“Start me up.” – The Rolling Stones, 1981
It all began as an innocent attempt to while away a stormy night during midterms. According to a former classmate who, like most of the sources for this piece, declined to be identified, his friend Brian Kaufman was feeling antsy.
“It happened on March 17, 1994, but I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Kaufman’s former friend recalled recently. “It was St. Patrick’s Day. Brian said he needed to get laid and puke green beer, or maybe it was the other way around. At any rate, I suggested that he check out the Pyramid Bar.” The Pyramid is a dive on the main University of Cincinnati strip where professional women desperate for sex gather on Tuesday nights, nursing two-dollar margaritas and listening to John Cougar’s version of “Twentieth Century Fox” while watching Simpsons reruns with the volume off.
All of the survivors of what ultimately transpired agree on what happened next: Kaufman, an awkward 18-year-old college junior from Riverdale, New York, pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered a lime-green Bud Lite. Sitting next to him was Vickie Fuentes.
“Vickie wasn’t like the other investment-banker sluts who come up here from Fountain Square,” a bartender, who would only give his name as James C. Hallihan, Jr., said. “She was classy, you know the type, real pretty and shit.”
Kaufman and Fuentes, a 22-year-old first-year computer-science grad student who grew up in the same house in the same Texas Panhandle town where doomed crooner Roy Orbison was born, clicked immediately. Both were obsessed with computers – Fuentes came to the Pyramid that night because her beloved Mac 6115 had frozen like a rock – and both were convinced that the then-burgeoning information revolution was the key to acquiring wealth and happiness in an America floating adrift.
The couple stayed up half the night talking about C++, HTML and Java, in that order, according to Vickie’s long-winded confession to the Cincinnati Police. They left together at about 3:15 am, she said, walked to her fourth-floor two-bedroom walk-up near the campus computer lab and had sex twice – the second time in the morning before breakfast at a diner.
“It was like that song. He truly was a lover who didn’t drive me crazy,” Vickie would ultimately say upon her arrest.
The two nerds’ remarkably random coupling brought together two nobodies who would ultimately solve the most pernicious computing problem in history by smoothing the technological transition from the 20th to the 21st centuries. But that discovery would come at an awesome price: 14 lives and billions of dollars. Even worse, the promise of a thrilling new era of innovation would lose its bloom.
A Generation X Love Story
There were some early warning signs that the two lovers were a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but no one close to them correctly interpreted the symptoms at the time. “I was relieved when they both dropped out of UC,” Vickie’s mother Jasmine Fuentes, a divorced bricklayer said during her lunchbreak at the Wendy’s where she now works as a night manager. “The tuition was killing me, and Vickie seemed convinced that there was a lot more money to made outside of college than inside.” Bob Camry, an ex-friend of Brian’s from New York, found Brian “weird and tacky” when he came home that spring to visit and shop for used Foghat LPs in Manhattan’s East Village. “He was always talking about how brilliant Vickie was, and how they were going to use computers to make millions of dollars, that kind of shit. But when I finally met her, the only appeal I could see was physical. I mean, she had big knockers – really, really big knockers, know what I’m saying?
Soon the initial passion between Brian Kaufman and Vickie Fuentes leveled off into a cold-blooded business relationship. In a conscious decision to elevate their level of concentration, Vickie says, they cut back their sex to three times a week.
Stolen Dreams, Dirty Deeds
In early 1995, Vickie became inspired by watching Newt Gingrich’s short-lived co-presidency with Bill Clinton begin to take shape on C-SPAN. “It’s true – two can live as cheaply as one,” she told Brian. She placed an ad for a roommate at Café Imbécile, a trendy cybercafe in Covington, an innocuous rust-belt town just across the Ohio River Bridge in Kentucky that houses the metro area’s Silicon Gorge. Headquarters belonging to high-tech outfits – Microsoft, Apple, countless websites for auto parts manufacturersÑline State Route 14 near the Interstate 275 loop.
Michael Ryan was a low-level shitworker – a permanent freelance AS/400 coder, in industry parlance – who, at 26 years old, was already considered over the hill at the fast-paced design firm where he worked. “Michael was smart – too smart,” his former boss commented. “Everybody knew that he would eventually go on to bigger and better things, so we figured, why not fire him now?”
Hungry and desperate to downscale, Ryan e-mailed a query to the custom domain listed on the online bulletin board at Café Imbécile. Within hours he had paid Vickie $475 for first and last month’s rent and moved his sole possessions into Vickie’s extra bedroom: a year-old IBM clone and a dozen boxes of ZIP discs.
A reclusive 240-pound shut-in, Ryan locked himself into his bedroom for days at a time. “All I could hear was modem connections, plastic keyboard keys and that Meat Loaf album ‘Bat Out of Hell II,'” Vickie recalled. He devoted himself to what he called “my project” 24 hours a day, up to a week at a time, before the noises stopped and he drifted off to sleep at his desk.
Vickie gave little thought to her eccentric roommate until he waddled off to the local market one morning to buy gray-market cigars. The second he was gone, court documents say, Vickie entered his room and booted up Windows NT. Ryan’s secret work downloaded in a flash of whirring hard drive onto Vickie’s spare floppy. She went to the dorm where her boyfriend Brian still lived to show him what she’d stolen. Brian couldn’t believe what he saw on his screen. Here was the coding of the Gods: a work of programming wizardry that could solve a problem that had eluded the giants of the computer world for years, and make them millions in the process.
“There’s no choice,” Vickie says that Brian told her. “We’ve gotta kill the fat fuck.”
“Actually, he’s not that fat,” she pointed out.
“Whatever,” he said.
A week later, Michael Ryan was dead.
The Birth of Cyber2000 Solutions
At first glance the cops had little reason to suspect foul play in the demise of Michael Ryan, found dead in the parking lot of a drive-through chili joint. True, the coroner ruled that four .35-caliber bullets Ryan had taken in the back of his head and left arm had caused his death. And – most damning of all – investigators found a recently-fired .35-caliber revolver in the glove compartment of Vickie’s ’93 Nissan Sentra, wrapped in a Kurt Cobain fanzine. (The gun was registered to Brian Kaufman’s father.) There were also numerous abrasions and bruises on the grotesque genius’ body. But Vickie and Brian’s alibi – that they’d attended a blaxploitation film festival at a local art house that night – seemed plausible. “We quizzed them about the movies they claimed to have seen,” police spokesman Denise MacPherson explained. “We tried to trip them up on Rudy Ray Moore, but they were familiar with both ‘The Human Tornado’ and ‘Avenging Disco Godfather.’ It was impressive. It just didn’t occur to us at the time that she might have rented the films on video.”
Michael Ryan was buried in a potter’s field on August 26, 1995.
The heat was off, but Vickie Fuentes wanted a new start.
A month later, the couple moved into a sprawling studio in the heart of Manhattan’s burgeoning Silicon Alley district. “I couldn’t figure it,” a former friend of Brian’s ex-girlfriend’s bisexual lover mused. “I mean, where did the money come from? Here these two wankers were, hanging out on 22nd Street like they were somebody, and they had views of the actual building across the street—not of the airshaft like the nobodies from Ohio that they were. So, again I ask: where’d the money come from?”
By then Vickie and Brian had formed a Delaware corporation, Cyber 2000 Solutions, Inc., with $12,000 in American Express cash advances, $3,500 in fraudulent student loans and $600 borrowed from their building superintendent. Over the next year, they hired staffers, rented office equipment and flew to Beijing, where they cut a distribution deal with the manager of a slave-labor camp to produce software for 9 cents per unit. They spent months networking both online and offline, quietly spreading the word about their new venture. “The buzz was really something,” says Kelly Hershaw, a former staff writer for geek.com, a site that called Cyber2000 “the start-up of the moment.” “Nobody knew exactly what they were up to, but no one wanted to risk being left out of whatever it was.”
Finally, on January 4, 1997, Cyber2000 called a press conference.
Moving On Up: Evil Goes Public
“In three years, computers all over the world are going to go haywire,” Vickie Fuentes, the immaculately-dressed untitled co-founder and CEO of Cyber2000 told a hushed audience of web reporters from all the big players in the infotech biz: HotWired, Fast Business, Salon, MacWorld, PC World. “Back in the 1980s, programmers rightfully assumed that Ronald Reagan would kill us all before the end of the century. No one could imagine being alive by the year 2000.
br> “Though anything can and probably will happen, it now seems more likely than ever that we’ll see the next millennium. The corporate world is paying a terrible price for relying on 2-digit years in their digitized dating systems. “99” may be fine for “1999,” but “2000” will become “00” – which will really mean “1900.” On New Year’s Day three years from now, credit cards will automatically expire, eliminating the consumer spending that drives two-thirds of the economy. Driver’s licenses will become invalid, making it impossible for people to get to work and earn money to contribute to that same consumer-driven economy. The Pentagon even admits that its automated nuclear ICBMs might launch without cause! Billions have already been squandered on consulting fees to fix the Year 2000 conundrum – billions that could have improved our schools, fixed our roads and hired more police. The Y2K problem is the most pressing problem facing America today. Fortunately, we have that solution.
“Hi everyone,” Brian said, fingering the lapels on his shiny new Banana Republic shirt. “I’m the untitled product development CFO at Cyber2000, and I’m pleased to present the Holy Grail of Y2K: One CD-ROM that you can run on any system – Mac or DOS, PC or mainframe, regardless of size – that rewrites all its code to a four-digit year system. Yearfix Version 2.6 is simple, easy-to-use, and it costs only $29.99.”
Vickie and Brian’s venture became the biggest little success story of 1997. CompUSA couldn’t keep Yearfix in stock. More than 100 million copies were shipped. There were versions in Urdu and Kazakh. The youthful entrepreneurs graced the covers of Smart Money and Rolling Stone, Teen People and The Congressional Quarterly. They appeared on Jim Lehrer and Kurt Loder. Their initial public offering tripled in price during the first day of trading on NASDAQ. To add to their cachet, they turned down an invitation to the White House. Of course, it was inevitable that they begin to feel the strains of their staggering overnight success. Cyber2000 once earned $58 million in a single day. But dogging the sweetness of their net cash flow and positive asset-liability ratio was the mutual knowledge that every dime was composed of blood money, stolen from Vickie’s old roommate at the prime of his life.
Brian and Vickie soon became darlings of the rarefied intersection between the vaporware elite and the mass media cabal. Moreover, they wallowed in the glorious excess that people expected of them. Just six months after opening its doors in a post office box near Penn Station, Cyber2000’s Park Avenue headquarters employed 400 people, 50 of them simply because of the way they looked. “It was an open secret that everybody was expected to sleep around,” an anonymous Cyber2000 staffer admits. “Like, everyone knew that I caught herpes big-time from one of the temps, but it didn’t stop anyone from inviting me over for strip Scrabble. The atmosphere was highly volatile, sort of a cross between Gilligan’s Island and Party of Five with a dash of Sanford & Son.”
For the first time, Brian and Vickie began philandering. One time Vickie catered a ménage-á-trois at her new apartment – Vickie paid $2.8 million cash for a penthouse Upper East Side apartment with a striking view of the LaGuardia Airport flight path – but the couple she’d invited stood her up in order to attend a champagne-and-pretzels orgy at Brian’s loft in Tribeca instead. “You couldn’t really blame them,” one insider confides. “Brian always threw the better parties and everyone knew that. Anyway, Vickie fucking flipped.”
“I couldn’t help myself…I was mad with rage and anger and all that stuff,” Vickie’s confession reads. “Also, the three-fucks-a-week schedule was starting to get on my nerves.” Vickie taxied down to Brian’s den where she found the errant couple copulating while Brian FTPed Quick-Cam files of their ministrations to the Internet. She took a bust of Philip of Macedon from an end table – Brian used his stock options to purchase of thousands of pieces of Greco-Roman art from bankrupt museums in the former Soviet Union – and bashed in both of their skulls. The woman died straight away, but the man started screaming through what was left of his face. In the melee, Vickie claimed, Brian retrieved her .35 pistol from her purse and put down the guy with a shot to the right eye.
The incident temporarily forced Brian and Vickie back together. They disposed of the bodies by flushing them down the toilet in tiny chunks of flesh and gristle – “I wanted to give them a decent burial, but Brian, what did he care about decency?” – but it wasn’t long before tensions cropped up in other areas.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
The meteoric rise of Cyber2000 had not gone unnoticed by the dons of cyberspace, most notably Bill Gates.
The sartorially-challenged compu-billionaire convened his board of directors on the morning of February 3rd to find out exactly how Microsoft had been beaten to the punch on Y2K by a start-up company. Unusual weather patterns attributable to El Ni–o was making everybody nervous, a senior vice president dimly recalls from his copy of the minutes of the meeting.
“Who are these people? How did they engineer their product so quickly with no resources? How come we didn’t know about it in advance?” Gates asked angrily.
“I dunno,” the director of strategic planning allowed.
“Me neither,” said someone else.
“Exactly what I suspected,” Gates snapped. “Now make this problem go away!”
The same morning some 3,400 miles away, federal prosecutors went to ask Attorney General Janet Reno for permission to investigate possible allegations of theoretical wrongdoing at Cyber2000.
“Based on what evidence?” Reno is said to have asked.
“Well, they must have done something,” one said. “Everyone is guilty is something—and that everyone is gonna pay!”
Reno approved the formation of an ad hoc panel to consider the possibility of referring the Cyber2000 investigation to a temporary Congressional oversight committee with the power to recommend a formal inquiry into the preliminary allegations. If anything untoward came to light about America’s favorite Gen X entrepreneurs, a grand jury might hand down indictments at any moment.
Meanwhile, even as the proverbial walls closed in ever more tightly, business was roaring more than ever at Cyber2000. The company celebrated its first anniversary with a $3.7 million New York bash. The entire 59th Street station on the West Side subway line was rented out for the event and converted into a subterranean tropical rain forest, complete with capybaras, long-tailed monkeys and boa constrictors. Has-been retro celebs like Michael Douglas, Cher, Madonna and William F. Buckley hobnobbed with such luminaries-du-jour as Joyce Carol Oates, Monica Lewinsky and Jacques Chirac. Both Vickie and Brian missed the festivities because their flight from China was delayed: The New York Post’s Page Six called it “a night for the ages.” The two arrivistes had finally arrived.
All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go
The Feds were on the move and competitors were circling, angling for an opportunity to destroy the young couple’s dreams of endless cash and meaningless sex. The web site Salon ran a lead story asking: “Is Cyber2000 Ready for Y3K? What About Y4K?” Investors began selling their shares in the company, causing them to increase in value at a rate less than that of the S&P 500. Moody’s Investor Services downgraded Cyber2000 from a “AAA” rating to a “AAA-” rating, costing bondholders millions in interest payments. Trouble was brewing.
On February 11th Vickie called her mom back in Texas. Transcripts of an FCC wiretap capture the conversation: “Mom,” she says, “it’s all falling apart. Brian’s plotting against me. He canceled my subscription to AOL. He’s trying to make me crazy!” [hysterical sobs heard]
Jasmine tries to comfort her daughter. “I’d love to help, sweetie,” she assures her, “but the TV here is showing back-to-back episodes of King of the Hill.” “Oh, sure, I understand,” Vickie shouts. “What happens to Hank Hill is more important than your own daughter!”
“Can you call back tomorrow?” Jasmine asks. [conversation ends]
Downtown, Brian was becoming paranoid as well. “I think she’s on to me,” he told turncoat mob assassin Antonio “the Fish” Rococo on FBI transcripts of illegal wire taps placed under the bar at @Café on St. Mark’s Place. “She knows. I know that she knows. And you know what to do.”
A few hours later, Vickie called an old childhood boyfriend, who refused to be identified because he’s on the run from the student loan people. “She said Brian had canceled her AOL account,” he says. It was crazy – I mean, these two people loved each other, they had more money than God, and here they were, tearing each other apart for no good reason other than lust and greed. I told her she had to get control of herself, which is why I think she did what she did.”
What Vickie Fuentes Did
No one knows for certain what transpired later that night. Vickie says that she went down to Brian’s place to try to straighten things out: “I wanted to appeal to his sense of decency, to remind him of the passion we used to feel for one another.” Prosecutors believe that she went down there to kill him. In any event, neighbors reported hearing “fighting” and the ominous sound of shattering antiquities eminating from his third-floor loft. Then, they say, the music, a gentle segue of Puff Daddy covers of Benny Goodman songs, switched abruptly to Nick Lowe – at full volume.
Police responding to noise complaints found chaos in unit 3A. “I’ve been working in this precinct for six months,” one veteran of the NYPD said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.” The medical examiner found that Brian had been shot, hung and repeatedly stabbed, in that order. Three more people, including an obscure Albanian war criminal and an HTML writer from 27 Palms, California, were found dead in the bathtub, apparently the victims of forced suicide. Vickie Fuentes was nowhere to be found. A cryptic message had been painted in blood on the south wall of the apartment: “EASY COME, EASY GO. START ME UP.”
The next morning the computer world woke up logged on to screaming online tabloid headlines about the tragedy at Cyber2000. The Drudge Report draped a 6-point black box, complete with shadow, around its position on AOL to commemorate a management team that had come so far so fast yet also had fallen so fast. Vickie Fuentes, on the lam, couldn’t read the memorial because her account had been canceled.
Cyber2000 collapsed in mid-March in light of reports that its sole product, the “Y2K solution,” wasn’t a solution at all, but rather a digital placebo. “The packagaing looked really cool,” one analyst said, “but it didn’t do dick.”
Five executives of Cyber2000 committed joint sepuku in an homage to co-founder Brian Kaufman – tragically, the young Internet addicts didn’t know the difference between Japanese and Greek ritual – and leapt, still bleeding, from their 6th floor Park Avenue offices. Two survived, but four pedestrians were crushed to death.
Vickie Fuentes spent a week playing the Midwest church bingo circuit under the name Foxy Perez, only to get caught when one too many ciders loosened her lips. During a conversation about the worst thing each one of them had ever done at a Baptist church in Fort Collins, Colorado, Vickie confessed her criminal past to her fellow players. One woman turned her in for the reward money advertised on “America’s Most Wanted”; after her arrest she made the dramatic statement that serves as the principal source for this story. Vickie is now awaiting trial on first-degree murder and fraud charges. Despite her continuing to blame her crimes on her murdered former partner and boyfriend, she is certain to be convicted. “She pins it all on Brian, but that’s bullshit,” Assistant DA Mike McFinley says. “If anything, he was an unwilling participant, a patsy, a Bill Pullman to her Linda Fiorentino. We’ve got everything we need to put her away for life.”
Today the psychic wreckage of March ’98 is fading away like the fog on a back car window with the defogger on. Other visionaries are working on the Y2K problem; more initial public offerings are being filed with the SEC. Every day brings more news of startling new developments in the ever-expanding world of cyberspace, many of them discovered by young adults willing to eschew real-world standards of morality to “make things happen virtually.” Far from serving as a postmodern Icarus fable for a generation without reservations, the mention of the tragic death of Brian Kaufman, 22, and the living death of Vickie Fuentes, 26, brings nothing but seconds-long silences in the chat rooms and online bulletin boards populated by the amoral young before the previous topic resumes. Forgotten and now irrelevant, only their pilfered dreams remain.
(C) 1997 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved