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Rather than just provide an excerpt of my newly released novel, I thought it would be fun to share some of my intentions by annotating the excerpt. You can read the opening words of the novel in the form of this brief prologue. Below that, the prologue is reproduced with some notations.

Prologue

imagesIn the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, office buildings rarely betray the power of the players inside. Consistent with that principle, a man who privately called himself The Mean had chosen to occupy the second floor of a modest four-story brick building within easy walking distance of both Putnam and Greenwich Avenues. The former was a major thoroughfare, two lanes in either direction. The latter, which locals simply called The Avenue, was a one-way street on a steep hill between Putnam and the railroad tracks. Lined with tony shops and expensive restaurants, it furnished a promenade for people who drove Maybachs and Ferraris, Bentleys and Land Rovers. At two key intersections, traffic cops policed both moving cars and pedestrians, who often received tickets for jaywalking.

If Manhattan’s streets, crowded and chaotic, resembled a grotesque Hieronymus Bosch painting, the neat roads of Greenwich—just thirty miles away—were a delicate Vermeer, calm and ordered.

The Mean didn’t do metaphors. He lived a life of numbers and exactitude, oblivious to all that he considered superfluous. He paid no attention to food or cars and little attention to the bespoke suits that he wore more out of habit than from any sense of style. Today he had his jacket off with his vest fully buttoned, no tie, and wore black suede shoes, contrary to advice from his Paul Stuart tailor and the girl behind the accessories counter of Richards department store. On his right wrist, a Patek Philippe Chronograph Manual watch with a brown lizard band poked out from the french cuff. Collectors would know that the watch had cost more than two hundred thousand dollars. For his part, The Mean rarely thought of it, and when he did so he considered the expense no more than a curiosity.

Every trader on the floor that day also knew the price of the watch and the suit and the cufflinks and the shoes. They knew the price of every car that crammed The Avenue and of half the real estate in the town’s back country, where hedge fund moguls built great residences as monuments to their own genius.

The Mean never worried about any of that. He cared only that traders in this room knew the price of everything within their purview. If they faltered, The Mean surely would not. He walked among them in the open-plan trading floor and peered over their shoulders: two dozen men and women whose jobs involved shaving a microgram of copper from every penny that crossed their screens.

And what crossed their screens each second were a great deal of pennies. Trillions, in fact.

At this moment the gross number of pennies didn’t concern The Mean. It was only background noise, like the white paint on the walls and the stained paper coffee cups strewn about nearby workspaces. Between groups of desks and on the perimeter, giant tanks of colorful fish and live coral divided the office. There were eighty-one varieties of fish inside and thirteen varieties of coral—six hundred and fifteen organisms in all. That wasn’t a number The Mean needed to know, but he had chosen to track it because the fish inside those tanks fascinated him. They seemed to be flitting about aimlessly, but if you studied them carefully you learned that their behavior comported to a set of rules most of the time. To know those rules was to know the school’s next move.

Insight must be married to discipline.

The exact time of day was another important data point for The Mean. It was now thirteen minutes to four. He might have consulted his chronograph, but he could read the time by the corner of every Bloomberg terminal in the room and by a row of plain dial clocks on the wall: New York—London—Hong Kong—Tokyo. In addition to knowing the price of everything traders always knew how much time remained before markets opened or closed. And in addition to these two bits of information, one other set of figures preoccupied them: the number of shares of specific holdings within their portfolios.

Now, thirteen minutes before the closing bell in New York, The Mean began to indicate the exact moment each trader would close out his or her position. He looked over the shoulder of a beautiful young brunette in a pinstriped business suit. The frill of a satin bra highlighted her cleavage, but The Mean didn’t process that any more than he processed her hair or her striking beauty or the perfume she always wore. He ran an index finger along the edge at the top of her computer terminal, back and forth, back and forth, while he watched shares measured in hundredths change values within fractions of a second. When he saw what he wanted, he flicked his middle finger upon her terminal, making a faint ticking sound. She immediately picked up her phone and began working her keyboard. When you were trading hundreds of millions of dollars a day, you didn’t trust computers alone.

The Mean calmly walked up behind a middle-aged man on the other side of the coral reef divider. This trader had been with The Mean for a long time—eleven years—which had made him prematurely gray but very rich. The Mean ran his index finger back and forth on the edge of the man’s terminal and flicked.

Phone picked up. Keyboard tapped. Another set of positions began to close.

And so it went. Approach. Rub-rub. Flick. With thirty seconds to spare, the last trader closed the last position. By four o’clock, The Mean’s operation appeared to have settled for the day and those who traded for him in the New York markets believed that the firm rested on solid financial footing.

But The Mean and his partner knew better. Only they knew that their trading operation flirted every moment with oblivion.

 

Prologue

I’m not a big fan of the prologue as a technique, yet all my novels seem to have them. The challenge here was that the main action of the novel depends upon a prior action. I might have treated that action deeper in with a long flashback, but it won’t work that way, because it’s the fundamental disruption that launches the novel’s main action. Besides, long flashbacks are much harder to pull off than short prologues. So, rather than wade into that morass, I went with the prologue approach.

Prologues are a way of begging the reader’s sufferance. This book is a financial thriller, but the main thrust of the story doesn’t begin in the world of finance. In order to establish what kind of story the reader should expect over the long-haul, I’m pulling something forward. This way, when Chapter 1 starts with the story of a high school football player on Christmas break in a small Georgia town, and when Chapter 3 introduces the player’s coach in hot water with his principal, the reader already knows there’s some other factor — seemingly unrelated at first — lurking in the background.

Furthermore, the prologue introduces a puzzle, because the moment you start in with the high school figures you begin to wonder how the finance guy from the prologue fits in.

In the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, office buildings rarely betray the power of the players inside. Consistent with that principle, a man who privately called himself The Mean had chosen to occupy the second floor of a modest four-story brick building within easy walking distance of both Putnam and Greenwich Avenues. The former was a major thoroughfare, two lanes in either direction. The latter, which locals simply called The Avenue, was a one-way street on a steep hill between Putnam and the railroad tracks. Lined with tony shops and expensive restaurants, it furnished a promenade for people who drove Maybachs and Ferraris, Bentleys and Land Rovers. At two key intersections, traffic cops policed both moving cars and pedestrians, who often received tickets for jaywalking.

Here I’m establishing that a mystery man will be one of the book’s main characters. And I’m establishing his setting. The moniker “The Mean,” of course, can be taken as a double entendre, but the character is blind to that. Otherwise, why would he have chosen the nickname? This may not yet have occurred to the reader, but with the use of this nickname I’ve already implied with the wordplay that the character sees the world and himself differently than others might.

If Manhattan’s streets, crowded and chaotic, resembled a grotesque Hieronymus Bosch painting, the neat roads of Greenwich—just thirty miles away—were a delicate Vermeer, calm and ordered.

The Mean didn’t do metaphors. He lived a life of numbers and exactitude, oblivious to all that he considered superfluous. He paid no attention to food or cars and little attention to the bespoke suits that he wore more out of habit than from any sense of style. Today he had his jacket off with his vest fully buttoned, no tie, and wore black suede shoes, contrary to advice from his Paul Stuart tailor and the girl behind the accessories counter of Richards department store. On his right wrist, a Patek Philippe Chronograph Manual watch with a brown lizard band poked out from the french cuff. Collectors would know that the watch had cost more than two hundred thousand dollars. For his part, The Mean rarely thought of it, and when he did so he considered the expense no more than a curiosity.

I’m brand-name dropping here — as I did in the paragraph above that references car models. There are two reasons for this. First, specificity is better than generalization. Also, this is just scene and mood setting. I don’t want to bore people by having to describe trivial things in great detail. A brand, if you know it, immediately conjures the picture. And the funny thing is that even if you don’t know it, that doesn’t matter too much. You get from the context that these are expensive things.

Every trader on the floor that day also knew the price of the watch and the suit and the cufflinks and the shoes. They knew the price of every car that crammed The Avenue and of half the real estate in the town’s back country, where hedge fund moguls built great residences as monuments to their own genius.

The Mean never worried about any of that. He cared only that traders in this room knew the price of everything within their purview. If they faltered, The Mean surely would not. He walked among them in the open-plan trading floor and peered over their shoulders: two dozen men and women whose jobs involved shaving a microgram of copper from every penny that crossed their screens.

Our focus has gone from the broader town to inside The Mean’s office. The implication of this set-up is that this particular trader is not alone in what he does. He represents a whole class.

And what crossed their screens each second were a great deal of pennies. Trillions, in fact.

At this moment the gross number of pennies didn’t concern The Mean. It was only background noise, like the white paint on the walls and the stained paper coffee cups strewn about nearby workspaces. Between groups of desks and on the perimeter, giant tanks of colorful fish and live coral divided the office. There were eighty-one varieties of fish inside and thirteen varieties of coral—six hundred and fifteen organisms in all. That wasn’t a number The Mean needed to know, but he had chosen to track it because the fish inside those tanks fascinated him. They seemed to be flitting about aimlessly, but if you studied them carefully you learned that their behavior comported to a set of rules most of the time. To know those rules was to know the school’s next move.

Insight must be married to discipline.

The exact time of day was another important data point for The Mean. It was now thirteen minutes to four. He might have consulted his chronograph, but he could read the time by the corner of every Bloomberg terminal in the room and by a row of plain dial clocks on the wall: New York—London—Hong Kong—Tokyo. In addition to knowing the price of everything traders always knew how much time remained before markets opened or closed. And in addition to these two bits of information, one other set of figures preoccupied them: the number of shares of specific holdings within their portfolios.

This appears at first to be a description of the office, but it is equally a description of The Mean’s predilections. It’s an early sign of insight into his character.

Now, thirteen minutes before the closing bell in New York, The Mean began to indicate the exact moment each trader would close out his or her position. He looked over the shoulder of a beautiful young brunette in a pinstriped business suit. The frill of a satin bra highlighted her cleavage, but The Mean didn’t process that any more than he processed her hair or her striking beauty or the perfume she always wore. He ran an index finger along the edge at the top of her computer terminal, back and forth, back and forth, while he watched shares measured in hundredths change values within fractions of a second. When he saw what he wanted, he flicked his middle finger upon her terminal, making a faint ticking sound. She immediately picked up her phone and began working her keyboard. When you were trading hundreds of millions of dollars a day, you didn’t trust computers alone.

This is The Means first act in the book. It may seem a long time coming because of the commentary I keep poking in, but it’s only the tenth paragraph. Even that may seem like a lot, but the “camera” has been moving, setting the scene in a way that I hope has kept the reader engaged.

The Mean calmly walked up behind a middle-aged man on the other side of the coral reef divider. This trader had been with The Mean for a long time—eleven years—which had made him prematurely gray but very rich. The Mean ran his index finger back and forth on the edge of the man’s terminal and flicked.

I introduced a gesture — running his index finger along the edge of the screen — two paragraphs ago, repeated it, and he’ll do it one more time. That gesture will be one of The Mean’s defining characteristics. There’s something else that may tell you about him, if you’re super-perceptive, but I won’t reveal it here. One of the other main characters will allude to it later.

Phone picked up. Keyboard tapped. Another set of positions began to close.

And so it went. Approach. Rub-rub. Flick. With thirty seconds to spare, the last trader closed the last position. By four o’clock, The Mean’s operation appeared to have settled for the day and those who traded for him in the New York markets believed that the firm rested on solid financial footing.

But The Mean and his partner knew better. Only they knew that their trading operation flirted every moment with oblivion.

There’s the hook that should throw you into the rest of the book. We started with the high-powered setting of Greenwich, introduced this mysteriously anonymous character, and now added an element of suspense: that all is not quite as it appears. The Mean seems like a great success, but he’s skating on the edge. You’ll have to wait to find out what that’s all about. Meanwhile, two other main characters will be dealing with their own conflicts.

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J.E. Fishman J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

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