It Seems As It May

(a preview)

Andy Hicks

Copyright © 2011 by Andy Hicks Entire Book Available for Purchase @: All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author, except by reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to the author.

All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data It Seems As It May, 2010 [TXu 1-714-394]

ISBN: 1466326840 ISBN-13: 978-146632684

I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.
- Hunter S. Thompson

She was expecting the worst. It was ten o’clock on a sticky hot New York City morning, and Sara Banski was on edge. She knew she was in deep, way over her head, but there was no backing out now. Beads of nervous sweat began to percolate on her lightly freckled forehead like lingering steam on a shower tile, resurfacing with every wipe of her hand. Fear fastened its wicked barricade. Paranoia tightened its delusional grip. She tried to refocus her panicked mind by lifting her silver-plated flask to her plush red lips and swigging from her Grandpa’s famous “cough syrup.” It was all she could do to calm herself. As the whiskey’s cold burn slid past the taut lump in her throat, her slender body quivered like a plucked banjo string, trying to wiggle free from the anxiety but to no avail. The usually pacifying elixir proved useless. Nothing could stop her mind from racing, her hands from shaking, so she buried the flask back into the abyss of her desk drawer and began to gnaw voraciously on her fingernails―a nervous instinct infused into her genetic encoding. Suddenly, she heard the intrepid voice of her boss looming outside the walls of her confined corporate cell, conversing with one of her coworkers. It reminded her of what she had done. It reminded her that she had to play it cool. She only hoped he would see it that way, too. He was the only one she could trust now. As she rose from her desk chair to stretch out her rigid nerves, she heard a concerted tap on the solid oak office door. By the sound of the orchestrated knock and the ensuing jiggle of the brass door handle, she knew it was Rich Danko. Her boss always had a different knock for his

various moods, just like his selection of eclectic business suits. She knew that he would be in a good mood today, but she didn’t want to take him lightly so she dropped her lucent green eyes onto her screen and pretended to immerse herself in a financial spreadsheet. “Just smile and nod, smile and nod,” she mumbled repeatedly, trying to encourage herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed her office door slowly open, and the blond wavy locks of Rich Danko appeared. “Congratulations, Sara!” he cheerfully announced. “They’re about to open the stock almost two hundred percent higher from the IPO price. Way to go…” Her boss gleamed from head to toe in his periwinkle-striped suit and suspenders, and she couldn’t help but gaze straight into his magnetic blue eyes. She told herself to remain composed. She needed to act the part that her business suit portrayed―that normalcy conveyed―so she flashed him an innocuous smile. “That’s great news,” she replied. “And thanks again for giving me this opportunity, Rich. You’ve done so much for me.” “Well, you do good work for someone just out of college. You deserve every accolade and every penny,” he insisted with a bright smile on his seemingly manicured face. “So how ‘bout dinner at my place tonight?” “That sounds good. I’d like that.” “Great. Looking forward to celebrating with you,” he said with a subtle wink, then turned back toward the door. “Me too,” she replied hastily. As soon as he closed the door behind him, Sara let out a deep purgative breath. She then scrambled to turn on the mini television atop the small file cabinet beside her desk. In doing so, her arm accidentally knocked over the large pile of investor prospectus booklets that were stacked on the corner of her cluttered desk. The booklets went crashing to the ground, scattering all over the carpeting like corporate confetti. But she didn’t care. After this day was over, she didn’t know what to expect from tomorrow, an uncertain feeling that she had once embraced while in college. Now, that didn’t have quite the same allure. The responsibilities of her job had cast an imposing shadow over her once-indifferent disposition, and they were quickly becoming more than she could swallow. The television came on, and Sara heard a familiar woman’s voice ring out. She had a strong and deliberate appeal in her tone, a confidence in knowing how to speak articulately, even when not in her own words. “Hello, I’m Susan McCloud, and welcome to The Morning Call on CNBS―your number one source for business news. Our top story this

morning is the extraordinary performance of the IPO from Needlepoint Incorporated. The hot IPO was priced at fourteen dollars a share, and it just opened at a whopping forty-two dollars a share, an incredible two hundred percent move higher. Given the flattish overall market open this morning, traders are calling it a very robust debut. Let’s go down to Bob Lawry on the floor for more on this outstanding young company.” Thinking about the scope of the audience that CNBS reached, and the omnipresence of its message to the average investor, Sara suddenly felt another grenade of panic explode inside her. She desperately tried to concentrate on something else, a diversion from the nausea she felt coming on, but she couldn’t keep her ears off the television. She had to keep listening. “Thanks, Susan…” the reporter’s peppy male voice echoed inside Sara’s head. “I’m here at the Needlepoint post on the New York Stock Exchange floor and let me tell you this is one for the records, folks. The stock gapped up before they opened it, but once they let the floodgates open, the volume was incredible. Susan, twenty million shares have already traded. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of investors really see the potential in this company.” Having heard enough, Sara clicked off the television with a swift swipe of her trembling hand. Hot flashes rippled inside her like a menopausal volcano as she began to question herself. Any way she looked at it, she knew that things were about to spiral out of control. * * *

If there was anything consistent about a typical day for Skip Banski, it was beer and betting. As he liked to say to his three kids, “The taste of a crisp ‘col-beer’ and the thrill of a sports bet is the only zest I get out of life these days.” On any given day, betting simply made Skip’s monotonous life more interesting. Risk aversion had never been his thing. It didn’t matter what sport, he just wanted in on the action. It could be any game with any odds and his adrenaline would rush wildly like a dog on the hunt. “Gotta be in it to win it,” he would say to his kids while watching a game, loving every moment of competitive fire. For the sake of his daughter’s watchful eye, Skip tried to be somewhat conscious of his gambling addiction. It wasn’t any secret, though, that the primary restraint on his reckless disease was a lack of spare cash―never a

lack of betting gusto. Yet Skip knew that he could usually hit up his boys for an interest-free loan to their revered old man. If the boys were reluctant, all he had to do was remind “the little shits” how he raised them on his own, or parlay a sob story about his handicapped predicament in life. They relinquished the dough every time. They never knew how to say no to their father. At home in his small living room, Skip rocked comfortably back and fro in his cherished red Adirondack rocking chair. Posed like a medieval king being fanned by his serfs, he had one hand tucked inside the crotch area of his white cotton bathrobe, while the other held a frosty mug of beer―his lunch. A belligerent scowl lurked behind his big gray beard as he stared at the television in the corner. The score of the game was not in his favor. “That goddamn Rodriguez couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat!” he suddenly belted out. These days, there wasn’t much that excited Skip beyond sitting in his beloved rocking chair while watching television. With each rocking sway, the chair infused in him a certain peace of mind. He secretly loved how the red velvet upholstery felt against his aging skin, and was always stroking its plush with his worn and weathered fingertips. Like a child’s blankey, the rocking chair gave Skip a subconscious sense of security, a sense of companionship. Of course, out of fear of sounding soft, he would never admit that to anyone, even to himself. “How does a team lose that lead?” he hollered, snapping out of his rocking chair bliss. “You can’t tell me Vegas wasn’t in on that one.” Since the television was all he had to entertain himself throughout the day, it had become a common occurrence for Skip to talk to himself. With no other human presence in the room, he frequently ranted at the tube like a drill sergeant in boot camp. Ever since his debilitating and careerending back injury a few years back, the television had become his periscope into the stark reality outside his home. It was his only witness into a world that kept changing with every flip of the channel, every pour of his beer, while he stayed the same. Skip reached over to the mahogany end table next to him, and grabbed an envelope that contained his state disability check. On a biweekly basis, he received a check based on his twenty-five years of hard labor as a deepsea fisherman. It was just enough to live on, although at times, the check was for less than he expected. “Damn government can’t even get it right when handing out free money,” he mumbled to himself, and placed the check back down on the table.

But anybody who knew Skip realized that he wasn’t proud of accepting assistance from anyone outside of his immediate family. After-all, he used to be a respected Captain. Now, he was confined to a sedentary lifestyle as if he were an elderly man twice his age. His hubris was all but spent. Everyday he faced an increasingly painful decision to get out of his bathrobe, put on a pair of trousers, and muster the strength to slowly hobble down his New Jersey neighborhood block for some exercise. Today, however, he knew it was a good day to stay in his robe. He was expecting some big news from his new bookie, and wanted the telephone at his side at all times. Glancing out the open front windows that looked out onto his small driveway, Skip noticed rain begin to fall. He liked hearing the pitter-patter of a passing storm, so he didn’t bother to shut the windows. “Pourin’ like saliva off a bulldog’s tongue,” he said to himself, and then he heard the phone ring. Reaching over, he quickly slung the old green block phone up to his ear. “Yeah, talk to me. This is Skip.” Pausing to listen, he brought the phone closer to his bearded mouth and said, “Look son, the old man upstairs is really pissing on us today, so you’re going to have to speak up. I can’t hear you very good.” Skip concentrated on the enthusiastic voice on the other end while he stroked his gray beard with his free hand, something he usually did when anxious. “Goddamn it!” he suddenly shouted. “Stop with all the fancy-speak, Jack. How much did we win on this bet?” While his bookie continued to talk, a giant smile crept onto Skip’s bearded face―a gray and weathered face that wore every inch of his suffering. Careful not to irritate his bad back as he listened, he positioned his heavy skull against the velvet headrest of his rocking chair. He looked straight up at the neglected ceiling and began to count the paint chips that dangled from the surrounding molding like white icicles. He thought about his daughter and what she would say, whether she would be happy or mad or sad at what he had risked. He had always believed it was only a matter of time that this prized moment would arrive and, finally, it had come. Now it was time to celebrate. Holding the phone to his ear, Skip grabbed with his other hand the frothy mug of beer resting in his chair’s cup-holder. He brought it to his mouth and guzzled it down like a fraternity boy. Streams of the foamy brew drizzled down his bearded cheeks and spilled onto his frayed bathrobe, but he didn’t care. Things were about to change for him. “Jesus Christ, Jack!” he laughed into the phone when he finished his

last gulp of beer. “You sure better not be yankin’ my chain on this. You’ve just given me the best news of my life!” After a few more reassuring words from his bookie, Skip set the phone down on the water-stained end table. His bookie was still talking, but Skip had heard all he needed to know. He grabbed ahold of his hand-carved African wooden cane that lay next to his rocking chair, and with excruciating back pain he slowly stood. There wasn’t any doubt in his mind about what he wanted next―that aged bottle of Scotch that he kept tucked away in the freezer. He had been saving it for a very special occasion, and nothing was going to stop him from making his way into the kitchen and downing that delicious bottle of brown water. * * *

With one hand holding his cellphone up to his ear, Allen Burbank gripped the wheel of his silver Mercedes with his other hand much tighter than usual. It had been an exhilarating day, one of the most hectic in his life, and he was still wound up. Judging from the energetic leg twitch beneath his pressed navy suit pants, he was still operating on excessive caffeine intake. He could feel it in his veins as he looked out of his foggy car window in frustration. The rush-hour traffic was tenacious from the late summertime rain, and he knew it would take him well over an hour to get back to his office. The bottleneck in front of him seemed inexorable. “Have I told you how much I despise this city’s traffic?” he enunciated into his cellphone to his wife. “Every time I have to make the drive out of Manhattan back to the office in Newark, I think about how despicable the urban planners were in their spatial design of this city. The inefficiencies drive me crazy.” Glancing into his rear-view mirror, Allen thought his intense brown eyes looked puffy from the day’s work. He noticed a bead of sweat streak down his shiny dark hairline onto his chiseled cheekbones, and quickly wiped his forehead with his conservative red tie. Although dealing with stress was second nature to him, traffic jams always got him fired up. Refocusing his attention back to what his wife was saying, he quickly interrupted her. “Honey, you know I’m not the type to have a driver like all these other CEOs. My old beat-up Mercedes suits me just fine.” It wasn’t that Allen couldn’t afford a driver. He simply preferred to always be in control, always able to steer his own course in life―evidenced by the fact that today the company he founded only five years ago had

gone public with its shares of stock. On paper, the forty-four year old CEO was now officially a very wealthy man. He was the visionary to one of the fastest-growing companies in America; the brains behind what made his company tick. With his charismatic demeanor, flattering his contacts in the media and the financial community was something that came quite naturally to him. And indeed it showed in today’s debut of his company’s IPO. “Everything went very well today,” he said, attempting to answer the barrage of questions from his wife, Marie. “Our stock closed on its highs but, of course, tomorrow is another day.” As Marie replied, just the sound of her motherly voice made him consider what would change in their lives. Regardless of their recently procured prosperity, he knew that his wife still had a family to run. His two young kids still had their lives to discover, and he was still staring straight into the face of fatherhood while also trying to be a good husband. But deep down, he knew that his job as CEO had become his first priority. “Honey,” he continued, “when I find some time this weekend, I want to sit down with the kids and explain some things to them. They are going to need to be a little more watchful of the kids they befriend now.” Allen had labored over five years to bring this lucrative day to fruition and yet, as he talked to Marie, the only thing that seemed different between them was his new perception of the world outside of them. With all the hype surrounding his IPO and how fast things had moved, there were times when he couldn’t help but lose touch of what was real, and what was merely assumption. It was a peculiar feeling being suddenly catapulted into the media’s limelight. The day had begun with a five o’clock morning meeting with his company’s board members, and the remainder was spent schmoozing with seasoned investors and reporters. He figured it was only natural to feel a little overwhelmed, but he also realized now that the only place he could show any hint of weakness was in the confines of his car. “Sweetheart,” he replied, “the reality is that investor opinion can be so easily compromised. These people look at me with dollar signs in their eyes, and I can’t kid myself with that. Inevitably, something that I can’t control will let my shareholders down, so it’s extremely vital to capitalize on these times…” Allen allowed Marie to briefly interrupt him, although it didn’t take long for him to take control of the conversation again. “Look, I’ve always said that nothing in life is permanent. That’s a chilling thought that I always have in the back of my mind, and it’s up to

me to fight off the natural tendency of things to die out, of companies to die out. I need to keep the fuel burning in our stock price.” As he slowly approached the Holland Tunnel, Allen peered out the windshield and saw the metropolitan monsoon had finally subsided. He rolled down the window to see an amorphous mire of steam emanating from the street, a gentle fog lifting from the sweltering asphalt. He stuck his head out the window to fill his lungs with the therapeutic post-rain vapor. Gradually, he let out a cathartic exhale. “You know, honey,” he said, “as much as I scoff at this city, the aroma after a hard rain is something that can never be forgotten. It’s like the amalgamation of everything and everyone that has passed through the city’s wake has been suddenly purged and wiped clean with a fresh new slate.” While Allen basked in the redolence of the city’s summer steam, he saw the traffic begin to move again. He quickly rolled up the window so he wouldn’t have to breathe the exhaust inside the tunnel. “Marie, I’m going to lose you in the tunnel. I’ll see you at home tonight.” Hanging up his cellphone, he grabbed for a slip of paper on the passenger seat to double-check the address of the post office. He had to make a quick stop to pick up a package, and though he was familiar with the area, it was not a neighborhood where he wanted to get lost. When he finally cleared the Holland Tunnel traffic, Allen noticed in the oncoming lane a bright red Porsche that was honking its horn. The Porsche slowed, and as the driver leaned his bloated white face out of the black convertible top, he began to shout at him like a crazed buffoon. Allen thought he had angered the man by swerving into his lane, and he lowered the window to give him an apologetic wave. But as the Porsche passed by, the pudgy man flashed him an animated thumbs-up and hollered at him again. “Way to go, Burbank! Way to go, buddy!” As Allen tried to place the man’s face, he was quickly hit by a frightening epiphany. He suddenly remembered the spasmodic man―his pale, overweight face and overly excitable demeanor―from a meeting a few days prior. It was Marty Cohen. Marty ran one of the most prominent hedge funds in New York City, and had received one of the largest allocations in his company’s IPO that day. Allen considered him to be one of the most obnoxious men he had ever met, but he was also now one of his top investors. With a cursory glance into his rearview mirror, Allen checked to see if Marty had turned his Porsche around to chase him down for a chat.

Luckily, he had not, but Allen couldn’t help thinking about how the network of people who knew all about him had suddenly ballooned that day. Even if they were people he never would have associated with in the past, he had to take the time to be affable and cordial with each and every investor, existing or potential. It was imperative that he cultivate relationships with every investor to help shape a bulletproof shield around the public’s perception of his company, regardless of how much he might loathe them. Pulling into the post office parking lot, located in a small town just outside of Newark, Allen examined the beautiful historic brick building as he parked his car. He hopped out, and as he walked toward the entrance, he heard a roaring rumble of distant thunder that sounded like a bowling ball down a wooden lane. It startled him. It made him feel so suddenly insignificant as he looked up at the sky and saw that the cumulus clouds had turned into an ominous pillow of gray. Without delay, he hustled inside. Not five minutes later, Allen stormed out of the post office, almost shattering the glass front doors. With his loosened red tie slung over his right shoulder, he sprinted for his car. In one hand he held an opened manila envelope, while the other fumbled to get his cellphone out of his pants pocket to make a quick call. Holding the phone to his ear, his scrupulous eyes circled the parking lot to see if anybody was watching him. With an unusually deadpan expression painted on his face, he glanced at the postmark on the manila envelope and a large drop of rain smacked his nose. The raindrop reminded him that he was in a public place where everybody could hear his every word, but that didn’t stop him from yelling into the phone. “Stop all of those priority payments, Gordon!” he shouted. “Stop those goddamn wires right now!”

In the upstate New York town of Clinton, home to Buckley University, the large house at 1840 Elm Street gleamed with disheveled dilapidation. Situated within a decadent off-campus neighborhood known as “The Dark Side”, the house had brown brick on its lower exterior with yellow stucco above. Both sections were crumbling away like a stale granola bar from the various natural and unnatural weathering processes that had occurred over the years. At night, raccoons could be seen scaling the gutters and downspouts, making their homes in the pierced holes of the yellow stucco like it was a giant block of stale Swiss cheese. But none of the housemates at 1840 Elm Street seemed to mind the whining and scratching noises made by their outside house pets. It was all just part of living in an enclave of “The Dark Side.” Every house was a certain condemnation order waiting to happen, but somehow never did. Every summer, when most of the Buckley University students were on break, a team of painters that the absentee landlord hired would superficially repair the school-year injuries inflicted upon the exterior of 1840 Elm Street. They sealed the gaping holes in the yellow stucco and brown brick with cheap putty, and then slopped a matching coat of polyurethane gloss over the entire exterior. Since the under-funded Buckley University Housing Committee (BUHC) only had enough manpower to perform cursory exams of the numerous off-campus houses, it was common landlord knowledge that home improvements only needed to be cosmetic, not structural. The BUHC rarely pressed them, and most landlords simply pocketed their windfall profits instead of refurbishing their properties.

As Sara walked down the upstairs hallway at 1840 Elm Street, she almost gagged at the putrid smell. All of her friends that had lived in “The Dark Side” of off-campus housing were typically at school more for the social aspects than the academic culture. In their eyes, just making it out of that neighborhood with a few brain cells left to graduate was juxtaposed to a sense of achievement. Sara usually knew what to expect when she opened the door to her friends’ dark and dingy bedroom at 1840 Elm but, this time, she stopped, gasped, and froze in her tracks. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Briefly pondering her next course of action while she stood in the doorway, she convinced herself that this was what college was all about, and continued inside. She closed the door behind her and, without a word, nonchalantly walked over to where her guy friends were sitting on the red shag carpeting. She sat cross-legged beside them, reminding herself that she didn’t want to leave this collegiate setting without feeling fulfilled and at peace with her social erudition here. She couldn’t move onto the next phase of her life without trying it all while still in this sheltered place, without experimenting with the things that would no longer be acceptable in her next curriculum of life―the corporate world. Earlier that evening, one of her best guy friends at school, Kenny Carlysle, had phoned her to say he needed to see her immediately at his house. He wouldn’t elaborate over the phone, but insisted that she hurry over before their house party started later that night. Sara despised going over to 1840 Elm Street. Every time she walked inside, a rancid smell, like a dead rat fermenting in week-old beer, pierced her nose and made her nauseous. She wondered how Kenny and his nine roommates could live in those conditions, especially on those occasions when she saw giant roaches scamper across their floors. But, somehow, they all loved it. Kenny and two of his best friends shared the largest of the fivebedroom house where Sara now sat. Phil “Philly” Tencate, a devout badminton player on scholarship for his talented abstract painting, owned the thin mattress on the floor, while Todd McCormick, a fast food enthusiast who loved to tell “almanac-tual” canards, owned the futon with a broken frame. Only Kenny, a lanky and baby-faced computer whiz who sported a spotty beard, had an actual bed―a mattress and a box-spring―to sleep on. Seated in a semi-circle next to Sara were Kenny, Philly and Todd, all half-baked and half-smiling at her, looking nervous and anxious. On the carpet in the middle of the semi-circle, Sara saw a short rubber hose, a spoon, and a small yellow box with a clear plastic bag sticking out of it, rolled up like a tarp to a baseball field. She also saw a lighter and two

capped syringe needles resting by Philly’s skinny white leg. The syringe shafts were stamped with a red prism-like emblem, which Sara could have sworn she had seen somewhere before. At last, she broke the silence. “So this is the big surprise? You idiots scored some heroin?” “Philly scored it from his cousin in the city,” replied Kenny. “His cousin got it from some professional delivery service he uses in the city,” Todd added. “Well,” Philly chimed in, “we’ve all talked about trying it just once before we graduate in a few months, so the opportunity came and I bought some.” “We’ve got nothing to lose. May as well,” Kenny replied enthusiastically and then looked at Sara. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” “I already made up my mind when I shut that door,” she said. “So who goes first?” “Take this,” Philly said, tossing a needle her way though it landed in Kenny’s lap. “That one is for you and Kenny.” “This is so shady,” Sara replied nervously. “There’s a glass of whiskey by Todd’s foot to wash it off, although I think we all know each other well enough now after four years together.” Everyone flashed seditious smiles at each other. Their curious eyes then studied Philly’s hands as he dumped the white powdery concoction into the spoon, tapped it into a compact mound of chemistry, and with the lighter underneath the spoon he began to torch it into a sizzling cocktail of intergalactic alchemy. Nobody said a word. They watched as Philly grabbed the other syringe, took off the cap, and dipped the needle into the boiling liquid. When he was ready, he had Todd tie the rubber hose around his upper bicep and then inserted the syringe needle into his forearm. He removed the needle, and they all watched him fall backwards onto the carpet like a broken statue. Kenny went next, followed by Todd and then Sara. One by one they all fell backward. One by one they all fell down. A few hours later, Sara and Kenny found themselves downstairs in the living room, perched on the seventies-patterned couch. The spacious room was stuffy hot and packed with a partying crowd. The music blared. It was just another night of frisky college life with kids drinking and smoking whatever they could find―drunk on college idealism with nothing else to care about at the moment. To most of them, a thing to care about was a thing not worthwhile. Apathy was their kinship. Kenny kicked up his Birkenstock sandaled feet onto the three-legged

coffee table in front of the couch―the only other piece of furniture in the room besides the television on its stand―and took a sip of beer. He then looked over at Sara. He smiled into her glowing green eyes and quietly admired her pale clear skin, her silky black hair, and the constellation of ten small freckles on the bridge of her nose. He watched as she leaned forward to study the coffee tabletop, exposing the nape of her left shoulder from behind her blue tank-top and long black hair. He could tell she was still feeling some subtle effects from what they had done earlier. And so was he. Moving a few beer bottles out of the way so she could look at the ornamental tabletop, it was evident to Sara that the table had a rough history of abuse. Feeble and unbalanced, it wobbled like a drunkard on a drawbridge, despite the fifty-plus nails that had been pounded into its maple legs for structural support. The living room’s warped oak floor, caused by years of perpetual beer spills, added to the table’s instability, but Sara knew the boys of 1840 Elm Street would never get rid of it. It was their communal memento, the pet of the house. They fed it, watered it, scratched it, and groomed it of debris. They were all very proud of it, especially Philly, its humble owner. Covering the tabletop was a masterpiece of Philly’s painting grace; a canvas that had been laminated in clear plastic and nailed to the wood. Speckled in abstract Fauvism, the oil canvas was a colorful aerial brushing depicting the Love Boat cruise ship. Two naked and caricatured hermaphrodites played a heated badminton match on deck, while overhead a jagged lightning bolt and a dark funnel cloud fingered down upon the players. A distant but bright sun illuminated the inside right corner. Though somewhat ethereal, the entire perspective was encapsulated within the borders of a vintage Love Boat lunchbox―its painted metal lid opening to reveal the badminton scene inside. The painting had always intrigued visitors to the house. Partying crowds would gather to examine it, sometimes losing themselves in it and sometimes losing it in themselves. At times, and depending on the state of the observer, it evoked comparisons to Salvador Dali and could greatly enhance a hallucinogenic experience, which is why Philly liked to call it “Nihilism.” “It represents all that is nothing and nothing that is all, but that can all be taken away instantly,” he would explain to the sometimes confused, sometimes concerned inquirers. After she had finished examining the tabletop, Sara looked up and chuckled to see Philly―naked except for a hemp necklace around his neck―hanging low and wide amidst the partying revelers in the living

room. He strolled over to her and Kenny on the couch, holding his usual glass of Wild Turkey whiskey on the rocks. Nobody seemed to mind him being naked; the usually introverted and quiet Philly was frequently the naked guy at parties around campus, and most of the kids within their inner circle were familiar with his antics. Once people got over the initial sticker shock of his pasty pale and thankfully hairless body, they usually thought nothing more of it. Philly draped his foot up on the arm of the couch, his twig and berries dangling free. “Looking good as always,” Sara barked at him. “The naked truth is always better than the best dressed lie,” he replied with a smirk, taking a sip of his whiskey. “So did you two have fun earlier?” “Yeah, I think so,” Kenny said in his soft-spoken voice. “So you liked it then?” Philly persisted. Sara smiled. “I was just telling Kenny how it’s always harder for me to describe what I like about something than what I dislike. It’s always harder to explain the pure rapture of something versus the pure disgust with it.” “Exactly,” added Kenny, wiping sweat from his thick eyebrows and baby face. “It’s hard to describe a certain feeling of euphoria these days without sounding completely cheesy. Just about every sort of dramatic feeling has been cliché’d out on television. Nothing’s original anymore. Novelty has been lost.” “Very true, but you guys liked it, right?” “Sorta,” Sara answered and then jokingly added, “it felt kinda’ like post-sex paralysis but with a pregnancy scare.” Kenny chuckled. “Yeah, it was actually a little hard for me to get over the initial nervousness of it all. I’m not sure if I was paranoid, or if it just made me more aware of the gravity of reality.” “Well you looked pretty relaxed when I looked over at you,” commented Philly. “I felt like it,” Kenny replied. “I can definitely understand how people get hooked.” “Me too,” Sara agreed. “But I also think it’s only those people with addictive personalities that get hooked.” “Really? You think?” Philly asked. “I dunno. I just think addictions to things like drugs and alcohol and gambling or even food addictions all boil down to a person’s personality, and not the underlying ingredient.” “I think an addiction is an addiction,” countered Philly. “I think heroin will turn the non-addictive personality into a functional user, and the

addictive personality into a complete train wreck. Both forms of use are still addictions.” “Yeah, maybe,” she replied, glancing around at the commotion of the crowd. “Well, it was a fun experience, but I’ll probably never do it again.” “It was the last thing I wanted to try before I get the hell out of this school,” said Kenny, wiping his forehead with his t-shirt. Philly sat down on the arm of the couch. “By the way, Sara,” he said, “your friend, Beale, doesn’t seem to be all that into me.” “It may be the naked thing, Philly, just a wild guess. But you’re in luck. She’s actually walking over here now.” A bawdy blonde fireball, Beale Livermore was Sara’s best friend. Though the two of them were as opposite as day and night, Sara loved her because she never held anything back: any thought, any snide comment, or any facetious facial expression. Sara could be witty, but Beale could be downright vicious when confronted. She could chisel at the fabric of anyone’s backbone with a lethal diatribe of mockery. But Sara knew that her antics were usually just a pretense to hide her inner insecurities. And she empathized with that, because at the same time it made Beale incredibly vulnerable. It humanized her, which is why Sara had always been there to pick her back up. They both subconsciously realized that their friendship was hinged upon that fiduciary zip-lock. When she saw Beale, Sara could immediately tell by what she was wearing that she was in one of her feisty moods. While Beale was usually quite munificent with her skin showcase, tonight it looked as though her yellow sun dress was about to fall off. Chuckling to herself, Sara knew that her half-nude exposé revealed more than the common male gawker could tell. Though her breast exhibit was meant to garner attention, Beale only wanted to hear a boy stutter with pathetic excuses after she called him out over his aroused drooling. It gave her a sense of having the upper hand. It’s what drowned her insecurities. But as diabolical as Beale could be with a man’s head, Sara knew that her best friend always had good intentions, when it was all said and done. “Hi Beale,” Sara said, standing to hug her. “I’m glad you made it.” Beale glanced Philly up and down to purposely make him feel uncomfortable, then pointed at his crotch. “Philly,” she said, “did you know your left testicle hangs lower than your right one?” Unfazed, Philly answered, “Yes, I’m aware of that.” “You know there’s a male bra for that sort of thing…to hold it up.” “Well, it’s actually pretty natural. My left ball just produces more sperm; makes it heavier, more dense, sorta’ like a heavy orange on a

branch.” “Interesting. And does that run in the family―one orange heavier than the other?” “I’m not sure, maybe,” he replied in all sincerity. “I never met my father or his father and I don’t have any brothers, either…for comparison sake. So all I got is apples to oranges, not oranges to oranges.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” “Nah, don’t be sorry. It’s just who I am.” Noticing the shockingly wide-eyed expressions on Sara and Kenny’s faces, Beale decided to drop the subject. She had always thought that people should be told about their flaws so they could assess and correct them―in her mind this was a considerate form of mental Darwinism―but it wasn’t worth the awkward moment any more. Deciding it was a perfect time to leave them alone, Sara quickly interrupted them. “Kenny and I are headed into the kitchen to fill up on our beers,” she said. “We’ll grab both of you another round.” “Sounds good. We’ll be here on the couch,” Philly replied, subtly glancing at Beale, admiring her electric blue eyes and the way her blond hair folded over her enormous tanned boobs. Sara pushed her way through the crowd with Kenny behind her, and as she entered the kitchen she immediately smelled a rancid odor. She looked up and saw fermented mold on the kitchen walls that seemed to be devouring the wallpaper like kudzu vines in a lush forest. In the sink were piles of crusty dishes with decaying burrito guts mashed onto them. In the back nook were large trashcans filled to the brim with sweaty garbage and beer bottles with hundreds of flies circling them, searching for a place to lay their eggs. “It disgusting in here, Kenny,” she snapped. “Yeah, we only have a month before we all graduate, so we’ve basically given up on cleaning this place.” “That’s brilliant,” she mumbled sarcastically. Making their way to the keg in the corner, Sara laughed to herself when she saw the door to Philly’s art studio in the deep basement below. The door was closed but had been knocked off its top hinges, leaning forward like the Tower of Pisa. On front of the door, Philly had painted a colorful and whimsical depiction of two animated labia that had tongues and teeth and looked as though they were about to feed on whomever walked through the doorway. It always drew conversational laughs. Sara turned away and scanned the room. “Have you seen Todd anywhere?” she asked Kenny.

“Yeah, he’s over there by the kegs. Can’t you hear his drunken twang?” Above all the other voices, a deep Southern gargle resonated throughout the room. Sara saw a tall, pale-skinned Irish boy suddenly peer above the crowd. He had his curly locks of reddish hair webbed beneath a mesh trucker’s hat, and wore his token, green Boston Celtics t-shirt. She saw him talking to a few younger girls, and overheard their conversation. “Cottage cheese is definitely served best with a little vinegar in it,” Todd said above the clamor in the kitchen. “Have you ever been to a dairy farm?” An energetic and affable soul, Todd McCormick was raised in a Catholic family of ten siblings by parents who chose their church duties over their children’s needs. He learned to be very independent at an early age. As a middle child, his youth had been spent trying to interject his voice into multiple sibling conversations and, consequently, he didn’t care much for anything besides his own perspective, factual or fabricated as it might be. Though usually inebriated on whatever the substance of vice, he could always be counted on to offer an opinion on anything: sometimes intelligent, sometimes invidious, and sometimes ingenuous. As long as he was projecting noise, he didn’t really care what came out of his mouth. When Todd saw Kenny and Sara walk into the kitchen, he abruptly ended the conversation with the two young ladies at the keg and walked over to them. “Wasn’t that stuff wild?” he whispered. “I loved it. I’ve never felt so alive in my life.” “It was okay,” replied Sara. With pupils at pinpoints, he continued. “Did you know that eightyseven percent of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan?” “That much?” Kenny asked. “Maybe even more. Apparently it gets routed from Afghanistan through Europe, and eventually lands on Atlantic boats for transportation into the U.S.” “Here we go,” Kenny said, rolling his eyes at another one of Todd’s “almanac-tual” fables, as he referred to them. “I’m serious,” he contended. “There’s a neutral zone in the Atlantic called the Flemish Cap, where most of the heroin from Europe gets exchanged and traded.” “And you would know because you’re such an ocean sailor these days,” Sara said in jest. Kenny always felt uneasy when Sara and Todd had their verbal battles, and quickly changed the subject. “Hey, check out Philly chumming it up with Beale over there,” he said.

Like a feeding giraffe, Todd arched his long neck above the crowd to look at them in the living room, and said, “He needs to stop close-talking her if he has any shot. He’ll blow it as usual.” “It’s getting pretty crowded in there,” replied Kenny. “We should probably tell people to head up to a bar soon.” With a sly smile on his Irish face, Todd lowered his voice. “I think it’s time for me to pull my move.” Any time the roommates of 1840 Elm Street wanted to disperse the partying crowd, Todd would mix a concoction of beer and dish soap into a few empty milk jugs, and then sneak into the living room to pour it over the higher corner of the warped oak floor. Nobody ever saw it coming; the slick waterfall of sudsy liquid would rush end to end, weaving beneath the many pairs of shoes and heels until it was too late. The party would be instantly galvanized into a frothy slip-and-slide, the floor transformed into a lubricated dumpster with drunken kids uncontrollably falling down, spilling drinks all over themselves as they skidded into the lowest corner of the room, piling into a heap of soiled bodies while their shirts, skirts, and shorts mopped up the lathery elixir like sartorial sponges. Some would laugh; some would be extremely pissed off that they were soaked in a funk of soapy malt. Everyone would want to leave―mission accomplished. Sara watched as Todd reached under the kitchen sink for the dish soap and two empty milk jugs. Smirking, he filled them with soap and beer, hiding his stealthy activity from everyone in the kitchen. He glanced at Kenny and Sara who were chuckling at the memory of the last time he had done this. They laughed until they heard a sound, a deep groan like the moan of a falling tree, the grind of a tensed root. It was followed by an ominous creaking sound. Sara stood on tiptoes and peered into the living room. She saw everyone uncomfortably jammed against each other, forcibly spooning together like odd pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The music continued to blare. With her eyes quickly searching the room, she found Philly and Beale still sitting on the corner couch, talking closely, laughing together with bare legs touching. And then she heard that sound again, that terrible creaking sound like something was bulging, about to snap. Then, tragically, it happened. Bodies tumbled. Words crumbled into noise. Time seemed to pause. It happened so fast but seemed like a slow motion nightmare. The boards of the living room floor suddenly cracked and snapped, then disappeared into the deep cavernous underbelly of the house, pulling everything and everyone down with them. Sara saw Philly and Beale and the couch immediately drop like a bulls-eye hit on a county-

fair dunk tank. The malicious side of gravity unexpectedly surfaced from its otherwise utilitarian functions, and the entire floor collapsed to the basement floor twelve feet below. People plummeted like laundry down a chute. Voices screeched. Bodies screamed in pain. “Help! Help!” The kids in the kitchen immediately panicked. Afraid the floor would collapse, they all trampled out the back door except for Sara, Kenny, and Todd, who scampered to the basement door and scaled down the steep steps. Looking up through the dusty and cloudy light, they saw a few kids still holding on to remaining slivers of wooden flooring that protruded from the corners of the living room, trying not to lose their grip and fall into the wooden daggers on the cement foundation below. One by one, however, they lost their struggle and dropped into the abyss of floorboard stalagmites, joining the broken, pierced, stabbed, limp and lifeless bodies that peppered the wreckage below. Pleas for help were heard around the basement. Cries shrieked, “Oh my God! Help over here!” Sounds of desperation came from everywhere. Police sirens blared in the distance. Concerned chills reverberated down Sara’s spine, more intense than any counterfeit heroin sensation. Beyond the lingering cloud of demolition dust, all she could see were glimpses of Philly’s paintings that lined the basement walls. It was a scene of utter destruction as Sara searched for people by trying to lift the big planks of wood. Murmurs of agony guided her, but some kids didn’t make a single sound. They blankly stared at her as she lifted the crippled boards off them―blood all over their forsaken bodies. She feared for the worst. Sara looked around for Beale, for Philly. A rush of frenzied emotion came over her as the pungent smell of blood and death stirred her despair. Across the shadowy basement she saw Todd tie his shirt around someone’s head. She saw Kenny trying to pry a timber beam off someone else. Others finally came down the stairs to help. She heard the sirens draw closer as she knelt down beside a girl who was covered in debris, frozen from shock. The girl’s leg was visibly broken, but Sara knew that wasn’t her only injury as she held the girl’s hand and stroked her dusty hair from her eyes. Nothing she could do or say to the girl could take the pain away for her. She felt helpless. * * *

“Folks, I want to personally thank all of you: journalists, industry veterans, and potential investors for coming out to Needlepoint headquarters for this tour of our production facilities, right here on the docks of the historic Newark Bay,” Allen spoke into the microphone with an unctuous swagger. “I also want to reiterate that this is simply a walk-through tour. I’ll be happy to entertain questions on our production process, but by SEC rule I am not allowed to give any business updates at this point in our IPO process.” A group of over one-hundred people―some holding notepads, some holstering cameras, and some hanging onto their cellphones―had gathered to assess whether Needlepoint Inc. was a company worthy of considerable stock market value. Although it was just a basic facilities tour, it would provide additional insight for business journalists before they wrote their public opinions about the company. Investors would gain another perspective on Allen’s demeanor as a constructive mind capable of leading a growing company, and industry veterans could ascertain if Needlepoint’s means of production was suitable for partnering with them. As Allen spoke from the podium, dressed in a black department suit specifically tailored to accentuate his tall and slender stature, he knew his job was to mitigate any doubts that these people had. From the time he had emerged into the world of CEO politics, he had always felt comfortable up on the podium, even when looking down at skeptical eyes. Now that it was his job to perpetually manage the sentiment around his company’s stock price, he realized that if he showed any sign of mental weakness, any slip of unheeded logic, the market would interpret it negatively. While this restricted his usual candor at times, he knew it was a necessary dogma for playing the game successfully. Stepping off the podium to start the walking tour, Allen raised his voice so everyone could hear. “On today’s tour, I’d like to start you off on our production floor here and lead you up through the front offices. Our automated flow of product and information is one of the most important aspects of managing our business plan and production throughput.” A plump man in a blue blazer, likely an investor, immediately nestled up to Allen and said, “Based on your production facility here, my impression is that you really have a lean workforce throughout the organization.” “Well…” Allen paused to face the crowd and make sure he could be heard over the noise of the conveyors. “We’ve tried to eliminate as much

variable cost and therefore human error as possible. It makes our production cycle that much more dynamic and able to quickly respond to changing economic conditions.” “So is that the nature of your industry’s overall production cycle, or is it something as CEO you’ve incorporated into your specific business model?” the plump man asked, much to Allen’s chagrin. “I don’t want to sound overly didactic here,” he answered the investor while speaking to the entire crowd. “But I try to leverage my company on the principles of Confucianism, something I’ve studied extensively throughout my career. See, the more people I have working for me in our headquarters, the more easily those tight familial principles that we cherish here at Needlepoint become lost in the larger corporate structure.” “Confucius, huh?” asked one of the journalists. Allen flashed a smug smile. “I suppose I was hard pressed to find a leader in the Western world worthy of emulating for our business model.” “Can’t say that I blame you,” replied the journalist. Allen continued. “Well, I’m against the sort of office politics that arises from a structural hierarchy. By encouraging an open and shared environment built simply around a moral blueprint, I don’t believe that I need the additional fatty layers of middle management to keep my business running effectively.” Intrigued, a financial analyst responded, “That’s such a unique and exciting production philosophy to bring to a Westernized company. More profitable, too. I think it will really carry this story even further in the marketplace.” “I’m glad you think so,” he replied. Hearing inquisitive murmurs from the crowd and seeing some scribbling down notes while others texted on their cellphones, Allen decided to quickly lead the group around the production floor. He knew that inviting more questions was a CEO’s Achilles heel. “Now,” he said, “we only have two production supervisors on the floor. They are in charge of maintaining the continuity of all the divisions from testing, drug fusing, packaging, and distribution. As you know, Needlepoint is the world’s largest producer of syringe needles and is also one of the fastest growing providers of injectable drugs and delivery services. We receive unfinished injectable drugs from our suppliers, and fuse them with our fish oils and patented binding agents for delivery to our patients.” “And what about your syringe business?” asked a random voice in the crowd. “Our syringe needle business is the most stable part of our overall

revenue stream. We sell our needles into major hospitals throughout the world, and also provide them free to our prescription drug patients. It essentially acts as a marketing agent for us. If our patients like the feel of our syringe needles, then, in turn, so will the hospitals. It’s a superb value proposition.” Allen continued to walk his tour puppies along the productions lines, and stopped momentarily to allow them to inspect the refined conveyance processes. Although production that day didn’t need to be running at full capacity, he had instructed every worker in every division to appear to be working as diligently as possible. In his usually calm manner, Allen had personally visited each division and emphatically insisted on every worker’s professional reliability. He had their outright respect and, in return, he took care of them all like family. That ingratiating strategy had worked for Allen his entire life. Even though he was blessed with a precocious knack for always getting what he wanted, which had earned him a full ride scholarship to MIT, his true success was undoubtedly attributable to his uncanny ability to shape people’s perception of himself. He knew exactly who he was: a loving husband to his high school sweetheart and wife, Marie, and a caring father to his two beautiful teenage daughters. But he also knew what the people who mattered most to his professional success wanted him to be. And he played that part with impeccable precision. At an early age Allen had learned to adapt quickly. His father left his mother before he had any memories of him, and his mother worked during the days and had to send him to kindergarten at the tender age of three―his classmates were five. He was ready for it, though. While by no means a prodigy, he hastily learned the skills needed to pass each grade by simply observing and emulating the older kids. There were moments of childhood insecurity during early grade school, like when he would occasionally urinate himself in class, but he was usually able to hold his own with the other kids, whatever the age, and whatever the task. Years later, in high school, he learned a life lesson that acted as a gateway to his calculating endeavors. The other boys in his grade were beginning to drive and drink and smoke, but Allen had no interest in those things. He was, after-all, two years younger and abstained either by choice or disinterest. But he never wanted to feel left out, and tagged along with his friends whenever they got drunk or stoned and would pile into his friend’s grocery-getter car to turf the neighborhood lawns or mow down the construction cones in the suburban streets. He loved the thrill of it all, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the utter fear that he felt in the back seat, thinking they would crash. After too many close calls, he decided to

solve the problem before it was decided for him. On an otherwise boring summer night in 1973, ensnared in the outskirts of New Jersey while they were turfing lawns, he asked his drunken friend to pull over to the side of the road and turn off the engine. With his friends all flashing him bewildered looks, he pulled his wallet from his back pocket, flipped it open, and brandished a legitimate New Jersey driver’s license. In a calm and composed voice, he said, “It’s time to let me do the driving, boys.” “Where the hell’d you get that?” asked one of his friends. “You’re only fourteen years old.” “My uncle works for the Department of Motor Vehicles and administers the test,” he confidently lied. “He taught me how to drive and let me use his information to get a license so I can drive my mom around. Her glaucoma is getting bad.” Examining the photo on the driver’s license, another friend laughed and asked, “What’s up with the weird glasses and the greaser hair in that picture?” “My face and name are exactly like my uncle’s, but I had to nail his exact look.” “So you’re actually licensed to drive now, at age fourteen?” Allen pulled out a pair of oversized eye glasses, and said, “My uncle made me promise that I’d keep these glasses on me at all times. My mom doesn’t want anyone to know I’m doing this for her, so keep it quiet.” His drunken friend examined the license one last time before reluctantly stepping out of the driver’s seat. “It’s all yours,” he said. As they crossed paths outside the car as they swapped seats, Allen’s drunken friend whispered to him, “Thanks, buddy.” “Anytime,” he replied, smiling. Although Allen believed that he was doing the right thing, he knew the trouble that lurked behind him if anyone found out what he had actually done a few weeks prior. Dressed in a school teacher’s blue polyester suit and the pair of oversized eyeglasses, his shiny dark hair slicked back like a mobster, Allen had biked down to the Department of Motor Vehicles in the adjacent township where his uncle lived. When he walked inside, he observed each registration clerk, studying them to find the one who went about the job complacently. It didn’t take long to find her, and he took a place in her line. When it was finally his turn, he walked to the glass booth with his teenage chest puffed out like a pro wrestler. In a deep voice, he told her

that his name was Allen Eugene Burbank, and explained to the clerk that his driver’s license was stolen and he needed a new one. She barely looked at him as he handed her a birth certificate, the same birth certificate that he had stolen from his twenty-two year old uncle whom he was named after. “I’d also like to take a new photograph if that’s possible. I’ve recently shaved my moustache,” Allen said. The clerk gave him a cursory glance when she verified the photo on record, and then robotically processed his paperwork. “You’ll have to pay if you want a new photograph.” “That’s fine,” he answered assertively. After the clerk snapped his photograph, a wide smile crept onto Allen’s face as he walked away. The smile persisted every day after that when he biked over to his uncle’s house to sift through his mail before he got home from work. Two weeks later, the driver’s license arrived. As Allen opened the envelope, a rush of adrenaline poured into his slender body. He suddenly felt invincible, infallible, and extremely important in his teenage world, realizing that his young life was now in his control. Things were going to change for him and, indeed, they did. Allen became the designated driver every time his older friends were drunk or stoned―an every weekend event. He became their enabler. He bought their beer. He bought their cigarettes and their porn. They needed him like an opposable thumb, and he loved that sense of power and control. Most of all, he enjoyed the rush that he got from beating a flawed system, especially when all it took was a little manipulation and a confident tone of voice. It all seemed too easy.

Andy Hicks has worked as an equity trader and analyst in San Francisco for more than a decade. During that time, he has witnessed two market busts―the dotcom collapse and the subprime mortgage meltdown. Each was born of the same root cause that continues to grow like a league of ivy out of the investment banks, robbing the 401(k) accounts of the average investor with impunity. His work experience has uniquely qualified him to embed this novel with shocking details about a system of interlocked banks, hedge funds, and corporations; facts that are untold by the media.

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