What goes up must come down


I dreamed restlessly of a lava slide, a hissing, molten slurry of fire and char that crawled avariciously toward me, my back to a wall of stone with no escape. I dreamed a low music, a bird sound, mechanical and incongruous, banal in the terror of my predicament, a melodic hoax mocking my final moment. The music grew louder as the lava’s breath, a searing stink of sulfur, overcame me. At the last second, breathless and gagging, I was hoisted up and out of the inferno as if by angels.

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I dimly recognized the sound as the persistent chime of the Netbox, its refrain like the laughter of a loon. Someone was calling me, I cogitated horizontally, unable to open my eyelids. Banality dropped into place like a ton of lead. I remembered the cause of this reluctance to open my eyes was the whiskey I drank the night before. Sweat from my brow ran into the eye closest the damp pillow. Squinting with the other one, I was unable to 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.

“They get around to canning you, pretty boy?”

“What… What time is it?” I sat up and rubbed my eyes with my knuckles, my squinted eyes jousting with the light. “Can who?”

“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 the 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 sunken 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 seemed to have been 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 Netbox screen after the departure chime, waiting for the tears. I regarded the flat monitor existentially as if for the first time. It seemed like a botched prosthetic head, then like a ghoulish paw waiting for the right moment to slam my soft, deserving skull.

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.

“ID caller.” It was the boss. “Preview,” I gasped, and the screen filled with the PR photo of his earnest face. I lay unmoving, head on pillow, and did not volunteer mine. “Answer.” It was a recording over the still image. The ritual words were spoken in a voice to which there was no appeal. For this I was grateful. We were the first casualties in a crash, always. There would be no reprieve.

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 there was 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 reality had finally blunted itself on my consciousness.

Speculation was rampant. One commentator showed a who’s who list of folks with the cash to take advantage of absurdly punished sectors, recession-proof cherry picks at disaster discount. Another provided a history of technical oversight reforms put in place to insure such panic declines would not overwhelm the hapless reforms 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 trade and commerce, was the only stock left standing.

Nearly everyone owned some token of stock through a mutual 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 bamboozled, 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 nothing consoling in this realization.

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 from behind my building, illuminating a silent sky of azure. To either side of my balcony, the blue silhouette of shadowed structures invaded the pale sky. Soot-grayed remnants of snow still lined the upper ledges, and a north wind, accelerated in the channels of the City canyon, rustled through winter-killed roof gardens below.

On buildings before me to the west, the sun glinted splendidly on glass, beyond a bright azure sky. The sound of shattering glass forced my glance to the left and upward. Across the street, several stories higher than my perch, a window had exploded outward. A dark suit emerged among its lattice and shards, astonishingly it was a man, his arms swinging 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, and smacked the sidewalk concrete audibly from where I stood high on the terrace. His face seemed to emerge from the pavement itself. An ink stain spread from beneath his skull.

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, nauseous when they made sense of the pulp in its suit and tie. A shoe lay empty beside the foot in a proper 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, agitated but oddly inspired. I could feel myself punching through glass, hurling into the air with the might 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 terror as I flailed in space, the ground rushing up to smash me?

There’s always time for suicide, I said aloud defensively, 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, deflating into the chair. I knew I had to act, and quickly, only to find myself defeated by the futility of action.

Why did I have to go out there and witness this man’s frantic rush to death? I felt nothing for him, but could not deny I was thrilled with the grandness of his gesture. I was guilty and ashamed. Consciousness seemed unbearable.

I groped for any random thought that did not end in the man’s splat and remembered, incongruously, that Keira should be back from her latest Mediterranean jaunt. She would be staying at the Old Man’s estate in the Catskills. Twenty-three days in all before the uniformed man with a badge and a gun knocked at the door. I had to do something.

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. I went to the vid and commanded the mirror view. Brushing my hair with my hands and looking my reflection in the eye I had a eureka moment. “Take a vacation with Keira,” I said wonderingly aloud. “Take an extended vacation, indefinite if possible.” I had see-sawed wildly into hope...



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