Enjoy this long sample. -- A.M.
TAKEDOWN, Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.
15 November 1996
It was another misdirected email floating near the middle of her inbox. The sender was romancing the woman she was not.
Jane Nelson lowered her mug onto her nephew-crafted coaster, and she settled her five-foot-two-inch frame into the work-smart swivel chair. She scanned the pile of papers strewn across her desk as she stretched her arms toward the ceiling. Then Jane leaned into the screen, clutched the ergonomic mouse, and jerked it across the pad to uncover the cursor location.
She fixed her blue eyes on her first task of the day: Email.
Jane clicked on the important memo at the top of the list. It was a reminder to attend a 10 o'clock meeting with her boss, but now it was rescheduled to 10:30 due to a conflict with his boss. Par for the course, she thought, as she read the apology. Jane exited to the inbox list and continued her scan down through the subject lines of unopened messages.
Her mouth twisted when her eyes ran across the odd subject line: Honey, Thanks for Last Night.
"Great. Another pimp to enlarge body parts I don't have," Jane muttered as she tugged the ends of her shoulder length sable hair. She made a mental note to fly by Great Clips for a trim after work. Why doesn't the anti-spam filtering software catch this stuff?
As she spread her hand to delete the message a fluorescent light above her cubicle flickered and burned out, causing her to startle. Instead of hitting the delete option she jerked and clicked the mouse, and the message was opened in a large window in the center of the screen.
Jane groaned. She turned to the right side of her L-shaped workstation to viciously pen two notes on a sticky pad: Call custodial supervisor to replace light bulb. Call IT mail services re: spam blocking.
Jane eyed the mug sitting beside her closely guarded yellow block of sticky notes. She was running low and needed to hunt up more. Sue Ratched, their office manager, considered the fake tacky sheets an expensive luxury, forcing employees to stock up before Sue's ritual end-of-quarter supply cabinet lock-up. Jane recalled how she got free pads from pilot runs back when her dad was still at 3M. Ah, the good old days.
Well, they hadn't cut the coffee yet. Jane inhaled the rich aroma as she lifted the cup to her lips. She took a sip, and turned back to the glowing screen.
Whoa and damn. Jane snorted brown liquid at the monitor.
I'm thinking of your beauty and love, and how last night you took me to heaven. I'm the luckiest husband in the world. Thank you for all you do for me -- yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
It was another email from the sex-thank-you-note man! Jane had received one last month, and she'd decided to ignore it, figuring Mr. Romance would chat up the wife later in the day. Surely he'd realize she hadn't received the message. No harm, no foul, right? No need to embarrass the guy by replying with "sorry, you dialed the wrong number". She choked and grabbed her cleaner cloth to dab the coffee spittle from the monitor.
"You ok, Jane?" A voice drifted over the cubicle wall.
"Yeah, just choking on my coffee," she called back.
Jane felt an odd twinge. Reading this personal love note was like peeping through a keyhole while pressing her ear to a bedroom door. For pete's sake, why would a man email this to his wife anyway? Wasn't it the sort of thing you wrote on a piece of paper and slipped into her purse or lunch bag? And, anyway, didn't couples take sex for granted once they were married?
Argh. She wiped harder. She couldn't inform the guy of his mistake, because then he'd know she'd seen his intimate message. Twice! Where's the brain bleach when you need it?
Jane looked at the "from" address: email@example.com. University of Minnesota. Yep, same guy. The send-to address was firstname.lastname@example.org. It was Jane's email address, but there was an elementary school called Valley View nearby. It was common for internet newbies -- which was almost everybody these days -- to put ".com" instead of the school's correct extension --.edu -- on email addresses, and anything with valleyview.com ended up at Valley View Web Designers. Most coworkers who received mail for the school simply forwarded it to the intended recipient.
"Not happening," she said aloud. Surely he'd talk to his wife, this Jillian woman, as it was the second time he'd sent his apres-sex gratitude in ten weeks. Jane grinned at the thought. No wonder Jack-boy had to thank the woman. He wasn't getting lucky but once a month.
Slamming her pinky on the delete key, Jane drank the last of her coffee while contemplating how Jillian Nelson was, in one way, a fortunate woman. Jane's old college boyfriend never sent a note after lovemaking. Then again Ben hadn't been one for romantic touches like flowers or chocolates, either, but it hadn't mattered to Jane. She'd been over the moon for him, and besides, Ben never had money for such luxuries then, but maybe he did those things for his wife now.
Six years had passed since those carefree college days, and the what-ifs still haunted her. After Jane's accident Ben hadn't wasted any time dropping her. He'd moved on, never looking back. No young man wanted to take a chance on a woman who was recovering from a critical injury and learning to walk all over again.
Thank God for her family. Jane had the ability to overcome any obstacle with the emotional support of her sister and parents. They'd showered her with love and constant attention. They still said a better man was in her future. She simply hadn't found him yet.
Suddenly "Prairie Dog" Sandy popped her head over the cube wall, and Jane put the mental brakes on thoughts about her past. At twenty-five, Sandy McPherson was three years younger than Jane, and she loved office pranks as much as a puppy liked a frisky belly rub.
"Yo, Jane!" Sandy laughed. Her dark eyes danced.
"Sandy, you know you scare me when you do that!"
Sandy's hand flew into the air. "Oooh, I forgot. Sorry. Whassup?"
"I did get one work-related email."
"And the ones that weren't?"
"From a guy stroking his wife for good sex last night."
Sandy giggled. "Oooo, lemmee see!"
Jane laughed. "No way. It's personal. I deleted it."
"Geez Jane, did you trash it after you replied to tell him he squeezed the wrong woman?"
Jane's eyes narrowed. "Right! Then he'd know a stranger has been reading his intimate mail. How embarrassing is that?"
Sandy laughed heartily and threw her bleached blonde mane back. "It's his problem, not yours! He sent it!"
"Yes, well," Jane quickly changed the subject, "I need another coffee, how about you? We've got time to get tanked up before the nine o'clock stand-up meeting."
Sandy nodded and hurried down the aisle and around to Jane's door, and she glanced surreptitiously at the computer screen. Jane had closed her email program. "Did he include juicy details?"
"No," Jane wagged her finger as the women headed down the hall to the lunchroom. "Did you know thirty percent of emails are seen by someone other than the intended recipient?"
"Doesn't surprise me."
"That's why you should always write as if your mom is looking over your shoulder."
"Good advice." Sandy glanced sideways at her. "Hey, bad blouse!" Sandy exclaimed. "It looks spendy. Did you get a raise or what?"
Jane turned her head to find her coworker staring at her chest. Then she remembered -- bad meant good. "Thanks Sandy," she said breathlessly. "I picked it up for two dollars at the Goodwill."
Sandy's green eyes flew wide. "Get out of here! It's perfect on you. Can I borrow it for my blind date on Friday?"
Jane shrugged. "You bet. Who set you up?" They strolled into the lunchroom and approached the coffee urns.
"I found him on a message board." Sandy laughed nervously. She grabbed a paper cup and dispensed the decaf.
Jane gasped. "Sandy, how could you do something so dangerous? I'd never meet someone anonymously, online!" She lifted her mug and looked for the creamers.
"It's going to be fine. He's taking a chance too. Besides, we're meeting on neutral turf, and he doesn't have my real name or address." Sandy paused. "Yet. Think I can lose five pounds by Friday?" She smiled and winked as they turned and headed for the exit.
Jane and Sandy were the last of nine staff members at Valley View Web Designers to enter the "war room" for the daily status meeting. Accounts Manager Jim Atwood motioned for Jane to close the door, and he launched into his usual preamble.
"Good morning everyone. Anyone have a joke of the day?"
Sandy raised her hand. "How many software engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"
"I don't know Sandy," Jim shot back.
"None. It's a hardware problem."
Staffers laughed politely. "Thanks, Sandy." Jim continued. "OK, now that everyone is smiling, Stan and Dave will be presenting five-minute updates on their projects."
Stan, dressed in khakis and a wrinkled maroon polo shirt, stepped up to the front of the room. He launched into his favorite tirade about changes requested by a client two weeks after signing off on the final design.
Jane blocked out Stan's rant by thinking about lying on a white sandy beach in Puerto Vallarta, a non-activity she'd enjoyed with her sister and the kids on her last vacation. Ahh, a warm beach. I need one now, and it isn't even December yet!
Thirteen minutes later they were leaving the conference room. Jane felt refreshed. She stepped into the hallway to see Shelly Steele rushing toward them in a panic, one arm in a coat sleeve and the other side of the garment draped over her shoulder.
"Something wrong? Is Annie sick?" asked Jane.
"No," Shelly replied breathlessly. "Annie's teacher collapsed over at Valleyview Elementary. The ambulance came, and they moved the class to another room, but the kids are very upset."
"Of course! Oh, my! How terrible! Annie's teacher?"
"Yes. She's in Jillian Nelson's classroom," Shelly sputtered as she backed away and hurried to the front door.
Jillian Nelson. Jane doubled over. The news hit like a hammer to her gut.
Jillian Nelson, 32, died suddenly on November 15th at Valley View Elementary School in Woodbury. She was born July 10, 1964, in St. Paul to Charles and Phoebe Nelson.
Jillian graduated from St. Paul High School in 1982. She was a graduate of University of Minnesota, where she met and married Dr. Jack Anderson. She taught first and second grades for six years. She will be missed by present and former students.
Jillian was an active member of the East Side Lutheran Church, belonged to the League of Women Voters, and played the flute in the Lakeside Community Orchestra.
Her other interests included gardening and reading. Jillian also devoted time and energy to fundraising for American Cancer Society.
Jillian Nelson is survived by her husband, Jack; mother, Phoebe; sisters, Virginia and Sammy; brother, Carl Nelson; four nieces and three nephews.
She was preceded in death by her father, Charles Nelson.
Donations may be sent to American Cancer Society.
* * *
Across town, Jack Anderson bowed his dark head as he read the obituary in his bright kitchen, overwhelmed with grief from the sudden loss of his wife due to a brain aneurysm. He wondered how he'd get through this nightmare as he struggled to put his marriage and life into perspective.
His friends and colleagues had rushed in to fill the cracks. They established a support group; Claire Hill was the anchor of the bucket brigade. The silver-haired and widowed math department administrator had already arranged a dinner team. If he didn't have an invite to a faculty home then he'd be eating at her table. In fact, Claire was in his study right now, at 7:30 AM, answering calls from family, arranging pickups at the airport for Jillian's uncles and Jack's brother, and working with the funeral home on memorial service details.
Jack glanced at the newspaper headlines before tossing the Strib onto the Formica counter next to the citrus-smelling handmade cards from Jillian's students. He smiled grimly as he remembered how Jillian kept him up on grade school pop culture. Scented markers were all the rage with 8-year olds.
While teaching had brought her great joy, Jill's personal life hadn't been as satisfying, and he was to blame. Jill's biological clock ticks had been nonstop and deafening. After nearly two years of trying to get pregnant, and tears falling every month, they jumped onto the fertility merry-go-round. After discovering his zero sperm count as the culprit, intimate life hit a wall. From that moment sex was like a visit to the dentist for Jill -- necessary but dreaded, and put off whenever possible. They'd begun to talk about alternatives, and Jack tried to amp up the romance, but by then Jill was unmoored and drifting farther away, as he battled his own feelings of inadequacy.
Jack was pulled from his thoughts by Buddy's sharp bark. The black lab sat at his side, giving him the food stare down.
"Sorry, Buddy. How could I forget your breakfast?" Jack petted Buddy, scraped a hand through his own thick dark hair, rose from his chair, and headed to the pantry.
"Food!" Jack scooped a cup of kibble into the blue bowl and set it on the mudroom corner rug.
Buddy wolfed his chow, and Jack waited until he cleaned the last kibble from the bowl. Then he put Buddy out the back door on his chain.
The cold nipped at Jack's face. Frost wrapped the tree branches outside his Lake Phalen bungalow, and a light wind waved winter on.
He and Jill had chosen the house because it was between their work locations. He was a young graduate student when he met her at a party hosted by mutual friends. At the time he thought work should come before seeing women. She'd quickly turned his priorities around.
Claire entered the kitchen with Phoebe. Funny. His mother-in-law must have arrived through the front door without his notice.
They embraced in the usual fashion, but tighter, and he felt the dampness on her cheek. "I know. It hurts so much, Mom."
Phoebe stepped back and wiped at her eyes. "A mother is supposed to go before her daughter."
Jack inhaled raggedly. "I know. A husband should go before his wife."
"Jacky, I'm going to miss her so much." Her voice was a stage whisper, and he had to lean close to hear. "We'll get through this somehow."
"Somehow," he echoed. Jack took Phoebe's hands and led her to the table.
"Sit," he ordered.
She slumped into the chair like a lump sack of potatoes.
Jack liked his mother-in-law. She'd always bragged on Jillian's "great catch", sometimes to the point of embarrassing him in front of others, but over the years he'd come to accept it as her way of loving him.
Meanwhile, Claire, lurking near the coffeepot, cleared her throat. "I know it's difficult, but we have to discuss a few arrangements. I just got off the phone with the funeral home. They're planning a special visitation after school tomorrow for the children. Closed casket. Betty Dornfeld has September field trip photos of Jillian and her class to display, and the PTA has arranged transportation so all the children can go. The parents will bring treats, and they'll supervise a balloon release in the parking lot following the visitation. The children will each write a note to Jillian on an index card, to tie to their balloons. They want this to be a positive celebration, filled with good memories of their teacher."
Phoebe cried. "Oh my. Oh my." She pushed gray hair back from her face and searched for a kleenex in her purse.
Jack swallowed hard.
Claire continued. "The kids need closure. The parents decided on this. They hope you agree and can both be there. I know it's hard."
"I wouldn't miss it," Phoebe whispered. She blew her nose.
"Nor I," Jack blurted.
"I want to be there too," Claire added. "The regular adult visitation will commence after the special children's hour."
"Jill's sisters are on their way over. We can discuss the other arrangements when they get here."
"Thanks, Claire. You're the best. I don't know what I'd do --"
"No problem. I've been through this myself. It makes me feel good to help another."
The doorbell chimed, and Claire jumped. "You two stay put. I'll get it".
Jack rose and poured coffee for Phoebe. They heard voices at the door, and Claire returned with a large spray of roses. When she placed them on the table Phoebe pulled the card from the tiny envelope and read it aloud.
"So sorry for your loss. Jane Nelson."
Jack wrinkled his brow. "I don't remember anyone named Jane in your family."
"Neither do I."
Dan Decker smiled and shook a hundred hands at the front of the receiving line in the lobby of the Chelton College library.
As the institution's largest benefactor, "Danny D" played the confident and generous philanthropist to perfection. After all, he'd recently been lauded by US Business Today as one of the five wealthiest and most successful investment fund managers in the world.
He was also the biggest fraud and master glad-hander on Wall Street. Every day Dan prayed for a miracle to save his fund, but only divine intervention could save a Ponzi scheme.
"Double D! So great to see you," gushed Chelton College Board chairman Kevin Crenshaw. "Nothing like coming back home to the corn fields and cows!"
Dan forced a laugh. "Did I see you chasing the cows off Old Main Square as I drove in? A visit to Iowa sets my feet back on the ground," Dan Decker beamed his trademark grin and pumped Crenshaw's hand.
Kevin Crenshaw, CEO of a local auto parts manufacturing company, grimaced and slid his fist onto his hip. To his credit, he'd saved the college with an emergency loan of $3 million dollars to fund day-to-day operations. That was five years ago, and during the crisis he'd also taken over the chairmanship of the school's board. Reluctantly, he made the call to their most famous and wealthiest alum, while holding the creditor wolves at bay.
Kevin Crenshaw didn't harbor any love for Dan Decker. Thirty years earlier they'd been classmates and frat brothers at Chelton. Kevin had studied hard, graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He built relationships with his professors, and he found work in the town, eventually buying out a small company and building a successful manufacturing operation.
Dan, a handsome devil, had gotten by on his good looks and charm. When he wasn't in the campus bar downing Leinies with a young coed on his arm, he could be found rifling through the frat files for papers to rework for his Econ classes. He had enough respect for Chelton. After all, it was a line on his resume, and he met his wife there during his senior year.
Kevin lobbed the Hail Mary to save Chelton, but Decker got the credit for saving the school. After all, Decker had opened an artery for the small liberal arts college, to the tune of $65 million and growing. They'd renamed a building for him, and one for his wife. Now he was in line for an honorary doctorate, to be awarded next May at Chelton's graduation ceremonies.
While Decker had executed for the college, he'd also hit the wealth trifecta for himself. Grateful Chelton alums invested in his fund. Other nonprofits paid attention, and seeing Chelton thrive with spectacular returns, they wanted in on the Decker action. Hollywood celebs, business tycoons, and old money -- they all piled on.
And how was Danny paying great dividends to all the investors? With the money from new investors, of course, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for the doctor to find new organ donors. Short a miracle, Decker knew his funds were terminal.
"Mr. Decker!" It was Blanche Hollman, the elderly registrar. Her eyes were misty. "We can never thank you enough!"
Dan took her hand. He bowed his head and cleared his throat. "We all do what we can. I'm blessed to be able to help." It was true. He'd started with the best intentions. Save the college. Worry about recouping the money later. The sun continued to rise each day, and it kept edging him toward his worst nightmare. Pension funds were invested. Nurses and bus drivers and police and firefighters now depended on Decker fund growth for their retirements.
He'd had a couple of close calls. There was the guy working on his Math PhD. He interviewed Dan several times about his investing methods and success, but Dan had always been able to put him off. The worst one was the Colombian nut in Alabama. He was a gifted analyst, who'd been asked to look at a friend's fund statements, and it didn't take him long to figure out Dan's scheme. The leech had called Dan directly. Then he'd mailed his findings off to the SEC.
Fortunately, Dan had plenty of friends at SEC. Even more fortunate was SEC's slew of lawyers in the enforcement division, but nary a forensic accountant to investigate anything. Some SEC lawyers were even invested in Dan's funds. If you scam it's best to scam big. Big makes it the SEC's problem too, he thought. They didn't want the public exposure on it. Not during this administration. They'd do what they did best -- kick the can down the road. But for how long?
Bill Stone, Chelton College president, escorted Dan to a chair on the dais. The presentation was scheduled to begin in five minutes. A new scholarship program was being named for Dan, and the first ten recipients were to be introduced -- eager and innocent and ambitious young men and women who knew nothing of the complexities of real life.
Dan Decker looked at his assigned seat and frowned. It was bonded leather, the stuff made from scraps! He was bloody donating enough for top grade analine leather. Damn it, all he had built was at risk, and it had all started with the call to "save the college." Now they expected him to sit in bonded leather?
It was an insult, but he had no choice, so he sat and smiled tightly out at the room.
Bill Stone stepped to the podium to introduce him. While Bill droned about "Danny", their Iowa farm boy who was now a New York hot shot, Dan mused about how none of them would ever know how a small college in Iowa had started a chain of events to ultimately impact the entire US equity market.
He was at the point of no return. The college had consumed his $65 million. He'd won the battle at too great a cost. He couldn't claw back the hundreds of millions he'd paid to his investors in dividends. Now he closed his eyes and decided to shoot one big wad, throw one roll of the dice, double down, and sell his soul to the mob.
The "Double D" knew he could no longer count on duping the next investor, and just this week Alan Greenspan had given a speech in which he brashly suggested that "irrational exuberance" had "unduly escalated asset values." Even Greenspan knew the emperor had no clothes. Hell, thought Dan, the Dow was up over 100% in four years. How much longer could the party continue? He was sure of the imminent collapse, and when it came to pass his investors would cash out, and his jig would be up. Danny Decker felt a burning in his stomach and his palms itched. He had to act soon . . .
It was a dishwater-dull December day. Low temps had gone negative, and four inches of snow had accumulated. As always, hardy Minnesotans boot-shuffled through the black and white early morning rush. Jane carefully drove through snow flurries and five synced green lights on Valley Creek Road to arrive at the strip mall where Valley View Web Designers leased office space.
Ten minutes later her boss ordered her to go fishing.
"Mille Lacs isn't frozen over yet," she argued across his wide oak desk. "Did you hear about the guy who went through White Bear Lake on his ATV?"
Rob Lawter's thirty-some eyes glared. He leaned back in his chair and spread his hands, locking them behind his head. "It's been stunned-mullet cold since then. We're two weeks into December. Anyway, you'll stay near shore, in a sheltered bay. The ice is thick enough," he explained.
"You find this highly amusing," noted Jane.
"Every man here would kill for this assignment, and that's why I had to give it to a woman. Besides, it's good business. All-Pro Tackle has the hottest-selling jigs in the upper-midwest market. The CEO, Al Longren, is taking you out for a research trip, and they're ready to pay big money to us to design and implement their online store. The project includes loading up their entire catalog of fishing and outdoor gear."
"OK, OK. So . . . do you slip a big walleye into my briefcase in dry ice, so when Al's not looking I hook it on my line and pull? I mean, how do I impress the guy? I haven't been fishing since I was fourteen." Jane frowned.
Rob flashed a wide grin and laughed. "Al doesn't know that. You put a line down a hole in the ice and appear to be fascinated with the process. You know, like sex," he winked. "Look, you're the best fit we have for this account. You've set up the shopping carts, and you work well with new clients. Besides, Al will like you. He's divorced."
This comment raised Jane's hackles. "What does his marital status have to do with anything?"
"I'm saying he'll appreciate the company of a young woman. The divorce wasn't his fault. The wife wasn't a keeper. It happens." Rob looked at his watch to signal the end of the meeting.
Jane rolled her eyes. "That's what they all say, but this guy was probably spending too much time fishing. On frozen lakes. In freezing weather," she added for emphasis.
"That might be the case," Rob argued, "but you'll be well-paid for your time shacking up with Al in the deluxe heated and furnished ice shanty with nearby toilet facilities." Rob picked up a Mille Lacs Tourism Council brochure from the briefing pile he'd placed in front of her, and he waved it to show her the beautiful summer lake view splashed across the front. "I've done my research."
"Well, you hooked me with 'nearby toilet facilities'," Jane shot back. "When do I go?" She thought about the books and magazines she'd take along to read while she sat waiting for the big one -- the one with slimy fins and scales -- to bite.
"Thursday. Spend a few hours on researching this new account today and tomorrow. Bill it to 60100."
She nodded. "Right. Fishing tackle. Hey, I'll need a fishing license. Can I bill it to 60100 too?"
"Thanks. I think." Jane rose and quickly exited before her boss came up with another task to assign to her.
Well, this beats the hair products account, Jane thought as she strolled back to her cubicle. If she slam-dunked this one she should get the promotion to Advanced Senior Associate. Then she'd need to order new business cards, and she'd finally get the ones with the updated company logo.
Jane settled in and spent the next ten minutes reading through the materials Rob had given her. Sandy popped her head over the wall.
"You got the handy web-safe color chart?"
"Sure." Jane grabbed the cheat sheet from between manuals piled on the corner of her desk. She handed it up to Sandy. "Keep those images small so they load fast."
"You bet. Thanks. What have you got there?" Sandy pointed to the slick brochures Jane was holding.
"New client," explained Jane, "sporting goods." Jane held up the glossy marketing pieces. "All-Pro Tackle. They've racked up impressive sales since their introduction of colorful new bass jigs made from space-age materials two years ago. They need an online store."
"Dang. I don't get anything exciting. Rob likes you," Sandy blurted. "I've got five mortgage companies. Everybody's starting one. Must be easy and profitable."
"Yeah, they hang out a shingle and they're legit." Jane picked up a bifold piece. "This fishing account isn't exactly every woman's wet dream. I have to go up to Mille Lacs and freeze my privates in a cold ice shack on Thursday. You know, to experience the 'All-Pro Difference' firsthand."
"Seriously. Hey, looky here." She waved a trifold lit piece. "This says All-Pro has leapt ahead of their rival, Tacklemart." She laughed. "Is this pee-your-pants exciting or what? It's gonna keep me up at night."
She looked at photos of the CEO, Al Longren, sprinkled throughout the marketing pieces -- Al holding a string of large fish, Al casting, Al setting the hook, and Al reeling 'em in with a big smile. Ruggedly handsome, Al was clearly the face of All-Pro Tackle. Jane held up the brochure to show Sandy.
Sandy's mouth fell open so wide her back fillings were visible. "Owweee. He'd keep me up at night. Hot, AND he can haul in the fish. Will he be up at the lake?"
"He's the CEO. His name is Al. Yes, he'll be there."
"Lucky you, Jane! You'll be cloistered with Robert Redford in a parka! Need any tips on proper baiting technique? Hey, call me when you're up there and tell me all about it!"
"I don't think Mille Lacs has cell phone service, Sandy. Dem' dere walleyes don't use no stinkin' cell phones," she quipped.
"Then call me as soon as you get off the lake! I want a complete report. Promise?"
"Okay." Jane grabbed a lock of hair at the back of her head and twisted it between her thumb and index finger.
Sandy's phone rang at that moment, and she disappeared below the wall.
Jane sighed and turned to her monitor. She was writing a PERL hack for another client. The fix applied a special discount to purchases made on Tuesdays. She read through the checkout subroutine and found the place to hook in the new code.
A few minutes later she finished the hack and ran a few tests. It worked. Ready to go live. Next, Jane began tapping away at search engines with query terms: Bass fishing. Tackle. Bait shops. She read pages about lures, reels, and rods, and then stumbled onto sites touting Canadian fly-in fishing, how to hire a guide, and lodges and camps in Ontario. Then she checked out the competition, Tacklemart. Their site boasted a chat room for anglers.
Jane was familiar with the Java chat software they were using on the Tacklemart site, and, in fact, she'd installed a chat room using this same package, PopChatLive, last month for an insurance company client. She wondered what competitive fishermen talked about. Maybe she'd pick up some tips to use on Thursday.
Without giving it another thought, Jane tried using the administrator logon and password she'd been given by the PopChatLive software vendor.
Voila. It worked. Jane laughed and silently congratulated herself. Incredible. They never change these backdoor logins. So much for security, she thought.
Jane wasn't surprised to find the chatroom empty, but within seconds of arriving there were two joiners. They started chatting, seemingly oblivious of her presence. She decided to lurk. At first it was the usual idle chatter. These guys knew each other. Then three more joined in, and at precisely 3:30 pm the conversation took an odd and abrupt turn.
BadBass: Are we all here and using encrypt?
Odd, Jane thought. Why did anyone need encryption to post to a fishing board? Fishing tips weren't THAT secret, were they?
BadBass: Good news, DoubleD.
BadBass: We've co-opted 3 quants at major brokerages. Meet Crash, FiveStar, and Caver. Crash is the Great One.
DoubleD: Excellent. Welcome!
Crash: We need this as much as you do. Our hedges are about to blow up.
DoubleD: How does it work?
Caver: Sleeper code. It goes out with the weekly security patch to their servers, next week. It's even going to the berg. We pull the trigger with a very specific outlier trade when we are ready to activate the code. It will look like a fat finger. A mistake. The algos will be triggered to sell, sell, sell. The G boys will be happy to accept the fat finger explanation.
FiveStar: Hell, they'll kill anyone who says otherwise. We've got three inside SEC who'll go to the mat for us. Not to mention high FBI.
DoubleD: Good. When?
BadBass: Early January. After the Santa rally.
DoubleD: How long from event start to finish?
BadBass: 15, maybe 20 minutes. One quick yo-yo at warp speed.
FiveStar: Nobody gets hurt.
Crash: Only the day trading pigs but they don't count.
Caver: And a few stupid retails with limits.
DoubleD: How much of a haircut?
BadBass: 20% enough?
DoubleD: Heck yes. How can you be sure that's all it will be?
BadBass: Because we'll all be covering shorts and buying at that point for the ride back up. The programmed value boys algos will kick in.
BadBass: We'll notify you a week ahead on the other public board. You know the handshake. Remember to spread your shorts around.
Jane couldn't believe what she was reading. She frantically hit the screen print key combination.
BadBass: Signing off now. Have a good weekend everyone.
Crash: There's someone else in the room with us! Look at the crawl beneath the window.
Jane looked down and saw "6 guests" where it should have stated only five. Damn software bug. Why was the admin included in the count?
BadBass: I'll take care of it. Everybody off.
Everybody off? Jane quickly exited the chat room. Suddenly she felt dizzy. This was nuts. She felt safe behind Valley View's company firewall . . . still, these guys were pros. If they wanted to know her location they'd likely find it. Who were they? Was this a hoax? Why would anyone plan to crash US stock markets in a fishing chat room?
Because nobody expected a scheme to be hatched there?
Jane woke at 5 AM, and from her second-story apartment bedroom window she saw a half-inch of frost covering her windshield. Ugh. Five layers of clothing and a lean-into-it scraping later she was on her way, serenaded by the defrost fan running at full tilt.
Jane felt uneasy as she steered her red Chevy Cavalier through the darkness, and up I-694 past the Oakdale exit on her way to meet Al Longren, king of All-Pro Tackle, for the drive up to Mille Lacs. She'd called the Minneapolis FBI office the day before, and the lady on the other end had taken her name and cell phone number. She promised Jane an agent call back, but she was still waiting for the call.
The good news: At 5:30 AM traffic was light. Serious fishermen like Al insisted on starting early, even if the two hour drive up to the lake meant they wouldn't actually put a line in the water until around 8 AM, that is if Al had a power ice auger.
Jane met her man at the Northtown Mall parking lot in Blaine. It was easy to spot him, as his black SUV was the only other car on the east side of the lot. He was wearing a large tan parka and red ski cap. Longren put out a camo-covered paw to shake her gloved hand.
"A pleasure to meet you," he nodded.
"Likewise," she bit off. It was too cold to waste words.
Longren looked like he could easily operate a manual ice auger one-handed. His shoulders were two axe handles wide, and although he lacked Babe the Blue Ox sidekick, Mr. All-Pro Tackle seemed friendly enough, and eager to get going.
Jane left her car to wait out the day in a far corner of the mall parking area. She grabbed her purse, book bag, and bag lunch to transfer to Al's Ford Bronco. Al, acting the gentleman, opened the passenger side door. Jane kicked dirty snow off her boots before stepping in.
Al's car smelled like fish, not rotting fish, but a fresh fish, lake-y smell. It wasn't bad, and when she sat down Jane decided the heated leather seats made up for any slightly off-color odors. She wondered if the seats were original equipment or an after-market install. Al seemed like a customize-it, gadget guy.
They made small talk as they headed toward US-169.
"We'll hike onto the lake at Cove Bay," Al muttered. "My fish house is close in right now," he explained.
Al's car warmed quickly, and he stripped off his cap to reveal short, thick sandy hair. His gloves came off massive hands and he unzipped his jacket. Jane followed his lead and removed her wool beret. Al's blue eyes glanced approvingly at her shiny dark shoulder-length hair and ample lips.
Al talked about business. It was safe, and Jane relaxed. A smile lit his rugged features when Jane took a pen and notepad from her purse to record important points.
"Your boss said you use those Mac computers," he commented.
"Aren't you all worried they'll go out of business?"
Jane bit her tongue. Educate the client, educate the client. "Apple? No. Photoshop renders images faster on the Macs, and the machines don't crash nearly as often. They don't get viruses. We're more productive because we don't waste time putting the chain back on the bicycle every time it falls off. And you know, Steve Jobs is back at Apple, and he's brilliant."
"Oh." He adjusted the rearview mirror.
As they passed Princeton Al talked about his patent pending on bass jigs. By the time they neared the Milaca exit he'd moved on to sizes, colors (chartreuse-pumpkin was a hot seller) and an explanation of glow-in-the-dark synthetic crawdads. As they flew by Onamia he waxed on about manufacturing issues and outsourcing to China to keep costs down, because, after all, the competition was already there.
Jane took copious notes and maintained an engaging expression throughout the drive. It was tiring, but she nodded, suggested tips and testimonials pages for the site, and she even offered to create original animated gif images, like fish jumping onto hooks.
Al liked her marketing ideas, and he had a few of his own. He'd visited the Tacklemart website too, and he wanted his to be better. Jane assured him they'd provide a better and more delightful customer experience.
Al decided to park in a lodge lot, as they planned to walk out onto the ice. His fish house was a safe-looking thirty yards from shore. Al pulled two sleds from the back of the SUV, and he loaded rods, tackle boxes, buckets, an ice chest, and the auger onto the larger of the two. There was room for Jane's purse and book bag.
"You didn't tell me I'd be a mule," she joked.
"I'm an organic guy. Besides, Rob said you're the best he has," Al commented, "and I figured he meant smart and strong." He paused. "I didn't count on pretty."
Jane reddened and turned away.
"I hope I didn't embarrass you."
"It's ok," she sputtered. "I'm not used to hearing such fluff and nonsense."
He looked surprised.
"Let's go catch some fish."
"You bet," he replied. "I'll be fishing outside as well. Heck, this is great weather."
Jane groaned inwardly and yanked on the sled rope. She trudged forward quickly, leaving him to catch up with his heavier haul.
After they arrived at the fish house they unloaded everything, and Al spent a few minutes showing off the tackle and putting it on the lines. "I'll teach you how to jig." He positioned Jane to watch him. "I'm using a half ounce lure. You keep the lure one to two feet off the bottom, and jig. You let it touch the bottom and then bob it up a couple times." He jerked slightly on the rod. "Let it fall back down to touch the bottom, and then go again. See?"
"Yes, I see."
"Keep your rod down, so you have room to jerk when you get a bite. If you have the rod up at a ninety degree angle," he demonstrated, "you can't jerk farther back."
"I'll teach you the finer points as we go along. I'm going to start you with a heavier jig because you have to learn how to feel what's going on down there, and a beginner needs to start with something they can feel."
"Sounds good." She nodded.
By early afternoon, using the All-Pro lures baited with minnows, they'd scored their walleye limit, all keepers, and Jane caught one over 30 inches long. They also hauled in a mess of perch.
Around 1:30 PM they started packing up. "I didn't think we'd make our limit so soon," Al lamented.
"I didn't realize I'd have so much fun," Jane admitted.
He looked at her as if she had two heads. "Of course it's fun, and challenging. You can't see what's under water. You rely on skill and intuition, and there's luck involved. It's like life. Will you come out again?"
Jane thought about it. "May I bring my friend next time?"
"Of course. She's single?" He smiled broadly.
"In fact she is, but she might be dating someone."
"Ah. Well, we'd better get back. Your boyfriend will be waiting," Al said a bit too offhandedly.
He's fishing for more than walleye . . . and I'm not going to bite. "Yes, it is a poke back to the cities," Jane replied in an even tone.
It turned out Al Longren liked Neil Diamond tunes -- and singing the lyrics off-key between verses -- as much as he liked fishing. Jane listened to "Play Me" and "Forever in Blue Jeans" and "Kentucky Woman" five times each before they rolled into the Northtown Mall lot. If Al had played Diamond's croons in the shack she wouldn't have needed fancy lures. Jane would have reached down the holes and killed the fish with her bare hands.
She tried to shake off the music headache. As it was still early -- a hair past 3 PM -- she decided to stroll inside Northtown to do some shopping before heading home. Maybe she'd treat herself to an Orange Julius. It was too late to return to the office anyway, and the large mall was a tempting offering after spending the day in an eight-by-ten foot ice shanty.
After she stowed her stuff in her Cavalier she turned and thanked Al, and they set up a time to meet at the office the next week. Then Jane stuffed her hat in her pocket and bare-headed it to the east mall entrance, to dive into a mind-numbing and relaxing window-shopping experience.
The Karmelkorn aroma hit her as she swung through the double doors, and the breeze blew her hair in five directions. She pushed it back behind her ears, unzipped her jacket, and walked over the bright tile to scan the mall directory. Then she remembered her promise to call Sandy, so she sat down on a green bench in the concourse and pulled her coveted Motorola StarTAC clamshell phone from her purse. She punched the buttons.
"Valley View Web Designers, Sandy speaking," came the voice at the other end.
"Hey Sandy, Jane sang out. I survived the fishing trip!"
"Great! I'm multitasking. Wait while I put you on speakerphone." Sandy paused. "Go ahead."
Jane hated speakerphone. Sandy loved it. "You're working smarter, not harder, Sandy, but now you sound like you're talking from inside a tin can."
"Stop gassing about it, Jane. I'm increasing my productivity. I can bill a client while we're talking. So, how'd it go?"
"Well, there's nothing salacious to report, but guess what? I caught an enormous walleye!"
"Yeah? Maybe it was a set up."
"No way. It was my own skill and genius, I tell ya'."
"Awesome. You're an "afishionado". Get it?"
Jane groaned. "You and puns."
"It's the highest form of humor!"
"So you say. How's things at the office?"
"You didn't miss much here, Jane. Only the strange men in the parking lot watching us all come in after lunch."
"Yeah. They were sitting in two standard government-issue looking cars. You know, the black ones with the big bumpers. Shelly thinks they're gearing up to arrest those crooks two doors down from us."
"The nail salon?"
"SCOM Finance. Does the place seem like it's not on the up and up or what? People call it "scum" finance."
"Geez, I dunno. Sandy. I've never been in there."
"I can't wait to get the perp-walk photos. So . . . was Mr. Tackle . . . as hot as the ice was cold?"
"Eh. Easy on the eyes, but he listens to Neil Diamond."
"Oh," she laughed, "you have my condolences."
Jane heard something fall in the background, and a muffled scream, and . . . someone making popcorn? Pop, pop, pop. Must be noise from the Karmelkorn stand.
"Sandy, what's going on there?"
What the hell?
Suddenly Jane heard high-pitched screams and running. Heavy footfalls. She thought she heard . . . what? Gunshots? People were yelling in the cubicles, followed by more fearful screaming.
Sandy was sputtering. "No. No!"
Then Jane heard another voice she couldn't identify, close by. "One is missing. The one on the board named Jane Nelson. Her magnet is in the "out" column." Something in his voice silenced Jane. It was gruff and urgent in tone, and creepy.
Sandy's voice again. "No, oh please don't. Don't shoot!"
Jane's pulse raced. Her vision blurred, as if she were being sucked into a black vortex.
"Where's Jane Nelson?" shouted the strange voice. "I heard someone else in here when I came down the hall. "We're missing one!" he shouted.
"I-I-I d-don't know. She didn't come in to work today. She's with a client." Sandy was breathless and her voice was strained. She was scared. Then it sounded like she was choking and vomiting.
Jane's heart pounded panic. Her fingers clutched the phone in a death grip.
The mall Muzak system droned a stringy version of "Silent Night". Crowds of Christmas shoppers were toting colorful bags, strolling and chatting, oblivious to the massacre happening in real time on Jane's phone.
Sandy begged for mercy. Three shots pierced Jane's right ear. She felt a sudden tightness in her chest, and her brain screamed. "Oh, oh, oh," she gasped.
No! Next Jane heard the sound of a chair collapsing, followed by staggering footsteps, and then quiet. In her mind's eye she saw Sandy folding to the floor, and she knew she'd never erase the image from her mind.
Jane's hands were shaking, and she dropped the phone to the floor, her head suddenly light, and her thoughts a jumble of confusion and panic and adrenaline.
They'd killed. They'd asked about her. They were looking for her.