"That's great," Gary said when Doug told him he'd passed the broker's exam. He patted Doug on the back, but then let out a deep sigh. "I know technically this makes you a broker, but I told you that's not what I was hiring you for, right?"
"I know." Doug Fremmer still couldn't believe he was actually a freaking broker. It had been six months since he graduated from Southwest New Jersey College. He'd gone deep into debt to pay his tuition, but he had left SNJC — or the state of mind that constituted SNJC, since there was no actual campus — with a college diploma and assurances from his online counselor that his future would be as bright as the happy people in the SNJC commercials.
Like them, he had "The confidence to seize success."
Since then, his rosy outlook had turned dark and bitter. He'd applied to every brokerage house in New York and learned that it mattered where you went, and it mattered even more who you knew. Doug had taken classes at home in his underwear. He hadn't gone anywhere, and he didn't know anyone.
You couldn't even take the exam to get your license, unless a brokerage house sponsored you.
When Gary offered him the job at Davidson Securities, Doug almost turned it down. The pay sucked and the office was in a crappy strip mall in North Jersey. He'd been making decent money cloning credit cards and scamming identities. And it wasn't like he'd ever been caught.
But the job had benefits, including health insurance, which was no small thing. With diabetes, high-blood pressure, food allergies, and fifty extra pounds, Doug wasn't exactly the picture of health. The big thing, though, was that Gary said he would sponsor Doug to take the broker's exam.
And now he had passed it.
Gary sighed again. "Okay, here's what I'm going to do. You keep doing your job, that's your number one responsibility, right? That's like, numbers one through ninety-nine. That's what I'm paying you for and if you can't handle that, you're out of here. But I'll give you access to the trading system from the computer in your office. And I'll give you a list. You know about lists, right?"
Doug nodded. The brokers had lists of current clients, prospective clients, rich people, whatever, who they called to pitch whatever stock they were selling.
"Lists cost money," Gary said, "and you're not a real broker, so I'm not going to give you a real list. But you can go through the dead file, the clients who haven't made a trade in three years, and see if you can shake something loose. The list stays in the office. You make the calls on your own time, at night, whatever. Trades are open nine-thirty to four, but I don't want you trading when you're supposed to be working. You have a trade to make, you do it at lunch. I catch you doing any of this on my time, you're out of here. You got it?"
"Yes, sir," Doug said, as crisply as he could. He could hear one of the brokers snickering at him.
"Good. Now get back to work."
Doug started to say "Yes sir" again, but he caught himself. "Okay."
As he turned to leave, Gary said, "One more thing."
When Doug turned back, Gary kicked his wastebasket. "Empty this, would you?"
For the rest of the day, as Doug went about emptying the trash, distributing the mail, replacing light bulbs, etc., he could hear the other brokers laughing at him. That was nothing new.
His official title was office manager, and the only reason he got the job was because he was good with computers, but the massive key ring he had to lug around looked suspiciously like the one his old man carried as a janitor. Before he'd abandoned them. Those keys were the only thing he remembered from his dad — that and the burning desire never to end up like him. And now he was a broker.
That night, after everyone else left, Doug tore open a package of gluten-free, nut-free, low-fat cookies and started making calls. Apparently three years is a long time, because it took a dozen calls before he got a phone that even worked — an old woman who hung up on him. By ten o'clock he had eaten an entire family pack of cookies and spoken to eight people. Half hung up on him, the other half told him to go to hell.
The next few days followed the same pattern. He was eager to prove himself, to get started as a broker, but with no clients, that was going to be impossible.
He realized he needed to take matters into his own hands. He needed to be his own client.
He took out a cash advance on his credit card — a legitimate credit card in his own name. The kind you had to pay back. He was surprised the credit card people let him do it, but they asked if he wanted more. The interest rate was steep, but Doug considered it an added incentive. He would earn enough to live on and make the interest payments, as well. If that wasn't seizing the future, what was?
Gary wasn't crazy about it, but he said as long as Doug paid the company commission on his trades, it was okay.
It was tough going at first. Then it got tougher.
Halfway through the list, Doug still hadn't made a single sale. But his own investments were doing okay. Soon he was breaking even — not counting the credit card interest. Then he started doing better. He worked his ass off, researching companies and tracking market trends. After a few weeks, he started making some positive returns. Paying the company commission on top of the credit card interest was tough, but Doug was so happy to be making money he didn't even mind. Soon he was making enough that instead of brown-bagging both lunch and dinner, he started having dinner delivered to the office — gluten-free chicken parm from Danella's.
He even started paying off the principle on his cash advance.
Then he had a setback.
He was lying in bed one night, eating cookies and skimming the Daily News, when he came across an article about a machine shop in the Bronx — Hartsville Machine Technologies. It was a mom-and-pop shop that manufactured things called thermocouples. Mom and pop had both died a while back and four of their five kids wanted nothing to do with owning a machine shop in the Bronx. But the youngest kid, Eric Hartsville, worked there as an engineer. He refused to let them close it. So they had a tiny little IPO and took it public. They saved a dozen jobs in a crappy neighborhood. Local hero. Nice. The other siblings sold their shares, for not much money. Now a year later, the engineer was getting a patent on a new type of thermocouple and the place was poised for success.
Poised for success. Talk about seizing the goddamn future.
The next morning Doug was at his computer when trading opened at nine-thirty and he bought every bit of Hartsville Machine Technologies he could get his hands on. By the end of the day it had gone up a little. By the next night it had gone up a lot. By the end of the week, Doug had doubled his money.
He made enough to pay off half his credit card debt. But he let it ride. And then it was gone.
The following Tuesday morning, Hartsville tanked hard, almost down to zero. Doug was sure there must be some sort of mistake. He called the place six times, but no one answered. He felt sick all day and didn't sleep that night.
The next day the story came out. Eric Hartsville, the engineer, had been celebrating a little too hard, hit a patch of black ice and ended up in the river. They weren't sure yet if the impact killed him, the drowning, or the thirty-four degree water, but between the three of them, he was pretty god-damned dead.
It damn near killed Doug, too. All his profit was gone. Most of his cash advance was gone, too.
Gary could tell something was wrong. Doug didn't want anyone to know about it, but he had to tell someone or he was going to go nuts.
Gary was generally a jerk — not as bad as those Wall Street guys, but still. This one time, though, he was cool. He winced and slapped Doug on the shoulder. Then he took him out and got him hammered.
Gary told him about setbacks of his own — small fortunes he'd lost and bone-headed mistakes that had cost him dearly. None of it helped. Each time the conversation lagged, Doug would find himself staring into his beer and shaking his head at the thought of it.
"I still can't believe it," he said for the twentieth time. "This one idiot screws up and now everybody's hosed. The shareholders, the employees, the customers."
Gary drained his drink, probably starting to get sick of hearing it and maybe regretting having taken him out. "Not everyone."
"What do you mean?"
He shrugged. "Someone's always making money. I mean, yeah the whole market goes up and down, but a lot of the time one share going down means another one is going up. I don't want make you feel worse, but somewhere right now there's probably some guy celebrating because his investment in one of Hartsville's competitor's unexpectedly shot up. And there's always shorts."
Gary smiled condescendingly. "Come on, this was on the exam. Short sales. Betting a stock is going to go down instead of up. You know how a short sales works, right?"
"Um … sure." He remembered something about it from cramming for the license exam, but not much.
Gary sighed, like he could tell. "You get a broker to front you shares of a stock with the agreement that you'll replace them at a later date. You sell the stock at today's price, betting you can replace it at a cheaper price later. If the price goes up you lose money, because you have to buy higher priced stock to replace the stock you sold at the lower price. Plus there's interest, so the longer you wait to replace it, the more interest you pay. But you're betting the price will go down, and you'll be able to replace the stock at a lower price. If the price goes down, you make money. If it goes down a lot, like Hartsville did, you make a lot of money."
"Yeah, I know all that."
Gary looked doubtful. "Whatever. Anyway, for all you know, someone out there could have made money directly off Hartsville tanking like that."
Doug had never thought about short sales except as a question on the exam. But he was thinking about them now.
Gary paid the tab and said, "You're okay getting home, right?"
"Sure," he said, distracted.
He couldn't imagine why he had ever thought he'd make money betting on things going right. But things going wrong? That was something he could get behind. That was practically a sure thing.
The Hartsville deal ate at him, but seizing the future meant looking ahead, and that's what he intended to do. He went back to brown-bagging lunch and dinner, and for the next four weeks, he spent his days doing the grunt work he was paid for, his evenings calling names on the useless list Gary had given him, and his nights researching stocks. And in the wee hours of the morning, he would wonder what happened with Hartsville.
That's what he was doing when he remembered that certain types of transactions had to be disclosed within thirty days. At three a.m. on the twenty-ninth day, he found what he was looking for. A hedge fund called Greenstone Associates disclosed a major short sale on Hartsville. They placed the sale two days before the stock tanked. They completed the deal the day after. They must have made a fortune on that single short sale. And part of that fortune should have been his.
He showed up for work the next morning, exhausted but energized, with a new sense of purpose. He left at five o'clock with everyone else and when he got home, he got out the cookies and he went to work.
Finding undiscovered and undervalued diamonds-in-the-rough had been damn near impossible. But over-valued garbage stocks that were due for big declines? Jesus, they were everywhere.
He didn't have much capital after the whole Hartsville fiasco, but he had enough to place small shorts on a clothing retailer, a small electronics manufacturer, and a real estate development company, all of whom, for various reasons, seemed overvalued and destined to fail — hopefully sooner than later.
In addition to all those ill-fated companies, he also began looking into one that seemed like it was doing okay: Greenstone Associates.
Google turned up next to nothing and the other search engines even less. The company's website consisted of a single page with the words "GREENSTONE ASSOCIATES" over a stock photo of attractive and racially diverse business types smiling at each other over a conference table. At the bottom of the page there was a post office box and an email link.
Doug had always been more a thief than a hacker, but he knew a few tricks, and he started poking around, looking for weaknesses. He almost spit out his cookie when he actually found one.
He didn't get all the way in — he couldn't access their financial accounts, or human resources or anything like that — but he got in far enough to see the transaction log. Oddly, there wasn't much. Hartsville was the most recent trade. A couple weeks earlier there was another short and a handful of small stock purchases, another short sale a month earlier. Before that, there was nothing.
He checked in again the next night, and the next night, and the night after that, but there wasn't any new activity on the Greenstone front.
Then the electronics company he had sold short ran into import problems with their rare earth metal supplier. It cost them a major manufacturing contract, which caused their stock to tank.
Doug doubled his money.
That night, when Doug looked in on Greenstone, he found a major short sale on Tri-State Poultry, a chicken and turkey processor that had just announced a distribution deal with a fast food giant.
He learned everything he could about Tri-State and the details of the deal. Until the contract was signed, there was always a chance it could fall through, but there was nothing to suggest it would. The company was solid, the deal was solid, and both sides seemed to be happy with it.
But Greenstone was shorting the stock. Doug wondered if they had inside information.
The next day, the real estate company lost a big zoning decision — a minor setback, but enough that its stock dipped. Doug executed the short sale, made a little profit and put half his money into a short on Tri-State Poultry.
For the next few days, he checked on Tri-State every hour or two throughout the day. The first day it held steady. The second day it inched up.
On the third day, between ten and eleven in the morning, it plummeted.
Son of a bitch.
He wasn't supposed to be executing trades during the day, but he needed to act fast. As soon as he got over his shock, he slipped into his office and executed the short sale.
He cleared twenty grand.
Gary walked in while he was doing it, pissed that Doug was making a trade while he should have been doing the schlep work he was paid to do. But when Doug announced he'd just cleared twenty grand, Gary said, "No kidding?" He came around and looked over Doug's shoulder. "On a short sale?" He laughed. "Look at you. How'd you know they were going down?"
Doug froze. How did he know? And why did it tank? "Um … you know … rumors about supply chain problems, commodity price instability," he said, praying Gary wouldn't press him for more details.
Gary nodded. "Good job. Now get back to work."
For the rest of the day, as he went about doing all his menial chores, Doug was buzzing from the deal.
To top it all off, that afternoon, one of his regular stocks shot up — from way under valued to slightly overvalued, as far as Doug was concerned. He wasn't a day trader, but he knew sometimes you had to act fast. He sold that, too, and cleared another two grand.
Twenty two grand in one day.
He was on a roll.
That night he called the delivery service and ordered dinner — chicken parm from Danella's and a pint of raspberry Smirnoff to celebrate. The delivery guy was a jock-type in his twenties who seemed to judge as he handed over the vodka. Doug gave him a good tip anyway.
The vodka was warm, but he poured some into his coffee mug with a couple of shrunken ice cubes from the office fridge. He'd made enough to pay off his credit card and still have some left to make more deals. But not much. And the way things were breaking, he could make way more than the interest on the credit card. If he was going to keep the roll going, he needed to invest as much as he could.
He decided he needed to think for a day or two before he did anything rash like paying his debts.
The next night, Greenstone made another move, a massive short on a software company called Genval Roboware. When Doug looked into it, he saw Genval's stock had been on a tear since news broke that it was about to be purchased by Cisco.
Doug still didn't know what had happened with Tri-State, so he was reluctant to just go along for the ride. But he also knew time was of the essence. And Tri-State had made him a boat-load of money.
He put everything he had on a short sale on Genval.
Then he ordered dinner again — Danella's chicken parm and another pint of raspberry vodka — more to settle his nerves than to celebrate. The same kid delivered it with the same smirk. This time, Doug didn't tip so well.
As he tore into his dinner, Doug dug into Genval Roboware, as well. Two hours later most of the vodka gone and Doug was feeling warm, mellow and relaxed, despite having found absolutely nothing to suggest that Genval Roboware was in any kind of trouble.
He realized he still didn't know what had happened to the poultry processor. He'd been in such a hurry to cash out, he hadn't even looked. Pouring himself the rest of the vodka, he Googled Tri-State poultry.
The first page, first hit, there it was. A freak outbreak of Avian flu wiped out Tri-State's main supplier, disrupting their supply chain. Not only did they lose the fast food contract, but all their regular customers had to make other arrangements as well. A lot of them probably wouldn't be coming back.
Doug raised his glass. "To avian flu."
The following morning, Gary was on the phone while Doug brought his mail. Gary put his hand over the phone and said, "Hold on a second, Doug."
Gary resumed his call, but waved him back into the office, mouthing the words, "Close the door."
Doug started to sweat, wondering if he was in trouble for making trades when he should have been working. He could feel the droplets on his forehead and his upper lip.
Finally, Gary got off the phone. "You okay?" he said. "You don't look so good."
"Just busy that's all," Doug said, sounding defensive even to himself. "What's up?"
"Been on a bit of a roll lately, huh?"
"I guess so. Yeah." Doug was about to start explaining why he had been making deals on company time, but Gary cut him off.
"Good for you. You ever make any sales off of that list I gave you?"
Gary laughed. "Yeah, it was a pretty dead list. But you've proven that you have some aptitude for this work."
"Thanks." He wondered where this was going.
"I can't take you on as a broker right now. You know that right?"
"I can't give you any time during the day. Apart from anything else, we need you doing what you're doing. In fact, we're finally getting a new computers system. New terminals and a new server. And I need you to set them up."
Doug didn't say anything. Installing the new server would be a major pain in the ass.
"But I'm going to give you a raise. And I'm going give you some leads off my own list, okay? These are hot, up-to-date prospects. Let's see if you can start making some real money, okay?"
Doug was stunned. "Thanks, Gary. I really appreciate that."
"Good. Show it by making our shareholders more money and making me look good in the process." He pointed a finger. "And by updating the computers without any hiccups, okay? That's got to be job one. We go dark for even a day, we're hosed."
"Sure thing." Maybe once the new system was installed, he'd be able to spend less time keeping things running.
"Great. Now get back to work."
Read David Cranmer's review of Dust Up at Criminal Element.
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.
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