A Novella by Robert Lewis Heron.
When the world’s richest man loses everything we have a problem. A problem, which must be resolved quickly.
His race to discover the cause is also his race for survival. With both his life and that of his son on the line he battles a rogue government agency hell bent of world financial meltdown. Can he uncover the culprits and save his son’s life?
Copyright © 2014 by Robert Lewis Heron. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Chapter 1 – You’re Broke.
My name is Jack McGregor. Two days ago, I had vast wealth; I had happiness; I had a chance at life. The call from Maria Drako had been short: you’re broke. It appears I am no longer the world’s richest man, the world’s greatest philanthropist, or the world’s hope for the ultimate cure. Who is the bigger loser: you or me?
I am alone in the bay window of my imported Scottish Castle staring at misty mountains rimming my piece of paradise. Blood red earth pierce meadow slopes, and my prized thoroughbreds graze wherever green appears. The blue tinged meadow reminds me of purple heather covered glens of Scotland.
For a split second, I belonged somewhere else, somewhere safe. My throat warms to each swallow of my luscious Macallan 1926 single malt whisky—the fortification needed before embarking on one roller coaster ride for survival.
"Hudson. A refill please."
Hudson, my butler for twenty years accepts me as a son. He served my father, the late Laird of Staine, in beautiful Royal Deeside for most of his life. After a fatal shotgun accident, he felt obliged to carry out my father’s dying request to protect his two wee lads: fifteen year old twins, Jim and yours truly. Two decades of adopted paternal duty continue.
"And will there be anything else sir?" Hudson asked presenting a quarter full Waterford crystal whisky glass on an antique silver platter.
"No, Hudson. Please go and prepare for Maria’s arrival."
"Shall she be staying tonight sir?"
Hudson appeared disappointed. Happiness is all a parent wishes for any child, adopted or not. He fulfilled his promise far beyond anything my father expected. Care and protect are over riding philosophies in his life, and I am sad at disappointing him.
I believe Hudson, deep down, hoped Maria and I might marry. Paternal feelings can be stronger than reality, and reality was it just did not work out. Why couldn’t she see my commitments were so much more than just making money? Am I wrong in not sharing my secret? A secret so powerful she would never have looked at me the same again. I could never marry someone who felt sorry for me.
Beyond a white picket fence stand my stallions munching on two hay bales. My Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners raise their heads towards distant snow capped Montana Mountains, ears point at a throbbing distant beat of an approaching helicopter. The horses bolt from a churning dust cloud. An orange twisting plume drifts in my direction. Maria Drako, my diminutive financial advisor, and former lover, has arrived.
A spectacular nine point Monarch stag head dominates the wall above the grandiose sandstone fireplace. Crackling logs and wisps of escaping smoke make the perfect backcloth for her entry to the lounge. A solitary photograph of Adam, my six-year-old son, stands on the sandstone carved mantel beside an Olympic Modern Pentathlon bronze medal.
The Westminster chimes of the Victorian grandfather clock striking eleven, and the unmistakable crisp footsteps of Hudson crossing the flagstone hallway, interrupt my thoughts of Adam’s Christmas gift list.
"Sir, Miss Maria Drako."
She paused beneath the magnificent entry sandstone arch, drew a deep breath, and stepped into the room.
"Maria, it has been a while,’ I said. “Please sit."
Her tailored black two-piece pin stripe jacket and skirt outlined her slim figure perfectly. Black rimmed Fendi glasses framed hazel brown eyes focused on an old leather briefcase clutched across her chest. She epitomized calmness yet held a mortar shell about to blast its contents in my direction.
"You remind me of my Scottish gamekeeper caressing a beloved grouse,” I said gesturing at the briefcase. “It will not take flight if you put it down."
Sheepishly she placed the worn case, a gift from her deceased father, on the side table. If truth be told, she probably slept with it on the odd occasion for comfort.
"So Maria, it appears we have a little trouble brewing."
Maria had called the emergency meeting to discuss an extremely serious financial problem. To think two days ago I stood up to my chest in the icy waters of the Lynn Fjord in Haines, a twenty-minute float-plane flight from Skagway, salmon fishing. Now I am the one being played.
"It's bad Jack," she said with a no nonsense look about her.
"How bad? Worse than you returning your engagement ring and calling me a stuck-up Scottish prig?"
Maria ignored my comment as best she could. Finances and feelings don’t play well together.
"Everything is gone. Every penny."
The words seemed distant and out of context; like a New Jersey mechanic instructing a French chef how to sauté foie gras, or, a slim extremely attractive accountant telling the richest man in the world, he is penniless!
"Excuse me? What are you telling me here? If I seem confused, it is because I bloody am. Last week I was Forbes magazine’s richest man in the world, and now I can’t afford to buy a happy meal?"
Head bent, she fumbled with her worn briefcase before spilling a typed report and two newspaper articles across my oriental rug. Her awkwardness, compounded by our personal issues, made me feel some sympathy for her.
“Christ Maria. You said we had to meet to discuss an extremely serious financial problem. This is not a serious problem, this is bloody catastrophic! Food poisoning is a serious problem, terminal cancer is catastrophic.”
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, “I’ve been trying to grasp the size of the issue. It started small but blew up so incredibly fast. I’m so sorry for not contacting you sooner.”
I could see she was confused over the speed of the nightmare in which we found ourselves.
“It’s all here in this report. I have a team of top financial experts looking over recent stock market trades which appear orchestrated to maximize your investment losses."
"What? Someone has the balls to wipe me out, but cowardly enough to hide behind the anonymity of the stock market. Why did you not foresee the problem?"
She thrust the report into my stomach, paused and looking me straight in the eyes said, “Stop being such a bastard Jack. It’s no ones fault. Not mine. Not yours.”
Her hazel brown eyes locked on me, memories of two months ago flooded back: no need for words, no one is to blame, but it’s all my fault anyway.
“When did I say I was blaming you?” I said. “Why don’t ever listen to what I say? Calm down and focus.”
I could tell she was holding back. No point going over personal issues.
She took a deep breath, regained composure and sat.
"Yes. Whoever did this must have vast resources?"
"Maria, that's an understatement. No one can manipulate the markets like that.”
"Our preliminary investigation points not to whom, but what."
"You mean? Some sort of organization."
"Yes, or country."
I am not used to being the prey: I am the hunter, the stalker, the one calling the shots.
"How do you know this?" I said.
"It’s in the report. It appears a world financial crisis has been orchestrated by the manipulation of the world's monetary system," she took a deep breath. "Global financial destabilization.”
"RUBBISH…IMPOSSIBLE! HOW?" I shouted.
She held back her comments, allowing me to calm down.
“The first step appears to have been the intentional increase in oil prices allowing massive profits to be trawled by those controlling the world’s oil market."
She paused, "Jack there's more. The accrued fortune was then used to manipulate the world's stock markets by huge daily six and seven hundred point swings. When you control the market like this, you can do anything you want, and that includes destroying the wealth of the world’s richest man.”
I stood silent; letting the words form some semblance of sense. She knows me well enough to know when I need to think things through without interruption.
It felt like an hour, but a minute passed before she continued, "Over a period of seventy-two hours vast swings on the world markets created uncontrollable highs and lows as dealers and automated buy-sell computer programs reacted in apparently uncontrollable massive swings."
"Why was I not notified immediately of the problem?"
I knew she dreaded the question. Now I’m looking for someone to blame, but we both know I cut myself off from everything during my fishing trips. Bottom line is I’m bankrupt because someone went fishing for me. All hunters plan for the kill by knowing the weakness of the one hunted, and boy was I planned for.
"There was nothing we could do. You were incommunicado,” she said. “The company uses the most sophisticated software to buy and sell multiple times a second; all to make a profit."
"So why did it not protect me?"
"It should have, but it appears our security wall was hacked and orders to buy and sell were reversed."
"Reversed? What do you mean?"
"Every action the company software took lost money," she said. “Hundreds of thousands of wrong decisions a second.”
Her hazel eyes focused on her briefcase.
"We don't know yet, but we have a crazy theory."
I felt my Scottish ghillie,Tam McPherson, was about to explain his great idea for today’s hunt. Nothing beats stalking a stag through the woods on my Scottish Estate on Royal Deeside under the shadow of Lochnagar. It’s all about wind direction. Always be down wind when stalking, but fleeing deer always run upwind. Better to run into the wind and towards what you can smell than downwind into the unknown.
"Okay, I'm listening," I said.
The next ten minutes flew past quickly. The concept of web security had been the obstacle back when financial transactions began being performed over the Internet. Two American programmers created the algorithm allowing the safe and trustworthy electronic transfer of money. Trust is the key, and now the key has been hijacked.
"So what you have explained has monumental consequences for the world's finances," I said.
"Yes. Someone or something can manipulate the world's finances. They decide whom to bankrupt: individuals, countries, anyone they choose."
"But why me?"
Her tone changed to be more understanding, more caring, more sympathetic.
"We think you were an experiment. A test case. If they could wipe out the world's richest man and remain undiscovered, then other targets might be ripe for picking."
I stared long and hard at my son Adam’s photograph before turning to face her.
"I have two questions. First has the McGregor Cancer Foundation been touched?"
"Yes," said Maria. "All funds have disappeared from the Foundation's accounts."
Two years ago I had started the Foundation in honor of my mother who died of brain cancer when I was fourteen.
"This changes things. This is now personal."
"How does it change things?"
"Stealing money is theft,” I said, “but attacking the Foundation is completely different. That's murder."
“Yes,” I said, “of thousands.”
I give out information on a need to know basis, and this is one of these moments.
"I have a secret only my brother knows,” I said. “I have cancer.”
She gasped, “But why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why? There was no need, until now,” I said. “I didn’t want your pity.”
"To live?” I paused. “Six to nine months."
"No. How long have you been ill?"
"Two years ago I got the news I would die of a rare genetic form of brain cancer before I turned forty. My DNA contains the time bomb, the shelf life bar code, the date of expiration.”
“Christ, Jack. Two years and you didn’t tell me. The things we fought about. If I had known this Jack...”
”Listen to me Maria,” I said. “I have already explained. I did not want your pity. It’s not important now. What’s important is the Foundation.”
“The Foundation?” she said.
“The Foundation is my life line. I use my vast wealth to help find a cure for cancer. The latest reports look promising. They are close. I must continue funding the Foundation. I have every available expert working for me. India, Russia, England, even Australia--the most intense research in medical history."
"I'm so sorry, Jack," she said with feeling. A feeling I thought lost, a feeling I hoped might return.
Maria, clutching her leather briefcase tight across her body, began crying. Tears for me or for her father? I’ll never know.
"Stop,” I said. “Listen to me. We can solve this.”
Finally, my white monogrammed handkerchief found a purpose worth its value.
“How?” She asked dabbing her tears.
“My second question. Do we have any computer experts on the team investigating the problem?"
"Yes. The two programmers who designed the original algorithm."
For the first time I smiled.
“Excellent. Instruct the team to run down Companies, groups, and individuals capable of orchestrating this massive fraud. Find out what the Wall Street people are saying. Get names, hunches, goddamn anything that can lead us to solve this. And contact the Treasury, they might have some clues, they must be looking at this mess.”
Maria stood to leave.
“And,” I said, “when I find these sonsofbitches I’m taking them out. One by one.”
Her stance strengthened and she swung round facing me.
“No,” she commanded. “We must do this legally.”
“Legally! Legal takes time. I don’t have time. I need money now. If I can’t fund the Foundation who is? This is cancer, his is my life, this is Adam’s life, and no sonofabitch is going to kill my son. No one.”
Hudson stood at the end of the room waiting to escort Maria to the helipad. No secrets from him. Body language and raised voices had primed him. Nothing like a wee bit of trouble to warm the cockles of a Scotsman’s heart.
”Maria. You have seventy-two hours to get me names. Start with the treasury.”
“Seventy-two hours then what?”
“You don’t want to know. Believe me. I know people who know people and things get dirty, fast. Moreover, you do not want to be around when that hits the fan. Believe me.”
The departing helicopter swung low over the paddocks causing the horses to gallop and veer from its downdraft. Two days ago, I fished and stalked moose and deer in Alaska; today I have a different kind of stalking to do, the most important of all: kill or be killed.
“Sir. Is there anything else you require?” said Hudson.
“A large glass of Macallan'26, and a miracle,” I said, “and my brother.”