets capped, you agree. I’m wrong, I pay you a $2 billion breakup fee for the inconvenience. Fair wager?”
“I’m not betting with you, Sol,” said Steyer. “And we’re not going to break any securities laws discussing this out of process.”
“I agree,” said Seidelmeyer. “So do we have a deal?”
Steyer shook his head in disbelief, then yanked the polycom from the wall and reached for his desk phone. Whatever he was going to say to Special Agent Hussaini, he was not going to give Seidelmeyer the satisfaction of more than half the dialogue.
“It’s kind of too bad the doctors saved my leg,” said Finkelman. “It really isn’t going to matter much when Ben and Jerry put us down.”
“That’s pretty advanced reconstruction work they started to let it go to waste, major league medical bills,” replied Choy. “I told them while you were under if you weren’t windsurfing again with the Stanford alums at Coyote Point this time next year, you were coming after the hospital for a refund. Of course to ask for your money back, we’ll need to be alive. Call me an optimist.”
“If they do pull the trigger, it’s not like we’ll die in obscurity,” said Finkelman, pointing to the television with one hand while checking the sensory response of his healing limb with a digital pen in the other.
He and Choy were alone again in the inner room of the hospital suite, watching the media circus on their in-room TV, observing with overdubbed commentary events taking place not fifty yards from them outside the building walls of the medical complex. They had not seen daylight since Sunday afternoon. That night had been spent on the operating table with Monday in recuperation. Ben and Jerry had told them about the board call, strangely hopeful that Steyer would find a way to give them what they wanted, then seen their hopes dashed when the press release appeared that afternoon. That had been just over twenty-four hours ago, and they had been locked in the room ever since with only doctors and food bearing attendants appearing and disappearing briefly. Ben and Jerry currently had no more interest in talking to them than in talking to their board. It was a defensive posture of silence, which in their minds had only come to mean one thing. At the 6:00 p.m. deadline, the last line of their bios was likely to be written, and somehow they knew that part of the story might overpower most memory of what had come before.
The telephone had been removed from the inner room upon their arrival, and Ben and Jerry had not left them with an internet connection, a laptop, a tablet, or any mobile devices. Kindly enough, they had left Choy and Finkelman with the television intact, largely because it was built into the wall, but more so because the information it was likely to provide was hazy enough given the facts that had been released, and at this point Ben and Jerry’s identity was still just that, unknown and unimportant. What had broken on the local news moments ago was something about a radio host on the internet named Kimo Balthazer, which meant nothing whatsoever to them given their media preferences. The reporter onscreen had reported that the location of Choy and Finkelman had been announced but not yet verified, which Choy and Finkelman knew could not be of value to them. Choy and Finkelman watched the unfolding snippets on TV, as not only media trucks arrived on the hospital site, but ropes and cones were put in place to restrain the crowds of onlookers who seemed to be defying gravity by making their way to the crime scene climbing over anything in their path.
“That radio guy gave up our location,” said Choy. “Someone at the hospital is going to verify we’re here. Then this freak show is going to turn into a stampede.”
“They’re idiots,” said Finkelman. “Don’t they know by coming here they put themselves in the same danger we’re in? Look at all those FBI vehicles, all the police, they’ve got more loaded weapons than Waco. They’re waiting for someone to give the order, then they come in and it’s over. Who knows what spills where? It’s so stupid.”
“There has to be some way to convince Ben and Jerry they’re in over their heads,” said Choy. “Come on, all the resources we have, everything we’ve built, we’re locked in a room with a TV and no one will talk to us? We can’t die like this. I’m guessing Ben and Jerry don’t want to die either. They called it wrong, now they’re frozen. We have to help them get unfrozen.”
“How do we help them if they won’t even talk to us?” said Finkelman. “I can’t even walk right now with this brace on my leg and these things in my arms. We can’t leave even if we wanted to. Either they make a deal or none of it matters.”
“There’s no deal to be made, Stephen. The only deal is they go to prison forever. If I were them, I wouldn’t want that deal either.”
“How do we help them?” asked Finkelman.
“Help them?” echoed Choy. “There’s no helping them. We belong to them. This is their problem, not our problem.”
“Calvin, let’s think of this as a business problem. Brainstorm it, break the algorithm. Make it the kind of problem we are good at solving.”
“I hear you,” said Choy. “I guess we have to be smarter than they are. We can’t let them solve it or everyone loses.”
“Right,” said Finkelman. “We have to help them solve it in a way that works for them first, us second.”
“How do we do that?” asked Choy.
“Maybe we give them what they want,” said Finkelman. “They want money to start a company and a flight to somewhere they can build it. We make that happen.”
“But the board unilaterally rejected their request,” said Choy. “They read us the press release before they went silent. The company did what we should have expected.”
“Right, pretty much by law the board of a public company in a public spectacle can’t negotiate with them,” said Finkelman. “But we can.”
Despite being pinned to a hospital bed with a decent level of painkillers running through his veins, Stephen Finkelman had deduced a key point. The logic was not lost on Choy, whose emerging apathy was suddenly replaced by a shared moment of understanding. Besides both being brilliant engineers, Choy and Finkelman had long ago discovered a rhythm with each other in their thinking patterns, a shared set of values that let them problem solve together in ways that were exponentially better than what either of them could imagine on their own, and what together they could implement in ways that made their competition repeatedly blink. This ability to riff had always been what made them not just good, but exceptional.
“I see where you’re going,” followed Choy. “Regardless of what the company can’t or shouldn’t do, we’re still private citizens. What means we have is ours.”
“We don’t need the company’s Gulfstream, we have our own plane,” added Finkelman. “Ben and Jerry didn’t see that in the 10K because it’s ours. It doesn’t belong to EnvisionInk.”
“So if we want to offer them a ride, we just do it?” queried Choy.
“There is the matter of the FBI letting us leave the country. We’re going to have to get the Feds onboard. As for the money, we take the offer up, we can each give them $100 million and neither of us will ever miss it. It’s our own money to give away, or invest, whatever you want to call it.”
“You’re right, it’s almost nothing, especially when you think about what we’re buying,” said Choy. “So you’re thinking we just tell them they can have what they want, we all walk out of here together and fly to Shanghai, then we put them in business and come home? It has to be harder than that.”
“Compared to being shot dead in the next two hours, I’d call it a plan worth trying,” replied Finkelman.
“You’re clearly the smarter of the two of us,” said Choy. “Tell me, what’s this crap about Atom Heart Entertainment? You and I nixed that months ago. It’s a dinosaur lodged in a tar pit. What was that doing in the press release?”
“I’m not smarter than you, Calvin, that’s why the company works. What Atom Heart is doing in the press release makes no sense to me. It’s like Steyer and the board are running a shadow management roundtable. I know Steyer wanted the deal, but we didn’t and we’re the CEOs. I thought that was behind us.”
“Guess we missed the wrong board meeting,” commented Choy. “We’re going to have to fix that, too. So how do we pull all this off? We are a bit restrained at the moment.”
“First, we have to get Ben and Jerry to talk to us. You seem to have a built a relationship with Jerry. You need to take the first opportunity you can to get him talking to you, programmer to programmer.”
“I can do that,” said Choy. “Then what?”
“We’re going to need to get them to let us talk to whoever is in charge of this operation. Somehow we have to get in touch with the outside. Some rules are going to have to get broken. That’s going to take some smoothing over.”
“Steyer?” asked Choy.
“Not this round,” said Finkelman. “I’m having some trust issues with this Atom Heart override. Steyer has to be calling the shots, but who knows what his agenda is. After the two of us, he’s the one with the most at stake, like $10 billion of SugarSpring’s gains still tied up in EnvisionInk paper. For a path to full liquidity, I think he’s playing for his own team.”
“We need a lawyer,” said Choy. “We need Sylvia. She’s objective and she’s unconflicted. Pure fiduciary.”
“I think you’re right,” said Finkelman. “We need a wall between us and the board, before our investors lock in a point of view. We’re supposed to be insiders, but right now not so much. We need to get to Sylvia so she can cut us a deal.”
In the outer room of the hospital suite, Swerlow and Kisinski were pacing. Save for the closed door, they were all but showing their cards. They heard muffled bits of the conversation in the inner room, and had they wanted to pay attention all they had to do was crack the door open and they could have heard every word Choy and Finkelman were saying. They were uninterested, they had their own problem to solve, and not much time left before they lost all the leverage they had created. Kisinski was out of patience.
“They said no, Dennis. They didn’t say maybe. The press release was definitive and public. What do you think we’re going to do now, kill the two of them like you threatened? If that’s your plan, I’m out. I’m walking up to the closest FBI agent I can find and surrendering.”
“They’ve called us every hour since they dropped the press release,” said Swerlow. “They want to negotiate.”
“And you won’t take the call,” countered Kisinski. “To negotiate you have to have a dialogue, words go back and forth. That’s not the message we’re sending. In terms of negotiation, I think the only options left for us are death or prison. I’m not seeing a Boy Scout trail to the Shanghai Jamboree. I just know I’m not going to be part of killing anyone else.”
“There’s no proof we killed anyone, Sam. I keep telling you that. You fade in and out on me.”
“Those are nice guys in there. They haven’t done anything wrong. We have to let them go. No more blood.”
“I’m almost ready to talk,” said Swerlow. “I just need to get the approach right. On the next call, I’ll pick it up. I promise.”
“Outstanding, Dennis, an hour before expiration and at last you’re ready to schmooze. What do you want to do now, offer a discount?”
“No, that won’t work,” said Swerlow. “They aren’t playing this right. They aren’t playing it right at all.”
“You were so sure they would do it your way. What made you so sure, Dennis?”
“Because, damn it, it was a good deal. Good business people take good deals.”
“Not from losers like us, Dennis. We’ve gotten ourselves trapped in here. The only thing that’s kept us from being identified is that we’re so irrelevant no one can even match the surveillance video from Steyer’s house to any database anywhere we exist at all. Now we’re on the evening news. As soon as that door opens, someone watching TV will call up and ID us for the high five—and the only thing my mom and your mom are going to be asking themselves is what went wrong with their parenting skills.”
“We’re not going to prison, I can tell you that,” said Swerlow. “Guys like us don’t do well in prison. There’s no way this ends in a locked cage, not a chance.”
“Fine, then let’s let the CEO boys go and take the bullet and call this done. I couldn’t write code again even if I wanted to. I’m fried.”
There was a pounding on the inner door. Choy and Finkelman obviously heard their argument and wanted to get their attention.
“Maybe we get them on the phone with Steyer, make them believe we’re serious,” said Swerlow. “Those two guys can sell it. We gotta get them to want to work with us.”
“We’re not serious, Dennis, and even if we were, Steyer isn’t negotiating. But maybe you’re right about getting Choy and Finkelman to work with us. They’re smart guys, maybe they can think of something. Maybe they already have.”
There was more pounding on the inner door, a steady but insistent beat that would not stop. The co-CEOs clearly wanted to talk. Kisinski liked the idea of working them as an angle. It seemed his cousin was still trying to second guess their intentions, to control the moment and steer the conversation. Swerlow was sweating heavily now. The phone would likely ring again in a matter of moments, and this time Kisinski knew if Swerlow did not answer it, a battlefield strike would be imminent. There was just over an hour left to their self-imposed deadline. This was Swerlow’s last chance to spin it.
“Maybe Choy and Finkelman can get us immunity,” said Swerlow. “They seem really scared. Maybe they can convince someone on the outside we’re not full of shit and the FBI will have to hit us so hard it won’t be worth it. If the difference between all of us getting killed and us getting out of the country is Choy and Finkelman selling the FBI, they could position it as an act of goodwill. Stranger offers have been made. We’re going to have to scare them a little more though, you know. Shake them up so they have reason to fight for us.”
Swerlow drew his weapon and approached the door. Kisinski hesitantly followed along as Swerlow reached for the door knob, opened it and walked through. Choy and Finkelman appeared almost surprised they had responded. There was a brief silence no one seemed quite sure how to overcome. Choy broke the ice.
“You two have been doing some talking,” said Choy, directing his line of sight at Kisinski. “Sounds like you might not have a clear path from here to there.”
“We know what we’re doing,” blurted Swerlow, embarrassingly unconvincing.
“Let me try, I have this,” said Kisinski, adroitly cutting off his cousin, knowing that a few more wrong words from Swerlow would likely put them on an irreversible path to melt down. Kisinski could see that Choy was deftly reaching across the aisle, a young pro to his rookie sloppiness. Somehow he and Choy had bonded at the roadside rest stop. It was all quite strange, as if they had worked together developing a set of libraries and formed their own shorthand.
“You’ve been talking a bit in here, too,” continued Kisinski. “Maybe you’ve thought of something we’ve missed.”
“I don’t think you want to kill us,” said Choy. “I know you shot Stephen, and who knows what happened to that Banker, but it seems like that’s just what happened. It wasn’t what you wanted to happen.”
“Don’t question our intensions,” interrupted Swerlow. “You guys want to get back on the job someday, you’re going to have to step up for us.”
“I said I have this, Dennis,” reiterated Kisinski more firmly, for the first time saying his cousin’s real first name in front of the others. Swerlow shot him a vicious look of contempt, like he had just blown it. Kisinski remained laser focused on Choy, who picked up the opening.
“We were thinking you might let us try a call or two, buy some time, work a little outreach,” said Choy. “The 6:00 p.m. deadline is going to creep up on us pretty quickly if we don’t stop the timer. Some folks might get antsy, read that wrong, and they have more guns than you do.”
“We were thinking something similar,” said Kisinski. “You think you can move this along so none of us gets hurt?”
“My partner and I have a fair amount of money that is our own,” said Choy.
“We also have a Boeing Business Jet that’s ours, not the company’s,” added Finkelman, pulling himself to eye level in the hospital bed. “It’s pretty big and well-equipped with a private office, not super long range, but it can be refueled with a quick landing on a decent route.”
Swerlow’s eyes nearly exploded, visibly protruding from his head. He looked at Cousin Sam, who was in equal disbelief, doing everything he could not to show a response.
“Are you saying that you can give us what EnvisionInk can’t?” queried Swerlow, waving the pistol back and forth.
“Well, technically, I suppose in the United States of America, an individual still has free will to do what he wants with that which belongs to him,” said Choy. “There is still a question around any crimes that have been committed, getting those in authority to agree that letting us act on our wishes will provide the best outcome for all.”
Swerlow and Kisinski stared at each other, incredulous. The moment drifted into a standoff, as they recalculated their approach silently on the spot.
Choy and Finkelman could not be sure what to make of the soft stalemate. Maybe they were wrong about their captors. Maybe the aforementioned Dennis and his partner truly were bad guys and thought this was a ploy. Maybe they would just shoot them in the next few minutes and be done with it. Finkelman was not willing to risk it.
“You asked EnvisionInk for an infusion of $100 million,” said Finkelman from the hospital bed. “They said no, because given the circumstances, they really can’t. Calvin and I think you’re a pretty good investment opportunity. We’re prepared to each put in $100 million. That’s $200 million to get you capitalized. Provided someone out there has the authority to allow it, we’ll fly you to Shanghai like you asked, on our plane. You just have to promise—promise—to let us go safely when it’s done.”
“Five hundred million dollar valuation,” declared Swerlow, a non-sequitur if ever there was one. “We don’t want to seem less than appreciative, but we need to retain control. You get 40% of the NewCo, we get 60%. But you have my word, you’ll do well on your return. And you’ll walk away without fail when you get back from China, you have our categorical promise.”
Finkelman looked at Choy and nodded his approval. Choy returned the nod without hesitation, though more subtle in gesture. It was all too surreal. They had a deal.
“How do you get us from here to the airport?” asked Kisinski, hanging slowly on each word. Before Choy or Finkelman could answer, Swerlow was building on the plan, drawing the disposable mobile from his pocket.
“This phone has rung every hour on the hour since we got the press release,” noted Swerlow. “We haven’t answered it since we talked to the board. When it rings again, it’s your move.”
“When it rings again, you tell whoever is on the line there’s no 6:00 p.m. deadline, that you’ve extended it indefinitely and no one is going to be killed tonight,” said Choy. “Then you ask whoever it is to put our general counsel and corporate secretary, Sylvia Normandy, on the phone. Tell them Stephen and I are asking for her, as her boss, and everyone else is instructed to leave the room as the call is privileged and confidential information. If she isn’t there, and she will be, you have her call us back when she’s alone. Then you leave Stephen and I alone to talk to her. Got all that, Dennis?”
Choy and Finkelman were taking command. Somewhere along the way it was clear they had learned what it meant to be CEO. They may not have had control of the entire situation, but they had gained control of the moment. For now, that was more than enough. Swerlow and Kisinski had the makings of a deal, which was worth a full $200 million more than it was fifteen minutes ago when they were simply playing for their own lives. It was blind, it was messy, but in business parlance, it was a hell of a win-win.
All Choy and Finkelman had to do now was sell it. That might not have seemed like such a great task to own, but compared to letting Ben and Jerry try to land their wreck in the river, they were practically packing their bags. They also had bought themselves 40% of a new high-tech venture in China. The day would end quite differently than seemed likely. Overtime would be added to the clock. No one in this wing of Salinas Valley Memorial Medical Center needed to die tonight.
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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