Zak was running through the streets of New York City on a chilly fall Sunday morning. But he wasn’t being chased, and he wasn’t running very quickly.
Unbelievably, Zak was jogging. It had been years since he ran any distance at all, but he had to clear his head. His new friend, Senator Flik Maynard, of all people, was insisting that he testify in just a few days about the financial motivations behind World War III.
The thought of doing that made it impossible to sleep. He woke up early, and the only thing that made any sense was to get outside, find some space. Cassi was lying next to him in bed, unmoving.
“C’mon, Cassi,” he said. “Let’s get out of here. We can walk up to Central Park.”
“Sore throat,” she muttered. “You go. Go running down at Rockaway or something.”
He had told her last night how he used jog down by the beach at Rockaway after he got out of college and had to keep his weight down. Perfect idea for today. Nice and out of the way, and he’d get to climb into his BMW and let it loose on streets that should be empty this early in the morning.
Half an hour later he parked in front of the beach. He got out, laced up his sneakers and started running east along the water. Two miles later, he ran out of gas. It had been that long since his last run. He sat on a bench near the water, and grumbled to himself for 20 minutes about how he’d have to get in better shape. Then he finally started thinking about whether to testify or not, and realized he didn’t have any idea what to do.
Helping that Rumpus reporter was easy when he was able to stay anonymous. But now the senator wanted him to tell people on the record what he knew, and in front of the world. It was an entirely different thing that might easy end up getting him fired.
The rough math was pretty easy. If he explained his analysis to the world, his firm would see it was giving away their proprietary information. He’d be fired.
But he might also spark a panic on Wall Street. So far the markets didn’t mind all the rumors of Dawson’s insane war policy, but on-the-record testimony could change that. He would be confirming to investors that the U.S. was so hard up for cash that it was bombing other countries just to guarantee debt sales.
And the level of desperation was amazing, he thought. Here was a Democrat, a guy who should be an anti-war peacenik, and he bombed China over this. And his father, another Democrat, bombed Japan.
Even if Wall Street types didn’t flip, talking about it in public could force countries to demand interest payments again. And then they’d drive up those borrowing rates. You’re that desperate, United States? Pay us 10 percent, or 15. And countries that still felt like lending to America would likely use those rates to shore up their militaries, to get ready for the day when the U.S. invades.
So yeah, Zak thought, he could easily lose his job over these sorts of market hiccups. And then maybe he’d be conscripted into Dawson II’s army, help him hold Zhejiang Province or something. Teach those Chinese in Shanghai how to trade securities the American Way.
A young mother walked by on the jogging path, pushing a stroller. He could hear the baby in there, cooing away, and saw the mother smiling as she listened.
In a flash, Zak understood why it was so tempting to just live with the status quo. It was a nice illusion. Things worked, and things could be beautiful for a while. Maybe they weren’t sustainable, but nothing was anyway. Why not ride it out? Why force a global panic if it might last another few decades like this?
Zak stood up, and half jogged, half walked back to his car along the beach. Maybe Cassi could help him figure it out. Maybe Josh’s story was enough, and they wouldn’t need him there. Maybe he had done enough already to help out.
Zak reached his car, at the remote end of a parking lot by the beach. He popped the trunk, changed his shoes, slammed the trunk down and jumped into the driver’s seat. He pulled out of the lot, and thought about taking the long way home. Maybe he could pick up some donuts or something for Cassi. Or maybe hit some empty stretch of highway, he hadn’t really had a chance to test out what his new car could do.
“I bet I could hit 90 in this thing and not even feel it,” he said out loud. “Maybe 100…”
Something hit him from behind, and hard. It shoved him forward and to the right, toward the narrow sidewalk. His instincts took over and ordered his right foot to stomp down on the brake, but his real problem was the tree right ahead of him. Some deep part of his brain realized he was lucky that no one was on the sidewalk.
Zak pushed the car further right, hoping to hit some bushes instead of the tree. The BMW jumped the tiny curb without a problem, and he could feel his back right tire skidding against the grass and making him spin to the right.
It ended with the nose of his new BMW stuck in a forsythia bush. Some of the empty shoots pushed up against his windshield, but it didn’t sound like he hit anything serious. He dodged the tree on his left just enough to open his car door.
In his rearview mirror, he could see someone on the lonely sidewalk, walking toward him. A man in a trenchcoat who had parked 30 yards down the road. Probably the shithead who hit him. Zak wanted a look at how bad it was before the guy approached, so he got out and walked to the back of the car.
“Jesus, man,” he moaned. The fender was pushed in, and there was some damage to the trunk. Both taillights were out. Guy must have hit him dead on. What kind of blind idiot just hits a guy head on like that? He turned to find out.
“Are you OK?” the man asked as he approached. The guy was looking back and forth at the car, and then at Zak, maybe to see which was more banged up.
“Yeah I’m fine,” Zak said. He took a second to decide if that was true, and it was. Loud noise, dinged up car, but nothing else, no pain. “What happened?”
“I’m afraid I ran into you,” the man said. “My fault completely.”
The man walked up to look at the damage, and Zak assessed him from behind. Big guy, well dressed. Seemed pretty relaxed. Ah shit, he thought. Mafia or something. Just his luck.
“What do you want to do,” Zak asked. “Exchange papers? Should we call a cop over?”
“No, no police,” the man said as he whirled around. The idea of cops seemed to worry him, which made Zak think mafia again.
“I’ll be blunt… what’s your name, son?” the man asked.
“Zak,” he replied. “And you?”
“I’m Bill,” the man said. “Zak, I’d rather keep this off the books, if you don’t mind.”
Definitely mafia, Zak thought. Jesus Christ. He just wanted to drive away alive at this point.
“No, I’m not a mobster,” Bill said. “There’s plenty of other reasons to keep this off the books. One is, I can pay you in cash right now, and pay you a lot more than what it should cost to fix up your car.”
Bill walked slowly back to his car and opened the trunk. Zak was suddenly terrified. There was no one else around. What did he have in there, guns? He thought to quickly turn on his phone to record what happened next, but didn’t have the guts. He stood there, frozen, as Bill closed his trunk and walked back with a briefcase.
“The damage doesn’t seem to bad,” Bill said. “Backside is dented in and the tail lights are gone, but it’s limited to the fender and the trunk, and the back wheels seem fine.”
“It’s a nice car though,” he said, and Zak realized he was tallying up the damage. “Those new BMWs are something else, aren’t they? And expensive. To me it looks like a $30,000 repair job.”
Zak thought it was probably less, based on talk in the office about this jerkoff Ed who wrecked his car the day he won it from the firm. Ed came in moaning about totaling the front of his car, and it was just a $25,000 repair.
But Zak was wondering what this guy was getting at.
“OK, let’s say it’s $30,000,” Zak said. “You happen to have $30,000 in that briefcase?”
“No, I have much more than that,” Bill said.
He set the case down on the sidewalk and popped the latch. Bill opened it, and Zak looked down at stacks of wrapped up $100 bills.
“There’s $200,000 there,” Bill said blandly. “$50,000 of that is to fix up your car. I wasn’t sure how hard I might hit you so I had to be ready if the damage was worse. But you can keep the extra $20,000 in case it’s more than $30,000. You know how those garage guys can be.”
Zak felt himself going numb as Bill talked. All he heard was, “I wasn’t sure how hard I might hit you.” So, this was no accident, it was all planned. His brain raced to understand what was going on, but stayed silent, and Bill explained it.
“The other $150,000 is a gift for you,” Bill said. “No strings attached.”
“Well, wait, I almost forgot. There is one little string attached,” Bill said with a planned smile on his face. “You keep that money, and in return, you don’t testify in the Senate about why you think the government is at war with China.”
Bill gave Zak a moment to soak it all in. Zak watched as Bill bent down, closed up the briefcase, then stared out at the river to take in the magnificent view around them. It was as if the guy had just asked Zak for the time of day and was willing to wait all day to hear the answer.
Zak slowly absorbed it. The car crash confused him, but he saw what this was now. A bribe. Money in return for not testifying. That made Bill some kind of government official, most likely. CIA maybe. Someone close to Dawson II.
But it was more than a bribe. It was backed by the threat of violence. If he wanted to hand Zak $150,000, he could have caught him at lunch. But no, he slammed into his car for a reason, and that reason was to let Zak know that Bill was violent. That Bill was capable of hurting people, killing them even.
Zak looked back as his crumpled rear fender, then turned back to look at Bill.
“I understand your confusion,” Bill said. “It’s a weird mixed message. I wreck your car, pay for the damage, offer you more money to perform a service. Are you doing me a favor, or will I kill you if you reject the money? It’s designed to confuse you, Zak. It’s meant to throw you off balance. But it’s really just two transactions at once.”
Bill almost seemed bored with his own scheme, or maybe he finally decided he had somewhere to be. But the idea of rushing this didn’t make Zak feel any better. Bill was right — Zak was thrown off balance.
“So what would you do, if you were me?” Zak asked.
“Oh, I would take the money and not testify,” Bill said in a cheery voice.
“Can I ask a couple of questions first?” he asked.
“You must be from the government, right?” Zak said. “And you don’t want us talking about the debt war in the Senate?”
“That’s a good guess, but I you’ll understand when I say I can’t really answer that for you,” Bill said. “It’s not in my interest to fully explain.”
“Fair enough,” Zak said. “It’s just that, well, I don’t mean to insult you here Bill, but you’re trying to bribe a Wall Street trader here. I mean, $150,000…”
“Well, it’s $170,000, really,” Bill interrupted. “Your car should only cost $30,000 to fix up, remember?”
“Right,” Zak said. “OK, so $170,000. Still, us Wall Street guys, we do pretty well. This car you damaged? It was a gift after a monster run of trading we pulled off, thanks to Dawson II’s war, by the way. I think I made about $700,000 last year, and that was pretty much an entry-level job. This year I’ll clear $1 million easy.”
“Good for you,” Bill said. “And?”
“And, well, again… not to insult you, but bribing me with $170,000… I guess it’s just not much of a bribe,” Zak dared. “I can make that in two months. And I guess I figured that’s why you’re from the government, because maybe that’s a lot of money for people in the government, but out here, I mean, no offense…”
“No no, it’s a fair point,” Bill said. “And it’s a fair question to ask. It’s true, this is a sort of piddling amount of cash, to a big shot like you. But the government really is having a hard time with money right now. The soaring national debt, as you know. It’s been in the papers.”
“But also,” Bill continued, “we didn’t think we’d need much more than that. We figured that when it just came down to you and I here, and you had to choose between taking a little bonus money, or seeing what I might do to you if you didn’t, you’d take the money and be happy to drive home.”
“Can I just take the $30,000 for the car?” Zak asked.
“Pick up the briefcase, Zak,” Bill said, and there was menace in his voice now. He really bored with the conversation now, which was terrifying. “Pick it up, put it in your car, keep the money. And don’t testify this week.”
When he put it that way, it seemed good enough for Zak. He grabbed the briefcase and walked to his car. He slid in, closed the door and slowly backed up. Despite the damage, he thought he could make it home. He put it in drive and slowly drove past Bill, who was watching him from the sidewalk.
Zak could hear Bill say through his broken window, “Drive safe.”
Zak didn’t breath until he was a half a mile away, then he started shaking and crying. Instinctively he called Cassi.
“Hello?” she said.
“These fuckers,” he sobbed into the phone.
“Zak? What is it?”
“These fuckers,” he wheezed. “Who the fuck do they think they are?”