Everyone in Zak Winston’s department won a car on Thursday.
It was just a few days after World War III started, and it was a reward for doing such a good job moving billions of dollars to safety. That included millions owned by small investors, who were suddenly a lot more protected during this sudden downturn.
But it also really helped the firm. Commissions, sure. But also, very subtle and hard to trace kickbacks. Through its actions, the firm was helping get people into some financial instruments that they really didn’t want to be in, or need to be in, but were too dumb to know it.
Zak got the keys to a new BMW, along with more than 120 other people. He couldn’t believe it. Every single one of them had a new luxury car, and the firm even tossed in some bonus cash to help fill it up with high quality corn oil. It was actually enough for a few days worth of vacation, but the firm described it as gas money.
As recently as last week, Zak would have been doing what some of his coworkers were doing right now — jumping up and down in the hallways and spraying champagne on everyone’s head. But now Zak was torn. He’d spent the last few days with Cassi, who was warning him that they needed to do something about his discovery, instead of just making money off it.
He looked around the room for Cassi, but didn’t see her. Would she take the car? Maybe it made sense to take the car. Better to blend in that way while they thought things through. She had almost convinced him to drop an anonymous tip with a newspaper, an idea that appealed to Zak because he thought it would feel like helping without putting his job at risk. Maybe the paper wouldn’t even care. Then they could say they tried to tell people, and still work for the company and make money, maybe win more cars or other prizes.
It seemed ridiculous, that they could be handed so much and at such young ages. But then his supervisor, Brent, explained it all to them in a huge, all-hands meeting before trading started Thursday morning. According to Brent, protecting people’s assets was more than just safeguarding the money. It was saving people’s lives.
He was very dramatic.
“More than 100 years ago, Jews were trapped in Germany, and millions died at the hands of the Nazis,” Brent said in front of the group with a glass of champagne raised in his right hand. “Who were the heroes of that day? The brave people who did what they could to set people free. The people who sheltered Jews as they sought a way out of the gas chambers and furnaces, and out of the country altogether.”
“Every time has a different hero,” he continued. “What do we see today? World War III. Who are its victims? Anyone who trusted their college savings, their retirement funds, their life savings to the stock market. That money represents people’s lives. Each time we rescue that money, we rescue a real person.”
“And so, who are today’s heroes? Every goddamn person in this room who helped people move their assets to safe havens. How many lives have you saved? How many families have you spared from the metaphorical gas chambers of today? The historians will have to sort it out.”
“Those people, those families… each of them thank you,” Brent said solemnly. “And I thank you, for setting firm-wide records this month. Sales were through the roof, commissions were through the roof, and profits were through the roof!”
Zak marveled at how Brent was able to somehow keep that respectful tone, even as his argument morphed from saving the Jews to harvesting record profits. Brent really believed everyone in the room saved lives. He knew the firm didn’t liberate France with guns, but it was the same effect. People’s lives had been changed, and for the better.
“And how do I say thank you? Everyone in this room gets a new BMW.”
His role as Churchill complete, Brent tossed a box full of car keys into the air, and the place exploded as traders tripped over each other to find the best car. Ten lucky bastards emerged with keys to the new top-of-the-line BMW 17,300 series. Zak settled for a 10,000 series car, but who cared? It was a BMW.
Soon he was sitting in a shuttle with about 30 of his co-workers, on his way across the bridge to New Jersey to pick up his car. He still couldn’t see Cassi, maybe she was on another shuttle. Zak spent the trip looking at his new set of car keys, trying to remember the logic of Cassi’s plan to point out what Dawson was doing. But he found himself wondering about more superficial things, like what color his new car was, and whether it had a sunroof.
Still, Cassi had gotten into his head. All her talk about alerting the world was starting to make sense. He admitted, it bothered him a little. But, he also admitted, it bothered him mostly because Cassi was the one making the argument. It was impossible to just ignore her. She was the most beautiful thing in his life, which otherwise was surrounded by men who were only interested in making money. No one at the firm ever talked about how sad the war was, or how many had died, or why we were doing it. The whole event of the war was just a trading signal to them, and they’d play along until the signal changed.
They were robots. War? Jump to bonds. Peace? Climb back into equities. And either way, make gobs of money and pretend there was some moral component to what they were doing.
Talking to her about it was stimulating in a new way. He realized this morning that he hadn’t taken any SpiceTabs since Monday, when Cassi invited him over. Quit cold turkey. It was like talking to Cassi was enough of a stimulant. And so was sleeping with her, and getting breakfast with her, and doing lots of fun things with her. He didn’t need any of the drugs anymore, didn’t even think about them. He had what’s real.
The shuttle dropped him off in front of his new car, and Zak lost his train of thought for a bit. It sure was nice. Leather seats and everything.
He got in the car and just listened to it rev for a while in the lot. It was like a symphony. He drove carefully out onto the street and headed home.
Maybe I could do both, Zak thought. Do his job, make money for the firm, but also warn the world at some point about what they suspected. He had nothing to apologize for. They provided a service, and different jobs paid different salaries. His just happened to be really high. He’d still be a hero, wouldn’t he? Especially if he put his own livelihood at risk.
He drove home slowly in his new BMW, and saw another BMW in front of his apartment building. Jesus, he thought. That answered that question. Not only did she take the car, but she snagged one of the 17,300 models. Maybe she saw the light. Or stopped seeing the light.
He could see Cassi in the kitchen as he parked on the street. He had already given her a key to his place, and she took over immediately. They got along great. She was aggressive and fun, and the quick decision to co-habitate wasn’t even that much of a shock for Wall Street types.
People like Zak and Cassi saw almost everything as a conquest. Probably they would both get sick of each other in a few more weeks, now that the challenge was over. Nothing left to take over, to dominate. He could already imagine drifting toward a different kind of relationship, after just a few days. Soon they’d be buying expensive bottles of wine and making their own gourmet pizza in the kitchen on a Saturday night. Then it would fade, as each of them stalked some new conquest.
Zak walked upstairs and opened the door. Her clothes were everywhere, all over the floor, mostly because they were having sex everywhere in the small apartment, and they were both too busy to clean anything up.
He walked toward the kitchen and saw Cassi standing over the small dining room table he had, which was covered with hard-copy printouts of the historical notes they had been looking at for the last few days. All sorts of stuff on China and Japan.
Cassi looked him, smiled, and started grabbing her things.
“Come on, we have a meeting,” she said. “I’ll explain on the way. Do you want to take your new BMW, or mine?”
They took hers. Cassi muttered the address of what sounded like an Italian restaurant, and the car obediently started moving in that direction. Cassi kept a hand on the wheel in case human judgment was needed, but it never was.
“How’d you get this car?” Zak asked for the third time. “People were crawling all over each other.”
Cassi ignored him.
“This is big,” she said. “The Rumpus got a leak that confirms everything we think.”
“It’s a DC screen,” she said. “Conservative. Anyway, they got a full readout on everything we’ve been talking about. Why we’re bombing China, the debt, the whole thing. It lines up with everything you’ve said. They want to talk to you before they go with the story, and they sent a guy up from Washington today. He’s in town now.”
“Why me?” Zak said. “How does anyone know what I think about it?”
“Well, you can blame me for that. Or thank me, if you want. I was reading The Rumpus,” she said. “They’ve written about it, and they were so close to the story, so I reached out to them anonymously. Just like we were talking about…”
“We were talking about it,” Zak said. “I didn’t know we were just about to do something about it.”
“I know,” Cassi said. “I didn’t know what to do. We got these cars today, and I guess I kind of freaked out a little, and thought we should start exploring what to do. I called them up, and we talked for a bit. All off the record. They seem fine with letting us just talk about what we think, our research.”
“So the car made you felt guilty?”
“A little,” Cassi said. “Of course I couldn’t say no, so I took it. It seemed to make sense at the time. I just figured, why call attention…”
“Right,” she said. “But the more we live like this the more we’re part of the problem, don’t you see that? It felt like it was time to do something.”
“If it gets out that we’re helping the press, we could lose our jobs,” Zak said. “Forget the politics of it. The analysis we’ve cooked up belongs to the firm. It’s proprietary, since we built it while we worked here. That’s what they’ll argue, at least, and probably they’d win. From the firm’s point of view, it’s an analysis of how trading might be affected by the China attack, using the Japan attack as a guide. The firm will see it as a roadmap for competitors to how we’re trading. It’s a tool that belongs to them.”
“Right, and that’s why we’ll be anonymous,” Cassie said. “So you’ll do it?”
“Yeah, you’re starting to rub off on me,” Zak said. “It would be good to warn people indirectly. And if The Rumpus has the story already, maybe the risk is low. Let’s see how it goes.”
Ten minutes later, Cassi was telling the valet in exquisite detail how to carefully park her new car. She looked over at Zak and laughed.
“It’s so beautiful!” she said. “Just because we’re about to leak stuff to the press doesn’t mean I want scratches on the car.”
She led Zak inside the restaurant, and a minute later they were sitting across from Josh Pinner of The Rumpus, and his associate, Cindy. Or maybe it was his intern. She looked pretty young.
Waiters were dropping off baskets of bread and little plates of roasted vegetables while the foursome made the usual small talk. Oh, New York is so big. Oh, we wish we could have more space like you had in Washington. Nice safe stuff.
To Zak, everyone at the table looked about 35, just a few years out of college. And here they were, plotting a political coup of sorts. Weren’t young people always the troublemakers when revolutions began?
Zak and Josh eyed each other nervously, but Cassi and Cindy were hitting it off just fine, smiling and laughing at each others’ polite jokes.
“We’re just going to wash up,” Cindy said as they both stood up. They walked away, leaving the two men alone. Zak grabbed for some bread and Josh watched him take a few bites.
“Thanks for coming,” Josh said. “I hope the food here is good. Cindy loves Italian.”
“You should thank Cassi,” Zak said. “She half dragged me here.”
“I know that feeling,” Josh said. “I was ready to be done with war stories but Cindy won’t let me drop this. Our better halves, right?”
Zak played with his bread for a few seconds then blurted out, “Anything I tell you has to be off the record. Or on background. Whichever one means you don’t use my name.”
“They both mean that,” Josh said. “Zak, relax. If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t talked to real human sources in a few years, so don’t think you’re more nervous than I am.”
“Plus, this should be easy on your end,” Josh continued. “A high-level government source handed me a stack of papers confirming everything you guys suspect. It’s the motherload. I just need an expert like you to confirm what’s I’m looking at. I just have a stupid journalism degree, what do I know about this stuff?”
“I’m not sure I’m any smarter than you,” Zak said. “French history with a minor in critical thought in paranormal studies.”
Josh stiffened. “For real? I thought you would have some kind of heavy math background, or finance.”
“Nah, they pull us from anywhere really,” Zak said. “Lots of sales guys really. They let in anyone who wants to be treated like a slave and is OK with numbers. The computers do all the work. But still, I can read the stuff. Should be easy to figure out.”
That seemed to put Josh at ease. “So what do you got?” Zak asked.
“Between us, a Treasury guy read a story I wrote about why we’re bombing Japan,” Josh said. “I was just stitching a theory together based on the history I was reading. I figured China was mad at us, and wanted us to pay interest on the money it was lending out.”
“I met the Treasury official, and he said I have it all wrong, it’s much bigger than that,” Josh said. “He gives me papers showing that China wants out completely, wants to sell off all the U.S. debt it owns. Dawson II doesn’t like it, so now we’re bombing China.”
“Ah, Dawson II,” Zak said. “So you’re one of those guys on the crazy right. You’re looking to take Dawson down for anything you can find. I looked at some of your recent stories. Didn’t you guys write him up for using his salad fork for dessert a few weeks back?”
“That… was actually one of our interns, but yes,” Josh said. “But this is real, not something we’re inventing. This Treasury guy, he sought us out. He wanted to give this to someone on the right so we’d look into it.”
“What did he show you?” Zak asked.
“Internal cables, stuff like that,” Josh said. “Stuff showing China was begging to get out. It’s pretty clear. Many are confidential diplomatic notes that show U.S. officials discussing the problem. One guy even says something like, ‘get ready for war.’”
“Sounds like you have it all, then,” Zak said. “What do you need me for?”
“I’m no expert on the trading stuff,” Josh said. “For the last 18 months or so, China would buy more debt, and then complain about it, and that bitching and moaning would show up in a cable now and then. I need your help tracing all the trades so I can match it up to how China was complaining more and more. I have no idea how to find that stuff.”
“It’s easy,” Zak said. “I can match it all up in a few hours, let you know what happened and what to look for when China complains.”
“That’s great,” Josh said. “So what do you think, from your perspective? Is the U.S. really willing to take over any country that doesn’t buy our debt?”
Zak sat up and pushed the bread away.
“It’s unbelievable, but it does look that way,” he said. “At least, the data makes it look that way. And your Treasury source seems right. China seems to want out totally. Its purchases were always dropping, and lots of experts think China was almost broke. China’s streak of 10, 15 percent growth each year was broken years ago.”
“A guy in my own firm thinks China is so broke, interest payments alone wouldn’t do much,” Zak added. “They needed to be done with us completely.”
“Oh and another thing,” Zak said. “China was making a lot of the same noises Japan was making before we invaded them.”
“Jesus,” Josh said.
“Exactly,” said Zak. “It’s huge. I mean, I can’t sit here and prove that this is why we’re going to war. But all the evidence points that way. It has to be more than a coincidence.”
“All I need you to be is an industry expert who can say the evidence points that way,” Josh said. “Are you willing to do that? No names.”
“Yeah sure,” Zak said, and he seemed relieved as he said it. What the hell, let’s get this out there, he thought. No names, he couldn’t be hurt, and it would give people a shot at hearing the truth. “But really, no names.”
“Give me until this afternoon,” Zak said. “I can let you know what you’re looking at. Just pretend you figured it out, and say an industry expert confirmed you’re looking at it right.”
“Deal,” Josh said. “I can write it tonight, and the story will run tomorrow morning.”
Their waiter returned with dinner, and dropped plates of food in front of the four chairs. Cassi had ordered enough food for 12 people.
“Where are those two?” Josh asked.
Zak turned in his chair just as Cassi and Cindy emerged from the hallway that led to the ladies’ room. They were laughing at something, and smiling, as if they’d known each other for years.
“Hey boys,” Cindy said. “Don’t start eating without us!”
“Look at you two, thick as thieves,” Cassi added.
“Yeah, thick as thieves,” Zak said. “What about you two? What’s so funny?”
“Oh you know,” Cindy said. “Girl stuff.”
“Yeah, girl stuff,” Cassi said.
“Let’s eat,” Cindy said as she sat down. “I’m starving.”