TG Universes & Series:
A Minority Of One : 6 / 9
[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
By Iolanthe Portmanteaux
I jumped off the bike the moment my wheels hit the driveway. Mr. Waters was sitting on his stoop, smoking a cigarette. His watch was so large, I could see the hands pointing at five to twelve. I was still on time.
I called out, “Hey, did you change your name?” Mr. Waters frowned, not getting the joke. So I added, “Are you Mr. Smokes now?”
He laughed, gestured with his cigarette, and shrugged.
“Have you made any friends here yet?” he asked.
“Aside from you?”
“That’s nice,” he said, “but no — I meant friends your own age. Listen, the reason I ask is that my sister’s coming for a few days, and she’s bringing her daughter — my niece. She’s about your age. Thirteen, right? Maybe the two of you can keep each other company. What do you think?”
“Sounds good,” I said. “Will she have a bike to ride?”
“I’ll call my sister and make sure she does,” he promised.
Over lunch, the three of us talked about Meredith. Ken and Lois were quite interested, and I noticed their energy got a visible boost at the prospect of helping someone else.
“She’s having a LOT of trouble adjusting,” I told them. “She was pretty touchy and grouchy.”
“It must be difficult,” Ken observed.
“Poor thing!” Lois exclaimed. “I liked her. I felt she was genuine.”
“Yes, she was the best of the bunch,” Ken threw in.
Lois added, “The other two, Leo and Theresa, they have a bad dynamic. There’s some really negative energy happening there. I felt they were quite toxic. Theresa — she’s in Leo’s thrall. It’s not a good thing. I’d hate to see Meredith get sucked into that.”
I had to bite my tongue. They didn’t seem to remember that “Leo” was my ex-wife, and also my ex-me.
“Do you want to invite Meredith over for dinner tonight?” Lois asked.
“Oh thanks! I would, but she doesn’t want me to call her. She said she’ll reach out to me.”
Lois shrugged, “It’s an open invitation, then,” she said, and started clearing the table.
I cleared my throat, and very tentatively, as walking on thin ice, announced, “There’s something else I have to tell you.”
From the moment Meredith pedaled away, I knew I had to come clean with Ken and Lois, and I needed to do it as soon as possible. I had to follow the Rom-Com Rule: if you want to have a good relationship, you have to tell your secrets right away. In romantic comedies — not that I was living a romantic comedy — but in those movies, someone holds off telling something important, and it screws everything up. You watch the film, and find yourself shouting, “Just say it! Just tell her!” but they don’t. It’s always “the wrong time.”
Now *I* was in that situation. It wasn’t “the wrong time,” but, boy! I sure didn’t want to say it. The only way to get through it was to blurt it out. So I said, “I don’t know how you’re going to feel about what I’m going to tell you, but I don’t want to have any secrets from you.” Unexpectedly, my face burned as I spoke. Was it shame I felt? That was a new emotion for me.
Lois set the dirty plates down and returned to sit at the table.
“So… here's the thing: when the Switcher came to my house, we were having a barbecue,” I told them. “The other three didn’t know it, but I had a very specific reason for wanting them there. I had an idea for a heist that I wanted to pull…”
Ken and Lois stiffened slightly. I had their complete attention. It almost seemed they weren’t breathing, they were so silent.
“I have to say that none of the others are... criminals. They don’t… break laws. They’re good people, but — with the amount of money involved, I thought they might be tempted. Also, I didn’t get very far with my explanation before Simon burst in and switched us all around.”
I looked down at my lap, then nervously lifted my head. I had to try to keep my eyes on theirs, to show sincerity. After clearing my throat three times, I continued.
“Theresa — the real Theresa — was an accountant, but after I caused her to lose her job, she started working with Meredith in Meredith’s cleaning company. One of their clients was a guy with a complicated name that I can't remember. He’s also a guy with a lot of money, and Theresa happened to mention she was convinced he was running a Ponzi scheme.”
“What is a Ponzi scheme?” Lois asked.
Ken explained, “It’s like what that Bernie Madoff character did. You pretend you’re investing your clients’ money, but you really keep it for yourself. If one of your clients needs to withdraw their money, you pay them with money from new investors.”
Lois shook her head in disbelief. “What if all your clients ask for their money at the same time? I mean, at some point, people need their money.”
“At that point, the scheme falls apart,” I said. “And it doesn’t need all the clients wanting their money to break the scheme; just enough to exhaust whatever cash he has on hand.
“Another thing Theresa mentioned was that he keeps his money in cash, in his house, in a huge, room-sized safe. From her description, I estimated that there could be at least two hundred million there.”
“Dollars?” Lois gasped. I nodded.
“It could be more. Much more. She didn’t see the entire room. She only got a glimpse. Supposedly his firm manages $1.7 billion.”
Ken’s face went white. “And your idea was to steal that money.”
“Half of that money,” I corrected. “We’d leave him enough to run away with. And he’d have to run away — the Ponzi scheme would be broken.”
“Why would you want—” Lois began, puzzled, but Ken got it: “You wanted him to run so people would think he took the money — that he took ALL the money.”
“Yes,” I said. “Also, because of the sheer volume of the money — We wouldn’t be *able* to take it all. Meredith’s van can only hold so much.”
The two of them were ashen-faced, in shock. We sat in silence for a full thirty seconds. I know, because I watched the minute hand on the kitchen clock as I felt my heart pounding in my throat.
Ken sighed. “And now?” he asked.
“Meredith just asked me about the idea,” I said. “I think she was only curious, and she wondered whether you two knew. In any case, I told her the truth: it wasn’t a plan yet. It was simply an idea. There were too many holes in it.” My face was glowing red like sunburn. “That was the whole purpose and point of the barbecue. I thought they’d be tempted. I figured they’d help me fill in the holes.”
Lois loudly let out all her breath, and slumped forward. “My God!” she exclaimed.
“I’m sorry,” I told them.
“Leo told us that you had some scheme cooking,” Ken said. “I had no idea…”
Clearly, they were both stunned. Lois gave me a searching look, and said, “Please tell me that you don’t still want to do this.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t want to do it. I want nothing to do with it. I want to forget about it. But I had to let you know. I had to tell you. I didn’t want you to somehow hear from someone other than me.” Someone like Meredith, I added mentally.
Ken and Lois exchanged a glance. Then he told me, “I think we’re going to need some time to digest this, and... uh… we’ll talk about it again.” After a moment he added, “I’m glad that you told us,” although he didn’t look glad at all. He looked like he was in pain, like he had a terrible stomach ache. He took a deep breath, forced a smile, and gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Now, why don’t you run upstairs for a little while and... read your book or something.”
“Okay,” I whispered, and quietly climbed the stairs.
At first, I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling. All my life, I never liked coming clean, confessing, owning up to something. I didn’t like the way it left me: feeling open, vulnerable, powerless. Although it made no sense, I was frightened that Ken and Lois might sue me or have me arrested. I heaved a heavy sigh. Is this what honesty feels like? I asked myself. Of course I knew the answer; the question was rhetorical.
New life, new feelings. It seems like doing the right thing is sometimes awkward and uncomfortable. Hopefully, it wouldn’t always feel this way. Still, I had to do it. I had to tell them.
I felt pretty sure they wouldn’t throw me out because of what I’d just told them. This is how you build trust, I assured myself. Anyway I hope this is how you build trust.
Eventually I heard Lois pad slowly up the stairs and into her room. I watched my door, ready to sit up the moment she opened it.
But she didn't come upstairs so she could talk to me. I heard her heavy footsteps recede into her room. The sound of her door closing felt like a fifty-pound weight dropped on my chest.
I had shocked them. I really shocked them. I think the detail that hit them hardest was the one about forcing the Ponzi guy to run. In retrospect, I had to admit: it was pretty cold-blooded.
After a while I picked up my book and read some more of Zane Grey’s The Trail Driver. It struck me, each time I picked up the book, how much I identified with Reddie Bayne. In reality, we were nothing alike: she was sixteen; had been wrangling horses (whatever that meant) ever since she was a child; could rope and shoot, and rode a beautiful horse: “It was a magnificent animal, black as coal, clean-limbed and heavy-chested, with the head of a racer.”
None of that was me. What was similar, though, was that from the start she was certain that things weren’t going to work out. Once people found out who she really was, she’d have to leave — or so she thought. At bottom, I still felt that way, as though the ground under my feet could give way at any moment.
Reddie was ahead of me, though: At this point in the story, she had already negotiated her way into a group of cattle drivers. She was accepted by them *before* revealing herself as a girl, and then a second time, *after* they knew. She managed to worm her way into the group twice, as two different versions of herself. She was a walking contradiction: a young girl doing a grown man’s job. She was a child, really, and as she shed her male identity and grew as a woman, she learned how to deal with attention from men.
I felt that my experience of high school would be somewhat similar.
Of course, I don’t mean literally. I was quite sure that the local high school wouldn’t have us pushing Texas longhorns across a rushing river in the middle of the night, or require us to shoot rustlers before breakfast.
What I found compelling about Reddie was her uncertainty, her moments of feminine power and feminine weakness, and the unexpected bonds of love. Would I end up feeling those same awkward, tender feelings for some gawky high-school boy? Or some gawky high-school girl?
So far, I didn’t sense any hint of that. I figured that my hormones weren’t firing yet. They weren’t active, so I wasn’t drooling after anyone, or lying awake, wondering whether they liked me. I was like Reddie in that I’d escaped from a bad situation, but had no idea where life was taking me.
Without meaning to, I slept for a half an hour, and woke at 2:30. The house was quiet. The sun was not yet halfway down the sky, and I felt like going for another bike ride. It seemed like a good idea, getting out of the house for a little while. This time I’d fly all the way to the bottom of Hertford Hill, and see where it takes me.
At least, that was my plan.
What actually happened was that as soon as I left the house, I caught sight of someone in the street, about a block and a half away. They didn’t seem aware of me. They were looking around, stopping and starting, the way a person does when they don’t know where they are.
I moved forward a few feet toward the end of the driveway, and the click-click-click of my bicycle gears caught his attention. He turned to look at me. Our eyes locked, and in that moment I recognized him:
It was Max — or rather, Simon, still in the body of Max!
I froze when I saw him; my mind did somersaults. My instincts, my memory told me that Max was standing there, a block and a half in front of me, but I knew it wasn’t Max at all. The real Max was Meredith now: he’d become Meredith when Simon switched with him.
This “Max” who stood in the street, frozen in place just as I stood frozen, had to be Simon.
Or did he? This person, who had every appearance of being lost, could just as easily be another harmless, innocent person who’d been uprooted by Simon, divested of their own body and left in that of a stranger.
In fact, that was more likely to be the case, wasn’t it?
Ken’s car wasn’t in our driveway, which meant he wasn’t home. If he were, I would have called him to come and help.
Instead, I pedaled forward, toward the man, slowly, so as not to alarm him. Unfortunately, he got spooked right away: with a look of alarm, he dashed off to the left, to the alley behind the garages. My heart sank.
Every block in this part of town has the rather unsettling feature of being bisected by an alley that ran behind every lot. Most people’s garages opened on the alley. It was also where the trash was collected. These alleys always left me uneasy, even when I was Leo. I suppose they reminded me of some film I’ve seen, where something awful happened in those narrow, concrete-paved corridors. When it came down to it, the alleys gave me the creeps. Even more so now that I was a half-sized skinny female.
Even so, I raced the block and a half to the point where “Max” had disappeared. As I skidded to a stop, I looked down the alley. There was no sign of him. The alleys were a good place to lose someone: you’d have dozens of spots where you could pop into someone’s back yard, or sneak into an unlocked garage. For that matter, you could simply step into a recessed doorway, and no one would see you until they were right on top of you.
“Max” could have easily done any of those things. So I rode along slowly, the click-click-click of my bicycle gears announcing my presence. I wanted to call out Max’s name, but that would have done no good at all. So I said, “Hello! Hello, are you there? Hello? I want to help!”
There was no response.
About a third of the way down I saw him. Through an open gate I saw him standing in someone’s backyard, trembling. His fearful demeanor assured me: this wasn’t Simon. This was another of his victims.
“Hi,” I called to him in a gentle voice. “Are you okay? I think I can help.”
“I’m afraid,” he said, and he certainly looked afraid. It seemed like he was trying to fold himself into something tiny, invisible.
”I’m not me!” he whispered, eyes wide.
“I understand,” I told him. “The same thing happened to me.”
He looked confused at that, so I asked, “What’s your name?”
“Charlie,” he replied brightly. “I know it sounds like a boy’s name, but I’m a girl—” He faltered, and looked down at himself. “I’m not OLD!” he wailed. “I’m not OLD! I’m a GIRL! I’m a girl!”
“Hey, hey — it’s okay,” I assured him, setting down my bicycle and entering the yard.
“What do you mean it’s okay?” he croaked. “It’s NOT okay. It’s definitely NOT okay.”
I approached him slowly, with open hands, and once I got close enough, I laid my right hand on his arm. He winced at the first touch, but once our eyes met, he grew calmer. “Can I hold onto you?” he asked. “I mean, hold onto your arm? I think it will help me... help me know I’m not crazy. Please?”
“My arm?” I repeated, a little confused by his request. I didn’t want him to hold my arm — it sounded a bit weird, honestly — but he was in such evident distress and emotional pain. So I said, “Yeah, I guess so—”
Almost before the words left my mouth, his hand closed on my left forearm. “Ow!” I exclaimed. “You’ve got a strong grip there! Do you mind—”
“Brilliant,” Max said. His anxiety left him in an instant. His face relaxed. His mouth broke into a broad smile. His voice changed completely. I looked into his eyes and saw the same look Celine once had — in that moment when she was Simon, when she walked into my yard.
“Do you know, it’s been driving me mad,” he said. “Not being able to touch people.” Then he laughed, and I was sure.
“In the flesh! You know, I almost wasn’t sure I’d be able to take you in! But look at us now! It appears I have complete command of the American accent!” He gestured with my captive arm, as it were his trophy.
“Over here,” he commanded, tugging my arm behind him as he walked. “There’s some lovely lawn furniture just here. Let’s have a seat, shall we?”
“Um, yeah — sure. Do you mind letting go of my arm, though? It actually hurts quite a lot.”
“Oh, no! No, of course not! Of course I mind! I mind a great deal! If I let go of you, you’ll be gone in a flash. And then where will we be?” He dragged me like a rag-doll toward the lawn chairs. After sitting in one chair he pushed me into the other. “And please,” he added, “Don’t scream or cry out or any other asinine thing. If you do, I’ll be forced to punch you in the throat. If you’ve never experienced it, let me assure you, it’s very unpleasant. Let’s have a sit-down and chat for a bit, just you and me. Be a dear and open one of those beers for me, will you? You’ve got two hands. The opener’s right there. You can have one yourself if you like.”
On the ground near my feet sat a six pack of beer and a bottle opener. I lifted one of the beers from the pack. “It’s warm,” I told him.
“It’s fine,” he said, with a slight eye roll. I shrugged, popped the top, and handed it to him. He took a sip and let out a very satisfied sigh.
“I have to say, this is very civilized, don’t you think?”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“No, of course not. No chance of that. What? No beer for you? They’re quire lovely: Samuel Smith, Nut Brown Ale.”
“Yes, it’s a good beer,” I agreed, “but I’m too young to drink.”
“Oh, yes, I imagine you are — with that policeman for a father! Does he make you blow into a breathalizer when you arrive home? Has he tasered you yet? Has he read you your rights?” He laughed, though none of it was funny at all.
“What do you want?” I demanded. I was both irritated and afraid. “You can’t switch with me — I don’t think you’d want to, anyway. I have nothing you could possibly want. Why don’t you let me go? I won’t tell anyone I’ve seen you.”
He smiled and looked me in the face. “You were probably a wonderful liar when you were Leo Blisten. Unfortunately, although Celine Morsten was as wicked a child as she could possibly be, she had no skills whatsoever as a liar. Every thought and feeling you have is written on that silly little-girl face of yours! That’s how I know that the moment I let you go, you’ll call the feds or the mounties or whoever is the competent authority in this backwater.”
“So what DO you want?” I repeated.
“Exactly this,” he said. “A quiet garden, a pleasant beer, served at the proper temperature, and a little conversation.”
“With me,” I prompted dubiously, not buying his palaver at all.
“Why not you?” he asked. “You’re a man of the world, in spite of your current appearance.” He sipped his beer, relishing it. “To go back to something you said, you’re spot-on: I can’t switch with you, and that’s exactly why we’re here. I can touch your arm. I can talk with you. You can understand my plight.”
“Your plight?” I repeated, incredulous. Then a terrible suspicion struck me. “But — wait — no. Listen to me: if you have any notion of having sex with me, you can forget it—”
“Are you insane?” he replied, recoiling a little. He appeared highly and sincerely offended. Still, he never loosened his grip on my arm, not even for an instant. “I may be many things, but one thing I am not, nor have I ever been, a paedophile.” He winced in disgust..
“That’s not why you’re here,” he said, still shaking his head. “Not at all!”
“So… ever since you gained this… this power, you haven’t been able to have sex, or even kiss someone?”
“No, not at all — although recent developments,” he smiled a sly smile here, “recent developments have shown me a way to do exactly that.” He nodded to himself with a satisfied air. “I’m quite looking forward to it.” Then he laughed, although there was nothing to laugh at.
“Have no fear — it doesn’t involve you in any way. I’ve got a pair of switches in mind that will make it possible for me to cavort with a full-grown, adult woman — a willing adult woman, who will have given her full consent.
“But, as I was saying — You, of all people, must understand my plight. I’m like King Midas, if you will: whatever he touched turned to gold. He couldn’t eat; he couldn’t live a normal life. The same is true for me. It plagues me — It drives me mad — this not being able to touch people. If someone bumps into me, boom! I’m him or her.”
“You have no control over it?”
“No,” he said. “Don’t you see? It’s tragic! I’m very much a victim here. What I’m lacking, what I’m missing, is human contact. Company. Companionship. Conversation.” He paused, then lifted my arm as an example as he said, “Touch.” He lowered my arm, then said, “It’s precisely because we’ve switched that I sought you out, so I could, for once, have a few moments of conviviality.”
“Me, in particular?”
“Yes, you in particular. Of all the people I’ve bumped into here, you’re the only one who has cultivated a taste for crime.”
“Not any more,” I said.
“I see. In my own god-like way, ’ve given you a second chance at life — How very good of me! And you’ve decided that you want to be a good girl, this time.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I have. I will.”
“Hmmph! Haven’t you heard? The leopard can’t change his spots.”
“You, of all people, should know it isn’t true.”
“Oh, really? I’m quite sure that it *is* true. Think of how many times I’ve changed! Think of all the times you resolved to reform — if ever. You have schemes and scams cooked into your very soul. You can’t leave them behind like an old raincoat. Look me in the eye and tell me that you’ve left all your scheming and your scamming behind you forever.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “Besides, what do you care?”
He didn’t answer. He took another sip of beer. So far, he’d had less than a third of the bottle. He was taking it very slowly.
When he didn’t answer, I decided to give my question a try. “There’s something bothering me.” I told him. “You targeted me. You *wanted* to switch with me.”
“Did I?” he said, in a noncommittal tone. “I’ll admit that I knew who you were. When I ended up in this alternate Lambeth, I had a look around to see if there was anyone interesting in the neighborhood. Think for yourself: how many people in Lambeth rise out of the ordinary, out of the herd? Leo Blisten, con man, scammer — you were the most alive person in this absurd little burgh.”
It didn’t ring true for me. “What — did you do an internet search for criminals living in Lambeth, and you found me? I don’t believe it. I don’t have a criminal record. I’m not well-known. I’m not known at all, not even in Lambeth.”
“It sounds like you don’t spend much time online. There are accounts on Facebook — and other sites — where people talk about you. People both named and anonymous — people who worked with your wife at her last job. They felt that she’d been unfairly fired, and they laid all the blame squarely on you. Oh, the comments! It was a virtual inquisition! If those people could, they would have had you tarred and feathered, drawn and quartered. In a word, They would make you pay." He laughed. They examined you, took you apart, detailed all of your sins! Those silly do-gooders righteously ripped you a new one! I’m surprised your ears weren’t burning! I have to say, it was so scathing, so full of indignation, that I was quite intrigued.”
He drew a long, slow breath, and let it out. “And now you tell me that you’ve abandoned your life of crime. You turned into a policeman’s daughter, and found you like the role.”
“That’s sad. Sad and stupid. Such a waste! All that talent and experience, thrown away. Well, let’s see whether I can tempt you back to the dark side. When the police told you about me, did they happen to mention how many banks I’ve robbed?”
“No, the subject didn’t come up.”
“What a shame! I’ve lost track myself; it would have been nice to hear the actual number. In any case, the moral of the story is this: I’ve always managed to get the money I need by myself, but I’ve come up with a plan that requires a helper, and you would do perfectly.”
I huffed in exasperation. “I told you: I’m not interested!”
He continued to smile, as though he was dangling a juicy bit of steak in front of a hungry dog. But I had NO intention of biting.
Then it occurred to me: I might as well listen. I could tell Ken; and we could tell the feds. If I pretended to go along, it might provide the opportunity to catch him and contain him for good.
I could feel my face betray me, my muscles jerking in weird ways. Still, I could give it a try.
So I told him, “You know what? Convince me. Tell me what I’d have to do, and what I’d get from it. Go on, lay it out for me.”
Simon didn’t go on. He didn’t lay anything out. Instead, his eyes narrowed. He paused and drew back a bit.. Perhaps he really could read my face and see what I was thinking.
“Not so fast,” Simon replied. “Not so bloody fast. I’m beginning to think this whole business sounded much better in my head. You’re not the right person anyway. You're not the person I thought you were.” He scoffed and shook his head.
“It’s so disappointing. You are such a disappointment. I expected a partner in crime — or at least an accomplice. Instead I found a thirteen-year-old girl. That’s all you are now: a pathetic little girl, with a cop for a father and a would-be suicide for a mother.” He dropped his half-full bottle on the lawn. It landed with a soft thud! in the uncut grass. “Right, then! Off you go, you little brat! Run off to your policeman-daddy and your tragically-morose mummy! Grow up to be another gray old cow! See if I care!” He let go of my arm with an angry toss. I couldn’t help but stop to rub the raw red ring he’d left on my forearm. Then I bolted — back to the alley, where I retrieved my bike. I clumsily climbed aboard, shot home like a flaming arrow, and ran inside.
The feds met us in the Target parking lot, across from the Cheesecake Factory. The location was Ken’s idea.
He told them, “I don’t want a crowd of law-enforcement types swarming my house. I don’t need that kind of attention, that kind of notoriety.”
The feds were clearly miffed. One of them was downright furious. “Do you know how much time you’ve wasted? You should have called from your home and stayed there!” After a few minutes of fruitless recriminations, they directed us to follow them to an office nearby. We were given NDAs to sign. I was interrogated by four different people. All four asked me the same questions. I demanded that Ken sit in on the sessions, to see fair play. Ken, in turn, insisted on Lois joining as well. The feds asked me ten times to identify a photo of Max. They ran through my conversation with Simon from every possible angle — even going through it backward — until they were sure it was as close to a verbatim transcript as possible.
By the time they were done with me, Ken, Lois, and I were exhausted and hungry, so we did the obvious thing and ate at the Cheesecake Factory again. “If I have a beer, can you drive?” Ken asked Lois. She nodded.
It might seem like an overreaction, but the three of us felt quite battered by the experience. Maybe it tied too easily and too quickly into our earlier experiences with Simon. Maybe that’s what made it so hard.
“I’m really fed up with that crowd of Feds,” Ken commented darkly. “They have no regard for us as people. Did you feel that? They acted as though talking to us was a huge inconvenience for them.”
I nodded. Lois was silent.
After dinner, in an effort to comfort ourselves, each of us ordered a slice of cheesecake of a different flavor. While we were digging into each other’s portions, one of the Feds came in and sat down with a confidential air.
“We put up a net around the block where you saw Simon,” he told us. “We figure he’s probably living in one of the empty houses. We can’t go knocking on every door, so we’re going to wait a bit and see if ‘Max’ pops up.”
Ken nodded. “I guess that’s all you can do.”
The agent handed Ken a card. “Call me if anything new develops, or if he contacts this one again.” He gestured at me as he said this one.
Once the agent left the restaurant, Ken said, “That bunch couldn’t catch a dead dog! Anyway, by the time Celine ran home, Simon was already long gone.”
“Let’s hope so,” Lois commented.
After we returned home, I went to my room and sat on my bed. The room was pretty different from when I first saw it. All the boxes were gone. My laptop sat on my desk. Everything was orderly, clean, uncluttered. There was still nothing on the walls, no pictures, no posters, but they would come.
I sat there, waiting for my mind to catch up with everything that had happened today: seeing Meredith, telling Ken and Lois about the heist, being grabbed by Simon, and finally getting interrogated over and over by the Feds.
While I sat there, Ken stuck his head in. “How are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m still digesting everything that happened today,” I told him. “It’s a lot to take in.”
“Tell me about it,” he said. “Mind if I sit down for a minute?” I nodded. He took the chair from my desk and turned it to face me.
After he sat down, he asked, “Was there anything you didn’t tell the Feds? About Simon?”
“No,” I replied honestly. “I gave them everything I had. I mean, you were there. I don’t think I made myself sound very good, but I didn’t hold back at all.”
He nodded several times, then asked, “What do you think he wanted? I know the Feds asked you that—”
“—and I said that I didn’t know—”
“Yes, you did. But do you have any kind of suspicion?”
I gestured vaguely, then told him, “Maybe he was looking for a fall guy. Maybe he was looking for a shill. I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was fishy as hell.”
“Yeah,” Ken agreed. Then he rubbed his hands together as if trying to warm them. He glanced at me, and said, “Do you mind if I ask you some questions about that scheme of yours — the one you told us about earlier?”
“Sure, of course.”
“How did Theresa know that this investor guy was running a Ponzi scheme?”
“Let’s see. The main thing was guaranteed returns. He promised his investors at least 12% return on investment. In the real world, no investments are ever guaranteed. So that was a BIG red flag. Another was that he had so much cash on hand. Also the fact that he showed it off to her. If he was really earning these big returns, the money would have been invested somewhere, not sitting in his house.” I thought for a minute, trying to remember what else Theresa had said. Then it came to me: “Oh, there was one more thing. The whole company was just him and his assistant. She said that was suspicious. I don’t know exactly why. And she said that they never traded. Again, I don’t know how she knew that, but that’s what she said.”
I thought for a moment, but nothing else came to mind. “Maybe there were other things, but that’s everything I can recall.”
Ken nodded again. Then he asked, “You said there were holes in the plan. What were they?”
“Okay,” I said, warming to the subject. “One obvious problem is the safe. What’s the combination? We’d have to find that out. Also, I didn’t know anything about the house. I’ve never been there. Are there security cameras? Is there special security for the safe?
“And then a big one: would Theresa and Meredith help me? If they wouldn’t, there was no hope of pulling it off. Meredith’s van was the best, most invisible way of carrying the money away.
“Another big unknown is that I needed to know from Theresa when the Ponzi scheme was about to break. Would she be able to tell? The best time to pull the heist would be just before he was about to run himself. At that point, he'd have the most cash on hand and he'd be primed to run.”
“Okay,” Ken said, taking it in. “Now, I have one more question for you: How do I know that you won’t up and try to rob the Ponzi guy one day? Either by yourself or with others?”
“Well…” I have to admit, the question made me uncomfortable, but not because I wanted to do the job. Now, at least for me, it was all about trust between him and me. This was another of those awkward moments when doing the right thing (in this case, telling the truth) felt awful.
“Okay, again there’s the issue of the safe and the house, security cameras, etc. But there are two huge problems: one is that I can’t drive.” Ken laughed at that. I continued, “Also, hauling that money takes muscles that I don’t have. Another problem is: how can I protect myself — and potentially, others — from the Ponzi guy? What resources does he have? How far would he go to get revenge and get his money back?” I smiled uneasily. “I mean, I’m not a big, scary guy any more. I’m a skinny little kid.”
Ken stood up to go. He was nodding, more to himself than to me.
“Oh,” he said, “Something you said… What was it? Oh, right! About the safe. If you didn’t know the combination, how were you going to get in? You’re not a safecracker, are you?”
This time, I laughed. “No, I’m not a safecracker,” I told him. “And I don’t know anything about explosives. I would have asked Theresa and Meredith to install tiny cameras at different angles around the safe, to watch him do the combination.”
“Are you worried by what I told you?” I asked him.
“No, I think I’m okay. Lois was pretty shocked though. I think she’ll need a little time to recover. But she’ll be okay, too.” He tried to give a reassuring smile, and almost succeeded. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This won’t undo us. As long as we can be more or less normal from here on out, we’ll be good.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks. Normal it shall be.”
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