Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Aphrodite Shuddered - Chapter 14

Chapter 14
The Living Dead

March 1988
As I mindlessly fed a stack of IBM punch cards into the school district's ancient mainframe computer, I asked myself yet again, What did that bastard mean? According to the scraps of information (or lies) that the anonymous caller had fed me during the past week, the FBI was supposedly conducting an investigation of Servercomp and/or its company officers. If that was really true, then what kind of crimes would prompt the FBI to investigate an Internet Service Provider? Copyright infringement? Big fuckin' deal.

The caller's reference to the alleged “sick perverts” who ran the company insinuated that it would have something to do with trafficking porn - presumably of the underage variety, because otherwise the FBI wouldn't bother investigating. (It was already apparent, to anyone who bothered to look, that digitized dirty pictures would soon become the online community's most popular “killer app”. In fact, each advance in media technology since the invention of the printing press has been a boon to a growing pornography industry.)

Nevertheless I steadfastly refused to believe the man's accusation. Was he implying that Joey, Herb and/or Rob were directly involved with distributing illegal porn? That's insane! But whether any of that was true or not, I had already made up my mind to start unloading my Servercomp stock as soon as it rose above three-dollars a share. Having been taught a hard lesson about greed-driven expectations, I was now perfectly satisfied to cash-out for a measly one-million dollars.

As time wore on, though, it became increasingly difficult to maintain my resolve in that regard, as the price of my stock kept going up by a few percent each week. In mid-April, right after the company's latest quarterly financial statement reported a modest profit, the stock price suddenly shot to over three dollars. When it reached $3.50 less than a week later, the greedy voice in my head grew louder, urging that I not to sell before it reached five bucks. But then the paranoid voice in my head would retort, “Fuck that! What if that guy was telling the truth? It would bankrupt the company overnight!”

Next day, Herb inadvertently helped me come to a decision: He called my home and offered me my old job back, albeit at a salary lower than what my temp job at the school district paid. After I politely turned it down, he politely insulted me with the truth: “We also have a few other technical positionth to fill, but they don't really match your talenth, I'm afraid.” My cheeks burned while I digested his last sentence. Awkwardly he added in conclusion, “Well, don't be a stranger, Denny. We'll alwayth have a plathe for you in the company.”

Doing what – sweeping the floors? “I appreciate that, Herb. Thanks - talk to you later.”

So, with the stock price moving up another 25 cents that day, I contacted my broker to begin the process of unloading all 240,000 shares, selling them in batches just small enough not to drive the price down. As my bank balances swelled over the next two weeks, I thought about the future and how I was going to spend all that money. Herb's implication that my job skills were obsolete rather shamed me. Thus I vowed to go back to college as soon as possible (and not dropout after one semester as I had done before). And I had plans to buy us a house and perhaps dabble in real estate investing.

While working at the school district offices a few days later, those plans and other possibilities bounced around in my head during another boring swing shift. Unfortunately my reverie was interrupted by another call from my anonymous “friend”. “...Oh Christ, not you again.”

“I was hoping you'd be a little more friendly, or even grateful. But at least you took my advice and started selling your company stock. Smart move.”

“You can drop the cock-and-bull story now. I planned on selling my stock long before these prank calls.”

“What I told you still goes, Denny. The FBI is going to shut that company down any day now, so you'd better hurry and sell the remainder of your holdings before the bottom drops out.”

“All right, let's pretend that I do believe that story. What was the point? And who do you represent, anyway, the government? Obviously.”

“My client strongly desires your services - as you may have guessed - which is why they went through the trouble of extricating you from that company, before you could get into any legal trouble.”

“Well I didn't need to be extricated, like I just told you.”

“Be that as it may, the fact remains that your services are required by the client, who, by the way, is offering you a very attractive salary and benefits package. Of course, I can't go into detail over the phone.”

“Since you seem to know so much about me, then you also know that I don't need the money.”

“I'm aware of that, Denny.” With a sigh, he said, “I sure wish that I had 689,222 dollars in assorted bank accounts right now, like you - my oldest kid is starting college in September.” I started to talk then, but he interrupted me with, “Just between you and me, you'll save both of us a lot of future hassle if you take the job.”

I remained adamant. “No thanks, I got better things to do than work for the government for the rest of my life.”

“You needn't be concerned about that. Your contract with the client would be renewed on a year-by-year basis.”

“Look, man, there's really nothing you can say to change my mind - “

“Tell you what, Denny. Think about it for a week - I'll contact you around this time next Monday. If you still decline the client's offer at that time, I promise that will be the end of it. If you accept, we'll set up a personal meeting where you'll receive a full briefing.” Just wanting to humor him and end the conversation, I agreed to consider the job offer. Over the next three days, I didn't give the matter much serious thought. By Thursday it was largely forgotten, as I was too busy trying to help Tina with a serious personal problem which had cropped-up.

That evening, Tina finally arrived home from work. She had recently been rehired at Rainier Plaza after a long layoff. She looked uncharacteristically worried and was almost in tears. I clasped her slim arms lightly and asked, “What's wrong?”

Pulling herself together, she replied with a wan chuckle. “Oh, nothing much. Do I look dead to you, Herc?”

“Dead? What are you talking about?”

“I just had a meetin' with the Human Resources Director at the hotel. He said that my bank wouldn't accept the direct deposit of my payroll check, because there was a block on my account. Then he called Social Security and found out that I was reported dead three days ago!”

“Now don't panic - I've heard of that happening once in awhile. There must be a hundred Tina Kincaids in the country, and one of them probably died this week and they mixed you up with her. First thing tomorrow morning, we're going down to the Social Security office and straighten this out.”

Next day, Tina brought her birth certificate and all of her other identification to the SS office, where she then spent an hour waiting and another hour filling-out forms. Afterward the clerk handling her case informed her that it could take 30 days or longer to rectify the error. Unfortunately, until the government resurrected her from the grave, she wouldn't be able to work or even collect unemployment benefits.

As we left the building, Tina groused, “What a pain in the ass – this'll end-up costin' me thousands!”

”Enjoy the vacation, Amazon.”

“Watchin' soap operas with Angie for the next month? Some fun.”

On the way home, I stopped at the bank to use the ATM. After I slid my debit card into the ATM, the machine took an inordinately long time to process my cash withdrawal. Finally a message blinked on the ATM's screen: MALFUNCTION - PLEASE SEE TELLER INSIDE LOBBY FOR SERVICE. On top of that, the ATM had eaten my card and refused to disgorge it.

After a few minutes of standing in line, I gave a teller my withdrawal slip and informed him that my card was stuck in the ATM. The teller tapped some numbers into his computer terminal. Then he said, “Hmm” to himself and tapped-in another string of numbers. A nameless dread now crept over me. “There seems to be a problem, Mister Smith. Hang-on, sir, I'll be right back.”

 By now, my stomach was doing flip-flops. What the fuck is going on? Could this be what I think it is? No way! A minute later the teller got off the phone and then directed me to the Accounts Manager's desk. My knees felt as weak as pastry dough as I walked across the lobby. The manager was looking intently at his computer screen as I approached his desk. “Have a seat, Mister Smith. Well, I haven't seen this happen in ages. According to our data base, your account is blocked, because you died three days ago.”

Copyright 2015 by K.D. Bishop

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Aphrodite Shuddered - Chapter 13

Chapter 13
Atlas Belched

Later that day:
By the time I finally reached my stockbroker, it was far too late to cut my losses. What used to be stock worth $3,000,000 on Friday had, by Monday morning, spiraled down to about 300-grand (but only in theory was it worth even that much, since very few investors were buying at any price in this panic stricken market). As the world's stock exchanges plunged to unheard-of depths on that so-called Black Monday, I mentally castigated myself: Just look at you now, big shot! You imagined that you were some kind of half-ass heroic capitalist straight out of an Ayn Rand novel, but now you're virtually broke and probably don't even have a job anymore!

I had never felt so stupid in my entire life, for in a span of just a few months I managed to violate every personal standard of thriftiness, prudence and humility I ever held, and paid a heavy financial price for it. I had always despised the unbecoming human trait of hubris, yet had been just as guilty of hubris as any stereotypical Captain of Industry or Dallas oil man or Wall Street investment banker.

My forlorn prediction about being relegated to the unemployment line proved to be all too accurate. On Friday, five days after the markets crashed, Herb informed me that since the company was suddenly cash-strapped, I was being laid-off from my $36,000-a-year position. Then he turned around and begged me to work weekends (without pay) from home on my personal computer until the economy rebounded. With reluctance I agreed to do so, even while believing that under these dire circumstances an economic rebound was a year or more down the road. I thought with glum resignation: Back to the fucking temp agency!

The next time I saw my sexy new turbocharged Corvette, the car seemed to mock me like a high-maintenance trophy-wife whom I could no longer financially support. There was no way I could afford to keep that high-powered gas guzzler. However, analogous to a divorce settlement, even more money would go down the drain if I parted with “her” at this time.

Having managed to outsmart myself right out of three-million bucks, I now swore that if the opportunity to get-rich-quick ever arose again, I would take the money and run - with alacrity.

* * *
Within a week of my getting laid-off, Tina suffered the same fate at the Rainier Plaza Hotel, due to a flood of trade convention cancellations coming in the wake of the market crash. As for Angie, she had quit her latest waitress gig at Denny's Restaurant months ago, under the misapprehension that henceforth I would have an unlimited amount of cash to burn. Now we were getting-by on unemployment checks, supplemented to a certain extent by my almost worthless Servercomp stock.

From late-October until the end of the holiday season, I, following Angie's example, fell easily into a life of sloth, sexual debauchery and an overindulgence of booze - in keeping with this festive time of year. One delightful benefit (at least for myself) of our collective unemployment: there were many more opportunities and more time for the three of us to be in bed together - an uncommon occurrence of late. By Christmastime, though, our perpetual bacchanalia disintegrated because of the constant bickering that came with being cooped-up together for such a long time. Tina got so disgusted with Angie and me that she decided to spend the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve staying with various family members around town. 

Around noon on Christmas Day, as Angie and I nursed routine hangovers, Tina had some choice parting words for us just before leaving to visit her mother: “I gotta find me a job before I lose my fuckin' mind hangin' 'round here! And as for you muthafuckas, ya better git yer shit together soon or you'll find yerself back at the trailer park - without me!” She then voiced with facetious yuletide cheer: “Happy Holidays!” and, as she normally did when making an exit, slammed the front door behind her.

* * *
January 1988
Seized with post-holiday boredom (and worried that the disgruntled Tina might decide to move-out), I obtained an IBM system operator job through my old temp agency, right after the turn of the new year. To my surprise and relief, life soon settled down to a semblance of normalcy once again. And the nation's economy was recovering faster than anyone had anticipated, rendering the nightmare of Black Monday a disturbing but quickly fading memory. Even the price of my stock had stabilized, climbing to over one-dollar per share and gaining a few cents every week. Investors were apparently beginning to realize that unlike the other recent high-tech start-ups (many of which were now defunct), Servercomp was a going concern and had actually turned a respectable profit the year before.

By February, my most worrisome problems were behind me - just in time for new problems to develop. First came the weird phone calls I began to receive at home: a male voice on the line asked, “Denny?”

He sounded a lot like a friend of mine who lived in the apartment below. “Yeah - Dan? Hey, I just found out that I'm on-call tonight, so I won't be able to go to the game after all.”

“I'm afraid this isn't a game, Denny.”

“Whoa - what? Who the hell is this?”

“Just a friend.”

“Is that so. Well, I could always use another friend, but something tells me it wouldn't work out.”

“That's too bad - I merely wanted to do you a favor by saving you a ton of money.”

“For a telemarketer, you sure got a strange sales pitch.”

“No, I'm not trying to sell you anything. I just called to let you know that it would be advisable for you to unload all of your stock in the computer company you own - before it's too late. There are certain potential legal problems associated with that company, problems which have drawn the interest of the FBI.”

“Bullshit. And why would you help me, anyhow? What's in it for you? Oh I get it now - you work for a brokerage house and you're trying to scare me into selling cheap. Man, I'm gonna kick my broker's ass if if I find out that he gave you my home number.” Before he could explain anything, I said just before hanging up, “Just forget it, okay? And don't ever call me here again!”

Not long after that, I dropped by the downtown offices of Barnum & Barnum for a face-to-face talk with a friendly young guy named Doug Feld, my stockbroker, who was leaving his office as I arrived there. He said, while shaking my hand, “Oh, hi Mister Smith. Anything I can do for you? Um, I was just going down the block to get something to eat - care to join me?”

“No thanks, I already ate. I just wanted to ask you a quick question. Let's take a walk.” We spoke briefly on the way to a fast-food place on the corner. I told him about the odd phone call, leaving out the part about “certain potential legal problems” with the FBI. “...and he mentioned inside information about the company - which obviously I can't tell you about - otherwise I wouldn't take him seriously. The only thing I wanna know is, did anyone at your office happen to give this guy my home number?”

Startled, yet at the same time looking unperturbed, he replied firmly, “Oh no, I never reveal my clients' personal info, and I'm the only who has access to it. So, you think somebody wants you to dump your stock so he can snatch it up at a bargain basement price, eh? If he's that eager to acquire so many shares, perhaps you should buy some.”

“That's not a bad idea, now that I'm working again. I'll call you later this afternoon and we can discuss it.”

Although still desiring to know who had called me and why, I was much more interested in knowing whether or not his claim of an FBI investigation of Servercomp was true. Therefore, after parting ways with Feld in front of a deliciously aromatic teriyaki joint, I drove a few miles to Servercomp's modest two-story headquarters building, where I had hardly set foot since getting laid-off. There I chatted with Joey and Herb and with the few office staffers still on the payroll, such as my old friend Shelly. While talking to Shelly and her co-workers, I casually fished for any bad news or scurrilous rumors about the company - without revealing anything myself. As far as I could ascertain from our conversations, nothing was out of the ordinary. And Joey appeared to be in a good mood for a change, probably because the price of company stock had risen 10 cents that day, closing at a dollar-fifty.

I wanted to believe that the anonymous caller had lied about an FBI investigation. But if he had been on the level, then how would he get access to such information? The only ones I knew that had serious connections within government were the guys who for years had tried to recruit me to work for an unnamed federal agency.

A week later, around the beginning of March, I received another upsetting call, while working my computer temp job for the Seattle School District. I answered the phone, “Information Services, Denny speaking.”

“While there's still time, you need to break all ties with those sick perverts who run the company, before you lose everything.”

“Oh, jeez. What the fuck are you talking about? Who's a pervert?”

 But the line was already dead. At least he hadn't called me at home this time.

Copyright 2015 by K.D. Bishop