a benjamin wright mystery
In 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission successfully prosecuted a hedge fund trader named Matthew Martoma for using "black edge" to profit from a trade in two pharmaceutical stocks. Black edge is reliable information not yet available to the public. For a trader to seek to obtain it and then to use it is illegal. Martoma's use of it had earned him profits and avoided losses totalling $275 million. In the same year, Martoma's employer, Steven Cohen, one of the wealthiest hedge fund traders in the world, paid $616 million to settle a raft of lawsuits alleging systematic fraud in his trading operations. These were rare successes for the SEC. In general, the risks of being caught using black edge are so small and the potential rewards so high, that this illegal practice remains pervasive even at the most rarefied levels of finance.
The case of Flynt Rodgers, which is described in the following pages, was unusual in its scale, breadth and violence. But the particular kinds of insider trading which his firm was accused of deploying so lucratively remain an everday occurrence on Wall Street. There is simply no way the SEC can catch anything more than a tiny fraction of what goes on. So it focuses on the biggest names it can in the hope of scaring the entire market into compliance. Over the many years during which this strategy has been employed, it has had only limited success.
No matter his mood, Flynt Rodgers always felt better after boarding his Gulfstream G650. The mere sight of it raised his spirits. No one else had a plane quite like it, glittering, glossy black, the devil’s own mount. It drew looks wherever it landed.
The interiors had been chosen by his third wife, and this had been the best, if not the only thing, she had done for him as far as he was concerned. Not quite worth the check he’d had to write to see her off, but very nearly.
The walls were a buttery yellow, the seats tobacco brown, covered in the softest leather in the world, the foreskins of sperm whales. At the back of the plane was an 8 foot long couch where he could stretch out and watch Auburn football. A Francis Bacon hung alongside the flatscreen. In the bathroom was a Japanese toilet with a pipe running through the seat to keep it 75 degrees at all times, a powerful shower and ample room for even a man of Rodgers’ size to towel off, shave and admire himself in the mirror before stepping into the adjacent dressing room, where he kept a wardrobe which put Gatsby to shame. Bespoke suits by Oxxford, shelves of Sea Island cotton shirts. A rack of Hermes ties from cream to slate grey, with every color and pattern in between. Several pairs of John Lobb boots. Golf clothes, beach clothes, swimming trunks, even two sets of shooting clothes, for duck in Georgia and grouse in Scotland. Some people said the best thing about being rich was the stuff. Being nestled in whale foreskin at Mach 1 and 30,000 feet certainly had its moments. But for Flynt Rodgers, the best thing about great wealth was the choices. He could do what he wanted when he wanted, and that was real power.
His Italian cabin steward, Giuseppe, handed him a copy of the Journal. He had recruited him from the best cafe in Milan by quadrupling his salary. Nothing much in the paper. Two weeks to go until the Presidential election and President Mills was four points ahead. Barring an October surprise, she would be back for four more years. The bozo running the Federal Reserve was due to testify before Congress again. Why this was considered news, he couldn’t think. The guy said nothing and hadn’t done anything since cranking up the printing presses and flooding the world with cheap dollars as a way out of a recession. It had made money close to free for people like Flynt Rodgers, while the poor saps who needed it, the mortgage-crushed Joes and Janes, still couldn’t borrow a dime.
The great irony of it all was that the chairman of the Fed thought himself an economic genius put on this earth to raise everyone’s boats with low inflation, low unemployment and cheap money. Instead he’d financed the super-rich to buy more mansions and mega-yachts and led the rest of the economy to the slaughterhouse. Bankruptcy lawyers, bankers and private equity firms had butchered America. And still these so called guardians of the US economy talked of stability and opportunity for all and creating good middle class jobs. Nice idea, boys, thought Rodgers, but those horses bolted long ago and they’re never coming back.
“Settlement expected soon in Rodgers case,” read a headline on page 3. “Insiders” had told the paper that a settlement was due this week with Rodgers agreeing to pay the largest fine ever for alleged insider trading.
The evidence, the paper reported, was overwhelming and based on extensive wire-tapping. Rodgers had paid squadrons of lawyers to fight on his behalf and they had tried everything. Their final effort to have the wire-tapping declared illegal had failed. Key sources close to Rodgers had buckled under SEC pressure and become informers. They had been threatened with personal ruin, long jail sentences and heavy fines. It had been a long and brutal process but now, at last, the elusive beast that was Flynt Rodgers was trapped in the government’s crosshairs. With a Presidential election looming and Rodgers’ scalp in hand, the SEC and the White House could boast that they had cracked down on Wall Street and stood up for Everyman.
Well, he thought, the Journal could report what the hell it liked. But this fight wasn’t over. Far from it.
Giuseppe arrived with a cappuccino.
“Magnificent, as usual,” said Rodgers. “The one constant in my ever changing world is the quality of your coffee.” Giuseppe tilted his head in thanks and returned to his galley.
The plane began to taxi forward, taking its place in the line of private jets taxiing out of Teterboro.
“I need your signature,” said Bill Harper, Rodgers’ business partner.
“What for this time?”
“The Greek bond deal.”
“How’d we end up on that one?”
“Up 317% in ten months.”
“What was it you used to tell me? We’re so good, it’s illegal.”
“Not so funny any more.”
“Hell, it’s still funny. Because it’s true. This trade was obvious to anyone with an ounce of brain and a pint of guts.” Rodgers struck the table with his fist. “No way the Europeans were going to let Greece go down so easily. How many cups of coffee do you think it took to assemble the Euro? How many train rides between Brussels and Strasbourg and Paris and Bonn? And you think they’d let all that go just because the Greeks would rather dance to bouzouki music than balance their checkbook?”
“It’s one thing to see the obvious, another to act on it,” said Harper.
“And because we do, they treat us like criminals. Our own government treats us like we’re the problem, not them. As if we’re the ones who come up with dumb-ass ideas like insuring the entire mortgage market. Or imposing a single currency on everyone from Portugal to Slovenia without pausing to think, hell, these countries might want different things one day.”
Harper had lost count of the number of times he’d heard this rant. He was sympathetic, of course. He had met Rodgers in the Marine Corps. He’d been drawn to Rodgers’ bravado. He had been there that day in Beirut, when the Marine barracks had been bombed. October 23 1983. They had lost so many of their friends and he had seen Rodgers rage into the rubble, pulling away stones in his frenzied search for survivors. He had seen him at his very best.
But in nearly three decades as his business partner, he had also seen him at his worst. Blustering. Bull-headed. Reckless.
“Flynt, you need to be straight with me.”
“I’m always straight with you Harp. Maybe not everyone. But always with you.”
“Then why the hell are you doing this?” Rodgers stared out of his window. The Gulfstream was now tearing down the runway, launching steeply into the air.
The plane landed hard on the runway at North Palm Beach County airport.
“Sorry sir,” said the pilot over the intercom. “Hope you weren’t holding a drink.”
Rodgers didn’t smile. His mind was fixed on what he had to do. He hated that it had come to this. But it had. In the Marine Corps they said you sign up knowing the risk. No use crying later. He had changed out of his suit into jeans, a black polo shirt and a pair of grey sneakers. He wore a Marlins baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. Anonymity wasn’t something he had ever craved, but today, he needed it. The plane taxied to a halt. On the tarmac was a black Chevy Cruze rental car with Georgia plates. He squeezed himself into the driver’s seat. His knees touched his chest. He groped for the button on the side of the seat which would slide him back. Even then it was a tight fit. He turned on the engine and the air conditioning and checked the clock. 2.31 pm. He had reckoned on 40 minutes to drive 21 miles to Palm Beach. It was a journey he had taken hundreds of times, but normally in the spacious rear of a Chevy Suburban. If the Chevy Cruze was meant to symbolize the rebirth of the US car industry after its bailout by the government, then the Japanese and Koreans must be laughing themselves sick. Tinned sardines traveled in more style.
The Beeline Highway which cut straight down to Palm Beach was clear and Rodgers drove at a steady 60 mph, determined not to attract attention. He drove so rarely these days that it required his complete concentration. He gripped the wheel as if it might slither away, his hands at 10 and 2 o’clock, exactly how he had learned as a teenager. He passed the usual low-slung detritus of roadside Florida, liquor stores, check cashing joints and strip clubs. There was nothing like this drive to show you what a divided place America had become. Start on your private jet at a private airport. Drive through low-rent squalor. Arrive in Palm Beach, one of the richest places on the planet, where the best houses all faced out to the ocean, mooning the country behind them. He exited right onto I95, and then after a few miles took a left onto Okeechobee Boulevard, which crossed Clear Lake and Lake Worth Lagoon over into Palm Beach. He took the second road on the left, drove one block and parked outside Palm Beach Elementary. he checked his watch. 3.12pm. Perfect. He had three minutes till the kids left school. He pushed himself low down in his seat and waited. A line of SUVs was double parked outside the school and a gaggle of mothers, dressed in a uniform of white jeans, pastel shirts and bug-eyed sunglasses, was chatting by the school gate. At 3.15, a bell rang inside the school and the children started to scamper out, back-packs groaning on their backs, straight into the back seats of their rides. By 3.20, the road was quiet again. All the kids seemed to have come out. A caretaker was sweeping the school’s wide stoop. Where was he? Rodgers had to catch him here. There was no way he could go to his house. It was too risky.
Rodgers started the car and began to drive slowly around the block. Maybe he had missed him. Maybe he had come and gone, invisible in the scrum of cars and mothers. Rodgers drummed the steering wheel with his fingers. His eyes scanned the sidewalk and the park across the road. Public parks in Palm Beach were for bums and sure enough there were a couple, shirtless, sitting on the grass drinking out of a bottle concealed in a paper bag. He kept driving. He had been coming to Palm Beach for 20 years and never driven these streets. He usually just whooshed in and out of a mansion, a country club, a hotel, never pausing to see what else went on in this town. He turned right on a red light and came round to the school again. Maybe his kid had been sick today. Maybe he’d stayed at home. Maybe his wife was one of those in the gaggle and she’d hustled the kid away. But that wasn’t what the investigator had told him, the one he had been paying to watch the school. What he had been told was that the man he needed to see came every day, like clockwork, to pick up his son. So where was he? Rodgers gripped the steering wheel even more tightly. The car felt as cramped as a tomb. He turned up the air conditioning to full blast. A traffic warden started to approach him, waving for him to move. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw a school bus behind him, trying to pull out. Rodgers cursed and drove forward again.
He passed the bums in the park again, and they stared at him this time. He came to the traffic lights and started to turn on red again. Just as he did, he saw him on the other side of the street. He was walking and talking to a young boy who skipped along beside him.
There were two lanes of traffic going in each direction. Rodgers could have got out of his car and shouted, but the man might have run. He waited for the light. Come on, he muttered. Come on. Finally the light changed and he drove across and parked the car in the first space he could find. He got out of the car, barely missing a cyclist who raced past his door swearing noisily. He walked quickly, following the man, until he was barely ten feet behind.
“Sergio,” he said. The man turned. He was handsome with closely cropped silver hair and a face both young and old at the same time, soft yet haggard. He was several inches shorter than Rodgers and looked up at him like captured prey.
“What are you doing here? We’re not allowed to talk.”
“I know, Sergio. I wouldn’t be here unless it was important.”
“You followed me?” He was looking all around.
“Only from school.”
“Hello, I’m Roberto,” said the little boy. “I’m 5.”
“Well, how do you do?” said Rodgers kneeling down to shake the boy’s hand. “Five is a fine age, and your are a living proof of that. Did you learn anything interesting in school today?”
“George Washington had wooden teeth.”
“Now, there is an interesting fact. And yet look what he achieved? Led his country to independence. Shows there’s really nothing stopping any of us if we try.”
“Can we talk later? I need to get Roberto home,” said Sergio Caldera, whispering urgently.
“Whenever you’d like.”
“Wait here. I’ll be back in an hour.” Caldera looked around again, took his son by the hand, then hurried along, not looking back.
“Goodbye, Mr. Whoever You Are,” said Roberto, turning and waving.
“Goodbye,” said Rodgers. He looked around again, checked his watch and walked into the nearest Starbucks.
Five minutes before he was due to meet Sergio Caldera, Rodgers drained the last of his coffee and returned to his car. He didn’t want to sit there too long, looking like a curb-crawler. He circled the block again and as he turned, he saw Caldera coming in the other direction along the sidewalk, his hands thrust into the pocket of his windbreaker. Rodgers pulled up, rolled down the window.
“Get in,” he said. Caldera looked around again. “You make yourself more conspicuous with all that looking. Just get in the damned car.” Once Sergio had shut the door, Rodgers started driving. “Your boy seems well.”
“What is this about?” sad Caldera. “If they see me with you, my deal is off.”
“Yes, about that deal.”
“I had no choice, Flynt.”
“We always have choices.”
Caldera punched the window of the car. “Well, I didn’t. I have a family. A wife. A son. I can’t go to jail for the next 10 years.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry it came to this, Flynt.”
“Me too. I’m here to sort it out.”
“I can’t undo what I’ve done.”
“Yes you can.”
“How? They have my testimony. I told them that I passed you inside information.”
“Tell them you were mistaken.”
“That I lied?”
“No. That you misremembered. That they pressured you.”
“It’s too late.”
“No. It’s not. These assholes think they can do anything to prove their cases. They think they can threaten to destroy a man’s life unless he tells them what they want to hear. Well, they can’t Sergio. What they did to you wasn’t right.”
“I’m really sorry, Flynt. But I’m in the clear now. I can’t go back. I’m sleeping again. At last. You know how many years I didn’t sleep? Just lay there staring at my wife wondering how I was going to tell her what I’d done? What it was going to do to our family? No, Flynt. I’m out.” Rodgers turned to look at him. His former protege. He remembered meeting him when Caldera was a 28-year-old MBA student at Columbia. Rodgers had gone to talk one afternoon to explain the hedge fund industry. It was in the midst of the first Internet boom, and the lecture room was sparsely filled. All the elbow-throwing kids were out trying to raise money for their ill-conceived dot com plans. Caldera had sat at the front and diligently taken notes, wearing a white button-down shirt and jeans. Rodgers had seen the type before. Latin American, serious, trained as an engineer, determined to make it in New York, because there were no opportunities back home. These guys weren’t here to chug beer and fraternize like so many of the business school students, before climbing onto the Wall Street carousel. They were here to work, to learn how to make money. They reminded him of himself when he left the Marines. He didn’t have choices. He didn’t have a family he could go back to, a room above his parents’ garage where he could kick back for a few months while he figured out what to do with his life. He had to go to work. When he had finished his presentation, Caldera’s hand shot up.
“How do you justify the commission structure, 2 and 40, when the industry standard is 2 and 20?” It was a gutsy question.
“I justify it with my performance,” Rodgers had replied. “I don’t get my clients in and then slam the doors and demand my fees. They know what I cost coming in. If it’s too rich for them, there are plenty of other funds with lower fees that will take their money. Like everyone in this business, I offer risk-adjusted returns. You take your risk and take your returns, which in the case of my funds more than compensate for any fees I charge.” Sergio had pouted for a moment, then nodded, accepting Rodgers’ reply. No one else in the audience had a question, so Sergio put his hand up again.
“Seems like it’s just you and me, pal,” Rodgers had said.
“What would be your strategy to short the US stock market today? Please be specific.”
“Yes sir,” Rodgers replied sarcastically. Caldera had seemed confused. “I assume you think it’s overvalued.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You may be right. But there’s a huge difference between being right, and being right at the right time. I guess, I’d start very simply, buying puts on the S&P. Maybe even more on the NASDAQ, which is arguably the really over-heated market right now given its technology focus. If I were feeling lucky, I’d short specific companies, but I think you’re right that what’s interesting, really interesting right now, is the market risk. And the opportunity if it crashes.”
“Do you have anything more creative?” Rodgers was startled. But he looked at Caldera and realized his bluntness was not insolence, but simply the working of a high-functioning, mechanical mind. His output had failed to satisfy Caldera’s requirements. Simple as that.
“I think there would certainly be opportunities in the credit markets. If you believe the cost of lending will soar as companies start to struggle. It may even be worth buying some of the credit insurance products, corporate credit default swaps, because I’m sure they’ll be in high demand.” Caldera nodded approvingly. “I wouldn’t say there’d be any big currency plays linked to a market crash. Our economies are so interlinked these days, it’s hard to see anyone gaining much if the US were to crash.”
“That’s more useful. Thanks.”
“Happy to help,” said Rodgers. He loved this guy. At the end of the Q&A, Rodgers had found Caldera and asked him if he had an internship for the summer. He told him to cancel his place as an analyst at a large asset manager in Boston and to come and work for him. “They’ll have you pounding out spreadsheets and going on bonding events with lame middle managers,” he told him. “Work for me and you’ll learn something.”
Caldera had turned out to be a machine. He scarcely left the office. Rodgers would arrive at 5.30am after running three circuits of the Central Park Reservoir and Caldera would already be at his desk, crisp and clear-headed. Rodgers would stop by the office after dinner, at 11pm, and Caldera would still be there, glazed by hours in front of his screens, but still alert, his mind pulsing. God, it was fun back then. It was still all about the work, about finding inconsistencies in the world and making money from them. Compared to what came next, it was a simple life, packed with the pure thrill of being right when everyone else was wrong. The tech bubble had crashed and Flynt’s funds had called it correctly. He vividly recalled the day when Caldera, by now graduated and a manager of his own Rodgers fund, came into his office for his bonus. He was still wearing those jeans and white button-down shirts, a pen in his top pocket.
“It’s been a good year, Sergio,” he began. “A very good year. And I want you to know how much I appreciate your work here.” Caldera had shrugged, an “it’s nothing shrug”. Rodgers had then pushed an envelope across the table. Caldera took it and tucked it into the pocket of his jeans.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
“Here? Why? You want to see my reaction?”
“Yes,” said Rodgers. “I’m a simple man with simple pleasures.” Sergio pulled the envelope out of his pocket and opened it. He looked at the check, then tucked it back in the envelope. “You’re just not going to play the game, are you?”
“You once told me, it was a simple equation. Pay equals performance. I performed. You paid.”
“Jesus.” The ingratitude, Rodgers had thought. $20 million for a 30 year old and he doesn’t even say thank you.
“Hah!” Caldera screamed. He bolted up from his chair and walked round to Rodgers. He leaned in and embraced him. “Thank you. Thank you.”
But it was all a lifetime ago. That first flush of making money, that gratitude and excitement, and given way to obligations and expectations. Houses had to be bought, schools paid for, nannies hired and paintings acquired. The luxuries of this life became its needs. And once that happened, the misery set in. Good fortune became a curse. That moment, that one, life-changing check had turned Caldera from carefree to careworn in a matter of months.
“You know the Feds’ case is weak,” said Rodgers, pulling up at a light. “The methods they used are highly dubious. My lawyers are going to pick them apart in court.”
“There’s a lot in it for you if you take back what you told them.”
“What I told them was the truth. That we used black edge.”
“They’re relying on your testimony. Take it back, Sergio. Without it, they have no case.”
“Without it, I have no life. They threatened me.”
“I’m going to win this thing, you know Sergio. And I want you there with me. Like we always were.”
“How many ways can I tell you, Flynt. It’s over. We’re going back to Argentina. I can still work in securities there. I want this behind me.”
“No one wants this behind them more than me. What’ll it take?”
“Are you trying to bribe me?”
“No. Certainly not. You know me better than that. I want you to think about it. Think about me. Us. We went through some fights and survived. Why not this one?”
“Because this isn’t a fight. They dropped the bomb on us Flynt.” Rodgers turned in his seat and grabbed Caldera in a headlock, forcing his face to within an inch of his own.
“Take your tail from between your legs and man up,” he seethed, spittle blowing through his teeth into Caldera’s face. “I made you. You were heading for some piss-ant mutual fund when I found you. If it wasn’t for me, you’d be driving your Honda Accord to work each day and picking which stocks to buy for teachers’ pension funds. You’d be a loser, Sergio. I made you. It’s time for you to pay me back.” He squeezed Caldera’s neck until he was gasping for air. “Am I clear? What are you going to do? Are you going to do the right thing? Are you?”
Caldera had turned crimson. His hands were flailing at the handbrake, his knees bumping the underside of the glove compartment. Finally Rodgers let him go, shoving him back into his seat. He shook his arm loose. “Sorry pal. I’m under a lot of pressure.”
Caldera stared at him, rubbing his neck. They said nothing for a minute as they digested what had happened.
“I cannot trust you any more, Flynt,” said Caldera, reaching for the door handle.
“Yeah, you can,” said Rodgers. He almost apologized, but thought better of it.
“But I will think about what you said. You really think you can beat the SEC? After everything we’ve been through?”
“Hell, I can beat them.”
“And if you do?”
“I will be forever in your debt.”
“What probability do you give yourself?”
“80%. If my lawyers are telling me the truth.”
“So we should discount that to, say, 65%. Still not bad.”
“Worth the risk?”
“For that kind of return? Maybe. I need to think about it.”
“I need to know soon. In the next 24 hours. You can leave a message at the Breakers. Yes or no. Address it to Mr. Stone.” Caldera opened the door. “I promise it’ll be worth it.”
Caldera got out and started walking, not looking back. He never wanted to look back. He needed to get away from Flynt Rodgers once and for all. Rodgers had always been crazy. Now he was dangerous.
Bill Harper cringed as the pianist in the lounge at the Breakers started singing The Best Is Yet to Come. Harper hated hotel bars at the best of times. He found them sleazy. Everyone seemed a drink or two away from some regrettable indiscretion. Sinatra was the perfect soundtrack. He knew he was pious. But that was what you got growing up as the son of a Lutheran minister and it was too late for him to change.
Rodgers was late. He had told him to meet him here at 5. Now the bar was filling up. Older couples in lime greens and pinks sat in the chairs, while the young ones lined up along the bar, underneath the large screens playing ESPN in silence. The room’s thick carpets and curtains swaddled it in a luxurious quiet.
Harper nursed his drink, scotch and milk. Rodgers always teased him for it, but he didn’t care. It was comforting, and that was what he sought from alcohol. He didn’t want to feel buzzed or loose. He wanted to be calmed down after a day of chasing behind Flynt Rodgers with a dustpan and brush cleaning up the mess he left behind. That was what he had done for 30 years, and he had found ways to cope. Scotch and milk was one of them. He glanced up at the screen. Another baseball player had been caught lying about taking steroids. The Jets’ quarterback situation was a mess. Nothing changed in sports, yet that was its own kind of drug. The world might be in turmoil, but within the diamond, between the lines, the rhythms might quicken and slow, but they remained reassuringly the same.
It wasn’t like Rodgers to be late. Harper looked at his watch, a Timex Ironman, $50 from the Sports Authority. Where was he? He stood up and walked to the tall windows overlooking the croquet court in front of the hotel. Two elderly couples were staggering around the green, dragging their mallets behind them. Harper had only played croquet once and found it to be a vicious game, encouraging spite and rewarding vindictiveness. No wonder they liked it here in Palm Beach. He saw a black Chevy Cruze coming up the driveway. Rodgers stepped out and pressed the keys and a $100 bill into the hand of the valet. He bounded up the steps and into the lobby. Harper stopped a waitress and ordered Rodgers a vodka martini.
Rodgers entered the bar and flopped into the chair opposite Harper. For a man under threat of indictment, he seemed remarkably relaxed. Rodgers waved off the waitress as she started to pour his drink.
“Allow me,” said Rodgers, taking the shaker and giving the waitress one of his alligator smiles. As she walked away, he said to Harper, “When did these things get so damn big? You remember they used to come in smaller glasses. Frozen. Three good gulps and you were done. Now, three gulps and you’re half way in. The rest is like tepid bathwater.”
“You going to tell me what you’ve been up to this afternoon?”
“I paid a visit to Sergio.”
“You’re not serious?” Harper gripped his knees and glared at Rodgers.
“Be cool, Harp.”
“He’s testifying against you. Damn, Flynt, that’s tampering. You could face 10 years for that.”
“I didn’t threaten him.”
“Then what the hell were you seeing him for? To talk about the weather?”
“We talked about old times.”
“You can’t do that, Flynt.” Rodgers had rarely seen his friend so agitated. In all their years together, Harper had been a useful brake on his activities. Careful, a little neurotic, but always cool, ready to be convinced. Rodgers knew that Harper secretly enjoyed the thrill of the ride, that whoosh as the roller-coaster reached the top of the ride and plunged downwards. Harper would never have dared this life on his own, but with Rodgers at the helm, he had reveled in it. But this evening, he seemed distraught.
“I can do what I like, Harp. Whether anyone wants to punish me for it is a whole other question.”
“What did Sergio say?”
“He said the government pressured him. That he never wanted to testify against me, but he feared he’d lose everything. Now, you tell me, who’s the criminal here? Me for talking to a former friend and employee, or the government shaking a man down until he testifies against me, regardless of the truth?”
“Jesus, Flynt. How many times do I have to tell you? If this was about justice and right and wrong, we could hire a couple of priests and rabbis to determine the case. But it’s not. The SEC doesn’t prosecute to obtain justice. They don’t have the resources to run a just system. They prosecute to make an example of someone, in the hope that the example will scare everyone else into compliance. Your problem, our problem, is that when they’re all in on a prosecution, they’ll do anything to close it out. They’ll leak to the press, they’ll get their friends in politics to tell the world that you’re a liar and a fraud. This hasn’t been about the truth since it started. It’s about putting you in the gallows so all the world can see that Washington is on the side of the common man. The harder you fight them, the harder you’ll be punished.”
“Well, that’s just horse shit.”
“I know it’s horse shit. They knows it’s horse shit. But it’s the only horse shit that counts.”
“Got any more of these nuts?” said Rodgers, holding out an empty bowl to the waitress. He’d been guzzling them by the handful. “And another Martini. This one’s getting warm.” He leaned over the table towards Harper. “You know I’m not going to take this. I’ve danced their dance. I’ve let them slow-walk me to the brink of a deal. You think I don’t know what’s going on? They’re punishing me. They could have gone after any one of a dozen hedge fund managers, but they go after me. I was the one who supported the President all these years. So they turn on the heat on me to show how impartial they are. She wants to show that financial support doesn’t buy favors.”
“Now you’re being paranoid.”
“Really? You think so? You think the White House is too good to be this petty?”
“Course not, Flynt. But you know the truth. They didn’t build their case on nothing. They have evidence. Let’s just pay the fine and move. You fight this, we could lose everything.”
“I’m not going to lose this, Harp. I’m just not. We’re not.” The waitress handed him his second Martini. He took a long swig, and then pressed his thumb hard into the glass until it broke. Cold vodka mixed with warm blood trickled over his hand and along his wrist. The waitress hurried back with a stack of clean napkins. Rodgers waved her away. “Just a flesh wound. Nothing serious.”
Harper was breathing heavily in his chair. Rodgers drank what was left of the pink concoction from the unbroken side of the glass. “OK Harp? Not going to die on me I hope. I need you, you need me. Semper Fi.”
Sergio Caldera did not dare tell his wife about his encounter with Rodgers. She would have yelled at him. He could hardly blame her after all he had put her through, the highs of life in New York, followed by the months of fear under the SEC’s ever tightening screw. The investigators had threatened to fine Caldera into penury and throw him into jail until well after his 5-year-old son graduated from high school. And then there was the shame. The withdrawal from the school boards and social fundraising committees, the whispers, the drying up of invitations not just for them but for their children as well. Play-dates which had once occupied every afternoon for their son now became a rare treat, an act of pity from the few friends who stood by them.
“Where have you been?” his wife asked. She was tossing a salad in the kitchen.
“Stopped by the office, to pick something up,” he said.
“I thought work was quiet at the moment.”
“It is. Just had to mail a document.” He picked up a magazine lying on the counter. “How was your day?”
“I’ll be happy when we’re home. I’ve had enough of this country.”
“It’s not this country’s fault.”
“I want a steady life, Sergio. Not all these ups and downs. They feed you lies here. That you can be anything you want to be. What they don’t tell you is what being anything you want to be does to your soul. It rots you from inside.”
“We enjoyed it while it lasted.” She brushed past him, taking the salad to the table. She returned to the counter and poured herself a glass of wine. Caldera glanced at the bottle. It had been full an hour earlier and was now nearly empty.
“You enjoyed it,” she said, tilting her wine glass toward him.
“Come on,” he said, putting an arm around her waist. “There were good moments.” She pushed him away.
“I’ll be happy when we’re back in Buenos Aires. I never thought I’d say this, but the rich people here make the rich in Buenos Aires seem deep. I want to wash it all off,” she said, flicking away an imaginary piece of dirt on her arm. “I don’t want ever to have to step foot in this country again.” She prodded at a plastic container of fried chicken. “To feed my children this shit.”
“It’s only a couple more days. They have my deposition. If they need me to give evidence in a trial, I can come back alone. There’s no need for you ever to leave Recoleta again.” She smiled at the thought of Recoleta, that slice of Paris in Buenos Aires. “There are people who want us in Buenos Aires. Companies that want to hire me. Friends who don’t measure us by our bank balance. We’ll be fine again.” He reached out to stroke her hair, and this time she didn’t brush him off. Their son came into the kitchen holding a toy car in each hand.
“What’s for dinner?” he said. “Hungry.” Sergio picked him up and put him on a stool at the kitchen counter.
“Chicken,” he said, kissing the top of his son’s head. “But when we move to Argentina, it’ll be steak every day.”
“But what about the cows?”
“They’re happy to feed a good boy like you.” Their dachshund padded into the kitchen, yapping. “Let me take her around the block,” said Sergio picking up the dog and grabbing a leash from a hook next to the kitchen door. “I’ll just be a few minutes. Start without me.” His wife and son began dividing up the chicken and the salad. It’s going to be OK, he thought as he stepped outside. It’s all going to be OK.
The Calderas’ temporary home was a single-story ranch nestled amid apartment blocks. By early evening, the streets were empty. The blue plate specials had been cleared away and the retirees were tucked up in bed. It was a beautiful time to be out. Caldera let the tiny dog pull him along towards the beach. The sun was setting behind him, and he could see the ocean glowing purple at the end of the street. He was closer to the end than the beginning of this nightmare. Agreeing to testify against Rodgers had been the best decision he could have made. There was no way he could go back on it now. At last, the path ahead was clear. He had started to sleep again without medication.
Rodgers was asking for the impossible. Maybe he could win in a trial. The prosecution could trip up on any of a thousand technicalities. But odds were they wouldn’t. Not in a case this big. That was what he and his wife had decided. Regardless of the truth, the prosecution was never going to back down. The machinery of the government was a relentless, remorseless force, and once it began rolling, there was no brake which could stop it. Caldera was in no position to vouch for Rodgers’ absolute innocence. In high finance, bullets flew, bombs went off and the air was usually thick was smoke. Who really knew what was going on? All too often, Rodgers had disappeared into his office to take a call and re-emerged to place an order which put him just ahead of the markets. Sergio had never asked for details. He had been Rodgers’ silent executor.
Often he’d thought that’s why Rodgers had hired him. Not for his brilliance at finance, but because he was an outsider, a foreigner with no footing in this country. He’d hired him because he could own him. Caldera pulled his headphones from his pocket. He unraveled them and put the buds in his ears. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d listened to music. He hit Shuffle to hear the dramatic strumming of a Spanish guitar. He smiled and picked up his pace.
Behind him a black, Lexus GS hybrid slowed down. The driver lowered the passenger window. Caldera could not hear him. The exhilaration of the music, the gorgeousness of the purple sky, the comic walk of his dog, thoughts of Argentina distracted him. He felt a sharp prick in his neck. He swatted at it, thinking it was a bug. He noticed the Lexus pulling away. A vice seemed to be tightening around his skull. His tongue began to swell, choking off the air to his lungs. As he fell to his knees, he dropped the leash and the dog began to yap, yapping as Sergio Caldera died on the sidewalk two days before he was meant to go home.
“Don’t move,” said Oscar, Wright’s fishing guide. Oscar had been fishing these waters between Andros and Grand Bahama all his life. For a man of his size, 6’5” and at least 300 lbs, he was extraordinarily graceful, balancing on a raised platform and pushing the boat through the shallows with a long, wooden pole. Except for his carbon fiber rod, he might have been fishing the banks of the Nile three thousand years ago. He was staring ahead towards a flash in the water.
“You can see where they’ve been feeding,” said Oscar. The sand along the seabed was pitted with holes, each about the size of a nickel where the bone fish had dug in searching for crabs. Wright squinted behind his sunglasses. The sun bore down on his face, bleaching his mind of the past few months. “Get up,” said Oscar. “Get ready.”
Wright stood up, his knees aching even more than usual. “Now, strip. Strip. Quick.” Wright began yanking down on the yellow fishing line which spooled at his feet.
“10 O’clock,” said Oscar. “40 feet. Swimming towards you.” Wright stared but couldn’t see anything. “There, there,” said Oscar. “Cast. Now.” Wright followed Oscar’s direction and pulled the rod back over his head until he could feel the line tighten behind him, then whipped it forward. It curled gracefully through the sharp wind, propelled by the strength and rhythm of his cast. The bait, dropped into the water followed by several feet of line. Wright bent forward staring in the direction of the bait. Finally he saw something, grey shadows flitting beneath the silvery surface of the water. He pulled off his sunglasses. He could feel every line around his eyes crease as he tried to focus. The bones were near the bait. Come on, he thought to himself. He felt a stab of pain in the arches of his feet as he tried to stay upright on the rocking boat. Oscar gently pushed the boat around until it was pointing directly at the feeding fish.
Wright felt a tug. Small at first, then stronger. He gripped his rod and brought the tip upwards. His reel started to whir as the bonefish made a run.
“Let him take it,” said Oscar. “When he stops, start to reel in.”
The strength of the fish was startling. Wright felt the tendon in his elbow straining as he pulled on the rod. Then the fish slowed. Wright turned the reel a few times, until the fish made another run. He watched his line run out. The usual jingle of regrets and remorse playing in his brain was quieted as he focused on the fish. It began to tire again. He raised his rod and began to reel in the line. The fish lurched forward, but Wright could feel it weakening. He let it run, slashing through the water, the hook now lodged firmly inside its mouth. The rod bent and Wright felt a bead of sweat carving through the sunscreen on his brow and pooling in the corner of his left eye. He brushed it away with the back of his hand, not letting go of either the rod in his right hand or the slack line in his left. A gust of wind from the north rocked the boat. Oscar steadied it with his pole as Wright started to reel in his catch.
The fish jagged away to the right, stopped. It darted forward, under the boat, pulling the rod tight against the hull. Oscar jumped down from his perch and seized Wright’s line, hauling in the fish from beneath the boat. It flapped in the air as he gripped it and pulled the hook from its mouth. Its stern eye stared at Wright. Its steel white scales glittered then started to fade. Its tail flapped, stopped, flapped hard again as Oscar loosened his grip for a moment to reach into its mouth and pull out the hook. He held the fish up for Wright to take one last look and lowered it back into the water. It jerked as if rediscovering the use of its body and shot away.
“How big was it?” Wright asked.
“9 pounds,” said Oscar.
“It felt bigger.”
“That’s because they’re so damn strong.”
“Do you think they know what we’re doing?”
“Course they do. They’re an ancient fish,” said Oscar, standing in the stern of the boat and preparing to start the motor. “They may not have brains, but they have instincts. They get skittish. They know when trouble’s near. That’s why they make such good fishing.”
He reached down and yanked the pull cord. The motor stuttered to life. “They may not know why we’re after them, but they know we’re after them.” Oscar roared with laughter. Wright slumped back in the seat on the front of the boat and popped open another Kalik. He looked out to the horizon. It was hard to see where the bowl of the sky stopped and the water began. The white sand of the seabed lay just a few feet below them. Wright felt the rough grains of sand between his toes. God, he needed this. After the past year, he needed nothing but to be left alone. Away from all the insane greed.
Oscar stopped the boat in a shallow curl of water on the south of a scrubby, uninhabited island. He sat and reached down into the cooler.
“If you go bone fishing for a living, what do you do for fun?” said Wright.
“What’s in Cuba?”
“Women!” said Oscar flashing a broad white smile. “The best in the Caribbean.” He offered Wright a cheese sandwich. Wright shook his head. The beer was enough for him. “I go with a couple of friends for a week.”
“You fish too?”
“Yeah, a little. Off the Bay of Pigs. If we have time.” His laugh started low and then climaxed in a high-pitched wheeze, like a balloon rapidly deflating.
“You don’t worry about diseases?”
“We touch, man. Just touch.”
“I don’t believe you Oscar.” Another hysterical laugh.
“I’m not looking for trouble. Just a little rest and relaxation.”
“After all this hardship,” said Wright, looking around at the pale blue water, white sand and endless sky.
“After a while, any job’s a job.” Tell me about it, Wright thought. He sipped his beer and picked at the wet label on the bottle. “It’s more fun with a good customer.”
“One who can actually fish, you mean?”
“No. Sometimes it’s the ones who can fish who are the worst.”
“Who are your customers?”
“Mostly guys in finance. From New York. Had one recently. Dick Jamieson. You know him? Told me he runs a big bank up in New York.”
“Know of him.” Jamieson ran the largest investment bank on Wall Street.
“He can cast, man. Straight into the wind, the line goes out like a bullet. We were talking, like this, over lunch. I was telling him about my son, Oscar Jr. And he says, you called your son Oscar? So I say, really? You’re questioning the name I gave my son? You’re called Dick!” Oscar slapped his own thigh and bit the cap off a beer. Wright traced a drop of water down the side of his beer, then rolled the bottle across his forehead. It crunched on the salt crusted on his skin.
“What do you do Mr. Wright?”
“I help people with their problems.”
“You a doctor?”
“I help people with a great deal of money. When things go wrong.”
“And they can’t help themselves?”
“You got it.”
“I’d have thought rich people could always help themselves.”
“Sometimes it takes more than money.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“People behave strangely around their money. The more they have, the more strangely they behave. You must see that. Taking these guys fishing.”
The water slapped against the boat. An osprey flapped lazily from its nest on the shore along the thin beach. Oscar heard a sound and cocked his head. It was a thin whine. Wright could hear it too. They looked at each other.
“It’s coming from the other side of the island,” said Oscar. He stood up and climbed onto the platform. He jumped. “Can’t see. Doesn’t sound like one of the fishing boats.” Wright stood up. The sound was getting closer. “Might be a jet-ski. But this is a long way out for a jet-ski.” They both turned to look at the western tip of the island. It was a black jet ski, ridden by a young woman, long brown hair blowing along the breeze behind her, wearing a black wetsuit. She rode up alongside their boat, stopping the engine about ten feet away. She had high cheekbones and vivid green eyes.
“You Benjamin Wright?” she said. Wright looked up at Oscar, who smiled.
“We’ve been looking for you.”
“I’m on vacation.”
“Ellie Vanderveer wants to see you. She’d like you to come for drinks this evening.”
“You could’ve left a message at my club.”
“She wanted to be sure to get hold of you.”
“You’ve made sure.”
“I’ll pick you up at your club at 6 o’clock. Please be ready.”
“Excuse me, but who is Ellie Vanderveer?”
“She says everything will be clear when you meet. That you’ve known each other a while.” Wright looked at Oscar, then back at the woman on the jet ski.
“You want to come fishing with us? The bones are biting today,” said Wright.
“No thank you, Mr. Wright. Some of us have work to do.” She didn’t even crack a smile as she restarted her jet ski and roared away. Once the sound of her engines had faded to nothing, Oscar sat down and took the last bite of his sandwich.
“You were saying the rich behave strangely, man. Strange but good.”
Wright squinted towards the horizon. Ellie Vanderveer. Now where did he know that name?
Wright had never much cared for the Lyford Cay Club. He had inherited his membership from his father, who had been one of the earliest investors. He had known Edward Taylor, the Canadian who created the club in the 1950s. It seemed an improbable vision back then, a hyper-exclusive development in the Bahamas. Most of the world was still staggering to its feet after World War Two. But Taylor had been right. It took a while, but slowly, yacht by yacht, plane by plane, they came, the wizened tycoons and their toothsome wives, their broods of lantern-jawed sons and lissom daughters, escaping their North American and European winters to frolic on the beach and evade taxes. A unique style had evolved, all coral pink and pistachio green, white wicker furniture and striped awnings. The members could lunch on a terrace beside the beach, squint at their boats bobbing off shore, and feel safe that no tax inspectors would waddle across the sand. Somerset Maugham’s description of the South of France applied just as well to Lyford. It was a sunny place for shady people.
Wright lay back on his bed. His father could have built a house here, but in his usual thrifty away had chosen an apartment in the clubhouse. Wright had seen no reason to upgrade. It was convenient, nothing to maintain. He turned to the sliding glass doors, which looked out towards the sea. The room was cold, 58 degrees. Exactly how he liked it after a day on the water. His skin felt raw after so much sun and a scalding shower to wash off the salt and sweat. He was thirsty, but hadn’t the energy to get a glass of water. He shut his eyes. The events of the past few months raced across his mind, as if the inside of his eyelids were a cinema screen. The brutal fight in the fish market in Tokyo. The suicide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And
Ayumi, of course. She had been miraculous. Their two weeks in a ryokan outside Hokkaido while the snow fell outside had been an education. But it had to end. Everything had to end. Women wanted a future, and all Wright could ever offer was the present. The thought of her flooded him with regret.
The problem with Lyford Cay wasn’t the location. Who could complain about that? White sand and Caribbean water were the perfect tonic for any ailment. The problem was the people, and especially the ones who wanted to talk. The really serious members of the club rarely left their houses. They had all they needed at home. Their staff, their family, their offices from which to buy and sell. The problem was men like Charlie McGibbon, club chair, tennis chair, dining chair, and every other chair you could think of. He was an American who had spent too long living in London and was now painfully stuck between cultures, a social Azores. He spoke in elongated vowels. “Helloooo, Ben, how aaaaaaare yoo? Tennis?” Not English enough to be English, not American enough to sound Brahmin, both of which he yearned to be. He was forever buzzing around the club in a golf cart dragooning people into meals and tennis matches, foisting himself and his dreadful family onto anyone he could find.
Everyone knew his story. He had had a middling career in banking, but had lived the social high life courtesy of his wife’s money. The poor woman looked as if all the blood had been drained from her along with her inheritance. When that had run out, things looked very grim for the McGibbons. Their club membership nearly lapsed. They came close to losing their house in Gloucestershire, close to the Prince of Wales. But then all had been saved when their eldest son, a failed internet entrepreneur, had married a Brazilian minerals heiress and promptly began flushing her money through the McGibbon spending machine. Her family had bought one of the largest homes in Lyford Cay in order to be close to her.
There was, unfortunately, a gulf between the boisterous habits of Belo Horizonte’s new billionaires and the more restrained denizens of Lyford Cay. To Charlie McGibbon’s great embarrassment, he had yet to bridge it and was forever having to explain away the thumping salsa parties and G-strings left strewn along the beach. But Wright felt sure that given a few years, he would solve this problem. Nothing, after all, mattered more to Charlie McGibbon than his place in this cloistered world.
Wright could hear him below now down on the restaurant terrace, bellowing to the head waiter, an elderly Bahamian.
“Alfred, my good man. Full steam ahead with the Shrimps de Jonghe tonight, I trust. Ah, key lime pie. My favorite! Very good. We’ve got a full house tonight for Mrs. Vanderveer’s birthday. We must all be on tip-top form.” Wright imagined the head waiter nodding respectfully to this blithering fool.
Vanderveer. He looked at his watch. It was two minutes to six. He must have been half asleep. He rose quickly and went to his wardrobe. He picked out a navy blue linen suit and a white cotton shirt. He dressed quickly. He slipped on a pair of black loafers, no socks. He ran a hand through his hair and checked himself in the mirror. He thought for a moment about bringing his phone, but then tossed it onto the bed. There was no one he wanted to hear from. He put on his sunglasses and left.
The girl on the Jet Ski was waiting for him as promised, her bare, golden legs athwart a BMW motorcycle. She wore a short, armless grey dress, and a jade bead necklace. She said nothing as she turned her head, indicating he should climb on behind her. He placed his hands on her waist. She leaned forward over the handlebars, pulled away out of the club, and escaped fast into traffic.
The Virago lay moored off South Ocean Beach. Wright recognized its lines and colors, navy blue with white trim, immediately. It was from the San Juan yacht makers on Fidalgo Island in Washington State. The shape was unmistakable, the broad hull, lying low in the water, inspired by the lobster boats of Maine. These boats were built for stability in cold, stormy waters. This one was much bigger than any he had ever seen, 200 ft at least with two decks. But compared to many of the yachts in these waters, it was a model of elegant restraint.
His motorcycle chauffeur led him to the end of a dock where a launch was waiting. She kicked her sandals down into the boat and Wright climbed aboard. She untied the knots and then jumped down, stepping behind the wheel. Wright stepped up beside her, close enough to catch a faint smell of night-flowering jasmine.
“I prefer women, Mr. Wright,” she said, as the boat puttered slowly through the smaller boats clustered in the bay.
“Just in case there was any confusion.”
They passed a wooden sailing boat flying a Dutch flag. On the deck were an older couple drinking beer in the nude. Behind him, Wright heard shouts. The harbor master was yelling at them to put their clothes on.
Wright leaned back against a leather perch. The sun was setting. He lifted a foot to rest it on a brass railing in front of him. His driver looked at him and shook her head. He put his foot back down again. As they emerged into clear water, she opened up the engine, the prow of the boat reared up and they hurtled towards the Virago. Two other large yachts were anchored in the mouth of the bay, one a classic three-masted schooner, racing green and registered in the British Virgin Islands. The other a 500 ft. gin palace, its name Epsilon, written in Greek script along its prow. It towered five stories above the water, all brilliant white and forward thrust, a great white shark of a boat, lined with tinted black windows.
“Whose is that?” he asked.
“Georgie Peponas,” she said. “Greek playboy.”
“You disapprove of that line of work?”
“I admire people who make their own fortunes, Mr. Wright. Georgie’s father started life as a shipyard worker in the Piraeus. He’s the one who made the money. Georgie just spends it. He has three stripper’s poles on the Epsilon. One in his bedroom. One in the disco. And one on the main foredeck so he can be entertained during meals.”
“You’d think you’d get bored of it.”
“Addicted to being teased like that? Can’t see it.”
“Oh, Georgie expects his girls to do more than take their clothes off. He is deviant beyond your imagination. He has a room devoted entirely to sexual equipment. Dildos, harnesses, lubricants, strap-ons, uniforms. Anything and everything except physical pain. That’s the one thing that doesn’t turn him on. His father’s great dream was to build the largest shipping fleet in the world, which he achieved. Georgie’s ambition was to live out his sexual dreams.”
“A family of high achievers. You know a lot about him.”
“He’s my brother.”
“I still don’t know your name.”
“Is it important to you?”
“The fact she was ugly was not the point of her. She was a guardian. A talisman against evil.”
“A symbol of castration.”
“Psychologists must sexualize everything. There are fears greater than losing one’s balls.”
“Perhaps not for your brother.”
“You don’t know him well enough to judge him, Mr. Wright.”
“You can call me Ben.”
“As you know, Mr. Wright, sex is more a mental than physical experience. Having balls is neither necessary, nor often sufficient, for pleasure.”
She slowed the boat down and turned to the left, bringing it parallel to the Virago. It would have been a smart piece of driving in a car, even more so in a boat. Another woman dressed in an identical grey dress and jade necklace lowered a ladder. Wright climbed up. The deck was mahogany, sanded and polished to a glowing blond sheen. He turned and looked down.
“Will you be joining us?” Medusa reared her boat away without looking back, a plume of water gushing up behind her.
“Welcome aboard,” said the woman at the top of the ladder.
“And your name?”
“Sirena,” she said.
“Of course. The enchantress. Are you related to...?” he pointed over his shoulder at the disappearing boat.
“And Georgie’s your brother.”
“Now you know all of us, follow me, Mr. Wright. Mrs. Vandeveer is expecting you.” He followed her around a large dining table set out on the foredeck into a sitting room, which might have been on Park Avenue. There were silk sofas, antique French side tables and vases overflowing with fresh flowers. In the center of a wood-paneled wall facing out to the deck was an impressionist painting by Alfred Sisley, a path winding through vines in Louveciennes.
“What would you like to drink?” said Sirena. “We have a freshly made rum punch.”
“Perfect,” said Wright. He heard a click behind him and turned.
“Ben, so good of you to come,” said the woman entering the room, extending her hand. “Ellie Vandeveer.” He looked hard at her, his mind whirring. Who was she?
“It would have been hard to say no,” he said, shaking her hand. In her heels, she stood as tall as him. She wore tight blue jeans and a loose, chocolate silk shirt, with a low V-neck. She had a diamond stud in each year, and shoulder length auburn hair. She oozed good health and the benefits of a personal trainer.
“Medusa told me we knew each other.”
“It was a long time ago,” she said, curling her feet up beneath her on one of the couches. “At Exeter. I was plain old Eleanor Stamp of Norwalk, Connecticut.”
“Eleanor Stamp. My god.”
“Try not to look so surprised.”
“Weren’t we in the same year?”
“We certainly were. We just moved in different circles. You were one of the New York brats and I, how shall I put this, wasn’t.” Sirena brought in two rum punches in heavy crystal tumblers on a silver tray. “I was on a full scholarship. I had neither the time nor the confidence to run with your pack.”
“You make me sound unbearable.”
“You were. But don’t worry. I don’t bear a grudge.” Wright sat down opposite her.
“So why the class reunion?”
“We have a friend in common. Arthur Travis.”
“He was one of my father’s oldest friends. I’ve done a lot of work for him.”
“He said you might be able to help me. And that you were very discreet.”
“It depends on what you need.”
“Look around you, Ben. You can see my financial aid days are far behind me. I can pay.”
“I’d noticed. Your Greek twins can’t come cheap.”
“They’ve worked with me a long time.”
“For love or money?”
“You’re a quick study, Ben,” she said, smiling and setting down her drink. “Mr. Vanderveer was a brief, and regrettable affair. A Dutch shipbuilder. A rebound marriage. A ridiculous crush. But we’re still allowed them from time to time, don’t you think, Ben?”
“Life would scarcely be worth living otherwise.”
“But all this you see,” she said twirling her hand around the room, “I owe to my first husband. He treated me very well in the divorce. And his investment advice has proved superb ever since.”
“Should I know him?”
“I believe you do. Or at least you know of him. His name is Flynt Rodgers.”
“Flynt has been set up,” said Vanderveer.
“That’s not how the SEC sees it,” said Wright. They had moved out of the sitting room to the foredeck of the boat. The lights had come on in Albany, the latest billionaire’s development on New Providence. Torches had been lit along the beach, and the peach-colored clubhouse glowed in the setting sun.
“The SEC isn’t motivated by the truth.”
“And your multi-billionaire ex-husband is?”
“Politics,” she said, turning and leaning back against the railing and turning to rest her chin on her shoulder to look directly at Wright. “Politicians these days are like the Aztecs. They need their human sacrifices. If there was any justice, of course, they’d sacrifice their own. But instead they look elsewhere. Flynt has known President Mills since the very start of her political career. He was one of her earliest supporters and fundraisers. If she had an ounce of decency, she would have nixed this investigation long ago. Unfortunately, she put her own interests over his. Her advisors told her there was more to gain by encouraging Flynt’s prosecution than by stopping it. It would make her look impartial. Above the interests of her donors. She abandoned him for a few more votes.”
“There’s a dozen other financiers they could have gone after, who’ve made their money exactly the same way.”
“But they don’t just want any old scalp. They want THE scalp. The guy who appeared in Vanity Fair showing off his trophies. I told him that was a bad idea.”
“You were right. Investigators stick those articles on a dartboard. No one cares if the 23rd richest man on Wall Street goes down. But the richest? The most visible? There’s a story. Didn’t I read he had the seats on his private jet made out of the foreskins of sperm whales?”
“You wouldn’t believe how soft it is.”
“Why doesn’t your ex-husband ask me for help?”
“He thinks he can fight the SEC on his own. He doesn’t like to shirk a fight. He’s a Marine. Always will be. When the enemy comes at him, he wants to go right up in their face. He doesn’t believe in tactical losses. For him everything has to be Guadalcanal.”
“And what do you think I can do?”
“Arthur says you’re good at finessing situations like these.”
“He used that word, ‘finessing’?”
“No. Actually, he called you a plumber. When the water’s pouring out of the ceiling, he said, you have a way of fixing things. He told me that most of us get stuck in the world we inhabit every day. But that you didn’t belong to any. That’s what makes you useful. Flynt’s a big boy,” said Vanderveer. “But I’m worried he’s going to screw this all up.”
Wright stared towards land. He could see figures on the beach now, couples walking hand in hand, children scampering away from the surf as it surged up the sand. Living the dream, as it said in the vacation brochures.
“I’m not sure.”
“Not sure of what?”
“How I can be of use. It’s very late. You should have got in touch with me earlier.”
“You’re not an easy man to find.”
“I’ve been getting a few things out of my system. First you need to tell me everything you know.”
“Of course,” she said, running a finger along Wright’s hand. “I owe you that much at least.”
“Don’t you have a party tonight at the club?”
“That fool McGibbon organized it. He’s trying to suck up to me. He can wait.”
Aneesha Dupre had been working at the Securities and Exchange Commission for 14 months, since graduating from Georgetown Law. She had received offers from the top law and lobbying firms in Washington DC, but rejected them. There would be time for them. Time for the huge salaries, the marble lobbies, golf tournaments and casual ass-grabbing by senior partners. For the first few years of her career, she wanted something more. She wanted, as she had told her interviewers at the SEC, to right some wrongs.
Her daily commute consisted of a five minute walk from her ground-floor apartment on F Street to Ebenezer’s Coffee Shop and from there, across the street. The Commission’s offices were not splayed across some well-trafficked avenue like so many other government departments, but tucked away behind Union Station. You might stumble across them if you were looking for free parking, or heading down to the stores and clubs along H Street. But otherwise, you would only find them if you had to.
This morning, she bought her usual tall soy latte, extra hot, and a cranberry scone. As she stepped back into the street, a Lexus with tinted windows rolled around the corner and nearly right into her. The driver, who was wearing dark glasses, waved her on. Asshole, she thought. Washington was full of them. Probably yet another tax-payer funded non-entity in the backseat, sweating about the day when the car and driver, the cold bottle of water, the crisply folded newspaper, would be gone, and doing everything to cling on.
“Good morning Denise,” she said to the security guard, as she lay her bag on the X-Ray machine in the lobby of the SEC. “We’re going to need to stay cool today.”
“Strange weather for fall,” growled Denise. “Couldn’t sleep last night. My air conditioner stopped working and my husband tried - oh, I made him try - but couldn’t get it working. I’ve been drinking water like a desert cactus since about 2am. Holding it all too, for some reason.”
“Too much information,” said Dupre.
“You don’t know any of it yet.” She handed Dupre her bag. “Have a good day, honey.”
Dupre walked across to the elevator. Just as she was getting in, a hand reached from behind her and held the door. She turned. It was the Lexus driver. Behind him walked two men, a bodyguard and a tall, grey-haired man in a light grey suit. She gripped her coffee so tightly, the lid popped off. The grey-haired man leaned down, picked it up and handed it to her.
“Allow me,” he said, in a Southern purr.
“Thank you,” said Dupre. The man turned away to face the doors as they closed. His driver pressed for the sixth floor.
She stared at his muscular neck, razored to a pale red. He still had the broad shoulders and bearing of the Marine Corps captain he had once been, the hero of the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing. She had seen the photographs of his dust-covered face, which appeared in newspapers around the world. He had become an icon of American resistance, like the Marines who had planted the flag on Iwo Jima. He smelled of fresh limes.
He turned back. “I do apologize, Ma’am. Which floor?”
“Six. Same as you.” said Dupre. The man looked at her and smiled.
“Very good,” he said.
For a man about to be charged in the most serious insider trading case ever brought by the SEC, Flynt Rodgers seemed incredibly calm.
And then she noticed something else. Where were his lawyers?
Marjorie Watson had been director of the SEC’s enforcement division for 5 years and for four of those years she had been pursuing Flynt Rodgers. He had become her great white whale, her biggest and most elusive prize. But over the past year, she had found a way to prove all she had suspected. That for all the surface sophistication, the wealth, accomplishment and philanthropy, Rodgers was nothing but a hustler. An insider trader on an epic scale.
Dupre set her cup of coffee down on her desk, gathered a file and a yellow legal pad and scurried into the conference room. Watson was a major reasons she was here at the SEC. She had been Dean of the Georgetown Law School before coming to work for the government. Dupre had seen her speak on campus. She was a short woman, with a gray bob of hair, as innocent looking as a Disney grandma. But when she spoke, it was with a moral authority and purpose which seemed hardwired all the way back to the founding of the United States. She was forceful, patriotic and believed passionately in the law. John Adams in a tweed pantsuit and red, horn-rimmed glasses.
Rodgers had already taken the seat at the head of the table, and was tilting his head from side to side, like a boxer loosening up his neck before a fight. His driver brought him a cup of black coffee and he took a sip, cupping his hand below his chin so that none dripped down onto his tie. He then rested his large hands on the table and smiled at Watson. It was a smile he had been using on women all his life. It began with his grey eyes and worked its way through the muscles in his cheeks to his narrow lips and eerily white teeth, boyish and murderous at the same time. Watson looked straight back at him stern and unimpressed.
“This is very unusual,” she said.
“You will forgive me, I hope, dear Marjorie,” said Rodgers.
“Don’t ‘dear’ me, Mr Rodgers. I don’t know whether you’ve met Aneesha Dupre, who has been working on your case for the past year and a half.”
“Charmed,” said Rodgers.
“So what do you want?” Watson was still standing.
“I thought we should clear the air. This whole experience has been so distressing.”
“This whole experience has been going on for six years now, Mr. Rodgers. And I’m not sure we should be discussing this at all without your lawyers present.”
“I’m not here to lawyer you, Marjorie. I’m hear to talk about a deal.”
“We’ve had a deal on the table for some time now. You’ve refused to take it.”
“Well, things change, you know Marjorie. Things always change. What was it the Greek poet said? We can never step in the same river twice.”
“Spare you? I believe I’m the one who has suffered irreparable damage to my business and my reputation as a result of your actions. If anyone deserves to be spared, Marjorie, it’s me.”
Dupre could see her boss tense and straighten.
“What do you want, Mr. Rodgers?”
“I want you to drop your investigation and to apologize.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard what I said.”
“Are you out of your mind? How could you ever think we’d drop it? You and your lawyers have seen the evidence. It hasn’t been easy, but we now have a compelling case that you didn’t just turn a blind eye to insider trading at your company, but actively encouraged it and profited from it, to the tune of hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of dollars.”
“Your case is flawed.”
“It’s as solid as this table,” said Marjorie, rapping the oak with her knuckles. “And you know it. The days when Wall Street could just come down here and push the SEC around are over, Mr. Rodgers. It’s a different world now.”
“I’m telling you Marjorie, your case is flawed. I didn’t do these things you’re accusing me of. But perhaps more importantly given the nature of this process you so enjoy, you can’t prove I did. Now, you can either drop it quietly and I walk out of here and we don’t breathe a word until everyone has forgotten all about it. Or,” he began to raise his voice, “I go and tell the whole world what a goddamn vindictive fool Marjorie Watson is for wasting taxpayer money on a case with no basis in truth.” He sat back and took another sip of coffee. “You choose.”
Watson glared at Rodgers.
“Our deal stands. A fine of $1.5 billion. No admission of guilt. You get to carry on with your business. It’s our final offer.”
Rodgers unleashed his smile again. “You really think paying $1.5 billion of my hard-earned dollars doesn’t constitute an admission of guilt? That’s certainly not how my investors will see it.”
“It’s a parking ticket for a man like you. Pay it and move on.”
“I’m no more likely to pay your ticket than you are to become my fifth wife, Marjorie.” His drawl was exaggerated now, as his confidence grew.
“If there’s something you know and aren’t telling me, we’ll find out soon enough. Is there something?”
“I’m not a game player, Mr. Rodgers. What we do here is in deadly earnest.”
“Deadly earnest? Sounds like the name of one of your bridge playing friends. Deadly Earnest and Marjorie Mayhem, the terrors of the table.”
“I have no time for this,” she said and started to leave the room. “If you’d like a serious discussion, come back with your legal team and we can do this properly.”
“No one holds my interests closer to their heart than I do to mine, Marjorie.” Rodgers stood up, towering over the table. “I can speak for myself. The money I have made over many years of hard work has been entirely legal. All I wanted to say to you today is that I’ve had enough. I’m not prepared to cooperate, nor compromise nor take any more of your leaks and innuendos. I am done. I have taken this bullshit for six years now. In that time, the major banks on Wall Street have paid close to $50 billion in fines for systematically raping the American consumer. Selling them mortgages they shouldn’t have, debt to governments who couldn’t afford it. They’ve rigged every market from oil to aluminum. And what have you chosen to do? You have gone after after a job creator. An entrepreneur. A philanthropist. Why? So you can string him up for the financial world to see? As an example of bad behavior? Well, tough luck. I am not your guy. I’m not going to stand in the gallows for you. I am done with this.”
Watson stood in the door and smiled.
“I have a parakeet at home, Mr. Rodgers. Mostly, he’s quite unlike you. He’s loyal, friendly, and quite stupid. But when he’s scared, he puffs up his plumage. And like you he looks silly rather than frightening. I still don’t know what persuaded you to come here this morning. But until I do, I have better things to do than watch displays I’d rather see in a bird cage. Security will see you out.”
Dupre gathered up her notepad and followed Watson to her office. They sat there watching Rodgers leave.
“What was that all about?” said Dupre.
“We need to find out as soon as possible. I’m not letting this one slip, Aneesha. He’s not getting away with it.”
“Don’t you always tell me never to make it personal?”
“Well, we can’t always be perfect. That smirking Southern man child is going down. And I’m not resting until he does. Nor are you. Get back to your office and start making calls.”
Watson steeled herself as she rose up in the elevator to the ninth floor. The chairman of the SEC, was already under pressure from the White House. The President’s chief of staff had visited the SEC last week. No surprises, he had said. Not this close to an election. The President wanted the Rodgers case closed cleanly definitively, with time for a victory lap before November 5th. Everyone knew how close she had once been to Rodgers. Now she wanted kudos for letting Justice have her way with him. There would be rewards in the next administration.
“You OK?” said Watson to Dupre, who stood beside her in the elevator.
“Good. How about you?”
“Feels like going to the principal’s office, doesn’t it?”
“He fires me and I go back to being a law school Dean somewhere. Preferably a long way from Washington.”
“We still get to give Flynt Rodgers what he deserves.”
“I still don’t understand what changed his mind.”
“The truth always outs. But it needs to out quickly.” The doors to the elevator opened and they walked out into a small waiting area outside the chairman’s office. The chairman was in shirtsleeves, looking out of his floor to ceiling window and talking to someone on speakerphone. His head was bowed and he was rubbing his temples. The shelves on his office were lined with green and blue cloth bound reports and legal volumes. The flag of the United States and the flag of the SEC flanked the door. Above it was a photograph of the President.
“I’ve always thought that was slightly North Korean,” said Watson. “First the embodiment of state power in one person, then hanging her image everywhere. Think of what goes into changing it for every President. We should stick with the flag. Or a bald eagle.”
“I presume you voted for her,” said Dupre.
“Of course I did,” said Watson. “You did, didn’t you, Aneesha?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well, I suppose not. Once she’s our President, we pledge our fealty regardless of party. But you did didn’t you?”
“Of course I did.”
“Phew,” said Watson, mopping her brow in mock relief. The chairman turned and saw them waiting. He held up his hand to acknowledge their presence, hit a button on his phone and waved them in.
“Remind me, why did I ever take this job?” he said.
“Because making a fortune as a Wall Street lawyer is dull, dispiriting work,” said Watson.
“The important word there, Professor, is ‘fortune’. At least you get that in return. Here? Jesus. All you get is the abuse. Take a seat. He sat heavily in his chair which rocked back. “Hell of a morning. The Senate Finance Committee wants to hold yet another round of hearings on the mortgage industry and the banks are saying enough. They’ve done their groveling and they’re sick of being yelled out and patronized by a bunch of guys who were as much responsible for the whole mess as they were. Frankly, and this does not go beyond the four walls of my cell here, I’m kind of with them on this. Enough with the finger pointing. It’s good theater, but I’m not sure it gets anything done. Anyway,” he sighed. “What’s up?” “Rodgers.”
“He doesn’t want to settle.”
“I thought we had him.”
“We do. Or at least I thought we did.”
“Jesus, Marjorie. What changed?”
“We’re trying to figure that out.”
The chairman span around in his chair. “What is it, six years we’ve been after him? How’d this happen?”
“He came in this morning.”
“In here? Into this building?”
“Yes. Alone. Just security. No lawyers.”
“He said the deal was off. Wouldn’t say why. Just that he’d changed his mind and wanted to tell us in person.”
“You know the cost of a trial would kill us, Marjorie. We’ve already spent more than we have on this case.”
“I know Larry.”
“You think he knows that? You think he’s betting we’d rather back off than go to trial?”
“Perhaps. It could be a bluffer’s tactic. Bring everyone to the table, then make a last minute grab when everyone’s too invested to walk away.” “You think he’s angling for a lower settlement?”
“Could be. But from the way he talked, I got the feeling he thinks he can beat this.”
“Oh, Flynt Rodgers can talk. He can talk and he can gamble. And I wouldn’t belittle either of those skills. They’ve made him a multi-billionaire.” His assistant brought in his coffee. “You need to figure this out, Marjorie. We can’t afford to have him rip our clothes off in public.”
“Let’s put that image out of our minds, chairman.” It was the first time he’d smiled.
“Agreed. You think he’s doing it to embarrass the President?”
“Were going to go back through our case to try to figure it out. But we’ve done that a thousand times. Our methods have been cleared by the courts. Our key witnesses are solid and ready to testify.”
“This isn’t law school any more, Marjorie.”
“When I was on Wall Street, I dealt with Flynt Rodgers once. I ever tell you this story?”
“No,” said Marjorie, relieved to be hearing an anecdote rather than a tirade.
“The trading desk was heavily into some merger arbitrage position involving a couple of big pharmaceutical companies. Rodgers held a big chunk of the stock they were trying to buy and the word on the Street was that he badly needed to sell. He’d gotten into some tangle elsewhere and was keen to do a deal. So he comes into the office one day, looking just beautiful - and I don’t often say that about other men. But you know what I mean, the hair just so, the well cut grey suit, the white shirt, blue tie. That whole rippling ex-Marine thing going on. Just him and his attorney. And they sit there and Rodgers tells us he’s heard we’re looking to buy his position. Then he sits back and rests his hands on the table.” The chairman impersonated Rodgers. “And we’re sitting there thinking, well, sure you’d like us to buy. You need us to buy. So we make him this lowball offer. And he doesn’t say a word. Nothing. Just sits there looking at us. We come back with something a little higher. Still nothing. After about an hour of this, our senior lawyer looked at Rodgers and said, “Flynt, do you know something we don’t”. He kind of meant it as a joke, and Rodgers just gave him this huge, killer smile. God, I can see it now. Anyway, we finally got to this price, right at the very limit of what we were willing to spend, and Rodgers suddenly slammed his fist on the table and said “Deal.” He signed a document authorizing the trade, got up and walked. We thought we’d got a bargain. He and his attorney must have still been in the elevator going down when the news came through. The merger was off. Our position was a bust. Turned out Rodgers had not only sold us his position at the best possible price, but he’d had a massive short out on the stock as well. And you know what else? That story about him being keen to do a deal because he was in trouble somewhere else? No truth to it at all. A smokescreen. No way to link it to him of course, but we were fooled. Was it all insider trading? Did he know the merger was about to be cancelled?”
“What do you think?”
“Yes. But I could never prove it. Can you prove he’s guilty?”
“Yes. You’ve seen our case.”
“Rodgers has made his fortune by knowing what other people don’t.”
“So you don’t think he’s bluffing.”
“Bluffing suggests a false sense of confidence. I think his confidence is very real. He’s a calculator, not a gun-slinger. He’s not guessing or hoping. He knows something.” Marjorie rested her chin in her hand. “We need this one Marjorie,” continued the chairman, standing up again now. “This is existential. If we can’t catch a crook like Flynt Rodgers, then there’s no point the SEC even being here. We may as well just let the market’s forces have their way with us. GIven up trying to protect all those patient savers, and retirees and 401K holders, and abandon them to the mercy of Flynt Rodgers all those other bastards I used to work with.” “I don’t need a speech, Larry.”
“I came up here immediately because I felt it was important that you know.”
“I’d like your guarantee that there will be no more stories coming out of this building about Rodgers while we sort this out.”
“Deal. I’m going to have the White House breathing fire at me. They want heads on stakes so they can parade them around in the fall.”
“When was the last time any of this was about justice? It’s just an endless mud-wrestle. No rounds. No winners. All of us flailing in the dirt.”
“On that note.”
“Keep me posted, Marjorie. Aneesha. I don’t like to beg. But please. Get him for me.”
Tommy Donovan’s body was still water-logged when it arrived at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner. Jennifer Vargas had been trained not to make assumptions. But when you lived in Washington DC and saw a large man in a blue suit, red tie and wingtips arrive in your morgue it was hard not think either lobbyist or Republican Congressman. She imagined cutting him open and being deluged by Scotch and steak sauce.
“Where’d you pick this one up?” she said to the cop who followed the body as it was wheeled in. Mike Ciancio had joined homicide around the same time Vargas had arrived in the forensics lab.
“The Tidal Basin. Right by Thomas Jefferson.”
“My favorite founding father. Debt-ridden and sexually indiscreet. How long had he been in the water?” She peered at the man’s lifeless face. “Eight, nine hours?”
“Guess so. He could have been dumped in the river farther upstream, maybe Bethesda, Maclean and drifted down.”
“Any ID on him?”
“Nothing. No wallet, no keys. We’re checking with the local police to see if anyone’s been reported missing.”
“I feel like I’ve been hit on by a million of these kind of guys. This town’s crawling with them. Lobbyists. Lawyers.”
“Why don’t you go back to Miami if you hate it here so much.”
“You go where the work is, Mike.”
“There’ll always be plenty of it here. Not like the good old days, when we were the murder capital of the United States. But still...”
“Ah, those good old days. That what you cops do when you’re huddled around the hearth in winter, sipping your scotch and hot chocolate? Remember when you couldn’t move in Washington for all the dead bodies?”
“It was before my time.”
“Well, we’ll clean him up. Get him out of these wet things into something warmer. No sign of trauma?”
“Not that we could see. No bumps, cuts or bruises to his head.”
“Could just be a heart attack. Six course lunch at Morton’s followed by bad news on the passage of a bill through Congress. Aaaaargh,” she clutched at her chest, “over you go.”
“You always this warm and fuzzy about death?”
“No. Sometimes I really don’t give a damn.”
“Maybe he had kids. A wife. A mother who loved him.”
“Maybe. Maybe he was a douchebag. What do you think Mike? Pillar of the community and decent family man? Or douchebag? 50-50?”
“You’re harsh.” She bent down to look into his ears, first one side, then the other.
“We’ll run some blood tests. See what’s flowing through these veins. Will you tell me if you get any leads on who he is? Might spare us some work.”
“Of course. You ever going to come out for a drink with me?”
“You know me, Mike. I only drink blood. By night. It’s why I work in a place like this.”
“I’ll leave the garlic and crucifix at home. I promise.”
“Drop it. You sound like this guy,” she said pointing at the corpse.
“Give me a break.”
“OK. Maybe not quite so cheesy.”
Mike felt his phone vibrating and picked it out of his jacket pocket.
“What have you got?” he said. He turned away and walked to a corner of the room. He wasn’t so bad, thought Vargas. Better than most of the cops she saw. In shape, at least. No donut belly. Not too pushy. But still confident. Unmarried, which made a change. But still. She came from a family of cops. She knew the life and she wanted to get away from it. “Thanks,” she heard him say. “I’ll be there in half an hour.” He turned back to her. “We’ve got a missing person case in Bethesda. His wife called in.”
“He’s not wearing a ring. Maybe he was on the prowl.”
“Says her husband didn’t come home last night. The physical description sounds about right. I’d better go.”
“So what did this missing guy do for a living? They tell you.” Mike paused and looked at his feet.
“Lobbyist.” Jennifer smiled.
“Come on, say it. I was right.”
“I’m not saying anything.”
“See you later, Vargas.”
“If he turns out to have been a douchebag, I’ll let you buy me that drink.”
Jennifer watched him shake his head as he left her room at the morgue. As the door closed behind him, she rubbed her hands against the cold and addressed the body.
“Now then Mr. Wingtips. Let’s find out who you are.”
Ciancio pulled up outside 1374 Minnesota Avenue. It looked like many other houses in this affluent suburb of Washington DC. Brick, mock Federal, on a tight lot. Hydrangea bushes blooming in the front yard sloping down to the road. Two giant magnolia trees providing a thick shade. A basketball hoop in the driveway, a couple of Lexus SUVs, one in cream, one in black. He pulled in behind them. No path to the front door, so he assumed it was merely decorative and walked round the back. The door into a mud room was wide open, sneakers and flip-flops discarded inside.
“Hello,” he shouted. No answer. He looked into the yard. A large swimming pool surrounded by black railings gurgled away. An expensive-looking grill, a pizza oven set on a stone terrace, and a small patch of lawn hemmed in by fences. Enough room to play Wiffle ball, but not to throw a football. He returned to the back door where a woman in yoga clothes was tapping at her phone. “Hello,” he said.
She looked startled, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head and taking a step back.
“Who are you?” she said.
“Mike Ciancio. DC police.” He showed her his badge.
“You heard anything about my husband?”
“I understand he didn’t come home last night.”
“You said DC police? Why not Bethesda or Maryland? Aren’t you outside your jurisdiction?” She spoke like a surly teenage girl. All that was missing was the “whatever.” Ciancio took out a notepad and flicked it open.
“As you can imagine, ma’am, it’s not unusual for cases to cross jurisdictions when we all live so close together.”
“Yes, he didn’t come home.”
“You were expecting him?”
“We were meant to be going to a Nationals game with the kids. But he never showed. He’s unreliable about a lot of things, but not about baseball.”
“Any idea where he was yesterday?”
“He was in the city. Down at his office, I guess. Seeing clients.”
“What does your husband do?”
“He’s an accountant, consultant, lobbyist. I don’t know. Some mix of all that. Like everyone in Washington, right?” She put her glasses back on and folded her arms. She was late thirties, Ciancio guessed. In good shape. Probably the yoga. But she had one of those pinched faces you saw behind the windshields of expensive cars all over this town. Anxious women alone in the middle of the day, driving around, spending, exercising, eating salad, fretting about whether their kids would get into the right college and how they would make out in a divorce. A Shiat’zu came yapping out of the kitchen.
“You expected him home at around 6pm?”
“No, we were going to meet him at the Stadium, over the other side of the Capitol. He was going to go directly there from work. But we waited in the car park, me and the kids, and he never appeared. I tried getting him on his phone, but he never answered. That’s the weird thing. You can always get him on his phone. It’s like it’s part of his body. Tried him at Martin’s Tavern. He’s often there after work. We waited till around 8, then I gave up. We bought a bucket of chicken from Popeye’s, came home and watched the game here.”
“Strasburg pitched well,” said Ciancio. She glared at him.
“I called his office this morning. I tried the Four Seasons in Georgetown. Sometimes he stays there if has to be in the city late and has a breakfast in the morning. Really, I think he just likes a break from us sometimes.”
“What does he drive?”
“A black Escalade.”
“You know the plates?”
“I can find them.”
“Has he been anxious, nervous recently?”
“He’s always anxious. He had a big client in town yesterday, so he’d been preparing for that. But he has a lot of big clients, important people from all over the world.”
“Any friends who might have put him up for the night?”
“We may not have a Walt Disney marriage, but it’s OK. He takes my calls. No special friends I know of.” She was getting testy.
“Do you have a photograph of him?”
She waved him inside and Ciancio followed into a cool, spacious kitchen. An industrial-looking juicing machine sat on the black marble countertop, its feeder red with beet juice. A cookbook was propped up on a stand next to the stove. Aside from that, there was no other evidence of food or actual eating, just yard after yard of white tile and glossy cabinets. They passed through a dining room. People magazine lay open on the table. The living room was surrounded by French windows hung with silk drapes. The woman picked up a silver framed photograph. It showed her holding the dog and surrounded by three teenage boys on a beach.
“Nantucket,” she said, passing Ciancio the photo. “Last summer.”
The boys were all wearing navy polo shirts and khaki shorts. And to their right was a sour-looking man, in the same uniform, his belly groaning at the buckle of his woven belt. Everyone else was barefoot, he was wearing tan loafers and yellow socks. Usually in these photos, Ciancio thought, the man exuded ownership or pride in his brood. This guy seemed distant. Like he wanted to get back to his drink. Several hours in the water hadn’t changed him beyond recognition. This was the guy back there on the slab being poked and prodded by Jennifer Vargas.
It took less than an hour for news of Donovan’s death to reach Dupre. A former boyfriend on the Post’s Metro desk recognized the name when he heard it on the scanner and called her. She hustled to Watson’s office, bumping into the mail clerk on the way.
“Sorry,” she said, bending to pick up a sheaf of mail she had knocked from his cart.
“Nothing’s that important,” said the clerk.
Dupre rapped hard on Watson’s glass door before opening it.
“Donovan’s dead,” she said.
“I’ll have to call you back,” said Watson into the phone as she set it back in its cradle.
“Found in the Potomac this morning.” “Our Tommy Donovan?”
“Have they secured his office?”
“I’m not sure the police know anything about him apart from his name.”
“Well, they need to. Immediately.”
Five minutes later, Watson and Dupre were in a black, Lincoln Town Car pulling away from the SEC. Watson’s driver turned on his light and siren and they wailed down Constitution Avenue, past the National Gallery of Art and the Internal Revenue Service. Dupre glanced out at the Ellipse towards the White House. The sight of it was still exciting. Then right onto 23rd Street. A long line of schoolchildren in red T-shirts was crossing the road.
“Don’t honk,” Watson said to her driver. The teacher was trying to hurry her kids across. “The government’s reputation is bad enough already.” The delay lasted a few seconds. Soon, they were rounding Washington Circle Park and in three more blocks pulled up outside 2440 M Street.
The FBI were there already, four men in dark suits and blue field jackets, the name of their employer emblazoned in yellow on the back. One of the agents stepped forward.
“The body’s definitely Donovan,” he said to Watson. “The police confirmed it.”
“OK, follow me,” said Watson, striding into the building. The FBI agents flashed their badges at the security guard who cowered behind his desk. Watson jabbed at the button for the elevator. Finally, its doors creaked open. There was room for five average sized people. Two of the agents decided to take the stairs. The elevator wheezed upwards. It stopped at the third floor, where a janitor with her cart looked in then stepped sharply away. When hey reached the fourth floor Dupre pointed right. They strode down the carpeted corridor, which reeked of brewing coffee and cleaning products, past 401, the Center for Progressive Libertarian Economics, 402 the Angolan Chamber of Commerce Representative Office. Watson nodded to one of the FBI men who pressed the buzzer on 403, the office of Donovan Associates. They heard an electronic chime from inside. The agent waited a few seconds, then pressed again. The door clicked open. The office was more elegant inside than outside. A young woman, her streaky blond hair still wet from the shower sat at the reception desk, nursing a large cup of coffee.
“Can I help you?” she said, curling her hair with a finger.
“These gentlemen are from the FBI,” said Watson. “My name is Marjorie Watson. I work for the Securities and Exchange Commission. We’re here to search Mr. Donovan’s office.”
“Be my guest. No one has been here for two weeks.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m Jennifer. I’m the intern.”
“So if no one has been here, what have you been doing for two weeks?”
Jennifer shrugged. “Intern stuff, I guess.”
The agents entered Donovan’s office and began pulling open his drawers. One of them turned on his desktop computer.
“When did you last see Mr. Donovan?” said Watson.
“Like I said. A couple of weeks ago,” said Jennifer. “Look, all I do is I come in here, and surf the net mostly. There’s been nothing to do. I wanted to learn about lobbying. But there’s been no one to learn from.”
“How did you get this job?”
“The careers service at Franklin & Marshall. Mr. Donovan’s an alum.”
“Was an alum. I’m afraid to tell you that Mr. Donovan was found dead this morning.”
“Oh,” said Jennifer. “I guess I’ll need to find another internship.”
“Guess you will,” said Watson. “Once you’re finished mourning.”
“Ma’am, you need to come in here,” said one of the agents to Watson. She followed him into the office. “Take a look at this.” He began pulling open the drawers of the three black filing cabinets in Donovan’s office. They were all empty.
“What about his computer?” she said.
“We’ll have to take it in with us,” said the agent bent over the keyboard. “But looks to me like it’s been wiped.”
“Find anything?” yelled Watson to the two agents scouring the two other rooms.
“Empty,” they yelled back in quick succession.
“You said no one has been here for two weeks,” said Watson to the receptionist.
“Not that I’ve seen.”
“What are your hours?”
“9 to 5pm. I have to check in so that I get paid.”
“Who else has access to the office?”
“Mr. Donovan. His secretary, Linda, who’s been in Texas for the past two months taking care of her mother. And I think that’s it.”
“This is the entire office?”
“There’s no adjoining rooms we haven’t seen? Offices? Store-rooms.”
“You sure, Jennifer?”
“I think so.” “Don’t think, please, dear.”
She pulled open a drawer and pulled out a key on a yellow, plastic fob. “Well, there’s this,” she said, holding it out for Watson. “Linda said it’s for a room in the basement. Where we keep supplies, a couple of spare chairs...” She didn’t have the chance to finish before Watson snatched the key from her hand and headed out of the door, followed by two of the agents.
The door to the basement was stuck, jammed into its frame. One of the FBI agents asked Watson and Dupre to stand back as he gave it a ferocious kick. It didn’t budge. He kicked it two more times and flakes of paint fluttered to the floor. Dupre waved him to the side, took the door handle and jiggled it upwards. The door popped open. She reached inside, turned on the light and walked into a brightly lit warren.
Pipes ran along the low ceiling and the space was broken into floor-to-ceiling hutches, framed in wood with wire walls. Many of the hutches were empty. The space belonging to the Angolan Chamber of Commerce was broom clean.
403 was at the far end of the basement, past the boiler room, the number written in black on the top of the door frame. A three-drawer filing cabinet stood in the middle of its otherwise empty cage. Watson inserted the key the receptionist had given her into the door. To her relief, it turned.
She strode in and pulled at the top drawer of the filing cabinet. It was locked. As were the second and third. She turned to the agents. One of them stepped forward, producing a narrow metal blade from his pocket. He knelt down and set to work. They watched as he slid the blade into the key hole and maneuvered it around, searching for the right click. Dupre didn’t dare say a word. Watson, normally the coolest person in any room, was biting her lower lip. The agent paused for a moment to wipe his palms on the legs of his pants. He stood up to stretch his legs, then squatted back down again, his ear pressed against the file drawer. After two more excruciating minutes he nodded and the blade turned in the lock. He slid open the top drawer, which was stuffed with manila files.
Watson reached in and took the first few files. She gestured for Dupre and the agents to do the same. Watson put her bag down and sat cross-legged on the cold, concrete floor to pore over the files, like a co-ed in her dorm preparing for exams. She licked the forefinger of her right hand and began rifling through the papers, page by page. She quickly dispatched the first file and without looking up beckoned for one of the agents to pass her another.
Dupre’s files contained nothing but utility bills from the building, cable and un-itemized telephone bills. All useless. The next stack contained decades old invoices from Donovan’s previous company, expense reports for steak lunches and drinks tabs, the detritus of a Washington life.
“Anything?” said Watson. Dupre and the agents shook their heads. Dupre opened one set of files marked 1993-1996, which contained clippings from the Washington Post’s Reliable Source gossip column. These must have come from when Donovan was selling his services as a press flack as well as a lobbyist and adviser. The names of certain politicians were highlighted in orange. A couple of dog-eared copies of Newsweek from around the time of Bill Clinton’s first inaugural. Pamphlets for private schools, and a stack of fading conference brochures.
Watson pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Just junk in mine,” she said.
“Mine too,” said Dupre. The agents shook their heads.
Watson heard her phone buzz in her bag. She fished it out and looked at the number. It was Larry. She hit the answer button.
“I heard about Donovan,” he said. “We have his deposition, right?”
“Yes, of course we do.”
“Where are you?”
“In the basement of his office building. Trying to see if he left us anything.”
“Any luck?” “Not yet.”
“You know Rodgers’ defense will pick that deposition apart.”
“I know, Larry. That’s why I’m sitting in a freezing basement going through old files.”
“I feel the same way.”
“Any idea how he died?”
“His body hasn’t been autopsied yet.”
“You think he was killed?”
“We can’t assume that. Great timing for Rodgers. His most incriminating witness drops dead just as he decides to go to trial.”
“What does it do for Donovan’s testimony?”
“If we could find more physical evidence, we’d be in a stronger position. But right now,” Watson stared at the floor and exhaled, “it’s Flynt Rodgers against the word of a dead man.”
“We were really banking on this Marjorie. The President doesn’t want the case blowing wide open again before the election.” Screw these politicians and their electoral cycles thought Watson. Some people had real jobs and real work to do.They weren’t fixated on these arbitrary dates in November. But this wasn’t the real world. This was Washington.
“I understand. We have other evidence. We have other witnesses.”
“But Donovan was your ace.”
“We have one other.”
“I suggest you make sure he’s taking his multivitamins.” Sarcasm was the last thing Watson needed right now. “We’re depending on you.” She said nothing. “You OK?”
“Fine. I’ll stop by when I’m back in the office.” She turned off the phone and looked around at Dupre and the agents. “Anything?” They all shook their heads. “Let’s take all this in anyway,” she said, pointing to the files. The agents began stacking them up. Watson extended her hand and Dupre pulled her to her feet.
“We’re going to have be smarter,” she said. She dusted off her jacket and pants and walked out of the cage. Dupre followed. That morning she had woken up sure that Flynt Rodgers was going down. Now, he seemed to have slithered free. She had never felt so impotent. Just as they reached the door, they heard one of the agents shouting behind them.
“Ma’am,” he said, running towards them, holding up a small, red USB flash drive. “We found this. It was jammed right in the back of the cabinet.” Her face brightened.
“I should know better than to get my hopes up,” she said, taking the drive and tucking it into her bag. “But after the morning I’ve had I’ll take what I can get.”
“That her?” said Vargas to Ciancio. She was looking at Donovan’s wife who was sitting on a bench outside the autopsy room.
“Who she’s texting?”
“Probably her yoga instructor. She didn’t seem too upset by the idea her husband was dead.” Vargas inserted three quarters into the snack machine.
“Can I get you anything, detective?”
“No. Any more sugar today and I’ll pop a fuse.”
“What’s her name?”
“Course it is.”
“What’s that meant to mean?”
“She was never going to be an Irene, or a Jane or a Primrose. But Caitlin. Makes sense. One of the mean Irish girls at high school.”
“Is there anything you don’t have a theory about?”
“Not much. It makes life easier to have a strong set of assumptions.”
“Whatever, Ciancio. Shall we?” They walked towards Caitlin Donovan, who still had her sunglasses.
“Would you follow me please, Ma’am?” She got up and followed Ciancio into the examining room. Vargas entered last. They walked over to the table supporting the body. “I’m sorry we have to do this, Ma’am. We need to be absolutely sure.” Ciancio nodded to Vargas who pulled back the sheet. Ciancio did not take his eyes off Caitlin Donovan. So much could be revealed in the instance that sheet came back. Murderers had been caught in that moment. A flicker of guilt or studied indifference. The first suspect in a mysterious death, after all, was always the spouse. She removed her sunglasses and bent down over her husband. Her eyes were watering.
“That formaldehyde?” she said.
“Yes,” said Vargas. “We use it to prevent decomposition.”
“Stings. That’s him.”
“Thank you.” Vargas replaced the sheet. “May I ask you to sign this confirmation form?” “Then I can go?”
“Yes, you’re free to go.”
“Any idea what killed him?”
“Nine hours in cold water usually does it,” said Vargas. Ciancio scowled.
“We’re not sure yet, Ma’am. There are no signs he was injured before he hit the water. So we’re running the usual tests. Did he have high blood pressure?”
“No higher than anyone else.”
“Was he taking medication?”
“Blood pressure, cholesterol. Sleeping pills. Same as everyone.”
“I once caught him with Viagra, but I think he got over that.” Tommy Donovan’s death seemed to his wife no more than a minor annoyance. She put her sunglasses back on, checked her phone and tucked it back into her leather tote bag.
“Any reason he might have taken his own life?” said Ciancio. “Financial problems? Suicidal thoughts?”
“Not that he ever told me about. But then he didn’t tell me much about anything. He could have been bankrupt and depressed and I still wouldn’t have known. The bills got paid.”
“We’ll be in touch once we’ve had a chance to complete the autopsy,” said Ciancio, ushering her to the door. “In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact us.”
She raised her pert chin and walked out of the room. Vargas picked up the blank tag attached to the gurney and wrote in a Sharpie, “Donovan.”
“Strange,” said Ciancio shaking his head.
“Valley of the Dolls,” said Vargas.
“Women like that don’t have emotions. They have instincts and urges. They fear. They want. They resent. They compete. They don’t love or hate in any real way. Their real feelings are sucked out of them in their sororities, and replaced with vials of materialist longing and social ambition.”
“Wow. You’ve given this some thought.”
“What do you think I do in here all day? Just shiver and play with the dead?” Vargas was lifting up Donovan’s head and peering at a spot just behind his ear. She took a pen from her breast pocket and pointed to a red mark. “See that?” Ciancio looked. “I didn’t see it before. The body was such a mess when it came in. It looks like something pierced him right here.”
“What kind of something?”
“Something very fine and very sharp.”
“Is there anything still in there?”
“I don’t know. Bring me that lamp,” she said pointing to floor lamp in another corner of the room. Ciancio did as he was told. Vargas hit a button on the base of the lamp to turn it on. It shone as fiercely as a stadium floodlight. She looked harder at the mark. “Certainly isn’t a bug bite, or a pimple. It’s very unusual.” She put Donovan’s head down and opened his eyes, which stared back at her slimy and gray.
“What is it?” said Ciancio.
“I may be wrong. But I think our boy here was poisoned.”
“Just a hunch. But you ever heard of monkshood?”
Wright had made a slow start to the day. His flight from Nassau had arrived late the previous night and while Donovan’s body lay on the slab, he was sitting cross-legged in his sun-room, breathing through alternate nostrils. The ethereal sound of a Vedic chant drifted through the speakers built into the ceiling. A sandalwood joss stick smoked slowly in a corner. Sleeping with Ellie Vanderveer had clearly been a mistake. Taking on her assignment may have been an even bigger one. Wright tried to focus on the smooth green pebble he had placed in front of him, following the instructions of his latest guru, a young Bhutanese monk who was teaching for a semester at Columbia. He had met him at a party at Tibet House and they had withdrawn from the throng eating tofu on sticks and drinking butter tea cocktails to share a cigarette on the sidewalk and discuss meditation. As they said goodbye, the monk produced the pebble from his robes and pressed it into Wright’s palm: “Consider this. Everything is here.”
Wright studied the pebble’s smoothness. Its greenness. Its hardness. Its pebbleness. He reached for the remote control and turned off the music.
“Ridiculous,” he said. “I am a ridiculous man.” He rocked himself up into a standing position and wiped his forehead with a towel. The physical aspect of yoga he could understand. There was no doubt he felt better after an hour of stretching and downward dogging. It was the rest of it he couldn’t abide. The chanting. The teacher who would instruct him to breathe through his anus and end each class by rubbing the rim of a glass bowl until it howled. Still, it was a distraction from himself.
Win, his Burmese butler, hovered at the door with a glass of fresh coconut juice.
“Thank you,” said Wright, drinking it down quickly and holding the empty glass up to the light. “A taste of the tropics.” Win had been working for him for nearly 20 years. He had inherited him from his father, who had met him when Win was ten years old and working at his parents’ restaurant, on York Avenue and 83rd Street. Wright’s father had been impressed by Win’s diligence, the way he did his homework on the counter while his parents waited tables. He would often compare his own son to Win unfavorably.
“Perhaps you’re too comfortable,” Wright’s father would say, returning from the restaurant with spring rolls and tamarind curry in a brown, paper bag. “Perhaps we need to take you out of that private school of yours and put you in a public school. So you can feel what real competition is like. Against all those Asians and Eastern Europeans who have to make their own way in the world. No private tutors. No tennis lessons. Just you and your test score to take out into the world. Win doesn’t have a fraction of what you have and he’ll be a very successful man.” He would say this with real malice in his voice, as if willing his own son to failure. Not a day went by now that Wright didn’t thank God his father was dead.
Win had begun working for his father after obtaining an engineering degree from the City University of New York. Wright’s father had taught Win about investing and deal-making, and Win had absorbed his lessons but chosen instead a life of service. It was, he had told Wright in one of their rare personal discussions, a choice about how to live. He derived comfort from arranging the lives of others, in the simplicity and predictability of the tasks. It cooled his mind, cleansed it of rancor and jealousy. One day, however, Wright had accidentally opened one of Win’s investment account statements. Despite his monkish protestations, Win evidently had a worldly gift for making money. He bought and sold stocks and bonds like the most fevered Long Island trader. He had a feel for the rhythms of the market, riding its twitches and spasms to an eight-figure fortune.
“Any messages?” said Wright. Win handed him a single sheet of heavy, cream notepaper, on which he had written out several telephone messages and the summaries of the morning’s email. It spared Wright the chore of dealing with an electronic device until much later in the day. Vanderveer had emailed “hi”. Eleanor Woods, Wright’s godmother, wanted to confirm lunch later that week at the Paperwhite Club. Xavier Darcos, his old friend in Paris, wanted to talk, which meant one of two things: either he wanted Wright to join him on some depraved adventure in the South of France; or he needed Wright’s help unpicking yet another dark tangle in European finance. There were always plenty of those.
Wright descended to the fourth floor, ran his cut-throat razor back and forth along an worn leather strop, worked up a lather of soap, and shaved. The combination of yoga, cold water and a naked blade had the sharpening effect on him of several cups of intense coffee. He picked out a cornflower blue shirt, a black knit tie, a grey, windowpane suit, and black Oxfords. After spending days without washing or changing out of the same, salty clothes in the Caribbean, he felt brisk and lively back in his natural habitat.
In the dining room on the ground floor, Win had laid out coffee in a silver pot, the Wall Street Journal and a blood orange cut into segments. He had also printed out the documents given to Wright by Ellie Vanderveer and left them in a manila folder. Wright paused at the entrance to the room to take it all in. Be mindful, the Bhutanese monk had told him. Occupy the present. So he did. He took in the hunting green walls, the 18th century English political cartoons which he had bought at an antique store tucked in behind Savile Row in London, the handsome Georgian sideboard, and the sleek, oak dining table. They were pleasing props for his life.
Wright took his usual seat at the end of the table and shook out the newspaper. He glanced down the “What’s News” column on the front page. A Brazilian tycoon was struggling to fend off bankruptcy. That would be an interesting case, and good reason for a few months Sao Paolo. Home building was up, oil prices down. China’s banks were realizing they had lent too much to too many bad projects. Droughts were ravaging the South West. Wright recalled meeting a bird-like Texan who wore cowboy boots and three piece suits and had been buying up rights to all the aquifers serving Dallas and Fort Worth. Before either of those cities knew what was happening, he would be able to turn their faucets on or off at will, holding them hostage to his financial demands. It was an appalling, brilliant idea.
But it was a wire service item Win had printed out which caught his eye. “Key Rodgers Witness Found Dead.” “A key witness in the SEC’s case against hedge fund titan Flynt Rodgers was found dead in the Potomac River, police confirmed. Thomas Donovan, who represented Rodgers in Washington DC for more than a decade, had been deposed in the investigation into allegations of insider trading at Rodgers’ funds. He was the highest ranking of Rodgers’ lieutenants to turn evidence against him.”
The elimination of Donovan was good news for those who wanted Rodgers’ insider trading case to collapse. But an unexpected death in the midst of a government prosecution was bound to provoke suspicion. Vanderveer had made a convincing case in defense of her ex-husband. It was just about plausible that the basis for his incriminating trades had been legally obtained information or sound inferences from public sources. But Rodgers had always been a provocateur. His behavior invited scrutiny. Never do anything, good or bad, that might get you on the front page of the Journal, Wright’s father had advised. But Wright had always considered that typical of his father’s Gollum tendencies. Hoard your gold and pet it in the darkness. A ridiculous way to live.
Whatever the truth in the Rodgers case, though, if he were ever to uncover it, he needed to get to Washington before the story around Donovan’s corpse began gathering flies.
The technical reason for maintaining such a cold temperature in the SEC’s forensic lab was that it cooled the humming stacks of servers. But it also suited the characters of those who worked there. Quiet, diligent, frosty to anyone not of their whey-faced tribe.
Marjorie Watson clacked down the narrow corridor into the lab. The investigators and technicians turned slowly to look at her. It was rare to see anyone of such high rank in the organization down here in the bowels of the building. Usually it was the secretaries and assistants who trotted back and forth between here and the higher floors.
But the protocol with any kind of electronic file which turned up in the course of an investigation was never to open it yourself and certainly not on an SEC computer. Watson handed the USB key in its Ziploc bag to Andy Zarjicki, the head of the computer forensic department.
“Must be important,” he said, pulling back in his wheelchair. Zarjicki had lost both of his legs in a roadside bomb in Kabul in 2003. After the 9/11 attacks, he had dropped out of his sophomore year at the University of Michigan and signed up with the Army. He had been working as part of a bomb disposal team in the Afghan city, when a bomb went off just as he was deactivating it. He had been lucky to survive at all. After a year of intense rehabilitation, he had completed his studies in computer science and found a job at the National Security Agency as an internal hacker. He spent each day pretending to be a terrorist trying to to penetrate the NSA’s firewalls, which he did with alarming frequency. After the financial crisis of 2008, he asked to be transferred to the SEC so he could hunt down white collar criminals.
“Top priority,” said Watson. She had always liked Zarjicki. He was devoted to his country, not his superiors or his organization. He did his job superbly, with no politicking or bargaining.
“What do I need to know?”
“It’s from the office of a guy called Tommy Donovan.”
“The Rodgers case.”
“Yes.” Marjicki wasn’t supposed to be so knowledgable. But long after his colleagues had left for home, he would spend hours cruising the back alleys of the SEC’s computer system, picking up information. It wasn’t legal but no one complained.
“He gave his deposition, right?”
“Yes. But he was found dead this morning. Face down in the Tidal Pool.”
“No one hated banks and bankers more than Tommy J. More dangerous to our liberties than standing armies, he said.”
“I thought for a moment you were being helpful.”
“We have more than his deposition?”
“Wiretaps. Interviews. But a good defense can rip apart the testimony of a dead witness.”
“Where’d you find this?”
“In the basement of his office building. It was jammed down the back of a filing cabinet.”
Zarjicki held it up to the light. A crack ran down one side of the key. “Still readable?”
“These things are the cockroaches of the technology kingdom. Ugly, but simple. Built to survive.” He slid it into a slot on the side of his screen. A white plastic key appeared on the screen. Zarjicki clicked on it. A list of files appeared. He glanced through them.
“Tax returns from ten years ago. A rental lease for his daughter in Charlottesville. Presumably for while she’s at college. Pdfs of conference schedules. Nothing jumps out.”
He opened one of the tax returns. “For a guy like this, this is a pretty straightforward personal return. Not a lot of deductions. A couple of pages of investments. These are ten years old, Marj.” He could feel her tensing up behind him and pivoted round in his chair. “I’ll take a proper look at all this, but shouldn’t we have found the incriminating stuff by now? I thought we were settling with Rodgers.”
“We were. Until today.” She looked around at the other programmers who were listening to what she was saying, though pretending not to. “Can we talk somewhere else?”
Zarjicki led her into a glass-walled corner office, empty but for a narrow desk which folded down from a wall, a whiteboard covered in scrawls and a photograph of Pope John Paul II, a gift from Zarjicki’s Polish mother.
“Shut the door,” he said. Watson leaned back against the wall facing the main room and exhaled.
“Rodgers came by this morning.”
“Here? He was in the building?”
“Yes. Walked right in and up to my office. Alone. No lawyers.”
“Can he do that?” “Nothing stopping him. He’s a citizen, we’re a government agency. Told us he’d changed his mind. Didn’t want to settle after all.”
“Then your key witness turns up dead in the Potomac.”
“Know what you mean.”
“Rodgers is greedy but he’s not stupid. The cops have spoken to Donovan’s wife. But we have to wait while they figure this one out.”
“So now the case hinges on the DC police. If I were a criminal, I’d much rather have them after me than us. At least we know what we’re doing.”
“We thought we did. We’re not looking so good. The White House wants this one.”
“They want to throw Flynt Rodgers to the baying crowd. That’s such bullshit.”
“It’s not even that. It’s a perversion of democracy. No one gets their house back if Flynt Rodgers goes down. No one gets their job back. Or their loan readjusted so they can actually pay it. Flynt Rodgers goes down and Flynt Rodgers goes down. Nothing else happens.”
“You think this case is a waste of time?”
“No. It’s our job to catch criminals. But it’s not our job to turn those cases into symbols of something they aren’t. If the White House wants this so badly, the President’s Chief of Staff should be in the morgue giving mouth-to-mouth to Tommy Donovan.”
“This isn’t getting us anywhere.” Zarjicki raised his hands.
“What are you hoping to find?”
“I need confirmation of the chain of events. Illegal information here, trade here. I need our lawyers to get up in court and argue this case over Tommy Donovan’s dead body and still win.”
“I’ll do my best Marj,” said Zarjicki, waving the cracked USB key.
“I need more than that.”
“A prayer to the Holy Father?” he said, pointing at the picture of the Pope.
“You still pray?”
“When I need to.”
The programmers watched Watson as she left. Zarjicki emerged from his office.
“OK geeks, Flynt Rodgers. What did we miss?”
Rodgers had left Washington immediately after his meeting at the SEC. He had two more stops that day: lunch in Auburn, Alabama and cocktails in Beverly Hills, California.
The audience at Auburn was just what he needed. As he waited for his turn at the podium, he felt the adoration of his alma mater. His $100 million donation had brought him a lot of love here amidst the Spanish moss. He’d originally wanted to give all the money to the football program, but had been persuaded to give half to rebuild the main library. Either way, it looked good. When you said SEC down here, they didn’t think finance. They thought South Eastern Conference. They truly believed a man was innocent till proven guilty, and as far as Rodgers was concerned his pursuers still hadn’t proved a thing.
“Flynt Rodgers needs no introduction to the community here at Auburn,” the Dean said. “His achievements speak for themselves. The Heisman Trophy for his feats as a running back. Four time All-American Scholar Athlete. Marine Corps Captain. Financial pioneer. Innovator, entrepreneur and philanthropist. His life has been an inspiration to everyone here at his alma mater. We are lucky to be part of his life.” Rodgers looked out at the crowd and caught the eye of a senior in the front row. Tall, blonde and smirking. Just how he liked them. He held back from winking. Everything was filmed these days. One wrong move and he’d be the YouTube definition of a dirty old man. He held her eye long enough, though, to let her know he’d find her later. She looked down at her feet, and waggled her scarlet painted toes in his direction.
The applause was thunderous. Nothing like it was on game days, when he used to blitz through the defenses of Alabama and Auburn into the end zone and wallow in the ecstasy of 50,000 fans. But then nothing came close to that. He gestured for the crowd to sit down and stop applauding, but to his relief, they ignored him. He inhaled their love. He let it fill his lungs and redden his blood. Moments like these were the only time he’d ever considered a career in politics. Imagine what it must be like to be President or even just running for President. To experience this kind of high every day of the week.
“Thank you,” he said, over the din. “Thank you.” When they began to quieten down, he said,”I am humbled. Truly humbled.” It was the right thing to say, he thought, even though it was a lie. He knew that no one who says they are humbled feels humbled. They feel proud, rewarded, full of it. Adoration, prizes and respect don’t humble anyone. They merely stoke their already over-heated egos. “I am humbled to be back here 30 years after I graduated. Auburn gave me a lot. And I am humbled by the opportunity to give back.” Humbled and delighted at the chance to shove my success in the faces of these professors who always thought me nothing but a jock. I don’t want them just to take my money, he thought, looking at their sagging faces lined up along the dais to his left. I want them to gag on it. I want them to walk beneath my name carved in marble across the entry to the library and feel like throwing up. He felt his nipples hardening and grazing against the cotton of his shirt.
“My dear mother passed away last year. But she would have loved to have been here today. Because she believed in three things. God, her son and Auburn in that order. Except when Alabama came to play, when the order flipped around.” Laughter. This was easy. “Her philosophy was a simple one. From those who have received much, much is expected. We were not rich when I was a boy. Far from it. But I was blessed to be able to play football. I was blessed with fine teachers, who cared about my education. I was blessed to join the Marine Corps. And in my subsequent career, I have been blessed by friends and colleagues who have enabled me to thrive as an investor. We are nothing without other people. There are times in any life, and there have certainly been times in mine, when the clouds gather and the rain starts to fall. You hope you’re close to shelter, but often you’re not. You’re out there alone, adrift and cold.” He looked down towards his blonde senior who looked back from beneath her bangs. “That’s when you find out what you have inside you and who really cares for you. I went through that as a kid when my father ran out on us. I went through it as a Marine, when I lost so many of my brothers in the Beirut bombing. And to a much lesser extent, I have endured it over the past few years as I have been pursued by my own government and its invidious prosecutors.” He paused for a moment. He had decided on the flight to say it, but as he stood there, the words percolating in his mind, he hesitated. “We are taught to venerate our constitutional system. We are taught to bow down before this greatest of democratic systems, before the men who created it and the men and women who administer it. But every so often, we discover good reasons to be suspicious of it. We find out that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by a slave. That Richard Nixon authorized a burglary. We have reason to be disappointed.” He could feel the anxiety of the academic committee sitting so close to him. They were tensing up, shooting fearful looks at each other. “I have reason to be disappointed. I have served my community and my country with honor. I have worked hard and pursued opportunities to make the life I have. And I have done so entirely legally. And yet my government has chosen to pursue me. It seeks to make an example of me because it despises the capitalists this capitalist system is supposed to serve.”
Rodgers noticed movement in the gallery of the auditorium. People were getting up and walking to the front of the gallery. The dean stood from her seat and beckoned to the two campus policemen standing near the stage. The photographer from the student newspaper turned from Rodgers towards the gallery, as did the blonde. A huge banner flopped over the gallery, held from the top by ten students. “Flynt Rodgers: Thief.”
Rodgers gripped the podium and raised his voice. “I offer you a very simple message today. Love your country as I love my country. With all your heart. But treat your government with the suspicion it deserves. Force it to live up to the standards you expect of it.” The audience below Rodgers started to stamp and applaud, to drown out the jeers of the protestors. “Flynt Rodgers,” they chanted. “Don’t fear success and its consequences. Embrace it. Pursue it. Hunger for it. That is the American way. I’d sup with the Devil before settling with the SEC.” The Dean looked at him, appalled, but the crowd cheered louder. The blonde was on her feet cheering. “Hell, I’d wear Alabama crimson before settling with the SEC.” It was too loud now for him to go on. He stood back and waved. One of the protestors launched a book from the gallery, which rattled the podium. A cop appeared beside him and said it was time to go. But Rodgers wasn’t going anywhere. He stood there, hypnotized by the chaos and the explosion of youthful passion, happier than he had been in months.
After lunch, Rodgers requested a room where he could rest before he left for California. The co-ed with the crimson toes more than satisfied his stringent sexual requirements in both duration and deviance. A screamer to boot. Appreciation was fine, but noisy appreciation was even better. And noisy appreciation while staying in a guest room at the President of the University’s house satisfied every one of Rodgers’ adolescent sexual desires. His triumphant return was complete.
While the girl showered, he opened the window to the cool autumn air. The more he thought about his meeting with the SEC, the better he felt. If you’re not going up, you’re going down, his coach at Auburn had told him. You had to exhaust the opposition, pound them into the ground then throw one long and deep, right over their heads, far beyond the reach of their tired arms and legs.
However many lawyers and resources the SEC had, Rodgers could always have more. More appeals, more injunctions, more challenges to the SEC’s case. This could go on forever. At some point, they would have to convict him or back off. It was just like Harp had told him. Nothing to do with justice, right or wrong. This was a Class A pissing contest, and he was determined to win it and surge onward. If you’re not going up...
He turned on the television. CNN showed the President of the United States shaking hands at a rally in Iowa. Her lead seemed secure so close to the election, but this was a woman who left nothing to chance. Her campaign was unrelenting, checking every box, goading every fund-raiser, shaking every last hand in the line. It was what had drawn Rodgers to her at first. The efficiency. It appealed to the Marine in him. If you were going to serve your country well, it started with how you served yourself. Excellence in the service of any worthy cause began with a clean shave and a clean pair of boots. If you didn’t do the simple things well, what chance did you have with anything more complicated?
So many politicians he had met were slovenly, or even plain sleazy, thinking their cheap smiles made them irresistible. Not the President. She’d always had something more. It was why Rodgers had been so happy to raise money for her.
He heard the girl turn off the shower. He picked up her dress and bra which lay on the floor and slung them over a chair.
He had first heard of the President when she was a prosecutor, hunting down companies which treated the southern states as environmental wrecking grounds. She had sent CEOs to jail and pushed at least two Fortune 500 companies close to bankruptcy as punishment for their mining practices. And Rodgers had watched closely, shorting the stocks of the companies all the way down, betting her prosecutorial skills would beat all the white shoe talent in America. He had made a fortune and she had laid the groundwork for her entry into politics.
He had met her when she was a mere Congresswoman, caught in the relentless two-year cycles of the job, struggling to make a mark in Washington while keeping her constituents happy in a competitive district. Democrats had been struggling in the South since Reagan turned the Southern states red. But Leanne Mills had not merely won her district but held onto it despite major challenges, clutching it to her chest like a running back blitzing through the defensive line. Her tenacity had impressed him. As had the fact that she knew what she was talking about. She wasn’t one of these ranting housewives so prized by the Right, who couldn’t tell straight talk from stupid talk. She was smart, lethally smart, the kind of smart Rodgers would have hired in a heartbeat to make him money. But she was too good for hedge funds.
For Rodgers, politics was a pastime. A fundamentally trivial profession. Business people ran the economy, soldiers ran wars, teachers ran schools, lawyers made law and bureaucrats ran welfare. Politicians just stood in the middle of all this activity scooping up tax money they never earned and claiming to represent the people. Please. But when a good one came along, like Leanne Mills, Rodgers found it hard to resist.
The idea of the noble leader yanked at the patriot in him. An individual worthy of the convoys and airplanes and saluting Marines. A person able to embody the nation, to sit in the Oval Office and reflect not just on their own interests but on those of their country and its place in history. All those history lessons at Quantico, all the Marine Corps legend and songs, had left its mark on Rodgers. Deep down, he retained a romantic’s view of his country and its possibilities. Despite his better judgment, he was vulnerable to political affairs of the heart and Mills had yanked him along like a powerful foxhound leading its owner through the woods. All he could do was slacken the leash and follow, writing checks whenever asked.
He had organized cocktail parties and dinners in New York and Charleston, South Carolina, throwing open his homes so she could seduce them too. He had attended her inauguration, sitting four rows back from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He’d been there for the transition planning, advising the economic team - or at least being told he was advising them. It wasn’t apparent from their subsequent decisions that they had taken any of his advice.
But when the SEC came after him, his friend in the White House had vanished. He thought he could fight this fight with a foot planted firmly inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The chief of staff, the worst kind of Washington hack, had not responded to his calls. The President herself refused to see him. No more invitations to state dinners or Stevie Wonder concerts on the White House lawn. No more requests for money, even. When politicians stopped asking you for money, you knew you were really toxic. The spineless bastards just evaporated.
And now here she was running for re-election, pounding the lectern and declaring financiers the enemy. It wasn’t just the SEC that wanted Rodgers in irons, it was the President herself. If he was the sacrifice needed by the political gods, so be it. If she had to stand atop an Aztec temple in gold and feathers and slit the throat of a writhing Flynt Rodgers and drive a nail through his cock to show she meant business, she’d do it. You didn’t climb your way from Cokesbury, South Carolina, to the White House by being stand-up and loyal.
His skin was covered in goosebumps from the cold autumnal air blowing through the window. He had been way too passive in his own defense. He needed to go after these bastards. He wasn’t the one who needed regulating. They did. The White House didn’t get to decide who stayed up and who went down. Maybe in the Department of Agriculture. But not in Flynt Rodgers’ world. The girl came back out of the bathroom. Rodgers took her hand and led her, protesting mildly, back to the bed.
“What’s your name again, honey?” he said.
Revenge could wait. He had another half hour before he had to leave.
Forty-two minutes on the Delta Shuttle and a short taxi ride from Reagan National brought Wright to the SEC shortly before 2pm.
“I should have known you’d come sniffing around soon enough,” said Watson. “Who are you working for this time? Art Travis?”
“No, for once,” said Wright. He’d always liked Watson and had know her for many years. She was a close friend of his godmother, Eleanor Woods. The two women had a lot in common. They had both succeeded in the male world of finance without giving up their identities. If there were any angels to be found in the world of financial investigation, enforcement and regulation, and Wright often doubted it, Watson was one. “Rodgers’ ex-wife. She’s convinced he’s clean.”
“Vanderveer? Just your type.” Wright squirmed a little. He really should have waited until the case was over to sleep with her, enjoyable as it had been. “What did she tell you? Oh, Flyntie, he’s such an angel. Such a philanthropist.”
“She’s sure he’s clean and that the government’s case against him is purely vindictive. She says you want to hang him high to discourage the other financial pirates out there. But that you’ve got the wrong man.”
“Really? She thinks Blackbeard’s still out there? Well, why can’t she help us find him?”
“Busy cruising around with a pair of nubile Greeks.” “What?”
“I met her on her yacht in the Caribbean. She has this pair of Greek twins working for her. Medusa and Sirena.”
“Well,” she said pointing to three men in dark pants, white shirts and dark ties standing outside her office. “I’ve got Moe, Larry and Curly.”
“So, do you think Rodgers is guilty?”
“You do read the papers Ben? Don’t you? Or are you too good for them?”
“Of course I read them. But doesn’t mean I have to believe them. I’ve never believed there’s an infallible link between the government’s desire to prosecute and its belief in the truth of what it’s prosecuting. Look at Martha Stewart.”
“You don’t think she was guilty?”
“Sure. But you had to get her on perjury because securities fraud wouldn’t stick.”
“Come on, Ben. I’m busy.”
“If she’d hired me, there’s no way she’d have gone to jail.”
“Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Where would society be without you?”
“You still haven’t told me what you think.”
“Yes, I think the White House badly wants Flynt Rodgers to be guilty. But yes, I also happen to think Flynt Rodgers is guilty. He’s been ahead of the markets for years in all kinds of ways. You know that. You talk to the same people I do. No one thought he was clean long before we got involved.”
“Since when are you prosecuting based on the opinions of jealous rivals? If beating the markets were a crime, George Soros would be doing time.”
“You know what I mean. He’s traded with black edge, pure and simple.”
“He’s been right when others have been wrong.”
“It’s different. These aren’t bets based on interpreting public information, Ben. This isn’t just thinking the dollar’s going one way when everyone else thinks it’s going the other. This is a pattern of highly specific trades in individual companies, again and again, which only someone with inside knowledge could have made.”
“You have proof?”
“We’ve been working on this for years.”
“You have proof?”
“We have testimony. We have wiretaps. We have emails.”
“Proof is different. Proof is a direct link between an inside tip-off and a trade. You have proof?”
“We have enough to convince a jury.”
“So you don’t have proof. You have a few tools of persuasion.”
“I’m not going into details here.” She drummed her fingers on the table. She had already said too much, and it was only because she’d always liked Wright. Despite the kinds of people he worked for, he seemed to be on her team, trying to make sense of this shadowy world they inhabited, warning each other of the flick-knives flashing in the gloom. Dupre appeared at her door. Watson waved her in.
“Aneesha Dupre, Benjamin Wright,” she said. Wright stood up and shook Dupre’s hand. “Ben’s an old friend. Dangerous, but old.”
“How do you do?” said Wright. Dupre nodded. She was out of breath.
“What is it?” said Watson. Dupre glanced at Wright and decided nothing she was about to say was private information.
“Rodgers has gone public. He’s announced he’s not settling,” she said.
“The fuck he did,” said Watson. Wright tried to control his laughter, but it came out as a snort.
“He was speaking down at Auburn. He came right out and said it. The press is all over it. There’s a YouTube video apparently.” Watson entered “Rodgers and SEC” into the search bar on her computer. There it was. There he was in a Dacron gown bellowing over the sound of a rowdy audience which was out of shot. “Hell, I’d wear Alabama crimson before settling with the SEC.” Watson’ phone rang. She snatched it up.
“Put him through.” She sighed and looked at Wright. “The president’s chief of staff. Where are you staying?” she said.
“I’ll speak to you later.” As Wright turned to leave, he could hear the exasperation in her office, and imagine the veins popping at the other end of the phone. “Yes I know,” she said. “I realize it’s embarrassing... We’ll do all we can... Could you stop swearing for a moment, sir, and listen?”
Ciancio and Vargas sat side by side at Vargas’ desk as she pulled up an encyclopedia entry on Monkshood.
“Aconitum,” she said, scanning the screen, “also known as wolf’s bane. Used to kill wolves in medieval Europe. By Himalayan tribesmen to hunt ibex and by Japanese hunters to kill bear. In Chinese medicine to reduce fevers, slow the pulse. Can paralyze the muscles in the heart and the respiratory system. Death from poisoning can occur almost instantaneously. Post-mortem investigations suggest asphyxia.”
“How would you get hold of it?” said Ciancio, distracted more by his leg brushing up against Vargas’ than by the details poison.
“It’s a plant. You grow it. Or maybe from a Chinese medicine shop. Though you’d have to concentrate it to make it toxic enough to kill. Look at this.” She pointed at the screen. “No known deaths in the United States since 1923.”
Vargas pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them. She took a sip from her mug of tea.
“We don’t see many of these,” she said. “Accidental poisonings, sure. Suicides. Drinking a gallon of fertilizer. Overdoses. Horrible ways to go.”
“Wasn’t there that Russian guy? In London?”
“Litvinenko. Russian secret services put polonium in his tea.”
“How long did it take to kill him?”
“Three weeks. For the first couple of days he was dragging trails of radioactivity all over London. Into restaurants, cars, offices. Then it was a long, painful death. Diarrhea. Hair loss. Cramps. Horrible. The Russians really knew what they were doing. The only thing they didn’t know was that in the West, we could detect that strain of Polonium. Since almost all of it is found in Russian reactors, it wasn’t hard to figure out who had arranged the murder. They thought they were being subtle.”
“So this rules out Donovan’s wife?”
“No. Even an airhead could pay someone smart to kill her husband. What rules her out is that she didn’t seem to care whether he was dead or alive. Either way, she gets to live her life. Divorce him, she still gets her check and carries on. Tanks of gas, exercise classes, fake tans. Why bother murdering someone when you don’t have to?”
“You judge people too quickly.”
“Come on, Mike. You think she’s going home and cracking open Crime and Punishment?”
“Like Law & Order?”
“No. The Russian novel. Dostoyevsky.” Ciancio looked at his shoes and shrugged. “Point is, whoever did this knew what they were doing. It wasn’t some disgruntled suburban wife.”
“Don’t underestimate those disgruntled wives. They can be vicious.”
“When all they need is a good gruntling.”
“To find a supply of monkshood concentrated enough so that it kills from a pinprick and then to administer it takes real skill. This isn’t your average drive-by.”
“What are you thinking?”
“This city’s full of people who could develop a poison. Government. Hospitals. Foreign embassies. Plenty of experts in the dark arts.”
“So if not family, then who?”
“I’d start with his clients. What do we know about Tommy Donovan? He was an attorney, a finance guy. Probably did some lobbying. Who doesn’t, right? Who might have wanted him dead? Then who might have been sophisticated and twisted enough to do it? Probably took some money too. It’s an old poison, but you don’t just buy it in its most toxic form off the shelf.”
“Rich, clever and evil. Doesn’t narrow it down in this city.”
“Detective Ciancio?” Vargas and Ciancio both turned to see a tall, tanned man in a grey suit, with a raincoat draped over one arm.
“Who wants to know?” said Ciancio.
“Benjamin Wright,” he said, advancing on the detective. Ciancio stood up and thrust his hands in his pockets. Vargas looked him up and down, taking in his polished black shoes and the horn buttons on his jacket. He was still young, mid 30s she guessed, but worn, like driftwood, his face starting to crease. “Your office said I could find you here.”
“They shouldn’t be telling strangers where to find me.”
“It’s to do with Tommy Donovan,” said Wright. “You’re investigating his death.”
Ciancio didn’t respond.
“I’d be interested to know what you’ve found out.”
“Confidential,” said Ciancio.
“Monkshood,” said Wright looking over Vargas’ shoulder at the screen, which still showed the encyclopedia entry. “Nasty stuff. Didn’t think anyone used it these days.” Vargas pivoted around and closed the tab.
“Who are you?” said Ciancio.
“Tommy Donovan worked for the ex-husband of a client of mine.”
“Say that again?”
“I’m an investigator,” said Wright. “But I work for private clients.” He set his raincoat down over the back of a chair. “One of my clients used to be married to a man who worked very closely for many years with Tommy Donovan. Flynt Rodgers.”
“The money guy,” said Vargas.
“One of the biggest SEC prosecutions ever. They’ve been going after him for years. They believe he’s an insider trader.”
“Rich, clever and evil,” said Vargas.
“Come with me,” said Ciancio, pulling Wright by the elbow. “We need to talk.”
Ciancio inserted a dollar bill into the coffee machine, which promptly spat it back out. He reversed the bill and tried again. He tried it one more time. Still no luck.
“Maybe a less creased one will work,” said Wright, handing him one from his wallet. Ciancio took it grudgingly and the machine swallowed it up.
“Get you anything?” he said. Wright shook his head. Ciancio hit the button for a coffee with milk and sugar. “Wright, huh?”
“Flynt Rodgers. He’s been all over the papers. Tell me about him.” The two men began walking towards the exit of the morgue.
“Billionaire. Multi-billionaire,” said Wright.
“If he wanted to be gone, he’s be gone. He’s owns thousands of acres in Botswana.”
“I know where it is. He likes going on safari?”
“Hunting. Big game. He’s also got places in London, Geneva, Sao Paolo. The Bahamas. And a jet to travel between them. If he was scared of being in the United States he’d have gone a long time ago. Far beyond the reach of any extradition treaties.”
“You think because he’s sticking around, he must be innocent?”
“If I were guilty and had all the means to escape, I’m not sure I’d wait around.”
“Some guys like the chase. You’d be surprised.”
“You remember the bombing of the US marine barracks in Beirut in 1983?”
“I was a kid when that happened.”
“Rodgers was there. Won the Navy Cross for climbing into the rubble long before it was safe and dragging his fellow marines to safety.”
“One below the Medal of Honor, right?”
“Right.” “How’d he make all his money?” Ciancio pushed open the exit door, led Wright to a bench facing road and sat down. He blew on his steaming coffee.
“When he left the Marines, he was hired by Goldman Sachs to work on their Treasury desk. Basic grunt job, making sure the bank and its clients have the cash to run their business. Ex-soldiers tend to be good at it. Rodgers quickly moved over to trading, currencies, shares, using the firm’s own money. He did very well.”
“It’s a job for people with low resting heart rates. You get too excited, you lose.”
“So he’s a risk-taker.”
“He’s a calculator. Bold not reckless.”
“Not a killer.”
“I don’t know that any more than you do, detective. If you asked me to guess, I’d say no.”
“I’ve got a brother-in-law served in the Marines. Those guys come of of there and the world’s a whole different place. No buzz cuts. No polished shoes. No one to take your orders. Nowhere to put all that aggression. They can struggle.” A garbage truck stopped at the traffic lights in front of them, stinking.
“Rodgers never struggled. Within ten years of leaving the Marines, he’d set up his own firm and made his first 100 million dollars in the early 1990s when the rest of the US was in a recession. He made his first billion when the Russian and Asian currencies collapsed in 1997. And since then, it’s just been up and up. Five, ten, close to 15 billion today.”
“Jesus. When do you have enough?”
“Enough happened a long time ago. Now it’s just a question of more. And the thrill of the chase.”
“But the SEC doesn’t think he’s legal.”
“They think he took some shortcuts. They think he traded with inside information.”
“They call it black edge. Information that’s rock solid but illegally obtained which allows you to trade ahead of the market. They say Rodgers did this repeatedly.”
“And you think he didn’t?”
“I think a lot of things go on in the financial markets that never get prosecuted. But every so often, the SEC feels obliged to take aim at a major player and take him down.”
“Doesn’t make him innocent.”
“Flynt Rodgers isn’t the only person to have made money from Flynt Rodgers. Pension funds, college endowments, charities, they’ve all profited from his decisions. You want them to hand over their profits?”
“If they’ve been made illegally, yeah.”
“Fine. Point is, the worst that could happen to Flynt Rodgers in this case is he pays a big fine. Maybe even a few billion dollars. His firm has to shut down. Might be a jail sentence, a few years at most. But he’s an ex-Marine. He could handle that. Might even enjoy it. Then he’s out. Still a multi-billionaire. I’ve met a lot of these kinds of people, Detective, and there’s those that can handle the consequences of what they do, and those that can’t. I may be wrong here, but I reckon Flynt Rodgers is one of those who can.”
“Because he’s a calculator.”
“He examines the downside to every decision. He weighs it. He wouldn’t do something if he didn’t know where the bottom was if his decision turned out to be wrong. You trade with inside information, sure, it’s illegal. But everyone’s doing it. Get caught, pay your parking ticket, move on. Kill someone. Who knows where that takes you?”
“You’re not telling me who killed Tommy Donovan.”
“I know as little as you do, detective. But hunches aren’t a bad place to start.”
“Yeah. I got some hunches too,” said Ciancio, draining the last of his coffee and standing up. “You sticking around in DC?” “Till I find something.”
“Your client doesn’t think her ex-husband’s guilty. An ex-wife who wants her ex-husband cleared. You don’t find that too often.”
“He made her very rich.”
Ciancio tossed his empty cup into a trash bin.
“You ever see that movie about Watergate?” said Wright.
“Sure. Everyone in Washington’s seen that movie. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. All the President’s Men.”
“The reporters keep being told, follow the money.”
“By the guy in the garage,” said Ciancio.
“Everyone in a case like this has money. You follow the money, you just find more money. You hit walls of money.”
“So what should we be following?”
“Money isn’t the motive.”
“What is?” Ciancio ran his finger round the inside of his belt and looked away, at the people passing by on the street, at a tramp panhandling at the door to the public library.
“What, then? Jesus. What?”
“Fear. You want to find out who killed Tommy Donovan, I wouldn’t follow the money. I’d follow the fear.”
Ciancio liked having Vargas in his car. It was better than hanging round in the cold morgue surrounded by dead bodies. When she had proposed the visit to the Chinese pharmacy, he had bolted down to the garage and cleaned out the old newspapers and candy wrappers which littered the passenger side of his car. If he’d had one of those dinky little car vacuums, like his sister had in her Toyota minivan, he’d have used that too. Instead he just brushed down the seats and left the doors open a while to get rid of the funk. He also changed the radio station from heavy rock to NPR. He didn’t want Metallica blasting out the moment he turned the ignition.
“Nice car,” she said as she looked in, giving the seat one more brush before sitting down.
“Could have had a BMW. Too flashy,” he said. “No one pays attention to a Buick.”
The radio came on as he turned the key.
“Hi, I’m Terry Gross. You’re listening to Fresh Air.”
“Really Mike? NPR? Even my mother doesn’t listen to NPR anymore.”
“I like the international news.” “It’s like being locked in a Subaru with a knitting circle for a long drive to Vermont.”
“Come on. It’s public radio. Who else does what they do?”
“Ask for money every five minutes? Teenagers.” She put her finger on the Scan button till she found what she was looking for.
“Please. No jazz.”
“You listen to NPR but have a problem with jazz?” Ciancio turned the radio off.
“Can’t argue with silence.”
They drove up Massachusetts Avenue and round Lincoln Park and along East Capitol Street. The area had been transformed in the past few years. Every townhouse gleamed, the front gardens were clipped and tidy. People were walking small dogs and holding rolled-up yoga mats, the most advanced symbols of Western prosperity. Hallowe’en was just a couple of weeks away and carved pumpkins had been placed on every stoop. Vargas rolled down her window and held her face up to the breeze like a puppy.
They rounded the Capitol and turned right at the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, heading towards Chinatown.
“How do you know this guy?”
“We went to medical school together.”
“He went to the University of Chicago medical school and and now he’s a herbalist?”
“He’s different. He thinks different.”
“Ginseng for everything.”
“If the cops in Palm Beach figure out who killed Caldera before you figure out who killed Donovan, you’re going to look like an ass. If you get there first, you’re a hero. So you should open your mind.”
“This it?” said Ciancio. He had pulled up in front of a grubby storefront on a backstreet of Chinatown. The window was plastered with signs in Chinese and pictures of ground herbs. A sign dangled above the front door. “Hsieh Lo Remedies.” Vargas gripped the freezer bag which she had set on the floor between her feet. She got out of the car, and pulled her brown peacoat tight around her shoulders. The street reeked of garbage. A pile of cardboard boxes folded flat lay in front of the shop, stained from use by the homeless.
Vargas pushed open the door. A bell rang above her. There was no one at the long glass counter which ran the length of the store. It was much cleaner inside than it appeared from the outside. The walls were covered floor to ceiling with wooden drawers, each marked in Chinese script, and shelves stacked with glass jars filled with dried herbs. A highly polished set of scales sat on the counter, beside a set of weights laid out on a velvet cloth. A bead curtain in the back of the shop swished open and a tall, blond man with the build and aura of a surfer strode through. He was wearing a white lab coat.
“Jen!” he said pushing through the low gate which led from behind the counter into the store. He hugged her tight. “You look great.” He kissed her on both cheeks and hugged her again. “So great to see you.” He looked at Ciancio and extended a hand.
“Hi. Tony. Great to meet you.”
“His first name’s Mike,” said Vargas. “But they don’t use first names in the police department. It’s like Catholic school.”
“So, when was the last time? Thanksgiving?”
“Crazy. We live in the same town and we see each other once a year? Turkey day and whatever this is.”
“I never told you to live way out in Virginia.”
“Aren’t all earning the big forensic money.”
“So what have you got for me?” Vargas set the freezer bag on the counter. Tony looked in. “Blood?”
“It’s a sample taken from a body we just brought in. Found dead in the Potomac.”
“But you don’t think he was drowned.”
“I tested it and re-tested it. I think...” she hesitated. Ciancio looked at Tony. He certainly didn’t look like any Chinese herbalist he’d ever met. More like the captain of the University of Southern California ultimate frisbee team. “I’m not sure. I’m trying to piece this together from the physical symptoms. I think he was killed by Monkshood.”
“Cool.” Tony pulled out the vial and held it up to the light. “What do you want from me?”
“I need to know if there’s something I’m missing. If this was monkshood, how could it be used to poison someone. And where you would you get it from.”
“What do you have so far?”
“We think it was some kind of dart. There was a prick in the guy’s neck. We think he then lost consciousness and tumbled into the river.
“It would take a really high concentration. Not impossible. Just very hard. And expensive. You can grow Aconite easily enough here in the US. But to pick it and turn it into a poison capable of killing someone with a single prick to the neck. That takes some skill.”
“You ever heard of it before?”
“A couple of times. But never in the US. There were a couple of cases in Asia between criminal gangs. They’d give a man monkshood in front of his family, then force them to watch him die slowly. Takes about an hour. First you lose control over your muscles, your mouth burns, you start to spasm, lose control over your breathing, your bowels.You writhe on the floor. You slip into a coma. You die. It’s ugly. Even uglier to watch. There are easier ways to kill someone.”
“But this is untraceable, right?”
“Yeah. No trace in the blood. Certainly not in your labs.”
“What about yours?”
“We use aconite a lot more in Chinese medicine. As an anti-inflammatory. You need to get the dosage right, but it works as an analgesic. Good for the heart too.”
“But can you test for it?” Tony smiled.
“What do you reckon, Mike? You reckon we can test for it?” Mike shrugged. “You want to tell him, or shall I?” he said to Vargas.
“Before Medical School, Tony joined the Peace Corps and spent two years working in a clinic in Guangzhou Province in China. He got the bug for Chinese medicine.”
“Don’t get me wrong. If I was in a car crash, I wouldn’t treat it with powdered herbs. I’d get myself to the ER. But after China, it was hard to believe Western medicine had all the answers. There were loads of guys like me going off to do surgery and spend their lives arguing with insurers. I thought if I did this, I could make a real difference.”
“So far no good,” said Vargas.
“Until you’re a genius, you’re a crank. Follow me.”
Vargas and Ciancio followed him through the beaded curtain, into a narrow corridor lined with boxes. At the end was a glossy, steel door. Tony opened it and cold air blasted into their faces. They had left the world of Hsieh Lo and stepped into the future.
The back room at Hsieh Lo was covered entirely in white tile with a long laboratory table along the middle. Up against the walls was an array of machines. Vargas gasped.
“You’re better equipped than the FBI,” she said.
“How do you think I pay off those medical school loans? Selling powdered ginseng? Everything’s moving into the private sector, Jen. Space exploration. Medical research. Even your work.”
“Where do you get all this stuff?”
“Europe, mostly. And if they don’t have it, I buy the parts from Asia and assemble it myself. The technology’s all out there, it’s just most people don’t know what to do with it. Put the sample down there. Just blood, right? No flesh?”
“No flesh.” Ciancio winced. These forensic specialists talked about bodies the way butchers talked about meat. There was no person attached to the raw material.
“You’re in luck. A German team recently came up with a test for Aconitine in body fluids. For centuries it was impossible to trace. It’s why assassins loved it. It’s how they killed the Roman Emperor Claudius.” Tony was flicking on machines and cleaning cartridges, preparing to test the sample. “So let’s see if it works. Grab a coat Jen.”
Ciancio stood by the door, trying to stay out of the way. Vargas took her peacoat off and hung it behind the door. She was wearing a cream, silk blouse and Ciancio could see the outline of her black bra. She put on a white lab coat and a pair of goggles and went and stood beside Tony.
“We’re going to use a process of solid phase extraction,” said Tony as he drew a sample of the blood and mixed it with a clear liquid. He then placed the liquid in a centrifuge. “What’s amazing about this, if you’re right that it is aconite, monkshood, wolf’s bane, whatever you want to call it, is more the delivery system than the poison itself. How did they get it into his body at sufficiently high dosage?”
“The mark on his neck is no bigger than a mosquito bite.”
“Maybe it is a mosquito bite. You know where he ate the day he died?”
“He had lunch at the Georgetown Four Seasons,” said Ciancio. “Breakfast there too.”
“Oh, man, they do a great breakfast there. You ever had the Japanese breakfast there, Jen?”
“Stay on point, Tony.”
“So lacing the food sounds complicated. And I think the death would have taken longer than if you just jabbed the poison right into the blood stream.” The centrifuge beeped. Tony removed the liquid and placed it in a cartridge prepared with methanol, water and a mild alkali buffer to separate the elements. He worked with the finesse of a watch-maker, washing and drying the cartridge until the substances were fully separated. Vargas passed him the liquids he needed before he could ask, the two of them working in silent harmony. Finally, Tony placed the sample in a mass spectrometer, a machine the size of a restaurant espresso machine.
“All right,” he said. “The moment of truth. Hexapole for ion containment and transmission, and Z-Spray. Means we can identify all the different elements in a compound more effectively than ever.” He opened an academic journal and checked the numbers he had written down as they appeared on a computer screen hooked up to the spectrometer. They waited for several minutes, staring at the numbers and charts moving on the screen, while the machine did its work.
“You were right, Jen,” said Tony. “Monkshood. No doubt about it. A heavily concentrated dose. I’m surprised the guy even made it into the river. A dose like that would bring you to your knees in seconds.”
“He was a big Irishman.”
“So maybe he had a minute. But I’m guessing he was poisoned within just a few feet of where he fell into the river.” Vargas looked over at Ciancio. “Off a bridge, maybe? Like the Key Bridge in Georgetown?”
“That could be your crime scene,” said Tony.
“How do you poison a guy with Monkshood in the middle of Georgetown?”
“It’s Washington DC,” said Tony. “Weird things happen here all the time.”
It took until early afternoon for news of Sergio Caldera’s death to reach Marjorie Watson. His lawyer called to tell her. The Palm Beach police were handling the investigation and so far there were no leads. Caldera’s wife and son were staying with family until they could leave for Argentina.
Several floors below, in the basement of the SEC, Andy Zarjicki could not believe what he was reading. Flynt Rodgers’ personal accounts went on for hundreds of pages. The list of his properties alone went on longer than most people’s entire return. There were homes in New York and Charleston, in the Hamptons, Bermuda, Vail, Gstaad, London, even an apartment in Hong Kong. And these were just the ones he used. Then there were the houses he owned which were used by ex-wives, children and employees, as well as his offices and the various berths around the world which he kept for his yacht, Antibes, Palma, Tivat, St. Barth’s and Northeast Harbor in Maine. Year after year, the list grew. Rodgers was an acquirer not a pruner.
The scale of his investments kept on swelling even in years when the rest of the economy was shrinking. Recessions seemed to be opportunities to acquire even more, when prices were beaten down. Rodgers was a glutton for assets. Hotels, restaurants, horses, not to mention companies. He hoarded corporate debt and frequently exercised his right to buy companies if ever they defaulted. His stock portfolio was never static, a constant churn of buying low and selling high. His investment horizon seemed to be about 48 hours.
The tax returns Zarjicki had found on Tommy Donovan’s USB key barely told the story. Buried in a separate file labeled “Semper” were the details, Rodgers’ daily book-keeping. For the previous year alone, there was a line-item for “chefs”. $1.8 million. Paintings. $63.5 million. Masseur. $95,000.
“What does a massage cost?” Zarjicki asked his room of programmers.
“Sports or sex?” said Rhodes, a 23-year-old from Tennessee with the complexion of a zombie.
“$100? $150 an hour?”
“So Rodgers was having at least one massage a day, maybe two. Jesus. I hope he was loose.”
“Sex massages are two or three times as much.”
“Somehow I don’t think he’d be listing those in his personal accounts. How do you know so much about this?” Rhodes shrugged and Zarjicki kept scanning through the files. The expenses were obscene, but not illegal. There was no law against bad taste or ostentation, or even for the number of massages a stressed out hedge fund executive could receive on any given day.
“Are you allowed to go through all that? Isn’t it evidence in a murder case now?”
“Just doing what my bosses tell me. Sweet Jesus. Look at this. $830,000 for a rug.”
“Woven from the belly hair of a unicorn.”
“Must be. I’ve got wall to wall polyester blend at home. Didn’t cost anything like that much.”
“Spoil yourself sometime, Andy,” said Rhodes.
“Can a man really have this many bank accounts? There’s an entire page of them just in the United States, then there’s the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Monaco, Macao. Who has an account in Macao?”
“Gamblers. Anyone flushing money through Asia.”
“But why would Flynt Rodgers have an account there?”
“Sometimes you need liquidity in unusual places. Macao’s as good as anywhere else. Your money’s safe and you can get it in and out easily. If you’re a real crook you use the casinos. Otherwise the banks are pretty good. It’s hard for us to see inside them. How much did he have there?”
“Just sitting there?”
“OK. That is strange.”
“Another $52 million in Hong Kong.”
“Less strange, but still a lot if you’re not doing much business there.”
Zarjicki called Marj.
“What have you found? Please, please, tell me something good.”
“Personal accounts. Money stashed all over the world.”
“Just numbers. But numbers I don’t think we had before.”
“Keep digging Andy. I’m relying on you.”
“I just lost my second main witness.”
“Jesus, Marj. How?”
“Dead on a street in Palm Beach. They’re investigating.”
“This can’t be a coincidence. Rodgers comes in, says he’s not settling. Next thing the two key witnesses against him are dead.”
“You noticed too. You’re all I’ve got now Andy.”
“I’ll do my best. But you should come down. Maybe you’ll see something I’m not seeing. I’m just seeing numbers. Maybe you’ll see a pattern. For instance, why would Flynt Rodgers be holding $99 million in personal accounts in Macao and Hong Kong? Not investor money, but his own cash.”
“You say Hong Kong?”
“Yes. And Macao.”
“I’ll be there in five.” The phone clicked. Marjorie Watson hustled out of her office towards the elevator, leaving the door to her office wide open.
“Print it out for me,” said Watson, settling into a chair beside Zarjicki.
“All of it? There’s hundreds of pages.”
“All of it. Witnesses dropping dead around me, I’ve got nothing but time. Three years ago, Rodgers was involved in a short of a casino company based in Las Vegas. It was trying to expand into Macao. If it received permission to build there, its value would have shot up. Chinese are the biggest gamblers in the world. Own a casino there, you’re printing money. Just money from gaming, Macao makes five times more than Vegas.”
“He make money?”
“Course he did. Bought put options at $22 and the stock fell to $12 the day the casino license was denied. Rodgers made about $150 million. Not much for a fund his size, but not bad for a couple of week’s work.”
“It’s what he does for a living.”
“Sure. But usually these big traders work in packs. They swarm around a short position like that. One of them gets in there, and soon all of them follow. The strange thing about this one was that no one followed Rodgers in. He leapt in all alone.”
“So? That’s contrarian investing.”
“You know how tightly controlled those gambling license procedures are? Makes the SEC look gossipy.”
“Well we are kind of...”
“OK. Bad example. It’s pretty much impossible to get an inside read before the license is issued or not. No one really knows what’s going on. It’s just guesswork. One guy gets a license, another doesn’t. Until about ten years ago, Macao gambling was a monopoly, run by a group of local businessmen. Then it started opening up. The Chinese wanted to see more competition. But still, betting on who’s going to get a license or not is pure speculation. No one knows.”
“Except Flynt Rodgers.”
“That’s the way he acted.”
“But you can’t prove anything.”
“It’s the perfect insider trade. It’s not just whether you use illegally obtained information. No one even believes the inside information is even accessible. You may as well be betting on a coin toss. We don’t need proof right now, anyway. We need the threat of proof to force a deal.”
“Looks like he’s had this account about five years.”
“Two years before his trade. Around the time the US companies were starting to build up their operations in Macao. Can we see the account activity?”
“Just balance sheet numbers. Starts with $10 million. Goes up to around $80 million. Then comes down. Then recently they spiked again. A lot of money went in over the past 12 months.”
“Those casino licenses come up for renewal next year.”
“You think he’s stockpiling money to pay for information?”
“Maybe he’s saving up for the mother of all Oriental massages.”
“Nothing.” Watson reached over for one of Zarjicki’s peanut butter cups, ripped it open and ate it in one bite.
“The trades happened here in the US, on a publicly traded stock, but the inside information, if there was any, came from way beyond our jurisdiction. Maybe if we’d had this a couple of years ago.”
“How do you subpoena people in Macao anyway?”
“You don’t. It’s why it’s brilliant. The White House thinks going after these guy is so easy, because politicians think financiers are greedy and dumb.”
“Need to look in the mirror.”
“Exactly. We could look back through the wiretaps. But even there we’re piecing together scraps. Every paper trail takes months of work. We don’t have the time.”
“You said all you need is the threat of proof.”
“To force Rodgers to accept a deal before the election.”
“Don’t we have field agents in Hong Kong?”
“A couple working out of the consulate there.”
“Can’t we get them on it?”
“They’ll be starting cold. This isn’t the kind of information you’re going to find with a Google search in Chinese.” Watson balled her hand into a fist. “We need evidence that will scare Rodgers into a deal. We need wire transfers, emails, cause and effect and shit...” Her voice trailed off. “Zarj, we don’t have time.” He was now tapping furiously on the keyboard. He had opened up a spreadsheet and was cutting and pasting columns from the various bank accounts. Watson leaned forward.
“Look, if I start here. You can start to see the flows. One account goes up, one goes down. We can take the data from the investment accounts to see the origins of the cash. Try to match the expense numbers to the changes in the balance sheet. Build our own accounts.”
“The cash isn’t just going from the US to all these accounts. It’s moving from one account to another, from here to the Caribbean, to Europe and Asia. And the other way. Sometimes it never touches the US.”
“So we can build up the inflows and outflows without having to request these banks turn over Rodgers’ records?”
“Right. No begging the Chinese or Swiss.”
“We’re looking for matching sums. Look. When the Macao account goes up, it’s always the same account that goes down. And the other way round. Macao goes down, the Swiss one goes up. You don’t need to get lost in China to figure out what all this money’s for.”
“It’s a start.”
Wright waited inside his rental car, watching the entrance to EnterTrain, a gym in Bethesda. It was on the north side of the street, between a Starbucks and a J.Crew, completing the Holy Trinity for the kinds of wives and mothers who inhabited this rich Washington suburb. He watched them stepping down from their enormous SUVs. A mathematical law seemed to be at work. The smaller the woman the bigger the car. He had found a picture of Caitlin Donovan online, standing with her husband at the Kennedy Center. She wore a plastic grin and he looked drunk. The classic society pages combination.
He had her address, but didn’t want to show up at her house. He also had the details of her car and some information from her Facebook page. She was devoted to an EnterTrain spinning instructor named Rique. Every time Rique posted, Caitlin Donovan would comment “yay” or “go Rique” or in moments of extreme excitement “bitching!”. In recent weeks, Rique had run a marathon, “yay”, visited several vegan restaurants, posted photographs of his favorite dishes, “yay, yay, yay Rique!” and begun learning to tango, “you super-bitch!”. His hold on the women who followed him was nothing short of religious.
Wright had never tried spinning as a form of exercise, but had brought what he hoped were the right kind of workout clothes, shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers. No case, however important, would force him to wear spandex. The cars kept pulling up in front of EnterTrain, but still no sign of Donovan. It was getting close to 5.30pm, when Rique was due to start his Dusk Run class. Maybe she had entered the building another way. Behind these streets was a warren of parking garages. Maybe there was a secret passage from J. Crew. Wright decided to go inside.
The lobby smelled of ground nuts and sweat.
“Can I help you?” said a very fit-looking young woman who had the name Lynsey pinned to her left breast.
“I’m here for Rique’s class.”
“Sorry, it’s full. Roolah has a couple of spaces left at 8, though. Can you come back?”
“I really wanted Rique,” said Wright. “I heard such great things about him.”
“So glad to hear that,” said Lynsey, without a drop of sincerity. “Everyone loves Rique. That’s why his class is full. Sorry. Roolah’s great too though. She’ll give you a great work-out, I promise. She has more of a sport-tantra approach than Rique. You’ll sleep like a baby afterwards.”
“I’m afraid I’m busy this evening.”
“Everyone’s busy. I know. I have a meditation class tonight. Wouldn’t miss it.”
Wright leaned over the reception desk.
“Lynsey,” he said. “I have never been to an Entertain. I have one night in Washington DC and I am told Rique is the man. Is there nothing you can do?”
Lynsey stood up and brought her face close to Wright’s. She smelled of Juicy Fruit and patchouli.
“If I started pulling favors for every stranger who came in here begging to join Rique’s class, I’d never do anything else.”
Wright stood back.
“I understand. Book me for Roolah then.”
“Totally. You’re welcome to hang out. Take a steam. Get changed. We’ve got a chill-out area back behind the changing rooms. Magazines. Music. Super-chill.”
“Great.” Wright paid $45 for his class and made his way to the changing rooms. As he did, he passed one of the spinning rooms and saw a man he recognized as Rique standing at the front. There were still a few minutes before the class began. Wright changed quickly and slid into the back of the room just as the lights went down, taking the last empty bike right at the front of the room. He climbed on as the music began to thump.
“Techno-samba tonight my spinning bitches,” shrieked Rique, who wore lime green spandex pants and a neoprene top zipped up to his neck. He let off a high-pitched rolled r, which went on for at least half a minute. It was a sound Wright had only ever heard once before in a documentary about Albanian funeral rites. The widows of Tirana would ululate like this to send the spirits of their dead up to heaven. “We are out of the saddle tonight,” yelled Rique, holding his arms outstretched and pumping his arms up and down. His bike was on a stage facing the class, but he would spend most of the class prowling up and down the rows of cyclists, bopping his head and yowling encouragement. He came up close to Wright, close enough to kiss him, and whispered in his ear.
“Failure does not exist, except in your mind. Push it, bitch. Turn it. Sweat it.”
Wright noticed that the door at the back of the classroom was open and in the mirror facing him, he recognized Lynsey and another woman searching for a free bike. Lynsey seemd to be apologizing. There were more than 50 bikes in here, 50 rumps squirming in the air. There was no way they could find the one that wasn’t supposed to be here, provided he kept his head down and pedaled.
The room was hot even before 50 of Bethesda’s hottest bodies began churning away on their exercise bikes. Wright was soon covered in sweat. The session began with a hill to warm everyone up, then sprints and jumps, more hills, more sprints, a period of pumping the arms using different weights, all to relentless Brazilian music. It was timed to exhaust you, to bring you to the edge of collapse, to ease up, and once you were eased, to hurl you back into another punishing climb.
“You are rock stars,” shouted Rique. “You are Mick Jagger. You are Madonna. You are Justin Timberlake. You are whoever you want to be. You are legends. You are John Lennon. You are Gandhi. You are athletes. You are Michael Jordan. You are Lindsay Vonn. You are the best in the world.” Whenever he had the chance, Wright turned to glance around the room, to see if he could find Caitlin Donovan. But every time he turned his head, sweat pooled in his eyes and all he could see was a blur of 49 ponytails bouncing amidst the strobe lights.
Finally, the music quietened down. Wright glanced at his watch. He had been going for nearly an hour. The electronic thump was replaced by a soft bossa nova.
“Now, we turn the pedals for love,” said Rique. “Slowly. Mindfully. Pedal for the ones you love. Remember, that can include you. Love yourself. Do this for yourself. Make yourself beautiful. It all starts with you. All the beauty in the world starts with you. With your sweat and your love. Namaste my beautiful, beautiful, self-loving bitches. Ommmmmmmmmmmm.”
Jesus, thought Wright. What would real Buddhists make of this? But as the class stopped, he did feel wonderful. Purged. His legs wobbled as he dismounted, and the inside of his thighs chafed. Maybe that was why people wore spandex rather than tennis shorts to do this. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and bent over, resting his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. The lights were slowly coming on, releasing the riders from the past, infernal hour. Rique, the lord of this underworld, was being swarmed by women, who laughed at everything he said. He was Dionysus, they were his Bacchae. Exercise and endorphins were their path to ecstasy. Standing at the front of the group was Donovan. She was glugging from a pink, plastic water bottle, and had one foot resting up on her opposite thigh, balancing like a flamingo and gazing adoringly at Rique. She didn’t look like a woman in mourning.
Wright stood up to get a better look.
“You were meant to wait for Roolah,” said Lynsey, jabbing him in the chest. “You took someone else’s place.”
“I couldn’t wait,” said Wright. His smile didn’t melt her.
“You really fucked up my schedule.” She had her arms folded, manically chewing gum. “You think you can just come in here and go to any class you like. That’s not how this works. I told you, you there wasn’t space.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was so serious.”
“‘Cause guys like you think you can do anything you like and you’ll just be forgiven. That’s not how it works. You disrespect Entertrain, you disrespect Roolah, and you disrespect me.” Rique pulled himself away from his fans and came over.
“What’s the matter Lynsey?”
“This guy crashed your class. I told him there wasn’t space, so he just came in and took Mrs. Johnson’s spot.”
“Not cool,” said Rique. Wright felt he had disappeared down a rabbit hole. The lights were now fully turned up. You could see the scruffy black carpet and scuffed dark walls. Full light didn’t favor Rique either. His pitted skin looked grey. Darkness suited him better. “Disrespect is not cool.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“You ever hear of karma?” said Rique prodding Wright in the chest. “Everything you do good or bad comes back to you. When you do a bad thing, it comes back to you. Right Lynsey?”
“Right,” she said, rocking back and forth on her heels.
“So what are you going to do to make it right?”
“I’m going to get my things and leave,” said Wright.
“You think that makes it right?” said Rique. Wright saw Caitlin Donovan was gathering her things to go. He needed to catch her before she left.
“Again, I’m sorry. Add another class to my credit card.”
“It’s not about money.”
“What is it about? Karma points? Add two classes.”
“You know anything about what you’re talking?” said Rique.
“You meatheads can do what you like. I’m leaving.” He took a step backwards and cracked his ankle on a stationary bike. The pain was excruciating, but Wright refused to show it. He kept walking back towards the exit.
“We’re adding ten classes,” said Lynsey.
“What do you think this place is? Some cheap-ass joint like SoulCycle?” said Rique.
Wright grabbed his bag from the changing room and caught up with Caitlin Donovan just as she left the building.
“Intense class,” he sad. She looked up at him with a schoolgirl’s sneer.
“It’s Entertrain. It’s always intense.”
“Never done one before.” Donovan was rifling through her bag looking for her keys. She clearly had no interest in speaking to this strange, sweaty man. “Strange guy, Rique.”
“Rique’s the best,” she said, walking away. “He can change your life.”
“He change yours?” She looked up sharply.
“What’s it to you?”
“Nothing. He’s obviously a very powerful personality.”
They walked to the corner and Donovan pressed the button on her car key. Her SUV was parked around the corner. She crossed the street and climbed in. Wright followed her. She was about to pull out, when he rapped on her window.
“I thought we were done talking about Rique,” she said.
“I want to talk about Flynt Rodgers.” She seemed surprised for a moment then started to shut the window.
“I don’t,” she said.
“Do you even care who killed your husband? The police don’t think you give a damn.”
“We all grieve in different ways, Mr...”
“Wright. Benjamin Wright. I’d like to help you Mrs. Donovan.”
“How does getting the money your husband was owed by Flynt Rodgers sound?”
She looked hard at him. “Get in.”
Caitlin Donovan shot through traffic lights and Stop signs, grazing the cars parked along the narrow streets, steering with just her left hand as her right hand passed between her water bottle and her phone. In a car this size, this quiet, driving felt like a video game. Crash, restart.
“Talk,” she said to Wright.
“How long did your husband work for Rodgers?”
“I’m not telling you anything until you tell me something.”
“When your husband spoke to the SEC about Flynt Rodgers, he made a very powerful enemy.”
“He had no choice.”
“What did they tell him?”
“Fines. But prison’s what scared him. Scared me too. I’m a cop’s daughter. I know what goes on in there.”
“You think Flynt Rodgers is a criminal?”
“You ever meet him?”
“Your husband worked for him all these years and you never met him?”
“Tommy worked for all kinds of people I never met. Saudis. Texans. He had clients in Uzbekistan. Never met them either. Rodgers was just one.”
“But a big one.”
“Sure. Wish he wasn’t.” Wright noticed a pale outline on Donovan’s ring finger. She had already taken off her wedding ring.
“You think Rodgers killed your husband?” She pulled over sharply beside a fire hydrant.
“It’s just a theory right now.” She closed her eyes and sighed then turned to face Wright.
“You said you could get me the money owed Tommy.”
“I need to know what he knew.”
“He told the SEC what he knew.”
“But now he’s not around to tell a jury.”
“You need hard evidence?”
“You got any?”
“What about the money?”
“If you’ve got the proof.”
She gripped the steering wheel with both hands and rested her chin on top of it. She glanced up at the rearview mirror. A black Mercury sedan had pulled in half a block behind them.
“I don’t even know who you are,” she said softly. “What the fuck am I doing?” Wright turned on the radio. It was tuned to channel 100 on Sirius, the Howard Stern channel. Stern was discussing a recent interview with a porn star.
“Sorry,” said Donovan, smiling for the first time. “He makes me laugh.”
“Me too,” said Wright. “I’m a private investigator. I’m working for someone who believes Rodgers is innocent.”
“We’re being followed, you know,” she said.
“Yeah. I saw them about half a mile back. It’s going to be this way for a while. Rodgers is a high-profile target. They want to take him down. And your husband was going to be a big part of that.”
“I want to feel sad,” she said. “But I can’t. Tommy got caught up in things he never should have. He was scared, always scared. It ruined him. Ruined us. Ruined the kids.”
“And Rodgers stopped paying him.”
“Two years ago. Didn’t just stop paying. Failed to pay what he owed him, all the money Tommy had been investing in Rodgers’ funds over the years. Never saw any of it again.”
“You must have tried to get it back.”
“The rich are always the slowest to pay their bills. Let’s keep driving.” Donovan pulled out and the Mercury followed. They clearly wanted to be seen. “You think Howard Stern ever gets tired talking to porn stars?”
“Would you?” Wright noticed the crow’s feet around her eyes as she smiled. She was wearing no make-up, and her face was still flushed from exercise. She was tough. “You know who I did meet? That guy who works for Rodgers. Harper.”
“Yeah. He’d be in DC a lot. Tommy saw much more of him than Rodgers. They’d go to the Capitol Grille together and Tommy would come home stinking of cigars.”
“You ask him about getting your money back?”
“Tommy did, sure. But once Tommy had testified, you guessed it, Harper never called again. He was done with us. Why would someone hire you to prove Rodgers is innocent? He so isn’t.”
“Doesn’t really matter. You can prove anything you like in a case like this. My client wants him to stay in business.”
“You get me my money, I’ll help you prove what you need proved.”
“Cop’s daughter.” They were pulling into Donovan’s driveway.
“Let me fix you a drink.”
“Hard or soft,” said Donovan reaching into her refrigerator.
“Hard,” said Wright.
“Beer or bourbon. That’s all I’ve got.”
“Bourbon. Lots of ice.”
“That’s what Tommy drank.”
“You want to change? There’s a bathroom behind you.”
“I’m fine. Thanks.” Wright would have liked to have got out of his sweaty gym clothes, but it didn’t feel right to strip off in the home of such a recent widow. “How long have you lived here?”
“Six years. Tommy bought it with his fees negotiating an oil pipeline deal.”
“He must have been good.”
“People liked him. He was smart enough to be good. Sloppy enough to be fun. That’s a good combination in this town.” She set a large glass tumbler down in front of him, and popped open a Heineken for herself. Wright had the distinct feeling she’d done this before for men besides her husband.
“Where are your kids?”
“Staying with Tommy’s parents.” It was cool and quiet in the kitchen, tidy in a way that suggested a daily housekeeper. He couldn’t imagine Caitlin with a mop and bucket. “I’m going to change. I’ll be a few minutes.” She disappeared up the back stairs and Wright heard her turning on the shower. The bourbon was good, Booker’s, small batch, uncut and insanely strong. Even heavily diluted, it made you want to tear off your clothes and howl at the Kentucky moon. Wright glanced around the kitchen. He resisted the temptation to snoop. He was here for one thing only. To see what Tommy Donovan had on Flynt Rodgers which the SEC still hadn’t seen. He was not going to find it in a kitchen drawer among the pizza cutters and lemon zesters.
An unread copy of the Washington Post lay on the counter. What a sad sack of a newspaper that had become, he thought, as he leafed through it. Tired old ads for cars and mattresses next to wire service news copy because the Post couldn’t afford its own bureaus any more. Columnists who looked they’d been dragged from the most desperate corner of the most desperate high school teacher’s lounge. And then the ill-named Style section. There was a piece on hedges, the garden rather than financial kind, another on why French children are better behaved than American children and a third on people finding love in their 80s. What any of this had to do with Style, Wright couldn’t fathom.
Donovan reappeared, her wet hair loose around her face, wearing blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt. She looked at least a decade younger. She picked up her beer from the counter and looked Wright up and down.
“You sure you don’t want to change?”
“Thanks. Your husband have an office here?”
“He worked at a desk just off the living room, if he had to. He wasn’t one of those guys with a man cave. Tommy had his flaws, but he never felt the need for all that macho crap. I guess you want to see it.”
She brushed past Wright and curled her index figure indicating that he follow her. Between the dining room and living room was a small nook with just enough space for a chair and a roll top desk. It was wallpapered in dark green and a hunting print, the kind you’d see in an over-decorated country hotel, hung over the desk. Wright tried the desk, but it was locked. He looked at Donovan, who reached into her T-shirt and produced the key. It hung from her neck on a leather string. As she removed it, Wright could smell Shea butter in her hair. She dangled the key in front of him.
“So why should I trust you?”
“It’s a little late to be asking that. I’m already in your house, drinking your bourbon. You have good instincts.”
“Oh, I don’t trust them. Art Travis says you’re OK.”
“You know Art?”
“After my Dad retired, he used to work for Art. Bodyguard, errand boy, that kind of thing. Art was always good to us. I just called him. He said you’re good. Says you might help me.”
“I thought it was my trustworthy face.”
“Didn’t hurt. So what do you need?”
“This where he kept his papers?”
“Some of them.”
“Then I need you to open it.” She leant over, her arm touching Wright’s as she turned the key in the lock. The roll top slid down.
“Go crazy,” she said. “If you think it’ll force Flynt Rodgers to give me our money back, take whatever you need. I’ll be in here watching the game.” She wasn’t Wright’s type at all. She was small, impish, gymnastic, barely evolved from a high school cheerleader. But there was something feral about her, an animal pulse. Her knowingness was exciting. Even with her back turned, he felt she was sensing his movements.
He started opening the drawers in the desk. There were fistfuls of receipts, ticket stubs and used Biros, a stack of programs from school plays. One drawer contained old cellphones, dating back to the early 1990s, tangled in their chargers. Another had a couple of baseballs signed by Cal Ripken in 2001, his final year with the Orioles. The last drawer in the top part of the desk had a worn, silver cigar cutter and a couple of poker chips.
Wright pulled open the three drawers below. Some old sailing magazines, alumni gazettes from the University of Virginia, golf tees and a pair of athletic socks. He was looking for evidence, and all he found was junk. He took another sip of the eye-watering bourbon.
“Find anything?” said Donovan from next door.
“No,” said Wright. He started leafing through the receipts. They were recent. Gas stations, Starbucks, toll receipts from the New Jersey turnpike, a couple from McDonald’s time stamped in the middle of the night. He picked out the knot of phones and began disentangling them. It was a way to clear his mind. God, the size of these things. They were bricks compared to what people had today. There were brands which had long since disappeared. Ericsson. Even Sony. Who had a Sony phone anymore? He plugged one of them in, just to see if it still worked. The grey screen came slowly to life, an icon whirling in the middle of it. The word “Loading” followed by three dots appeared.
“Jesus, look at those things,” said Donovan who had returned to stand beside him. “Prehistoric.” She brought her foot up against Wright’s calf. Wright looked down, taking his eye off the phone for a moment. As he did so, a message flashed across its grainy screen. “Inbox full”.
Before he could see it, it turned back to grey.
It was brisk outside and Wright pulled his suit jacked out of his bag and put it on over his sweaty T-shirt. Caitlin Donovan hadn’t appreciated his hasty exit. But there was no way he could have accepted her proposal. He had drunk a dead man’s bourbon, sat in a dead man’s chair and rifled through a dead man’s desk. All within a few hours of the dead man turning up dead. Having sex with his wife breached even Wright’s very loose moral code. As he made his excuses, the old cell phone he had switched on had stirred back to life. Donovan hadn’t noticed, but he had. With his back to the desk, he had tucked it into his pocket, along with another one. Donovan had veered between flirtation and aggression, pulling on his T-shirt one minute and telling him he was a scoundrel the next and who did he think he was barging into her life like this. But he reminded her of his promise. If he could, he would get her husband’s money back for her. It would buy her Entertrain classes from now till eternity, and long after Rique had pedaled his last. He backed out of her house with just a glimmer of remorse for what might have been an entertaining evening, or at the very least, an energetic one.
There were no taxis on these quiet streets, so Wright started to walk downhill. Several blocks ahead, he could see a busy street. As he walked a car pulled up alongside him and the driver, a young man with dark hair slicked back and a lopsided grin looked at him.
“You look cold. You need a ride?”
“The US government.”
“Which bit of it?”
“Which do you think?”
“Nice. We offer you a ride and you have to insult us.”
“IRS? I promise, I’m fully paid up.”
“Wrong again. FBI.”
“What’d I do?”
“Nothing. We’re just acting as chauffeurs tonight. Marjorie Watson wants to see you. Right now.”
“Can’t say no to Marj.” The car stopped and the driver opened the rear door for Wright. It was good to be in the warm back seat as the car whisked back through the illuminated capital.
Watson was waiting for him at the bar of his hotel. Wright went to his room, showered and changed all in under five minutes. He was still damp when he pulled up a stool. Watson had ordered herself a vodka gimlet. She was sitting alone at the long orange bar, lit from within so it glowed amber.
“What’ll you have?”
“Bourbon. Booker’s.” The barman nodded, approvingly. “Lots of ice.”
“How was Donovan?”
“Did you need to get authorized to follow me?”
“Probably. But we don’t have time for that. How was she?”
“Everyone mourns in different ways.”
“God, I wish I still smoked.” She drummed her fingers on the bar. “You done much work in Asia?”
“Nasty job once in Japan.”
“What about Hong Kong? Macao?”
“Of course. It’s hard to operate in the worlds I do without passing through either.”
“If I were to tell you that Flynt Rodgers had obtained inside information on a deal in Macao which affected the price of a US company, would that surprise you?”
“Makes perfect sense. Much harder to trace the sources of information out there. You could get your black edge, use it over here and no one would know. It’s why the insider trading laws are so absurd.”
“Everyone’s working an edge in this game. Professional investors know more than Main Street. Hedge funds know more than the mutual funds. Because they’re smarter and they work harder. That’s all legal. But you get a tip off from a contact, now suddenly that’s illegal?”
“Maybe Milton Friedman was right. All information reaches the market eventually. So why not encourage more insider trading, not less. It would make everything more efficient.”
“Here’s to Uncle Milty,” said Wright raising his glass.
“That what they called Milton Berle?”
“Comedian. Meant to have Hollywood’s biggest penis. Doesn’t matter. Not relevant to our discussion.”
“But good to know. What about Hong Kong?”
“We don’t have the time or skill to launch an investigation over there. We don’t have the network.”
“But you do.”
“I’m not working for you Marj. Why would I want to go off on some goose chase to Asia to prove the guilt of the man I’m trying to prove isn’t guilty?”
“For your country?” Wright shook his head. “If you find the evidence and turn it over to us, Flynt Rodgers will be dealt with less severely than if we find it ourselves.”
“I wasn’t hired to plea bargain.”
“Fine. Let’s make it about the truth. You know as well as I do there isn’t a guy like Flynt Rodgers out there who once or twice in his career hasn’t traded on inside information. At their level, it’s impossible not to. They’ve got all these investors staring at them waiting to see them perform. There are only so many legal insights they can have before they fall back to average. And if that happens, it’s goodbye to the Upper East Side townhouse and the polo ponies in the Hamptons, and back to handing out brokerage advice at the local Raymond James.”
“So help me find out what’s really going on here, because right now all I have is two dead witnesses, a pissed off President who wants a scalp before election day, and a case that’s falling to pieces in my hands. Help me discover the truth so that I can make a decision based on fact not some deranged political ambition.”
“What do you need?”
“I need to know if Flynt Rodgers obtained inside information on the granting of a license to the Waves casino in Macao. We know he traded the stock and made a fortune. We don’t know what he knew ahead of time.”
Wright reached into his pocket and pulled out a gaming chip and laid it on the bar.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Donovan’s house. It was in a drawer in his desk.” Watson held it up for a closer look in the dim light of the bar. Around the rim was written in Chinese and English script: “Waves. Macao.” On the face of the chip was its value: US$250,000.
“His wife see you take this?”
“She’d never have let me out of the house. I think she thought they were worthless bits of plastic. I’ll cash it for her, of course.”
“She’ll be eternally grateful.”
“We’ve got Rodgers’ accounts. We’re piecing them together right now. They show regular transfers from an account in Geneva to accounts in Hong Kong and Macao.”
“Doesn’t prove anything.”
“You want to wait and see?”
Wright considered the offer. Vanderveer hadn’t hired him to incriminate Rodgers but to exculpate him. But experience had taught him it was better to stay ahead of the information, whether good or bad. Having the SEC owe him a favor was bound to be useful. “When do you need me to go?” Watson reached into the bag, pulled out an envelope and placed it in front of Wright.
“There’s a Cathay Pacific flight out of Dulles at 11.30pm. We’ve booked you into business class. I’m afraid the federal government can’t afford first. One of our local agents will meet you there. You need anything else?”
Wright picked up the gaming chip, flipped it a couple of times in the air and then slipped it back into his pocket. “To luck?” he said, raising his glass.
“And to all it rhymes with,” said Watson.
“Buck, duck, woodchuck. That’s all I’ve got.” They downed their drinks.
“You’d better get going. Eddie will take you.” The FBI driver was still waiting in the lobby. “Ask him nicely and he’ll use his siren. Good luck, Ben.”
Flynt Rodgers had booked into his usual bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. There was something about the hotel which satisfied him in a way none of his homes could. Perhaps it was the promise. The feeling that nowhere else mattered as long as you were here, that the world would eventually come to you, rather than you having to put down your cocktail and move. He stayed here several times a year just to think, to breathe the orchid-scented air and eat steak tartare and drink Martinis alone in the Polo Lounge while producers, directors and actors haggled quietly in the curved banquettes around him. If life had taken him in a different direction, he imagined he would have thrived here as a Great White amidst the sharks.
He tipped the bellboy who brought his bags and flopped down on one of the sofas in his suite. He had barely closed his eyes when the doorbell rang.
“Who is it?”
“Me. Bill.” Rodgers rose wearily to his feet and opened the door.
“Jesus Harp. I thought we said 4 o’clock.”
“It is 4 o’clock. Your plane was late.”
“I was having a good time in Auburn. Come in. Where are you staying?” Rodgers lay back down on the sofa, exactly as he had been before the interruption.
“Your place down there?”
“It’s quieter. You know I hate Los Angeles.”
“So you choose Orange County. Just to make me feel spendthrift.”
“You can afford it.”
“You never said that when we were getting going.”
“You weren’t a billionaire then.”
“Nor were you. You hear about Donovan?”
Harper brought his hands up to his face.
“Yes. I liked him, Flynt. Unlike you. We need to take care of his wife.”
“You were closer to him than I was. You can’t do anything which affects the case. It’s weaker without him. Give her any money, it’ll look like we’re buying her off. What else?”
“We need to make a decision on Zylan.”
“You want to cut and run.”
“It’s making me nervous. We should step outside.” Rodgers stood up and turned on some music, the hotel’s light FM channel. They moved out to the terrace and sat on striped, green and white chairs beside the gurgling pool. Harper lowered his voice. “The only reason we started buying was we had the doctor.”
“The guy running the tests.”
“Right. We shut that line of information down months ago.”
“So now we’re just guessing, like everyone else in the market. All the 3% a year schmucks. No point doing that.”
“If we were just guessing, I’d have pulled us out months ago. We still have a line into the company through the board. But he’s getting nervous now. It’s hard to get him on the phone.”
“We paying him?”
“We’ve offered him a deal. A board seat and equity in one of our small biotech firms if he comes through on this. But he’s getting anxious. He thinks that if you go down, the SEC will come after him.”
Rodgers stood up and walked around the pool. He undid his tie and threw it across the back of a chair.
“It’s crazy doing this when we’re already under so much scrutiny. We’ve had a good run, Harp. Let’s just shut down the fund and fight the charges. With Donovan gone, they’re chasing ghosts.”
“Take the deal, Flynt. We can carry on. What else are we going to do?”
“You do that already.”
“Different. I go places. I have meetings. I get back on my plane and I go somewhere else. I mean really travel.”
“You want to photograph goat shit in Mongolia?”
“You can sit in Laguna Beach, hold hands with Betty and watch the sun set.”
“I think we should get out of Zylan quickly. There’s a buyer willing to pick up our stake.”
“All of it? One buyer?”
“That’s what Goldman told me.”
“Don’t like it. One buyer. And Goldman. They say it’s a good thing, it’s a good thing for them first, second and third, and us a distant fourth.”
“We spend too much time trying to unload it, the markets will beat us up.”
“We make anything on it?”
“Probably better that way. Won’t create a scent for the SEC to chase. Fine. Dump it. Anything else?”
“You really going tonight?”
“It’s why I’m here, Harp. To do my patriotic duty.”
“For someone who betrayed you.”
“That’s politics. You raise them money, they thank you, tell you you’re wonderful, and then wish you’d disappear. Same with children. Never grateful.”
“The SEC might have given up on us years ago. They’re still on us because the White House has been telling them to stay on us. We’re nothing to them.”
“You telling me the President of the United States is not to be trusted? 52.2% of Americans, according to the latest polls, say you’re wrong.”
“What do you want to say to her?”
“It’ll be a rope line, Harp. I’ll probably get to say good evening Madame President. Good luck with your re-election.”
“After all you did.”
“I raised her some money. Less money than I spend each year on airplane fuel.”
“She wouldn’t be there without you.”
“Doesn’t matter, Harp. Political influence is cheap. A million dollars gets you an ambassadorship. Doesn’t get you five seconds during the Super Bowl. You get what you pay for.”
“You got kicked in the ass.”
“It’s not like buying a car. You don’t pay your money and drive off the lot with exactly what you want.”
“OK. But you shouldn’t be chased for years by the pissed off car dealer, either.”
“Screw it, Harp. I’m not going into hiding. I’m not admitting to anything.”
“You’ve made that clear. You’d rather wear Alabama crimson.”
“You liked that?”
“What do you think?”
“It’s a line, Harp.”
“It’s a provocation. You’re rubbing it in their faces. They may be politicians and bureaucrats, but they can shut us down, bankrupt us and send us to jail. Don’t underestimate them.”
“Then let’s just get out. Come on, Harp. You take yours, I’ll take mine. It’s not giving up. We’re not accepting we’re guilty. We’re not saying they’re right. We’ll just shut up shop.”
“If you force a trial, we’re not losing. You made this my life when you brought me in to work with you thirty years ago. You want a drink?” He had seen Flynt like this dozens of times. An idea would seize him and he would run with it, take it down every possible highway and alley. He would expound. And there was no stopping him. Only time would exhaust him. Harper turned up the music, mixed two large gin and tonics, and brought them back out to the pool. He gave one to Rodgers, who had unfastened the top three buttons on his shirt and was now pacing back and forth, orating. Rodgers took it.
“The reason there’s no proof we did anything wrong is we didn’t do anything,” said Rodgers. They both knew that was a lie.
Everyone else he knew complained about driving in Los Angeles. But Flynt Rodgers loved renting a Mercedes S-Class convertible, throwing down the top and driving through the soupy evening air. He loved the seedy glamor of Sunset Boulevard as much as he loved the hushed streets of Beverly Hills and the narrow canyon drives leading up to Holmby Hills. The money here was different from the money he found back East. There they clenched. Here they relaxed. There they trussed themselves up in suits and locked their jaws before speaking. Here they loosened their linen shirts, tucked a cigar in your top pocket and called you “baby”. Wherever there was money there were assholes. But he found them more tolerable here.
He had been to the house many times, always for events like this, political fundraisers, charity events. The owner was a recluse, an entertainment mogul who prowled in the background of his own parties, barefoot in jeans and a T-shirt. He watched the proceedings on a screen in his study, made out of stone and oak beams taken from a 16th century chapel in Provence. Rodgers ran a $1 billion of the man’s money, and had made him at least another billion over the years. But the man never thanked him. Rodgers may have been richer, but the man was his client so treated him like a servant. The mogul would rise at 4am in Los Angeles so he could start berating the East Coast by 7am. Rodgers knew to keep 7am to 7.05am clear for his daily briefing. He and his secretary even had a term for it on their private calendar: bowel-cleansing. “Cleansing on Line 1,” she’d say and Rodgers would take a breath before taking the call. Bad mornings began, “you dumb shit”. Good ones, “I told you I was right.” But the man was a winner, and Rodgers liked the company of winners. He’d only worry about the cleansings if they ever stopped.
Rodgers pulled off Coldwater Canyon and joined a line of cars crawling their way past security onto the 10 acre property. The Secret Service had locked down the narrow road which led up to the front gate. Two marine helicopters hovered low overhead, monitoring the airspace. Agents lined the road, checking out the cars. The President was clearly yet to arrive. Rodgers checked himself in the mirror. Blue linen suit, black cotton shirt and a clean shave.
Finally he cleared security and drove in, up the long driveway, under the shade of magnolia trees. Lawns stretched away on either side, until he got closer to the house where the formal gardens started, gravel and boxwood parterres, high yew hedges, an impeccable French garden, all for a guy raised in the Bronx. Rodgers pulled up in a large circular driveway in front of the house, where a valet took his keys. The house’s Palladian facade shone in the early evening light. Square lanterns hung on either side of the huge oak doors, which opened onto a hallway of worn flagstones, and white walls. Flanking the hall were two Jasper Johns flag paintings, and from the high ceiling, a row of cheesecloth and latex banners by Eva Hesse, which wafted in the air currents created by the crowd milling below. $100 million worth of art right there.
Rodgers took a glass of champagne from one of the waiters. Every one of them, and they were all men, looked like an underwear model, eye candy for the host. He didn’t often covet another man’s house. But this one was perfect. The art was modern, but the stone on the floor and the wood in the ceiling was old, shipped over from ruins across France and Italy. Every room, large or small, was perfectly proportioned and verging on under-furnished. There wasn’t a tassel in sight. The European influence was rustic rather than aristocratic, and all the more luxurious for it. From the living room, Rodgers looked out onto a swimming pool lined with black stone and surrounded by white roses. Sprawling along one side of the pool was a voluptuous Henry Moore bronze, big, languid and sexual, basking in the dusk. Whether it was saying fuck me, or fuck you, you couldn’t tell, which was probably why its owner had given it such pride of place.
“Didn’t think you were still a supporter.” The reedy voice belonged to Mitch Marks, the Los Angeles bond king. Marks had cut his teeth working for Michael Milken’s Drexel Burnham Lambert office in the 1980s. When Milken had gone to jail, Marks had corralled some of the team and set them up in a grubby office in downtown Los Angeles and got right back to work, buying and selling corporate debt. He thrived in the very situations most people avoided. Nasty lawsuits. Bankruptcies. Distress. Foreclosure. They were Mitch Marks’ favorite words. When everything was blowing up and everyone looking the other way, Marks would strap on a spreadsheet and go to work. He would tell anyone who cared to listen, that in good economic times, all you had to do was match the market. When things turned bad, that was when you made your killing. He was happy to be called a grave dancer.
“Didn’t think you were still a Democrat,” said Rodgers.
“It’s tribal. You are what you are.”
“Even when you spend your days fisting the working class.”
“I don’t use that kind of language, Flynt.”
“Feels the same whatever you call it.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Rodgers looked down at Marks, who was wearing jeans, sneakers and a beige cashmere sweater over a white T-shirt. Only in Beverly Hills could you get away with meeting the President dressed like that. He had a crew cut and wore circular wire glasses, like an old Soviet spook. “Good for you, by the way.”
“Refusing to deal with the SEC. Too many people roll over these days. I like to see a fight.”
“You’d have fought?”
“Sure. You gotta fight. They don’t have a monopoly on being right.”
“They ever come after you?”
“What do you think? They’re sniffing around me all the time. Junk bonds, Michael Milken, I stink before I even touch a keyboard. Doesn’t stop the politicians coming asking for my money though.”
“Your money doesn’t stink.”
“And by the time it’s in their campaign coffers, they forget where it came from. They feel like they made it.”
“Where’s your wife Mitch?”
“What is that? Four?”
“Six.” They had started to blur in Rodgers’ mind, but the latest, he seemed to remember had been really something. She’d been a famous model in the 1980s and even in her 50s was still attractive enough to make infomercials for thigh strengthening machines.
“You don’t like to settle down, huh?”
“I like to think of it as rebalancing my portfolio. Sometimes you want more equities, sometimes more bonds. Your wants change. Your risk profile changes. Don’t want to stick with a losing strategy too long.”
“Spoken like a true romantic, Mitch.”
“Oh I bought a palace in Venice for this last one. Sorry, a ‘palazzo’. She filled it with smooth guys who drank my drink and ate my food and told her to spend more of my money. It was fun for a while.” Marks stopped a waiter and took one of the crab canapés. “Till I saw the bills. If I’m going to be in Venice, I prefer the Cipriani. You go, you stay, you eat, you pay, you’re done. You don’t have to worry about global warming flooding your 16th century mosaic floors.”
“You know President Mills?”
“Only to give her money.”
“She prefers the big corporate guys to us. Head of GE, IBM, that kind of thing.”
“Because they’re bureaucrats like her.”
“Oh, she’s more than that.”
“She’s from your home state, right?”
“Yeah. Known her since she first got into this game.”
“You like her?”
“I respect her.”
“So you don’t like her. That’s ok. You don’t have to like her to support her. I thought Bill Clinton was a slippery turd, but I still gave him money. He was a good President. She going to help you?”
“The opposite. I think she’s been gunning for me.”
“You piss her off?”
“Not that I know of. I think I was just an easy target.”
“You don’t employ 100,000 people. That’s the difference between us and the corporates. Those guys are too big to fail. They can just shift the blame onto the company and walk away to play golf the rest of their lives. We’re like solitary targets out there. You can pick of us one by one and all you get is applause. One more money manager down! Boo capitalism. Doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to anyone except the poor bastard who’s been taken out.”
They both turned when they heard a noise in the hallway. The Beast, the President’s armored Cadillac, was parked in front of the house and secret service men and women were leading the way inside. In a town obsessed with fame, the President was the ultimate guest. No movie star or studio head, not matter how successful, came with this kind of retinue and hoopla.
“You gonna join the line?” said Marks.
“Sure. Hypocrites of the world unite!”
The President moved briskly along the line of guests, shaking hands, offering a word to each one. She was efficient rather than natural. She didn’t know most of these people. They were what newspapers referred to as the West Coast Democratic elite, but for the President they were nothing more than dollar signs with tans and over-blown hair. They were a necessary evil along the path to re-election. They needed to be coddled and thanked and quickly discarded. Rodgers watched her coming towards him. Her black bob seemed lacquered into place, her wide, scarlet lips fixed in a rictus smile. He had seen that face harden and rage quicker than a prairie storm. But right now, it was doing its job. Her face was just another weapon in her political armory. He could hear her now.
“Thank you for awwwwlll you do.” It was a classic politician’s line. I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what you do, but you’re here, I’m talking to you, so “thank you for awwwwlll you do.” Rodgers realized he was nervous. Nothing unnerved him, and yet here he was seconds away from talking to a woman who owed much of her political rise to his introductions and donations, and he was rattled like a teenage boy at a dance. She was two guests away now. “So wonderful to see you. Thank you for your patriotism and all you do.” He braced himself. She leaned in to take his hand, only to realize at the last minute whose hand it was.
Before she could step back he put both hands around hers and said, “thank you for your service Ma’am.” A secret servicewoman, Mills’ doppleganger, scowled at Rodgers. Mills’s smile faltered for a moment.
“Well, Flynt, I thought I’d find you in Alabama crimson tonight.”
“Never Ma’am. I’d like to talk. Later, if you have time.”
She looked straight at him as she had done every other guest in the reception line. “And why would I want to do that?”
“For old times,” said Rodgers. He could see from the twitch in her left eye that she wasn’t amused. “Because you owe me.”
“Talk to Ron.” Rodgers could see her chief of staff glowering in a corner of the hallway. “He’ll arrange it. Thank you for all you do.”
Ron Hardaway, the President’s Chief of Staff, had made a career of being nasty. However nasty anyone thought they could be, Hardaway could be worse. He considered being loathed as a sign that he was doing his job. If he ever ceased to be hated, it would mean he had ceased to be powerful, at which point he might as well go and hurl himself from the Capitol’s dome.
The secret of his meanness was that it snuck up on its victims. He wasn’t a middle-finger bawler. He didn’t hector you, or push you up against the wall and intimidate you. He wouldn’t bark orders from the toilet seat like Lyndon Johnson just to show he could. Hardaway was sinuous. He probed for his opponent’s weaknesses until he found then. He exploited them without the slightest empathy. His savagery bordered on the psychopathic. He gleefully ruined careers and livelihoods.
He shared his view of punishment with the dictators of North Korea. It should be inflicted not just on the perpetrator, but on three generations of the perpetrator’s family. He had ensured that the children of his enemies were excluded from Washington’s best schools. He had sent indelicate photographs of a misbehaving Congressman to the man’s mother, an Episcopalian bishop, to ensure his compliance. There were shrinks in Washington who did nothing all day but piece together the personalities of men and women shattered by Ron Hardaway. He had earned Flynt Rodgers’ admiration, if not his respect.
“You couldn’t resist, could you?” said Hardaway, his back turned to Rodgers. He was inspecting the books on a desk overlooking the garden. They were alone in a small study at the back of the house. An agent stood at the door to ensure no one else came in. “Trying to embarrass her.”
“You weren’t embarrassed to take my money all those years.”
“You weren’t the target of a major criminal investigation then.”
“I haven’t been convicted of anything Ron. Nor do I intend to be.”
“I’ve seen the evidence, Flynt. You’re guilty as hell.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you Ron.”
“I don’t give a shit either way. What difference does it make if I told you we wanted you to go down? You’ve got two dead witnesses. It’s a whole different game now.”
“You wanted a victim. A trophy to show you’re serious about taking on Wall Street. And rather than getting anyone at Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or JPMorgan, you’re going after me.”
“You’ve been too brazen, Flynt. No one wanted to bring you down. You did it to yourself. you got greedy.”
“I want you to back off.”
“It’s not up to me.”
“It’s certainly not up to the President.” Hardaway turned around. Of course, Rodgers thought, he was wearing a bow-tie. To wear a bow-tie, you had to want make a point about your seriousness, as if you just happened to be breaking legs for the White House as a break from your day job as head of the Yale archaeology department.
“She’s done it for most of the banks on Wall Street. Why isn’t she here?”
“You’re not too big to fail, Flynt, except in your own mind. She’s not here because you’re toxic and too dumb to know it.”
“So she can do it. It just has to be important enough for her.”
“You have no natural constituents. You have no employees to speak of. You fly around in your jet moving money around, avoiding tax whenever you can, and then you expect the people’s representatives to help you out.”
“You don’t understand what I do. If you did, you’d do it. Anyone with half a brain would.”
“Anyone with half a brain does.”
“Well, I’m sure Mrs. Hardaway really appreciates your 170 a year plus benefits.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.”
“You left it too late. It’s run away from us now. You should have come to us earlier.”
“Before you decided I was dispensable.”
“You were with the President early, Flynt. No one disputes that. You were significant. But when the prosecutors and investigators get the bit between their teeth, it’s hard for anyone to stop that juggernaut. There’s nothing in it for us trying to lie down in front of that.” He was hissing now rather than speaking. “Look what happened when Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich. He did that on the way out of the White House, when he had nothing more to lose politically, and still he took a pounding for it. If the President stepped in to help you right now, right before an election, we may as well just quit. Nothing to be done. I’d say sorry, but I just don’t care enough what happens to guys like you.”
“You speaking for yourself or for her?”
“You know the answer to that.”
There was a knock at the door. The agent supposed to be guarding their privacy put his head in.
“Sir, I’m afraid you’re needed out here.” Hardaway flicked a piece of lint from his lapel and pulled on his cuffs.
“We done, Rodgers?”
“Not you, sir,” said the agent. “Mr Rodgers.”
“What is it?” The agent pushed the door open and two men in baggy, grey suits turned to face him. One of them raised a badge.
“Yes,” said Rodgers.
“Officer Martinez, Officer Singh, Los Angeles Police Department. Would you mind coming with us?”
“What is this?” said Hardaway nervously.
“Mr. Rodgers, would you mind coming with us?” Officer Martinez stepped into the room and took Rodgers by the arm.
“I won’t mind when you tell me what it’s about,” said Rodgers pulling his arm away.
“The murder of Sergio Caldera. Would you please come with us?” Rodgers could feel his knees buckle. But he could not show the slightest weakness.
“Can we save the theatrics till you’re out of the building?” said Hardaway to the cops, looking anxiously up the corridor towards the party. “You have the car at the back of the house?”
“May I call my lawyer?”
“Certainly. Once we get to the station.” Rodgers threw his shoulders back, clenched his jaw and thrust out his chin in his best Marine Corps manner. He followed one cop and was tailed by the other, out through the delivery entrance to the house and straight into the back of an anonymous black Lincoln.
The car began pulling away. Rodgers looked back at the house receding up the driveway, the windows lit from within, the perfectly trimmed trees surrounding it. He imagined the mood inside, gossip fluttering from mouth to mouth, men and women leaning in to whisper in each other’s scented ears. It was not a world he had reached easily. He wasn’t going to disappear for the convenience of others. He had as much right to his good fortune as anyone else.
He closed his eyes and his mind began to crunch through its gears.
A profound melancholy settled over Wright in airport lounges, especially late at night. Red wine didn’t help. He knew this, but still he found it irresistible, even the cheap stuff. He poked at two cubes of cheese with a cocktail stick. He looked around the room, at the rows of empty black leather chairs. Either no one was going to Hong Kong tonight, or no one could afford first class anymore. He had upgraded from business. The lighting was tucked away behind blond wood screens. A shelf displayed row after row of magazines about cars and yachts and luxury real estate, above yesterday’s issues of the South China Morning Post and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The noodle chef was still on duty, diligently stirring his pot of broth and wearing his tall white hat. Now how did you get that job? Wright wondered. Noodle chef at the Cathay Lounge at Dulles. Probably had to know someone.
He blinked hard. His eyes felt dry. He shouldn’t have taken this case. He needed more rest. More days bone-fishing with Oscar. More cold Kalik beer while bobbing through the shallows of the Jolters. His body was still tired, not just from Entertrain, but from years of this work. It was scarred from the Shestakov case in St. Moritz and the terrible fights in Tokyo. And at moments like these, for the first time in his life, he had started to feel lonely. It was pitiful and he loathed himself for it. But the thought was impossible to ignore. That perhaps the time had come to settle down with someone.
He got up and went over to the coffee maker and squinted at the array of buttons. Small, medium, large, mocha, cappuccino, latte, espresso. He picked out an espresso cup and hit the button marked double. The machine gurgled and emitted a thin stream of black coffee which filled then overflowed the cup. He stared, waiting for the coffee to stop, but it didn’t. It kept on coming. He reached in to pull out his cup. The espresso slopped over the rim and scalded his fingers. He cursed, let go and the cup clattered to the floor. The noodle chef looked up then returned to stirring his broth. He grabbed a Coke instead.
The trouble was that his emotional needs were all one-sided. He wanted someone the way he wanted another suit or another car. He wanted it to satisfy himself. He didn’t want to give. He didn’t want to share. He didn’t want to have to explain himself, or his absences. He couldn’t bear tears. He reached into his bag and pulled out the catalog for the next Christies’ antiquities auction. The market for antiquities had tightened considerably in recent years, especially since the Metropolitan Museum had to return the Euhpronios Krater to Italy. Dealers were nervous, and museums and collectors even more so. You could spend a fortune on an object only for Italy or Greece or Turkey to demand it back on the grounds it was stolen. The prices for anything of sound provenance had shot up. But the market in less well sourced items had crashed. If you could stomach the risk, there were extraordinary opportunities. He turned the pages. There were some interesting statues, a couple of Attic red-figured vases, and some of his favorite Cycladic sculptures, sloping, planes of smooth stone which suggested faces. He loved their anonymity, their secrets.
The reason he kept taking these cases was his curiosity. No one else got to see the world like he did, from his particular altitude and angle. Everyone knew the world had changed, that the 10% at the top had become the 1% and then the 0.1% and before you knew it would soon be the 0.01%. But few really understood what that meant, how power was becoming ever more concentrated. There was an economic multiplier at work, which meant the richer you were, the richer you became. When the markets crashed in 2008, the middle-class sold and the rich bought. When the markets rebounded, the rich doubled their money and the middle-class couldn’t get back into the game. And so it went.
But at some point, there would have to be a redistribution. How much longer could people tolerate it? When would they realize what was going on? Their wealth wasn’t just going overseas to China. It was going into the pockets of people in New York and Los Angeles and Palm Beach. They were being robbed by their fellow citizens, and the government was too enfeebled to do anything about it. Every time anyone tried raising taxes, Congress all but shut down. There was no representation for the vast majority of Americans. It was all make-believe. No one elected to Congress lasted a week without being co-opted.
As a citizen, you had two choices. Shut up and take it. Or revolt. And the forces against revolution were too strong. A few angry old white men calling themselves the Tea Party was fine. It was show-business. What no one wanted to see was real, menacing dissent.
The laws against insider trading epitomized the problem. In theory they existed to protect the ordinary investor, to ensure that insiders could not pervert the market by trading on privileged information. But information didn’t have to be “inside” to be accessible only to a privileged few. Bloomberg terminals costing $20,000 a month weren’t available to ordinary investors. Special investor conferences, where companies presented and shared ideas, weren’t available to ordinary investors. The line between legal and illegal information was hopelessly blurred. So why pursue Flynt Rodgers? It wouldn’t make the markets more fair. It wouldn’t rebalance how wealth was shared. It would scarcely even dissuade others. Insider trading rules, as far as Wright could make out, were as perverse as the laws banning marijuana use. The cost of policing and enforcing them far outweighed the social benefits.
But he hadn’t taken the case to prove a point. He’d taken it for the same reason he took all his cases. His instincts told him to. This was his path. This was how he created the map of his life. The screen above his seat showed his flight was boarding. He picked up his boarding pass and passport and headed over to the gate. He’d learned long ago to carry no hand luggage, to use the time on these flights to empty his mind and to think, free of any electronic props or books. It was a Stoic form of discipline and self-reliance, albeit performed in First Class.
As he handed in his boarding pass, he saw a familiar face standing in the Economy line. He stared for a moment, trying to place it, sifting through the past 48 hours. Yes, he had it. The woman looked back at him and gave him an awkward wave, through the large wooden handle of her bag. She worked for Watson. Wright walked over to her.
“Didn’t we meet?”
“Yes, Aneesha Dupre.”
“I assume this isn’t a coincidence.”
“No. Marjorie thought you could use some help.”
“A pair of eyes on me.”
“However you’d like to see it.”
“Well, there’s no point you going cattle class all the way to Hong Kong.”
“Really, I don’t mind. I sleep on planes anyway.”
Wright walked over to the airline counter and after a brief conversation returned. “You’re sitting next to me.”
“Rules say I can’t accept.”
“It’s not a gift, Aneesha. It’s more efficient. It’s 15 hours to Hong Kong. This way you can tell me all I need to know before we land. I assume Marj told you, we have very little time. Don’t argue. Just follow me.”
Wright gave her his window seat, and took the one next to hers in the center of the wide First Class cabin. He had stared out of enough airplane windows in his life. He gave his jacket to the stewardess, tucked his shoes into the space below the television in front of his seat and took a hot towel to wipe his hands and face. Dupre settled herself quickly and plugged in her computer. She had sized up Wright in seconds. She reminded him of the spoiled lacrosse-playing boys she had known at university. Prep school educated, floppy haired, entitled. She’d dated one of them for a while, called Townsend, until she caught him in bed with her room-mate, and decided that for all their charms, they weren’t worth the trouble. She’d met enough of their older brothers and fathers to know they tended to age well, physically if not emotionally, and Wright seemed a fine example of the breed.
“I doubt there’s anything in there that isn’t up here,” said Wright, tapping his temple.
“Stare at something for long enough, an answer eventually leaps out.”
“They teach you that at law school?”
“How long have you been working for Marj?”
“Just over a year.” It was really no wonder, Wright thought, that the government had such trouble policing Wall Street. It didn’t have the resources. Young law school graduates, however brilliant, were no match for the devious bastards who ruled the world of money. In any case, no one half decent ever stayed at the SEC more than a few years. You took that experience and went and sold it on the free market, like a jailer selling prison escape routes to criminal gangs. So the SEC was left with 26 year olds at one end and bureaucratic lifers at the other, hauled along by a politically appointed Clydesdale like Marj.
“So this is your first case?”
“There were other, smaller ones. But my first of this size.”
“So what do you make of it?”
A stewardess came by offering newspapers, magazines and a tray of Bellinis. Dupre took a copy of the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Wright waved her away.
“Marj said that she’s known you a long time.”
“Since I was a boy. She and my godmother are old friends.”
“And that you’re an investigator for rich individuals. Sounds like you should be on the other side from us.”
“I believe in the cleansing power of truth. I find out what I can, and by the time I’ve forced people to face up to what’s happening, justice somehow ends up being done.”
“So you don’t solve crimes then?”
“I’m an investigator. I investigate. Do you drink? I strongly recommend their gin sling.” Wright pulled out the menu and the movie guide and started reading them.
“You think Flynt Rodgers is guilty?”
“He might be. But I’m not sure he deserves to be ruined.”
“What about Donovan and Caldera?”
“It’s going to take a while to solve those.”
“You don’t think there’s some connection between Rodgers’ decision not to settle and the murder of two key witnesses against him?‘
“People are murdered all the time for all kinds of reasons.
“I thought investigators had hunches.”
“My hunch is that Flynt Rodgers has a lot of vices, but he’s not a desperate man. You’ve been studying him for a year now. What do you think?”
“He has a lot to lose.”
“We all have a lot to lose.”
“I think he’s been insider trading for years, which ever since the passing of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 has been a federal crime.”
“Doesn’t make him a murderer. Do you think the average investor has suffered as a result of what he’s done?”
“No one suffers because of one Flynt Rodgers. The problem is he’s not the only one.”
“So he must suffer for all of them. You think the system’s rigged.”
“What does the cleansing power of truth tell you?”
“That the system’s rigged.” The stewardess returned to ask if they had had a chance to look at the menu.
“Nothing for me,” said Dupre.
“Iron discipline,” said Wright. “I’ll have the seaweed salad followed by the steamed fish in ginger. And a bottle of the Meursault.”
“What do you plan to do when we land, Mr. Wright?”
“I plan to go for a run and then take a long, hot shower. It’s the only way I can cope with jet lag.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I have a friend who might be able to help me and a lead from Donovan’s phone.”
“Do you have friends everywhere?
“Pretty much. It’s how I do my job. Your name. Aneesha?”
“Indian. Dupre is French. My parents met working at the World Bank.”
“Hence the public service ethic.”
“Hence the name. Working at the World Bank’s far too comfortable to count as service. Working at the SEC, on the other hand...” She stopped the stewardess “May I have a glass? I’ll be sharing my colleague’s wine.”
“Please don’t call me a colleague. You sound like you work in human resources.”
“Well, what are you then?”
“Fellow traveler. Comrade in arms. Source?” The stewardess brought the glasses and started pouring the wine.
Dupre closed her computer, kicked off her shoes and looked squarely at Wright. “How about enabler?”
Rodgers took a seat on the iron bench which ran around the edge of the holding cell. His pants felt loose around his waist, as the officers had taken his belt. The last time he had been in a cell was during his time in the Marines after a drunken night out in Cairo in the early 1980s. He and Bill Harper were held after being caught breaking back into their barracks, Rodgers dressed as Lawrence of Arabia, complete with scimitar, Harper in a fez hat and white robes clutching an empty bottle of Auld Stag whisky, a rough local blend.
There were six other men in the cell, of varying degrees of desperation. A couple of filthy, homeless men, who dozed in the corners, a college kid in khakis and stained polo shirt who could barely keep still and three hoodlums in their 20s whose nonchalance suggested they had been through this routine many times before.
A clock in the passageway outside the cell read 8.47pm, nearly midnight in New York. He began running mental calculations as a distraction, the longer and more complicated the better, creating derivative products which would exploit his situation. He laid out the trade. Flynt Rodgers has just been arrested for murder. Chances are his trading operations will be frozen or forced to wind down. He will have to sell some of his largest positions. Should you assume the prices of those positions will fall as they pour onto the market, and short them? Or should you wait until they’ve fallen and then swoop to buy, thereby saving yourself the cost of shorting or buying options. Perhaps there was a straddle to be created, buying both put and call options on Rodgers’ portfolio at a fixed price so you could make money whether it went up or down. But again, the transaction costs might negate any profits. Rodgers whirred through the options. He rested his head against the rough wall and saw trading screens light up in his head, graphs swooping and rising, numbers blinking red and green. He could feel the momentum of a trade going his way, his profits swelling by ever increasing increments, the fear of pulling out too quickly, and leaving money on the table, or not quickly enough and seeing it all evaporate. There really was nothing like it.
“Rodgers,” squawked the cop, holding a clipboard outside the cell. “Someone here to see you.”
“That was quick, man,” said one of the young thugs. “You got some juice.”
“Juice is what it’s all about,” said Rodgers as he brushed past.
The cop led Rodgers into a small room, lit by a fluorescent tube in the ceiling. He was a long way from Beverley Hills. A woman in her early 40s, wearing a beige pant suit and large, African jewelry rose from the table.
“Who are you?” he said.
“Yolanda Reece,” she replied, holding out her hand.
“Where’s Mike?” Rodgers had expected to see his West Coast lawyer.
“Mike’s in Sao Paolo.”
“Have you spoken to him.”
“I spoke to him just a few minutes ago. He’s getting the first flight home tonight. He should be back in the morning.”
“You work with him?”
“I’m a senior partner at the firm. My specialty is criminal defense. Why don’t you take a seat Mr. Rodgers.” Rodgers hitched up his pants again and sat down. He crossed his legs and rested his hands on his knee.
“I expected Mike to be here. You need to get me out of here.”
“Your arraignment will happen in the morning. Till then, I’m afraid you’re spending the night.” She spoke softly, carefully.
“What about bail?”
“The judge will have to decide that tomorrow. If we can get it, it’ll be set very high. You’ll be considered a serious flight risk. I trust you have the funds to pay it.”
“What do you think?”
“As to the charge itself...”
“I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
“We’ll hear it in full in the morning. But from what I understand, you’ve been placed at or close to the crime scenes in the death of Sergio Caldera, with a strong motive for killing him.”
“I didn’t even know Caldera was dead.”
“But you saw him the day he was killed.”
Rodgers hesitated before deciding not to reply. He thought he had been discreet.
“The flight log shows you were in Palm Beach that day.”
“It shows I landed and took off from North Palm Beach airport. It doesn’t tell you anything more than that.”
“You haven’t been charged with this, but you were also in Washington DC the day Tommy Donovan died.”
“So were a couple million other people. Unfortunately, a lot of my business passes through Washington. The government has an unhealthy interest in what I do.”
“Our plan is to defend you, Mr. Rodgers. We are on your side.” Rodgers looked around the dingy room, the linoleum floor, the steel door, the hard, plastic table, and then at Reece.
“Where were you this evening?”
“I was at a concert,” said Reece. “The Berlin Philharmonic at the Disney Concert Hall.”
“I hear it’s a great place to hear music.”
“It is Mr. Rodgers. Next time you’re in LA you must go.”
“How did Sergio die?”
“Poisoned. How, it’s not clear yet.”
“Was it painful?”
“Quick, I think. He was out walking his dog. Next thing, he was dead.”
“What about his wife and boy?”
“They’re staying with friends in Miami.”
Rodgers stood up. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“You sure? You need anything else?”
“The only thing I need is to get out of here and you can’t do that for me Ms. Reece. But aside from that, yeah, I’ve got everything I need.”
“Mike’s flight gets in at 7am. He’s going to meet us at the courthouse.” Reece stood up and opened the door. “They’re going to walk you out in front of the press in the morning. You ready for that?”
“I’ve nothing to be ashamed of, Yolanda.” He enunciated every syllable of her name, as if it were some tropical fruit. “I’ve been through worse. A lot worse.” The cop took him by the arm and walked him back down the corridor to a cell where he could spend the night alone.
The following morning, Ciancio and Vargas met in a caged vault in the basement of the police headquarters. A desultory archivist, pale from her life underground, had given them a password to the surveillance camera video from the day of Donovan’s death. Ciancio brought up the files.
“What time are we looking for?” he said.
“Midnight to 3am.” said Vargas. Ciancio refined his search and the video began to play. The bridge was lit by yellow street lights which reflected in the still water below. Traffic was thin. The occasional bicyclist passed by, but no pedestrians. “Why would he be walking out here in the middle of the night?”
“Fourth meal,” said Ciancio.
“You never eat at Taco Bell?”
“Never. Definitely not after they found that human finger in the chili.”
“They call the late night snack the fourth meal.”
“You wonder why there’s so much obesity.”
“Donovan looked like he liked a fourth meal.”
“And a fifth and a sixth. Still, he’s a guy who could afford delivery. He wouldn’t need to be out here.”
Ciancio began fast-forwarding. When he reached 1.30am, he froze the screen.
“What’s that?” A man in a suit was stumbling onto the bridge, weaving across the sidewalk as if he were drunk.
“Play it slowly,” said Vargas. “Doesn’t look like him. Too small.”
“Maybe just the camera.” The man walked to the middle of the bridge and gripped the wall running along the side. He pulled himself up, wobbling as he rose to his feet. He stretched out his arms to either side. You could just make out the wind blowing his hair.
“He’s too young,” said Vargas.
“Wait.” The man stood there, feeling the wind in his face. He brought his hands together as if praying, then dropped down to his knees, then onto his side. And then he just lay there staring out towards the water. The cars, mostly taxis, kept driving past. No one stopped to see how he was. “No, you’re right.” Ciancio began to fast-forward.
“You don’t want to see what happens?” said Vargas.
Ciancio kept fast-forwarding, the man stayed there for another 10 minutes. Then he got down off the bridge and kept walking.
“Changed his mind,” he said.
“Realized he had something to live for.”
“Maybe the indigestion passed.”
“The wall’s too high anyway. You’d never just topple over that. You might bump into it, but to fall into the river, you’d have to climb on top like that guy just did.”
“Where else then?” Vargas pulled out her phone and brought up a map of the river.
“There’s the Capital crescent trail which goes up the east. But that keeps you close to the canal. On the other side, there’s that other running path.”
“The Potomac Heritage Trail.”
“He can’t have fallen in above the Great Falls. His body would have been much more beaten up. It must have been between there and the Tidal Basin.”
“Too far north anyway.” Ciancio pulled his chair up close to Vargas and they looked at her map. She zoomed in and out.
“There’s no way he would be near the river on purpose,” she said. “Not at that time of night. The other bridges are too far, and too high. He must have been down by the water. Close enough to fall in, or be dragged.” Vargas moved along the trail. She had to use the satellite map to find what she was looking for. A small slip road led off the George Washington Memorial Parkway down to the river. There was a small patch of asphalt enough for a few cars, and a ramp for kayakers and boaters. The distance to the Tidal Basin made sense.
“Who’s in charge down there?” she said.
“The Park Service.”
“Let’s go see them,” she said, putting on her coat and heading out of the cage before Ciancio had time to object.
Ric Walker, a ranger with the National Parks Department, had completed only half of the crossword when Vargas and Ciancio appeared in his doorway.
“Walker?” said Ciancio. Ric pointed to the sign on his desk with his name. “Got a minute?” Before he could answer, they walked in and sat in the two chairs facing him. “Mike Ciancio, police department, Jennifer Vargas, forensics. We understand you were the first to see the body in the Tidal Basin the other morning.”
“Actually it was a kid, with a school party. From Wisconsin. Quite a civics lesson.”
“But you were the first official.”
“We’re trying to figure out where the body entered the water.”
“You want coffee?” said Walker. “Pumpkin spice blend. For the time of the year.” Vargas and Ciancio said “no” at the same time. Walker poured himself a cup, his fourth of the morning, from the machine in the corner of his office and topped it up with half and half.
“You must know the river as well as anyone,” said Vargas.
“Better,” said Walker. “Been living and working along it all my life. President of the Fort Marcy Birdwatchers’ club. Vice-President of the Great Falls kayakers. Not to mention what I do here for the parks department.”
“So what do you think?” said Ciancio.
“Difficult,” said Walker, swiveling back and forth in his chair.
“There weren’t many marks on the body, or broken bones,” said Vargas. “Which suggests he didn’t fall from a bridge.”
“So perhaps from a boat,” said Walker.
“Or somewhere along the shore.”
“There aren’t many places you could easily get a body into the water from the shore.”
“What about right here?” said Vargas, walking over to a map of the river on Walker’s wall and pointing to the small parking lot off the Memorial Parkway.
“That’s not for the public. Parks Department only. The Secret Service uses it sometimes too, for their river patrols.”
“But it’s not closed off.”
“No. But we have signs up.”
“Is it surveilled?”
“We have cameras there, sure. More for the Secret Service than us.”
“Do you keep the tapes here?”
“Can we see them?”
“It’ll take a while...”
“We can wait,” said Ciancio.
“What’s your name again?”
“Detective Mike Ciancio.” Walker set down his coffee and picked up the phone.
“Dorothy, it’s Ric.” He paused. “Yeah, Ric Walker. I’ve got Detective Mike Ciancio here from the police department. He wants to see tapes of our ramp location off the Parkway. Can he?” He waited for a moment. Vargas and Ciancio looked around the pleasant office, its view over the tops of orange maples towards the 14th Street Bridge, the Smokey the Bear poster on the wall. “Oh,” said Walker seeming disappointed. “Thank you.” He set down the phone. “Whatever you need detective. She can have it an hour. Digital files.”
“I appreciate it,” said Ciancio, scribbling down the time and dates he wanted. “You’re more technologically advanced than the police department.”
“You think we could drive down there?” said Vargas.
“I’d have to come with you,” said Walker. He was enjoying his role in a real life investigation. It was a break from worrying about traffic on the bike paths, overflowing trash cans, and preserving beaver habitats. He picked up the keys to his truck. “But we have to go now. I’ve got a Daughters of the American Revolution event at the Lincoln Memorial later. Those Daughters are fierce if you’re late.”
Vargas and Ciancio scrunched up on the bench seat of Walker’s Silverado.
“So you think he was murdered?” said Walker, tapping his fingers on the sound of a soft rock station.
“Yes,” said Ciancio.
“Exciting.” They drove exactly at the speed limit across Columbia Island, through the Lady Bird Johnson park, and along the western edge of the Potomac. Vargas felt Ciancio’s knee jiggling up and down beside her leg.
“You can’t drive any faster?” he said to Walker.
“You got your siren with you?” said Walker. “We’re not all Fast and Furious in Parks.” Vargas put her hand on Ciancio’s leg. He stopped it moving. Walker nudged the car a couple of notches over the speed limit. They could see Georgetown now across the river, the Gothic spires of the university. They drove past the Key Bridge. About two miles further down the Parkway, Walker slowed and took the small slip road Vargas had seen on the map.
“Here we are,” he said, pulling to a stop about 10 feet from the water. The three of them got out.
“Where are the cameras?” said Ciancio. Walker pointed to a pole hidden in the trees. They watched the water flowing slowly past them. “You think the current would take a body?” he said.
“Not here on the edge,” said Walker. “But out there in the middle, it’s wild. The water will push you right along, even suck you down. Every year we get a couple of college kids think they can swim across. Usually ends badly. It’s powerful out there.” Vargas watched a rowing eight glide past, followed by a motor launch and a coach yelling instructions. “We get birders thinking they can wade out. But it gets deep fast. And even in the shallows, the mud can suck you right in. You don’t mess with the Potomac.”
Ciancio looked up and down the river. It was a perfect spot, he thought. Far away enough from the road and the bike path. Rarely used by the authorities. The only thing wrong, if you wanted to dump a body, was the camera in the woods.
Walker’s phone beeped. He pulled it out of his tight khakis and opened his Inbox.
“I think they found what you’re looking for,” he said. Ciancio took the phone. Vargas came over from the river bank. Ciancio hit the arrow in the middle of the grainy video. It was time stamped 2.43 am, five hours before Donovan floated into the Tidal Basin.
The parking area was empty, lit by a single street light. A grey BMW 750i pulled in and stopped. Its lights were turned off.
“The camera’s filming from the side,” said Ciancio. “We can’t see the plates.”
Nothing happened for a minute until the passenger side door opened. The lights inside the car went on and Tommy Donovan stepped out. He seemed to be angry, turning and gesticulating at the driver, before slamming the door shut. Ciancio and Vargas squinted, but the driver’s face was in shadow impossible to make out. The passenger window was still open and Donovan leaned in, raising his index finger. He reached for his neck, feeling around for something, as if swatting a mosquito. He fell to his knees, his hands sliding down the car door, crumpled, rolling on the ground, clutching his stomach. The passenger window slid back up and the BMW started to reverse. Donovan was clearly screaming and he reached forward, trying to catch the car, but he could barely get to his knees. The car disappeared. Donovan fell back on his face. His body writhed for a couple of minutes before going still.
Ciancio was about to stop the film when Vargas stopped him, pointing to the timer at the top of the screen. “Look. There’s another 2 minutes left.”
They kept watching. Nothing happened. Donovan lay there on the asphalt. Bugs buzzed around the street light. After a minute, the car reappeared. The same BMW. It stopped and a man got out of the passenger side. He was wearing jeans, a windbreaker and gloves, and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He walked up to the body and knelt down as if examining it. He returned to his car and pulled out a boat hook. He pushed one end under Donovan and pried him up, rolling him down the ramp. He did this again, four times, until Donovan’s body was floating in the water. He used the hook to push the body out into the water. At first it just lay there, but the man pushed it again, wading into the water up to his calves, until the body picked up a slow current and began to turn and disappear from the camera’s view.
The man walked back to his car, as if in no hurry. Ciancio held the phone up as if trying to look under the brim of the man’s hat. He couldn’t see.
“You need to reposition that camera,” he said to Walker.
“Usually all we see is geese.”
The man in the film reversed and drove away.
“So we didn’t get his plates or his face,” said Vargas after the video stopped.
“We can pick up the plates somewhere else,” said Ciancio. “There shouldn’t be many BMW 750i’s out at 3 in the morning.”
“It’s the attorney-mobile. They’re everywhere,” said Vargas.
“Well let’s try,” said Ciancio. He started emailing a request back to the traffic surveillance unit. “Can you drop us back at your office, Ric?”
Walker looked at his watch and winced.
“I’ve got the Daughters of the...”
“American Revolution. I know,” said Ciancio. “You’ll only be a few minutes late. Don’t worry. They move slow at their age. They’ll still be there for you.” As they approached the truck, Walker took out his keys. Ciancio snatched them away from him.
“What are you doing?” said Walker.
“I’m driving, Ranger Ric,” said Ciancio. “If you’re worried I’m going too fast, just make siren noises out of the window.”
It was a side of him Vargas hadn’t seen before. She liked it.
Wright and Dupre had been met at the airport by one of the Mandarin Oriental’s chauffeurs in a black Mercedes S550. Wright had taken one look at Dupre’s reservation, in a Sheraton in Kowloon and torn it up.
“No point you coming to Hong Kong and staying in Tsim Sha Tsui,” he said. “We’re not backpackers.”
The Mandarin had expanded into a new building in Central, the business center of the city, but Wright preferred the old building, which rose like an upturned spark plug from Connaught Road. You barely saw it as you approached, until you were under the portico and a bellboy was ushering you into the black and gold lobby. The concierge emerged from his behind his desk.
“Mr. Wright, very good to see you again.”
“Hello Bobby. This is my enabler, Miss Dupre.” The concierge bowed and handed them each their own key cards. Wright walked on towards the elevator without stopping.
“Don’t we have to check in?” said Dupre.
“All taken care of,” said Wright. “This is Asia. When they say ‘customers first’ they actually mean it.” Two bellboys hopped into the elevator right behind them. They stopped first on the 7th floor, where one of the bellboys escorted Dupre out. “Let’s meet at 7 o’clock in the lobby,” said Wright.
“Which floor are you on?” said Dupre, surprised that he wasn’t getting off. She just glimpsed him pointing upwards as the doors closed behind her.
Wright changed into his running clothes and headed out of the hotel’s back entrance. The air was humid and the streets starting to fill up with workers heading home. He walked briskly until he reached the botanical gardens. He started to run, through the gardens and up towards Magazine Gap Road and then left onto Bowen Road. In an hour, the quiet, tree-lined road would be filled with runners and walkers, but for now, Wright had it almost to himself. 8 kilometers to Stubbs Road and back. Under half an hour would be acceptable given that he’d just got off the plane. His muscles ached and soon he was dripping with sweat. To his left rose the skyscrapers of Central, the meat cleaver shape of the Bank of China building dominating the view. He ran faster as the road crept upwards, pushing himself, past the older women in tracksuits, sun visors and sunglasses who walked in pairs. He felt like he was hauling a bag of cement. The running trail, nonetheless, offered a sliver of oxygen and peace between the Peak and the business district below.
He had first walked along here as a boy with his nanny when his father was doing business. It was a very different city then, still sleepy and very British. The fever of globalization had yet to seize Asia and Hong Kong retained a rackety charm. He remembered sitting in on his father’s meetings with a couple of elderly Lebanese brothers, billionaires many times over who controlled the local utilities. They had arrived here after the Second World War with a suitcase full of cash, and started investing. As Hong Kong had grown so had their fortune. It was said that of every dollar spent in Hong Kong, two cents went to them. Yet they remained in the same office they had occupied since the early 1950s, at the top of a factory building in Kowloon, cooled only by ceiling fans. The brothers worked at a wooden partner’s desk, with a secretary on either side of them, and a large cage containing several noisy and colorful parrots. They did not trust computers, and barely even the telephone. They preferred to have their meetings face to face, in their own office. Every day, seasons be damned, they wore the same heavy, wool suits, with starched white shirts and dark ties, like undertakers. Their faces looked like melted wax. Every time Wright visited, he remembered one of the brothers would lean down and with great ceremony press a Chinese candy into his hand, as it it were the key to Fort Knox. They were still there, he had heard, in their 80s now, but still running their empire as they always had, leaving few traces, and even fewer hostages to the international tax authorities.
But most of that Hong Kong had gone. It was a flashier place today, gilded by the new money from China. Li Ka Shing, the richest man in Hong Kong, occupied the top floors of the Cheung Kong center, a slender skyscraper which loomed over both the Hong Kong and Shanghai building and the legislative council building, the heart of Hong Kong’s government. Below Li in the same building were the offices of Goldman Sachs. If you wanted to understand the hierarchy of power in Hong Kong all you had to do was study how the real estate was assigned.
Up on the Peak, the ex-pats still played cricket and waffled about fair play. But down where it mattered, every other shop was a designer store. If you didn’t like the Louis Vuitton in Central, you could join the lines outside the one in Kowloon. The show-off car used to be a Rolls Royce, now it was a Ferrari. A thick haze of pollution, produced by the roaring factories of Guangdong province, now rolled over the hills separating mainland China from Hong Kong. Not even the breezes of the South China sea could blow it away. It lingered over the islands, coating everything, like the air in a cheap restaurant. Wright could already feel it lining his throat and lungs.
But there was no point being nostalgic. Hong Kong had chosen its destiny. It had pursued its place in the world with singular focus. Out of its deep water harbor, and very little else, it had made itself vital and impossible to ignore. It was both the entryway for Westerners into China and the exit for those Chinese rich and connected enough to get out. You couldn’t hide in Hong Kong anymore. Technology had made hiding anywhere in the world impossible. But you could certainly lay low. If you were up to no good in the world of high finance, Hong Kong remained a very useful place to do business.
Wright panted back into the lobby of the Mandarin and stood, breathing heavily, his hands resting on his knees. A fashion editor was arguing over her bill, surrounded by her embarrassed flunkeys and three Pekinese dogs. An American family, father, mother, two young children, were hauling their bags up to reception. Wright watched a group of Englishmen, noisy, in slim-fitting suits, jostle their way into the Admiral’s Bar.
“Mr. Wright, a message for you,” said Bobby, the concierge, scampering up to him and handing him a small envelope.
“Thank you,” said Wright. He read the typed message.
“7.30pm. China Club. Tracy.”
Wright dressed quickly, a charcoal grey suit by Gieves and Hawkes, pale blue shirt and navy blue silk tie from Turnbull and Asser. Dupre waited for him in the lobby, in a grey skirt and jacket, a work uniform. Plain.
“You’re not from the SEC tonight, do you understand?” said Wright.
“The other alternative is you can stay here.”
“Ben?” Wright swiveled round. A dazzlingly beautiful Chinese woman leaned in to kiss him on both cheeks.
“Tracy,” said Wright. Dupre realized how frumpy she must have looked. Like just another drone on the DC metro. “Let me introduce you to my colleague, Aneesha Dupre. Tracy is a very old friend.” Dupre stretched out her hand, but Tracy leaned in and kissed her too.
“So lovely to meet you Aneesha,” she said in perfect Californian American. Not just beautiful but maddeningly nice too, thought Dupre. She could not help but stare at Tracy’s wide smile and almond eyes, holding her hand a fraction too long. Tracy was dressed in a jade green silk jacket, a collarless white shirt and wide cut silk trousers, which swished expensively as she walked. She wore gold and jade earrings to match her jacket, just a trace of lipstick and jasmine scent. She was elegant in a way Dupre felt she could never be.
Wright tucked his arm through Tracy’s as they walked, their heads close, laughing. Dupre followed several steps behind. They walked out of the hotel, across the street, to where commuters were pouring in and out of the main Central subway stop. They crossed Statue Square which had once been home to statues of British royalty, but now had just one statue left. Sir Thomas Jackson, a chief manager of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in the early 19th century, stood clutching his lapel and facing the harbor, a relic from a time when people still built monuments to bank managers.
The square was used these days by thousands of Filipina domestic workers who gathered on Sundays to talk, eat and dance. A few people sat along the edges of the fountains, but Hong Kong was not a place where people dallied. There was no evening passeggiata. There was work followed by the shoving match to get home.
Tracy and Wright glided through as if in a bubble, untainted by the bustle around them. They walked beneath a teetering frame of bamboo scaffolding around the old Bank of China building to a side entrance. Inside a shabby hallway, Tracy told a security guard that they were going up to the China Club. There were no signs. The elevator creaked up to the 13th floor.
The doors opened to an atrium painted in the palest green. A wide staircase, lined with wrought iron bannisters, curved upwards towards a skylight. On every wall were contemporary Chinese paintings, crisply framed in black lacquer and gold. A hideous laughing baby in green and purple leered out from one wall. A man in a red silk shirt with an ax protruding from his head was placed next to a cartoon of Prince Charles, masked, with outsized hands. The grotesque and the chic sat side by side. The most harrowing images of Communist China had been repurposed as decoration, Red Army guards marching across a giant canvas, a feminine figure in a shroud, her hands bound behind as if on the way to the scaffold. Lamps with shades the shape and crimson red of opium plants created a decadent mood of 1930s Shanghai.
Tracy led Wright and Dupre up the stairs. On each floor was a spidery warren of smaller rooms, private dining rooms and sitting rooms lined with books, orchid arrangements and tables set up for Mah Jongg. On the top floor, they wound down a narrow corridor until they reached a door which opened out onto the roof. The view was breathtaking, across the water towards Kowloon, and behind them towards the shadowy peaks. Here on the terrace of the club, they were cradled in the loins of the skyscrapers all around them.
A warm wind gusted around them. A waitress in a black cheongsam approached to take their order. Champagne for Tracy. Dupre nodded.
“Whiskey sour,” said Wright. “Any bourbon you have.” The waitress nodded and disappeared. “So who are this lot?” Wright asked, looking at the crowd.
“Used to be what they called FILTH,” she said. leading them over to the balcony running round the terrace. “Failed in London, try Hong Kong. But since the handover to the Chinese, we’ve been getting a better class of Englishman, not to mention Americans, Australians and Europeans.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” said Wright.
“You know I’m a sucker for soul. Every time a new building like that one goes up,” she said pointing at one towering over them, “a piece of the old city dies.” Down below them, the cars streaked by along Connaught Street and they could make out the Star Ferries criss-crossing the harbor. “Westerners come here and think our history is nothing but temples and Terracotta armies. For me it’s also the cheap apartment buildings they threw up in the 1950s, the alleyways where people lived and shopped and ate.”
“Subura,” said Wright, referring to the area of Rome near the Coliseum, the pulsing slum and jugular vein of the imperial city. He and Tracy had spent a summer there on an archeological dig while at college.
“All of human life,” she said. “All the eating and screwing.”
“I’m all for eating and screwing,” said Wright.
“Not just texting and meeting. What do you think Aneesha?”
“About eating and screwing?”
Tracy laughed. “If you like.”
The maitre d’ interrupted them. “Your host is here. Please come with me.”
The three of them went back into the building, down one floor and into a private dining room. Casement windows ran along one side, but they were closed. The room was colder than the rest of the club, but warmly lit by bookshelf lights. A beautiful cream fan, painted with pictures of herons, covered the rear wall. The wide, teak table was set for two. Wright looked at Tracy quizzically.
“He wanted to talk to you alone,” she said, fading backwards out of the room. “I’ll take Aneesha with me.”
Wright did not have the chance to object. As Tracy took Aneesha by the elbow, there appeared in the doorway one of the strangest looking men Wright had ever seen.
Sir Jerome Keen, the 23rd Baronet Keen, was nearly 7 feet tall and exceedingly pale. He had to duck to enter the small dining room. His skin was smooth, except for a thin scar which ran all the way down his left cheek. His eyes were the clearest blue, and his white hair was swept back and curled over the collar of his shirt. He moved with the slithering precision of a grass snake. He did not introduce himself to Wright, but simply took his place at the table, sitting sideways as his long legs would not fit underneath. Wright noticed he was wearing white, leather gloves, the same color as his skin.
“I wasn’t burned,” said Keen. He pulled off his gloves to reveal two perfectly normal, if strangely elongated hands. “I wear them to keep off the filth. Hong Kong is a filthy city, Mr. Wright, both physically and spiritually. I do what I can to remain clean.” His voice was nasal, English, the voice of a colonizing Redcoat ordering a village destroyed, the men enslaved and the women killed. It was an instrument of efficiency, with not the slightest modulation to suggest empathy. “I also like to protect my hands for playing the piano. I can reach two entire octaves from my thumb to little finger, which allows me to play in a way like no other pianist in the world. You like Scriabin Mr. Wright?”
“I haven’t heard enough to judge.”
“Russian. Born in 1872, died at the age of 43. A genius. Disparaged as a psychopath, of course. An egomaniac. An erotic fantasist. He wanted to perform a great work in the Himalayas, uniting all of the arts, visual, musical, the lot. He believed it would provoke a new beginning for our diminished human race.” He leaned over the table. “I must settle for being a mere interpreter of his works. His Poem of Ecstasy symphony is all about sex. Orgiastic sex. He thought the world would end with a sort of giant gang bang. But the Soviets heard it and thought it sounded heroic. So they used it as the soundtrack for the broadcast of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight. Pioneering space exploration to the sound of group sex. Now that’s revolutionary, comrade!”
“I read once that Yo Yo Ma has very long fingers,” said Wright.
“Precisely. As did Rostropovich. Cellists and pianists have a great deal in common. Rachmaninoff could span a 13th, which makes his piano pieces all but impossible for people with normal sized hands.” Waiters started appearing in the doorway. “I have the same thing whenever I come here, Mr. Wright. I trust you will like it. It is Chinese food for Westerners. Despite all my years here, I’ve never been able to eat a chicken’s foot or a duck tongue.” The table started to fill up with steamers of dumplings and plates of fried rice. A waiter in a black suit sharpened his knife before slicing apart a Peking duck. Another set out glasses of cold beer. “What about you Mr. Wright? What is the most unusual thing you have eaten?”
“Brains. Testicles. Eyeballs. A deep fried lower intestine.”
“Well, you are a far braver man than I am. My tastes are unerringly plain.”
“Except in music.”
“I prefer things a little more exotic.”
“Flynt Rodgers, for example.”
“Tracy tells me you are working on behalf of Ellie Vanderveer.”
“She believes Flynt is innocent.”
“She is being rather naive.”
“You think he’s guilty.”
“I understand your father was Anthony Wright.”
“Then I can’t imagine you don’t see things much as I do. Guilt and innocence are useless terms in the world we inhabit. Everything is a negotiation. We do what we do, and every so often the law comes flapping after us like some inept French traffic policeman. Poor Flynt had the misfortune to attract the SEC’s attention. His only crime, as far I can tell, was being too visible. Our business, as your father well knew, rewards stealth above all else.”
“Which is why you operate from here.”
“I can do things in Asia I could never do in the West. They are more tolerant here. Less eager to judge. I must say Mr. Wright, that reading of America these days, it seems you have returned to the era of the Salem Witch Trials. Hysterical. Parochial. And with very little regard for due process. The successful are treated as if they practice some kind of black magic and must be punished. You are ruled by ignorant zealots.”
“You should come and see for yourself.”
“Never!” The scar on Keen’s cheek began to twitch, and he held a napkin up to cover it. “An old fencing injury,” he said. “It reacts when I become upset. I apologize. The American authorities are not my friends. I fear if I returned, I would never be allowed to leave. You understand, of course.” Wright didn’t reply. People who had known his father, either personally or by reputation, always assumed Wright shared their morality. He understood it, but rarely shared it. Or at least he had the decency to be unnerved by it.
“You and Rodgers invested together.”
“Many times. And very successfully. He has a unique feel for the markets. The public and the SEC always assume that all that matters is information. That’s not true.” Keen pushed aside his plate and folded his napkin. “What matters is what you do with that information. The world is full of people who are informed. But not all of them become multi-billionaires.”
Wright pulled the gambling chip from the Macao casino from his pocket and laid it on the table. Keen stared at it and smiled.
“A very successful trade,” he said. “Very successful. May I ask you were you got that?”
“I believe you can buy them at the Waves casino.” “I’m assuming from the way you just flourished it that there is more to this chip than the fact you’ve visited a Macao casino.”
“It was found at the home of Tommy Donovan.”
“You found it, you mean.” Wright did not reply. Keen looked away. “You found it along with the text messages on Donovan’s phone. After all we did to protect ourselves, he really was most careless.” He stood and went to one of the bookshelves. His head grazed the ceiling, like Gulliver in Lilliput. “Books by the yard,” he said. “Decorators are the most despicable people, don’t you think Mr. Wright? They choose books to match the shelves and art to match the wallpaper.”
“How well did you know Donovan?”
Keen took out one of the books, flicked through its pages and then returned it to its place on the shelf. “There is a gentleman here in Hong Kong who made his first fortune in noodles, his second in shipping and his third, and greatest, in property,” he said. “He lives in Repulse Bay now, in a disgusting glass box which cost nearly $100 million to build. It is carved into the hillside overlooking the bay, and if you stand by the water you can often see him standing there staring out. Alone. The centerpiece of his living room is a sculpture of a woman’s labia, three foot tall, and made of frozen human blood. Two years ago we were struck by a typhoon. Power failed across the south of Hong Kong island. Even this man’s generators went down. The blood started to melt. He had his staff stand there with buckets. They mopped it up off the marble floors. But by the time the power returned, the whole thing had melted. There was blood everywhere. On the furniture. It seeped into the cracks in the floor, into the insulation between the floors. Insects loved it. The place started to stink. It was so disgusting, the man’s family refused to live there anymore. They felt the house had been contaminated. As if by melting the blood, they had released the ghosts of the people it belonged to. So the man demolished his $100 million house, and rebuilt it on a site 50 feet away. The turned the old site into a parking garage. And then once he was done, he commissioned a new version of the labia. More blood, from who knows where. Another freezer system. More advanced generators. So now when typhoons approach the island, while everyone else runs for cover, he stands in his window staring out at the water and he taunts the storms. He shouts at them. ‘Come and get me! Try!’ In Mandarin, of course. Labia never really my thing, Mr. Wright. How about you?”
Wright knew better than to rise to this kind of bait. Keen wasn’t interested in an answer so much as a reaction. Would Wright squirm or stammer? Or would he, as he did, say nothing, prong another shrimp dumpling, dunk it in bang bang sauce and eat it in one bite?
“Tommy Donovan was a bag-carrier,” said Keen. “He gave us a way to leave no trail.”
“How?” said Wright.
“I’m sure that as a student of finance, you understand that the trouble these days is that everything is recorded. Every phone call, every email. The authorities oblige you to keep records so that even if they aren’t tracking you today, they can plunder through your files tomorrow and find what they need. Anything. The most casual remark, the most idle banter, becomes fodder for their seedy little minds. You can’t even tell a joke without them misinterpreting it.”
“So Donovan would come in person.”
“It was the surest way. He was told what he needed to know, he got back on the plane and took it home. Stored up here,” said Keen tapping his head. “Nothing a customs official or federal regulator could find.”
“And he’d be paid in poker chips.”
“He was compensated for his efforts. But the more important recipients of our generosity were those with the information. The insiders, Mr. Wright. The people who knew about the casino licensing process. They don’t come cheap. And you certainly don’t want to be making wire transfers into their accounts anywhere in the world. Even the old places, Switzerland, the Channel Islands, the British Virgin Islands, they’re all leaky these days. That’s globalization for you.”
“You were paying them in poker chips.”
“Very clean, Mr. Wright.”
A waiter in black Kung Fu pajamas entered the dining room holding a copper tea pot with a three foot spout. He set two cups on the table and then started to twirl the spout around his head, as if it were a sword. He flicked it around his body and under his legs, made figures of eight in the air, and then finally rested it over his shoulder and poured. As he did so, the lights in the China Club and all over the Central District went out. Wright heard shouts from below in the entryway. He heard the tea spout whoosh up into the air, inches from his face. It was pitch dark. He heard footsteps in the corridor outside, waiters barking at each other. He heard the legs of Keen’s chair scrape against the floor, and then a soft chuckle.
“Drip, drip, drip, Mr. Wright. Drip, drip, drip.”
By the time the lights came back on in the China Club, Wright was alone. The staff were still scrambling, yelling to ensure everything was all right. But Jerome Keen had gone. Wright ran to the window and pulled it open. He leaned out as far as he could. Far below, he saw Keen’s unmistakable figure striding out of the entrance to the building towards a dark green Rolls Royce Phantom, the fleet car of the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Behind him walked Tracy, her silk jacket glinting in the street lights, and two men tightly flanking Dupre, pushing her along.
If Wright waited for the elevator, he would miss them. He ran from the room and back up to the roof. From the terrace, it was 15 floors to the ground. Wright looked around for a fire exit. There was nothing. But on the far side, he spied the top of the bamboo scaffolding he had passed under to enter the building. He ran over and vaulted over onto the top level. The whole structure swayed beneath him. He grabbed the sides and peered down. The scaffold was designed for smaller men than Wright, a fine skein of ladders disappearing down. He could see Keen, Tracy and Dupre getting into the car. Keen was walking around to the front passenger side, Tracy waited by the rear door with Dupre and the two guards, who bundled them in.
Each floor of the scaffold was supported by a cross-hatch of poles. It would be quicker to climb down the outside of the structure than down the ladders which burrowed through the middle. Wright swung his legs over and began to descend. His palms, and the leather soles of his shoes, slid on the smooth wood. Two floors down, Wright lost his grip. He slid five feet, his arms and knees clattering against the wood. His chin banged hard against a pole and he could taste the blood from his cut lip. He threw his right leg forward and his foot caught, but his body tumbled backwards. His back struck the scaffold. He hung upside down. It felt like his leg had been yanked right out of his hip socket. Wright screamed. He could see the bodyguards closing the door of the Phantom.
Wright reached forward and pulled himself back up. He winced as he felt the muscles around his injured hip tightening up to protect it. He kept on moving down. His left hand snagged on a nail, which scrapped along the flesh of his palm, drawing blood. A cold wind whipped around his ears and blew open his jacket. He pulled his jacket off and threw it down. It floated to the ground beneath him.
Wright kept moving. He could see the Phantom pulling away now, down towards Connaught Road. It would soon be lost in traffic. There were just two floors to go. Wright leapt, curling up his body and rolling the moment he hit the sidewalk. He broke his fall, but his head snapped and hit the ground sending a bolt of pain through his skull. He picked up his jacket and rubbed the back of his head. He hobbled into the road and hailed a taxi from the nearby rank. One of the familiar red and white cars drove towards him. This was not New York, where taxi drivers careened through the streets with little regard for laws or safety. In Hong Kong, every taxi driver drove as if his grandmother was in the passenger seat and a policeman in the rear.
Wright got in, pulling his injured leg in behind him. The Phantom had stopped at a traffic light several hundred feet ahead.
“Follow it,” he said, pointing it out to the driver.
“The Peninsula car?” said the driver.
“Yes,” said Wright. He looked at the cut on his hand and then balled up his fist. It wasn’t deep, but it stung. He tried to find a comfortable sitting position, but the pain in his hip was excruciating. It felt as if someone was jamming at his raw bone with a screwdriver. However he sat, there was no relief. He saw the driver was watching his gyrations in the rearview mirror.
“Just make sure you don’t lose it,” said Wright. He could see the Phantom was moving again, weaving through lanes towards the cross-harbor tunnel. Its dark lines vanished and reappeared in the flow of traffic. Other cars seemed to defer to its presence, letting it glide through. Wright’s driver struggled to keep up. They could see the tunnel now, its entrance swooping up ahead of them. Once inside the Phantom could easily accelerate away. The taxi pulled up to a red light, the last one before the tunnel.
“Go,” said Wright. The taxi driver pointed at the light. He could see the Phantom descending into the tunnel. “Go,” Wright insisted. He pulled a HK$1000 bill from his wallet. “Go.” The driver slammed on the gas and lurched forward, racing across as traffic came from both sides. A police car immediately put on its siren and emerged from a parking spot tucked away to the side.
“More money,” said the driver. “To pay the fine.”
“Keep going,” said Wright, thrusting another bill at the driver. The police car wailed closer. The taxi flew forward, with all the speed and grace of a soup can hurled through the air. Wright pressed another bill into the driver’s waiting hand. Now the driver seemed to be enjoying himself. He leaned back into his seat, glanced into his side mirrors and went faster. The police car lagged behind, caught in a line of commuter buses. The Phantom glided ahead. They were out, swinging left down Salisbury Road. Wright could see the Peninsula Hotel up ahead on the corner of Nathan Road, but the Phantom wasn’t stopping. It kept surging up Nathan Road, past the sleazy parade of neon signs, eft onto Austin Road before pulling to a sharp stop.
Wright saw Keen striding from the car, Tracy and Dupre yanked along behind him. Wright ordered his driver to stop, thrust a wad of bills at him, and ran. Every step was agony. He was 100 yards behind, but he kept running. He turned down the street after them. Street vendors selling clothes, electronics and food were lined up tightly on either side, below garish billboards advertising plates of hairy crab. A narrow passage snaked down the middle. He couldn’t see them anywhere in this scrum of people, shops and neon light. He didn’t even know where he was. He looked up. The sign read Temple Street.
Wright began to push through the stores of the night market. Where could they have gone? Tinny Chinese pop music blared out of speakers on every side. At the end of each row of shops, he could see through to the sidewalk and the grimy buildings which lined the streets. To the street level rooms, lit with fluorescent strips where elderly shopkeepers in cheap flip-flops and grease-stained clothes stared up at televisions hanging down from the ceilings. In every shop were a few tourists pondering whether to buy knock-off clothing and handbags, fake brand-name electronics. The air reeked of sweet, fried food. Wright burst into a clearing in the shops occupied by a cluster of outdoor restaurants, metal tables crowded onto the sidewalk and street. There were gruesome signs trumpeting the sea creatures on the menu, crab, squid, urchin, octopus, abalone, all the slimiest inhabitants of the South China Sea. Wright felt his bowels shift just looking at them. The restaurant owners pressed in on either side of Wright, thrusting menus and plates of limp food. How would he ever find them in this morass of people?
He ran forward. Racks of T-shirts rose up on every side. He was lost. He needed to get above all this. He swept a table clean of USB keys and jumped up on it. The shopkeeper screamed and punched his aching leg. Wright leapt and grabbed a pole which ran across the top of the shop and swung himself up and over until he was perched on top, his legs and arms folded over as if he were crossing a canyon on a rope. He pulled himself forward to a narrow wooden platform which separated the stores. He wobbled to his feet and looked around.
He could see the night market stretching away down the street, nestled in among the grey blocks of Kowloon. The apartment windows were bunched together like jail cells. Every vice and virtue was concentrated in this space, gluttony, kindness, avarice, lust and love, with not the slightest room for maneuver. It was a petri dish for ambition.
He looked all around, searching for Keen, Tracy and Dupre. A flash of anger crossed his mind, towards Marj for sending this young woman along with him heedless of the dangers. At the SEC, perhaps, money did seem bloodless, just numbers on the page and the screen. But out here where Wright did his work it was also a way of scoring the darkest measures of the human soul. Having money meant success, justification for any kind of behavior. Not having it entitled a man to do anything to do obtain it. This was not a world for innocents.
Wright edged sideways along the narrow wooden beam. Beneath him, the USB salesman was yelling and gathering other shopkeepers to look at Wright. One of them began prodding his feet with the pole he used to unhook T-shirts from the highest racks in his store. Wright kicked him away and the pole clattered to the ground. He heard the whistles of policemen running towards him.
Where were they?
20 feet ahead on the right, he glimpsed a flash of green silk, then the crane-like figure of Keen ducking through the low entrance of an apartment building. Wright leapt across to another partition and scrambled forwards, his feet sliding as he ran. It felt like he was log rolling, his legs kicking, his body swaying to stay upright on the unsteady wall. It was impossible. He jumped down towards a table piled high with Simpsons T-shirts. He landed in the middle of it, jolting his knee. He elbowed away the shopkeepers who were surging towards him and pushed through a Bruce Lee bath towel which served as the shop’s rear wall. He ran sideways, looking at the buildings trying to figure out which one he had seen them entering. He picked the one with the lowest entrance.
As he entered the dingy entryway, he smelled jasmine, Tracy’s scent. He ran to the foot of the concrete stairwell and looked up. He heard them several floors above, their feet scuffling on the rough floor. He followed, his right leg screaming with every step, his fist still balled up in pain. Then he heard the footsteps stop, the squeal and then the slam of a metal door.
Wright pushed the door open gently with his foot. As he did so a hand reached out and yanked him inside, pushing him to the floor. Wright’s injured knee struck the bare concrete floor. Keen’s two bodyguards now blocked the only exit. As he looked up, he saw Dupre sitting on a chair fifteen feet in front of him. Her face was bruised and there was a deep cut on her forehead. Her jacket and blouse had been ripped open and Wright could see her bra. She was trembling. Keen stood on one side of her, Tracy on the other, wearing black, neoprene gloves. She had removed her jacket and rolled up her sleeves. There was a streak of blood on her right forearm.
“So now you know our secret, what are we to do with you?” said Keen, striding towards him and kicking him in the chin with the pointed toe of his shoe. The kick caused Wright to bite his own tongue. “We can’t just let you scurry back to the Great Satan with all this knowledge. Any ideas, Mr. Wright?” Keen walked behind him and kicked him again, this time at the base of his spine.
“I doubt anyone will miss the SEC here,” said Keen, looking over at Dupre. “Maybe a boyfriend. Brad. Or Chad.” The names dribbled from his lips like vomit. “Perhaps they watch television together. And eat take-out. Wearing sweatpants.” He walked over and crouched down in front of her, looking up into her face. He reached up and stroked her hair. She turned away. “Or maybe not. Too mousy. Too...missionary position. Certainly not in your class, Benjamin. Tracy has told me all about your swashbuckling tastes. I am full of admiration.”
“Stop now, and you might have a chance,” said Wright, wincing as he stood up. Keen came up and kicked him in the knee. Wright slumped back down to the ground.
“Chance is for saps. I play for certainty. Without you, Miss Dupre and your precious casino chip, the trail runs cold.”
“You don’t know that.”
“But I do. The SEC has been working on the Flynt Rodgers case for six years. And now, up you pop, with your tarty minion in her Banana Republic suit. You think I can’t smell desperation? It’s my favorite smell in the world. Better than bacon. It usually means I’m about to make a great deal of money. If you disappear, I scarcely think the United States will exert itself to find out what happened to you. Once upon a time perhaps. When America still had some guts. But not any more. Not when you snivel before the Chinese. Your lives aren’t worth the sub-clause of a footnote in a trade agreement.”
A series of bangs went off in the street below. Keen strode over to the window and looked down.
“Firecrackers,” he said. “Were you hoping it was the Navy SEALS?” Keen produced a pair of kitchen scissors from his pocket and walked over to Dupre. He stood behind her and pulled up a handful of her hair from the top of her head. He lay the scissors flat against her skull and cut. Dupre started to sob. He took another handful at the front and cut again. He then started to cut rapidly, his fingers twitching, taking off uneven scraps of hair, the point of the scissors nearly piercing her skull. Dupre started to scream.
“Stop,” said Wright.
“Stop?” said Keen. “I’m only just starting.” Tracy was pointing a revolver at Wright’s head. “I suggest you relax and enjoy the show.”
Wright backed away. Keen ran the scissors down Dupre’s neck and over her shoulder blade, down her breastbone and clipped open her bra.
“If this bores you Mr. Wright, you can always go and watch the fireworks in the harbor. Or perhaps go over to Lan Kwai Fong for a few shots of vodka jelly. We shouldn’t be too long. I am cursed with many nasty habits, but a lack of respect for the time of others isn’t one of them.”
Keen now walked in front of Dupre and knelt before her like a priest genuflecting before an altar. He pressed her legs apart and began to cut open her skirt from the hem. The taut material tore open easily. He stared into her face as he cut. Tracy kept her gun pointed directly at Wright. Keen gently removed Dupre’s shoes and set her stockinged feet on the ground.
“Flynt Rodgers has already implicated you,” said Wright. Keen paused, turned and stood up. He walked up to Wright and looked down into his face.
“Now, why would you tell such a shoddy little lie? To try to rescue your friend here? Really, Mr. Wright. I thought better of you.” He produced a brown, leather cigar case from an inside pocket and pulled out a syringe. He held it out in front of Wright’s face and squirted out a little of the liquid. “Once I insert this in your friend’s carotid artery, she will be dead within minutes. A wonderful poison called wolf’s bane. The Chinese do such wonderful poisons. So elegant compared to what’s used in the West. But only after we’ve had our fun.”
“You think he just decided to abandon his deal with the SEC? Just walk away from it for no good reason? He had a deal on the table, to pay a fine, quit the securities industry and walk away with 95% of his fortune. You think he’d risk all that for no reason?” Keen walked back towards Dupre and ran a finger along her cheek. “He called off the deal because he decided to name names. There won’t be a trial. Rodgers won’t even have to pay a cent.”
“You’re lying, Mr. Wright.” Keen snorted with laughter. He tapped the syringe with his index finger. “Fortunately there’s enough in here for you too. You can die here with her. ” He walked behind Dupre, pressed his groin into the back of her head and pointed at Wright with his scissors. “The reason I know you’re lying is that Flynt Rodgers is nothing more than a leatherneck. In all my years dealing with Rodgers Capital, I never dealt with him once.” Keen’s voice was rising now. “He couldn’t turn me in even if he wanted to, because he had no idea what was going on under his own roof. He was too busy decorating his Gulfstream to understand. Making money is not for hotheads and jocks. It’s for the rational, Mr. Wright. Dare I say it, the hyper-rational.”
“Like you?” said Wright, pointing at the scissors in his hand.
“Like me and Bill Harper, yes.”
The first of the nightly fireworks on the Kowloon side of the harbor exploded into the sky. Tracy glanced towards the window and in that instance Wright lunged forward and reached for her gun. A shot fired, extinguishing the single bulb in the room. Wright felt a sharp knuckle punch in his windpipe and as he fell backwards he heard Keen scream in pain.
“My balls!” he yelled. “Please not my balls!”
Wright stayed low to the ground where it was darkest. He could hear the guards stumbling towards him and see the outline of Tracy’s legs. Another firework went off, sending a shower of white light into the sky above Kowloon. He saw Tracy’s foot flying towards his chin, and rolled to one side, sweeping her leg out from under her. She yelled as her head cracked on the floor. Keen was crouched in front of Dupre still whimpering. Wright stumbled forward. He brushed his hand on the floor, searching for the gun. The bodyguards were closing in. His knuckles grazed the rough concrete. He saw a flash of metal to his left and pulled back. Keen lunged again, the scissors open in his hand.
There were two exits. The door and the window. Both were locked. From the window there was a drop of four floors into the midst of the night market. But the floors in this building were low, 8 feet at most. If he went through the door, he would still have to get down the narrow stairs. And then there was Aneesha. Wright reached out and grabbed the barrel of the gun, but as he did so, one of the guards accidentally kicked it, sending it skittering into a corner of the room.
Another firework, and Wright could make out the halo of Keen’s hair. Keen seemed lost, jerking like a dinosaur in its death throes. He doubled over, pressing his hands to his groin, then staring at his bloody palms. Wright took another kick in the face and rolled back and out of the way. He realized he was where Dupre’s chair should have been. But before he could figure out where she was, he saw the chair hurtling through the air at Keen’s head. It cracked him on the skull, sending him back to the ground. Now he could see Dupre’s silhouette in the window, her clothes torn, her hair tangled, her chest rising and falling with each heavy breath. But so could Tracy and the guards and they rushed at her.
Wright scrambled to his feet and in one motion grabbed the chair beside Keen’s fallen body and swung it at the window. As it shattered, he grabbed Dupre by the waist and pushed her towards the opening. She looked down and pulled back. He took the scissors from her hand. They were covered in Keen’s blood.
“Go,” said Wright. He held the chair out like a lion tamer as Tracy and the bodyguards circled him.
“Kill them,” squealed Keen.
“It’s over,” said Tracy, smiling at Wright. “Even if you get out of here, you’ll never get out of Hong Kong.” Wright held the scissors in his free hand, concealed behind his back. Dupre stood next to the window, uncertain of what to do.
“What happened to you?” said Wright to Tracy.
“We all do what we have to, Ben.” Wright thought she looked more beautiful than ever, her ebony hair curling around her face, a cut across her chin, oozing blood. A figure from an ancient Chinese woodcut, a warrior princess.
“Kill them,” yelled Keen again, trying to pull himself up. Tracy stepped closer. She seemed to be crying. “Kill. Kill. Kill. Do what I say!” One of the bodyguards had a gun drawn and pointing at Wright, who circled the metal chair, so the guard couldn’t get a clear shot.
Another firework went off, flooding the room with orange light. Wright hurled the chair in the face of the guard, who shot into the wall beside the window. Tracy surged towards him. Wright saw the switchblade in her hand, grabbed her wrist and twisted it into her side, driving it into her kidneys. He held her body close as he forced the blade deeper into her. He could feel her drooping, her legs buckling, her body going limp. With one final effort, she reached up and kissed Wright on the lips. Then he threw her body like a rag doll at the other guard, turned, snatched Dupre by the waist and forced her out of the window.
Her legs kicked wildly as she fell. Wright leapt out after her. The store owners in the night market barely had time to gawp at the two figures descending through the air before scattering. They clattered onto a pile of beach towels. Wright tumbled right off the table onto the ground, hard onto his shoulder. He rose back onto his feet and grabbed an I Love Hong Kong T-shirt.
“Cover yourself up,” he said, thrusting it at Dupre. Her clothes were torn open and one of her breasts was hanging out. Wright took her by the hand and ran her down the narrow alley winding through the stalls. He pushed aside several plates of food, noodles and crab, being waved in his face. Behind them they could hear Keen’s screams becoming fainter. He was ordering his bodyguards to jump and they were refusing.
“Jump, you bastards,” shouted Keen. But his voice was interrupted by whimpers of pain. They heard a loud crack behind them. One of the guards had jumped and broken the table he had landed on. His scream was so loud and shrill Wright though he had broken his back. It hurt just to hear it.
Wright and Dupre burst into Jordan Road, teeming with people and traffic. Wright pulled Dupre into the middle of the two lanes heading south back towards Central and stopped a taxi. He pushed her into the back seat.
“Mandarin Oriental,” said Wright. The driver glanced at the blood-streaked and disheveled couple and drove on without a murmur, as if he had passengers like that in the back of his car every minute of every day. As they pulled away, Wright looked back, he saw the second bodyguard lumber into the road, searching for them. The guard raised his hand to his eyes to squint down the brightly lit roads, but he could see nothing but cars, hundreds of cars, swarming away into the night.
Rodgers was awakened by the stench of urine from the cell next door. A man was peeing through the bars inches from his head. Rodgers moved slowly, edging away. He looked up at the man, who had a shaved head and wore a Megadeth T-Shirt and ripped jeans. He couldn’t have been more than 20 and had a serious expression on his face. He was trying to make patterns on the floor with his piss. Finally the man shook himself off and zipped up his pants.
“When you gotta go...” he said.
“I understand,” said Rodgers. “Thank you for the wake-up call.” He rubbed his eyes, stood and shook out his arms and legs. He bent over to touch his toes and then arched backwards, loosening the muscles in his back. He felt the stubble on his chin. “When do they serve breakfast in here?”
“What do you think this is? The La Quinta Inn?” said his neighbor. “Sure, the buffet starts at 7.30. All you can eat.”
“What are you here for?” said Rodgers. The man looked him up and down, eyeing his expensive clothes and handmade loafers.
“Those real gold?” he said pointing at Rodgers’ cufflinks.
“I burned down my brother’s house.”
“He’s an asshole.”
“Want to lend me some money?” “No. Your brother survive?”
“Yeah. Unfortunately he and his bitch wife were out shopping.”
“You should have waited till night.”
“I did it at 11 at night. They shop a lot. What are you here for?”
“Then why are you here?”
“They think I killed someone.”
“Amazing balls. Amazeballs. Murder.”
Rodgers decided not to puncture his neighbor’s admiration by denying the charge. He would have liked to have done some sit-ups, something to warm up his body, but didn’t want to put his hands on the wet floor. He heard footsteps and the jangle of keys. A guard appeared holding two beige trays.
“Breakfast,” said the guard, sliding the food through a slit in the door. Rodgers took one look at the pale yellow eggs and slimy potatoes and passed. His neighbor tipped the tray to his mouth, so the food slipped right down, barely chewed.
“You ready?” said the guard. “If you don’t want to eat, your lawyer’s here. They’re ready to take you to court.”
“Ready,” said Rodgers and the guard unlocked the door.
Megadeth wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Already? We were just getting to know each other. Don’t forget me, man! Don’t forget me.”
Rodgers already had.
The scrum outside the Los Angeles Police Department had been gathering since dawn. News trucks were parked all along West Street and photographers had lined up their ladders at the foot of the steps leading up to the entrance.
Yolanda Reece waited for Rodgers in the lobby.
“Get any sleep?” she said.
“Mike get in yet?”
“His flight landed half an hour ago. He went straight over to the courthouse. We’re requesting bail. It’s going to be high, but as long as we can show you’re not a flight risk.”
“I’ve never run away from anything in my life.” Through the doors, they could see the press. “How’d they know?”
“The police told them. Then there’s this.” Reece unfolded the front page of the Los Angeles Times. “Hedge Fund Titan Arrested at Presidential Fund-Raiser.” So much for discretion, thought Rodgers. “And this.” The New York Post. “Prez’s Hedgie Trimmed.” The photograph showed him shaking hands with Mills last night. “It goes on,” said Reece. The police leaked the charges.
“Fine. Let’s go.” Rodgers led the way, with a police officer on either side. Reece followed with three more officers behind her. Rodgers squinted as he stepped out into the sun. There was no reason for the perp walk except to humiliate the prisoner. To make the cops and prosecutors feel they were doing something. Rodgers walked quickly, almost running down the steps towards the waiting convoy of three Town Cars. The door to the middle car was open. But before Rodgers could reach it, the cops on either side of him held him. They made him stand there while the cameras rolled. It was impossible to find the right pose, Rodgers thought. Hold your head up high and you risked looking arrogant. Look down and you looked guilty.
“What’s going on?” said Reece angrily.
“Just making sure everything’s clear ma’am,” said one of the cops. “No, you’re not. You’re keeping him out here for them,” she said pointing at the press. “Get him in the car now. Right now.” The cops obeyed. Rodgers bent down and slid into the back seat. “I’ll be in the car behind you,” said Reece. She turned back to the cop who had spoken to her. “Try any shit like that again and I’ll have your badge.”
The convoy pulled away into an empty lane for the two minute drive to the courthouse.
Mike Hewitt cut an unusual figure in the law courts of downtown Los Angeles. In a court system dominated by hard-charging men and women in custom pin-stripe suits and expensive scent, Hewitt looked like he had been dragged in from his paddle-board somewhere out on the Santa Monica surf. His grey hair was shaved close to his scalp and his entire wardrobe came from LLBean, deck shoes, khakis, gingham shirt and brown blazer, and only if necessary, a tie. He had an athlete’s lazy gait, prominent cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. Despite standing just 5 ft 8 he had played four years on the Stanford football team, setting records for the cornerback position which stood to this day. But his competitiveness was well-hidden behind a thick layer of Californian charm.
When Rodgers entered the courthouse, Hewitt was lying down on a bench, his head resting on a tennis bag, his eyes closed, oblivious to the noise around him. Reece went and gave him a prod in the ribs. Hewitt stirred, looked up and swung his feet to the ground.
“I go to Brazil for a couple of days and all hell’s broken loose.” He stood up and put his hand on Rodgers’ shoulder. “You OK, man?”
“Good to see you, Mike,” said Rodgers.
“Yolanda’s briefed me. It’s outrageous what they’ve done to you. First thing,” he said holding up his index finger, “is to get you home. We’ll take care of that this morning.” Then he leaned in close to Rodgers’ ear. “I spoke to Hardaway. The White House is seriously freaked.” He leaned out, clapped Rodgers hard on the shoulder and with a wide white, grin, said so anyone could hear, “so we’re in great shape.”
He held open the door to the arraignment court so Rodgers and the two guards following him could go inside. The prosecution team was already there. They took their seats on the hard wooden benches and waited for the judge. Judge Sonia Arillaga swept into the court on the dot of 8am, and took her place without looking at the lawyers in front of her.
“Mr. Flynt Rodgers,” she said. “I take it from your high-priced counsel that you have been informed of the charge against you.”
“Yes I have,” said Rodgers.
“Do you require a formal arraignment hearing?”
“No,” said Hewitt.
“Will you be entering a plea at this time?” “Yes he will,” said Hewitt. “Not guilty.”
“And will you be requesting bail?”
“Yes we will, Ma’am.”
“Given the nature of the charges and the resources of the charged, it will be high.”
“We understand,” said Hewitt.
“The prosecution has proposed $50 million.”
“Very good, Ma’am.”
“Very good? You’re ready to pay it?” She looked at the lead prosecutor who shrugged.
“Yes, Ma’am. My client has every intention of facing these charges. He is a military hero, a businessman and philanthropist. He believes in his country and the fairness of the criminal justice system. He believes his innocence will be proved without the need of a full trial, and would like to participate fully in recovering his reputation, which has been so grievously harmed by these false charges.”
“No need for the speech at this point, Mr. Hewitt. I am sure he will be well defended.”
The first thing Rodgers did when he returned to his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel was take a long, hot shower. Hewitt and Reece waited in the sitting room of his bungalow. Rodgers turned the water up to as hot as he could bear it, and then a couple more notches. He wanted to scald himself, to burn away his night in prison. He had endured a great deal in his life but never a charge of murder. With his bail secured, he could finally think.
The bathroom filled with steam and the water pounded his back, every boiling drop stinging his reddening skin. He hung his neck forward and let the water hammer away. He thought of Caldera’s boy. Five years old and fatherless. Even Rodgers’ father hadn’t died until he was 7. He very nearly sobbed, but realized that wouldn’t help anyone. He scrubbed himself with soap and a loofah, sanding down his skin until it felt raw. He wanted to slough off his old self and start today afresh, to restore his energy.
After stepping out of the shower, he ran a glass of cold water and drank it down in one. He then splashed more cold water on his face. He felt physically restored, but his eyes still ached from his sleepless night. His mind was churning. A man can get used to anything, he had learned in the Marines. Any hardship, any fear could be conquered. You just had to stare it down and know you would win. Face it and learn to overcome it. Steamroller your unconscious mind with your conscious.
He wrapped a towel around his waist and noticed his right hand was shaking. He rested his palms on the marble vanity and stared at himself in the mirror.
“Your life is worthless,” he hissed at his reflection. “Your life is a banal piece of shit. If you disappeared no one would give a damn. If all your things disappeared, no one would give a damn. So the threat to it is equally banal. Equally worthless.” He began to write in the steam on the mirror with his finger.
“Act like none of it matters.”
He rolled his shoulders and twisted his neck from side to side and walked through the bedroom into the sitting room, still wearing only his towel.
“You ordered coffee?” he said to Hewitt.
“Didn’t want to presume,” said Hewitt, taking his feet off the coffee table.
“You’re not so coy when it’s time to bill me,” said Rodgers, calling room service.
“You get what you pay for Flynt.”
“So what next?”
“We figure out how to kick this charge into the long grass.”
“Tell me about Caldera.”
“He was walking his dog. Suddenly crumpled to the ground. The investigators think it was some kind of Chinese poison.” Rodgers picked an apple out of the bowl in front of him and took a huge, hungry bite. “Straight into his jugular vein, from a blowpipe.”
“They think I could have killed him with a blowpipe?”
“They have tape of you from a couple hours earlier talking to him, then getting into a car with him. He was one of the key witnesses in the case against you. You had a strong motive.”
“But a blowpipe? I wouldn’t even know how to handle one of those things.”
“You just put your lips together and blow,” said Reece.
“The point is, they have you in Palm Beach, talking to a man you shouldn’t have been talking to, who would be better off dead from your perspective, who then very conveniently turns up dead. It’s circumstantial, I know, but by filing the charges, they’ve got time to go deeper while making sure you can’t leave the country.”
“Sergio was a great kid. A great employee. There’s no way in the world I’d have killed him.” Rodgers leaned forward on his knees. “I knew the pressure he was under. The government has no pity. It ruins guys like Sergio. It grinds them up. It destroys their families. All so they can prove someone made a little money that maybe they shouldn’t have. That’s why I have to fight.” He threw his apple core towards a waste basket across the room. It dropped in without hitting the sides. “You know how many billions get wasted by government? A thousand times more than ever gets made in insider trading. Yet, you ever see a Congressman or a Senator ruined for taking taxpayers’ money and wasting it? Never. But then they sic their agencies on guys like me and Sergio like we’re the criminals.” He threw himself back in his chair. “We’re choirboys compared to them. Small-timers.”
A waiter entered the room and set a pot of coffee on the table. Rodgers poured himself a cup close to overflowing, gulped it down and then poured himself another. He noticed Reece was watching.
“Sorry, you want some?”
“No. Just never seen someone drink coffee like that.”
“It’s a Marine thing, I guess. Used to drink sixteen cups a day when I was in the corps. Start at six in the morning, and keep going back to the pot all day long. There are worse habits.”
“Certainly are,” said Reece. Rodgers poured himself a third and once finished set his cup back down.
“We’re not going to win this as a political debate,” said Hewitt, his hands folded behind his head. “We have to focus on the facts.”
“And the motives of the prosecutors,” said Rodgers. “The White House wanted my scalp before this election to show how tough they are on financial crime. And right now, they’ve got it. Leanne Mills could make a bikini out of it.”
“Except, you’re compromised,” said Reece. “Sure they wanted you to go down for insider trading. Would have shown the SEC has teeth, not just gums. But a murder trial? Of a big donor? Not a week before Election Day. They want this to go away.”
“That’s it, right there,” said Rodgers, jabbing at the coffee table right there. “Used to be pretty clear. I was worth more as the evil face of insider trading than I was worth as a donor. I was proof that the President was impartial, that she didn’t favor her friends. But Caldera’s death has changed the equation. Now they wish this would just go away. They don’t want the words “accused murderer” and “president” turning up in the same sentence. Can we help them, Mike?”
“As it stands, the case is garbage,” said Hewitt. “The judge knows it. The prosecutors know it. Till they find the blowpipe with your prints all over it, or a photo of you popping Sergio with a dart, all they’ve got is you going for a drive with an old colleague you shouldn’t have been meeting. Witness tampering, at worst. Let’s start there. We can move up to playing Washington hardball later.”
Rodgers propped his leg up on the table, swung his arm over the back of the sofa and looked out of the sliding doors towards his terrace.
“Beautiful day,” he said.
“Put your leg down or go put on some pants,” said Hewitt. “Yolanda and I can see up your towel.”
“Then stop looking,” said Rodgers, without turning back. “You’ve got work to do.”
Ciancio had to wait till mid-afternoon to get the information he had requested.
“They picked up the BMW on speed cameras farther down the Parkway,” he said to Vargas who had driven over when he called. “The time makes sense.”
“Whose was it?”
“Stone Corporation. A registered company in Delaware.”
“Is it always this hard?”
“Murderers tend to try to cover their traces. Unless they’re very stupid. You saw this guy. He knew what he was doing.”
“Please tell me we don’t have to go to Wilmington.”
“Wilmington’s not so bad,” said Ciancio, leaning over his computer and typing. “Good Italian food. Anyway, you don’t have to go anywhere. You can always go back to the morgue and play with corpses. Leave this to the professionals.”
“I think I’d better stay.”
“Stone Corp. 820 Fulk Road Suite 82, Wilmington DE. Probably an empty office suite.”
“But there must be a person behind this thing.”
“Anyone can get one of those Delaware listings. Guess how many other business are registered at 820 Fulk Road?”
“Two hundred and forty three thousand seven hundred and thirteen.”
“You’d want to own the coffee concession in that building.”
“I bet there’s no one in there except a security guard.” Ciancio started dialing a number on the phone on his desk.
“Who are you calling?” said Vargas, sitting down opposite him.
“Someone who knows. White collar crime unit.”
“What is it Mike?” said a smokey, New Jersey voice. “You got me on speaker?”
“Hi Dianne. Yes. I’m here with my colleague from forensics, Miss Jennifer Vargas.”
“Ms.” said Vargas.
“Sorry. Ms. Vargas.”
“I’m busy Mike, what do you need,” said Dianne.
“We’re trying to find out the driver of a car registered to a company in Delaware.”
“Can you help us?”
“If I were President, I’d shut Delaware down. Unfortunately, the Vice-President’s from Delaware, so we’re stuck with it. It’s a crook’s paradise right down the road from DC.”
“Can you help us?”
“What have you got?”
“Stone Corporation. In an office suite on Fulk Road.”
“You know half the public corporations in the United States are registered in Delaware? Not to mention thousands of weird shell corporations which are used by criminals all over the world to launder their money. And you know you don’t even have to document who owns these corporations? They’re just these empty, anonymous pipes for shoveling your crap through. Delaware is a sewer.”
“I thought you were busy, Dianne.”
“Stone Corporation. Nothing. You got it all with the address.”
“Let me see. You owe me for this Mike.”
“I always owe you for something.”
“Damn right you do. You’ll never be able to pay me back. I’m like the bank. Stone Corp. does have a representative here. FR Corporation. It’s a subsidiary of a Danish media company. Which I’m afraid to tell you represents about a quarter of all the companies registered in Delaware. Basically collects their mail. So we’re back with nothing.”
“What about tax returns?”
“If it’s not a tax crime, you’ll need a judge to get you access to those.”
“There must be something.”
“Let me try one more thing.”
“The plates must match a VIN.” Vargas looked confused.
“Vehicle Identification Number,” Ciancio explained.
“OK. Here we have it. The car is two years old. Registered in Delaware, we know that. Owner, Stone Corporation. One accident reported, 13 months ago.” Ciancio and Vargas could hear Dianne’s fingers clattering away on her keyboard. “Let me see. I can search by VIN and accident, and here we go. Still no name. But the other car in the accident is here. Plates and name. You want it?”
“Sure,” said Ciancio.
“David Ames. 1242 Maryland Avenue NE.”
“I know it,” said Vargas. “Capitol Hill.”
“Try him,” said Dianne. “Maybe he can tell you more about your mystery driver.”
“When are we getting a drink?” said Ciancio.
“You got two gallons of Margarita and a packet of Parliament menthols, I’m there in 10 minutes, detective.”
“Speak soon, Dianne.”
“See, you’re all talk,” she said and ended the call.
“Old girlfriend?” said Vargas.
“None of my old girlfriends talk to me. She’s a friend of my mother’s. She’s 63.”
“Still a pistol.”
“Always and forever.” Ciancio walked around his desk and out of the office. “You coming?” he said, turning back to Vargas.
She picked up her bag. “To Capitol Hill?”
“It’ll be 5pm by the time we get there,” said Ciancio looking at his watch. “Maybe he’ll be getting home. You got anywhere else you need to be?” Vargas realized that yet again this week, this month, this year, this whole decade, she hadn’t anywhere she needed to be at the end of the day.
“Yes,” she lied. “But I can rearrange it.”
Ciancio stopped his car in front of a 7 Eleven on the opposite side of Maryland Avenue from 1242. It was a tall brick house with a Gothic turret, and a small, well-tended front garden, surrounded by a low, iron fence. He checked his watch. Just after 5pm.
“We just sit here?” said Vargas.
“You never seen the TV shows? Yeah, we just sit here,” said Ciancio looking out of the window. “Maybe eat some donuts. Get acid reflux. Complain about our ex-wives.”
“Really we should be days away from retirement, with one more case to salvage our careers.”
“Or ruin them forever.”
“You must have a boss who has lost faith in you, because you screwed up a big case.”
“When I was drinking.”
“And your partner got killed because you messed up.
“And now you’re stuck with this dumb woman partner who doesn’t even know how to hold a gun.”
“And has some waste of time college degree. And doesn’t know anything about real policing.”
“But they come to respect each other’s skills.”
“I hope you’re still riffing, because that’s never going to happen in real life.”
“I need candy,” said Vargas getting out the car and slamming the door. Ciancio watched her walking into the 7 Eleven. For someone who spent her entire day in a morgue, she looked great. If he didn’t know for sure that he’d mess the whole thing up, he’d try to date her. Maybe he should anyway. But was it worth the inevitable pain? She re-merged, tearing the wrapper off an Oh Henry. She got back in the car, and offered Ciancio the second of the two bars. He refused.
“Look,” she said, pointing out of the window. A man was turning into the garden of 1242, opening the iron gate.
Ciancio opened his door, held his hand up to stop a car heading towards him and ran across the road. Vargas followed.
“Sir,” said Ciancio. The man stopped. He was short, African American, dressed in pressed jeans, blazer and plaid shirt. He wore tortoise-shell glasses. “I’m looking for a Mr. David Ames.”
“I’m David Ames,” said the man.
“Detective Mike Ciancio. DC Police.” He showed the man his badge. “This is my colleague, Jennifer Vargas.”
“And how can I help you?” Ames was unflustered. He set down his briefcase. “I am always on the side of law and order. My father was a police officer, you know.” His fastidious manners unsettled Ciancio who was used to more hostile encounters with strangers.
“We’re looking to identify a car.”
“I keep my vehicle in the back of my house,” said Ames. “It used to be possible to park on the street, but the city has made that impossible in its greed for ever more sources of revenue.” He smiled as he spoke.
“Sorry about that,” said Ciancio. “It’s not your car we’re interested in. Last year, you had an accident.”
“Yes. Downtown, in front of the Folger Library. I was on my way to see a new production of A Winter’s Tale by a visiting British company.”
“Do you remember anything about the other car and driver.”
“It was a BMW 7 Series. Gorgeous. Cars are another great passion of mine. I almost felt fortunate to be run into by such a beautiful vehicle. But it put a dent into my own puny 3 Series.”
“Do you remember anything about the driver?”
“Older man. Medium height. Very apologetic. As fender benders go, it was painless. Sent the bill directly to his company and they paid it immediately. No insurance companies involved.”
“Do you remember his name?”
“I may have it inside. I remember his company was in Delaware. Come in.”
The man opened the two doors leading into his house. The hallway smelled of vanilla. “May I offer you something? Tea? A cocktail? It is cocktail hour after all.”
“No thanks,” said Ciancio. “Still working I’m afraid.”
“Shame,” said Ames, looking him up and down. Ciancio and Vargas looked around the ground floor of the house. A pair of wine-colored chesterfield sofas flanked the fireplace. The wooden floor was varnished to a warm, honey color.
“What do you do for a living?” said Vargas.
“Attorney by day, decorator by night,” said Ames. “If I could flip that around, I would. But the law pays. My good taste, unfortunately, does not.” He went to a roll-top desk next to the window facing out onto the street, and pulled open a drawer. “I think he gave me his card. I tend to keep people’s cards. I know it’s old-fashioned. You can probably find everyone on LinkedIn these days, but all those social networks give me the creeps. You never know who’s watching you.” He was flipping through a thick stack of cards. “You a detective too, ma’am?” he said to Vargas, who was busy envying the house.
“No. I’m in forensics. I autopsy bodies.”
“You work on the dead?” he said, screwing up his face. “Well, I guess someone has to. Seems a shame it has to be someone as cute as you. So why are you trying so hard to find the owner of this car? Can’t you identify him from the plates?”
“Little more complicated than that,” said Ciancio.
“Woo-hoo,” said Ames. He had stopped going through the cards. “So, I’m pretty sure this is the guy. Nice card. Embossed. Address is in New York though.” He handed it over to Ciancio who took it and showed it to Vargas. “Mean anything to you?” Ciancio looked at it and tucked it into his wallet.
“Nothing.” Vargas looked at it too and shrugged. “But I appreciate all your help, Mr. Ames. You’ve no idea how rare it is to find someone as helpful as you.”
“Anything for a better city, detective. Good luck to you, and to you Madame Pathologist. I hope you have some juicy corpses to work on. Not those desiccated old ones. God, that doesn’t sound like something you should tell the cops.” He let out a high-pitched squeal of a laugh. “But you know what I mean.”
Vargas and Ciancio walked back across the street and into Ciancio’s car. He took the card out again and studied it, rubbing his finger across the raised lettering. “OK, Bill Harper. Who and where are you?”
By the time Rodgers’ plane touched down at Teterboro, it was 7pm and already dark. Halloween was coming and New Jersey glowed orange from the lights and jack-o-lanterns on every stoop. Rodgers had swum vigorously in Beverly Hills before boarding his plane and felt strong and clean. His driver had brought his 1966 Mustang Fastback, his favorite Mustang in his collection, lime gold, fast and noisy, and parked it next to the terminal. On seeing it, Hewitt was a teenage boy all over again, stroking the mustard leather seats and caressing the chrome trim.
“Make it worth coming to the East Coast?” said Rodgers.
“Nearly,” said Hewitt, who loathed New York the way only a hardened Los Angeleno could. “Where’d you buy it?”
“It was my Dad’s car. Only good thing he ever did for me.”
“You race it?”
Rodgers turned the key and the car roared to life.
“Didn’t think you were so easy to impress,” said Rodgers.
“I’m not,” said Hewitt who was listening to the car the way others might listen to a string quartet. “But that is some serious music.”
“We could drive and keep driving, counsel. Canada’s 9 hours. I could vanish into the woods.”
“Canada’s for wimps. Take me to Sodom and let’s sort this out.”
Forty minutes later, Rodgers pulled into the garage of his office building on the corner of Park Avenue and 54th Street. Rodgers Capital occupied the 47th and 48th floors, overlooking the squat expanse of Grand Central Station. If anyone asked why he hadn’t fled to Greenwich like so many other hedge fund managers, Rodgers told them that if you were spooked by a few extra percentage points of tax, you shouldn’t be in this game. He had dreamt of living and working in New York, and no amount of pleading from the Governor of Connecticut could persuade him to leave for the suburbs. He wanted to lord it over Gotham, not some dormitory town with three Starbucks and a Little League team.
His office were designed in every detail to satisfy these longings. The elevators opened onto a hallway with slate floors and walls and a view south across the city. In the center was a statue of a mounted samurai warrior. The horse was covered in red chain mail. The warrior’s black helmet engraved with lions and peonies, inlaid with gold and silver. Two horns flared up from the sides. The warrior’s armor was light and flexible, made for a cavalryman, layer upon layer of iron and leather plates. The warrior was leaning forward, a sword held upright in his right hand, threatening every visitor.
Rodgers stopped when he saw Hewitt admiring the statue. He stroked the horse’s neck.
“Herodotus tells a story of the Persian King Xerxes sending a scout to spy on the Spartans before Thermopylae,” he said. “The spy told the king that he had seen the Spartans sprawled on the ground combing their hair. They wanted to make themselves beautiful before throwing themselves into the filth and obscenity of war. The Samurai shared the same idea. That beauty and violence were inseparable. If you were going to do something as dramatic as confront death, you should look gorgeous doing it.”
“That why they had you all buzzed and polished in the Marines?”
“Same idea. Death deserves our respect.” Rodgers turned away, down a short corridor along the line of windows to an auditorium with six rows of seats sloping upwards, all covered with screens. Rodgers’s seat was in the pit, his back to the windows. The air was cooled to a brisk 58 degrees to keep everyone alert. More than thirty traders still there. When one of them saw Rodgers arrive, the others began popping up like prairie dogs from behind their terminal and one by one, they started to applaud. Hewitt stood to one side as the applause turned into cheers and hollers. Several of the traders climbed up onto their desks, punching the air. Rodgers raised his arms, like a prizefighter at the end of a bout.
“Until they shut us down, we do what we do better than anyone else,” he yelled over the applause. “Until they shut us down, we trade.” The cheering grew even louder. “We’ve still got over $10 billion. Now sit down and make us all some money.”
Rodgers walked Hewitt over to the wall, which he tapped to open an invisible door into his private office. It was on the corner of the building with windows on two sides. But it was surprisingly small, with all the spare functionality of a ship’s cabin. There were two Barcelona chairs for guests, a glass and steel desk and a wooden drafting chair for Rodgers. The only decoration was a small vase of white orchids which stood out against the gray wall. Rodgers set his phone down on the table and started to dial.
“Who are you calling?” said Hewitt.
“Marjorie Watson.” Hewitt stood up and grabbed for the phone.
“Jesus, not yet.” Rodgers pulled the phone away.
“You’re here, I’m here, let’s make this happen.” Her line was ringing now. “What are you scared of Mike?”
“I’m not the one in deep shit, Flynt. We need to think about this.”
“Marjorie Watson,” said a voice through the speaker.
“Too late,” whispered Rodgers, as he flung his feet up on the desk. “Hey Marj. Flynt Rodgers here. It’s been too long.”
“We shouldn’t be talking,” said Watson.
“Who else am I supposed to talk to?”
“Got one of them right here, Mike Hewitt.”
“Have I met him?”
“He’s based in Los Angeles.”
“What does he know about securities fraud?” Hewitt shrugged.
“More than I do,” said Rodgers.
“That’ll be a for a jury to decide.”
“We’re not going to get that far.”
“I wouldn’t be so confident. Even without Donovan and Caldera, we still have a case.”
Rodgers stood and walked to the window. He folded his hands behind his head and exhaled. Hewitt reached over to the phone.
“Ms. Watson, this is Mike Hewitt. I’m stopping this conversation right now. I’m sure you understand.” He hit the End button.
“What are you thinking?” he said to Rodgers. He wasn’t some Californian dude anymore. He was high-priced and hard-edged counsel. “This isn’t some parlor game. It’s not even some financial deal. This is everything. Your life. Your business. Everything you’ve worked for. And you think you can make some cute calls to smooth everything over? Frankly, I’m amazed she even spoke to you. This is completely unprofessional.”
“Caldera and Donovan. Jesus, Mike, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
Rodgers sat back down and buried his head in his hands. He picked up a paper clip and started twisting it back and forth.
“You know how this business works,” he began. He stopped and walked over to the wall. He pressed a panel, which slid up to reveal a drinks cabinet. “You want one?” Hewitt nodded. Rodgers poured out two large measures of Scotch, no ice, no water. He handed one to Hewitt. “Those guys out there in the pit. They’re under no illusions. We succeed when we have an edge, the blacker the better. Reliable information ahead of the market. The game is that I don’t ask where they got it, but I reward them when it turns out to be right.”
“Give me an example.” Hewitt wanted to let Rodgers talk. To sort through the problem in his own mind.
“A big chipmaker is due to report results.” Rodgers set down his Scotch. “Every analyst on the Street has their estimate for earnings. We have a guy on the inside who knows exactly how many chips they shipped last quarter. He tells his brother, who tells us, we maybe trade some on his behalf. We keep it clean. We buy or sell ahead of the announcement. The information’s going to hit the market anyway. Long term what we do doesn’t make any difference to the price of the stock. But short term, we make some money.”
“How often do you do this?”
“What difference does it make?”
“Is it systemic? Or is it just every so often?”
“I don’t know.”
“Course you know.”
“No. I really don’t know. Because when I get a tip, I don’t ask where the information’s from. I assume the best. That my analysts have done their work. That when they say the chipmaker’s announcement is going to be different from what all the analysts say, they’ve actually gone out, interviewed the chipmaker’s customers, analyzed the market and come up with a different number. I don’t ask every time, is this insider information?”
“Call it what the fuck you like, Mike. I call it efficient.” Hewitt had never seen Rodgers so rattled. The Scotch wasn’t helping. Drunk neat, it blistered his throat. “You know there are 8000 hedge funds out there? And 90% of the time, they underperform the market. You’re better just sticking your money in an index fund. What we’ve created here, this myth of the hedge fund genius, it’s a fantasy. There’s guys who know what the law says they shouldn’t know and guys who don’t. There’s insiders and outsiders, winners and losers. That’s it.”
“Sergio knew this?”
“Sergio knew everything. That’s why I begged him not to testify. He’d traded alongside me for years. He’d seen how stupid it had become. Companies can now tell you right this minute how they’re doing, but the market has to wait till they issue their quarterly results to know? Companies know more than ever, but tell the markets less, so it’s up to us to find out. And when we do have that edge, we have to go big to make up for all those times we’re just pissing in the dark.”
“What about Donovan?”
“Tommy was my guy in Washington. I’d known him for years. But he wasn’t a trader. He was a schmoozer. He helped me navigate the politicians and the regulators when I needed to. Tax stuff. He wasn’t the best, but I preferred him to all the other buttoned-up nerds down there.”
“But did he know about the trades?”
“No. Wasn’t his job.”
“So what could he testify about?”
“I don’t know.”
“The SEC must have had something.”
“They never told me.”
“If it’s exculpatory and material, they have to.”
“If it could clear me?”
“Right. Maybe they didn’t have it pinned down yet.”
“Bill dealt with Tommy a lot more than I did. He was always more into politics. Loves all that right-wing Heritage Foundation stuff. Writing checks to think tanks who argue for the flat tax. He and Tommy would do the rounds. I’d rather pound my head into the sidewalk.”
“Was Bill with you that day you refused the deal?”
“He was in DC. He wasn’t with me. He was attending one of those conferences. Something about America’s coming debt crisis.”
“You didn’t go?”
Rodgers’ phone vibrated. He hit answer.
“Sorry to disturb you,” said his secretary. “Do you know where Bill is?”
“No idea. Why?”
“There’s a gentleman here looking for him. Detective Ciancio from the Washington DC police department.”
Before Rodgers could answer, Hewitt reached for the phone.
“Leave this to me, will you?” he said to Rodgers. Then to the secretary, “This is Mike Hewitt. I’ll be right over.”
Ciancio had never seen an office like this one. He was used to the worn linoleum and scratched wood of police stations and court houses. Wright had told him to follow the fear and for the first time he could imagine having all this and being terrified to lose it. It was easier to have less. A job, a badge, a crappy apartment, a crush on a colleague, parents who loved him. A couple of Indian traders walked through the lobby. They wore expensive jeans, loafers and cashmere zip-up sweaters. Ciancio felt cheap in his Men’s Warehouse suit and tie. He took a seat in one of the two steel and leather arm chairs beside the Samurai statue. He had said yes to the receptionist’s offer of coffee, expecting the usual sludge in a paper cup. Instead it came freshly ground and brewed in a china cup and saucer, with brown sugar crystallized on a stick.
“You put it in the coffee and it dissolves,” the receptionist had said, registering Ciancio’s confusion. It tasted more like dessert than coffee.
He had checked in with the New York police department. The United Nations was meeting and they were overwhelmed providing security. They told him he could go ahead and question Bill Harper. Anything more came up, he should get in touch.
While he waited, the elevators kept depositing more handsome young men and women, most bringing in food. This was why they were so rich, Ciancio guessed. They all worked so hard. It was 8 o’clock at night and here they all were, eating supper in the office, no one in a hurry to go home.
“Detective Ciancio?” Hewitt stretched out his hand. Ciancio got up. There was nowhere to set down his coffee. He tried resting it on the arm of his chair, but it toppled and spilled all over the leather.
“I’m sorry,” said Ciancio. The receptionist came over with some napkins. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “Let me take those.”
“Don’t worry about it Detective,” said Hewitt. “Let’s find a room where we can talk.”
Hewitt led Ciancio into a windowless conference room. The lights came on automatically as they walked in, tiny spots in the ceiling which made the room feel like an art gallery. A large screen took up one wall.
“Take a seat,” said Hewitt, sitting at the head of the table. He passed Ciancio a business card. “I’ve been representing Flynt Rodgers in a personal capacity and Rodgers Capital for many years now. I understand you’re looking for Bill Harper.” “I’m investigating the death of Tommy Donovan.”
“A wonderful guy.”
“You knew him?”
“Not well, no. But he worked closely with the company. Everyone’s very shocked.”
Hewitt didn’t look like most lawyers Ciancio dealt with. He looked too healthy. He looked like a soccer dad in his plaid shirt and khakis. A guy who’d know his way round a hardware store.
“I had some questions for Mr. Harper. Is he here?”
“No. He’s traveling for business.”
“Where can I find him?”
“He’s on the West Coast today. Los Angeles. Anything I can help you with?”
“You represent him?”
“I represent Rodgers Capital.” Ciancio mulled this over. Donovan’s death had led him right into the office of one of Donovan’s main clients, a man under investigation by the SEC. But not to Flynt Rodgers. To his partner.
“You know anything about Stone Corporation?”
“No.” “It’s a company registered down in Delaware.”
“Like every other company in America.”
“The night Donovan died, he was seen in a car registered to the Stone Corporation. Last year, the car got in an accident when it was being driven by Bill Harper.”
“You want to know if Bill Harper was driving the car the night Donovan died?”
“Yeah,” said Ciancio. Hewitt looked at him, smiling. He could tell Ciancio wasn’t telling him everything.
“Let’s give him a call,” said Hewitt, reaching over to a speaker phone in the middle of the table. He buzzed Rodgers’ secretary. “Can you try Bill?” They sat, listening to the number being punched in and the dial tone. At the fifth ring, Harper picked up.
“Bill, it’s Mike Hewitt. You still in L.A.?”
“Driving to the airport now. Everything OK with Flynt?”
“Everything’s fine.” Ciancio looked quizzically at Hewitt. Hewitt waved his hand, to indicate it was nothing. “Listen Bill, I’m sitting here with Detective Ciancio from the Washington DC police department. He’s investigating Tommy’s death.”
“Jesus, they found anyone yet.”
“He wants to know if you saw Tommy the day he died. That right detective?” Ciancio nodded. “If you drove him at all.”
“I saw Tommy in the morning. That was it. We went to an event at the Heritage Foundation, about tax policy. Didn’t see him again after that.”
“Great. I thought so. Detective?”
“Hi, Mr. Harper. This is detective Ciancio.”
“Good evening detective.”
“Could you tell me anything about the Stone Corporation?”
“It’s a shell I use in Delaware for some of my private business transactions. Family stuff.”
“You have a BMW 7 series registered with the company?” Harper hesitated for a moment.
“Yes,” he said. “Had it a couple of years. I drive it very rarely.”
“Were you in an accident a year ago?”
“A fender bender. Nothing serious.”
“And on the night Donovan died, did you drive it?”
“I haven’t driven it for several months, Detective. I keep it in a garage in Georgetown. Tommy kept the keys to it, but more for safe-keeping than to use it. He had his own cars.”
“So, as far as you know, no one drove it the night of Donovan’s death.”
Hewitt listened carefully to Harper’s voice. He had known him a long time. There was something different about him tonight. The timbre was off. He was usually aloof, uninterested in conversation. But now he sounded friendly, carefree, as if nothing gave him greater pleasure than talking to this shabby-looking young detective from Washington.
“Would you mind if I took a look at the car?” said Ciancio.
“Go ahead. My secretary can give you the address.”
“When will you be back in New York?” said Hewitt.
“My flight leaves in a couple of hours. Should be there very early morning. In time for breakfast, if you’re around.”
Hewitt realized now what he had to do.
“Sure, Harp. Would love that. You know my feelings about New York. The only thing worth a damn here are the bagels. Anything else you need detective?”
“Not right now,” said Ciancio. “Thank you Mr. Harper. I appreciate your cooperation.”
“Happy to take any more questions, detective. See you in the morning Mike.”
The speakerphone in the center of the table went quiet.
“Anything else?” said Hewitt.
“Not for now.” Hewitt accompanied him to the elevator. Once Ciancio was gone, he strode back to Rodgers’ office. He needed to get him away from here. Away from New York. And far away from Bill Harper.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was the last place Marjorie Watson wanted to be. But she had no choice. Her driver deposited her at the West Wing entrance. The Marine standing guard opened one of the swing doors for her and she entered the building beneath the seal of the President of the United States. She walked through the narrow foyer with two gilt mirrors on either side and checked her appearance. Decent, if exhausted. Her clothes still looked sharp, her face tired. In the lobby a young aide asked her to take a seat. This used to be a grand room, where the press received their briefings. But for years, the offices had kept encroaching from every side. It consisted now of just two small seating areas and a desk for a receptionist. High class government but still government.
She smoothed her pants as she sat down. She had called Hardaway the moment Dupre had assured her that her flight out of Hong Kong was taking off. Assault on a government official in Hong Kong was a serious matter. The easiest solution was to get Dupre back home as quickly as possible and then deal with the consequences. Wright had moved decisively and for that Watson would be forever grateful. This case was complicated enough without it getting bogged down on the other side of the world.
As for Jerome Keen, she had met him many years earlier, when he was a global equities analyst for Fidelity, based in London. They had spoken at the same investment conference. He was a creep then, convinced the Western world was going to hell and delighted by it. Another self-hating banker eager to predict global economic collapse and how he would profit from it. Why was the financial world so full of them? Wright had not had time to talk at length, but what he said made a kind of twisted sense.
Keen had retreated to Hong Kong to make his fortune in the shadows, trading the world’s stock and bond markets from his offices above a garment factory in Kowloon. One of his specialties was trading the stocks of Western companies with large Asian operations. As those operations had grown with the growth of the Asian economies, so had the value of inside information about Asia. If bribery charges were going to be lodged against a major Chinese assembly plant owner, it could cause the value of Western technology companies who relied on his factories to plummet. If the Chinese government allowed a joint venture between a Chinese and Western bank, it would cause the value of that Western bank to leap. Knowing this in advance, Keen could profit on trades in New York and London. But tracing the flow of information which led to these trades was impossible for regulators in those markets. Keen didn’t have to worry about the insider trading rules which hobbled his Western rivals.
So why then had he bothered partnering with Rodgers Capital? He could have kept trading in profitable silence for years to come. Instead, he had exposed himself through contact with one of the most prominent investors in America. Everyone knew these whales lurked in the world’s financial deeps. But Keen had surfaced.
Watson was so lost in her thoughts, she didn’t hear the page saying her name.
“Ms. Watson? Ms. Watson? The chief of staff will see you now.”
She gathered up her bag and followed the page through the maze of offices. The West Wing always surprised her. The youth of its occupants, many propelled in here directly from the presidential campaign in their mid-20s. The scruffiness of the offices, narrow desks piled with documents, creaking computers and curling pizza. The smell of stale coffee. If you didn’t know they were running the free world from here, you might think they were selling copiers. A few of the cubicles were empty. Campaign season, Watson realized. Many of the President’s staff were on the road, and would remain so until the votes had been counted. One day they would get to trade in this experience for real money and a real life. But for now they were living on the sleepless rush of fulfilling Leanne Mills’ ambition to be elected for a second term.
The chief of staff’s secretary sat in a space the size of a toilet cubicle. A Life is Good foam finger was taped to the back of her computer screen. She waved Watson right through. Ron Hardaway was sitting facing the window, his feet up on a radiator. He was dunking a herbal tea bag into a cup of hot water. He had MSNBC muted on a television tucked into his bookshelf. He stared at the screen for a moment as Watson stood there.
“Polls look good,” she said to fill the silence.
“Not good enough,” he said. “Not good enough to sustain an October surprise. We take a hit between now and election day, not sure how we’ll hold up. The opposition’s well organized. If they sink their teeth into this Flynt Rodgers case...” He was still looking away from her. Watson sat down anyway. Finally Hardaway swiveled round. “Sure, take a seat.”
“Grow up, Ron,” she said, irritated by his power games. “Just because you read the Art of War doesn’t make you Sun Tzu. It’s not the Rodgers case that’s the problem. It’s the fact that you keep interfering in it.”
“We’re not interfering.”
“Then why am I here?”
“We’re keeping an eye on it.”
“Keeping an eye on how it affects the political interests of the President.”
“Tell me what I need to know,” said Hardaway.
“Dupre is coming home. She’s fine. Shaken up, but fine.” Hardaway picked out his teabag and dropped it in the trash. “She’s with Wright.”
“Benjamin Wright. He’s a private investigator.”
“You’ve got some freelance gumshoe on the case? This isn’t Raymond Chandler, Marj.”
“He knows what he’s doing. He was hired by Rodgers’ ex-wife to clear Rodgers.”
“Doesn’t seem like he’s doing a great job.”
“He’s Walter Wright’s son. Does a lot of work for Art Travis.”
Hardaway leaned back in his chair. “The guys who really run the country. Why don’t we employ him?”
“You know why, Ron. We can’t afford him. He got Dupre out of there.”
“Sounds like he also got her in there.”
“It was my idea to send her.”
“You thought it was a good idea to send a junior SEC official to get roughed up in Hong Kong?”
“I thought we needed some eyes and ears on Wright.”
“You said he knew what he was doing.”
“He does. But that’s not enough. We need to know what he’s doing as well.”
“What about Rodgers?”
“He’s back in New York.”
“You think they’re going to file murder charges? That’s just what we need. Leanne Mills’ mentor and major financial supporter. You think he’s guilty?”
“I believe in due process.”
“We don’t have time for due process. Do you think he’s guilty?”
“Of insider trading or murder?”
“The insider trading scarcely matters right now.”
“No I don’t. I don’t think he killed Donovan and Caldera.”
“You think it was just coincidence that two of the key witnesses in his trial go down just after he tells you he’s going to fight it?”
“Coincidence doesn’t equal guilt.”
“Voters aren’t as delicate as you are. This story gets going, we’re fucked. And you’ll be responsible for screwing up the re-election chances of the first woman president in history.” Watson looked down at her bag and mumbled.
“I didn’t get in this for history.”
“What?” said Hardaway glowering.
Marj looked up and spoke slowly and clearly. “I. Don’t. Give. A. Damn. About. History.”
She could see Hardaway’s color changing. His ears turned red first and then the flush spread across his face. They stared at each other. He interlaced his fingers and twisted them back and forth.
“You’re a real disappointment, Marj,” he said finally.
“I could say the same about you.” She gathered up her bag and stood up. “And her,” she added, nodding at the photograph of Mills. “We’re trying to get at the truth to make the markets better, to make life fairer for every American trying to save for retirement. It’s not about how long you serve, Ron. It’s not about winning one or two elections or being the first this or that. It’s about what you do with the time you have. Truman only won once. Johnson won once. But they didn’t waste a minute. If you actually did something substantive instead of patting her on the back for her sex and worrying about re-election, maybe you’d have a place in history.”
“Then go and make sure this doesn’t explode before election day.”
Wright had taken Dupre straight from Kowloon to their hotel and from there to the airport. Dupre had impressed him. She had grasped the urgency of the situation. If they stopped for a moment, they risked never leaving. They could not tell the local police or even the local FBI station officer what had happened. If the Chinese found a US official had been making inquiries in Hong Kong without permission, there would be serious diplomatic consequences. The police were doubtless already all over Temple Street questioning the store owners. Tracy was dead and Keen injured. He might disappear or call the authorities to try to stop Wright from leaving. Wright and Dupre had no time to guess or gamble on what he might do.
Wright had bought the last two tickets on the last Cathay Pacific flight back to New York that night. They had taken the express line through security. Once they boarded the plane and saw the doors closing, they could finally relax. Dupre drank half a bottle of red wine and fell asleep, her body and mind exhausted. She wore a baseball cap to conceal what was left of her hair. Wright began to doodle on his napkin.
Just before Dupre had stabbed Keen in the groin with the scissors, Keen had said he had never dealt with Flynt Rodgers. That Rodgers was a leatherneck and that he had invested only with Rodgers’ partner, Bill Harper.
Vanderveer had told him that Rodgers was innocent. But that was a slippery term. Yes, perhaps he hadn’t directly solicited insider information and then used it to trade. But if Wright knew anything about men like Flynt Rodgers it was that they walked a lot of fine lines. It wasn’t enough to be smart. You had to know more.
A few months ago, Wright had attended the wedding of an octogenarian multi-billionaire, a friend of his father, who was marrying his third wife, a 35-year-old massage therapist. There had in fact been three weddings. One in New York and two in the Hamptons, each attended by 700 guests. There were several reasons for such extravagance. To appease the desire of the massage therapist to be taken seriously. So the octogenarian could inflict one more psychological blow on his already miserable children from his first and second marriages. But much more importantly to thank and reassure the billionaire’s network. Every guest there was an insider of sorts. A CEO who could tip him off to an upcoming merger. A Prime Minister who could alert him to a bond issuance or currency crisis. A Central Banker who could tell him when he was going to start or stop printing money. The three parties were an advertisement for insider trading among the world’s financial and political oligarchs, whose lives interlocked far beyond the mundane oversight rules of national regulators.
If Rodgers had traded on inside information gathered at this level, there was no catching him. If anyone tried to, their investigation would have been stopped within seconds of being opened. It would have made too many powerful people uncomfortable. So the SEC had been left chasing emails and telephone calls to Rodgers’ traders,trying to establish a trail to Rodgers himself. No wonder it had taken them four years. This kind of data was endless and hard to interpret. You needed witnesses to say yes, this knowingly illegal tip-off led to that knowingly illegal trade. You needed to push people so hard they would incriminate their colleagues, employers and friends.
Rodgers’ mistake, Wright realized, had been to be cavalier about the investigation. If he had cooperated early, he might have got away with a fine and a short suspension from the securities industry. But he felt the regulators would never catch up to him. He had been too generous to his employees for them to turn on him, he thought. He was protected by his high-priced lawyers, many of whom had worked for the other side, at the SEC.
But he had been disappointed. The tip of the SEC’s blade had burrowed through and pierced him. And once it drew blood, it wanted more. It realized Rodgers could be the case which marked their generation. Their Michael Milken. The big one which instilled fear into the entire financial industry and showed that the law still mattered.
And once that happened, the politicians piled in, wanting to ensure they were on the right side of this thing. The House and Senate Committee chairmen who loved nothing more than sitting behind their raised desks berating men a hundred times richer and smarter than them about the low-down criminality of the financial industry while happily taking their campaign checks in private. Mills, because she needed to show that for all Rodgers had done for her during her political rise, she hadn’t been bought. She went further than anyone else in attacking him because she had the most to prove.
That was when Vanderveer had called. Rodgers needed unconventional help. He needed to understand the real nature of the threat. She knew him too well. She knew that he would respond to the SEC closing in on him with aggression. He would start talking about goal-line stands and Hail Mary passes and every other bullshit football term, and only when it was really desperate would he stop and think.
It was a pattern of behavior which had worked his entire life. It had dragged him out of poverty into the Marine corps. It had made him a hero that day in Beirut. When the walls closed in on Rodgers, he didn’t talk or compromise, or wait for the other side to blink. He put his fists up and fought.
Harper, though, was different. Vanderveer had included a single sheet of biographical information on Harper in her file, a photograph and the transcript of an interview he had given to Charlie Rose. He was the same as Rodgers but looked ten years older, with the gaunt pallor of a retired insurance salesman. They could not have been more different in how they chose to live. Rodgers loved his trophies, his houses, his plane, the stature his work gave him. Harper was a skinflint. He lived in the same house he had for twenty-five years. He drove a ten year old Honda Accord and his suits shone from wear. The richer he became, the greater the opportunity to show off his thrift. He reminded Wright of his own father. To men like this, creamed corn out of a tin tasted better than caviar. And every dollar they added to their fortune, the more delicious their meanness tasted. It became a form of vanity as powerful and corrupting as buying yachts or fast cars. They regarded their own thriftiness as a supreme virtue, all the more rare in these credit-fueled times.
The Charlie Rose interview was typical. Rose fawning in the presence of a very rich man, the court jester of the ruling class. It might have been acceptable as an interview technique. But Wright always suspected Rose wanted more, to be part of the world he profiled, rather than forever the wet nose against the window. It would never happen, of course. That’s not how the rich worked. Everyone had their uses, and Rose’s was at his circular wooden table in his blacked out studio in the Bloomberg offices in Midtown. Seeing him anywhere else was like running into your proctologist on the street. You’d just rather not.
Wright stuck his index finger into his vodka and tonic and swilled it around.
“Bill Harper, where do you think the global economy is heading?” asked Rose. It was just the sort of question rich men loved. It gave them permission to be pompous.
“Well, I think we’re going through a period of major structural change,” Harper replied. “We’re seeing this here in the United States where the government continues to spend more than it takes in. If you or I kept doing that we’d be in trouble. Meanwhile in China, they’re moving from an export to a consumer driven economy. That’s a sign of maturity, and from a competitive standpoint we should be more afraid than ever.”
“Do you think we have the capacity in this country to compete?”
“I think we will have to be smarter and harder working than ever before, Charlie. We don’t have the luxury of being average any more. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in this country and I believe we can be greater than ever. But America’s exorbitant privilege is being whittled down every day and that’s not something any of us can ignore.”
“You and your fund issued a number of loans in the middle of the financial crisis. How have those turned out?”
“Very well thank you Charlie. (Laughter). We thought that these companies were fundamentally sound and would eventually rebound, despite the fear in the markets at the time. It turned out we were right, which has been profitable for me and good for America.”
Wright couldn’t read any more. He could hear the dog whistles in Harper’s words. They were the same as his father’s. America had gone down the path of social justice in the 1960s and it had proved catastrophic. Offering Medicare and Medicaid and fixing civil rights and helping the poor through welfare had impoverished America. It was time now to reverse that. The structural change they talked about was one of forcing the old, sick and poor back onto their own. It was about enforcing their cult of self-help, saying America gave you the opportunity and if you didn’t take it and succeed, it was your own fault, nothing to do with misfortune or injustice. They took their own success, regardless of its causes, as proof of their theory.
There may even have been some truth to what they said. But it wasn’t anywhere close to being the whole truth. It wasn’t economically sound and morally it tasted foul. But it didn’t stop these men, and they were mostly men, from gathering and congratulating each other and writing checks to any blithering sycophant in politics or academia who would make their case for them.
The cabin of the plane was silent now, except for the muffled thrum of the engine. Those who weren’t asleep were engrossed in the screens inches from their faces. Wright asked the stewardess for another vodka and tonic, with two slices of lime. The outlines of the case were finally coming into focus. He had told Ciancio to follow the fear. Who had the most to lose?
He pulled out the Vanity Fair profile of Rodgers. Standing on his catamaran in a bomber jacket, jeans, Wayfarer sunglasses, the wind blowing into his face. Then the iconic photograph from 1983. Rodgers carrying his helmet, covered in dust, head bowed, surrounded by the rubble of the Beirut marine barracks. This man was a survivor. Whatever happened, he would be fine.
Then Harper. Without money, he was just a mean-spirited old bastard, a guy who thought lending money at high rates of interest made him some kind of capitalist hero. American Gothic. Of course he and Keen had seen eye-to-eye. Their focus was similarly out of whack. When the world was so hell-bent on venerating people who made money, it evolved characters who thought making it was all that mattered, the means be damned.
Wright looked at Dupre. Her face was bruised, her baseball cap pushed back on her head. She looked like a college sophomore, the soccer player she had once been. America was lucky to have her. Smart young people who believed in more and expected more.
Experience had taught Wright hard lessons about intuition. He had trusted it and been frighteningly wrong. But to ignore it was worse. Especially when it was clanging like a cowbell. Rodgers may have been flawed. He may even have been guilty of securities fraud. But Bill Harper was more like Keen. There was no limit to what a man like him would do to protect his own fortune and reputation.
Wright looked at the flight tracker. Six more hours to Washington DC. He downed his vodka and tonic and pulled up his blanket. If he could sleep, the time would pass more quickly.
Hewitt insisted on driving. He chose the least conspicuous of the cars in Rodgers’ garage, a black Chevy Suburban. He feared Harper had access to the flight records of Rodgers’ plane. He would know where they had gone. For the first half hour of the drive, until they were on I 95, Rodgers hadn’t said a word. He was trying to digest Hewitt’s theory. Why would Bill do it? He had always been cold-hearted, but that was as a trader and financier. The idea that he had killed Donovan and Caldera seemed absurd.
But Hewitt had been insistent in a way Rodgers had never seen before. He had all but bundled him out of the office and down to the garage. He had said there would be time to talk later, but for now they needed to get far away. They had to give themselves room to think and regroup. Even if Hewitt was wrong about Harper, staying in New York was too risky.
Hewitt drove quickly. For a man raised on the highways of California he surprised Rodgers with his ease on the congested streets of Manhattan. He weaved quickly through the traffic on the Triborough Bridge.
“Can I turn off all these cameras?” he said jabbing at the screen in the middle of the console which showed the view from both wing and rear mirrors. Rodgers shrugged. The only cars he knew about were his classics. Beasts like this were for being driven around in. “Since when did it become impossible for people to use their mirrors? These things are taking over our lives,” he said banging the screen with his fist. “They’re making us all helpless.”
Rodgers raised an eyebrow.
“You never suspected him of anything?”
“Harp’s one of my oldest friends. We were in the Marines together. That’s a tight bond.”
“But you’re so different.”
“On the surface, maybe.”
“No, I mean deep down.”
“There’s no way he’d come after me. We’re brothers.”
“What if he did kill Caldera and Donovan? You think you’d be a problem?”
“He’s not a killer.”
“Then why do you think Donovan was in his car the night he died?”
“He said he wasn’t driving it that night. I believe him.”
“You know about his private company in Delaware?”
“Jesus. It was probably recommended by his accountant. You know as well as I do how these things work. I have registered companies I don’t even know about. You keep the money flowing through them.” He circled his finger in the air. “It’s called tax efficiency.”
“Ever since I’ve been working for you, I’ve been warning you about the risks of insider trading.”
“Right. And I’ve never listened.
“This isn’t a lecture. You never asked your traders for the sources of their information so you could deny knowing if it was illegal to trade on it. Here’s the risk of that policy. What if everyone in your business got so used to the idea that you don’t tell Flynt anything - except what he needs to know in order to hit the button on a trade - that one day they don’t tell you something that could destroy your business. They think they’re protecting you, when in fact they’re threatening everything that you’ve created.”
“You really think Harp went on a killing spree to help me?”
“The SEC was closing in. You decide to reject their deal. All Bill wanted was a deal. Pay the fine and move on. You were bringing down the wrath of government. If it went to trial you and he both risked jail. He was terrified.”
“They pissed me off.”
“If a jury had heard from Caldera and Donovan, you were going down.”
“You seem to think I’m going down anyway.”
Hewitt slammed his open palm against the steering wheel.
“You think this is how George Soros ends his career? Driving down an interstate in a goddamn Suburban? You’re like the OJ Simpson of hedge funds and still you don’t want to admit it.”
“You chose the car.”
Just before midnight, they pulled into the car park of the Steamship Authority in Woods Hole.
“The first ferry doesn’t go till morning,” said Rodgers. “We should have taken the plane.”
Hewitt got out of the car and slammed the door. He walked over to the ferry terminal and rattled the door. The entire building was dark and one of the ferries lay beside the quay. It was noticeably colder up here in Massachusetts than it had been in New York. He rapped on the window of the ticket booths. He walked around the empty parking area until he saw a light on in a warehouse in a far corner, down by the water. As he approached it, he heard music and laughter. He turned the handle of the door, and walked straight in. A man and woman in their 20s were sitting cross-legged and naked on the floor. The air was thick with cannabis smoke. They quickly reached for their clothes.
“You work here?” said Hewitt.
“Who the fuck are you?” said the woman in a hard Massachusetts accent.
“We need to get over to the Vineyard tonight.”
“No boats till morning.”
“We need to get over tonight.”
“Like I said. Nothing till 6am.”
Hewitt took out his phone and pointed it at the couple. “I know you’re not supposed to be here and now,” he pressed the camera button which clicked, “I have evidence. Which I am emailing right now to my office so they can send it on to the owners of this facility, the moment I say so.” The phone emitted a whooshing sound as it dispatched the image. “I’m not interested in your schedule, I need a ride over to the Vineyard. I have, let me see,” he opened his wallet, “Two thousand one hundred and fifty, no seventy, dollars.”
“You serious?” The woman was pulling on her jeans and a grey T-shirt. “I can take you.”
“And the car.”
“You want the ferry?”
Hewitt shrugged. “Problem?” He looked at the man who seemed stoned or stunned, Hewitt couldn’t tell which. “Your friend good to help?”
“He’s piloted that boat every day for five years.”
The woman walked over and snatched at the money. Hewitt pulled it away.
“When we get over to Vineyard Haven, it’s all yours.”
“You’re lucky there’s no wind tonight. If the waves were up, no way. Anyone asks, it’s a medical emergency.”
They walked across the frigid lot. The woman went into the control room and Hewitt returned to the car. A minute later, the lights came on on the ferry and with a groan, the car ramp started to lower.
“You billing me for this?” said Rodgers.
“Fifteen hundred bucks an hour, my friend.”
“Worth every penny.”
Twenty minutes later, they were churning away from the mainland across Vineyard Sound. Lights on the buoys showed the way through the night.
Hewitt and Rodgers sat together on a bench facing the island, the cold wind blowing into their faces. Hewitt pulled his sports coat tight around his chest and blew into his hands. Rodgers seemed to open himself up to the elements, his legs splayed, his arms stretched out along the back of the bench.
“You’re really serious about this,” said Rodgers.
“Looks like it,” said Hewitt. “Do we have to sit outside?”
“I ever tell you about Hong Kong?”
“Can we go inside?” said Hewitt standing up and stomping his feet.
“There was this casino deal,” he said. Hewitt realized Rodgers wasn’t moving. So he sat back down again and against the sound of the waves churning below them and the wind biting their skin, Rodgers talked.
Vargas waited for Ciancio at 6.45am outside the Bean Counter coffee shop on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Reservoir Road. She held two cups of coffee in a cardboard tray, both black with plenty of sugar. The wind snapped at her thin raincoat.
Ciancio had called last night from the train and asked her to meet her there. He was returning from New York. She reckoned he’d be tired and when he pulled up, three minutes late, she noticed he had dark bags under his eyes. He took the coffee, peeled back the plastic lid, took a large mouthful and swilled it around his mouth to cool it down.
“Thanks,” he said. He rubbed his eyes. “You always take it with this much sugar?”
“Do it once and I’m done for the day.” They started to walk.
“I didn’t think the body worked that way.”
“Does for me. Spike my blood sugar once, I’m high for hours.”
“You mind getting up this early?”
“Not when we’ve a case to solve, Detective.”
“OK, Nancy Drew.”
“How far is it?”
“Round the corner. Towards Dumbarton Oaks.”
“Nice real estate for a parking garage.”
“You should have seen the offices. Looked like a museum.”
The two bay garage was down a short alleyway separating two rows of brick townhouses. Harper’s secretary had emailed him the security code overnight. He tapped it into the panel beside one of the green metal doors, which slid upwards. Inside, the garage was as clean as an operating room, smooth concrete floors, white walls and two industrial lights hanging from a cross-beam. One bay was empty, the other contained the BMW 7 Series. Ciancio checked the plates. It was definitely the car in which Donovan had driven to his death. He walked around one side while Vargas walked around the other. She opened the driver’s side door and looked in.
“What are we looking for?”
“I don’t know.” Ciancio opened the glove compartment which contained nothing but the users’ manual, registration and an insurance card.
“So far all I see is a damned nice car.”
“Press that button there,” said Ciancio pointing to just below the steering wheel. Vargas pressed it and the trunk opened slowly. They both walked to the back of the car. Ciancio reached in and pulled up the carpet to reveal a spare tire and tool kit.
“You think he’d let you look in here if he actually had something to hide?”
Ciancio looked around the garage.
“Not even a can of oil in here.”
“Doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who does his own oil changes.”
“This is definitely the car.”
“And we know it was the one in the video.”
“So the only thing we don’t know is who was driving it.”
“Harper says it wasn’t him because he was out of town. Donovan was the only other person with a set of keys.”
“Where is Harper now?”
“New York. He said he was flying in overnight.”
“You don’t think you have enough to bring him in? The car. The fact Donovan was getting ready to testify against his company.”
“These are powerful people.”
“You scared of them?”
“No. But I need to be right.”
They stepped out of the garage and Ciancio closed the door.
“You’d think with all the technology in these cars, we’d know who was driving it and when,” said Vargas. “What are you doing?” Ciancio was walking back towards Wisconsin Avenue. He stopped on the corner.
“You ever been there?” he said, pointing towards a pub a few blocks down.
“Martins Tavern? Sure. Full of big old Irishmen hitting on Congressional aides.”
“Donovan used to go there after work.”
“Makes sense.” Ciancio strode down towards it. “It’s 7.15, Mike. There won’t be anyone there.” He ignored her and kept walking.
The main door to Martin’s was locked, but Ciancio peered in and saw a man stacking chairs and wiping the tables. He rapped on the window. The man looked at him and waved his hand back and forth across his neck to indicate the bar was closed. Ciancio took out his badge and pressed it up against the window. The man set aside his cloth and came to the door. He unfastened several locks and cracked open the door.
“There a manager here?” said Ciancio. The man was Hispanic, wearing a white bandanna and white cook’s jacket. He shook his head.
“You have anyone I can call? It’s important.”
The cleaner went to the bar, pulled out a beer mat and wrote down a telephone number. He handed it to Ciancio.
“Ten o’clock,” the man said again. Ciancio took the beer mat and slipped it into his pocket.
Just as he was about to turn away, a young man appeared behind the bar, brown hair tousled, Irish good looks. His white shirt was unbuttoned half way down his chest. He took a pint glass, filled it with seltzer water and drank the whole thing down in one. The cleaner was still standing there, his face in the crack of the door. Ciancio pointed behind him. The cleaner turned. The man behind the bar saw Ciancio holding up his badge.
“Let him in, Luis.” The cleaner unfastened the chain on the door and Ciancio walked in. The floors were wet and the bar smelled of disinfectant. “We’re all friends of the Washington Police Department at Martin’s.”
“You the manager?” said Ciancio.
“Assistant Manager. Paul Reilly.” He stretched his hand over the bar. Ciancio shook it. Reilly reached below the bar and pulled out a carton of eggs. He cracked two into a glass, smothered them in Tabasco sauce and swallowed them raw. “Breakfast of champions,” he said, wincing. “What can I help you with, officer?”
“How is the bastard? We haven’t seen him in a few days.” Reilly began drawing himself a half-pint of Guinness.
“He come here a lot?”
“All the time. After work. Guinness and half a dozen oysters.”
“You serve him?”
“If I’m behind the bar. Anything happen to him?”
“He ever come with anyone?”
“Different person every night seemed to me. Clients. Friends. We were sort of his after-hours office. One of the few people we gave a tab to. He’d settle it once a month. What’s happened?”
“You remember who he came with last time you saw him?”
“You tell me what happened, I’ll tell you.”
“He’s dead. Found in the Potomac.”
Reilly crossed himself. “God bless his soul. You think he was killed.”
“That’s one theory.”
“Well, anything I can do. He was one of us, Tommy.”
“You remember who he was with?”
“Let me think. Luis,” he shouted to the cleaner across the room. “Senor Donovan. Who was he with the other night.” Luis stopped mopping. And made a motion as if yanking on the brim of a baseball cap. “That’s right. Some old bloke in a baseball cap. Tommy wasn’t himself. He’s usually ebullient. Up here at the bar. But he and this guy, that’s right, went and took a booth. They stayed pretty late.”
“You remember what he looked like?”
“Didn’t really get a good look at him. Tommy didn’t seem to want us around, either. They were really locked in conversation, you know. We just kept bringing the drinks, for Tommy at least. The other guy was drinking Diet Coke. Don’t know why anyone would do that to themselves.”
“Tall, short, hair color?”
“Medium, older man. Casually dressed. Tommy always wore a suit. Very proper. Friend of yours?” said Reilly nodding towards Vargas who was standing just inside the door. Ciancio didn’t like his crooked smile. He was too confident in his own charm.
“Jennifer Vargas. Forensics,” said Ciancio.
“Brainy, too, then,” said Reilly. Ciancio looked around the dark, wooden bar, lined with photographs. “There’s one thing you might look at. Our neighbors in Georgetown, they’re a fussy lot. A couple of weeks ago, they made us install a security camera outside. It’s meant to help us control the drunks. To be honest, our drunks are more melancholy, if you know what I mean, than violent. We have a monitor and the security company has one.”
“How many days’ worth of film do you keep?”
“We only turn it on in the evenings, so we have about a week’s worth here and the rest gets stored somewhere else. Want to take a look?”
Ciancio and Vargas followed Reilly into a narrow passageway behind the bar which led towards the kitchen. A black Dell laptop was jammed onto small desk. Reilly opened it. He turned on a hard drive on a shelf above the desk and an icon appeared on the screen. Reilly clicked on it and asked Ciancio for the date and time he wanted.
“October 23rd. 8pm till late,” he said. Reilly keyed in the search terms and the film started running. At 8.32, Donovan appeared on the right of the screen with a man in a windbreaker, jeans and a George Mason Basketball cap. It was the man who had pushed Donovan into the water. Vargas put her right hand to her mouth and bit her nails. Reilly stood back and put his arm around Vargas’ waist.
“Come on in and have a better look,” he said pressing back against the other wall of the corridor, but making sure Vargas felt him brush against her. She moved away. Reilly smelled of sweat and fried food.
The film showed people coming and going from the bar. Ciancio hit the fast forward button. The hours passed.
“Told you they were there a while,” said Reilly. Ciancio stared at the screen.
“Come on,” he whispered.
At 12.27. Donovan reappeared. He seemed unsteady. He flicked up the collar of his jacket and lit a cigarette. The man in the baseball cap followed him out onto the street, hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans. They began walking up Wisconsin Avenue and were nearly out of range.
“Fuck,” said Ciancio. Then Donovan turned sharply. His waved his arm in the air and brushed the other man’s cap from his head. He bent down to pick it up and hand it back, before walking back into Martin’s. The man pulled the cap down firmly. “Go back,” said Ciancio. Vargas hit rewind, then play, then paused when she had the man in grainy profile. Ciancio pulled a sheet of paper from his inside pocket and held it up to the screen.
“It’s him,” said Vargas. She hit play and the film showed Donovan re-emerging, waving his phone. The two men then continued to walk, out of the frame.
“It’s who?” said Reilly.
“We need this film,” said Ciancio.
“All yours detective.”
“Where is he now?” said Vargas. Ciancio was unplugging the hard drive from the laptop.
“Make sure you bring it back though,” said Reilly.
“New York,” said Ciancio. “He was flying overnight from L.A.”
Marjorie Watson waited inside inside the private jet terminal at Dulles Airport. She stared through the tall, rain-streaked windows as the Cathay jet descended out of the grey sky and taxied in. An agent was waiting to meet Wright and Dupre and bring them straight over.
Hewitt had called at 6am precisely. Rodgers needed to talk to her. In person. They were at Rodgers’ house in Aquinnah. They had information pertaining to the case. He couldn’t say anything more on the phone. And there was no way they could come down to Washington.
Watson rarely begged for use of one of the Treasury’s planes. The press hated the fact that government officials ever used private jets. They made out as if bureaucrats were acting like they were CEOs. But she knew that this time she’d have cover from the White House. Hardaway would protect her if it came to that. He wanted this case resolved, swept out of sight before it could hurt Mills’ chances of re-election.
Wright and Dupre entered the private terminal looking like well-heeled refugees. Wright hadn’t shaved and Dupre looked like she needed another 16 hours of sleep. But there was no time for that. Watson embraced Dupre, then held her by the hand.
“How are you doing?”
“It wasn’t what I signed up for,” said Dupre, smiling.
“Rarely is. Go and rest. Take a few days off. Rodgers is in Martha’s Vineyard,” she said, turning to Wright.
“Where’s Harper?” said Wright.
“They missed him.”
“In New York. Ciancio found film of him with Donovan on the night he died.”
“How did they miss him?”
“They were waiting at Teterboro. He landed at White Plains.”
“So where is he now?”
“No idea. But they’re looking. How long can an old white man stay hidden in New England? Freshen up and let’s get going.”
The government plane was as shoddy as an ordinary commuter jet inside. The seats were cramped and worn. You had to jiggle the plastic window shades to pull them down. The whole things seemed to rattle as it took off. It was a jalopy, beneath the contempt of anyone in the business world. But it was only 50 minutes to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Wright sat opposite Watson and unspooled his story. Keen’s violent reception in Hong Kong. The incident in the night market.
“Harper was his guy,” he told Watson. “Not Rodgers.”
“But they’re partners.”
“You know what happens in these firms, Marj. Two, three, four guys start out on the adventure together. It succeeds. They get rich. And then they start hating each other for the slightest thing. They start to do things behind each other’s back. Feel the credit hasn’t been shared properly. Everything becomes a slight.”
“Ciancio thinks he has the proof. On Donovan anyway. Video. Then there’s the poison.”
“Monkshood. Keen had a sample.”
“It was found in both Donovan and Caldera.”
“If Flynt Rodgers had wanted to kill somebody, I think he’d have been more straight up. A broken neck. A dramatic fall. A bullet to the head. There’s something antiseptic about a poison dart. Like there’s no connection between your action and its consequences. Ffffffft,” Wright made the noise of a dart flying through the air. “The dart did it, officer. Not me.”
“What do we do about Keen?”
“Very little you can do. He’ll never leave Hong Kong. If you chase him down he’ll disappear up the Congo River.”
“Yangtze, Mekong. Doesn’t matter. Heart of Darkness. Kurtz. You’ll never see him again. He has the resources. He’ll vanish.”
“But Harper won’t,” said Watson.
“What’s the worst they could have faced? If you’d struck a deal with them. Or if they’d gone to trial and lost?”
“Billion plus in fines.”
“They could afford it.”
“A few years, maximum. Out in less for good behavior.”
“Bans from the securities industry.”
“Doesn’t stop them investing with other people. Plenty of other ways to make money.”
“You know that no one who succeeds in finance feels shame. About anything.”
“If you’re still a billionaire, who cares if you had to pay half a billion to the government? In New York, they kind of admire you for it.”
“What’s your point, Ben? That us pursuing these guys is a waste of time?”
“No. That Flynt Rodgers could have taken his beating. He’d have seen it as another test of his manhood. It’s why he rejected your deal. It was too boring for him, just haggling over a negotiated settlement. He wanted a dramatic resolution.”
“But not Harper.”
“Take away his money and there’s nothing left. Rodgers would be the most entertaining guy in jail. Harper would shrivel and die. When Rodgers stared you down and rejected the deal, Harper panicked. Keen, his old investing partner, sourced him the poison. He thought that with Donovan and Caldera out of the way, your case would fold.”
The plane had already begun its descent, down over Buzzard’s Bay, Naushon Island and Vineyard Sound and through the mist which blanketed the Vineyard.
They were met by the Vineyard police in an unmarked, silver Toyota Highlander. Watson looked around the empty strip.
“We the first ones here today?”
“There was an earlier flight out of JFK,” sad a uniformed officer. “Came in around 7, then returned. Boston’s due in half an hour. Otherwise, Ma’am, just you.”
It may have been late fall, but the air still felt to Wright like summer vacations, salty and slow. Watson held out her right hand to the officer.
“Keys,” she said.
“We have an officer here to drive you, Ma’am.”
“Won’t be necessary. I’ve been coming to the Vineyard since I was a child. I know my way around.”
“It’s a police vehicle, Ma’am...”
“I don’t want a scene, officer. Either I take this car without your escort or I get a rental. This is SEC not police business. The fewer of us, the better. Would you like to be useful?” The officer reluctantly handed over the keys. “Don’t worry. I’m a careful driver.”
Wright climbed into the front passenger seat. Watson squealed the tires as she exited the airport through a chain-link fence directly onto the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. She checked the rear-view mirror to see the officer throw up his hands in disgust.
“We’ll have a woman President before men believe women can drive,” she said to Wright.
“What was all that about?”
“I don’t want to turn up like the US cavalry. If Hewitt and Rodgers want to talk, I’m here to talk. Nothing more right now. Anyway, there’s no one more likely to gossip than a small town cop. We want to keep this as quiet as possible.”
“How far is it?”
“Half an hour. Maybe longer in this fog.” To their left were lines of scrub oaks with the occasional dirt road leading down towards the ocean. To their right were working farms stretching out behind post and rail fences. Every one seemed to be selling eggs, $4 a dozen, left in coolers by the gate.
“Never been here before.”
“I was a Hamptons kid. Seems like you have to pick one. Long Island, the Cape or the Vineyard. Then you stick to it. We thought people who came here was liberal snobs.”
“As opposed to the moral beacons who go to the Hamptons.”
“Strange that Rodgers comes here.”
“Oh, god, all these places are the same now. You should see Nantucket. It’s one big golf course broken up by $10 million houses. You know the chairman of Google has a place there? He flies in from Silicon Valley for weekends on his 747. I guess the Bay Area’s not distracting enough.”
“Maybe he likes the history.”
“Yeah. That’s probably it. He can’t get enough of the old whaling stories.”
“How bad was Hong Kong?”
“I’ve seen worse.”
“Don’t be macho with me, Ben.”
“Aneesha was very brave. You should make sure she doesn’t leave for Goldman Sachs.”
“We can never compete. We make our little speeches about the nobility of public service, but it does no good. The best ones always leave. They hate what they find on the other side, but they always leave.”
“Keen said he never met Rodgers. He dealt with Harper and Donovan only. Money would be wired from a Rodgers Capital account in Geneva to a casino account in Macao. Keen would then purchase poker chips with money from that account and pass them onto insiders at the local gambling board in return for information. Donovan would fly out to Hong Kong and Keen would tell him what he had found out. That way there were no phone calls or other electronic trails. Then Donovan would come back and Harper would trade on the information, buying and selling US traded stock in the casino company.”
“And you really think Rodgers never knew?”
“He may have guessed. But he didn’t ask. That’s how his business was set up. To protect him. It’s why it took you so long to get to him.”
“The White House is terrified.”
“I thought they wanted Rodgers’ head on a stick. So they could display it on the front lawn.”
“They did. But that was when he was just suspected of insider trading. Then he was going to be a trophy. Now he’s a murder suspect, they want the case to disappear. They don’t want it interfering with the election.”
“No pleasing them.”
The fog was turning to drizzle as they arrived at the Chilmark General Store. Watson pulled in.
“We getting breakfast?” said Wright.
“Hewitt asked to meet us here. Said we’d get lost if we tried to find the house by ourselves.” The only other car in the lot was a new green Jaguar, but there was no one in it. Wright and Watson walked up the spongy wooden steps to the store. Hewitt was sitting in a chair at the end of the porch reading the Vineyard Gazette. The rain was falling more heavily now. Hewitt rose to greet them.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. He was wearing jeans, a pale green fleece and a blue baseball cap which read “Chilmark”. “Can I get you anything?”
“I’ll go in,” said Wright.
“No, wait,” said Watson. “We need to explain to Mike who you are.”
“Ben Wright,” he said. “Ellie Vanderveer asked me to look into the case.”
“Ellie? Does Flynt know?”
“I don’t think so.”
Hewitt laughed. “She never really trusted him. Probably right not to. I guess she wants to make sure her income’s safe.”
“Ben’s been a way to leverage our resources,” said Watson.
“Cheap help, you mean,” said Hewitt.
“If you’d prefer. He didn’t come out of our budget.”
Wright went into the store and ordered a bacon and egg sandwich and coffee. The damp was making his knee throb. He couldn’t imagine people wanting to live year round in a place like this. Once the summer visitors had gone, it became bleak. Some people might have found poetry in the biting cold and rotting damp. In bundling up for walks on a windswept beach, in treasuring those occasional blue sky days of winter. He wasn’t one of them. As he came back out, he saw Hewitt and Watson engrossed in conversation. He presumed they were laying out the terms of the discussion with Rodgers. A black Range Rover with yellow New York plates raced by, sending up a thick spray of water from the side of the road. Hurrying even in a place like this where there seemed so little to do.
Hewitt and Rodgers got up and walked towards him.
“Stay close,” said Hewitt. “We’re not far. But it’s easy to get lost.”
Hewitt ran towards his car. Wright removed his jacket, held it up over Watson and they followed, splashing through puddles in the pitted driveway, soaked and disheveled with the day scarcely begun.
They followed Hewitt’s tail-lights through the fog, as he drove through a maze of narrowing roads down towards the water. They turned off State Road onto the Moshup Trail, past Squibnocket Pond and towards the Vineyard Sound. They passed a couple of joggers, middle-aged men pounding through the mist in neon yellow shirts. Hewitt turned right through a farm gate. The road was now just a track which curled upwards, half a mile through apple orchards to a weathered farmhouse. They parked in the circular driveway, beneath the bare branches of a maple tree. They could hear waves somewhere not far off, but couldn’t see them.
They followed Hewitt through the front door. The house was startling in its simplicity. There were no internal walls on the ground floor. Everything was open. The wooden floorboards were stained near black. The walls were a flat white, with no pictures or photographs. The few pieces of furniture were made of heavy oak. Rodgers stood in the middle of the space in bare feet, jeans, and a dark blue polo shirt.
“Thank you for coming,” he said to Watson. “Let me get you a towel.” Her hair and her jacket were wet. “Would you like a dry sweatshirt?” She shook her head. You couldn’t start a negotiation wearing the other person’s clothes. A plate of croissants and a pot of coffee had been set in the middle of the dining room table. Hewitt took a seat and Watson and Wright followed. Rodgers reappeared with a white towel. Watson took it and patted down her hair.
“So,” said Rodgers. “Ellie put you onto me.” Wright nodded. “She was, no question, the best of my wives. Beautiful. Smart. Tough. If I’d been able to hold down a marriage with anyone, she was the one. But,” he gave a theatrical shrug. “Wasn’t to be. Just can’t do it. Like my great fellow Southerner Forrest Gump once said, stupid is as stupid does.”
“Here’s how this works,” said Watson, tapping on a manila file.
“Already?” said Rodgers. “We don’t get any foreplay?” Watson didn’t even bother to scowl.
“You give us Harper.”
“He’s my oldest friend,” said Rodgers. The four of them let this comment hang in the air between them.
“You acknowledge that your firm had become a magnet for cheating. You accept that as a manager you were neglectful. And you give us Bill Harper. In return, you walk.”
“No charges now or in the future,” said Hewitt.
Rodgers leaned back and ran a hand through his hair.
“I can still work in securities.”
“You can become head of the SEC for all I care.”
“Like John Kennedy’s father. Poacher turned gamekeeper. Not a bad idea. How’d you like me as your boss?” Watson kept her eyes on Hewitt, who didn’t crack a smile.
“The White House wants this dealt with quietly and quickly,” she said.
“After all your hard work. It’s a shame how we all dance their tune,” said Rodgers.
“Don’t try to provoke me, Mr. Rodgers. It rarely ends well.”
“You know what a Marine scout sniper is?” he said, leaning in to the table.
“I know what a sniper is.”
“A Marine scout sniper’s different from your ordinary sniper. He has two jobs. To go out and conduct reconnaissance on the enemy. And then to take out targets from a very long way away.” He lifted his hands up as if holding a rifle and pointing it at Watson. “It takes a very steady hand, and a very slow pulse. A very particular personality type.” He pulled the imaginary trigger. “No one has any idea where the shot has come from. By the time they figure it out, the sniper is long gone. It’s what Bill did in the Marines. He was the total opposite of me. You want some coffee?” Watson declined. Rodgers poured himself a cup.
“As you can imagine,” he went on, “I was kind of noisy in the Corps. I liked to show off. Bill just went about his business. Tidiest bed in camp. Cleanest uniform. But when a battalion commander was preparing an operation, you know who he went to first? Bill. Bill could go into the most smashed up corners of Beirut and identify the weak points. He’d tell you where to come in from. What you could take out in advance. But most important, he know how to get out when you were done. There was no collateral damage with Bill. Man, he was surgical.”
“I’m not here to listen to you reminisce,” said Watson.
“When he told me about Hong Kong, I told him he was being stupid.”
“Why?” Rodgers looked over at Hewitt who gave a discreet nod.
“Because he was getting too close to the information. He thought he was being so goddamned smart. Sending Tommy out, the casino accounts. But that guy Keen’s a sleazy sonofabitch. I told Harp he’d sell him out for a two dollar bill.”
“So why did he do it?”
“Wanted to be a player, I guess. Do something apart from me.”
“But you’d already made him very rich.”
“We never stop wanting more. It’s a human impulse. It’s why I have this house like this. It’s the only place I go to which has less. Is Harp going to be charged with murder?”
“You think he should be?”
Rodgers put his bare feet up on the table and rocked himself back.
“Sergio was a wonderful man.” He closed his eyes. “And Tommy was...fun. Always fun.” After a few more moments, Rodgers swung his feet back onto the floor. “Fine. What do we need to do?”
“We will announce a settlement of our case against Rodgers Capital. There will be criminal charges filed against Bill Harper accusing him of repeated insider trading. The police may have additional charges to file against him. You will come out and express very deep remorse for all that has happened, Rodgers Capital will suspend operations, and you will then disappear from view. You won’t resurface until long after the election.”
“Fine,” said Rodgers. Hewitt exhaled and reached forward for the coffee. Watson closed her file. “Ellie will be relieved,” Rodgers said to Wright. He got up and stretched. He looked through the window at the fog. “No sailing today, I guess,” he said.
As Rodgers stood there, the glass cracked and his body lurched backwards. He clutched his shoulder and fell down. The wind whistled through the hole in the window. Wright grabbed Watson and pulled her down. But he was too late. Another bullet pierced the glass and grazed Watson just below her liver. She screamed as she fell to the floor. Wright knelt beside her and pressed his hand to her stomach. He called Hewitt over.
“Keep the pressure on this,” Wright told him. He glanced over at Rodgers who was clutching his shoulder. At least he was alive. Wright pulled himself across the floor and out of the back door.
Somewhere in this fog, he knew, was Bill Harper.
The shots had come from the side of the house which faced the sea. There was a long lawn, which sloped down towards dunes. Wright pressed his body close to the house. Except for the fog, there was little cover. But the fog was turning to rain and starting to clear. Wright ran low to the ground towards the tall grass on the edge of the lawn. As he plunged into it, he felt a bullet pass inches from his head and heard it thud into the ground behind him.
The shooter had moved. He couldn’t have fired the shots into the house and this last one from the same position. He was moving east, perhaps down towards the sea. If Wright moved too quickly, the grass would move with him and he would give up his position. He waited a moment. As the rain gathered in strength, the fog lifted and the view across the property became clearer. Wright could now see a path cut through the high grass to his right, and rolled over towards it.
The path led straight down to the Moshup Trail and from there over the dunes to the beach. He started to run, his knees howling with every step. As he reached the trail, he saw the black Range Rover with New York plates parked at an angle, its rear wheels almost in a drainage ditch. The rain was now lashing at his face. Wright ran to the front of the car and waited.
He heard the man panting, opening the driver’s door. The man dropped his gun and cursed. Wright saw it was a rifle with a scope. He ran forward and jammed the door closed. But the man was quick. He stepped back and in one motion picked up his gun and holding it by the barrel cracked the butt into the side of Wright’s head. He shoved Wright back into the road. Wright staggered.
Harper seemed younger than he had in the photographs. Leaner. His white hair was buzzed close to his scalp.
He climbed into the driver’s seat and reached for the door. Wright sprang forward and pulled the door back. He reached in and grabbed the key from Harper’s hand and threw it behind him into the dunes.
Harper elbowed him in the face, crushing the bridge of his nose, then reached for his gun. A carton of bullets lay open on the passenger seat. He slid up the bolt to open the breech and slid in a fresh magazine. As he closed it, he heard the bolt head stripping a bullet from the top of the magazine, readying it to fire. He then felt Wright’s hand tighten around his neck.
“Drop it,” said Wright.
Harper leered and rammed the butt of the gun into Wright’s stomach. Wright winced and tightened his grip.
“Drop it,” he repeated. With his other hand, he was holding the scope which was fixed to the barrel of the gun. “It’s over. Rodgers sold you out.”
Harper’s eyes seemed dead to Wright. Not a flicker of fear or disappointment. He stared at Wright as his breath quickened. Wright loosened his hold on Harper’s windpipe. And in that moment, Harper thrust his head forward into Wright’s, striking him on the forehead with the corner of his skull. It felt to Wright like a hammer blow. He let go of the gun and Harper swiveled, kicked Wright again in the stomach and ran from the car towards the beach. Wright staggered and ran after him, but Harper was quick, moving lightly, disappearing into the dunes.
Blood was pouring from Wright’s nose and from a deep gash on his forehead into his right eye. He heard a siren in the distance, ambulance or police he couldn’t tell, but it was approaching. He stumbled forward. He saw Harper crest the ridge which descended towards the beach. Harper turned and saw Wright, raised the rifle to his shoulder and fired.
All that saved Wright from the crushing power of a rifle bullet was a flock of sea ducks which rose squawking from the dunes. One of them took the bullet and fell to the ground, giving Wright just enough time to hurl himself into the bottom of the first dune on the ocean side of the road. The sirens, he reckoned, were still a couple of miles away.
Wright looked around him. The key to the Range Rover should have been there. But it was gone. If Harper had it and could get back to the car, he could still get away. All that stood between him and the car now was Wright. And Harper had the gun.
The sand around Wright was pooling in mushy puddles. Falling into the dune, Wright felt like he had cracked a rib. Around him lay the rotting shells of half a dozen horseshoe crabs. Wright scuffled forward to grab one and snap off its tail. It was sharp and rigid, no heavier than a pencil. He didn’t dare peek over the top of the bunker for fear that Harper was waiting, his rifle trained on him.
But Harper had to move soon, before the sirens reached them. Every second he wasted here in the dunes was a second he could use getting away. Wright had the advantage of time.
The rain grew more violent, cold and hard, like handfuls of ball bearings being lashed at him by an angry child. Every other sound was muffled by the noise of the waves and the rain. Wright did not hear Harper approaching from behind.
“Get up,” said Harper. He was pointing his rifle at Wright’s head. His shirt was soaked through and Wright could see the outline of his chest. “Over to the car.” Wright slipped the crab tail up the sleeve of his shirt. “Quickly.” Wright obeyed, struggling to his feet and clambering back over into the road. The sirens were now very close. They would soon be in sight. Harper pushed the rifle into the back of Wright’s neck and shuffled behind him, looking up the road towards the sirens.
“It’s over,” said Wright.
“It’s never over,” said Harper who pulled the bolt back on the rifle. Wright heard a scrape. The bolt wasn’t sliding smoothly. There was sand in the mechanism. Harper had to jam it back to strip the bullet. As he did so, Wright swiveled round. He knocked away the barrel of the gun with his left hand and dropping the crab tail slid into his right palm he swept it up into Harper’s neck.
The tail punctured Harper’s skin and Wright jammed it deep into his carotid artery. Blood pulsed from the wound. Harper’s whole body juddered. Wright removed his hand as Harper fell to his knees and then onto his face in the wet road.
Flynt Rodgers burst out of the path which led through the tall grass from the house down to the road, still clutching his shoulder. He stopped when he saw Harper’s writhing body. He stared at his old friend dying, as coolly if he were a fish twisting on a slab. He didn’t look up as the police and ambulance crew pulled up behind Wright and started pouring out onto the road, yelling orders. He watched as Harper’s right foot twitched and then fell still. Harper lay there beside the car like road kill.
Wright stepped back and held his hands out, palms upward so the rain would wash away Harper’s blood. Pain surged through his side. He was sure now that he had broken a rib.
“Marj?” he said to Rodgers. Rodgers nodded back up towards the house. He saw Watson and Hewitt standing looking down towards them. The fog had now lifted entirely and Wright could see the mowed slope which led up towards the house and the high grass on either side which had protected him. He staggered backwards, falling onto his rear. A paramedic rushed forward and held him so his head didn’t hit the road. Another brought a blanket and wrapped it around Wright. He was shivering.
“You OK Mr. Wright?” Wright looked up, blinking. For a moment he didn’t recognize the burly, squatting figure of Mike Ciancio. All he could see was the image of blood spurting from Harper’s neck. All he could hear was the sound of the crab tail puncturing and tearing his neck. It sounded like ripping out the backbone of a chicken.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” said Wright. “I’ll be fine.”
“It was very brave what you did.”
Wright shook his head and stared down between his legs at the road. It had all been about money, and yet no amount of it could make this good again. In the moment Rodgers had watched his friend die, Wright had seen them as young Marines in Beirut. Comrades in arms. Semper Fidelis. Searching through the rubble of the barracks for their friends. They had survived that. Hardship had made them strong. What had ruined them was success.
Ron Hardaway rarely gave in to expressions of emotion, but on this occasion he closed the door of his office and punched the air with delight.
Watson’s appearance before the cameras, emerging from hospital with her right arm in a sling, had been genius. It wasn’t often that the SEC’s director of enforcement had an opportunity to look vulnerable, but Watson had pulled it off, making her account seem all the more credible.
“Bill Harper’s story is an American tragedy,” she told the waiting reporters. “His guilt over what he did proved a far more severe punishment than anything we, the federal government, could have done to him. Flynt Rodgers has acknowledged management failings which led to a pattern of insider trading at Rodgers Capital. Consequently, he will be returning outside investor money and ceasing his advisory business. As far as the SEC is concerned, this investigation is now closed.”
The official story, orchestrated by Watson, was that Bill Harper had killed himself. Wright’s presence had been erased from the record. There was no need for the public to know about the involvement of a private investigator in such a high profile case. Everyone accepted that Bill Harper was the criminal and Rodgers the dupe, and Harper had never given a dime to Leanne Mills. Rodgers’ only crime had been to trust in his old buddy from the Marines. He had been true to the Marine code, always faithful, and paid for it. Heroic to the last.
Hardaway drummed his fingers on his desk. Yes, perhaps it had been harsh of the White House to let Rodgers swing in the wind after he had been so generous to Mills. But Rodgers knew the game. He knew that once the public mood against financiers turned, it was bad luck to be caught up in an investigation. Maybe Mills shouldn’t have piled on. But the longer she remained silent on Rodgers, the more it hurt her. She had to say something, and eventually there was only one thing she could say. That the American people needed to have faith and trust in their financial markets. No personal loyalty of hers could get in the way of that.
As squalid compromises went, Hardaway had seen a lot worse.
With just three more days till the election, Mills’ lead felt secure. Five percentage points nationally, and crucial leads in the swing states. But the last days of a campaign were like trying to land a fighter jet on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier.
Hardaway saw the light on his phone go on. He had asked not to be disturbed by anyone except the President.
“She wants to see you,” said his secretary. “Immediately.”
Hardaway checked himself in the mirror and walked through the President’s private dining room and study, through a side door into the Oval Office.
The late autumn sun was pouring through the tall windows behind the President’s desk. Usually when Hardaway came in, she was sitting behind it, glasses perched on her nose working through a stack of documents. Instead, he heard her laugh and turned to see her sitting on one of the sofas in the middle of the room.
Opposite her, resplendent in a dove grey suit sat Flynt Rodgers.
“Come on in,” said Mills, waving Hardaway in. “Flynt and I were just reminiscing about South Carolina. We are going to hold on there this year, aren’t we, despite our philandering Governor?”
“Polls say 7 points, Ma’am.”
“What was that euphemism he used? The one when he was seeing his mistress?”
“Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Ma’am.”
“That’s it. You ever heard cheating called that before, Flynt?”
“Makes it sound more strenuous than it need be.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Mills. Hardaway always knew he was in trouble when the President turned all Southern, when her vowels started to lengthen and she started to drawl. It meant she was going somewhere that he, with his schooling in Chicago politics, didn’t fully understand.
“Congratulations Ron,” said Rodgers, not even rising from his seat. “Seems like you have this one in the bag.”
“Don’t jinx it,” he said, taking one of the upright leather seats at the end of the room.
“Flynt was just asking what you were planning to do during my second term,” said Mills.
“I was planning on doing my job,” said Hardaway.
“That’s what I told him. Except...well, Flynt, why don’t you tell him?”
Rodgers leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He showed no sign of the heavy bandaging on his right side beneath his suit. His eyes flared like blue flame.
“I’ve been chastened, Ron,” he said. Oh, bullshit, thought Hardaway, but he fought to keep his disbelief from showing. “I’ve been truly humbled by my experience. As I was telling the President, I flew too close to the sun. And like Icarus, the wax in my wings melted. I was cast down hard upon the ground.” When you added a Southern drawl to the rhythms of an Evangelical preacher, Hardaway thought, you were really in trouble. Especially when the speaker was a hedge fund manager. “So I want to make this all right. I am going to set up a foundation.”
Rodgers sat back and brushed a piece of lint from his trouser leg.
“That it?” said Hardaway.
“And I want you to be its first chief executive,” said Rodgers.
“You’re not serious.”
“I am very serious,” said Rodgers, edging down the sofa to be closer to Hardaway. “The purpose of the foundation is to improve the stability of our financial system. I am endowing it with $2 billion of my own and will be inviting others to join me. It will be located at my alma mater, Auburn University.”
“But that’s in Alabama.”
“Go Tigers,” said Mills. “The financial industry it far too parochial. It needs to build bridges to other parts of the country. I believe Flynt’s idea will help do exactly that. It will make the conversation truly national.”
“But it’s in Alabama,” said Hardaway.
“You ever been to Alabama?” said Rodgers. “Only thing that could make it any better is if it were South Carolina.”
“Why?” said Hardaway turning to Mills.
“You know the Presidency better than anyone, Ron,” she said. “Second terms are different. We won’t announce anything until after the election.”
“It’ll be a big step up in pay,” said Rodgers. “There’s a great political science program at Auburn too. I’ll ask about a professorship. for you. Those kids would benefit from your experience. Maybe we could do a joint class. Talk about politics and money. We could come up with something.”
“One more thing, Ron,” said Mills, rising from her seat. “That campaign debt we were so worried about? Flynt’s going to take care of it after the inauguration.”
Rodgers rose too and walked to the door. As he passed Hardaway he put his hand on his shoulder.
“It’s going to be a blast, pal,” he said.
Hardaway slumped down, utterly defeated.
Wright had thought about dropping the check in the mail, or simply having Rodgers wire it electronically. But he had made a promise to Caitlin Donovan and he felt a duty to tell her he had fulfilled it. He walked up the driveway to the house. As he turned towards the kitchen door, he saw the lycra’d form of Rique stretched out on an exercise ball, his crotch rising up to the sky. Rique looked over at him quizzically without dismounting.
“You the disrespecter?” he said.
“I suppose I am,” said Wright.
“You should get out of here. Before I make you.”
“Is Caitlin around?”
“You hear me? You should get out of here.”
“Will you tell her that Benjamin Wright stopped by?”
“I’ll tell her what I want to tell her. I’m not telling her just because you want me to. I’m not your bitch.”
“I don’t know what else you could be,” said Wright as he took in Rique’s over-muscled form draped over the inflated ball.
“You disrespecting me again?” yapped Rique leaping to his feet, using nothing but the strength in his stomach muscles.
“Oh, god, really?” said Wright, as Rique strutted up to him, his face coming to just below Wright’s chin.
“You came back,” said Caitlin Donovan, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “The cops got here before you, though. Told me about Harper.” She was wearing her yoga clothes.
Wright walked away from Rique towards Donovan.
“You’re not really dating this animal are you?” he said.
“What did you say?” said Rique.
“The sex is mind-blowing,” said Donovan.
“Better than the conversation, I hope,” said Wright.
“He’s a tantric master.”
“So he does shut up from time to time.” Wright pulled an envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket. “I said I’d get you your husband’s money.”
Donovan put the envelope on the table.
“You’re not going to open it?”
“Five million seven hundred and ninety three thousand, two hundred and sixty one dollars.”
“Rodgers rounded it up to six.”
“How’d you get him to pay?”
“He was keen not to leave any loose ends. I said that if you got your money, you’d never talk.”
“Your husband had some interesting business contacts.”
“I told you I never asked.”
“But you counted every penny they owed you.”
“It was the only thing that mattered. Tommy made the mistake of thinking anyone could be your friend in business.”
“You knew better.”
“You want beets?” She was pushing down carrots, apples and ginger into the top of her juicer, a German, silver contraption the size of a microwave oven. “The guy who sold it to me said this was the Mercedes Benz of juicers. Rique says it’s the only way to go.”
“You knew it was Harper all along,” said Wright. Donovan didn’t turn around.
“It presses out 50% more juice, or something.”
“You knew who your husband was seeing the night he died. Why didn’t you tell the police?”
Donovan watched the purple juice trickling out of the machine into a tumbler. When the first glass was full she removed it and put in another. When that one was full she handed it to Wright. Rique came into the kitchen.
“Hey, babe, you got some juice for me?” he said.
“Get out of here,” she said. “I’ll tell you when you can come back in.” Rique scuttled back outside. “I never liked Bill Harper. He gave me the creeps.”
“So why did you protect him?”
“I wasn’t protecting him.”
“Then who?” She turned away. “It was Flynt, wasn’t it. Were you and he...?”
“Come on, Ben, who hasn’t? But that wasn’t the reason.”
“I was protecting myself. I didn’t want to get involved in this whole thing. I’d lived it with Tommy. I’d seen how complicated these things get. I didn’t want a scandal. For the kids.” She sighed and put down her drink and wiped away the purple mustache it had left above her lips. “I wanted my money and I wanted to get out. Is that OK with you? Cop’s daughter, remember? When things get nasty, shut up and lie low because you never know what could happen otherwise. You all found out eventually, right? No harm, no foul.”
The events of the past five days fast-forwarded through Wright’s brain like a newsreel.
“Sure, no harm. No foul. Enjoy the money.”
“Doesn’t make you better than me,” she said.
“No,” he said, walking towards the door.
Rique was lurking outside, furious at his dismissal.
“What were you two talking about?”
“Your sex life,” said Wright.
“She tell you about that?”
“Among other things.” He walked back to his car as the wind started to whip up the piles of leaves.
As he opened the door, a felt a hand pushing it closed.
“Detective,” he said. Ciancio was looking sheepish.
“How’s that rib?” he said.
“You were right about following the fear.”
“You were right to listen to me.”
“I wanted to say thank you. This whole thing. This whole world of yours. I never knew it existed.”
“The world of money?”
“Yeah. I wanted to see if maybe we could stay in touch, if anything else comes up.”
“Any time, detective.” Wright looked over to the car across the street. Vargas was sitting in the passenger seat, pretending not to look over. “Anything for you and your friend.”
“Just a colleague,” said Ciancio.
“Sure,” said Wright.
Wright arrived at the SEC building in the late afternoon and went straight up to the ninth floor. During the two weeks since returning from Hong Kong Dupre had returned to full health. The bruising on her face had subsided, her hairdresser had cut the rest of her hair short to hide what Keen had done, and she looked better than Wright remembered.
“Still here?” he said as she greeted him at the elevator doors.
“Nowhere else to go,” she said. “Though after an election it seems everyone else is moving on.”
“You should see it when the party holding the White House changes,” said Wright. “For a few months the whole federal government’s a ghost town. Where are we going?” Dupre had passed her office and Watson’s and was walking towards an exit door.
“Marj wanted to show you something.”
They climbed up an indoor fire exit and out onto the roof. Watson stood at the edge looking out towards the railway tracks leading out of Union Station. In the other direction was a clear view of the Capitol, every detail visible under the floodlights. Wright stopped beside her.
“All this could be yours,” he said.
“Already is, Ben. They’ve promoted me. Head of the SEC.”
“The administration was very happy with our handling of the Rodgers case.”
“They call that handling?”
“I know. More like frantic juggling.” Watson pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders. An Amtrak train pulled out with a blast of its horn. “Would you ever come and work here, Ben?”
“For your country?”
“Much as I love it, no.”
“You and Aneesha could team up again.”
“Tempting as that sounds, still no.”
“J.P.Morgan offered me the job of general counsel.”
“You should have taken it.”
“Not yet, Ben. There’ll be plenty of time to sup with the devil. What are you going to do?”
“Take a vacation.”
“If you came here, you could really set an example to the younger staff.”
“I’m no one’s idea of an example. You know that.”
“Of course. You’re a renegade. The insider outsider.”
“If you ever come up with a real definition of what I do, tell me. I’d like to know.”
“You think we’ll ever change anything?”
“You change the system just by being here. The other side knows you’re here. Even when they know that the chances of getting caught are slim, there’s still a chance.”
“We’re just a pothole on the road to hell,” she said. “It burns me up that Rodgers got away with this.”
“He paid a price.”
“He got to blame everything on Harper. Now he’s going to spend his time pretending he’s the second coming of philanthropy.”
“What do you think, Dupre?” said Wright.
“I think there are forces beyond our control,” she said. Wright and Watson looked at each other and nodded. “So we must do what we can.”
“They should that put that on the seal,” said Watson. “Makes more sense than E Pluribus Unum. We must do what we can.”
“I have a flight to catch,” said Wright. “Back to New York.”
“You’ll be back, Ben,” said Watson still staring out at the lights coming on all over the city. “There are no lines between politics and money anymore. You’ll be back long before you want to be.”
Dupre took him back down the fire exit to the elevator.
“What are you going to be doing now?” asked Wright as they waited.
“I’m going to be her chief of staff.”
The elevator doors opened. As he stepped in, Wright turned. “She’ll be in good hands.”
Wright checked his watch. They had set out at 6.30am to catch the fish before the sun rose too high in the sky. It had been a good morning. He and Oscar had caught seven fish, but none since 10am. They were waist deep in the Jolters off the northern tip of Andros.
“Time to head in,” said Wright.
“You got it,” said Oscar, scanning the water for one last fish. “The fish are getting spooky.” He let rip with one final cast, which tore through the air to a spot fifty feet away. “Just missed it,” he said, reeling in his line. “Swimming away from me.”
They waded back to the boat.
“Time for a Kalik,” said Wright.
Oscar laughed and passed him a cold beer. A month of this was enough to heal even the deepest wounds, physical and psychological. And under Oscar’s careful instruction, his casting had improved no end.
Oscar started the motor on the boat and Wright sat facing forward. The boat bounced over the waves rocking Wright to sleep. He did not wake up until he felt it slowing again and he could see the bow of the Virago.
“It’s about to start,” yelled Vanderveer from her boat. Oscar pulled up and let Wright climb aboard.
“Any luck this morning?” said Vanderveer, kissing Wright on the mouth and wrapping an arm around his waist.
“Plenty,” he said. The Greek twins were clearing away a late breakfast.
“You seen him yet?”
“Not yet,” she said, leading Wright into the living room. The television screen showed CNN’s coverage of the inauguration. The sky was gray over the Capitol, the sun invisible. Vanderveer curled her long, tanned legs beneath her and flicked through the channels. “Same feed everywhere,” she said. “You really think he’s going to be there.”
The broadcast showed Mills getting into the Beast at the White House then driving down towards the Capitol. The members of a Baptist choir from South Carolina were singing to warm up the crowd. This second inauguration wasn’t as popular a ticket as her first. Then the whole world had tuned in to see the first woman President. Everything became commonplace after a while. The cameras turned to the seats behind the podium, where Mills would be sworn into office again. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was bundled up in a black overcoat and an Astrakhan hat, looking like a member of the old Soviet Politburo watching the tanks pass through Red Square on May Day. The leaders of the House and the Senate came down the steps from the Capitol, shaking hands, talking and laughing, doing their best to convey the collegiality so absent from their day-to-day dealings.
Wright drained his beer. Medusa brought him a clean white T-shirt and a fresh Kalik. As he changed shirts, he saw Rodgers in the corner of the screen.
“There he is.”
“Oh my God. You were right. Where’s he sitting?”
“Watch. He’s coming down the stairs. It’s pretty good to be in this box at all. But the closer you are to the front, the better.”
“OK. He’s still walking. He’s past most of the Cabinet.”
“Look, he’s stopping now. He’s sitting in the row behind the President. Next to the chief of staff.”
“Did he just put his hand on the chief justice’s shoulder?”
“Yes he did.” Wright sat back, smiling in admiration. “Your ex-husband is a piece of work.”
“And he’s still paying for all this,” Vanderveer said waving around her yacht. She came over to Wright and straddled him, her hair brushing around his face. “So who’s the real piece of work?”
Wright hit the mute button on the remote.
“How could I have missed you in high school?”
“Doesn’t matter any more,” she said. “You’ve lots of time to make up for it now.”
© whistler publishing. 2014. all rights reserved.