A Computer Expert Makes A Calculated Risk

    What would make you risk it all?

    When Verity Banks’ boss sabotages her chances of getting her dream job, she decides to take action. Ignored when she suggests the bank she works for needs to increase its computer security, she plots to move her own company’s money around to prove that it in fact does.

    But just as she’s about to put her plan into action, she’s contacted by Zoltan Tor—the man that taught her everything she knows. And he has an even riskier plan: Steal $1 billion, invest it to make $30 million more, and return the original funds before anyone notices it’s missing. If she wants his help, she’ll have to agree to his terms: Each of them will attempt to steal the money—Verity using a computer, and Zoltan the old-fashioned way. 

    Read on for an excerpt of A Calculated Risk and celebrate its 25th Anniversary by downloading the book today. 

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    A Calculated Risk

    I was still fuming now, more than an hour later, as I pushed my way back through the glass doors of the bank data center and stalked across the polished granite lobby. The guards were standing and chatting behind the massive control panel that ran the mantraps and electronic cameras all over the building. I suppose they took me for a bedraggled drunk who’d careened in off the streets, because one of them started toward me in alarm.

    “Oh, that’s all right,” said the other, touching him on the arm. “That’s Miss Banks; she lives here, don’t you, ma’am?”

    I agreed that I did indeed live in a goddamned data center.

    That’s what was wrong with me, I thought as I squished across the lobby to the elevator bays: I had the social life of an adding machine. I’d spent every waking hour in the last ten years eating, drinking, breathing, and sweating high finance—cutting out of my life everyone and everything that might interfere with my obsession and my goals.

    But banking was in my blood; it was, after all, the family business. When my parents died, my grandfather—“Bibi”—had raised his granddaughter to be the first woman executive vice-president of a major financial institution. And now, in the space of a few short hours—during a self-elected opera entr’acte—I was likely, instead, to become the first female white-collar worker to knock over a world-class, money-center bank.

    Of course, I thought as the elevator doors swished shut and I ascended to the thirteenth floor, I wasn’t really planning on stealing any money. Not only do people question sudden wealth among bankers—because of my lofty position, for example, my own accounts were audited quarterly—but also, since I’d spent my life around it, money didn’t mean all that much to me. Because I moved so much cash each day, I’d developed an esoteric awareness of the transitory nature of money.

    It might sound odd to a nonbanker, but there are two big mistakes most people make about the nature and well-being of money. The first is to assume that money has some kind of intrinsic (or at least established) value. It hasn’t. The second is that money can be physically protected by putting it in a bank vault or someplace for safekeeping. It can’t.

    To understand why not, you have to accept that money is nothing more than a symbol. The more money you move, and the faster you move it, the more symbolic it becomes: the harder it is to control its absolute value—or even its whereabouts. If big enough sums move from one place to another, and they move fast enough, they practically disappear.

    Then, too, only the methods change in theft—not the concepts or the motives. People have been stealing since long before money was invented. But the more portable wealth becomes, the easier it is to steal; when cows were the medium of exchange, thieves had a real problem. With the advent of computers, however, cash has become so portable it barely exists, except as an electronic blip. I think of our age in high-tech banking as the Dawn of Fiduciary Symbolism—the era when money has become nothing more than tiny dots of light bouncing off satellites in space.

    I should know how it worked; I was head of a group at the bank called Electronic Funds Transfer—or EFT. Our job was to move money

    , and there was a group like mine at every bank on earth that had a telex or a telephone. I knew what all these groups did, when they did it, and how they did it. I thought now that such knowledge might come in handy.

    Naturally, you can’t squeeze physical money through a phone line. The wire transfers we handled were just memos from one bank, authorizing another bank to take money out of the first bank’s “correspondent account”—like writing a check. Most banks keep such accounts with other banks they regularly do business with; but if they don’t, they must handle these transfers through a third bank where both hold accounts.

    In the United States alone, about three hundred trillion dollars a year are moved through the wire transfer systems in this fashion—more than the total assets of all the banks in the country added together. Those banks have no idea how much cash they’ve paid out until they close at the end of each day and add up the total wires they’ve received.

    There are also many countries whose governments are uneasy that money can fly across the border without passing the customs officials for taxes to be levied. Who knows whether some Iranian is moving money from Salzburg to San Jose a dozen times a day—and how can something be regulated that’s happening with the confidentiality of a gentlemen’s handshake in a private club? The rules governing banking have been around for aeons; the rules about wire transfers fill a three-by-five note card. If any banking activity needed better security, this was it. That’s what I was banking on.

    But like any banker with black ink in her veins, I never rushed blindly into new ventures. My grandfather, Benjamin Biddle Banks—Bibi—had taught me the rules of the game when I was four years old. “Always calculate the risk,” he’d said. Too bad he hadn’t followed his own advice. Bibi had owned a small chain of California banks he’d built from nothing. Though he was hardly in the same class as Wells Fargo, the Bank of America, or the Bank of the World, his little banks filled a need that no one else had met. Just after the great depression, when California was flooded with Hispanic migrant workers, Russian and Armenian immigrants, all looking for jobs, Bibi—through clever financing and unshakable principles—helped those people get on their feet, buy small plots of land for farms or ranches, and become the economic backbone that saved California from the fate suffered for decades by the rest of the civilized world.

    In the 1960s, when conglomeration became a household word and my grandfather’s chain went public, a group of midwestern businessmen quietly bought up his stock and—not so quietly—forced Bibi into a nonvoting, advisory job on his own board, where he could watch the blatant pillaging of the institution he’d spent a lifetime to build. He died within the year. That was the day I decided—bloodlines or no—that banking wasn’t the career for me. I went to New York, studied data processing instead, and became a high-priced Manhattan technocrat.

    It was the cruelest trick of a not-so-benevolent fate that the second company I worked for was bought in another leveraged buyout, just like the one that destroyed Bibi—but this time, by none other than the Bank of the World. I stayed for the transfer to San Francisco, because they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: money and power and the highest position ever held by a female executive—or any twenty-two-year-old—in the entire history of the bank. I was so impressed that I’d stayed ten years.

    But they still treated me as if I needed a teacher’s pass and an escort to go to the powder room. I’d sold my soul, and my grandfather’s hopes and dreams, for a lifetime of reflected glory and a bronze plaque with a title on my desk. Instead of reading “Verity Banks, Vice-President,” it should have read “The Whore of Banking,” I thought. But it was never too late to change the cards fate had dealt you. Bibi had told me that, too, and I thought he was right.

    Furthermore, I now had the right cards up my sleeve.

    My plan was to break through the automated security systems, get into the wire transfer system, and move some money to a place where no one could find it—then blow the whistle and point out to everyone how easy it had been.

    A banker’s first responsibility is to safeguard the money that others entrust to him. If I could cut through bank security like a hot knife through butter, and get my hands on actual dough, it would not only freeze the sneer on Kiwi’s face—it would prove that the very problem existed that the Fed had wanted to hire me to solve. But to do it, I was going to need some help.

    I had a friend in New York who knew more about stealing money than most bankers know about managing it—someone who had access to all the FBI criminal records, interstate police dossiers, and even some Interpol files. His name was Charles, and I’d known him for twelve years. Whether this surly prima donna would share his data with me—especially when he learned how I planned to use it—was another question.

    a calculated risk excerpt
    Photo Credit: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

    Though it was nearly midnight New York time, I knew he’d still be up. Charles owed me more than one favor: I’d once saved his job and maybe even saved his life. Now the time had come to call in the debt. He ought to be grateful, I thought as I crossed the dimly lit floor of the data center from the elevators to my office.

    But gratitude was not a word in Charles’s vocabulary.

    “This idea stinks,” he told me with his usual reticence, when I explained what I had in mind. “The probability of your success is 1.157 percent greater than that of a snowball in hell.”

    My idea, in a nutshell, was to “kite” wire transfers. Most people, at one time or another, have kited a check—usually without realizing that what they’re doing is illegal. You go to the supermarket on Saturday and cash a check for twenty dollars, though you don’t have the funds in your account to cover it. On Monday, before the check clears your bank, you cash another check—perhaps for thirty dollars this time—using twenty of it to cover the first check. And so on.

    The only thing that prevents more people from playing this kind of roulette is that merchants these days can cash checks faster than we check-kiters can get to the bank to cover them. To stay ahead of the game and build up a whopping big sum, you need to keep track of exactly how long it takes for each bad check to reach your bank account so you can get there first. Conveniently—when it came to the wire transfer systems at the Bank of the World“—such information was not only managed by computer, but the systems that managed it were mine.

    I didn’t need Charles to tell me whether he liked my idea or not. I wanted him to tell me the probability of my success, using information he already had at his fingertips. For instance, how many “dummy” bank accounts should I set up to stash the dough? How many wire transfers should I “borrow” and return at any given time? How much money could I juggle in the air, without fear it would all come crashing down? And finally—how long could I get away with this game without getting caught?

    To get the answers to these questions, I was willing to wait all night, regardless what sort of games Charles might choose to play. I sat, waiting for him to work his way into the right frame of mind, and I tapped my fingers on my government-issue, wood-veneer desk as I let my eyes wander around my office.

    I had to admit that for a place where I spent, on average, a good twelve hours a day, it didn’t look lived in. At night, as now, under the fluorescent light, it seemed ghastly—a mausoleum. There was nothing at all on the built-in shelves; the single window looked out on the concrete wall of the opposite building. My only decor was the pile of books on the floor that I’d never bothered to shelve in the three years I’d been in this space. It was what one might call austere; I resolved to get a plant.

    Charles broke in on my observations, to share a few of his own.

    “Statistically,” he informed me, “women are more successful thieves than men. You commit more white-collar crimes—but fewer of you get caught.”

    “Misogynist,” I said.

    “Does not compute,” Charles replied. “I only report the facts as I see them. I don’t make value judgments.”

    I was about to retort in kind, when he added petulantly, “I’ve run the risk factors you asked me for. Shall I give them to you—or do you want me to analyze them, too?

    I glanced at the wall clock; it was after ten, which meant after one A.M. in New York. I hated to offend Charles, but he was slow as molasses—I doubted he could analyze his belly button in the time we had left. As if my thoughts had been overheard by Divine Providence, a message was tapping itself out on my console:

    “WE’RE TAKING HIM DOWN IN FIVE—PLEASE CLEAN UP.”

    It was well past Charles’s bedtime, and his machine operators back in New York seemed to be shutting him down, as they did each night, for preventive maintenance.

    “I NEED TEN,” I typed in impatiently. “HOLD YOUR HORSES.”

    “MAINTENANCE WAS SCHEDULED AT 0100. WE NEED SLEEP TOO MADEMOISELLE. BUT BONNIE CHARLIE MISSES YOU. TAKE TEN, FRISCO. BEST REGARDS—BOBBSEY TWINS.”

    Frisco indeed, I thought, as I “saved off” as fast as I could the work Charles had calculated for me. Charles might only be a million-dollar chunk of hardware, but sometimes computers have more valuable insights than people. I slipped the diskette into my sequined evening bag.

    As I was about to log off the system, I remembered to print out my computer “mail messages” for the day, which my earlier chat with Kiwi had made me forget. Just before I shut down, Charles’s operators added a cheery last note on my screen:

    “INTERESTING INQUIRY, FRISCO. PURELY THEORETICAL OF COURSE?”

    “NO TIME TO CHAT—AND THOSE IN THE KNOW CALL IT SAN FRANCISCO,” I typed back. “I HAVE A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. TA-TA FOR NOW.”

    “A NIGHT AT THE OPERA—A DAY AT THE BANK? T.T.F.N.,” they replied, and a blank screen came up.

    I went out into the cold, wet night and headed back to the opera. The champagne was lousy at the opera, but the Irish coffee was terrific. I ordered one before I went back to my box, and was sipping the whipped cream off the top as I watched the gods walk over the rainbow bridge and enter Valhalla. The golden strains of music wafted over me and the whiskey warmed my bones. I mellowed so much that I nearly forgot about Kiwi, my aborted job, my ruined career, my failed life—my idiotic idea of retribution by showing up the entire banking system. Who was I kidding? But that was before I looked at the note.

    The crescendos of music were rolling over the footlights in waves as I glanced at the crumpled wet piece of paper containing those mail messages I’d printed off just as I’d left my office. There were the usual—my tailor, my caterer, my dentist, a few from my staff—and one that, the time stamp indicated, had come in just after I’d finished talking with Charles in New York. I could feel the slow, heavy throb in my ears as I read the last message:

    If you want to discuss your project, do call.—As always,

    Alan Turing.

    This was disturbing on two counts. First, Alan Turing was a pretty famous fellow—a computer wizard and a mathematician—and he didn’t know me from Adam. Second, he’d been dead for close to forty years.

    a calculated risk excerpt
    The original manuscript for "A Calculated Risk."
    Photo Credit: Katherine Neville

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    Featured photo: Tim Evans / Unsplash; Additional photo: Markus Spiske / Unsplash 

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