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I’m not a religious man, but I make the sign of the cross over my heart just in case. The way I do every time I start. After all, the next few seconds could change my life forever.
Employees aren’t supposed to use company Internet access for personal reasons, but lots of us violate the policy and no one’s ever been fired for it. Jesus, they only pay me thirty-nine thousand dollars a year to be an assistant sales rep for retail paper products in the mid-Atlantic region. So the way I see it, I deserve a perk or two along the way. I’ve dedicated eleven years to this company, but my wife and I still live paycheck to paycheck, even though she has a full-time job too.
Images flash across my computer screen, and I quickly reach the home page of the on-line brokerage firm I use to trade my small stock portfolio. As I enter the information required to access my account, adrenaline surges through me, like it always does when I get to this point. It’s as if I’ve bought a lotto ticket with a fifty-million-dollar jackpot, and I have that lucky feeling tingling in my veins.
Name: Augustus McKnight
Account Number: YTP1699
My fingertips race across the keyboard as I close in on my target, and I pause for a sip of coffee and a deep breath. The deal is only a few screens away, and I’m addicted to the anticipation—so I prolong it. It’s one of the few things I look forward to these days. This morning, as I guided my rusting Toyota through bumper-to-bumper northern Virginia traffic and thick summer humidity, I had a premonition that today would be different. That something was going to interrupt my daily grind. But I’ve had that feeling before.
There’s a sharp knock and my eyes shift to the office doorway. Standing there is my boss, Russell Lake, vice president of all paper product sales. Russell is a slender man with thinning brown hair, a full mustache, and a pasty complexion. He leans into my cramped office, one hand on the doorknob, peering at me over wire-rimmed glasses. And I stare back like a boy caught digging in the cookie jar just before dinner.
“Good morning, Augustus.”
I can tell by the intensity in Russell’s eyes that he’s trying to figure out what I’m doing on my computer, but I’ve positioned it so someone standing at the door can’t see the screen. “Hello,” I say warily. You never know what he’s up to.
“Up with the eagles this morning?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s only eight o’clock,” he says sarcastically, tapping the cracked crystal face of the same Timex he wore the day he interviewed me more than a decade ago. He’s always been sarcastic. That’s just the way he is. “Aren’t you usually crawling out of bed about now?”
I’m in by seven thirty almost every morning, sometimes earlier, but there’s no point in arguing. Like most bosses, Russell has a convenient memory.
“What are you working on?” he asks.
“Very funny,” he says, moving into the office. “Tell me the truth.”
I’m tempted to flick off the computer, but that would be a dead giveaway I’m doing something wrong. “I’m updating a sales report for central Virginia,” I say, hoping he doesn’t walk around to my side of the desk. “Nothing exciting.”
“Checking your stock portfolio again?”
Russell blurs before me. “What?”
He settles into a chair on the other side of my desk, an annoying smile tickling the corners of his mouth. “I know all about your day trading.” He snickers. “You’re on that computer at least two hours a day doing research, checking quotes, and placing orders.” Russell removes his glasses and cleans the dirty lenses with his striped polyester tie. “I’m willing to look the other way at a little indiscretion, but sales in your region are way down. A couple of weeks ago senior management wanted to know what was going on. I defended you as basically a good employee, but I had to tell them about your stock market addiction.”
“Dammit, Russell! Why’d you screw me like that?”
“Don’t blame me, Augustus,” he replies coldly, replacing the lenses on his face. “You’ve got to start accepting accountability for your actions if you want to get anywhere around here. That’s always been a problem for you.”
“How do you know what I’m doing on my computer?”
“I monitor the network.”
“So you’ve been spying on me?”
“Spying is such a nasty way to put it,” Russell says. “I prefer ‘monitoring.’ ”
“You’ve been watching me without me knowing. That’s what it boils down to.”
He raises his eyebrows and grins smugly. “Now you know.”
“You shouldn’t be using company property for personal reasons,” he retorts.
“Lots of other people do.”
“Other people get their work done on time. Besides, the company has a right to protect its assets.”
“And I have a right to protect my privacy.”
“Last year, you and everybody else around here signed a waiver permitting us to monitor your Internet activity,” Russell reminds me, “including e-mails. This shouldn’t come as any surprise.”
Now that he says something, I do remember signing that waiver. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but it’s come back to haunt me.
“Are you day trading right now?” Russell wants to know.
I hear a different tone in his voice. There’s curiosity as opposed to warning, with a hint of goodwill too. But Russell is skilled at convincing people he’s reaching out when he’s really digging, so I have to be careful.
“Come on,” he urges when I don’t respond right away. “I’m interested.”
I’ve been caught red-handed, but if I’m cooperative, maybe he’ll cut me a break. “I’m not actually day trading,” I say cautiously. “Real day traders execute hundreds of buy and sell orders every day. I’m not doing that.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m buying a few shares here and there and holding them for the long term.” My entire portfolio is worth less than a thousand bucks. I won’t be retiring on it, but I get a kick out of knowing that when prices go up I’ve made money without lifting a finger. “Once in a while I get in and out within a couple of days,” I add. “But not very often.”
“So give me an example. Like what are you doing right now?” he asks, gesturing at the screen.
“Checking my account. Last night I e-mailed my on-line brokerage firm about an IPO they’re involved in.”
“An initial public offering,” I say deliberately. Russell knows almost nothing about the stock market. He’s told me he puts most of his money in a bank account earning a boring four percent a year. He hates it when the market goes up and loves it when it dives. “The company’s stock is scheduled to begin trading on the Nasdaq at nine thirty this morning. I was checking my account to see if I had won any of its shares in a lottery my firm was running yesterday.”
“What do you mean, lottery?”
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years learning all I can about financial markets by reading the Wall Street Journal, studying business school textbooks I’ve borrowed from my local public library, and doing research on the Internet. It feels good to show off a little of what I’ve learned. “The big brokerage houses sell shares of going-public companies to their preferred clients,” I explain. “Clients like insurance companies, mutual funds, pension funds, and a few rich individuals.”
“The haves,” Russell sniffs. He’s from a working-class family, like me.
“Brokers sell shares to those preferred clients at a price they think will rise during the first day’s trading,” I continue, ignoring Russell’s resentment.
“Ensuring their clients a profit.”
“Right. The brokerage houses want to make sure the preferred clients are always happy so they can count on them for the next deal, and the next and so on.”
“It’s a stacked deck,” Russell mutters. “An insider’s game you and I will never get to play.”
“That’s mostly true,” I agree. “In the past, small share lots were around, but you had to know somebody at the company or the brokerage house to get your hands on them. You really did have to be an insider. Now there’s a chance for me to get them too.”
“That’s where the lottery comes in. Because of all the Internet trading, the big Wall Street firms that lead IPOs have recruited on-line brokerage firms to help them sell shares to the general public. On- line brokers serve regular people who, individually, may have only a small amount of money to invest, but, when added together, control a lot of cash. Like big firms, the on-line firms give their best customers first crack at most of the shares they have. But as a marketing gimmick, they make a small part of their allocation available to all their customers by running a lottery. The lottery gets lots of people interested. Even if they don’t win any shares in the lottery, the little guys do their best to get them in the after-market as fast as they can.”
“Which helps drive the price up on the first day of trading,” Russell reasons, “just like the big Wall Street firms want.”
Russell leans forward in his chair and rotates the monitor so he can see the screen too. “And you participate in these lotteries?”
“Sure. As long as you have an account,” I explain, nodding at the screen, “and money in the account to cover the share purchase if you win, you can play.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
I can tell Russell isn’t asking questions to build a case against me. He could do that simply by tracking my network activity. He wants to learn how to play the game. “Six months.”
“No,” I admit. “They don’t make many shares available in the lottery. Like I said, it’s mostly a marketing gimmick designed to spark interest in the stock.”
“Ever heard of anyone winning?”
Russell laughs harshly. “No one like you ever wins at this game, Augustus. It’s all a big con. They’re trying to make you think they care about your business. But they really don’t.”
That thought has occurred to me before.
“Well?” he asks.
“Aren’t you going to check to see if you won?” He wants to see my disappointment because he’s the kind of man who finds comfort in the despair of others. “Go on.”
I move the mouse so the flashing white arrow is on the appropriate spot and click to my personal page. Instantly a summary of my account—a detailed description of the few shares I own—appears on the screen, but at the bottom of the page is a blinking message I’ve never seen before. A message instructing me to click on it. The text is surrounded by exclamation points and turns rapidly from red to white to blue with firework graphics exploding all around it. Usually this message is a dull black and white. Usually it informs me that I haven’t won any shares—again.
Russell leans across the desk and points. “What does all of that mean?”
“I don’t know,” I admit, unable to hide my grin. “Looks good, though, doesn’t it?”
“Click on it,” he orders, an edge in his voice. As much as he takes pleasure in another’s disappointment, he hates his own envy.
I glance at the ceiling, cross my heart one more time, then guide the flashing arrow down to the message and click.
Suddenly the entire screen is exploding, and in the middle of the chaos is a box with words congratulating me on winning five hundred Unicom shares. It informs me that the IPO price will be $20 a share and that my account has already been debited ten thousand dollars, plus commissions.
“My God,” Russell exclaims. “Where did you get ten grand?”
According to Wall Street’s experts, Unicom could finish today’s trading at $100 a share, maybe even $200. The era of every dot-com IPO soaring into the stratosphere right away is long gone, but Unicom has been tagged a can’t-miss kid by the Street’s All-American analysts. It has developed an amazing, next-generation wireless technology, and the huge telecommunications firms are pounding on its Silicon Valley door to steal a peak inside the kimono.
Elation rushes through my body. In a few hours my ten thousand could be worth fifty thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand.
“Augustus, I asked where you got ten thousand dollars,” Russell demands, irritated.
“Calm down. I haven’t saved that kind of money working at this place.” I know that’s what he’s worried about. “It’s my inheritance.”
On her deathbed last Christmas my mother instructed me to dig in the backyard beside the porch. There I would find something helpful, she said. I was skeptical because during her last few years my mother’s brain was ravaged by Alzheimer’s. But in the fading light of a cold December dusk I followed her instructions, and a few inches down into the icy soil, my shovel struck metal. Inside a shoe-box-sized container lay neat stacks of hundred-dollar bills, flat and crisp, as though she’d individually ironed each one. I stood there in the cold for a long time, gazing at the money in the rays of a dim flashlight, overwhelmed. Apart from the money in the tin box, my mother had little else. The equity in the house barely covered her funeral.
My mother’s last request was that I not tell my wife what I found in the yard. That I use the “something helpful” for myself. Mother never liked Melanie.
I’ve kept this money in a very safe savings account since I dug it up, afraid that if I invested it in anything else I might lose it. I earned almost nothing in interest, which was frustrating, but now it looks like my patience has paid off.
“What does Unicom do?” Russell asks impatiently.
“It has developed a state-of-the-art wireless application,” I explain, eager to show how thoroughly I’ve done my research. I’ve tried to talk to Melanie about the market many times, but she doesn’t share my passion for it. In fact, she doesn’t share my passion for much of anything anymore. These days most of our conversations seem to dissolve into a predictable set of questions and answers. “And they’ve invented a codec, a compression-decompression device, that brings real-time interactive television to desktop computers regardless of a user’s hard drive capacity or Internet connection. Now people won’t need a server the size of a living room or a T-3 hookup to make two-way desktop television work. It’s revolutionary.”
Russell airmails me an irritated look. I know it annoys the hell out of him to think that I’m up to speed on concepts like byte compression, hard drive capacity, and bandwidth connections. Things he knows little about.
“You need to focus on why paper towel sales are down at the big supermarket chains in Maryland,” he warns, standing up. “Not on technologies that have nothing to do with your job.” He turns back when he reaches the door. “Listen and listen to me good, Augustus. I want half of everything you make on that Unicom stock today, and I want it in cash by the end of the week. Otherwise you’re out of here.”
When I get home Melanie is waiting for me in the small foyer of our cookie-cutter three-bedroom ranch house, arms folded tightly across her ample chest, one shoe tapping an impatient rhythm on the scuffed wooden floor.
“Where have you been?” she demands before I’ve even shut the door.
“The Arthur Murray school of dancing. I know how you’ve always wanted to learn that ballroom stuff, and I was going to surprise you for your birthday, but—”
My attempt at humor isn’t going over well. “Mel, I—”
“Dammit, Augustus, it’s late and I’m in no mood for this.”
At thirty-three—the same age as me—my wife remains a beautiful creature. The same long-legged blonde I fell for in eleventh grade. The same girl I followed to Roanoke College and married a month after graduation with a few family members and friends looking on. To me, she’s still every bit as pretty as she was the day of our wedding. “Something came up at the last minute.” I smile mysteriously, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“I can’t count on you anymore, Augustus. You tell me you’re going to do one thing, but then you do something else. You told me you’d be home by six and here it is after eleven.”
“You said you had to stay late at the office again tonight, so I thought you wouldn’t care if I went out.” My smile fades. “And you’ve been working later and later over the past few months. I wasn’t sure you’d come home tonight at all.”
“I don’t appreciate that,” she snaps.
Melanie is an executive assistant for a Washington, D.C., divorce attorney named Frank Taylor, and I’ve always suspected that he has more than just a professional interest in her. During the past few months she’s been wearing lots of perfume—sometimes heavier when she gets home at night than when she leaves in the morning. She’s been dressing more provocatively too and working late several nights a week, sometimes until one or two in the morning. Even a few Friday and Saturday nights recently. I finally tried talking to her about it last week, but she flew into a rage right away, then accused me of silly macho jealousy and stalked off. But it occurred to me later that she never actually denied anything.
Melanie won’t look at me. “I have to talk to you.”
Her eyes are puffy, as though she’s been crying. “What about, sweetheart?” I move forward to comfort her but she takes a quick step back and buries her face in her hands. “What is it, Mel?”
“Oh, Augustus,” she murmurs sadly.
I wrap my arms around her and hold on tightly, even as she struggles to turn away. I work out almost every day in the makeshift gym I’ve set up in our basement, and at six-four and over two hundred twenty pounds, I easily control her slender frame. “Easy, honey.”
“Let me go, Augustus.”
“Not until you tell me what’s wrong.”
“Let me go!” she yells, her arms starting to flail.
Suddenly her fingernails rake the side of my neck. I’ve never seen her like this before. “Calm down, Mel.”
“Get your hands off of me!”
“You don’t understand me!”
“Of course I do. You’ve had a long day and you’re exhausted,” I say sympathetically, controlling my anger despite the fact that my neck feels like it’s on fire where she scratched me. “And you’re sick of me telling you that we can’t afford anything.”
“You’ve been drinking,” she says, her tantrum easing. “I smell scotch on your breath.”
“I had a few drinks with a friend. That’s all.”
“A female friend, I’m sure.”
Melanie has never accused me of cheating before. In fact, I didn’t think she cared anymore. “I was with Vincent.” Vincent Carlucci and I have been friends since I was ten years old.
“I’ve seen how women look at you, Augustus,” she says, wiping tears and smudged mascara from her face, “and how you look back.”
“I’ve always been faithful to you, Melanie.”
She slumps against me like a rag doll, arms dangling at her sides, face pressed to my chest. “I can’t do this anymore,” she sobs.
“You’re right. You can’t keep up this pace,” I agree, slipping my palms against her soft, damp cheeks and tilting her head back until she’s looking up at me. I smile down at her confidently, feeling better than I have in years. I’ve scored big in the stock market and she’s going to be impressed. “I want you to stop working, Melanie. I want you to sleep late in the mornings and pamper yourself.”
“What are you talking about?” she asks, grimacing as she glances at my neck.
“You don’t have to work any longer. It’s as simple as that.”
“We can barely make ends meet as it is. From what you’ve told me, sometimes we don’t. How could we possibly survive without my salary?”
“You let me worry about that.”
She stares at me for a few moments, then closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Did you think I was talking about my job when I said I couldn’t do ‘this’ anymore?” she asks softly.
“Of course.” In that awful moment I understand what she really needed to talk to me about tonight. “Wasn’t it?”
“Then what did you mean?” My voice is hollow, almost inaudible.
She covers her mouth with her hand. She says nothing, but she doesn’t have to. The look in her eyes says it all.
The first few moments of lost love are terrible. I gaze at her helplessly, and it’s crushing to see how sorry she feels for me—pity is such a useless emotion, only making matters worse for both of us. Melanie wants to be with someone else. Over the years I’ve heard the whispers from her family and friends that I’m a disappointment to her. Now she’s finally listened to those whispers and given in to her desire to be with another. “Melanie?”
“We don’t have any children, Augustus,” she sobs, “and so little money. It won’t be hard to split things up.”
“It’s your boss, isn’t it?” My rage erupts. An awful, mind-numbing fury that spreads like wildfire from my brain to my eyes to my chest. I’ve tried to be understanding about the late hours, the new wardrobe full of short dresses and lacy blouses, the matchbooks from expensive Washington restaurants on her dresser, even the hang-up telephone calls I endure on weekends. Her indifference to me. But no more. “It’s Frank Taylor!” I shout. “You’re having an affair with your goddamn boss. I knew it! Taylor’s made you all kinds of ridiculous promises and you’ve decided to take a chance.”
“This has nothing to do with Frank!” she shouts back. “It has to do with me. I need a fresh start, Augustus. I’m drowning in our life. I have to save myself. If I don’t do it now, I never will.”
“He’s tempting you with houses, cars, and jewelry. I know it.”
“Wouldn’t that be awful if he was?” she snaps.
“It’s not true!” she snaps. “But do you blame me for wanting those things?”
“Melanie, come to your senses,” I beg, swallowing my pride. “It’s going to be much better for us from now on. I promise.”
“You’ve been saying that for eleven years. I’m not willing to wait any longer.” Tears stream down her face, but they are tears of rage, not sadness or compassion. “I’m sick and tired of being married to a man who accepts being ordinary,” she says, gesturing angrily over her shoulder at the inside of our modest home. “I want someone who needs success as much as I do.”
“Let’s not kid ourselves. You want money. That’s all you’ve ever wanted.”
Her eyes fill with tears again. “How can you say that to me?”
“Because it’s true, and you know it.”
She drops her face into her hands. “Let’s just end it,” she pleads pitifully. “Please.”
I stare at her, wishing I could take back those words, even if they are true. “Mel, come on.”
“I’m sorry, Augustus. I’m so sorry, but I want a divorce.”
“This is crazy,” I say, taking her gently by the arms. “Stop it.”
“Let me go.”
My heart sinks as I realize that this is not a passing drama. She’s serious. “Oh, God,” I mutter, looking down. Both of Melanie’s wrists are marked by painful-looking purple bruises. “What have you done to yourself?” I murmur, looking up into her beautiful, anguished face.
She yanks her arms from my grasp and runs away down the short hall without answering.
“Wait, Mel. I hit it big today in the—” But the slam of our bedroom door cuts me off.
For five minutes I stand in our foyer, unable to comprehend what has just happened, my emotions ricocheting from dejection to rage. Finally I stumble to the kitchen and ease into a chair at the scarred wooden table where Melanie and I have eaten so many meals together. My eyes come to rest on a notepad lying beside the sugar bowl and a stack of unpaid bills. In Melanie’s looping script I see that Russell Lake has telephoned four times this evening. I’m supposed to call him back no matter how late it is.
I touch my neck where Melanie scratched me, then bring my hand in front of my face. My fingertips are stained with blood.