Friday, September 18, 2009

Ivan's Beanstalk, by Jon VanZile

Ivan leaned forward with his knuckles on the glass and looked down to the street. The dirty crowd was still down there, but he couldn't hear them shouting through the soundproof windows.

The only sound in his office was from the two phones ringing incessantly on his desk.

One was calling in, but he had no intention of answering it. He knew Jenny wouldn't give up, but what did that matter now? Let it go to voice mail.

The second phone was calling out, and Ivan planned to let that one ring until he reached Zurich.

On the desk next to the phones, a column of numbers lit up his computer screen. The bottom one—$485,284,982—was the one that concerned him.

Ivan glanced away from the window, to one of the muted TVs. Even he could not stop the thrill of anxiety that tightened his jaw. Every business day of Ivan's life, the ticker had scrolled against the bottom of the screen, tallying up the winners and losers.

Not today. At 10:18 a.m., the Big Board had gone silent.

Shortly afterward, Ivan had watched from his window as the first dazed brokers appeared in the street. They emerged from their buildings slowly, blinking in the strange, downtown sunlight like mummies shaken from their sarcophagi.

The first protestors showed up half an hour later. The crowd had started with a single guy in a dirty jacket. He was some kind of Michael Moore–wannabe who thought it was funny to name names, and he named Ivan Thor. Pretty soon, a crowd gathered as he thundered away, pointing at Ivan's penthouse office floating above the street: "HE did this! Do you think Ivan Thor is suffering today?! Do you think HE'LL be turned from his home?! That HIS kids will go hungry?!"

The one guy turned into twenty, then fifty, then suddenly it was thousands, and the little fish that had been circling Ivan for years grew into a school of piranha.

He felt it in his feet when they locked the building down. The steel crash doors thudded into place over the big ground-floor windows, and Ivan was sealed up in his iron beanstalk. Unless someone had a tank or an RPG, he had nothing to worry about. So he watched that number on his computer screen and waited, waited, waited for Dieter to pick up the phone.


Ivan whirled away from the window, where they were now burning cars and causing random property damage. He wasn't impressed—and he made a mental note to sell shares in his insurance holdings the second they opened up the exchange again.

"Dieter," Ivan said. "Thor here."

"Mr. Thor," came Dieter's smooth voice, the accent miraculously disappearing. "You are safe?"

"I need to make a transfer."

"Of course," Dieter said. "Hold while I connect to the voice authentication please."

Ivan heard several clicks on the line, and then was surprised by some kind of vibrating percussion that traveled up through the spine of the building. He turned back to the window and looked down again, but all he could see was a puff of smoke at the base of the building. Maybe one of the ignorant fuckers down there actually did have an RPG, and he made a mental note to buy a piece of the firearms industry. There would be serious money to be made there soon enough.

"You there?" Ivan said with growing impatience.

"Yes, sir," Dieter said. "Please state your name, speaking clearly and slowly."

"You know my fucking name!" Ivan snapped.

An automated female voice came over the phone line: "Authentication failed."

"I'm sorry, sir," Dieter said. "But—"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it." Ivan waited for the machine to reset. "I-van Thor."

"Authentication approved," the female voice said.

"Please state your account number," Dieter said.

Ivan was momentarily distracted by an unusual sound. It was a disembodied howling, like a tornado had been trapped in the elevator shaft. He considered calling for his helicopter—which he had nicknamed Golden Parachute as a joke—but figured he'd better attend to business first. Always business first.

He began to recite his thirteen-digit account number, but stopped halfway through. The howling in the building was sifting itself into voices now. Ivan looked to the street level. The puff of smoke around the base of the skyscraper had blown away, and in its place, he saw people scrambling into the building.

Ivan began talking again, slowly and distinctly carving out each number from his throat. When he was done, the female robovoice said, "Please wait for authentication."

As he waited, Ivan listened to the growing howling. The elevators had been locked down earlier, so they must be in the stairwell. For one heartbeat—just one split second—Ivan felt a tendril of fear curl around his guts and squeeze him. Then he pushed it away and focused.

"Authentication approved," the voice said.

"Sir?" Dieter said. "I'm watching the news now. Is that your building?"

"Yes," snapped Ivan. "Now, I want to transfer—"

"Excuse me," Dieter said, "But are you entirely sure you're safe, sir? If you'd like to hang up and call your police perhaps, you can call me back—"

"No!" barked Ivan. "Listen carefully, I'm authorizing a transfer for four hundred eighty-five million two hundred eighty-four thousand nine hundred eighty two dollars from Chase account seven zero zero six five three four two seven into my personal account there."

"Of course, sir," Dieter said smoothly. "But—"

"Why hasn't it happened yet?" Ivan was staring hard at the number on his computer screen. It was unchanged.

"Please hold for a moment," Dieter said.

There was the sound of wood and glass breaking from somewhere on his floor, down the hushed halls of plush carpet. Ivan glanced up at his door and an unbidden memory from last week hopped into his mind: the Secretary of the United States Treasury coming in, smiling and holding a single sheet of paper announcing that Ivan Thor's brokerage was entitled to almost half a billion dollars in rescue money from the federal TARP program.

"That ought to get you back on your feet, huh, old boy?" the Secretary said.

Indeed it would.

Ivan waited, consciously keeping his breathing steady. The other phone was still ringing, and he wished Jenny would get the point and vanish.

Finally, Dieter's voice came back on the line, crackling with distance. "Confirmed, sir, now please—"

Ivan saw the number on his computer flash to zero point zero zero just at the moment his thick office door shattered and the glass crinkled to the ground. Bodies were surging in his outer office, faces pulled into grimaces and shouts. He couldn't tell one from another, but noticed with mild surprise that at least one was wearing a blue uniform.

So that's how it was going to be.

Ivan leaned forward on his desk, facing the mob, and sneered: "Too late. I win."

That's when he saw the nooses.


Erica Orloff said...

LOL. I loved this. I also felt like it was thrillerish, like I could see this as part of a bigger whole. I loved the authentification process, building tension.


Jude Hardin said...

I liked this a lot. Great tension build. The construction reminded me of something Hitchcock might do.

Nice touch with things like the thirteen-digit account number and Ivan always trying to think ahead on how to make some money from all this. I got a real feel for this character, despicable as he was.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

Intense visuals. With Ivan as the main character I still felt most concern and compassion for the angry mob - feeling Ivan was someone I loved to hate.

LurkerMonkey said...

Thanks for the feedback everybody.

My wife read it and remarked, "Nice wish fulfillment."

E. Flanigan said...

I enjoyed how you used the prompt as inspiration, but not necessarily as a literal interpretation of the visual.

I also liked the beanstalk metaphor. By the end, I really wanted to see that guy get what he deserved!

The tone of it is like if the movies "Ghost" and "Wall Street" met. In fact, maybe that would be the Hollywood pitch ;)

E. Flanigan said...

I enjoyed how you used the prompt as inspiration, but not necessarily as a literal interpretation of the visual.

I also liked the beanstalk metaphor. By the end, I really wanted to see that guy get what he deserved!

The tone of it is like if the movies "Ghost" and "Wall Street" met. In fact, maybe that would be the Hollywood pitch ;)

Natasha Fondren said...

Cool building of suspense throughout. Love the end with the nooses, LOL! Great ending, Jon!

Melanie Avila said...

Wow! I'd completely forgotten about the prompt when I read this, so the nooses were a complete surprise! I love the suspense in this -- I figured out what he was doing, but the race against the protesters and wondering if he'd even be able to USE the money made it very exciting.

Well done!

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