Thirteen

Morning, I look over, Natalie is someplace other than bed. I get up and do morning ablutions, the towel on one rack is damp, she’s showered. The clothes she wore last night are still draped on a chair. I pull on by super comfortable yoga pants and an oversize t-shirt, sit and slip on socks, men’s feet aren’t particularly attractive. 
Move along through the living area headed for the coffee pot. 
The three girls are out by the pool, unfortunately for me, dressed, at least in t-shirts and knee socks. Natalie has on one of mine, it must hang down to her knees. I take coffee out and park at the table.
“Good morning all.”
Zoe C, “Morning Chef.”
Natalie giggles, “You call him Chef?”
“Have you eaten his food?”
Natalie, “We generally restaurant.”
“He’ll whip us up breakfast when he’s properly caffeinated.”
Natalie looks to me, “I thought she worked for you.”
“She’s not an employee, not really, more a colleague.”
Zoe C, “I’m responsible for house maintenance, most grocery shopping. Chef feeds me. He’s quite fair about things though, and we have other mutual interests.”
“Chef, forgive my oversight, this is Elle.”
“Pleased to meet you Elle.”
“And I you. I’d say Zoe C has told me a lot about you, but she’s not told me much of anything.”
“I’m not too mysterious, or that interesting really.”
Natalie smiles, but she doesn’t comment.
“Any breakfast preferences? Anyone have special diets? I can accommodate most things.”
Elle, “None for me, if it’s food, I eat it.”
Natalie, “Ditto.”
I go inside and break eggs, slice French bread into rounds, milk, vanilla, nutmeg.
In twenty I have crispy bacon, ham slices and French toast. Sugar free Log Cabin and soft butter on the table. As an aside, sugar free syrups tend to watery. I always simmer the whole bottle down in a pot, when it’s cooled I pour it back in the bottle. It refills about three quarters, which tell you how much water evaporated out. Then it’s appropriately syrupy. I also have Steen’s Cane Syrup which is robust and dark, it adds a nice punch to the maple.
We gather around the dining table.
Elle, “Excellent Chef, may I call you Chef?”
“Sure, so, what do you study?”
“AI, I moved from just coding. The tech industry and many other corporations are throwing buckets of money at people who understand artificial intelligence.”
Natalie, “You will be much sought after, it’s all the people at Goldman and Morgan Stanley talk about.”
“True, I’m interning at Goldman now.”
“Get out, I may take a job with them, on the finance side.”
“Great, I’m there another couple of months, then they hire me when I graduate or I move to someone else. It doesn’t have to be with in investment bank, they just pay a ton.”
“They get their pound of flesh.”
Elle laughs, “So I’ve noticed, it seems they need to bully around and haze, like fraternity initiation. I must admit, while they are abrupt and demanding, I haven’t been sexually harassed. The stuff I get is no different than any intern.”
“It’s a test. If you can take petty bullshit and keep cranking out work, they see it as a sign you can keep your cool under pressure. Most of them were traders, it’s a trader mentality. You have a billion dollar bet going south, you need both stamina and a clear head. Lots of traders implode. They get kicked to the curb and another one takes his place.”
Elle, “Ah, the clouds are beginning to clear. I’ll start cranking out algorithms, but eventually they’re going to hand me a pot of money and see if my stuff works in the real world.”
Natalie, “Here’s your dilemma. Your stuff belongs to them, not you. If it works, you’ll get bonuses and a fatter salary…for a while. But if it works, they own it and they don’t need you.”
“Wait…what?”
“You develop a machine that beats the market. Great. Except your contract says it belongs to Goldman. And, if you leave, you cannot use that program anyplace else, you can’t even use it on your own.”
“Fuck that.”
“Then you need to test your work before going to an investment bank. Not back test, back tests are useless. Real time tests, does it make money when there’s real money on the line? If so, good, if not, you tweak or start over.”
“I see, except, my folks aren’t rich, I don’t know any rich people. Where do I get real money?”
I jump in, “Natalie, how much would it take, to test?”
“A few hundred thousand, half a million at least. You need to buy and sell in quantity because big lots have different trading dynamics than a hundred shares here and there. And what you buy needs to be highly liquid, trades multiple thousands of shares a day or you’ll get killed on the execution prices. And you need to decide if your program is only longs, or longs and shorts. If you can make money going up or down, you’re golden. So far, nobody has ever been able to do it.”
“I thought Warren Buffet consistently beat the market.”
“He does, but Berkshire owns most of the companies, owns in full. People think BRK is like a mutual fund, but it isn’t. Mutual fund managers don’t allocate or withhold resources from the companies they have in their portfolio. They own shares, not the entire company. Buffet didn’t get rich trading stocks, he got rich allocating resources. He doesn’t let companies under the Berkshire umbrella do stupid stuff.”
“I see, that is entirely different. So, Elle, where are you on this?”
“I have a program, let me walk that back, I have an idea for a program. I’ve back tested it, but I get Natalie’s point.”
“Have you shown it to anyone?”
“No. I was going to show it to one of my profs, but he’s at a conference.”
Natalie, “Don’t even think of sharing it.”
Zoe C, “So what do you think Chef?”
“I think we throw a few bucks at it and see what happens.”
Elle, “What if it goes south?”
“Then you bust your ass to fix it, I took a risk, I live with the results.”
“And what if it works? I mean, you put the money up.”
“I get eighty percent of the profits, the program belongs to you. and that eighty is only on the money I put up. You attract other investors, they get whatever you negotiate with them. Natalie, can you help her figure out what’s reasonable? I’ve been invited to participate in hedge funds, but the fees and their cut of the profit is stupidly one sided. If they lose money, I lose but they collect their fee and are out nothing. That’s a sucker’s bet.”
Natalie, “You shouldn’t run trades through a Goldman or Morgan Stanley, they see an account regularly outperforming, they will mimic your trades, even front run.”
Elle, “What’s that?”
“They see your order, they buy or sell first, then execute your order. It’s illegal, but with their volume they can bury those trades so deep even Sherlock wouldn’t find them.”
“So they cheat?”
“To them, if it makes money, it isn’t cheating, it’s capitalism.”

Fourteen

Zoe C had to take Ellen home, so it made sense for her to deliver Natalie as well. She returns for eleven.
“At least they’re both UCLA students, Ellen in is a dorm, but Natalie’s apartment isn’t that far from school. Still, it’s LA, takes forty five to go twenty two miles and forty five back.”
“Natalie is always worth it, how was Ellen…no, I don’t want details, will you see her again?”
Zoe C, “She likes girls, is new to intimacies but there’s only so much one can do sexually. I’m not into weird, to answer your question, yes, in fact we’re on for next weekend. When I asked her, she asked if she could just come back here. Can you do dinner?”
“She have any preferences? No, she said if it’s food she eats it. Osso buco is always well received, what do you think?”
“Hell yeah, the veal one?”
“If you wish. I’ll text you the list of groceries I need, you know what the veal shank should look like. If you get it Friday I can season and let it hang out in the refrigerator until Saturday. Get a case of Russian Standard, the 1.75, as well.”
“I can get that Tuesday, I have Japanese and the store we use is on the way back. How are we on wine?”
“The cellar is stocked, just the vodka, if you want frozen margaritas, get a bottle of decent tequila. It doesn’t have to be top of the top shelf, by the time I add lime juice, lemon, orange triple sec and orange slices, the brand is almost immaterial. Hornitos maybe, Patron is overkill for margaritas, it’s like pouring Russian Standard in a Bloody Mary.”
“We can have Bloody Marys for breakfast Sunday.”
“Then grab a bottle of Bloody Mary…no, V8 juice. I’ll dress it up with our own additives.”
“I could see your wheels turning while we talked about investments.”
“It’s early going, Natalie wants to put in a couple years at one of the big investment banks. They’ll work her to death, but she’ll meet the wealthy and the ultra wealthy. In the meantime, we test Elle’s algorithms. Natalie can contribute, she knows finance, she can help design the program if Elle is willing. By the time Natalie has a list of potential clients, we’ll know if the program makes money.”
“So you can approach Natalie’s list with Elle’s program.”
“Not me, Elle. Goldman may make Natalie sign a non-compete. It’s bullshit and they can’t make it stick, but there will be legal hurdles. If Elle appears out of the blue and they sign on, Natalie’s name doesn’t appear anywhere. And, again if the program works, any referrals the clients give Elle that aren’t Goldman clients, Natalie can approach.”
“You are a devious bastard.”
“When you swim with sharks and you aren’t the biggest shark, best to be the sneakiest one.”
She smiles, “Back to our other project. I’m interviewing this week, two evenings I’ll be late, not late, late, but home more like eight.”
“Send me the schedule, I’ll work food around it. You’re meeting for breakfast twice, right?”
“Yeah, it’ll be on the text. By Friday I should have a feel for the world of abuse. For a paper, I might need more interviews though.”
“Do you want to write a paper?”
“Sure, I mean…why do you ask?”
“Remember Cantor?”
“Of course.”
“Do you want to write a paper on traumatized social workers and cops, or fix abusers?”
“Is it either or? Hold on, it’s coming….I stick my name on the paper, then abusers start getting abused…is that it?”
“Think about it. What we really want is to find someone, or a couple of someones who are so fed up with the system, they’ll be happy to see justice, even vigilante justice. You get a sense of anyone who’s had it, any comment like, “I’d love to see these assholes get what they give, like that. Then you say, ‘That’s an interesting idea, if it was possible, would you be willing to provide names, locations, particulars, if it was totally anonymous?’ See how they react.”
“And if they want to go for it?”
“I’m still plugging in the pieces. You play it like they gave you the idea, how do they think it would work, let them think it over, they’ll diddle. Most won’t give you an opening, don’t press. For those who express their disgust, but don’t know what can be done, make off the cuff observations, ‘It sounds like you wish someone would just face off with these people, make them pay physical consequences, or more?’
Let them reply with no further encouragement from you. You’re looking for people who just want them stopped, don’t care how and volunteer the information on their own. 
Then you say, ‘I hear this a lot, a couple of people said if they could somehow report the abusers anonymously, and an unknown someone takes it from there. Then let them respond, see if they might be on board with it.”
“Ooohh, you are a sneaky bastard.”
“We’re just giving them permission for things they want to see happen anyway.”

Fifteen

A month later Zoe C is inundated with stories, people still in the system but disillusioned, others who were in the system but couldn’t deal with what they had to see and changed departments, went to other jobs or just quit.
Zoe C, “Of the thirty five people I interviewed, when I asked what they think should be done, half were too iffy or said more funding, better follow up with offenders, the kind of stuff that’s always said. Half of the other half said they’d like to see stronger punishments but didn’t get out on a limb, the last quarter said where do I send a report?”
“I called two lawyers I had business dealings with, corporate types. But they both referred me to people, one a lawyer, one a business owner whose niece was a victim. We’re meeting with him for coffee in the morning.”
“What’s he want?”
“Didn’t say, but it’s fairly obvious.”
“He wants vengeance.”
I nod, “Are you going to write the paper?”
“Can’t decide, this other track opens up do I want my name on a paper about traumatized social workers, psychologists and cops?”
“You got people to talk based on producing a paper, I think you go ahead. People have the attention span of a gnat. That they will put together a college student’s research paper with vigilante attacks on pervs and abusers is slim. Besides, if we actually do anything, it isn’t going to be as us, not an us anyone would recognize.”
“I’ll write a draft, run it by Dr. Jeffries, if he’s interested he can do whatever, make suggestions, tell me it isn’t scientific enough, I really don’t care. In a way, I hope he says it isn’t publishable as research since so much of it are verbal reports from anonymous sources.”
“I imagine he’s right, but all sorts of online magazines would jump at it, they have lots of space to fill. You could submit it there under a pseudonym, nobody cares whose name is on it as long as it gets a clickbait headline.”
“Even better, I’m going to skip Jeffries and go with anonymous everything. Somebody will pick it up and I can refer my interviewees to it, to prove a paper was written.”
“See, everything works out.”
“And I need to get busy setting up an encrypted site on the dark web.”
“Natalie’s coming over Saturday, mid afternoon, Elle is coming?”
“Yep, what are you making?”
“Muffuletta pizza.”
“What’s that?”
“Wait and see, tonight it’s you and me. I’m feeling fishy, how about oven baked catfish with a crispy breadcrumb coat, side of coleslaw?”
“Yum, do we have that vodka, Russian Standard?”
“Enough for a chilled shot each, Friday we can ride out to Barstow and empty a couple boxes of ammo. I need catfish, be back in thirty.”
Off to the supermarket, I pass a bakery we frequent, maybe dessert. Luisa is behind the counter.
“Senor, just in time.”
“For what?”
“I have a wedding cake, no wedding, man gets frozen feet. Small wedding, cake ees no gigante. They make a deposit which covers my cost, but don’t want cake. You take.”
“Sure, how much,” I reach for my money clip.
“Just take it, fresh, good white cake, best white frosting, delicious.”
“Too generous Luisa,” I pull out two twenties, “buy the kids something, my pleasure.”
“Senor ees too kind.”
“Senor loves the bread and pastries you bake, the best.”
She smiles, crafty mom, she knows damn good and well I wouldn’t just ‘take the cake.’ My stopping by was her accidental good luck, she was likely just going to bring it home, now she has her costs covered and forty bucks.
I enter the kitchen with the bag of booze, carrying the cake box.
Zoe C, “Went to Luisa’s I see, looks like a cake box.”
She takes it, opens the lid, “This a marriage proposal? Shouldn’t I get a tacky diamond first?”
“I’ll buy you a ring not to get married, you can wear it on your middle finger and show it to me if I ever ask. Luisa had a customer who decided the divorce should come before the marriage. I took the cake off her hands.”
“Do I have to wait for dessert?”
“Cut us a slice, let’s see what not getting married tastes like.”
While I stick one bottle in the freezer and the other in the pantry, Zoe C cuts cake. She feeds me a piece, “This is how they do it at the ceremony, now you feed me one.”
“Damn, that’s almost worth getting married for.”
Zoe C, “Luisa has the touch, will it last until the weekend?”
“After tonight we’ll keep it in the refrigerator, covered in something, take it out, let it come to room temp, no problem.” 
“Get the site set up?”
“Yep, didn’t give it a formal name, Tor sites all end in dot onion. They’ll go to a string of letters, symbols and numbers dot onion. It will route through a few countries and eventually show up here. The page will have junk for sale with photos and descriptions, click here to make a bid. There’s no bid, that’s where they leave details. Send makes the message disappear to a different site, one they can’t access. That’s where we get details.”
“Slick. You did this on your own I hope.”
I earn an eye roll, “No, I called some dweeb at godaddy, he did it for me.”
I grin, “I need to batter catfish, go for a swim and inspire me.”
She’s in a t-shirt, out to the pool, loses the shirt and lets me leer while she contemplates the water. Wish I was a lesbian. I mean, all hetero men are lesbians..sort of, if you ignore the part about women who love women.
She doesn’t glance my way, doesn’t need to confirm what she already knows, instead a long hands over head stretch then bends to touch her toes. 
Sigh, so lithe, so lovely, she dives in. I turn my mind to purple cabbage, which I shred for coleslaw, cover the bowl and return to refrigerator. I think tonight just olive oil mayo, a little sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seed and light seasoning only, cracked pepper and a bit of salt.
Two fat filets I cut crosswise into chunks. That way I can batter all the sides and add more crispy crunch to the bite. Season the chunks on both sides, the pieces will lay on a blanket of Panko breadcrumbs. As they sit there, the moisture of the fish will make the crumbs stick while I bake it. In the end, not quite as good as deep fry, but healthier and a lot less messy. Besides, once we dip the bites into tangy seafood sauce the cooking method is meaningless.
I take a glass of wine out to the pool and watch Zoe C lap. She’s smooth, doesn’t bash the water, it isn’t a race. She glides along for a half hour, when she exits I drape a big fluffy bath towel over her shoulders, another on the table.
“Bottle of water there, chug or sip, but drink it all.”
She sits, wrapped in the fresh towel, the wet one draped on an empty patio chair, crosses one long lean over the other, I do my part and admire.
“You look, but in a nice way.”
“I’d drool but it would be unseemly.”
“Natalie’s droolable.”
“Oh yeah, as is your pal Elle. I’m a most fortunate man, if people knew who I’m hanging with this weekend I’d be the envy of Malibu.”
She stands, “Shower, back in fifteen,” she drops the towel and stands before me, finishes the water, leans over me and puts the empty on the table.
I push a bit of spittle over my lips in a fake drool.
“Idiot,” strolls off to her room, I watch her closely, just in case she trips.
It’s our game, I don’t get a flaming hard on, just a stir, time for a chilled vodka. I keep stainless steel martini glasses in the freezer where I park the vodka. Before I put them in, I add a half inch of water. It freezes of course and makes for just enough ice to keep the vodka cold. One doesn’t chug Russian Standard, although I think Russians tend to shoot the shot.
Zoe C appears, silky t-shirt and socks. The shirt clings to the curves and hangs just past the point of fascination. 
Hand her the glass, “To our new venture,” touch glasses, take a sip.
Zoe C, “Wow, you could blackmail me into going nude by withholding this.”
“You’d go nude anyway, you like it.”
She giggles, parks on a stool next to the kitchen island.
“Hungry now, or wait?”
“The fish needs how long?”
“Ten, then flip, ten more.”
“Twenty sounds right, want me to open wine?”
“I have pinot open already, we’re good.”
We have a second vodka while the oven does its bit, then eat at the island. I’m not a music guy, Zoe C has fusion jazz on the system. I’m glad she’s not into C&W, I’d have to bury her in the backyard.
“Music’s nice, at least it isn’t twang, no dogs, pickup trucks or women who leave.”
“Oh please, I can’t stand that crap, or pop. The songs, even if you hate them, get stuck in your head. Nope, don’t have anything on my IPhone. Jazz is hardly something that creates those earwigs. Vocals…meh. I use music like white noise.”
“I used to listen to rock..rock, rock, not Journey or any of the big hair bands. Rock died when Kurt Cobain did, after Nirvana I lost what little interest I had. The booty shakers like Hip Hop, I have no objection but it isn’t for me.”
“No, I must have missed the girl part about dancing. Elle dances, but she’s good at it. I don’t know if she clubs, I won’t go.”
“She ever mention it?”
“No, I think she gets me pretty well. Doubt she’d bring it up. What she does for entertainment outside of visiting me I never asked. She’s all up into her AI program, no reason to go dance with boys. As for lesbian clubs, never been, but I hear they’re full of sulking chubbies. It sounds awful.”
“So neither of you joined any lesbian thing around school.”
“Do I strike you as a joiner?”
“No, but I could be wrong, you know, caught up in feminist or LGBT issues. You’ve never brought it up but that doesn’t mean you’re disinterested.”
“I’m disinterested. Just more stocky angry girls, do not need it. I’m only part time, not there enough for anyone to know me. I don’t study group. The Japanese instructor tried to pair us up like they do in CS courses. I told her I had a grueling work schedule and my employer is a total dick so my schedule is unpredictable. She shrugged it off, I’m her top conversationalist and hold my own in kanji. It never came up again.”
“Good thing I’m not your employer.”
“You must have been a great employer when you had your company, I do work for you, you pay me, but it never seems like employment. We’re like roomies who agreed to divide the work.”
“You do eighty percent of it.”
“Just keep feeding me, if I get any happier I’ll go village idiot.”

Sixteen

We spend Friday at our range, a couple of hours shooting and a couple driving to and from. Coffee and a doughnut on the way up, cold cuts and Diet Coke for the drive home.
I bought a star, which is a target contraption with five arms on a stand, ball bearings allow it to rotate. Metal plates sit at the end of the arms. When you hit one, it flips back and the arms rotate. Then the shooting gets trickier. Shooting a moving target with a handgun is more difficult than it appears. We’re good at twenty yards, fifty-fifty at forty.
Our other targets are stationary, but we challenge ourselves to pop them at distance, from twenty five to sixty yards. At sixty, Zoe C is better than I am.
“Good eye girl.”
“I love this stuff. Can we get a shotgun and one of those throwing things?”
“Do the research, start with a serviceable gun for skeet and trap, figure out which throw you want and the clays. I’ll read up on technique. We can come out and miss a few, maybe even bust some.”
“You’re so hard to work with.”
I smile, take a slice of roast beef and down it, pop a Coke and sip. An hour and we’re home.
“Go in and shower, I’ll deal with the stuff then clean up, dusty in the desert isn’t it?”
“Worth every grain, leave the guns out on the patio table, I want to clean them, keep in practice.”
When I come from my shower, she’s working on the Glocks, hair still damp.
“I’m going to rustle up Chinese, after our day I’m not going to fiddle with cooking.”
“Sounds great, the usual?”
“Won ton, hot and sour, chicken and vegetables in garlic sauce, shrimp fried.”
“Perfect.”
“By the time I return, Glocks are gone, she pulls two vodkas from the freezer, “Enjoy your drink, I’ll get the soup in bowls, oven is on,” she dumps the chicken and the rice on two platters and slides them in the just warm oven.”
“I couldn’t pass on spring rolls, the dipping sauce is in the little containers.”
“Cut me half, you eat the rest.”
While we sip the still hot soup and crunch warm spring rolls, I ask, “We have guests this weekend, after that, are you ready to begin?”
“I submitted the paper to the New Yorker under a pseudonym with an email address to the same. I said I wanted no compensation, that I felt the story needed to be out and it’s my first and last submission. There was a bit of back and forth with an editor, all pleasant. At first they wanted my credentials. I begged off saying that who I am could lead to clues as to who I interviewed, people I promised anonymity. I suggested they run it by anyone who deals with abuse and see if it rang true. Apparently they were satisfied, they publish in three months. There’s a lot of lead time for nationally known publications.”
“Good, you’re out of it, a story that needs to be told gets told. You tell the people you interviewed yet?”
“Next week or week after. I never did see Jeffries, he’s a busy guy, he’ll forget all about it unless he reads the New Yorker. Even if he does, and even if her recalls our chat and looks me up, I can say I have no idea who wrote it, I decided to pass on the topic and don’t read the New Yorker. I doubt it will come to that. Besides, he’s not going to believe a part time student got the New Yorker to publish her paper.”
We move on to the entrée, “Something almost magical about garlic sauce, maybe I’m just hungry.”
Zoe C, “After burgers and pizza, Chinese must be the most popular takeout.”
“Burgers are not what I call take out unless you count eating while driving. Pizza would be delivery, Chinese is my guess for what I call takeout, when you go and pick it up yourself. Uber has changed the game though.”
Between food delivery, Amazon and streaming services, one might never have to leave home.
We finish, clean up and settle on the couch to watch Stranger Things on Netflix. Our attention lasts about an hour.
Zoe C, “Am I being too picky or is this like a soap opera where nothing much happens, and when it does, there’s nothing that interesting about it?”
“I’d say you have a pretty rational view, I couldn’t warm up to the kids, let’s ditch this and move on.”
I’d seen Reservoir Dogs back when, but Zoe C hasn’t, we crank it up. I’m happy to discover I don’t remember much, we enjoy two hours of confused robbers, psychopaths, murder and mayhem. 
“Did you ever see Get Shorty?”
Zoe C, “What’s Get Shorty?”
“Oh girl, we need to fire it up tomorrow night when our friends are over. Murder and comedy, and the dialogue is hilarious. How about Pulp Fiction?”
A blank.
“You are in for an Elmore Leonard weekend, some of the best action, strange characters and funniest lines you’ve ever heard.”
She smiles, “I knew there was some advantage to knowing an older guy.”
Time for rest, we scour the kitchen and head off to our rooms.
I wake to the delicious scent of coffee, blink my eyes open, Zoe C has a steaming mug on my end table.
“We died last night, it’s almost nine thirty.”
“Felt good to flat line, we went to bed at, what, midnight, late for us.”
“Elle called me at eight thirty, checking to make sure we were on. I’m getting her at three, texted Natalie and I’ll pick her up right after, we’ll be here for four, maybe sooner if Saturday traffic is light.”
“Girls can get in a swim if they want, We have wedding cake for dessert, what about nibbles?”
“Nuts and cheese, crackers, we don’t need caviar or smoked salmon. I think the girls just want girl play, gossip, be stupid. We have Sapporo in the refrigerator, if you want to crank out margaritas, or just wine with the snacks and osso buco…yeah, go with wine, skip the tequila. And I’m hungry, think you can scare up something to serve as late breakfast early lunch, I have cleaning to do.”
“I’m on it, come along in twenty.”
Chop pre-cooked chicken jalapeno sausage links, bit of oil in the pan and heat. Add five eggs and stir into scramble. Four slices of toast, swipe clarified butter on two, mascarpone on two. Two glasses of cherry kefir.
Zoe C, “Just right. Probiotics are so good for the gut, like liquid yogurt plus.”
 “I’ll clear and clean the dishes, then to the grocery.”

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