Rob felt light and prickly. He’d slept a total of eight hours in the last five days, while he and Atul had simulated what would happen if they had to handle the data of five million distinct users spread across three continents. At five AM that morning, they’d stepped away from their computers—it was as good as it was going to get. They shook hands and Atul went home to sleep. It was all up to Rob now. He probably looked and smelled like a troll, but he wasn’t selling his charisma. He felt competent and in control, but every so often he’d catch himself missing something obvious—writing ton instead of some, putting his shirt on inside out. When Victor pulled up on a woman’s bicycle, Rob considered the possibility that he was hallucinating his cousin—a big, greasy mass of hair and menace.
It wasn’t a good time. Rob had to leave in fifteen minutes. Maybe come back later? Maybe next week? Victor wasn’t having any of it.
“Where’s the other guy, the Indian guy?” he asked.
“He went home.”
“He’s not coming with you? To the big million dollar meeting?” Victor asked.
“No, he doesn’t like to talk to people.”
“Wow, so out of the two of you, you’re the charming one?” Victor laughed—the old mean-spirited laugh. “So how does it work: you show up and beg them for money?”
“I ask them to invest. It’s very important to me, so if you wouldn’t mind—”
“Can I come along?”
“Jesus, it was a joke. You don’t have to treat me like I’m some kind of disease.”
But Victor had always been a disease. As a kid he was this looming, terrifying cancer. As an adult he’d turned into this maddening parasitic infection. It had been a year since Rob had seen him. Victor had, no doubt, wasted every second—those 31 million precious pulses that Rob had used to build something meaningful.
“I have to go,” Rob said. “Sorry, we didn’t really get a chance to hang out.”
Victor picked up a trophy off the dresser: a golden man with a fountain of clubs in front of him.
“Combat juggling? What the hell, man? That’s like getting a trophy for how no girl will ever come close to your cock,” Victor said, tossing the trophy onto the couch and then picking up Rob’s laptop case. “How much would it cost you if you couldn’t make it?”
“This isn’t funny. All right?”
“You show up late, they’ll probably just cross you off the list, right? Give your million dollars to someone else.”
“That’s why I’d really appreciate it if you’d hand that back to me and let me go on my way.”
“How about you give me a few bucks for it?”
Rob rooted around in his pockets.
“Here. Here’s—almost 30 dollars.”
“You think I want your money?”
“You—you just asked for money. Take it and give me my computer.”
Victor took the money. Then he offered the bag. When Rob reached for it, Victor pulled it back and swung it by its strap around his body. Rob tried to grab it, but Victor fended him off with his left hand.
“Jesus, I’m going to let you have it. Don’t worry. You don’t trust me?” Victor asked.
“I trust you. I’m just under a lot of pressure right now. This is a big meeting.”
“It’ll be great. Rob, you’re a genius. I tell that to everyone.”
“That means a lot. Your opinion means a lot to me, Vic.”
Rob thought he could slip dry irony past his cousin, but he was wrong.
“See, that—that right there—is not really a friendly way to talk. You forget all the things I did for you?”
“Like what? Kick my ass and tell me not to cry about it?”
“Boys wrestle. That’s part of growing up.”
“And now I’ve grown up, and I’m an actual adult who does real things, and I have to go to a meeting.”
“You talk to me like I’m some kind of—I don’t know—some kind of animal. You think that’s right?”
Victor seemed genuinely hurt. It was strangely thrilling. There was a part of Rob that wanted to stay and try to burn his cousin as badly as he could. Because he’d barely even scratched the surface. Victor was a lazy, rotting failure, a cheap sponge, a man who stole lawn furniture and cheated his ex out of child support, a man who read like a second grader and catcalled junior high school girls. But Rob had to go. He reached for the laptop case again, but Victor slapped his hand away. Rob felt a cold bolt of panic. Wait a second: he didn’t need the laptop. If he could get to his car, he could drive to Atul’s place, get his laptop, and still make it to the meeting on time. Rob walked to the door, but Victor cut in front of him.
“You don’t need your computer?”
“No. Stay here and look at porn. I don’t care.”
“Okay, let me tell you something, Rob. I get women, okay? In the real world. I’ll go out tonight and come home with an elegant lady. My guess is you’ll be the one slapping it to cartoon fat chicks tonight.”
“You’re right. Please get out of my way. Now.”
“Jesus, I’m just messing with you. You could never take a joke. I’d draw one penis on your forehead, and you act like it’s the end of the world. Go. Go ahead. Who’s stopping you?”
Victor handed over the laptop case formally—his best impression of a Victorian valet. Rob took it and walked to the door, but just before he made it, Victor bumped him out of the way again.
“One more thing. Thirty bucks is not much. I’m going to need—”
“Get out of my way,” Rob yelled.
“Yeah, in a minute.”
Victor shoved Rob back casually, and then Rob charged, pushing his cousin up against the front door. But Victor was stronger and wrestled him down to the ground.
“Rob. All I was going to tell you—”
Rob crashed his forehead up into Victors face, but he didn’t make solid contact.
“Who are you, Liam Neesen? Lead with the head?” Victor laughed. “That’s some funny shit.”
Rob spit up at Victor, hitting him in the eye.
“Oh, no. That’s not right.”
Now Victor hit him hard in the face—one left, one right, another left. Rob grabbed the trophy off the couch and bludgeoned Victor with it, hitting him with the sharp corner again and again. Five times? Six times? Ten times?
Victor was out. Dead? Rob didn’t think so. There was no time to call an ambulance. He walked outside and opened the trunk of his car. When he came back in the house, Victor was still down. It was a massive effort, but Rob lifted the body and dropped it into the trunk. Then he slammed the trunk shut, looking around at the house next door. Nothing? It looked like he was clear. If Victor was still alive when the meeting was over, Rob would take him to a hospital. He’d tell them something. Maybe the truth. Rob was about to get into the driver’s seat, when he realized how much blood was on his shirt—the only nice button down he had.
He took if off and cleaned his hands and face. Then he put on the only other clean shirt he had—a bright orange tee that said Hot Dog. He threw his blazer on over it and got in the car.
It wasn’t until he was halfway to the meeting that he questioned this decision. Rob liked to think of himself as a person who used logic at all times. Maybe he was bad under pressure? This worried him, because a lot of the work he and Atul had done in the last few days had been rushed—calculations made quickly and approved at a glance, code written in a single caffeinated swoop. If he really had to demonstrate the process to Yu and Riley, would it hold up?
The campus wasn’t big, but it was pleasant—cut grass, friendly palms, and rows of low well-tended bushes. There was plenty of room to park, and he found a spot in the corner, far away from any other car. He listened to the trunk—nothing—so he walked into the building where everything was high tech yet cozy. It smelled like cinnamon, a little like a candle shop during Christmas—an everything’s-going-to-be-fine smell.
They photographed him and made him a temporary ID at the front desk, and then he rode up to the eighth floor with two young interns—a boy and a girl. They ignored him and talked about loopholes in the vegan lifestyle—smart, flirty, and more attractive than Rob had ever been. He felt himself at the extreme edge of relevance. If this didn’t go well, he might as well buy a floppy hat and yell at soup in diners like his grandfather had done.
The young man at the eighth floor reception desk gave Rob a suspicious look, but Rob put his ID on the counter.
“I’ve got an 11:30 with Mr. Riley and Mr. Yu.”
“Rob Hollis? That’s you?”
It was 11:28.
“Please follow me to the Lovelace Room.”
Savarino Riley was probably only a few years older than Rob, but he looked like a substantial adult with a huge, shaved head.
“Thank you so much for coming in,” Riley said, turning away from his computer and shaking Rob’s hand. “I won’t waste your time. We’re not investing in your idea.”
“May I ask what’s wrong with it, because if I could explain some of the—”
“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s an intriguing idea. Sid and I really appreciate you coming to us with it. We hope you do very well with it down the line. But it just doesn’t make sense to put our capital into it.”
Why have him come in at all if they’d already made up their minds? Stupid rich, finance bastards? Feeling dangerous, Rob had a sudden urge to attack. With the right tool he could split this big, naked head wide open like some kind of futuristic melon.
“Is Mr. Yu going to be here?” Rob asked.
“It’s not going to be necessary.”
“I—may I just ask why—I mean, why not—”
“I’m sorry if this is disappointing.”
And then Sid Yu poked his head in the room.
“Riley. Let’s move. We got the UIC call in five.”
“All right,” Riley stood up and extended a hand to Rob who hesitated a moment before taking it.
“Who’s this guy?” Yu asked.
“This is Rob Willis.”
“What the hell happened to his face? You didn’t even ask, did you?”
“Remember? We looked at his prop last night, and—”
“Yeah, I know who he is—data storage with the twisty straw idea—but what happened to his face?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“I fell down the stairs this morning,” Rob said. “Does it matter?”
“You live in a one-story home, a rental. No stairs. Not even out front.”
“How do you know where I live?”
“We’ve got your address, right? Not hard to find a picture of the house.”
“I was at my girlfriend’s apartment last night. I was still mostly asleep when I left. I tripped on the stairs and landed on a cornice.”
“A cornice? You went face first into a cornice?”
“You’ve got a girlfriend? In an apartment with cornices?”
“Man. I was a millionaire before I had the courage to ask out a girl with a cornice.”
“Sid?” Riley said. “The meeting?”
“They’ll hold. I’m interested,” Yu looked back to Rob. “I was told that you and Atul were monks. Two guys just holed up in a garage, working 18 hours a day on data storage. Now all of a sudden, the night before your big presentation, you’re out with some girl—crashing into cornices?”
“Why did you do so much research into our personal lives?”
“We didn’t do that much research, but remember we were trying to figure out whether or not to give you a few million dollars. Of course, we looked into things.” Yu turned to Riley. “So take me through it: he’s got the biggest sale of his life the next morning. He goes over to Audrey’s place? A little Fetty Wap and some loving on the couch. Next thing you know it’s morning. He grabs an orange hot dog t shirt and goes flying down her fancy staircase?”
“Accidents happen,” Riley said.
“Yeah, but he’s lying to us. I just wonder why. I don’t believe in this girlfriend.”
“That’s enough—we got a meeting.”
“Let me understand something, Riley—a guy walks in looking like he just got in a street fight, and you don’t even notice?”
“I noticed, but it wasn’t relevant.”
“If the rest of this meeting is going to be about my face, then maybe I should go,” Rob said.
“I never said I wouldn’t invest with you and I’m 53 percent of the company. Tell me what happened to your face. That’s relevant.”
“You want to know the truth?”
“Atul and I got in a big fight this morning about the presentation. He didn’t agree that I should highlight the immediate applicability that our product would have on mobile devices. I tried to point out that it wasn’t just a better short term avenue for—”
“Yeah, I read the pitch. So he disagreed and then you two just went at it—fisticuffs? No sexy girls with exotic cornices?”
“I said things to him I shouldn’t. He hit me. I hit him back. But we both apologized. Lack of sleep, high pressure. We’re fine to work together—better than ever.”
“Does he look as bad as you?”
“No. I got the worst of it.”
“. . . Nope. Not buying that one, either.”
Again Yu turned to Riley, talking about Rob like he wasn’t in the room.
“In this story he’s willing to be the guy who gets beat up, but not the one who’s wrong about the technology.”
He turned back to Rob.
“Here’s the deal: if you tell me the truth, I’ll give you 760,000 dollars for 48 percent of the action. That’s a promise. But it has to be the truth. I’ll know if it isn’t.”
“Come on, Sid,” Riley said.
“What? That’s exactly what I saved us this morning by pushing back Allie’s opening. You’re saying I don’t get to spend that?”
“We’re going to pay for trash?”
“Hey, it’s not trash.” Yu mocked outrage. “It’s a middling idea for a Harvey Mudd grad, but sometimes those pan out. GrapeTech was a lot dumber than this idea, and investors got rich off Grape, didn’t they?”
“500,000,” Riley said. “We can’t give him more than that.”
“Done,” Yu turned back to Rob. “Okay. Last chance. Tell the truth, and I’ll cut the check.”
“My cousin tried to shake me down for money, so I hit him over the head with a combat juggling trophy. Then I stuffed him in the trunk and drove out here.”
“It’s this thing where a lot of guys juggle clubs in a room and the last one to—”
“I know what it is. I can’t see you being any good at it.”
“I’m not. Atul got it for me as a joke.”
Rob didn’t even know how to juggle. But it turned out he wasn’t the kind of guy who could pull off owning something geeky in an ironic way.
“This is your cousin on which side?” Yu asked.
“He’s done this kind of thing before?”
“I’ve lent him money before. He used to pick on me when we were kids: pin me down and put things in my nose.”
“Pretzel sticks. That’s why I really don’t like—when things get in my nose.”
“Sure. Is he alive?”
“I don’t know. Can you write me a check?”
“But he’s out in the parking lot? In your car?”
“And what are you going to do after you leave this interview?”
“Deposit your check.”
“. . . He’s telling the truth,” Yu said.
“Then we can’t give him the money.”
“What do you mean? We have to.”
Riley turned to Rob.
“Can you give us a minute, please? Wait outside.”
Rob sat out in reception. Maybe he should run down to the lot and drive off. But where to? Emergency room? Police station? Nevada, where he could find a quiet stretch of highway?
“Uh, yeah. You can go now,” the kid at the desk called to him. “You don’t need to wait for anything else.”
“Mr. Riley told me to wait out here for him and Mr. Yu.”
“. . . Are you serious?”
When they got to the parking lot and found Rob’s car, the trunk was open. Victor was gone, but there were traces of blood in the upholstery and down the side of the exterior. Riley followed a trail that led into the grass and then disappeared. Yu took out his checkbook and a freshly printed contract and put them on the hood of the car.
“Are you crazy? We can’t give him money,” Riley said.
“We have to: I promised.”
“We have to call the police.”
“You can do that if you like. What are you going to tell them?” Yu turned to Rob. “You got your cousin’s cell number? Call him.”
Rob dialed Victor’s number and Yu took the phone.
“What?” Victor answered.
“Hey, this is Sid Yu with Yu/Riley Ventures. How’s it going?”
“Who are you?”
“You need anything? Need a ride to the hospital, anything like that?”
“No. I don’t.”
“Where are you?”
“. . . I’m sitting near this little lake.”
Victor sat on an artificial log by the coy pond, still bleeding from his head. He looked bad.
“Okay. What’s the story here, Victor?” Yu asked.
“The story? This fucker hit me with a folk dancing trophy.”
“No. What happened is you were across the street at the half pipe. Some skater kids jumped you. Your cousin is going to drive you to the hospital. When you get out, you’re going to deposit this check for 8,000 dollars.”
Yu wrote a check and gave it to Victor. Then he wrote a second check for 592,000 dollars and handed Rob the contract. When he signed it, Yu gave him the check.
“And you don’t have to ride in the trunk this time,” Yu said to Victor.
“I don’t need a doctor. I’ve gotten worse than this. Give me an even ten grand, and I’ll go home and sleep it off.”
“That’s up to you guys,” Yu said. “Work it out in the car. But honestly, I’d advise seeing a doctor. Head trauma can be tricky. Brains are weird. You know?”
Victor nodded sagely and got in the passenger seat. Rob took a moment, tucked the check in his breast pocket, then got in the car and started the engine.
The partners watched the car leave the lot.
“You think the cousin is going to be trouble?” Yu asked.
“I really hope not, because this is a billion dollar idea.”