not a religious man, but I make the sign of the cross over my heart
just in case. The way I do every time I start. After all, the next
few seconds could change my life forever.
Employees aren't supposed to use company Internet access for
personal reasons, but lots of us violate the policy and no one's
ever been fired for it. Jesus, they only pay me thirty-nine
thousand dollars a year to be an assistant sales rep for retail
paper products in the mid-Atlantic region. So the way I see it, I
deserve a perk or two along the way. I've dedicated eleven years to
this company, but my wife and I still live paycheck to paycheck,
even though she has a full-time job too.
Images flash across my computer screen, and I quickly reach the
home page of the on-line brokerage firm I use to trade my small
stock portfolio. As I enter the information required to access my
account, adrenaline surges through me, like it always does when I
get to this point. It's as if I've bought a lotto ticket with a
fifty-million-dollar jackpot, and I have that lucky feeling
tingling in my veins.
Name: Augustus McKnight
Account Number: YTP1699
My fingertips race across the keyboard as I close in on my target,
and I pause for a sip of coffee and a deep breath. The deal is only
a few screens away, and I'm addicted to the anticipation --- so I
prolong it. It's one of the few things I look forward to these
days. This morning, as I guided my rusting Toyota through
bumper-to-bumper northern Virginia traffic and thick summer
humidity, I had a premonition that today would be different. That
something was going to interrupt my daily grind. But I've had that
There's a sharp knock and my eyes shift to the office doorway.
Standing there is my boss, Russell Lake, vice president of all
paper product sales. Russell is a slender man with thinning brown
hair, a full mustache, and a pasty complexion. He leans into my
cramped office, one hand on the doorknob, peering at me over
wire-rimmed glasses. And I stare back like a boy caught digging in
the cookie jar just before dinner.
"Good morning, Augustus."
I can tell by the intensity in Russell's eyes that he's trying to
figure out what I'm doing on my computer, but I've positioned it so
someone standing at the door can't see the screen. "Hello," I say
warily. You never know what he's up to.
"Up with the eagles this morning?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"It's only eight o'clock," he says sarcastically, tapping the
cracked crystal face of the same Timex he wore the day he
interviewed me more than a decade ago. He's always been sarcastic.
That's just the way he is. "Aren't you usually crawling out of bed
I'm in by seven thirty almost every morning, sometimes earlier, but
there's no point in arguing. Like most bosses, Russell has a
"What are you working on?" he asks.
"Very funny," he says, moving into the office. "Tell me the
I'm tempted to flick off the computer, but that would be a dead
giveaway I'm doing something wrong. "I'm updating a sales report
for central Virginia," I say, hoping he doesn't walk around to my
side of the desk. "Nothing exciting."
"Checking your stock portfolio again?"
Russell blurs before me. "What?"
He settles into a chair on the other side of my desk, an annoying
smile tickling the corners of his mouth. "I know all about your day
trading." He snickers. "You're on that computer at least two hours
a day doing research, checking quotes, and placing orders." Russell
removes his glasses and cleans the dirty lenses with his striped
polyester tie. "I'm willing to look the other way at a little
indiscretion, but sales in your region are way down. A couple of
weeks ago senior management wanted to know what was going on. I
defended you as basically a good employee, but I had to tell them
about your stock market addiction."
"Dammit, Russell! Why'd you screw me like that?"
"Don't blame me, Augustus," he replies coldly, replacing the lenses
on his face. "You've got to start accepting accountability for your
actions if you want to get anywhere around here. That's always been
a problem for you."
"How do you know what I'm doing on my computer?"
"I monitor the network."
"So you've been spying on me?"
"Spying is such a nasty way to put it," Russell says. "I
"You've been watching me without me knowing. That's what it boils
He raises his eyebrows and grins smugly. "Now you know."
"You shouldn't be using company property for personal reasons," he
"Lots of other people do."
"Other people get their work done on time. Besides, the company has
a right to protect its assets."
"And I have a right to protect my privacy."
"Last year, you and everybody else around here signed a waiver
permitting us to monitor your Internet activity," Russell reminds
me, "including e-mails. This shouldn't come as any surprise."
Now that he says something, I do remember signing that waiver. It
didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but it's come back to
"Are you day trading right now?" Russell wants to know.
I hear a different tone in his voice. There's curiosity as opposed
to warning, with a hint of goodwill too. But Russell is skilled at
convincing people he's reaching out when he's really digging, so I
have to be careful.
"Come on," he urges when I don't respond right away. "I'm
I've been caught red-handed, but if I'm cooperative, maybe he'll
cut me a break. "I'm not actually day trading," I say cautiously.
"Real day traders execute hundreds of buy and sell orders every
day. I'm not doing that."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm buying a few shares here and there and holding them for the
long term." My entire portfolio is worth less than a thousand
bucks. I won't be retiring on it, but I get a kick out of knowing
that when prices go up I've made money without lifting a finger.
"Once in a while I get in and out within a couple of days," I add.
"But not very often."
"So give me an example. Like what are you doing right now?" he
asks, gesturing at the screen.
"Checking my account. Last night I e-mailed my on-line brokerage
firm about an IPO they're involved in."
"An initial public offering," I say deliberately. Russell knows
almost nothing about the stock market. He's told me he puts most of
his money in a bank account earning a boring four percent a year.
He hates it when the market goes up and loves it when it dives.
"The company's stock is scheduled to begin trading on the Nasdaq at
nine thirty this morning. I was checking my account to see if I had
won any of its shares in a lottery my firm was running
"What do you mean, lottery?"
I've spent a lot of time over the past few years learning all I can
about financial markets by reading the Wall Street Journal,
studying business school textbooks I've borrowed from my local
public library, and doing research on the Internet. It feels good
to show off a little of what I've learned. "The big brokerage
houses sell shares of going-public companies to their preferred
clients," I explain. "Clients like insurance companies, mutual
funds, pension funds, and a few rich individuals."
"The haves," Russell sniffs. He's from a working-class family, like
"Brokers sell shares to those preferred clients at a price they
think will rise during the first day's trading," I continue,
ignoring Russell's resentment.
"Ensuring their clients a profit."
"Right. The brokerage houses want to make sure the preferred
clients are always happy so they can count on them for the next
deal, and the next and so on."
"It's a stacked deck," Russell mutters. "An insider's game you and
I will never get to play."
"That's mostly true," I agree. "In the past, small share lots were
around, but you had to know somebody at the company or the
brokerage house to get your hands on them. You really did have to
be an insider. Now there's a chance for me to get them too."
"That's where the lottery comes in. Because of all the Internet
trading, the big Wall Street firms that lead IPOs have recruited
on-line brokerage firms to help them sell shares to the general
public. On- line brokers serve regular people who, individually,
may have only a small amount of money to invest, but, when added
together, control a lot of cash. Like big firms, the on-line firms
give their best customers first crack at most of the shares they
have. But as a marketing gimmick, they make a small part of their
allocation available to all their customers by running a lottery.
The lottery gets lots of people interested. Even if they don't win
any shares in the lottery, the little guys do their best to get
them in the after-market as fast as they can."
"Which helps drive the price up on the first day of trading,"
Russell reasons, "just like the big Wall Street firms want."
Russell leans forward in his chair and rotates the monitor so he
can see the screen too. "And you participate in these
"Sure. As long as you have an account," I explain, nodding at the
screen, "and money in the account to cover the share purchase if
you win, you can play."
"How long have you been doing this?"
I can tell Russell isn't asking questions to build a case against
me. He could do that simply by tracking my network activity. He
wants to learn how to play the game. "Six months."
"No," I admit. "They don't make many shares available in the
lottery. Like I said, it's mostly a marketing gimmick designed to
spark interest in the stock."
"Ever heard of anyone winning?"
Russell laughs harshly. "No one like you ever wins at this game,
Augustus. It's all a big con. They're trying to make you think they
care about your business. But they really don't."
That thought has occurred to me before.
"Well?" he asks.
"Aren't you going to check to see if you won?" He wants to see my
disappointment because he's the kind of man who finds comfort in
the despair of others. "Go on."
I move the mouse so the flashing white arrow is on the appropriate
spot and click to my personal page. Instantly a summary of my
account --- a detailed description of the few shares I own ---
appears on the screen, but at the bottom of the page is a blinking
message I've never seen before. A message instructing me to click
on it. The text is surrounded by exclamation points and turns
rapidly from red to white to blue with firework graphics exploding
all around it. Usually this message is a dull black and white.
Usually it informs me that I haven't won any shares ---
Russell leans across the desk and points. "What does all of that
"I don't know," I admit, unable to hide my grin. "Looks good,
though, doesn't it?"
"Click on it," he orders, an edge in his voice. As much as he takes
pleasure in another's disappointment, he hates his own envy.
I glance at the ceiling, cross my heart one more time, then guide
the flashing arrow down to the message and click.
Suddenly the entire screen is exploding, and in the middle of the
chaos is a box with words congratulating me on winning five hundred
Unicom shares. It informs me that the IPO price will be $20 a share
and that my account has already been debited ten thousand dollars,
"My God," Russell exclaims. "Where did you get ten grand?"
According to Wall Street's experts, Unicom could finish today's
trading at $100 a share, maybe even $200. The era of every dot-com
IPO soaring into the stratosphere right away is long gone, but
Unicom has been tagged a can't-miss kid by the Street's
All-American analysts. It has developed an amazing, next-generation
wireless technology, and the huge telecommunications firms are
pounding on its Silicon Valley door to steal a peak inside the
Elation rushes through my body. In a few hours my ten thousand
could be worth fifty thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand.
"Augustus, I asked where you got ten thousand dollars," Russell
"Calm down. I haven't saved that kind of money working at this
place." I know that's what he's worried about. "It's my
On her deathbed last Christmas my mother instructed me to dig in
the backyard beside the porch. There I would find something
helpful, she said. I was skeptical because during her last few
years my mother's brain was ravaged by Alzheimer's. But in the
fading light of a cold December dusk I followed her instructions,
and a few inches down into the icy soil, my shovel struck metal.
Inside a shoe-box-sized container lay neat stacks of hundred-dollar
bills, flat and crisp, as though she'd individually ironed each
one. I stood there in the cold for a long time, gazing at the money
in the rays of a dim flashlight, overwhelmed. Apart from the money
in the tin box, my mother had little else. The equity in the house
barely covered her funeral.
My mother's last request was that I not tell my wife what I found
in the yard. That I use the "something helpful" for myself. Mother
never liked Melanie.
I've kept this money in a very safe savings account since I dug it
up, afraid that if I invested it in anything else I might lose it.
I earned almost nothing in interest, which was frustrating, but now
it looks like my patience has paid off.
"What does Unicom do?" Russell asks impatiently.
"It has developed a state-of-the-art wireless application," I
explain, eager to show how thoroughly I've done my research. I've
tried to talk to Melanie about the market many times, but she
doesn't share my passion for it. In fact, she doesn't share my
passion for much of anything anymore. These days most of our
conversations seem to dissolve into a predictable set of questions
and answers. "And they've invented a codec, a
compression-decompression device, that brings real-time interactive
television to desktop computers regardless of a user's hard drive
capacity or Internet connection. Now people won't need a server the
size of a living room or a T-3 hookup to make two-way desktop
television work. It's revolutionary."
Russell airmails me an irritated look. I know it annoys the hell
out of him to think that I'm up to speed on concepts like byte
compression, hard drive capacity, and bandwidth connections. Things
he knows little about.
"You need to focus on why paper towel sales are down at the big
supermarket chains in Maryland," he warns, standing up. "Not on
technologies that have nothing to do with your job." He turns back
when he reaches the door. "Listen and listen to me good, Augustus.
I want half of everything you make on that Unicom stock today, and
I want it in cash by the end of the week. Otherwise you're out of
When I get home Melanie is waiting for me in the small foyer of our
cookie-cutter three-bedroom ranch house, arms folded tightly across
her ample chest, one shoe tapping an impatient rhythm on the
scuffed wooden floor.
"Where have you been?" she demands before I've even shut the
"The Arthur Murray school of dancing. I know how you've always
wanted to learn that ballroom stuff, and I was going to surprise
you for your birthday, but --- "
My attempt at humor isn't going over well. "Mel, I --- "
"Dammit, Augustus, it's late and I'm in no mood for this."
At thirty-three --- the same age as me --- my wife remains a
beautiful creature. The same long-legged blonde I fell for in
eleventh grade. The same girl I followed to Roanoke College and
married a month after graduation with a few family members and
friends looking on. To me, she's still every bit as pretty as she
was the day of our wedding. "Something came up at the last minute."
I smile mysteriously, but she doesn't seem to notice.
"I can't count on you anymore, Augustus. You tell me you're going
to do one thing, but then you do something else. You told me you'd
be home by six and here it is after eleven."
"You said you had to stay late at the office again tonight, so I
thought you wouldn't care if I went out." My smile fades. "And
you've been working later and later over the past few months. I
wasn't sure you'd come home tonight at all."
"I don't appreciate that," she snaps.
Melanie is an executive assistant for a Washington, D.C., divorce
attorney named Frank Taylor, and I've always suspected that he has
more than just a professional interest in her. During the past few
months she's been wearing lots of perfume --- sometimes heavier
when she gets home at night than when she leaves in the morning.
She's been dressing more provocatively too and working late several
nights a week, sometimes until one or two in the morning. Even a
few Friday and Saturday nights recently. I finally tried talking to
her about it last week, but she flew into a rage right away, then
accused me of silly macho jealousy and stalked off. But it occurred
to me later that she never actually denied anything.
Melanie won't look at me. "I have to talk to you."
Her eyes are puffy, as though she's been crying. "What about,
sweetheart?" I move forward to comfort her but she takes a quick
step back and buries her face in her hands. "What is it,
"Oh, Augustus," she murmurs sadly.
I wrap my arms around her and hold on tightly, even as she
struggles to turn away. I work out almost every day in the
makeshift gym I've set up in our basement, and at six-four and over
two hundred twenty pounds, I easily control her slender frame.
"Let me go, Augustus."
"Not until you tell me what's wrong."
"Let me go!" she yells, her arms starting to flail.
Suddenly her fingernails rake the side of my neck. I've never seen
her like this before. "Calm down, Mel."
"Get your hands off of me!"
"You don't understand me!"
"Of course I do. You've had a long day and you're exhausted," I say
sympathetically, controlling my anger despite the fact that my neck
feels like it's on fire where she scratched me. "And you're sick of
me telling you that we can't afford anything."
"You've been drinking," she says, her tantrum easing. "I smell
scotch on your breath."
"I had a few drinks with a friend. That's all."
"A female friend, I'm sure."
Melanie has never accused me of cheating before. In fact, I didn't
think she cared anymore. "I was with Vincent." Vincent Carlucci and
I have been friends since I was ten years old.
"I've seen how women look at you, Augustus," she says, wiping tears
and smudged mascara from her face, "and how you look back."
"I've always been faithful to you, Melanie."
She slumps against me like a rag doll, arms dangling at her sides,
face pressed to my chest. "I can't do this anymore," she
"You're right. You can't keep up this pace," I agree, slipping my
palms against her soft, damp cheeks and tilting her head back until
she's looking up at me. I smile down at her confidently, feeling
better than I have in years. I've scored big in the stock market
and she's going to be impressed. "I want you to stop working,
Melanie. I want you to sleep late in the mornings and pamper
"What are you talking about?" she asks, grimacing as she glances at
"You don't have to work any longer. It's as simple as that."
"We can barely make ends meet as it is. From what you've told me,
sometimes we don't. How could we possibly survive without my
"You let me worry about that."
She stares at me for a few moments, then closes her eyes and shakes
her head. "Did you think I was talking about my job when I said I
couldn't do'this' anymore?" she asks softly.
"Of course." In that awful moment I understand what she really
needed to talk to me about tonight. "Wasn't it?"
"Then what did you mean?" My voice is hollow, almost
She covers her mouth with her hand. She says nothing, but she
doesn't have to. The look in her eyes says it all.
The first few moments of lost love are terrible. I gaze at her
helplessly, and it's crushing to see how sorry she feels for me ---
pity is such a useless emotion, only making matters worse for both
of us. Melanie wants to be with someone else. Over the years I've
heard the whispers from her family and friends that I'm a
disappointment to her. Now she's finally listened to those whispers
and given in to her desire to be with another. "Melanie?"
"We don't have any children, Augustus," she sobs, "and so little
money. It won't be hard to split things up."
"It's your boss, isn't it?" My rage erupts. An awful, mind-numbing
fury that spreads like wildfire from my brain to my eyes to my
chest. I've tried to be understanding about the late hours, the new
wardrobe full of short dresses and lacy blouses, the matchbooks
from expensive Washington restaurants on her dresser, even the
hang-up telephone calls I endure on weekends. Her indifference to
me. But no more. "It's Frank Taylor!" I shout. "You're having an
affair with your goddamn boss. I knew it! Taylor's made you all
kinds of ridiculous promises and you've decided to take a
"This has nothing to do with Frank!" she shouts back. "It has to do
with me. I need a fresh start, Augustus. I'm drowning in our life.
I have to save myself. If I don't do it now, I never will."
"He's tempting you with houses, cars, and jewelry. I know
"Wouldn't that be awful if he was?" she snaps.
"You bi --- "
"It's not true!" she snaps. "But do you blame me for wanting those
"Melanie, come to your senses," I beg, swallowing my pride. "It's
going to be much better for us from now on. I promise."
"You've been saying that for eleven years. I'm not willing to wait
any longer." Tears stream down her face, but they are tears of
rage, not sadness or compassion. "I'm sick and tired of being
married to a man who accepts being ordinary," she says, gesturing
angrily over her shoulder at the inside of our modest home. "I want
someone who needs success as much as I do."
"Let's not kid ourselves. You want money. That's all you've ever
Her eyes fill with tears again. "How can you say that to me?"
"Because it's true, and you know it."
She drops her face into her hands. "Let's just end it," she pleads
I stare at her, wishing I could take back those words, even if they
are true. "Mel, come on."
"I'm sorry, Augustus. I'm so sorry, but I want a divorce."
"This is crazy," I say, taking her gently by the arms. "Stop
"Let me go."
My heart sinks as I realize that this is not a passing drama. She's
serious. "Oh, God," I mutter, looking down. Both of Melanie's
wrists are marked by painful-looking purple bruises. "What have you
done to yourself?" I murmur, looking up into her beautiful,
She yanks her arms from my grasp and runs away down the short hall
"Wait, Mel. I hit it big today in the --- " But the slam of our
bedroom door cuts me off.
For five minutes I stand in our foyer, unable to comprehend what
has just happened, my emotions ricocheting from dejection to rage.
Finally I stumble to the kitchen and ease into a chair at the
scarred wooden table where Melanie and I have eaten so many meals
together. My eyes come to rest on a notepad lying beside the sugar
bowl and a stack of unpaid bills. In Melanie's looping script I see
that Russell Lake has telephoned four times this evening. I'm
supposed to call him back no matter how late it is.
I touch my neck where Melanie scratched me, then bring my hand in
front of my face. My fingertips are stained with
I'm not a greedy man, so my decision to sell is an easy one.
At four o'clock yesterday afternoon Unicom closed its first trading
session on the Nasdaq at $139 a share, up $119 from the $20 IPO
price. In the overnight "casino" market it spiked another $36, to
$175 a share, where it opened this morning. So, after plowing my
entire inheritance into this one investment, my ten thousand
dollars has turned into nearly ninety thousand. I've made almost
two years' salary in less than twenty-four hours. That, in a
nutshell, is the allure of the stock market.
As I stare at my computer screen, I can't help wondering how
Melanie would react if she knew about this. I never got a chance to
tell her last night. Never got a chance to explain how we could
afford to let her quit working. And she had already left this
morning when I woke up on the living room sofa, cradling an empty
A soft knock on my office door distracts me from some very ugly
thoughts. "Who is it?"
I expected to see him as soon as I walked in this morning, but it's
after ten and this is his first appearance.
"Open up," he demands.
He couldn't sneak up on me today because I closed and locked my
door when I got in. "What do you want?" I ask, grudgingly allowing
him to enter.
"Don't sound so happy to see me," he says, checking out the dark
red marks on my neck. "God, you look awful."
"I didn't get much sleep last night," I admit, easing back into my
desk chair with a loud groan.
Russell should have been a CIA agent instead of a midlevel man-ager
buried in corporate America. Ultimately he unearths everything, as
he surely will in this case if I don't tell him. There will be
plenty of clues. I'll have to change my address because Melanie
wants me out of the house as soon as possible --- she left that
pleasant request in a short, unsigned note I found on my dresser
this morning. Russell will be given that new address by the human
resources department. And there will be a steady stream of e-mails
bouncing back and forth be-tween
Melanie, the attorneys, and me as the divorce proceeds. E-mails
Russell could read because he monitors the network. So it's better
to be up-front with him about what's going on, rather than endure
his nasty comments about being kept in the dark later on.
"Melanie wants a divorce."
"That's terrible." For a moment Russell looks as if he truly feels
sorry for me, but his tone lacks compassion. It's as if he thought
my di-vorce was inevitable and timing was the only question. "What
was her reason?" he asks. Like most men who know Melanie, Russell
is fasci-nated by her.
"I'd rather not discuss it."
"Did she find someone else?"
"Sometimes it helps to talk about these things."
"Sometimes it doesn't." As usual, Russell relaxes into the chair on
the other side of my desk without being asked. "What will you do
about living arrange-ments? Will you stay in the house with her
until the divorce is final?"
A familiar lump builds in my throat as I think about how I'm being
evicted from my own home. Frank Taylor has stolen my wife. Worse,
she has let him. "No, I'm going to look for an apartment at lunch."
Melanie never admitted that Taylor was really driving all of this,
but I know the truth.
"Close to the office?"
"Do you need some time off?"
"No." That would give me more time to brood, and nothing good would
come of that. Besides, Russell might use my time away from the
company as an excuse to demote me.
"So Melanie will get the house to herself."
"Yes." I stare at him, wondering what perverted things are on his
After a long pause he says, "I was on a conference call with senior
management this morning. The June numbers are in."
"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, especially at such a tough
time, but sales in your region were down again last month. Senior
manage-ment is very concerned, particularly in light of the fact
that sales in other areas of the country are doing so well."
"We've been over this a hundred times, Russell," I remind him,
"The major competitors in my region are running big dis-count
programs right now. There's nothing I can do to jump-start sales
until we lower prices. But you won't let me do that."
"Senior management doesn't want excuses."
"Screw senior management."
There's another long pause. "Unicom did very well yesterday,"
Russell finally says.
"Let's talk about that later. I've got calls to make."
"I checked the share price on the Internet before I came in here,"
he continues. "It's up to almost a hundred and eighty bucks." "I
sold everything this morning at one seventy-five." "That's fine,"
he says, head bobbing as he stands up and moves toward the door. "I
agree with that strategy. There's no need for us to be greedy in
our first venture together." He hesitates, hand on the doorknob.
"Now get on that computer and get us into another lottery. Do you
This afternoon, with her blond hair falling seductively down onto
her shoulders to frame her angelic face, Melanie looks as pretty to
me as she ever has. She wears a short dress and high heels,
accentuating her long, perfect legs. From the beginning our friends
said we made an ap-pealing contrast. Melanie blond, me dark. Her
eyes light blue, mine dark green. As she stands before me in the
secluded courtyard of a small park a few miles from my office, her
hands clasped in front of her, I'm overcome by her beauty. We're
cut off from the world here, surrounded by tall hedges on all
sides, and, suddenly, all I want to do is kiss her.
"What do you want?" she asks quietly.
"Thanks for coming," I say, not answering. I pleaded with her an
hour ago on the phone to meet me here, not knowing what I'd say if
she agreed to come because I didn't think she would. On the short
drive over I planned my speech, but now, as I look at her, I'm
finding it hard to focus. "Thanks," I mumble again.
She takes a step closer. "I know this whole thing is a shock to
you, Augustus, and I'm sorry about that. I don't feel good about
myself right now. I'm hurting too."
"Somehow I have a hard time believing that." Her expression turns
grim, and I wish I hadn't said that. "We can work things out, Mel.
I know we can." Her gaze drops to the gray slate beneath us. "We
can't give up on each other," I continue, my voice intensifying.
"We're too good together." Her perfume drifts to my nostrils, and
it drives me crazy to think she might be wearing it for Frank
Taylor. Perhaps he even bought it for her. But I can get past all
the jealousy and rage if she'll just come back. I could even get
past the bruises on her wrists. "We've been together so long. We
can't let it end like this." Tears build in her eyes and I press,
sensing that this might be my best chance to change her mind. "We
promised ourselves we'd never let this happen. Remember?"
"Yes," she whispers.
"We need to rededicate ourselves to each other and to our
rela-tionship. We need to work at this thing." I take another deep
breath and nod solemnly, implying that I am accepting my share of
the blame. "I've been paying too much attention to all of my stock
charts lately, and not enough attention to you. I apologize for
that. I promise not to take you or us for granted ever
"Sometimes I think you care more about the Wall Street Journal than
you do about me."
"I need to work harder at our marriage," I agree firmly. "Nothing
can be more important."
She lets her head fall back slowly and looks to the sky, our future
balanced precariously on her next words. "Augustus, I just
"Give it time, Mel." I heard an awful finality creeping into her
tone. "For God's sake, give it time."
She drops her head and catches a tear on her finger. "I've made my
decision," she says, her voice raspy.
But I hear a tiny bit of indecision. Like there might still be a
sliver of a chance. "Mel, you've got to reconsider."
"Don't do this," she pleads. "Don't make it more difficult than it
"I can't lose you, Mel. I can't be without you." I take her hand
and she doesn't pull away, which must be a good sign. I'm saying
all the right things, despite how hard it is. After all, she's the
one asking for the divorce. "You're the only woman I've --- "
Emotion suddenly stran-gles my words, and the brutal honesty causes
her to glance up. "You're the only woman I've ever made love to,
Mel. I've never said that to you before, but it's true." I had
chances, before and after we were married, but I've never strayed.
And that night so long ago, in the fall of our senior year in high
school, when she surrendered to me in the back of my parents' old
Chevy, was my first experience. "You're the only woman I've ever
wanted to make love to."
A tear rolls down her cheek as she glances at my neck. "I know,"
she whispers. "Maybe that's part of the problem."
"Frank has volunteered to help me with my side of the divorce," she
announces, her demeanor turning professional. "Which is very nice
of him. He says you need to retain an attorney right away, and he
has several recommendations of people who can help if you don't
"Does he now?" I ask, really feeling for the first time that the
end of my marriage is at hand. My thoughts flash to a knife lying
in the trunk of my Toyota. A knife I keep stashed in the folds of a
red woolen hunting vest in case of trouble on the road.
"We have to move on, Augustus. I thought I made myself clear last
I swallow several times, unable to believe what I'm thinking. "Are
you? . . ." My voice trails off.
"What, Augustus?" she snaps, anticipating my question. But she's
going to make me say the words. "Am I what?"
Blood pounds in my brain and tiny spots flash before me.
Irides-cent spots that shoot across my retinas. I'm not certain I
want to know the answer, but I can't help myself. "Are you screwing
For a long time she says nothing, then her eyes narrow. "Do you
"Yes," I answer evenly. "I do."
"Is everything all right, Melanie?"
Together, she and I look toward a narrow stone archway --- the only
entrance to the courtyard. Frank Taylor is standing there dressed
in a gray suit and red tie.
"You okay?" he asks suspiciously, giving me a warning look.
She hurries to him and comfortably slips her arm into his, as
though she's done it many times before. "I'm fine, Frank."
"Hello, Augustus," he calls out in a trial-lawyer tone, like he's
about to cross-examine a hostile witness.
I've met Taylor several times at the Christmas parties he hosts for
his employees and their spouses at his offices. Each year we've had
nothing to say to each other after mumbling hello. It always
irritated me the way he smiled at Melanie across the party every
few minutes, even when he was talking to someone else.
"I told Augustus that he needs to hire an attorney," Melanie
in-forms him obediently.
Taylor pats her hand gently. "That's right, Augustus," he says,
"get yourself a good lawyer. You'll need one." "I made almost
eighty thousand dollars in the stock market this morning," I
mutter, the lump in my throat suffocating my words.
They don't hear me because they're already walking away and my
voice is so low. As I watch, Taylor's hand comes to rest on the
small of Melanie's back, then slips lower just as they turn the
corner and disappear.
"I thought you'd gone home."
I look at Russell vacantly. I've been sitting at my desk for the
last hour, staring at the wall, thinking about Frank Taylor's hand
on Mela-nie. The image is seared into my mind, and I'm still
"I'm glad you're still here."
"What do you want?"
"I want my money," Russell says calmly. "My share of the Unicom
profits. The gain was almost eighty thousand, which means my share
is forty grand."
Russell steps into my office and slams the door. "I wasn't kidding
yesterday morning," he hisses. "You pay me or I fire you. It's as
simple as that. You made that money using company assets on company
time. You owe it to me."
After taxes, my net proceeds from the Unicom trade should be about
sixty thousand dollars, assuming I don't hit it big on anything
else this year and get pushed into a higher tax bracket. That's a
healthy chunk of change, and the thought of giving away so much of
it makes me want to puke. I worked hard for that money, and now,
like a hyena, he's trying to scavenge my kill. "I'm not giving you
"You damn well better!"
"Go to hell, you asshole." God, that felt good. I've wanted to say
that to him for so long.
If steam could actually rise from a man's ears, it would be spewing
from Russell's as though from a hole in a high-pressure pipe. I'm
sure he expected me to roll over on this thing to save my job. In
fact, in his mind he's probably already spent the money. But I'm
not going to let him take advantage of me.
"I protected you this morning on that conference call with senior
management!" he shouts. "Those pricks wanted to fire your ass, but
I stuck up for you. If it wasn't for me, you'd be out of a job
right now." He wags a finger at me. "Don't be stupid, Augustus.
Give me the money."
I rise from my chair and move to where he stands, towering over
him. I'm tempted to pick him up and throw him against the wall. It
would be so easy and feel so good. "I quit," I snarl, somehow
keeping my clenched fists at my side.
I'm sitting at my kitchen table in just boxer shorts and a T-shirt.
The windows are wide open to the darkness, but even now, at
midnight, the heat is still brutal. The air conditioner was broken
when I finally made it home. I tried to get a breeze circulating
through the house, but July in Washington is hot and stiflingly
humid, and opening all the windows hasn't helped much.
One more time I check the charts and graphs spread out all over the
kitchen table. I'm trying to decide what to do with the money I
made off Unicom, but it's hard to concentrate with the heat and
every-thing that's happened today. Finally I head into the living
room to stretch out on the sofa. I've had enough day trading for
The knock at the front door startles me from a fitful sleep on the
sofa. An old movie is playing quietly on the television, and for a
second I wonder if the knock was real or part of the film. I turned
the tele-vision on to distract myself from thoughts of Melanie and
Frank Taylor. I couldn't stop wondering how far she had gone for
him. I couldn't stop wondering about his red silk tie and those
purple bruises on her wrists.
The knock comes again. It's more urgent this time and I sit up and
rub my eyes. Definitely not part of the movie. I check my watch in
the glare from the television. It's almost two in the
Standing on the front stoop are two men wearing plain slacks and
sport coats, the top buttons of their shirts undone and their ties
pulled down. Both of them are sweating in the intense heat, and one
mops his forehead with a white handkerchief.
"Augustus McKnight?" the nearer one asks, pulling a gold badge from
his jacket and flashing it at me. He's the older of the two, and he
has a look in his eyes like he's incapable of being surprised by
"Yes." I gaze at the badge. "That's me."
"I'm Detective Reggie Dorsey of the Washington, D.C., police
de-partment. I'm sorry to inform you," he says without emotion,
"but your wife is dead."
Melanie's body was discovered facedown in a trash-strewn alley in a
crime-ridden section of Washington less than a mile from the
Capitol. Her pocketbook lay a few feet away containing several
hundred dollars and all of her credit cards, so Detective Reggie
Dorsey ruled out robbery as a motive for her murder right
Despite having already matched the photograph on her driver's
license to her blood-spattered face, Reggie requested that I come
downtown with him immediately to make a positive identification. He
said he had to have it at some point, and that I might as well get
it over with as soon as possible. He said the longer I waited, the
harder it would be. I figured he knew what he was talking about, so
So here I stand beside the stainless steel gurney supporting my
wife's naked body. I'm shivering in the morgue's cold, the odors of
formaldehyde and death filling my nostrils. The images of toe tags
and ashen fingers dangling from beneath sheets are fresh in my mind
after I walked all the way through the place to get to this room.
As I watch, an elderly man dressed in a long white lab coat slowly
pulls one end of the shroud covering Melanie's body down from her
forehead to her chin. He holds it tightly to the pale skin of her
cheeks with latex-encased fingers so I won't see the horror of the
hastily sutured ear-to-ear throat wound that, Reggie thoughtfully
informed me, almost decapitated her. When I can no longer bear to
look at Melanie's face, I nod at Reggie and bow my head. Then I
cry. As an adult I've never cried in front of anyone, but I can't
help it now. The thought that Melanie is gone forever overwhelms me
--- and I crumble.
During the drive downtown in Reggie's unmarked cruiser it didn't
sink in that Melanie was actually dead. I had no reason to doubt
Reggie's information, delivered on my front stoop with all the tact
of an infantry assault. I assumed he wouldn't have told me that way
if he wasn't certain of her identity. However, the events of the
past thirty-six hours had anesthetized me. I hadn't yet fully
grasped the notion that Melanie was divorcing me, so the idea of
her death seemed even furtherfrom reality.
But seeing her stiff form sprawled on the silver gurney makes it
sickeningly real. I realize there will be no divorce; no Frank
Taylor invading the sanctity of my home. Now I face something much
more terrible. The woman I always believed I would grow old with is
I fleetingly touch Melanie's cold fingers --- hanging from beneath
the sheet --- then Reggie takes me to a small office where he
leaves me alone to face my grief. It takes me thirty minutes to get
myself together. When my mother died last Christmas I shed a few
silent tears after her breathing stopped and I gently closed her
eyelids. But by the time a nurse entered the room a few minutes
later, I was back in control. Death seemed natural in my mother's
case, almost comforting. Not in Melanie's.
An hour later Reggie and I are heading south back to my house in
Reggie is a barrel-chested black man of about fifty who projects a
no-nonsense, confident attitude. At five-ten he's of average
height, but he's still a mammoth and forceful presence, weighing
well over two hundred pounds. His beige sports jacket and plain
blue shirt stretch tightly across his broad chest, his fingers are
thick and stubby, and he has almost no neck. But his most
intimidating feature is his head. It's immense, like a bull's,
exuding power. His expansive forehead, with its receding hairline,
juts far out over his eyes. His wide nostrils flare when he
breathes, and his deeply set dark brown eyes seem to be in constant
motion, taking in and cataloging everything around him.
"You okay, Augustus?" he asks after we've driven a few dark blocks
in silence. It's four in the morning and the city is still
"Yeah," I mutter, taking a deep breath. "I just want to find the
per-son who did this to Melanie. I want to see them get what they
"Of course you do." Reggie tries to use a comforting tone, but I
can tell that's tough for him because his voice and manner are
naturally gruff. " We all do." He hesitates. "And we will. Make no
mistake," he assures me confidently. "Justice will be
I shake my head and close my eyes. "I can't believe she's gone. Why
would someone do this?"
Melanie's pocketbook sits on the seat between us, full of cash and
credit cards. "Not for money," Reggie says, tapping it. "That's
We lapse into silence until we reach I-395, a three-lane expressway
that leads out of downtown. "Where was Melanie supposed to be last
night?" Reggie asks, taking the exit ramp and accelerating onto the
al-most empty highway.
"Work. She'd been putting in a lot of overtime lately. Sometimes it
was hard for us to make ends meet."
"I can understand that. Times are tough. Where did she work?"
"At a law firm downtown," I answer quietly, taking a quick glance
at the speedometer. The posted limit here is fifty-five and there
are no other cars on the road, but he isn't even doing fifty.
Reggie wants to talk. "The managing partner is a guy named Frank
Taylor. Melanie was his executive assistant. Taylor does mostly
"Yeah, sure. That firm is over on Farragut Square. Never met
Taylor, but I've heard about him. A real pit bull, people tell
"What time was Melanie supposed to be home last night?"
"She didn't give me a specific time." I speak deliberately so
Reggie is certain to hear the growing irritation in my voice. I
shouldn't have to go through this right now. "She stayed at the
office until one or two in the morning sometimes. It wasn't
something I was worried about, if that's what you're getting
"Okay," he says, as if he's already thinking two or three questions
ahead. "Had she called you to tell you what time she would be
"No," I answer curtly.
"Did she usually call when she was staying at work late?"
He starts to ask another question but seems to think better of it.
We say no more until the signs for Springfield appear and I give
him directions through my neighborhood.
Reggie eases the car to a stop in front of my house. "There's
something I want you to understand, Augustus." Suddenly I'm
exhausted. All I want to do is crawl into bed and try to escape the
horror of what's happened. Most of all, I don't want to listen to
this, but I feel like I have no choice. I don't want him thinking
I'm uncooperative. "What's that?"
"My job is to solve murder cases. To find the guilty party."
"Of course it is."
"By using any means necessary. Any at all."
"During that process I don't allow myself to get close to any of
the people involved. I've been around too long for that. I learned
early on in my career that I have to remain completely objective to
be as effective as possible."
"I'm not sure what you're driving at."
"In thirty years on the force I've seen plenty, Augustus. People I
thought were as gentle as lambs turned out to be ax murderers.
People I could have sworn were guilty as sin were innocent.
Maintaining a certain distance allows me to see things for what
they really are. To see people for who they really are." He
hesitates. "We'll be talking a lot over the next few weeks, and I
don't want you to think I don't appreciate what you're going
through. I do."
I stare at him for a few moments through the gathering dawn,
wondering what initial impressions he's already formed of me. "What
does that mean?"
"I may ask questions that make you uncomfortable or that you find
offensive. I want you to remember that I'm just doing my job the
best way I know how. Like you said, we all just want to find your
As the sun's rays crawl over the horizon, I stagger up the short
stone walkway to my house --- clutching Melanie's pocketbook ---
aware that Reggie hasn't driven away. Aware that he's watching me
and that he's already begun his investigation.
Melanie's memorial service is a private affair, just as our wedding
was. I had her body cremated, and now I've arranged this brief
ceremony at a funeral home a few minutes from our house. The only
people who attend are Melanie's parents, her sister, an aunt who
lives in south-western Virginia, one of Melanie's coworkers, and my
friend Vincent Carlucci. No one from my family comes because there
isn't anyone. I'm an only child, both of my parents are dead, and
my mother's two sisters live in Atlanta. Too far for them to
travel. Besides, like my mother, they never cared for Melanie. And
I never knew any of my father's relatives, so there wasn't anyone
from his side to invite.
Melanie attended early Sunday services at a Catholic church near
our house almost every week while I slept late. She'd been going
for years, but suddenly stopped a few months ago. She never told me
why. I would have held the memorial service at the church, but, in
a way, I was afraid to talk to Father Dale, the priest there. She'd
made such an abrupt break with her faith I was worried I'd find out
something bad. So I held the service at the funeral home where I
felt I would receive compassion from the proprietor, not judgment
I stand behind the lectern, a framed photograph of Melanie resting
on an easel beside me. It was taken when she was in high school,
and it's amazing how little she'd changed. Her parents brought it
today. It was the only one we had.
I try hard to control my emotions as I prepare to say a few words
to the mourners. In the hushed room, I try to think of anything but
the good times we shared in the first few years of our marriage.
It's just too painful to remember those days. I think about my own
father. It's strange where the mind takes you sometimes.
I've never known much about my father. I don't know about his
childhood, if he had brothers and sisters, or even where he
originally came from. I tried to talk to him about all that once
when I was twelve, but he told me to stop bothering him. He told me
he just wanted to read his evening paper. He was a damn cold man
who would leave home for two or three days every few months without
even saying good-bye. My mother explained he had to travel for his
job, but I have my doubts. He worked on an assembly line and I've
never heard of any other factory workers who have to travel for
their jobs. I finally asked Mother about all of that one
Thanksgiving when I was home from college and we were alone in the
kitchen together, but she had no answers. None she was willing to
share with me anyway.
It was clear to me at a very early age that my father didn't have
much interest in my life. I tried hard to get his attention, but
nothing ever worked. I played high school football, played it
pretty well in fact, but he never came to a single game. He never
even asked me how my team was doing. He'd sit at the dinner table
and stare at his plate while Mom asked me questions. The moment he
finished eating he would rise from the table without a word and go
back to his bedroom, shoulders stooped, slippers shuffling across
our bare hardwood floors. I say "his" bedroom because from the time
I was eleven, my mother and father slept in separate rooms. They
thought I didn't understand, but I did, and that's hard on a kid.
Hard to think that they didn't really care about each other
anymore. That maybe everything was somehow my fault. I promised
myself that my marriage would never come to be like that --- but it
My father died in his sleep last October of a heart attack, and I
never had a chance to say good-bye to him. I always held out hope
that we'd connect with each other someday, but it didn't work out
that way. I guess we were destined never to know each other.
I look up from the lectern and see Melanie's coworker sitting to my
left, a vacant chair between her and Melanie's family. She gazes at
me sadly, tears in her eyes. I d