Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read a book as its written? Or better yet, be able to make suggestions as the book develops and see your ideas help shape the result? Well, here’s your chance. If you’re already a Friend of Frank at my author site, or want to become one, that’s what you’re invited to do. As the book evolves, I'll ask for your advice, and answer any questions you may have. I’ll also give you the inside scoop about how and why each chapter is written as it is. Sound interesting? Great, because I’ve just posted the Prologue and First Chapter below. To read the future chapters for free as they’re posted, all you have to do is become a Friend of Frank.
The patterns on the computer screen were mesmerizing; beautiful; even magical.
Colorful squares silently evanesced out of nowhere, multiplied, formed fractal patterns and drifted away. Each cluster of squares represented a new block of transactions, one that instantaneously propagated to nodes spread wide across the networked world. On a thousand computer systems, each block took its place atop the billions of others that had preceded it.
It was like watching life itself evolve. And it was his creation.
Ten years. It was ten years ago today he first revealed his proposal for a “blockchain” that could provide the foundation for a new financial world order. At first, the world ignored it.
But with time, recognition of the genius behind his vision dawned here, and then there. As well it should; it was elegant and self-reinforcing. It was disruptive and revolutionary. Soon, scores of companies were launched to exploit what the markets now called “cryptocurrencies.” And then a hundred. Now there were thousands. The greatest companies and governments of the world were scrambling to take advantage of his technology, casting aside their old ways aside and embracing the new.
But still the secret of his identity remained secure. In all the world, only he knew from whose fertile brain this new technology had arisen. For all anyone knew, he was some sort of cyber magician or wizard. A Cryptomancer, if you will. He smiled at the thought. A Cryptomancer. Yes, perhaps that was exactly what he was.
But back to the business at hand. Ten years he had waited. Now it was time for the Cryptomancer to act.
* * *
Mr. Cronin Will See You Now
Frank was fidgeting.
There was nothing unusual about that, since he was usually fidgeting unless he was thoroughly engrossed in something. And he was always in a state of dynamic tension in the presence of almost anyone else, fighting to control whatever tic his body had most recently adopted to torment him with.
At this particular point in time, the anyone else that had set him a-tremble was a strikingly beautiful and well-dressed receptionist sitting behind a desk on the top floor of a skyscraper in New York City. Through the floor to ceiling windows of the reception area Frank could see a breathtaking view of Manhattan from 85 floors above street level. Perched on the edge of a couch, he struggled to hold himself still while wondering what exactly he was doing there.
Just the week before life had seemed simple and neat. His last government assignment had just wound up, and he was treating himself to a rare bit of rest and relaxation on an island he’d visited once before under more stressful circumstances.
For a few days, he had even succeeded. And then the roof fell in.
Back in the present, he looked up, startled. “Yes?”
An austere, middle-aged woman in a conservative suit was standing nearby, her hair pulled back and wearing dark-rimmed glasses. “Mr. Cronin will see you now.”
Frank jerked to his feet and followed the woman past a dozen sumptuous, glass-walled offices. At the end of the hall, they paused outside an even grander, corner office. Inside, Frank saw a sixty-ish man. The glass-topped desk he was sitting behind looked to Frank to be about the size of his own kitchen. Frank guessed the executive’s suit cost at least $1,000, and wondered how much his haircut had set him back.
The receptionist tapped on the door, and Cronin looked up at Frank. I bet his whole outfit cost less than my haircut, Cronin thought, standing up. But he looks in shape, and that’s a surprise.
“Welcome!” Cronin said, sliding effortlessly into sales mode as he walked around his desk to meet Frank, a broad smile on his face and his hand extended.
“I’m Benson Cronin – call me Ben. Mind if I call you Frank?”
“Sure,” Frank said, waiting to retrieve his hand from an unusually thorough hand shake.
“Great. Let’s sit over here.” Cronin ignored the chair in front of his desk and gestured towards a couch and chairs to the side. “Would you like something to drink?”
“No – no. I’m fine.”
“Good, good,” Cronin said. “So, I appreciate you’re making time to meet with me today. My admin tells me you were on vacation. And pretty hard to reach as well.”
Not intentionally. If Frank hadn’t been having breakfast at one of the few places on the island with weak cellphone service he wouldn’t be in Manhattan today. Halfway through his fish hash and eggs his phone had started vibrating. The number on the screen was unfamiliar, but he took the call anyway, expecting it to be another damage control call from the FBI.
“Did you get Mr. Cronin’s letter?”
Letter? Who sent letters anymore? Frank received and paid all his bills on-line and never bothered to open his mail box until the postman couldn’t jam any more junk mail through the slot.
“Uh, no. I’ve been away for a while.”
“I’ve been trying for days to reach you by phone as well. You’ve already missed the first two appointments I set up for you. Mr. Cronin is a very busy man.”
“I’m sure he is, Ms …”
“Adams. Audrey Adams. Mr. Cronin’s Executive Assistant!”
“Well, the cell coverage is pretty spotty up here. Anyway, can you tell me what this is all about?”
“I’d like you to meet with Mr. Cronin this afternoon at four.”
“In New York, of course.” There was a long pause while Ms. Adams grappled with the extraordinary concept that there could be anyone on earth that not know where Benson Cronin worked. “At the main office of First Manhattan Bank.”
Frank looked at his watch. “I’m afraid I can’t. You see, I’m on an island off the coast of Maine. At this time of year, the ferry only runs every other day, and that would be tomorrow.”
“What’s the name of the island?”
“Where are you staying? And where are you right now?”
Frank looked at his phone in astonishment. “The Slackwater Motel. And I’m having breakfast at a place called Esther’s. Why?”
“I’ll get back to you. Stay by your phone.” And she was gone.
Frank shook his head as he set the phone down. Now there was an executive assistant that didn’t take no for an answer. She’d have to this time, though, unless she owned a lobster boat. And a fast one at that.
He was settling up his tab when his phone vibrated again.
“Adams here. There’s a car waiting for you outside.”
“There’s a car waiting to take you to the airstrip. If you leave right now, you can catch the mail plane.”
Frank frowned. “All the way to New York?”
“Of course not. The mail plane will take you across the bay to the Fowlshead airport. Mr. Cronin’s private jet will be waiting for you there.”
“Okay … I guess that would work. I’ll need to stop back at the motel to – ”
“No, you won’t. I’ve already spoken to Mr. Gladman, the owner, and settled your bill. Your suitcase and laptop are in the car outside.” And once again she was gone.
Ten minutes later, Frank was driving along the edge of a grass airstrip towards a small airplane, it’s prop already spinning. As he climbed in, he realized the plane was rocking back and forth in a nasty cross wind. He started to feel queasy.
“Are you sure it’s safe to take off?”
“Landing was a little interesting,” the pilot said. “Take-off’s easier.” He shoved the throttle all the way forward and the plane lurched ahead, gathering speed as it bounced its way down the narrow lane of grass carved out of the dense spruce forest crowding in on either side. Frank held on tight to the arms of his seat as the light plane lifted off and immediately started drifting towards the trees on the left, its right wing dipping towards the ground. Goggle-eyed, he watched as the trees reached out to grab them.
And then they were free, the broad, shining bay spread out before them, speckled with islands and dotted with fishing boats.
“Piece of cake,” the pilot said. “You should try it in thick fog.”
* * *
Now here he was, just six hours later, shaking hands with the CEO of one of the largest and most powerful banks in the world, anxious to hear why he had been summoned from the wilds of Maine to present himself before Benson Cronin.
“So,” Cronin began, “how much did Audrey tell you about what I’d like to talk about?”
“Nothing, actually, other than that it had something to do with blockchains,” Frank said.
Which was no surprise. All you heard about these days was the blockchain. The concept was simple, although the technology could be tricky. Traditionally, a bank would act as the single custodian of financial data – acting like the hub of a wheel with millions of transactional spokes, if you will. With blockchain technology, there was no central repository. Instead, transactions were executed and packaged in “blocks,” which were then linked together in an ongoing “chain.” That chain of transactions was recorded in tens, hundreds, or even thousands of separate, registries, each holding identical data. The result was a system like a wheel with no spokes or hub at all – just a multitude of identical data repositories around its edge. With so many duplicates of the same data, the system was supposed to be much more secure. Frank wasn’t so sure about that.
“Ah – well, Audrey does tend to focus on the immediate issue, which in this case was tracking you down. Can I ask you how available you are right now?”
The honest answer was “totally,” Frank thought, now that he had suddenly become persona non grata with the government. It wasn’t his fault things had blown up long after his part in the project was complete. But in the eyes of the CIA’s congressional oversight committee, everyone involved in that operation was just as guilty as the operatives who had actually screwed up. Anyone at the CIA or FBI would be crazy to put him on a new project, at least until things died down. Luckily, his name had never shown up in the media. Otherwise, he certainly wouldn’t be sitting here now.
“I guess it depends,” Frank hedged. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well, I guess I’ll just put my cards on the table. How would you like to be First Manhattan’s new Chief Risk Officer for Blockchain Technologies? Starting immediately?”
Frank stared blankly in response. “Me?”
Cronin smiled. “I guess that was a bit abrupt. As I expect you know, like every other bank, we’re preparing to move all our financial record keeping off our traditional computer systems and onto the GFBS – the Global Financial Blockchain System.”
Frank nodded. “Yes, I’d be surprised if you weren’t. But I’d be lying if I said I was I was a blockchain expert.”
“Understood. But then again, who is? It’s all too new – everybody’s making it up as they go along. Anyway, you don’t have to worry on that score; we’ve got plenty of people involved on the code side of things. What we don’t have is someone with your ability to step back, take a hard look at a situation, and figure out where the gremlins might be hiding. Are you game?”
I certainly should be, Frank thought. I’ve been complaining for years that I don’t get any interesting private sector work. Now this guy’s offering me a C-level title at one of the biggest banks in the world. But the same thought put him in a panic. He couldn’t imagine showing up here every day in a suit and tie. They might even expect him to have an administrative assistant!
“I don’t know,” he said, trying to squelch the mad spasm of tapping that had just seized his right foot.
“If it’s the compensation you’re concerned about, don’t be. We’ve budgeted $500,000 a year for the position with bonus potential for up to 35% of salary. Plus 150,000 stock options, vesting over four years.”
Frank’s left foot had now joined the dance. “Well, that’s very generous, but -”
Cronin leaned closer. “Okay, I can see you’re a good negotiator. You’re right, the position might not last four years. How about if all those stock options are yours after just six months?”
Frank could feel the walls closing in around him. “Gee, I don’t think I could commute to New York, and I don’t want to move here.”
Cronin frowned. “Okay. So, I guess we could deal with that, provided you’re willing to be here two or three days a week. We can provide a housing allowance for your stays in the city while you’re here.”
Frank stared back and opened his mouth, but no words came out.
“Alright, $600,000, but that’s as far as I can go.” Cronin leaned back and crossed his arms, keeping the smile on his face with difficulty. Who would have thought the nerd would be such a tough negotiator? “So, what do you say?”
What should he say? Frank pressed his hands down on both his knees in an effort to pin his feet to the floor. That was more money than he’d earned in the last five years.
“Well, I – ”
Cronin could see Frank wasn’t there yet. “Okay, I didn’t mean to be pushy. Why don’t you think about it and get back to me in the next day or so?”
“Sure,” Frank said, eyeing his escape route through Cronin’s office door. “Why don’t I do that.”
“Good!” Cronin said, standing up and clapping Frank on the back. “Here,” he picked a business card out of a holder on his desk. “This is my direct dial line. Give me a holler any time if you have any questions at all.”
“Great – thanks. I’ll do that.”
Cronin walked Frank to the door of his office, where the receptionist had just materialized as if by magic. Before he knew it, Frank was walking up Lexington Avenue in a fog. It was several blocks before he realized the Amtrak station was in the opposite direction.
* * *
Audrey Adams found Cronin sitting at his desk, frowning and staring out the window.
“Did he take it?” she said.
“Do you think he will?”
“Dunno. He’s a hard guy to read. Who else do we have on the list?”
“I’m afraid he’s the last one. We’d have to start a search all over again. Every cybersecurity expert with a big reputation is already booked up.”
“Then this guy Adversego had better accept. After the big data breach we had this summer we can’t afford another public beating; our stock still hasn’t fully recovered. The board’s on my back to do everything possible to prevent a repeat, or at least look to the world like we are. I don’t care if whoever we get doesn’t actually do anything at all as long as we can point to him if we have another breach.”
He waved Adams out of his office and swiveled around in his chair to stare out the window again.
Damn! He thought. I should have offered the geek another 50,000 options.
* * *
Notes: Long-time readers know that I like to salt my books with “Easter Eggs,” a programmer’s word for hidden jokes, puzzles or other gifts that most people will never notice, but which some will – and feel a sense of smug satisfaction when they do.
I’ve included several of these gifts in Chapter One for the benefit of a small subset of my readers, as they relate to the real-world island where I have spent much of my summers since 1990. It’s called Vinalhaven, and “Matinahaven” is a conflation of that island’s name and another one nearby: Matinicus. (Faithful readers will remember that the climax to book 2, The Lafayette Campaign, occurred on Matinahaven.)
Similarly, the small airport on the mainland from which the mail plane takes off is called Owlshead (not “Fowlshead”), and the motel in the village is the Tidewater (not the “Slackwater”). The name of the owner of the Tidewater, of course, is Phil Crossman (not “Gladman”). He’s the guy in the red suspenders who’s actions puzzled Frank on his way into town in The Lafayette Campaign. By the way – anyone recognize the building at the start of this post?
In future chapters, I may challenge you to find the Easter Eggs rather than give them away. If that sounds like fun, become a Friend of Frank.