A Benjamin Wright Mystery
Wright bent double and clutched his knees. He could taste blood in the back of his mouth. Two schoolboys dressed in grey shorts, white shirts and grey caps stared up at him. He managed a faint smile. But then he heard it. The whine of the motorcycle.
Behind him rose a bridge, arched like the back of an armadillo over Tokyo Bay. Its ugly struts were barely visible against the cloudy sky. It was rush hour. But this being Japan, the rush was orderly. Cars waited patiently at the lights, refusing to honk. Streams of pedestrians walked briskly towards the office buildings of Ginza without so much as a shove or a sharp word.
Wright had no time for such civility. He had to run and keep running. As far as possible from the maniac on the bike. Across the road he saw a guard standing listlessly beside an open gate. Wright wiped away the sweat which was stinging his eyes and glimpsed the chaos of the Tsukiji market.
He veered to the left of the crowd surging across the street and sprinted past the guard. He could lose himself in here. Easily. A tour guide holding up a large colorful umbrella was giving advice to a group of American visitors: “This is a working market. Please do not do anything to interrupt the work of the people working here. You can take pictures, but stay close. There is a lot of moving traffic, cars, scooters, as well as people carry sharp knives and trays of product.”
Wright joined the back of the group, trying to look inconspicuous. Except that he was the only one of them not in shorts, T-shirt and trainers with a camera around his neck. A two-piece blue worsted wool suit from Huntsman and a bespoke Sea Island cotton shirt was hardly the ideal outfit for visiting a fish market on a humid Tokyo morning.
His pursuer had stopped at the gate and was talking to the guard, who was suddenly much more animated than he had seemed to Wright. The two of them were looking into the vast parking lot in front of the market. If Wright did not move, they would spot him in a few seconds.
All around the market, the vendors rode yellow, motorized carts, scooters with six foot flat beds, loaded with fish packed in ice. The drivers stood at the front and steered using a large wheel which lay flat in front of them like a roulette wheel. They wove quickly through the narrow lanes of the market, barely missing each other. As one of these passed, Wright leapt onto a low runner between the wheels and crouched down. The driver turned to look back down at him. His face was gnarled and teak brown. Thin wisps of grey hair lay across his forehead. A self-rolled cigarette had settled into a well worn slot on his lower lip. Wright looked up at him imploringly. The driver smiled and kept on moving, out of the car park and into the market itself, a vaulting, iron structure, blackened with use and cacophonous.
Close to the exits, a line of carts waited to use the ice machines, sets of primitive, clattering pipes which disgorged bucket-loads of ice every second. From every side came the beeping of trucks as they backed into the loading areas, shouts as a scooter shot past a little too close, and the incessant, high-pitched grind of blades being sharpened.
Wright jumped off the cart as it was still moving. The driver did not even look back. Wright looked down. He had landed in a fishy puddle and a rubbery streak of something now clung to the right cuff of his trousers. He glanced out towards the car park. He could see the man running along the side of the market, squinting into the darkness. In America or Europe, Wright could so easily have vanished amidst so many people. But not as a six foot white man in a Japanese fish market. Here he stood out like a bloodstain on a clean white sheet.
He turned down one of the narrow alleys which ran down away from the entrance. The soles of his leather shoes slipped awkwardly on the wet cobbles. He wished he was wearing rubber boots like all the men who worked here. The air was thick with the smell of fish, cigarette smoke and strong coffee. Wright passed piles of crimson octopus, lobsters the deepest purple, scurrying pointlessly in deep plastic trays. Shrimp lay in translucent heaps, headless eels writhed in bloody pools of water. The vendors picked them up and squeezed them, as if wringing out a pair of wet socks. There were buckets of prickly sea urchins, red snapper staring up with their inquisitive black eyes, stacks of long, sharp crab claws.
Wright was now stuck behind a group of three men, all smoking and staring down at a three foot slab of tuna, skinned and deep red, like the haunch of some giant human. They were waiting for the seller to carve off slivers with a long knife, a foot and a half long, and serve them up on small paper plates. Wright glanced down to see a blue bucket full of blood-encrusted tuna heads, scraped clean of flesh, their eyes staring up, dead and alabaster white.
For all the human chaos and foreign tour parties, the fish market remained a place of butchery, of knives ripping through bone and flesh, tearing off skin and scales.
From behind him, Wright heard a ripple of voices and the muffled crash of Styrofoam boxes falling to the ground. He turned around. 20 feet away, the man was surging towards him, clearing his path with a three foot tuna carving blade. He was smiling dementedly as he came.
Wright pushed at one of the men staring down at the tuna, forcing him to spill his searing coffee onto the precious, raw flesh. His ankle turned on the wet stone, sending a bolt of pain up his leg. He cursed, but pushed on. He looked down the alley at the crush of people. If he kept going, he would soon be caught. He noticed a wooden gallery running along the top of the shops, where the shop owners stored boxes and hung signs. He grabbed hold of a narrow wooden ladder running up towards it and climbed, his feet slipping on the damp wood. Down below in a small hutch tucked at the back of a store, he saw a woman pausing from counting the day’s takings under a long, fluorescent light to scowl at him.
In a moment, Wright was standing on the gallery. He unhooked the ladder and threw it to the ground. His pursuer swiped at it as it fell, slashing easily through one of the steps. The walkway was much narrower than it had looked from the ground. Wright would have to shuffle along as if he were on a narrow mountain path, pressing his back up against the boxes.
He could see the vendors had moved away, gathering at each end of the alley, watching and talking as if this were some gladiatorial spectacle. Wright half expected them to start placing bets. 10 feet above him, he could see a curving strut, one of several which arched in like the legs of a spider towards a large, circular light fixture. From that, a single pole ran up another 20 feet to an opening onto the roof. Turning in the narrow space, he found a tight path through the boxes. It might buy him some time.
He edged his way through to the other side of the gallery. He could hear the clatter of metal on stone. The man slashed his blade on the ground in frustration as he realized he would have to run all the way to one end of the alley and come down the other side. It gave Wright a moment to think. Teetering over the shop below him, was a heavy wooden sign, six feet across and four feet high, painted with the owner’s name. It was held by two ropes, tied to iron hooks. Wright yanked at the knots, pulling away years of encrusted filth. When they were loosened, he gripped the ropes, grimacing at the weight of the sign and bracing his feet against the gallery’s ledge. He could hear the man panting below him. He waited until he was sure he was standing right below then let go.
The huge slab of teak fell forward, bringing down a string of lights and crashing onto the fish and boxes below. The men at the end of the alley screamed with delight. Wright leaned over, hoping to see the feet of his pursuer poking out from one end, like the Wicked Witch of the East.
Instead, a splinter of wood flew up, just missing his face. He saw the man’s blade surging through the sign like a missile launched from out at sea. And then the sign came to a rest, on two wooden sawhorses, three feet off the ground. Wright heard a grunting sound and then his pursuer’s Mohawk emerging from beneath it.
For Christ’s sake.
Whichever way he went now, the man could follow him. He was trapped up here, like a man up a tree with a bear prowling beneath. There was only one way out.
He moved into the middle of the piles of packing cases, where he was invisible to the crowd below. He placed his left foot on a stack of boxes. They wobbled beneath him. He brought up his right foot. He shuffled his feet around until the boxes stopped moving. Then he reached up and grabbed the strut. His fingers could not grip the metal. If he tried to jump, the boxes would topple away beneath him. He stood on the tips of his toes and just managed to wrap his right palm around the strut. He pulled himself up and got the left palm around it too. Then he swung his feet up until he was dangling like a monkey from a branch. Then with a final effort, he pulled himself up and over until he was straddling the beam. He caught his breath. Above him ran a taut cable. He raised himself to his feet and seized it. Within seconds he had pulled himself along to the central light fixture.
He leaned forward and grabbed the pole rising up to the roof. Thick rivets offered support for his hands and feet as he shimmied his way up. His long arms quickly reached the opening at the top. Wright pulled himself up towards the rectangle of hazy sky and with one final heave, he had his elbows wedged on the rooftop and was able to lever himself out into daylight.
He barely had a moment to catch his breath before he heard the clatter of the metal staircase which ran up the rear of the market building. Seconds later, he saw his pursuer. The demented smile had been replaced by an angry, snorting snarl. His face was smeared with fish blood. He smashed his long blade into the metal roof, sending off sparks.
Wright could now hear sirens wailing towards the market. This was precisely what he had been warned not to do. Alert the police to his presence here in Tokyo. But someone, any one of hundreds of eye-witnesses must have called them. And now they would all be witness to his ignominious death.
Wright stepped backwards, glancing for a moment to see where the edge of the roof was. The killer twisted the blade in circles, now in the air, now scratching it against the roof. One swipe of it could easily decapitate a man.
Seagulls flew low overhead, fleeing a storm far out beyond Tokyo Bay. Wright could now make out the intricate tattoo which covered the upper part of the man’s face, a swirl of concentric circles curling around his eyes. His Mohawk was gelled into a hard ridge which stood immune to the strong wind. He wore a black silk shirt, the sleeves rolled up to expose brawny, scarred forearms and a heavy gold watch. He spat, but the wind caught his spittle and blew it back across his chin. He wiped it away with his arm.
Several police cars were now pulling up in front of the fish market. The faint chatter of radios and barked orders reached the two men up on the roof. But the killer seemed unfazed. He was focused on one thing: his orders to murder the gaijin now edging gingerly away from him. Everything else would be taken care of.
The roof was large, the size of a football field at least. But there were only two obvious ways off. Back down the way Wright had come up, or by the stairs. A twirling three foot sword lay between Wright and both options. Behind him, the drop was 40 feet at least onto concrete or a fast moving scooter. Wright waited for the man to make a lunge, anything which might put him off balance. But the killer was patient. They could hear the police running around the market, the first steps on the metal staircase.
Wright glanced backwards for a fraction of a second, all the time he could risk. It was all he needed. He turned sharply and ran straight off the roof.
He expected the landing to be firmer than it was. Instead, he found himself sinking, sucked into the mass of rotting fish heads and bodies. He fought to keep himself from being drawn downwards, flapping his arms as if he were trying to take off. He could find nowhere to rest his feet. He pointed his foot downwards, searching for the bottom of the refuse container being driven away from the market, but he couldn’t find it.
He was a like a child venturing for the first time out of the shallow end of a swimming pool, panicking the moment his toes could not touch the bottom. The smell was repulsive, but it barely registered against his fear. Blood, entrails and the sticky remnants of thousands of skinned and gutted fish clung to Wright’s face and hair.
He felt a large splash followed by a large, strong palm pressing down on the crown of his head. The killer had landed and grabbed hold of the back of the truck. He was wallowing in the garbage, but unlike Wright, he had traction. Enough to drown his victim. He thrust violently downwards until Wright’s head disappeared below the surface.
Wright’s was blinded. He could feel the scratch of bones and fins against his face. The filth was seeping into his shirt, up his trousers, enveloping his entire body. He had managed one large breath before being forced down.
He pulled himself forward as if doing the breast-stroke to escape the hand pushing him down. He surged up a couple of feet away and found his right hand curling around a shell. His left hand found the side of the container. The killer began to edge his way round, holding onto the sides. Wright could feel the truck bumping along, stopping at the gates to the market while the driver checked out, and then pulling out onto the wide road leading south, away from the city center.
He could hear the killer’s breath now, heavy and rhythmic, like an athlete deep into a race. He could sense his confidence, his certainty that in a contest like this, when men’s lives depended on nothing more than their endurance and physical strength, he would win. He came ever closer and then suddenly raised his fist, bringing it down hard, crushing Wright’s fingers against the metal truck.
Wright screamed and whipped his right arm out of the sludge. He drove the sharp end of a conch shell into the man’s temple. It sank in as easily as a pin into a cork board.
The killer’s hands slipped from the side of the truck as he slumped backwards, blood dribbling from his temporal artery. The rotting mass swallowed him up with a wet slurp.
Wright pulled himself up as best he could, wincing from the blow to his left hand. He pulled his legs up over the side of the moving truck and dropped down onto a running board and edged his way along to the driver’s cabin. The truck was driving quickly now, along a freeway heading to a dump 50 miles south of the city. Wright reached the passenger side door and yanked it open. The driver pulled sharply over to the side of the road and began shouting at Wright to get off.
Wright reached into his inside pocket and pulled out his slime covered wallet. He produced a business card, showing the address of the British Embassy in Hanzomon, across the road from the Imperial Palace in the center of Tokyo and a 100,000 yen note. The man took the card and the money. And then held up two fingers. Wright produced another 100,000 yen note. Then man jerked his head, beckoning him in.
He knocked a pile of pornographic manga comics off the seat to make room for his passenger. Wright nodded his head in gratitude and fell with a squelch onto the leather seat. As the driver pulled away, a single thought went around Wright’s throbbing brain.
The things people do for money.
The monks arrived at the Senso-ji Asakusa temple in northwestern Tokyo as usual shortly after dawn. They stopped at the water fountain to rinse their hands, forearms and mouth. Then they walked slowly across the gravel towards the heart of the temple, where two, languid statues of the bodhisattva Kannon loomed under a wooden roof. The aroma of barbecued meat lingered in the air from the fairground just beyond the temple grounds.
Each man went about their duties, tidying up the area where people could leave prayers, opening up the small stores which sold devotional poems and religious trinkets, sweeping the area around the shrine.
The hum of the waking city seemed distant. Along the narrow streets leading to the shrine, the souvenir shops were still closed. In a few hours, they would be thronged with visitors from all over the world, some seeking understanding from the local Buddha, others merely wanting a statue of a golden cat with her paw raised supposed to bring wealth to its owner.
The senior monk raked the gravel in front of the main shrine into neat rows. He then stowed the rake beneath a flight of steps and took out a broom to begin his slow, daily sweep of the shining black floors in front of the Buddha himself. He moved the broom in small circles, cleaning out every crack in the floor. The task of sweeping 2000 square feet would take him an hour. A less diligent sweeper could have done it in 5 minutes.
As he moved closer to the shrine, he stopped, lay down his broom, clapped twice and bowed his head in prayer. When he was finished, he clapped once more and for the first time that morning lifted his eyes up to the shrine. The oil lamps had not been lit, so it was still dark. But something was not right. Years of attending to this shrine with the same methodical precision and reverence told him so.
He stepped closer. He could make out a shape on the altar. He reached for one of the nearly spent candles on a stand near one of the statues and lit it with a lighter from his pocket. He stepped over the rail leading into the shrine and walked towards the back.
The man was dressed in the uniform of the salary-man, a dark blue suit, white shirt and black tie. He eyes were closed and his lips frozen in a straight line, a neutral expression. The monk stepped closer. He recognized the face. The man used to come at least once a week in the early evenings, and sit for an hour or two on the bench outside, drinking in the serenity. He never spoke to anyone, but just sat, clutching the bench with both hands and rocking back and forth.
The monk held his candle right up to the man’s face, but dropped it almost instantly. A thin red line had been cut half way around the man’s neck. The altar cloth beneath him was soaked with blood.
The monk ran from the scene to the entrance of the shrine where he picked up a mallet and crashed it repeatedly against a large gong hanging from the rafters.
The truck driver deposited Wright as requested in front of the embassy. The Japanese guard stepped warily from his post as Wright fumbled with his wallet.
“Konnichiwa,” said Wright, all but exhausting his knowledge of Japanese. He managed to find what he was looking for, a card belonging to the First Secretary. He held it in both hands and passed it to the guard, who looked at it skeptically.
Wright brought his hand to his ear as if holding a telephone. “Please, call,” he said. The guard retreated to his post, opened the glass door and picked up the telephone. Wright had a moment to glance in at the embassy, an elegant cluster of two-story buildings set in ravishing gardens, which occupied the best location of any foreign mission in Tokyo. Typical Brits. 60 years since they last had an empire and they were still enjoying its perks.
The guard emerged and the barrier across the entrance swung open. He waved Wright in and instructed him to wait to be picked up. Wright thrust his hands into his pockets and immediately wished he hadn’t. They were filled with unpleasant gloop. A minute or two later, he heard the click of heels rounding a path which curved up to the central embassy building. A Japanese woman in slim, blue trousers, white T-shirt and white jacket turned the corner and extended a hand. Her skin was white too, though a faint trace of glitter shone around her eyes. Her soft, black hair was held by an ivory clasp.
“I really shouldn’t” said Wright, holding up his own, filthy hands. She nodded her head slightly and turned, indicating that he follow her. He kept back five paces or so, watching her hair bounce against her slender neck, inhaling the fresh smell of soap which trailed her. They walked up the steps into the embassy. It was still early and Wright could see that most of the staff had yet to arrive. They passed a large photograph of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, a wall adorned with pictures by schoolchildren describing the links between Japan and the United Kingdom and up a flight of highly-polished wooden steps.
“You stink, Ben,” said James Hardy, standing at the top of the steps. “Thank you Atsuko for dragging this hopeless creature off the street.” The woman laughed, looked back at Wright over her shoulder then turned into an office.
“Perceptive of you, James. That what the British Government pays you for? I’d have taken a shower if I’d had the time.”
“And you appear to have the entire Tokyo police force looking for you. Not quite the stealth mission we had in mind. Well, at least you came to us first. Come on in.” Hardy waved him up with a sheaf of papers and came close to throwing an arm around Wright’s shoulder, pausing only when he saw the state of Wright’s suit. “Forgive me if I don’t touch you, Ben. What the hell happened?”
“Oh, the usual. Arrive in Tokyo, pop out for a cup of coffee, end up being chased by a sword wielding maniac through a fish market. Nothing out of the ordinary. Thought I might take in some of the sights later.”
“Did you ever get that coffee?”
Hardy picked up his telephone.
“Two coffees please Atusko. One black, no milk, no sugar. But very strong.” Hardy sat down, rested his hands behind his head and stared at Wright.
The windows in the First Secretary’s office were open and through them came the scent of the cherry blossoms planted all across the Embassy compound. They were in the heart of the city, but you would barely know it. A 19th century map of Japan hung on one wall and on the other was a wall of books about Japanese art.
“What went wrong this morning, Ben?”
“I survived didn’t I?”
“You know what I bloody well mean. You were supposed to come to Tokyo, dig some dirt for your rich clients in New York and then get on a plane out. Next thing we know you’re prancing around the roof of Tsukiji, playing Luke Skywalker with a Yakuza. And I’ve got the US Treasury, the CIA not to mention the British government heavy breathing telling me Benjamin Wright must be protected.”
“Sounds like you know everything already.”
“Well, of course. We’ve had someone on you since you landed. Japan Airlines 33 from JFK, wasn’t it. First Class, of course. You spoiled bastard.”
“I didn’t intend it to happen like this.”
“So what happened?”
“You really think they were Yakuza?”
“Yes. Tattoos on his face and no apparent fear of the police. Definitely Yakuza. They make the mafia look like amateurs. And now you’ve killed one of them, they’re going to be doubly keen to get you. However they do it, you can be sure it won’t be a nice clean bullet to the head. They like ritual, spilled guts, blood on the walls, genital mutilations. Anything to make a point. You’ve crossed some evil bastards, Ben.”
Atsuko arrived noiselessly with the coffees in pale blue, porcelain cups and set them down on the edge of Hardy’s desk. She pointed to one with an upturned palm and turned to Wright who nodded in thanks. He noticed that her red lipstick did not cover her lips but ran in a thin line down the center. When she had left, Wright spoke.
“Why are the Americans hiding behind your skirts on this one, James?”
“Very simple, Ben. We don’t have the baggage your lot do. We’re not Commodore Perry reincarnated. Between the Americans and Japanese, everything is a replay of 1853, when the black ships came sailing into Tokyo and ended Japan’s innocence. We Brits are considered less threatening. Though in this case, I feel we may be compromised.”
James Hardy was never one to hide his own erudition, and Wright liked him for it. They had met ten years ago, when Hardy was a junior diplomat with Britain’s UN mission, at a cocktail party in Turtle Bay. His ambition was palpable even then, from the way he worked a room and snared his beautiful Californian wife, and it was no surprise that he had risen so quickly.
“I’m not here to fight anyone,” said Wright. “I came to find out about trading irregularities,” said Wright.
“Wrinkles in the markets.”
“All right, you’ve lost me already.”
“I have a client in New York. A trader. A very important trader. He’s spent thirty years trading stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities in every market in the world. You name it, he’s traded it. There’s no imperfection, no mis-pricing he hasn’t seen. But in the last three months, he noticed something strange. Activity he couldn’t explain. Not something regulators would ever catch up to. Just odd fragments of data which baffled him. It seemed to be coming out of Japan.”
“So he called for Ben Wright, ancient Greek pottery lover and super sleuth.”
“You do love your sarcasm, you Brits, don’t you? He wanted me to nose around. It’s what I’m paid to do. Nose around.”
“And what did you find?”
“Nothing yet. I only arrived last night. Checked into my hotel in Ginza, went out this morning for one of those cold coffees from the vending machines and next thing I know there’s this maniac sprinting at me with spit curling out of his lip.”
“This usually happen when you visit a foreign country?”
“No. Well, there was this time in Lisbon...but that was quite different.”
“If you’re acting for this individual, why do I seem to have the entire financial and intelligence apparatus of the Western world telling me to look out for you?”
“As I said, he’s an important man.”
“Well, the President might still be teaching law students in Minneapolis if it weren’t for him. The National Gallery in Washington might be without a wing. You know how it is James. The financial regulators, the lawmakers, they’re followers. They’re reactive. It’s the men like mine who are in the thick of it, who affect events as they unfold. It makes them indispensable. When he says there’s weird stuff going on in Japan, there’s weird stuff. That simple.”
“And it’s not something that can be handled between governments.”
“Course not. You know how untrusting they are. It would take months, or years to get an investigation like this going. And there’s no evidence anything criminal is going on. We just want to know.”
“This morning would indicate there is something criminal.”
Wright sat in silence for a moment. His hand was throbbing. He wanted to get out of his clothes, to escape their putrid smell. The coffee was pounding relentlessly at the front of his brain.
“Any chance of some of that cold green tea?” he said.
“How long do you need to be here, Ben? Realistically?”
“How about 48? Every extra hour jeopardizes your safety, given the morning you’ve had.”
“I’ll have to work quickly.”
“You do that. You owe me dinner in New York next time I’m there.” He picked up the telephone and spoke quickly and impenetrably in Japanese. “We’ll give you a guard and driver. You’ll also need an interpreter, I suppose. I’ll get you the best we have.”
“Thank you James.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank the man who hired you. We’re jumping like this for him, aren’t we? Certainly not to further our own interests.”
“Oh, you ever know.”
“I’ll hold you to that when I’m done working for the Queen and need the money.”
Wright rose from his seat. He bent his knees slightly to unglue his trousers from his legs.
“The car is downstairs. The translator will meet you at the Imperial Hotel. Check in every 12 hours at least. And good luck, Ben. You know the most fatuous saying in the English language?”
“It’s only money.”
At the rear exit of the embassy, he found a black Toyota with tinted windows waiting for him. The back door opened automatically. Wright saw a plastic sheet had been laid over the seats to protect the white, lacy seat covers from the muck on his clothes. The driver pulled out onto the road circling south around the palace towards his hotel.
A hundred yards behind, a black Toyota taxi with its occupied light on pulled out of a parking spot and followed.
The wind ripping off the Straits of Gibraltar towards Tangier caught the hem of Gene Drinkwater’s silk robe, to expose his large, quivering thigh to the three men in suits sitting around the table by the swimming pool. The scent of orange trees and lavender filled the air. Drinkwater finished toweling off his hair then lumbered towards his visitors.
“Why the fuck are you here?” he said, his voice as gruff and threatening as it was when he used to buy water rights from ranchers in rural Texas. “You can’t fucking survive five minutes without having to come to me for a decision?” He looked up towards the entrance of his house. Two French hookers were standing in the doorway, dressed in red, silk Valentino dresses he had custom ordered from Rome. Them, a seven hour erection pill and a huge bed facing north through floor to ceiling windows towards Spain. Whoever said money didn’t buy happiness had clearly never had money.
“Sir,” said one of the men, a bald, middle-aged Swiss with frame-less spectacles. “It’s about one of our tankers.”
“One fucking tanker. How many do we have, 30? You had to fuel up in Geneva, come down here to ask about one fucking tanker?”
“Sir, it’s the Pacifica.”
“It left Tokyo two days ago. For the past 12 hours, we’ve lost contact.”
“Please don’t tell me it was the Black Sea route.”
“I’m afraid so, sir. It was sailing east and was due to reach Rostov in three weeks after crossing the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean.”
“We run hundreds of routes a year with all these ships and the one that goes missing is the Pacifica on this particular run? Who have you told so far?”
“No one, sir. We wanted to speak to you first.”
“Let’s keep it that way. Do you have the names of the crew?”
“Yes sir. We checked and double checked them. No one we haven’t used dozens of times before. Trustworthy men, sir.”
“Yeah, well everyone’s fucking trustworthy until one day they aren’t. Come with me.”
Drinkwater eased his bulk up and strode barefoot towards the house, a 1950s, French villa clinging to the rocks amid gardens and teetering pines. As he walked he ran his hand along a row of clipped rosemary bushes which bordered the path, and held his fingers up to his nose. The three men followed in silence.
“Rafiq,” he shouted across to the kitchen. “Bring me a jug of Tom Collins. Lots of ice. I’m going to fucking need it. And water for these dipshits behind me.”
The small hallway leading to Drinkwater’s study was lined with busts of Roman Emperors, eight in all, starting with Augustus. Pinpricks of light shone down on them from the ceiling. Drinkwater pushed open a heavy wooden door and led the three men into his lair. On each side were windows, facing the Straits on one side and the gardens on the other. Below the windows were piles of embroidered cushions, large and small. In the center of the room was a large oak, refectory table piled with books, magazines, newspapers and discarded cups and glasses. Drinkwater landed heavily in a leather swivel chair pulled up to the table. Two screens on a bookshelf behind him sprang to life. From speakers embedded in the ceiling came the sound of Greek bouzouki music, playing on a local radio station.
The three men stood awkwardly in front of him. A young Moroccan boy in a white robe and red leather slippers arrived with a tray of drinks. He set them down besides Drinkwater who gulped down his first cocktail and immediately poured himself another. He did not bother to offer his guests their water.
“Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits,” he said. “The seven words you cannot say on American television.” He swiveled round to look at the screens which now showed a map of the waters around Japan. “You start sailing east from Tokyo and what do you find? Nothing. Just a few piles of bird shit covered rock all the way to Hawaii. We’re assuming that if the ship had gone down, we’d have heard something. An SOS, a Mayday, something.”
“Precisely, sir,” said the bald Swiss.
“So, assuming it was moving at 30 kilometers an hour, it had been going for a couple of days, so 1500 kilometers maybe, plus the 12 hours you say you haven’t heard anything, so 2000 km’s max, about a third of the way across the Pacific. And let’s see. Nothing there. Not a fucking thing. Just water. Even if it had turned north or south, still nothing fucking there. And it was loaded, you say.”
“Yes sir. Same thing, once a year, same time. Tokyo to Rostov for our friends.”
“Our annual act of friendship. Of course we’re not insured for this, are we.”
“Not even those heartless cheats at Lloyd’s would write a policy for this one.”
Drinkwater drained another glass of Tom Collins and raised his arms up behind his head. His robe loosened slightly to reveal the hairy, sunburned expanses of his chest.
“Well, we have no fucking choice do we, men? We had better find this motherfucker, because we know what happens if we don’t. And if someone else has got their hands on it, then...” he shook his head and rocked forward, resting his enormous palms on his knees. “All that steel and hardware doesn’t just vanish, does it? Find it and call me every three hours until you do.”
Drinkwater got up and walked to the door.
“Your tagine is ready sir,” said the houseboy standing in the corridor.
“Keep it for tomorrow,” he replied. Then approaching the two hookers waiting on the terrace he grabbed one of them by the waist. “There’s only enough G-Force for one of you tonight,” he said to one. And to the other: “You can hang around for tomorrow.”
Far below him winked the lights of hundreds of ships waiting to pass in and out of the Mediterranean, the anonymous worker ants of global trade.
Wright’s car pulled up under the wide, low roof which Frank Lloyd Wright had projected from the Imperial Hotel to conceal its comings and goings. Sculpted hedges added a further sound barrier against the thrum of traffic. It was as if they were entering some secret mansion rather than the most famous hotel in the city.
As the car stopped, the door opened automatically. A man in a black jacket, pinstriped trousers, white shirt and black tie bowed low as Wright stepped out of his car.
“Your bags have been brought over from your previous hotel,” said the hotel manager. “We hope you have a comfortable stay here with us.”
Wright followed him through the noiseless sliding doors into the main lobby. Polished columns rose to the high ceiling and a thick carpet, beige with large purple rectangles soaked up every sound. A vast, geometric chandelier hung from the ceiling and in the center of the space was a huge dome of yellow daisies, which owed more to science fiction than nature. A few men sat on low couches reading the Financial Times as if it were some religious text. The very faintest music, with no obvious tune, burbled away. To the left was a restaurant, where the tables were set lavishly far apart, as if to prove that in a city where every inch was filled with life, the Imperial alone had no need to pack ‘em in. The restaurant’s main wall was made up of rows of multi-colored glazed bricks, the colors all muted and calm, from gold to white, turquoise and dusty red, like the hues of an ancient Navajo rug. Stone planters filled with lilies were tucked inconspicuously into alcoves below the main staircase.
The manager guided Wright towards the elevators and they whooshed up to the 11th floor. Wright was aching for the pulse of a hot shower. His suite was made up of two rooms, with soft, yellow walls and impeccable French furniture. It was a dull morning, but the view onto the gardens of the Imperial Palace was still spectacular. A clean suit and shirt had been laid out on the bed, and a plate of cold, Soba noodles and a pot of tea awaited him on a side table. Wright thanked the manager and went straight to the bathroom to remove his clothes. He left them in a sticky heap on the marble floor and stepped into the shower. The fiery blast of water made him tremble. He scrubbed viciously at his body to expunge the stink of fish. He felt as if he were trying to remove an entire layer of skin, to start afresh. He could feel red blotches appearing as his flesh turned raw under the heat, but he wanted to go further to scrub everything away. But then through the din of the shower, he heard the doorbell go. Two notes, then a pause for a few seconds. Then two notes again.
Wright grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist. He grabbed another one and quickly rubbed his hair. He walked quickly through the room and opened the door. A woman in a black suit and white, silk shirt bowed at him and proffered her card.
“Ayumi Sakamoto,” she said. “Your translator.” Her face was unusually wide, as was her smile. She was holding an expensive looking handbag in front of her and seemed to be waiting for something.
Wright stood to one side and waved her in, catching the strong scent of honeysuckle as she passed. She walked straight towards the window to take in the view. She paused and turned to Wright, who was staring at her.
“Perhaps we should start with you getting dressed,” she said. Wright was taken aback by her accent. She spoke like a New Yorker. “James tells me we’re on a tight schedule.”
“Absolutely,” stammered Wright. “He’s given me 48 hours. Let me, um, let me put something on.” He disappeared into his room and five minutes later emerged, shaved, brushed and wearing a light grey suit, blue gingham shirt, no tie and a splash of sandalwood cologne.
“So what can I do for you?” she asked. “I am entirely yours for the next three days.”
“Frank, get over here. There it is again.” Fifty two floors above 57th Street in midtown Manhattan, the two men stared at a single screen out of ten which hung from steel arms, covering an entire wall in a cramped back office.
“I can’t see it Ajay.”
“Right there. It comes and goes. It’s miniscule, but each time, it lowers the value of our trade. Hold on. Wait. Look, we’re betting on the spread here of Russian 5 year and 30 year bonds. Along they go pretty standard. Then something happens. Let me pull up the history. Right. Here. Last month, when the government announced it was kicking out the Western investors in the big oil fields in Siberia. The spreads widen. Investors are running for safety. A few hours before, we see this happening. Our algorithm tells us that activity likes this means insiders know something is about to happen and they’re trading on it, shorting the 30 year, buying Russian oil stocks. We don’t need inside information to know this. The patterns tell us. But look, right here. The moment our trading begins, the volumes we’re after start to shrink. We used to have seconds on our competition. Now we’re down to milliseconds.”
The two men sat back and stared.
“I mean it’s not unusual to see this every now and again. We expect that. Sometimes we misinterpret the ghosts. Or someone gets to the same conclusion by a different route. But nothing like this, Frank. It’s every time. It’s as if each time we throw the ball into the air to serve, someone snatches it away and we’re left swinging at nothing. It’s crushing us. Normally we’d be up 4 or 5% this month. This month, we’re down 1%.
Frank Higgins sucked on his third Dunkin Donuts iced coffee of the morning. For a man worth more than ten billion dollars, he retained certain simple tastes in food, drink and clothes. To work, he wore only khakis and blue shirts, a uniform adhered to by his employees. If you happened to run into a group of them on the street, you would think they were a group of cell phone salesmen rather than some of the richest and smartest men in New York.
“Can’t we just increase the size of our trades? Get them done faster? Get in and out before we’re seen?” he said.
“You know how it is Frank. Even with dark pools and flash trading, we still need time to trade the kind of volumes which matter. Fifty million here and there doesn’t move the needle for us.”
“You really don’t think it’s Chicago?”
“No. They’re still years behind us. They think they’re closer than they are. No this is too good for them.”
“Too good for Chicago, huh? Aren’t you getting a little cocky there Ajay?”
“No. You’re right. Sometimes I forget how smart you are.”
“I encourage it. You taught me that Frank. Always seem dumber than you are.”
“It’s a good policy.”
“Has your man found out anything yet?”
“Give him some time, Ajay.”
“Christ, I wish this was a technical problem.”
“I know. Humans screw everything up. Life would be so much easier without them. But then without them, who could we take advantage of?”
Higgins rose from his seat and rested a hand on the shoulder of his head trader.
“We’ll figure this out, Ajay. We’ve figured everything out before, haven’t we? Just make sure our stop-loss positions are firm. I don’t mind not making money while this goes on, but I’ll be damned if I lose any more than I have to.”
Higgins left the windowless room and stepped into the brilliant glare of his main trading floor. At 11am, it was empty but for a couple of secretaries. Off to his right, he could see several of his traders in the gym, spotting each other weights. Another group had settled into the library. When your main job was programming computers and letting them do their worst, there was no need for anyone to keep regular office hours. All those drones at the banks and other hedge funds, reading company reports, patching into conference calls with executives and trying to predict earnings and share prices. What a bunch of losers.
It was very simple. You could let the markets tyrannize you or you could learn to dance with them. You could let them ruin your life or you could learn to read their mind. Years ago as a poorly paid mathematics professor at Stanford, Higgins had decided to do the latter. And it was the best thing he had ever done.
The rewards were all around him. The Dutch oil paintings on the walls of his office, elegant renderings of cathedral interiors and dead birds. He adored their precision, the unfussy skill poured into them. When he closed the door, pulled the blinds and looked at them, he could feel their intensity, the product of years of practice and repetition touched only at the very last moment by the genius of art. There was no pretension in their beauty.
He tried to bring a similar approach to his trading. And it had worked beautifully. Until now.
Inspector Hiro took a large swig from a bottle of green tea, followed by a bite of a rice ball wrapped that morning in seaweed by his wife. Food was just about the only way they communicated these days. As he left for work, she would give him a plastic box with rice and pickles for the day and then return wordlessly to the kitchen, hoping that today would be the day their son would emerge from his bedroom. It had been weeks now since he had retreated there and refused to come out. Weeks of pain and mystification for his parents.
Hiro sat for a moment, watching the police seal off the temple and direct people away. The inside of his 10-year-old Corolla still stank of cigarettes, even though he had given them up nine weeks and three days earlier. What for, he often wondered. They had been one of the last things to give him any pleasure. But that’s what adults did, wasn’t it? Give things up they enjoyed and take up others they didn’t. Like running. And crosswords. And talking about politics. God, life became tedious in a hurry.
It seemed so recently he was playing mahjong in friends’ rooms at Tokyo University. Since he had met his sweet, charming wife in the jazz club. When they had all graduated, his friends had joined law firms and the civil service. But he had wanted to be a cop. To be on the front line of crime, not cowering behind some desk. And while they had gone on to make money, to acquire status and better apartments, he had been forced ever deeper into the suburbs. Their son had gone to a local school where he was bullied. The boy had received no support from the school and shrunk ever further into himself until now he was unreachable, a soul lost deep inside his physical shell. It had broken his wife’s heart, he knew. Everything had broken her heart. Their life, his unrelenting work and absence from home, their son. And the worst of it was that there seemed to be no way out. For long stretches of each day now, Hiro found himself thinking of those men who checked into small hotels in the outer reaches of Tokyo, and hanged themselves in the bathroom, leaving a note saying nothing but “I’m sorry”.
It seemed dignified compared to the prospect of hacking through decades more of this kind of life. This feeling of weights crushing his chest, of extinguished hope. He closed his eyes, took a breath and then stepped out of the car.
He walked to the police barricade and flashed his badge. A young, uniformed officer bowed as he passed by. Even with all this commotion, the temple complex felt calm. Hiro could hear the crunch of stones underfoot as he walked towards the main temple, where several monks were milling around while the police asked questions. Hiro nodded at the officers he knew and made his way to the altar.
The victim was exactly as the monk had found him thirty minutes earlier, his head turned to the right, the blade-thin cut along his neck barely visible in the gloom. At least it was over for him.
Another officer passed Hiro a pair of gloves and the victim’s wallet in a plastic bag. Hiro opened it and began to flick through the cash and cards.
“Do we have a name?” asked Hiro.
“Deguchi. Kennichiro Deguchi.”
“Married, two children. Lived in Yoyogi Uehara.”
“Lucky him,” said Hiro, thinking of the charming old neighborhood of narrow winding streets in the southwest of the city.
“Worked for Mitsubishi for many years in financial services. Moved five years ago over to Meiji Bank after the restructuring.”
“Meiji? Really? After the Americans bought it?”
“That’s what they say. We spoke to the chief executive on the phone about 10 minutes ago. Said Deguchi was an excellent salary-man. Hard working, diligent. Never any scandal.”
“It’s always that way, until they’re found with their throats slit on a temple altar.”
The officers laughed. Even by the standards of the homicide division, Hiro was spectacularly cynical. No one, in his mind, was above the lowest kind of behavior. Provided they were human, they were capable of anything. Monks could be rapists, mothers child-killers and bankers, well. There were really no limits to their capacity for evil.
“Where do we think he was killed? Somewhere else, then brought here?”
“No. He was killed where he was found. Whoever did it got him to lie down and then slit his throat. Like he was an animal at sacrifice. No signs of struggle. He was probably so terrified, he just lay back and took it.”
“Or maybe it was a relief. I’m not sure how hard I’d struggle if someone offered me the chance of a quick death. Any of you got a cigarette? No? Good, I guess.” Hiro pulled a notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his shabby, grey suit. “Give me the name of the executive you spoke to. The one who told you how diligent the corpse was. And family? You have that?” Hiro jotted down the names. “How are the monks taking it?”
“Well, at least they don’t have to go far to find someone to exorcise the place.”
Hiro walked back out into the muggy courtyard. The air clung to his face. On days like this, Tokyo seemed inescapable. The buildings, the endless concrete closed in on him until he felt as if he were being buried alive. The good news was that Meiji bank would be air conditioned. And if there was anything Hiro enjoyed more than ruining a banker’s day, he had yet to discover it.
A small silver plaque etched with the words Higgins & Cie marked Frank Higgins’ Tokyo office. It was on the seventh floor of a new building in Marunouchi facing Tokyo station.
The door opened before Wright even had a chance to knock. Ayumi followed him in. It was like every other private equity or hedge fund office in the world: blonde wood and frosted glass walls, small, brightly colored paintings lining the corridors, a kitchen with an expensive coffee machine. Wright imagined some upscale version of Ikea where all of these firms went when they opened an office.
A diminutive man in shirtsleeves showed them into a conference room, where ten, high-backed leather chairs were arrayed around a narrow, elliptical table. On the wall at one end hung a large flat-screen. The man said something in Japanese.
“Five minutes,” said Ayumi. “The conference will start in five minutes.”
“My father never made a single investment outside the United States,” said Wright. “People were always saying he should. But he said that it was hard enough investing in companies where the primary language was English, let alone one he didn’t understand. Did James tell you anything about me?”
“Did he mention my father?”
“Only that he was a very rich man.”
“Yes. I suppose that should have been on his tombstone. Here Lies a Very Rich Man. He was born. Made a stupid amount of money. And died. Sic transit gloria mundi.”
“All worldly things pass. Always easier for those who have worldly things to say, than those who don’t. It’s only the rich who can trivialize money.”
Ayumi looked up into space and Wright felt foolish.
The screen crackled to life. They could see Higgins’ office, a Breughel hanging beneath a light against a dark, oak wall. Higgins himself then slid into the frame, his face blown up threefold by the screen.
“Ben,” he said, as he settled into his seat. “Can you see me?”
“Yes, I can Frank. Actually, far too much of you. Too many pixels can really destroy the magic.” Higgins laughed and ran a hand through his whitening blond hair. His right cheek bulged with a wad of nicotine gum.
“I heard you had an eventful morning.”
“Swordplay in central Tokyo. Nothing too unusual.”
“Who’s there with you?”
“My translator, Ayumi. Arranged for me by the British embassy.”
“Fine. None of this goes beyond this room, though. Clear? Ben, I’m sorry about this morning. It’s not what I imagined.”
“How the hell did they know I was here? And what I was doing?”
“We’re trying to find that out. The reason I sent you of all people was I thought you could go in undercover. Not CIA, MI6, or any of the usual intelligence firms. The last thing I wanted was some retired spook crawling around there giving everyone the creeps. I thought you might be able to go around and blow a little pixie dust at the problem. Find out who’s screwing me over.”
“I need some more leads, Frank. I’ve got so little to go on. And now I’ve been told I can only be protected for 48 hours. After that, I have to leave or I’m on my own.”
“It’s difficult. For us, it’s like having some deadly virus in our system. Either we find out what it is, or we shut down. But the only way to find out what it is is by keeping our systems trading and taking the losses. And hope we can get the bastard before he kills us.”
“And you can’t trace the source of the trades, or the money.”
“It’s all routed through so many locations and accounts, we can’t keep track of it. We’ve put electronic tags on the trades, tried to track them through our friendly brokers, but it’s been no good. Whoever’s doing this knows what they’re doing. It’s like a slow-acting poison.”
“I still need a lead. Anything Frank. You think it’s being run from Tokyo because that’s as far as you can trace it. It’s a city of 14 million people Frank. What do you want me to do, go house to house?”
Higgins rocked back in his chair.
“Don’t be facetious, Ben. It doesn’t suit you. You’re not that good.” Wright caught Ayumi’s eye and stared down at the grain of the table. “Look, there can’t be that many people in the world capable of this. It took me 25 years of hiring the very best computer scientists, code-breakers and language experts in the world to build my system, and some bastard is making it look like a kid’s Lego set. Ajay says that from what they can tell, it’s coming out of Tokyo. We don’t know, but it’s our best guess. If there are only a few people who can do this, someone there is going to know who they are. You can’t hide this kind of talent for long, Ben. Someone must know. It takes programming skill, a ton of computing power and a really vicious streak. That should narrow it down for you.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right Frank.”
“I would say take a rest after the day you’ve had. But there’s no time, Ben. I’m sorry. We’ve got over $60 billion invested and we can’t seem to do anything with it right now except lose it. If anyone else were to find out about this, they’d start prizing our positions wide open and we’ll be out of business in a couple of days. That’s how quickly it happens, Ben. You know that. You spend years building a franchise and it can unwind in hours.”
“The British told me you’ve got the Treasury and CIA looking out for me on this one.”
“I had to call in some favors. But they know the stakes. A run on my funds would be a disaster. As bad as Goldman Sachs going down. And we know how far the government would go to prevent that. Listen to me, Ben. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with my business. You know that. Someone is screwing with me. And they’re being clever about it. I need you to find out who that is so we can stop them. I need this Ben. I’ve never said this to you before and I hope I never have to again. I need you to sort this out for me and I’ll never forget it. Let’s speak tomorrow.”
The screen went dead before Wright had a chance to say another word. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a card.
“Do you know this place?” he asked Ayumi. She dipped her head slightly.
“Well, it’s all I’ve got right now. Let’s go.”
The grey Mercedes saloon sped between the high white walls of Sidi Masmoudi. Drinkwater fiddled with the amber beads on his wrist, moving them back and forth along their leather strap. His skin was sore with sun burn and his black silk shirt stuck to his heavily moisturized back. His cell phone rang and he snapped it open. He listened for a moment.
“Still? Nothing? Call me every half hour.” He closed the phone. “Majid, pass me one of those, the sugar ones.” He pointed to a bag of sugar frosted croissants on the seat beside his driver. Majid reached in and passed one to Drinkwater on the back seat. Drinkwater took a large bite, devouring half of it in one, the jam filling and sugar spilling down his chin. He chewed three times, swallowed, and inhaled the other half. He could feel the sugar spiking into his brain. “Another.” Majid passed him a second pastry.
Tangier was coming to life. Flocks of starlings erupted out of the trees around the royal palace. The young King was spending far more time here than his father and his presence had rinsed some of the degeneracy from the old port town. But not all of it, Drinkwater was pleased to note. It was still a place where anyone with money could come and pursue his perversions in relative peace. The Europeans were mostly awful. Camp decorators and fashion designers and their bitchy retinues. Bridge playing, gin-swilling Englishmen, many of them retired antique dealers for whom the only quality that mattered in a man was his ability to distinguish a Regency from a Georgian commode. They had been intrigued by Drinkwater when he arrived three years ago and promptly spent more money than they had ever seen renovating the house and grounds at the top of Sidi Masmoudi, but he had never played their game. All the companionship he needed, professional, conversational or sexual, could be flown in on one of his fleet of aircraft, two GV550s, a customized 757 and an S76 helicopter for buzzing around the Mediterranean, which occupied their own hangar at Ibn Batouta airport.
Drinkwater’s car passed the El Minzah hotel and then turned sharply right into a car park below the hotel’s main dining terrace. Drinkwater got out, hitched up his trousers and put on his Aviator sunglasses. He looked down towards the bustling port and the expanse of sea, took a deep breath and proceeded down a narrow flight of stone steps. There was only room for one person to pass down at a time, so Majid followed behind carrying a leather case. At the bottom, Drinkwater pushed at a rotting wooden door which opened onto a courtyard. From every, cave-like room came the percussive rhythm of shuttles moving across wooden looms, as weavers produced clothes and fabrics. Drinkwater walked quickly along the rear side of the courtyard until he came to a pair of wrought-iron gates in a corner. He stopped, murmured his name, and the gates clicked open. Majid followed him into a small white-washed chamber. When the gate had shut behind them, Drinkwater removed his sunglasses looked up towards a small camera buried high in the top right corner of the room. A large, oak door covered with iron studs opened slightly and Drinkwater pushed his way into a much larger room where two men and two women sat at an X-shaped desk beneath an octagonal skylight. Two doors at the back of the room opened onto another courtyard. In the center of it was a fountain covered in blue and white tile. Four lemon trees stood sentry around it, shading four stone benches.
“Meeting,” said Drinkwater, summoning his team to the courtyard. “Coffee, Majid. And more of those pastries,” he added, waving a fistful of Dirhams at his chauffeur.
Drinkwater sat down heavily on the bench facing the main office of his trading operation. From here, he invested $16 billion of his own money. He had abandoned so much in his life, wives, children, homes, cities, even his own country, the United States. But the thrill of making money? Never. It remained his greatest pleasure in life, especially the zero-sum combat of trading. Screw creating value or expanding the pie. He loved hogging the biggest slice he could.
“All right,” he said to his young associates. “Bring me the world.”
One of the women spoke first, a lissom Italian he had hired straight from Bocconi.
“We’ve arranged for three more debt packages against double hull tankers under construction in China and Greece,” she said. “Which brings us to 17. The terms are as usual, the merest sniff of a default and the ships revert to us. The Baltic Dry peaked again today.”
“Do they have any idea what over-capacity means?” said Drinkwater, thumping his bench. “Do they understand what happens when the global economy stops expanding? When the spot market plummets? When the Baltic Dry collapses? If this all pans out, we’re going to have 17 super-tankers for virtually nothing. Unbelievable. Carry on.”
“We’ve secured calls on a number of shipping contracts which means that should the defaults occur, we’ll be able to start filling the tankers we acquire and transporting oil. The cost of the calls will be trivial compared to our profits on the ships and transport revenue.”
“We keep shorting mezzanine debt,” said a scruffy looking Algerian man in his mid-30s. He had several days growth of beard and a thick plait of hair running down his back, nothing to suggest three advanced science degrees from Paris’ Grandes Ecoles. “The only challenge is sorting the garbage from the really toxic garbage. You know we started with mortgage loans, residential and commercial property, but now we’re looking at corporate debt. Shit, Gene, if we’re right the world is completely screwed.”
“Of course we’re right, Rafiq. It’s the beautiful thing about human folly, it’s always worse than you imagine. Always. You think people are dumb, and then they turn out to be total morons. Good news for us. What else?”
“Shit. Must we?”
“We just heard back from our lawyers there. The prosecution goes on. The government still wants to fine us.” Hannah Lord’s job in Gene Drinkwater’s operation was to be the sane one. To put a dampener on all the testosterone. She wore a loose, white shirt, stone linen drawstring pants and an expensive pair of sandals. Her shoulder length blond hair was held back by an elastic band, exposing a pair of ear-rings, inch-long lozenges of dark thuya wood. If you passed her on the street, you might think she was one of the hundreds of young Western back-packers passing through North Africa on their summer travels. The last thing you would think was Stanford Law Review, clerking for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court followed by the youngest ever partnership at Skadden Arps. And that really was another life. One she had been desperate to flee.
“Can’t they drop this thing?”
“Never,” she said, bouncing one foot up and down and staring at a single sheet of paper. “They think you stole from them, Gene. In fact, they’ve got the whole country thinking you stole from them. You’re the big-nosed gaijin who sailed into Tokyo Harbor and robbed the Japanese treasury. This was never a legal issue, Gene. It was always political and until you give the money back or say you’re sorry or something, this is going to carry on.”
“Well, I’m not giving them their money back. We earned it. We went in there, took their piece of shit bank, sorted out their loans and sold it right back to them. Do you remember quite how fucking miserable it was? Living in those sterile apartments in Roppongi? Going in every fucking day to tell them that you can’t lend money to your corporate pals at below the official rate and expect to make a profit? It wasn’t Nobel Prize economics, Hannah. But they still didn’t get it. However much we made off that thing, it would never be enough.”
“It was the most profitable foreign investment ever...”
“And as for all the bowing. Fuck. I needed a massage every night just to get the knots out of my lower back. What can they do to us? Seriously?”
“Well, you can never go back there?”
“They could try to freeze any assets you have there.”
“They’re quite welcome.”
“And they can make it very clear to anyone who cares to listen that a deal with Gene Drinkwater is a deal with the devil.”
“As if this wasn’t public knowledge.” Hannah could not help laughing. There were conventions, laws and then life with Drinkwater. After years of the former, the latter was exactly what she had needed. “Well, tell our lawyers out there to just keep on fighting. What was that case in Charles Dickens?”
“Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.”
“OK. Let’s Jarndyce them. Drag it out till everyone’s dead. Doesn’t bother me. Should bother the Japanese taxpayer. Where are those fucking pastries. I need some sugar.”
Hiro picked up a manga at random from the groaning shelf in Lawson, a branch of the ubiquitous convenience store opposite the headquarters of Meiji bank. This one told the story of a high school kendo champion with a secret girly side. He liked to bake and his best friend was a girl. Sometimes he even wore make-up. There were the usual depictions of large-breasted women with kittenish faces, sexual freaks courted by wimpy young men. There was a smattering of extreme violence, when the sexually ambiguous kendo champion exploded against his father and the school bullies who taunted him.
Hiro glanced up again at the entrance. He had called the chief executive’s office and been told he would arrive around 10am. Hiro wanted to catch him on his way in.
He put the manga back and picked up another magazine, this one consisting mostly of pictures of schoolgirls in bikinis. Japanese couples had less sex than any in the developed world, Hiro had read in the newspaper recently. It was scarcely surprising. After just a short trawl through a convenience store, he was starting to feel more sexually exhausted than titillated.
He moved to the food shelves and picked out an onigiri, a triangle of rice wrapped in seaweed, and a can of cold, black coffee. Just as he was paying, he saw a convoy of three Toyota Imperials pulling up outside the bank. He grabbed his change and ran for the door. It was fifty feet either way to the nearest crossing light, so he decided to run straight across. He could see the chauffeur stepping out of the middle car and moving to open the back door. A bus drove quickly towards Hiro, who stepped backwards into the path of a scooter, which swerved to avoid him. He dropped his coffee and let it roll back into the gutter behind him. As the bus passed, he could see the white head of the chief executive rising out of the car. He lurched forward again, paused, watched two cars slow down to let him pass, then bolted for the sidewalk.
He realized he was still holding the onigiri, so shoved it into his pocket. The group ahead of him pushed through a tall set of smoked glass doors. Hiro weaved his way through the crowds passing along the sidewalk and finally followed them into the building. It was as if he had left the world behind and stepped into a medieval European monastery. There were granite floors and soaring walls and ahead of him a single escalator. Two men in dark suits wearing ear-pieces stood on either side of it. To his right was a barely illuminated reception desk, behind which sat three women dressed in grey to match the stone. There was no sign of the chief executive and his group. Hiro walked slowly over towards the women, suddenly feeling slovenly.
“I’d like to see Iwase-san,” he said, haltingly. The woman sitting in the center looked up at him and held up a card with both hands.
“Please. Fill this out.” Hiro wrote in his name, the date and under employer, “Tokyo Police: Homicide Division.” He handed it back and the woman read it over. She then held up another piece of paper and pointed with her hand to a barely visible door 15 feet to her left. Hiro looked at the paper: “Because of the recent outbreak of H1N1 Influenza A, we request that all visitors to Meiji Bank wash their hands thoroughly and gargle.” Hiro took the paper and walked over to the door. He pressed lightly and it eased open to reveal a large, marble-tiled bathroom. He stepped up to the sink, scrubbed his hands with soap and rinsed them. Even in the dim, flattering light, he could see the red lines in his eyes, the cracks in his mental state. He wished he had shaved more closely this morning. There were two small patches of stubble, one by his right ear, the other to the left below his mouth. He was about to turn and leave when he sensed he was being watched. As if somewhere in the room, a camera was tracking his moves. He picked up a bottle of mouthwash, poured out a thimble-full and gargled. It actually felt good to wash out the stale taste of tea.
There was a large man waiting by reception when he returned, dark-skinned, in a close-fitting blue suit. He beckoned Hiro into a corner, away from the receptionists.
“How can I help you Inspector Hiro? I am the head of security here. Any police matter must go through me.”
“I’m here to speak to Iwase-san.”
“Iwase-san has already spoken to the police this morning.”
“So you know why I’m here.”
“It’s not every day one of our senior executives is murdered.”
“You think he was murdered?”
“All we were told is he was found with his throat slit on Asakusa. We assumed it was murder.”
“You’re probably right. Of all the ways to kill yourself, slitting your own throat is low down there. Seppuku, hanging yourself in the bathroom, all much more preferable.”
“Meiji Bank will of course cooperate however we can. But you must tell us what you want, Inspector.”
“I’ve told you. I want to see Iwase-San.”
“He has already spoken on the telephone with two officers. And he has a very full day.”
“Is there some reason he doesn’t want to speak with a homicide officer?”
“You realize who you’re talking about? Iwase-San can and will talk to anyone he wishes. Including people with far more influence than you.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” Hiro could see the man was becoming exasperated. He was obviously so used to brushing people off. Meiji was so used to doing exactly as it wanted. “Just call and tell Iwase-San I would like to see him. Can he really have anything more important than this today?”
The guard looked away and let out a sigh.
“Don’t move from here.”
“Nowhere else to go,” said Hiro. It was like standing in the corner of a vast prison cell, with no place to sit, just bare walls and a stone floor. He leaned back, rested his head on the granite, shut his eyes and breathed deeply. This could have been his life. A cool building, stone and glass, an office, a secretary, a chauffeur, money.
There was something nagging him about what he had seen at the shrine that morning. Deguchi had been found wearing his suit, as if he had come straight from work. And yet, there was no sign of a briefcase. He must have got there late, after 9pm, when the shrine closed to the public. In which case, he would have assumed he was going home afterwards. No Japanese salary-man went home without a briefcase, a bag, something. Either Deguchi’s had been stolen. Or he had assumed he was coming back to the office. Or perhaps he had left it with whomever had accompanied him to the shrine.
And the fact there was no sign of a struggle. Who could get a grown man to lie down on an altar in the middle of the night? The path of the blood from his neck showed he had been murdered right there. It had to have been someone he knew, someone who had such power over him, he could persuade him to do anything, either through fear or respect.
“Hiro-San.” The low, gravelly voice startled him. A short man with tortoise shell glasses stood before him, his hands folded at his waist. He was alone.
“Iwase-San,” stammered Hiro. “I didn’t expect...”
“Murder has a way of shaking us from our routines.”
“Are you sure this is right?”
Ayumi looked at the address on the paper Wright had given her.
“It’s what it says,” she said. “We don’t do street numbers like you do in America,” she said. “Every neighborhood has a number, depending on its age. So the numbers don’t follow each other down a street. It’s a little more chaotic. You need to be here a while to understand it.”
“Where are we exactly?”
“Akihibara. Western Tokyo. They call it Electric Town, because it’s where all the big electronics stores are.”
Wright and Ayumi stood in front of a narrow, four-story building on a small street of low buildings surrounded by monolithic towers. The smell of curry drifted from a tiny restaurant buried on the building’s ground floor. Looking up Wright saw the windows of the top two floors blocked out with posters of cartoon cats, pink, vivid and psychedelic. A man was winding up the metal shutter on a shop in the building next door, revealing boxes of used electronic components, from plugs to security cameras and computer hard drives. On the corner was a Kentucky Fried Chicken. In front of it stood a larger than life Colonel Sanders, dressed in a red, cotton jacket holding out a plastic bucket of wings as if it were a religious offering. A young mother in a bicycle with a child tucked into a carrier behind her sped past, grazing the back of Wright’s jacket.
Ayumi approached the grubby entrance door. There were three buzzers, but a name only beside the lowest of them. It had to be one of the other two.
“Just press one and we’ll see,” said Wright, standing behind her. There was no reply. She pressed the other. Again, nothing. Wright stepped back into the street and looked up.
“Maybe we should throw something at the window. Have you got a pen?” Ayumi frowned and shook her head.
With a crackle the intercom came to life. Ayumi stepped back quickly. All Wright could make out were the words “Wright-San.” She spoke again and waited for a reply. When it came she nodded and bowed. The door clicked open.
They entered a cramped hallway. Unopened letters were piled up on the floor and the white, tiled steps were caked in grime. A curling poster of the Tokyo Tower by night dangled by one corner from the wall. Ayumi climbed the stairs carefully, keeping her eyes on the floor as if she were walking down a Parisian street. Several of the tiles were cracked and unsteady. Wright followed up to the third floor.
The door was ajar. Ayumi knocked and a man in a vest and stained grey trousers opened it. He bowed and beckoned them in. The room was cast in a faint pink light by the posters in the windows. It felt like walking into a bottle of mouthwash. Books and CDs tottered in tall piles by the window. There was a sofa along the rear wall and to one side of it a discreet pile of clothes. This clearly doubled as a bedroom. A television and stereo system took up another wall. Through a curtained door in the back, Wright could hear someone stacking plates and glasses and running a tap.
“I was given your name in New York,” began Wright.
“Say hello. Thank him for seeing us. Ask him about his day,” said Ayumi under her breath.
“Sorry. Konnichiwa. I’m afraid I have no name card to offer you.” Ayumi translated and the man nodded. “It is kind of you to see me. My friends in New York speak very highly of you.” The man pointed to a closed door in the corner of the room and replied in Japanese.
“The one they speak highly of is my son. He lives in there. He has not come out in three years.” Wright looked at the door, perplexed.
“He is hikikomori,” said Ayumi. “He has shut out the sun. There are many Japanese teenagers like this. They have dropped out of society. They live at home, their mothers leave their meals at the door, but no one ever sees them. Some are just depressed, others live through their computers.”
“Three years?” asked Wright. “He has not come out for three years? Does he have his own bathroom in there?”
“Yes of course. He’s not a degenerate. Just highly anti-social.”
“A genius, I’m told.” The father smiled weakly and shrugged.
“I need his help,” Wright continued. “And the people I work for are happy to pay very well for it.”
“He’s not interested in money,” said his father, through Ayumi. “He will only work if he cares for the work itself.”
“May I ask him?”
The father passed Ayumi a lined, yellow notepad and a pen.
“Write down what you want and we can pass it under the door.”
“Ask him if he can find a ghost. A trading ghost.” Ayumi wrote out the question in Japanese and handed the pad back to the father. He tore off the page, walked slowly to his son’s bedroom door and slid the paper underneath. As he stood up, he winced and pressed a hand against his lower back.
The paper remained untouched. Wright stared at it, willing it to move. A woman entered the room from the kitchen, trim, a shade under five feet, her hair cut short like a monk, wearing a purple Donald Duck T-shirt and tan pants with an elastic waist. She carried a tray holding four small cups of cold green tea, which she set down on a pile of computer magazines. She picked one up and passed it deferentially to Wright, then did the same for Ayumi and her husband.
Then she took her place on the sofa and joined the others in staring at the paper under the door. After 10 minutes, it moved. Teasingly at first, just a fraction of an inch. Then it was snatched back. It was like bird-watching, thought Wright, waiting around forever for just a glimpse of a rare species. The muscles in his right leg were starting to cramp up. He rubbed them hard. The mother stared back at him, her lips tightly pursed. Wright stopped.
“How much longer?” he whispered to Ayumi. She spoke in Japanese to the couple.
“You just used the word gaijin,” said Wright. “That I know. Were you making excuses for me?” Ayumi kept her eyes fixed on the door.
After several more minutes, Wright was starting to doze off. The heat in the apartment was stifling, and the tiny cup of cold tea had done little to alleviate it. He could feel his eyes close and his head sag onto his chest. He felt a sharp tap on his knee. The father was kneeling at the door picking up the original piece of paper. He passed it with both hands to Ayumi.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Come on. Tell me.”
“It makes no sense.” She passed it to the father and mother who shook their heads.
“Please, just tell me.”
“It says, who are you going to call?”
“Who you gonna call? You know what comes next.”
“Ghostbusters. He has a sense of humor at least.”
Frank Higgins ran backwards, his eyes fixed on the tennis ball as it caromed off the wall high above him before tumbling down onto his side of the court. His hair was plastered across his sweating forehead and clung to the tops of his ears. He shuffled into position and thwacked the ball back across court into the far corner, just beyond the reach of his opponent. A few years earlier, he might have allowed himself a fist pump. But not any more. With success had come a modicum of self-control. And, of course, membership here at the Racquet Club on Park Avenue, with access to the only Real Tennis court in the city.
He had taken up the game just five years ago, but last year he had made it to the club final. Only to be beaten by a paunchy, second rate investment banker called Trip, who had been playing the game since he was a teenager at Hotchkiss. For the past few months Higgins had worked consistently with a coach, perfecting the hard spin the game allowed and mastering its peculiar rules, handed down from 17th century France. He used to rely on his excellent hand eye coordination and well-honed racquet skills to carry him past most other members of the club. His defeat by Trip, however, had forced him to develop his serve, adding the railroad and giraffe to his repertoire, and to calibrate the subtleties of the chase, a complicated rule involving second bounces of the ball. He felt ready to crush Trip this year.
The moment the game stopped, however, his mind returned to work. To the very real prospect that a lifetime of achievement, of scrambling over rocks and thorns to reach the summit of the financial world, was about to unravel. He walked over to the side of the court and sat down heavily on one of the wooden benches tucked into an alcove.
“You’re getting pointlessly good at his,” said his opponent and attorney, David Cleary.
“Pointlessly, yes, I suppose. But that’s the thing about being competitive David. You compete at everything. Flicking cards into a hat. Real Tennis. Investing. Everything.”
“The word’s getting out, Frank.”
“What do you mean?”
“About your funds, their performance this year. People are starting to wonder.”
“Don’t say that Frank. You know how this works. 20 years of stellar results mean nothing these days. You’re as good as your last quarter and right now you’re lagging your peers badly. You know it’s all relative performance.”
“Fuck ‘em, David. Whose side are you on?” Cleary slid his racquet into a small hold all.
“I’m just telling you, Frank. It’s all relative, and relatively speaking you’re not looking good. Is it your system, is it you, is it the markets, people want to know.”
Higgins scratched his head then pressed down hard on the strings of his racket.
“They want to know? All this time, no one wants to know as long as I’m making money. Now they want to know. How am I meant to explain it David? How? What am I meant to do? Go on CNBC and sit there with those sad sacks wrapping up the day on the market? Show up on the early morning shows like those has-beens who still need to put on a suit and drink coffee and pretend they’re still in the game? ‘Oh yes, Maria, I think the recession’s definitely going to be v-shaped not l-shaped.’ Give an interview to some piss-ant hack from Fortune who can’t tell alpha from beta? What am I meant to do David?”
The rules of the Racquet Club required that members swim naked at the pool. Cleary and Higgins stripped off and lowered themselves into the tepid water. It was a smallish, square pool, more for floating around in than actual exercise. There was no one else here, a sad indictment of how hard the club’s members had to work these days. Higgins rubbed away the sweat which poured into his eyes and submerged his head. He moved over to the left of the pool and leaned up against the wall, resting his elbows behind him. Cleary joined him.
“When did it start?”
“A month, six weeks ago. Just flickers in the system. The faintest signs.”
“Someone hacked in?”
“That would be easier. No it seems like...how do I explain this? I never know how much you understand of all this David. But you remember when I started? You remember the original insight? It came when we tried to teach a computer Chinese. At first, we tried coding the rules of grammar and vocabulary. It worked up to a point. But the language was still mangled and formal, no subtlety. So we realized that what we should be doing was letting the computer deploy its own power, rather than trying to tie it down with our own ineffective code. So we gathered an archive of English-Chinese documents, mostly related to bi-lateral trade, government issues, translated works of literature hundreds of thousands of pages, gave them to the computer and said you figure out Chinese. You figure out the rules of the language, all the strange subtleties, because if we try to code this stuff, it’ll never work nearly so well. And you know, it worked. The computer’s grasp of the Chinese language was infinitely more subtle than we could ever have dreamed.
But screw language. How do you make money off that? Same idea. Gather a bunch of language experts, code-breakers and programmers - anyone but a finance or markets specialist - and have them create programs designed to interpret the markets. Don’t try to predict the markets, but amass all the data in the markets and identify the rules, the grammar, the way prices are set and how they respond to different inputs. Let the computers do the work for you and nudge them in the right direction. When they find a mispricing, let them make the trade and decide the volume. We just manage this system, keep it under vague control, interpret what our computers find. We chase down the ghosts.”
“That’s what you still call them? Ghosts?”
“It’s what the code-breakers called them in the Second World War. The faintest signals in the mass of data which indicated something unusual was going on. It’s what made us rich, David. Seeing ghosts. And of course, the beauty of the system is that it gets better with every year. We amass more data, our algorithms improve, our computers’ understanding of the markets, their ability to spot ghosts, it all gets better the longer we’re in operation. For someone starting today, it would take years even to get close to where we are. The guys in Chicago started six years after us, but frankly they’re still rubbing sticks together trying to spark some fire. If they knew how far behind they were, they’d go jump under the El.”
“You know we spend millions of dollars every year protecting all this. We pay the very best computer security guys to guard us, and the very best hackers to try to break in. We must be the least complacent firm in the world, David. We have firewalls like you wouldn’t believe, our core database is ring-fenced away from our trading terminals so that the data coming in from outside can’t contaminate our internal systems, I mean every day we ask ourselves what more we could be doing and we do it. Then this bastard comes along...”
“Is he stealing from you?”
“He, she, them. As good as. What happens is that whenever one of our computers spots a ghost and initiates a trade, the trade snaps shut. One moment, the bid-ask spread is wide open, because no one’s making the trade, the next it’s closed up. All our opportunities shut down the moment we see them, within fractions of a second. It’s as if you’re reaching for a plate of food and someone slaps your hand away just as you’re about to take something. Again and again and again.”
“The son of Zeus. Punished for his sins by being forced to live for eternity in a pool of water beneath a hanging fruit tree. Whenever he reached for the fruit, it receded from his reach, whenever he reached for the water, it disappeared. So he was hungry and thirsty forever. Yet tantalized.”
“Whatever you say, counsel.”
“So where are you with it?”
“Ajay can’t figure it out. The last lead we had, and it was an extremely weak data trail, took us to Tokyo. So I sent Wright out there.”
“Benjamin Wright? Walter Wright’s son?”
“Does he know what he’s doing?”
“He knows people. He knows money. And he’s able to look after himself. More than you can say about most people in this profession. Take most of them away from their computer screens or investor conferences and they’re pathetic human beings. And he came recommended.”
“Perhaps you’ll get his money to manage when this is all over.”
“He manages it himself. And does pretty well. As you’d expect of Walter Wright’s son. Doesn’t take too many risks with it. Gets his thrills from this kind of work. And ancient pots, apparently. Greek, Roman stuff.”
“He’d probably know about Tantalus.”
“How long do you reckon I’ve got?”
“Before redemptions? People wanting their money out? You’ve got a lot of loyal clients, Frank. You’ve made them a lot of money. But it doesn’t count for much anymore. Investors follow the path of least resistance. I’ve seen it happen very fast. But a lot of it’s your money and your employees’ money, right?”
“So can’t you just sit tight?”
“What is it Frank? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing, David, I promise. I’m just thinking how I’m going to beat that bastard Trip.”
Hannah Lord swatted away Drinkwater’s hand as it rested on her right thigh. Her expletive was drowned out by the sound of their boat as it sped towards the Spanish coast. Drinkwater laughed. They sat on the rear seat of the powerful cigarette boat, weaving through the congested narrows linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, splashed by spray and sunshine.
“The Swiss are looking. Hard, they say. I should probably be more worried.”
“I don’t know why you can’t be happy making your money legally. You’re so good at it. There’s just no need for all this James Bond stuff.”
“It excites me, Miss Lord. To work around the fringes of global power. What did you once call it? Cocking a snook at the governments and bureaucrats. Well, right now, consider my snook well and truly cocked. Or is my cock snooked? You tell me.”
“How does a cargo ship that size just vanish from view?”
“Best case, pirates. We can deal with them. Worst case, it’s sunk, but we’d have heard if it was going down. Or someone with an interest in screwing us got a hold of it. Someone capable of shutting it down so completely that we can’t find it. Then we don’t know what to expect. You know Hannah, there was a great woman bullfighter, Conchita Cintron. Half Puerto Rican, half Irish-American. Hell of a combination. Made her name in Mexico, eventually travelled to the big rings in Spain. One day, 1950 or so, she was fighting in Spain. Franco had banned women from fighting on foot, don’t ask me why so she was on horseback in the ring. Anyway, this clearly bored her, so she dropped from her horse, grabbed a sword and muleta from another bullfighter, a man, and taunted the bull. The crowd was fixated. She wasn’t just breaking Franco’s laws, she was breaking nature’s laws. She seemed to crave death. The bull charged, a great black beast. She dropped to her knees.” Drinkwater dropped to the deck of the boat.
“She raised her sword, pointing it between the bull’s eyes, then the moment it came close, she dropped it, flicked her hips out of its way, and as it passed, caressed its bulging, sweating neck. They arrested her and pardoned her immediately. You know what she said when she got older? That she had lived too long. Because all that matters to a bullfighter is the fight. Nothing beyond that is of the slightest importance. If all you had wanted was to do corporate mergers and piss your life away sending out threatening letters on Skadden Arps paper, you wouldn’t be here with me right now. Part of you wants to kill me, but the part that matters, Conchita, wants to stroke my fat old neck.”
“Could you be any more repulsive?”
Their boat pulled up in Ceuta, in the shadow of a giant ferry waiting to board hundreds of tourists for a week-long cruise. The captain turned it in a tight circle so Lord and Drinkwater could clamber out onto a flight of stone steps covered in algae. They trod carefully to avoid a spill into the filthy, oil-covered water around them. They had to shout to be heard above the noise of the port, the moving cranes and sloshing engines of the ships, the din of thousands of expectant passengers. Cargo containers were moved with terrifying speed through the air above them, carried from ship to dock and back and again as if they were no heavier than matchboxes.
“Stay close,” said Drinkwater. “Where we’re going ain’t obvious.” He walked surprisingly quickly, given his bulk, through the puddles, over the cables and pipes littering the waterfront, heading to the sheer rock which rose up away from the port. The air reeked of diesel and gasoline. They came to a rusting iron door, buried in the rock and marked with a sticker showing an electrical bolt with a red line through it. Gene pulled it open, they descended a steep flight of metal stairs and found themselves in a small room, lined with clanging pipes, where a plump, middle-aged women dressed in black sat alone at an empty desk.
“Marta, I’ve come to Jesus.”
“Same joke every time, Gene.”
“This is my associate, Hannah Lord. Marta here holds the keys to the kingdom.”
“Jesus was expecting you half an hour ago.”
“What can I say? Traffic.”
“Go on in. You need to lose some weight Gene.”
“Nonsense. This way, there’s more to love.”
Hannah followed him into a vast cave, dominated by a large metal platform which rose above the rock floor. Below, she could see streams coursing through the rock, out to sea. Lights pointed upwards to reveal the intricate patterns in the stone, some areas just smooth stripes, others pockmarked like sponges, others carved by time into menacing spikes pointing down towards them.
An enormous man sat in the middle of the platform surrounded by 32 computer screens arranged in an octagon. They were fed by their own farm of servers set off to one side. Beside him on his desk was a circular tin of anchovies, the size of a small hubcap, which he was attacking with a plastic fork, and a large cup of black coffee. The soccer pages of El Mundo Deportivo were spread out over his keyboard. The only personal item on the desk was a framed, signed photograph of the former Real Madrid star Zinedine Zidane.
Drinkwater walked over to him and embraced him, kissing him on both cheeks. Lord hung back, waiting to be introduced.
“Hannah, meet Jesus Oviedo Garringa. Certainly the largest genius you’re likely to meet this week.” A low rumble of laughter emerged from Jesus’ huge body. He got up and extended his hand. He was much lighter on his feet than Hannah had imagined. “If anyone can find this ship of ours, it’s going to be Jesus.”
“How is life with the deviants across the water, Gene?”
“The Moroccans? Or the non-Moroccans who choose to live there? The Moroccans are fine. The non-Moroccans are filthy.”
Marta came in carrying a silver tray holding three cups of sweetened Arabic coffee and a plate of orange slices, which she passed round.
“Who’s working this in Switzerland for you, Gene?”
“The Zurich team we borrowed from the Greeks.”
“They’re mercenaries, my friend. I’ve worked with the Swiss long enough to know that. So proper and clean on the surface, total whores underneath. They’ll sell their services and reputation to anyone.”
“And Andalusians are any different?”
“Oh, we’ll sell, of course. We just don’t pretend to be anything we’re not. Have you ever seen a Andalusian stallion, Hannah? The horse of kings. Large, elegant, purposeful. Built for work, not show like the Arabians. That’s us. Gene can tell you.”
“I can tell he likes you, Hannah. He doesn’t use the stallion speech on just anyone.” She leaned against the desk and sipped the thick, sweet coffee.
“Gene seems to think you can find his ship for him.”
“You sound skeptical,” said Jesus, sitting down and spinning round in his chair. With a few keystrokes, three of the screens showed images of the ocean, and three others were a mass of colorful blotches.
“I pulled these images of the area where the ship vanished from Chinese government satellites which monitor the region. The graphics here reflect heat and sonar readings used to identify ships and other objects in the water. They’re live, from the United States Pacific Fleet.”
“You have access to the Pacific Fleets of both the Chinese and the Americans?” said Hannah, peering at the screens.
“Yes, of course. I’ve pulled the data from the 12 hour time period you mentioned. If the ship was sailing as you said it was, it would have shown up somewhere here.”
“And it didn’t?” said Drinkwater.
“Not unless it’s capable of eluding the combined surveillance operations of the two largest naval operations in the region. And me.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying, Gene, that either we’re looking at some kind of Pacific version of the Bermuda triangle out there, where giant cargo ships simply vanish. Or the Swiss are bullshitting you.”
“But it’s not just them,” said Hannah. “The Japanese authorities said they lost track of the ship’s tracking system around the same time the Swiss said they did.”
“Doesn’t mean anything. Gene, how badly do you need to find this ship?”
“Badly, Jesus. The guys I’m operating it for aren’t the warm and cuddly types, if you know what I mean.”
“Are you prepared to bring in a government to help you?”
“No. No governments.”
“Then we’re on our own. Probably better.”
“How can a ship just go missing like this?” said Hannah.
“Lots of ways. The most obvious would be a hi-jacking. A crew takes the ship, disables the communications system. Perhaps sends out some diversionary signals so the initial searches go in the wrong direction. Then it’s easy to lose yourself on nine-tenths of the earth’s surface. You head to a quiet port somewhere, re-paint, re-register the ship. The thing is most pirates these days are basic thugs. Somalis wanting a few hundred thousand dollars in ransom. There are pirates further over, around the Indonesian archipelago, the Andaman sea. But none we know of close to Japan. If it was hijackers and they picked this specific ship, they must have known what was on board. And if they’re sophisticated enough to know that, they’re probably sophisticated enough to know how to make a ship disappear. The really good ones can transform a ship at sea, they don’t even need to come into port. They can get access to registry, insurance, customs records and make the changes. It’ll be as if the ship never existed. Unless someone bothers to make some noise about it.”
Drinkwater sucked noisily on an orange slice. His fingers drummed against the metal desk.
“It’ll help if you tell me what’s on board, Gene,” said Jesus.
“Trust me, it’s best you don’t know.”
For the first time since she had known him, Hannah sensed Drinkwater was scared.
Inspector Hiro was shown into a large, white room with a view of Tokyo Station. Three low, grey sofas were arranged around a coffee table. He reached into his pocket for a pen, and found his onigiri had squelched open. Sticky pieces of rice and salmon covered his keys and the pen. He wiped off the food on the inside of his pocket, but now his hand smelled of fish.
He was about to ask to use the bathroom when two men entered, Iwase, and a man who might have been his twin brother, the same height, same tortoise-shell glasses and the same white hair swept over to the right.
“This is Mr. Takawa, the head of our legal department,” said Iwase. “He worked closely with Deguchi-San for many years. Through the time of our acquisition, up until yesterday.”
Takawa bowed and proffered his name card. Hiro did the same. All three men sat down.
“We have been in touch with Deguchi-San’s family, as you can imagine, Inspector,” Iwase began. “He had a wife and two sons. Meiji Bank will be doing all it can on their behalf.”
“Of course,” said Hiro. “Can you tell me what Deguchi-San’s role was here?”
“A little of everything. When you have a man of his experience and talents, you don’t define his role, as such. His title was Vice President, Strategy, but really he handled a wide range of tasks for me and Mr. Takawa. Sometimes it was developing strategy, identifying acquisitions, traditional mergers and acquisitions work. Other times it was specific tasks. I’m sure you’ve read about our experiences here at Meiji. We’ve had more attention than we might have wanted. Deguchi-San was vital to our efforts to restoring our health after the Americans came and went.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
“You are an inspector and you have cases, correct? Deguchi-san was someone to whom we entrusted our most important cases. He solved problems for us. He dealt with the most sensitive matters, of which there are a great many at a financial institution of this size. There was no one inside this firm, Inspector Hiro, whom I trusted more.”
“Then why would anyone want to kill him?”
“There you have the great paradox about finance, Inspector. From the outside it seems such a dry profession. We men with our calculators and slide rules. But the truth is, there are few professions bloodier. Besides love, I think Mr. Takawa would agree here, nothing stirs the emotions like money.”
“I’m afraid you’re talking to a humble civil servant. And not even one from the Ministry of Finance. Was Deguchi-San working on anything specific in recent weeks, anything which might have exposed him to any kind of physical danger? This was a very clinical murder. Pre-meditated. Almost ritual. There were no signs that Deguchi-San struggled. It may have been that he knew his killer. Forgive me, but as murders go, and I’ve seen more of them than any man should, this one was notably unemotional. He had his throat slit on an altar. As if he were a sacrificial offering. Whoever did it could have dumped his body where it would have taken us weeks to find. But they didn’t. They left it where they did because it was symbolic. Now, what I’d like to know is that as his employer, what message do you take from this? What does the symbol say to you?”
“We are not in the business of symbols, Inspector,” Iwase replied sharply.
“Fine. But this murderer was. What do you think he was trying to say?”
“You would like us to be more specific,” Takawa intervened. “Very good. I don’t know whether you read the financial newspapers, Inspector.”
“Not every day.”
“But over the past year, Meiji Bank has been involved in a difficult legal argument with certain foreign parties. Americans. Five years ago, a group of American investors acquired Meiji Bank when it was in very poor financial health. A series of loans had not performed to expectations. The Japanese government made the very serious mistake of inviting in these foreign investors to help correct the situation. These investors had bought off certain powerful allies here in Japan to enable them to do the deal. The Americans spent no more than a year as owners before finding a way to re-float the bank on the Tokyo stock exchange at an enormous profit. The key to their deal was that the Japanese government, in its desperation, had guaranteed all of the bank’s bad loans. So, in short, the Japanese government took all the risk, while the Americans took all the reward. As you can imagine, this left a great deal of bitterness here in Tokyo.”
“This was all legal, though,” said Hiro.
“It respected the letter of the law at the time,” said Takawa. “But you should know that American and Japanese understanding of contracts is very different. The Japanese way is to prepare short contracts in which many things are left unwritten but are clearly understood. The American way is to write everything down. This has led to frequent misunderstandings. And in the case of Meiji Bank, the misunderstandings led to...I don’t want to overstate this, you understand Inspector... but they led to a national tragedy. The theft of billions of yen from the Japanese people. It was a wrong that Deguchi-San was seeking to make right.”
“We were engaged in a complex legal battle, with the full support of the government. We had ensured that several of the key figures on the American side would no longer be able to hold assets in Japan or even enter the country. We were trying to bring the issue up to the level of global trade, to make it a bargaining chip in discussions between governments about the opening of markets. And we had made it a political issue for the major parties. To attack the foreign assault on Meiji Bank was to defend Japan’s economic interests. We might never get our money back, but we could certainly ensure that those who profited so extravagantly at our expense never have a chance to do so again. Everyone would know what thieves these men were. They would know their nature. That underneath the smooth talk and legal contracts and the way they talked about transparency and cleaning up our system, these men were criminals.”
Takawa brushed a piece of lint from his knee, but remained perfectly calm as he spoke.
“It would not surprise me if you discovered that Deguchi-San paid the price for his efforts to defend the honor of our firm and our country.” He picked up a manila file which was resting on the seat beside him and passed it across the coffee table to Hiro.
“These were the men who led the deal. They were Deguchi-San’s main targets.”
Hiro opened the file. There were four separate sheaves of paper held together with clips. On the top of each was a four by four inch photograph. The first showed a large man wearing a baggy blue suit and laughing into a cell phone. A type-written label was attached to the top right corner: “Gene Drinkwater. American.”
The elevator shot up to the 53rd floor of Roppongi Tower. Wright gulped as his ears popped. The doors opened onto a gloomy space. The only lighting was tucked into recesses shining down onto individual items of samurai armor. From one end came the thump of electronica. Wright turned towards the sound, followed by Ayumi. He knocked on the door, but received no answer. The music was ear-splitting, rappers screaming in a mix of Japanese and English over pulsating electronic rhythms and inhuman screeches. Wright pushed open the door and looked in. It was a room the size of a basketball court with floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking Tokyo. The Tokyo Tower pointed upwards beneath them, and from here to the sea was nothing but buildings, not even a glimpse of green. If you ever wondered about the close ties between Japan’s politicians and construction firms, the view would have made up your mind. From here, the entire country looked as if it had been built upon. It was an ecologist’s vision of hell.
There were two levels to the room, both of which were furnished with tables stacked with computers and screens, facing the windows. A spiral staircase led up to a gallery, where there were sofas, a kitchen and a large television affixed to the wall. The music came from two speakers, each the size of a man, standing in the rear corners.
“Welcome, welcome,” said a young man, no more than 25, Wright guessed. “I am Nori. It is iron spelled backwards. Nori. Iron.” He was wearing cotton trousers, a black, silk bomber jacket and a tight cap embossed in rhinestones with the word Dirty. His trainers were lurid pink and green with fluorescent yellow soles. “Our friend in Akihibara told us you’d be coming. Ghost hunting, he says. You want a beer?”
“Sure,” said Wright. “It’s noon after all.”
“We lose track of time up here. We’re working markets around the world, so morning, afternoon, night, doesn’t make any difference to us. When we want a beer, we have one.” Nori went to a stainless steel refrigerator and pulled out two beers.
“You want one too?” he said to Ayumi. She shook her head. He poured out a bowl of rice crackers and sat at a desk on the higher of the two levels.
“Come,” he said, pulling up two swivel chairs. “Tell me what we’re after.”
“I’m working for a man called Frank Higgins,” said Wright as he sat down.
“Wow! Frank Higgins is a legend. The best.”
“You understand, Nori, that if you seek to exploit any of what I’m about to tell you, there will be serious consequences.”
“Look around. You think I need the money? Akihibara said this was an interesting project. That’s it. And you know what? I’m more afraid of him than I am of you Mr. Wright.”
“Frank thinks someone has penetrated his system. Not penetrated it. He thinks someone is watching it closely enough that they are neutering his trades. You understand neutering?”
Nori made a gesture as if snipping with a pair of scissors.
“Exactly. They see the ghosts the moment he does and shut down the trading opportunities. The spreads slam shut. It’s destroying his entire strategy.”
“Frank Higgins, huh. When I was at Tokyo University, I used to read the papers he wrote when he was still at Stanford. About linguistics and mathematics. He was an inspiration. He took all this academic stuff and used it for real in the markets. This is kind of my monument to him,” he said waving a hand across the trading floor.
“Where are the rest of your traders?”
“I only have three. They come in whenever they like. Today, they went together to a ryokan in the countryside near Hiroshima. To relax. For me, this is relaxation. I’m happiest when I’m plugged into my screens.”
“Our time is extremely limited. If Frank can’t trade, people are going to find out very soon. He’s been hobbling along most of this quarter. He thought the problem could be sorted out in New York, by rewriting the algorithms, the same way they’ve stayed ahead all these years. But nothing has worked. Each time they rewrite the algorithm, the problem follows right behind. They’ve tried everything, but there’s no shaking it. So three days ago, they got a lead on a bunch of trades, which seemed to come out of Tokyo. It was just milliseconds, but they got a trace. Frank’s guys couldn’t get any further down than a city. So he sent me. To see what I can find.”
Wright passed Nori a sheet of paper detailing the trace code. He read it closely, running a finger along the densely printed lines.
“Shit. This is good.”
“You’re right. They see that Higgins’ computers have identified a ghost and then wham. They’re on it. At best Higgins is only getting a 50-50 split of what he got before. But then given all his stop-loss rules and all the other precautions he has to take so the computers don’t run wild, he’s getting even less. You see, the narrower the spreads, the smaller his trades become. Usually, when spreads are narrow, if you do trade, you lever up to maximize your profit. Not Higgins. He makes so much by spotting the wide spread early that he makes big, low leverage bets there and dials them back as the spreads tighten. But now, the spreads tighten so fast, he’s fucked. If he starts gearing on every tight spread, he becomes like every other loser hedge fund manager, over-exposed on mediocre trades. And then what’s the point of investing in Frank Higgins? It’s all over for him.”
“Well, can you find whoever’s doing this?”
“Give me 24 hours.”
“That’s the outside limit.”
“One other condition.”
“I get to hang with Frank when we’re done.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. You can talk math together.”
Nori swivelled round to his screens and did what Wright thought was impossible. He cranked the music up even louder.
Inspector Hiro had barely stepped out of the Meiji Bank building when his cell phone rang. He picked it out of a clump of soggy rice in his pocket and answered.
“Now? You need me out there now?” he said, over the noise of the street. “It’ll take me an hour at least at this time of day. Fine. Just don’t let anyone else from the department in there before me. If I’m coming out, it has to be mine.”
He pulled a ticket from the windscreen of his car. Ever since the city had privatized control of street parking, these ticket fascists had been making everyone’s life a misery. He ripped it up and stuffed it in his pocket. The department would take care of it.
He tossed the file he had been given at Meiji onto the seat beside him and did a U-turn across the four lane street. He sifted through the stations on his radio, all irrepressible J-Pop. He turned it off. It showed how desperate Japan had become that the Prime Minister had recently talked about J-Pop as a key export. That and manga. it was as if the entire country had gone soft after the economic bubble popped in the late 1980s. The psychological effect had been to unman the economy, to shift its focus from ships, cars and steel to pop culture trash. The latest humiliation had been a survey by the world’s largest condom manufacturer. Of all the world’s developed countries, Japan’s couples had the least sex. The Greeks had the most, or so they claimed. If Hiro’s experience was anything to go by, the survey had to be right. It had been months since his wife had let him touch her.
The traffic was lighter than he had feared and it took just 45 minutes to get to the dump southwest of the city. Such was the efficiency of Japanese garbage disposal that the dump barely stank. What garbage could be burned was burned, the rest was used for landfill, to extend Tokyo ever further out to sea.
Hiro walked across a concrete path to a large hangar where trucks were disgorging their load. Two men in blue workmen’s outfits and white helmets bowed low as he approached and waved him into a sealed off corner of the hangar. The temperature was 15 degrees cooler than it was outside. Two strips of fluorescent lights ran along the ceiling, ensuring the most unflattering light conceivable. Every burst vein, blackhead and pimple was visible on the three faces in the room. One belonged to the facility’s medical doctor, who wore a white coat. Another to one of Hiro’s colleagues, the one who had called him in. The third belonged to a truck driver, who hung his head and passed a battered Seattle Mariners baseball cap from hand to hand.
On a long, metal table in the centre of the room lay a shape under a sheet.
“One of the loaders found this when this truck came in from Tsukiji,” said the coroner, pulling the top of the sheet back. Hiro looked at the fleshy face and the Mohawk hair. “This should interest you,” the coroner added, showing Hiro a set of elaborate tattoos on the man’s chest.
“Yakuza,” said Hiro. “How did he end up in your truck?” he said to the driver.
The driver shrugged.
“I don’t have time for this. Really. One more chance. Why was there a dead Yakuza in your truck?”
The man shrugged again and put the cap on his head. Hiro flicked it back off. The coroner stepped back.
“After I leave here, I will be going to Tsukiji with your name, truck details and I will go to the office of my old friends who run security there and we will sit and watch video of every second in every corner of the market to find out when and how this body found its way into your truck. It will be a waste of time and by the end of it I will be in an even worse mood than I am now. You can improve my day by telling me what you know, or I will find a way to charge you right now with being an accessory to murder.” He turned out his left jacket pocket, revealing the mess of rice and fish, the relics of his onigiri. “Do I look like I’m having a good day, so far?”
“I’m telling you I don’t know. All I know is that ten minutes after I left Tsukiji, an American man climbed into my cabin, covered in fish crap and asked me to take him to the British Embassy. He gave me 200,000 Yen. I didn’t ask him any questions.”
“He climbed into your cabin while it was moving?”
“No, I stopped when he got my attention.”
“And you assume he had something to do with the corpse? An American? Give me your wallet.” The man handed it over. Hiro opened it and found two 100,000 Yen notes, smeared with oil. He pulled out a dried out condom and dropped it to the ground, and then found a name card printed in English and Japanese. “James Hardy. First Secretary. Embassy of the United Kingdom. “This him? The man you took the American to see.” The truck driver nodded. “Can you describe the American to me?”
“Tall, dark hair,” the driver said haltingly. “Well dressed. Nice suit. A scar, old but deep, on his chin. Green eyes. Very green. Like a cat.”
“We have several more eye witnesses,” said the other detective.
“Eye witnesses to what?”
“An incident at the fish market this morning. There was a chase, up onto the roof. A gaijin, fitting the driver’s description, chased by a man with a sword. Sounds like this might have been him. They ended up on the roof of the market. But by the time the police got up there, they’d disappeared. Seems like they might have landed in this man’s truck.”
Hiro raised his eyebrows. “A sword chase through the fish market?” He turned to the driver. “Sounds like you were lucky. You could have ended up like one of the fish. Gutted. We should get over to this embassy. Will you handle the paperwork? We can deal with the consequences of a Yakuza death later, I guess. But we should find out how senior he was. If he was dispatched to kill a gaijin, he probably had some rank. And they’ll want the body back. To give their soldier his due. It’s the least we can do.”
“Where were you heading?” he said to the driver.
“You’re staying in Tokyo for now. Until we find your American. We’ll need you to identify him. You have somewhere to stay?”
“Relatives. Distant ones.”
“Same as me then.”
Higgins settled into a peppermint colored sofa and waited. For once, he was early. Five feet in front of him was a beige director’s chair embroidered in hot pink with the name “Babs”. In one corner of the office were arranged books and a selection of clever children’s toys, blocks, magnetic tiles, all the junk sold to neurotic parents in the belief it would one day result in an admission letter from Harvard so their burned out child could pursue a life as a burned out adult, and one day find themselves sitting here in the court of Babs hoping to inflict the same fate on their own children.
It was his ex-wife, the mother of his three children, who had insisted on the Horton School. Never mind that it cost nearly $40,000 a year for first grade. Even with all his money, the cost still riled Higgins. For a man who hadn’t even gone to school until he was 7, and then into the Oakland public school system, the idea that you could spend all that money to produce an arrogant mediocrity rankled. He had met enough of this system’s products during his time in New York and few of them impressed him. They were vicious in a way people who had made their own good fortune rarely were. Kennedy-vicious.
The ex-wife appeared in the door.
“Early for a change.”
“Never too old to change, darling.” He patted the seat beside him. “Let’s put on our show.”
“Arthur tells me your fund’s in trouble.”
“If Arthur were so fucking smart he’d be more than a private banker.”
“He doesn’t cheat me, Frank. More than can be said of you.”
“You and the chrome dome live very comfortably off me. Don’t complain. The checks won’t stop coming for you and the kids. Speaking of which, how are they?”
“Not missing you.”
“Good. Well as long as I can remain an invisible source of wealth and privilege and none of them hate me, that’s the best I can hope for right? Babs,” he said, rising from his seat. “Wonderful to see you.” A powerful, frigate of a woman with a spray-hardened helmet of frosted blond hair steamed into the room. She air-kissed the couple, then took up her seat, her tangerine pumps dangling a foot of the ground.
“So, Roark. What a wonderful little boy,” she said, opening a green file.
“96 on his ERBs, very good. Excellent verbal and reasoning, wonderful blocks and good coding. The teacher reports from Episcopal are first rate. And Frank, I must add, the gymnasium you contributed to has really changed our lives here.”
“Least I could do.”
“And of course we love the fact that both of you are originally from California. It brings such diversity to the classroom. This mustn’t go beyond these four walls, but I interviewed a very famous African American actor and his this morning, who want to send their twin daughters here. They would be a wonderful addition. In so many ways.”
“Diversity is what we’ve always valued about this school,” cooed Julia. Higgins never ceased to marvel at this woman’s masks. Now the doting parent, a minute ago the acid divorcee, and of course when he’d first met her, the ultimate fresh-to-downtown, fashion vixen. The city had hardened her, as it did everyone. Whatever it took. Those were the rules. Just get it done. No excuses. Even for a man like Higgins, a Randian, a social, economic Darwninian, it felt like a crushing way to live sometimes. You scrambled onto the rails and then kept on moving relentlessly in a straight line because if you so much as wobbled, you tumbled away into the darkness to live with all the other losers, dragging their screaming children along upper Broadway on summer afternoons, sucking on iced coffee and bitching about the cost of living in Manhattan. And never so much as sniffing at the door of a place like Horton. Unless, of course, they could convince Babs here that you could spread some of the magic dust called “diversity”. The only pass Horton gave to the poor was if their kids could make the school’s annual brochure look marginally less like a recruiting document for the KKK.
“Our board believes that children need more global exposure than ever in order to compete,” Babs said. “That’s why we’ve begun offering Mandarin to our three year olds.” Before they can even speak English, Higgins thought. And compete? As if kids coming out of this place knew the meaning of the word. The system was so rigged in their favor, it took a truly hard core bum to fail out.
The only reason he went along with all this was that he was too much of a coward to do anything different. And too lazy. If it’s what Julia wanted, it was easier to go along with her. And when he looked over at her, it wasn’t hard to see why he had wanted to please her all those years. The sandy hair falling over one cheek, the long, tanned legs, the horsey, healthy good looks. Not beautiful, perhaps, but certainly handsome. His friends had found her austere, which was about right. She was like one of those rocks in the Arizona desert, blasted clean by heat and wind, no frills. She was never academically smart in the way Higgins was, but she had a hard, practical intelligence, about people and her own ideas. The fact that she frightened other men had made her attractive to him. And once you won her approval, Higgins had found, it was spectacularly worth it. Whatever she held back in her public encounters she poured out one hundredfold in the bedroom.
But ten years of marriage had seen to all that. Ten years of increasing wealth, children, tedious discussions of nannies, tutors, schools, summer houses, decorators, architects, all the passion-killing agonies of life in the city. Their marriage became about organization rather than desire. About fearing some minute slippage from a magazine perfect ideal. The fear of not sitting at the right table at a benefit. Of their children not getting into Horton. Of not owning the very latest Gulfstream.
The gap between reality and desire, Higgins felt, seemed to widen rather than narrow the more they had. And eventually, the tedium had killed them. Them as a couple that was. She had taken up with Arthur, the bald private banker with all the personality of a personal organizer. And he had drifted from relationship to relationship. It was amazing how many eager, attractive divorcees there were out there. But still, he missed her. He missed her ability to keep him straight. He had never trusted anyone the way he had trusted her in the months after they met and the early years of their marriage. He wished he were with her now.
“The letters will go out in a few days,” said Babs. “But I don’t think there’s anything for you to worry about. By the way, did you receive our invitation to the fundraiser for the library? We hope to raise half a million dollars for a new language lab and a selection of books in foreign languages.” Higgins felt Julia pressing on his toe.
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Frank. “I’m not sure whether I can be there, but I did want to give you this to help get you started. To thank you for all you’ve done for our children, Babs. You and the school.” She snapped the check from his fingers.
“More than kind of you, Frank and Julia. If only all the parents here shared your commitment to education and our children’s future. You set an example for all of us.”
“That woman is wasted in education,” said Frank as they stepped onto the sidewalk. “She should have been a political fundraiser. Or an armed robber.” He rubbed his eyes and then thrust his hands into his pockets.
“Can I give you a lift somewhere?” he asked.
“No. I’m meeting Arthur for lunch at Coco Pazzo.”
“With all the other geriatrics. I hope you don’t find any lost dentures in your salad.”
“Are you feeling it, Frank?”she said, holding a hand to his cheek.
He exhaled. Did he dare tell her?
“Yes. Guess so. It’s difficult. You beat everyone out of sight for 20 years and it doesn’t buy you a day’s credit for a few bad weeks.”
“You poor darling.” She smiled. “I’ll have Arthur issue my redemption request this afternoon. Get my money out by the end of today. I believe our agreement entitles me to do that.” She turned and walked down 87th street towards Fifth and hailed a taxi. Higgins jangled the change in his pocket and shook his head in wonder.
James Hardy tightened his bow-tie and took a final look at himself in the mirror. He had to dress early as he would have no time this evening, in between cocktails for the visiting minister and dinner with the chief executive of Sony. Pleased with what he saw, he walked over to the ambassador’s residence.
The minister was a dismal man, so typical of the kinds being sent to run the Foreign Office these days. He spoke in flat, Lancashire vowels, which would have been fine had he anything interesting to say. Unfortunately, the dullness of his voice matched the tedium of his thinking. He imagined that here on the other side of the world, his audience would be riveted by the inner machinations of the British Labour Party.
“The local elections came as a shock,” he droned, standing in the French doors leading from the drawing room out onto a paved terrace. “No one expected us to lose in Carlisle, but then mid-term everyone wants a change, don’t they? But then, as the Prime Minister said to me, “Dennis, such times are sent to test us.” Never a truer word.”
The small crowd around the minister chuckled out of politeness, which unfortunately he took to be encouragement. “Remarkable man the PM. I remember when we campaigned together in Rotherhithe, he never failed to remember a name or face. Ten years later, we went to the same chip shop, where they served delicious mushy peas - not to go any further, but the PM loves mushy peas, real ones, with plenty of vinegar - and he walks in and says ‘Rosemary. How’s that beautiful daughter of yours, Charlene?’ The woman was absolutely gobsmacked. And a Labour voter for life, I can assure you. I can’t believe it when I read these so-called journalists who say what a dull man he is. I tell you this, if every voter in the country had the chance to spend five minutes alone with the PM, they’d see what a personable man he is. Shake his hand and you can’t fail to feel his warmth and common decency.”
It was the same thing you heard of every bore who every held high office. Meet them in person, and it was completely different. In Hardy’s experience, though, the opposite was true. A bore in public was even more of a bore in private. And the Prime Minister was no exception. A humorless drone of the very first rank. Only hacks like this minister, their judgment addled by ambition, could ever think otherwise.
Hardy felt his phone vibrate in his pocket and stepped away into a smaller reception room.
“There’s a man following me James,” said Wright.
“Of course there is, you ass. What did you think, we were going to let you roam Tokyo without keeping an eye on you? You’re much too valuable to too many people for that, Ben.”
“Well, he’s not much of a tail. I’m staring at him now and he’s trying to look inconspicuous by fiddling with his radio. Perhaps I should go and say hello.”
“Don’t humiliate the man, Ben. Tell me, how’s the investigation?”
“Not sure. But I’ve certainly had a crash course in Tokyo subculture. My fate rests in the hands of a teenager who hasn’t left his room in three years and an investment genius in day-glo sneakers.”
“Well if you need any help from the more conventional sources, the Ministry of Finance, the securities regulators...”
“They won’t be any use. Sorry to have to tell you this, James, but governments are laggards when it comes to how money moves around the world. It’s a law of the markets. Only the lame and dull-witted get caught. The smart and the swift are miles ahead of any law you might come up with to constrain them.”
“So what are you doing while you wait?”
“I thought I might take up smoking again.”
“You should get Ayumi to take you out for dinner. A bit of cultural immersion. She’s quite a different person off the job, you know.”
“I hope so. I feel like I’m constantly being disapproved of. Can’t bow properly, hand the card over correctly, slam the door on the taxi.”
“I don’t need to tell you, but you’ve got another 36 hours of this Ben. After that you’re on your own. They found the Yakuza’s body out at the dump. You still there Ben? It’s a murder inquiry now. The Tokyo police aren’t the quickest, but they’re no fools.”
“I have to go and attend to Her Majesty’s least impressive minister. Take care, Ben.”
Hardy disconnected and promptly scrolled through his address book to find another number. He dialed it.
“Don’t wait till morning. Take him tonight,” he said. He closed the phone, tucked it away, took a large swig of champagne and returned to what the ambassador had charitably described as the party. As he approached the group, Hardy could hear the minister embarking on yet another dreary anecdote.
“Let me tell you about a hilarious incident at the latest talks in Brussels about the Common Agricultural Policy....”
Office workers and early evening shoppers surged around Wright and Ayumi as they stood at the foot of Roppongi Hills. High above them, Nori’s fingers were dancing pirouettes across his keyboards.
“James suggested you take me out to dinner,” said Wright.
“I could do that,” said Ayumi.
“Perhaps you’d like a break from me for a while. It must be exhausting thinking in two languages all day. Why don’t we meet somewhere in a couple of hours?”
“That would be good.” She pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled down the name of a bar. “It’s not far from here. In Nishi Azabu. Show it to the taxi driver. We can go from there.”
Wright watched her disappear into the subway and then made his way towards a bookshop. He had never felt quite so adrift on a job. It wasn’t just Tokyo, though that was disconcerting in itself. It was the lack of control. Higgins had sent him off in pursuit of ghosts, far from the world he knew, the comfortable financial aeries of the United States and Europe, where everyone and everything was familiar.
But perhaps that is what he needed. A break from his town house half a block from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the more than privileged life of a billionaire bachelor in a city which prized both money and availability.
It also took him out of the shadow of his father. If that were ever possible. A man viewed by the world as so avuncular and wise, and yet known by his son to be quite different. It still smarted every time he read of his father’s genius and decency. The truth was that every step his father had taken closer to the bright lights of public acclaim, every thirsty draught he took of Wall Street’s and Main Street’s adoration, the grander he became on the American stage, the more his private persona shriveled. It was the distorting, depraving effect not of money itself but of the attention it brought.
Wright had seen it as a boy, hustled from school to play date to private tutors. Up to and beyond the day when he found his mother dead in her bed, two empty bottles of sleeping pills beside her. She had suffered from depression ever since his birth, but his father had done little to help her.
“I write the checks, don’t I?” he had once heard him scream in one of his late night tirades as his mother cowered in a corner of the kitchen, hoping the maid could not hear.
When Walter Wright died, it was the closest Wall Street got to a state funeral. His body was carried into the Church of Heavenly Rest by three multi-billionaires, including the richest man in the world, and the heads of three global investment banks. Two former Treasury Secretaries spoke. Wright’s investors, dentists, bank managers, secretaries, people who had entrusted him with their money decades before and seen it compound beyond their dreams, stood four or five deep down Fifth Avenue, from 90th Street south past the Guggenheim all the way down to the Met. More than a thousand people showed up to the wake at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, and Wright had shaken every one of them by the hand. He accepted their condolences, their offers of help, their stories of his father’s brilliance.
And all he could feel was an uncontainable joy that the bastard was finally dead.
But now he had this work. He did not do it for the money. That was the last thing he needed. It had started with an assignment for a family friend, a private equity investor who needed some information about an acquisition. It was information that no firm could discover, none of the high-priced, slick hair and garish suspenders operators who went through other people’s garbage and snooped on their assignations. At least not as quickly as it was needed. It was information that could only be gleaned by someone on the inside of this world. One of their own. Wright had flown down to meet the owner of the target firm at Point Clear, a plantation turned resort just outside Mobile, Alabama. There wasn’t a businessman in America who would refuse a telephone call from Walter Wright’s son, especially when he said he was interested in his business.
They had played tennis together and it was obvious from the first serve that the man was a showboat and a cheat. After every winner that whistled down the line beyond his reach, he had to restrain himself from slamming his racquet into the ground. As they had dinner after the game, lobster, steak and a Ridge Zinfandel, the man could not help bragging. A bid had come in for his firm at 8 times earnings. They’d got it up to 12 times by conjuring up a stalking horse bid from a friendly firm in town. The man wanted to make an impression, and the name Wright made him far too trusting. It was also apparent that he had started to spend as if the sale was complete. He had made a down-payment on a mansion in Windsor, Florida, so his wife and daughter could play polo. He talked about moving up from fractional ownership of a jet to his own plane. Maybe making a large gift to the University of Alabama football program.
By the time the sale went through, after Wright reported back, the private equity investors paid four times earnings and Wright’s dinner companion was grateful for the cash.
But this was just the start. Wright was selective about the work he took. It had to engage him. It had to be for people he knew and trusted, who wouldn’t gossip about what he did for them. It had to be secret.
Wright browsed the stacks of magazines piled up close to the entrance to the bookstore. Many were small-run titles, beautifully assembled, designed and illustrated, devoted to slivers of Japanese culture, rural cooking or skateboarders’ shoes. Through their focus and concision, Wright found, one learned more about the world than through the random, superficial coverage of general interest magazines, the ones every supposedly “informed” person was meant to read.
It was one of those aspects of life that kept drawing him back to the Greeks and Romans, the cultures which had obsessed him since he was a boy. Here were societies of men and women, few of whom saw life far beyond their city or village walls, and yet comprehended everything. The world did not need to be seen in its entirety to be understood.
All you needed to know about modern finance, for example, you could find on an Attic vase: priapic men, stupefied by lust, goaded by malevolent gods towards their ruin.
The bar was empty when Wright arrived. A long wooden counter stretched the length of the room. Behind it were dozens of rare whiskies, illuminated as if they were sacred urns in a museum. The barman, who wore a waistcoat and dark tie, set down a fresh, linen napkin.
“Birru,” said Wright, making a gesture as if pulling on a keg. The barman produced a tall, frosted glass and poured Wright his beer. It tasted clean and flat. Only decorum stopped him downing it in one.
He felt a draught of warm air as the door opened. Ayumi entered and took the stool beside him. She had changed into a sea-green blouse and a grey, cotton skirt, which stopped just short of her knees. She wore diamond and emerald ear-rings and a matching necklace, with a pendant which lay just above the full curve of her breasts. She had swapped her black pumps for a pair of low, silver-grey heels with a bow on the front, which exposed her crimson toe-nails. She did not so much as look at Wright, but stroked her neck with her right hand while the barman waited to take her order.
“You made the right choice,” she said. “Start the evening with beer then move on to sake.”
“At last. I master a Japanese convention. If only by accident.”
She smiled, rested her left hand on her cheek and looked over at him. She raised her beer.
“Kaipan,” said Wright. She coughed as her beer went down the wrong way, and covered her mouth.
“No. Kanpai. Cheers. Kaipan means swimming trunks. But not even that. It’s sort of an abbreviation of swimming trunks. A word a child might use.”
“What, like trunkies?”
“Well, trunkies to you.” He raised his glass again. “My mother was French and she often said she was different people in different languages. How about you?”
“That’s a very personal question.”
“Sorry. The garrulous American. I looked into it once. It seems even the experts are divided. Some think that humans have the same store of concepts and ideas and languages are just different means of communicating them. Others believe that language defines those concepts in certain ways, so in a way our most important ideas are shaped by the language we speak. Whenever I see an American in Italy shrugging his shoulders and waving his arms around, I think the second theory’s right. But then when you see happy couples from different countries and cultures, who grew up speaking different languages, you see some things transcend language.”
“Yes, I am different people.”
“The Japanese don’t talk about their feelings much. You clearly have no problem with that.”
“I’m not talking about my feelings. I’m talking about feelings, ideas generally.”
“No difference. We’d rather talk about impersonal things, at least to start with.”
“Fine. Where are we going for dinner?”
“I’ll show you.”
There was nothing to indicate the restaurant besides a slender rectangle of glass at knee height set inside an otherwise featureless wooden facade. Ayumi, however, knew exactly where to push to open the door. The room was no bigger than a one- car garage and contained five small tables. Behind a counter was the kitchen, where three men in grey hanten jackets tied at the waist worked in silence.
Ayumi bowed to the waiter and made a very brief order.
“What did you ask for?” said Wright.
“Whatever they have this evening. The chef goes to Tsukiji early in the morning. Like you.”
“Is the sarcasm just in English or Japanese too?
Wright was now sitting opposite her, rather than beside her as he had done in the bar. Her earlier formality had melted into a warm expressiveness. Its novelty made it all the more seductive. She reached into her handbag and pulled out a packet of Marlboro Lights.
“Don’t say anything, please. It’s almost my only vice.” She lit one, placed it between her lips, rested her chin in her left hand and looked Wright squarely in the eyes. “Most of my clients aren’t nearly as interesting as you.”
“A very personal compliment. Thank you. Who are most of your clients?”
“Visiting politicians, big companies, executives, lawyers. We go from the same hotels in Roppongi or Shinjuku to offices to conferences and back again.”
“And you find this tedious, I assume.”
“No. I think about all the money I make. And I’m happy to make my country accessible to foreigners. I see it as my patriotic duty.”
“How old fashioned.”
“But today was the first time I visited a hikikomori.”
The first few dishes appeared before them, each arrayed on grey, ceramic squares: a pile of green and black seaweed; a raw oyster; three separate pieces of fish, each on a separate plate. A tray of soba noodles followed, then a sizzling pile of sesame fried chicken. Wright ate hungrily with his chopsticks. But the moment he set them down crossways across his plate, Ayumi reached over and arranged them back on the holder on the edge of his bamboo place mat. As she did so, he felt her hand brush against his and caught the clean, floral scent of her soap. Cold sake arrived in tiny jugs, which Ayumi poured out using both hands. Course after course followed until Wright was enveloped in a sense of profound well-being, blighted only by Ayumi’s silences.
“I talk to fill the air because you say so little,” he said.
“It’s who I am. You be who you are and I’ll be who I am. It’s fine.”
At the end of supper, he reached for one of her cigarettes.
“First time in a year,” he said. The tobacco smoke gave him an immediate head rush.
“Are you OK? Your eyes look funny.” Wright gripped the edge of the table.
“I feel,” he paused for a moment, searching for the right word, enjoying the dizzying loss of oxygen going to his brain. “Fantastic.”
But the sensation was brief. He saw a look of terror flash across Ayumi’s face and spun round. He knocked a sake bottle to the floor as he did so.
Filling the doorway were two men in dark overcoats. You could see where their tattoos began, just below their ears and disappearing beneath their shirts. Before Wright could stand, one of the men was lunging towards him. Ayumi grabbed at her bag, searching for her phone. The other man snatched it away from her then seized her by the back of the neck. The three chefs and the waiter lined up behind the counter and turned the other way. The only other diners in the restaurant shielded their eyes.
The man who attacked Wright snatched the cigarette from his mouth and stabbed it into the back of his hand, causing Wright to scream. He then pulled Wright’s right arm up behind his back until the bones in his elbow ground against each other, and pushed his head down to his chest, forcing Wright out of the restaurant.
Wright managed to turn his head slightly to see Ayumi in an identical hold being shoved along behind him. There was a spreading red mark across her face where her assailant had slapped her. He stumbled down the one step leading from the restaurant to the street. There were two more men waiting beside a black SUV, the rear doors of which were open. Wright and Ayumi were pushed towards them. The thugs seized their hands and bound them with hard, plastic cuffs. A middle-aged couple emerged from another restaurant on the other side of the road and averted their gaze the moment they saw the large men in shades surrounding the vehicle. Everyone in Tokyo knew what this meant. You turned and kept walking. It was none of your business.
Ayumi caught Wright’s eye, her face was filled with fear and disgust. But this was no time for nobility, Wright thought, for saving damsels in distress. This was a time to follow the path down to whichever hell he was being led.
It was one of his rules of investigations. If the villains chose to play a hand, make sure you see it played in full before playing yours.
The doors were slammed behind them and Wright and Ayumi cowered back to back beneath a steel cover which had been rolled shut over their heads. The red tail-lights shone faintly through cracks in the bodywork, giving their space the seedy glow of a bordello.
“Are you OK?” he said. She did not reply. But he could hear her breathe, smell her honeysuckle perfume and feel the shift of her legs and rear behind him.
There were certainly worse ways to be taken hostage.
“Guns, Hannah. Guns. Thousands of them. And ammunition and explosives. The very best. You wanted to know and now you’re stuck with it. You’re party to my private squalor.” Drinkwater stared up at the cloudless sky. He was naked but for a folded beach towel covering his genitals. Hannah Lord sat nervously on the edge of the sun lounger beside him.
“Why Gene? Why would you risk it all like this?”
“It started years ago. Long before I became rich like I am now. I was trying to win over the Kazakhs and Uzbeks. To get to their oil and gas. I’d tried playing chess with them - they fucking love chess - flown them around, bought them hookers. But everyone was doing that. Every commodities hustler from here to Vancouver was trying it on with the ex-Soviets. Bringing in ex-Presidents for a little whump-whump on the Black Sea to impress them. So I needed an edge. Illegal if it had to be. I was doing a lot of business in Japan at the time, buying steel, selling it to the Koreans, Malaysians, long before Meiji. Before I really pissed them off. You meet some interesting people when you’re in metals. Not the kind you’d like to take home to mother. They offered me guns, I offered them to the Kazakhs and Uzbeks and there you go. Like that, I had access to the biggest oil and gas fields found since the Saudis.”
“But why didn’t you stop?”
“Everyone was happy.”
“You’re kidding me, Gene. Please tell me you’re screwing with me.”
“Majid. Bring me another jug of Tom Collins. And lots more ice. No, I’m not kidding, Hannah. No balls, no bacon. If you wanted peace and quiet you should have stayed in New York and clung on to the greasy pole.”
“But this threatens,” she paused for a moment, “everything.”
“I know. Great isn’t it?” He replaced his sunglasses and settled back.
“You don’t need to play cool, Gene. I saw you back there in Ceuta. You were pale.”
“My melanomas couldn’t hide it? Fine, Hannah. So here’s what I think. Either my boat has vanished in some Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Or someone has it. We can try chasing them or wait for them to get in touch. Because you know they have to at some point. Then we deal with them. You can go to fucking Tokyo if you like - because I can’t. The moment I step onto the ground at Narita, I get taken off and thrown into jail for the crime of sorting out one of their piss-ant, over-leveraged banks. So I’m going to stay here. The whole world can be freaking out about Geney-boy here, but I’m going to be sitting by my pool, in my house, counting my money, drinking one damn Tom Collins after another.”
“To the victor the spoils.”
“Don’t get all Communist, all human rights and Stanford Law School on me. You like money as much as anyone. For all your hemp bracelets and recyclable shoes, which by the way are ugly as hell.”
“You’re a sensational prick at least, Gene. I’ll give you that,” she said, picked up her satchel and walked away, past the rosemary bushes to her car. She called the hangar at Ibn Batouta Airport.
“Have Universal arrange a 7pm wheels-up for Narita would you?” she said. “Yes. Japan.”
A list containing 7328 names was waiting for Hiro on his desk at police headquarters. It showed every American who had entered the country over the past 72 hours, their age, home address and where they were staying. Hiro glanced over it, eliminating families and anyone under 21 or over 55. It still left several hundred. The killer, the driver had said, was probably in his thirties, though Japanese estimates of Western ages were unreliable.
Several other files sat on Hiro’s desk. There were only 120 murders each year in metropolitan Tokyo, but every one of them seemed sicker than the last. There were johns slashing hookers, yakuza disemboweling those who dared cross them, pedophiles and then a new wave of depressed young men inspired by a 23-year-old who had driven a truck through the suburb of Choshu, killing six people by running them down, then leaping out and stabbing four more, three fatally. His excuse to the police had been “I was bored.”
He opened one of the files. The picture on top showed a schoolgirl sliced open from between her legs, her uniform folded backwards on each side of the cut as if she were a dissected frog.
She had been one of the many Japanese schoolgirls who had taken up selling her sexual services to older men. Enjo kosai, they called it, subsidized socializing. The girls would wear their uniforms even at the weekends to appeal to clients and wait along the suburban streets to be picked up. The killer had been careful. There were no DNA traces at the scene, no hair or sperm, the way there would be after most sex crimes. It was as if he had been performing a surgical experiment. The body was found by the girl’s father, laid out on a tarpaulin in an alley behind her house. The case had been open for six months and still they hadn’t a single lead. Whoever did it was still out there.
Hiro, however, had come to regard the subjects of his investigation as necessary toxins, like vaccines injected into society to protect it against even greater sickness. The horror of the murders kept ordinary people straight. In America, there were more murders, but many were just random, gang killings, crimes of passion, made easier by the availability of guns. Not in Japan. Swords and guns were banned. Society was more orderly. And so the few murders there were had to really shock to serve their purpose.
From this perspective, he found it hard to believe the Deguchi murder was the work of a foreigner. It was far too organized. Too symbolic. If a foreigner had done it, it was under Japanese orders. What would it mean for a gaijin to kill a man at the Senso-Ji temple? To slit his throat on an altar? But then, thinking about it like that, what would it mean for a Japanese?
“Inspector Hiro?” A tall Englishman in black tie leaned over the wall of his cubicle.
“James Hardy, British Embassy. I realize this is unconventional, but I thought I’d save you some time. I’m heading down to Osaka in the morning with a trade group, so wanted to make sure we spoke. I called your office who said you usually stopped by before heading home. Thought I’d give it a shot.”
Hiro had sprung to his feet.
“Of course, of course. You received our message.”
“Yes. It came through from the ambassador’s office. Naturally, any request from Keishicho is given the very highest priority.” He used the formal term for the Tokyo Police department, Hiro noted, as if this were a bureaucratic matter.
“We’re investigating a murder and have a lead about a man who was dropped off at the embassy this morning. The truck driver who dropped him there had one of your cards.”
“Yes. Benjamin Wright. Very old friend. Said he’d been involved in some kind of brawl down at the fish market. Didn’t mention anything else.”
“We discovered a body out at the dump south of the city. It came from the same truck Wright rode in. We’ve also gathered several reports from Tsukiji about a Westerner involved in a chase.”
“I see. Well, how can the British government be of help?”
“We want to find Mr. Wright.”
“He’s staying next door to you here, at the Imperial Hotel.”
“Do you happen to know why he’s here in Tokyo?”
“Said he was looking at some investments. He’s in the money business, all far over my head. You should ask him. But as I said, I’ve known Ben for years and the idea of him being involved in murder seems extremely far-fetched.”
“It’s often the way,” said Hiro. “May I get you anything? Some water?”
“No, I’m fine. Actually I have a dinner I need to get to. Anything else you need? Do give Ben a call. I’m sure he can explain everything.”
“Thank you for your cooperation.” Hardy rose, bowed and headed for the elevator.
Even if he left now, Hiro realized, he wouldn’t be home until 11pm, by which time his family would all be asleep, or locked in their rooms doing whatever it was they did. He decided to stay downtown for the night. There was a dormitory in the basement. He went over to a vending machine, bought a pot of noodles and poured hot water over them. They always tasted to him of college. Of poverty, irresponsibility and freedom. Especially when washed down by beer.
He leaned back in his chair and rested his feet on his desk. Tokyo’s nightly carnival of lights was already in full swing outside his window, though he wanted no part of it. He was thinking about Hardy’s visit.
In all his years of policing, no one had ever been that helpful.
The SUV came to a sharp stop. Wright could hear the men getting out and footsteps coming round to the rear. He winced as someone shone a flashlight into his eyes, then grabbed him by the belt buckle and hoisted him out into the alleyway. Ayumi came next. Wright heard her skirt tearing as she was dragged out beside him. She glanced upwards and received another sharp slap.
A large steel door swung open and the four men bundled their hostages down a damp flight of steps, which reeked of garbage. They shoved them onto the stone floor of a small room, five feet by five feet at most and shouted in Japanese. Then they disappeared bolting the door behind them.
“What did they say?” said Wright.
“Of course. Are you OK?”
“I’m sorry. Do you know where we are?”
“Kabukicho, I think. They slapped me before I could get a proper look. It’s the red light district. In Shinjuku. Yakuza territory.”
Through a vent above them came the smell of sizzling yakitori and the sounds of a nightclub. Wright pushed himself back and up against the wall. He bent and unbent his legs, which were cramping after the ride. He looked around the room. The vent was no larger than a book. The only way out was through the door. It slammed back against the wall and an enormous figure in a bright yellow suit, and matching silk shirt oozed slowly into the tiny space. His face seemed to slope away from his chin at a 45 degree angle. His hair hung in lank strands around his shoulders. His eyes were buried between the folds of his cheeks and protuberant eye brows.
“Leave us,” he said to the two goons lurking in the doorway. To escape now, Wright would not only have to elude them, but more challenging was the 400 pounds of corpulence now blocking his way. “We have business to discuss.” Wright expected a booming voice to explode from this vast body, but instead it was light and soft, like a young girl’s.
“You are the translator?” he said to Ayumi. She nodded.
“Tell Mr. Wright here that we are very upset that he killed our friend this morning. And we want to know how he intends to make it up to us.”
“Make it up to you?” said Wright. “It was either him or me. You didn’t give me much choice.”
“I’m not interested in what you think. What I want to know is where’s my shipment?”
“You pretend to be ignorant, gaijin, and I’ll take you and your girlfriend upstairs and rape you until you bleed.” He did not even raise his voice as he made his threat. He picked a file out of his pocket and began to rub it over his nails.
“Really, I don’t know anything about a shipment.”
“Take her.” The two men squeezed into the wall and grabbed Ayumi by the arms. She looked fiercely at Wright. “And enjoy her. Lovely perfume. Don’t worry if she can’t stand afterwards. As long as she can translate.”
“Stop,” said Wright. “Stop. Please.”
“You were sent here by Frank Higgins, correct?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Who do you think sent one of our men to kill you this morning?”
“Frank sent that maniac to kill me? There must be a misunderstanding.”
“Not only does our man not come back, but our shipment goes missing. Our ship leaves Tokyo and two days later it’s gone. Where is it?”
“You’ve got to help me with the shipment.”
“Enough of this.” The man leaned in as far as he could. Wright could see the gaping pores on his face. His breath stank of grilled eel. He reached down and grabbed Wright’s groin. “I haven’t had one like you for at least a month. Take them upstairs,” he muttered. “To the back. Get them ready.”
“We just got this from Nishi Azabu,” said Hiro’s assistant, sprinting over from the far side of the office. “Ever since the spate of muggings of foreigners in the area, they’ve been running foot patrols. An American man and a Japanese woman taken out of a restaurant. The man fits Wright’s description.”
“Anything on who took them?”
“Leather overcoats, sunglasses, Toyota Landcruiser.”
“Yakuza. We need to flood Kabukicho. Now.” Hiro whipped round and pulled on his jacket. “Every car we can get. You, come with me.”
Hiro did not bother waiting for the elevator. He ran down the four flights of steps to the car park, found his car and slapped a siren to the roof. His assistant jumped into the seat beside him.
“Fifteen minutes to Shinjuku,” said Hiro, turning the steering wheel. “Enough time for a yakuza to really fuck someone up.”
Wright’s face was pressed down in the clammy seat of a plastic armchair. Ayumi was kneeling on the other side of the room in the same position. In the room behind them, they could hear people coming and going, the sound of music every time they opened the door. It was clearly the back office of a nightclub. Wright twisted his neck upwards. He could see a fish tank and a pornographic wall calendar. An air conditioner unit set in the window blew cold air across his neck. He could hear Ayumi crying.
The yakuza in the yellow suit was in the other room. Wright could hear his babyish voice. He willed him to keep talking, dreading the moment he stopped. He tried to slow down time by counting the seconds, giving himself the space to think. What was this shipment? And how was Higgins involved? And why would he try to have him killed in such a spectacular way?
But fear was gnawing at Wright’s ability to reason. He could feel sweat pouring off his body, seeping into his clothes. In moments he would be helpless under the weight of this repulsive gangster. And Ayumi as well. She would be subjected to the same nightmare for no other reason than that she had been assigned the wretched job of translating for him.
What about Hardy, Wright thought suddenly. The man he had assigned to follow him? If he had been doing his job, he would have seen what happened and passed it on. A shard of hope, at least.
The door opened behind him. Ayumi’s sobs grew louder.
“Let her cry,” said the man. “It turns me on. I’ll do the gaijin first. Hold his head down.”
“Listen, the shipment,” said Wright. The grip on his head loosened. Ayumi blurted his words out in Japanese.
“What about it?”
“A port, in the north. Near Hokkaido.”
“All of it?”
“Yes. All of it.”
“Why is it there, not going where it’s supposed to?”
“Higgins wanted it as security. In case you didn’t kill me.” There was silence as the yakuza thought.
“What was in the shipment, gaijin?”
“The usual what?”
“Drugs,” guessed Wright.
“Don’t try and bullshit me. You don’t know.”
Wright felt the man’s hand pulling down hard on the back of his pants.
Over 20 police cars had pulled into the narrow streets of Kabuki-cho. Officers poured out and fanned out in groups. They shouted into the faces of the yakuza, who guarded their clubs, brothels and hostess bars and greeted this intrusion by the law with an icy nonchalance. The streets of the quarter were narrow, with barely room for three people to walk shoulder to shoulder. From behind thin curtains and dim lanterns, the officers could hear the sound of people eating and drinking at cramped counters. Students would come here for the cheap food and a break from the pressure of their work. Young couples ate here before checking into one of the many love hotels, where they could pay by the hour for the intimate space they were denied at home. Salary men in their white shirts and dark ties, their jackets flung over their shoulders spilled out drunk in search of hostess bars. None of them would make it home before 2am, after which they would get back on the train at 6 to return to their offices and say nothing about the night before. If you ever wondered about Japan’s declining birth rate, the reasons for it were all on display on the streets of Kabuki-cho. You could find every form of sexual loneliness and despair here.
“What’s this all about Hiro? We’ve pulled men from all over the city,” said a uniformed sergeant, a towering former sumo wrestler.
“An American and his Japanese translator. Kidnapped, by yakuza we understand. If they’re here, we thought a trawl might flush them out.”
“You know every time we do this, we lose less respect with these guys. They know we have nothing. That we’re just making noise.”
“You know why we have nothing, Sergeant.”
“What are you implying, detective?”
“You know. That whenever we do have something it mysteriously slips through our fingers. Or whenever we try to start something, it gets stopped before it has a chance.”
The sergeant looked away without replying.
Along every street now, the yakuza were whistling at the cops, laughing at them, calling them names. The hookers joined them, wiggling their hips, taunting the officers. Members of the bosozoku, motorcycle gangs, scowled on the edges of the crowds. These were the real misfits, the apache queens, who treated their hair with chemicals until it became coarse enough to turn into dreadlocks. They looked frail and nerdish, disappearing inside their black leather jackets. But they adored violence, the crack of a concealed knuckle-duster or slash of a razor-blade on virgin skin.
Everyone in Kabuki-cho had gone through this before. A rumble by the cops. Just to show the world that they weren’t oblivious to what went on here. But nothing changed. The district served its purpose. Tokyo needed its services and the yakuza were as much a presence in society as Toyota. No one seriously questioned their right to exist.
One of the bouncers at the club where Wright and Ayumi were being held stepped back from the entrance and pushed his way to the back.
“Police,” he said to the men gathered in the back room. One of them got up and rapped on the door where their boss was unbuttoning his fly.
Wright had clenched his eyes, helpless to do anything more. The man had placed a heavy iron bar on the backs of his calves to keep him in place. It was crushing Wright’s shins against the floor. He heard the zip going back up and exhaled.
As the man left, he said to Ayumi: “If I find you’ve moved, I’ll rip you even harder.”
Wright realized he had only the briefest opportunity. He eased his right leg out from under the bar and as he stood up, lifted his left leg. He could barely stand. But he turned his back to the air conditioner and began to undo a corner screw, which held the vents to the main body of the unit. He had noticed it had come loose. Once it was out, he pried back the cover, exposing the machinery. He found a sharp fan blade and slid his handcuffs around it. He pulled three times, catching the plastic each time until finally it cut open. He shook his hands free then went over to help Ayumi off her knees. Her cheeks were stained with tears and she was shaking. He showed her how to cut open her cuffs.
They could hear the men talking in the room next door.
“They say the police are doing a sweep of the area. Routine.”
“Stand back,” said Wright. He knew he had one chance. The window was fastened to the air conditioner, which in turn was screwed to the lower window sill. But if he kicked at the frame, where it rested on the unit, he could pop out the window. The risk was the noise of the unit crashing to the ground and bringing back the guards.
He stood back and aimed carefully with his right foot.
“Stand behind me and hold me,” he instructed Ayumi. She put her hands against his shoulders. Wright brought his foot crashing into the window frame, which half popped out. The guards had heard the sound. They were fumbling with the keys to the door. Wright kicked again and the window fell outwards into the alley below.
Wright lifted Ayumi up onto the air conditioner. She looked back, helpless.
“Jump. Jump.” She leapt the 12 feet to the ground and rolled to a stop, clutching her ankle. Wright followed, landing more adroitly. He lifted her up and put her arm over his shoulder.
“I can do this without you,” she said.
“Fine. Which way?” She pointed behind them.
“If they follow us, start screaming. Otherwise, I’d rather not deal with the police.”
Wright began to walk as quickly as he could, Ayumi followed wincing at every step. They turned right out of the alley into one of the narrow streets, but went immediately left when they saw three police officers coming their way, swapping insults with every doorman and shopkeeper they passed. The street was packed with people but Wright bent down to conceal himself in the crowds.
“Up ahead,” said Ayumi. Wright raised his head to see three more officers coming from the other direction. “In here.”
Wright followed her into a restaurant the size of his Manhattan bathroom. There were ten stools clustered around a counter. And in the center of the room, two elderly women in white laboratory coats and rubber boots prepared food amidst a cluster of stoves, pipes and sinks. Steam rose from the floor, which they drenched every few minutes with water from a garden hose.
Ayumi shuffled along the right-hand wall to a door buried in the back, plastered with old newspaper cuttings showing great moments in Japanese history. The chefs did not seem to notice her or care. She pushed it open and they found themselves in yet another alley, which ran along the backs of all the restaurants and bars on the street. Wright saw a mouse gnawing on a bag of garbage, but it was a baby compared to the rats in Central Park.
“I know a place,” said Ayumi. “At the end here.” She pressed on, grimacing at every step. When they reached it, she told him to wait while she went inside. Wright looked back up the alley, at the chefs moving back and forth, carrying food, taking cigarette breaks, talking over the clatter of plates and laughter from their restaurants. How absurd it was he was here. Two days earlier, he had been drinking a macchiato on 77th and Madison, deciding which sculpture exhibition to visit.
Five minutes passed before Ayumi appeared at a window three stories up, beckoning for him to climb the rickety fire escape. He did as he was told and pulled himself through the window, badly scratching the underside of his right forearm. The first thing he noticed was an enormous television set and a microphone resting beside it. There was a large picture of a heart on the wall and a bottle of cheap champagne on the night stand beside a lamp with a tasseled yellow shade. The room smelled faintly of cigarettes.
“You shouldn’t have,” he said.
Ayumi disappeared into the bathroom. Wright heard her running the tap. When she came back into the room, she had removed her jewelry and wiped off her make-up. She looked to Wright even more luminous than she had before. She lay down on the large bed. Wright popped the cork on the champagne and poured out two glasses. Ayumi ignored hers.
“What is this place?”
“A love hotel.”
“Then why the karoke machine?”
“To get people in the mood. And it’s an excuse.”
“You know, a man is out with a woman, it’s late, all the karaoke bars are full, he can’t get home, he invites her to do karaoke in his hotel room. So if anything happens, she can say, I only went to do karaoke.”
“How safe are we here?”
“For a short while we’re OK. Till daytime, at least. I told the manager I was waiting for my boyfriend. But I looked as pathetic as I could. I hope he thinks I’m just an old maid imagining my prince will come. If you’d come in through the front with me, he might have suspected something.”
“But don’t the yakuza own these places?”
“Yes, but they don’t go bursting into rooms. Bad for business. Kills the mood. Also, I know which Yakuza owns this one. It isn’t the one we just met. They leave each other’s properties alone.”
Wright lay down on the bed beside her.
“How’s your ankle?” He could see it starting to swell. “You should get away from this. As soon as you can. You weren’t meant to be drawn in.”
“Once we get out of here, you should get back to the embassy until this whole thing passes.”
“Not perhaps. Yes.”
“Do you know that last week, I spent five days going around government departments with a Canadian medical devices firm which wants to do business in Japan. The week before that, it was an investment banking conference in Yokohama. The week before that, I was translating for a group of Japanese and American lawyers considering a merger.”
“So this seems exciting?”
“No. It’s hell, Ben. But I want to see how it ends.” He could see her eyes starting to close, her voice weakening as she spoke. Wright folded his arms behind his head and stared at the ceiling. He could hear the very faintest, pitiful moans from the room upstairs. It was funny when you read about these places and the curious, kinky Japanese. But to be here was tragic.
He could hear the police sirens starting up again and fading into the distance. The rumble was over. Kabuki-cho would return to what it always did, trading in human desperation.
The beast in yellow would have to find some other use for his futile erection. Wright looked over at the window and willed the night to end.
Hiro hunched over the steering wheel of his car. The lights of Shinjuku blazed and blinked through his windows. Huge crowds milled through the streets, still, searching for one more entertainment beneath the giant electric billboards which turned night into a futuristic day. So this was what fifty years of hard economic labor brought. Skinny, sneering punk teenagers. Schoolgirls out at 3am, or were they schoolgirls? Maybe they were women in their 20s dressed like schoolgirls to titillate men. Everywhere you looked, kids in headphones staring into video games, their lives reduced to their fingertips and tilts of their wrists.
This was what Hiro’s son had become, a video game nut, an otaku, lost to his parents.
Somewhere in there was Wright. Hiro was sure of it. The border control records showed he had arrived in Tokyo late the night before. Then he had checked into the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Ginza two hours after his plane touched down. Deguchi had been killed some time between 4 and 6am the following morning, though there was no evidence of Wright’s involvement. The Tsukiji chase had occurred around 7am. The estimated time of death for the Yakuza was 7.30 and Wright had shown up at the British embassy, according to Hardy, around 8.15am. Wright had then checked into the Imperial Hotel 45 minutes later. And then tonight. The description they got from the chefs in Nishi Azabu seemed to fit.
But now he was lost.
Hiro reached down to the floor of the passenger seat for the file he had been given at Meiji. He turned on the light in his car and began to read.
There were four separate sheaves of paper, but the one on Gene Drinkwater was by far the thickest. The others were just a couple of pages each. Two indistinguishable bankers, with thin faces and horn-rimmed spectacles, and one black man, a Washington lawyer, close to the White House, who had brought political heft to the Meiji Bank deal. But these men were just implements. They had each made tens of millions of dollars on the deal, but it was Drinkwater who made over two billion personally, and several billion more for his investors. He was the one the Japanese had been desperate to take down ever since.
The file contained press clippings from Japanese newspapers and translated versions of articles from all over the world. Drinkwater was born in Conroe, Texas, in 1953. His father was an itinerant oil rig worker, his mother a school mistress. He had won a statewide math contest at the age of 14, beating children four years older, but then dropped out of school two years later. The years between 16 and 21 were a void, until he turned up at Cornell and secured a place on the engineering school’s PhD program. He had lasted a year in Ithaca, New York, before leaving to join a small brokerage firm on Wall Street in the late 1970s. He had married, had three children, moved to the suburbs of New York, and then set up his own business. He acquired a small firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange which made parts for vacuum cleaners. He then used that as a vehicle for acquisitions, funded by short-term, high interest debt, or “junk”. His life snowballed. He bought industrial companies, agricultural land, real estate in the United States and Asia, at first in Hong Kong and Macao and later in Japan. His financial backer in Tokyo, Hiro noted, was Meiji Bank.
His Japanese partner was one of the most notorious businessmen of the bubble years: Koji Ozaki. Hiro had once met Ozaki in the wake of a major political scandal. A group of bureaucrats from the finance ministry had been found to be accepting Ozaki’s hospitality. It had begun with a few dinners, but quickly evolved into trips abroad, gambling and women. The newspapers had seized on a kind of dinner club called “no pan shabu shabu” at which the men ate traditional shabu shabu, dipping raw meat into broth bubbling away in the center of their table, but were served by waitresses wearing no underwear. From where they sat, the diners were able to activate fans which blew up the waitresses’ skirt whenever they reached for drinks and control a video camera, which relayed images of the women’s crotches back to screens embedded in their tables.
It was all the usual horse-trading between bureaucrats and businessmen and it enabled Ozaki to acquire properties around the world, using cheap debt provided by Japanese banks. But then one of the bureaucrats went too far. He mistook a hostess’ paid-for attentions for actual interest and trailed her home. He had forced himself on her and pushed her to the ground. She was seized by an epileptic fit. She had suffered from the illness all her life and this final trauma caused a fatal cerebral lesion. Rather than calling an ambulance, the man had sat beside her clutching his knees and sobbing. His negligence contributed to her death.
The death occurred in Hiro’s ward. The bureaucrat had been seen by several people forcing the girl to the ground. The case had to be given at least the appearance of serious investigation, though the outcome was inevitable from the start: involuntary manslaughter and a short probationary term. The story had its own dismal ending when the bureaucrat hanged himself from a tree in Aokigahara, the woods at the foot of Mount Fuji. He was one of 67 bodies found in those woods that year.
Ozaki was Hiro’s age. Like him he had attended Tokyo University. But Ozaki was a rugby player, heavily built with dark skin, hands like a gorilla’s and relentlessly social. Hiro had spent most of his time playing mah-jongg with his friends from the jazz club. The death of the bureaucrat had begun the unraveling of Hiro’s empire. The government officials who had once doted on him and begged to be invited to his parties now shunned him. The banks which had once lined up to offer him low interest loans to overpay for hotels and resorts around the world suddenly panicked about their chances of being repaid.
When Hiro had asked to see him about the night of the girl’s death, Ozaki had invited him to visit a ryotei, a private restaurant, he owned in Akasaka. As he sat in his car, Hiro could replay the entire scene in his mind. The ryotei was not the kind of place he could have gone on a policeman’s salary. He was greeted at the door by two waitresses wearing kimonos. They had escorted him up a flight of stairs into a room whose walls were covered in turquoise lacquer. It was if they were sitting inside a sea shell. Ozaki sat cross-legged at one of six low tables, papers strewn in front of him. He was wearing black flannel trousers and a navy blue sweater. He removed his glasses when Hiro entered, but did not get up.
One of the waitresses returned with a plate of curry rice for Ozaki and nothing for Hiro. Ozaki began to eat and waited for Hiro to talk.
“The death of the girl,” Hiro said. “Who used to work here, I believe.”
“The girls come and go,” said Ozaki, slurping up his food.
“Is it usual for your guests to follow them home?”
“No. But there’ll always be someone who doesn’t understand the rules. Who gets confused. What am I supposed to do?”
“It was your employee. You might care a little.” Hiro instantly regretted being so forward. Ozaki peered up from his food, dabbed his chin and smiled.
“A policeman with a conscience. What a curiosity,” he said. “Let me tell you how it works for me, Inspector?”
“This is how it goes. I want to build my business. I need government help. So I try to ingratiate myself. At first they don’t want to see me. Those guys at the Ministry of Finance think they’re too good for the likes of me. They only want to deal with Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Sumitomo, other members of the club. But you know what? Mitsubishi doesn’t offer them the kind of fun I do. So one day, one of them agrees to come out with me. I bring him here. He has the greatest dinner of his life. A beautiful woman attends to him, pours him drinks, lights his cigarettes, makes him feel like a man. Next he brings a friend. Ozaki has the goods, he tells them. And then another friend, and then another. Before you know it, we’re golfing together, flying together, fucking together. Then everything’s possible. I get the permits, support and money I need. They get to be part of a great Japanese success story. Then one man can’t take his liquor, misreads one of my girls, and what, it’s all over? Don’t be naive.”
“We need to go through the motions,” Hiro had replied. “The girl was an epileptic. If she had got treatment sooner, she wouldn’t have died.”
“All deaths are random, Inspector. Hers was no different. Anything else?”
Hiro got up and was about to leave when Ozaki spoke.
“Tokyo University. You were at Tokyo University, weren’t you?”
“I’m amazed you remember.”
“I’m amazed too,” and he turned back to his food.
The grey light of dawn began to seep through the skyscrapers, though it was hard to tell against the bombardment of electric light. Hiro rubbed his eyes. They felt sore from tiredness and staring out into the night. If Drinkwater was friends with Ozaki, he thought, he was more than capable of murder. He checked his watch. It was 5.27. He felt a sharp pain in his lower back. Another kidney stone working its way down. He needed water to flush it out. He got out of the car and began walking to a 7 Eleven across the street. It was already abuzz with staff filling the shelves with breakfast foods, talking loudly about every item they stacked in case a shopper might hear. It was the chain’s way of squeezing out every last marketing opportunity. He bought a bottle of water and an iced latte. He had drunk half the bottle before he reached the door, as he dawdled along the newspaper shelves, checking the day’s headlines. When he reached the sidewalk, Shinjuku finally seemed quiet. The crowds had eased as the teenagers vanished like vampires at the first sign of day. The street hawkers were asleep and the restaurants were closed. Hiro looked down the street and froze.
Walking towards him was an elegant couple, a Japanese woman and a Western man, arm in arm, as if returning from a dinner party. He stared until the man caught his eye. They were 20 feet apart, when Hiro began to run towards him.
Wright turned, grabbed Ayumi, and for the second time in 12 hours, they fled.
Higgins had never seen Ajay like this. He was clutching the door-frame to Higgins’ office. Higgins rose from behind his desk and walked over to him.
“Are you OK?”
“It’s the ghosts, Frank. I don’t know how to say this. But they’re fucking with us.”
“Sit down. Tell me what you mean.” Higgins poured him a glass of water.
“So for the last few weeks, our trading window has kept slamming shut. Whenever we see a ghost, it vanishes before we have a chance to make any real money.”
“This afternoon, something changed.” He took a drink of the water. He was having trouble speaking. “We’d increased our stop-loss rules. We’ve been incredibly cautious as long as this has been going on. You know that Frank, don’t you? Incredibly cautious.”
“Yes.” Higgins had pulled up a seat behind Ajay and was resting his hands on his knees. For the first time in years, he could actually feel his stomach turn. This was so unlike Ajay, the most phlegmatic man he knew.
“So today, the system began manufacturing ghosts.”
“How do you mean? It can’t make them up. They’re either in the data or they’re not.”
“I’m telling you Frank, it was manufacturing ghosts that didn’t exist. It was so fucking smart. Somehow, the data we use was corrupted briefly enough for the system to recognize a ghost. We only found this out when we went through the records. The false ghost triggered a flash trade and like that, in milliseconds we were down $10 million. Then it did it again. And again. All over the place, the system was perceiving mis-pricings that weren’t actually there. It began pounding on a single, losing bond spread. Our system began to devour us.”
“How much? Did we lose?”
“$780 million. In 45 minutes.”
“Then you shut it down?”
“Yes. I hope.”
“What do you mean, you hope? It’s shut down, right? It can’t trade anymore?”
“Frank, you know how it is. We have systems now all over the world. That depend on each other and the work done here.”
“Shut them all down Ajay. Now.”
“I’ve upped the stop-losses and...”
“Now, Ajay. Turn the whole thing off.”
“The market’s going to spot our absence immediately. We’re 5% of daily volume at least.”
“Let them. I’m not losing another dollar until we straighten this out. Jesus, Ajay. $780 million. Shut it down.”
Higgins ran a hand through his hair and snorted. He could feel a ball of phlegm forming in the back of his throat. He went over to his wastepaper bin and spat it out. Once his fund stopped trading, that was it. He would have to explain. Ajay was right. There was no invisible exit from this. He would have to find some way to explain why the single biggest computer-driven money manager in the world had switched off its computers. And Ajay’s explanation would not do, though it was one Higgins would have loved to offer.
“Ladies and gentleman, we are suspending operations because we wish to find out why our ghosts are fucking with us. Thank you very much.”
Higgins had made generating outsized returns look easy for so long. It was going to be tough to tell the world that it had suddenly become extremely hard.
Wright should have been dead by now. Instead he was lurking along the back row of games in a pachinko parlor.
If you ever wanted to be anonymous, a pachinko parlor was the place. The handful of men in the place were hypnotized by the silver balls cascading through the machines, consumed by the cartoons which played incessantly on a screen in the center of the games, their minds softened by the incessant tinkling music. A haze of cigarette smoke hung across the room. Two desultory guards sat slumped at the rear of the room, playing their own portable video games. It was an opium den for the electronic age.
Wright urged Ayumi to stay hidden while he peered over the tops of the machines, searching for the man who had begun running after them. He was evidently not yakuza, Ayumi told him. He did not look the part. Police perhaps.
This assignment had already taken several unanticipated turns. Wright was used to the unexpected. But he had rarely felt so ill informed. Events and people were swirling around him, which appeared to have little to do with his original mission: to find whoever was stalking Higgins’ trades.
First, he needed to get back to Roppongi. To see how that investigation was going. He also needed to speak to Higgins about this shipment the yakuza had talked about. Or did he? From the moment he arrived in Tokyo he had been on the run. And yet, who had even known he was going to be here? Higgins had assured him he would be protected. That he had applied all of his influence in Washington to ensure that he would be watched over as a matter of national interest. But the only person looking out for him appeared to be Hardy. A Brit. And aside from supplying him with Ayumi and a conspicuous tail, he had not done a great job.
Hiro pushed through the scarlet curtains leading into the pachinko parlor. Wright crouched down. There were two doors in the back of the room, one leading to an office and store room, the other into a lavatory. The lavatory had been occupied for the past six minutes by a kid who had looked sick as he pulled the door behind him. The office door, when Wright tried it, was locked. He turned to Ayumi who was sitting on the floor beside him and holding her knees.
He had to decide now. Did he try to keep running? In a city he did not know? Hoping that he could escape untouched over the next 24 hours? He stood and offered Ayumi his hand. Hiro was approaching along the right hand side of the parlor, a short-ish man with bloodshot eyes, in need of a shave. Wright watched his eyes scanning the room. As he came closer, he left open the opportunity for Wright and Ayumi to escape down the other side of the aisle. It would be a simple foot race which Hiro would likely lose.
Wright moved quickly into the aisle.
“Benjamin Wright,” he said, bowing and offering his card. “I think we’d better talk.”
Hiro was startled, but fumbled in his pocket and produced his own card. Wright was relieved to see he was a cop.
“My only condition,” he continued, “is that we get out of Kabuki-cho.”
Hiro hesitated. He had every reason to take this man immediately into custody. He was the primary suspect in the murder of the yakuza in the fish truck. And the same morning, a senior official at a Japanese bank had been killed. The managers of the bank had directed him to investigate a group of foreign investors. Could this man be the one trailing death through the city?
But Hiro had seen a good number of murderers in his life. There was something about Wright which gave him pause. Perhaps it was because he was white and Hiro was unused to reading white men. Give him a Japanese and he could give you a full psychological profile in seconds. With gaijin, he had less faith in his judgment.
But there was a dignity to Wright’s manner. And the woman with him was clearly not afraid. She looked exhausted, bedraggled but not scared. The way she was dressed, the good jewelry, the well cut hair, Hiro saw her kind every morning on the streets around Marunouchi, professional women heading into the banks, media firms and shopping malls close by Tokyo Station. She did not give the slightest impression that Wright had intimidated her into being with him.
In three minutes, Hiro could have had police cars streaming down here. He could have thrust Wright into the back seat of one of them and taken him in. If it turned out that Wright was working against Meiji Bank, Hiro would have been heaped with praise by his superiors. The greedy Westerners really had overstepped the mark and Hiro would have caught them at it.
But he did not reach for his phone. Instead he jerked his head towards the door and Wright and Ayumi followed. They walked up towards his car and Hiro held open the back door. Ayumi got in first and swept a pile of empty plastic food containers, bottles and old copies of the Yomiuri Shimbun to the floor. Wright followed. His knees pressed up hard against the back of the passenger seat. Hiro climbed in and looked in the mirror.
“So if you’re a snob about Kabuki-cho, where do you want to go?”
Wright looked at Ayumi. “Any ideas?”
“There’s a place near me, we could try. It’s called Derriere.”
“Yes. It’s Japanese trying to be French.”
“Well tell the inspector here.”
Hiro arched his eyebrows, but nodded, slipped the Corolla into gear and drove away. From a window 60 feet away, the yakuza in the yellow suit watched them leave.
“I’m going to be very honest with you, inspector, because I have little choice,” said Wright. They were sitting on red and yellow wicker chairs beneath a red awning on a quiet street not far from Roppongi. If you didn’t look too closely at their tired expressions, they could have been any three people having a business breakfast. A waitress in a black and white outfit approached their table. Wright extended a raised palm, inviting Hiro to order.
“Black coffee and a croissant,” said the policeman.
“Same,” said Wright. Ayumi held up three fingers to add a third.
“I came to Tokyo a day and a half ago on a very simple errand, I thought, to track down someone a client of mine believed was interfering with his computer systems.”
“What kind of client?”
“A rich client.”
“Is that the only kind you work for?”
“Tends to be, I’m afraid. They’re the only ones for whom my skills are useful.”
“And what are those skills?”
“I understand money, inspector, and how it flows through the world. It sounds straightforward, but it’s anything but.”
“I never assume anything to do with money is straightforward, Wright-san.”
“You work privately, I take it. Not for law enforcement or a government agency.”
“I like to think so. But with some of the people I work for, you never really know who you’re working for. Those are not the cases I enjoy.”
The waitress reappeared with their breakfast and set it down on the small, round table. Wright reached for a small pot of apricot jam and slathered it over his croissant. The coffee was strong enough to send a jolt to his eyes. Hiro took a bite of his pastry and wiped the crumbs from his face.
“Who are you working for this time?”
“An American investor.”
“Yes you can. I can stop this charade at any moment, Wright-San, and take you in. You understand how delighted we would be to have a man like you in for murder. For killing the man in the fish truck. And you realize the consequences of that. Leave aside the trial or any conviction. If you killed a yakuza, you are unlikely to survive much time in one of our prisons.”
Wright stopped eating and looked hard at Hiro. At the square block of his head, its rough shapes for nose and ears, as if he had been molded from wet clay, his glossy hair which rose in an effeminate curl at the front.
“Last night, one of your yakuza tried to rape me and my translator here,” he said. “He had us down on our knees and was about to...well.”
“Who was it?”
“He didn’t give me his card.”
“Fat. Very fat. Yellow suit, lank hair. He took us to a club called the Jade Oyster.”
“Matsui. Yellow suit, tried to rape you. Matsui. He’s one of the worst. How did you get away?”
“There was a police raid, apparently. We seized our moment.” Hiro smiled. At least that plan had worked.
“Would you like to press charges? We’re always looking for ways in against these guys.”
“No.” Ayumi shook her head as well.
“Why was he interested in you?”
“As you mentioned, the yakuza I met at Tsukiji was a friend of his. And he wanted to know about a missing shipment. A ship of his, he said, left Tokyo Harbor two days ago and then vanished.”
“Why would you know about that?”
“He thinks my client had a role in making it disappear.”
“As I said, I’m here trying to understand the problems with a computer system.”
“Perhaps. But you’re part of something bigger now. You’re not just technical support anymore, Wright-San.” Wright could see Ayumi smirking as she translated. “You say you understand money. Do you know anything about Meiji Bank?”
“Of course. Old school Japanese lender, made a lot of terrible loans. Ended up as the most profitable private equity deal ever. What’s the connection?”
“One of its senior executives was found murdered yesterday morning. Looks like it was some kind of ritual. You arrived the night before, correct?”
“Around 9pm at Narita.”
“So in theory, you could have done it.”
“I’m not a contract killer, Inspector. If I were, I doubt we’d be sitting having breakfast in a restaurant called Ass.”
“That’s what Derriere means?”
“So you’re a contract what?”
“As I said. I solve people’s problems for them. To do with money.”
“Never involves killing?”
“If I can avoid it.”
“Meiji gave me a file on a man called Gene Drinkwater.”
“Interesting man. Meiji made him a billionaire.”
“At the expense of the Japanese taxpayer.”
“At the expense of the fools who run Japanese banks and the bureaucrats who encouraged them. They’ve been robbing this country for decades.”
“Above my pay grade, Wright-San. I can help you with the ship. Perhaps not the computers. Listen, I’m supposed to, but I don’t care about the dead yakuza. Tokyo is better without him. What I do care about is this Meiji killing. And my department cares about it. Why would a man like Gene Drinkwater, who has billions of dollars and lives in North Africa bother to jeopardize everything by killing a Japanese banker? He got his money out of here years ago. It makes no sense to me. But then, if he didn’t do it, who did?”
“I haven’t seen Gene in years, Inspector. In New York. I used to know a couple of people who worked for him.”
“Help me with this, Wright-San. And I’ll find your ship. Don’t help me, and you’ll be stuck here in Tokyo much longer than you ever wanted. I can assure you, the novelty wears off.”
Wright took a final bite of his breakfast and nodded. Finding the ship was the only way he would know if the yakuza had been right. That Higgins really did want him dead.
The New York markets editor at the Financial Times hated receiving tips half an hour before the final edition. He could ignore them, in which case risk them turning into stories in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal. Or chase them up, which more often than not, meant a round of pointless telephone calls only to find the tip was a wild distortion or exaggeration. It also delayed him opening the first of two bottles of white Burgundy he drank each night with a late supper.
Look at trading volumes for the day, the caller had said. They were dramatically down. So what? It was Friday. Perhaps Goldman Sachs’ proprietary trading desk had left at lunch to go fishing. Unlikely though. For those guys, trading was their past-time. If they could do it all weekend, they would. He pulled up the numbers on his Bloomberg.
They really were down. 30% less this afternoon than every other day this week or last. He called up data for the same week over the past three years. Even adjusting for growth in the number of products being traded, volumes were down across the board. It was like a casino where the high-stakes gamblers had gone to bed, leaving just the players feeding change into the slots.
He called across the newsroom.
“Larissa. Over here.” Since abandoning her career investment banking career after five years, Larissa Lario had become a star of financial journalism, her astute brain matched by haughty, Roman good looks. In a profession marked by men in cheap suits, she never wore anything but the best Milanese designers. Traders who never spoke to the press always spoke to her. For someone who produced so many scoops, she had a reputation for discretion. She strode quickly through the cubicles.
“Look at this. Someone has packed up their toys. Big toys.”
“Volumes can fluctuate a lot, you know. And there’s no story. But give me three minutes,” she said. She returned to his desk and called a number in Greenwich, Connecticut. The markets editor bought a can of Red Bull from a vending machine on one side of the newsroom and went and stood by the Italian’s desk.
“Elvis? Elvis has left the stadium? Why?” he heard her saying. “Why would he go into cash now? Uh-huh. Everything is booming...OK. Thanks. I buy you lunch. No? You don’t like my lunches? OK. You buy me lunch. Va bene.”
“So, what happened.”
“It’s what they call him. The biggest and best. And he once sang Hound Dog at a Christmas Party. Elvis has left the stadium. Higgins is out.”
“But why would you stop computer trading in any market, let alone this one? Fools are making a fortune. Why’s is he getting out?”
“Maybe he sees fools making a fortune. It’s a pretty good signal a bust is coming. Like John Kennedy’s father when the shoeshine boy gave him a stock tip. Decided it was time to sell everything. He takes out 10% of the volume, and 20% are copycats.”
“But he doesn’t trade on cycles. He trades mispriced assets. Or his computers do. What’s a bust got to do with anything? It should be good news for him. Make some more calls. It doesn’t make sense. Can we get Higgins?”
“He hasn’t spoken to the press for years. He thinks we’re idiots.”
“Maybe he’s right. But slow wits can be dangerous.”
“Let me get on it.”
“Good man. Sorry, woman. I’ll clear space on the page. If it pans out, we’ll need a new editorial. Major hedge fund investor calls the top of the market.”
Higgins waited on the terrace of his apartment on Beekman Place. Below him he could see the cars crawling along the FDR, the glassy shimmer of the East River, and the Pepsi Co. sign in Long Island City. He rarely drank liquor, but tonight he had poured himself a double Scotch. His brain felt like a brittle sponge dipped in water, softening, expanding, relaxing with the alcohol. He stared at his phone, waiting for the call. His douche bag public relations man, whom he paid $30,000 a month to deflect the press, had promised a reporter would call before 9.30 P.M.
It had been Julia’s idea to buy the apartment. Though he had to admit it appealed to his ego. A home for a financial king. 20,000 square feet over two floors at the top of a limestone building. A mansion anywhere, but in Manhattan, an obscenity. The monthly maintenance alone was $20,000. And that was before the Christmas tips for the eight elevator men, the concierge, the repairmen, as well as the six full time staff who ran Higgins’ own apartment, the chef, the maids, the butler, the his and hers secretaries, all leaching cash.
On the rare occasions he looked at his monthly outgoings, he realized how money had come to mean nothing to him. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were flushed out of his accounts for goods and services which barely registered: tubs of expensively prepared food in the refrigerator; freshly laundered sheets every day; new shirts which appeared monthly in his closet; the highly polished marble floor in the entryway. There was nothing in his home which came for free.
Even the air ran through an expensive German purification system, one of only three in the United States, he had been told by the installers. The other two were in the terminal illness ward of a hospital in Minneapolis.
But when you had billions, nothing like this mattered. From that height, everything seemed cheap.
And he had to admit, after two years of renovations, craftsmen scratching away at the woodwork, painting, gilding, redoing the duct work and everything else a contractor and decorator can conspire to do in the face of an unlimited budget, it was comfortable. His favorite room was the den which led out onto this small terrace. He could sit on the sofa, watch a game, drink red wine and be left alone.
Though now he was more alone than he had wanted to be. The only company was the staff, who lurked in some far corner of the apartment, on the lower story, hoping not to be summoned. The kids had gone to live with Julia in a town house Wright had bought for them on 73rd, between Madison and Fifth, closer to their schools. He was a bachelor again, a state he had often fantasized about while married, but which had turned out to be a grave disappointment.
If there was any activity more soul destroying than dating as a middle-aged man in New York, he had yet to discover it.
His phone lit up. 9.27.
“Larissa Lario. The Financial Times.”
“I’ve read your stuff. And have I seen you on television?”
“I hope you’re smarter than most of the shouters who show up there.”
“So do I.”
He liked her voice. It was a cliche, he knew, but that Italian lilt...
“I understand you know why I’m calling. About your absence from the markets today.”
“We moved into cash. No big deal.”
“For our readers, it’s a very big deal when Frank Higgins takes nearly $60 billion and moves it into cash. With leverage, that’s anywhere from $100 to $300 billion sucked out of the markets. What’s behind your decision?”
“You cover the markets, right? Where do you see value?”
“Fine. Nowhere. Everything is overpriced. But you’re not a value investor. You’re an arbitrageur.”
“What’s your background, Larissa? Your education?”
“I worked at Morgan Stanley for five years, in investment banking. M&A.”
“Because you couldn’t get a job at Goldman Sachs, I assume.”
“I’m going to file a story in fifteen minutes. You can spend that time trying to belittle me or you can help me.”
“Before Morgan. Where did you get your education?”
“Undergraduate, Bologna. Economics. Then a masters at the LSE.”
“Then you know Schumpeter. Creative destruction. Every capitalist institution needs to be torn down every so often. So new ones can be rebuilt and flourish. Our view is that we are reaching the end of a particular cycle in which global markets have become tightly aligned. When there’s too much alignment, it limits the possibilities for arbitraging prices. We believe, as do many of the economists we talk to as part of our work, that there will be a dramatic decoupling in the coming months. That Asia, Europe and the Americas will no longer move in lockstep. That all kinds of markets, commodities, bonds, stocks, foreign exchange, will become much more volatile. And we want to be in a position to bet on that. We like volatility, Larissa. Today’s markets aren’t volatile enough. They’re the calm before what we reckon will be a major storm.”
“But all of it? You pull all your money out?”
“If it’s good for some of it, it’s good for all of it. Please don’t tell me you think I should diversify. That’s for pensioners with their 401K’s at Fidelity. I’m of the Warren Buffett school. Put all your eggs in one basket. And watch that basket.”
“The brokerage houses will miss you. You must pay them a fortune in fees.”
“I don’t owe them anything. They’ll survive.”
“When do you think you’ll be back?”
“You’ll know when it happens. You have what you need?”
“Only you know that.”
“Yes,” said Higgins. He rolled his tumbler, watching the melting ice cubes in his glass. “It’s all on me. Tell me if this is appropriate or not, Larissa.” She knew what was coming. She had heard it dozens of times from men like this. They couldn’t help themselves. “How long will it take you to file?”
“I’ll be done with the print version in fifteen to twenty minutes, now we’ve spoken. Then I’ll have to do a feed to CNBC.”
“Would you like to stop by after that? I’m at 320 Beekman Place. You can ask anything you like.” She stood up and waved towards her editor. He looked up from his screen. She made a gesture as if drinking from a glass.
“Higgins?” he mouthed. She nodded. He gave her a double thumbs up.
“Thank you Frank. I appreciate it. I’ll come by around 10.30.”
Higgins closed his phone and went inside. He pressed the buzzer down to the kitchen.
“I need a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet and some fresh flowers. On the main terrace. Two glasses.” For the first time that day, he had something to be excited about.
“We need to make one stop,” said Wright, leaning forward from the back seat of Hiro’s car. “Before we head to the port. In Akihibara.” Ayumi handed Hiro a card scribbled with the address. Traffic was busy now, but Hiro wound carefully around the main streets up into Chiyoda-Ku, to the east of the Imperial Palace and into Electric City. The sidewalks were jammed with shoppers and vendors holding out were holding out the smallest, newest laptops. A 50 foot tall statue of Gundam, an anime robot, towered outside one of the largest superstores, drawing a large crowd of otaku. They clustered around his legs, touching him as if he were a religious icon and stared up towards his groin.
Hiro needed no help with directions. He knew every street in Akihibara. It was where he had begun his career, investigating a series of crimes in the electronics parts market which snaked along an alleyway under the train line which ran through the district. They were linked to an animal fight betting ring. The fights would take place in a cellar below one of the buildings then be recorded and sold on videotape.
A dispute over settling the bets and collecting money from the videos had evolved into a vicious feud. One man was mauled to death by a pit bull in front of a crowd. The video showed close-ups of his face as the dog tore bloody chunks from his naked body which lay strapped to the ground. Hiro had vomited the first time he saw it. Every single man in the room, 12 of them, had eventually been arrested as accessories murder. All had run small stores selling used electronics parts.
Since then, Hiro had never been able to dissociate Akihibara from an underground, sleazy violence. When he saw the whey-faced otaku leaning against buildings, staring into portable devices, he feared for what they were watching. These were not the ordinary perversions in which the yakuza traded, the drugs, sex and gambling. These were depravities of an entirely different order, dreamt up in the flickering electronic world these men inhabited, one where women had breasts the size of watermelons and waists as thin as lamp-posts and yearned to be sexually ravaged by nerds. It was a world of extreme violence, ruled by robot killers, where mutilation and savagery were practiced in every conceivable permutation.
Most of the time, the only damage inflicted was on the minds and imaginations of the men who consumed these fantasies. But occasionally it spilled out into real life. An otherwise taciturn teenager would torture and maim a woman beyond recognition, cutting, burning and penetrating her, indifferent to her pain, as if she were a rubber doll. He had investigated more cases like this than he cared to think of. The parents never saw it coming. They would sob quietly through the trial. The kids were stonily indifferent to what they had done. As if the worst punishment they could ever face was equivalent to losing a life in a video game. They had so internalized their lives, that any external punishment could not move them. Provided they had the fantasies which swirled around their heads, they were numb to anything else.
He parked a block away from the address Ayumi had given him. Wright led the way, turning smartly into the small street he had visited the day before, past the Kentucky Fried Chicken and the statue of Colonel Sanders. He looked up to find the apartment with the windows covered in pink posters of cartoon cats. The door to the building was ajar. He buzzed, all the same, but did not wait for an answer. He took the stairs three at a time. Ayumi and Hiro followed more slowly. When he reached the third floor, he saw the door was open. He kicked it open a little further.
“Konnichiwa,” he said. There was no reply. He kicked the door again. “Konnichiwa.” The stacks of paper against the wall were gone. He stepped inside. The furniture was there but the piles of clothes were not. The door to the rear bedroom, where the hikikomori had lived was wide open. There was a mattress on the floor, a desk and a tiny square window in one corner admitting a shaft of grey light. But the closets and drawers were empty. There was no sign of a wire, let alone a computer. He stormed back out just as Hiro and Ayumi arrived. He pulled open the cupboards in the kitchen. Nothing. The refrigerator was empty as well. Three plates and glasses were stacked neatly beside the sink.
“Is there a caretaker? Someone downstairs?” he said, his voice rising. Ayumi disappeared and ran down to see. Hiro looked around the room.
“How did you find this guy?” he asked.
“A contact in New York. Friend of a friend. Said he was the best programmer he’d ever known.”
“So you trusted him?”
“I didn’t have anything else. The last thing you suspect in someone who’s meant to have spent the last three years in his bedroom is that within 24 hours they’d disappear.”
Hiro tore away a section of the poster glued to the window. Light poured into the room. He could see the outlines in the dust on the floor where the piles of clothes and papers had been.
“So you didn’t even see him.”
“We exchanged notes under his door.”
“This is your profession, Wright-San? Investigating?”
Ayumi came gasping back into the room, having run down and back up the stairs.
“There’s no caretaker. But the guy in the next door shop said he saw three people from here loading up a taxi and leaving yesterday evening.”
Wright put both hands on his head and tilted it backwards.
“What do you think has happened in Roppongi?”
“Only one way to find out.”
“You need your taxi to take you somewhere else? Tokyo Police Department chauffeur service,” said Hiro. Wright grabbed him by the shoulder and began pushing him down the stairs. On the way down, Wright cracked his head against a low cross beam. He cursed as he felt the goose egg swelling up.
As they headed back to the corner, Wright ducked into the Kentucky Fried Chicken. A minute later, he emerged with a fried chicken sandwich and a Coke. Anxiety always made him hungry. He could almost feel his stomach yawning open desperate to be fed. He folded himself into the rear seat of Hiro’s car. The Coke picked him up then dropped him, crashing down. The flight, followed by a sleepless night had left him exhausted. The rhythm of the car as it jerked its way through the traffic urged him to sleep. But he couldn’t. Ayumi rested her chin in her hand and stared out of the window. Every time Wright’s eyes drifted shut, he took another sip of Coke. He balled up the sandwich wrapper and shoved it in his pocket. He imagined he was thinking straight. It was the closest he could get.
What would a rested, clear-minded Benjamin Wright do presented with these facts? He would get himself on a private plane back to New York, sleep, bathe and walk over to the Metropolitan Museum. He had a life. A great life. What did he need this for? What kept propelling him into these situations? To put it in language his employers might understand, what returns justified these kinds of risks? $2 million for a start. It was his base. His retainer. Plus expenses of course. And any additional fees if the project dragged on beyond a week. $200,000 a day. But he didn’t for the money. Of course not. The money was inconsequential.
He did it because it revealed to him the essence of human nature. In New York, people went to great pains to conceal their hypocrisy. This work ripped the mask away. It revealed the lies. And Wright needed to see the lies. Because he had grown up the son of a masterful liar. If all he ever saw was gentility, kindness and manners, he felt suffocated. Like a boy again. Choked by his knowledge that humans were not like that. He pressed his fingers hard against his forehead as he tried to clear the emotions from his brain. To clear space to think.
Higgins had sent him. But then had Higgins tried to have him killed? The ghostbuster had disappeared. But where? And what could he do now? If he didn’t keep Hiro happy, he would be spending the rest of his days in a cell with a vindictive yakuza.
Hiro braked sharply in front of the Tsutaya bookstore at the foot of Roppongi Hills. He left his police lights on to deter any over-enthusiastic traffic police. Wright ran ahead, pushing people aside as he raced up two flights of escalators and into the lobby of the main tower. He jammed the call button hard and waited for the elevator. Ayumi and Hiro squeezed in just as the doors were about to close. They stood in silence as they soared up 54 floors, each of them swallowing hard as their ears popped.
Wright sprinted down the corridor. A song was drifting out of the room at the end. It was playing deafeningly loud. He recognized it immediately. He pushed open the door and the music submerged him. The room was empty but for a single pair of multi-colored trainers and a stereo system. Everything else was gone. The tables, the computers, the sofas, the man in the hat which said “Dirty”.
“Oooooohhhhh, love to love you baby,” sang Donna Summer, her voice booming out of the speakers. “Oooooohhhh.”
There was one other person in the room. She was staring out of the window, a small overnight bag at her side, clutching a sheet of paper. Summer began her series of ejaculatory moans. The woman turned around just as Ayumi and Hiro walked in.
It was impossible to hear Wright say her name over the sound of the music.
It was the part of her work that Larissa Lario liked the least. The late night calls from these men. But it was her edge. They told her things they did not tell her male colleagues, the thirty-something men with whining families and rental apartments in Astoria, the ones who made weak threats on the telephone and recognized that compared to most of the people they covered, they were gammas chasing a world of alphas.
Her colleagues hung their virility on the shield of journalistic integrity, the public’s need to know, but it was quickly laid low by the realities of American capitalism. In this world, it paid to be a woman, an Italian woman with knee high, brown suede boots, a tight white shirt, a dab of orange blossom behind her ears, who rolled the r’s in credit derivative.
She knew what the men in the newsroom suspected her of. But they could think whatever she liked. She knew the truth. The men who operated the canal system of cash in New York didn’t want her flesh. They wanted her admiration. They wanted an intelligent woman, a peer, who looked at what they built with wonder, not one who just sought out ways to spend it. They wanted to see a look in her sultry brown eyes that said “my, aren’t you fabulous and clever for making all of that money”. And they loved that she understood what they did. She would never go to a dinner party and shrug or roll her eyes when someone asked about her husband’s job, if he happened to invest in distressed debt or buy currency SWAPs or arbitrage risk. She would glow with pride at the brilliance of it all. That was what she gave these men, and it was why they talked to her and no one else.
The taxi pulled up under the curving porte-cochere in front of the building. A doorman opened her door and escorted her into the soaring hallway, with a checkered marble floor and a vast array of calla lilies facing the entrance.
“I’m here to see Frank Higgins,” she said.
“He’s expecting you Miss Lario,” said the doorman and guided her into the elevator, where a much younger man in a green uniform with gold buttons turned a lever all the way round to the 32nd floor.
Lario checked herself in a mirror mounted beside the door to the elevator. She could tell the elevator operator was straining not to look at her. She shook out her hair and raised her chin. When the doors opened onto Higgins’ apartment, he was standing there, hands in his pockets, slimmer than Lario had imagined, and slighter.
“Thanks for stopping by,” he said. She had been in many of the most lavish New York apartments, but nothing quite like this. The floor was inlaid rosewood, polished to the highest sheen. An octagonal, oak table in the center of the hall supported a silver bowl, four feet wide, crowded with red roses, which emitted a lusty scent strong enough to make her knees buckle.
“Is that...” she said, pointing at a painting showing a woman in yellow dress sewing beside an open window.
“A Vermeer. Yes. One of the last in private hands.”
A flight of steps rose up from the back of the hall. Higgins kept his eyes on the floor. The stairs emerged into a vast living room, whose walls were covered in pale green silk. One side was made up entirely of arched, floor to ceiling French windows which opened out onto the main terrace. It could have felt like a hotel lobby, like so many of these homes, over-decorated, as if waiting for large group of tourists to traipse through. But it didn’t. Every piece of furniture, every work of art, every lamp and book and vase of flowers had been selected with such extraordinary taste. Higgins waited by one of the French doors.
Lario walked over and looked out. A stone table for six had been set with two glasses, candles and a bottle of white wine in an ice bucket. It would have been romantic had Higgins not seemed so entirely nonchalant.
“So you filed?” he said as they sat down.
“Yes. 400 words for the front page. And they’re writing a new editorial for the US editions. Speculating on whether the market has topped out.”
“I didn’t realize I was quite so influential.”
“Yes you did.”
“What did they ask you on CNBC?”
“You didn’t watch?”
“Not unless I’m forced to. It’s pure garbage. Corrupting garbage. I’d ban it if I could. You know the saying, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The little those people know, and the fantasies and theories they spin off that, is toxic.”
“Well, not everyone can be Frank Higgins.”
“Nor would everyone want to be.”
“Doesn’t look so bad from here.”
“Have a drink.” He poured out the wine. “So what would you like to know? Let’s give the FT a scoop.” He looked over at her, his eyes half closed, like a lizard’s.
“You can actually see the stars up here. You’re above the worst of the light pollution.”
“What’s gone wrong, Frank?”
“With the funds? We moved into cash.”
“How would you say that in Italian?”
“Bullshit. Stronzata, if you were feeling polite.”
“Why would I lie to you?”
“Delicious wine. Thank you. To buy time. To mislead your competitors. To fool the markets. To deceive your investors. To cover up a crime. Just as many reasons to lie as there are to tell the truth.”
“Do you even understand what it is I do?”
“As much as anyone without a computer science PhD does, I suppose.”
“My firm revolutionized the investment business. Do you understand that? We didn’t scour our Dun and Bradshaw night after night for a few scraps of alpha. We didn’t try to predict share prices by estimating quarterly earnings. We weren’t trying to fleece pensioners of their retirement so we could charge 1% on a ever growing pile of assets. No, we turned this entire business on its head, Larissa. We eliminated what humans do badly, trying to predict the future. And unleashed computers to do what they do best, crunch data from the past to see patterns in the present. This business was rumbling on like this,” he said moving his hand horizontally across the table, “and we did this.” His hand shot up vertically. “We turned a manual business into a technology business. We took it from green eye-shades to supercomputers.”
“So what stopped you today? Did the computers make the decision, or did you?”
“Very good.” He fell silent.
“Perhaps you should sell the Vermeer too. Buy it back in a few months for less.”
Higgins refilled her glass.
“Do you know how much of my net worth is invested in those funds? 99.9%. The rest is in this apartment, and a few other baubles, expenses really, more than assets. So of course, the decision is a human one. I’m not a brain in a vat when it comes to investing, Larissa. I’m not just the victim of the stimuli applied to me by my technology. I was the original programmer and I still have a hand in our algorithms. You know why we can hire the very best computer scientists in the world? Of course there’s the money. But really, you know why? It’s because the work is so interesting. It’s so incredibly rich and challenging trying to create this code that allows you to read, interpret and act on the markets with devastating speed. It’s like we’re creating God.”
“I’m a good Catholic,” said Larissa. “OK. Maybe not good, but a Catholic. Can’t you tell?” Higgins seemed indifferent to her effort at flirtation.
“And all you hope when you’re doing that is the God you’re creating is on your side, not the other guy’s.”
“Then he would be the devil.”
“I came for a scoop, Frank. Not a theological discussion.”
“Do you have a cigarette?” Lario reached into her bag and pulled out tattered packet of Lucky Strike.
“They may be stale. I’ve been trying to stop. But I keep these for emergencies.”
Higgins took one and lit it off the candle. He so wanted to tell her. To tell someone outside the firm. To share what he was enduring, the systematic violation of his life’s work. To feel for a moment less alone here as he surveyed Manhattan from its very pinnacle.
Larissa tilted her head to one side. His body had tensed up. He was clutching the cigarette tightly between the knuckles of his first and second right hand fingers.
“Did you know that they write the news these days to be read by algorithms?” he said.
“That Bloomberg, Reuters, all of them format financial news so our algorithms can read it and trade on it, just as they can numerical data? Doesn’t it make you feel worthless?”
“I suppose, when you put it like that. Except not everyone wants the news just so they can make immediate trades. Some people just like to know.”
“Acquiring knowledge is not an act of masturbation, Larissa. You do it for an ulterior purpose.”
“You’re underestimating masturbation, Frank.”
“When we trade, we mostly go through dark pools, so the public can’t see what we’re doing. We iceberg the trades, show the world a tiny peak then break the vast majority into smaller chunks which move invisibly below the surface. Does all this strike you as fair, Larissa? That the investment banks let me trade like this, like a thief hauling away loot in the night? If they felt good about it, do you think they’d call these things ‘dark pools?’ I mean, Jesus, it sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings.”
“Are you having a moment of conscience, Frank? I don’t mean to belittle it, but I’ve seen it before. Financier reaches the summit, looks back, sees he’s alone then wonders what’s it all about? They’re the biggest buyers of Chassagne Montrachet, by the way. Suits their character.”
“Elegant. Arrogant. Self-conscious. Somehow both proud and exhausted by their own achievements. And white, of course.”
“And I’m afraid that a billionaire having a mid-life crisis, fascinating as it is, is not a scoop either.”
“Then I need your promise.”
“That you won’t publish any of this for five days.”
“I promise. On condition it comes out nowhere else.”
“Fine. And one more thing.”
“I’d like you to spend the night with me.
“Thought I’d ask.”
“What’s the story, Frank?”
“It’s a ghost story,” he began, and Larissa started to take notes.
“They left before dawn,” said Hannah. “Packed up and went. Paid the last of the rent in cash. Who are your friends?”
Wright turned to see Hiro and Ayumi skulking by the entrance.
“Sorry. My translator, Ayumi Sakamato. And this is Inspector Hiro of the Tokyo Police, homicide division.”
“Always the most interesting company you keep, Ben.”
“It’s such a...surprise. A surprise to see you here. I thought you were living in Morocco.”
“Drinkwater, isn’t it? The guy you work for.”
“Who has you running around Tokyo, Ben? What guilt complex are you trying to resolve this time?”
“Come on. Don’t start.”
“Start what? Pointing out the obvious?”
“Ayumi speaks perfect English.”
“So she can find out what a spineless creature you are too. You know, I was thinking about you on the flight over. I was reading a book about genocide...”
“Hannah, please. It was five years ago now...”
“There were these interviews with child soldiers and one of them said a fascinating thing. That there is nothing more pathetic than the male orgasm. Especially when you consider all the physical and emotional violence inflicted to obtain it. That one, miserable grunt, Ben. So much agony we all have to endure so men can have their little grunt.” Watching Wright’s discomfort, Ayumi had to stifle a laugh.
“I didn’t engage in ethnic cleansing, Hannah. We broke up.”
“So you could go fool around in a tent.”
“She was a very eminent archaeologist.”
“Blow the dust off her Greek jugs.”
“Can’t you stop?”
“I’m on a roll, Ben. I asked you, who has you here this time?”
“You know him, I think. From New York. Frank Higgins.”
“Seriously? That’s what brought you to Nori’s operation here? Or which used to be here?”
“Yes. I was trying to find some hackers.”
Lord smiled and looked back out over Tokyo’s hazy skyline.
“You know what the Japanese say about us Americans? We all claim to know one Japanese. The problem is, it’s the same one. The rest of the place and people remain a total mystery.”
“How did you know Nori?”
“Come here.” Wright went over and stood beside Lord. He could smell the sea in her hair. She whispered. “We were using him to hack.”
“Not a guy in Akihibara too?”
“Who never left his room.”
“Until last night, it seems. When he left for good. Who were you hacking?”
“Gene’s least favorite person in the world.”
Wright looked over his shoulder. Ayumi and Hiro were staring at him, expectantly.
“Why would Gene Drinkwater, sitting in Morocco, hire a couple of Japanese hackers to mess around with his computer system?”
“Remember the Meiji bank deal? Since then, this is the one country in the world Gene isn’t allowed to visit. It seemed safe. Not to mention, some of the best hackers in the world live here in Tokyo. They could be running the Pentagon’s defense shield if they wanted to. But they like it here. Japan is their cocoon.”
“You’re not worried that this is illegal.”
“Guess not. So you came to shut them down?”
“No. To see how they were getting along spooking Frank. Since you’re here, they must have done a pretty good job. Boy, they must have loved having you ride up asking to find the people hassling Frank.”
“When all along it was them.”
“How would your Greeks classify this? Comedy? Irony? Tragedy? Satire?”
“Low farce. I feel like we might as well be walking around with phalluses strapped to our heads. What’s Drinkwater got against Frank?”
“Goes back a long way. They’ve been waging war like this for years. Gene thinks Frank’s a fraud. That he hired his team of scientists to dehumanize trading. And that they made their money sucking the blood from the world’s greatest pursuit. That’s what he tells people. But it’s more personal. Frank’s ex-wife, Julia, was the love of Gene’s life. But she treated him as a friend. The worst thing a woman can do to a man, right? Tell him they’re just friends. They met when Gene was already married. He was ready to leave his wife for Julia. But she didn’t want to be anyone’s mistress. Frank made his move. After they were married, Frank behaved like crap. Like any academic driven from the academy into enormous wealth. Went from adoring geeky women to adoring beautiful women. Couldn’t help himself. Gene divorced, waited, hoped. But nothing. Even after Frank and Julia separated, she still didn’t want to be with Gene. So Gene felt Frank had poisoned the greatest love he might have had.”
“You ever met Gene? The most cynical bastard you’ll ever meet. But it’s the cynics you have to watch out for. Isn’t it Ben? Gene could never compete when it came to love. So he competes where he can. With his money.”
“That’s it? A thwarted love affair? And the next thing, you and I are left standing in a room in Tokyo listening to Donna Summer.”
“Crazy what money does to us.”
“So what now?”
“I have one more thing to do.”
“Find a ship.”
“I should have guessed.”
“Jesus saves,” boomed the Spanish voice on the speakerphone in Drinkwater’s study.
“Give it to me,” said Drinkwater, scratching his naked belly. His efforts to dress today had got no further than an old pair of baggy white tennis shorts. “I’ve had five calls from angry Uzbeks this morning. They want to come down here and fricassee my balls in goat fat.”
“No need, my friend. Unless they just like the taste. Your ship was registered in Panama, correct? As a flag of convenience?”
“Well, we took a look at the registry there. It was scratched around the same time it went missing.”
“You can do that? Just disappear a ship from the records?”
“If you know how. Yes. But somewhere, it must reappear. 12 hours ago, a ship exactly the same weight and size of yours was re-registered in Japan to gain admittance to Tokyo Harbor. I had a friend in the Japanese Coast Guard check it out. They repainted it. But they forgot to do one of the buoys on the side. It still says Pacifica.”
“Where is it now?”
“In a berth in Tokyo.”
“And the crew?”
“Don’t know. They could be on board. But until we know what happened at sea, we have no idea. They could be set adrift somewhere in the Pacific. Or on the loose in Tokyo. Spending the cash they got for pulling this off.”
“You ever seen a bunch of Bangladeshi sailors trying to cut loose, Jesus? Maybe they buy a T-shirt. Drink a Coke. No boozing or whoring. These aren’t Russians. They’re probably sitting round sharing a bowl of Edmame.”
“You have anyone there? I can help you.”
“Hannah, the woman you met yesterday.”
“Can she take care of herself? This isn’t finance, Frank. Shipping’s a rough business.”
“Well aware of that, Jesus. Underneath the blond, she’s a rough girl.”
The young salesman could barely lift his head from the table.
“One more. Come on. Drink,” said his host.
“No, please,” he whimpered.
“You messed up the order. If you want your company to keep our business, I must know you are sorry.”
“This isn’t enough?”
“I say when it’s enough. Not you.”
The salesman pushed himself up and took a sip of the cold beer.
“Please. I will vomit.”
“Good. Then I’ll know you’re sorry.”
“I need to get back to the office.”
“This is your work. Keeping me happy. Now drink.”
Hiro pulled aside the screen leading into the room. The two men were sitting cross-legged at a low table. The salesman looked scrawny and bereft in his cheap, grey suit, spittle running in scraggly lines down his lapels.
“Inspector!” said the larger man, rising with surprising agility from the floor, as if propelled by a cushion of air.
“Yamato-San,” said Hiro, bowing low.
“Someone has misbehaved, I see.”
“Oh him? There was a mistake with my latest construction. A double hull super-tanker. They did not deliver enough steel. So I have to teach him a lesson. Nice boy. Can’t hold his drink.” The boy groaned and took another feeble sip of beer. “But if he wants to keep Yamato buying from him,” suddenly he raised his voice, “he had better drink some MORE!”
“I’m glad I never had to do business with you, Yamato-San.”
“No, you’re the one I owe the favors to. If you ever tire of that pathetic salary you make, you must come and work with me. There’s a lot of money down here in the docks. We could always use a man who knows how to take care of himself. Who have you brought with you?” Yamato could see Wright, Ayumi and Lord on the other side of the curtain.
“What do they want with a humble ship-owner?”
“They’re after a ship. The Pacifica.”
“I know it. Sleazy operation.”
“It left here a few days ago and came back, under a new name and registration. Never reached its destination.”
“Rostov. The Black Sea.”
“Kuso. I won’t ask what was on board. Never good to know. Bring them in. I’ll have my manager make some calls. We can eat.”
Wright, Lord and Ayumi came into the room and sat down on the worn tatami mats, giving plenty of room to the drunk salesman.
“This is how you learn the business,” said Yamato, slapping the young man on the shoulder. “You don’t perform, you show remorse. Take your pants off.” The salesman raised his head, though his neck could barely support it as it rolled back onto the table. “Pants off!” bellowed Yamato, who swiveled the man round until he fell back against the floor. The man fumbled uselessly with the button on his pants. Yamato intervened, unbuttoning them, yanking them off and tossing them into a corner. Underneath, the salesman was revealed to be wearing a pair of lime green underpants with a picture of Doraemon, a cartoon robot cat, on the front. Yamato turned him round and leaned him back against the table. “When you wake up, you can finish your drink.”
Two young women entered the room, their hair up in pony tails and dressed in tight work-out clothes. Each held four dishes of izikaya, fried and steamed snacks, which they set down on the table, along with chopsticks. They disappeared and returned with steaming cups of green tea, and a beer for Yamato.
“Eat, eat,” he said, waving his hands over the food. Wright took a piece of fried chicken, which scalded the roof of his mouth. He reached for some seaweed salad, which he held for a moment on his tongue to cool it down. Hannah, to his surprise, was grabbing eagerly at the plates, scooping out the soft white tofu, which trembled in a small wooden bucket. Ayumi was more circumspect, warily eyeing the salesman to her left who emitted a series of disturbing pre-puking sounds.
“Hiro-san and I go back many years,” said Yamato, slapping the police officer on the back as he took a mouthful of noodles. “He’s solved many of my most difficult problems. Ships, you see, are about more than construction and transport. They attract all kinds of bad people. Smugglers, thieves, murderers. Every kind of crook. Even American capitalists. Hah!”
He banged the table so hard it shook. Wright’s miso soup bowl toppled onto its side. One of the young women leaned down past him to wipe up the mess. Wright noticed a sheen on her muscular arms and the stimulating odor of fresh sweat. Her hand brushed against his arm as she pulled back and she looked him squarely in the eye, with not a hint of shyness.
Yamato ignored Lord and Ayumi and spoke directly to Wright.
“And you must be a very specific kind of capitalist to be involved with the Pacifica.”
“Actually, I’m the one involved with the ship,” said Hannah.
“I see,” said Yamato, a look of surprise on his face. “And what do you want with it?”
“Its cargo belongs to my employer.”
“And I suppose the cargo isn’t Toyota cars?”
“Now, as I’ve said, I owe Hiro-San a great deal. But you, I don’t know you.”
“My employer is an American investor,” said Hannah. Wright was impressed by her poise in the face of this man. “An extremely wealthy investor. Gene Drinkwater.”
“Ahhhhhh,” said Yamato, exhaling like a deflating tire. “Meiji Bank.”
“You’ve heard of him?”
“I read the business pages, Miss?”
“Lord. Hannah Lord.”
“I take an interest in what goes on in my country, Hannah Lord.” She braced herself for the usual tirade. Meiji was a disgrace. The Americans had robbed the country. “Drinkwater did this country a very great service.” Lord looked at Wright quizzically. “He and the team which bought Meiji forced this country to face reality. That we’re a country run by bureaucrats who still try to run the economy as if it was 1955 and we were trying to pick ourselves up after the war. As if every bank’s duty was to issue cheap loans, whatever the terms, to any sector the government deemed worthy. You know what this has done to us? This sucking from the swollen teat of government? It’s turned us into a Socialist country. No one knows how to take a risk anymore, because the government treated anyone who did like they fucked animals. They let the trading companies get fat, gorged them on cheap money. You know why young people sit at home staring at computer games and aren’t having babies? Because what hope can you have in an economy where you best chance of success is putting on a blue suit and spending thirty years nodding and bowing and agreeing to everything because you don’t want to spoil the consensus? It’d make anyone impotent. Except Yamato.” He thumped himself on the chest. “When I saw the Americans buy Meiji, I thought here are the black ships again. Sailing into Tokyo with big-nose Perry. To shake us up again. To break the politicians who suffocate us from above. But you know why you can never break a Japanese politician? Because his spine is already made of rubber. You can’t snap rubber. It just bounces back. You need to burn it. The smell is foul, but it’s the only way to get rid of it. Arson. You have to set light to the Diet. To the Ministry of Finance. To everything. A fire you could see from San Francisco.”
Yamato then rolled his shoulders and made circles with his fists, as if sanding a table. With each revolution, he shouted, “Hah”. After the third time, he bent over his noodles and took a large, noisy slurp.
“Drinkwater made his money and left. I admire that,” said Yamato. “Then we Japanese started to whine, like pigs going to slaughter. Because we wanted the old system back. It was rotten, but we were comfortable with it. We didn’t want outsiders going through our loan books telling us how we should lend. And you know why? Because we are afraid to face reality. We prefer to live in a fantasy world. We are like the man on the subway, the middle-aged man going to shuffle paper all day who reads manga-porn and imagines himself burying his head between the breasts of a robot queen. That is us as a country.”
“You’re too harsh,” said Hiro.
“The bureaucrat speaks.”
“The bureaucrat who rescued you from blackmailers. I should have told you that during his brief stay in Tokyo, Wright-san has met Matsui.”
“The Yellow Queen? How? You like men, Wright-san?” Lord and Ayumi smirked.
“No,” said Wright. “Though I think he liked me.”
“I can imagine. He doesn’t see much white flesh in Kabuki-cho. Or not enough for him. Has Hiro told you about me and him? When I was starting in this business - two small fishing trawlers, I inherited from my father - it was impossible for me to get a loan. I tried every bank in Tokyo. Including Meiji. Nothing. So to finance my business, I had to go to the people who did make loans. The yakuza. Everyone thinks they are thugs. And they are. But they also understand collateral, credit risk, capital base, all the things most respectable Japanese loan officers don’t. Matsui was the collection agent on my loan. I would rather have rats eat out my tongue than go through that again. Why did you see him?”
“Wasn’t my decision. He took me and Ayumi out of a restaurant in Nishi Azabu and tried to rape us.”
“Both of you?”
“Fat Mat’s getting greedy.”
“He thought I’d know something about this ship.”
“What’s it to him? I thought it belonged to Drinkwater.”
“It does. He thinks...shit...I should have said this earlier Hannah. I can’t think straight...Just before he tried to rape us, Matsui asked if Frank Higgins had anything to do with the missing ship. He said Higgins had sent the yakuza who tried to kill me in Tsukiji. It didn’t make any sense. Why would Frank send me here from New York only to have me killed the moment I landed? Still doesn’t make any sense.”
“Unless he was trying to frame you,” said Hiro.
“What do you mean?”
“There are two reasons to kill someone,” said Yamato, folding his arms over his broad chest. “Either you hate them. Or you want them silent. Unless Higgins hated you, which I suppose he didn’t, he wanted your silence.”
Hannah had stopped eating and was staring at one of the soy sauce jugs on the table.
“Suppose Frank knew about Gene’s shipment,” she said. “Who it belonged to.”
“You mean Matsui?” said Wright.
“He hired Matsui to kill you, but just to make sure, he held the ship. A kind of insurance. With the bonus that it left Gene looking like a fool.”
“But why try to kill me? He just paid to hire me.”
“Deguchi-san,” muttered Hiro. “He wanted you accused of Deguchi-san’s murder.”
“More,” said Yamato, punching his friend in the arm. “We need more.”
“Deguchi-San was investigating ways for Meiji to recover the money from Drinkwater’s private equity team. They have the full support of the government. But they couldn’t pull together a legal case. Especially if they could never get Drinkwater onto Japanese soil. But if they could pin a murder on him. Not just any murder, but the murder of the man who was trying to punish him, then...”
“But why put me in the middle of all this?” said Wright.
“Because you’re a gaijin. You step off the plane, kill Deguchi-San and then you’re killed yourself by the yakuza.”
“I didn’t kill Deguchi-San.”
“No. The yakuza probably did. But then you screwed up the plan by not letting yourself be killed.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Very thoughtless of you, gaijin,” said Yamato, who was the only man still enjoying the conversation. “You should have,” he threw his head back and made a gesture as if plunging a sword into his stomach and cutting a large square. “Aaarrgggh. Seppuku. It would have solved everyone’s problems.”
“Now Meiji can accuse Drinkwater of orchestrating a murder on Japanese soil and demand his extradition,” said Hiro. “Do you have any connection to Drinkwater?”
Wright pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Just an ex-wife.”
“Me,” said Lord. “I’m Ben’s connection to Gene.”
The salesman suddenly woke and raised his head. He pushed himself up from the table and tried to stand up, but his legs would not support the load. He fell down to his knees, hung his head and vomited on the floor.
“Finally,” said Yamato, beaming ecstatically, “I know he is sorry.”
It was 1A.M by the time Higgins finished his story. Larissa Lario set down her notebook and drained the last of her wine.
“Another bottle?” asked Higgins.
“No. Enough, Frank.”
“I met a Korean industrialist long ago, who told me that the trick to survival was to pull yourself out of situations whenever they become overwhelming. To imagine you’re a bird of prey, hundreds of feet up, looking down at the scene below. I feel like that now. That I’m hovering. That I can’t get too enmeshed in all of this. Even though I’m in the middle of it.”
They could feel a breeze coming off the East River and disturbing the warm, still air. Higgins got up and rested his hands on the stone balcony.
“Can you see that green light down there? Come here. It’s down there on Sutton Place. A fund manager who collects Pop Art. He paid $3 million for a Jeff Koons diamond, 10 feet tall, 10 feet wide. This massive green sculpture. He put it on his terrace and then behind it created a wall encrusted with semi-precious stones. A thief would have to hire a crane to steal the Koons and a wrecking ball to take the wall. No sooner did they get it installed than the neighbors started to complain. In the mornings, when the sun rose in the east, it would shine onto the diamond and the wall and reflect these strong beams of light back into all the apartments which overlooked it. People were waking up and it was like they were under attack from a barrage of lasers. It was like a science fiction movie.”
“Mr Higgins, sir?” said the butler standing in one of the French doors to the terrace.
“A gentleman here for you. He’s waiting downstairs.”
“No, I’m not waiting downstairs.” A stumpy, bald man in khakis and a yellow Lacoste shirt pushed past the butler. “You’d better have a good explanation for this, Frank. Really good explanation. You can’t just do this. Pull out. Leave the rest of us out there just waiting to get a fist up our collective ass.”
“Larissa, this is Ethan. We go back a long way, which explains why he feels he can be so forthright.”
“No. No more words, Frank. None of your fucking words. Seriously. $60 billion, out in one day. Are you kidding? We’re going to have the Federal Reserve on this tomorrow. They’re going to think the entire system’s about to collapse.”
“Trade the volatility, Ethan. Isn’t that what you do?”
In all her years as a reporter, Lario had seen bankers blow up and rant, but she had never seen anything quite like this, the chief executive of a global investment bank melting down in front of her eyes.
“You do realize, Frank. You do frigging realize.”
“That people are going to read things into this?”
“Yes. Like they read things into the Book of Revelation, Frank. Apocalyptic things.”
“I imagined they were focused on fundamentals.”
“Don’t get smart.”
“I thought one wasn’t supposed to pay attention to what other people did. That one should Graham & Dodd everything, unearth the used cigar butts. Value investing. Isn’t that what you tell Main Street?”
“There’ll be a run, you know it. We’re going to get redemption requests. Jesus, Frank. Why? The markets are soaring. No one can touch your kind of computer trading.”
“But come on. We can pay a programmer tens of millions of dollars, and still, the only thing that really wets their pants is the prospect of working for you.”
“Nicely put, Ethan.” Higgins looked over at Lario who was looking at the ground, straining not to laugh.
“Listen, keep half in the market. Asia’s opening and you’ve got everyone thinking there’s some massive default on the way or a currency crisis or bank collapse. You know what happens next. All of us with arbitrage bets on our books will feel the spreads widen. It’s like standing in an earthquake with the ground opening up between our feet. The positions will have to be marked to market, we’ll get margin calls. Shit, Frank. You’re going to take down a ton of people doing this. And then what? The politicians start shouting about hedge funds and how they’re ruining the economy. Then the SEC and the Southern District attorneys come in and start cuffing people on the floors. Just to make a point. All so you can get into cash?”
“My only responsibility is to my investors. I can’t control anything else.”
“When you manage $60 billion in today’s financial system, Frank, your only responsibility is not to your investors. You have a responsibility to all of us. Don’t be such a fucking child. You have a responsibility to all the banks on Wall Street who provide you with debt, who give you access to our dark pools so you can trade away from the eyes of the public. You owe it to us, your community.”
“My community? You mean financiers?”
“Yes. Your community.” Larissa’s shoulders were now heaving uncontrollably. “What the fuck are you laughing at?”
“Nothing,” said Larissa, covering her mouth with her right hand.
“She’s laughing, Ethan, because you dare to call the group of sharks, pimps and charlatans who make up our financial world, a community. And she may be right.”
“I give money to charity, Frank.”
“Course you do, Ethan. To the private school your children attend, the empowerment zone favored by the politician who regulates you and to the museum board sat on by your otherwise very bored wife. And you claim tax breaks on all of it.”
Ethan stepped up close to Frank, took the glass of wine from his hand and tossed it over the balcony. For a moment, he said nothing, but the three of them waited to hear it shatter on the ground. It did, thankfully without being followed by a scream.
“I don’t care about how you feel about me, Frank. I don’t care if you’re sarcastic, if you think you’re better than the rest of us. You probably are. What I care about is that in about five hours, I have to go to my office and spend my entire day dealing with shit because you’re playing games with your money.”
“It’s not a game, Ethan. It’s deadly serious.”
“Well, if it’s so serious, why do you pull out $60 billion this afternoon, and shove back $30 billion in the past hour?”
“What do you mean?”
“Our traders in Tokyo, Shanghai and Tokyo say you’re back in the game. Over there. You’ve given up on America, but have your algorithms seething all over Asia like termites.”
“No, Ethan. We’re out.”
“Stop lying to me, Frank.”
Larissa could see her cell phone glowing at the top of her handbag. She reached over to look at it. She began scrolling through her messages. The first three came from the FT’s Tokyo bureau.
“Nice splash,” read the first. “But looks like Frank’s back.” She passed it to Higgins.
“Wait a moment,” he said and strode over to a telephone just inside the living room. He turned his back to his guests.
“What’s going on Ajay,” he said in a low voice.
Larissa looked up at the sky. She could feel Ethan’s seething presence beside her, all five feet three of it, coiled and furious.
“Lovely evening,” she said.
“I thought we’d shut everything down,” said Higgins.
“We did,” said Ajay. “But it started up again.”
“Who started it up again?”
“I don’t know Frank. We’re trying to find out.”
“You don’t know? Someone is trading $30 billion under our name, using our system and we have no idea who it is?”
‘And they keep adding $1 billion every five minutes.”
“Are you in the office?”
“Not yet. I will be in a moment.”
“I’ll see you there. Get everyone in. Wake up California.” He set the phone back in its cradle.
“Show yourselves out,” he called back to his guests. He went into his study and slammed the door.
The British and Japanese guards at the British embassy were drilled every month in dealing with terrorist attacks and street protests. They knew how to turn away a disgruntled visa applicant or an opponent of British foreign policy - verbally at first, physically if necessary.
But nothing had prepared them for the six black Mercedes which pulled up outside the embassy gates and the 12 extremely large, menacing men who emerged onto the sidewalk, ignoring the signs saying “No Parking”.
Across the street, the guards of the Imperial Palace watched suspiciously. One of them brought down the barrier protecting the palace grounds as a precaution.
“You need to move along,” said two guards emerging from their post in front of the embassy. The 12 men did not move, but stood looking up towards the embassy.
“Honto,” said the man at the center of the group. “Very beautiful.”
As he approached the entrance, four more guards approached, running down from the main building.
“Stop,” they shouted. Four of them cocked their guns. Traffic slowed along the street as cars stopped to watch. Police sirens started to wail in the surrounding streets, responding to the call put out by the embassy.
In the ambassador’s residence, a butler approached the ambassador in the middle of a formal lunch to explain the sudden flurry of noise. All across the embassy, staff gathered to look out of the windows. The 12 men were now arranged in a triangular formation, pointing in towards the grounds. All except the man at the front wore leather jackets and dark glasses. Several of them had tattoos. None looked like they had come to renew their passports.
James Hardy was listening to music on his computer. Mahler’s Fifth. It got him in the mood for the negotiations he had scheduled for the afternoon, between the Japanese defense procurement bureaucrats and a British submarine maker. He did not see or hear his assistant walk in behind him, until she tapped him on the shoulder.
“There’s a situation, sir,” she said. “Outside. By the gates.”
Hardy did not bother with his jacket, which was slung over the back of his chair. He walked quickly down the stairs and out onto the curving path to the gates. As he approached the group, he locked stares with the man at the front of the group, who flicked at the lapel of his yellow silk suit, as if brushing off a mosquito. Matsui flared his nostrils and lifted his head back. Hardy did not flinch or say a word. After several seconds, Matsui jerked his head back and turned. His guard followed him, retreating to their cars and easing bumper to bumper back into the traffic racing past Hanzomon.
Hardy walked straight back to his office, ignoring the inquiring looks of his staff. As he closed the door, he began breathing heavily. He loosened his tie, pulled out his phone and dialed New York.
“The ship is on the far side of the port,” said Yamato. The table had been cleared, the vomit wiped away and the young salesman bundled into a taxi home. Yamato had made two telephone calls to locate it. He was a marvel of bullying charm, Wright thought. He would have done well in New York.
“There are men on board. Don’t know if they’re the original crew, but it’s crewed. What do you want to do? Hiro?”
“I should try to find whatever’s on board that everyone wants.”
“Don’t spoil the party, Inspector.” Hiro laughed.
“You’ll lose me my job.”
“You’re after a bigger prize. The ship is bait. Wright-san is bait. You want Meiji. And Matsui. For murder. You’re homicide. Leave the smuggling charges to the port authorities.”
“As long as the ship sits here in Tokyo, we’re exposed,” said Hannah. “We need to get it out of here.” Wright nodded. The longer he was a pawn in this game between Drinkwater and Higgins, the more uncertain his fate.
“I have spare men who can sail the ship if we need crew,” said Yamato. “If we can get them on board to replace whichever crooks are already there, we can get it out of here and into international waters. I’ll have to make a special request with the harbor police, but they’re used to that from me. But we won’t be able to do that until early evening. Until then, the harbor’s choked. We’ll need it to be quieter before we move. And then, we’ll need to be armed. I’ve tried taking a ship with guns and without guns. Guns are better. Leave that to me. You should all get some rest.” Yamato rose and as he did, he brushed a lock of hair from Ayumi’s ear. “This is fun isn’t it?” Wright winced.
After Yamato disappeared, the two young women in workout clothes reappeared and slid away a screen to reveal a small dormitory, with thin mattresses rolled out on the floor. Wright took off his jacket, rolled it up and set it down on one of the mattresses as a pillow. He lay down and within seconds fell into the deepest sleep.
Two hours later, he woke, feeling the floor beneath him bouncing lightly. His muscles still ached, but he longer felt as if he was fighting the battering waves of exhaustion. His mind felt clear for the first time that day. He could smell soup boiling in a kitchen on the other side of a small courtyard. He slid the screen aside. The dining room was empty, but he could see through a crack in another screen to where the bouncing was coming from. It was accompanied by frequent shouts, exclamations of force and effort. He walked over in his bare feet and slid the screen back a little further. Two figures in baggy, black robes and masks were dancing around the sprung floor, their feet skittering as if on scorching coals.
Their masks were oval, with narrow horizontal bars, and covered their entire faces and heads. Each fighter carried a sword made of bamboo which they held with both hands. They moved slowly, circling and eyeing each other, before plunging into an attack, slashing at their opponent’s head or body, then pulling back again. Wright stood in the doorway, mesmerized.
After every flurry of attacks, the fighters would hold their swords out in front of them, touching, the blades pressing against each other, probing for the next opening. In a fraction of a second, one of them would lunge forward, striking the other on the head. Their masks and clothing made them look like religious figures, monks, emissaries from some other world dispatched to this one to inflict death.
There was such menace to their appearance and grace to their movements. By contrast, the rest of human activity looked artless, clumsy and dull. Their clothing rippled and swayed, accentuating even the slightest move, the quiet preludes to another onslaught, another clash of swords, vicious cuts and violent thwacks to the arms, head and body. Wright wished he could slow it down, to observe the arcs of the swords through the air, how they found the very narrowest path, a sliver of space and time, to slip through an opponent’s defenses. Their elegance masked their brutal purpose.
As he watched, he forgot everything else. The past day and a half in Tokyo. The ship. The ghosts. The pain in his body. His mind was empty but for these figures moving with the loose ease of cloth puppets around a stage.
Suddenly they stopped. They walked to the center of the floor, their swords raised and pointing at each other. They squatted low, rose and then reversed their swords, holding them by their left hips. They walked backwards five steps, bowed and began to untie the ribbons holding the masks to their heads.
Out of the first emerged Hannah, her hair matted to her forehead, her face locked in a grimace of pain. Out of the second came Ayumi, sweat pearling on her face, but otherwise serene. She saw Wright staring at her and did not look away.
She continued to remove her gloves and shoulder pads, until she was down to just her hakama, the pleated trousers which resembled a skirt, and her keiko-gi, the belted, padded jacket, which opened to reveal a deep, damp V of bare skin running down between her breasts. She raised her chin as one of Yamato’s girls began to untie the complicated knots which held her hakama.
“Wright-san,” said Yamato approaching from behind. “I hope you’re rested. It’s time.”
An arsenal of small arms lay on the square metal table of the store room. At their center were five SIG P232s, standard issue for Japanese police, 9mm, snub with a thick grip
“I shouldn’t be seeing this,” said Hiro.
“You know we’re the good guys, Inspector,” said Yamato.
“Double-action hand gun,” said Yamato, holding one up. “Swiss. Very similar to the Walther PPK. Short barrel makes it very accurate. Perfectly balanced. Capable of single or double action. Tuck it in your pocket, down your sock, into the back of your pants wherever you like. With any luck you won’t have to use it.”
Ayumi picked one up and looked along the barrel. Wright looked at her, surprised.
“My father,” she said. “He was a policeman. He gave all his children basic weapons training. Even the girls.”
Hannah kept her hands thrust into her pockets.
“There must be another way,” she said. “We don’t know who’s on board.”
“Exactly,” said Wright. “It’s just a precaution. We may never use them. But you don’t need to come. There’ll be enough of us. At least to take a look.”
Four stevedores filled the doorway, each dressed in stained jeans, navy blue sweatshirts and filthy, woolen caps. They were lean from work and a diet of fish and cigarettes, their eyes dark and penetrating, set above hollow cheeks covered in days old stubble. Everything about them was economical, the way they barely moved, the functional thrift of their clothing.
“My finest and most trustworthy,” said Yamato. “These men have been with me for 20 years at least. There’s nothing in these ports they haven’t seen.” He waved them over to the table and each of them picked up a sub-machine gun, fully automatic Heckler and Koch UMPs, loaded with magazines. They carried them loosely at their waists, the way schoolgirls might carry their schoolbooks.
Yamato then unfolded a map of the harbor.
“The ship is over here in berth 4 of the Aomi container terminal. The whole terminal is about a mile long, with five berths, each about 1000 feet long. Berth 4 is one of the biggest in the entire port. It can handle 50,000 ton boats. Along the side are 12 cranes for loading and unloading the ships which come in. The terminal runs all night under floodlights. The cargo is removed from the boats and moved to one of five warehouses. The Pacifica can’t sit where it is for too long. The port wants boats in and out of here quickly. So it has maybe another 12 hours at most before it will have to sail out again. I’m assuming that by then, Mr. Higgins will know whether or not Matsui has done what he asked.” Yamato turned to Hannah who nodded.
“Fine. Then the plan is this. Our goal is to find out who is on board that ship. Then we persuade them or kick them off. Correct? My men here have already been to look and say the ship appears to be occupied. But unless they lower a ladder for us to get on, the only way will be to use one of the container cranes. To do that without them seeing, my men shall create a distraction. Miss Lord, what do you think? Are you with us?”
Hannah smiled tightly and picked up one of the SIGs.
“I’m going to play look-out.”
“So you can claim ignorance if the whole thing blows up. Makes sense. Use this.” He tossed him a two-way radio, silver, the size of a packet of cigarettes. “I’ll be on the other end. Throw it away if you need to. Ayumi and the gaijins come with me. We’ll go on board first. My men will follow.”
A waitress appeared with a tray of sake cups. Yamato invited everyone to take one.
“Kanpai,” he roared, downing his drink in one.
“I’ve got other problems right now, James,” said Higgins.
“You promised there’d be no risk in this,” said Hardy, fighting to contain his nerves.
“There’s always risk. Welcome to the big leagues. Who knew Wright would be so resilient?”
“You don’t understand, do you Frank? I can’t have Japanese gangsters accosting me at the embassy. Do you realize how that looks?”
“Listen, James. You took my money. You took it and deposited it in Grand Cayman just like every civil servant I’ve ever dealt with. Don’t complain. Seriously. If you wanted no risk, you’d never have contacted me. And don’t forget, you chose these hoodlums. If they’d done their job and taken out our target the first time, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
“If you hadn’t gone and turned around their bloody ship...”
Higgins clicked his phone shut and turned it off. The last thing he needed right now was a hissy Brit.
Wright stepped out of Yamato’s office into the suddenly cool night. The Rainbow Bridge crossing Tokyo Harbor was lit up and cars were streaming across. The ships waiting for berths lined up into the distance, their lights reflecting off the lacquered water. Yamato’s men walked away, their guns tucked into canvas shoulder bags. They chatted as they went, as casually as if they were coming off shift.
Yamato had given Wright, Ayumi and Lord yellow hard hats and clipboards to make them look like they were on business. He led the way, talking noisily about the advantages of the port and expertly navigating the pipes, drums and containers littered along the waterfront. Everyone he passed nodded or waved, smiling at his enthusiasm.
“Not even Singapore can handle as much as us,” he said, pointing up towards the orange cranes. “Food, metals, consumer products, cars, you can bring anything you like into Tokyo and we’ll take care of it for you. We’re the number one hub in Asia. And arguably the world. Long Beach in California sent its senior managers over to see what we did, and they were astonished. I walked them round and their chins were on the floor. And that was before we started drinking.”
Wright felt the Sig in the side pocket of his jacket. He always hoped to get through an assignment without firing a bullet. But somehow, recently that was rarely the case. Either financiers had become more violent, or the violent had begun practicing high finance. Mainly it was that in the rush to manage funds, Western financiers had become indiscriminate about the money they took. If it came from Russia via Vienna, fine. From Syria via Dubai, no problem. From Myanmar and Cambodia via Shanghai, hand it over. Even if the green ran thick with blood, they were happy to charge fees to manage it. Their mistake had been to assume they could treat these investors like state pension fund managers.
Unfortunately, a man who had built his fortune trading arms in the Middle East or turning poppies into opium in the highlands of Afghanistan had a very different view of expected returns from a bureaucrat charged with managing Minnesota’s public retirement funds.
In the case of Higgins and Drinkwater, the pursuit of wealth had turned into a blood sport. It was not enough to pursue each other through the markets and companies, through lawyers and courts.
The ferocity of their battle had driven them into the weeds, the margins of money and power, where they could be thrilled by the lack of clear rules. Here the game was more pure. It was about strength, nerve and real physical violence. It was a world without pinstripes, where cunning triumphed over intellect. But had they any idea what they were doing? Could any man really straddle these worlds? Wright doubted it. And if you needed any evidence, here it was in this motley group stalking through the floodlit Tokyo night in search of a boat.
On one side of them towered the ships, thirty stories high, motionless in the water. Despite the fact they were nothing but steel and glass, they seemed to possess their own spirits, the hum of their electrical systems, the muffled clanking as containers were shifted around the decks, the lights blazing from the upper decks. They gave off a sense of coiled power, their mighty engines lurking under water waiting to propel them from continent to continent. One slip, and you would be lost in that submarine world of vast propellers and churning water.
“Did you ever miss me, Ben?” said Hannah as Yamato continued his monologue.
“At first, yes. But it passed.”
“How old were we? 23, 24?”
“I was 25.”
“Still, not old enough for it to count. As a marriage. More like a prolonged date.”
“Whatever you say, Hannah.”
“I heard you had got into this kind of work. I couldn’t believe it. I guess you’re not doing it for the money.”
“The thrill perhaps, going into these rarefied worlds with your sword and shield.”
“I’m not judging anyone.”
“Benjamin Wright, the caped crusader. Millionaire Bruce Wayne by day, Batman by night.”
“It’s coming back to me now. Never a great sense of humor.”
“No. It was my sheer unattainability that hooked you. You said as much. You wanted me because it was so damned hard to have me. Then you got me and then...”
“Do we have to discuss this now?”
“Why not? We’ve each got a gun. It’s mutually assured destruction. Come on, Ben. It was years ago.”
“Precisely. Let’s imagine it never happened.”
“What? The dress, the 500 guests, the honeymoon in Anguilla, all that optimism.”
“We were both trying it out. To conform. See if it suited us.”
“Well, we found that out.”
Yamato stopped and turned to face a ship moored beside them. He lifted his gaze to a life preserver hanging high up against the dark hull. It read “Pacifica”.
Hiro pulled up a chair beside a window in Yamato’s office. He looked out to the main entrance to the port, to see trucks weaving past the busy warehouses and spilling out onto the highway leading north and south from Tokyo. He turned on a light, but switched it off again the moment he saw his face reflected in the window. He pulled out his phone and dialed the number for home, but stopped before he put the call through. What was the point? What was there to say? That his son was still in his room. That his wife had been to the grocery store. She never showed any interest in his work, even in what he was allowed to tell her.
He stretched his legs and rubbed his eyes. He wanted to sleep but was determined not to. The case had already taken him further than he ever imagined. Which was why he had to keep it from anyone at Keishicho. If there was ever to be a prosecution, he needed to move around the bureaucrats. If he went through the normal channels, the case would be snuffed out. Meiji Bank would call the Ministry of Finance, which would call the Ministry of Justice and before he knew it, he would be assigned the desk by the window to wait out the years until the end of his career. There was nothing more vindictive than a faceless bureaucracy. You could scream, pummel and claw, but you may as well be scratching at a sheer, steel surface. Once the bureaucrats came down on you, there was no way out. Not in Japan.
No, the only way was to turn the system in on itself.
Hiro had only ever done this once before and it had almost derailed his career. An official in the mayor of Tokyo’s office had assaulted a young boy. Brutally. Left him for dead in a back street of Shibuya. But the boy had survived. Long enough to identify his assailant. But when Hiro had been sent to interview the man, he had been turned away, had his badge threatened. His major told him to back off. But he couldn’t. He had spent hours with the boy and his family, waiting for him to recover in hospital. Hearing the doctors describe the scope of his injuries. It was the first case which had become personal to Hiro. So he had taken the police file and shown it to a newspaper reporter. The photographs of the crime scene had been published in a cheap tabloid and the bureaucrat named. After that the mayor’s office could not protect him. The attacker was transferred to a small municipality in Okinawa, to live out his days issuing pet permits. If he had any dignity, he would have killed himself, but he didn’t.
For months, Hiro was frozen out, denied a decent case. As if he were the criminal, which in a way he was, for leaking the material. But nothing was ever proved against him. The reporter never revealed his source. And by refusing to gloat, Hiro clung to his position.
It had been terrifying, not the prospect of losing his job, but the feeling of bucking the system. It was like yanking the tail of a T-Rex and watching it slowly turn to fix its colossal eye on you, its miniscule prey.
If this case turned out the way it looked, Hiro thought, he would need more support than the silence of a tabloid reporter. He was taking on powers which had already shown themselves willing to kill and falsely accuse.
His eyes scanned the hubbub in the port. There was something going on at the gate. Three guards had gathered at the rear passenger’s side of a car and were taking cigarettes and laughing. Hiro winced into the darkness. It was too far away. He could make out the orange glow of the cigarettes but nothing more.
He leaned back. The car began to move, followed by five others, threading its way towards him. He got up from his seat and stepped back into the darkness of the room. He watched as the cars approached, slowing down as they neared Yamato’s office. Hiro glanced round to make sure all the lights were turned off. The cars did not stop, but the rear passenger side window on the car in front rolled down as it passed, and in the back seat, Hiro saw a man in a familiar yellow, silk suit.
He reached into his pocket for the two-way radio. It wasn’t there. He fell to his knees and started to scrabble around the floor, searching for it. It was there, under a leg of the chair, having fallen from his pants. He squinted in the darkness, searching for the talk button. The device crackled to life.
“Yamato, Yamato,” he whispered. There was no answer. He tried again. Still nothing. He reached for his jacket and shrugged it on.
Give him five minutes, he thought. Then he would call in the police.
The four of them crouched in the bottom of a bucket crane which lurched upwards into the sky. On Yamato’s instruction, they had removed their hard hats, which now lay in a pile in front of them. The noise around them had drowned out the radio in Yamato’s inside jacket pocket. The grinding of the crane, the sharp, metallic scrape of containers turning against each other, the myriad beeps, horns and alarms which only seemed to get louder the higher they rose.
Yamato’s orders had been specific. The crane would pause for 12 seconds. Each of them would have three seconds to clamber over the rear side and drop ten feet to the container below. They container’s surface was ridged, so it was important they landed squarely on their feet to avoid twisting an ankle. If they did, they were to stay exactly where they were and wait. There was no use hobbling through this.
Hannah glared at the pile of helmets while Ayumi looked upwards into the night. There were so many lights here that it was impossible to see the stars. But the glow emanating from the city created its own hazy magic.
Floodlights shone across the deck of the Pacifica and through a crack in the bucket, Wright could see lights in the wheel house and two figures standing at the controls, talking.
Then he heard a crack. The floodlights went dark and the crane froze.
“Now,” said Yamato. He helped Wright to his feet. Wright looked over the side. The drop was higher than he imagined. “Now,” pressed Yamato. Wright swung his legs over, hung briefly to the side and dropped. His left food landed squarely, his right slid against a ridge and sent a pain up his leg. He shook it out and looked up in time to see Hannah dropping towards him. He angled his body away. She landed lightly, her canvas trainers making no sound against the metal. Ayumi followed, bumping her shoulder as she fell. Then Yamato, swinging down like an ape. They could hear shouts down on the dock as men ran to discover the problem with the floodlights. If they came back on now, the four of them would be exposed, cowering in their glare.
But Yamato moved quickly. He glanced down the side of the container. There were two more containers beneath them. It was a total of 60 feet to the deck. He bent low and ran to the end of the container and climbed down a narrow ladder. The three others followed. Just as Wright, the last of them, dipped his head below the top of the container, the floodlights blazed back on.
They scrambled down the top container and then shuffled along the top of the second to get to the ladder which was at the other end. From there it was a straight climb down to the deck. They stood in puddles of sea water and looked up briefly at the steel ravine soaring above them. Yamato pressed ahead towards the bridge. Wright followed close behind, Hannah and Ayumi behind him.
When they reached the end, Yamato turned in the shadow of the bridge in time to hear the click of a Kalashnikov as it was brought up to Ayumi’s temple. Wright and Hannah spun round. A tall, gaunt man, with a shaved head and a thick, drooping mustache was holding Ayumi by the neck. He stared at the three others and began to inch forward. He was looking up at the bridge but could not be seen this far down. He opened his mouth as if to shout, then paused. He knew he could not be heard from here. Wright looked at Ayumi and then down at the gunman’s right hand. He was resting the grip of his gun on her left shoulder.
Wright palmed the Sig and then began to raise his hands. As he did so, he fired a single shot through the back of the man’s hand, shattering the knuckles on his third and fourth fingers. The machine gun sprayed several bullets pointlessly into the side of a container then span into a puddle. Ayumi rushed forward, brushing past Wright who lunged forward and cracked the butt of his gun into the man’s nose. Wright could already hear a commotion up on the bridge. He pushed the gunman down onto his back and trod heavily on his broken hand.
“How many on board?” he said.
The man squirmed beneath him. Wright pointed up to the bridge and held up his fingers.
“Four, five? How many?”
The man closed his eyes. Wright stamped on his hand. It was no good.
“Where are you from?” From his looks, and profanities he mumbled between moans of pain, Wright guessed the Caucasus.
“Kazakh?” The man shook his head.
“Uzbek?” The man nodded, as tears began to pour down his face.
Wright heard the clatter of feet on the steel stairs leading down from the bridge. Yamato and Hannah had disappeared. But Ayumi waited, watching, gripping her gun with both hands. Wright had to decide quickly. The gunman looked up at him, terrified.
“Sorry about this,” said Wright, and shot him in the lower thigh, just above the knee-cap. “You’ll recover.” He picked up the machine gun and followed Ayumi around the end of the line of containers to the right of the bridge. He noticed her looking at his shirt. It was spattered with blood. He wiped another fleck from his mouth. He could taste it, warm and coppery.
He reached out and grabbed Ayumi by the front of her shirt and pivoted her round behind a column jutting out of the bridge. He raised his right arm and stared along it. Two of Yamato’s men emerged into the circle of light, as relaxed as they had been on shore. Wright lowered his gun and flicked his head upwards. The two men understood and began to climb the ladder at the far end. Wright let go of Ayumi. He could hear her breathing, light and quick.
A silver flash shot past Wright’s right ear. He ducked sideways and glanced down. A triangular, convex blade lay on the deck. Another glanced off the shoulder of his jacket. He sprinted back the way he came followed by Ayumi and they pressed up below a narrow ledge. One of Yamato’s men fell backwards from the ladder. His head cracked against the railings and his body folded onto the metal. Two blades protruded from his head and blood gushed from the spot where his left ear had been sliced away. The other man pointed his machine gun upwards and fired randomly along the bridge. Several of his bullets struck the blades being thrown down, sending them spinning randomly through the air.
Then the blades stopped falling. Wright peered out. He could see two bodies slumped over the railing above them. Yamato appeared between them. He looked over and saw his dead friend. His face stiffened. He waved up the other man and did the same to Wright and Ayumi.
When they reached the top, they saw the wheel house had been abandoned. The lights were still on and two steaming cups of coffee sat beside the main control panel beside an open packet of Karvon cigarettes. Wright picked it up and flicked it over. Made in Uzbekistan. A gun locker on the rear wall lay open and empty. Wright walked over to a table where several maps had been laid out. It appeared that the Pacifica had sailed some 500 miles out into the ocean before turning back. Hannah had made sure the three doors to the wheel house were shut, one at the rear leading down a flight of stairs to the cabins, two others leading out onto a viewing platform.
Yamato heard the crackle in his pocket. He pulled out the two-way radio and cupped it to his ear.
“They’re here,” said Hiro. “Yakuza.”
Yamato looked out of the window down to the dock. A gangplank had been raised up to the main entryway. Six Mercedes were parked in a fan around its foot. Two port police stood at the bottom, bowing low to the 12 men who walked past, led by Matsui.
If Yamato had brought his team in by the back door, Matsui was coming in the front. He did not look like a gangster spoiling for a fight.
He looked like a man coming to reclaim his property.
Wright reached up and flicked at the light bulb with the butt of his gun. It smashed and fell to the floor of the narrow corridor leading down to the cabins. The tight space stank of stale food and urine. Hannah held her hand to her mouth as she followed close behind him.
They passed the first cabin. The door was open. The four beds were unmade and the ashtrays overflowing. There was a pile of underwear in one corner, beneath three discarded pornographic magazines. They kept moving, passing two more cabins, as squalid as the first. Behind the door at the end, they could see a light. Wright waved Hannah into the last cabin. Then he reached out and undid the latch on the door at the end of the corridor and yanked it open. As he did so, he ducked back into the cabin. He heard a gun being cocked to his right. Another machine gun. He could hear a man’s feet squeak slightly on the rubber floor. Then he caught a reflection in the dull upper hinge of the cabin door. He was larger than the man down among the containers. Large, red-headed with milky blue eyes. Wright flipped his pistol over so the grip was facing upwards and rested his hand on the trigger. He then tipped the end around the door-frame and just as the man stepped into the corridor, he fired. The bullet tore straight into the man’s groin and lodged in the ilium at the back of his pelvis. He fired again and this bullet smashed his knee cap.
Wright swung into the corridor and brought the tip of his black, leather Oxford into the man’s chin, so he bit his tongue, then down onto the gun which thudded onto the floor. He grabbed the man by the hair and pulled his head back.
“The cargo? Where is it? The cargo?”
The man stared up at him, spitting blood out of the cut in his tongue.
“The guns? Boom. The explosives? Bang, bang. The cargo.”
“He doesn’t know,” said a voice behind him.
Wright dropped the man’s head and turned. At the other end of the corridor stood a stout woman, her grey hair tied in a top-knot. She was otherwise dressed like the rest of her crew, in rough blue trousers and salt-stained sweaters. She wore a pair of rubber clogs and carried a sawn-off shotgun. If you had run into her on a country walk, you would imagine she was out hunting for something to roast in her dilapidated cottage.
“I’m the only one who knows. You will have to talk to me.”
Wright turned to face her.
“We want this boat turned round. Sent back on its way,” he said.
“And I want it to stay. What does it matter?”
“Where’s the original crew?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Did Frank Higgins send you?”
“A lot of questions from a man about to have his balls blown off. The man you just shot. He was my first mate. Now I’ll have to find a new one. It’s very hard to find a good first mate.” She took a step towards him and lowered her shotgun until it pointed just below Wright’s waist.
“Drop the little pop gun. Please,” she said. “Then you can tell me why you’re here.”
Wright tossed his gun to the floor and held up his empty hands.
“How much is Higgins paying you?”
“It’s not the money.”
“It’s always the money.”
“For you Americans, perhaps. Not for us.”
“People are different in the Caucasus?”
“Everything is different.”
“However much it is, we can improve on it.”
“I told you, it’s not the money, American. Try to understand.”
“You hear that?” They could hear the commotion of Matsui’s men arriving on board. “That’s the original owners coming to reclaim their cargo. I can assure you they’re more frightening than I am.”
“You think I can’t take care of myself? You think I’m a poor little Soviet flea? Who needs her Yankee protector?” As she stepped closer, Wright noticed one of her eyes was entirely clouded over. The other was the color of a putting green in spring. “We Uzbeks are independent now, in case you did not know. We always were in our hearts. We’re here to keep these guns from those in our country who would like to see us back in the Soviet Union. The ones who don’t value our freedom.”
Christ, thought Wright. A conservative ideologue. With a shotgun. It was like being in Texas.
She pulled back the action bar to load the barrel and released the safety.
“I’ve been waiting to kill an American for years,” she said. Wright turned his head slightly. Behind him lay the first mate groaning in pain. His legs were now drenched in blood. At Wright’s feet were both the mate’s machine gun and his own hand gun.
Two bullets, one from the side and one from the rear hit the woman at the same time. Hannah Lord’s struck her in the temple sending her head sharply over to the side. Ayumi’s splintered her spine. As she fell, the woman fired off a round, which rained off the ceiling behind Wright, straight into the legs of the mate. The noise of the shots in such a confined space left all of them deaf for a moment. Wright stuck a finger in one ear and then the other, shaking his head from side to side as if he were trying to get water out after a swim. Hannah stepped out into the corridor behind the corpse. Her eyes were puffy from crying.
“Thank you,” said Wright. She nodded and wiped her nose with her sleeve. Ayumi had tucked her gun back into the band of her skirt and was looking back up the stairs.
The three of them heard a sharp round of machine gun fire. It came from the top of the gangway, on the main deck.
The response was chaos.
Wright dashed upstairs and looked down from the wheelhouse towards the deck. Four of Matsui’s men lay dead. Matsui was scurrying back towards the rear of the ship, a bright yolk in the midst of his depleted bodyguard.
Down below, in the shadow of the cargo terminal, Hiro watched through a pair of binoculars. He had to time this precisely. Call in reinforcements too early and he would never get the time he needed with Matsui. Call them too late, and everyone up there would be dead.
Yamato was not visible. But one of his men was. The one who had seen his friend killed with the nunchuk to his head stood there, a plume of smoke rising from the barrel of his sub-machine gun.
Hiro made his call and began to run towards the ship.
“I told you I knew where your ship was,” shouted Wright. Ayumi shouted his words in Japanese. Matsui emerged from his crouch. He could not see up to where Wright stood.
“Tell your man to back off,” said Wright to Yamato. Yamato walked slowly from the shadow of the containers. He heard a click and swept up his gun, pointing it in the direction of Matsui’s men.
From above Wright came a flurry of shots, sending Yamato and his stevedore scampering back. Matsui and his men pressed up against the steel of the bridge tower. Wright could just see the hands of the shooter. He fired twice, heard a scream and saw the gun clatter down past him as it fell to the deck. One of Matsui’s men emerged below and fired three more shots until a body slumped forward on the railing above.
Wright ducked back into the wheel house and grabbed a microphone from the control deck. He handed it to Ayumi.
“Tell Matsui that....” He set the microphone down again. He could hear the wail of police cars approaching from every corner of the city. He had noticed a small set of drawers in a corner. He pulled open the top one and rifled through the papers, export certificates, manuals. He pulled open the next, which contained the documents belonging to the crew. He yanked open the third and extracted a large piece of paper, folded over eight times. He spread it out over the control deck. On the front was a diagram showing every single container on the ship, marked with a number. On the rear was a description of the contents. He passed it to Ayumi. She ran her eyes over the list, which was written in Japanese. There was food and electronics. Nothing illegal. She shook her head.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Wright who grabbed it and ran to the cabin level and heaved open a steel door onto the deck. He almost ran into Hiro who stood at the top of the gangplank holding up his badge. He thrust the paper into the inspector’s hands. Hiro glanced down and turned to where Matsui was standing.
“We know what’s on board. And now we know it’s yours,” he said, waving the papers at Matsui. “In two minutes, I’m not going to be able to stop the police and port authorities going straight to the containers on this chart and finding what you have.”
There was no reply. Hiro hesitated.
“You can keep it. But I want Meiji,” he said. “They never trusted you. It’s why they were holding your ship. They never trusted you, Matsui. What do you owe them?”
There was a scuffle as Matsui pushed aside his guards and stepped into the light. He was as repulsive as Wright remembered, a vast, imperious toad of a man. The sirens were getting louder. Yamato also emerged, standing well back with his three surviving men.
“What do you want to know about Meiji?” said Matsui in his high-pitched voice.
“Did they ask you to kill Deguchi-san?”
“How do we ensure the ship gets away?”
“We attribute the bodies to a port fight. Nothing more. I’ll say I saw a bunch of drunk sailors and Tokyo thugs get into a fight. Happens all the time.”
“And what about me?”
“The man we found in the fish dump. We pin Deguchi-san’s murder on him. You testify, give us a trail and we’re clear.”
“It was Iwase-san. At Meiji.”
“And the order to kill me?” said Wright. Ayumi shouted it out in Japanese.
“Your friend at the embassy.”
“If you back out, Matsui, I come back to you on this ship,” said Hiro. “We track it, we stop it, we put everything on you. And whether you help me or not, Iwase-San will know you betrayed him. So you have to decide whether you’d like him running Meiji, with his friends in government, or in jail.”
Police cars were now screeching up all over the dock.
“There’s a life boat on the other side of the ship. Go down two levels, you’ll find it. Lower it into the water and wait. When all of this dies down, you can come back on land. Yamato knows what he’s doing. Go. Now. I’ll deal with this.”
Wright waved Matsui and Yamato and their men back down through the door he had come through. They ran noisily down four metal staircases, leading them through the innards of the ship. Wright ran left down a raised gangway and twisted open another door. The lifeboat hung on ropes above them.
Yamato seized a guide rope and lowered it until they could get in. Matsui pushed his way in first, followed by his guards. Then went Hannah and Ayumi moving to the far end of the boat. Wright clambered in after them and finally Yamato who began to lower them down.
25 feet above the water, one of the two ropes holding them snapped.
The end holding Matsui and his men lurched downwards, throwing them down into the sea. Wright, Lord and Ayumi clung to their benches. Yamato let the guide rope slide quickly through his hand, burning his palm. They splashed down, with water pouring in over the stern. Two of Matsui’s men clambered over the side then three more. They scoured the dark water for the others. Wright spotted Matsui floating like a jellyfish, his jacket ballooning up around him, his face down in the sea. He leaned out three feet and grabbed the gangster’s hair, pulling up his head. Matsui’s eyes were closed. Wright shook him. Matsui spluttered and spat a mouthful of water and phlegm into Wright’s face. Wright dropped him again. There was no way they could pull him up into the boat, without capsizing it. Wright would happily have left him there to die. But Hiro needed him.
So Wright grabbed a life ring and threw it out. It looked no larger than a wedding band next to Matsui. He then reached out and pulled Matsui’s arms one by one over the sides of the ring, folding his fingers over the edges. He yanked up Matsui’s head again and rested his chin on the rear of the ring. That way at least he would not drown.
As they waited there, sodden in the darkness, they could hear police streaming up onto the boat.
“The point of weakness appears to be our co-located computers,” said Ajay, pointing to the top of a Power Point slide. His audience consisted of four men and two women, including Drinkwater, and six others in a conference room in San Francisco.
“As you know, we have colo’s at all the major exchanges here in the US, Europe and Asia. It minimizes data latency, so we can trade as quickly as possible, feeding off the data moving through the exchanges’ systems. We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in securing these colo’s but they’re off site and it’s possible someone has tapped into one of them. Take a look at this.”
A live trading session appeared on the screen.
“Here’s Tokyo. In theory, there should be nothing happening on our account. We shut everything down. But look, every few moments, there’s a barrage of high-frequency arbitrage trades. Exactly what we’d be doing on any normal day. But check this out. We keep timing records of our own, to track the speed of our trades over time. We can execute 100 trades per millisecond. These guys can do 150. They see exactly the same ghosts we do by hooking into our system, but trade even faster than we can, slamming the door on any profits we might make. By having our computers co-located, we tend to get a 500 millisecond information advantage over the market. So we can bang through 50,000 trades before the rest of the market knows what we know. These guys can do 75,000. They began so small, we barely noticed. But then they got more confident. Now, they’re killing us.”
“How did they get our system back up again after we closed it down?” said Higgins, sitting alone at the end of the table.
“Because we arbitrage assets on multiple markets around the world, you only need one access point. We think it was this. Palladium on the London Metal Exchange.”
“How much money did we make trading palladium last year?”
“It was part of an arbitrage pair with silver. We actually lost money. $3.7 million.”
“We left the doors open to our entire system just to make a $3.7 million loss?”
“It’s our best guess. A metals trader let them in to what we were doing and they began to follow us and build up the pattern of what we do.”
“If we ever find these guys, I should hire them. How badly exposed are we?”
“We managed to move most of our positions into cash yesterday.”
“And the markets noticed.”
“We left about $5 billion on geared bond bets.”
“20 to 1.”
“What are the bets?”
“German Treasuries. Spreads between pairs from 15 to 30 years. 15 and 16, to 29 and 30.”
“What if we dumped them now?”
“We’d be down $30 billion. They’ve been moving the wrong way since about an hour ago.”
“They’ve moved 30% in an hour?”
“45% actually. We were in the money on them before that.”
“And I guess there are too many to dump without sending the price down further. When does the German government intervene?”
“They don’t. They got burned trying to back stop a similar situation ten years ago. They lost $10 billion and the Chancellor had to resign.”
“And what about the money they put back into the market? The hackers?”
“At midnight East Coast, 1pm in Tokyo, roughly $30 billion of our investors’ money was deployed in the Asian markets. Since then, another $10 billion has been added. The positions and trades are identical to those we would have executed. We know this because we’re running our systems now in control mode. They’re crunching the data, spotting the ghosts as usual, but not deploying any capital.”
“Have we notified the exchanges?”
“Yes. They say that everything about the trades being done in our name is legal. The authorizations were cleared. They recommended we talk to our insurers. They’ve also notified the regulators in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Seoul and Mumbai. But they could take hours. By which time, we could be cleaned out. Frank?”
Higgins pursed his lips and looked up at the slide showing the way his funds’ money was being deployed. He then turned and looked out of the window. His eyes itched.
“You know when Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky at Reykjavik, Spassky had 35 Russian grand masters advising him. Fischer just had a notebook. The Russians thought chess was a game of memory. You memorized every single tactic and play and then deployed them. Fischer thought it was about dealing with randomness. He even invented his own version of chess, Fischer Random. The back line of pieces could be lined up any way you liked. But everything else remained, the grid, the rules, the moves, the goal. It rendered all the old assumptions and tactics meaningless. You had to see the game the way Fischer did. It was about defending and attacking, sacrificing and capturing not about the application of formulae. He used to say he didn’t just want to win. He wanted to crush his opponent mentally. To make him squirm and realize his own inadequacy in the face of the great Fischer.”
Higgins fell silent for a minute. No one else dared say anything, until eventually Ajay spoke up.
“Frank. What do you want us to do?”
“We need to play their game. We need to play Fischer Random.”
Hiro braced himself to lie. If it worked, he could get to Meiji. If it didn’t he would be finished in the police department. Maybe even finished as a free man.
“Foreign crew,” he said to the first sergeant aboard the ship. “I was here on other business. Heard shots. Three bodies as far as I can tell. But I haven’t been below deck.”
The sergeant looked up at the bridge, at the body slumped over the railings.
“Who does this thing belong to? Can’t we get the ship moving out of here? We don’t need a lot of dead foreigners on our books.”
“The destination was Rostov. On the Black Sea. The crew look like they might have been from there.”
“What was the cargo?”
“The usual junk. Electronics, food.” Hiro handed him the container chart.
“Any Japanese dead?”
“One. On the far side.”
“Doesn’t look like it. Looks like he worked the docks.”
“OK. Get him off the boat and the others, let’s contact the owners, get it re-crewed and get this thing out of here. The city’s trying to get permission to expand the port. The last thing it needs is this. Russians. Trouble wherever they go.” The sergeant leaned in close to Hiro and whispered, “make this one go away, Inspector. It’ll be worth it for you.”
The sergeant turned and walked back down to the dock.
“Seal it off,” said Hiro to a young cop walking towards him with tape. “Then let’s get the bodies off here.”
Two hours later, the port was back to its old rhythms. A policeman stood at the foot of the gangplank up to the Pacifica. The bodies had been removed by ambulance, to sit in cold storage until they were forgotten and disposed of. Aside from the one Japanese dead, these corpses would never make it into the homicide figures for the year. Tokyo’s reputation as one of the safest cities in the world would be preserved.
Hiro walked back along the dockside to Yamato’s offices. He could hear the muffled thud of a boat on the far side. He slid through the narrow opening between the office buildings to a small landing behind them. He reached down and caught a rope tossed up by Yamato. He improvised a knot which he tied fast.
Matsui doggie-paddled to the dock, rocking the boat violently, and clamber up the steps on all fours. His foot slipped and he cracked his shin against the stone, emitting a piggish squeal. Hannah followed, then Ayumi, Matsui’s goons, Wright and finally Yamato, who was drenched but delirious with excitement. Yamato’s men had swum to a tugboat and disappeared.
Yamato slapped Wright across the back of the head, then Hiro.
“Hontou Sugoi!” he exclaimed. “Fantastic.”
“You lost a man,” said Hiro.
“It’s how he would have wanted it. To go in action.”
They heard a squelch behind them and turned to see Matsui naked but for a skimpy pair of underpants.
“I need to dry,” he said.
“One stop,” said Wright from the back seat of Hiro’s car.
“No. You need to get out of our country,” said Hiro.
“We don’t have time Ben,” said Hannah, sitting beside the inspector in the front passenger seat.
“Write this in Japanese,” said Wright, scribbling the address on a piece of scrap of paper. Ayumi did so and Wright passed it forward to Hiro.
“It’s the wrong way. It’s going to add 45 minutes, an hour to the trip.”
“Ben. Come on,” said Lord.
“Turn around,” said Wright, his voice hardening. “The longer you wait, the longer this will take.” Hiro looked in his mirror. Wright stared right back at him the lights of the city reflecting in his green eyes.
“The longer you’re here, the harder it is to protect you Wright-San.”
“That’s my problem. I can take care of myself.
Hiro pulled over.
“Get out,” he said. “Do what you need to do. If you aren’t on that plane in two hours, I’m not sure how much longer I can protect you. You understand? They’re not going to try to extradite you back here for manslaughter. For the yakuza at Tsukiji. But they if they catch you while you’re here, they won’t let you leave. You won’t stand a chance. I’m not the only one who knows about all this, Wright-San. Others don’t have my generous spirit.”
“I need to take care of this Do you have any money?” Hiro pulled 200,000 Yen from his wallet. “Thanks. You’ll get it back, Inspector.”
Wright got out of the car and watched it disappear east towards Narita Airport along the empty streets. He flagged down the next taxi he saw.
“Yoyogi Uehara,” he said, handing the driver the paper with the address.
Twenty minutes later they were edging through a knot of tight streets southwest of the Imperial Palace. The buildings were just two or three stories, shops and homes redolent of a more traditional Japan. Bicycles were parked in front of many of the buildings and the only other vehicle on the street was an electric-powered street cleaner, which hummed quietly along. The taxi pulled up at the foot of a path running upwards between two rows of buildings. At the top was a gateway leading into the gardens of a temple. The driver handed Wright the address and pointed upwards.
Wright walked up the path, checking the numbers on the door. Japanese addresses, he recalled Ayumi explaining, were a nightmare, the numbers seemingly random, the streets and blocks numbered without any consistent logic. He kept walking up until he reached the top. It was the only number 97 on the street, though it was adjacent to number 13 and across the street from number 284.
He pressed the gold buzzer on the door. He heard a bird squawking inside. He pressed again, the door opened. James Hardy stood there in a blue, silk robe, as if he had been waiting.
“Having any trouble sleeping, James?”
“It’s 3 in the morning, Ben. What is it?”
“I thought a lot about this. Why you did it. Why you needed to do it.”
Hardy closed the door of his house behind him and pointed towards the temple gardens.
“Why you betrayed me.”
“What are you talking about, Ben? We’ve been watching your back ever since you got here.”
“There was no CIA. No FBI. And certainly no British government watching me, James.”
“You’re paranoid, Ben. Your man Higgins has had us all hopping round like scared cats.”
“All you had to do was wait, James. You’d have been Ambassador Hardy next. Then you could have cashed in your contacts and been a rich man. Why did you do it?”
“Ben. Really. What are you talking about?”
“Your wife has plenty of money. I know that. Maybe that made you feel inadequate. You wanted to compete with the big boys. Play the chess of global finance, not the kind of tic tac toe you play with your trade missions.”
They walked past a bench where a man in a blue suit lay curled up, his head on his briefcase.
“We gave you 72 hours of complete protection Ben. You went and killed a yakuza in the first few hours. Didn’t make our task any easier.” They stopped underneath the torii, the soaring wooden gateway which marked the entrance to the sacred area of the shrine.
“Shut up, James. I thought hard about how to ruin you. How to crush your sniveling, English soul. I asked myself what matters to James Hardy more than anything? More than his wife, his two children, his Queen. So here’s how it’s going to be. If you ever get offered a promotion, James, and accept it, I’ll pass on everything I know about you, Higgins and the Yakuza to the British government. If you ever try to move into the private sector and take a job there, I will inform your future employer. If you are ever offered a transfer away from Japan and you take it, I’ll release the information. If you ever try to change your life as it is now, your work as it is now, you’re finished James. It all stops here. Your ambition stops here. There is nowhere left for you, your ambition, or your wife to go. I won’t interfere with anything you have today, but you try and change it, and you’re finished. Understand?”
Even in the pale light of the park, Hardy seemed to crumple. He sat back on a bench.
Wright nodded back towards the salary-man asleep on the bench.
“You and him, James. You’re the same now. Stuck on the treadmill. No way out.”
When he looked back, he saw Hardy was pointing a gun towards him, a small handgun, the kind Texan women carried in their purse.
“Put it away, James. If I don’t show up somewhere in 45 minutes, the plan goes forward. Doesn’t matter if I’m here or not. You even try and change your life, you’re finished.”
Wright turned and walked back to the park entrance and then down the path to the taxi. As he was about to get in, he saw a vending machine on the other side of the street. He fed in 150 Yen for a cold, black coffee. He peeled back the lid, gulped it down and rested his head on the machine. He glanced at his watch. He needed to hustle. Always, he needed to hustle.
“I’m going to do something I never thought I would, Ethan. I’m going to trust you.”
“Trust me to do what?” he snapped. Not so much as a laugh, noted Higgins. Was there a human bone in this man’s body?
“To suspend any margin calls on me today.”
“Can’t,” said Ethan.
“Screw your policies, Ethan. Just for a few hours.”
“I have employees, Frank. Shareholders. Regulators, government all waiting to crap down my neck the moment I so much as breathe.”
Higgins took a deep breath.
“I’ll let you take a look at our positions.” Ethan said nothing for 10 seconds.
“All of them?”
“Yes. But you can’t trade on them for 24 hours.”
“Then they’re worthless.”
“Don’t be cheap Ethan. You’ve wanted to know what we do for years.”
“But the return for me isn’t nearly as fast as the return for you. What are you looking at Frank?”
“We’re going to be in for 10, maybe 20 billion in paper losses. But give me two days and we’ll make it back. If you and the others can hold off the margin calls, not force me into posting collateral, I’ll make it back.”
“And if I don’t?”
“You know what I can do, Ethan. I’ll take your stock and shake it like a rag doll.”
“Not if you’re 20 billion in the hole.”
“Are you ready to bet against me Ethan? Really? You want to take me on? Or do you want to play? Like you’ve always wanted to? If you suspend the margin calls, the rest of the street will follow. And I’m telling, you, you want to be on the right side of this, Ethan. I’m going to make my biggest killing ever. But I need you to cut me some slack. And after that you’ll know what I’ve been doing all these years. You can pass it on to your prop desk. I’ll be done.”
“Frank Higgins’s last hurrah.”
“You can call it that.”
“What’s this all about Frank? Really? There’s nothing out there. No turbulence. No currency runs. No commodity price falls. No debt crisis. Why now?”
“If it happened when everyone expected it to, it wouldn’t be a surprise would it Ethan? There’d be no alpha in it for us.”
“I don’t know, Frank. It’s a lot of margin to overlook. And we won’t be able to hold out after 24 hours. You’d better be right on this.”
“Tell me this Ethan. How much have you made from me over the years in brokerage fees?”
“By how much have I out-performed your proprietary trading desks, annualized over the past decade?”
“8 per cent.”
“8.426%, Ethan. I’ve never asked you for a favor before. And once I’m done, I’ll never ask you for another. This is it.”
“When can we come and look at your books?”
“You can put four of your guys in our office from 9am. They can take notes, they can observe, but they can’t take copies. And they can’t communicate with you during the day. If I get so much as a sniff that you’re trying to bust me open today, it’s off. And I’ll ruin you Ethan. Personally. I’ll come after everything you have. Your homes, your money, everything. Didn’t you tell me once you wished you were running the bank in 1987? When Black Monday happened? Just for the sheer thrill of it? To be in the middle of an electric situation. To experience the fog of war. It’s where the legends are made Ethan. You’ll never be remembered for counting your quarterly profits from asset management and brokerage fees. It’s now, Ethan.”
“24 hours. Four of my guys will be at your office in three hours. You show them everything, OK Frank? We’ll give you a break on the collateral. Up to $20 billion. Then we step in.”
“Thanks Ethan.” Higgins put down the telephone and looked round at his trading team, who were crammed into his office. He smiled and said: “We’re good.”
Wright’s taxi cut back south through Shibuya, over the Rainbow Bridge over Tokyo Harbor and onto the freeway leading out to Narita.
“Faster,” said Wright to the driver, who could not understand.
“Vroom, vroom,” tried Wright, moving his hand up and down as if it were a foot on a gas pedal. He then tapped his watch. The driver nodded solicitously, but then kept at the same steady speed. All around them loomed large trucks, making time on the empty roads.
Lights blazed into the taxi followed by a vicious jolt. Wright was forced forward into the back of the driver’s seat. The bridge of his nose cracked against metal rods holding the headrest. The car lurched as the driver slammed down on the gas then lifted his foot.
Wright turned in time to see the car behind them charging in again. This time, he braced his arms against the seat in front, and held himself steady. A shot smashed through the rear window glass and lodged in the dashboard. The driver sped up, but the next shot came at an angle, over Wright’s shoulder and into the driver’s skull, behind his left ear. He slumped to the right, jerking the steering wheel. The car bumped into the metal siding, sending off sparks as it continued to move forward. Wright kept his head down as he leaned through the gap between the front seats to grab the wheel. As he did so, his hand struck the radio, and a perky J-Pop song blared into the car.
Wright’s pursuer pulled up alongside and fired two more shots through the passenger window. Wright heard them whistle low above his head and shatter the driver’s side window. He felt the shards of glass rain softly against his neck and the warmth of the air outside. He had to get the driver’s body out of the seat, but it lay heavy and inert. His foot was also sliding off the gas pedal, slowing the car.
Wright kept his right hand on the steering wheel and reached down below the driver’s crotch to grab the lever which tilted the seat back. He snapped it forward and the seat and driver fell easily back towards the rear bench. Now Wright had some room. He released the driver’s seat belt and let it roll back. He shook the glass from his neck and glanced up to make sure he was keeping to the road. The car took another hard ram from the left, smashing back into the siding. Up ahead, Wright could see the rear of a 16-wheeler, its tail-lights shining like flares and coming ever closer. He turned the steering wheel to the right and kept his car tight to the siding, gliding past in the emergency lane, while his pursuer veered to the other side of the truck.
Finally Wright had a few seconds. He switched hands, moving his left to the steering wheel and grabbing the driver’s belt with the other. He heaved him back. The man’s foot caught on the underside of the dashboard. Wright shoved him down and back again. It was hard to drag him against the friction of the velour seats. The car continued to slow. Wright was level with the middle of the truck by now. Glancing through its undercarriage, its vast spinning wheels, he could see his pursuers’ car, tracking him, keeping pace.
With one final pull, the man rolled over, face down, straddling the gear stick, leaving Wright just enough space to crawl into the driver’s seat. He pushed the body over as far as he could, but still found his rear jammed against the door. It was good enough. He turned off the headlights and tapped on the brakes.
He let the truck move slightly ahead until he was level with its three rear wheels. He saw his pursuer shoot forward, out in front of the truck, which emitted a deafening honk. The opening bars of the Godfather theme. Wright braked again and pulled backwards sharply to the rear of the truck, pulling over behind it. As he pressed down, he felt a shard of glass pierce his hamstring. He grabbed his leg, only for the glass to cut deep into the palm of his hand.
In his rear-view mirror, he saw another huge truck rumbling up the middle lane of the highway. He waited until it was level with him then eased into the narrow space between the two trucks. One move by either of them and he would have been crushed. Up ahead, he noticed the other car weaving across the highway, two men in dark suits, white shirts and ties leaning out of the windows and looking backwards, searching for him. Wright gunned his car. His ankle was twisted against the accelerator and his foot slipped off. He reset it and slammed down again.
The moment his car was clear of the two trucks, he reached out of the driver window and began firing what remained in his Sig. He caught one of the men, whose body flopped forward against the side of the car. The other man ducked back, then smashed the rear window of his car with the butt of his machine gun. Wright turned the steering wheel hard and slammed into the rear left corner of the car in front, sending it spinning into the path of the truck racing up behind.
The truck tried to stop, but caught the car under its front bumper, flipped it onto its roof and pushed it along like a snowplow clearing a road.
Wright straightened out his own car just in time to avoid the truck behind him. He glanced in his rear mirror to see both trucks coming to a stop, their drivers leaping from their rigs. Wright drove on.
The guards at Narita’s private jet terminal stared dubiously at Wright’s car.
“N376,” he said, giving them the tail number of Drinkwater’s plane. They shrugged and waved him through. The car clanked to a stop at the foot of the Gulfstream, the taxi sign on its roof hanging off the side, its once glossy black paintwork scraped and burned.
“It was wheels-up five minutes ago Ben,” said Hannah.
“Meiji Bank wanted to say goodbye.” He limped up the steps into the cabin and pulled open a cupboard to the left of the entrance to the cockpit. “First Aid and liquor in one place. How thoughtful.” He also reached into a pouch of petty cash and leaned back out of the door.
“Inspector, your 200,000 Yen.”
Hiro took it with both hands and tucked it into his wallet. Wright looked over Hiro’s shoulder and saw Ayumi sitting in the front seat of the policeman’s car.
He nodded toward her and she nodded back. There was no time for anything more. The engines of the jet were roaring to life.
“We need to go, sir,” said the Moroccan pilot, tapping Wright on the shoulder. “We only have a three minute opening from air traffic control.” Wright ducked back in, picked up a packet of bandages, a tumbler and a bottle of Scotch, and settled back into a seat.
Through the window, as the plane taxied away, he watched Hiro and Ayumi return to the city which had so rudely ejected him.
Wright could feel the pain in his thigh easing away under the masseuse’s strong fingers. She had applied a proper bandage to the deep cut and was now rubbing the muscles around it with sandalwood oil. He rested his chin on the massage table and looked out towards the Mediterranean. He could barely remember getting off the plane and the drive up here to Drinkwater’s house. His mind was so addled with exhaustion and three quarters of a bottle of Chivas Regal.
“Turn over please” said the masseuse. Wright turned and looked at her. She had clear, golden skin, long eye-lashes and perfect white teeth. She wore a white headscarf and a nurse’s uniform. Her forearms were visibly strong, and her hands soft. She could not have been more than 25, Wright guessed. She kneaded his aching shoulders and chest then rubbed her fingers around his neck, cupping the back of it and pulling his head forward. She took his hands, one by one and stretched out his arms. Each time she turned away, she dipped the tips of her fingers in rose water.
“What time is it?” asked Wright.
“Eight o’clock,” said Hannah, striding into the room and snatching the question out of the air. “Once you’re done getting rubbed, you need to come down to see Gene.”
“Do you ever stop?”
“Not when we’re at war. No.”
“Whatever you do, don’t quote Sun Tzu.”
“All warfare is based on deception. When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”
“Of course. You probably had a copy on your desk at the law firm. Like every other yuppie.”
“Naturally, Ben. Had to know what was going through the boys’ minds. Come on, get up.”
“Can’t I just enjoy this lovely woman’s attentions?”
“No. There’s some clean clothes in your room and a pot of coffee. You’re on our side now, Ben.”
Wright sat up, wearily. He walked barefoot to his bedroom, on the far side of the courtyard, opposite the room where he had been receiving his massage. He stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror and shaved. He felt he was peeling off layers of filth and trouble. He took a quick, cold shower and dressed. Short-sleeved white shirt, blue cotton trousers and black, leather sandals. He left his watch on his bedside table. He felt at least vaguely human again.
He poured coffee from a small pot and took a scalding mouthful. He could feel the muddled thoughts in his brain starting to sort themselves out, like coins in a vending machine, cascading into the correct slots.
Hannah waited for him beside a silver Renault outside. She looked much better than she had over the past two days, refreshed by the sunshine. She wore a silk turquoise blouse, a long, yellow skirt, which reached her ankles and mirrored, aviator sunglasses. A stranger seeing the two of them together might have thought they were wealthy tourists, off to shop in the bazaar.
“How far is it?” asked Wright, sliding into the rear seat.
“Save your questions,” said Hannah settling in beside him. “And read this.” She tossed him a black, plastic file. He opened it. It was a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Algorithmic Trading: questions raised by a flawed architecture.”
“Don’t you have the newspaper?” he asked the driver, who passed back a copy of the previous day’s Le Monde. “Thank you.” Lord shook her head. “What I don’t know now, I’m scarcely going to learn in a car trip,” said Wright and opened the paper to the arts page.
Gene Drinkwater stood in the middle of his office in a black silk shirt and khaki linen shorts. He was barefoot, his hair was slicked back, his chin covered with confectioner’s sugar from his third pastry of the morning.
But it wasn’t Drinkwater who caught Wright’s eye the moment he walked through the heavy door leading in from the funduq. It was the pair of neon trainers propped up against a table in the middle of the room, and the cap which read “Dirty”. Beside Nori sat a skinny, Japanese man, a boy really, in a black Pokemon T-Shirt, his hair cut close to his scalp. The younger man was clattering away at a keyboard, while Nori looked on and nodded, occasionally pointing at something on the screen.
Drinkwater saw them come in and raised both arms as if in triumph.
“Benjamin Wright!” he exclaimed. “Welcome to my piss pot operation.” He walked over and gripped his shoulders. “Now how did you ever manage it?”
“Being married to Hannah, here? Sometimes, I feel like she’s my third wife. And it reminds me what a shitty institution marriage is.”
“I don’t think I did manage it.”
“Course you didn’t, Ben. Because you’re smart like your father.” Drinkwater pinched him hard on the cheek and turned to Hannah, who was well used to this. “You wish I was kidding, don’t you? Now, I think you’ve met my Japanese friends. Go and Nori. Say that too fast and it sounds like a sexually transmitted disease, doesn’t it? Once we found out you’d been to see them Ben, I’m afraid we had to pull them out. You were right though, boy. They were the ones screwing with Frank Higgins. On my dime. Sounds like you had quite the adventure. We had to pull them out, because we’re not done with Higgins. In fact, we only just got going, didn’t we fellas?” The two Japanese smiled and nodded. “I’ve been looking for ways to bring him down for years. But it was always small bore stuff. Go and Nori, here, though. They’re the nuclear option.”
“So the whole hikikomori thing? Shutting out the sun? The anguished parents?”
“Tremendous horseshit, don’t you think Ben? Come here. Meet Rafiq. Nineteen degrees in mathematics, or something, from universities all over Europe. What’s it you say, boy? Once you’ve done string theory, the markets are easy. Here Ben, have a pastry. Better than anything you get in Paris. It’s the way these Moroccan bakers have their revenge on the French. They take their best ideas, bring them down here and do them even better. Come on, eat it.”
Wright took a large bite of the sugar-coated pastry. Apricot jam spilled over his lips and he cupped his hand beneath it to stop the flakes falling to the ground.
“Told you,” said Drinkwater. “Best pastry in the world. Rafiq here came up with the plan. We don’t try and bust Higgins in open warfare. We sneak in and find a way to spy on what he’s up to. We see the ghosts the moment he does, but we pounce on them faster. The bastard can’t make a nickel anymore. Then as soon as he tries to shut down his operations, we re-open them. Because we’ve accessed his co-located computers on the Paris Bourse. The only thing better than this would be if I could see him today. If I could just watch him.”
“Can’t he go to the regulators to try and stop this?”
“For 20 years, Frank Higgins has been letting the world know how smart he is. And there are some smart people with him. No doubt. Guys who can write code and send their little spiders scurrying out across the markets to gather data and bring it home. But you know what the real secret of his success has been? Minimizing data latency. Sounds impressive doesn’t it? You’ve got the whole world thinking you’re a financial genius and what you’ve actually done is find a way to minimize the time it takes for market data to get from the source to your own computers. They did it by being the first to get their computers co-located at the exchanges. By investing in computer power rather than juvenile financial analysts. You look at their trades, Ben. They ain’t so special. What’s special is the speed and volume at which they execute. They’re in and out before anyone else. No. Frank Higgins isn’t going to go crying to some regulator. He’s too proud. He’s going to fight me. He’s that dumb. He so dumb, he collects Richard Prince. You know who collects Richard Prince paintings Ben? Morons. Rich morons with no mind and certainly no taste of their own. Have a cigar, Ben. Kick back. I’m going to wet myself, it’s going to be so much fun.”
“Is that clear?” said Higgins. Daylight was finally creeping into their office after the longest night any of them could remember. “Today we’re traders. We’re not sitting waiting for ghosts to appear. Our regular system is corrupted. We’re actively trading. We have $20 billion in equity, which we can gear as necessary. For the first two hours, it’s simple. We long equity options. As many as we can get our hands on. Do it fast and quietly so we don’t force up the price more than necessary. Anything on the major global exchanges. The prices should be reasonable. No one is expecting any turbulence. Once we have what we need, we detonate. We’re trading volatility. If we’re right, systemic volatility will sky-rocket. It should go to two or maybe three standard deviations beyond the norm. Immediately we short the options we just bought. Remember, we’re off the usual systems. You use the sterilized terminals and network. Not so much as an email to your wife on the old ones. The only other play is on the German bonds. We’re going to leak what we’re doing. At first, the spread will widen as people try to force us out of the position. But we have the collateral. The banks aren’t going to push us with margin calls. By the end of the day, we believe the spread is going to snap shut. Any more questions? Good. Go to it.”
Higgins went into his office and closed the door. His skin was dry and itching. He walked over to his bathroom and splashed water on his face. He took a dollop of moisturizer from a large pot beside the basin and rubbed into his hands and face. He bent down, touched his toes and repeated the motion five more times. He wanted to feel the blood zipping around his body, to quell the queasiness which consumed him.
His phone beeped. It was a text message. He checked it. It was Hardy.
“BW knows all,” it read. Higgins pinched the flesh above his nose. Japan would have to wait. Everything had to wait now.
He threw back his shoulders and walked onto the trading floor. He had not seen it so busy in years. He took a seat in the middle. Six terminals were arrayed around him. CNBC played silently above his head. He glanced up to read the ticker. Jobs figures were expected today. Quarterly earnings from the major technology firms. A presidential speech at noon at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, expected to disclose details of a new missile defense shield. A quiet day in the world.
Well, he thought, as he donned his headset that was all about to change.
“How much of their equity are we playing with,” said Drinkwater.
“$40 billion. No leverage,” said Rafiq.
“We left them with $20 billion?”
“Right. And the German treasuries position.”
“What are the odds, do you reckon, Rafiq, speaking as a mathematician that they’ll take some big, hairy risk with that $20 billion?”
“Ohhh,” said Rafiq, leaning back in his chair. “Purely on a scientific basis, I’d say 100%.”
“Me too. Wonderful thing human behavior. So beautifully predictable. Put a man in a corner, odds are he’ll try to gamble his way out. Start taking risks he’d never have taken otherwise. You reckon Frank Higgins is any different Ben? Ben?” Drinkwater turned to see Wright disappearing into the courtyard. He followed him to one of the stone benches beneath the lemon trees. “What, you find this boring?”
“No. Just that watching you punish Frank Higgins doesn’t do it for me.”
“He set you up in Tokyo, Ben. He sent you there to be killed so Meiji Bank could get to me. So they would finally have reason to extradite me. And you don’t want him punished?”
“Why do you hate him Gene?”
“Oh. You want to get inside my head, do you Ben? Crawl around Gene’s dome, turn over the furniture. Send the roaches scurrying into the dark. I’ll make this easy for you. I hate Frank Higgins for two reasons. The first is that he married a woman I loved. OK? That’s the easy one. You didn’t think I’d be so forthcoming, did you? There it is. The second is that there are people in this game I play who are worthy opponents. They can be evil bastards, but they’re clever or they’re ruthless. Frank Higgins is none of those. He’s a dumbass who got lucky.”
“There’s plenty of those.”
“Exactly, Ben. Which is why I want to take the biggest of them down. Do you know how hard it should be to make money? Hard, Ben. Really hard. You know what happened when men like Frank Higgins came along? It became easy. It attracted a thousand other two-bit sleazebags like him who found that as long as they could pile up some assets, they could get stupidly rich on management fees. And in a rising market, they could lever up and take 20% of the returns. In all of human history, there hasn’t been an era like it, Ben. Your father had to hustle for his money. He had to prove that of all the guys out there picking through company reports and trying to spot the patterns, he was the best at it. Higgins and his lot? They’re parasites. They abuse the market. They spurn the rules the ordinary investor has to obey. They deploy their programs, they get spineless Senators on the finance committee to legalize the way they distort the free market. The markets are supposed to be about the formation of capital, Ben, so businesses can do their work. The trading is secondary. It’s a means to the end. Not the end itself.”
“So now you’re the conscience of the global financial markets. The champion of Main Street.”
“You know what I am Ben? You read Adam Smith? I’m the hidden fucking hand.”
“The U.S. cavalry.”
“The animal spirits. I know what they think of me. Gene Drinkwater sitting in his pervert’s paradise in Morocco, eyeballing young men, avoiding tax – nothing wrong with that, by the way. You think I care? All I care about Ben is the game. It’s a great game this one we play. It’s a great, global game, full of complex, moving parts. You think I’m a hypocrite. Doesn’t matter. Sometimes we need to take out a player. You know? The guy who takes an extra shot. Who kicks his ball out of the rough and hopes no one noticed.”
“You’re the avenging angel.”
“I didn’t grow up like you, Ben, with money. I grew up with nothing. All this, I made. If it went tomorrow, do I look like I’d care? No. I could make it again. Start a store. Barter a goat. Whatever I had to do. You look at Frank Higgins, all those geeks he surrounds himself with. Put them in another time or place, they’d be cleaning the latrines. They lucked into a moment when turds like them were golden. A once in a millennium moment. But the way they parade around, you’d think they earned it. That it had anything to do with their talents. You think it takes talent to do what 95% of those money managers do? No. It takes a willingness to deceive people into letting you manage their money. You have to be ready to go to some underpaid bureaucrat at a pension fund and tell them that all those teachers and bus drivers and nurses whose pensions they manage would be better off paying 2% of their assets every year, and 20% of their returns so that some Manhattan scumball can drive out to the Hamptons each weekend and buy the same art every other scumball buys, marry into the same weird-looking tribe of skinny-legged, large-headed women and send their kids to the same loser schools so the pattern can just repeat itself till they end up as inbred as the good old boys of West Virginia. Yee-haw.”
“You’ve given it some thought then.”
“What do you think I do here? Shop for rugs? Come back in. Really it’s going to be fun. Come and stand up for the little guy. All 300 pounds of him.”
“They’ve disappeared,” said Rafiq as Gene came back into the office. The smell of apple tobacco from Rafiq’s hookah filled the room.
“What, they’re not trading?”
“No. The $20 billion is sitting there, but it’s not responding to any of the ghosts.”
“You think they’ve reprogrammed their algorithms?”
“Maybe. But we should have tracked that.”
“The 20 isn’t doing anything?”
“No. Just sitting there. Like it’s in a checking account.”
“Can we try and tap it?”
Rafiq hit a few keys.
“No. It’s locked up.”
“We didn’t have any trouble with the rest of the money.”
“There’s one other possibility.”
“That the number we’re looking at is a dummy. It’s a place-holder. That actually, they’re trading with that money but through a different system. One we haven’t accessed.”
“How do we find out?”
“Well, if they’re trading, they have to use brokerage services.”
“Right. Ben, grab a telephone. Some detective work for you.”
To begin with, it was easy. Picking up options in this market was like picking up glitter in Times Square after New Year.
“How many do you need, Frank?” came the response from every brokerage. A billion here, a billion there, he told them. Different sums to different brokers. You want some credit derivatives while we’re at it? He might have been buying crack off the street, the way they hustled and pushed, regardless of the quality of the product.
One of the investment bank heads had said of the markets, “as long as the music is still playing, you’ve got to get up and dance”. He had been pilloried as a herd follower, a man with no sense for intrinsic value. But you know what, thought Higgins, as he assembled his portfolio that morning, the man was right. People made fortunes following the herd. There was safety in the herd. There was comfort in it. It was exhausting to stand apart from it and consider oneself better. You only had a few years in this game, and as long as the music played you couldn’t sit off in a corner nursing your drink. To get the girl, you had to get out there and shake it.
After years in which the price of every major asset group had been going up, people had become cavalier about the insurance options provided. The price of an option was set in part by the assumed volatility of a stock price. If the markets thought the price of the stock could veer all over the place, up or down, that it was volatile, then the price of the option reflected that. A volatile stock meant a higher option price. The right to buy or sell an asset at a fixed price, the essence of an option, was worth more when the asset’s price was unstable. Just as it was more expensive to insure a teenager with a Ferrari than a retiree driving a Buick.
But for months now, the markets had been pricing the Ferrari-driving teenagers like they were grandpa in his sedan. They had forgotten how bad things could be.
All around him, Higgins could hear the chatter of trades, the buzz of the market. It made him wonder what he’d been missing all these years by outsourcing the work to computers. Well, it made him wonder for a moment. Because this was real work. Not just writing code and letting it rip. This involved actually talking to people.
Four men in charcoal suits stood in the entryway to the trading floor.
“Ethan sent us,” said one of them, not even extending a hand to Higgins.
“We have a conference room set up for you.”
“We’d rather be out here. On the floor,” he said. He spoke in a flat, British accent. Higgins observed the rash on the man’s neck which spread upwards from the spread collar of his blue and white checked shirt. His hair was gelled back and he wore a gold signet ring on his right pinkie. “So we can see what’s going on. Ethan said so.”
“Fine,” sighed Higgins. Before he could say anything else, the man had deployed his men as if he were an officer on maneuver, directing them around the floor. He then pulled up a seat beside Higgins, arranged his jacket over the back of it and sat down.
“Lunt,” he said.
“My name. Rafe Lunt. Spelled Ralph. Pronounced Rafe.”
“Frank. Pronounced Frank.”
“So what are you up to, Frank?” Lunt had got out a pen and was sitting there poised to take notes, a stenographer on $1000 an hour.
Wright watched Hannah. She was at the other end of the rectangular table, cajoling every broker she knew. He had to admit, when she was on, she was spectacular.
“Come on! USC sucks this year. Listen, if they beat Michigan, not only will I buy you dinner in Santa Monica, you can bring any girl you like to Porto Santo Stefano, to Gene’s boat for a week. No. Not me. Any other girl you like. Hey listen, tell me, anything happening today?”
Wright’s contacts seemed more interested in talking golf than the markets. He looked at his screens. It was placid out there. He dialed one more number.
“You’re in early. I meant to try you at home.”
“I’m trying to get out by lunch, to get up to Stonington for the weekend.”
“What else, Ben? Now, where are you? I wanted you to come out last night to this…”
“Tangier, Eleanor. I’m with Gene Drinkwater in Morocco.” He let the news drop. He could see her now, the blue, silk wallpaper in her office on Park Avenue, three blocks north of Grand Central Station. The dainty Louis XVI furniture, the vase of white peonies, the Bloomberg terminal tucked away at the back, the ugly boil of technology on the otherwise primitive business of managing other people’s money. That was the way it had always been at Woods & Co., since Eleanor’s grandfather had founded it. Discreet, personal, old school. Making her his godmother had been just about the only decent thing his father had done for him. She was the kind of woman others called “handsome”. Tall, striding, forceful with a wicked backhand and sharp tongue. She bought couture, but wore it for years. Hospitality, in her view, began and ended with a stiff drink and a bowl of oyster crackers.
“Well, I hope he’s paying you a lot,” she said.
“He’s not paying me. Frank Higgins was paying me. This part I’m doing for free.”
“Just tell me what you need, Ben. I don’t have the energy to disapprove this morning.”
“Can you tap into the dark pools?”
“Not all of them. But some of them, yes. We have a firm out in New Jersey, they do flash trading for us whenever we need it. And give us access to the dark pools. I don’t like it, you know, Ben. I prefer to trade in the public markets. In daylight rather than round behind the bike sheds.”
“I’m not looking to trade, Eleanor. I just need to see if someone else is.”
“Wait a moment. Can you wait, Ben? Or do you have to pop down to the Kasbah with Gene.”
“You really need to get out sailing.” She put him on hold. The Goldberg Variations came on. Thirty seconds later she was back.
“It seems someone’s buying large blocks of options, darling.”
“They’re dark pools, Ben. It’s not always very clear. But what’s curious is that the options market has been stagnant recently. Now all of a sudden, someone’s in there buying them up. Not just technology firm puts. That would be understandable. All the big tech firms buy puts this time of year as insurance against their stock option schemes. They need to know they can buy their own stock at today’s prices when they have to issue it to their employees in a year or two. But this buyer is buying everything. On the S&P, the Nasdaq and around the world, it seems. I suppose he’s going into the dark pools to find volume. Helpful?”
“Always such a grateful boy, Ben.”
“I’ll buy you dinner when I get back.”
“Keep your money. Come sailing with me. I’ll make you a ham sandwich.”
“Who could resist? Thanks Eleanor.”
Wright walked over to Rafiq.
“Why would a short-term gambler buy options in this market?”
“He’d have to believe things were going to get volatile very soon.”
“Why would he buy options on every index in the world?”
“He’d have to believe in global, systemic volatility. That when one market crashes, they all do. Used to be that one went down, money fled to another. One man’s loss, another’s gain. Now, we all go up and down together.”
“What have you got Ben?” Wright straightened up as Gene materialized beside him. Hannah was now standing at her desk, laughing into the telephone. She gave Gene the thumbs up.
“There’s a big options buyer out there, Gene. He’s buying everything he can,” said Wright.
“Higgins has gone off his system,” said Hannah. “He’s gone back to basics. Hitting the phones. It’s a vol trade, Gene. Can you believe it? He’s rolling big on a vol trade.”
“Jesus,” said Drinkwater. “He’s dumber than I thought.”
“There’s one problem with volatility trades,” said Drinkwater, downing his fourth coffee of the morning. “Unfortunately it’s a huge problem. They assume the future will look something like the past. Right Rafiq?”
“They’re based on the Black Scholes formula for pricing options, which states, correct me if I have this wrong, that the price of an option is dictated by the current price of the asset, the strike price, the time to maturity, the risk free rate and here’s the little bastard, the volatility. How the hell do you estimate the volatility of a stock? Well, you look back, draw a rinky-dink line showing the general trend of its price movement and then watch how it deviates from that. Draw yourself a bell curve showing the distribution of prices around the mean, and there you go. Except, except, except. If history were a predictor of the future, what would you be doing right now Rafiq?”
“Herding goats in Algeria.”
“Exactly. And I would be dirt poor, trying to bang my own daughter in a shack in Texas. But we’re not, are we, Rafiq. Because we took history and shoved its head up its own ass. So anyone who bets the farm betting the future will look like the past is, Ben?”
“What a good class we have this morning. Anyone who trades volatility should also be aware of the law of unintended consequences. So, next question: what the fuck is Frank Higgins thinking?”
“What are you doing, Lunt?” Higgins had caught him babbling into his cellphone in the mens’ room. He snatched the phone away, snapped it in two, tossed it into one of the toilets and flushed. “You’re here to watch what we do. If you try to trade on our positions today, I will ruin you, do you understand?” He didn’t have to raise his voice to force Lunt to back up against the wall. “Were you talking to Ethan just now?”
“No. My wife.”
“I’m going to ask you this again, Were you talking to Ethan?”
“Just briefly. He wanted to know how everything was going.”
“And how is everything going, Rafe?”
“You’re going to hit a margin call fast if you trade like this.”
“Get back out there and take notes. You’re a secretary today Lunt. Behave like one.”
The moment he was back at his desk, Higgins dialed Ethan.
“You promised me. No trading based on my positions today Ethan. Can’t you help yourself?” Ethan tried to interject, but Higgins was having none of it. “This how you crawled your way up to the top of that bank, snooping, spying, double-dealing? Course it is. That’s how all of you suits get to where you are. I’ve told your man, Lunt, here that if it happens again, he’s out and I’m coming after him personally. And you Ethan. It would give me the most enormous pleasure to come after you if you screw with me today. Do you understand?” He slammed down the phone.
Ajay looked at him nervously. Please Frank, he thought. Hold it together. For just a few more hours.
“Our plan is to bring Frank Higgins down,” said Drinkwater, pacing back and forth between the lemon trees in the courtyard. “Now, we could just take his 40 billion and buy every flea-infested stock we can find, but in this market even they’re doing well. But if he’s buying all these options in such a hurry, he must have good reason to think there’s going to be an explosion of system-wide instability. To lose big in that environment, we need to take our 40 billion, gear it up and short exactly what Higgins is buying. We go short options and the system turns volatile, we could be down $40 billion in no time.”
“Is it fair to be dumping all of his clients’ money like this?” asked Wright.
“Tell him Hannah.”
“40 billion is the amount of money in the funds owned by Higgins and his top ten lieutenants. The money we left him is what belongs to his clients.”
“We’re not evil, Ben,” said Drinkwater. “Come on.”
“Do the math for me Rafiq. What do we think Drinkwater’s trying to achieve today?”
“He’s still telling the world that the only reason most of his funds pulled away from the market yesterday is that he wanted to go liquid. The moment they find out his system is broken, all the money leaves his fund. He has no more assets to manage. He’s down to his homes and paintings. Which, incidentally, are heavily geared themselves. Back of the envelope, he’s going to want to use that $20 billion today to try to make back the $40 billion we took. That way, he can return the money to his investors, and bow out with him and his partners still whole. Every day he waits, he risks the truth coming out. And then he’s finished.”
“And the quickest way to $40 billion?”
“He could probably take that $20 he has and gear it up 20 times. Then he’s got $400 billion in play. A 10 percent move in his favor and he’s home.”
“And on the downside? When will the margin calls start coming in?”
“You get a 5% downward movement in a position that heavily geared, you’ll be getting calls. Half your equity’s gone at that point.”
“So here’s what we’re going to do. Everyone listening?” The muffled sounds of the funduq crept over the high courtyard walls, the thump, thump of the looms, the cries of the vegetable hawkers in the colonnade along the front, the honk of taxis urging the pedestrians aside. “We take our $40 billion, gear it ten times through our banks in Switzerland. They’ll do it won’t they Rafiq? They’ll do anything those whores. Then we short the options Higgins is buying. Hannah, how long do you reckon we have?”
“Higgins has been buying for an hour now. At best, he’s probably a third of the way to his target.”
“OK. So let’s make this easy for ourselves. We’re never going to shift $400 billion of options on the retail market this fast. Put the word out to the banks that we’re ready to sell them options as insurance against volatility on their largest funds on extremely generous terms. And let’s get some more food out here.”
Wright pulled Lord aside.
“I need to get back to New York.”
“You’re going to want to see this, Ben. Really.”
“I’m happy for you, Hannah. I’m happy for Gene. But Frank Higgins sent me on this mission. I need to see it through.”
“Frank Higgins set you up, Ben.”
“That’s why I need to see him.”
“Now isn’t a great time.”
“Just give me a plane. Gene has three of them.”
“Ali bomaye! Ali Bomaye!” Drinkwater was now marching around the courtyard pumping his fist. “You know that Ben? The Rumble in the Jungle. All those Africans shouting Kill Him Ali. George Foreman was terrified the moment he got in the ring. He couldn’t even look Muhammad Ali in the eye. If Frank was here, he’d be whimpering like a sick dog.”
“Ben wants to get back to New York,” said Lord.
“Come on, boy! We’re just getting started here. Some trading, some gearing, a little of this, a little of that. And tonight, I promise you. Hannah, tell the man I know how to celebrate.”
She shrugged and nodded.
“See Ben. What have you got back there? A girl? Some poor little thing with the candle in her room, waiting by the window till you get home? Time to come home, Benny Boy.” He rested his hand on Wright’s shoulder. “You serious?” Wright nodded.
Drinkwater dipped into his pocket and produced a chunk of amber the size of a golf ball, threaded on a brown leather strap.
“They say round here that whatever happens to you, wherever you are, you got one of these, you can always get home. I’d be heading back to Japan in cuffs, Ben, if it wasn’t for you. Now I may be many things, but I don’t forget a good turn. Hannah will take you down to Ibn Batouta. You take the 757. The damn thing’s loaded with technology. You can follow what we get up to.”
“Don’t you need me here?” said Hannah.
“How long are you going to be? Take him there, come back. It’s what ex-wives do. We can trade for an hour without you.” He winked at Wright.
Hannah grabbed her purse and headed for the door. Wright followed. She walked ahead of him along the colonnade of the funduq, through the rotting door at the end and up the narrow flight of steps to the car park below the El Minzah hotel. Majid, Drinkwater’s driver, leapt up from the bench where he was attempting to take a snooze and opened the rear doors of the grey Mercedes. Wright reached for Hannah’s arm and swung her round. There were tears pouring down her cheeks. He removed her sunglasses.
“Hey. There’s nothing to be sentimental about.”
“It’s not you. I got over you a long time ago, Ben. Not that there was much to get over.” She wiped her cheek and looked out towards the port beneath them.
“What is it then?”
“It’s him,” she said glancing back down the stairs.
“Why do you think I stay in this place?”
“I thought it was the freedom. The weather. I don’t know.”
“Forget it, Ben. Let’s go.”
“No wait. Does he know?”
“He must do. He’s no fool.”
“Just because he knows how to trade a derivative doesn’t mean he knows everything, Hannah. Have you ever told him?”
“If I did and he rejected me, I’d have to leave him.”
“Which may not be a bad thing.”
“And you’re exhausted. I mean, really Hannah? Even when you’re thinking straight?”
“You know what? When I get back to New York, I’m going to arrange for you to spend a month in the Caribbean. No traders, no lawyers. You can borrow my place in Anguilla. The only way you can love a man like Gene Drinkwater is if you’ve spent too much time around him. He’s Caliban.” He grasped both of her shoulders. “I’m going to do this because as your only ex-husband, I still possess a faint trace of concern for your well-being. You need to get away from this.” She smiled and hung her head. Wright pushed her down into the car, and then climbed in himself on the other side.
“You know the only writer they ever talk about here,” said Hannah as the car left the crowded streets of the old city and gathered speed. “Paul Bowles. They have a little museum for him and you can find his books and picture everywhere. You ever read The Sheltering Sky, Ben?”
“At college. Half of it, I think.”
“About an American couple adrift in the Moroccan desert before the war. The husband dies and the wife ends up the mistress of a slave trader.”
“An uplifting story, then.”
“You have to be glib, don’t you. I try and tell you…”
“Don’t try to make me feel guilty. You’re not that interesting Hannah. You may like to think you’re some literary heroine, smitten with a disastrous passion out here in the desert. But you’re an attorney on the run from reality. Living in Tangier with a Gulfstream at your disposal is hardly roaming with the Bedouin. You chose this Hannah. You chose this life over New York, because you couldn’t bear it there. I can’t bear it there half the time, but I’m not running. Because it’s no different anywhere else. You think it’s better to be beating up Frank Higgins here than it would be to do it 50 feet away from him on the other side of Park Avenue. You think you’re higher class?”
Wright broke off. They had had this argument before. He could tell she had stopped listening.
The car stopped inside the hangar and Wright got out. He felt his passport in his pocket. The rest of his things were still back at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He’d retrieve them one day. Before he could turn to say goodbye, the car had left. Why were so many of his relationships like this, he wondered, fractious, unresolved, sloppy? The pilot welcomed him aboard and showed him how to turn on the monitor set into the table dividing the seats in the main cabin. He watched the ticker roll along the bottom of the screen. “Huge volumes of trades reported in the market for equity options,” he read. The story was ranked seventh in terms of importance.
If anyone had known what was really going on, it would have been number one. The championship fight had begun. Ali bomaye.
“Great story this morning, Larissa,” said the news editor during the morning conference at the Financial Times. 16 people were crowded into a room, half sitting round a table, the rest standing up against the walls, sipping coffee, Larissa among them. She was next to the door, which meant she could slip out when the discussion moved to arts, books and all those other throwaway sections.
“The Journal didn’t have it, which is always satisfying. Any follows for today?”
“Not yet,” she said. “The markets have been fairly normal in Asia and Europe. And pre-opening trading here hasn’t shown any sharp reaction. Maybe Higgins isn’t as important as we thought.”
“We should get an op-ed though. About the fat tails of risk in this market. Don’t you think? Strikes me as though everyone goes too far either way, either all the risk has been modeled out, or we underestimate the black swans, rising up out of nowhere to wreck the system. The truth is the world’s full of angry white swans, which can gather together and cause havoc. That’s what we ought to be worried about, no? Anyone?”
There was the usual resigned shrugging and paper shuffling around the table.
“We all know you’re right,” said Larissa. “The problem is we’ve been saying it so long, we sound like Chicken Little. Whenever I talk to people they just laugh at the fact we’ve been predicting disaster for so long and in the meantime people have entered the markets, got rich and left the markets. If every businessman in America thought like we do, you’d have an economy which looked like Ukraine’s. Centrally planned, no risk. Just boredom and poverty.”
“Well, I won’t bother to ask you to write this piece, Larissa.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the newsroom secretary waving a telephone at her. Normally she’d put these calls through to voicemail. This one must be important. Larissa opened the door, mouthing “sorry” at the editor and slid out.
“Who is it?” she said, walking quickly over to her desk.
“Frank Higgins.” She picked up her telephone.
“Frank. We were just talking about you.”
“Sure you were. That story I gave you last night. The one I said you should run in five days. I want you to put it out in an hour.”
“Are you sure, Frank?”
“You don’t have to worry about my discretion, you know Frank. I promised you I’d hold it…”
“Put it out. On the website. Don’t wait for tomorrow’s print edition. If you need a quote once it’s up, give me a call. And Larissa, one more thing. Don’t leave your desk today. Please.”
He hung up. Larissa opened a new file on her computer and put on her headphones. She began to listen to the interview she had done with Higgins and as she did so, she began to write her story.
“Where are we, Ajay,” said Higgins. He could not sit down any longer. He stood at his desk, kneading a rubber ball.
“Two more minutes, Frank.”
Higgins stared down at his screens. All this buying had increased the price of options across the board. But it was nothing compared to what he was getting ready to unleash.
His telephone rang and he snapped it up.
“Frank, it’s Babs here from the Horton School. Your lovely wife suggested I give you a call about the library.” Higgins winced. Was there no getting away from these people? “Given all the support and interest we’ve had, we’ve decided to add a small wing, just another 500 square feet to house a collection of children’s books in Mandarin. They’ve been given to us by one of the parents, who just returned from running McKinsey in China. Such a generous gift and such a wonderful asset for future generations of the school. As you now, Frank, it’s our mission here at Horton to educate children who can make a difference in the world of tomorrow.”
“How can I help Babs?” Higgins kept kneading the ball, looking down at the screens. The conditions were perfect. Calm, cloudless markets around the world. Synchronous tranquility. Ideal for causing maximum havoc.
“Given all your generosity to the school, we thought you’d like to push this library fund drive over the top. All we need is another $750,000 and then the Mandarin wing will be finished.”
“I’ll have it wired to you tomorrow,” he said. Babs was just starting off on a speech of thanks when Ajay raised his thumb to Higgins. The position was complete. Higgins put the phone down and dialed Larissa’s number.
“Just wrapping it up now.”
The flash sped from the Financial Times to the Bloomberg and Reuters wires, and from there onto every trader’s terminal around the world. The reaction was immediate. The major market indices, starting in New York and moving around the world began to swoon.
“Game on, Gene,” shouted Rafiq. Drinkwater rushed into the trading room holding a plate of fried fish and couscous, slathered with hot sauce. “Here’s what he was waiting for” Drinkwater read the story over Rafiq’s shoulder: “One of the world’s largest computer-driven hedge funds has moved all its funds into cash on the suspicion that hackers have penetrated the major exchanges. Frank Higgins says that co-located servers have been compromised and that unauthorized trades are now spreading without any means to stop them.”
“How are we set?”
“We tipped just over $400 billion three minutes before the news came out,” said Rafiq pointing to a small box in a corner of his main screen which showed a cumulative tally of the value of their position. “Here’s a graph I created, it pools options prices on all the exchanges where we’re participating. And over here is my best guess of Frank’s positions.”
The graph showed a sharp upturn in options prices. The $400 billion was ticking downward and was already down to 395. Higgins’s positions were moving correspondingly upward.
“Are the banks and mutual funds in yet?” said Drinkwater.
“I can hear the drum of hoofs. They take a little longer to place their orders. The first reaction was the twitch of the proprietary desks and other hedge funds. Their own algorithms spasmed. Once the brokerage orders come through, this is going to blow wide open.”
“How many different positions are we holding?”
“Shit. Here’s the Federal Reserve.” They both glanced up at their television. The presenters were speaking as if they’d all just been mainlining cocaine, babbling incoherently as they tried to digest and explain the news in real time. The chairman of the Fed looked like he’d just been Tasered as he walked out onto the steps of the Reserve in Washington D.C. “They’ve been paranoid about not being seen to respond quickly enough ever since the Russian and Asian crisis in 1998. But this is ridiculous. It’s hard to respect them when they act so Pavlovian.”
“We have been monitoring the allegations of computer hacking for several weeks now,” said the chairman, lying. “We have decided that any losses incurred due to hacking will be insured by the good faith and credit of the U.S. government.”
“That’s just an invitation to the thieves,” said Drinkwater. “You think the banks got to him?”
“Course they did. The moment that news came out, he probably had every bank chief on his case in seconds. Telling him that if he didn’t do something the financial system would collapse and millions of ordinary Americans would suffer. The usual bullshit to make sure they don’t lose their bonuses this year. I don’t know why you Americans even pay taxes. If you had any sense, you’d all stop until the politicians and bankers give back what they steal every year.”
“It’s one of the reasons I left, smartass. It’s not slowing the price movement.”
“Course not. No one believes the government when it says it’ll cover them. People are going to look after themselves.”
“It’s beautiful, Rafiq. Look at that, down 7%. $28 billion. Once we get to 10%, don’t waste any time. Get out. Nori, we need to burn our traces on that money. Where’s Frank at?”
The mood on Higgins’ floor was turning quickly from anxiety to ecstasy. Ajay was breaking off piece after syrupy piece from an Indian jalebi and devouring it. The value of their position ticked relentlessly upward. The Fed’s action did nothing to stop it. Higgins hitched up his pants and walked to his office. He closed the door, exhaled and hung his head. He flopped down onto his sofa. The cool of the leather felt good against his face.
It was an unfamiliar voice. Brooklyn, he thought, as he turned awkwardly and set his feet on the floor. Two men in dark suits stood over him, one of them flashing a badge.
“FBI. We’ve received an inquiry from the authorities in Japan. This a good time to talk?”
“You still interested in ghosts, Gene?” said Nori in halting English.
“What have you got, boy?”
“I’ve never seen one like this.”
“What is it?”
“Normally, it’d be a quick flash trade. But this one keeps getting bigger. Look.” Gene, Rafiq and Hannah went over to Nori’s terminal.
“29 year and 30 year German Treasuries, I see it,” said Rafiq. “It’s one of Higgins’ trades. The prices are way out of whack. The yield on the 30 ought to be slightly more than the 29 just because of the time risk. But it usually ends up being about the same because investors like to buy the nice easy numbers, 10, 20, 25, 30 year bond. They forget about the 29 year. But this,” he said pointing to the screen. “This is crazy.”
“Why?” asked Gene.
“You make this trade because you think there’s something irrational about the 29 being cheaper than it should be against the 30. The problem is, you might be right on paper but find out the world just doesn’t think like you. The irrational might be irrational for a very good reason. But the only way it spreads like this is because someone is actively and aggressively shorting the 29 against the 30. Shit, it’s happening all the way from 15 to 30. Look at these pairs, the 15 against the 16, the 19 against the 20, the 24 against the 25.”
“Can you find out, Nori?”
“Looks like it’s one of the big houses in New York,” he said, hacking at his keyboard. “Brower Leith.”
“That’s Higgins’ principal broker,” said Gene. “I used to deal with them. Until I couldn’t bear it anymore. They make your average Great White look like a vegetarian. The market’s going nuts right now and they’re fooling around in the back alley of the bond market?”
“Maybe they know their counterparty’s weak. They know the margin limits.”
“They’re forcing him to dump the positions at the lowest price, you mean? Then they buy it all up?”
“You know these guys sit right in the middle of Wall Street, they raise money for politicians, they go to Washington and run the Treasury, and underneath it all they’re two bit hoods. Jesus. I almost feel sorry for the guy. I’d love to take them down too.”
“One at a time, Gene,” said Rafiq holding him by the arm. “If you knew someone’s precise cash position, their margin requirements and their arbitrage book. Wouldn’t you be tempted? What, you think they’re too nice?”
“Didn’t you once tell me that thing about earthquakes?”
“You don’t get more earthquakes because more people buy more earthquake insurance. But in finance, the more people buy financial insurance, the more the insurer can profit from creating disasters.”
“You think they’re going after Higgins?”
“They’re his broker. This is exactly the kind of trade his firm has done over the years, waiting for the spread to close on a mispriced pair. But no one has ever known enough or been quick enough to hammer him. When the trading was being done by the computers, the ghost would have vanished by now. But they’ve moved to a manual system. They can’t get out of it fast enough. Brower Leith’s killing them.”
“Where are we on the volatility trade? There’s much more liquidity there, right? I mean, how deep can the market in off-year German treasuries be?”
“Big as you like if you use derivatives. The options prices are starting to stall. Down 12%. Higgins is up 24, we’re down 48. We’re out Gene.”
“Nori, get rid of it. It’s as if we never touched that stuff. Where do you think he is on the treasuries? He’s going to find a loss of negative 8 when we reassign him his funds. Subtract that from the 24, he’s up 16.”
“The treasury position is geared 22x to around $110 billion. The gap has opened 12%. Against Higgins. He’s down another 13. He’s got just under 3 left Gene. If he touches the last 20, he’s going to jail.”
“You’re a fucking scumbag, Ethan,” screamed Higgins. “You said you’d cover us. You didn’t cover us, you sent these people in to rip us off.”
“You’re being paranoid, Frank. You let us in, in return for the margin. We gave you the margin.”
“You’re not even a human are you, you bald, sawn-off piece of shit.” He saw Lunt and the three other Brower Leith executives backing towards the door. “Get out, you roaches! Get out!” He pulled off one of his loafers and hurled it at them. It smacked into the glass door as they disappeared. The trading floor was silent. The clatter of the keyboards had stopped and only a single telephone rang, unanswered.
“You lied to me, Ethan.”
“It’s hard when you can’t hide behind your computer systems, isn’t it Frank?”
“A fair fight, Ethan. We could have had a fair fight. But you, you nasty, shyster, midget…” Ajay took the phone from his hand and set it back on the receiver.
“Leave it, Frank.”
Higgins ran his hands through his hair. His face was puffy. He could see the two FBI men waiting in his office. He tugged at his shirt collar then glanced down at the screen. The Treasury gap had stopped widening. All that was left of his position was $7 million. For him and everyone at the firm. It wouldn’t even cover the mortgage on his beach house.
Wright climbed into the driver’s seat of his black Ferrari 365 GT, which was parked on the runway at Teterboro Airport waiting for him when he arrived. The engine started first time and he listened to it for a moment before slipping the car into gear. The steering wheel was slim and wooden, the prancing horse on a yellow disc at its center. The car had been built in 1968 but it still ran beautifully. Even among the multi-million dollar jets, it held its own. Early evening, going over the George Washington against the traffic, he’d be on the Upper East Side in half an hour.
He opened the leather bag on the seat beside him. It was all there, exactly as he had requested.
He pulled out onto 80 heading east and ten minutes later he was cruising along the lower level of the George Washington Bridge as the lights came on along Manhattan, welcoming him home.
Wright found him standing in a far corner of the gallery, looking at a bronze portrait of man’s head, whose hair was brushed forward, his mouth turned down, his nose and eyes imperious and cold.
“Marcus Agrippa,” said Wright, walking up to him from behind. “There was probably once an entire statue supporting it.”
“Who do you reckon will be remembered like this in 2000 years, Ben? Which of our generation? Heads in a museum centuries from now?”
“No one we know, Frank. The Romans built things, invented things. Their achievements didn’t just live and die in the technological vapor. Agrippa built the Pantheon in Rome. He built roads and aqueducts. He helped win a civil war. He was a great general. The closest friend of the Emperor Augustus. On the side he was a talented geographer. You think how much these men crammed into their lives, it makes ours look empty. Even the ones which are supposedly the fullest. Why did you use me like that, Frank?”
“Don’t even try.”
“Christ, Ben. You have no idea. You think Agrippa had it tough. He should have tried dealing with Brower Leith.”
“You set me up, Frank. To take down Drinkwater. You set me up for the Japanese.”
“The Japanese set you up, Ben. The problem with the ghosts, that was real.”
“When do you stop lying, Frank? When do you stop and admit the truth?”
“In this business? Are you kidding? What did the man say? As long as the music’s playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. You think Brower Leith stops and faces the truth? The truth, Ben, is that the market is full of saps and that it is the role of the powerful in that market to exploit the saps, to take the percentages, shape the regulation, create the 401K schemes, the bankruptcy laws the whole machine. There’s no efficient market, no random walk down Wall Street. You climb aboard this thing, you’d better be ready, because it’s not about the truth or integrity or reason. It’s about doing what has to be done. You break the law, you pay lawyers until it’s unbroken. You screw up, you tell the government it’s their problem, they bail you out. You don’t pay taxes but you rape the suckers who do. You take your thick snout and stick it in every trough out there and you gorge, Ben. You gorge until you’re so fat you can’t even walk. The money’s falling out of your ass, then you go back and gorge some more. Because if you stop you’re waiting to be slaughtered. Jesus. The truth.”
“I’m not interested in your financial theories, Frank. You used me. You told Meiji they could set me up as a killer. So they could pin a murder on Drinkwater and bring him in. Then you arranged to have me killed in turn.”
“You think I’m that smart?”
“You have it all, Ben. You’ve always had it all. I scraped mine together.”
“Forget it, Frank. No violins.”
“And today I lost it. In one day. All of it. You wouldn’t understand, a daddy’s boy like you. You and Drinkwater deserve each other. Spoiled amateurs. You were dispensable, Ben, because you create nothing. You can’t program. You can’t make anything. What are you? A stock picker? A gumshoe for people like me? What’s Drinkwater? An obese goon rigging the markets with his rent boys and hookers. I built something. I built a system that worked. The Japanese had a bank and Drinkwater took it down.”
Wright put his hand in his pocket and discreetly turned off the recording device. He then reached into the other and took out the Sig. He slipped it into Higgins’ pocket.
“You’re done, Frank. Any way you look at it. In Japan, they call it seppuku.”
By the time he heard the shot, Wright had walked from the Greek and Roman galleries back to the main entrance hall of the Met. He was turning towards the exit. The sound sent the security guards sprinting past him and triggered an alarm which wailed through the museum. Wright kept walking, through the glass doors and down the wide stone steps towards home.
The recording arrived on an Mp3 via email and then on a separate, couriered disc. The only English translator Hiro knew was Ayumi, so she spent a morning at Keishicho listening to it and transcribing the conversation between Higgins and Wright. The two actors dressed as FBI agents had been Hiro’s idea. All they had to do was suggest that the walls were closing in on Higgins. They did not have to disclose anything. It was about ratcheting up the pressure to make him talk.
Once he had dried out, Matsui had been surprisingly co-operative. The departure of the Pacifica had improved his mood considerably. It would have been too much to call him charming, but at least Hiro no longer felt the chills in his presence. Hiro spent three straight nights in his office preparing the case. By the time he confronted Meiji, he wanted nothing left to chance.
“You’re sure about this?” his commanding officer said, reading through the case file. “Because you had better be. No screw ups.”
“It’s all there,” said Hiro, lying. “Meiji wanted to please the government by giving them a pretext to request Gene Drinkwater’s extradition. Deguchi-San had been looking into the whole period of the takeover and he’d discovered that Iwase-San was on the payroll of a rival group of foreign investors. He pretended to be the great Japanese defender of the bank, but he was taking money from foreigners to turn it over to them. When Deguchi found this out, Iwase wanted him out of the way. It would have compromised his relationship with the government and lost him his place at the bank. Matsui is ready to testify that Meiji contracted one of his men to kill Deguchi. The one we found at the fish dump.”
“And who killed him?”
“Yakuza on yakuza, Matsui says. Unconnected.”
“So we don’t care about him.”
“It’s good work, Hiro. You know the pressure we’re going to be under when this breaks?”
“I’ve been through it before, sir.”
“Not like this.”
“The faster we act, the less time there’ll be for Meiji’s supporters to rally. If we can get our side out quickly, the political support will evaporate. No one’s going to support Iwase-San if it’s clear he was taking money from outside Japan to sell Meiji and collaborating with yakuza.”
“You’d be surprised at what the powerful in this country consider acceptable. You have a way of getting this out?”
“Won’t be traced back to us?”
“We never had this conversation, Inspector.”
The following morning, ten police cars pulled up at the entrance to Meiji Bank. No one in the surrounding buildings could be in any doubt that something was going down. Hiro was not going to take the risk of doing this quietly.
He marched into the stone lobby and straight over to the elevator. Three security guards and the two women at reception rushed over to stop him. Hiro flashed his badge and waved six officers into the elevator with them. He saw the guards talking quickly into their lapels.
When they reached the executive floor, two large men stood waiting for them when the elevator doors opened, arms crossed, scowling.
“You want to be arrested too?” said Hiro pushing them aside. The secretaries stood up as he passed. He walked straight into Iwase’s office. Iwase and Takawa were standing by the window facing Tokyo station talking. They bowed together when Hiro burst in. The officers surged in past Hiro and went straight up to the two men to handcuff them.
“You might have shown us some more respect,” said Iwase as he passed.
“That’s the problem with this country,” said Hiro. “Too much respect.”
By the time they reached the front of the building, the security guards were trying to fend off a gaggle of television crews. One of the crews shone a bright light at Iwase and Takawa as they were hustled through the main doors and into the back of separate police cars. Hiro hung back in the atrium, waiting for the cars to leave.
From the pocket of his raincoat, he pulled out one of the tabloid magazines. He squinted to read the number he had scribbled along the top. He dialed it on his cell phone.
“We spoke several years ago,” he began. “About a boy in Shibuya. Roughed up by a Finance Ministry official. You remember? Well, I have something better for you. Much better. Can we meet?”
Writing Frank Higgins’ obituary had turned out to be harder work than Larissa Lario imagined. Finding even 400 words to say about him was agony. He was born, got himself educated, wrote some algorithms, made a lot of money, was corrupted and died. Along the way, he had acquired a lot of things, but nothing to stand as a testament. He had not invented the zipper or the corn flake. He had given money away, but to the same institutions everyone like him gave their money: the Museum of Modern Art, Mount Sinai Hospital, the Guggenheim, the Horton School. Nothing original or surprising. The moment he had joined the great flow of New York money, he had let it take him to whatever anodyne place it chose. The newspaper clippings included pictures of him at store openings on Madison Avenue, at a benefit for the Bronx Zoo, attending the Winter Antiques Show, staring at the camera like every lost money manager roaming the city.
In desperation, Larissa tried making some telephone calls. None of the other money managers wanted to talk. They did not much care for Higgins. He had considered himself above them. And they were scared by what had happened to him. The board members at MOMA and Mount Sinai fobbed her off. Higgins’ name would remain on the buildings he had funded until the results of the police investigation into his firm were released. The woman at the Horton School sounded indignant that a newspaper reporter had succeeded in getting her on the phone and snapped that Higgins’ children had been asked to leave. The negative attention surrounding their father’s death was affecting other children at the school and several parents had complained.
Larissa took the cigarettes from her bag, bought a cup of coffee at the vending machine and walked over to the news editor’s office. She went in and closed the door.
“Do you think is the end of an era?” she asked, lighting up.
“Course not,” he replied, setting down a tuna sandwich.
“It’s money, Larissa. One dead money manager, even a Frank Higgins, doesn’t mean everyone takes a vow of poverty. In fact, they’re probably all gnawing at his carcass. Eras don’t end in this town. They just roll, one into the next. The next Frank Higgins is probably gearing up his assets as we speak. Imagining he has modeled away all risk. Dreaming that he has cracked the financial code. And all that remains is counting his bucket loads of gold. One hamster drops dead on the wheel, another climbs on, hoping it’ll take him somewhere.”
“Do you ever wonder if what we do is futile?”
“I don’t wonder, Larissa. I know.”
“Then why do we do it?”
“Please, not this conversation again. We do it because it’s what people like us are best suited for. Vaguely decent types, not too greedy, smart but not too smart, and just too lazy and sneering to do what the likes of Higgins do. We’re lucky a profession exists for us. Whenever I walk down Sixth Avenue into this building and see who I get to work with, I thank heaven I’m not a school teacher or a bureaucrat which is probably what I’d have to do otherwise.”
“You really think that it will all just go on? The waters close over Higgins. The funds that fail get closed or turned around.”
“Creative destruction. We burn our fields to replenish them.”
“What do you do with your money? Do you invest it?”
“God no. I keep it in cash. Surest way of making sure no one’s chiseling away at it. Bought my mother a cottage in Maine last year. All cash.”
“No pension, 401K? No investment trusts.”
“None. The cottage. My apartment in the city. And cash. It’s why I sleep Larissa and you don’t. I don’t try to ride this lunatic carousel. I just observe it. How’s the obituary coming along?”
“Larissa. Just write it straight. A man was born, made a lot of money, died. Happens in New York City every day. No need to be emotional about it.”
“I knew him a little. He’s the first contact I’ve had who’s died.”
“Did you like him?”
“He was endearing, you know. Pathetic. But endearing.”
“You should suggest that for his tombstone.”
Wright pulled into a tight space on Mott Street. He didn’t even bother locking the car. People assumed that anyone who owned a car like his was not to be messed with. The sidewalk was slick with rain. Two Chinese lanterns, glowing read in the darkness, marked the steps down into the bar. He could see the lights on downtown. Wall Street was still working. He rolled the keys around his finger and slipped them into his jacket pocket.
A rat was chomping at a large pile of garbage left outside an Asian supermarket. Wright went down into the bar. It was a warren of small rooms, with low, vaulted arches leading from one to the other, covered in cream, subway tile. Airy French electronica drifted out of the speakers. The girl behind the bar had the fresh looks of someone new to the city. Pre-corruption.
“What can I get you?”
“Fresh lime juice OK?”
He caught sight of himself in the old, flaking mirror behind the bar. He was looking thinner than he used to. It was a new suit, tan, tropic weight wool, and a sea-green cotton shirt, picked up that afternoon from Paul Stuart.
He smelled her before he saw her. Honeysuckle. She eased on to the stool beside him and undid the belt on her black raincoat. She pulled out a cigarette and was about to light it. Wright took it from between her lips.
“Not in New York. Not anymore. What can I get you?”
‘Of course. Start the evening with beer.”
“Of course.” She tilted her head towards him and smiled. “You look good.”
“Isn’t that a little personal? For a Japanese.”
“We’re not in Japan.”
“No. In which case, there’s some things I’d like to say…”
Ayumi put her hand on Wright’s.
“Please don’t. There’s no need” She raised her beer. “Kanpai.”