Man in the Middle, page 1
Man in the Middle
Morris's first thriller is a brisk, if at times predictable, story of international financial mayhem. The unlikely heroes are Oliver Dawson, an obdurate low-level attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission's Enforcement Division, and Peter Neil, a young man thrust into an atmosphere of greed and temptation at a hedge fund. After Peter's mother dies in a car accident, her former lover and family friend, attorney Jason Ayers, offers the unemployed Peter a job with one of his clients, a hedge fund called Stenman Partners. The company is an epicenter of corruption-reaping money from the drug trade, among other things-but Peter gets swept up in the fast money and glamour. Morris paints a detailed picture of currency trading and the movements of billions of dollars around the world, spelling out the dire consequences for barely solvent developing nations. There are consequences as well for the poor working saps who threaten to reveal Stenman Partners' unscrupulous activities: they end up dead, frustrating Oliver's investigation of the company. For Peter, the good times come to an end when the mysterious circumstances of his mother's death turn out to be linked to Stenman. Before she died, she left Peter documents that incriminated the hedge fund, and now top malefactors at Stenman are framing him for murder. Peter teams up with Oliver and Ayers's daughter, Kate, in a dangerous scheme to unveil the company's doings. Though Peter's rise and fall and resurrection are boilerplate, the fast-moving action and high-stakes financial intrigue should keep thriller fans entertained.
To my wife, Amelia, and my four sons Brett, Scott, Tim, and Colby.
I love you with all my being, and thank you for the lessons you teach me each and every day about humility and humanity.
BLOOD-RED STRIPES RIBBED THE HORIZON WHILE AN OCEAN BREEZE, WED to the scent of salt and seaweed, rustled past. Later that day—perhaps unaware of the morning’s tragedy—children would splash in the La Jolla Cove, playing Marco-Polo through peeking eyes. It was a setting that made San Diego’s North Coast so unique, validating citizens’ claims that this was “America’s finest city.”
Nicholas Zerets, however, cared nothing for clear skies, May sunshine, or the citizenry as he moved with effortless strides down this gold-plated stretch of real estate. Past a steak restaurant, a valet booth in front of an eight hundred-dollar a night hotel, and a newly built bank building boasting a hundred billion in assets, his heels click-clacked as if a ticking clock. When a San Diego City police car turned a corner and headed in his direction, he leaned back on his heels and slowed to a stop. He withdrew a tin box from a hip pocket, opened it with one hand, and removed a dark papered Djarum. He set the Turkish cigarette on its slow burn and watched.
Once the black and white accelerated and sped past, Zerets dragged deeply on the lit weed and continued his march. At his side, and chained to his wrist, hung a steel reinforced briefcase crammed with stock trade-confirms, notifications of maintenance calls, and final requests for additional funds—a substantial commemorative for those who would later investigate. Back at his apartment, on a computer monitor, was a screen full of stock symbols—each signifying a past trade—and nearly every one a miserable loser. It wouldn’t take a MENSA to understand the why of his actions.
Zerets continued across the street toward Jackson Securities’ branch office. He already knew the brokerage firm filled the ground floor of this six-story, two-year-old building. A half-dozen retail brokers were visible through glass doors. Some chattered on phones, others, like puppets putting on a show, sat face-to-face with clients. Sales assistants took notes at cramped desks outside their boss’s offices. And all of this took place in a tight area of less than two thousand square feet.
Entering, Zerets snatched a brochure, musing over the assertion, in block letters no less, that Jackson was at the forefront of capital formation:
DO YOU WANT TO GET IN ON THE GROUND FLOOR OF THE NEXT MICROSOFT?
Jumping to the brochure’s end, he read:
We are in the business of finding undiscovered investment gems while they are still in their raw, uncut form. That’s good for American business. That’s good for our clients.
He dropped the promotional material to the floor and announced with a slight accent, “I am Zerets, here to see Cannodine.”
The young female receptionist he spoke to sat behind a desk that swept across ten feet of lobby. “Mr. Cannodine is expecting you.”
Zerets looked across the room to the spread-legged security guard. The cop cocked his head at the exit sign. Zerets nodded back. “I am aware of which is his office,” he replied.
He continued across the carpeted floor to a solid-wall office with the nameplate, Erik Cannodine—Branch Manager. Zerets knocked and opened in a single motion.
Cannodine had slicked-back hair and skin stretched across fat cheeks. He looked up, then snatched a dark jacket from behind his chair and whipped it over his shoulders.
“Mr. Zerets,” Cannodine said, “I am sorry about your trading account. Had we known you had access to a million in cash, we’d never have liquidated to satisfy your margin debt.” He rubberbanded a smile and offered his hand.
Zerets ignored the proffer and did a quick inventory of the office. Oak desk, white carpet, built-in bookshelves, a degree hanging from the wall, and branch office records stored in a row of locked floor-to-ceiling cabinets lining a back wall. Along one shelf, and adorning every piece of flat-topped furniture, were family photos of a peppy trophy wife and three kids, all looking like carbon copies of their old man. Cannodine was at least fifty, so Zerets figured this was a second marriage.
“I see you’re admiring my kids.” Cannodine’s delivery was salesman smarmy but laced with a nervous tremor. “You have any tykes, Mr. Zerets?”
“No.” Zerets continued to survey the surroundings.
“Not to worry. You’re young enough. I had my last when I was forty-seven. Poor me, eh?”
“I am not much on chit-chat, Mr. Cannodine, and I feel urgency to complete my mission.”
“Of course, let’s move on.” Cannodine’s tone made it clear he understood they were busy men. “And, well,” he continued, “I just wanted to let you know I feel bad about the way things unraveled for you. Very unfortunate. But with so many day-traders losing so much money, our back-office is forced to liquidate when super-active clients get below twenty-five percent of their equity value. And you didn’t respond to margin calls. It was-n’t until later I discovered you were connected.”
Zerets ignored the administrator’s apology. “You were instructed not to mention this visit. You were discreet?”
“Of course, Mr. Zerets.”
“I assume you have no problem accepting large amounts of cash?”
Cannodine sat and opened a folder. “No, sir. Cash shouldn’t be a problem. We have to make certain disclosures, of course.” He began stacking paperwork. “A few things to sign. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“No.” Zerets unfastened the chain from his wrist. The briefcase lay propped open on the far edge of Cannodine’s desk.
“I know you’ve had some misfortune with a few of your trades,” Cannodine said, “but I’m sure your luck will change. We’ve got a guy who dropped a cool half-million, then made it—”
“Come here,” Zerets said, “and I will show you what I have inside my valise.”
“Is it really a million?” Cannodine drew closer. “It’s amazing that so much money can fit into a briefcase. You’d think it’d take a big box.”
“Yes, you would think so.”
Stepping to his left as the manager passed by, Zerets waited, then struck with a hatchet-like palm across Cannodine’s soft neck. The fat man bounced off the desk and crumpled to th
From inside his briefcase, Zerets clutched the first of six M-67s. He pulled one pin, placed the device under Cannodine’s body, yanked a second pin, and rolled the two and a half-inch fragmentation grenade against the file cabinets. He put two additional spheres in each of his jacket pockets. Calmly, he walked through the office door.
Noting with satisfaction the armed guard’s departure, Zerets removed two grenades from his right pocket. He positioned himself with his back to the rear door. Pulling both pins, he tossed one of the two explosives over the reception desk. The girl looked up through a puzzled smile. He lobbed the second to a far corner.
Zerets activated and rolled the final two grenades as the first explosion blew open the office door. Splintered wood and Cannodine’s remains filled the air. From his protected position, Zerets saw one of the flunkies slap her hands to her face. Immediately after, the second explosion shredded the contents of Cannodine’s file cabinets.
Zerets spun and grabbed the rear door handle.
“Shit!” he yelled as a rare drop of perspiration zigzagged down his neck.
He kicked the bolted door. It was solid.
Instinctively, Zerets flew towards the glass-faced front door thirty-five feet away. A single stride later, a series of four explosions obliterated what remained of Jackson’s offices.
“I AM SORRY.” The voice sounded old. “Hannah was the best . . .” Peter Neil had heard this sentiment a hundred times over the last five days, and each time he had, it resurrected the image of his mother’s body, mangled in the crash. But nobody had eulogized Hannah Neil more effectively than Jason Ayers, his words coming slowly, as if wrenched from his heart.
Ayers—sixty-two years old, Stanford Law School, respected, revered by some, wealthy, and a man seeming to have everything—had aged a decade in the two years since Peter last saw him. What, Peter now wondered, did this important man want with a zero like him? It was strange. And painful. In the fifteen minutes since pecking at the front door, Ayers had proven himself to be a hundred and sixty-pound pillar of salt, rubbing against Peter’s wounds. Their exchange had been restricted to condolences and heartbreaking testimonials as to how wonderful Peter’s mother had been, none of which Peter needed to hear. His suffering was kiln-hot without additional stoking.
As Peter stepped from the kitchen, balancing two cups of scalding, espresso-strength coffee, his normally broad shoulders sagged under a mountain of regret. Regret that he had done little in his twenty-eight years to have made his mother proud. Regret that he was stuck in deep shit without a clue as to how to get out. And regret that he had answered the door this morning.
Before sitting and planting his own elbows on the card-table separating them, he placed one cup in front of the older man. As Peter squirmed, unable to get comfortable, the freeway traffic, not many yards outside the west wall, zipped by in a noxious migration to nowhere.
Ayers picked up the mug, blew steam, and took a small sip as his untethered head wandered. Peter found the awkwardness of this tête-a-tête less troubling than the sense that no end was in sight. Ayers gave every sign he was dug in for the long haul. Peter doubted the man even had sufficient energy left in his bones to get up and leave, even if he wanted to, which he clearly did not.
Peter decided to clear the air. “I know about you and Mom,” he began.
Instantly, Ayers’ hand—the one clutching the mug—went limp, causing scalding liquid to flood across the table. Peter sprang up, grabbed a pile of paper napkins from a wicker basket, and threw them over the spreading puddle. Ayers’ hand was wet and red, but none of what must have been excruciating pain registered on his face.
“You know . . . about . . . Hannah and me?” Ayers asked. “What happened?”
Peter reached across the table and snatched the half-empty cup. With a fresh napkin, he mopped Ayers’ hand. “You should see a doctor—”
“Oh my God.” The words were faint. Then, full of urgency, Ayers craned forward like a broken-necked giraffe. “What do you know?” he said. “Tell me.”
“I know,” Peter began, hoping to calm the distraught man, “you and Mom were intimate. She never told me, but I knew. I also knew she broke it off years ago.”
For the first time in many seconds, Ayers exhaled. “Lovers? That’s what you know . . .”
“Yes. I understand it was a brief affair. And believe me, I don’t blame anyone. Listen, Mr. Ayers,” Peter continued, “Mom didn’t fault you. And she was grateful for what you did—getting her the job. She called you her dearest friend . . .” The words the day she died stuck inside Peter’s mouth.
“No matter what happened,” Ayers said, “I loved her.”
Before Peter could respond, his mother’s pet calico—now Peter’s— waddled past them.
“I always liked Hannah’s cat,” Ayers said distractedly. “What’s his name?”
“Yes. Henry.” Ayers cleared his throat. “I, I have a confession to make. As you know, I was close to Matthew at one time, not just your mother.”
Peter nodded, recalling that Ayers and his father were college roommates and friends for years after. Their families at one time had frequent dinners together, but to Peter it always seemed an odd social mix. While Ayers was successful, Matthew Neil rarely had paid next month’s electric bill before it was due. Even so, Ayers was like a sycophant to Peter’s dad, clinging to their friendship as if it were oxygen administered to an asthmatic.
Then, out of the blue, the year before Matthew Neil grew ill, Ayers was no longer a welcome guest in the Neil household. Nobody—not Peter’s mother, not his father—ever offered any explanation for what had happened. But whatever the reason for their falling out, Ayers took the initiative, contacting mother and son shortly after the elder Neil passed away. That was ten years ago. The prodigal friend assisted them by insisting Hannah enroll in a program, become a paralegal, and join the law firm bearing his name. Peter had no choice but to be grateful, and that meant he must suffer through whatever this wreck of a man now had to say. He gripped his chair and held tight.
“I need to do something for you, Peter.”
“This isn’t necessary—”
“Let me finish.” Ayers raised his damaged hand, continuing to show no signs of discomfort. “I understand you quit your job this week.”
Peter wondered how Ayers knew about that development. “Mom’s death made me re-evaluate my priorities,” he confirmed. “I was fed up with pushing overpriced mortgage loans on unsuspecting clients.”
Peter decided not to mention that he had handled his resignation with blowtorch subtlety, telling his boss, Craig Hinton, he thought the man crooked for making side-deals with mortgage lending institutions that concealed their bloated interest rates in confusing terminology. He’d said a few other things as well, none of them endearing.
“A person needs to have a job he enjoys.” Ayers’ head turned and locked on a wedding picture of Hannah and Matthew Neil propped atop a side table. Peter followed his gaze. In that photograph, cake covered the newlyweds’ smiles like thick makeup. Jason Ayers—slightly out of focus— hovered off to one side, hoisting a champagne glass in an apparent toast.
“Yes,” Peter half-heartedly agreed. “I guess they do.”
“Peter. This is hard for me to admit . . .” Ayers paused to clear his throat. “But I did additional checking. Your mother told me she didn’t approve of your girlfriend—Ms. Goodman.”
“No, she didn’t,” Peter said. The suspicion in Peter’s voice wasn’t meant to be disguised. “I broke up with her the same day I quit my job.” Ellen Goodman’s image filled his mind in a blaze of glory. On the one-to-ten scale, with ten being knockout, she was a twenty-three, but the woman had the morals of an alley cat and, to make matters worse, had been a coworker. Her sleeping with their boss, in what she regarded as a career move, was another reason why Peter quit his job and romance simu
“I already knew about your breakup,” Ayers said. “Ms. Goodman has a reputation. Well-founded I am told.”
“You could know these things—” Peter said, making no effort to hide his displeasure or the challenge in his voice “—only by hiring an investigator to pry into my life. Did you?” He didn’t dare ask how much more about his life Mr. Jason Ayers had dug up.
Immediately, the man grew nervous and apologetic—even seemed surprised that what he had done might be interpreted as inappropriate. He said he did these things with the best of intentions. He had promised Hannah, he said, to help Peter if anything ever happened to her. He was, he reminded Peter, a link to the past. Practically family.
“I swear to God,” Ayers continued, “I never meant to upset you. I did-n’t know any other way to keep my promise to Hannah.”
One after another, the rationalizations flowed as if Ayers hoped one or two—like argument spaghetti thrown against Peter’s brain—might find their mark and stick. As he listened, Peter’s emotions ran the gamut from pissed-off at the invasion of his privacy to pity over the neediness in Ayers’ pleas. In the end, Peter went with sympathy. He reminded himself of his and his mother’s debt to Ayers. That damn debt.
“Would you like to learn to trade stocks, bonds, currencies?” Ayers asked, sounding hopeful. “You’d work for—”
“I appreciate the gesture, Mr. Ayers, but it’s not something I’m interested in.”
“Stenman Partners is a hedge fund. They manage billions of dollars,” Ayers continued as if Peter had said nothing. “I am their counsel. They would hire you in a minute on my recommendation.” He explained that Peter had a lot going for him: he did well at UCLA, was good looking and athletic, and people gravitated to him. “All you’ve lacked is motivation.”
“You mean to make money?” Peter asked.
“I know it sounds crass, but yes. By the time you’re thirty, you could be making more money than you ever dreamed—”