The date was February 13 and Grey was feeling annoyed – annoyed at himself for not allowing enough time between appointments. The previous one, at his office, had overrun, and now if the traffic was as bad as he feared it should be he would probably be late for his interview with Chalk. He wished he’d insisted they meet at his firm instead of at the newspaper, but then again, part of the job of an opinion former is to make seeming accommodations with those whose opinions he must form.
Grey hated unpunctuality at all times, but with the media it was worse. They always had some kind of deadline to meet. Grey also despised hurry, but on this occasion he went so far as to mention to his driver that he would really appreciate being able to arrive at the specified time.
The driver, a young Asian guy dressed in bright sportswear, treated him to a big grin, as if they were old friends sharing a secret. This was disconcerting, as Grey couldn’t recall ever having seen this person before. He was aware that the firm was now using drivers from a company called ‘Up and Over’ instead of taxis. A new business model that was currently fashionable. Drivers weren’t actually employed and they had no idea where they were going, but since navigation was provided by technology, that made ‘Up and Over’ a business disruptor, and therefore interesting, rather than a simple exploiter of cheap labour. Grey’s firm, deWitt, prided itself on being able to spot new business trends that disrupted existing markets.
In fact, although deWitt still gained most of its revenue from boring old accountancy services, the senior partners who imagined they ran the business preferred to think of the firm as being engaged in something much more exciting. Grey owed his own partnership status to that preoccupation. His role in the firm was to pick out the newly fashionable ideas that had some potential, the emerging paradigms if you would, and persuade the captains of industry they needed to understand the impending upheavals which these might cause, so as to revise their business strategy accordingly. The understanding would be provided by deWitt Consulting, naturally, at a (substantial) cost that could hardly be considered material, because how can you set a price on keeping ahead of the game?
Grey himself had few illusions about the possible futures he peddled. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French say, and he’d been around long enough to see the same ideas recycled as new more than once. Privately he considered the captains of industry could better spend their time managing the businesses they were generously recompensed to lead (nowadays only workers were paid. Chief executives were recompensed or compensated for their efforts). But he was aware that his firm was complicit in a sort of game. Leaders, or visionaries or whatever they were at the time, couldn’t justify the rewards they obtained and the greater ones they desired merely by running their businesses, they needed to be seizing new opportunities and fighting off unforeseeable threats. Consequently, it was seldom difficult to persuade chief executives and the like that they needed to invest in emerging change. The trickier part of the business was to find the little snowballs of ideas currently in vogue and know which ones could be rolled downhill far enough to become so big as to attract attention.
Thoughts such as these were occupying Grey’s mind just now, when really he should have been going over what he was going to say to Chalk, but to think about that would be to remind himself he was going to be late for their appointment. The traffic had congealed, leaking exhaust fumes and frustration onto the London street. and they were travelling nowhere fast.
To avoid thinking about the journey, Grey’s attention diverted back to his driver. He liked to think he never forgot a face, however insignificant a connection, but as he looked across at the man behind the wheel, he didn’t stir any recollection. The guy looked so pleased to see him. Had he for some reason been given a huge tip on a previous occasion? Hardly likely – Grey didn’t see the point of making payments over and above what was specified in a contract.
“Remind me where we last met,” Grey asked the driver.
Jeff had seen right away that Mr. Grey didn’t remember him. That was something to be expected. Mr. Grey was an important man. Jeff was important too, at least in his own house. But Mr. Grey was alright. For a start off he was polite – not like some of those who would try to blame you if the traffic was bad, as it always was. Might as well blame the weather. And not one of those who was secretly uncomfortable to be sharing the space inside a car with a dark-skinned man.
More importantly, Mr. Grey was his friend and benefactor. Without him, Jeff might not have a job. Well, he didn’t have a job as such. Up and Over was very clear about letting its drivers know they were self-employed, meaning apparently that you had to pay them as well as everybody else. But work was work anyway.
Jeff knew he wasn’t stupid, but maybe he had to drive a car for a living because he didn’t have much education. He hadn’t bothered much with education because as a young boy he’d watched his father study and do without in order to finally qualify as an accountant, like Mr. Grey, and he’d seen where that had got his father, who did some book keeping work but himself had to drive one of Uncle Rashid’s cabs to make ends meet. His dad was no better off than his grandparents, who couldn’t even speak English right and still lived as if they were back in the village, keeping their little shop open all hours and trying to ignore what customers said about them. Uncle Rashid hadn’t spent much time at school either, but he was doing alright. Admittedly the businesses he had apart from the taxis weren’t exactly legal, but what good was legal if it meant you were trapped in the shit?
Jeff didn’t want to work for Uncle Rashid though. It wasn’t so much where he might end up in difficulties with the police – more that Uncle Rashid and all that side of the family were very traditional in their attitudes.
The thing he had with Carol – they were living together – didn’t sit well with the family. They had a flat and a little kid, and Carol was white. The men on Uncle Rashid’s side of the family weren’t against the idea of having sex with a white girl – they used to joke about it all the time and not in very nice ways – but setting up home with one was something else altogether, and with the women of the family it was worse.
Carol should understand that, without words needing to be said, but since the baby arrived all she cared about was getting enough money for it. So Jeff was under pressure from the family and at home to drive for Uncle Rashid, and he didn’t want to do it. When he first heard about Up and Over, it would have seemed like an answer to his prayers, except he didn’t pray.
Jeff’s grandparents lent them the money for the Skoda. He didn’t ask his dad, knowing there was nothing to spare at home. It wasn’t an easy life, but little by little things were getting better. He even had a bit of extra cash for a smoke every now and again.
Jeff had heard about Bytepence. It was something new and different, like Up and Over. It was instead of money, or else it was secret money. You had to buy it with ordinary cash, but then you could spend it on what you liked without anyone knowing. Jeff liked to smoke weed and so did most of his friends. He could get it from Uncle Rashid easily enough, but then there would be strings attached, so since the split with the family he’d been in some difficulty. Supposedly there were internet sites where you could order smokes with Bytepence and it would be deiivered to your door without your needing to deal with a street dealer.
There were only two problems. Firstly he had to buy more stuff than he really needed, but that didn’t really matter because the friends would always help out, and secondly, was it actually real or would he end up getting nothing in return for his money.
A few months ago, he’d explained this problem to one of his fares, who turned out to be Mr. Grey, because Mr. Grey seemed like someone who knew about money of all kinds, and clearly he wasn’t a policeman. Mr. Grey thought about his question for a moment and replied that he was sure Bytepence was genuine and it was very likely Jeff’s package would actually be delivered, because the suppliers would be looking to establish new sales channels, which were much more valuable than what they might gain from a one-off scam.
“So it was from you I knew it would be alright to buy some Bytepence,” Jeff concluded the short summary of this history that he’d been telling Mr. Grey.
Grey now had a vague memory of the conversation. Interesting how chaps like this spoke so matter of factly about deals that were illegal, but not exactly wrong. No embarrassment there at all.
“But didn’t we speak about a little more than that?” he asked.
“That’s right. I asked you how Bytepence would turn out in the end, and you said it would be carnage. Then I asked what you actually thought about it and you said you supposed it was something rather wicked.”
“But you went ahead anyway?”
“Course. I mean, carnage, wicked, that’s good right?”
“Oh, I see. And how have things worked out?”
Jeff said he’d bought some Pence and easily discovered sites offering weed, which was delivered to his flat exactly as promised – good stuff too. He’d then bought some more Pence for when he’d need to restock, but the truth was the first lot was enough to last him quite a while.
“To be honest I forgot about the currency, see. Which was stupid because money is pretty tight at home. There’s been a lot on my mind. And then the Skoda … well it’s a reliable car but nothing lasts forever. You probably can’t hear it now, but there’s a knocking and it’s something I’ve got to get seen to. If not it could go any time, and then what? But this job doesn’t pay well and then there’s the kid. It’s all expense and I can’t afford the repair. Worried sick and I’m thinking maybe I’ll have to go back to working for Uncle Rashid.”
“Then, yesterday, I remembered the Bytepence and I read now they could be worth more than when it started of, so I checked the prices and it was like a miracle. Now I don’t need to repair the car – I can buy a new one.”
“And maybe,” Jeff continued, “meeting you again today is like a continuation of the miracle – shows it’s real. Because I still can’t believe it really. My question for you, Mr. Grey, if you don’t mind – maybe I should keep the money a bit longer, maybe even buy some more? I mean maybe if I hang on, soon Carol and me might be rich.”
Grey allowed himself a half-smile. “I think maybe you should sell your Bytepence as soon as you can change them for real money,” he said.
“That’s what I thought too, thanks.”
In spite of the traffic, Grey realized they weren’t going to be late for his meeting with Chalk after all. It was a good story, Grey thought. ‘Carnage’ and ‘wicked’ taken as a buy recommendation. It would be easy to laugh at Jeff, but really when he thought about it, he shouldn’t. Twenty years in the business, you get to know that one way or another whenever you offer words of advice, people hear what they want to hear, not whatever it is you’re saying.
The outside of Chalk’s offices were all plate glass and concrete, columns arranged to obscure the point where you were actually supposed to go in. It was what you would expect for an established national newspaper that long ago separated from the actual business of print. In the lobby there were a pair of superciliously polite girls. One of them checked his name appeared on a list before issuing him a badge to get through through the entry system and telling him which floor to go to. When the lift opened, there was another reception area, where he was welcomed and ushered across to a space with magazines and the smell of coffee, to await Chalk’s arrival.
But although Grey was a little late, Chalk had not yet concluded a rather difficult meeting. She was wishing she’d never agreed to meet Vig at all, and grateful she’d insisted on seeing him at her own office and not at his place as suggested.
Vig was a small man who made lots of small nervous movements all the time, so much that it was impossible to feel at ease in his presence. The effect should have been comical, but there was something in his eyes, refracted by the thick lenses of his oversized spectacles, that was more unsettling than funny, especially when you knew who he worked for.
Long ago, Vig had been some kind of investment adviser. Now he just had one boss, who he referred to as the Client. For this person, he was the public face and chief fixer. The Client was a man powerful enough to change what might happen to countries, let alone individuals who got in his way. The old-fashioned mafia had limited ambitions, but the Client, and a few others like him, no longer recognized limits. Just as prohibition raised up the Italian gangs, the organized criminals of the old Eastern dictatorships were the creation of misplaced idealism. When communism fell and the West insisted all the vast state-owned assets be sold off in accordance with the religious creed of the Free Market, who else was going to grab what was suddenly available? There were no businessmen, and the politicians were discredited. When the grabbing and the inevitable feuding and blood-lust that came with it subsided, the Client was not exactly last man standing, but a capo among capos.
Who could know say Vig’s nervous little eyes had seen – what he knew that kept him awake at night? These days, the Client’s interests were more or less entirely legitimate, or so it was said, but Vig didn’t look any less hunted. And he had that unfortunate manner of one who’s conscious of being taken seriously only because he’s another man’s lackey. For all the comforts and wealth he’d gained in service, there was something in him waiting to swell up and demand respect in his own right.
So when Vig bustled into Chalk’s office, sat down without waiting to be asked, and laid his hands flat on her desk to indicate he was about to tell her something important, Chalk paid attention with something more than caution.
“This Bytepence thing is going to crash,” Vig told her flatly, “on Saint Valentine’s Day.”
“But that’s tomorrow. How could you know that would happen?”
Vig’s smile was unpleasant.
“You think it’s something I would leave to chance? It’s going to be made to happen and you’re going to help, just between ourselves. My client will be very grateful.”
“What makes you think I could help?”
Vig couldn’t keep his hands flat on the desk any longer. He threw his arms wide in a gesture that took in the whole office and the building in which it stood. Freed from the moment of concentrated stillness, his small frame immediately began to fidget independently of his train of thought.
“This newspaper has influence,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t read it, no-one does, but what you write gets reported in other places – gets into how people think.”
“And you,” he continued, “You’re the one for this job. What’s that byeline you use? – ‘the technology of business and the business of technology’. All the news that is news. I remember there was this once big time newspaper owner sent a war reporter to Cuba and the reporter complained there was no war. The boss told him, you write the prose, I’ll give you the war.”
“That was Citizen Kane – it’s fiction.”
“So you say.”
Chalk felt she was losing control of the situation, falling into a hole that seemed to have no bottom. Time to start again.
“Mr Vig,” she said, “I think you may be mistaken. Tell me what exactly it is you hope to do and why you think I could help.”
When he looked directly at her, the little eyes behind the oversized spectacle lenses seemed suddenly enormous. Chalk noticed the lenses themselves were dusty and stained.
“Vig is not my real name,” he said, “it’s just what everyone calls me, but Mr. Vig don’t do it. Listen carefully now, we don’t need to kill this currency exactly – just to make it crash. People are jittery anyway right now. It’s that greed versus fear, fear versus greed thing. In a few weeks time, nothing will have changed. You are going to write… well here, read it… you’re going to write this. You change it around a little and do your journalism thing so it sounds right.”
He handed her a scrap of paper with some handwritten paragraphs scrawled on the lined page.
“Don’t even think about keeping hold of that when you’re done,” Vig warned.
Unwillingly, Chalk scanned the words. What she was being asked to do now was something they warned you about – one of those moments when supposedly if you take the easy way out you can never go back. But Vig wasn’t asking, he was telling. And the man he represented – she didn’t want to think about how that man would react if he didn’t get his way.
“This could be really good for your career”, Vig assured her soothingly, as if he were reading her thoughts.
Chalk re-read the words, hoping to discover some reason it would be impossible to write such a story, why the scheme couldn’t possibly work. But actually, she realized, it would be something very easy to do, without anyone knowing. It was such a simple thing to create panic. You didn’t need facts. Reporting facts would be less effective, because what is known can be evaluated and put in perspective. When something is merely rumoured it’s uncertain and more threatening.
“This has got to be worth something to you. What would I get in return?”
That was the point at which Vig knew he had her. Everything else was just a negotiation about price.
“I want you to set up an interview. It has to be exclusive”
“With Nortton Sakamoto.”
Vig held her stare. “I’ll see what I can do,” he told her. “Meanwhile, I understand you people work to deadlines. You should get to work on your piece. It has to be in tomorrow’s first editions.”
When Vig left Chalk’s office, he was feeling like a man reprieved from execution. That talking suit, Grey, was sitting in the waiting area – Chalk’s next appointment probably. Vig didn’t like that he’d been noticed, but Grey wasn’t a threat to anyone.
Vig had not told Chalk about his own position in this business – that wasn’t something anyone else could know, especially the Client. Months ago, Vig had been instructed to acquire a certain quantity of the crypto currency with funds made available to him for the purpose. The Client’s business was still not in fact so exclusively legitimate as was generally supposed, and the currency was to be used for certain transactions which they generally termed ‘off the books’. The completion date for the transaction wasn’t certain but the money would have to be paid immediately when it was due.
Naturally Vig did exactly what he was told, as always. Over the next few weeks, he kept an eye on the wildly fluctuating exchange rate of Pence. He noticed the peaks always ended up significantly higher than the troughs, as if the graph showed a progression up the Himalayas. Vig saw an opportunity it would be almost immoral not to seize. He’d been told to buy and hold a fixed number of Pence. If he sold his stake when it was high and bought back in when it was low, he’d still have what the Client expected of him and a fat profit besides.
Things went well. The trick was to know how far Pence might fall before it more than rebounded, and he told himself he had a feel for it. Soon he was using the profit from trading to buy more Pence on his own account. The more money you fed into the machine, the bigger the payout.
Then it went south. He got greedy, or over-confident, or unlucky, cashing out on a fall and missing a rebound that took the whole game to another level. Bytepence was now so expensive he’d no way to buy back in with the same volume. Which should have been okay. He was holding cash big, and you have to know when to walk away from the table. Only the Client had a contract to pay a certain number of Bytepence to his business associate when their venture matured, and now Vig didn’t have, and couldn’t get, that quantity.
The days after realisation sunk in, as the exchange rate remained stubbornly stable in defiance of Vig’s sincere prayers, were a fugue of misery and terror. Vig decided he should run, then he accepted there was nowhere far enough to run to. Finally he hit on an idea, while he was staring at the peaks and troughs of the graph, all triggered by events that could be irrelevant or else just a chance comment someone made. Instead of waiting for a downturn, he should make his own. That’s what the Client himself would have done. And so far, Vig’s plan was turning out to be much easier to accomplish than he’d expected.
Jeff didn’t really get time for a lunch break, but he usually tried to arrange things so he’d be close enough to call in at home at least once in the working day. From the moment he’d dropped off Mr. Grey, he’d been thinking about getting back to the flat. Carol was at home when he arrived, and the baby was acting up again. When the kid was crying and crying, Carol would get mad at Jeff like it was his fault, and she was no fun to be around. Normally Jeff would spend time trying to calm the pair of them down, but today he ignored the crying and the blame and went straight to the bedroom where he kept his laptop.
Mr. Grey had been quite clear he should sell, and when you met a guy like that twice, it meant something. It was a kind of sign. So once he’d put the sale of his own stake in train and felt he could breathe normally again, Jeff emailed some friends he’d talked about Bytepence with, to say if they were holding now was the time to get out. He would never know that the value of the movements he started crossed a certain threshold that ensured the attention of particular government departments dealing with counter terrorism, or that this plus the accident of his name and ethnic background qualified him to be listed as a person of interest.
Grey didn’t dislike Chalk, but dealing with her could be a pain because she was young and ambitious and there was too much she didn’t know. She was new to her desk and Grey knew that in spite of the ‘technology of business’ byeline she had no particular interest in or knowledge of technology. She’d wanted to be a mainstream financial correspondent, but those jobs were already taken by boys with the right family connections, while as far as tech was concerned, the journos who knew about it wanted to cover gaming companies or Silicon Valley politics, so technology of business was what was left over. Today they were going to talk about Bytepence, of course. What other subject was there?
“Perhaps the first thing I should ask,” Chalk began, “is could you describe, I mean for our readers’ benefit, the Bytepence technology in non-technical terms, without the jargon. And tell us why you think it’s so important.”
Grey smiled, his response to this question was practically off by heart at this stage, but he liked to think he could still offer an original perspective.
“The story starts in Genoa in 1340,” he began, “with the first recorded use of double entry book keeping. Then in 1458 a friend of da Vinci, but more important than Leonardo really, one Luca Pacioli, publishes an encyclopedia of mathematics, and in it the first useful accountant’s manual. City states like Florence and Venice used proper accounting and became rich enough to pay for the Renaissance.
“Pacioli made numbers respectable, where they’d been tainted by sorcery. Every entry reflected by its mirror image and all the sums in harmony. More importantly, double entry is the basis for all financial accounting still. If you don’t want to swap bags of gold or written promises by a King to pay the bearer, it’s what you depend on to trade – ledgers and a reliable audit trail.
“There’s a problem when we stop writing ledgers in heavy books that are locked in a safe, and turn them into computer records instead. If they are not secure enough, the numbers can be altered, and if you can’t trust the numbers then everything falls apart.
“So fast forward about six hundred years from Pacioli, and we have the blockchain, which is basically a clever way to make ledgers stay as they should be, even if someone breaks into your safe, or I should say, hacks your system. A written ledger has entries following each other down the page, with no gaps for false entries to be added later. A blockchain has bundles of data, like entries, that form links, related to each other in such a way that it’s impossible to break the chain and reattach it differently or with extra links that don’t belong.”
“But how does that idea turn into money?”
“You could think of each unit of … Bytepence for example, as a little golden chain that magically adds a new link every time it’s used for a transaction, as if you had a five pound note that remembered where it had been and whose it was now.”
“Thanks,” said Chalk, finishing up her note, “ I can use that, I think”. And now back to the moment. “So is it a good thing or a bad thing?”
“It’s a thing. Neither good or bad in itself. The world has changed a little.”
“And deWitt is there to help business adjust to the new reality, for a fee, I know,” Chalk snorted. “Don’t worry, I’ll add something to that effect.”
Grey smiled. “I’ve brought a handout that puts it quite subtly. You may find it useful. Anyway here you are.”
“Thanks,” Chalk accepted the proferred glossy sheet. “But something else. People have said some odd things. One of your colleagues, for example, claims that contract law will be a thing of the past. We’ll just agree to set up conditional transfers and once the conditions are met the smart money will automatically transfer itself without scope for arguments.”
Grey sighed. “Yes. I think some people have a tendency to let themselves get carried away. Of course, you’ll still need someone to specify precisely what those conditions should be and whether they’ve been met, which is the most common cause of contract dispute in my experience.”
“So we’ll still need lawyers?”
“I fear so.”
Chalk paused again to make a note. “Another commentator said crypto currency would eliminate financial fraud, but only last week we reported a fourteen million dollar Bytepence scam. This same guy explained it by saying the promoters of that business were dishonest from the start, so the currency wasn’t to blame.”
“I agree with your implied point,” Grey replied, “an anti-fraud measure that relies on people remaining honest is unlikely to change the world significantly.”
Chalk frowned and said nothing for a moment. Grey judged that the pause was intended to be expectant, so he waited.
“Between you and me,” she told him, “I’m thinking my piece might be along the lines of ‘this bubble is about to burst’”.
Grey smiled. “That’s journalism. Build them up to knock them down is what you do. The handout has some info about dangers and disadvantages you can quote me on. If you go with that, I’ll respond with the other stuff about how wonderful the future it going to be.”
“And vice versa,” Chalk replied, “so you’re the wise man either way.”
“That’s consultancy. It’s what I do,” Grey smiled again. “Might I ask why you’re thinking of putting in the knife at this particular time, in confidence of course?”
Chalk pushed a dummy press release across her desk in his direction. “You might not have seen this,” she said.
Grey read the article, which was a non-financial story about a mixed-up rich boy who’d used crypto money to buy drugs that were supposed to impress his girlfriend. When they were delivered and used, the girlfriend had a bad reaction and died.
“So?” Grey asked when he’d scanned the item. “Sad but this kind of thing happens all the time.”
“This boy wasn’t exactly from the street, “ Chalk said. “He wouldn’t have any idea how to get his hands on that stuff if he hadn’t been able to find and pay for it on the dark web. And look at the pictures Grey – both of them are beautiful. Both are from good families but the boy is some kind of junior aristocrat.”
“Alright, it will make a good story for a day or two, but beyond that?”
“Grey, you know all about tipping points. When the time is right, it only takes a very small thing to send everything sliding off in a different direction in no time at all.”
Grey had the impression there was more to it than Chalk was telling him, but that was her business. From Chalk’s perspective the last thing she wanted to do was make any reference to her conversation with Vig.
“To change the subject a little,” she said, “What can you tell me about Nortton Sakamoto?”
Grey supposed Chalk already knew as much about Sakamoto as did almost everybody else. The presumed inventor of Bytepence who’d bailed out leaving the money men in charge. His share of the founding capital, now worth billions, had never been cashed. It was widely assumed Sakamoto was an alias since no-one had been able to track down a person of that name as yet. The identity and motivation of the inventor added to the mystique of the currency, though insofar as Grey was concerned they were irrelevant factors.
“Do you think Ryan could be Sakamoto?” Chalk persisted.
Grey couldn’t help a small laugh escaping. He’d not met Ryan in person – he was one of those Americans who never left the USA – but from the little he knew of the man it was impossible to see him as Bruce Wayne to Sakamoto’s superhero.
“You can quote me as saying I think that is unlikely,” Grey replied.
At that moment, the business day was just beginning for Ryan, early riser that he was. He’d finished the session with his personal trainer, showered, and said hi to his dogs, who’d be walked later by their carer. He’d sipped a long, freshly-squeezed orange juice served with a short but strong coffee and now he was ready to work, which meant first of all logging on the computer in the study of his mansion. The landscape framed in the huge picture window of the study looked cold and clear as the sun rose. Another great day in prospect.
Ryan was six-two, perfect teeth good-looking, seen in public with a succession of celebrity beauties on his arm. He was an overnight tech billionaire, rich through founding a company that was selling just the right thing at the right time. The American Dream – smart trumps hard work every time. Ryan’s personal advisers had suggested to him early on that he himself was the product, more than his company’s offerings, and he took the advice to heart. To others it may seem like self-promotion, but he reasoned that the expensive boats, fast cars and big houses were needed, to keep him smelling of success.
The only fly in the ointment was that, unbeknown to all but a few, Ryan was broke, although most days his natural energy and enthusiasm would carry him through that awkward moment on waking up and onto the day, without needing to confront the unfortunate fact.
Ryan Enterprises was the holding company for his business. In the early days, Ryan had always told his boys the only needed to be concerned with growing the customer bases. ‘If we build it, they will come’ he’d say. By they, he meant the investors, and he’d been proved right. Ryan Enterprises went public with an initial offering of shares that were priced beyond what his advisers told him was optimistic and still oversubscribed. The share price had continued to climb since. But now it was almost two years later, and the small voice that Ryan could normally silence with his never-ending activity told him he’d been a fool not to take notice when they said he’d be expected to stay on as CEO to guide the company into profit, and leave half the value of his stake in shares in his own name. He should have sold the business to one of the giants for a little less when he had the chance and walked away.
HIs company had never made a profit. That wasn’t what it was for, in Ryan’s mind. He’d only planned to build it, sell it and enjoy life thereafter. Now he’d discovered a flaw, which was that selling the right thing at the right time only works when you’re actually selling something rather than giving it away. And what Ryan Enterprises made was an application that users flocked to in huge numbers but without paying anything.
Of course, everyone knew this. Ryan would be brutally frank about it in public. He’d become a darling of the media by always having a quotable quote to hand, and he put the absence of revenue out there in people’s faces, like he didn’t give a crap. He’d say his customers should realize that when you get something for free on-line, you are the product. Which made it sound like he had a secret – that he was the smart guy who knew how to turn all those users and the information he had on them into money. Really, he’d no idea how that could be done. He’d assumed others would have that expertise, and now he employed many such experts, with qualifications from the best colleges and salaries to match. But so far none of them had produced the goods.
For now, everything still seemed hunky dory. Ryan charmed the people who told other people what to think. His company had always been sold as a growth stock, meaning schmucks bought his shares hoping to sell them at a profit a few months later, not in any expectation of a share of future earnings. The accounts didn’t look too bad, after his advisers had worked away at them. He wasn’t nailed to any previous years earnings at this early stage, and through creative adjustments they’d ladled in huge helpings of imaginary value in various headings that could all be summarised as ‘goodwill’. Even so, he’d eventually be expected to address customer expectations in regard to the dreaded ‘R’ word, revenue.
And in the meantime, there was this lifestyle to support, and god knows what expenses, like a monster of his own creation. If he stopped burning through money, questions would be asked that were not to be thought of. The girls were the worst – all those not quite famous bimbos who were supposed to have their own money – they didn’t come cheap. Maybe he should think about marriage – just one woman with her claws in him and an excuse to tone down how he lived.
The women, the boats, the cars , the houses – god what a nightmare, the private plane. They all needed cash he couldn’t pull out of the business any more. His bankers were watching. He had to come up with something else.
The Kings of Silicon Valley, which was an idea not a place, were the new masters of the Universe, and Ryan had succeeded in making others think of him as a member of that royalty. They all published accounts, made product launches and gave investor presentations like other businesses, but no-one was really sure what any of that meant in the new economy. When an insider like Ryan was prepared to offer his informed comment on industry news, it was natural the media should beat a path to his door.
And Ryan had learned quickly that by timing judicious investments around his oracular pronouncements, he could monetise his fame. He was careful to cover his tracks, of course, and he needed to conceal the fact he was putting cash from these activities into Ryan Enterprises, to keep the ship afloat, even though it was his own (ill-gotten) money. He told himself this was just a temporary thing, until Enterprises began to generate its own revenue stream, but it was high-risk and what he was dreaming about when he woke in the night with that drowning sensation.
The Bytepence thing was like a temporary lifeline. When people started to take notice of it, naturally the media wanted his opinion. In reality, he knew little about blockchain technology and cared less, but that wasn’t a reason not to play the game.
His favourite journalist seemed to want him to boost the currency, so that’s what he did first, showering brash and uninformed praise on the concept. A few days later, he sensed his interlocutor desired a note of caution, and again he was ready to comply. The sight of Ryan, serious-faced and grim-voiced in that interview sent the rate of Bytepence temporarily reeling, and Ryan was smart enough to buy in big while it remained cheap. Since that moment he’d been aboard the rollercoaster. The more often he was interviewed about crypto currencies the more he became the go-to media expert on the subject, and since he always knew in advance what he was going to say, it was easy to make a killing based on the effect his words would have on values.
He took steps to prevent his trading being known – nominee purchasers and other usual stuff. But the best thing was that his lawyer assured him he was doing nothing illegal. Dealing in shares that he tipped could get him sent to prison, but there was no regulation that stopped him saying money was good, or less good than people thought. It seemed to be a no risk business.
Still those Ryan Enterprise numbers wouldn’t go away at the end of each month though. And the voice in his head that he needed to keep quiet was getting more shrill. He couldn’t continue indefinitely. So now with the currency he was going for one big take that he swore would be his last. He’d hoarded Pence from the last time one of his downbeat assessments sent the price spinning down. Some investors lost their shirts, but he was able to buy a ton of that crap for next to nothing. The price had been climbing ever since, steadily by the standards of the market. Today he was going to push the price through the roof, then he’d offload his whole pile on Saint Valentine’s Day.
A thing Grey said to her as he was leaving stayed with Chalk and bothered her.
“Of course, you realize Nortton Sakamoto is an anagram?”
Chalk nodded, although the thought had never occurred to her. Anyway there wasn’t time to think about that now. Vig was right, she had deadlines to meet.
Grey had another appointment directly after the interview at the newspaper. He phoned his assistant Zoe from the cab.
“Remind me what I have on later,” he asked her. “I told Elspeth I’d try to be home on time this evening.”
“Diary looks quite clear from three o-clock onwards,” she said. “But then there’s that conference call at six, connecting you to the East Coast.”
The conference Q and A with Ryan and those others. Was that today? He willed himself not to sound too frustrated.
“Damn inconvenient time.”
“Not in that time zone. We could call it off, or I’ll see if anyone else can do it.”
“Never mind Zoe. It shouldn’t last too long. Just let my wife know if you would.” Elspeth would understand. She always did.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Check your phone, you’ll see Chalk’s sent you an email. She wants to know what you mean about Sakamoto being an anagram. Shall I get back to her?”
“No, let her work it out for herself.”
“What does it mean though?”
“Nortton Sakamoto? You could say it’s a kind of warning.”
“What kind of warning?”
“Not to ask a moron. We’ll speak later.” Grey terminated the connection.
On the whole he was satisfied with the way the Chalk interview went. He’d have liked to say more about Luca Pacioli, which was one of his things. He’d baited the hook by suggesting Luca was more important than Leonardo, but no-one ever asked the follow up question. He found more and more people were instantly bored by anything that happened more than five years ago. It was a consequence of life becoming digitised probably. Time, as well as information getting compressed.
He’d wanted to say something about Wedgewood, the pottery maker – how he was the first to use Pacioli’s methods to analyze what was happening in his failing business and then turn it around with a new strategy. So much more interesting that than looking at the burnt clay and glaze the man actually manufactured – the birth of management accounting. And he was serious in what he’d said about Pacioli’s achievement – culturally his book had made number part of the great harmony, separate from wizardry and hermetic knowledge. Even if mathematicians of the calibre of Newton would continue to believe in astrology and turning lead into gold for a few hundred years after.
Zoe rang him back. “You might want to look at some small movement in Bytepence,” she suggested. “Probably it’s nothing but a few individuals cashing in at the same time. But since you’re always stressing how volatile the market is, I thought you’d want to check in case the blip became something more.”
In the end, Chalk toned down the piece from what Vig had suggested she write. She could almost persuade herself her feature might have looked more or less the same even if he’d not landed in her office that morning. There was no reason to swing in the opposite direction just to prove she’d not been intimidated. She’d included a little reference to the tragedy she’d mentioned to Grey, and there was a selective version of what Grey himself had to say (he wouldn’t mind that. He’d be able to point to the more upbeat things he’d had to say in his handout when he was questioned about it). There was a paragraph about how the abuses and stability risks posed by the currency would probably result in governments and their central banks (or should that be central banks and their governments) waging undeclared war on the upstart currency, or commodity, whichever it was. This was what her readers really wanted to hear about, not doomed teenagers or ethics. Was regulation coming, and when it came would it be designed to regulate or eradicate?
Chalk told herself it was a balanced piece, but she felt dirty handing it over to the editor. Deep down, she knew Vig had frightened her into writing it. She’d failed some kind of test, and now there’d be no way to recover integrity. There were always some colleagues who went for a drink once the paper was put to bed, always to the same bar. Chalk tended to stay away from the place, but this evening she knew where she’d be.
The question and answer session Ryan was due to attend was just part of a two day conference about digital futures in business. The organizers had assured Ryan that his attendance would ensure a full house and media coverage for the session – the most eagerly awaited part of the whole event. In theory he should have the best possible platform for his comments boosting Pence, but still he wasn’t feeling comfortable.
First, he had to fly to the eastern seaboard, which always put him off balance. Some of the people there – you found it hard to know what they were really thinking about you. It was easy to think that maybe they believed they were a lot smarter than him.
And didn’t have control of the venue. For example, at a similar type of event hosted by Ryan Enterprises, the ladies taking the mikes round the room would be carefully briefed not to see potential disruptive elements who wanted to raise questions, or to cut awkward types off smoothly without detracting from the apparently open proceedings. There was much left to chance – Ryan didn’t know what protection he could expect in that regard, or indeed from the event mediator.
He told himself it was no good turning pussy at this late stage of the game. He’d faced down openly hostile audiences before armed with considerably less knowledge than he had now – when he didn’t have the prestige he now enjoyed. Somehow he always found a way to win people over. It was just the horrible period between getting to the venue and actually beginning the show that was getting to him right now. That and what was at stake. He was betting the farm on this presentation and he knew it. Not the first time for that either, but it had never seemed to matter when the farm was nothing more than a dried up patch of dirt with a few hungry chickens. Now, he had so much to lose.
He was tense and irritable, and he heard himself finding fault with the arrangements in the conference centre with the girl who was designated his minder, and who certainly had no influence on those arrangements. He was not a naturally cruel man, and it somewhat sickened him to notice he was behaving like a cut price prima donna from a talent show.
“We’ll get through this,” he told himself. “Things are going to change if you just keep faith.” It wasn’t just the conference session he was thinking about.
Grey studies lines of text that were difficult to make out even with his reading glasses on. The graphic representation was easier to follow, but potentially misleading. Although Zoe had warned there was probably nothing, she was a smart enough girl not to have bothered him if there wasn’t some suspicion of a trend developing – the kind of thing that starts very small but can become amplified, like the sympathetic vibration in overstressed metal that picks up a tiny note and eventually rips a bridge to pieces. Well it could be that, or more likely nothing at all, but it would be interesting in any case to see how the markets responded to Chalk’s feature, that would be summarised on her blog page after the domestic markets closed for the day and before a full publication in the morning edition. He sent Zoe a message thanking her for the update and requesting she should continue to monitor closely. There was just time to ring Elspeth and apologize for being late again that evening, before the cab dropped him off for the final appointment of the day.
There was no time difference between London and Reykjavik, but so far as Shade was concerned, they might have been on different planets. I’m freezing my balls off here, and for what? The guys who reported to him were good guys, but they didn’t know anything. It wouldn’t have made much difference if he didn’t know anything either. They were following a process – implementing. There were always unforeseen hitches with implementation, which was why his presence was needed, supposedly. Or maybe it was just that having one of the founders on site made the team think they were genuinely part of something bigger. Either way, the place was cold as hell and even someone who spent as much time as Shade living in the digital world could conclude there wasn’t much to do in this version of the analogue one.
If he was honest, the job was mostly public relations. Mining took a lot of processing power, which no-one minded when they were fitting out the warehouse with high powered kit, but it wasn’t so well received when the town’s power grid couldn’t support the electricity draw the rig made and the lights went out in the middle of winter. That could have affected the project if he hadn’t insisted on ensuring the UPS was robust before they started. Shade was almost grateful when there was a crisis, already. How would he be feeling after months of this? They told him the place was beautiful in Spring, but he might have cabin fever by then.
Chalk left work early for her, and headed straight for the bar. She knew she wouldn’t be first there. The regulars were also the paper’s resident cynics. They made her welcome enough. More important no-one questioned why she was suddenly one of them. I used to think I was above this, Chalk reflected, hating herself more. I was supposed to be better than these people in some way – more idealistic, or more ambitious, or more something. Anyway, I’m not. They weren’t such a bad crowd really. And wine – more wine please.
Jeff finally got home in time for dinner and to help Carol get the baby to sleep. Later on he’d be working a night slot as well. Since Up and Over didn’t regard itself as his employer, it assumed no responsibility for how many hours he chose to drive. And even if they had a little money now, Jeff couldn’t believe it would last – the whole thing was unreal. At the weekend, he’d take some time off – maybe go to the shops with Carol and the baby and buy her something nice. That would improve her mood. Then he’d tell her they didn’t need to worry about him having to go back to work for Uncle Rashid.
Vig was still at his office, where he’d stayed since returning from the newspaper office. He’d issued strict instructions he was not to be disturbed and now the building was empty but for him. He’d sunk into some kind of delirium where at one moment he’d be convinced that the numbers he was staring at on screen would end up exactly where he needed them to be, and at another he’d know the phone was about to ring and that brisk, impersonal tone would instruct him to make payments in a currency he no longer possessed, in which case he was worse than finished. More than the fear itself, he was haunted by the realisation that it had always been with him, and that it would never, ever leave him.
Ryan hung around in the conference area, mostly keeping himself out of view and occasionally checking that the hall was filling up with people. Not long now – go all the way or bust. He’d been introduced to his fellow panel members. They were people he’d not met before, but he’d not paid as much attention as he should. Couldn’t remember their names in fact. Better ask the girl to remind him. Not like me at all, he thought.
There was a murmur of conversation in the hall now. There would be a good crowd – one less thing to worry about. He could spot some faces he knew, but now was not the time for small talk. He’d speak to them after, but then the thought popped up, after what? Must put all this doubt aside.
There was a large screen behind the speakers’ chairs where delegates would be able to see the faces of invited experts who’d participate on a conference line – a couple of Brits and some Italian professor, Ryan was told. This sort of arrangement seldom went to plan, but that was something for the mediator and the conference facilitators to worry about, not him. Now he needed to concentrate and walk through one last time in his head all that he was going to say.
When Grey arrived at the London office of the conference organizer, the other two guests who would join the Ryan session were already there. It was early evening, but there was no sign of activity in the building winding up for the day, just a few cleaners in view who were clearly accustomed to working around office staff whose contracts of employment specified they should have left hours ago. Grey was welcomed on arrival and ushered directly to a meeting room on an upper floor where chairs had been arranged with a view across an expensive hardwood table towards a large screen that would show proceedings at the US end. The UK moderator wasn’t around yet, but there was a technical guy fussing over the sound and vision equipment and his laptop that should make it function.
The other two guests were already seated, and broke off their conversation as Grey came in. Closest to the door was a thin-lipped man, with a few wisps of black hair combed across his skull, who remained seated while nodding in Grey’s general direction and muttering something that sounded like ‘Colin’. Grey knew the man well, or at least they’d been acquainted for some time, but since he was Grey’s opposite number at a firm that was locked in bitter rivalry with deWitt, they would not have much to say to each other.
The other man, rather strikingly dressed in a suit that was too black to be entirely conservative, immediately got up and moved around the rival in order to clap Grey on the shoulder and commence pumping the offered hand with his own effusive shake. This man’s hand was fleshy and large, the back of it covered in black hair in contrast to the snow-white mane on his head, and the iron grey of his neatly trimmed beard. It was a most unprofessorial hand, but Grey knew immediately who this must be, though the man was a stranger to him.
“Professor Prospero, hello,” said Grey.
“So delighted to meet you Colin, if I may. I read your little piece on ‘Della Mercatora e del Mercate Perfette’ quite recently, and enjoyed it tremendously.”
Grey had in fact contributed a short article about Pacioli to one of the accountancy journals. The sort of thing they published as relief from wearying reports of who was moving where, without anticipating it should actually be read. He’d not had any feedback on the article and assumed it fell on stony ground.
“I’m surprised, I mean pleased you saw it, Professor.”
“Of course, and a very interesting perspective. I like the way you link the double-entry to the notion of balance and everything having its mirror image. That shows a good medievalist understanding. But I fear you underestimate the influence of that most mercantile of empires, the Venetian. Perhaps the first recorded example is in Genoa, the sworn enemy of Venice, but we can see Venice is where that science found a home. And you neglect the possibility that the Venetians, following good Marco Polo, brought the method back as a discovery of their Oriental voyages.”
“It was a short article, Professor.”
“Of course, and I am pleased we shall have some time before the conference begins to talk more about it.”
Grey’s rival treated him to a stare that was intended to wither, and wordlessly shifted from his central position so that the two new friends could sit side by side. The Professor’s voice filled the room. He spoke English without much of an accent, but with rhythms that were completely of his country – extended fluent passages that concluded with a dramatic pause as if he were seeking precisely the right word, and then the word itself delivered with great deliberation. A lengthy process of throat clearing and acknowledgement of his interlocutor’s point before he could bring himself to start a reply to a question. He showed great facility with the English language while remaining completely Italian as he used it.
Grey was enjoying their conversation tremendously. At the same time, he thought he should somehow try to warn the Professor about the short attention span and absence of deference of a typical New York financial conference delegate. Grey had opened his own laptop, and as they talked he kept glancing at the price for Bytepence. Whatever had started it off, there was a definite sell trend now. It picked up momentum directly after the summary version of Chalk’s piece was posted to her blog page, not much more than an hour ago now. It felt like there could be a slide beginning, but he said nothing about that to the other two for not.
Ryan’s phone kept buzzing on the private line, which was annoying since he’d given strict instructions he was not to be disturbed at this vital time. He needed to make some changes at the company, probably. Too many people not contributing and with that air of entitlement as if he should be thankful to them just for being there. Something for later on.
Now he was committed. He’d bought into Bytepence with all he could afford and more. There wasn’t supposed to be a futures market in the currency, but there was a futures market for everything. He’d managed to leverage his investment buying contracts to acquire Pence at a fixed forward value. So long as the currency raced on in price, he’d be able to sell on the value of those contracts as well as dumping his actual stake at a profit.
So now, the job was to sell, which was what he did. The platform was his. The conference had network coverage – not for many minutes but that was better. Enough of a soundbite to send Joe Public running to his online trading platform or phoning his broker, without so much content as to give Joe pause for thought.
Ryan was experiencing a familiar feeling at this moment that a lesser man might interpret as doubt – a word Ryan did not allow into his vocabulary. He knew the signs well – pulse and respiration elevated, palms clammy, tongue feeling slightly too big for his mouth. Great. Something to embrace – you use the energy from the fight or flight reaction, but always to fight of course. Remember who you are. Someone whose name is on that list of the richest men in the country, which means the richest men in the world. No matter that established money tended to shy away from those lists, or that most of Ryan’s wealth existed in an imaginary sense. Ryan Enterprises is you, as you stand here, nothing more or less. What you built and what you hold together, and damn what the accountants say, or all that increasingly direct correspondence from the bank. Right here, right now is where we show them all.
The Professor had warmed to his theme. He was expounding theories about early book keeping techniques at length, filling space with his expansive gestures. Grey’s rival skulked in the corner looking completely bored.
“And yet, you must appreciate,” the Professor was telling Grey, “Although you have portrayed Father Pacioli as a man of science, which of course he was, he also took holy orders, and besides that was a magician of some reputation.”
“Professor,” Grey responded, “didn’t Leonardo himself create the famous mechanical lion? The last English Prime Minister with any experience in finance to speak of was the son of a music hall performer. We used to joke that he ran away from the circus to join a bank.”
“Which is to remind me that the skills pertaining to economics and those of the professional prestidigitator are never so far apart as one might imagine. A point well taken.” The Professor seemed delighted with Grey’s response.
The moderator for the UK session interrupted them by entering the room and saying they were now ready to go to the live link. The conference session was about to start.
The video link-up went without a hitch, surprisingly enough. The faces of the UK panel appeared on a screen behind the US moderator as she was introducing the participants in glowing terms. After that she gave a succinct introduction to the topic, and then the idea was to throw the session open to questions from the floor, but Ryan couldn’t be halted from weighing in with his own prepared speech first.
“Before we begin, I’d like to thank our hostess for those kind words, on behalf of all the panel members, and maybe say a few words of introduction. The first thing you need to understand is that if you’re interested in Bytepence as an investment opportunity, it’s going to be an exciting ride, not for the faint-hearted.”
He had them straight away. No one wanted to think of themselves as numbered among the faint-hearted. Ryan spoke for maybe five minutes without leaving enough of a gap that he could be politely interrupted. He sensed growing bemusement, hostility even, of his fellow panel members – screw them. He noticed the impatiently tapping foot of the lady presenter, but he didn’t let it put him off. His moment, his agenda. When he finished, he sensed a warm buzz around the room that was the contented sound of people who’ve been told what they wanted to hear.
“And now,” the presenter said pointedly, “perhaps we’ll have some actual questions.”
Someone asked the Professor if he believed crypto currency had a long term future.
“Well,” the Professor began, drawing out the word to its limit after a lengthy clearing of the throat, “we can say that there are at least two fundamental questions at issue here – the one philosophical and the other practical.”
He stated that the philosophical question was whether the process of value exchange could ever truly be freed from interference by human agency, or in other words, might an algorithm liberate money from the control of governments and central banks.
Oh dear, thought Grey, he doesn’t get it. These people are here to find out how they can get rich or richer in the shortest possible time with least effort, and he’s talking about philosophy.
When the Professor paused briefly to reflect on his second point, the presenter turned to Grey, sitting next to him on the big screen.
“Of course Mr Grey, you’ve addressed that point yourself in an interview with the London press that I think is published tomorrow. Do you feel Bytepence will be allowed to develop without regulatory interference?”
“An important question,” Grey began, “of course there are perfectly proper grounds for legislator’s concerns – security and financial crime issues as well as ethical and taxation problems.”
“As I was saying,” the Professor interrupted him, “at least two fundamental issues. The practical matter is, we can say, the rarity of the specie. It is claimed there must be a finite quantity of Bytepence, and while that may be a mathematical exaggeration, the production of the new currency, called mining, is resource hungry. As with mining for gold, the supply must also be controlled lest the commodity be devalued. But this is not how a currency can function. Denominations must be sufficiently small as to facilitate transactions in the real world. And so we may conclude that the future of this innovation is for it to be locked away, like gold, as a safe-haven commodity, rather than to be used as money.” He paused at this juncture to clear his throat, which was all the invitation Ryan needed.
“So there you have it folks, from the Professor’s own lips. Bytepence is like gold. You can’t say fairer than that.”
The Professor sat silently enraged as Ryan took charge of the proceedings, twisting his words. These people did not even refer to him by his proper professorial title. They were brutes.
“… and to conclude,” Ryan was saying, “this technology is something new and unprecedented in our human experience and so far for those of us on board it’s been like a journey on a rocket ship, bumpy here and there but heading ever onward and upward. I have to tell you people, I look to the fundamentals and the underlying values. I see no reason why that rocket ship ride should run out of burn any time soon.”
There was applause as he finished up. Ryan felt bathed in the warmth – it was like he was lifted up by it.
“Wow,” said the presenter, “that is an upbeat assessment if we ever had one. Do you have anything to say to that Mr. Grey?”
Grey looked again at the figures which had never stopped flashing across the screen of the laptop in front of him.
“Only that, since we have Mr. Ryan here, we might ask him what he makes of the overnight movements on the international exchanges and the first hour of US trading.”
The three in London couldn’t see all of the conference hall on their screens, but they heard the room go completely silent for a moment as everyone reached for their various electronic devices. And then there was a desperate scraping of chairs and repeated thud of double doors at the back of the room swinging shut behind delegates who were in such a rush to leave they didn’t care what disturbance they made.
The rival looked at Grey with something like hatred. Grey remembered the man’s firm were the auditors of Ryan Enterprises, which might go some way to explain his presence. The Professor only looked bemused.
“I have to say that for me, this is an experience without precedent,” he commented.
Ryan and the presenter were the only ones left on the platform. The others had shuffled off as quickly as was decent once the cameras left. Ryan sat with his own mobile uselessly in his hand and his head bowed.
“Are you feeling alright?” the presenter asked him.
“Of course,” he snapped, “why shouldn’t I be?”
“It’s just that you’re shaking, quite badly,” she told him.
Vig never left the office that night, but the next morning he awoke in his chair feeling as refreshed as he ever did in his own bed. He now held all the currency the Client expected him to hold and he’d turned a substantial profit, given the price at which he’d earlier sold his stake. The Client would never know he’d been out of the money. The whole point of crypto currency was you couldn’t say who had it. Provided always no-one ever suspected Vig’s own part in the business. But anyway, no more of this for him. It could all have ended very badly, and now he’d learned his lesson – probably.
Grey was home even later than usual after the conference. He’d seen the morning headlines and knew the non-specialist press had picked up on Chalk’s article and the crash that she foresaw. Grey hoped the cab driving chap he’d met earlier had got rid of his investment in time. Others wouldn’t of course, but that was life. Espeth was waiting up for him.
“Another long day, how was it?”
“Oh, very interesting. I met an Italian professor who shares my interest in the Messari accounts. He’d actually read my article. He was a very interesting chap, suggested we keep in touch.”
“And that secret money you had to talk about?”
“Oh that. Got a little bit messy, I’m afraid.”
The regular press and the news channels were calling it the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. It was such a memorable headline they were saying the credibility of Bytepence would never recover. Chalk was mentioned in nearly all the reports and her picture was in most of them. She had more requests for interviews than she could accept. Her hangover miraculously cured as soon as she saw the first early morning broadcast, and with it she lost in a moment all the self-loathing and despair she’d felt about not standing up to Vig. Job offers would come next. How the world can change overnight, she thought.
Bytepence had been decimated. Ryan Enterprises was bust, and Ryan was already taking advice about filing for bankruptcy. Chalk notices a brief message from Grey in her inbox, just saying congratulations. She showered and made her way to the office at her usual time. She’d be cool and act as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t the kind of paper where colleagues lined up to greet you with a round of applause when something like this happened. On the surface, life went on as normal, but the change in everyone around her was so definite it could almost be touched.
Chalk spent the morning reorganizing her diary and calling people back. Then, sometime after eleven, the desk put through an unusual call to her. The caller asked her name. He seemed slightly foreign and slightly aggressive.
“Who am I speaking to please?” she asked.
“My family name is Norton Sakamoto, but everyone calls me Shade,” said Shade. “A friend of a friend of mine asked me to contact you.”
Chalk took a deep breath. “You really are Norrton Sakamoto?”
“From the way you say that, I can tell you’re spelling Norton with two ’T’s. I’m Norton with one ’T’ – the original.”
“I don’t understand.”
Shade sighed. “I didn’t really expect you would. Let me explain.”
“For starters,” Shade began, “if people weren’t stupid, they should have realized by now there’s no such person as the Norrton Sakamoto you’re thinking of, or not just one person anyway. Norton is an aggregate personality – he’s all the people authorised to make postings under that name. Adding the extra ’T” was Kelvin’s idea of a joke.”
“It’s an anagram right? I worked it out eventually.”
“Congratulations. Well that’s Kelvin for you.”
“Who is Kelvin?”
“Kelvin Trout, the science fiction writer, godfather of Cipherpunk and one of the founders. He’s quite a genius writer I admit, though he can’t do characterisation worth a damn. Says that’s because people who aren’t smart don’t interest him.”
“I don’t follow science fiction.”
“You should. You might learn something. He also wrote a series of books about how our society was built on the science and philosophy of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, showing how we’re ruled by ideas. People took it for an entertaining historical romance – he’s still smarting about that.”
“I’ll look him up.”
“Kelvin started the conversation, sort of. And by conversation, I mean exchange of ideas. I know you people like to picture conspirators holed up in some Alpine retreat planning world domination.”
“Journalists. Anyway, Kelvin is the kind of ‘what if’ guy. He puts questions and sometimes they get people interested.”
“And what about the others?”
“People you’ve never heard of mostly. There’s Elvis of course.”
Definitely this is a hoax call, Chalk decided. Must be one of the boys from the office.
“I’m sorry to tell you, but Elvis has very definitely left the building,” she said.
“Not that Elvis,” Shade snapped, “Elvis Monk, the important one. Of course, Chalk knew who that Elvis was, but the suggestion was almost as wild as if her caller had meant the singer.
“Elvis Monk spends his time trying to save humanity from itself,” she replied. “Cheap clean energy – space travel so we can colonize other planets when this one is done.”
“And before that,” Shade reminded her, “he made his first billions designing a secure payments system, that he then handed over to the money men to run. Duh.”
“That’s quite a big claim Mr. Shade. Do you have any evidence to support it?”
“Apart from Bytespace being written in the same code Elvis likes to use and who else can you think of smart enough to write the code and rich enough to walk away from eight million dollars?”
“What eight million?”
“The founder’s share, that was never cashed, and I can tell you it’s been destroyed. Current value.”
“Not at this morning’s prices. And why should I believe you?”
Shade sighed, “I don’t give a crap whether you believe me or not. I’m calling because I was asked. Do you want to hear the story or not?”
“I’m sorry. I want to hear it. But if these famous people chose to keep their part secret, won’t they mind you’re telling me?”
“It won’t matter much. There’s a thousand theories flying around. Some people say Sakamoto can’t really be Japanese because his postings were made when it’s the middle of the night in that time zone – assholes. Like it matters what time you sleep or their are no Nipponese living outside Tokyo. Ask any of the guys if it’s true, they’ll deny it, so you’re no further forward. Nothing to link them that anyone like you will find. And the people who want to control us follow the money, which will lead them nowhere.”
“So you’re telling me Elvis Monk made Bytepence but when he saw things getting rough he got publicity shy and dumped his share?”
“I’m not saying that at all. First, Elvis didn’t do it on his own. But unlike some he did see right from the beginning the problems it would cause. Imagine how smart you think this man could be and then realize he’s much smarter than that. We all knew it meant a revolution. We are controlled by governments and governments are controlled by rich people and banks. You think they’ll stand by and let their time pass? This whole thing kicked off when the banks were in crisis and Kelvin asked if there were no banks would it mean the end of money and our economies? Kelvin wanted no part of it either. Most of the rest of us were too stubborn or stupid to get out.”
“You’re telling me you are still involved?”
“What else should I do? I’m a footsoldier in comparison to these guys. Maybe I got what you would call rich, but then what do I do next? For the guys I’ve been talking about, this was a something and then they move to the next thing. For me, it’s like the thing. You understand me?”
“I think so, but I still don’t see what Monk got out of it, if not money or kudos or power.”
“He’s not interested in that stuff. For him, it’s a problem that needed a solution and so he’s put a solution out there. Other problems are more interesting for him, and what the technology means, what it changes about how we live, will take decades to work through, maybe longer. Some people will do well and others get burned, and it won’t always be the good people who do well. That’s how real change works.”
“Or you might just have come up with a more secure form of book keeping.”
“That’s possible too.”
There was a short silence.
“Anything else you want to know?” Shade demanded. “I wanted to keep this call confidential and I’m freezing my balls off out here.”
“Where are you?”
“Fucking Iceland, in February. Can you believe it?”
“So you’re giving me here a true story, but one I can’t use because there’s no way to verify and all involved will deny and demand proof that doesn’t exist. It would be laughed off at best.”
“I never said I was bringing you good news. I’m just making a call I was asked to make.”
“Well thank you for that anyway, and thank you for your time Mr. Sakamoto.”
“Shade,” he reminded her.
copyright Martin Sowery 2018