A Cup of Pending Preview

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. (Job 1:6-12)

Chapter 1

stylized cup of steaming coffeeOliver Crews knew killing a man for delaying his morning coffee fix was illegal, but he didn’t think the law, that law at least, ought to apply to him. As the line inched forward, Oliver shoved his briefcase forward on the floor with his foot. He kept his arms folded across his chest and scowled at the patrons in front of him. He was in no mood for this foolishness. He was already late getting to the office, not technically, since the office didn’t open for another hour and he was, after all, the boss, but later than he wanted to be.

Oliver ran a middling private-equity hedge fund out of a glass office tower on Brickle Avenue facing Biscayne Bay. He liked to be the first one in and the last to leave. He used the extra time to stay ahead of his competition, which was fierce.

He would check the Nikkei closings of the previous day and the opening activity in the London markets to get an idea where the opportunities of the day were lurking. He never took advantage of those opportunities. He was a different kind of investor. But knowing what they were and how they traded gave him something legitimate to discuss over lunch or dinner, or at his club, where such things were held in high regard.

Oliver’s fund, indeed Oliver himself, was heavily invested in sketchier and therefore much more profitable enterprises than the ones listed on the exchanges. Oliver, through a rat’s nest of interlocking shell companies, owned a collection of lenders of last resort.

Oliver’s firms preyed on desperate small businesses, and used a kind of semantic arbitrage to skirt established usury laws. An annual effective interest rate of 270 percent, the kind of vig that would make a loan shark blush, would be characterized as a management fee coupled with lease payments on credit card processing equipment. The fees and lease payments were automatic and became the first fruits of all subsequent transactions of the borrowers. Collections were virtually assured and therefore very attractive to investors who would be insulated from any risk and any legal fallout.

Oliver had found his niche. He was on a roll. He’d plastered a veneer of legitimacy on what was effectively a criminal enterprise and watched the cash roll in as certain and relentless as the tide. There would be no stopping him. Of this he was sure. There was occasionally something that slowed him down, however, and this was the source of his current annoyance.

A tiny black man in a fatigue jacket, dreadlocks, and enormous sneakers was at the front of the line trying to get a cup of ‘pending’ coffee. Pending coffees were an insult to Oliver’s values. Some liberal sap would prepay a few cups of coffee in case some homeless people wandered in needing a caffeine fix. What a stupid waste of time!

What the hell did homeless people need with caffeine? Did they need to stay alert while they were waiting for their food stamps? Did they need a jolt of energy they could lunge off the curb with their filthy, spit-soaked rags to smear Oliver’s windshield at stoplights? Oliver didn’t think so.

He thought they ought at least to wait until people like him—people with jobs and places to be, people who counted—had got their coffee before they queued up for the freebies. They ought not to be allowed to impede the progress of productive society. It just galled Oliver that they could.

Oliver Crews was a fully realized megalomaniac. This was no accident. He had been groomed for it from birth. The idea that he was somehow better, more worthy, and deserving of every good thing that came his way had taken root in fertile soil. The corollary idea that every bad thing that came his way was the fault of someone else had also rooted there, and the two notions sprouted in natural symbiosis, grew intertwined in the nurturing environs of privilege and entitlement, and thrived.

The natural result was Oliver had become an individual with skewed sensibilities. For instance, Oliver’s idea of charity was to give money to the exclusive boarding schools he had attended as a youth, institutions that did not need or deserve his largess and would use the money to perpetuate the development of Oliver’s ideological clones.

Their graduates would one day become titans of industry and finance, mavens of society, arbiters of class and taste. They would be the kind of people Ayn Rand, were she still alive, would write books about, but who, by virtue of the same enlightened self-interest and objectivity she embraced, would be loathe to give Ayn Rand the time of day.

Oliver’s pride of accomplishment lay, not in what he had achieved, since he believed success was his natural due, but rather in the trappings of success he had managed to accumulate. He was proud of his waterfront manse on Sunset Islands, his stable of expensive cars, his brutish off-shore speedboat, his beautiful, bubble-headed soon-to-be ex-wife with her plastic tits and her waxed, bleached, and be-sparkled nether parts, and his assortment of interchangeable girlfriends who were collectively more available and less expensive than the Mrs.

Oliver’s idea of loyalty was to occasionally stand for drinks at his country club after a round of golf where he had been careful to look the other way while one of his companions forgot to record all their strokes or used an errant foot to improve their lie behind the cover of a conveniently parked cart.

Oliver was never plagued by a nagging sense of inadequacy. It had never occurred to him that the reality of the person he’d made of himself might not reconcile with the person he had crafted for public consumption. He did not think he might be a fraud. He did not fear that one day he would be found out and called to account for the deception. In Oliver’s mind there was no apologizing for or improving upon the Oliver he had become.

The bum at the head of the line got his coffee and turned to leave. Oliver stared at him, taking in everything about the man’s appearance that assaulted Oliver’s values. A Rastafarian of indeterminate age with a raggedy goatee and tufts of hair jutting like frayed yarn from beneath a striped knit tam. His fatigue jacket hung open to reveal a yellowed tee-shirt with a sagging elastic neckband and a large marijuana leaf emblazoned on its front. His shorts were too long, too loose, and so soiled their original color was lost to history. Only his sneakers, apparently new acquisitions by whatever means, had escaped the ravages of carelessness and indolence. Bright white and pristine, they were enormous in relation to the rest of him. Oliver concluded he must have stolen them from a much larger man.

As the bum passed, Oliver nudged the brief case into his path. He tripped over it and went sprawling. The coffee splashed and puddled under a table occupied by a woman in a dark suit. She looked up from her newspaper, took in the scene without registering any real notice, and returned to reading.

Oliver bent to retrieve his valise. The bum seemed not to realize what had happened to him at first. He picked up his empty cup and stared at the coffee under the woman’s table. He shook his head slowly and ambled out the door.

“I used to be like you,” a voice behind Oliver said.

Oliver turned to see who had spoken. It was another vagrant from the looks of it, this one clean shaven and more presentable but with the same unmistakable demeanor of the useless, the same slack-jawed expression of those who have never taken responsibility for their own trifling existence, the same obvious lack of … well, quality—fashions by Goodwill, hygiene practiced, if at all, in public restrooms and by the clandestine use of unattended garden hoses, abiding dishevelment, terminal indolence.

“What did you say?” Oliver asked. His mouth twisted into a lopsided sneer of contempt.

“I used to be like you.”

Oliver looked into intense gray-green eyes that refused to flinch.

“You were never like me, asshole,” he said, “and you never will be.”

***

Just outside the coffee shop, a lustrous Miami morning bathed the street in a munificent glow. Tommy Williams lamented his lost cuppa and contemplated the injury to his pride. It was not a deep or painful wound, his pride having long since been sandblasted to a faded patina. This did not mean he was immune to the violence that had been done to him, only that he was by now hardened to it and tried not to let it fester in his soul where it might prevent him from making the best use of his days.

He removed his fatigue jacket, rolled it into a fat tube, and placed it on the sidewalk against the front of the building. He rummaged through his backpack until he found a ballpoint pen and a small spiral-bound notebook. He waited.

The self-entitled fop who had tripped him emerged soon enough, fancy espresso beverage in one hand and pricey leather attache in the other, He climbed into a cream colored Porsche parked in a loading zone. Tommy made careful note of his physical appearance and the tag number on the car as it sped away.

Tommy could have stuck a foot into the swell’s path, returning the favor and achieving justice, but he knew such a move would not end well for him. He would trade a moment’s satisfaction for a week in jail, and he would never have another chance to tie the score. It just wouldn’t be worth the effort.

While he was thus occupied, his friend Cliff, who had been behind him in line, came out with two steaming Cubanos and handed him one. Tommy took a sip through the tiny hole in the plastic lid, closed his eyes, and savored the warmth of another day in paradise. Nothing like strong, sweet coffee and tropical sun to reset a foul mood.

“Get what you needed?” Cliff asked, nodding at the still open notebook in Tommy’s hand.

“I did.”

“Any idea how you’re going to deal with it?”

“I don’t know yet, but I’m sure it will come to me soon enough. You know what they say.”

“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord?”

“They do say that. I’m not a believer though. If you wait for God to deliver the karma you want, you’ll never find your equilibrium. I was thinking more of revenge being a dish best served cold.”

“Ah,” Cliff said. “I’ve heard that one as well.”

Cliff waited while Tommy gathered his things, and the two of them headed down the street toward the medical complex surrounding Jackson Memorial Hospital. Their next stop of the morning was to sell some blood and see if they couldn’t get themselves into a clinical trial in exchange for a little walking-around money. ‘Checking their traps,’ Cliff called it. They might turn something up, and they might not. You never knew until you tried.

Cliff and Tommy were technically homeless because they didn’t have a proper address. They did share a place to live, however, just off U.S. 1 on the northwest edge of Coconut Grove. Tommy had a job there as afternoon attendant at a self-storage facility called StorMor. He’d rented an air-conditioned unit just behind the office using an alias and paying cash. All the relevant transactions had occurred during Tommy’s shift so, the paperwork was complete and would pass scrutiny and the fact that Tommy was both leasing agent and lessee had not come to anyone’s attention.

It was a beautiful arrangement for a pair of rootless travelers. No one ever saw them come or go. They used the office bathroom, conveniently outfitted with a shower, and slept in hammocks strung from the steel support beams in the unit. In addition to the a/c, an opulent amenity in the homeless community, they had electricity, a gate with key-card access, and security cameras. There was WIFI if they needed it—they never did—and access to the office landline during Tommy’s shift. It beat hell out of the local shelters and back alleys and made it possible for them, when necessary, to pass for regular citizens. All they had to do was clean up a bit and wear presentable clothes.

Of the two, Cliff was the one people would normally think of as down on his luck. He’d lost a good job in the Great Recession. Then, before he’d found other employment he’d gotten sick with a rare squamous cell cancer in his sinuses. The disease had cost him his savings, his possessions, his home, and eventually, when his wife decided she was getting less than she’d signed up for, his family.

Now he sat, like the Biblical Job, on the smoldering refuse heap of his former life, unable or unwilling anymore to listen to those well-meaning souls who seemed determined to tell him how to return to some semblance of what he once had been.

Tommy, on the other hand, was living off-the-grid. He was homeless by choice, having divested himself of all his possessions and reduced his digital footprint to absolute zero.

The little that could be found concerning Tommy’s existence was recorded in one of several names he had collected from tombstones in the course of his travels. Tommy Williams, the name on the social security card he’d presented to get his job at the StorMor, and the name by which Cliff and the rest of his homeless acquaintances knew him, was only one.

Tommy’s real name was Jamal, but he hadn’t used it in such a long time he doubted he would even answer to it in the unlikely event someone were to call it out. He was not a Rastafarian. He’d never been to Jamaica. He’d never smoked a joint. He did not know the first thing about Haile Selassie or the Lion of Judah. Tommy had merely adopted a look to throw people off any scent that might lead back to Jamal. The look had served him so well that no one even thought to question his lack of Jamaican Patois. They looked at him, assumed Rasta Man, and filed him away with other things they had seen of no consequence.

Like Cliff, Tommy felt he had been betrayed by his former life. The difference between them was, where Cliff had bottomed out to get where he was, Tommy had left abruptly at the top of his game.

Tommy was a computer wizard from the ghetto streets of LA. Small in stature and ill-equipped by fate to excel at any sport, he had been driven by a purposeful father to excel at academia instead. He gravitated to computer science and programming because it was the kind of thing most easily practiced in the vacuum left by a lack of friends.

Tommy’s contemporaries who, like him, lacked the physical talent to escape their circumstances through basketball or football were into other things, progressively more dangerous things, like drugs and gangs. Tommy threw himself, instead, into coding. He earned a scholarship to MIT, did graduate work at Stanford, and went to work in Silicon Valley where his natural aloofness and disciplined self-direction got him into systems design work for a firm under contract to NSA and DoD.

He made pretty good money, provided for his aging and sickly father, and didn’t bother much to assess the morality of the code he wrote … until his father was targeted by the very agencies for which Tommy did his work.

Tommy’s dad had been politically active in his own youth, something that had landed him on a half-forgotten watch list. When Tommy provided some internet access for his father to ease his life with Parkinson’s, he had inadvertently made him visible. This triggered scrutiny through the programs that Tommy had developed, and one of the shadowy acronyms spinning a web under the umbrella of national security had frozen his father’s meager assets.

Events accelerated from there. His dad was too proud to complain so he went without medication. His symptoms worsened. He took a serious fall in his home, and eventually died from his injuries.

When Tommy understood what had happened, that his work had made it possible for the agencies who were supposed to safeguard the homeland to effectively end his father’s life, he pulled up stakes and went deep underground.

This turned out to be an enterprise best accomplished by voluntary homelessness. There was a surprising amount of information available on line about how to do it, and Tommy, because of his native genius and experience in manipulating digital evidence, knew how to extract it without calling attention to himself.

When Cliff and Tommy first met, a natural affinity sprang up between them. They both understood this to be a rare thing among the homeless where guarded suspicion is the order of the day. They began to spend their days together and eventually entered into a partnership that seemed to each of them to provide benefits that outweighed any cost.

The things Tommy brought to this partnership were vastly more practical than the things that came from Cliff, but Tommy’s long-suffered absence of friends and familial contact made Cliff’s natural affability and social ease as needful to Tommy as a place to sleep and bathe might be to Cliff. Between them, they had skills and tools to stay connected, to anticipate trends, and to change their circumstances, however slightly, almost at will. They had synergy.

Cliff took comfort in their routines. They plied homelessness like a trade. While there were many things they might wish to do that they could not, they almost never had to do anything they didn’t want to do. This was vastly different from Cliff’s experience when he was still working.

When he was working, Cliff had frequently been expected to do things he loathed at the expense of things that made sense to him. When he’d graduated from college, full of hope and vision, he’d been naive as a sheltered child. He’d chosen to study accounting because it seemed objective, logical, and scientific. He loved the precision. When you got to the end of a worksheet, you knew that it footed and cross-footed because you’d been checking your sums along the way. You double underscored the result because you knew it was correct. There wasn’t a better answer than the right answer. There was only correct or incorrect because underlying all the tools and processes of the discipline was a love of the truth. Truth was eternal and immutable. Truth was satisfying.

Then he went to work. The more experience he accumulated, the more frequently he was expected to use his skills to bend the truth in favor of the people for whom he worked—often at the expense of people further down the food chain. This was an appalling development, but a gradual one. By the time his new reality had registered on his consciousness, he was already too mired in it to escape. So he trudged on, loyal to a fault, faithful to a system that would never return the consideration, until the day they cut him loose.

Now, shunted into a situation he would never have chosen, Cliff had a very different, still shifting, perspective. He was resigned, but wary. He was philosophical, but angry. Betrayal stings, but it is always instructive. He was too smart to be bitter on the days when he wasn’t too bitter to be smart.

Cliff counted himself lucky to have run into Tommy when he had. The stability afforded by Tommy’s innovative approach to getting by without leaving evidence gave Cliff the ability to center his thoughts in relative spiritual luxury. Theirs was a Zen existence, tempered by technological sophistication, and leaving no footprints.

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