short fiction, women

21%

1.

London, England.

The phone drew him from a deep, drugged sleep. He laid there, grimacing against the film of nicotine on his teeth as he reached for it on the bedside table.

 

‘Where’s my fucking article?’

 

Her voice was rough with tiredness. The smooth, professional voice which slipped around the newsroom was asleep, and here he was talking not only to his editor, but an impatient and upset woman who had his career in her palm.

 

‘It died last night. He didn’t turn up.’ he said.

 

Saying it aloud made him feel worse. His idealism had imagined something more dramatic, coaxing black truths until he had everything he needed to get the article out there with his byline. It was a fragile dream, but a good one and he missed it as he listened to his editor preparing to tear him a new orifice.

 

‘You’re fucking joking’ she said.  

 

He sighed. A tension pooled at the base of his skull as he sat up and reached for his cigarettes. In the five star chilled darkness of the suite, he lit up and considered how to answer.

 

‘What can I say? Black edge stuff scares the shit out of these people.’ he said.

 

The trade of stock and any assessments made to its potential fell into two areas. Grey edge came from assessments of public information and informed recommendations about a company’s health or the potential of its new project.

 

Black edge was insider trading. Employees or executives willing to leak information about issues which could affect the price of stock or the launch of a new product.

 

Albert H. Wiggin shorted 4,000 stocks of his own company, Chase National Bank. He ended up making money during the Great Depression and even inspired an act to prevent further abuses.

 

Ivan Boesky was a great success as an arbitrageur in the nineteen eighties able to spot and capitalise on changes in stock prices between different markets. The secret of his success was friends in the major financial institutions who traded information for money.  

 

Martha Stewart became famous for baking cookies. She became infamous for selling shares in a pharmaceutical company a day before the stock price dropped to ten dollars a share.

 

His career came from translating matters of risk and probability into articles people understood. He showed them how, in the finance sector, crime paid.

 

‘I went to bat for you and this is how you repay me.’ she said.  

 

He smoked, thinking of something he could say to salvage this conversation and his career.

 

‘I’ve got other people I can talk to.’ he said.  

 

She sighed as she exercised the familiarity which had bonded them together through a change of ownership and regular threats of legal action.

 

‘Please don’t say who I think you’re going to.’  

 

He closed his eyes. There was a desperation in his voice, but he sucked on his cigarette and held the smoke until it burned his lungs before he exhaled.

 

‘She’s never let me down before.’ he said.  

 

The moment’s pause had focused him. If she wanted the article, he would need to see Erin.

 

‘She’s as mad as a bottle of fucking chips.’  

 

‘Yes, but she’s never wrong’

 

Silence. He heard her editor thinking. Debating whether the board would have the balls to give them more time. Putting the pieces together was rare these days. Both endured advertorials and recycled press releases passing as news in return for the chance to do their jobs.

 

Fuck it, go see her. Get her to invoice me direct though. No more Krugerrands, ok?

 

He got off the bed, and stood up, stretching with a soft sigh of relief as he stretched out his lower back.

 

Time to see her, he thought. His stomach bubbled with an excited unease, and when he swallowed, he tasted stale smoke and acid. Writing about money, and the things it made people do had grown more lurid as the stakes grew. He wrote about risk, which was the mother’s milk of capitalism. The problems and the stories came from the same place: the measures taken to minimise it.

 

 

Amalia, New Mexico.

 

‘Seems like every time you read about a remote desert compound made of discarded wood and old tires, the people inside are always up to no good.’

Suzette looked through binoculars as she spoke. Her voice was harsh from too much time spent in silence.

 

Ellison had the headphones held to one ear as she glanced at her partner.

 

‘Have you seen Malik?’ she said.

 

Suzette shook her head.

 

Ellison took off the headphones and sat back in the chair.

 

‘Did we get the nod on the drone?’ Ellison said.

 

She shook her head before she lifted the binoculars.

 

‘Please tell me TSO are going in with the warrant?’

 

Suzette smiled as the desert air shimmered with activity.

 

‘Judging by the number of vehicles, it’s the Sheriff’s Response Team.’ she said.

 

Ellison got up and threw on the body armour. Suzette reached behind her and did the same. There wasn’t much room in the van, but they managed. Ellison checked her side arm and held it at her waist in a loose, practiced grip before she picked up the rifle and slapped in the magazine.

 

A column of armoured SUVs charged towards the compound. Ellison and Suzette were out of the van, moving towards them with guns raised. Their blood roared in their ears as the fist of law enforcement swung down, ready to crush everything beneath it.

 

3.

 

‘That is the ugliest fucking thing I’ve seen in my life.’

 

Usherwood cackled and raised his glass. Gordon shook his head, dismayed at the glee his friend took in his revulsion.

 

‘It’s a fucking investment, Gordon.’ Underwood said.

 

Gordon looked at the tank where it sat in the centre of the living room, watching the young women sit there, reading.

 

‘It’s a perspex tank with hookers sitting in it.’ he said.

 

Usherwood smiled.

 

‘Yes, but it’s one designed by Hunt Buccellato. In five years, it will be worth twice what I paid for it.’ he said.

 

Usherwood raised the tumbler of vodka to his thin lips and took a sip. His eyes were bright and full of challenge. Gordon was the first to look away. He looked back at Usherwood with a conciliatory smile.

 

‘At least tell me you feed the hookers.’ he said.

 

Usherwood chuckled and nodded.

 

‘They’re on retainer, so I can call them. He even designed an app, of which I am the only subscriber.’ he said.

 

Gordon sighed and finished his drink. He set the glass down and let his nerves show on his face, all the humour faded like cursive exposed to long periods of sunlight.

 

‘Are we still good with Redicin?’  he said.

 

Usherwood came in and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

 

‘Once the news breaks, we’ll go in hard and fast, buddy.’ he said.

 

Gordon was afraid to ask how Usherwood knew this. SEC had come after the firm three times after the last five years, making cases which juries found difficult to comprehend, let alone pass judgement on. Insider trading was dull to prosecute and difficult to prove. Gordon breathed out a sigh of relief and winked at his friend.

 

‘Good, a drop like that, people will ask how it happened.’ Gordon said.

 

Usherwood gave him a flat, reptilian stare.

 

‘No, they won’t.’ he said.

 

They stared at one another before one woman inside the tank sneezed and they stared at her with polite disdain.

 

‘I hope you’re not sick.’ Usherwood said.

 

4.

 

The door opened and he caught the rich, comforting smell of fresh baking. His mouth watered as he stepped inside and slipped his shoes off. She frowned and shook her head.

 

‘No phones, remember?’

 

He held it out to her. It went into the left pocket of the beige, oversized cardigan and out came a small black wand which she waved over him. It made a thin hum which bit into his sinuses but nothing shrieked. She smiled and slipped it back into her pocket.

 

‘Just checking.’ she said.

 

She shuffled into the kitchen and he followed her.

 

She picked up a blue surgical towel from a folded pile on the kitchen counter and opened the oven. Erin sighed with delight as she pulled out the tray of fat, golden cookies and set it on a wire tray.  She put the towel down and pointed at the stovetop kettle. He frowned at her.

 

‘Do you always bake?’ he said.

 

She busied herself with finding cups and he got the milk from the fridge when she asked.

 

‘Insomnia is a harsh mistress.’ she said.

 

She put the mug on the table in front of him as he retrieved a notepad from his jacket and a black biro. He tapped the nib against the paper.

 

‘So, the guy you mentioned didn’t turn up.’ he said.

 

Erin got up from the table and put a few of the cookies onto the plate before she brought them back to the table.

 

‘I’m not surprised, love.’ she said.

 

He wrapped his hands around his mug of tea and blew across the surface as he looked at her. She told him to take a cookie whilst they were warm. He picked up one as she spoke.

 

‘You won’t get anyone to talk. It’s not how it works anymore.’ she said.

 

The cookie broke across his tongue, flooding his mouth with sweetness as he chewed until he could speak without spraying her with flecks of biscuit.

 

‘Someone always talks. Half of Wall Street hates him and the other half wants to know how he picks his trades. I’ve got some of it, but there’s more going on.’ he said.

 

She raised an eyebrow as she nibbled on a cookie.

 

‘Is there?’ she said.

 

He sighed and sat back in the chair. A sudden, debilitating wave of despair washed over him and he rubbed the tiredness from his eyes.

 

‘Erin. Please.’ he said.

 

She pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose as she gave a thin smile.

 

‘He’s got access to the Redicin report, or he doesn’t need it.’ she said.

 

He frowned as he picked up his cup of tea.

 

‘He’s putting one hundred billion dollars of his firm’s money. Usherwood knows something will happen.’ he said.

 

Erin picked up another cookie.

 

‘Your concern should be whether you can prove any of this.’ she said.

 

It was the reason he was here at three in the morning. She knew it but took pleasure in hearing him say it aloud.

 

‘Erin. Please.’ he said.

 

Her mouth turned down at the corners as she broke a cookie in half and dipped it into her tea before popping it into her mouth.

 

‘If he doesn’t have an inside source, then he will look at personal factors and how they can help improve his position.’ she said.

 

Personal factors. The implications confused him. Erin studied his expression with concern.

 

‘Thomas Sowell said something which stayed with me for a long time. If the CEO of a corporation experiences a personal tragedy, it will translate into a loss of profits. Someone worked it out to a percentage.’

 

He was confused as he sipped his tea. It was a flamboyant, somewhat juvenile statement and it unnerved him to hear Erin talk in such a way.

 

‘So, Usherwood knows something will happen to the CEO of Redicin?’ he said.

 

Erin folded her hands on the table.

 

‘I don’t know for certain. What I remember, is the death of a CEO’s child knocks 21% off the stock price.’ she said.

 

He gasped in disgust and shook his head.

 

‘That’s fucking nuts, Erin. Why would you say something like that?’ he said.

 

Erin remained amiable and calm as she picked up another cookie.

 

‘Because the death of a CEO has a positive impact on stock prices. 6.8%. Which I am.’ she said.

 

He caught the implied warning and blurted out an apology.

 

‘So, what’s the story here? It’s not the one I thought I was fucking writing.’ he said.

 

Erin put a hand out and rested it atop his.

 

‘It never is.’ she said.

 

5.

 

Eight children were wrapped in Health Department blankets as the sheriffs team led them to waiting paramedics. They ranged from eighteen months to fifteen years old. There were ten but one of them had gone with Lucas in the van.

 

The other one was buried in the desert. His mother had given him to Malik when he promised that he’d take the child to a theme park and then onto a specialist clinic where his cancer would be treated.

Ellison wanted to interrogate Malik. He welcomed the sheriffs with an AR-15 on full auto and much like the warrant, was executed. She walked over to the paramedic who was dealing with the oldest child. He looked up at her with concern, eyes glazed over with exhaustion and malnutrition. His head had been shaved to stubble, and there were crescents of bruised, dark tissue underneath his eyes. He had grabbed a pistol from the small armoury but had dropped it when they trained their guns on him. The boy had wept from relief as the other children emerged from hiding.

 

They had slept on pallets covered with blankets and ate rice once a day. Her sister-in-law would have paid a fortune to come here if they had named it Namaste or Karma, she thought as she knelt down in front of the boy.

 

No, he’s not been a boy for a while now, she thought.  

 

‘We know about the guns now. But we don’t know what they were for.’ she said.

 

He shivered despite the heat.  

 

‘He was the right age. Lucas came back with a present for him. A new phone. It wasn’t fair, you know.’ he said.

 

The wounded tone in his voice pinched her in the sides. Despite everything, he was still a child.

 

‘No, what were Malik and Lucas training you to do?’ Ellison said.

 

He turned away and swallowed. Ellison saw the shine of fresh tears before Suzette shouted her name. She got up and walked back to her partner but the boy said something. She stopped and asked him to repeat it.

 

‘They were teaching us to shoot.’

 

6.

 

He walked into the dining hall, looked at the menu with its myriad of options. His mouth flooded as he looked at the food, presented in sections denoting which was gluten-free, vegan, macrobiotic, paleo or vegetarian. He had been allowed a burger on the way here, and the grease coated his teeth as it sat like a stone in the pit of his stomach. His phone hummed and he took it from the pocket of the blazer. It irritated where it touched him and the phone was too large for his hand but he looked at the screen, and the small red dot pulsing in the centre.

 

She was sat with a group of people, all of them laughing at something he said. Her blonde hair caught the sun, made it a halo which made his heart thump against his ribs and his stomach flutter with a terrible elation. He reached into the satchel and felt the hard, cold metal slide into his hand.

 

His hand stayed inside the bag as the weight of his decision paralysed him. He closed his eyes against the building pressure in his chest before he roared and pulled the gun out. The front sight bisected the halo of blonde hair, he saw the girl’s smile fall away.

 

7.

 

By the time he got back to the hotel, the news was waiting for him. Events had overtaken everything, and he sat there, drowning his sorrows with the mini bar. He believed he was inured to the worst things people did for money and yet there he was, unmanned by something he thought came from ranting, reddened men on the internet.

 

His phone rang.

 

‘Look, I had no fucking idea -‘

 

Erin sighed with distaste.

 

‘I know, but you need to keep an eye on what happens now.’

 

He gestured to the television before realising she wasn’t in the room with him. He slumped forward and closed his eyes.

 

‘A school shooting. The poor bastard’s daughter was the first one killed, Erin.’ he said.

 

Of course she was. The others were window dressing and he made sure to save one for himself. It has the appearance of randomness but it is perfect.’ she said.

 

Her enthusiasm made him nauseous, but she had been right about something happening.

 

‘So, he gets what he wants and all it took was a few dead kids.’ he said.

 

‘A small price to pay for the money Usherwood will make on the trades.’

 

He laid down on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

 

‘The bastard will get away with it too, won’t he?’ he said.

 

Erin smacked her lips.

 

‘No. He won’t.’

 

He sat up and stared at the television.

 

Of course he will. We sound insane, otherwise. You mention crisis actors and we might as well make tinfoil hats.’ he said.

 

‘Write your story. I’ll let you know what happens.’ she said.

 

Erin disconnected the call and he sat there, staring at the phone before it rang again. His editor was calling and he stared, unable to think of what he should tell her.

 

8.

 

Usherwood walked around the circumference of the tank, chewing on the cuticle of his thumb. Despite the savage rush of victory, his mind was working overtime, poking holes in the operation to see where he was vulnerable. The women had left, but were available with a press of his thumb against the screen but he wanted to be alone for this moment.

 

It had started as a joke.

 

He called an event shielded meeting with a security contractor who had slipped him his card at a function last May. Event shielding meant no phones or digital devices, nothing committed to paper and it was all hypothetical. A temporary salon where terrible and grand ideas could be discussed without fear or recrimination.

 

Redicin was no longer an issue.

 

His phone rang and he looked at the screen. The contractor was calling, from the encrypted line established for the operation.

 

‘Hello.’ he said.

 

The sound of someone choking crept into his ear before it softened into a final gargle. He looked at the phone and then put it on the coffee table. He wiped his fingers on the thigh of his trousers as he backed away.

 

Something hard punched into the base of his spine and his legs went out from under him. Usherwood struggled to breathe as a tight band of constriction wound itself around his chest. A woman looked down at him. She looked familiar but he could not place her.

 

She was outside of the tank, he realised. He tried to laugh but his throat was closing as numbness flooded his limbs. The blade in her hand dripped with his blood as she watched him like a scientist studying a dangerous, but fascinating subject.

 

‘Don’t worry. We’ll clear up after you, Mr Usherwood. We always do.’ Paula said.

 

He laid there as she walked away. She took out the phone from where it sat on her hip.

 

‘It’s done. How far do I need to be clear if we’re sending Splinter?’ she said.

 

She whistled under her breath as she left the house.

 

The explosion shook everything for miles. What no one would figure out was that it was a foot long carbon rod which did the deed. It was, mounted on an orbital platform above North America. A kinetic orbital strike, turned into a celestial spear by the heat of re-entry before it struck the target. The surrounding forest was flattened for miles but she was clear of the blast radius. It was clean and perfect in its destruction, and it would eliminate Usherwood and his house without leaving a trace.

 

She drove without stopping. Before she boarded the plane, she made one last call.

 

Yes, there would be cookies. She had baked a batch a few hours ago, but Erin promised there would be more waiting for her.

 

9.

 

Erin sat and smoked a cigarette as she checked the balance of the receiving accounts before transferring it into five digital currencies before transferring money to Paula. She empathised with the Sisyphean struggle to bring order to things but there was another phrase which came to mind. It wasn’t from Thomas Sowell, but Kurt Vonnegut and it came to her lips.

 

“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”

 

Erin lived in a universe of risk and probability, one which did not allow for angels to exist, let alone organise. As she got out another block of butter, she struggled with the failure to prevent the deaths, but at least justice had been served.

 

There was another batch of cookies in the oven as she said a small prayer for the children.

 

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