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The Devil's Work 

CHAPTER ONE
He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
~ Matthew 11:15


Tom MacDonald stood motionless in front of the ATM in disbelief.
For the third time he tried to withdraw cash, and the screen displayed
TRANSACTION DENIED. “This is bullshit!” He switched from checking
to money market and then to savings. Each transaction attempt met with
the same response . . . TRANSACTION DENIED.


He walked across the street to another major bank branch, thinking
there must be something wrong with his bank’s systems. Tom knew he
had over five thousand dollars in his checking account, eleven thousand in
savings, and thirty-five thousand in his money market account. It shocked
him when the screen flashed . . . DENIED, yet again.


Tom stormed back across the street and into the branch of his
primary bank. He glanced around and spotted the manager’s office. He
walked toward the office, oblivious to a customer service representative
trying to get his attention. “Sir, are you the manager?” said Tom. Tom’s
abrupt entrance and agitated tone startled the man.


“Yes, I am William Pipp, manager of this branch office. How may I
help you?”


“I have over fifty thousand dollars deposited in your bank, but all my
withdrawal attempts are being denied,” said Tom, his voice a little calmer
since he could share the problem.


“It’s because you haven’t sworn allegiance. Until you do that, there’s
nothing I can do for you.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I want to speak with someone
who can fix this.”


The manager pointed to a door next to his office and Tom wasted no
time. He opened the door, and the instant he entered the room, the door
closed behind him. The room was gloomy except for a single light in the
middle of the ceiling covered by a shade, causing the light to concentrate in
the middle of the room. A man stood under the light with his back to the
door. The man arched his torso forward and clenched his fists. His posture
and dark clothing signaled he was menacing. He stood as though leaning
over someone or something. While Tom observed this spectacle, a man
with a harsh voice said, “What do you want, Mr. MacDonald?”


Tom looked to the corner where the voice came from and saw
another figure sitting at a desk. The ceiling light provided just enough light
to see the top of the desk and the torso of the man sitting at the desk. His
hands looked suntanned or were an olive skin color. He wore a tailored
suit, monogrammed shirt, silk tie, and it all appeared expensive.


“I want to withdraw money from my account,” said Tom as he took
a few steps toward the desk.


“Well then, you must swear allegiance.”


Tom was about to respond when he saw a chair in front of the menacing
figure in the middle of the room. In the chair, hands and feet tied
and mouth gagged, sat his girlfriend, Claire. Her face was red, her right eye
swollen, and there was blood dripping around the gag in her mouth.


“What the hell are you doing?” yelled Tom. He started toward
the man in the middle of the room, but two men seemed to come from
nowhere, grabbed him from behind and held him. The man in the middle
of the room came toward Tom and punched him in the face and stomach
until Tom was barely conscious. The man behind the desk came into Tom’s
view and stood in front of him. This man’s form seemed familiar to Tom,
but the man’s face remained shadowed.

“You and your girlfriend will need to swear allegiance if you want to
access your money. We will do what it takes to get your allegiance. Do you
need to see more?” asked the shadowed man in a cynical tone.


“Screw you,” said Tom.


“Very well, you can watch what we do to your girlfriend,” said the
leader as he motioned to the man in the middle of the room to continue.
He wound up his fist to deliver a crushing punch to Claire’s face.

*   *   *   *


Tom awoke to a loud knock on the door. He sat up in bed in a confused
state of mind. Tom wasn’t sure where he was. He scanned the room
with concern over Claire. His sweating was so profuse that his pajamas,
bed sheets, and pillow felt as though they just came out of the washer.
The knock at the door persisted and was getting louder. “Are you okay,
Mr. MacDonald?”


Tom gained enough composure to walk to the door. Keeping it
chained, he opened it a crack and said he was fine. The man at the door
introduced himself as the manager and said guests in adjoining rooms had
complained of loud noise coming from Tom’s room.


“I’m sorry, it was just a bad dream.”


“Okay, Mr. MacDonald. Please call if you need any help.”


Tom sat at the desk, placing his face in his hands. Just a bad dream.
Weird, the man in the dream is familiar, but I can’t put a name to him. For
several minutes he concentrated, and a name came to mind. Hell, it was
that bastard Mirza. Why did he show up in my dreams? Most likely the recent conversation with the former AT&T exec. That dream was off the wall. Forget it and go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

 

*    *   *   *
Tom relaxed when he took his seat on the plane. Heading home for the
holidays felt good. Tom always enjoyed train rides, but flying was another
story. He had taken the train from the suburbs to center-city Philadelphia
for years, and could always get a bench seat for three to himself, or worst
case, share it with one other person. The train packed during rush hour, but
because of the long hours he worked, he rarely traveled during the rush.
Flights, on the other hand, were most often full; the seats too small and
seated next to someone who was overweight and encroached on his space.


When he first took his window seat, both the middle and the aisle
seats were open. He had hoped for an empty row so he could sprawl and
relax, but an attractive blonde snagged the aisle seat a few minutes later. At
least it was a positive tradeoff, he thought to himself. There was still a steady
stream of passengers boarding when he spotted one guy who was stout and
unkempt, perspiring from the effort of boarding. He hoped, for his and
the blonde’s sake, this guy would sit somewhere else. No such luck—he
slumped into the middle seat.


The portly gentleman fanned out his copy of USA Today and was one
of those types who shared the news he found interesting, sparing no details
and adding his commentary. He tried sports, international affairs, and then
finance. Not only didn’t he get her attention, he irritated her. She let him
know she “had some work to focus on and didn’t want to be BADGERED
the entire flight from San Diego to Atlanta.”


Tom switched from the article he was reading to a client proposal.
He had no sooner gotten his client folder opened and tablet fired up when
Mr. Portly, Pete, turned his attention to him. Pete was a self-proclaimed
geek who worked for Verizon, managing a network of servers. Tom maintained his focus on the proposal and politely responded to Pete’s news
review with perfunctory comments like, “That’s interesting,” or, “Imagine
that,” or, “What a world.”


Perhaps because Tom and Pete were interacting, or because she felt
she had been too hard on Pete, maybe both, the attractive blonde, Carol,
started talking with Pete about cell phones. She was a high-end real estate
agent and needed the latest and greatest smartphone. Their conversation
provided a reprieve for Tom to figure out the structure of the proposal
and complete the outline and price quote. It would now be just a matter
of adding the boilerplate, and the proposal wouldn’t haunt his weekend
with Claire.


Pete and Carol had exhausted their technical gadget discussion, and
Pete went back to his paper.
“Hey, Tom, would you believe the government is considering
food rationing?”


“Pete, I wouldn’t put anything past the government after what we’ve
seen since the Great Recession,” Tom replied.


Pete raised his eyebrows and his jaw dropped before saying, “You
think they’ll start rationing food?”


“I think it’s highly possible and I’ve even heard they might use the
credit card system to control it,” said Tom.


Carol overheard the conversation, and she too looked surprised by
what Tom was saying. She chimed in, “God knows what they will do next.”


“Oh, he knows,” said Pete. “Jesus is coming, and boy, is he pissed
off!” Pete huffed, and buried his head back into the paper.


“Do you think Jesus is coming,” asked Tom, “or is that something you
read on a billboard?” Tom figured Pete was just trying to get Carol’s attention. It was obvious Pete was attracted to her; who wouldn’t be—she was shapely, pretty, dressed impeccably, and spoke well. Tom doubted Pete had gotten this far since high school, if ever, with such an attractive woman.


Pete looked up from the newspaper. “I was being flippant, but to be
honest, I’m not sure what I believe these days. All I know is we need someone good to lead us forward.”


Tom was getting tired, and he was a coffee addict, so he discreetly
flagged down a flight attendant and asked pleadingly if it would be possible
to get a cup of coffee. She told him to come to the back of the plane in ten
minutes and she would see what she could do.


The next ten minutes seemed like an eternity. Tom’s mind went back
and forth between his work and plans for the Thanksgiving holiday. He
struggled to put work aside. Did he deliver actual value or just information?
Would the last payment come on time? Did he piss off the CMO in the closing meeting when he told him something about his operation he didn’t want to hear? Tom, stop torturing yourself!


That brought his thoughts back to Thanksgiving weekend and Claire.
He loved all holidays, and Thanksgiving had always been his close second
to Christmas. He loved the long, lazy morning, with a steaming cup of
coffee in hand, while watching the Macy’s parade. Ahhhh, and the smell of
the food. Nothing like the smell of turkey cooking in the morning and the
medley of smells intensifying into the afternoon; sweet potatoes, mashed
potatoes, creamed corn, stuffing, and string bean casserole. Most dear to
him on Thanksgiving was the gathering of family. He would miss family
this year.


He had moved to Atlanta because it made more sense for business.
His specialty was bank management in general, and credit card processing
in particular. Many of the largest banks and credit card processors had
offices in Atlanta or just three and a half hours up the road in Charlotte.
This helped keep his travel time down and reduced the cost for his clients.
When he needed to travel, Atlanta was ideal as home to a world-class international airport and major hub for several airlines. He preferred living in the suburbs, but again, business convenience won out, and he lived in a
townhouse downtown. No maintenance, no grass to cut, simple, but spacious, close to clients, and the major highways. 


He glanced at his watch and sighed with relief. The ten minutes were
up. He excused himself to get by Pete and Carol and walked down the aisle
with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. The smell of the coffee was filling the
cabin. The flight attendants had left the service area and sat in the back of
the plane as if they did not know who had made the coffee. He located a cup,
poured the coffee, and savored the first swallow. His caffeine-starved body
gave up its hold on him, and the weak headache vanished. He returned to
his seat and put his head back, content in the moment. He was ready to
resume his Thanksgiving dreaming. Pete interrupted his reverie.


“It must be dangerous work being a board member for Universe Card.”


Tom jerked forward and asked Pete what he was referring too.
“According to this article, three of their directors have died violent deaths
in the last two months,” Pete explained.


“Can I see your paper for a minute?” asked Tom.


As Pete handed over the paper, he turned to Carol. “Finally, something
in the paper that you guys are interested in.”


Tom’s heart was racing and his thoughts ran in different directions.
The muscles in his face tightened—his shoulders scrunched from tension
and he leaned forward as he read the article. He was typically unshakable
and calm, but a deep-rooted fear, fear at a level where visceral instinct
operates and there’s no conscious control of the thought process, took over
his mind. He had to read the article three times before he could absorb the
details. Each time he tried, his mind would go off on a tangent.


Third Universe Card Director Dies Violent Death


Within the past two months, three members of the Universe
Card Board of Directors have met with violent deaths. David P.
Cunningham, age 57, former CEO of AT&T, fell from the balcony of
his 12th-floor hotel room while in San Francisco for a board committee
meeting.


Two other board members died in recent months. On Sept. 18,
Robert M. Patterson, age 63, former CMO of NCR, was on a hunting
trip when he fell down a hill and struck his head on a rock. On October

26, Teresa M. Giuliani, age 49, chief economist for JP Morgan, was
raped and murdered while jogging in Central Park, New York, NY.


Attempts to reach and get a comment from other members of the
board and executive officers of the company were unsuccessful. They
were unavailable or refused to comment on the matter. Wasim Mirza,
Chairman of the Board and CEO of Universe Card, issued a statement
expressing the board’s and company’s condolences to Cunningham’s
family and that the board and the business community at large would
feel his loss.


The board has held discussions with the US government, the
United Nations, and World Bank about using the payment system as
a tool to ration food, water, and gas worldwide. Board Members are
divided on the issue but expect to decide on the matter at the January
8 meeting of the Universe Card Board of Directors.
Mr. Cunningham is survived by his wife, three children, and
four grandchildren. Mr. Cunningham lived in Short Hills, NJ.


Mirza, you son-of-a-bitch. Mirza was chairman of Universe Card, the
largest credit card organization in the world, and a director of Primary
Card Processing, known in the industry as PCP. Tom had first crossed
paths with Mirza years ago, and his impression was he was a cold-hearted,
evil man. He was someone capable of misusing his power and position.


Tom recalled one meeting he attended to discuss competitive strategy
with Mirza’s management team. Most business meetings on competitive
strategy would include discussions of products, prices, and marketing
and sales tactics. Instead, Mirza encouraged each of his executives to create,
anonymously, false claims about the competitor’s management and
their products on the Internet. Fortunately, when he left the room, his
execs ignored Mirza’s direction and held a serious business strategy meeting.
The bad feelings he had about Mirza back in the day were reawakened.

Tom had concluded when he worked as a consultant for Mirza’s company
that if the payment system was high jacked by someone, or an organization,
for use as a weapon, Mirza would lead the takeover. Jim Martin,
who headed up PCP, planted the seeds, and Tom let them germinate in his
mind. It was a leap, but Tom’s immediate conclusion was that Mirza was
working with terrorists—or he was Satan, and end times were coming.


Pete must have noticed Tom’s emotional state. “Did you know one
of those guys?”


“No, I never met any of them,” Tom lied. He ran into Cunningham
the week before at the airport. He had worked with Cunningham years
before when AT&T launched their credit card. David shared with him,
after having his third martini in the Delta Crown room, that he was getting
intense pressure from Mirza to vote in favor of using Universe Card’s system
to control rationing. He said he could be wrong, but two other board
members opposed to the measure died sudden and tragic deaths.


Pete continued, “Could be a coincidence, but what are the odds? I
mean, you must be talking ten million to one. It’s more likely that one of
them would have won the lottery.” Pete shook his head and said, “Seems
more like the work of the devil to me.”


Tom turned toward Pete and said, “Exactly!” That wasn’t a nightmare
last night—more likely a premonition.

The Devil's Work by John Michael Gallagher

Release Date: December 4, 2020

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