Article in Arts / Literature / Mystery & Crime
Norb Vonnegut lends his unique insider’s perspective and his darkly humorous writing to a fast-talking suspense thriller that takes readers inside the high-rolling world of global finance. Preview the first two chapters of his new novel, "The Trust."
 
 
 

The Trust will be in stores July 2012. It is the second book in my Grove O'Rourke series of financial thrillers, first introduced in Top Producer.

–Norb Vonnegut

CHAPTER ONE

In my business, nothing good happens on Friday afternoon.

I’ve been at the game ten years. I know better than to hang around before the weekend starts. But there it was, nine minutes to the closing bell. Friday afternoon. Tangled in the stretch cord of my headset, I wasn’t going anywhere. Not anytime soon.

Elbows on knees and hands cupped over headphones, I perched on the lip of my swivel chair and gazed down at a stain on the carpeting. At this level, I could smell the trace odors from chemicals. Cleaning solvents had washed out the steel-blue fibers but not the soy sauce. Go figure.

Every so often, I glanced sideways. To my right, Cleopatra legs were going toe to toe with a pair of pin-striped pants. And I wondered who would kick the other one’s shins first.

If your head is under the desktop, as mine was, chances are somebody will ask if there’s a problem. He might even call the paramedics. That’s assuming you work in a reasonable profession like food services or publishing. Or you live in a reasonable place like Wichita, San Diego, maybe even Des Moines.

But if you’re a stockbroker in midtown Manhattan, nobody notices when you crouch under your desk. That’s our cone of silence, our ad hoc refuge when we’re on the phone and it’s impossible to hear because the bonehead three desks over is screaming, “I just bagged an elephant!”

Some people hear “The Call of the Wild,” and their thoughts turn to the Jack London novel.

I associate that title with stockbrokers. We fight and yap all day. We mark our territories. And you can take it from me. We’ve forgotten more about pack behavior than London’s sled dogs will ever know.

My name is Grove O’Rourke. I work at Sachs, Kidder, and Carnegie, or SKC for short. We’re a white-shoe investment bank, a place where the elite go for smart ideas and kid-glove service. From the outside, all you see are bright people and lots of panache.

Inside, it’s a different story. We could be Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, or any of the wirehouses. Backstabbing. Rival coalitions. There’s nothing pretty about slimeballs. Internecine warfare is the same in every firm.

So are the office layouts. Stockbrokers get crammed into tight spaces. No surprise given the staggering cost of office space across Manhattan. At SKC, there are 150 of us arranged in neat rows of high-tech workstations.

We make a ferocious racket: buying, selling, and nagging clients to shit or get off the pot. Throw in a dozen televisions tuned to CNBC or Fox Business, and the noise is more jarring than silverware in a garbage disposal. Our place is a nuthouse.

But stockbrokers, I mean the ones who succeed in our produce-or-perish business, get used to commotion. That includes military brats like me. Long ago I stopped asking, How’d I get here? I discarded my old notions about order, because survivors are the ones who adjust to chaos.

Take the phones. There are time-honored techniques for working them. Outgoing calls are easy. We grab mobiles and disappear into empty conference rooms for sensitive or personal topics. No noise. No prying ears. No big deal.

Incoming calls require finesse. Our quarters are so tight that everybody eavesdrops, whether intentional or otherwise. That’s why we talk to our wives and girlfriends, anybody phoning with a prickly issue, from down below. There’s no telling when loose lips will bite our sorry asses. Most days, crouching under a desk is business as usual on Wall Street.

That Friday afternoon the noise was deafening, over the top. I was on the phone with a client, not just any client, but Palmer Kincaid. I couldn’t hear myself think.

Scully, the world’s loudest stockbroker, was screaming all hoarse and bulgy-eyed at Patty Gershon, who holds her own in these ax fights. To be fair, Patty isn’t a screamer. Not usually. Guile is her thing, the closest you’ll ever come to meeting a tarantula in high heels.

The decibels had taken over, though. Every broker and sales assistant in the room gawked as the argument mushroomed louder and more fierce.

Scully: “Stay away from my client.” F-bomb.

Gershon: “Lowell asked me to mop up your mess.” F-bomb.

Back and forth, the two cursed. And I couldn’t hear Palmer, my client and mentor, the guy who got me into Harvard. He’d opened all the doors. He was the bigger-than-life presence, the shrewd coach riding a winning streak that would never end. At least, that’s what I’d always thought.

Until now.

“I need your help.” He sounded shaky. There was none of Palmer’s trademark swagger. He had gone off his game, tentative and distracted.

The Palmer I knew was silky and genteel one minute, an invincible, maybe even ruthless, negotiator the next. He was the classic Charleston businessman, all charm and orthodontist smile, kicking the dirt, playing the small-town card, and taking the center cut from every deal.

Don’t get me wrong. Palmer was fair. He was honest. He had allies out the yingyang, and I was one of them. But let’s put it out there. Real estate developers don’t make $200 million playing Good Samaritan.

Palmer was unflappable. For twenty years, I had admired his grace under fire. All hell could be breaking loose, and he’d invite you into his office and chat about the family. He was never in a hurry.

Not today. Those four words, “I need your help,” sounded like Greek coming from his lips.

“Name it.” I was worried about my friend. I wished Scully and Gershon would shut up.

Palmer did not reply. Not at first. The seconds ticked by. The silence became awkward. When he finally spoke, I expected some kind of explanation for his change in behavior.

Didn’t happen.

“Damn, Grove! What’s going on there?” Apparently, the noise was getting him too.

“Hang on thirty seconds, okay?”

“Sure, whatever.”

“Thirty.”

I put Palmer on hold and stormed toward Scully. His face burned redder than a watermelon. His neck veins bugged out, fat and puffy like thick blue garden hoses.

He stopped shouting at Gershon, who took a time-out herself. The two stared at me, openmouthed at my intensity. So did the 147 other brokers and eighty-some-odd sales assistants scattered across the floor. Suddenly there was absolute silence, the calm before the storm.

Look, I’m not especially big. About six feet tall, and my girlfriend says, “Grove, you could use ten pounds.” You see me and think Lance Armstrong with ginger hair. It’s not my size that works in these situations, maybe not even what I say.

It’s attitude. When I hit my limit, I morph into a human wrecking ball. I become ruthless, brash, capable of flattening anyone who gets in the way. My Southern manners go AWOL. I have a temper.

“What do you want?” Scully boomed, more bravado than brains, surprised anybody would intrude on his two-person hissy fit. He glanced away, a fleeting nervous flicker, and it was game over. I had him.

Patty said nothing, which is typical. She’s more cunning.

Slowly, deliberately, I leaned over and squeezed Scully’s shoulder hard enough to make a point. I whispered into his ear, soft enough so nobody else could hear. Not even Gershon. I spoke without venom because conviction is ten times more effective.

Scully’s eyes dilated, saucer wide and jittery. The world’s loudest stockbroker lost his voice. But his face quivered, and his brow furrowed like a scared rabbit’s. “What’d you say?”

No need to answer. I stared a hole into Scully until he dropped his eyes again. The trick in these situations is to threaten once. Act like a hair trigger, methodical, outcome certain, ready to snap any second. Repeating myself, even a simple glance at Patty, would have broken the spell.

Thirty seconds are an eternity when you’re shredding somebody’s self-confidence. It took less than twenty for Scully to cave. “Let’s grab a conference room,” he told Gershon.

She looked puzzled, waving her hands and trailing after him. “What did he say?” The two left the room, Scully in the lead, trying to regain his dignity.

“Sorry, Palmer.” I was back on the phone, sitting upright at my desk. “What’s going on?”

But the moment had passed. His head was somewhere else. “I’ll call you Monday, Grove.”

“Don’t you need my help?”

“Give me the weekend to think things over.” “Think what over?”

“Nothing the harbor won’t fix,” he said, not all that confident but somehow easing into his steady charisma. Palmer had forgotten more about Southern charm than half of Charleston will ever know. “You still seeing Annie?”

“Whenever I can.”

“Take her out to dinner. Get to know her.”

What’s that mean?

“I’ll call you Monday,” Palmer repeated.

Then he was gone, and the biggest mistake I ever made was not hopping the next flight to Charleston.

CHAPTER TWO

Charleston, South Carolina

Palmer hung up the phone and gazed across his office. Wide-plank floors were the perfect canvas for a scatter of Persian rugs. The pine wainscoting, ravaged by generations of wood-boring worms, was imported from England. And his antique furniture predated the 1900s. It seemed that everything in the room, Palmer included, was clinging to memories from better times.

Dozens of photos lined the walls. There was Palmer—doughy face and twinkly eyes. His hair was either blond or white, depending on his age in the picture. He was shaking hands with Bill Clinton at the presidential library in Little Rock, hobnobbing with the mayor of Charleston, and dining with Pope Benedict XVI deep inside the Vatican. The shots all trumpeted his storied past. But the politics, big-money career, and more recent years of philanthropic service were the furthest things from his mind.

Palmer was worried sick about his family. His daughter, Claire, was bright and beautiful at age thirty-three. But she was unmarried, for now, and sauntering through life like a divining rod for losers. Her marriage had been an epic disaster. The only good news was that no kids had been caught in the cross0re.

Ashley Kincaid, Palmer’s first wife, died when their daughter was a young girl. He had never envisioned life without his sweetheart from Bishop England High School. And now, every so often, his thoughts returned to her. He wanted to talk things over, ask her advice. But he was relieved she could not see his distress.

Palmer’s second wife was twenty-seven years younger, a different kind of woman, and a real piece of work in the best possible way. JoJo was loving and affectionate, one of those women who touch everyone, fingertips vital to her communication. She was mercurial, the product of fiery Latin DNA. She spent money like a drunken sailor, not that Palmer cared. JoJo had skills, talents like no woman he had ever known.

He faced a Faustian choice, which is to say, no choice at all. The realization was torturous, eating his thoughts like fire ants. If Palmer did the right thing and fessed up, JoJo and Claire would go to jail. Him, too, but that was beside the point. If he kept his mouth shut, there was no telling what would happen. The consequences might be infinitely worse than a few years in jail.

Really. He had no idea what “his partners” would do. They’d once held themselves out as allies. But they played by a different set of rules, and Palmer was an obstacle. He knew it. They knew it. And in their world, he was expendable.

Palmer could hear his heart beat. He could feel the perspiration running down his brow. He could smell his own fear.

Who are these people?

* * * * *

The Palmetto Foundation once offered so much promise. It was Palmer’s baby, his gift to Charleston. He could forget his shortcuts through the years, the ones that all real-estate developers take. Cutting corners made tight budgets work. But cutting corners left ugly problems for somebody else down the road.

Those days were over.

Palmer had made his money—enough to support generations of Kincaids. Now he was looking for absolution. And the Palmetto Foundation offered a gilt-edged legacy, one he could burnish over time, one that would eclipse his shortcomings forever. The organization was much more than a trust formed by a strangle of legal documents. It was a living, breathing entity. It was Palmer Kincaid’s immortality.

As a charitable conduit, the Palmetto Foundation served everybody in the community. It accepted donations and made grants according to donor wishes. It provided accounting, investment, and administrative services. It enabled families to build philanthropic programs that survived from one generation to the next without the hassle of paperwork. Palmer donated the first $10 million and promised there was more on the way.

Now his dream, giving back to the community and helping others do the same, was a joke. The irony was nobody had a clue. Even as Palmer’s world was unraveling, all of Charleston feted the Kincaids because everything looked oh so good from the outside.

In local circles, Palmer’s name equaled largesse. His reputation had grown beyond the boundaries of his own resources, which were already vast. As the chairman of the Palmetto Foundation’s board of trustees, he signed every single check—whether he was making the gift or honoring the wishes of other philanthropists.

That $100,000 donation to the College of Charleston: Darlene Simpkins chose to remain anonymous, so she channeled her gift through the Palmetto Foundation. Palmer signed the check, which prompted a handwritten thank-you from the college’s Director of Development. Same thing with the Spoleto Festival, the Holocaust Memorial at Marion Square, and several dozen other nonprofit organizations around town. They were all good causes. And Palmer was happy to accept thank-yous, even if he was not the force behind the gifts.

Still, his family gave generously. It was Kincaid money that created critical mass at the Palmetto Foundation. JoJo had recently completed renovations at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Palmer was funding a new wing at the South Carolina Aquarium. And Claire had developed into a philanthropic force all her own at the Charleston Library Society. The locals regarded Palmer’s organization as their beachhead against exogenous threats to Southern manners, stucco houses, and a way of life distilled over three hundred–plus years.

The acclaim, Palmer knew, would end soon enough. If word leaked out, all of Charleston would scorn the Kincaids and whisper behind their backs. He struggled to his feet and lumbered across the hall to his daughter’s o4ce. He felt every bit of the wear and tear from his sixty-six years.

How could I be so stupid?

Claire was the Palmetto Foundation’s Vice President of Development. Her job was to identify families with at least five thousand dollars to give away and help them structure their gifts for medical research, children at risk, whatever.

She was a natural, glowing around donors, opening wallets with the best. She made families believe in the power of giving. She taught them the importance of a philanthropic culture in the home. Everybody trusted Claire Kincaid.

Palmer’s friends often said she would make an “awesome mom,” a high accolade that gave him hope.

“See you Monday, sweetheart.” He was mustering his resources, putting on a good show.

Claire glanced at her watch and feigned disapproval. “And where are you going, mister?”

Palmer marveled that his daughter could stay fresh, both clothes and attitude, through a humid September afternoon. She had a sweep of satiny brown hair, tidy and medium length. Her eyes were clear, free of judgment. Her skin was smooth, flawless, unsullied by the worries that come from society games. She was growing more gracious with age, just like her mother, who’d always had a kind word for everybody.

“Night sailing on Bounder.” He mopped his brow with a handkerchief. “Oh, fun. May I come?”

“Not tonight, sweetheart.”

“I won’t ask Mikey,” she persisted, slightly hurt.

Claire’s latest boyfriend was a turkey. Palmer would rather slit his wrists than spend five minutes at sea with that guy. But he avoided the urge to make a disparaging remark.

Smiling, eyes twinkling, and stomach somersaulting, Palmer shook his head. “He’s not invited either.”

“Something wrong?”

“Nope.”

Claire paused. Her dad’s reply felt too breezy for her comfort. “You’re not yourself.”

“I need some space tonight.”

One floor down Palmer stopped by JoJo’s office, high ceilings and bold chocolate-brown walls. Her dachshund, Holly, big-dog attitude compressed into a small body, jumped up and sniffed his wingtips. Tail wagging like crazy.

JoJo was sitting on an overstuffed red chintz settee. Her knees were bent, Jimmy Choos tucked underneath. She gunned Spanish into the mouthpiece of her headset, so fast that Palmer couldn’t tell where one sentence began and another ended.

He had taken the language all through high school. A total waste, he’d realized on more than one occasion. Sometimes JoJo would tease him and deadpan in the slow, elongated Spanish she reserved for foreigners, “Usted habla español como un gringo.”

Seeing him, JoJo sprang from the sofa and stuck the landing on four-inch heels. Never stopped talking on the phone. Never missed a beat. Not so much as a pause. Palmer mouthed the words “I’m going sailing,” whereupon she fussed his hair into place, shifted her mouthpiece, and kissed him square and sloppy.

JoJo dabbed traces of Crimson Blush, her favorite shade of lipstick, from his mouth. Her deft touch bordered on foreplay, though it was nothing more than simple affection. “Qué pasa? Qué pasa?” she echoed into the phone, happy and excited, unable to rein back her enthusiasm.

The two made an odd couple. Not so much the difference in their ages: JoJo was thirty-nine; he had a false hip. It was the way they paced through life. Palmer was the classic Southern gentleman, never in a hurry, always slow and methodical, as though the earth would delay its rotation until he caught up. She was kinetic, touching, talking, and tempting.

For an instant JoJo fixed on Palmer. He saw the concern flash across her golden mocha features, her brown eyes dark and almond-shaped, dilated with worry. Palmer smiled double wide, as though closing a deal, and cupped JoJo’s cheek until she twinkled back and all the angst disappeared.

With that he headed down onto Broad Street and into the Charleston evening, still muggy at 5:30 P.M. Just once he glanced over his shoulder at his building, yellow stucco, big soaring windows, the place he dubbed “our world headquarters,” only half in jest.

These days the Palmetto Foundation made him sick. Walking inside was pure torture, the air rank with stupidity and regret. Leaving was hardly any better. Because from the outside, Palmer’s house of good intentions looked more like a tombstone than his shot at redemption. As far as he was concerned, the epitaph should read:

HERE'S WHERE KINCAID F---ED UP.

* * * * *

It was 9:30 P.M.

The sun had gone down. Sea breezes chased the heat, and rising tides drowned the marshy stink of pluff mud. There were no mosquitoes, none of the 2 ying insects that enjoy air supremacy over Charleston. There was just the hypnotizing chop of water, Bounder rocking in the ocean’s cradle. It was a night that made the day easy to forget.

Palmer stared at the Cooper River Bridge. His eyes traced the pillars to the flickering of traffic overhead, to the soft light of the crescent moon. His lungs savored the salty air, his ears the symphony of buoys and navigational bells playing the harbor at night.

After a while, Palmer’s eyes dropped to the ocean’s surface. He lost himself in the occasional flash of dolphins breaking the water, the silvery glint of baitfish stirring the surface in desperate attempts to elude their predators. No way he was pulling up anchor and going home, not anytime soon.

Now, halfway through the bottle, Palmer poured another shot of Wild Turkey. He knocked it back and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He felt the fire rake his throat, the hot-chill liquid sliding down his pipes.

Alcohol is Advil for stupidity.

Palmer had boiled a pound of king-sized shrimp for dinner and was down to the last few. He peeled one, tossed the head and shell over the gunwale, and thrust the shrimp into a bowl of his special cocktail sauce.

It had taken him exactly three tries to perfect the formula, which was nothing more than the generic brand plumped up with horseradish and Peter Luger’s steak sauce. He laughed when he considered all the people who had offered to pay for the recipe.

The stars, the open night, made everything okay. Behind prison bars, he would lose this peace, the swells and salty smell of sea, the shadowy views of Charleston brushed by moonlight.

He might go a year without seeing JoJo or Claire, maybe several depending on how things played out. He had no idea what the courts would decide. But the more he drank, the less he cared about what happened to him. It was time to protect his wife and daughter. No matter what.

In Wild Turkey, wisdom.

On Monday he’d call his lawyer. He’d fall on a sword and take one for the team. Avoiding the law was an unacceptable risk, one Palmer refused to take with his family’s safety at stake.

Afterward, he’d call Grove. That kid had navigated more than his fair share of problems. He was a guy Palmer could trust, smart and rock-solid reliable even if a little slow to take action.

“Sometimes you do the best you can and just say f--- it,” Palmer observed to no one in particular.

“Is that any way for a good Catholic to speak?”

Palmer almost leaped out of his skin. He whirled toward the cabin. What he saw made him sick.

 
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Norb Vonnegut
"If anybody can turn international finance and hedge funds into a riveting thriller, it's Norb Vonnegut." (Jeffery Deaver) When the money

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