Michael Washburn

The Other Baxter

The plane landed thirty minutes late and then he had to wait forever in the cramped aisle as people yanked their luggage from the bins and shuffled off one by one. A few of the passengers around him communicated with their eyes about his body odor. He had spent the weekend getting drunk and burning through his savings and did not feel at all ready to engage again with the world. Now every little thing seemed calculated to add to his frustration.

His lateness would make his meeting at the law firm downtown all the more unpleasant. They would all be sitting around a table in a conference room, their grace and politeness eroded further than ever, when the unshaven man who had slept in his clothes finally walked in. It truly wasn’t his fault. A storm moving up the coast had caused the delay or cancellation of dozens of flights. The meeting had to go well. If there was hope, Baxter thought, it lay in the possibility of forcing the legal proceedings over his wrongful termination by the university to at least a partly favorable outcome. So what if he had shown up for class hungover and called one of the kids an idiot in front of everyone. He thought he was brighter than most of his colleagues and the school enforced its statutes rather arbitrarily. The administration should have known how lucky it was to have him on the faculty.

He sauntered through the terminal with his leather briefcase jouncing at his side. These days he took pride in tiny things, such as the negative virtue of not being one of those middle-aged men who still wore backpacks like the kids they taught. But he knew those men he disdained were a lot better off. If Baxter found work again, it might well be as an adjunct, teaching a class or two a week, surrounded by bright young academic stars who found him an oddity or an embarrassment. He tried to imagine his life in six months, a year, five years. It was a colorless block of time, composed of unknown frustrations and miseries.

As soon as he passed the baggage claim and entered the wide lobby, he saw a chauffeur in a smart black suit and cap holding up a sign: BAXTER. Well, well. At last the law firm was living up to its reputation and treating him the way he deserved. He walked up and exchanged words with the chauffeur, who reminded him he was late and said they should get going right away. He followed the man out of the terminal and into the concrete garage.

The limo was long, sleek, and beautiful. He climbed into the back seat and stretched out his legs, relishing the contrast with his economy seat on the plane. The limo glided out of the garage and onto a two-lane road wending toward the expressway. Soon the skyline of the city came into view, looking dreary and sullen in the drizzle. Traffic was light. Baxter liked the fact that he had one of those drivers who let you unwind rather than trying to ply you with idle talk. But the driver did ask one question.

“Do you live in the area, sir?”

“Oh, no. I haven’t been to this town in many years. But I used to teach half an hour from here.”

Luckily the exchange went no further. As he gazed out at the cityscape growing larger in his vision, Baxter thought of the vibrant commerce, the inflows and outflows of capital that would have made this an interesting market to cover back in the days when he edited a small-circulation business journal. Though he missed the freedom of running a scrappy underdog rag, the truth was that teaching was pretty much the only thing he knew how to do that did not lose money. Now he did neither. Forty-eight and jobless.

The limo left the expressway and passed onto one of the streets bisecting downtown, where traffic was as light as ever. To Baxter’s surprise, it did not stop at one of the towers on the cluster of blocks at the heart of downtown where he would have bet the law firm was, but went on up the street and turned twice before easing into the lot behind a tall hotel with a silver façade that would glitter in fine weather.

He found the sense of mystery building inside him kind of pleasant and refrained from asking the driver anything. He wished the limo could take him around for hours, but now it stopped ten yards from the rear entrance and the driver said, “A pleasure, sir.”

“Thank you,” he said, wondering if the etiquette here was to tip. He had no money on him.

As soon as he stepped out of the limo, a silver-haired man in an expensive gray suit walked up quickly with a hand extended. Baxter shook it.

“I’m so glad you made it. Come on, everyone’s been waiting. We’ve got to get you right up there,” the man said.

“Sure,” said Baxter.

“This is really what they paid for and it’s been most awkward keeping them all waiting,” the man added.

“No worries, I had coffee on the plane.”

This was true. The liquor on his breath might have been lethal if the coffee had not countered it. But he wondered what the man meant. What had people paid for? Oh well, today was shaping up most interestingly.

The silver-haired man led him through the glass sliding doors at the rear of the hotel and up a short flight of stairs with red carpet. Clearly this stranger was in no mood to answer questions. At least he was not giving Baxter a hard time about arriving so late. Baxter quickly saw where they were going. It would have been an odd place for a legal meeting, but he no longer had any illusion that that was the event to which the limo had brought him.

The man opened the double doors of the auditorium and ushered Baxter through them and out onto a big stage. The lights were bright and the place was packed. Filling all the rows were men and women in business attire, some young, most in their forties and up. Turning his head, Baxter noted the banner on the wall above the doors through which he had come. He was at a private funds conference, of all things in the world.

The silver-haired man strode right up to the podium and spoke into the mike.

“Let me thank all of you profoundly for your patience. The hurricane delayed our guest’s flight, like so many other flights today. Now without further ado, I am pleased to present Charles Baxter.”

The applause was loud and long. The man took a seat among three other people at the back of the place as Baxter walked up to the podium, thinking he would not have minded if his parents had named him Charles. While he squirmed in that cramped space on the plane, the hosts must have made a detailed introduction in absentia, listing all the scheduled speaker’s credentials. Whoever that Charles Baxter was.

He looked out at all the smartly dressed men and women, recognizing a number of them. Though he had never met them in person, he had seen their faces in the media often enough and had spoken to a few by phone now and then, though they usually said no to his requests for interviews. Here was an opportunity, all right. The world had never shown much interest in his ideas when he was the editor of an also-ran journal printed on the cheapest paper you could find, one that certain people in the audience here today had publicly disparaged as “that Trotskyist rag” without knowing a lot about Trotsky.

He studied the expectant faces.

“Greetings, ladies and gents. Please let me apologize for being unavoidably detained. The weather is spontaneous and violent and broadly disruptive in its effects on society, but not totally beyond the reach of predictive analytics. Please do not laugh at my cheesy metaphor. You all know very well what’s been going on in the markets these days.”

The faces gazed at him, curious, expectant.

“The guidance coming down from Washington nowadays has a notably harsher tone than under the last couple of administrations. That’s as it should be, what with a new president and a new direction for the country. But the substance of the rule-making is another matter entirely. What is Reg BI other than a reiteration of meaningless laws that have been on the books for decades? Do what you think is in your clients’ best interest. Of course, what that best interest might be, and to what degree it aligns with your own, is entirely subjective and up to you. If you can deny that you weren’t trying to screw your clients out of their money, then for all intents and purposes you weren’t. Regulators really should know better than to think such a piss-weak rule will set things right. Barbara Roper at the SEC is one of the few intelligent dissenters. She knows what disclosures mean in practice. They address the exception rather than the rule, when they address anything at all.”

The audience listened intently.

“Trotsky’s one of history’s villains, but I kind of wish Trotsky had not gotten an ice pick to the back of the head and were still around, so he could poke his head in and help you make sense of all this. Or Ernest Mandel, who wrote by far the best book on Trotsky’s life and thought. Mandel understood not only Trotsky but Marx perfectly, and in particular Marx’s vision of the paradoxical nature of a capitalism that has to reinvest and grow to survive, exactly as you in the audience try every day to do, but in doing so will bring about ludicrous excesses of wealth that will strain social cohesion to a point where that very survival is in question. I think you all have an idea of what I mean here.”

There came polite laughs and a bit of applause.

“Sorry to get sidetracked, but it is so true. Some of the people here today, some of the faces I see out there in the audience, are living proof of what I’m talking about. I recognized a few of you right off. There’s Mr. Harold Reid, who, I happen to know, bribed the head of the state’s largest pension fund to make a huge investment in Reid Venture Partners. I have some emails leaked by a disgruntled former employee. But this is garden-variety fraud. Nothing the regulators haven’t seen countless times. You really could find a more original way to be a crook, Mr. Reid. The same goes for you, Ed Rosenbaum. Yes, you, Ed. I’m making eye contact with you right now because I want you to feel just a bit more naked in front of all these people when I tell them how you skimmed money from your II and III funds to finance your Riviera vacations and your yachts and coke and strippers. Again, nothing very original here. Unlike some of the guys in this room!”

There were laughs and grins, along with some cries and gasps. Heads turned toward the GPs whom Baxter had called out, but many eyes stayed on the man at the podium, expectant. Baxter trained his gaze on another man in the audience.

“Mr. Kevin Doyle, of the Doyle Venture Fund, thank you for gracing us with your presence here today. I must say, I always thought you live rather well for a guy who never finished high school. I find you a little more colorful than some of the other characters we’ve got here today, Kevin. You present yourself to investors as a guy with a degree from Harvard Business School, and you also claim to have inherited a great deal of money, putting you right up there with Boston’s blueblood elite. The degree part is nonsense, but you do have bread from somewhere. You just don’t want to say where, understandably enough. The Boston mafia. Whitey Bulger’s old operation or an offshoot thereof. The black market for coke, heroin, whiskey, guns, hot cars, you name it. You used that money to start your fund, and you still had to lie about your AUM, like any skunk in a silk suit. Or merde dans un bas de soie, as Napoleon called Talleyrand, but Talleyrand was a bit more articulate than you!”

People laughed so hard, some of them pointing their fingers at the squirming GP in the fifth row, that Baxter thought they might have heart attacks. But some in the audience looked almost as queasy as Doyle himself, as if wondering where shells fired into a clear blue sky would land next. So far no one had rushed the stage, but Baxter thought a hand might grab him from behind at any moment. With a glance at the back of the place, he saw three vexed onlookers. Maybe they thought the spiel was a practical joke.

“Who else has graced us with his presence today? Let me look around. There are so many saints here. Oh, hi there, Mr. Jason Greene of the Canberra Hedge Fund. You look like you’ve swallowed a rat, sir. I’m in awe. I didn’t know rats can swallow each other. Maybe you thought that naming a fund after Australia’s capital city would lend it prestige. Anyway, I have to give you credit for circumventing one of the safeguards people thought would ensure transparency in this sordid business. One of the top independent directors domiciled in the Cayman Islands is on your payroll, Mr. Greene. Which allows you to exploit a feature of the master-feeder structure. The master fund is a household name, but the money in some of your feeder funds can come from anywhere, and it does come in from parties all over the big stinking world, including the Russian mafia, slave traders, terrorist groups in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, for starters. Your PPM don’t even list all the feeder funds, and some that are listed have names so similar to legit funds that no one blinks an eye. The LPs of the other feeders don’t give a damn as long as the master fund is doing well, and no independent director will disabuse them. You’re a genius, Jason!”

The laugher was raucous and deafening, and people hooted and cheered and stamped their feet on the polished floor. Jason Greene did look as if he had swallowed something vile and wished vainly to expel it.

“What other wonderful human beings are in our midst here today? Ah, Mr. Irwin Bazelon! You all must have heard about the insider trading probe. The Bazelon Fund got an inside tip and made huge investments in anticipation of the merger of two of the big tech firms, long before it was public knowledge. A junior employee at the smaller of the two firms went to the SEC and blew the whistle on his superior, who was the tipper. Maybe you’re wondering why the probe did not lead to a conviction, but what’s remarkable is that the case went before a jury in the first place. It might have been an ALJ proceeding, but Irwin definitely didn’t want that. Those usually go in the SEC’s favor. Someone on the inside made sure that didn’t happen.

“Then when it went to trial, the prosecution could not prove any ‘quid pro quo.’ No one found a record of any transaction or found money that the tipper at the merger target supposedly received. Martoma, and all the subsequent litigation, is so damn nettlesome. The courts have gone back and forth many times about the threshold of evidence and what constitutes a ‘meaningfully close personal relationship.’ Here, you couldn’t convict under any definition. The former tech employee who blew the whistle recanted his testimony. He implicated himself, and said he was just after the whistleblower benefits, which are pretty handsome. I believe $83 million is the current record. His superior did not leak any information, he said. No one could prove otherwise.

“Bazelon threatened the former employee’s family. As for the superior, he did get money. Some of us happen to know it’s tucked away in an offshore account. And Irwin here dictates how much and when the tipper can access any of it. Not a good deal for anyone but Irwin, I have to say!”

The laughter all around turned to literal screams, as people leered and gasped and pointed at the white-haired GP in the seventh row, whose eyes darted around for a means of escape. At the front of the room, the door opened and a clerk from the front desk poked his head in and looked around in concern.

Now Baxter felt the hand from behind he had expected. He turned. The man who had ushered him in here gripped him hard, with fury in his eyes, and tried to pull Baxter away. But just then, two young guys in the first row leapt out of their seats, climbed onto the stage, and began punching and shoving the host. He let go of Baxter and backed away howling.

“I see Melanie Shriver there in the fifth row, and I can tell you her Illustrious Fund III lives up to its name. It’s doing great. Never mind that her PPM are full of lies and exaggerations, because she is literally in bed with the regulators! And there in the same row is Peter Jones of Beauville Capital. Good afternoon, sir. So sorry that one of your young portfolio managers put a pistol in his mouth last year. You could have at least admitted that it was not a result of chronic depression, nothing of the sort, but because you told him to start packing when his numbers came up short.”

Peter Jones formed his right hand and index finger into the shape of a gun and pointed at the man on the stage.

“Nice gesture, Pete. Good to know what kind of guy you are. Anybody ever wonder why there’s less racial discrimination in the Army than elsewhere? Because, obviously, when people have common interests and a common enemy, they bond closely together. Some of you may be feeling solidarity now against the jokester on the stage here today. But it’s not because you really have interests in common, oh, no. Let me elaborate.”

Again he heard movement behind him, but it ceased as soon as the young men in the front row signaled their readiness to respond.

“Of course no gathering of rogues could be complete without Mr. George Fitzhugh, of Fitzhugh Capital. I see you out there in the seventh row, Fitzy. How are you?”

Baxter’s eyes focused on the GP in the seventh row. This individual quickly stood up, held up his wallet, and looked at Baxter imploringly, as if to say, skip me and you can name an amount. This only gave Baxter renewed zeal.

“So Fitzy’s AUM is taking a dive, because another fund, Pitfield Capital, has emerged as a rival in the same area where Fitzy likes to invest, northeast corridor real estate, but Fitzy here happens to have someone on the payroll at the Post. So he has a story planted about a pending audit of Pitfield Capital. Concerning its AUM and liquidity. For the record, it’s not the Post reporter who told me about the plant, but disgruntled persons at Fitzy’s fund. And that’s not all they’ve told me about the activities of Fitzhugh Capital. Anyway, at the time, it was an open question whether the regulators were going to go ahead with their audit. They didn’t really have anything too concrete. Then that story came out, citing sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. Boy, they knew they had to go forward!”

There came gasps and cries amid the laughter. People pointed at the GP in the seventh row, who pulled out his cell phone and began dialing. Baxter found this curious, but turned his gaze to yet another GP.

“I see we have Evan Danforth here in person. Evan took over as Pitfield’s GP three short years ago. That SEC investigation was a blow. Evan had suspicious about the source. So what does he do? He hires some real bad actors, malware experts, who launched an attack on Fitzy’s systems that put a crimp in his operations and made him lose millions. The perpetrators were Russians and people genuinely thought it was a random attack. Even an independent consultant hired by Fitzhugh Capital said that. The consultant was on Evan’s payroll too. He spoke to me in strictest confidence. And you know what? It did originate in Russia, it just wasn’t a random attack, as Fitzy was dumb enough to believe.”

The audience gasped and bellowed. Danforth’s eyes did not flinch. He stared at the speaker even as his hand moved in a fold of his sports jacket.

“Fitzy, the poor bastard, has to shell out $500,000 to get his systems back, and then another $500,000. Then the GP of a fund that’s already hemorrhaging investors has to explain why its AUM is so far down. And then comes a stampede. They want out, they want their money back. And it turns out Fitzhugh Capital’s assets are not so liquid after all, and the money is tied up in so-called trading strategies. If you’ve been wondering why Fitzhugh Capital has been mired in lawsuits for so long now, wonder no more.”

Both the GPs he had just maligned talked into their cell phones as people moved frantically in some of the rows and Baxter had to watch the scene for a few seconds to believe what he thought he saw. It could not be true but it was. LPs of Fitzhugh Capital and Pitfield Capital were physically fighting. They punched and kicked and stabbed each other with ball-point pens. He ignored the screams and shouts and went right on.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Stephen Larkin of Ventrium Partners. You all heard about the phishing incident that led one of Larkin’s employees to transfer $50 million to a fraudulent account. But maybe you aren’t aware of the context. IT security consultants had twice advised Mr. Larkin that his systems were vulnerable, that his employees weren’t even taking minimal precautions and bad actors out there could easily take advantage of their carelessness. Even after getting this advice, Larkin’s firm did not require encryption or take any steps toward a safer internal culture. Some of his flunkies had the same passwords for five years, some worked on their laptops in crowded public places, and a lot of them conducted company business on their personal email accounts.”

Larkin squirmed and seethed. Danforth and Fitzhugh had put away their phones and watched with calm, even poise.

“But that’s nothing compared to the hack that took place at Lilyveld Partners, whose GP, Jeff Sanders, is also here with us this fine afternoon, in the sixth row. Bad actors got access to the names, email addresses, portfolio data, and bank account numbers of hundreds of Lilyveld investors. I’m amazed this fund is still in business. My guess is that Jeff here knows the SEC’s new enforcement chief and has bribed that individual with money and sex and you name it!”

Sanders jumped up.

“Fuck you. You’re the devil. You weren’t on the schedule today. Come on, everyone, let’s take him off the stage now. He’s spewing lies and filth. How many more careers do you want him to ruin?”

A GP in the second row whom Baxter did not recognize rose and spoke.

“No. Don’t rush him. I find this salutary. If any of you have facts to refute what he’s said here today, let’s hear them. Otherwise let him go on.”

“Let’s rush him now!” Sanders urged, and there came echoes.

“Get him!”

“Kill him!”

“Bring him down here so we can have him!”

“Let’s kill that crazy bastard!”

People rose from their seats and began to move into the aisles. Soon the aisles were crowded and a motley array of GPs and LPs approached the stage. But before they could get up onto the stage, something even stranger and more frightening happened. When Baxter heard the doors behind him burst open, he knew that the silver-haired host had been a comparatively minor threat. Six men in dark suits rushed across the stage and grabbed him too fast for him to try to dodge them. One of those GPs in the audience had a private security force at his disposal. But that phrase did not do justice to it, Baxter knew, as he took in the cold ferocity of these men’s looks. Here was nothing less than a commando force. Two of them kicked at the faces of the mob below to keep people from swarming onto the stage as the others hauled Baxter backward and through the doors into the rear lobby. Seconds later he was in an elevator, surrounded by the hostile men.

“Better keep your mouth shut. You’ve said enough for six lifetimes,” one of them told him.

“Why don’t we grease him right now, Ray?” another man said to the first.

“I’m with you, Steve. Time for a little audience in the suite, and then we’ll see.”

“Maybe we could do an auction with those people down there. You know, like, highest bidder picks how he dies.”

The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. They pulled him out and down the carpeted hall to a suite on the tall building’s eastern edge. Inside the suite, two more men in suits waited. They pushed him onto a big plush couch and stood there, arms folded, until the door opened again and Evan Danforth, the GP of Pitfield Capital, walked in. He regarded the captive with a curious, faintly pitying look.

“Well, that was a quite a performance, Charles.”

“My name isn’t Charles.”

“No, of course it isn’t. My mind’s been on other things. Anyway, I think you know what we want.”

Baxter regarded the entrepreneur with murder in his eyes.

“I could never betray a source.”

“Tell us who told you about the malware counterstrike on our competitor. And what else you have found out.”

Baxter shook his head.

“You’ll kill them if I do that.”

“We’re going to find out their names eventually, now that we know about the leak. I’m offering you a chance to save your own skin. Be rational for once in your life.”

“I don’t know where you get off saying that to someone who understands the logic of the market a wee bit better than you.”

Danforth turned for a moment and received something from one of his men. Then the GP moved close to Baxter, slid the tip of the Glock’s black barrel up to the captive’s face, and made it dance playfully under Baxter’s eyes and nose and at his right temple.

“I’m curious about one’s last moments. How different they feel or don’t feel from all the others. But you still don’t have to die here today, pathetic little Trotskyite. You know what we—”

The door burst open again and the noise of gunfire filled the room. Danforth toppled onto the captive, who saw in his peripheral vision more men in suits fanning out into the room and exchanging fire with Danforth’s force. Baxter screamed and covered his eyes, never having imagined he could act in such a cowardly manner. But the firefight ended quickly and then more powerful arms pulled him up off the couch and out of the room. When he opened his eyes, he was at the center of a cluster of men moving down the hall to the elevator. He wondered why the police weren’t all over the building. People downstairs must have thought it was hotel security that had yanked him off the stage earlier, not Danforth’s goons.

His new captors brought him further up, to a penthouse suite. Comprising the entire top floor, it was an elegant place with pristine marble tiles, deco-style tables and benches, and chandeliers at intervals of thirty feet. George Fitzhugh stood there, smiling, his hands in the pockets of his dark $5,000 Tom Ford suit. The men who had brought Baxter here stood flanking him, unsmiling. Baxter thought he knew what was coming now.

“I’m probably not the first to compliment you on your performance today, stranger. Anyway, I know what you’re thinking right now, and you’re dead wrong. I don’t want to know who leaked information to you. We’ll find that out on our own. I already have an idea. No, I’m much more interested in the identity of those malware actors from Russia or wherever. I may even have a use for them in my organization. It’s none of your business what I do with the information anyway. You won’t be betraying a source.”

Baxter felt the coercion like stones on his chest, but no one pointed a gun at him.

“You forgot to call me a pathetic Trotskyite.”

Fitzhugh smiled.

“There’s nothing pathetic at all about Trotsky or his followers. I know you think you’re talking to a man of limited education, but I daresay Trotsky had some insights. And you fill his shoes rather well.”

“Better than you think, Fitzy. And I’m just as fierce a critic of capitalism as it now exists. And, you know, if capitalism today in some ways is a grotesque parody of communism, then guys like you are like petty Stalinists in free-market robes. I can envision alternative forms of capitalism, just as Trotsky espoused a Marxism radically different from what Stalin foisted on the world. Call me an anti-capitalist or a dissident within the prevailing system. I’m the same type of historical actor as Trotsky.”

“Brilliant synthesis, my man. Just brilliant. Now let’s drop this bullshit. We want something and I think you want something. If you agree to my terms, the helicopter on the roof will take you far from here, to a place where no one will ever bother you.”

Baxter nodded. No one had asked him to betray sources here. Fitzhugh was an entrepreneur bartering for information, just as Baxter himself had once used all the means at his disposal to get information. The malware actors had made choices and knew the rules of the game. They were the last people who could ever ask or expect anyone to keep what was in the dark from coming to light.

As the helicopter took off into the early evening sky, Baxter reclined on the rear seat and stretched his legs, once again relishing the amount of space available to him. Though he trusted his new fiduciary to deliver him to a safe place in a remote part of the world, he knew he could not quell the vague doubts and fears at the outer edges of his psyche.

Looking down on the skyline, on the towers with their thousands of lights just beginning to wink out one by one, he thought of all the vain hopes and dreams and the fierce, at times pathological yearnings animating all the souls in the rented spaces behind those rectangles of light at far-flung points in the dusk, and he thought of the future.

The tenant of a house on a remote property in a hot dusty white and ochre landscape grapples with distractions, growing more numerous by the day. The chickens in the yard, the goats and cows and rabid dogs in the fields beyond, the coyotes that howl in the evening, and, here on the property, the cats that respect no borders and wander in and find cozy places to curl up.

But the distractions are not the equal of his vast intellectual curiosity, which keeps him up late into the light, driving him to study and probe and develop theories about the transmission of capital and the development of systems, structures, hierarchies, and schemes at points all over the wretched planet.

Study will reward his patience. Cycles will present themselves, theories and hypotheses will crystallize in the mind of the patient erudite student.

The candle by his desk burns on into the night as a gust comes through the open window, from the vast dark in which the coyotes that usually call so defiantly into the night at last are silent, as if in deference to the progress of his research.

He sips coffee, replaces the filter in his pen, and does not tire or pause, until he hears footsteps on the bare floor behind him.

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).