Read David Cranmer's review of Dust Up at Criminal Element.
From the BEAT to a PULP catalog
Jon McGoran is the author of the Doyle Carrick thrillers Drift, Deadout, the novella Down to Zero, and most recently Dust Up, from Tor/Forge Books. Writing as D. H. Dublin, he is the author of the forensic thrillers Body Trace, Blood Poison and Freezer Burn. His short fiction includes the novella "After Effects," from Amazon StoryFront; "Bad Debt," which received an honorable mention in Best American Mystery Stories 2014; and stories in a variety of anthologies and publications in multiple genres. When not writing fiction he works as a freelance writer, editor, and story consultant. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and a founding member of the Philadelphia Liars Club. Find him at on Twitter at @JonMcGoran, at facebook.com/jonmcgoran/ or at wwwjonmcgoran.com.
The next couple of nights, Doug started in on Gary's list. He didn't mind working at night. He preferred it. No brokers around, making him feel inferior.
The first night, half the numbers answered — a few polite "No-thank-yous," some "I'll-call-you-if-I'm interesteds," and a few "Don't-ever-call-here-agains."
He treated himself to dinner — the same chicken parm and raspberry Smirnoff and the same jerk delivering it. This time, the disapproving look may have had to do with the miniscule tip.
The second night, an oral surgeon named Ivan Richberg answered the phone and actually seemed ready to listen.
Doug had been researching several promising stocks, but as he described them, he could tell Richberg was bored. He was losing him.
"I don't know," Richberg said. "That sounds all well and good, but really nothing I couldn't get from Schwab, for Chrissakes. I'll tell you what, I was all set to invest in a real estate venture that just fell through, so I have some money that's looking for a good home. If you want my money, you need to tell me something that's going to knock my socks off."
Doug paused. He could practically smell Richberg's money through the phone. "Actually, there is something."
"Yes?" Richberg's voice was suddenly low and husky.
"It's a short sale. Do you know what that is?"
Richberg laughed. "This isn't my first time around the block, son. Of course I know what it is."
He told him about Genval. When he was done, Richberg paused and waited, like he was expecting more.
"So, what's the hook? Why are you shorting it?"
Why? He couldn't tell him that. He didn't know. "It's vulnerable for a number of reasons. The sector is softening, there are regulatory issues and the price exceeds any rational valuation." It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but it was a load of crap. Even worse, though, Doug could tell by the sound of Richberg's breathing through the phone that it wasn't even enough crap. "Plus there's been … buzz."
"On the street."
Doug lowered his voice. "I've invested heavily in this myself."
"You have?" His voice was getting husky again.
"Okay, fifty grand."
Genval was holding steady and there was nothing to suggest even a slight downturn, but as Doug invested Richberg's money in a short position right alongside his own, he told himself he had faith in Greenstone.
That night, thankfully, a new guy brought his dinner. He was older and he seemed okay. His nametag said Ricky. Doug gave him an extra good tip for not being that other kid.
"Hey, thanks, Mr. Fremmer," Ricky said as he pocketed the tip.
"You're welcome," Doug said, feeling pretty good about himself.
The next night, while working on the computer upgrade, Doug took a break to check in on Greenstone. There was another short sale in the log — G&C Holdings. A quick search revealed a real estate development company whose stock had shot up in the midst of a takeover bid from an investment company called Charterhouse Financial.
Doug felt a flicker of anxiety. His money and Richberg's were all still tied up in Genval. But G&C actually looked legitimately vulnerable. The stock was over-priced and the takeover bid was no sure thing.
He called Richberg and told him about G&C. Richberg wasn't sure.
"I appreciate the call," he said. "But I think maybe we should wait until we see how the last one turns out before I invest in this one."
"Okay, sure. It's just that this one might not still be available."
Richberg went in for another twenty-five grand.
Doug felt weird placing the order and knowing none of the money was his. But he'd get his commission.
He went back to work on the upgrade, trying to concentrate as he copied everything from the old server onto the new one, making sure it was all encrypted.
The next morning, Genval crashed.
He almost peed himself he was so relieved.
A quick search confirmed the Cisco deal had fallen through, although Doug had no idea why. It didn't really matter. He pulled the trigger on the short sales and made a mint. Thirty grand for himself. Forty grand for Richberg. A nice commission for the company, and for him. Gary was going to be ecstatic.
Doug flipped his proceeds into a short sale on G & C Holdings and called Richberg, who enthusiastically agreed to do the same. Ten minutes later, he got a call from a friend of Richberg, a periodontist named Carl Willis, who wanted to drop eighty grand on a short on G & C. Why certainly, Dr. Willis.
Doug had been thinking of skipping the vodka that night — he'd been drinking every night — but now he was celebrating. He ordered a fifth, and he upgraded to Devotion, a blackberry-flavored gluten-free premium vodka.
When his dinner arrived, it was Ricky again.
"Hi, Mr. Fremmer," he said, smiling, handing over the food in one hand and the vodka in the other.
"Hi, Ricky." The bottle was freezing cold. Doug held it up and looked at him. "You iced the vodka?"
"Hope you don't mind. That's how I like it, so I got my buddy at the liquor store to chill it."
Doug laughed. "Ricky, you are the man." He took out his wallet to pay him, and paused. "Hey, you know what, I'm celebrating a little windfall here. You interested in a quick drink before I get back to work?"
Ricky looked at his watch. For a moment, Doug was afraid he might misinterpret it or something. But Ricky smiled and said, "Sure, what the hell. It's my last delivery of the night. Why not?"
Doug led him inside, past the brokers' offices to the staff room. He grabbed two mugs and poured a couple inches of vodka into each of them.
He handed one to Ricky and raised the other. "To good fortune."
They both drank and Ricky smacked his lips. "Man, I love this stuff," he said. "It's like candy."
Doug nodded. He opened his drawer and offered him a cookie.
"No thanks," Ricky said, looking around. "So, what is this place?"
"It's an investment house."
"Like a bank?"
"More like a stock broker."
Ricky nodded and shrugged at the same time, like he didn't understand but didn't want anything more in the way of explanation. He sipped his vodka and looked at his watch.
Doug realized he didn't want the guy to leave just yet. "How long you been working for the delivery company?"
Ricky shook his head. "Not long. It kind of sucks — no offense." He raised his mug. "Actually, I wish more of my customers were like you. I'm saving up to go back to school. Maybe get my degree online."
"Smart," Doug said, putting his finger to his temple. "That's what I did, you know. That's how I got this job."
"No kidding." Ricky looked around at the office, impressed.
"What are you going to take?"
He shrugged. "Haven't decided yet. Maybe computers."
"There's always demand for that. In fact, that's part of what I do here, in addition to being a broker. I'm installing our new computers. Pain in the ass, really, but I don't mind." He leaned forward. "I tell you, this place would be screwed without me."
Ricky nodded, processing Doug's advice. He finished his vodka.
Doug needed to get back to work, so he finished his, too. "Good talking," he said, standing. "And good luck with the college stuff." He held out a ten. "Here. Thanks for the delivery."
"Really? Thanks!" Ricky said, leaving with a grin on his face.
Doug yawned as the door closed. By the time he finished his sandwich, he was exhausted. He set up the next batch of data to be copied and went home. He brought the vodka with him.
Two days later, Gary called him into the office and closed the door. This time there was no question it was good news.
"The shareholders are very pleased with the company's performance this quarter," Gary said, smiling. "And a lot of that's thanks to you. I don't know what the hell you're doing, but I want you to keep doing it. I'm giving you another bump and I'm adding you to the profit-sharing plan. But don't tell anyone, okay? Between your salary, shares and commissions, you're making more than anyone else in the office this quarter, except me. When we're finished with the computer upgrade, we can talk about making you a full-time broker."
He left Gary's office with his ears buzzing.
Whatever it is you're doing, we want you to keep doing it.
The words echoed in his brain, sparking a moment of intense anxiety. What was he doing? His success was mostly based on following Greenstone, and he still didn't know what they were up to.
Back in his tiny office, he searched for anything new on Genval. When he found it, he felt a chill.
Jerome Blakely, Genval's chief technical officer and lead designer, was dead. The story said Blakely had been active and fit, but had taken heart medication for years. There was no suggestion of anything suspicious, but Doug wondered. A car accident, a freak viral outbreak, and a sudden death from natural causes?
Either Greenstone Associates was the luckiest company in the world or … what? Murder and sabotage? It seemed ridiculous, but he still didn't know much at all about Greenstone.
At 5:01, he started digging deeper. There wasn't much. It was owned by a guy named Frederick Windrem who didn't exist on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Doug even coughed up ten bucks for one of those "people finder" sites, but he came up empty. He set up Google alerts on Greenstone Associates and on Frederick Windrem, in case anything new came up.
So no smoking guns, but nothing to set his mind at ease, either. Another thought struck him, though, and this one was more chilling. If Greenstone was doing bad things to profit, and Doug was profiting from them, too, was he prepared to stop?
For the next few days, he kept an eye on G&C Holdings, wondering in the back of his mind what all this stuff with Greenstone really meant. But when the new notebook terminals arrived to go with the new server, he became even more preoccupied preparing for the install.
It wasn't complex, but it was tedious, and there was no margin for error. The slightest interruption of service would put the whole company offline, and that could be devastating. Of course, the fact that they were having him do it instead of an outside service or contractor showed how half-assed an outfit Davidson Investments really was.
That night, he ordered out as usual. Ricky arrived with the chicken parm and a pint of Smirnoff, icy cold the way he liked it. Doug invited him in for a drink, in part to distract him from his stress over the computer install and the Greenstone thing, but also because this had become their routine.
"You ever order anything else?" Ricky asked, leaning back in one of the office chairs and watching Doug eat his sandwich. "Don't you get ever get bored eating the same chicken parm and vodka, and cookies every night?"
Doug shrugged, trying not to feel defensive. "They're perfect foods, as far as I'm concerned. Danella's does it right, and these cookies are the only brand of gluten-free, peanut-free cookies that taste like actual cookies."
Doug nodded and patted the EpiPen in his shirt pocket. "Big time."
"My niece has that. Sucks."
Doug waved him away. He didn't want to discuss his weaknesses with Ricky. The guy looked up to him and Doug didn't want to detract from that. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Did I tell you I got promotion?"
"No kidding!" Ricky said. "A raise and everything?"
Doug nodded. "They're making me a full-fledged broker once I'm done installing these computers."
"That's awesome. When's that?"
Doug patted the black box on the floor next to him. "I'm copying everything onto the new server right now, tomorrow I wipe the old server and set up the new terminals, Monday morning, I'll be a broker."
They clinked mugs and Ricky drained his, then he announced he should get going.
Doug didn't stay much longer. The constant overtime was getting to him. Maybe the vodka, too. And tomorrow was going to be a long day.
The next day Doug hit the ground running and didn't stop. At five p.m., the brokers all left for Friday Happy Hour at Chili's. Doug was relieved to see them go. Partly because they were a distraction, but also because the closer he got to being one of them, the more separate from them he felt. But not much longer. They probably wouldn't go out for happy hour on Monday, but if they did, he'd be joining them.
For dinner, he ordered his chicken parm and nothing else. Skipping the vodka would do him good and he had a lot of work to do. When he got off the phone, though, he changed his mind: If the brokers were all out at happy hour, he deserved something nice.
He called back, spoke to the same guy, and asked to add a bottle of blackberry Devotion to his order, but the guy said he couldn't. "You'll have to place a separate order."
"That's ridiculous," Doug said. "I order from you guys every night. I called two minutes ago. Let me talk to Ricky."
"Ricky. The guy who brings my order. Let me talk to him."
"I don't know any Ricky, but even if I did, I couldn't let you talk to him."
"Whatever. Never mind." He'd been thinking about skipping the vodka anyway. "Just send the goddamn chicken parm."
He grabbed a handful of cookies from his drawer and got back to work on the computers. The new server was all setup and working smoothly. The old one was wiped so they could get rid of it. Now he was installing the new passwords on the terminals, writing each one down on a piece of paper next to his keyboard. He had two left when he got a Google alert.
Greenstone Associates had restructured and transferred its holdings to a new company, Emerald Assets. That threw him.
He clicked on the Emerald Assets link and found a lame website just like Greenstone's. Different stock photo, different generic logo, same gaping hole in the security.
He was just starting to look around when the door buzzed. It was Ricky, and he brought the vodka anyway.
Doug opened the door and said, "You rought the vodka. How did you know?"
Ricky smiled, holding it up. "This? I figured you probably forgot. And if you didn't want it, I'd keep it for myself." He started to come in through the door, but Doug didn't step out of the way.
"Sorry, man," Doug said. "Having a crazy night. I need to get back to work." He held out a few bills. "Thanks, though. Above and beyond."
Ricky didn't take the money. "Actually, I need to ask your something. It's kind of important. Can I come in? Just for a minute?"
Doug started to sigh but held it back. "I guess, sure. If you don't mind talking while I'm working and eating."
As Doug led him back to his little office, Ricky said, "Man that's a lot of keys."
Doug felt suddenly self-conscious about the keys jangling on his belt. Like a janitor. "I tried to call you at the service. They said they didn't have a Ricky working there."
"My friends call me Ricky," he said as they sat. "The assholes in dispatch call me Fred."
Doug put his cookies back in the drawer and brushed away the crumbs as he sat down. He poured two vodkas and slid one to Ricky, then unwrapped his chicken parm and took a big bite.
Ricky was carrying a second bag. Doug pointed at it. "You got yourself one?"
Ricky nodded. "They look so good."
"What's on your mind?" Doug asked with his mouth full as he set the password on the next terminal and wrote it down on his slip of paper.
Ricky pointed to Doug's shirt pocket. "Is that one of them allergy pens?"
Doug patted the EpiPen his pocket and nodded, taking another bite of his burger.
"My niece is coming to visit so I need to get one. Can I check it out?"
Doug shrugged and handed it over. "Careful with it. They're not cheap."
As Ricky inspected it, Doug closed the computer he had been working on and powered up the next one. As he waited for it to boot up, he turned his attention back to his own computer screen. Back to Emerald Investments. He angled the screen further away from Ricky. The setup was exactly the same as Greenstone, the transaction log just as exposed. The oldest thing on it was G & C Holdings, transferred over from Greenstone.
Ricky cleared his throat. "I'm thinking of quitting the delivery service."
"Really?" Doug asked, barely looking over. He took another bite.
"Yeah, I think I've accomplished what I set out to in this job."
"That's great," Doug said, scrolling through the transaction log. After G & C, there were a bunch of smaller stock transfers from Greenstone. But the most recent transaction, just a few hours old, was another short sale.
Davidson Investment Group.
Doug's heart started racing and his skin tingled when he saw it. He kept his eyes on the screen, but he heard his own voice, sounding strangely distant, asking, "Did you say your name was Frederick?" Doug looked over and found a big smile waiting for him.
"That's right. But my friends call me Ricky."
Doug's throat felt tight. He stopped chewing.
Ricky took off the cap of the EpiPen. "Here's my question," he said, poking the air with it for emphasis. "What makes you think you should be able to profit from someone else's hard work?"
"What?" It came out a rasp. He tried to swallow his mouthful of chicken parm, but his throat wasn't working anymore. He realized it tasted funny.
Ricky frowned. "Come on, don't be coy. I've been out there busting my ass on these companies, finding hidden weaknesses," he grinned, "exploiting them … That's serious legwork." He leaned closer to Doug, but held the EpiPen out of reach. "Sometimes even wet work." He winked and leaned back. "So I'm wondering why you think you can just tag along and cash in on my hard work?"
"You're … Frederick … Windrem?" It was supposed to be a question but they both knew the answer.
Doug tried to get up, but it was already too late. He slid down in his chair, his face swelling. His throat was almost completely closed. He wrapped one hand around his neck, his other hand reaching out toward Ricky. "The … pen … please."
"Oh, sorry," Ricky said. Holding up the EpiPen, he pinched the tip and pushed.
Doug's eyes were swelling shut, but still open enough to see the spray of epinephrine as it squirted onto the carpet.
Ricky wiped the spent EpiPen with his sleeve and placed it on the desk. Doug pawed at it, but his fingers were too puffy and weak to close on it. Not that it mattered now.
Ricky came around the desk and wheeled Doug and his chair off to the side. Doug's swollen hand slid off the desk and dropped to his side.
"You were never going to make it in the big leagues, Doug," Ricky said as he pocketed the list of passwords. "Not with your crappy online degree and your godawful raspberry vodka. It just wasn't going to happen."
He opened Doug's cookie drawer and took out the almost-empty package of cookies. He pulled a similar package out of his bag, open and half empty. He pressed it against Doug's fingers and before he placed them in the drawer, he pointed at the little "REAL PEANUT BUTTER FLAVOR!" banner on the corner of the package. "You need to be more careful," he said. "All it takes is one slip up."
He took a chicken parm sandwich out of his bag and took a big bite out of it. "Yours has hydrolyzed peanut protein," he said as he chewed. "Not much of a taste, but I'm still surprised you didn't notice." He shrugged and switched the sandwiches with a wink. "Just to be safe."
Still chewing, he picked up his mug and put it to his lips, then he wrinkled his nose and put it down, shaking his head. "I crawled across the floor of a chicken factory to spread that avian flu," he said as he started typing on the keyboard. "I killed Eric Hartsville, and Jerome Blakely, and a few others. But by far the hardest thing I've done is pretend to like that raspberry vodka of yours." He gave a slight shudder. "The things I do for this job."
A prompt came up on the screen that said, "ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO REFORMAT THIS DRIVE?"
He turned to Doug, his finger hovering over the ENTER key. "Kind of embarrassing how vulnerable I left my own server. I guess I wasn't as slick as I thought. Of course, you weren't either. Practically left me a trail of breadcrumbs when you broke in."
He pressed the ENTER key and the server began whirring away, erasing all the software, all the data. Everything.
Through the fog enveloping his oxygen-starved brain, Doug told himself the data was backed up, but then he remembered that the passwords to access the backup were now in Ricky's pocket. It would take weeks for the company to recover from this. If the company was still around to recover at all.
Ricky stood up straight and looked down at him. "It's impressive what you managed to accomplish." His smile was tinged with the slightest trace of genuine sadness. "From grunt to full-fledged broker in just a few months. You singlehandedly increased Davidson's stock value by thirty percent this quarter. Thirty percent. That's something to be proud of. Even if it was all based on my work."
He picked up his mug and his bag and turned to leave, but paused at the door. "If they remember you at all, you'll be the pudgy guy with the greasy hair who never quite fit in, the guy who got drunk on cheap vodka, botched the computer install and screwed the company, then died from eating the wrong cookies and misfiring his EpiPen." He smiled. "But you and I know you were the key man in this organization. And that's what got you killed."
Copyright © 2016 Jon McGoran.