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Working at many levels to recast today's big political questions in a fresh lens, Conundrum grows from a psychological study, profoundly revealing of our times and no less disturbing behind its gossamer veil of science fiction, into a kind of meta-democratic polemic led in riotous dialog by the perspectives of the uniquely eloquent Sa.
Uncorrupted by financial dependencies or fear of legal retribution, the heroine Sahar, or Sa for short, is one of a kind, "an impassioned young Arundhati Roy." Her story will inform, enchant and inspire you with a renewed sense of the possible. Read it.
What goes up must come down
The heel of one foot was free of its confines and rested on the rim of my shoe, my weight on the odd leg, like a lame donkey. But for the data case at my side and four hundred dollar shoes, I might have been mugged. My suit jacket was opened, tie looped from the collar, shirt soiled with sweat, unbuttoned. My face was compressed into a mask of bewildered anger. My head pounded. The hair on my scalp bristled.
I stood at the head of the Memorial facing the setting sun, low in its winter angle, gilding the facades of the buildings. The air was mild for the season. A light breeze blew in from a shimmering amber bay.
I had avoided the place for years. Now I was unable to move from the hallowed ground. The bare expression jangled my nerves. Why should the ground of the dead be hallowed and not the ground of the living? What was memorialized here? An implosion of arrogance, obscene in its scale? A desperate feat of arms? Failure and humiliation? Grandeur?
My life had collapsed with the market this afternoon. Wet eyes made a blur of the horizon and fury set my spine stiff. I stood, fists clenched, a battleground of hot serrated thoughts that resolved to one: I was ruined. The edifice of my life was a wreck. My implosion would have no memorial.
I stood cashless and in debt, as if naked, blindsided by a crash for the second time in my 28 years. This time the market fell I was completely leveraged out in a ballet of trades, my vanity come full circle with smoldering vengeance.
Freedom Tower’s cold shadow, crawling inexorably along the plaza stones in the failing sun, seemed like my flung-down soul. My eyes were locked in a blind stare, and within the mind’s eye arose a vision of reason and order, an incarnation of justice and faith, hard work, reasoned risk, and a well-deserved payoff. Mine. That payoff lay crushed like the tangle of steel and pulverized lives here memorialized.
Memorialized. Bile rose in my throat at the word. The machine that is time would not stop to remember me. The world would toil on insensate. Fallen and disgraced in the coliseum of finance, I had no sanctuary. The towers of avarice all around would not nod for my reprieve. All thumbs were down.
I waited for rage, pent up and compounded, to come hurtling back at the glass and steel spire, which seemed poised to implode under its overweening mass, poised to hammer down all sense and sensibility in its footprint. I waited for the spire to collapse in a rage of smoking jetsam like the Twin Towers, my bloodied corpse among the splintered bone and pulp like so much landfill trash.
It was not yet dark, the sun a sliver of blaze across the river, when the plaza began to fill around me. Well packaged flesh and bone straggled through the obedient doors of the surrounding buildings as the elevator banks regurgitated their cargo. Faces passed around me, sullen, drained, bitter, silent. The gaps between them closed until a steady throng of workers marched past me in the gathering dark.
My stomach clenched at the sight of them in the anxious twilight, a swarm of appetites, of teeth and clutches and blows that did not bite or claw or beat upon me. I was unseen and felt invisible. I was not cold, but I shivered convulsively, certain I bore witness as one who was not there.
In the February dark beneath the bare Memorial, I felt the urge to walk with the rush hour throng, to trudge in unison with these others, all of us hurt alike. I too would have a home for the night before my life was uprooted, but there was more truth to the chill that rode my spine.
I shook myself like a wet dog and attempted to square my shoulders, fidgeted, demanded control of my body, my mind, my life, and fidgeted again. I lost the thread of my thoughts, clutched my jacket closed, and found my thoughts again, repellent thoughts. For those left with the stake, the buy-in of a lifetime awaited, one in which I would have no share. I grieved my loss, and I despised myself for envy.
An algorithm of trading maneuvers, all but chimerical x, calculated themselves with a will of their own and died in stark remembrance: my account was a black hole, a vortex from which no light escaped.
Memorialized. “Damn,” I shouted aloud, stamping my heel back in its sheath. “Damn it all.”
In my mind’s eye came a molten lava slide, a hissing slurry of fire and char crawling avariciously forward. My back to a wall of stone, I dreamed a low music, a bird sound, mechanical and incongruous, banal in the terror of my predicament, a melodic hoax mocking my final hour. It grew louder as the lava’s breath, a searing stink of sulfur, enveloped me. Breathless and choking, at the last moment I was lifted out of the inferno as if cradled in angelic arms.
I dimly recognized the sound as the persistence of the Net Box, its refrain like the laughter of a loon. Someone was calling me, I cogitated horizontally, unable to open my eyelids. I remembered the cause of this reluctance was the whiskey I drank the night before. The sweat ran into my eye closest the damp pillow. Squinting with one eye, I couldn’t make out the blinking ID display across the room and croaked to the bedside transceiver, “Show caller.”
It was Robbie, a fellow trader at the fund with whom I had an honest if teasing friendship. “Answer,” I said and raised myself on one arm to greet the pallid face filling the monitor. “Hey, fatso,” I rasped feebly. The gap in his front teeth showed through fleshy lips. The close-up view cropped out his thinning hair.
“Good morning to you too. They get around to canning you, pretty boy?”
“What… What time is it? Can who?” I sat up and rubbed my eyes with my knuckles, my squinted eyes jousting with the light.
“You, that’s who. They canned me last night. The vid was playing Wagner when I walked in the door.” There was a silence. “I haven’t heard anything.” I was alert now. “Show my face,” I commanded and the lens eye found my voice and framed my head and shoulders. I regarded the thumbnail display of myself with dismay as the sleep-disheveled head stared back at me bleary-eyed. I knew the worst already.
“Half the equity and all of index crew, everyone who got hammered is getting axed, and that includes you, hotshot.” There was a long pause as my mind chased its grieving neural networks.
“Everyone?” I asked.
“Yeah.” His face seemed to be hurting, tense and reddened, his eyes liquid like he had been crying, or soon would be. I had not seen this expression on his face before.
“Just like that?” I managed to say, succumbing to the communion of misery. He did not answer for a while.
“Two weeks base and collect your box at the door,” he added as an afterword to his own sinking thoughts. He was pulling me down, down.
“Gets worse,” he said, finding his voice again. “They’re doing the same thing over at the big four. I called Neil. He’s out, and you know what that means for you.”
Neil was one of the better performers at Finchley’s, a small boutique fund, just as Rob and I were at Mercantile Hedge, a larger though less prestigious operation. Robbie’s point was that Neil was the son of Texon’s CEO. If anyone had protection, it was Neil. Or me, the me of the day before yesterday, top gun and rising star who shot skeet with the company owner and dated his granddaughter, the me that was now vacuumed out of my hulk like an abortion. The silence dragged on as the implications settled into plain truth, until both of us were embarrassed.
“I was leveraged out.” My voice broke unexpectedly. “The margins...”
“See you in line at burn court.”
Robbie was pulling me to tears and I had to get off the phone. “Let me go, Robbie,” I rasped. “Call you later.”
“Sure. Gonna look into a chauffeur’s license. I can’t make the rent.”
I gazed unseeing at the Net Box screen after the departure chime, waiting for the tears. I regarded the blank monitor as if for the first time. It seemed a botched prosthetic head. Then I saw it alive and strange, as might an aborigine from some primal tribe, like a ghoulish paw waiting to slam my soft head.
I fell back into bed as an incoming call was announced with its bird-like sound, musical and mocking. It was exactly 8:00 A.M. I shut my eyes, grasping in dark certainty for illusions, but the sound was irrefutable in its logic. I knew I could no more resist it than close my ears.
“Show caller.” It was the boss.” Answer,” I gasped, and the screen filled with a still image of my boss’s earnest face. I lay unmoving, head on pillow, and did not volunteer mine. The ritual words were spoken in a recorded voice-over. There would be no appeal, no reprieve. We were always the first casualties in a crash.
With the fade-out of the message, I shut my eyes. I felt dirty and sapped. I’d been over and over the numbers and could find no way out. Eighteen calendar days until the next rent. Ruinous penalties by March 2nd, and five days later, the Marshal would arrive with papers and the police.
“News wall,” I finally spoke. The left wall pixilated into a commentator in front of the stock exchange. An analyst and fund manager were discussing the market “holiday” the exchange had decreed. Channel after channel the news was the same, until the reality of this situation blunted itself on my consciousness. And still I watched, passively, as if peering at entertainment. Speculation about the future was rampant. One commentator showed a who’s who list of speculators with the cash to take advantage of absurdly punished sectors, recession-proof cherry picks at deep discount. Another provided a history of technical oversight reforms put in place to insure such panic declines would not overwhelm the patch job of a decade ago.
Too big to fail had failed again, but the market was out of whack with fundamentals, the pundits reassured viewers. The President and Fed Chairman would hold a joint press conference on money supply and bailout. Twice the dual meaning of the Chinese word weiji, crisis and opportunity, was noted. Total Security Theorem, which ruled Net commerce, was the only stock left standing. Nearly everyone owned stock through some kind of fund, from the apprentice just out of school to a janitor nearing retirement. The latter probably would not live long enough to recoup what was lost in a single day. Capital flows would freeze and consumer demoralization would harden into layoffs and unemployment in every sector. The middle class had been hoodwinked again. Empire City, the world’s financial capital, home of Wall Street and Freedom Tower, would be stricken with an exodus of the freshly fallen. I was one insignificant piece of the pain. There was no consolation in this realization. In fact, it hurt all the more. I swung my legs off the bed and got to my feet, making for the terrace, swiping a robe from the chair on the way. The glass door slid apart a bare second before my face collided with it, a game of chicken I played out of habit. I pulled the robe around me in the cold and leaned out over Second Avenue, 27 stories below.
There was far less traffic than usual, but I half expected to see the streets deserted. An exceptional number of police drones were sprinkled among the passenger cars and taxis, and there were few pedestrians for a morning rush hour, but otherwise the city seemed indifferent. The sun shone brilliantly in a silent sky of azure.
The glass glinted splendidly on the buildings facing east. To either side, the blue silhouette of shadowed structures invaded the pale sky. Soot-grayed remnants of snow still lined the upper ledges, and a north wind rustled through winter-killed roof gardens nearby, accelerated by the channel of the City canyon.
As I gazed down the block to my left, a smashing sound forced my glance upward. Across the street, several stories higher than my own perch, a window exploded outward. A black object emerged from its lattice and shards, a man, his hands tearing at the air above the avenue as his legs, which had propelled him out and clear, were still pumping at a run. His arc was brief.
He plummeted akimbo in breathless silence as time stretched on. He smacked the sidewalk concrete audibly from where I stood high on the terrace. An ink stain spread from beneath his head. Skull flattened, his face seemed to emerge from the pavement itself.
There were screams from the street. A woman walking a tiny dog on a leash heaved her breakfast into the gutter. Windows opened in the canyon, heads surveying in all directions. Sirens dopplered closer. The smashed body attracted a small crowd. Some turned and fled, sickened when they made sense of the pulp in its suit and tie. A shoe lay empty beside the foot in a black sock.
Police and ambulance vehicles arrived together a few moments later, the responders emerging briskly to survey the scene. Heads conferred briefly, the police entering the building while the EMS slid a body bag under the remains with some difficulty. They had him cleared away in minutes. Even the dispersed brains and the shoe had disappeared, a misshapen shadow of blood on the pavement all that remained. A crew member paced the area, and bent over, retrieving some indiscernible thing. Then the okay was given to hose off the walkway, and the shadow disappeared under a parked car. The ambulance drove off, its siren silent. The wind had picked up. I turned back inside, less cold than sick at heart. I shivered and shook as the door thud shut behind me. I glared around at the impertinence of the furnished room before me, agitated but also inspired. I could feel myself punching through glass, hurling into the air with a might born of rage and resolve. I could feel the jumper’s splat in my bones.
What would I think in those timeless seconds going down? What regret would share the last few seconds with terror as I flailed in space, the ground rushing up to smash me?
Always time for suicide, I said aloud wearily, intending no joke, and collapsed into a chair, face in hands as my stomach churned in a roller coaster of emotions. There were less showy ways out. I stood up again. I sat down. I got up. I stood there then sat down, deflating into the chair. I knew I had to act, and quickly, only to find myself defeated by the futility of action.
I was guilty and ashamed. Why was I there to see this man’s frantic rush to death? I felt nothing for him but thrilled in the grandness of his gesture. Thinking was unbearable.
Clutching the first random notion that was not the splat, I remembered, incongruously, that Keira would be back from her latest Mediterranean jaunt. She would be staying at the Old Man’s estate in the Catskills. Twenty-three days before the man with a gun knocked at the door. I have to do something, don’t I?
I stood up and sternly admonished myself to “get the fuck out of here.” It was a reassuring sound, the solid and convincing “uck” of it, full of vacant finality. Then, I had a eureka moment as I went to the vid and said mirror. I brushed my hair with my hands and looked my reflection in the eye. “Take a vacation with Keira,” I addressed myself aloud. “Take an extended vacation, indefinite if possible.” I had somehow see-sawed wildly into hope.
“Keira, Keira, Keira,” I said, and rehearsed in my mind on the way to the shower how to approach her. “Medium, hot,” I said, and the nozzles obeyed. I lathered my hopes to life. Beautiful Keira, I thought at last drying myself critically in the mirror. “And why not Keira?” I said aloud, dressing from the closet. Because Old Man Wellingham, her grandfather, tycoon of tycoons, was set against us for reasons only he knew, if even he knew. The given reason was his granddaughter’s extravagance, all of a month’s allowance, to make a gift of a shiny new Porsche on my birthday. That had her doting granddaddy choking with disapproval. But I knew this was just the particular bone of the moment. He was antagonistic from the minute he learned of us.
All I had now to pay off the margin call on my account was what I could get from selling the car, and it would not be enough. Default on the call would cost me my trading license, as would bankruptcy. I’d be stigmatized for decades. My degree in finance, for which I bore half a million in debt, would be rendered worthless in the meltdown. The trap that had sprung on me was perfect. Keira was pliable, but each angle of approach seemed to end in stalemate, all except one, which, I reasoned, she would interpret as an elopement. There was no other way to persuade her, however. Of course, I should marry her. They’d never cut her off completely, and two could live very nicely on a fraction of her allowance. “What more do you want?” I demanded aloud.
Granddaddy could squeeze her father, force him to draw her down to subsistence levels. Even at that there were countries where the exchange rate would make us care-free. She might go for it, and in time her father would find a way to get around the Old Man. In time they’d accept us, even the Old Man. He would at least die eventually, thank God. Though what kind of will he might be capable of, devious and cruel as he was, he might just go on squeezing his rubber duckies from the grave.
I could love her. Maybe I was the only one who really could. She was brisk, alert, spirited. She gave meaning to the word vivacious. She was also boundlessly self-centered. We seemed to agree on that one thing: she always came first. She was bitter about the scars across her low belly from her father’s stupid accident, and she had a hateful streak because of it, but she had a deep sensual responsiveness nonetheless in her favor. She was a Stradivarius really, so finely tuned to touch. “All in all,” I said aloud. “Show me one unattached soul who would not think me a fool if I didn’t marry her.”
Or at least try. I reminded myself that this was the first morning of my fallen state and I had yet to formally gauge my prospects. The jumping man might just have my nerves jangled, I thought. I had twenty-three days for a miracle to reveal itself, while I clawed at every angle on my own to make one happen—or go down, down, down.
In the end, what-ifs beat themselves to death one against the other until only the two extremes survived: I could join my mashed friend in a body bag or marry a modestly bitchy, sexy, mega-heiress, and live in blissful thrift with her. I had best get a move on if it were going to be the latter.
For now, I decided, it’s still a game and I am still a player in it. As long as there was an option, I had to try it. “Concierge!” I commanded, now frantic to act. The transmission light flickered. “Car at the front door please,” I said to the corridor wall on my way out of the apartment.
“Door,” I said to its range flicker, and went out into the landing hall. An elevator stood empty. I’d have my choice of rides. “To the lobby, ‘Valkyries,’ window view, slow.”
“Ride of the Valkyries” stormed in surround sound as the walls beamed in my slow descent from cameras outside, as if the elevator were glass enclosed, gliding smoothly down the outside of the building. Vertigo gave way to a childish delight, the forgone safety of home and the impending, perilous bottom lost to a moment of rhapsody.
I fairly beamed as I exited, greeting the concierge at her desk with a smile and a wink. My immaculate cream Porsche stood directly in front of me, engine running, door opened. I dropped in and shut the door with a solidly gratifying thunk.
“Top down,” I ordered, eyes lingering over the seductive cockpit.
“Honey,” I said revving the engine in idle. “This is our last drive.”
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