The education of Private Melvin

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The Adventures of Opco Boone, Legal Ace™

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“Look, I’m not proud of it, but everyone was doing it. Tough times, man.”

Private Melvin P. Melvin, Jr. dragged on a cigarette and squashed it into an aluminium foil tray. He wiped his eye with his wrist.

Palmer offered him another one. Melvin stooped, clutched it between his lips and dragged hard as Palmer sparked his zippo. The cheroot caught.

“You have to understand: we were five years into this raging transcontinental war, and we were bogged down. Five goddamn years. We hadn’t moved fifty metres, forward or back. Oh sure, you’ve heard about the tranche warfare — everyone knows that: miles and miles of winding, sopping slits in the Belgian forests — but you didn’t have to live it.

“Even the upper tranches were bad: cold, wet, wind-whipped, vulnerable from three sides, but the bottom tranches was hell.”

“What was so bad?”

“Mud. Oh, the constant mud.”


“Dirty credit. You know — sludge. Gunge. Mucky pulp. Really low quality, sordid, filthy stuff. And we lived in that shit. I saw good men drown in that sludge, before my eyes. And, oh man, it stank to high heaven. We were deluged — subordinated — by it: it just saturated everything. It got in your hair, in under your fingernails, in your mouth. Oh! I can barely stand to think about it, even now. Just cascades of mud. Waterfalls of the stinking stuff, running down your backs, up to your waist, gushing around, and all we had was these shitty, gutless howitzers. If they fired at all, they barely shifted ordnance out of the goddamn tranche, but so much of it was shitty credit. It kept going off: blowing up we could even get it out of the warehouses, let alone into those crumby howitzers. And even then, every other one we loaded was a dud.

“How so?”

“It was just gunk, man. They only sent us the cheapest crap they could find. Even the stuff we managed to deliver — much of that the Jerries caught and sent straight back.


“Germans. Landesbanken units. Sparkassen units. Girozentralen. The odd Handelsbanken. They weren’t that sophisticated, but they were well organised and they fought like tomcats. I mean, it wasn’t just the Jerries. The Dutch, the Belgians, the French — they were all at it, too. But the Germans were the best organised: the BvB drilled their units well, and kept the liquidity supply lines strong and well-defended.

“But I have to think the mud was just as bad for them. Given how much we sent over with our howitzers. A lot of the time, they just took it. We laid waste to their ECP emplacements up and down the front, but they just sucked it up. We ran low on ammo, started putting anything we could find in those cannons. Cheap credits.

“As the Europeans got better, we got more bogged down. Eventually they started getting the upper hand. We didn’t know it, but they were setting up fused, recession-sensitive mines. And timebombs. Just when things were turning down they would go off and throw the combat field into chaos. They executed lightning raids behind our lines with their own start-up challengers. Incredible: just showered us with BaFin cover.

“They engaged in limited, effective ways. They trained their troops better. They began regularly picking off our Locust Class attack funds. The Spanish captured a British savings bank. Our trading units took sustained margin flak. Collateral damage. We got more bogged down.

“Then we got, you know” — Melvin made air quotes — “the ‘orders’.”

“Who gave the orders?”

“Oh, you know, they came down the line, like they always do — always with plausible deniability; you know, well-diffused escalations, so you never know who gave the order. But make no mistake, it was an order. Go down range

“Down range?”

“You know, clear out easy targets. Prepare the ground for a spring assault. Break their will, but clearing out the weak gazelles.”

Melvin looked far away. He dragged hard on the cigarette. He coughed.

“They sanctioned lethal force. It didn’t sit well with me but, look: orders are orders. Still, I rode light. I made sure I was late to the contact. I let the others do the work. My buddies didn’t mind – they loved the action. They lapped it up. Guilt free wasting of regional Italian landbank units? What’s not to like? We felt no guilt. It was win-win. This was war.

But one day it got me. It was a mistake. I couldn’t have seen it coming. We were clearing out some bomb-damaged structures on the main supply line back to real money. Just knocking them flat, making them safe, putting them beyond moral hazard. The bulldozer detail was assigned to clearing out radioactive waste in the Enron badlands, do for this low priority stuff they were happy enough for us sappers and doc jockeys to go in and clear them out, physical style.

I don’t deny it was fun. You feel like a hero, togged up in Kevlar annexures, camo-moly anonymising ALD codes, and those gleaming brass barrels on those old sweet bastard OSLAs. They don’t make stock lenders like that anymore. This modern dreck: it’s so anodyne, so commoditised, so dreadfully rectangular.

It took me back, as so much seemed to do nowadays, to Bundie. The old dog barked up a ton of wrong-headed trees, but boy was he on the money barking up that one. David goddamn Bundie.

I can still hear him saying it, in that put-on baritone of his, all faux swagger and stuffy authority:

“Now, mark my words, soldiers” — he was always calling us that — “treasure your weapon. Respect it. Treat it like a child, and it will treat you like it’s a fire-eyed mastiff and you are master of the hounds of hell.”

The boys at the back of the room sat up.

Cherish it, soldiers. You pay for this kind of skill. An artisan made this: sweated every detail. Look at the figuring in the barrel. The countersunk ivory portfolio margining grips — all that’s illegal now. See the care, the skill, the love that went into fashioning that. The hand crafted netting encasement. Feel it's balance in your hands, lads.”

We queued up to cop a feel. It was so smooth. Like a natural extension of your own credit line. We blammed it round the room like we were waxing buy-and-holds left right and centre. Roly made tommy-gun sounds. He went ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Bundie snatched the gat back off him. He clutched it to his chest, like a wounded bird.

“It’s not some murder machine, Punchface.”

“But you could kill with that, sir? I mean, it is lethal, at a certain range?”

Bundie’s eyes misted and went faraway.

“Oh yes, Soldier. Quite so. You could. Ahh, as you were, platoon, I should say — one could.”

The boys tittered at the mention of “platoon”.

“The day will come” — he furrowed his brow — “when the desk-bound generals decree this beautiful weapon defunct. They’ll derelict them, soldiers. They’ll replace them with some workaday substitute, designed for easy manufacture out in … in …” — I could tell his favourite subject was coming up — “Romania or somewhere like that.”

Roly put his hand up, his usual obsequious expression leavened by a sense of explicit mischief.

“What, sir, what’s wrong with Romania?”

A snicker ripple roiled the class.

Bundie cleared his throat, and launched. The class downed pens. The class kicked back. No more defence against indemnities today. Roly took some sub desk level low-fives as Bundie entered low orbit.

“Since you ask, Punchface, there is nothing wrong with Romania. Nothing at all. It is a perfectly nice place. Beautiful countryside, the Transfagaran, the Carpathians, deep history.”

Bundie was gesturing longingly into the middle distance.

“A geographical crossroads, a cultural melting pot: a pot-pourri. I go there a lot. I saw action there. I enjoy the people, the culture, the cuisine — But it has no English law tradition, Punchface. No cultural grounding in precedent, stare decisis, the fundamental split between equity and contact, on which our soldiers have always been schooled, from their very first lecture.”

Bundie was warming to his cause.

“Do you remember back that far, Punchface?”

“I certainly do, sir. LAWS 101: introduction to legal systems.”

System, boy, system: singular. Introduction to the legal system. There is only one. It is unitary. Monolithic. Ineffable.”

“Don’t Romanians have a legal system of their own, sir?”

“I — I — well, I dare say they do.”

Bundie thought for a moment.

“But it is not the English tradition, Punchface, and it is the English standard we have come to uphold as the basis of international legal relations. And their chaps don’t have it. There is no tradition of instilling in cadets the wisdom, knowhow and experience required to manufacture instruments of English commercial warfare. To be sure, they offer a willing population of bright, motivated school-leavers who speak serviceable English, and are well able to follow instructions, but their primary attribute is thrift. They are cheap and fast. They are judged by their volumes. They are worked in sweatshops.”

“That kind of workmanship will let you down when you most need it. Now, I seem to have let myself by sidetracked. We were talking about portfolio margining techniques I believe.”

The class groaned, but Roly was not deterred.

“Did you ever kill anyone, sir? You know, at Bretton Woods.”

At that moment, Bundie’s face darkened. A light went out. Something closed down in there. A door that had briefly shown a delicate perimeter of golden rays slammed shut. The youthful, vigorous warrior was gone and the kind old defence against indemnities master returned. “I — I don’t know what you mean, Punchface.”

Well, the old bastard had been right. Totally right. ISDA rolled out a plastic twin network SL/Repo mod designed to work with their 02, but it was never popular, and there were documented examples of them falling apart during live margining exercises. The failure rate was off the charts. Reports of entire battalions throwing them down in the field and just running for their lives. As the enemy SIVs rumbled up the salient they didn’t even stop to collect them. They didn’t even take the unspent margin ammo for their rehypothecation tanks. They just rolled over them, atomising these weapons and grinding them into the mud.

To this day treasure seekers and carpetbaggers and find shards and fragments of these weapons of war in the salted soil, leeched by conflict and hubris if all the alpha nutrients, where now only the gaudy, surface-deep colours of wilding index trackers grow.

The old guy’s intonation rang in my ears.

“Maintaining a ’95 OSLA takes skill, soldiers. Dedication. Deep insight. Handling them takes real skill. But, oh — the rewards. That perma-balancing portfolio margining. The native netting stability. That dependable 5 point bias. But ongoing service and maintenance takes time, effort and craft. Mark my words: they’ll ditch these babies. They'll outlaw them. We won’t see their like again.”

“Come on, Sir, that’s not possible. How are we expected to fight without stock loans?”

Bundie shrugged. “Gah. They will contrive some jack-of-all trades universal sec-fi annex. Bolt some abomination on an ISDA. Low calibre, poor materiel, and — no, no: don’t laugh, fellas — we’ll all get pressure from the top to use them. You will.”

Bundie looked to the hills. A cold rain began to fall. “But this is not my battle to fight. I’ll be out of the picture. Well shot of all this,” he murmured, almost to himself.

“So this is your problem, loyal members of Eagle Squad. This is your fight. Mark my words, they’ll bulk buy multi-purpose swap-cannons.”

“Who will?”

A low thunder rumbled across the landscape.


They were bad derelicts. They were mainly deserted. It was target practice: guilt-free workout on the downside levers.

We rolled up on this decaying greyfield strip-mall. There should have been no one there. We went in just to clear out the vega-heads — no one else would risk that condemned structure — as a prelude to flattening it. We did this just to make it safe — to stop random kids wandering in and getting crushed by falling masonry, and take away sniper opportunities for our HNW lorries and AM cruisers as they rolled through after us.

My OSLA scope pinged, and beeped and settled into a contant, alarmed, whine at a steady pitch.

“Hey, E: I’m getting some static on the scope here. We all good?”

A voice crackled back on the conlink: “No adverse readings this end, Melv. You’re all clear. You go, boy.”

I re-read my scope. Still crazy high. Off the scale high. This was a bombed-out husk.

“E, the readings on this —” I looked up and scanned it — “this videodrome don’t make no sense. What even is a videodrome.

“You kids. So young.”

“I’m going in for a closer look.”

“Roger that.”

I ran the whole structure through my scope. Ticker: BBI.

Structural fundamentals sucked, any which way you looked at it. The superstructure was antique. So archaic. Unfixable. Plus, it was bombed to hell. The entire business proposition architecture had given way. It lay in a twisted wreck on the wet rubble on the floor. Forward projections were anaemic: snapped-off joists, blown out chipboard façades, dripping pipes leaking cashflow onto the rubble.

And that was without looking at the competition environment. Cash leaked from everywhere — there were rancid pools of low quality earnings on the floor. And free cash just ran down every wall.

“Man this is just good money after bad”.

“Bad huh?”

“It’s gotta go, E – but —”

“But what?”

“Something is holding this structure up.”

I cleared away some delinquent inventory. It was deep. Cartons and cartons of Pretty Woman videocassettes. A crate of Caddyshack.

“Something, E, or — someone —”


“Crazy, I know, but — Oh, man: these dealer polls are mental. What the hell are these readings? You seeing these bids, E?”

“Hold on”.

I held. She clicked back on the line.

“Shee—it! What’s all that about? It’s at, like, what, thirty? How is that more than five?”

I had a sudden, distinct feeling I was being watched. I spun. Nothing. I flipped off the safety on my NAV trigger.

“Ok, cover my shorts E, I’m going fishing.”

“Ten four, Melvin.”

I stepped across the threshold. This building should still be standing but yet here it was.

Again, that feeling, on the nape of the neck. I could hear my own breathing rasp on the intercom. E could, too:

“You okay, Melv?”

I swung left and donkey-kicked a cupboard — clear. I swung right and elbow-smashed a pane — clear. I went into a dripping anteroom. The flashlight on my scope picked out a streak of red. It moved. It was alive.

“Hold on — there’s something here. Someone.”

A tight bundle shifted in the corner of the room. I tracked it in the mist-lit beam of my torch.

It was a guy. He’d been sleeping rough. I cocked my piece.

“No wait! Don’t shoot!” I’m legit. I’m long.”

“Long? Who’s long this piece of shit?”

He was babbling now and shaking. He was sodden head to toe and shivering. He muttered something about it being a conviction play.

“I’m an event-driven multi-strat.”

I snorted. “Sorry, what?”

“I got seed-cap promised. I just need the months of solid returns. This is it. This is my play. I’m almost there, man.”

“Your combat plan is pumping videodromes?”

He shrugged. “I picked it up at the bottom, man, and I’ve pushed it up twenty five. My thesis —”

“What fucking thesis? What kind of thesis says go long video-cassette rentals? In this day and age?”

“What can I say? I’m a contrarian.”

“No shit.”

He gave me a look and I knew his type at once: A cinéaste. He reached out, clutching a sheet.

“What is this?”

“Read it.”

I read it. It was an open letter to the board. It had Third Point energy but none of the elan.

“So I’m supposed to buy some Loeb fanboy’s dipshit event play? You could bring us both down.”

“I can make us both heroes.”

“So, what, you’re going to buy at the bottom and turn it round? On my dime?”



“Like I say, I’m long. I bought at the bottom, and it is turning round. It is. Check out the bid.”

I looked at the margin readings on the OSLA. Low.

“You there, E?”


“Get me a level on BBI, would you?”

“Hold on.” The clatter signature said E was on the Bloomberg. She whistled through the comlink. “There she blows … I’m seeing firm two-way at tight spread around 31. Weird. It’s still waxing, Merv.”

“Waxing? We’ll see who’s waxing.”

The hedge kid murmured, “It’s going to the moon.” He was slurring now. Gently frothing from the mouth.

The kid was juiced up to his eyeballs on vega. Must have been.

At that point the roof groaned.

“The fuck was that?” I levelled my OSLA.

The hedgie groaned. “Come on, man.”

The excess margin reading fell. The needle was close to the red.

Hedgie thrust his hands up. “Whoah, chill, chill — my dude it’s nothin: just daytrader forum chatter. There's a 5 point intraday swing. It’ll come back. You wait and see. Those clowns don’t know nothin’.”

The roof groaned again. The structure shifted. I knew then it was not a day to wait and see. I felt for the closeout trigger.

The kid rolled. For a moment I thought he was coming at me — I see now he was just resetting his own stop outs; I mean I get it — but it was too late. I guess I lost my nerve. It’s an uneasy feeling standing in a building on the brink of collapse. In any case my back end-cortex controlled guidance algo fired. It lit up my synaptic frame. It fired a fight/flight impulse to my trigger finger. I knew it had gone — but I didn’t know what it would say — till the payload landed.

The payload landed.

The message: fight.

The adrenaline surged. I braced. I must have squeezed too hard and OSLA went off.

I watched myself do it, like some out-of-the-body experience. I was jacked up. I was in OOBEsville.

That old derelict shell burst to life. A threnody in magnesium light and crackling ozone.

It may be old-school, but a well-calibrated and Orpington Small Loans Armoury makes a big hole — it’s easy to forget the damage they can do.

Man it made a mess of that little guy. He animated, cavitated flailing, stumbling round, wailing this pitiful yowl, a flaming, pyrotechnical mess. He did not accept his fate with heroic equanimity.

The fool could have brought the whole thing down upon our heads.

“Why did you so forsake me?”

“It's better to burn out than to fade away.”

He was still clutching the stock certs, rolling in the pools of thin liquidity on the floor. It could… still … we could make it … take …. It … to … the … moo —”

“You poor deluded fuck,” I said. I rolled him over with my boot.

“I’m … I’m … gonna … turn it arrrr —” he gurgled a bit and mouth-foamed.

“Like fuck you are. Shorting’s too good for you.”

The punk was blowing crimson bubbles from his windpipe. Now he seemed resigned to his fate. He whimpered, “j … just fucking do it. G … g… get it over with, would you?”

He was shivering bad. I radioed to base. “Get me a locate on some Blockbuster Ords. Liquid.”

The line crackled. E’s unmistakable drawl: “Size?”

“200 lots should do it.”

“BBIs, coming right up.” I could feel the OSLA depo weighting up. I banged the short out to the market.

The punk murmured, “Just put me out of my misery, you sack of shit.”

We watched the BBI ticker together. It crested briefly, like a great, dying whale breaching in a hopeless last gulp for air, then sank like a stone. I motioned at his now worthless certificates. He seemed to find some peace. He lay back and sighed, ragged heaves.

“I’ll give you twenty cents for the lot.”

He rallied one last exchange. “but … why?”


His voice was a flat dry croak. He was on his way out. He had only moments left. “What … d … do you want … with … them?”

I bent down, and swept a wisp of hair from his fringe. I smiled. He tried to. I said, “I gotta close out my short.”

He slumped back. His face relaxed. He was gone.

His chest-mounted CB was still live. It crackled. Incoming comms. “Jerry this is RAPT–5. Jerry, do you read? Jerry, are you getting me?”

Weird: that’s the call sign of a Raptor unit. “

I tossed the coppers on his chest, closed my short, flipped the stocks back to E and moved out.

[Insert alternative scene interaction with Enron commander come in to trade forward bandwidth before BBI dies]

There was an internal audit investigation in days to come. I gave no evidence. Nor did E. We pled the fifth.

I was cleared. In fact, I got a commendation for gallantry under fire in a live combat theatre.

I thought about it a lot, in days to come. But the weird thing — there was no guilt. No remorse. I felt — look there’s no way to put this so let me just come out and say it: — I felt good. Empowered. Masculine. I felt like a soldier. It was a kill. It was like a fix. A high. I was coming down. I had a lust for more. I found myself taking the strip mall details even when I was rostered off.

I got good. I shorted out all kinds of unsustainable sniper nests and daytrader hangouts. They were an annoyance more than a real threat. But the overtime was good and the kills all looked the same in the stats book. “All kills are grey in the dark,” Wickliffe used to say. I built my reputation.

The Data knew me. My reputation got around. They talked about me in the chatrooms, I knew that — but no-one who mattered a damn paid attention to that.