The Novel of Financial Deception
Enters Its Third Year Online
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Casing Wal-Mart
Miller Risk Advisors

Rigged Chapter 3



Ross M. Miller
Posted June 17, 2004

I usually eat lunch in the first-floor cafeteria so that I can keep up with things around Alaska. On this day, preoccupied with the Lowell trip, I took lunch back to my office. Unlike most corporate labs, Alaska’s “management” is not segregated from the “workers” in a plush ghetto, but each cohabits with one of the tribes in its longhouse. My office—the same size as any other—was in Quarktopia.

While I ate, I reflected on the events that had brought me to this point. I was surely among the more disillusioned Alaskans. My earliest memory is of my father keeping me up all night so that I could witness what he kept saying would be “the greatest moment in man’s history.” He had to rouse me several times, but I was awake to see Neil Armstrong hop down onto the moon. I grew up with dreams of greater possible explorations, but they have yet to materialize.

When I learned that mathematics was involved in bringing Neil Armstrong into my home and could keep similar signals out of the hands of the enemy, I became interested in math and found that it came easily to me. At the age of six, I spent hours developing my first secret code only to have my father crack it in under a minute. By the time I was eight, I was writing codes that neither he nor any or his friends could crack. This game I played with my father—I’d create a code and he’d try to crack it—is what got me hooked on mathematics.

My recognition that the making and breaking of codes could be viewed as a game with three players—sender, recipient, and interceptor—was at the core of much of my game theoretic research. Most people think of a code as successful if the sender can get the message through to the recipient without the interceptor cracking it. The famous Navajo code talkers used during World War II are a prime example of this approach to encryption. The problem is that the interceptor knows that something is going on and knows that he doesn’t know what it is. I solved this problem by developing codes that allowed the sender to bundle several messages into the same transmission. The recipient would be able to decode the true message and the interceptor, after considerable effort, would receive a misleading message intended for his consumption.

My disillusionment began when I got involved in a research project at JPL—NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Caltech operated JPL for NASA just as GFF operated the original ALASKA for DARPA. While JPL had its own workers (who were all employees of the federal government), it drew heavily on Caltech’s faculty and students for technical expertise. What I saw at JPL was truly horrifying and the blame fell squarely on NASA. Their bureaucracy had drained the creative juices out of all but the most stubborn scientists. Anyone who spoke up about an  “engineering issue” was fortunate if the most that happened was that he was ignored. I could figure out why so little had come of my dreams of interplanetary conquest.

After lunch, I sent off a flurry of e-mails and went back to the lodge, where I had one of the few permanent quarters. I stuffed some things into a travel bag. At half past three, the front desk called and said that a car was waiting in front of the lodge. Alice had offered to send one of the hive’s cars up to take us to Boston, but I politely declined and requisitioned one of our own.

We were all good to go on the dot of four. Assuming the paternal role in this enterprise, I drove. Tara, the second-tallest member of the group after me, sat in the front passenger’s seat. She was, by default, the expedition’s mother despite being the youngest and only superficially maternal. I handed over Roland’s binder and dubbed her the designated reader. Randy and Zero, our surrogate children, sprawled out in the back seat with the sanitized laptop computers between them. Zero had plugged the machines into an adapter connected to what at one time would have been the cigarette lighter. “I hope you leave me with some juice to drive this thing,” I said to him as we loaded the last of the luggage into the trunk. Zero kept working and ignored me.

The foliage on the drive from the lodge to the main road was just approaching its peak. Plentiful rain at summer’s end had made this year’s colors especially breathtaking. A few miles down the road, Randy spoke up, “Doc, I’m thinking that we’ve got to be careful. You never know what this trip is really about. I read somewhere that a few years ago when the Mighty Quinn was working the deal to sell the North Carolina office furniture business to the Danes he conducted what were supposed to be environmental-impact assessments at every major GFF business. He turned the whole company upside-down so that he could look inside the furniture business without arousing suspicions. While no one figured out what he was doing until after the deal was announced, rumors swept the company that he was going to liquidate everything.”

“I remember that,” I said. “They’re a sneaky bunch. When dealing with the hive it’s impossible to be too paranoid.”

“So how should we play this?” Randy asked.

“Until we learn more, we have no choice but to act like we’re taking everything at face value. It’s obvious that Lowell is doing something wrong—not necessarily illegal, unethical, or immoral—just wrong. It’s not clear why anyone, much less Roland, thinks that we can help. This all smacks of desperation to me.”

 “Desperate, but not serious, your kisses drive me delirious,” Randy sing-songed a few times until Zero elbowed him.

“Thanks for turning off the Antmusic channel,” I said to Zero in the rearview mirror.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Randy said. “You might get the Beastie Boys.”

Our pace picked up as we reached the Northway and headed south. A few miles past Saratoga Springs I said, “We’ll be making a brief detour ahead.”

“A casino?” Randy beamed hopefully. “There’s a reservation only an hour out of our way. Just hang a right at Worcester.”

“No such luck. Remember, I’m retired.”

“A guy can always dream.”

“No,” I said, “we’re stopping at the old lab to get a different kind of cards—identification cards—so that we’ll appear legit.”

“It’ll take more than an ID to do that. I’m still waiting for my SAG union card.” Then I thought I heard him rap, “Too legit to quit,” but was willing to ignore it, as was the rest of the car.

The old lab was a few miles off the Northway on the west bank of the Hudson River. No one else in the car had ever been there although they had all heard stories about it. Randy went back to work on the laptops while Tara took up the conversational slack.

“A few Pulsars mention the place from time to time, just how old is it?”

“It started out almost a century ago on the other side of the river at various locations in and around Troy, but it moved here right after World War II. They razed an abandoned mill and built it on the land. Before that, folks say it was a tribal burial ground.”

“That sounds exciting. Does it have an ancient curse on it?”

“It might as well have, but I never saw any ghosts there, just summer interns lost in its three-dimensional maze of hallways and stairwells. Hey, with the audit team poking around, who needs aboriginal spirits?”

“That’s another thing,” Tara said, “Just who or what is this audit team?”

“They’re Mike’s creation,” I replied. “They go from one GFF business to the next working on projects that advance Mike’s agenda. They aren’t auditors in the traditional sense—whenever GFF has the occasional accounting issue, like misallocating funds for a government contract, someone other than the audit team always finds it. When you get right down to it, the audit team serves as Mike’s spy network. And in exchange for feeding information back to Mike, they get first dibs on the juiciest jobs in the company.”

“Oh wow, spies,” Randy said from the back. “Can I sign up?”

“You can’t. No one can. The audit team tracks everyone in GFF’s numerous training programs and invites the top performers to join them. Of course, a spy network that’s already blown its cover isn’t much use to anyone.”

“Why hasn’t the audit team visited Alaska?” asked Tara.

“I guess for the same reason that we have to go pick up GFF IDs. Although on paper we’re all GFF employees—we get every GFF benefit except that we receive a share of our patent income in lieu of stock options—we’re treated like we work for the Defense Department.”

“How’s that possible?”

“Friends—excuse me—a friend in high places. Soon after the lab opened, restricted areas were cordoned off for classified research projects, of which the original ALASKA was the largest. When Roland took it from merely being managed by GFF to being owned by it, he never bothered to change its security status on GFF’s books. The audit team may have a lot of things going for them, but a DoD top-secret security clearance isn’t one of them.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking,” Tara said hesitantly. “How did you get one?”

“While drug use and assorted shady activities are automatic disqualifications, gambling isn’t, at least as long as it doesn’t get one in legal or financial trouble. And by taking a leave of absence from Caltech for research purposes, I didn’t even have a hole in my employment record.”

“That’s a clever twist on the I-was-just-doing-research excuse. But getting back to Alaska, you’d think that someone at the hive would have figured things out by now.”

“Not really. In a company that is bigger in dollar terms than most countries, we’re small potatoes, especially compared with the old lab. As long as we don’t create a blip on GFF’s balance sheet—and I make sure that we don’t—no one cares.”

We could now see the old lab a half-mile ahead of us. Even with manicured grounds and a setting that inspired an entire school of artists, it had none of Alaska’s beauty or elegance. It was a hodgepodge of interlaced buildings—from solid brick in the forties to steel and glass in the eighties—that stretched a mile from one end to the other.

I drove up to the guardhouse in the middle of the entry road and rolled down my window. A voice with a vaguely subcontinental accent spoke to me from a small metal speaker: “Are you visiting the Research Lab on business?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Place your driver’s license on the metal tray and look into the camera, please.”

I did as was told. Several seconds later the voice said, “Thank you. Please follow the signs to the visitors’ lot. Then proceed up the stairs to the main lobby. Your host will join you there.”

I didn’t need to follow any signs; my nervous system still remembered the place. It looked like nothing had changed in the eight years since I had ticked off the last item on the departure checklist.

The lot was deserted and I took the space closest to the building. Tara and I led the way with Randy and Zero trailing behind and kicking up leaves as they went. The lab was built on hilly terrain and arranged on multiple levels. We had parked below the lobby and on the same level as the many of the grungier labs.

Just as Tara and I reached the stairs, the two glass doors on the lab level suddenly flung open and two middle-aged men in safety glasses burst through them and sprinted out of the building and toward the employees’ parking lot. Dozens of others followed quickly behind. My first thought was that something terrible must be going on inside even though in all my time at the lab I had never heard of a single bomb threat or other untoward incident. When I looked at the faces of the men as they raced by, they weren’t panic-stricken; indeed, many of them were smiling. I asked Tara what time it was and she said, “Five o’clock . . . sharp.”

We waited first for the stampede to subside and then for Randy and Zero to catch up. Randy whispered to me, “It’s always gratifying to see a motivated workforce,” on our way into the lobby.

“When I worked here,” I said back to him, “the parking lot was still half-full at seven o’clock and it’s not because anyone was forcing us to stay. It was almost like Alaska.”

There was a desk with a phone in the corner of the lobby, but no receptionist, just a sign that said: “Wait here for your escort.” The lobby looked the same, only dustier. I figured that during our wait, I could give my colleagues a quickie tour.

“Here’s the inventors’ hall of fame,” I said as I led them to the right. “It takes fifty patents and the lab director’s signature to get your face plastered here. There’s Roland in his younger days. I forgot that he used to have a moustache. He drove an Alfa Romeo Spider back then, too.”

“These guys are fossils,” Randy said. “Lots of people inducted in the fifties and sixties, but I can’t find anyone who got in during the last ten years.”

The tour continued at the rear of the lobby. “As you might have guessed,” I said, “everything you see was either itself invented here or incorporates something invented here.” Randy shook hands with a robot arm, Zero looked at the vintage electronic equipment, and Tara admired the aircraft components, the largest of which was a propeller made from one of several alloys that Roland had cooked up in his lab.

“Isn’t there any new stuff?” Randy asked.

“There’s some over here,” Tara said, “but it looks mostly like they made trivial improvements to their existing products by using someone else’s technology. So that’s really not new, is it?”

Before any of us could respond to Tara, the door to an elevator at the end of the lobby opened and a familiar face wearing a white short-sleeved shirt with collar open and skinny tie askew appeared.

“Doc, you old dog,” the face said. “I couldn’t believe it when Roland told me you’d be coming by. And I see you’ve brought some new blood with you.”

“Hey, John,” I replied. “What are you doing here? I thought you jumped ship years ago.”

“Me, too. But I’m in administration now. I look after personnel, security—all the stuff that doesn’t involve research. We’re doing a lot of outsourcing these days. The guys working the security checkpoint you drove through are stationed at our Bangalore facility.”

I introduced my old friend John Munger to Tara, Randy, and Zero in that order. John had not aged well. The years had expanded his waistline and claimed most of his hair as well as an inch or two of what little height he brought with him from MIT. Considering what he must have been through, he was uncommonly cheery. As a student, he was one of the best chemists to come out of Cambridge; as a researcher, he was a disaster. None of his string of failures ever seemed to be his fault. Back in Vegas, we would call John a hoodoo—a guy who attracted bad luck and was to be avoided at all cost.

“So,” John said, “you guys need to be fixed up with IDs. Follow me to the HR office. I’ll have them for you in a snap.”

John used the ID card that hung around his neck on a lanyard to get us through the “Authorized Lab Personnel and Their Guests Only” door and led us down a long corridor. Little had changed. The walls were still institutional pastel yellow. Shiny steel canisters of liquid nitrogen a few inches taller than John still stood sentry every hundred feet. The same old chemical stench wafted through the air. The instrumentation in the laboratory bays had not changed appreciably.

John and I chatted as we walked while Tara, Randy, and Zero tagged wordlessly behind us.

“Things look the same as ever around here,” I said.

“Physically, yes. But a lot has changed.”

“Such as?”

“The whole place is run differently. We’re on the front lines of Alpha-Omega.”


“No, it’s a business process—really a whole new way of thinking—for giving GFF’s customers what they want.” John pointed to a poster tacked up on a bulletin board. Across the top it said, “Alpha-Omega” in large letters and below it in smaller letters, “The Beginning and the End of Quality.”

“And what do customers want?” I asked.

“No surprises,” John answered. “Starting here, in the labs, before we even begin to work on a new product, we build consistency into it.”

“To make it consistently excellent?”

“No,” John said. “Just consistent. Research has determined that customers prefer reliability to additional functionality. Back when you were here, we spent too much time trying to make what we thought were better products and not enough time listening to the customer.”

“So how do you listen to the customer?”

“That’s the job of GFF’s individual business units, it’s not like we’re running focus groups here. In turn, they tell us what type of research they’re willing to fund.”

“So the money to run the place comes from the businesses and not from the hive? I remember that Mike was making noises about doing that.”

“Right. Well he did it and now all the money goes through the Alpha-Omega process before it gets to us. By the way, I just became an international grandmaster.”

“Congratulations. I didn’t know you played chess.”

“I don’t,” John said. “International grandmaster is the highest rank in the Alpha-Omega program. Master is the right below it and at the bottom are the experts.”

“Are all of GFF’s businesses using Alpha-Omega?” I asked.

“Eventually they all will. That’s the plan. It takes a while to roll it properly out to the new acquisitions. They’re talking about doing something out at the cable network next quarter. And many of GFF’s customers have initiated their own programs based on Alpha-Omega.”

“Is this Alpha-Omega something that Mike dreamed up?”

“No, not really. It didn’t even start at GFF. One of our big suppliers, Samsara Tool & Die, came up with it. Mike saw it, sent out a memo, and we were off to the races. Now he can’t stop talking about it and acts like he invented it. We’ve been using it for several years, though it’s only really picked up steam in the last two. I’m surprised that you haven’t heard about it.”

“I’ve heard of Samsara,” Zero piped up. “We used to buy a lot of test equipment from them. I’ve got one of their umbrellas.”

The human resources office was at the end of a long corridor. John opened the outside door, which still had “Personnel” written in gold leaf on it, and led the four of us into a room with a chair, a white backdrop, and a digital camera cabled up to a computer. Randy went first. John snapped the picture and flipped the monitor so that we all could see it.

“We can touch it up a little,” John said as he laughed, pressed a few keys, and made Randy look like a member of the Blue Man Group.

“That’s a print,” Randy said, but John restored Randy’s face to its normal flesh tone before producing the card. It was a standard white plastic ID card with picture in front and magnetic stripe on back.

“You’re next,” John said to Zero. Zero cared neither about how he looked nor for John’s comments about his name. The camera was almost able to reproduce the colors in his shirt.

Tara took more time. It wasn’t that she required a reshoot, but that John was fussy about getting her to look “just right.” Her ID picture was a work of art. But then how could it not be? She had a smile to die for.

I went last and with the least fanfare. We were about to leave when Zero said, “Has anyone seen my card?”

Randy joked, “You’ve lost it already. You’re always losing things.”

“That’s okay,” John said, “It’s easy enough to purge that one and make you another.”

It wasn’t that easy. When John tried to delete Zero’s card from the system, it crashed and we had to wait as John rebooted the computer. I glared at Zero so that he wouldn’t brag about how his systems never did that.

John finally got things working, created Zero’s new card, and led us through the labyrinth and back out to the lobby. We found our own way to the car. It was not until we were a few miles down the Northway that anyone spoke.

“What a troll!” Zero said.

“I was thinking more along the lines of homunculus,” Randy added.

“I found him kinda cute,” Tara said.

“Go back and tell him that,” Randy replied. “It’ll make his day.” Then he asked me, “What was he on?”

“An antidepressant of some kind.”

“How do you know that?” Tara asked.

“I knew the old John and that wasn’t him. He had his faults, but he was a cynical freethinker. He’s probably about to qualify for early retirement and is just biding his time. What’s more, he’s usually easy to read, but today I found him opaque.”

“How’s that?” Tara asked.

Randy interjected, “Prozac, Zoloft, Ecstasy, you name it—it’s all kryptonite to Doc. Keep enough serotonin pumping through someone’s brain and it masks their normal reactions.”

“Yes,” I said, “they’re a lot worse than mirrored sunglasses when a serious player ingests them. Fortunately, when a chump takes an antidepressant, all it does is make him happy to throw his money away.”

The thought of mirrors reminded me to glance in my rearview. That’s when I saw Zero nonchalantly wielding a knife.

Copyright 2004 by Ross M. Miller. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to