I Did Not See This Coming

The Tech Startup Thriller, Part 5 of 10

Here’s the experiment: over ten weeks we’re releasing an entire tech startup thriller novel chapter-by-chapter on Medium and we’d love to have you along for the ride. The book, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0, has 150+ five star reviews on Amazon and has been described as “John Grisham for tech” so we hope you like it. It’s lightning-speed tale of founders risking their lives to go from 0 to 1. Click here to start at the beginning and read Part 1. Click here to find out what the hell this is all about.

Chapter 30

“I need to show you something.” Craig was smiling but there was something deeper beneath his tone.

Mara hopped into the passenger door of his Jeep and they pulled out onto the street, the driveway pothole rocking the suspension. The houses on Craig’s block were large brown-shingled homes. Most of them had been split into multiple small apartments and the neighborhood had been thoroughly invaded by college students.

“So, what’s this special thing you want to show me?” she said. They were heading around to the other side of campus. “I have done the campus tour already, just so you know.”

“Hah, well I haven’t seen you on it lately, but no, this isn’t a campus tour. Just enjoy the anticipation. I promise you this will be a surprise.”

“Okay, okay. You want to be all mysterious, I’ll keep quiet.”

Craig really was growing on her. He always tried to step back and give her objective feedback on Mozaik whenever she asked for it even though she knew he was sometimes frustrated by how the work monopolized her time. She felt something well up inside her, the feeling so palpable that it tightened her throat. She pulled out the seatbelt to give herself some slack so she could lean over to give him a kiss on the cheek. His rough stubble scratched against her lips like sandpaper.

He smiled and shot her a glance, but had to look back to the road to swerve around a cyclist towing a lame dog in a trailer cart. Mara put her hand on his thigh and looked back out at Boulder flashing past beside them. She’d really come to love this town.

It had been a gamble moving here from L.A. When she was considering the different universities that had accepted her, the University of Colorado at Boulder was not at the top of her list. Boulder was too small, too provincial, for the sophisticated urban palette of a lifetime Angelino.

Campus visits had changed her perspective. Georgetown was way too preppy and the tuition was ridiculous. The University of Washington was cool but Seattle never saw the sun. Mara couldn’t imagine herself surviving on Vitamin D supplements. The University of California, San Diego had a fantastic location and a great faculty but the undergraduate social scene underwhelmed her.

Boulder had surprised her. She arrived not expecting to take the visit seriously. It was just a stopover as she flew back through Denver from the Georgetown visit. But the students she met there all seemed well-balanced and enthusiastic about their studies. Most were active and everyone had cool hobbies. The campus was gorgeous and the weather, even in spring, was cool but beautiful. The Flatirons rising west of the town reminded her of hiking around the Santa Monica mountains as a kid.

On the flight back to L.A. she realized she had already made her decision. When she got home, she talked it over with James and he ended up coming here too, turning down Caltech and MIT in the process.

How ironic that both of them had already dropped out. She certainly hadn’t seen that coming. She had always assumed James was going to end up as a mathematics professor or something and she would follow her parents down the road to law.

Thinking about her parents brought up the crummy memory of Thanksgiving. She probably should have handled that better. But it was so patronizing how they dismissed everything she had been working on with Mozaik. They had written it off immediately as some kind of adolescent pipe dream. Well, maybe it was a pipe dream, but it was a pipe dream she was going to push to the limit. How else did anything amazing ever get accomplished?

She looked over at Craig again. He had always been there to support her even though they had only been dating for a couple of months before James approached her about Mozaik. He was really passionate about geology. She couldn’t understand his fascination with rocks but she could understand his passion. He wanted to follow in the investigative footsteps of his detective father. Now that she had Mozaik she knew what it felt like to really care about what she worked on every day. It was intoxicating.

She still got the feeling that despite his best efforts, Craig still harbored jealousy towards James. It was definitely mutual. The frequent explosions of frustration when they had started dating had ebbed and were now replaced with thinly veiled embers of resentment. Neither James nor Craig enjoyed the other’s company but they had both learned to accept each other’s place in Mara’s life. It was a relief to be able to share her misadventures at Mozaik with Craig, especially when she just needed to vent. She was lucky to have someone like him in her life.

“Earth to Mara.” He gave her a poke. “It looks like you’ve been on another planet for a while now.”

“Hah, yeah space cadet award over here.”

“Well, wake up ’cause we’re here.”

Here turned out to be the opposite side of campus. Craig parked the car along a tree-lined avenue but didn’t get out of the Jeep. Students were walking between classes, a skateboarder was practicing grinds on a nearby ledge, a street musician with a shaggy beard was banging out a rhythm on a conga drum from which hung a “Copz took my weed!” sign. Everything was par for the course for this part of Boulder.

Mara looked over at Craig, “So… what exactly is this big surprise? Don’t tell me we drove all the way here in secrecy just to investigate the parking options.”

“Hah! Look around yourself Winkel. It’s not that hard to find.”

It was cold but dry. Most people wore wool coats or ski jackets. The ground was clear. It hadn’t snowed in a few weeks. The bright sunshine gleamed of the polished, garishly colored frames of a few fixed gear bikes piloted by cut-and-dried hipsters. Mara smiled inwardly, imagining them drinking micro-distilled bourbon out of hand-up-cycled tumblers. Most of the buildings had classic Coloradan red brick facades. She scanned their tenants. The inevitable Starbucks was on a corner a block away. A local dive bar and a few boutique-clothing stores were across the street. A family law firm filled out the block. On the other side she could see the University Memorial Center and the Mary Rippon Theater.

It was like a punch to the gut. She knew why they were here. She knew they shouldn’t be here. What did Craig think he was doing? What was he playing at?

Across the way, hidden only by the naked branches of an oak, sat the Center for Mathematics and Society.

Chapter 31

“Aha. You’ve solved the riddle.” Craig grinned.

“Why are we here?” Her voice was cold.

He seemed not to notice. “Ever since you sent me over the data that James collected, I started looking into them. Reading through the files it’s obvious the Center’s been hiding something. I started trying to piece together what might be going on. I haven’t been able to work it out yet but I have found out some pretty weird stuff. I started… ”

“Stop,” Mara interrupted, her voice raw. “Just stop.”

He looked over at her, eyebrows raised.

“What the fuck are you thinking, Craig?” she said, lacing the words with Napalm. “No. Don’t answer. That was a rhetorical question. There’s nothing to investigate. Nothing ever happened. This is a legal deathtrap for Mozaik. James deleted all the files. Nothing more can happen with it. All it accomplishes is to further endanger James, myself, and the company.”

“Oh, come on, Winkel. You must be curious. Mozaik’s software reveals its first case of actual financial wrongdoing and you want to just forget about it completely?” He raised his palms. “Don’t worry, it’s not like I’ve reported anything to the cops or anything. I just wanted to help fill in the rest of the picture so I’ve been checking some things out in person and shadowing a few people from the Center. I’ve found out some really weird stuff. They’re definitely involved with a number of shady operations.”

“Shadowing?” Her stomach twisted into knots. “So now you’ve been stalking the very people James’ hacked? You’re going to get us all arrested.” This was all insane. First James, now Craig. Fuck men. “If anyone should know better, it’s you. You know exactly what James did and how ridiculously risky and useless it was. How could you do this to us? How could you do this to me? At least this explains where you’ve been the past couple weeks. When I’ve tried to hang out with you, apparently you were too busy endangering Mozaik’s future to care.”

Craig shook his head. “For God’s sake Mara. I haven’t been endangering Mozaik. I’ve been trying to figure out what the Center’s been up to. Don’t try to tell me you don’t want to know too.”

“No. I don’t want to know anything more about this. Got it? For fuck’s sake, how many times do I need to say it?” She didn’t need any more goddamn complications. He was going to bring everything down in flames. Everything she had been working so hard to put together, piece by painful piece. Damn him. Well, she could slash and burn as well.

Craig was making some tentative placating noises. His tone had changed from exasperated to desperate. He could tell he was in over his head.

“I’m done,” she interrupted. “Forget about this. Forget about me. I don’t need this and I don’t need you.” She injected as much poison as she could into the pronoun. “Don’t pursue this any further or you’ll end up in jail along with us. Oh, and don’t bother trying to call.”

She was slamming the door before she realized she had gotten out of the Jeep. Craig’s face was a mask of shock. Good. Hopefully this hurt him as much as his deceit hurt her.

The headache evolved, burning through every vessel and capillary. All she wanted was someone she could trust. Finally she had felt like she could actually trust Craig completely. And then this. He went behind her back to investigate the untouchable and risk prison time for all of them.

She collided with something, startling her out of her reverie.


She looked up at a tall, broad baby-faced man in a long dark wool coat. She had knocked his steaming coffee to the pavement. She must have been walking fast.

“I’m so sorry.” He bent down to retrieve the cup. He was clean cut, vaguely military.

“No, I’m sorry. I ran into you.” Mara was floundering for words, trying to acclimate to normalcy and push down her emotional turmoil.

“What’s wrong?” He looked about thirty and he spoke with a mild accent Mara couldn’t place. “Here.” He reached into his coat and drew out a handkerchief, handing it to her.

She took it automatically, not understanding.

After a moment he smiled and mimed wiping his eyes. “You’re crying. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Mara brought up the handkerchief, embarrassed. She hadn’t cried in years. What was she doing crying now? She needed to get herself back under control. She felt her cheeks flush.

“Yes, yes. I’m fine. Sorry again. I didn’t mean to make you spill your coffee.”

“Don’t worry about it. It was Starbucks piss anyway.” He raised his eyebrows and gave her another smile, gray eyes twinkling. “Their roast isn’t worth the cups it’s poured into.”

“Still, well, anyway, thank you.” She just wanted to get out of here. Get away from Craig and his stupidity. Find a place to breathe and get her bearings. Students flowed around them to and from classes. She’d make her way back to her apartment. Then maybe she’d go on a run or something. She needed to flush out her system somehow and she hadn’t been getting enough exercise lately with everything happening at Mozaik.

The man patted her shoulder. “No problem at all. It looks like you need something to pep you up, maybe go get yourself a cappuccino at Laughing Goat?”

Mara just stared as he turned and walked away. Was it weird that he had suggested her favorite drink at her favorite coffee shop? No, the Laughing Goat was a popular café and everyone liked cappuccinos. Her thinking was just confused and emotional because of Craig.

The migraine hammered her neurons with artillery. When James had hacked the Center she had been upset. But James was just thinking about how he could test out his new code. And it was just like him not to realize the full implications of some clever new technical trick.

But Craig knew exactly what the risks were. He had been planning it as a surprise, thinking that she would be pleased. Christ. It was like unwrapping a Christmas present to reveal a severed hand or deadly viper inside. He wasn’t her best friend making an uncalculated business decision. He was her boyfriend, no, ex-boyfriend, who purposefully defied all of her instructions and wishes and put everything she was working for at risk.

Mara noticed she was grinding her teeth. She consciously relaxed her jaw muscles and looked around. Time to get home. Belatedly she noticed she was still holding the handkerchief. It was purple silk. The material was smooth and felt expensive. In the corner there were two letters embroidered in gold thread, X.M. They must be the man’s initials. She looked up but he was long gone.

She stuffed the handkerchief in her pocket and turned toward home. It was going to be a long walk but she needed the time to settle her thoughts anyway. At least her tears seemed to have dried up. She took a deep breath and set off at a brisk pace.

Chapter 32

The cold air bit into Mara’s lungs as she sucked it down in deep, rhythmic breaths. It was late afternoon and the temperature was dropping faster than the sun.

She could feel the ground flash by under her feet. She had bought herself a pair of Vibrams for Christmas and she was still trying to get used to the faux-barefoot feel.

Her parents had been hounding her to come out to Pasadena for the holiday. But she wasn’t about to return their calls with their attitude and there was always something to do for Mozaik. There just hadn’t been time to fit in a trip just for recreation, especially when they didn’t even bother feigning support for her work. They had been apologetic recently, sending her emails about how they regretted how they had reacted at Thanksgiving, and that they wanted to learn more about Mozaik. But Mara knew better. Their reaction in November had been honest. They didn’t think she was capable of building a company and they saw her efforts as essentially a waste of time.

Mara liked the shoes. They made her more conscious of her own gait. She had to change the way she ran, landing in the middle of her foot instead of the heel, rolling up lightly onto the ball of her foot, and then springing off into the next step. Her strides were shorter and she zigzagged down steep slopes to reduce the strain on her knees.

She could feel the grit of gravel underneath her feet as she made a shortcut through an unpaved section between two paths on campus. The familiar burn in her muscles felt good. It was intense though, more intense than it would normally be on this short run. She hadn’t been getting enough exercise lately. Whenever she hadn’t exercised in a while she always felt a kind of pressure building up inside her. It was distracting and irritated her, but it was hard carving out time for it since there was always so much to do.

Mara dodged past two lovers making out in front of one of the dorms. Couples. She remembered feeling the same way when Andrew had broken up with her in high school. But she had been with Andrew for two years. She and Craig had only been dating for six months but for some reason her brain had still decided to wallow. She couldn’t believe Craig had betrayed her trust and investigated the Center, risking exposure for James’ hacking episode.

Even though she had very clearly told him not to contact her, he still insisted on sending her texts and emails. She ignored his calls but he left voicemails anyway. Thankfully, the calls had subsided, but he still sent the occasional email. She set up a filter in her email so that it immediately sent the messages to a folder and she wouldn’t have to see them populate in her inbox. She never opened them but it annoyed her to even see the subject lines.

Most of them were apologies but some of them obviously contained messages detailing the results of his amateur investigations. Apparently he thought he could be Sherlock Holmes or maybe his Dad. This Sherlock Holmes could get them all locked up though and he didn’t seem to be smart enough to realize that the emails could probably even be used as evidence against them.

It was probably for the best anyway. She was absorbed with Mozaik. If she was honest with herself, she had been far from being a super engaged participant in their relationship. Her mind always seemed to migrate back to Mozaik even if they were out to dinner or watching a movie. There were just too many issues demanding her attention, especially now that they actually had some real beta users and were in the midst of trying to raise a round of financing.

It seemed incredible entrepreneurs were able to maintain long-term relationships at all, let alone raise families. How could you hope to be fully present with your significant other when you had a company to run? Customers relied on you for results. Employees relied on you for their jobs. Investors relied on you for your returns. Partners relied on you for collaboration. She was willing to bet that executives and entrepreneurs had above average divorce rates.

She stopped to stretch, extending into a lunge. The gait you needed to use with Vibrams really worked her calves. She leaned into the stretch, the muscle fibers pulling against each other like a game of Tug-o-War.

Through the crystallized puff of her breath she saw the brick and steel of the Center for Mathematics and Society. She rarely planned her routes, preferring instead to let her feet lead the way. Her feet led her past this building often. She rested a sweaty palm on the back of her neck.

Craig had been right about one thing. The situation was extremely curious. She had pushed that fact to the back of her mind while she had been juggling everything else. The fallout with her parents and Mozaik’s impending insolvency had taken priority. But now she was reminded of how off-kilter the whole thing was.

When James had told her about it initially, she had been too worried about the legal implications of his hacking to truly appreciate its results. Mozaik had shown that there was something fishy going on with the Center’s financial management. But worrying about that was the last thing they needed right now. That path would only lead to more trouble.

The sun dropped behind the mountains to the West. It was time for her to get back. She needed to prep for her upcoming trip to San Diego. She turned and loped off toward home, feeling the hard slap of concrete beneath her feet.

Chapter 33

“Thanks so much for coming up to Boulder.” Mara stood up to shake Monica’s hand.

Monica brushed a strand of dark hair out of her face. “Thanks for having me. I wanted to meet James and get a chance to see you guys in action.”

James smiled and reached out for the hand Monica extended.

“Hi,” he said and shook his own bangs out of the way. Mara shook her head. Sometimes she wished she could wrestle him out of those T-shirts. Today’s featured snapshots of a monkey evolving into a human and then into a robot.

“Can I get you a water or anything?” said Mara.

“Oh, I’m fine, thanks. I had a coffee on the drive up so I’m fully caffeinated. Why don’t we go ahead and get started,” said Monica.

They all sat down at the polished oak table surrounded by modern glass walls covered by Japanese blinds. Monica pulled out a pen and a pad of paper. Mara and James each had their laptops open already. Mara adjusted her chair. Jeremy had hooked them up with Wilson and Kruegg, a Boulder-based law firm that had allowed them to use their space for the meeting with Monica.

“Thanks again for the case study and the overview. I shared them confidentially with a few friends who have experience in software and they were impressed. I’m excited to see what Mozaik can do.”

Mara smiled. “We’re happy to hear that and we’re excited to have you here for a demo. James is just lining it up now.”

James was tapping at his keyboard and adjusting the HDMI connector to the conference room’s projector system. His desktop appeared on the wall in front of them. Mara sighed inwardly. Despite the leaps and bounds that computer technology had made, projectors seemed to fail her at least half the time.

Mozaik’s dashboard came up on screen.

“James started coding Mozaik when he realized he could automate the grading process of math exams for a professor he was working for,” said Mara. Images of exams littered with errors Mozaik had red flagged came up on screen.

“Then he applied the same algorithms to an online iteration of the Chinese board game go,” she said. James opened a new window that showed pieces moving around a board.

“You’re watching a live match that an online player is playing against Mozaik’s pattern recognition A.I.,” she said. The white pieces were flanking the black pieces in the top left portion of the board. “He realized he had something special when Mozaik started to beat skilled human players. Computers rarely beat skilled humans at go. No algorithm has been able to match the pattern recognition of the human brain. Until now.”

James minimized the go game and brought up a new window showing a dense financial spreadsheet.

“What if we let that algorithm loose on financial data?” said Mara. “They’re simply large, human-generated data sets.”

James initiated Mozaik and it started scrolling through the spreadsheet.

“We can identify inconsistencies in financial data just like James was able to isolate errors on math tests,” she said. The scrolling numbers slowed. She glanced at James.

“We can beat money launderers and fraudsters just like Mozaik beats humans at go,” she said. The numbers stopped scrolling. She chewed the inside of her cheek. She didn’t remember that from the run-through last night.

“Mozaik will change the playing field of the financial world by taking the floor out from under the feet of those that abuse it.” James was frowning at the screen and pecking at keys.

He tried to overlay the spreadsheet with the results of Mozaik’s analysis but a rotating cursor showed the system was busy. Mara’s fingers bit into her palms as she clenched her fists under the table. Shit.

He pulled up another window, white lines of code against a black background. He squinted at the screen and pursed his lips.

Monica looked back and forth between them. She raised her eyebrows. “Uh, is there a problem?”

Mara unclenched her fists. “Well, there seems to be some kind of system error.” She shot James a look. Blood was rushing into his cheeks. “James? What’s going on?”

He bit his lip. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Our bandwidth is running at full capacity even though the analytics engine is stalled.” Cold sweat was collecting on Mara’s lower back.

“We should be seeing the results now but it doesn’t look like the… I don’t see a problem in the code. I’ll restart it now.” He minimized the window of code and initiated Mozaik again. For a moment nothing happened. Then the spreadsheet started scrolling again. Mara let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding.

“Okay,” he said, looking up. “That seems to have done it. Weird.”

Mara smiled at Monica and hoped her beating heart wasn’t audible to the entire conference room. “Technical difficulties. Welcome to software development.”

Monica crinkled her nose to push her glasses up.

Then the spreadsheet froze.

“Shit,” said James, his face beet red. Mara’s knee bounced up and down under the table.

He looked up after a long minute of fumbling with the code. “I’m sorry, guys.” He shook his head. “I mean, girls. I don’t know. There must be a problem somewhere but I don’t see the bug. I’m going to have to run a full diagnostic.”

Monica closed her notepad. “Is this what I came up from Denver to see?” Silver loop earrings dangled against the background of dark brown hair.

Fuck. Mara’s thoughts raced. Momentum was slipping away. She remembered her car running out of gas on the highway to Grand Junction for a climbing meet-up last year. “This has never happened before,” she said. “We’ll figure it out and make sure you get the full show. In the meantime do you want to review the case study we sent over last week?”

“I’ve already reviewed the case study so we don’t need to go over it again,” said Monica. She glanced down at her phone. “You know what? I’m glad I checked because I need to make it to an appointment back in Denver in forty-five minutes. I better run.”

Mara and James stood up with her and said goodbye. Mara walked her to the door.

“Look, I’m really sorry about this,” Mara said. “I’ll follow up with you to find an alternate time.”

“These things happen,” she said, and left.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Chapter 34

Mara looked up at the clock at the top right corner of her screen. Three seventeen a.m. Her last Five Hour Energy had contributed to her nerves without adding anything to her energy level. Neurons buzzed with frenetic but unfocused charge.

The aluminum tea infuser sat on a small plate in the middle of the table, drippings from the damp leaves staining the white ceramic. James reached down for his Japanese style handle-less mug, eyes staying focused on the screen in front of him. Maybe she should have gone with tea instead.

“We’re thirteen minutes out from the full diagnostic result,” he said. He took a sip and put his mug down.

The streets outside the window next to them were quiet. Their light was the only one on the block. Sleepless in a sleepy Boulder.

She looked back at the admin dashboard on her screen. The counter listed another twelve minutes and twenty-four seconds. Twelve times two was twenty-four. Shit. She needed to get her head in the game. She stretched her back, torqueing her torso back and forth a few times.

James looked up at her, black eyes intense.

“I don’t know where the hole is going to be,” he said. “I’ve been living this code for a year now and I just can’t imagine what could have caused the kind of slowdown that happened this afternoon. There are obviously instances where we could reduce inefficiencies, but a crash that big…”

Mara shrugged. “I know when I’m drafting a document sometimes I’ll edit it five times and skim over glaring errors. Maybe it’s just one of those things.”

“Then why hasn’t it come up before?” he said.

“How the hell should I know?” she said.

There was a beat where they just stared at each other. Neurons were test-driving race cars through her cerebral cortex.

Her counter read eight minutes, thirty-three seconds.

“Well, I guess that’s what this diagnostic is for,” she said. “Hopefully it’s fixable without a complete overhaul because I leave for TechPitch on Friday.”

“Maybe if you raised us some money I’d be able to hire another developer to help resolve these problems before they explode,” he said, taking another sip of tea.

“Maybe if you wrote software that didn’t explode I’d be able to raise us some money.” Mara clenched her jaw. “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks we don’t hear from Monica again.”

“I told you we shouldn’t have run a live demo.”

“That’s what people want to see! Scripted bullshit doesn’t cut it anymore. If we can’t perform for a demo then how the hell will people trust us to perform on mission critical financial data?”

“Well, that’s what you get when I’m the only one coding.”

“Well, maybe what I’m getting isn’t enough.”

Both of their computers chimed in unison.

The screen read, “Test Complete — No errors detected.”

“What the fuck is this?” she said.

James ran his hand through his hair. “There’s no problem with the code.” He tapped a few keys.

“How can there be no problem with the code? We were both there this afternoon. This diagnostic tool is a piece of crap.”

He continued typing for a few moments. “No. This is right. It’s the best tool out there. Hmm.”

“Then what’s going on?”

James bit his lip. “The problem must be coming from another source.”

“You mean it might be related to the malware you detected a while ago?”

He looked up at her. “That’s exactly what I’m worried about.”

What happens next? Click here to read Part 6. Want to skip ahead? Grab the entire book here.

I’m Eliot Peper and when I’m not writing, you can usually find me rock climbing or helping to kickstart new technology companies. I’ve worked in startups and venture capital. Nothing makes my day like hearing from readers.

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