Mark Haddad was back, fresh from two weeks in Greece recreating, recharging, reprioritizing. Monday morning, he gave up his sandals and rejoined the daily commute into central London, like a trail horse, millions more like him, plodding their well-worn paths, door to train to door. This time he found the routine cathartic, a perfect prelude to the day ahead, to all future days, droning along at work on autopilot.
He had taken a lot of baggage, pent-up rage, on holiday. It had started building in the pressurized confines of the air cabin soon after takeoff. He spent the first few days venting, sweating it out on the beach volleyball court, swimming, running, digging a great big hole for the kids to play in. Sport had always been his therapy, intense, physical, focused, immersive, mental.
Before Greece—more precisely, up to the Thursday before he flew out—he had been facing a dilemma; a nice one, to be fair. On the one hand, he was locked in to Adware. After five long years, his golden handcuffs were shining bright with the promise of an IPO just around the corner. Running the numbers, Mark’s stock options looked like they would net a solid seven figures after taxes. Sterling. On the other hand, he had Dynamo, a skunk works project he had kicked off two years earlier with a couple of mates. They had finished writing the code just hours before he left for Greece and it was now ready for market. Therein lay the quandary.
Rather, it would have been if he had not hit Print late on his last day at the office: some last-minute work, a proposal to read on the plane. He had stuffed the thick wad of papers in his bag without a second glance, another tick on his long pre-flight to-do list.
Then, on Sunday, the plane at cruising altitude, the kids absorbed in their seatback videos, Susan a fashion mag, Mark fished out the proposal. As he flipped through it, he realized he had accidentally picked up another document from the printer, the company share register, marked Classified.
Curious, he began flipping through it, anger, shock, disbelief mounting with every turn of the page. He ordered a Bloody Mary, went back to the beginning and started over. The company share capital had been restructured, rendering his stock options—all staff options—worthless, his handcuffs fashioned of Fool’s Gold.
He had said nothing to Susan. Let her enjoy her holiday. She had sensed his tension but did not press. She knew he would bring it up when he was ready, not before.
From Waterloo Station, Mark hopped on the Tube to Tottenham Court Road, the office a short walk from there. The first thing was a catch-up with his team. His deputy, Marie Atherton, had run a tight ship while he was away, closing two deals against the odds during the August doldrums. Next was email. A slash and burn through 969 emails filled his time until lunch with Peter Palmer.
It was a warm, sunny day, so they ate al fresco at Gordon’s Wine Bar. Syncopated riffs of an afternoon jazz quartet drifted on the breeze from neighboring Victoria Embankment Gardens.
“So? Good holiday?” asked Peter.
Mark skipped the chit chat, dove right in about his worthless stock options, the changes to the share register.
“You seem to be taking it in stride,” said Peter.
“On the plus side, now there’s nothing holding me back, nothing to lose. Full steam ahead with Dynamo! I’m ready to hand in my notice as soon as we raise the money.”
After his initial anger passed, he had found it easy to shift focus, align his priorities with Dynamo, and plan to exit Adware sooner rather than later. There was nothing left to hang around for. “I should’ve seen it coming. It’s exactly the kind of thing Max would do. So now I know. Besides, we’ll make a hell of a lot more money with Dynamo. Sure, after busting my ass for the past five years, it would’ve been nice to get a windfall but, hey. Move on.”
“So where do we start?”
“Where we left off.”
Mark arrived back at the office just in time for the afternoon highlight, the weekly management meeting. Warmed by the sun beaming in through the window and the chilled bottle of white Rioja he’d had at lunch with Peter, he found it easy to drift off when they got to the management accounts, did not tune back in until Max Greenberg, Adware’s Chairman, began describing a partnership deal he was working on.
“... So when I was in New York, I pitched it to American Mutual Bank. They have got 65% of the US online market. They were all over it. They love my idea!” Max was excited, in sales mode, a full court press, winning the room (mostly) with his infectious energy. He stepped up to the whiteboard to diagram the business model, talking fast and smooth all the while. “In today’s numbers, we clear £2.5 million a year,” he summed up with a satisfied grin and a slash of marker. “Easy money. All margin.”
Before the holidays, Mark would have reacted differently, bitten his tongue, suppressed his moral outrage and internalized the guilt by association, all for the sake of job preservation, the promise of a seven-figure exit. Now that he knew his options were worthless, all his reservations vanished. He had nothing to lose. And he was bullish about Dynamo.
In a misguided moment of absolute clarity, Mark decided to speak out. “For the record ...” He paused, looked at Fiona Clarke, who was taking minutes, then waved at the whiteboard, “That is PaySense’s business model. Duncan Brown is my friend. I introduced him to Adware in good faith. What you’re telling us now, Max, is that you’ve breached the NDA and stolen his business model. Or is there something I’m missing?” Making no effort hide the sarcasm in his voice, he added, “Because if I am, I’d love to hear it.” Mark looked again at Fiona, “I’d like my objections noted for the record, please, Fi.”
The room fell silent, stunned by the open challenge.
Max barely missed a beat, “I didn’t steal his idea, I’ve been talking about this for years!” He gestured at the whiteboard and began re-explaining.
As Max droned on, Mark sat back and shook his head, a look of utter contempt on his face. “Bullshit, Max!” he finally burst out, “That is exactly PaySense’s model. All you’ve done is taken their name out and put in AMB!”
“That’s ridiculous!” snapped Max.
“Damned right it’s ridiculous!” countered Mark. “It’s also criminal. I’m no lawyer, but last I heard, stealing is a crime.” He looked around the room, savoring the tension, no one meeting his eyes. “If you go along with this, you are all complicit ...” The sharpness of his tone, the lingering silence as his eyes made their way around the room, made everyone edgy. When he got to the secretary, he said, “Fiona, please, for the record. PaySense is going to sue. You can count on it.” He let out a perturbed laugh, added, “So much for your IPO.”
“Our IPO. You’ve got skin in the game, too, Mark,” cautioned Max, adopting a conciliatory tone. “C’mon, let’s be reasonable. You know as well as I do that PaySense will never survive. They’re a tiny start-up in the land of giants. They’ve got no backing. As soon as the banks got wind of the idea they’d do the same thing.”
“And that’s your justification?” asked Mark.
“We can’t risk such an important part of our operation with an unfunded start-up,” reasoned Max.
“But that doesn’t give you the right to steal their idea. It’s simple. If you don’t want the exposure, you walk away. But you don’t steal their idea and take it to their competitor.”
“You’re over-reacting,” said Max.
Mark snorted in disgust and let it go. No point. In fact, he was starting to regret having opened his mouth in the first place: not a battle he needed to fight right now. He let the meeting run for a few more minutes before excusing himself, “Sorry, I’ve got to go.” How true those words. “Late for a meeting across town. So, if you’ll excuse me ...”
Mark ignored Max’s trailing question as he shut the boardroom door behind him and made his way to his own office to collect his laptop and coat. Max watched him through the glass wall as he left the building, phone to ear.
A few minutes later, Max stepped out of the meeting to make his own call. He never came back.
“It’s not your fault, Mark. You did warn me he was a snake.” Duncan was being kind, but even over the phone the quiver in his voice betrayed anxiety.
Anything I can do to help, just shout. I mean it, Duncan.”
“How about a drink this evening? The Plough, say 9ish?”
“Sounds good. Again, mate, I really am sorry.”
“Not your fault. You’re not the first person to warn me about Max. But it was ultimately my call.”
“Yeah, but you trusted Adware because of me ...”
“Still my call. Seriously, don’t beat yourself up about it. But if there’s anything you can get your hands on ...”
“Consider it done.”
“Cool. See you at nine.”
Mark lost himself in the crowd, wandering aimlessly around central London, thinking, cooling, weighing options. At 3:40 pm, still early, he turned up Bolton Street toward Curzon Street, idly window shopping his way to Berkeley Square, the tourists thinning mercifully the farther he moved away from Piccadilly.
It was one of his favorite neighborhoods, clean Georgian lines, elegant simplicity, wedged between gaudy baroque bookends. Still early, he parked on a bench in Berkeley Square, burning time as he waited for Rick Ashton’s meeting to end.
An hour ago, life had been simple—put the day job on autopilot, focus on fundraising, launch Dynamo. Job done, exit sorted. But now? His little outburst had complicated things. Sure as spam, a shitstorm was brewing at Adware, trouble he did not need. He would have been better off keeping his mouth shut and helping Duncan build his case on the quiet.
But it was all out in the open now. Of course they would suspect him, probably already did. He could picture the scene back at the office—Max, Nigel, and Russell huddled behind closed doors plotting and conspiring. He knew enough HR law to know they did not have him on gross misconduct. Not yet, at least. But he would help Duncan, give him whatever evidence he could, testify if asked. After being screwed on his share options, he would gladly do so without hesitation.
In the meantime, he had needlessly put himself in a precarious situation. Fundraising could take months. He needed a Plan B should his position at Adware become untenable. He needed to start looking for another job. Which is why he had called Rick Ashton. His old friend was a head-hunter, one of the partners in the boutique firm of Ashton Tate.
Mark glanced at his watch. 4:15. He got up from the bench, left the park, crossed the street to No. 9, and pressed the burnished brass buzzer for Ashton Tate Executive Search. The firm’s offices were housed on the 3rd floor of an 18th century mansion block long since converted into offices.
There was a growing trend in Mayfair for restoring these historic buildings to their residential grandeur, but the W1 postcode still remained a firm favorite amongst London’s venture capitalists, head-hunters, investment bankers and other boutique professional services. The shops were boutique too—Cartier, De Beers, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney—haute couture and expensive baubles dressing many a ground floor window, lending to the quiet atmosphere of leisured wealth that so appealed to Mayfair’s denizens, residential and commercial alike.
A smooth Home Counties voice crackled brightly over the tinny tannoy, “Good afternoon, Ashton Tate. Can I help you?”
“Hi Sophie. It’s Mark Haddad. I’m here to see Rick.”
“Oh, hello, Mark. Do come up.” Sophie’s voice was replaced by the purr of the door buzzer.
A ping signaled the arrival of the lift. Mark stepped into the tiny space and rode up to the third floor, the doors opening directly onto the offices of Ashton Tate.
Sophie greeted him with the familiarity of old acquaintance, a friendly peck on each cheek, chit chat, offer of coffee. Mark took a seat on the sofa and idly flipped through the latest issue of New Media Age. A few minutes later, she returned with a perfectly prepared espresso, a lemon rind and small biscuit artfully balanced on the saucer.
“What’s this?” said Gary Tate as he rounded the corner. “Here to see Rick, not me? You’re my client, Mark,” he added with mock indignation.
Gary was Rick’s partner, mid-thirties, good-looking, intelligent, cocky, charming, the consummate bachelor. He had clipped blond hair, a strong, chiseled jaw and light blue eyes that radiated intensity. He was slim but worked out and had the svelte, proportioned build of an all-rounder.
“Gary,” laughed Mark, drawing out the last syllable as he stood up to give him a firm, two-handed shake. “Keeping well, I hope.”
“No complaints. Feeling the crunch like everyone else. But all in all, not too bad. So? Are you hiring?” replied Gary, wringing his hands with comical greed.
“Just a social visit,” said Mark.
“Hmm,” replied Gary, still fishing. “Referral?”
Before Mark could answer, Rick Ashton appeared, escorting a well-dressed urban warrior. He shook the man’s hand and saw him off before turning back to Mark, a warm greeting, a big bear hug for his old friend.
They had been roommates freshman year at Franklin & Marshall College, close friends ever since. By chance, a lot of the old crew now lived in London—Mark and Susan, Rick, Stephanie (well, sort of ... she was now tax-exiled to Monaco, offices in London), John and Tess. Grad school, jobs, globetrotting, yet somehow, years on, they had all landed here, married (mostly), kids, settled in their American emigration.
“You’ve got first dibs on the guy I just interviewed! He’s sharp, hungry, definitely varsity player. He’d be a great addition to your team,” offered Rick.
“I’m not hiring,” replied Mark, his eyes locked on Rick’s with unspoken meaning.
“Give me a sec to wrap up. We’ll go to my Club. We can talk there.” Rick turned back down the hall, Gary in his wake. He returned two minutes later, alone. “Gary will be done in an hour or so. Mind if he joins us?”
“Sure. I just want a bit of time alone first,” replied Mark barely containing a smile. Gary sensed something was up and wanted in.
Rick glanced at Sophie who nodded. She would pass the message.
Berkeley House was a magnificent old mansion occupying half the north side of the eponymous square. Built in 1792, it was once the home of a successful merchant banker whose family had long since squandered his legacy. Centuries on, the stately building had settled comfortably into its latest incarnation as an exclusive private members’ club. For all its history, grandeur, gravitas, Berkeley House was just part of the furniture within London’s elite business circles. That was exactly how its current owner liked it.
The liveried doorman greeted Rick by name, “Mr. Ashton, good evening, sir,” and ushered them in.
Rick swiped his ID card at the concierge’s desk and led Mark up the sweeping marble staircase to the first floor. The Africa Room was muffled in ancient leather-bound editions, hushed tones, and thickly padded carpet. Rick made his way to his favorite corner, where a tall period reading table and an antique floor-standing globe defined an arc of privacy around two over-stuffed chesterfields and a low coffee table.
Logan had been through the footage once already, pausing, rewinding, a plan taking shape in his mind. Two in, ten out, an £8 million profit. Textbook. In his current funk, he might have walked away, too easy. But hearing the name Max Greenberg gave it an added zest he found irresistible.
Max. The memories, not so much buried as forgotten, came flooding back—the school playground, the taunts, the bullying, the abuse. Logan’s desire for something infused them with more poignancy than they deserved, whetting his appetite for revenge. He googled a recent photo of Max and displayed it alongside the still image of Mark Haddad, chuckling, thoroughly enjoying himself for the first time in a very long while. He pressed ‘play’ once more and let the scene play on.
Ashton orders martinis and a bowl of nuts. He opens the humidor (one at every table), enjoying the ceremony, trimming, rolling, slowly flaming a Montecristo to life. “Cuban cigars. One of the reasons I love living in London.”
Mark laughs, lights his own.
“So, what’s up?” asks Rick, straight to the point. “Wild guess ... you want to quit your job.” They had been here before.
“Yes,” replies Mark nodding his head, leaning back, a long, slow draw on his cigar, smoke rings. “I’m serious this time.”
“About time. Max is an asshole ...”
Upstairs, watching from his penthouse, Logan contrived a memory, ‘embellished’ perhaps the better word. The bully’s eyes burning vicious. The smirks as his minions circled, taunting Logan with their shrill pre-pubescent voices. Max egging them on, doling out the chocolates, feeding their puerile savagery ... the frenzy, the pummeling, the pounding, the kicking. He used it to build his own rage, turn it into a lust for revenge.
“He’s been screwing you for years.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” replied Mark.
“What’d he do this time?”
“Two things. First, my options. Worthless. I found out just before I went to Greece. Then, today, I find out he’s screwing Duncan, stealing his business model, pitching it as a joint venture to a big American bank.”
“Your mate? The guy who’s doing that online banking thing?”
Mark nodded. “PaySense.”
“So are you serious this time? Or are you just PMSing again?”
Mark chuckled, but when he looked up, his green eyes were filled with resolve. “Deadly serious. Besides, after what I did this afternoon, I wouldn’t be surprised to walk in tomorrow morning and find myself sacked.”
“For what?” There was more than a hint of doubt in Rick’s voice.
“Well, at the management meeting, I did sort of accuse Max of stealing Duncan’s idea.”
Rick’s brow furrowed with concern. “Tell me exactly what you said.”
Mark recounted the salient bits.
“They can’t fire you for that,” pronounced Rick. “But for chrissake, Mark, what were you thinking?!”
“I know, I know. It was dumb ...”
“That’s an understatement. For starters, my job is infinitely easier if your C.V. says ‘to present’. It’s like dating—girls always want the guys who’re taken. Trust me. I know. I deal with it every day.”
Mark was not quite sure whether Rick was talking about dating or job hunting. Probably both.
“Let’s go back over the details, word by word. Tell me exactly what was said.”
“What are you getting at?”
“If they suspect you for a whistleblower ...”
“I thought there were laws protecting whistleblowers?”
“There are, but it’s never that simple. You have to tread carefully, Mark. Right or wrong, something like that can ruin your reputation, drag your name right through the mud.”
“I said PaySense would probably sue.” The word ‘whistleblower’ was echoing guiltily in his head. What he did not add was that he had also promised to help Duncan any way he could.
“Well, from now on, you need to be a lot more careful.” Rick fixed him with a stern expression. “The first thing you need to do is go back tomorrow and make nice. Got it? You may despise the bastard, but you can’t show it!”
Mark was about to bring the conversation round to Plan A—Dynamo—when Gary arrived. Rick gave him the headlines—why Mark was pissed off, looking for a new job. He was not aware there were missing pieces. Mark saw what was happening but felt powerless to stop it—he was not close enough with Gary to feel comfortable talking about Dynamo.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Gary, latching onto the misperceptions.
Rick smiled, “If you’re thinking what I’m thinking.”
Turning to Mark, Rick said, “Want to do some damage on your way out?”
“Go on,” said Mark, intrigued.
“Take your team with you,” continued Rick. “Leave Adware dead in the water.”
Gary tag-teamed with, “Not only that, it ups your market value—the whole team’s. We could get a bidding war. Think about it, you’re the Dream Team! And not because I placed them all with you. You’ve made Webdex how many years running? Four?
“This’ll be the fifth.”
“And,” said Rick, “If you really want to hurt them, take your services to the competition.”
“Who’s your biggest competitor?” asked Gary.
“ABC. They’re a big American player. Haven’t really set up shop in Europe yet.”
“Perfect!” replied Gary with a wicked glint in his eye.
Mark had to admit, the idea had its appeal. But, he reminded himself, a new job was Plan B.And he did not want to jerk his team around. Plan A was to raise money for Dynamo. Finding a new job was just a backstop, insurance. But he did not want to talk about that with Gary. Which made for a frustrating conversation, them pressing, him resisting without meaningful explanation. More than once he caught Rick’s questioning look: ‘what aren’t you telling me?’ That would have to wait until they could speak privately.
Mark left at 8:00 pm, another engagement, did not say who with, ‘whistleblower’ still echoing in his mind. He said to Rick, “We need to talk. I need to explain ...”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” cut in Rick, misinterpreting. “We’ll handle it however you want. Scout’s honor. You’re the client.”
Mark read the disconnect but parked it for the night. “Dinner tomorrow? On me.” He turned to Gary and added, “Sorry, mate, just some personal stuff.”
“Sure,” replied Rick.
When Mark was gone, Gary asked, “Think you can bring him round?”
“Hard to say. There’s something he’s not telling me.”
“You’ve heard the rumors,” said Gary, half statement, half question.
“Adware’s gearing up for an IPO. They’re wrapping up the bridge round now, floating on NASDAQ in the spring. Maybe that’s why he’s holding back. If his options are vested, he wouldn’t want to throw a spanner in the works ...”
“Quite the opposite. We talked about it. They screwed all their staff, Mark included ... restructured the company share capital, staff options are pretty much worthless. No rumor: he has the documents. No, it’s something else. I think he was about to tell me when you walked in.”
“Yeah, go on, blame me,” laughed Gary.
“Either case, I’ll find out at dinner tomorrow. Just don’t you show up.” Rick laughed and signaled the waitress for another round.
There were four more hours of footage. Logan left it for the transcript. He had what he needed. PaySense and Adware. He would have to keep an eye on Ashton Tate too—the Dream Team idea could be a problem. He had no interest in derailing Adware’s exit strategy. To the contrary: he wanted it to be a resounding success. Once he had a slice of the pie.
The intercom buzzed. 11:58 am. Lazarenko had arrived.