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[The following is an excerpt from my novel, Zip Monkey, which I plan to release in the upcoming months. Copyright 2012. Cover art by Corey Brian Sanders.]Zip Monkey Cover 2

Christina Brostrom looked out onto the grounds of the college holding a coffee cup up to her face gently, so that the steam would open her pores a bit. This was part of her ritual of drinking hot tea with Stevia, a cup of inspiration with which she greeted every morning. She knew that ritual was a foundation of wisdom. Or would be, were she ever to become wise.

On the desk next to her computer screen was a greeting card of forced congratulations from her co-workers out in the cubicle pit. Lots of “Congrats, girl!” and “I knew you could do its!” scrawled across the card to celebrate her promotion. But every laconic “Congrats” betrayed bitter envy. Christina had been in her position only a year. And now somehow she’d gotten a big promotion, seemingly for no reason. When they were saying, “Congrats,” what they really meant to say was, “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

And they were right. She didn’t deserve it. She was just a pretty face who’d done it with the right guy. She remembered her mother’s joke, “With a vagina, you can go anywhere,” which wasn’t really a joke. Christina had bartered her sex appeal for a job as a Level 6 grants and contracts manager. Not too shabby.

Ralph Bliagos was nowhere to be found, of course. He had defiled her, promoted her, disappeared and left stacks and stacks of data on her desk to reconcile—enough work to last her a year. Most of it paperwork for live animal research grants that would be submitted to the National Institutes of Health (“NIH.”) Her first job, according to a memo, was to haggle with somebody from the Institute of Animal Research Studies for a $100 discount on a crate of pre-diseased mice. A hundred of the 1,400 mice were dead already when the box came in. Certainly that was worth at least two hundred dollars off, said the dean to Christina in an e-mail.

Before this, her job had been to do simple data entry, making sure the lab equipment codes matched the inventory. But increasingly, after an audit of the university and a fine from the New Jersey attorney general’s office, she found herself actually making decisions on how procedures were coded. That was way above the pay grade of a 23-year-old intern. Checks made out to the university for thousands of dollars started fluttering onto her desk. She didn’t know what to do with them. Nobody claimed them. She put them in a folder with dollar signs marked on it.

The Grants and Contracts Dept., hidden behind leafy plane trees in a white travertine campus tucked away from the road, was a huge vein of money for Mount St. Catherine’s University. While Ph.D’s elsewhere at the university lost their jobs during Congress’s sequestration, Ralph Bliagos’s department was somehow thriving, his money spigot still pumping. “How could this be?” Nobody wanted to ask that question. “Just keep growing the pie,” said the dean’s office. Ralph’s enemies raised questions, of course. Grants and contracts had an ongoing Hatfield and McCoy-style feud going on with the dicks in finance. Christina was even told she shouldn’t be seen having lunch on campus with her friend Judy who worked in the finance department.

“Wouldn’t look good,” said Bliagos. “You gossip with Judy Freeman, and it’ll get back to me. She’s waiting to find out we’re doing something wrong.”

“Well then, who should I have lunch with?”

“How about me?”

That’s how it had started.

Bliagos was 13 years older than Christina. He seemed to know a lot about a lot of different things. He’d played guitar in a band in college and knew about music publishing rights. He knew about trademark law after working as a paralegal. He even knew about dance.

“You can’t really separate Merce Cunningham from Eastern religion,” he’d said.

A year later, Christina, the former star of the Cape May High School ballet, now older and wiser, realized Ralph had pulled the Cunningham bit out of his ass. But at the time he said it, she’d been smitten. Though he was older, he had an eternal boyishness—his averred belief in the inherent goodness of all people touched Christina’s heart and parted her knees—knees weak from naivety and a 2005 arabesque accident that shattered her bones and dreams forever.

All dancers hurt their knees. But Christina Brostrom had somehow managed to pull her kneecap apart after momentous thigh contraction while doing the Black Swan in front of 200 provincial New Jersey ballet fans. The audience was mesmerized by the plangent screams of this shining young dancer and swept up into standing ovation as several male dancers in blue doublets with silver galloons with the strength of apes carried her out the back door to the nearest emergency room.

Christina had always been rather keyed up and anxious, dancing as fast as she could, and even her mother opined that the injury was no accident, but a cry for help. She insisted her daughter was getting back at her. Christina had avoided a proper warm up and fragged herself on purpose, said Mom, whom everything was about. Mother Marla Brostrom was a semi-famous psychoanalyst and believed there were no accidents. Everything bad that happened was an act of sublimated feelings, even a fall down the stairs or choking on a hot dog.

The adjustment from ballerina to clerical assistant was remarkably easy for Christina Brostrom. Gone was the anxious, excited ballerina whose fast-rising stardom made every day a birthday party thrown just for her. Now it was all just workaday world narcosis, interoffice birthday cards to people she’d never met, and hot pocket microwave lunches in rooms with receding slate colors. Instead of jetés and soubresauts, Christina could now pursue the drama of office gossip, hear temper tantrums through the walls and smack insolent fax machines. And there, holding on to the handle of a 2005 Honda Civic every afternoon with wolfish teeth was Ralph Bliagos. Ralph, with his round, McCartney-ish eyes, big hands and hair extensions. He seemed to know her dreams, and his adoring eyes reflected the star she’d dreamed of being. Or at least that’s what she was thinking when she went down on him in the Honda. The thrilling, fleeting, naughty affair. The sweaty, heart-beat-skipping rendezvous every night in the office where they had started somehow fucking and committing government billing fraud in no particular order.

Ralph’s the one who taught her to do it. First he showed her how to double bill for clinical trials—the university charged Medicaid and Medicare money for lab work on volunteers even though the companies sponsoring the clinical trials on the devices and drugs were already paying. It was a surefire way to rip off Uncle Sam, something Ralph had learned at a couple of research universities. He also taught Christina how to “unbundle” the lab tests, coding a bunch of blood tests separately when they should have been billed together. Apart, they were worth more money.

To Christina, it was kind of like playing Candy Crush Saga or Asteroids. “Unbundle. Duplicate. Recode.” It seemed more naughty than illegal. “Girl! You’re bad! Ha-ha!”

“It’s just us printing money,” Ralph had said. “Everybody does it. At the end of the day, who cares? We’re curing diseases.” She wanted to impress her boss, and as she separated centrifuge work, she was actually whistling.

It only slowly dawned on her that what they were doing was actually very much against the law. But she was already in it way over her head by that time. Her signatures were all over everything.

It was only in month three, long after Ralph had given her the first bladder infection, that he asked her out to a movie. He confessed then that, yes, he had been engaged to somebody for three years. But his fiancée, Dina, was an argumentative, hatchet-faced bitch troll attorney, and he insisted he was going to break it off with her. Dina didn’t understand him, he said. She didn’t listen to Rush. She didn’t like white water rafting. She didn’t know who Merce Cunningham was.

“But you,” he said to Christina. “You’re an open book. Everything is still possible and hopeful for you.” This appealed to her in part because neither statement was actually true. She, in fact, had fallen south in ways only people with the lost promise of true greatness can fall.

He had made love to her gently and sweetly the first time. His feet stuck out the open window of the Honda and he swore it didn’t hurt. Later, as they lay together naked in a dark brindled cowhide rug from Bed Bath & Beyond, he imagined them going to someplace romantic. Like Nova Scotia. Or Atlantic City. Christina was breathless. She had a dangerous love and a job she was good at. She was now a person like other people.

The morning of her surprise promotion, she crept over to the files and sorted through them. Three doctors in cardiology wanted to test a vasodilator and needed to make sure the NIH didn’t reject them again. The last time around, the government quibbled because the doctors testing the equipment held small equity shares (indirectly) in the company that made the dilator, and that would likely bias their research. Ralph turned to Christina one afternoon and asked her directly: “How would you make this problem go away?”

It was her first real executive decision: and it was something she was intensely proud of, because no one else would have ever thought of it. She simply moved the money over from another grant. She piggy-backed the vasodilator work onto a research grant for rheumatoid arthritis medication the doctors were also working on. Nobody asked questions. All the doctors knew was that the money they needed was suddenly there. “Doctors,” Ralph said, “must remain innocent.”

Christina Brostrom, the girl in the church choir, the girl who sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the girl who made Frank Rich cry when she performed in The Nutcracker at age 12, was not, after all, born to be a ballet dancer. Christina Brostrom was born to be a criminal.

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