The last customer from the after-bar rush left, leaving a dozen snow-dusted cars scattered across the half-acre lot. These were the folks who’d gotten lucky enough to go home with someone else, or drunk enough to go home in a cab.
Huddled in the tiny attendant hut, Jonas checked, for the third time, the knob on the ancient space heater. It was still set on max. Usually the booth swung between hot and cold as the heater cycled on and off, but this evening the sub-zero winds of a Lake Huron cold front invaded Detroit, and the tiny glowing heating element fought a non-stop, losing battle.
It would be a long night.
Jonas pulled out his phone, reluctantly slipping off his gloves to unlock the touch-screen and launch MicroRisk™. The app flashed dollar signs as it launched.
Rosalinda, Jonas’s ex, told people Jonas had a MicroRisk addiction. Jonas disagreed. He had a MicroRisk commitment.
You have Two Updates:
9:34 pm: Contract 2434B (Fashion) has closed with no claim. Your MicroBond™ has been released and your account credited with your payment. Your current collateral balance is $284.34
10:33 pm: Contract 3923G (Pop Quiz) has been claimed for $50.00. Do you wish to Audit the claim? Yes|No.
Jonas clicked No. He was bored, but not bored enough to watch a kid taking a test. Contrary to popular belief, Pop Quiz contracts were pretty good bets. The schools enforced randomized testing, and most kids were remarkably bad at assessing risk.
Your current collateral balance is $234.34. 10,993 new contracts are available. Browse? Yes|No.
Jonas clicked Yes and held his hand near the heating element, glancing out the hut window while the contracts loaded. A few straggler cars passed down the street, but in his lot, nothing moved.
He flipped past the illness contracts. He’d once lost two hundred bucks on a vacation-sickness contract, and despite auditing two weeks’ video and audio from the woman’s glasses, still wasn’t sure he hadn’t been played. Even though she’d spent the duration of the trip in bed and gotten a doctor’s note, she just hadn’t seemed disappointed about missing her husband’s retirement cruise.
Fashion contracts were a mixed bag. He bought a $25 matched-dress contract, but once he got the full file, he saw it was a bad deal. The dress was generic. He was pretty sure Rosalinda’s mom owned it. The chance that someone else would wear the same dress to this woman’s son’s bar mitzvah was pretty good. Ah well, at least the contract had been cheap.
The mother had paid $25 for the contract. If someone wore her dress, same design, same pattern, same color, she’d get $150 of Jonas’s money. If not, Jonas would get $25. The woman’s $25 and Jonas’s $150 were frozen in escrow until the contract closed, and MicroRisk got their cut by skimming the interest until the contract closed.
Jonas looked at his collateral balance. He could buy one more custom contract. He’d gotten started on conforming dollar contracts, mostly fractional bets on the weather, but those grew old quickly. It was hard to get excited about a 10 cent win. Besides, big corporations held the other side of those contracts, and auditing them involved parsing endless NOAA weather reports.
No, the interesting contracts were the personal, custom ones hedging the unique risks of everyday life. The folks buying those contracts opened up the feed on their glasses for underwriting and auditing. Sometimes the auditing video alone was worth the contract price.
He flipped to Social. The drama lived in Social.
He found a promising first-date contract. The guy had exchanged two emails through a blind-date website. The prospective date had agreed to meet him for a drink, but he wanted to hedge the chance she’d stand him up. The contract summary included heavily redacted emails.
MicroRisk limited contract details prior to purchase—part of the thrill of the buy was in the unwrapping. Jonas bought into the contract, earning access to the hedger’s video, and flipped to the feed.
The hedger stood at the clerk side of a cash register, reading a car magazine. The background looked like a convenience store. Jonas realized with a start it was Vinny’s QMart on Baker, right around the corner from his lot. He’d made more than a few desperate dashes to Vinny’s bathroom.
This was a first. MicroRisk was a national exchange; the chances of landing a local contract were pretty slim. Jonas surveyed the lot. Nothing was happening here anytime soon. He pulled on his gloves and stepped out, locking the door behind him.
Shards of scattered snow and ice glistened under the streetlights, crunching underfoot as he scurried to Vinny’s. His eyes teared in the cold wind. He should have kept the scarf Rosalinda’s mother had knit him. It was hideous, but warm.
But he hadn’t. He’d thrown it in the box of stuff he’d left at Rosalinda’s after she’d made him choose between her or his insurance-games.
MicroRisk was a national exchange; the chances of landing a local contract were pretty slim.
The bells on Vinny’s door jangled as he entered. Warm air embraced his frozen face. The clerk looked up from his magazine. He was a teenager, or low twenties at most, in a grey Vinny’s sweatshirt, winter hat; glasses low-rent, but not unfashionable.
Jonas nodded and continued back to the bathroom. Might as well. Upon his return he filled a coffee and took it to the counter. The coffee was stale and slightly burnt, but warm.
“Hey, do you know where I can order flowers around here?” Jonas asked.
The clerk shrugged and flipped a page of his magazine. “There’s a twenty-four hour place over on Griswold.”
Jonas pulled out his phone and searched for the florist. “Petals on Griswold. Awesome. Looks like they even have a deal with the dating websites to do private address deliveries.”
Jonas slid over cash for his coffee, and continued talking, “This is great. I’ve got a big date tomorrow night, and my momma always said send ‘em flowers early and often if you want them to show up.”
The clerk blinked, then slid Jonas his change.
“You have a great night,” Jonas said, smiling.
He braced himself, pulled on his gloves, and stepped back out into the cold. After talking to another human, silence weighed heavily on the frozen night. He tucked his chin into his jacket and walked back towards the lot, running the odds his conversation had changed anything.
Turning the corner, he glanced up. Where was the hut? He ran towards the lot, coffee sloshing over his gloves. The tiny attendant hut lay knocked over, the windows shattered. Tire tracks ran through the landscaping beside the exit gate.
Jonas stirred both whiskies with a cocktail straw and slid one across the varnished wood table to Rosalinda. “I told Zach I’d just left for a second for a pee emergency, but he was mad I’d disabled the feed record on my glasses. I did that years ago—remember when EFF circulated that privacy code patch? Apparently it’s against company policy. Zach said it was my fault they couldn’t figure out which car was the drunk prick that rammed the hut. He also said a couple of other things I can’t repeat in mixed company.”
Rosalinda laughed, eyes twinkling under her black, straight cut, bangs. “Never stopped you before.”
Rosalinda had agreed to meet him at her favorite bar, a wood-paneled gastropub around the corner from her house. The place was a bit yuppie for Jonas, but he’d won twenty bucks on the blind-date contract and didn’t have anyone else to celebrate with.
“So I’m out of a job because some moron was too drunk to realize the plastic exit gate is designed to be run through. It pops off at the slightest bump.” Jonas shrugged. “You?”
“Things are good. Nico misses you.” Nico was Rosalinda’s cat.
Jonas took a sip of whiskey. He wasn’t sure how to parse that. Rosalinda wore a sweatshirt from the Bailout concert that had been their first real date.
“What are you going to do now? You going back to school?” she asked.
Jonas shook his head. “I’m not good at school.” He’d dropped out of college two years earlier and never looked back.
“Then what? Another lot job?”
“Not this year. Zach blasted an email to every lot owner in Detroit. I’ve been blacklisted by the Pavement Posse. But you remember Nog?” Nog had been the drummer in Jonas’ short-lived punk band.
“The guy who bet you he could swallow a drumstick, failed, and then vomited all over me? He’s hard to forget.”
“Well, his dad has a condemned building behind the convention center. He’ll lease it to me to open a lot if I can demolish the building.”
“Can you demolish the building?”
“I can’t even pay rent this month. I can’t afford to demo a building.” Jonas took a bigger sip of his drink and avoided Rosalinda’s eyes. The whiskey burned on its way down.
“So what are you doing with your time?”
“Today I sat on my couch and played MicroRisk. Tomorrow is shaping up pretty much the same.”
“Oh, Jonas.” Rosalinda sighed and slid her drink back untouched. “Call me when you have things figured out.”
She stood up, shrugged on her parka, and left.
Jonas finished his drink and started on hers.
The next morning Jonas’s mailbox contained a letter from Zach’s lawyer saying his last paycheck was going towards repairing the hut. Then Jonas’s landlord stopped by to remind Jonas his rent was late, and to mention the landlord’s large, chemically imbalanced nephew was coming back from his Thai kickboxing tour at the end of the week and would be helping with some problems around the apartment complex.
Jonas was not a fan of kickboxing. He needed cash.
He was on a streak in MicroRisk, but that wasn’t going to solve his problems. It didn’t cover his bar tab, let alone his rent or a bulldozer. The MicroRisk app capped his exposure at $500, which apparently allowed the app to slide under federal regulations and made the contracts legal for “unsophisticated investors.”
No, he needed to get out of MicroRisk and into the big leagues. He needed to qualify for leverage.
The landlord’s large, chemically imbalanced nephew was coming back from his Thai kickboxing tour at the end of the week.
MicroRisk required every user to have escrowed collateral, actual cash, in their account for every contract. The real money was in MacroRisk, the insurance exchange where the big contracts lived, and where “accredited investors” just had to prove they had the assets to cover their exposure and didn’t have to tie their money up in escrow. MacroRisk took a cut off the top of every contract, but used the cut and their underwriting to insure the counterparty risk.
Jonas called in a favor with an old friend, a guy who didn’t own pavement but managed special events, and talked himself into working a valet gig at some north-side mansion, a big political fundraiser.
Jonas hadn’t run cars since high school, but he knew how it worked. He also knew two things about the folks that drove fancy cars to fancy houses so fancy people could ask them for money—first, many qualified to swim in any risk pool, and second, many were surprisingly lax about what they left in their vehicles.
When Jonas had been a young valet, his client’s trust had been endearing, and he’d guarded their purses and wallets with pride. But between Zach and his landlord, older Jonas was a little jaded.
And so, that was how, after a night of running cars, Jonas came home with a set of bank account numbers and passwords, copied from a list kindly left for him in an orange purse in the passenger seat of an orange Lamborghini.
Jonas didn’t consider it identity theft. It was identity borrowing. With luck, Ms. Eglantine Zaffi would never know about the new MacroRisk account Jonas had created in her name.
MacroRisk was awesome. In MicroRisk, the app owners limited the information available prior to investment and set the prices with some fancy back-end algorithm. Here, everything was on the table and qualified investors bid on contracts, the price set by demand.
The contracts were still customized, but the categories were less social and more business. Gone was the popular “flu on my wedding day,” replaced with “30 percent of workforce calling in sick.”
Jonas wanted a contract that was short and sweet. He couldn’t sit around waiting for it to close. He needed payment now.
He flipped through the contracts opening in the next hour that closed within the next seventy-two hours. The selection was limited. Contracts priced better for the sellers farther out, when buyers were less likely to suspect undisclosed inside information.
There. An audience contract. Someone had bought advertising on this week’s episode of “Snapz with Jerry D,” a live prank show, and wanted to hedge the risk that less than 10 million folks would watch it.
Jonas followed the show; it was popular. You never knew what they were going to do next. Last week they’d hosted a big art opening in LA comprised of the art from Ms. Han’s second grade class. Snapz had resulted in clips that made some very famous people look very stupid. The contract seemed a pretty good bet. The payout was low, but the contract was large enough—a cool million—that even with a 2 percent payout he could make rent and put a down payment on the lot demolition.
He bought it.
That evening he went over to Rosalinda’s. He texted an apology from her porch, and she opened the door, shaking her head with an exasperated smile.
“You’re sorry you didn’t hedge my love? Am I supposed to swoon?”
Jonas dropped to one knee. “My passion is buying other people’s risk. I love risk. I love uncertainty in everything in my life. Except for you. You are something I shouldn’t have risked. For you, I should have sold my risk to someone cold enough to buy it.”
Jonas stood. “I don’t expect you to get it, but believe me when I say the sentiment is sincere.”
She didn’t blink. She didn’t smile.
He shuffled his feet and looked out at the street. Snow was falling. His neck was cold.
“May I come in? It’s cold out here and I have a favor to ask about work.”
Rosalinda rolled her eyes and let him in.
“What’s up? You need inside information on flu trends for your little app game?” Rosalinda worked as a nurse at the local hospital.
“Hey, I’m out of MicroRisk. I haven’t played all day.” Technically true. “You ever watch Snapz?”
“Not my demographic.” Rosalinda motioned for his jacket.
Jonas took it off, handing it over. “Well, anyways, I’m working on a buzz campaign for tomorrow’s show, and was wondering if you could help me. If things go right, it might lead to a steady gig for me.” Technically true.
“What? Jonas is working a real job? What planet am I on?” Rosalinda hung his coat in her hall closet.
Jonas shrugged and kept his mouth shut. In for a dollar, in for a grand.
Rosalinda fired up her laptop, and they spent the next hour on the couch posting Internet commentary about the awesomeness of the next Snapz. They planted rumors about the episode, ranging from a faked moon landing to getting the Chicago mayor drunk and giving him an “I Love New York” tattoo.
Jonas didn’t consider it identity theft. It was identity borrowing.
It was fun. Nico sprawled across the both of them, purring away. It was cozy, and Jonas could have stayed there forever. But Rosalinda had the night shift, and had places to be. She shooed him off the couch.
He got his jacket out of the hall closet, catching sight of the box of his ex-stuff on the closet floor. He put the brown scarf back around his neck.
Rosalinda, standing behind him, smiled. “Looks good on you.”
At the door, she gave him a peck on his cheek. “Let me know how things turn out. I know you can do more with your life than park cars and play MicroRisk.”
Jonas nodded and stepped outside. It was still snowing, but somehow didn’t seem quite as cold.
The next morning Jonas flyered local coffee shops about the Snapz episode. He figured every little bit helped. Returning home, staple gun in hand, he thought it an odd coincidence that there was an orange Lamborghini and two black-tinted Suburbans parked outside his building. Nevertheless, Jonas didn’t put two and two together until he opened his apartment door and four large men in tinted sunglasses yanked him inside.
A woman sat on his couch. Anglo, mid-forties, she was dressed in a smart black suit and typing on her phone. A nice orange purse sat at her side. Ms. Eglantine Zaffi.
“Please, have a seat,” she said, indicating the floor.
The less-than-gentle men set Jonas down. One kicked his lower back, while another twisted Jonas’s scarf and pulled upwards, keeping Jonas attentive.
“My security people say someone in this apartment hacked my bank account. Know anything about that?”
“Aaaah.” Jonas was at a loss for words and breath.
Zaffi flicked her hands and the scarf loosened around his neck.
Jonas was still at a loss for words.
“Sorry?” he finally gasped.
Zaffi pulled out a nail file and started filing her fingernails. “Sorry is not going to cut it.” She blew on her nails, examined them in the light, and then continued filing. “Now, I’m told I’m on the hook if you lose a bet. A one million dollar bet. What are we going to do about that?”
“Cancel the contract?”
“It appears we can’t do that without a police report. I don’t want to get a police report, because involving the police complicates my import-export business. But I would also hate to lose a million dollars.”
“It’s a pretty safe bet,” Jonas said.
“You better hope so, because I think your life depends on it.” Zaffi smiled. “Isn’t that right, boys?” The scarf tightened as all four men nodded.
The bet suddenly seemed a lot less safe.
The biggest threat to “Snapz with Jerry D’s” demographic was “America’s Next MechWarrior.” That night’s episode was the local leg of the tournament’s cross-country tour, and was being broadcast live from the Detroit convention center.
“America’s Next MechWarrior” was in its fifth season. Rumor was the show had been pitched as a virtual reality tournament for the popular videogame, but the studio had decided blowing up real stuff would be more fun. So they’d built five-meter tall battle robots, armed them with flamethrowers and non-explosive impact bullets, and let them loose in an arena. Each robot had a wax statue taped to its chest—the last statue standing won.
It was a cross between flag football and dodgeball, with flame throwers. And giant robots.
Back in high school, when Nog’s dad’s now-abandoned building housed a less-than-successful nightclub, Nog spent exactly one night running cars for his dad. Nog’s valet career had ended quickly but spectacularly when he backed a customer’s Hummer into a small, green, metal box on the corner of the property. The box started to smoke, then a nearby transformer popped, then the power had gone out for an entire city block, including the convention center.
Jonas wanted to replicate that event. He figured if “America’s Next MechWarrior” went off air, at least some of the audience would switch to Snapz. Every little bit helped viewership, and every viewer helped keep him alive.
Two hours after meeting Eglantine Zaffi in person, Jonas rubbed his bruised neck and surveyed the snow-dusted box. Zaffi had suggested he cross his fingers, then let him go. He considered running for Canada, but Zaffi had demanded live access to his video feed. Between that and the black suburban that had followed him all morning and now sat parked down the street, he wouldn’t get far.
Someone had reinforced the box since the Hummer incident, raising it up on a meter-high cement base. His little Civic was no Hummer, but he thought with a little creative ramping and room to build momentum, he could take it out.
Jonas spent the next three hours dragging tables and chairs out of the old nightclub, stacking them precisely. He needed the angle just right, as well as some ability to claim the ramp was a coincidence and his collision an unfortunate accident.
By the time the sun went down, he’d devised a reasonable contraption. He scattered extra chair parts around the pull-through driveway, artistically emphasizing the happenstance nature of the arrangement.
Then he sat in his car outside the club and waited. He couldn’t take out the power too early, or they’d repair it before the broadcast. He had to time it just right.
He called Rosalinda. She answered on the third ring.
“Jonas! We were just talking about you.”
“Nog and I. He said you got keys from his dad to check out the new lot opportunity. We’ve decided pavement really is your future, and that’s ok. It’s what you want to do, and we shouldn’t stand between you and your dreams. Also, Nog thinks you lack the initiative and imagination to do anything else.”
Jonas gazed at the pile of furniture that was the physical manifestation of his plan to sabotage the city’s power grid for a mob boss. He didn’t have anything to say on the topic.
“Since when did you hang out with Nog?”
“I called him to see if his dad was really going to lease you that building, and he invited me to meet him at his dad’s new club. It’s real nice here!”
“Uh huh.” Jonas hadn’t been, but he’d heard it didn’t involve strippers, which was a step up from the last one.
“I’d forgotten how much fun Nog is. Did you know he can order a beer in seventy-seven languages?”
“He’s moving up. Last I heard it was only fifty.”
“Anyways, I got to go. We’re headed to his place. Nog’s promised to teach me to belly dance.” The call ended.
Jonas fingered the scarf around his neck. He was keeping it this time.
Jonas gazed at the pile of furniture that was the physical manifestation of his plan to sabotage the city’s power grid for a mob boss.
The convention center’s loading dock was across the street. Jonas watched as a half-dozen semis pulled up and discharged pieces of the night’s show. A team of roadies sorted the contents on the dock. Several battle robots passed inside, as did various barrier walls that were part of the standard arena set.
Jonas wished he could hedge his scheme. For the second time in his life, he’d gladly pay to avoid the repercussions of screwing up. He needed a black market MicroRisk that would cover the uncertainties of crime. They could call it CaperCoverage.
Fifteen minutes before show time, Jonas buckled his seatbelt, put on his bike helmet, and drove around the block to get up to speed. His plan was to veer off the road at the last second, as if he was avoiding something on the road. He was aiming to hit the ramp at fifteen miles an hour—hopefully fast enough to take out the box, but slow enough to let him escape with only minor injuries.
On his final approach, Jonas’s knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. The car was eerily silent. He should have made a playlist for this.
Fifty meters. A car in front of him slowed down to turn into the convention center employee lot. Jonas touched on his brake, then returned to target speed. Thirty meters. The road was clear. Twenty meters. Jonas took a deep breath and slowed down a little. Fifteen miles per hour was surprisingly fast. Twelve miles per hour would be fine. Ten meters.
He swerved into the abandoned club’s parking lot.
Small pieces of chairs flew around the car. Something flew up and cracked the windshield. He punched the accelerator. He couldn’t be chicken.
The world started to rotate. He twisted the wheel, but the tires had no traction. Spinout.
Crash. Whoosh. His vision filled with airbag; the car stopped with a sickening crunch.
Airbag fabric caught his stubbled cheek. He hadn’t shaved in days.
The least of his problems.
Jonas extracted himself from the car. Pounding heart aside, he felt ok, but his car was totaled. The front left wheel had missed the ramp, slammed into the green box’s cement base, and spun free into the alley. The box taunted him, untouched.
He took off his helmet and sat on the box. No one appeared to have noticed his impact, except maybe the black suburban still sitting down the street, and they were probably laughing.
He brought the audience share data up on his glasses. The Snapz episode had to average over a ten million share for the episode for his end of the contract to payout. The Snapz share had started out strong, a cool fifteen million, but was dropping minute by minute. The episode turned out to be a hastily patched together collage of best-of recaps; Jerry D had just been arrested for impersonating a police officer, pulling the plug on the planned “fake sobriety test.” Snap.
He watched, helplessly, as the current share bounced across the chart, dropping more than it rose. The average slid, falling under ten million with five minutes left. Jonas kicked the box. So close.
Then, with one minute left, the current share spiked, the average bumped back over ten, and the episode ended. Jonas kissed the ground, snow and all.
The black Suburban pulled up, the door popping open. Jonas found himself staring down the barrel of a handgun. The barrel was perfectly round.
Zaffi’s goons took him straight to a clean, modern building in a northern suburb. It felt like a dentist’s office, but the receptionist packed a .45.
“Jonas, good to see you again.” Eglantine Zaffi sat at a conference table with an elderly African-American woman. Projectors filled the walls with video feeds and data screens. One screen appeared to show an assembly line of people unpacking and repacking pharmaceuticals. Another displayed a list of delinquent gambling accounts.
He watched, helplessly, as the current share bounced across the chart, dropping more than it rose.
“Nice initiative there,” Zaffi continued. “Too bad about your complications. Helena thought you were going to pull it off without help.” She nodded at the woman sitting beside her. “She wanted you to steal one of the giant robots and rampage across the city. I thought that was a little far-fetched.”
Helena shrugged. “I’ve seen crazier things in this business.”
Zaffi drummed her fingers on the table. “I pulled some strings to save your ass, but it wasn’t cheap. If anyone ever looks, there are going to be some questions about why every TV in every hotel room in Michigan tuned in to Snapz last night.”
“I figure it cost me a hundred grand, even after the payout. What should I do about that? If I just off you, I’ll never get it back. But that kind of debt doesn’t get paid off washing dishes. Why should I keep you alive? What are you good at?”
Jonas started to say parking cars, playing MicroRisk, and losing girlfriends, but stopped as his mouth opened. He knew what she needed.
“I understand hedging markets. I understand how they work and how people get addicted to them. I think you can leverage my experience.” He pointed at the wall of screens. “I see you are involved in a lot of business ventures, a lot of really risky business ventures.”
“Let me tell you about CaperCoverage.”
Jonas’s landlord was waiting at the apartment door when Jonas got home, his large nephew at his side. Zaffi’s henchmen stared them down while Jonas packed. Zaffi was giving him a chance to pay her back, but he was “on a short leash” while she put together a team to explore CaperCoverage. He was moving into her Upper Peninsula operations center for a while, to work long hours for little pay. Jonas didn’t see that as a much of a problem.
At least he wouldn’t be parking cars.
K.G. Jewell lives and writes in Austin, Texas. His stories of short speculative fiction have appeared in such august publications as Daily Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Unidentified Funny Objects. His website, which is rarely updated, is lit.kgjewell.com.
This article was originally published in our “Uncertainty” issue in June, 2013.