Phoenix – Chapter 2 (Introducing Alex)

Alex Kostas didn’t particularly care if his whistling was off-key, or that his ear-piercing tune annoyed the people on the packed elevator.  This was going to be the best day of his life and he couldn’t be happier.  He fought the urge to announce that he was behind the indictments against one of the strongest investment firms.  Of course, no one knew anything about it yet, but they would soon.

I should ask for an office with my promotion, he thought, assuming his boss’ praise would be in the form of a much anticipated career boost.  Dennis is a nice enough guy, but he’s going to be a lifetime analyst.  It’s better for my professional development to surround myself with more high-minded people.

It took only a few struts of his long legs before he settled into his cube.  It was moments like this when he wished he were just a little shorter so it would take more time to cover ground.  People could notice him.

“It’s going to be a good day Dennis,” Alex said to his cube-mate as his computer chimed, announcing its awakening.  Alex didn’t wait for a response, or even expect one for that matter.  He watched the antiquated system slog to life and decided he would also ask for a new computer in his office.  His phone rang just as the screen prompted for his password.

“Kostas, we’ve got a problem,” his boss said foregoing any morning pleasantries.  “I need you down in the north conference room pronto.”

He hung up before Alex could say another word.  Alex glanced over his shoulder at Dennis, who seemed oblivious to the conversation with his nose just inches away from his computer screen.  Alex grabbed his portfolio and used his long stride to make it to the conference room in record time.

The door was cracked open.  His boss, Harrison, paced the length of the conference room table with several members of the SEC’s legal team scattered throughout, their open laptops stationed like tombstones.  Harrison’s grey hair stood straight up, a tell-tale sign of one of his many nervous tics.

“Alex, have a seat and close the door behind you,” Harrison ordered when Alex poked his head into the room.  Alex took an empty seat near the door.

“Is everything alright?”  He had to say something; the air in the conference room buzzed with tension.

“Alex, it has come to our attention that Williams and Cooper started cashing out their stock options four days ago.  Please tell me this isn’t the first you’re hearing of this.”

Alex swallowed hard, his Adam apple bobbing.  It was the first he had heard of that.  When he turned everything over to the attorneys, his job was done; there was no reason for him to continue monitoring the three suspects’ financial statements.

“Alex?” Harrison said, still pacing the floor, a new habit that took the place of a severe nicotine addiction a few years back.  The lawyers all kept their heads focused on their laptops, not appearing to notice Alex’s presence in the room nor Harrison’s pacing.

The only response he was capable of at that moment was clearing his throat, but it said everything he didn’t want to.

“That’s what I thought,” Harrison said.  “Did you think your job was over?  Your job is not over until I say it’s over.  And, if you weren’t my best damn analyst I’d say it’s over.”

Alex’s stomach dropped.  The same feeling that exhilarated him as a child on his favorite roller coaster only made him nauseated now.  This was not the way the morning was supposed to play out, he thought.  The indictments should be in motion and Harrison should be taking me to a celebratory lunch, talking about my promotion, mapping out my future.  Sitting in the conference room with his boss’s face turning red and an army of attorneys looking at him was not on his agenda for the day.

“Mr. Harrison, there has been another development,” said one of the attorneys.  She turned her laptop towards Harrison.  The man stopped pacing but his lips moved as he read.

“What’s going on?”  Alex couldn’t control the bouncing of his legs.  He was looking at Harrison when he asked the question, but one of the members of his legal team answered him.

“Do you know Roland Burrows of the Financial News?”

Alex shook his head.  “Not personally, but I’ve read some of his articles during the course of the investigation.  Why?”  He asked this question of the attorney that answered him, but another spoke next.

“He just released a story about our indictments, citing an anonymous source within our office.  Martin is tipped off now.  He called her for comment.”

“Get someone to pick her up ASAP,” Harrison said.  One of the attorneys sprung to life, speaking quietly into her cell phone.  Alex wondered if these attorneys shared some sort of collective consciousness.

“I just got confirmation that both Cooper and Williams are not at their homes or in their offices.  They may have fled, sir,” another attorney spoke.

“Fled?  Fled?!  What in the hell is going on here people?” Harrison stopped his pacing with his back to Alex.  The air in the room froze when his boss stopped moving.  Alex hoped Harrison forgot about his oversight with the news that two of the suspects were missing.  “You,” he said, revealing a red face as he turned to Alex.  “If you had been doing your job instead of jacking around, we could have sped things up and everyone would be in custody now.  You don’t stop monitoring the suspects until they are locked away in jail.  You got that?”  Alex swallowed again.  “Now go, see if Martin has cashed out any of her stock options and see if Cooper and Williams are using their credit cards.”

Alex raced back to his desk, hoping that no one would stop him on his way back to his three-walled haven.  Harrison was right, he thought, rubbing his hands over his eyes.  “I stopped paying attention, I screwed this up,” he muttered to his shoes.  Instead of noticing that two of the suspects were moving money, he spent his time setting up news alerts for when the story would hit the press, daydreaming of his promotion and perusing Web sites for motivational wall art.

Alex slid into his desk chair, the annoying squeak louder than ever.  Dennis had asked him to sit down more quietly, the squeak broke his concentration, but Alex didn’t care today.  He pulled up one of his software programs and tapped into Keith Cooper’s credit card account.  The man hid his criminal activities well; he carried a mortgage on his modest townhome, he drove an ordinary sedan and carried very little credit card debt.  It was only when Alex stumbled upon Cooper’s secret bank account that gave him any clue the firm’s attorney was part of the fraud.  Just as Alex suspected, there was no recent activity on any of the man’s accounts.

Josh Williams wasn’t so careful.  The firm founder’s son was the polar opposite of his cohort in crime.  An unabashed playboy, Williams spent money lavishly on his swanky condo, drove an enviable sports car and rang up a four-digit credit card bill on most weekends.  Despite his history of reckless spending, Alex guessed it took every bit of self-restraint for Josh to cease using his credit cards more than a week earlier according to the statement Alex read.  Alex threw his notepad across his desk.  “Damn, another dead end,” he whispered.

Alex pulled up Amanda’s account on his screen.  “Gotcha,” he said to his computer when he saw she got a pedicure and a bottle of wine the evening before, and her employee stock options sat untouched.  “Ahh … just the break I needed to fix the case,” he whispered.  And, save my career, he added in his head.  He sprang from his desk, banging the keyboard tray into his kneecap.  The excitement he felt muted the radiating pain.

The army of attorneys was still stationed in the conference room when Alex returned, but their stony faces displayed worry instead of calm indifference.  Harrison leaned over a telephone; the green light indicated the line was live.  Before Alex could announce he saved the case a voice floated out of the speaker.

“Sir, the reports are unconfirmed, but it appears there is a gunman on the forty-second floor, possibly in the same office as your suspect, Amanda Martin.”

“A gunman?” Alex couldn’t help himself, he was completely unprepared, but no one seemed to notice he spoke.

“What do you mean there’s a gunman there?” Harrison’s face turned red again and he started pacing the length of the room.

“That is correct.  911 started receiving calls just as we pulled up to the building.  There are several reports of shots coming from an office on the forty-second floor.  What’s that?”

The officer’s voice was muffled among what sounded like screams and an alarm system shrieking in the background.  Harrison stopped pacing and stared down at the telephone.  Everyone collectively leaned forward, closer to the speaker, trying to hear what was being said behind the screams of people and the alarm.

“Sir, it appears there was an explosion on the forty-second floor.  I repeat there was an explosion on the forty-second floor.”

The officer paused and Alex heard more shouting.

“Sir, I’m going to have to call in for back up, this situation is turning critical.”

The line went dead.  Everyone in the conference room stared at the phone.  No one moved except Harrison.  He paced up and down the length of the room four times.  The man finally stopped to pour himself another cup of coffee.

“Alex, if you’re standing there you better have some news for me,” Harrison said to his coffee.  “Otherwise, I want your butt in your seat cleaning up your mess.”

Alex’s voice was slow coming.  “Well, sir, I have good news,” he paused to ensure everyone focused their full attention on him.  “Martin seemed unaware of what was coming.  Her employee stock is untouched and she used her credit card last night,” he said, his voice gaining strength with each word.

“That tells me nothing.  You said yourself her charge is a lesser crime, that by all accounts Williams and Cooper are the masterminds.  Anyway, it’s likely she’s dead now, so move on from her and find Williams and Cooper.”  Harrison turned his back on Alex and addressed the attorneys.  “Okay people, we’ve clearly got a situation unlike anything we’ve seen before.  Go back to your desks.  Monitor the media outlets for breaking news.  I’ll let you know if there’s news from the police, but this is in their hands now.”

Several seconds passed before everyone began moving towards the door.  Harrison turned his back on the room and looked out the office window.  Alex stared at his boss’ reflection in the glass.  He didn’t know where to direct his frustration, with himself for missing a crucial turn in his case, the unknown gunmen in an office building on the other side of downtown or Harrison for giving up so easily.  Alex waited until they were alone to speak.

“Sir, are you sure that is the best?  What if this is a distraction to get Martin out of the building?  Or, what if she can lead us to Williams?”

“This is a police matter now.  Not something for us accountants.”

Alex stood there, his neck flushed in anger.  His admiration for Harrison was more than what an employee would feel for his supervisor.  Harrison had been a father figure for Alex, filling in a hole that his own father left when he was killed fifteen years earlier.  Alex worked hard to avoid letting Harrison down, but the heart-wrenching feeling of defeat coursed through his veins.  Harrison never turned around, never looked Alex in the eye.

“Mr. Harrison, let me go down there.  Shouldn’t we have someone on the scene to make sure Martin doesn’t get away?”

“Go back to your desk, Alex.  I’ll let you know if there’s more.”

“Sir, please.”  This was the only time he asked anything of his boss.  Always the dutiful employee he did as he was told without question.  It was long overdue.  “I can do this.”

“Go back to your desk.”

Alex would have felt better if Harrison yelled at him, but dismissal was the ultimate insult.  Rather than return to his desk, Alex hurried into the men’s room and checked the stalls to make sure he was alone.

“Dammit, dammit, dammit.”  The final punch to the metal door broke open the skin on his knuckle.  He looked up at the tile ceiling and took several deep breaths.  His hand tingled with pain and he washed the blood off at the sink to examine the damage.  Luckily, it appeared to be a pretty shallow cut and he wrapped his hand in paper towels while waiting for the bleeding to stop.

After this case was complete, he was going to follow his mother’s advice and find a nice girl to settle down with.  She always invited girls from the Greek community over to Sunday dinner.  Some of these girls seemed interested in me, he thought.  And, a few didn’t bother me completely.  “Son of a bitch,” he said to his knuckle.  “Forget the promotion and forget me ever having a wife.  I can’t support a family.  I’ll never have a home in the suburbs.  I’m going to sleep on a flat futon and eat take-out for the rest of my life.”

When he got back to his desk, the office was quiet without the whir of the computers and tapping of keyboards in the analyst area.  Harrison was nowhere in sight, his boss must have broken his vow of nicotine chastity.  Unable to do any work, he logged on to a local news Web site to see if they had any reports of the shooting at Jefferson Williams Investments.  All he was able to find was a brief breaking news story.

A gunman is believed to be on the premise of a downtown Chicago office building, according to 911 calls.  Emergency personnel are on the scene and the building is being evacuated.  No word yet on the motive behind the attack, but it could be linked to a report posted by a financial news magazine regarding indictments of three members of an investment firm in the building.  Reporters are heading to the scene.

Alex felt the urge to ignore his boss’s orders, to walk out of the office to apprehend Amanda, or at least to confirm she was dead as Harrison suspected.  He imagined himself storming up to Harrison as the man dangled a cigarette from his lips, shouting that he worked out, he was in good shape.  He could fight against the current of people evacuating the building to swim upstream to the forty-second floor.  If Harrison couldn’t appreciate him, maybe the FBI would be so impressed by his bravery and physical prowess they would hire him on the spot.  The boys at the Bureau would feel like asses when they realized that I was the fat kid who failed my physical years earlier, only to emerge a decade later as a super-agent, Alex thought.

But, none of that happened.  Alex spent the remainder of his day glued to his desk searching for any financial signs of life from the three suspects while the world whirled around him.

About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of women’s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
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