A Murder in the Silicon Hills: Chapter 1


A Murder in the Silicon Hills: Chapter 1

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Cover art by Colton Colcleasure, 2018

Chapter 1

Friday, October 19

Heavy, thick fog was rolling in over Ladybird Lake as he sped down the MoPac Loop 1 freeway. The black BMW he drove was doing 80, flying south into the hill country. Eventually, he would turn right and drive into the woods where the millionaires lived. There was a party, and he was going to be murdered.

On the day he died, Jacob Kissinger was one of the most admired and respected men in Austin, Texas. His startup, a 13-month old company called BrainTrust, had been suddenly and heavily funded the week before. A motley collection of local talent had propelled the machine learning concept to the forefront of the local A-List and even top contenders in the neural net space were rumored to be feeling intimidated.

#

What is it, about abstraction, that leads us to believe it allows for our innocence? We abstractly murder hundreds of enemies in a game, or we watch a video with a brutal crime in it. We see rape and torture on the nightly news. A perfect world would be a world without any of the moral fallout that spews into our houses through our television sets and pollutes our lives, desecrating the homes where we suffer at the hands of imagination—both the collective kind, and that creative force motivating each of our own individual minds.

My name is John, and I used to work in law enforcement. Back then, I was something of an anomaly. A lone wolf detective, too miserable to keep a partner. I’d served for decades, first as a beat cop and later as a competent but generally detested detective.

The story I’ll be telling here is about technology. The promise of wealth lures young Americans into a world of money and intellectual property, of venture capital partnerships and high-risk entrepreneurship. When it works, everyone hears about it, because success is news in the same way man-bites-dog is news. When I got the case that changed my life, I knew nothing about any of it. I was just another cop before I got sucked into a story that rocked the American technology world to its core.

#

The purpose of the party was to celebrate the recent successful close of BrainTrust’s Series A funding round, which brought over $10,000,000 into the company’s bank account. That meant the company was probably Austin’s next unicorn, with a post-money valuation of over $100,000,000 after its first serious funding round. I’m not a business guy, but even I knew that was a special, special thing.

The deal was perfect, and Jacob was on top of the world. His company’s novel tech, a low-cost machine learning technique simple enough to be run on standard cellular phone processors, was about to revolutionize computing and put self-training neural nets in the hands of everyone on the planet.

Jacob’s cofounders, Annie Armstrong and Doug Baldwin, were in separate cars. Driving to the party from her house in East Austin, Annie was upset with her boyfriend. She had been in an awful mood since earlier, when the press release came out and the media unfairly latched onto Jacob as the root of the company’s success. Her brilliant technical mind had had more to do with it. Evan could barely convince her otherwise. It had been all he could do to talk her out of skipping the event entirely.

Doug had decided to use a rideshare for transit. This was the largest funding round party he had attended as an executive, but it was not his first. He knew he was going to drink. He was likely to drink a lot. Tiffany, his wife of thirteen years, had chosen to sit this one out—neither of them drank much anymore. They had three children and focused almost exclusively on career and family, so Tiff had opted out of this one to stay home with the kids. For Doug, that was not an option—this party was more than a celebration. It was about recruiting top tech talent—and making a point.

BrainTrust was the sort of company young tech talent would hurt itself for. Unlimited money, infinite potential. The best and brightest coders, managers, product people, finance people, and salespeople would be attracted by the wildest parties and the fun of the lifestyle highlighted by the top three executives of the company. Work hard, play harder. It would probably hire another two hundred people in the next year, and the best way to get in on the action was to make friends with a founder.

Doug’s driver dropped him off at 10:17 PM, just a few minutes before Jacob would arrive. Annie had been inside the house since 9:48, taking shots of tequila and using cocaine in small amounts as she laughed with her inner circle of programming talent. These people stood in awe of her success, and their support of her would lift the nascent company above its competition and drive its success in the market. Jacob arrived last, and to fanfare that even outshone Annie's.

#

The BrainTrust executive team was an atypical one, which was normal for Austin at the time. It consisted of 23-year-old Jacob Kissinger in the Chief Executive Officer role, 24-year-old Annie Armstrong as Chief Technology Officer, and 43-year-old Doug Baldwin as the Chief Financial Officer. Doug was a seasoned veteran of the startup world who had returned to Austin after a brief sojourn following an exit. He had joined Jacob and Annie before they even had seed money, to help them run the business side of things and do the CFO’s primary duty: investor relations.

You might be wondering about the jargon. I sure did, the first few times I heard it. An exit happens when a founder sells his company and quits working there (or at least gives up majority control). It generally implies a lot of money changing hands. Seed money is another big one. Investors give seed money to founders to buy a big chunk of the company before there is anything built. It’s the riskiest time to invest, but that translates into a gigantic reward sometimes. An entire class of investors has arisen to help founders reach their goals by connecting money and talent to good ideas and hard-working founders, their limitless appetite for risk has earned them the name angel investors.

Anyway, Annie had been Jacob’s good friend since the two of them were awkward teenagers at Austin High together. Her father was military, and as a result she had travelled a great deal growing up before finally settling in Austin with her mother. Her father, Bernard, was a Captain in the Air Force and had taught her to code at a young age, while he was still married to her mother. Annie’s mother, Charla, was a nurse practitioner who had divorced Bernard because she had had enough traveling for one lifetime. She wanted to settle somewhere affordable, somewhere she would never need winter clothing.

Jacob’s mother had worked with Charla at a local clinic, and the two women had not been friends long before they decided to introduce their awkward children to each other. Jacob was a moderately competitive chess player who read five or six books per month after switching to nonfiction, but Annie had taught him basic web development and helped him flash custom ROMs on his android cellphones until he started to come out of his shell.

When the time came to enroll in college, Jacob’s A+ grade point average had landed him a scholarship at the University of Texas. He declared a computer science major and frequently asked Annie for help on his coursework. She had barely graduated high school, a result of her brilliant mind failing to grasp the importance of doing what was expected. Still, she immediately began building websites for clients and made a healthy living before she was even old enough to drink legally.

It was mildly intriguing to Annie to see the irrelevant technology Jacob was being taught. She attended hackathons sponsored by top technology companies, followed the latest development news for web, Android, and iOS, and learned new skills directly from industry insiders she met at networking events. Her dream was to become Chief Technology Officer at a top tech firm without ever attending a single college class, and that dream came true the day she conceived of the world’s most lightweight machine learning platform.

Jacob was an afterthought. He dropped out of college to follow Annie, to promote her technology, and to build a network that could support her development efforts. It had not been easy, but he had managed to recruit a handful of UT seniors to help her build packages they didn’t understand. Annie’s contempt for everyone else’s expertise didn’t really seem to bother any of them. They all saw something in her that made it more important to be around when the dough started rolling in than to protect any fragile egos. Plus, Annie was quiet enough and very agreeable in her way.

#

Jacob’s mind was in a different place, for the moment. He glanced to his right, smiling at the beautiful woman who occupied the passenger’s seat. She was not his girlfriend. Erika was a call-girl, a woman well-versed in the dark arts of pleasure and more attractive than anyone Jacob had ever seen. Her bill for the night was $25,000. The two of them would never have met if not for the massive capital infusion and its corresponding valuation; BrainTrust was now worth $100,000,000–and Jacob, who owned almost a third of the company, intended to let it go to his head for a night.

She was certainly charismatic as well. The sad fact pinging around in Jacob’s head as he drove her to the party through the fog was that he would marry her in an instant—he knew she was a salesperson, manipulating him so that she could make another year’s salary in a single night. It did not seem to matter, though. Even though he knew better, the thought came back time and again: maybe I’m not just some guy with money… maybe she could fall in love with me.

She seemed to sense his frustration with himself. He returned her smile and she put her hand on his, which made matters even more difficult. He glanced at her again, and her eyes sparkled as she smiled even more widely than she had before. Her teeth were perfect and white, her make-up tastefully accented her natural beauty, and her dark hair cascaded down the most voluptuous back. Her black dress was nothing spectacular, Jacob reflected, finally allowing himself to stare. He had seen many women wear the same type of attire to formal events. No; what was special about Erika had nothing to do with her clothes.

“You should watch the road,” she said, her voice silky smooth under the thin veil of a Spanish accent.

Jacob blinked. His car had drifted into another lane and the driver of a red Chevy Tahoe was frantically honking at him to pay attention. He corrected the BMW’s course and waved to the man in the other vehicle, who flipped him off. Driving a BMW with a gorgeous date was harder than he might have guessed—this was just one more in the avalanche of recent changes to his life.

Circumstance had not always been this good to the slender, medium-height, average-looking college dropout. A short year ago, he had been driving for Uber in an old car, barely making rent and routinely failing to explain to his parents just why he had dropped out of the University of Texas to pursue a job without a paycheck.

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Thomas Dylan Daniel
Thomas Dylan Daniel

Hi! I’m a philosopher, writer, and scientist from Texas. I’ve currently got two books out: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/formal-dialectics And Further From Home: A collection of philosophical short fiction https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976951


A Murder in the Silicon Hills
A Murder in the Silicon Hills

Annie Armstrong had never been happier. Her early-stage startup neural net company had received massive funding from a major Silicon Valley venture capital firm to democratize neural nets and make constructing and training them simpler than ever before. Her partner, co-founder and CEO Jacob Kissinger has been found dead after a very expensive party and now Detective John Lewis of the Austin Police Department has been tasked with finding a very slippery killer.

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