Authors: T. Davis Bunn
For Mason and Mary Williams,
who walk in law and grace
WHEREVER businessmen gather the talk turns to the present prosperity in America; how long it will last, and what will follow it. Periods of prosperity like the present always have one accompaniment. Always it happens that a considerable number of people think this particular prosperity will not end, that there will never be another panic or another depression. They are always wrong. They will be wrong this time.
—New York Herald, November 27, 1925
IN 1993, certain hedge funds and investment banks active in foreign exchange caused a run on the British pound. One hedge fund alone netted over three billion dollars profit from sixteen hours of trading.
In 1998, foreign exchange traders attacked the currencies of seven Asian nations. Five countries entered economic meltdown as a result. In a subsequent speech before the United Nations, the President of Malaysia condemned the world’s foreign exchange traders and the hedge fund operators. He called them “marauding pirates.”
In 2000, the new pan-European currency, the euro, came under attack. According to official reports, supporting the euro against foreign exchange traders has already cost American, European, and Japanese central banks and taxpayers over ninety billion dollars.
Recently the former director of Germany’s central bank said that a sustained assault on the American dollar was “only a matter of time.”
Because the international foreign exchange and currency derivatives markets are the least regulated of all major exchanges, their exact size cannot be stated. But the most widely accepted estimate places current market volume in excess of three trillion dollars.
IBERTY PARK was a block-wide strip of palms and patchy grass stretching from the Melbourne hospital to the airport’s border. The park lay a mile from the high-rent district fronting the Intracoastal Waterway, and was bordered by Florida retirees who couldn’t afford beachfront prices. Local residents loathed the park. By day, the place was empty and baking. By night, the druggies and the pros took over. The noise, according to newspaper reports, was inhuman. In the two years since Wynn Bryant had sold his business, cashed in his corporate chips, and built his Merritt Island home fourteen miles north, he had successfully avoided giving the park a second glance.
This steamy March afternoon, Wynn watched his sister from the safety of his air-conditioned Audi. Sybel Bryant Wells, wife of Florida Governor Grant Wells, stood by tables laden with a meal for the homeless. A cluster of reporters hovered by the opposite side of the road, shooting pictures of how the governor’s wife celebrated her birthday.
Six years earlier, when his fledgling high-tech company had racked up its first major deal, Wynn had offered his sister her heart’s desire. He was twenty-eight at the time and flush with his first taste of success. The years leading up to that point had been fairly savage, and much of his early survival had been due to Sybel’s strength. This birthday offer had been Wynn’s attempt at payback. Sybel’s husband was then a lowly state legislator with lofty ambitions, and money had been tight. Whatever she wanted for her birthday, Wynn had offered to give her, that year and every March to come. If he could afford it, it was hers. Sybel’s response had shocked him speechless.
Wynn locked his car and crossed the street. His offer had reaped one voyage for each of Sybel’s birthdays, except the year his wife had become deathly ill. He had traveled to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Haiti. They had helped build an orphanage in a tiny Baja village, where San Diego was a myth lost beyond clouds of dust and diesel fumes. They also took a frostbitten journey to Canada’s Hudson Bay, where the alcoholism rate equaled winter unemployment—sixty-five percent of the adult population.
But these memories were not what now made the simple act of crossing the street a journey into battle. A month earlier, Sybel had called and asked the impossible. Wynn had silently hung up the phone. Click and goodbye. They had not spoken since. Last week Sybel had sent him a postcard saying simply, Liberty Park, Melbourne, Two pm. Sybel had a habit of growing very terse when things did not run her way.
Sybel was now talking with a slender priest in dark suit and clerical collar. Though she and Grant were Baptist, she maintained close relationships with many churches involved in homeless care and crisis centers. She was also a staunch supporter of a Catholic movement called Sant’Egidio and attended their mass or evening prayers whenever she could. This raised conservatives’ ire on both sides of the Christian divide, a fact that granted Wynn bitter satisfaction. Such ammunition was useful whenever she pressed him about his own lack of belief in anything beyond the galling vagaries of life.
Sybel glanced up at his approach, grabbed two empty garbage bags, and headed over. “Give me a hand, will you?”
He kept his arms at his sides. “I’m not going back to Cairo.”
“Take the bag, Wynn.”
“I’m never going back. You of all people should have known not to ask.”
“Those reporters are watching.” She thrust the bag into his hand. “And that’s not why I asked you here today.”
He fell into step beside her. “It was still wrong. You should never have brought it up.”
Sybel approached a trio of bearded men sprawled beneath a Florida oak. Their hands were gnarled as the tree’s branches, their faces stained by life on the road. “Did you gentlemen get enough to eat?”
Wynn’s ear caught the difference then. Usually Sybel came alive at such times. Sybel had a special way with those who had lost their own voice. Normally she could melt all within range, draw smiles from people hard as upright stones. Even the young girls, turned old by the users and the wolves, would sometimes emerge from their shells and speak with her, revealing traces of their blinding pain. Sybel’s presence was that compelling, her music that soft.
But not today.
Sybel jammed more soiled paper plates into her bag and walked on. Between groups, Wynn asked, “What’s wrong?”
Sybel shared Wynn’s dark good looks, and people usually assumed they were far closer in age than the eleven years actually separating them. Sybel had a long neck and a river of dark hair, braided now into a rope thick as Wynn’s wrist. But where his eyes were clouded gray, Sybel’s were jet black and as direct as her opinions. Normally she was poised, determined, and ferociously independent. Her smiles were seldom bestowed and always genuine. This tight worry was new and a matter of concern.
“Is it Grant?” When she responded by punching more trash into her bag, he asked, “What is it this time?”
“Maybe it comes with age. Maybe he doesn’t have the energy to hold onto the lies any more.” She glanced blindly around the sunlit park. “No, not lies. Just the things that don’t matter as much as he always pretended.”
“Why don’t you—”
“Our meeting today isn’t about me and Grant.” Sybel drew him behind a cluster of palms, blocking them from the feeding station’s curious eyes. “It’s about you.”
“I’m doing just fine, Sybel.”
“You’re wasting your life. You’re worse off than these tramps.” She rattled the bag like a plastic whip. At such times, Sybel defined impatience. “For two years you’ve been living life parked in a rest area. Your biggest concern is teaching your latest fling how to use the espresso machine.”
“I’m not one of your kids, Sybel.” His niece attended seminary in Charleston. His nephew, a gangling teenage baseball fanatic, saw the governor’s mansion as his own personal date-pulling machine. Sybel had never had much luck with her men.
“That’s where you’re wrong.” She reached for more garbage, the movements slower now, her voice older. “You always have been. Always will be. I worry about you.”
“I’m doing okay. Something will turn up.”
“It already has.” She straightened, but did not meet his gaze. “Do I still get my birthday present?”
“I’m not going back to Cairo. Not now, not ever.”
She swatted the words away. “Something else. Are you still offering me anything I want?”
Guarded now. “What is it?”
“Yes or no, Wynn.”
“All right. Yes. But—”
“Go see Grant. Agree to do whatever he says. That’s what I want for my birthday.” The horizon continued to hold her attention. “He’s in Orlando. The Grand Floridian. He gave a luncheon address, he’s meeting some campaign donors this afternoon, then we’re having a little family gathering this evening. Then I’m leaving for eighteen days in Ecuador. Alone.”
“I could come, Sybel.”
“I’m not inviting you. Grant is expecting you at five. Which gives you time to go back and put on a tie.”
“It’s eighty-seven degrees, and I haven’t worn a tie in almost two years.”
“And a jacket. Dark is best.” She halted further protest by finally turning his way, giving him a look all her own. “This is part of the deal, Wynn. Go. You have to be on time.”
HE DRIVE into Orlando was the usual trip down nightmare lane. The Winter Park exit crawled by, elongated by four years of memories, all that had come before his wife had died of rheumatoid arthritis. A strange killer, the first doctor had told him, in a voice so detached Wynn could have strangled the man with his own stethoscope. It attacks the lungs and suffocates the patient slow as a python. Almost like going to sleep. After Winter Park came the University Science Park, where Wynn and his two technopartners had almost gone under five times in seven years before finally hitting the golden button. Wynn had spoken to neither man since the buyout. One had accused him of going public too early, the other of selling too low. Now they tinkered in vast private labs and dreamed of another moment in the sun. But without their previous hunger or Wynn to drive them, they were just another pair of embittered millionaires with too much time on their hands.
The Grand Floridian was Grant’s kind of hotel. The lobby was built on a series of broad steps like a layered stage. The governor’s security detail had cordoned off the high left platform where Grant Wells now sat enthroned on a striped silk sofa under glaring television lights.
Wynn spotted the obligatory aide, a stunning brunette with clipboard and earpiece and miniskirted business suit. She stood not quite to one side, clearly loving the attention as much as Grant. Wynn approached and gave his name, accepted the brilliant smile and the news that Grant was running a little behind schedule. He then retreated to the lobby’s opposite corner.
Wynn could not help but color the moment with memories of what had come before. His parents had taught at the American University of Cairo. Days before his sixth birthday, both had died from an illness or poisoning. Perhaps Sybel had discovered which, but she knew better than to discuss anything about that place and time. Nineteen months after their return to America, Grant Wells had been swept utterly off his feet by Sybel’s beauty and fire. Sybel had accepted Grant’s marriage proposal with two conditions: she would continue at university, and Wynn would move in with them. Grant had been running his father’s Ocala electronics store at the time, sitting on the town council and chafing with pent-up ambition. What Grant had thought of an eight-year-old severely traumatized brat invading their married bliss, he never said. Already Grant had shown a politician’s ability to mask his inner workings.
“Mr. Bryant?” The brunette gave him another highly public smile. “The governor will see you now.”
Wynn kept a pace back so as to watch the movement of those patterned blue stockings. Grant’s new aide walked like a two-legged snake. “When did Grant pull you from the typing pool?”
“Three months ago.” A toss of the head. “And it was from Emory.”
As they crested the top step, Grant rose and saw off his last appointment. Stopwatch accuracy. Grant approached with grin and hand outstretched. “Where you been hiding yourself, sport?”
“Here and there.” Wynn gestured back to where the press remained corralled. “Shouldn’t you see to them first?”
“Can’t.” He led Wynn over to the divan. “Besides, they’re eating and drinking on my tab. Something you’ll learn in this trade. Keep the press fed and watered at all times or they’ll pick your carcass like vultures.”
“Thanks, but lessons like that I can definitely do without.”
That caused Grant to smile. “I take it Sybel didn’t tell you why I wanted us to meet.”
“Oh, she planted the seed, I’ll give her that. Credit where credit’s due. Three, four months ago, back when old Hutch had his first stroke.”
A faint niggling went off at the back of Wynn’s mind, like a fire alarm in a distant room. “Congressman Hutchings has suffered a stroke?”
“She didn’t tell you a thing, did she. You don’t have one idea what’s aimed straight at you.”
Grant was blunt-spoken, tall, fleshy, and not particularly attractive. In his younger days, he had possessed such a simple worthiness that most people had overlooked his evident flaws. These days, however, he showed a gratingly false bonhomie. His gaze was that of a fish mounted on a wall—bulbous and dead. Wynn had continued to support his campaigns, however, with gifts aimed not at Grant but at Sybel. Since Sybel always refused anything for herself, Wynn remained one of Grant’s largest soft-money donors. “You didn’t have to arrange all this just because you need more funds, Grant.”
“That’s not it. Not this time.” Grant leaned forward. “I want you to come work for me. In a manner of speaking.”
“Not a chance.” It was the kind of offer made for Wynn to turn down. “Tallahassee has more hot air than a blast furnace. I’m happy where I am.”
“Wasn’t talking about Tallahassee. Hutch had a second stroke last week. A real giant killer. He’s down, he’s out, he’s history.” Grant slung his arm across the sofa back, hugely satisfied with his news. His battles with Graham Hutchings were legendary. “The press has just gotten wind that Hutch has officially resigned. We need to have our candidate and the special election date all set and ready to go. With Congress split right down the middle, there’s not a moment to lose.”
Wynn wanted to refuse point-blank, but his promise to Sybel glued the words down deep.
Grant’s smile broadened. “She’s caught you, hasn’t she. Hooked you, dragged you to shore, left you flapping in the sand.”
“I hate Washington.”
“Sure you do. But you’ve never seen it from inside the club. Makes all the difference. This time you won’t be a tourist with his face mashed tight against the glass. You’ll be an insider. Washington will be
town.” He was expansive now, with the power of knowing the battle was all but won. “Here’s the deal in broad strokes. You’ll run unopposed, just like old Hutch did in the last election. Our party’s got a dead-solid lock on this district, and everybody knows it. Our choice is the people’s choice, and that’s final. I’ll throw some bones to the opposition so they don’t complain about either the speed or the selection. Already spoken to their head man, he’s been after me on a water-rights bill. The man wanted it bad enough to let us push the election forward. Only voters who’ll show up on polling day will be the party faithful.”
“You’re rigging the election?”
“That shows how much you know about politics in the modern age. Nothing’s rigged about this deal. Just highly lubricated, is all. This election will pass without more than a couple of headlines in the local rag. You’ll make the rounds, shake the hands, eat a few rubber chicken dinners, smile for the cameras on polling day, and be off to the big city.”
Wynn sat buffeted by his sister’s wiles. “I don’t have any choice.”
“Not if you’re a man of your word like I’ve always thought.” Grant waved at someone Wynn could not see. “Two quick points before we do the press come-on. First, I’m making a run for the Senate in the next election. I want you to back me.”