Single Purpose Vehicle

By Adam Haslett

The house took a year to complete: three months to clear the land, bury the pipes, and dig a foundation, another seven for construction, and two more for interior work and landscaping. For the right sum, Mikey oversaw all of it.

By the time it was done, the real estate market had progressed as Doug had foreseen. After the tech bust in 2000, the Federal Reserve had cut interest rates, making mortgages cheap, and thus opening the door for all that frightened capital to run for safety into houses. The attacks on 9/11 had only sped the trend. These new mortgages were being fed into the banks like cars into a chop shop, stripped for parts by Union Atlantic and the other big players, and then securitized and sold on to the pension funds and the foreign central banks. Thus were the monthly payments of the young couples in California and Arizona and Florida transformed by the alchemy of finance into a haven for domestic liquidity and the Chinese surplus, a surplus earned by stocking the box stores at which those same couples shopped. With all that money floating around, the price of real estate could only rise. Before Doug ever opened the front door, the value of his new property had risen thirty percent.

The first night he slept in Finden he remembered his dreams as he hadn’t in years. In one, his mother wandered back and forth along the far end of a high-school gymnasium, clad in a beige raincoat, her hands in her pockets, her head tilted toward the floor. They were late again for Mass. Doug called to her from beneath the scrub oak in their tiny backyard. Its bark peeled away, he saw veins pumping blood into branches suddenly animate and forlorn. A priest waited in an idling sedan. In the distance, he heard the sound of a ship’s cannon firing. Oblivious to all of this, focused only on the floorboards in front of her, his mother kept pacing. As the deck beneath him began to list, Doug rolled to his knees to break his fall.

He woke on his stomach, sweating. The wall was an uncanny distance from the bed, the pale-yellow paint someone had chosen for it beginning to glow dimly in the early-morning light. He rolled onto his back and stared at the stilled ceiling fan, its rounded chrome fixture as spotless as the deck of the Vincennes on inspection day.

Here he was, thirty-seven, lying in his mansion.

Reaching for the remote at his side, he switched on the TV.

. . . Israel denies Arafat request to leave West Bank compound, the CNN ticker began . . . Pakistan in discussions with U.S. to hand over chief suspect in murder of Wall Street Journal reporter . . . CT residents to pay $50 more per year for garbage collection after state Trash Authority loss of $200 million on deal with Enron . . .

His BlackBerry began vibrating on the floor beside his keys; it was his trader in Hong Kong, Paul McTeague, calling.

At Doug’s level of bank management, most people relied on underlings to handle recruiting, but that had never been his practice. He insisted on choosing his own people, right down to the traders. McTeague had been one of his. They’d met a few years ago on a flight to London. A Holy Cross grad, McTeague had grown up in Worcester and learned the business with a specialist on the floor of the NYSE. A rabid Bruins fan, his conversation didn’t extend much beyond hockey and derivatives. Twenty-eight and itching to make a killing. The human equivalent of a single-purpose vehicle. In short, perfect for the job. Usually Doug would have waited awhile before clueing in a new guy as to how he, in particular, ran the flow of information, i.e. avoiding intermediate supervisors. But he could tell right away that McTeague was his kind, and so he’d told him straight out: If you’ve got a problem and you’re getting hassled, just call.

Two months ago, when the head of the back office at the Hong Kong desk had left, Doug had installed McTeague as the temporary replacement, thus putting him in charge of all paperwork and accounting, and expanding the dominion of an employee with direct loyalty to him. The more raw information Doug could get stovepiped up from the front lines without interference from all the middling professionals, the more direct power over outcomes he wielded.

“You’re a genius,” McTeague said when Doug answered his phone. “The Nikkei’s up another two percent. Our economy’s still in the tank but Japanese stocks keep rising. It’s a thing of beauty.”

A month and a half ago, in early February, he and McTeague had been at a conference in Osaka. After one of the sessions, they had gone to Murphy’s, the bar where the Australians pretended to be Irish. They were about to call it a night when Doug saw a senior deputy in the Japanese Ministry of Finance stumble in with a Korean woman half his age. The man shook his head in resignation as his young companion made her way straight for the bar and ordered a bottle of Scotch. Interested to see how things would play out, Doug ordered another round and he and McTeague settled in to watch. The argument in the corner grew steadily more heated. The woman was demanding something the man didn’t want to give, the Tokyo deputy apparently at wits’ end with his mistress. Eventually, after being harangued for half an hour, he stood up, threw cash on the table, and walked out of the bar.

That’s when the idea had occurred to Doug: the young woman might know something.

“Do me a favor,” he’d said to McTeague. “Comfort the girl.”

And a good job of it McTeague had done. At some point after they’d had sex, the deputy’s mistress told him that the Ministry of Finance had a plan. They were about to launch another price-stability operation. The Japanese government would buy up a boatload of Japanese domestic stocks, sending the Nikkei index higher and thus shoring up the balance sheets of their country’s troubled banks. It was a classic command economy move, using public money to interfere with the market’s valuations. In the process, the Japanese government would hand a major loss to the foreign, largely U.S. speculators who had been shorting the value of their stock market for months.

The operation, of course, was secret.

And thus it was that in mid-February, Atlantic Securities, the investment banking firm that Union Atlantic had purchased and renamed two years earlier as part of its expansion, had become the one American firm to go from bearish to bullish on the prospects for the Japanese economy. Under Doug’s supervision, McTeague had placed large bets on the Nikkei going higher, using Atlantic Securities’ own money. The resulting trading profits had been substantial and were still flowing in. It would be awhile yet before the Ministry of Finance’s plan would become public and there was a lot of money to be made in the meantime.

“So,” McTeague asked, eager as ever, “how much cash do I get to play with tomorrow?”

“We’ll see,” Doug replied. “Call me after New York opens.”

*   *   *

The chilled marble of the bathroom floor felt particularly solid against the balls of his feet. Two huge sinks in the shape of serving bowls, one for the master and one for his wife, were set beneath mirrored cabinets along the far wall. Beyond were two shower stalls with shiny steel heads that jetted water from the walls and ceiling. Opposite these stood a patio-size cross between a Jacuzzi pool and a bathtub, the whole thing decked in slate.

Walking to the window, Doug looked out across the front of the house. Mikey had done a good job: a stately, circular driveway, an enormous freestanding garage mocked up like a barn, and, surrounding it all, pleasing expanses of lawn. Through a row of bare maples that had been left up the hill to mark the property line, he could see a dilapidated barn and beside it an ancient house with weathered shingles, a listing brick chimney, and a slight dip in the long rear slant of its roof. It was one of those old New England saltboxes that historical preservation societies kept tabs on, although not too closely by the looks of it. Whoever owned it didn’t seem to be occupying the place. Weeds had risen in the rutted gravel drive. On the one hand, it was the farthest thing from a Mickey D’s and a strip mall you could get, just the sort of nostalgia for which people loved towns like this, casting the dead starlight of American landed gentry, dotted with graveyards full of weathered headstones and the occasional field of decorative sheep. Allowed to decay too far, however, it could cause a decline in the value of Doug’s property. If some absentee WASP who’d retreated to his compound in Maine thought he could just let a house rot like this, it would have to be sorted out. He’d put Mikey on it, he thought, as he slipped out of his boxers and stepped into the shower.

Downstairs, he passed through the mansion’s empty rooms and, finding the touch-screen keypad by the front door inscrutable, pushed an Off button and saw the screen announce: Fanning Disarmed.

Mikey was good. He was very good.

As he came down the front steps, the late-winter sun was just beginning to strike the side of his garage. Glancing over the roof of his car, he saw a woman in a blue ski jacket coming out the back door of the old house up the hill, which was apparently inhabited after all. Tall and rather thin, she had longish gray hair and a stiff, upright posture. With her were two large dogs, a Doberman and some sort of mastiff. It looked as if the animals were too strong for her, that she might be pulled down by them, but a yank of her arm brought them under control and they led her in orderly fashion along the stone path to the overgrown driveway. At first Doug thought she hadn’t noticed him at such a distance. But then, as he was about to get in his car, she glanced in his direction, and Doug waved.

She made no response, as if surveying an empty landscape.

Rude or half blind, he couldn’t tell. Driving slowly, he turned onto Winthrop Street and, lowering the passenger-side window, rolled up beside her.

“Good morning. My name’s Doug Fanning. The new place here — it’s mine.”

For a moment, it seemed she hadn’t heard a word he said and was perhaps deaf to boot. But then, abruptly, as if the car had only now appeared, she came to a halt. Bringing the dogs to heel, she leaned down to look into the car. The deeply lined skin of her face had the same weathered gray hue as the side of her house. Without a word, as if he weren’t even there, she sniffed at the air of the car’s interior; the Lexus he’d leased for the new commute was still pine fresh.

“Trees,” she said. “Before you came. All of it. Trees.”

And with that she stood upright again and kept walking.

*   *   *

Stuck behind a Volvo moving in slow motion through the center of Finden, Doug examined the suburban scorecard stacked up its rear window. According to the stickers, the driver or various members of her family had attended Andover, Stanford, Cornell, and Yale Medical School. When the woman came to a complete halt in front of the coffee shop and began chatting with a friend on the sidewalk, Doug leaned on his horn, wishing sorely it were the trigger of a cannon. The two women glared back at him in disdain.

For you I served, he thought. For you we killed. For this.

As he often did to calm his nerves at such moments, he dialed Mikey.

“So what’s with the neighbor?” he asked him.

“I love you, Doug, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“The place next door. Up on the hill. Turns out some old hag lives in there. She didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat.”

“You mean Miss Charlotte Graves? Yeah. I’ve been meaning to call you about her. She’s a problem.”

“The way she’s keeping that place, she must be violating some kind of ordinance, right? Some Keep Finden Beautiful shit? You should be able to find something to get her on.”

“Trouble is—”

“She’s just the type, isn’t she? Trees, she said. And then walked off. Like I’m the first person ever to cut down woods to build a house in this town? Like her fucking ancestors didn’t clear cut it three hundred years ago. I’ll tell you something, Mikey, some days I wish I was a Russian gangster with twenty cousins and a stretch Hummer. Just to piss people like her off.”

“I think you got that covered, my friend. But listen. When I say she’s a problem I’m not kidding. She’s filed a lawsuit against the town — saying she owns your land.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“My guy on the board of selectmen told me. She wrote the complaint herself. He says it reads like something out of the Old Testament. But she’s pro se, so some judge’ll have to give her a hearing and try to piece her shit together on the taxpayer’s dime. And I’ll have to show up to make sure he tosses it out. It’s a nuisance suit — she’s crazy.”

“Get rid of it, Mikey. You hear me? I don’t need that shit. Not now.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”

Up ahead, a third woman, in a Burberry jacket and duck boots, this one steering a stroller, joined the nattering pair obstructing the roadway.

“I got a situation here,” Doug said, tossing his phone aside and stepping from the car.

“Where do you think you are?” the pearled young matron demanded, as he approached the Volvo. “Los Angeles? Are you planning to fly into some kind of rage?” She turned back to the driver. “All right, then, Ginny. We’ll see you Tuesday.”

“Okay! Bye!” the woman behind the wheel called out in her bright, chipper voice. And with that, she stepped on her accelerator, leaving Doug standing by himself in the middle of the street as the cars behind him began to honk.

*   *   *

That morning he’d slept through his alarm, which he never did, caught up in dreams again, the remnants of which stuck with him as he cleared the town traffic and made it onto the Pike, still moving at a frustrating pace along the crowded inbound lanes. He’d dreamt of his cousin Michael and it had reminded him of when Michael had told Doug the story of Doug’s father. According to Michael, Doug’s mother had met him when she had gone to help serve his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. This would have been 1964 and she would have been seventeen. When the dinner was through and the dishes washed, the son had driven her home, all the way from the North Shore, an hour at least. This part Michael could say for sure because he’d heard it from his own father’s mouth. That, and the fact they’d been on dates. Two or three and it had ended by Christmas; or maybe it was five or six and had run on into January; he was in college in western Mass. or he’d just graduated or was working for his father before going. His father was rich, that much was clear, because Doug’s uncle John had got a break as a young electrician with a contract to service all the companies the man owned. It was Uncle John who’d recommended his little sister for that day, thinking she might get a regular job out of it. Michael had been told never to speak of it, especially not to Doug. But they were sixteen and they were drunk in Uncle John’s basement while everyone else finished up the Labor Day barbecue in the yard and Michael had told him.

So that was his father. The nameless son of a nameless family who at one time had lived about an hour’s drive away.

What Doug had already known — what everyone knew — was that by February 1965, his mother was pregnant and without a boyfriend, let alone a husband. She stayed with her parents that year and for a year or two after, while Doug was a toddler. Her parents were religious people who never renounced their obligation to love their daughter or their obligation to be ashamed. They continued to share a pew with her at St. Mary’s, though now the family sat at the back of the church. She had many different jobs but by the time they moved into the apartment on the top floor of the blue triple-decker on Eames Street, she mostly cleaned houses and cooked. They had a small backyard that ran down to a creek, and through the trees on the far side of it you could hear the cars moving along the state route. Back then there had been nothing along that highway but a few warehouses and a depot for the Alden town trucks. But when Doug had turned six an autoparts store had gone in. Soon after that came a mattress discounter, then a gas station, and six months later a Burger King. They cleared land for the first mall, an oval of white concrete with an open-air courtyard and fountain, surrounded by the largest parking lot anyone had ever seen, which backed right up to their creek. Once the cineplex went in with its own vast parking lot, lit by even brighter lights, Doug’s bedroom never got fully dark anymore, the glare of the strip strong enough to color his shade a pale yellow into the small hours of the morning.

On Saturday evenings Doug and his mother went to Mass and again on Wednesdays, and though he hated it from an early age, mostly for the pity shown him by the adults and the pity shown his mother, before he even knew why, he followed obediently along until thirteen or so when he told his mother he didn’t believe in God or the Church and didn’t care what she thought about it. She’d lost most of her bargaining power to the drink by then and didn’t much resist. Daytime was a raw period for her, a time to be endured, after which the relief of the first glass of wine came, a routine that left little margin for argument or delay. He was taller than her well before he reached high school and there weren’t many places in the apartment for her to hide her bottles. Early on he’d learned he could cut her off more or less at will, and after that he never needed to; the threat alone sufficed to win whatever concession he needed from her.

Never a talkative woman, she said even less when she’d drunk three or four glasses.

After the first bottle, her silence deepened into something more profound, her daily withholding of words buoyed up into a principle of sorts, an almost enjoyable one it seemed, a queenly disregard for the commonplace of chatter or conversation, as if he were a man in whose presence she was determined to remain permanently coy. Conspicuous in her withdrawal. She had her television and her magazines, and as long as he was there to watch her getting along without him then indeed she could. And when she fell asleep on the couch at the end of the night Doug would carry her to her bed and turn out the light.

Once he’d gotten his license he had taken control of the car and begun to drive her to work. Heading down the state route you always knew exactly where Alden stopped and Finden began because the strip ended. After the muffler shop and the liquor store strategically placed on the town line to serve the residents of the dry community next door, you came to a traffic light. Beyond that it was as if time had stood still. Just the fluted gray railing running up the side of the highway and behind it, on either side, woods. It continued like that all the way east, seven miles or more toward Boston, until you reached the next town, where another liquor store stood just over the line and the malls and burger chains and car dealerships started up again.

All his mother’s work was in Finden. Over the years, she cleaned for different families in the mornings but as long as he could remember, she’d always worked afternoons at the Gammonds’, where he would come to pick her up in the afternoons. They lived at the end of a white gravel drive in a large brick house with green shutters and flowers in the window boxes.

In spring and fall, Mrs. Gammond would often be working in the garden. She had white hair and fine mottled skin and Doug had always remembered her necklace of jade with its large stones of sea green and imperial purple, separated by rings of silver, resting across her chest like the jewels of some northern queen.

She would ask him how school was going and which subjects interested him and comment on the weather as they waited for his mother to emerge from the house.

“Such a handsome son you have,” he could remember her saying.

People had always liked him for his looks. As a child, he’d got lost in the supermarket and all the other mothers had crowded around, saying how adorable he was. As a teenager, he’d begun jacking off naked in front of the mirror on the back of his closet door, goading himself on, his looks beginning to handle like his first real weapon, his first experience of control.

“She says I’m the best cleaning lady she’s ever employed,” his mother said once on the ride back to Alden, a wry smile on her face, as she smoked her first cigarette in hours, asking Doug to conspire with her for just a little while, to take her slender joke, to be with her for a few moments, on her side. “Maybe one day she’ll give me a medal. A shiny medal.”

The only man who ever visited their apartment was Father Griffin, in his horn-rimmed glasses and black raincoat. His narrow bird face was gaunt with sympathy. Knowing how to time his calls, he would arrive just before supper, when Doug’s mother had drunk only a glass or two and was still sociable. He’d share parish news — of the sick and the dead and the newly born — and stand up to leave as soon as Doug took supper out of the microwave.

What the Navy recruiter had to offer was a way out of that apartment and the sight of his mother drowning. Doug had signed the papers the day after his eighteenth birthday. For a week he tried coming up with the words to tell his mother he was leaving but they never came and so he decided he’d call her instead, once he reached the base. He took a bus to the Naval Station Great Lakes, and after three days there ended up phoning his cousin Michael instead to let the family know where he’d gone.

Most of the other recruits struck him as innocents without a plan: patriotic boys itching to stick it to the Evil Empire, kids with eyes set wide apart who looked as if they’d arrived through some damp, halfwitted dream into a bunk and a bench in the galley, washed off the prairie like shallow soil. Right away he knew he’d do the minimum and get out. He kept figuring he would write his mother a letter or a postcard, but then again she knew where he was and she hadn’t written or called.

He met sailors who no longer knew where their folks lived and didn’t seem much to care. At first, he thought he’d begin to forget like that, that his memory would wipe itself clean. But it didn’t. It wasn’t at the low times that he thought of his mother but when things were going well, when accomplishment and momentum felt real, at the end of a well-executed maneuver or when he got his first promotion. Then, just as he grabbed on to a bit of excitement, to the sense that things might work out, he’d picture her spending the night on the couch, waking with a headache at dawn, shuffling to her bed for a few more hours of sleep, and like a kill switch, the image would cut dead the power surging within him. Noticing how the memory of her held him back, he decided he would no longer permit himself guilt. It was a priestly game, after all, a game of sin and forgiveness, one that could eat a life whole.

*   *   *

As he rounded the exit for South Station, Doug could see the eastern face of the Union Atlantic tower shimmering in the morning sun. It was taller than 60 State Street and framed in crisp white lines, its glass much brighter than the dark reflective obelisk of the John Hancock. Jeffrey Holland had built it against all kinds of opposition, striking the deal when prices were low because no one wanted to put up with the Big Dig on their front doorstep, despite the fact that it would eventually be a park leading to the water. The tallest building in the city, it now dominated the financial district and had become the centerpiece of skyline night shots during Red Sox broadcasts and the network legal procedurals set in town, the Union Atlantic logo — the outline of a cresting wave — lit in bright blue along the south-facing superstructure, the whole gleaming edifice a bold announcement of intent, its scale impressing clients and competitors alike. Holland understood well the logic of images creating impressions which became facts. Insider chatter about overreaching had been no match for the persuasion of size and ambition. The foreigners in particular loved it, the Koreans and the Chinese, whose business they were getting hand over fist now. At Doug’s encouragement they’d entered into talks with the Four Seasons about a hotel next door. Union Atlantic alone could fill two-thirds of it with clients.

“Good morning, Mr. Fanning,” the new receptionist on the senior management floor said as Doug stepped off the elevator. He was a twenty-something metrosexual in Banana Republic gear whose smiling deference was so total it almost begged a crude response. “I’ve sent a few packages down to Sabrina for you.”

Doug had gone through three secretaries before he found Sabrina Svetz. She was an aspiring writer looking for a day job. A brunette with the angular features of her Slavic ancestors, her looks were peaking now in her late twenties, the severity of the bone structure no longer hidden by youthful chubbiness, but still on the glamorous side of gaunt. He liked that she fundamentally resented her job and had other ambitions. It clarified their relations. She was a shameless flirt and ill-suited to working in a bank, always nosing around for odd bits of detail about people’s personal lives. He’d waited three weeks before taking her out for a drink and sleeping with her, a perfunctory exercise they’d engaged in two or three times since and which gave Doug what he needed from her: an understanding between the two of them as individual actors, bound by the bargain they had struck, not some bullshit out of a company handbook about what got reported and to whom. He’d made it perfectly clear before they took their clothes off what the sex would and wouldn’t mean. Being a somewhat hardened woman, for reasons he didn’t care to know, she understood right away and consented. She’d often eat her lunch in Doug’s office with the door closed, telling him about her dating life and discussing who was hot and who wasn’t among the staff.

She was writing a novel set during the Spanish Civil War and had a thing for Iberian men, particularly those whose grandparents were old Fascists willing to talk.

“Our Leader awaits you,” she said, not bothering to look up from her screen as he approached her desk. The downside of such close relations was that she felt comfortable indulging a degree of sullenness that would otherwise have been considered unprofessional. The gain, however, was worth it. She did exactly as instructed even if it meant telling the chief of administration to screw off. She had no loyalty to the organization but plenty to Doug.

This was important. When Holland had hired Doug, Union Atlantic had been a regional, commercial bank. It took in deposits, offered checking accounts to the public, and made loans to businesses and real estate developers. It had the conservative balance sheet of the highly regulated institution that it was. But Holland’s plan for the company was much larger. Through acquisition, he wanted it to grow into a financial-services conglomerate with an investment banking arm, an insurance division, and a private wealth management business.

Holland had given Doug two jobs, one as head of foreign operations and the other as the man in charge of the newly created Department of Special Plans. The purpose of the latter was to formulate long-term strategy for how Union Atlantic should navigate the new, deregulated environment, in which Congress was slowly repealing all the old, New Deal reforms that had prevented banks from owning the insurers and investment houses Holland wanted to buy. Doug had done a ferociously good job. On his advice, the bank had brazenly commenced acquisitions that were strictly speaking still illegal but that Doug foresaw would be approved by the time the deals were finalized, in part because of Union Atlantic’s own lobbying but also because their competitors, as soon as they caught on, would follow suit adding their own legislative pressure to scrap the old protections. Leading the pack, Holland, Doug, and the management team had been able to cherrypick the most profitable companies to acquire. In less than six years, while several of the older behemoths had stumbled, Union Atlantic had grown from a stand-alone commercial bank into Union Atlantic Group, a global player and one of the four largest financial companies in the country. Holland had capped it off with the new tower. Soon thereafter he’d appeared on the cover of Fortune and BusinessWeek. The leading industry analyst, a prick named Koppler, pronounced Union Atlantic Group the herald of a new paradigm for multi-platform financial services and its stock rose six percent in a day.

All that was before the fall of 2001. The 9/11 attacks had cut nearly seven hundred points off the Dow. Then, less than two months later, Enron had collapsed. Like many banks, Union Atlantic had provided the Houston energy trader and its off-balance-sheet partnerships with considerable amounts of financing. Meanwhile, Atlantic Securities, the investment banking arm, had sold Enron’s bonds to investors and had purchased many of them with its own money. Still, that wasn’t the worst of it. In December, Argentina had defaulted on its sovereign debt.

For years, Argentina had been a poster child for the International Monetary Fund, obediently implementing the Washington Consensus on structural adjustment, privatizing state-owned industries and public-sector utilities, mostly by selling them to foreign investors, and it had brought inflation under control by pegging the peso to the dollar. In the process, the bonds that the Argentinean government sold to finance its spending had become hugely popular with Western banks. They paid a higher rate of interest than the bonds of first-world countries, and given the IMF’s ongoing support of the Argentinean economy, they seemed a safe bet, even after a deep recession in the late nineties.

Countries as economically mature and as connected to the global system as Argentina didn’t walk away from their sovereign debt; it simply wasn’t done. Or at least never had been until December 2001, when the new government, ushered in after riots in Buenos Aires, defaulted on $81 billion owed to creditors around the world.

Up to this point, the American financial press had been happy to more or less ignore the cash that Union Atlantic itself had burned through in its recent spree of acquisitions. Now, however, given their exposure to the Argentinean crisis, the breathless coverage gave way to jitters, and with those came a sharply falling stock price.

And so once again Holland, seeing his grand plan imperiled and impatient with his doubters, had turned to Doug and the Department of Special Plans and said: Fix it.

To do this the company had to beat the market’s expectations for its earnings for at least two quarters in a row. The quickest way to accomplish that was to pump up the revenues at Atlantic Securities, especially in its futures and derivatives business. Attracting more clients, and thus earning more commissions from handling their trades, wouldn’t be enough; they would have to trade with the firm’s own money — proprietary trading as it was called — in order to enjoy the larger profit margins that came with such direct risk.

But there was a major obstacle to this strategy. In order to place such large, proprietary trades in the futures markets, Atlantic Securities had to post margins with the various exchanges it traded on. Enough cash, in fact, to cover any potential losses. This put a strain on Atlantic Securities’ cash flow. Too much of its capital was being tied up in margin accounts.

The obvious solution was for Union Atlantic, the regular commercial bank with a strong capital base of customer deposits, to lend Atlantic Securities the money it needed. The two entities were, after all, owned by the same holding company. But federal regulations limited this “lending across the house.” And the company’s own internal policies set strict limits on the practice. Divisions within the group were supposed to negotiate with one another at arm’s length. This was all well and fine when you had time on your hands. All very punctilious. One of those procedural safeguards in-house counsel derived such satisfaction from enforcing, never having generated a dime of profit in their lives. But a few more quarters of bad earnings reports, and a strategic plan years in the making could begin to crumble.

And so Doug had done what he’d been hired to do: he’d exercised his impatience. To get around the regulation, he had created a new corporation he dubbed Finden Holdings. Its sole purpose was to borrow cash from Union Atlantic and lend it to Atlantic Securities. This wasn’t illegal, strictly speaking, but the lawyers and auditors knew enough to keep the details in the footnotes. With this invention, the big money had begun to flow into the accounts of Doug’s foreign traders. Soon enough, profits were up.

In the first quarter of 2002, Union Atlantic Group exceeded Wall Street’s earnings forecast by more than any other company in the sector. Once again, they had proven themselves agile and determined. And this satisfied Doug. It satisfied him a great deal. Not because of the likely size of his bonus or the further expansion of his informal dominion. The execution was what gratified him. The focus and precision and directedness of his will. At such times, his churning mind turned lucid and through it power flowed as frictionless as money down a fiber-optic line, the resistance of the physical world reduced to the vanishing point. He felt then like the living wonder of the most advanced machine, as if he’d been freed of all organic hindrance to glide on the plain of pure efficiency. A place of relief, even peace.

Having Sabrina around to fend off the nitpickers and cover for him when he let his lesser, administrative tasks slide had been a great help.

“We have an office in Madrid, right?” she asked now, sidling into Doug’s office to hand him a manila folder.

He nodded.

“I need you to take me there on a business trip. For a week or so.”

Now and again Sabrina employed this sort of presumption, a compensatory fantasy, he imagined, for the inherent powerlessness of a person with an advanced degree in short fiction. It was as though she’d bargained on receiving a certain cultural cachet that had yet to materialize and in the meantime needed a bridge loan of prestige paid out in the quasi-glamour of international travel. Her parents were doctors who’d covered everything through graduate school but had drawn the line at outright patronage.

The paper she had just handed him was McTeague’s latest request for cash to post as margin on the futures exchange in Singapore. The amount was enormous. In addition to money to cover Atlantic Securities’ own trades, he was asking for large sums to cover the trading of his growing list of clients out in Hong Kong, mostly hedge funds who’d been attracted to McTeague’s high profits and wanted in on the action.

“We’re the victims of our success,” he said to Doug, once Sabrina had got him on the line. “Half of Greenwich wants to give me their money. If we don’t lend them the margin, someone else will.”

He sounded jacked up, teetering on nervous, which was just where Doug wanted him, on that vigilant edge, pumped about what he had in hand but wanting more. When news of what the Japanese Ministry of Finance was doing to prop up the Nikkei became public, he could turn McTeague off. But at present he was working perfectly.

“Three hundred and twenty million. That’s a lot of money,” Doug said. “Keep me close, you understand? I want to see the daily numbers.”

“Of course,” McTeague replied.

“You know Holland’s waiting for you, right?” Sabrina said, ignoring the fact that he was on the phone as she sat sprawled on the couch, leafing through a magazine. “He called down here himself.”

*   *   *

The architects of the Union Atlantic tower had understood well who their client was. Not a corporation, not a board of directors, and certainly not a twelve-member building committee, but one man, the head of all three: Jeffrey Holland. The new headquarters had been his project from the outset and no major decision regarding it had been made without his approval. In the chairman’s suite, a brocade upholstered sofa fit for an English country manor sat beneath a painting of a river valley and snowcapped mountains, the canvas framed in faded gold leaf. The sofa afforded a view, through floor-to-ceiling windows, onto a flagstone terrace beyond the railing of which was visible only sky. This office — really its own structure sitting atop the tower — had everything an acquisitive soul might want of architecture without the distraction of postmodernism or the discomfiture of real innovation. The gesture toward minimalism in its frame and fenestration was sufficient to give it the patina of restraint, while in every significant detail, from the fluted columns of the dark-wood bookcases to the enormous Oriental carpets, it retained all the pleasures of empire. It was a big, bright compliment of a room.

Which, of course, fit well its function. When you wanted a French media-and-defense conglomerate to do its banking with you rather than with Chase, this was a fine place to chat with their chairman about his country house, his daughter’s art-school plans, and the benefits of proximity to Harvard before the lesser suits took him downstairs to explain the offer. You didn’t do PowerPoint in a room like this; you put people at ease.

“He’s on the phone,” Holland’s secretary, Martha, said, as Doug approached. “Not that that will stop you.”

He continued up the hall to the open door of the sun-flooded office. The man himself stood by the far window with his back to Doug looking north over the Fleet Center to the webbed white cables of the new Zakim bridge that spanned the mouth of the Charles. He spoke to the view, his hands in his pockets, the silver dagger of an earpiece extending an inch down his cheek.

“. . . . which is why those aren’t the only provisions we want in the bill. Everyone has an interest in transparency: us, the consumer, the courts. Who doesn’t want bankruptcies sped up? Who doesn’t want them rationalized? And I don’t think anyone’s been better at communicating that than you, Senator.”

He shook his head back and forth in disagreement with whatever he was hearing on the other end. When he turned and spotted Doug, he gestured with a nod for him to sit.

“Of course, Senator, I understand that, and believe me the last thing I want is my own lobbyist getting in the way of . . . I understand that.”

Holland was a tall man, six-three at least, broad shouldered and bulky in the chest without quite being overweight. He’d never been an athlete in college, yet he had an athlete’s bodily ease, his big shoulders rolled back, his girth part of the motion of his walk as he approached you, more an element of persuasion than anything to be embarrassed by. That same animal confidence was part of the motion of his face with its wide, agile mouth, full cheeks and thick nose, and the soft blue eyes, such an intimate part of the larger seduction. Photographs captured only the bluntness and gave little hint of the effect his physical presence had on others. Doug had seen it a hundred times, the way he rolled in on a mark — client or politician or friend — leveling their defenses at the outset with the big handshake, the big knowing smile, the slightly colder stare pushing the last barrier aside, so that by the time he opened his mouth his target was already nodding in agreement.

“Well,” Holland said with a chuckle, “if Bob Rubin can call himself a Democrat, I guess I can too. And believe me, we’re talking to your colleagues. No reason this should be a party-line matter. The public needs to hear about the safeguards, see how it would make credit cheaper for everyone in the end. We’re ready to roll all that out. It’s just a matter of timing, which is why I wanted to get your sense of where things stand . . . Of course, of course, we’ll be in touch.”

He removed his earpiece, took a seat, and swung his feet up onto the desk.

“Grassley’s an asshole.”

“He’s still with us, right?”

“Sure he is. The bankruptcy bill’s been his for years. Trouble is, if it ever gets passed he’ll need a whole new fund-raising strategy.” He joined his hands behind his head and stretched out to full length. “But that’s not my main concern right now. Have you looked at your cash position lately? You’ve got us lending to your traders hand over fist. Don’t get me wrong — your profits are impressive. But you’re tying up a lot of capital.”

He stood, thrust his hands in his pockets, and began pacing behind his desk.

“We’re attracting clients,” Doug said. “And we’re lending them the money to play the market with. It’s not our risk, it’s theirs. That’s the bigger point. The business is growing.”

I understand the position you’re in. That’s what Doug had told Holland during his final interview for the job. The board wants results. They want them quickly. What didn’t need to be said, what Doug’s tone of absolute confidence had said for itself: There will be times when it would be better if you didn’t know everything. I understand that too.

Holland had no idea how he and McTeague had discovered the plans of the Japanese government nor had he briefed him on the finer details of the Finden Holdings arrangement.

Coming up in the industry, Doug had met a lot of guys like Holland, men in their fifties and sixties who had never been in the military. Like the rest of them, Holland loved that Doug had run air defense on the most advanced ship in the navy and that he’d seen action in the Persian Gulf. He derived pleasure from it, the same satisfaction, it struck Doug, as the pleasure he himself used to get inspecting missiles down in their bays, running his hand over the shiny white warhead of an SM-2, feeling through the tips of his fingers all that locked-down, riveted potential. That’s what he was for a man like Holland: an attractive weapon. Doug worked best with the men who understood implicitly the balance of excitement, ignorance, and reward he offered. And no one had understood it better than Holland. He knew his aggression had to be channeled through others. He needed tentacles up into the board, laterally into the senior management with eyes on his job, and down into the bowels of the operation, where the consequences of loyalty were more concrete. Like a ship’s captain, who in principle relied on the chain of command but in practice drew close those he trusted, Holland surrounded himself with people who owed their jobs to him, and it was through these officers, of whatever rank, that he worked his will. He loved that all the secretaries had crushes on Doug, and that the rest of the department heads loathed him. Deep into the bullshit of management science, Holland had consultants threaded everywhere, hard at work rubber-stamping his plans, providing cover for whenever an initiative failed. But at base such caution bored him, and if he were honest with himself he would have to admit that it embarrassed him too. To all such mealymouthed, process nonsense, Doug was the perfect antidote: a means to direct action. Yet, as with any secret weapon, the pleasure and protection lay in the having of it, not in the use.

“What about our own trades?” Holland asked. “Where do we stand?”

For all his bluster about cash flow, this was why he had asked Doug to his office: to hear news of profit.

“Hong Kong netted thirty-five million last week. Next week, it’ll be forty.”

Holland glanced up, raised his eyebrows, and smiled. Then he strolled to the opposite side of the office to gaze from the window. Beneath a cloudless sky, the water of the harbor shimmered, a white ferry churned slowly from the pier, planes in the distance glided onto the peninsula of runways at Logan, the whole brilliant vista softened by the tint of the glass.

“That guy from Time called again,” he said. “He’s coming next week. They’ve decided to go ahead with the profile after all.”

“Congratulations,” Doug said.

“Thanks. So what’s the news with you? Are we neighbors yet? Have you moved out to Finden?”

“Yeah. Which reminds me. You know a woman named Charlotte Graves?”

“Never heard of her. What the hell are you going to do with all that space, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Doug said. “Make a killing maybe?”

Holland laughed. “My wife loathes people like you,” he said. “Probably because she used to be one.”