Here's another free short story, this time with a financial theme.
If you'd like to collect this series of stories and read them as ebooks, which is, as we all know, a much nicer experience, they will available to patreon subscribers which is just a few dollars a month and helps me to keep writing. Full details are after the story.
I hope you enjoy the story.
Crashing Out in Style
Mark Durning, the BBC’s Head of Economic Reporting, was well known for his reassuring smile and his ability to deliver elegant explanations. He described complex financial matters as though chatting over a garden fence, and he generally coloured his reports with memorable metaphors that most people could easily grasp. So today, as he faced the cameras, a nation watched in horror as Mark stumbled over his words, his face, filmed in sweat, glistening under the glare of the studio lights. He pinched the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes, and throughout the UK, viewers turned to each other in silence. Bloody hell, their expressions said. It must be worse than we thought. And in the BBC’s current affairs control room, the produced yelled into his microphone: “Cut camera one. Get him off the air, for Christ’s sake. John, you’re back on.”
But before the screen could switch to the newsreader, everyone saw the single tear that trickled down Mark’s cheek. And though some would argue about his last words afterwards, most agreed that they’d heard him whisper, “I’m sorry. I should’ve warned you all. I should’ve done more.”
But the pent-up emotions of one overwrought financial journalist were soon forgotten as one nation after another woke up to the rapidly spiralling sequence of events that defied adequate description. A hyper-crash was one term that grew in popularity, but the world’s stock markets and currency exchanges hadn’t just crashed, they’d been annihilated. Trading algorithms that had once shaved milliseconds off each exchange now shed countless billions in every currency, dumping stocks into markets already veering sharply toward rock bottom. Systems that had been put in place as checks and balances seemed to make matters worse, and before long, trading on every stock market in the world ground to a juddering halt. Normal business of any kind was simply not possible. The exchanges closed, bolting their doors securely after the horses had bolted, but panic spread at the speed of thought, and banks were besieged, both on the high streets and online.
Full-scale riots broke out in Paris, London, New York, and Tokyo, but no major city was without civil unrest. From Manchester to Beijing, cars were overturned, barricades were built, and the remnants of broken billboards burned in the streets.
And the BBC’s Mark Durning, who had cut his journalistic teeth on the stock market troubles of recent times, phoned in sick. The head of current affairs yelled down the phone at him, the producer called with a more sympathetic message, and someone from human resources sent an email reminding him to fill in the appropriate form, stating clearly the reasons for his absence from work. Guilt, Mark thought. Will there be a box on the form for that?
Sitting at home on his leather sofa, Mark scrolled rapidly through the day’s headlines then switched off his laptop, disconnected his landline, and pulled the battery from his mobile phone. He’d made a mug of coffee earlier, but he let it go cold on the table. Feeling a sudden chill himself, he plucked the soft throw from the back of the sofa and wrapped it around his shoulders, then he switched on the television and watched the news in silence, the TV muted. Waiting.
And there she was.
Samantha Peterson’s face filled the screen, a photo taken at an award ceremony, and Mark grabbed the remote control, unmuting the speakers and allowing the reporter’s voice to encroach on his solitude:
“…made her millions as CEO of a string of high-tech companies. Born in London and educated at Cambridge, she’s spent the last seven years building a high profile career in the world of artificially intelligent systems and machine learning, and after a stratospheric rise, she’s often been referred to as the queen of Silicon Valley.”
“That was me,” Mark muttered. “I came up with that.” But he was glad that no one brought up the reference, pleased that no one was mentioning his name.
“In recent years,” the reporter droned on, “after launching a string of systems that have revolutionised modern banking around the world, Ms Peterson has disappeared from public view, becoming a complete recluse. Now, with her software systems taking the brunt of the blame for this global financial crisis, government agencies from several countries are said to be actively seeking an interview with Ms Peterson, and there have been rumours in the United States of warrants being issued for her arrest.”
A strangled cry forced itself from Mark’s throat, and he switched off the television, his hands trembling with rage. “Bastards!” The blood rushing to his cheeks, he threw the remote control across the room, but it fell short of the wall, landing safely among the fronds of his potted fern.
Mark glared at the offending plant. Would nothing go right? Would no action he took, however small, have the desired effect?
“No,” he whispered, rubbing at his eyes with both hands. He slumped back, staring at the ceiling, at the cobwebs the cleaner had missed once again, at the clearly visible crack in the plaster that the decorator had charged him a ridiculous sum to cover up, explaining away his obvious failure with a litany of shabby excuses. But Mark had paid the man anyway. Of course, he had. He was English and middle class; he’d had no alternative other than to sign the cheque in a suitably aggressive fashion.
He wondered, for a moment, if the decorator had cashed the cheque. If not, he’d have trouble finding a bank with its doors still open, and with each minute that passed, the value of the small slip of paper ebbed away. Soon it would be worthless. Mark smiled. Schadenfreude was a dish best served lukewarm.
Shrugging himself free from the fluffy throw, he stood slowly and headed for the bedroom. He was tired. He needed to rest. But he hesitated as he passed the door to his walk-in dressing room, then he stepped inside, breathing in the calming aroma of freshly pressed cotton shirts, enjoying the subtle note of Italian leather that exuded from his handmade shoes, his thick belts. Running his fingers through the silk ties that dangled neatly from their rack, he moved further into the small room, feeling calmer, more at peace.
He slid open a drawer, the dark wood gliding smoothly on its runners, and he gazed at its padded interior, the bright watches gleaming in a neat row, the cufflinks nestling in their purpose-built pockets. He picked out a gold tiepin engraved with his initials and turned it around, studying the way the light ran along its polished edges. It was the sort of object that one should receive as a gift, a present from a loved one or a respected colleague, but in fact, he’d bought it for himself. It was a contrivance.
Like everything else in here, he told himself, and laying down the pin, he lifted the padded tray to reveal the velvet-lined layer that was hidden beneath. And there they were. Her jewellery. Her necklaces. Her rings and bracelets and earrings. He picked out a pair of diamond studs, sighing. These had always been his favourites. Subtle, understated, stylish, and fabulously expensive. But he couldn’t wear them now. The piercings in his lobes had healed. And so had all the other scars. After all, the best cosmetic surgeons on the planet had been paid well enough. No trace of the bold businesswoman, Samantha Peterson, remained. And in her place stood Mark. Well-meaning Mark. A decent man who was good at his job, but not, in the final balance, quite good enough.
He turned, catching sight of himself in the full-length mirror. “I tried to warn them,” he told his reflection, “but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t stop it.”
He shook his head. Of course, he’d failed. He’d never stood a chance. The problem was too vast.
He’d spotted the warning signs years ago, back when he’d still identified as Samantha. He’d understood the flaws in the systems he’d designed, but no one had been interested in his concerns. Sickened by the ruthless greed and overarching ambition of everyone in his world. He’d taken his money and vanished, spending most of his fortune on making the escape that he’d dreamed of, paying for the transition that he’d longed for, covering his tracks, establishing a new identity complete with perfectly forged documents.
Hungry for a new life, he’d sought to make a difference, to lift the lid on the underhand dealings of the international bankers and traders, and with his knowledge, he’d risen quickly through the ranks of the BBC news team. Since then, he’d done his best to slowly raise awareness of the impending crisis, little by little, trying to unpick the tangled knots of the financial world, one at a time. It was the only way, he reassured himself. If he’d gone public too soon, delivering too much bad news at once, he’d have caused the crash to come even sooner.
Grunting under his breath, he went back into the bedroom and flung himself down on the crisp cotton covers, closing his eyes. I did my best, he thought. I tried to put it right. And maybe he was judging himself too harshly. No one had forced the banks and stock markets to adopt his software. No one had held a gun to their heads, that was for sure. One glance at the profit projections had been enough. They’d practically bitten his hand off, offering greater and greater sums if he’d finish his projects even faster, luring him into a spiral of frenzied activity, a dizzying climb to new heights of luxury and indulgence, a mad rush to the very highest peaks of worldly wealth.
And now, they’d all pay for their avarice. Every penny he’d ever made for those monsters had vanished into thin air.
Just like Samantha Peterson, he thought, and he allowed himself a wry smile. He’d disappeared before and he could do it again. He was not without resources, and in a world without functioning currencies, the gold in his safe was suddenly very desirable.
One thing was for sure: Mark Durning must exit the stage. It was time for act 3. But who will I become? He wondered. What role will I play?
He had no idea. But something would turn up. It always did.
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