Russell Hatler and Hope Morgan
It was a beautiful morning in the lavish two-bedroom apartment on North Lumina Avenue, Wrightsville Beach in Wilmington, North Carolina. Well, morning is a relative term. The sun was already high in the sky. A casual glimpse of gently rolling ocean waves beyond the balcony outside the fourth floor sliding glass door showed them glistening in the glare. Alas, the playful school of dolphins had yet to make their appearance or perhaps they’d already departed to feed off Carolina Beach. Who doesn’t love dolphins?
Hope Kennedy rolled over, stretched, and peeked groggily at the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. 11:30. Shit! Hope dragged herself out of the bed, taking care not to disturb Aretha Mae Jackson, the softly snoring lump on the California king size bed beside her (stage name Jaguar) and wandered into the master bathroom to prepare for the day.
Hope and Aretha Mae had been roommates going on four years now. The relationship had started out as a purely physical endeavor. After all, both ladies spent the bulk of their work hours catering to the whims of the masculine gender. It was only natural that they’d prefer to spend their leisure hours in the company of a kindred spirit. But over the four-year period they’d grown to like and respect each other. Believe it or not, once she had amassed sufficient funds in her passbook savings account at the College Road branch of Wells Fargo, Aretha Mae was determined to become a volunteer on Topsail Beach, intimately involved in the protection and preservation of sea turtles.
Aretha Mae was clever too. When Hope decided to have a few business cards printed up for her special clients, Aretha Mae came up with the layout. The text on Hope’s private business card read:
A destitute dude may choke the chicken seven days a week
But Hope Beats Eternal
The logo displayed in the top right-hand corner showed a ginger-haired, cartoonish character choking a scrawny chicken, its bright red tongue hanging out. The business cards were something of an underground legend throughout New Hanover County. Aretha Mae also had the bright idea for Hope’s website, but it was Hope’s favorite male client, Philip Applewhite, who did the actual implementation.
Philip Applewhite (that’s Philip with one ‘L’ if you please and it’s definitely not Phil!) was an accountant for KPMG, one of the larger accounting firms in the United States of America. These days, Philip worked out of his house in Hampstead. He’d been with Peat Marwick since before they merged with Klynveld Main Goerdeler and he still called it Peat Marwick when he was asked where he worked, sometimes adding “and Mitchell” for good measure. Old habits die hard. He was a Virgo by birth, a CPA by choice and a number cruncher by the grace of God. Philip didn’t believe in astrology. Most Virgos don’t. But he did believe in delivering a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. And he believed in the work Hope was doing.
Hope’s chosen profession was admittedly beyond the conventional purview of socially acceptable and/or legitimate commercial occupations. She rented office space in a strip mall on Independence Boulevard. The neon sign in the window said, “Hope Kennedy, Certified Massage Therapist.” She had a bookkeeper, a tax guy, and a scheduling service that booked her appointments. She did not have a receptionist or a waiting room. Clients were asked to park outside and wait for a text before they entered the establishment. Hope also had a degree in business from UNCW as well as her own LLC. Hope Kennedy was not your average hooker, thank you very much. Hope Kennedy was a dedicated professional sex worker.
Hope hopped out of the shower, dried off and got dressed in her best massage outfit du jour. Then she checked her texts from Genny Rodrigues, the lady who scheduled her appointments. Oh God! The first session, a full hour, was set for 1:30. Hope barely had time for a quick bowl of cereal. Coffee first.
She popped a pod in her Keurig machine and browsed through the appointment list. Philip Applewhite was coming at 5:30. Hope chuckled at her own little private joke. She was pleased to see that Philip was due to drop by later in the day. Philip usually showed up sometime mid-afternoon during the rush. They barely had time to disrobe, do the bad nasty and get dressed again before her next client was due in the door.
Hope was a certified massage therapist who specialized in a variety of techniques related to the art of stress relief. She was fully qualified to provide her somewhat unconventional services to both men and women, although the vast majority of her clients were of the masculine persuasion. Hope was very good at what she did. Consequently, her grateful male clients usually left a little extra on the massage table. Most of them also left a token of their appreciation in Hope’s tip jar.
A handful of carefully selected female clients were also treated to Hope’s remarkable skills. In some ways Hope preferred servicing girls. They were easier to clean up after for one thing. And far less noisy at the finish.
Each of the first four appointments were half an hour long ($95 plus heart-felt gratuity), with fifteen minutes in between sessions for a quick shower, makeup repair and mouthwash. Then a full hour session at 4:00 ($145 plus charitable emolument) with a brief reprieve before it was Philip’s turn in the barrel. The last client of the day, a newbie named Gregory DeSantis, was due in at 7:30 for a full hour. Hope was exhausted just thinking about the effort involved, but the revenue paid the rent.
At least most of today’s clients were regulars. Hope hated the mating dance that went along with breaking in a new guy. How do you like it, hard or soft? Face down on the table, hands by your side, no touching unless explicitly invited. Nothing bareback and no GFE, at least not for the first few plays. And then there was the ever-present danger that somehow an officer of the law was next on the list, even though Genny was very careful to vet new clients. There was no foolproof way of checking for badges. Sometimes shit happened. Oh, and by the way Hope didn’t mind servicing the occasional female but sometimes it got tricky. And Aretha Mae was definitely the jealous type.
Hope checked her watch. It was already quarter to 1:00. She knew she didn’t have nearly enough time to walk Sidney, her three-year-old female German Shepherd. Hope knew Aretha Mae would grudgingly step up to the plate, but Hope hated to impose. Again! Aretha Mae had argued against purchasing the pup two years ago but Hope prevailed.
The first four half hour sessions breezed by. Hope always did her level best to provide tailor-made, spontaneous service to every one of her clients but sometimes it felt a little rehearsed. For half hour sessions, twenty minutes face down on the table, manipulate the major muscle groups, sometimes with an elbow, more often with fingers. Top to bottom, shoulders to toes. Hope was topless from the get-go, on occasion (and depending on her mood of the moment) she might slip out of her sweatpants halfway through. On one occasion she stripped down to the buff on a whim but that turned out awkward for both Hope and her suddenly frisky client. Men always try to press the envelope and that genie is hard to put back in the bottle. Then the tease, the flip, and the finish.
With Philip it was different. She genuinely enjoyed the company of the testy old curmudgeon. That wasn’t entirely fair. Philip was in his late fifties, widowed, an avowed workaholic and a pessimist to the core. But underneath he was caring and considerate. Hope didn’t learn that until the second year. And she didn’t learn until the third year that she could make Philip happy. Very happy indeed!
On that particular occasion he’d come in more subdued than usual, so Hope decided to give him some extra special care to jar him out of the doldrums. The bonus reward did the trick, but it altered the provider-client dynamic between them forever. Hope determined never to let that happen with another client. From that point on, however, the increased degree of intimacy became an essential element in the ritual with Philip, something both Hope and Philip looked forward to. Afterwards he was grateful, shy, affectionate, kind, and generous. And Hope was filled with the milk of human kindness. But not so much that she rushed home and spilled the beans to Aretha Mae. It’s best to leave some tales untold.
Philip was uncharacteristically agitated this evening. They got naked together with Philip face up on the table as usual, but this time Philip didn’t want to cuddle. This time he wanted to vent.
“Sorry I’m in a shitty mood tonight,” he apologized. “But a whole batch of revised IRS regulations were posted this morning which means we have to re-imagine virtually all the tax avoidance strategies we’ve put together for one of our biggest clients. The new regulations aren’t rational. In fact, they seem downright arbitrary. I get that I’m a bit player in a four-act tour-de-force hosted by the Fat Cats who run the Establishment. But this time they’ve gone too far. Philip Applewhite isn’t taking it anymore!”
“Hang on, sweetheart,” said Hope, bending over and nibbling playfully on Philip’s right earlobe. “Take a deep breath and tell me what you’re trying to say.”
“How does one achieve order in a random world?” asked Philip, somewhat distracted by a taut nipple brushing against his left shoulder. “Through self-discipline, that’s how! I started my career using an outmoded Friedan Calculator. When spreadsheets came along, I was happy to jump onboard. Spreadsheets were the next logical step in the orderly world of mathematics. Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc fame hit a home run with that one. Emoticons in text messages, on the other hand, simply don’t make sense. Nor do the wanton proliferation of irrelevant icons on the home screen of my laptop. Did you know that displaying, interpreting, and transmitting dense icons and logos consumes 15.3% of the computing power of your average personal computer? What a waste of capacity when a simple text label would suffice. Not to mention the sheer volume of photographs of families and fast food stored in the cloud! But never mind. Something has to be done. And I’m by God going to do it!”
“What does that have to do with the IRS?” murmured Hope sweetly, teasing Philip’s right nipple with the index finger of her left hand.
“The IRS is a symptom,” said Philip softly. “My, that feels good. Don’t stop. It’s the Establishment that needs fixing. They’ve run the show long enough. It’s time for a wake-up call. Speaking of waking up somebody’s waking up.”
“Are you planning to fix this situation all by yourself?” Hope asked, sliding her hand slowly down towards the somebody that was showing signs of awakening. “It sounds awfully ambitious to me.”
“I’ll come over to your place in the morning and tell you what I have in mind,” moaned Philip. “I’ll bring along my co-conspirator, Jeremy Forrester. He can explain everything. Right now, I’m totally focused on what you have in mind.”
Twelve minutes later, after the deed was done, they lay entwined on the table, clutching each other, exhausted. Hope was the first to recover her composure.
“Getting back to the reason for your exaggerated irascibility this evening,” she smiled, giving Philip a happy hug. “Why were you laying that meandering rant on my sorry ass?”
“The truth is,” Philip confided. “Ever since Marcie died, you’re the only person I feel close to. Close enough to let down my hair, so to speak.”
“So, what you’re saying is you’re a performance CPA who makes the niftiest spreadsheets and there’s nobody else around who appreciates your genius? I think you’re just showing off.”
“Maybe you’re right,” replied Philip with a sheepish grin. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Oh God, next you’ll be asking if I’ll wear your class ring on a chain around my neck,” exclaimed Hope, slapping Philip playfully on the naked ass. “Get dressed. I’ve got a client coming at 7:30. I’ll wear your stupid ring if you want me to. But only in the office. You don’t want to make Aretha Mae jealous. She’ll snip off your testicles!”
The next morning at 10:00 Hope and a drowsy Aretha Mae were seated at the dining room table across from Philip Applewhite and a man Philip introduced as Jeremy Forrester. Jeremy was older, grizzled and scrawny. He didn’t cut much of a figure, from a couturial point of view. He had on wrinkled jeans and a navy-blue T-shirt with a text bubble that said, “There’s nothing positive about a neutron.” Jeremy’s only saving grace was his home address. Jeremy Forrester lived on Figure Eight Island. House prices on Figure Eight Island started around one point eight million dollars and ranged all the way up to God knows where.
“Aretha Mae?” asked Hope. “I believe you’ve heard me speak of Philip Applewhite. He’s my favorite client. I don’t know Jeremy personally, but any friend of Philip’s is a friend of mine.”
“Jeremy’s a retired mainframe systems programmer who spent his early career at Visa,” said Philip. “We became acquainted when Jeremy moved to North Carolina from Silicon Valley. Jeremy asked me to manage his portfolio. KPMG used to do that as a favor to a select few principals from our large corporate clients. We’ve been friends ever since.”
“What Philip is trying to say is I bust his balls at chess every Sunday afternoon,” Jeremy cackled. “Have done these past ten years.”
“I think I’ve seen you before,” said Aretha Mae. “You ever frequent the Cheetah?”
“Not for some time,” said Jeremy. “Not since my hip operation. I thought you looked familiar too. Jaguar?”
“Damn, Hope,” grinned Aretha Mae. “I’m world-class famous! Old Jerry here be the dude used to stuff twenties in my garter. Where you been boy?”
“The hip operation put a damper on my nocturnal pursuit of lap-dances,” admitted Jeremy sadly. “I do miss those days.”
“Enough with the trips down memory lane,” said Hope, taking a sip of her coffee. “Who called this meeting?”
“Jeremy mentioned our chess matches earlier,” said Philip. “Incidentally Aretha Mae, you’re the only person I’ve ever heard who calls him Jerry.”
“Naked titties make a man powerful persuadable,” grinned Aretha Mae. “When I did lap dances for your buddy here, I coulda called him Dead Dog and he woulda still cuddled up at my naked feet with his tail a’ waggin’.”
“Anyhow, among other topics Jeremy and I discussed the financial and emotional damage wreaked on our society by the Rich and Powerful in the name of Capitalism,” continued Philip.
“Philip and I both grew up poor,” explained Jeremy. “He worked his way through college and earned an MBA whereas I became a mainframe systems programmer by the grace of God combined with an IBM aptitude test.”
“Jeremy went to work for Visa in 1976, shortly after they were spun off by the Bank of America,” said Philip. “In those days credit cards were considerably less ubiquitous than they are today.”
“Visa wasn’t the darling of the investment community back then,” said Jeremy. “At my first employee interview they had a little cash flow problem. Instead of a raise they offered to pay me in royalties for my contribution to their transaction processing system. They said they’d give me a mil each time my code was called. A mil is a thousandth of a penny. My code was called once for every transaction processed. When they were processing ten thousand transactions a day it amounted to maybe three dollars a month. No big deal, but I didn’t need the money. They were already paying me more than my father had ever made in his life. I accepted their offer. I loved my job.”
“You’re making my head hurt,” grumped Hope. “Can we cut to the chase?”
“The bottom line is, we were both born poor,” said Philip. “Consequently, we still appreciate the dire financial dilemma facing folks who happen to be less well off than we are through no fault of their own. After a well fought game of chess, we’d have a beer and think up ways we could bring down the system. Hypothetically, you understand.”
“Why are we here?” asked Hope. “Jesus! You guys sure do love to talk.”
“We finally figured out a foolproof way to get their attention,” grinned Jeremy. “The Elite. The Fat Cats. The Professional Politicians. Cut off their cash flow and they go bananas. Plain and simple. But there are problems involved. Legal issues. Neither Philip nor myself wish to spend the remainder of our days behind bars.”
“That’s where you girls come in,” said Philip. “Interested?”
“What’s in it for me?” asked Aretha Mae.
“What’s in it for the little people?” asked Hope.
“Aretha Mae first,” said Philip. “Hope tells me you want to help rescue sea turtles as soon as you become independently wealthy. Our plan can make that happen.”
“You telling me Jerry gonna give me his three bucks a month if I play ball?” scoffed Aretha Mae. “That’s bullshit!”
“And to answer Hope’s question, at the least we give the oppressors a wake-up call,” said Philip, ignoring Aretha Mae’s outburst. “At best we give some of the most culpable vultures a taste of their own medicine.”
“What’s the plan?” asked Hope. “Please give us the condensed version. I’ve got a client to pummel at 2:00.”
“Jeremy still has access to the routine he wrote for Visa,” said Philip. “He’s responsible for maintaining the code in case anything breaks.”
“I know how to ZAP my code,” said Jeremy. “I can fix it so between the hours of 8:00 am and noon EDT the Visa transaction processing system flags every transaction as invalid. Then at noon we un-ZAP the blockage, and everything goes back to normal.”
“Don’t sound like a big deal to me,” said Aretha Mae. “Why you need our help?”
“I can’t use my IP Address to apply the ZAP,” explained Jeremy. “We can’t use Philip’s either. Both of us are too close to the problem. But we can use the IP Address of Hope Abides LLC. You could always say you were hacked.”
“Four hours of outage?” sneered Hope. “How much damage can you possibly inflict in four measly hours?”
“Visa processes seventeen hundred transactions a second worldwide,” said Jeremy. “That’s twenty-four million transactions during our hypothetical four-hour outage. The total value of an average transaction is sixty-six dollars. So, during our four-hour outage that amounts to a billion and a half dollars in lost transaction revenue. More to the point customers worldwide will lose faith in the stability of the global economy. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are the biggest threats to our financial system. Toss in a random spark and the whole shooting match blows sky high.”
“Jesus, Joseph and Mary,” gasped Aretha Mae. “Now you gonna tell me how much Jerry really makes on the side these days?”
“Well over a half million dollars each and every year, Jaguar,” admitted Jeremy sheepishly. “That’s how I could afford to donate all those twenties.”
“You said our participation in your little scheme would make it possible for Aretha Mae to quit stripping for a living,” said Hope. “How do we do that?”
“Long story short,” said Philip. “We open a margin account at an online brokerage firm, invest Aretha Mae’s hard-earned cash, short the market the day before the shit hits the fan, buy back on margin when the economy collapses, and sell our ill-gotten gains at the peak.”
“How much you gonna make on a hundred and fifty thou?” asked Aretha Mae skeptically. “I ain’t no Fat Cat.”
“Conservatively speaking,” said Jeremy. “Four and a half million buckaroonies when the dust settles.”
“Fuck me,” wheezed Aretha Mae. “Let’s do this thing.”
They laid the groundwork for the illicit adventure. It took four weeks of diligent preparation but when they were ready the operation went off without a hitch.
The 8:00 EDT starting time was inspired. The stock market didn’t open until 9:30, giving the panic and rumors more than enough time to settle in. By the time the opening bell chimed, the Dow Jones Industrial futures were down over 17% and traders on the floor of the exchange were in full retreat. From that point on matters only got worse. Record trading volumes threatened to overwhelm the massive computers that managed the show. By 1:00 in the afternoon the traders were in a disorganized state of chaos, even though the blockage in Jeremy’s transaction validation routine had been removed an hour earlier. Sometimes it takes a few clicks for sanity to regain control.
There were, of course, unintended consequences. Here’s a statistic to gnaw on. 67% of all transactions at self-service gas pumps are processed through Visa. So, even if you had a Mastercard tucked away in your wallet, if you were stuck behind some dude who only carried Visa(s) you were SOL.
In Los Angeles the 405, normally packed to the gunnels with commuters at 7:30 PDT on a weekday morning, looked like a Walmart parking lot at dawn on Easter Sunday. Lines of thirsty cars clogged pump islands near the freeway and stretched around the block on side streets, waiting to gas up. The problem, of course, was that Visa International had been refusing to validate transactions for two and a half hours and we still had another hour and a half to go in Philip and Jeremy’s little lab experiment. Of course, none of the infuriated drivers knew relief was in sight. They just knew something was terribly wrong. And then the idling cars waiting in line to fill up began to run out of gas.
The talking heads couldn’t blame the Saudis for this one. Traffic reporters had a field day speculating as to who was responsible for the fiasco. Depending on your political party of choice, it was either the current President’s fault or the fault of his predecessor. Regardless of who was to blame the snarl didn’t clear up until well past 4:00 in the afternoon by which time most commuters were ready to call it a day.
It turned out that Jeremy’s projected profit of four and a half million buckaroonies was wildly optimistic, but Aretha Mae’s net gain was sufficient to put her on Easy Street for the rest of her natural life. As to Philip’s promise to Hope that a few of the bad guys would get their just desserts, that happened big time. Margin calls caught hundreds of erstwhile high rollers with their pants at half-mast. Fallout from the shit storm provided bread and circuses for the huddled masses for months to come. All things considered the bold experiment was a huge success.
These days Aretha Mae spends most of her quality time at Topsail Beach, playing nursemaid to sea turtles. Jeremy drops by from time to time to help Aretha out and reminisce about the good old days. He brings along a fistful of twenties, just in case. As for Hope and Philip, they still see each other on a regular basis. Hope continues to make grown boys (and the occasional grown girl!) happy. It’s more than a job. It’s a profession. And Hope is the consummate professional. Philip can attest to that!