The Fires of Time


The Fires of Time is now available in full on Amazon.


This book is entirely a work of fiction. Except forrecognized historical figures like Calvin and Borges, all names, characters, places, businesses, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any event, business, or actual person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2014 by Gary W. Tapp

“Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical

and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909, pp.149-150

“For now we see through a glass, darkly.”

I Corinthians, 13:12

I. The Russian Woman

"Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which

threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.

And now, O Lord, what remains to a wretch like me,but instead of defence, earnestly to supplicate you not to judge that fearful abandonment of your Word according to its desserts, from which in your wondrous goodness you have at last delivered me.”

-John Calvin describing his conversion, preface to

Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1557


If you walk up the steep, cobble-stoned hill from the Rhone in Geneva’s old city toward the Cathedral Sainte Pierre and take the left fork in the road, you will quickly encounter the impassive stone house where John Calvin lived while he was the Cathedral’s pastor from 1541 until his death in 1564. If you are not in the habit of reading about sixteenth century Switzerland, you may be a bit confused already. How did Calvin, who once wrote that “the churches governed by the ordinances of the pope are rather synagogues of the devil rather than Christian churches,” become in charge of a Roman Catholic cathedral, you may ask. You can find out by walking into the Museum of the Reformation, which is in a modest stone house across the street from the Cathedral. Or it might be the subject of a nightmare that Brian Jacobsen is going to have in the twenty first century.

Inspired by the idea that the cathedral was a “synagogue of the devil,” Calvin’s congregation went right to work. They stripped the building of its exquisitely carved altars and statues and whitewashed the spectacular murals on the walls. Looking at so much beauty might have distracted them from their focus on the utter depravity into which they had been born.

Don’t worry. This book is not about Calvin; it’s about Brian Jacobsen, a 55-year old small-time American fund manager with reddish-brown hair who wandered into trouble in 2008. And the Russian woman. And hitting a curve ball. One fine day in the spring of 2008, Brian happened to find himself in Geneva, just down the hill from the cathedral.  Brian did not consider himself naïve in the ways of the world; but he was, after all, an American. He was raised on rags-to-riches legends, Disney movies, and adolescent sports heroes like Chip Hilton and Bronc Burnett. Defeat was always temporary and usually occurred in the first two chapters. But he was in high school in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.

He was a freshman in college in 1971 when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, revealing that the president, the secretary of defense, the secretaryof state, and the Pentagon had lied about the origins of the Vietnam War. He had just graduated from college when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in the summer of 1974. Despite those disillusioning experiences, he tended to assume that most people who are not politicians follow the rules and tell the truth most of the time. (The last American history course Brian had taken was in 11th grade, and they left out a few things, but that is no excuse.)

He liked baseball: its hypnotic rhythm, its subtlety, its rich history. By the time he was twelve, he had absorbed the biographies of Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Bob Feller. He put in hundreds of hours in the summer fielding grounders against the wall of his garage. He liked the fact that, unlike much of what passed for entertainment, baseball was not scripted. The unexpected could happen. A substitute shortstop, hitting .219, could somehow hit a bloop single off the league’s best pitcher with two out in the ninth to win the game. That was not luck; it was not random. It was just the game’s range of possibilities playing out.

He came from a religious family, the kind of family that sat down to dinner together every night and gave thanks to God before eating. He thought of himself as a good person. The kind of person who would pursue a predictable arc in his career and in his personal life. A compassionate person who cared about other people’s feelings. If you met him at a party, he would be likely to ask a whole series of questions about you, your family, and where you grew up. The kind of person who wouldn’t find his train running off the tracks.

Perhaps you think of yourself that way, too. But things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to. Even if you assume, as Calvin did, that you must be one of those that God has predestined for salvation and glory.

In Geneva, if you take the right fork in the road on your way up the hill from the river, at 28 Grand Rue Vecut, you will pass the house where Jorge Luis Borges lived as a young man from 1914 through 1921. Borges, whose grandmother was English and whose childhood home had a library of 1,000 English books, was home-schooled in Argentina until the age of 11. He went to high school in French-speaking Geneva, an unusual educational sequence that enabled him to learn several languages, write Labyrinths, a book of stunningly imaginative stories and essays, and re-invent magical realism. He went completely blind at age 55, came to America on speaking toursin the 1960s, and met many entranced college girls. We are going to meet one of them.

Later on, back in Buenos Aires, Borges went to a poetry reading and met a former janitor and night club bouncer named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an athletic man with a curious mind who had recently become aJesuit priest and who enjoyed discussing literature. They became friends and would sit in a cafe drinking cappuccino and discussing medieval mystics. Forty years later, long after Borges had died, Bergoglio was elected Pope, the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The Cardinals who elected him probably were unaware of this accident of history, but we can assume that he is the first Pope who has read most of Borges’ work. How much of Calvin the Pope has read would be interesting to find out.

In 1958, Borges published a story entitled, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Near the end of the story, the narrator says, “I have some understanding of labyrinths. Not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pen who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel... and to construct a labyrinth.”

This ancestor (Ts’ui Pen) was murdered and “his novel was incoherent and no one found the labyrinth.”In Borges’ story, the narrator says “I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars.” In the end, our narrator discovers that his ancestor “did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.”

He discovers that “time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures.”Meanwhile, two blocks away but 428 years earlier, Calvin was busily explaining the doctrine of predestination, the idea that “God does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation, but gives to some what He denies to others.” Calvin recognized that some, perhaps most, people would have trouble with the idea that some of us are predestined to receive God’s grace, while others are doomed.

In fact, “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. ...let them remember that when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in Himself.”

(Calvin, Institutes, 1536).

Curiosity, to be sure, is a dangerous thing. The idea that curiosity is dangerous, passed on from Augustine in the fourth century, echoes down the centuries and finds a comfortable home in certain American congregations today.

If Brian were in Geneva as a tourist, which he was not, he might have actually read a little Borges and a little Calvin before the trip to get a taste of the city’s cultural heritage. If he had, he might have wondered if there was something about the atmosphere in Geneva that led two of its most famous intellectuals to become fascinated with labyrinths.

Maybe it was just because Geneva’s old city, , like most of the medieval sections of European cities, was full of narrow, twisting streets and alleys where, if you were not careful, you could easily become seriously lost, or deceive yourself into thinking you were on the right path.

Beneath the cathedral is an archeological site where you can descend underground and see the remains of several previous Christian churches, and, at the lowest level, an ancient Roman temple from the fourth century. As you go down the twisting iron steps, each level gets darker and colder. In fact, there is an underground passageway that connects the archaeological site with the Museum of the Reformation.

By going through this underground passage, you can skip the so-called “Dark Ages” and go directly from ancient Rome to the bright and cheery Age of Reformation. Unless you take a wrong turn.

2nd Installment

Less than 800 meters away from the cathedralat the bottom of the hill on Quai General Guisan, Brian Jacobsen gazed out his window on the fourth floor of the Hotel Metropole as the first signs of spring appeared across the street on the promenade around Lake Geneva. The morning fog was burning off and shafts of sunlight slanted down across the lake. You could see the houses of the wealthy perched on the lower levels of the mountains rising on both sides of the lake, looking down on the busy city and its scramble of deals 


 It was nearly lunch time. Young mothers listening to American hip-hop music on headphones were pushing babies in strollers. A light breeze kicked up a few white caps on the lake. Two smiling roller bladers were weaving through the crowd, swinging their tattooed arms in rhyme. A long-haired juggler, thin as a hermit, who had recently dropped out of law school in Paris was juggling three short swords and hoping for a busload of rich tourists from Shanghai And, out on the lake, the first sail boats of the season were bouncing over the waves 


To his left he could see the rushing torrent of the Rhone, pouring out of the lake from its headwaters in the mountains far to the north on its journey toward France and down to the Mediterranean. In 52 B.C., Julius Caesar destroyed the bridge over the Rhone in order to help keep the Helvetii tribe out of the Roman province of Gaul. Caesar probably had walked very near the spot where Brian was now standing.  


Across the Atlantic, the city where Brian now lived, Atlanta, Georgia, was occupied only by Native American tribes until 1836. White people, mostly English and Scotch settlers, arrived on the coast and started extending railroad tracks up from Savannah.  They drove the Indians up into the mountains of north Georgia. Aided significantly by its slave-based economy, Atlanta built itself up quickly.  But in 1864 the city was burned to the ground by General William Tecumseh Sherman, which meant that in 2007 any building or institution more than 100 years old was regarded as “historical.” Geneva had been a crossroads of world civilizations for two thousand years. Looking out his window, Brian could feel the weight of the city’s history.    


Brian stood at the window, astonished at his current circumstance. “What am I doing here? How did this happen? A poor minister’s sonan English major, who, as a result of some unlikely twists and turns, was about to speak to some of the most sophisticated financiers in the world about the world economy and the stock market.  


This should not be happening. I should have ended up in a crumbling high school on the poor side of Atlanta trying to make bored twelfth graders, some of them the descendants of slaves, interested in The Old Man and The Sea.  I couldn’t have made this up in a thousand years. Perhaps this was a dream, or maybe he had taken a wrong turn in Geneva and blundered into one of Borges’ alternate futures. 


But, as near as he could tell, it was really happening.  In a few minutes, Phillippe, his Swiss sales representative, would arrive to take him downstairs to the ballroom where 60 prospective clients of Brian’s fledgling fund, Lascaux Capital, would settle in for an elegant lunch of feuillantine de queues d’ecrivesseschampignons du moment, bisque mousseusecontre-filet boeuf roti,  and an excellent Medoc grown in the foothills around Geneva.   


There was a knock at the door. “It’s time, Brian!” Phillippe called. Brian had a last look at the Jet D’Eau out on the lake sending its spray 460 feet into the morning sky, took a deep breath, adjusted his tie, and headed down to the ballroom. It was April, 2007. The S&P 500 Index stood at 1494, up a staggering 78% from its last major low in 2002.  Some strange things were about to happen, not involving zombies, vampires, or aliens, but possibly some Presbyterians and a few fervent apostles of the free market. 




“Ladies and gentlemen, as you examine this chart of the American stock market since 1926, you are looking at the greatest engine for wealth-generation ever created.  And as you can see, I have superimposed a chart of United States GDP, showing that the trajectory of the market has essentially reflected the tremendous expansion of the American economy over the past 100 years. 


“Its easy to lose track of the big picture, especially for investment professionals like us who must report results to our clients and shareholders every quarter. We are living in a world where memories are short.  The news media, market commentators, and most of our clients seem to be focused on results for the last quarter or, at the most, for the last year. And, as you know all too well, we take our share of abuse from those who don’t understand the role of the financial sector in efficiently assembling funds from investors and transmitting them to risk-takers who drive the global economy by creating growth. 


Brian paused, took a sip of water, and cast a close look at his audience. There were a few smiles and nods. He had made many similar presentations, but it was always a good idea to observe the faces in the crowd at these luncheons.  If anyone looked as if they might be working themselves up to be confrontational in the Q&A, he could try to avoid calling on that person. This audience was dominated by older, traditional money managers who worked for banks, mutual funds, pension funds, and several of the particularly Swiss variety of private banks who managed (discreetly) money for wealthy families and individuals from all over the world.  These traditional managers were almost exclusively well-educated, distinguished-looking white males over 50, slightly older than Brian, most of whom were taking advantage of the wine at lunch. Dark, beautifully tailored  suits, impeccable ties, and expensive shoes. Here in Geneva, French was their first language, but nearly all of them spoke excellent English and German, and enough Italian to get along when they vacationed in Lugano or Lake Como 



A few Americans, usually hired for their contacts with American companies, could be identified by their slightly less than impeccable look, shoes that could use a shine, and some even without ties. Most of them struggled with one other language besides English, usually mediocre French or German. Brian had taken six years of German, but his financial vocabulary was armselig (pathetic). Anyway, the German was not going to help him much here, twelve miles from the French border.  He concluded that, so far, his audience was with him. 


Brian also noticed a scattering of younger faces, some Asian and south Asian, and a few women. These were generally industry analysts and assistant portfolio managers, people who were more skilled in quantitative methods and who were starting to be hired as the old guard grudgingly admitted that deep quantitative analysis, oceans of new data, and the new algorithm-based portfolio models could provide certain advantages over the more traditional approach to investing. Brian’s eye was caught by a stunning young blonde woman with high cheekbones, a blue short-sleeved sheath dress, and spike heels. Nearly everyone at a luncheon at the Hotel Metropole will be stylishly dressed, but you will find very few portfolio managers who look like they could be actresses. The woman returned Brian’s gaze as if she were waiting for it. Can’t be distracted now. On with the presentation. 


“Some say we are greedy and don’t deserve the money we make. I’m not here to take up your time defending our levels of compensation, but we know that the global market today is an extremely complex phenomenon.  The reality is that it requires knowledge not only of economics and finance, but also politics, world history, and increasingly, it requires us to be familiar with technology, energy, health care, biotech, infrastructure, defense, and many other industry sectors and niches within those sectors.  It requires discipline, self-control in the face of turbulent events.  And it requires the ability to make reasoned judgments about the risk/reward balance of the investment positions we take for our clients. These are very specialized and highly selective skill sets that, frankly, not many individuals possess. 


With that introduction, let me give you an idea of what we do at Lascaux Capital and how we use quantitative models to generate high returns for our clients. After the presentation, I will answer questions and Phillippe can tell you about the mechanics of investing in our fund. 


Brian was 55, an ex-high school second baseman and  basketball point guardmarried with two teenaged childrenHe had a bachelor’s degree in literature from a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and an MBA in finance from Emory University in Atlanta. He still played ball in a church league and could still hit a few outside jumpers on Tuesday nights. His left knee was starting to give him trouble, though. He wore an elastic knee support and tried not to think about it, even though it was starting to restrict his cross-over dribble move His knee always seemed to protest against a sudden change of direction. 


His fund, Lascaux Capital, was in its third year. It was clinging to life, managing $7 million in client assets, tiny for a hedge fund, but it had posted a 16% return (after fees) for clients in 2006, slightly better than the market’s 13.6% gain. In the fund’s first year, 2005, it had returned only 6%, but that was double the market’s 3% increase. The fees on that amount of assets were barely enough to cover expenses for an office, a prime broker, custody and trading costs, legal fees, large specialized data feeds, travel and marketing expenses, and relatively small salaries for Brian and his staff of three (one sales manager and two young finance majors who maintained the models 


Brian had lumped himself in with his audience in his comment about compensation, but in reality he was nowhere near their level on the pay scale. Brian knew that his three employees would not stick around much longer unless he could raise their pay. And he was feeling pressured at home to bring in more money. He was a competitive person. He did not like to lose. 


Brian’s job on this trip was to bring in more capital. To do that, he had to persuade these potential clients that the first two years’ results were not a fluke, that his model really had the potential to generate better returns than the market over a sustained period of years, and that they could trust him. His investment strategy required a great deal of number-crunching, which meant paying for sophisticated data feeds and enough people to run and maintain his models and make the trades. At the current level of assets, the fund was hovering on the borderline of sustainability. One bad year could make it impossible to go on. More capital was critical to the fund’s survival.  


There was a problem.  The money managers in the room attended a lunch like this every day of the week in Geneva, and sometimes a dinner presentation on the same day. They sat back, sipped the free wine, and watched a parade of high-powered analysts and fund managers, mostly American but sometimes British, explain how they had unlocked the secret to consistently beating the market. Or, at the very least, how their expertise gave them an edge on getting returns better than the market. To these managers, even a percentage point or two would make a difference to their bosses and clients, who were constantly comparing the performance of various managers. On days when they attended a lunch and a dinner, some of them occasionally fell asleep in their soup and had to be gently rescued from drowning by a waiter with experience at these events. 


The Metropole had recently (and grudgingly) banned smoking, a source of great consternation for Phillippe, a good-looking Swiss chain smoker (and drinker) of epic proportions. Philippe made his money by advising clients on short-term trades, based largely on stock price patterns, but sometimes on rumors that he picked up from his hundreds of contacts in Europe and the America. He was easily bored when nothing was happening. The cocktail reception, the meal, and the presentation had lasted over two hours so far, a much longer period than Phillippe was used to without a cigarette. In spite of all that, Brian liked Philippe, who was sitting at the head table looking increasingly desperate for a smoke. Phillippe was not a Lascaux employee;  he was a sales consultant who would get a commission on any funds that came in to the fund from Europe. 



After the presentation, there were a few questions about the concepts behind his investment strategy, some questions about the general market environment in the U.S., and, since Brian had once worked at the Federal Reserve Bank some questions about monetary policy.  A white-haired man with an expensive Hermes tie raised his hand and spoke with a heavy French accent:  ‘I am just curious. Why zee name Lascaux?” 


Brian smiled. “I’m glad you asked. I have always been fascinated with the ancient cave paintings, and as you know, Lascaux is one of the oldest and most beautiful caves. Many experts have proposed theories about what the paintings mean, why they are there, but of course, no one knows for sure. So, these are obviously man-made structures, there are even some dots and slashes that appear to be in a pattern, and we have a powerful urge to find patterns there, to, in a sense, ‘unlock the secret’ to the cave paintings. We think we are so smart, surely we can figure out the meaning. 


“ So, without being too pretentious, I hope, the market remains a mysterious puzzle, even to experts. We just thought the name Lascaux was an appropriate way to suggest that our models are a way to analyze or break down the inner structure of the market, and, we hope, to reveal patterns that might not be so obvious to the naked eye. Let me hasten to add that, of course, we do not pretend that we actually have “solved” the market in any way. But we do think our approach helps to identify some underlying patterns and also to maintain discipline. As you all know, virtually all great investors have said that getting emotionally involved is the greatest danger in the investment business. You can’t afford to fall in love with a stock or to panic when everyone else panics. 


As usual in Europe, there were a few questions about American politics, which the Swiss found bewildering. The 2008 election was coming up. Brian was well-prepared for this line of questioning, and gave his usual non-partisan answer pointing out that, despite what many American clients assumedthe market’s performance under the two different parties was nearly identical since the Depression. No one asked any specific questions about how to invest in the fund, but that was not unusual in the public Q&A session. Phillippe stood up and thanked everyone for coming and said that Brian and he would be available after lunch to answer any other questions about the fund. 


Brian returned to his seat at the head table and took a sip of wine as the crowd slowly filed out. He looked up to find the blonde woman standing in front of him. Her hair was pulled back with a simple silver clasp, but he could see that it was long. Unusual for women in the financial industry. 


“I enjoyed your presentation, she said in a light Russian accent. “Maria Kuruskova I’m the portfolio manager for Tula Capital.”  


Brian took another sip of wine. “Thank you very much. I appreciate that. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Tula Capital.” 


Her smile washed over Brian like a warm waveHe felt vaguely as if he were entering a scene from a movie.  The rest of the room and the people in it went out of focus. He looked into her blue eyes and, for a moment, he thought that his knees might actually buckle, like they do as a well-thrown curve ball approaches“Of course. We are a relatively new fund, but we are looking to add strategies for diversification. I would like to hear more about your strategy. I wonder, would it be possible to have dinner tonight so we could discuss with more privacy?” 


Brian put down his glass. “I’m not going up to Zurich until tomorrow, so that would be great. Should I ask Phillippe to come along?” 


Maria shook her head slightly. “That won’t be necessary. Right now I would just like to hear about the strategy.  But perhaps you could bring the papers, you know, just in case?” She smiled again.  She seemed perfectly professional and elegant, but few clients were this aggressive. Most of them left it to the sell side to do all the pursuit.   


“The Brasserie Lipp? You know it? Eight o’clock? I’ll make the reservation. See you then!” Another smile that caused Brian’s head to feel slightly woozy. She walked away and a young Swiss analyst stepped up with a question about the data. Brian didn’t hear a word he said. In the ballroom, heads turned as if a minor earthquake had occurred as the blue dress snaked through the crowd and out into the lobby. If anyone had been in danger of falling asleep in their soup, they were fully awake now. 


Phillippe had not been able to stand it any longer and had gone out to the courtyard for a smoke. When he came back in, the last guest was departing, and Brian told him about the Russian woman. 


“No, I have never heard of her or this fund,” he said. “That is a little strange. Especially since she is so , what is your word… gorgeous? She has not attended any of our other luncheons.  And I know just about everyone in the business in Geneva.” 


‘Yes, I’m sure you do. And yes, that is the right word. ” Brian said. “Well, she seems interested.” 


“I will try to find out something about them this afternoon. Now we have to go over to our next appointment.  It’s on the other side of the river.” 

Third Installment


Back in his room after the afternoon’s appointments, Brian tried to relax. He pulled up the hotel’s network on his laptop and logged on to Grounders, a blog about baseball written by Billy Featherstone,  young Native American and recent Princeton graduate who was trying to make it to the big leagues. He was currently playing for the Asheville Tourists in the Class A Sally League, one of the lowest levels of the minor leagues.  Brian liked the unpredictable topics Billy wrote about. 


Well, sportsfansit’s almost time for spring training. Last season, my  first season in the minors, I hit .275, respectable, but I will have to hit higher to make it to the show. These pitchers are better than the ones in the Ivy League. Everyone on the team is 20 - 23 years old, but some skipped college and have already put in two or three years in the minors. It’s strange. Some guys realize in the first year that they aren’t going to make it. They give up and move on to something else. Others are convinced that they will improve, even if they don’t do well in their first year or two. 


 In case you are not an expert on minor league baseball, the Tourists are a farm team for the Colorado Rockies.  The Rockies have some patience for young players to develop, but new players get drafted every year, so if you are not moving up, eventually you will be moved out.  Your contract will not be renewed. You can try to catch on with another team, maybe an independent league where the teams are not part of a major league team’s farm system. Some guys have turned it around after being released, but it’s rare. 


My fielding at second base was good. I’ve always been a good fielder. But since I don’t have a lot of power, I know I have to hit for a high average. I do have speed; I stole 40 bases this year in 120 games, pretty good. And I am still learning how to read pitchers. I know it will get much harder as I move up. You try to identify your strengths and learn to use them.  


Since Asheville is close to Cherokee, North Carolina, a lot of people assume I’m a Cherokee. Sometimes at opponents’ stadiums I hear drunk fans yelling things sat me.  “Redskin! Go back to the reservation!” Other stuff. Actually, I’m a Wicocomico. My people lived in northern Virginia, along the Rappahannock River. They were allied with the Powhatan tribe that you may have heard of.  Pocahontas and that John Smith bullshit.  One day this season some Cherokees came over the mountain to watch me play. I had to explain to them that I’m not a Cherokee, but they said they would cheer for me anyway. 


I saw a painting in a book that shows some Wicocomicos playing a “ball game” in a field. The tribe assimilated pretty quickly into the English population in the 17th century. Those that didn’t were quickly wiped out or driven out. Like the Cherokees were, more or less. My father is full-blooded Wicocomico. He’s an assistant high school football coach in Front Royal, Virginia. My mother is half-white and half-Indian. She makes a little money as a piano teacher.  My girl friend in college, let’s call her Miriam, is half black, and half Jewish. Her father was a radical history professor at Swarthmore; her mother was a jazz singein clubs around Philly and JerseySeems like everything is just melting together. We have some bi-racial guys on our team, and a lot of the guys on the team have dated girls from other races. Some people have a problem with that, but there is nothing they can do about it. The old world is fading away, and it’s not coming back. 


Miriam works in Washington D.C.  She’s a researcher at … one of the federal offices. We play the Delmarva Shorebirds in Salisbury, Maryland two or three times a year, and she usually can come to a few games. After the season ended last September, I went up and stayed with her for a while. But I have to earn some money, since they pay us hardly anything in Class A. The team tries to help us find work if we stay in town during the off-season, so I came back here to Asheville. Some of the guys work construction or at car dealerships, wherever the team can find an owner willing to support the team by providing some off-season employment. 


Miriam’s Dad has a friend who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He’s writing a book on the history of corporate corruption. He has a small (very small) grant from an eccentric foundation to help with research. So I’ve been doing some research for him. I majored in American history at Princeton, so it’s pretty interesting. I’m still living with my two roommates from last season. Sammy Johnson  is working on the landscaping staff over at the Biltmore Estate, and the other guy, Jordan Brown, is working on the county road crew. My parents can’t support me; I was on scholarship at Princeton.  I’m getting by, but let’s just say we eat a lot of pizza. 


Anyway, I'm hoping to move up at least to Class AA this year. They say the fast balls are faster there.  And the curve balls are wicked. 


The Brasserie Lipp, perched halfway up the hill in the old city, had a wonderful outdoor patio equipped with heaters and ringed with small white lights. A medieval stone wall lined one side of the patio. Elegantly dressed patrons sipped cocktails, clearly appreciating one of the first spring evenings when outdoor dining was possible. 


“So tell me a little about Tula Capital,” he said after they had ordered drinks.  


“We are only two years old, and have only been here in Geneva for a year,” Maria explained. “I haven’t even met a lot of the investment managers in town yet. We have been busy getting situated and taking our initial positions.” She looked into Brian’s eyes, “but we still have some work to do to get where we want to be.” 


“So, are you the principal, do you have partners?” 


“Yes, I have partners.  Like many investors in Switzerland, they wish to have their privacy respected.” Maria’s steady gaze suggested that this line of questioning was not likely to go much further. The drinks arrived, and she turned sideways to the table and crossed her legs; the dress ended well above her knees. Brian took a large sip of his gin and tonic. The moon was visible over the roof of the ancient building next door to the restaurant. The prosperous citizens of Geneva were enjoying their spring evening. Some discreet laughter could be heard. 


She sipped her martini, sighed, and looked up at the moon.  “I think we are so lucky to be able to enjoy this night in such a beautiful city.”  


Brian followed her gaze into the sky. “Yes, everything here is just incredibly beautiful.” 


Maria returned her legs to under the table and turned to face him. “And now I think it is my turn to ask some questions, yes?” 


“Of course.” 


“You have a market-timing signal built into your system, correct?”  Market-timing systems  were supposed to tell the manager when to get out. 


This was true, although the testing results on this part of the model were not as robust as Brian would have liked. ‘Yes, we do, although it's not designed to make short-term market calls,” he said. “We don’t find much evidence that models, especially the economic models, can do that consistently.”  


She ignored or passed over his qualified response. “So, this should provide protection against a sharp sell-off, yes?” 


“Well, to some degree, yes. We certainly do not plan to be fully invested at all times, although we can’t guarantee anything, of course,” he said.  


I see.  My investors are prepared to tolerate some risk. We are interested in adding some more quantitative strategies, and I like the way your model combines multiple styles, all driven completely by data. And your results are good. Of course, your fund is young, but so are we, so we understand that it takes time to build assets. 


This is almost too good to be true, Brian thought. Most of the Swiss managers are extremely conservative and can’t stand to take on too much risk. But she clearly is not like that.  


I think your fund may fit the profile we are looking for. We are looking for a vehicle for an initial investment of $30 million.  Would that level be of interest to you?” She looked steadily into Brian’s eyes as he blinked, trying to process what this meant. It would quadruple the size of his fund and make Maria his largest investor. It would also quadruple his income and allow him to hire more analysts and traders. She was well aware of all this, of course, since he had revealed the amount of the fund’s assets under management during the presentation.  He shrugged his shoulders; there was no point in pretending. 


“I’m sure you realize that such an investment would mean a lot to us,” he said. 


“We wouldn’t be too much too handle?’ she said, with a slight toss of her hair and a half smile. 


Brian finished the last drops of his gin and tonic. “We have confidence in our models; there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to handle a higher level of assets, but I guess we won’t know for sure until we try, will we?” 


Their first courses arrived.  He had the Andalousian gazpacho; she had the mixed salad. Maria insisted on ordering the wine, an expensive Swiss Syrah that she said she had heard good things about. 


The wine was spectacular. Brian could feel the tension in his neck and shoulders releasing as he surveyed the diners on the terrace. Maria ordered the grilled Norwegian salmon (“maybe it was born in Russia,” she joked); Brian would have the Corsican sea bass. Sitting in the April moonlight with the most beautiful woman on the terrace, Brian had a distinct feeling of floating, magically, off the ground. 


Maria sighed again as she finished her salad. “You know, Brian, I was 14 years old in 1989. We lived in St. PetersburgMy father was an economist who drank too much.  My mother was an ex-ballet dancer, who never made it to the BolshoiShe worked part-time as a ballet teacher in a middle school. I remember very well what times were like under the Soviets. My grandmother lived not far from Chernobyl when it blew up in 1986. She had to leave the area where she had grown up. We struggled constantly and had little hope that anything would ever change. I went to college and studied finance, but the professors were all ex-Communists. They taught capitalism as if it were only a theoretical, failed concept. Never in my craziest fantasies could I have imagined that I would ever be sitting here in Geneva on a beautiful spring evening, able to order whatever I want from the menu. And with an American guy, too.” 


“Yes it is amazing how things have changed,” he answered.  He did not know any women who referred in any way to having ‘crazy fantasies.’ Brian found himself feeling disoriented. This entire evening was completely outside his realm of experience. Brian thought of himself as an ordinary man, with a few talents but many weaknesses; this was an extraordinary evening. Maybe it would be better to turn the conversation back to business. “But are you concerned that it is only a small number of Russian citizens that are getting opportunities like this? Are you worried about the corruption?” 


“Ah, but this is capitalism, yes? This is how it works. I just read that your corporate chief executive officers  now make 300 times what their average worker makes, yes?  Your top 10% owns 70% of your country’s wealth? And your top 1% owns 35% of your country’s wealth? Incredible! You call them entrepeneurs, I think. We call them ‘oligarchs.’ I’m surprised you don’t have a revolution.” She smiled and went on. 


As for the corruption in Russia, do you mean when corporations submit fake financial statements, like Enron and Worldcom did? Or when companies backdate stock option awards to enrich their executives? Or is it when rating agencies give high ratings to subprime mortgage bonds sold by investment banks who are paying high fees to those same rating agencies?” 


Brian shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, yes, we certainly have our share of corruption…but our corporations are not in bed with our politicians, like yours are.” 


Maria raised her eyebrows. “Brian, should we talk about the amounts that your banking industry contributes to Congressmen and Senators? I think I read that it is about $300 million a year, roughly? To 535 people?  That is only one industry.  And I have heard about a case coming to your Supreme Court, Citizens United, I think it is called? The court will decide if corporations can spend as much as they want to elect their own candidates? I would say that at least in your system you just admit it openly. We are not bold enough for that. Of course, we are just learning how capitalism works. You are already experts at it.  She laughed. 


“Ok, I will admit that our system has flaws.  And money does provide influence. But I think you are exaggerating the extent of corruption in the West.” 


She yawned and stretched both arms above her head, revealing a profile that caused the man at the next table to knock over his water glass. “I won’t push it much further, Brian. But surely you realize where we are sitting, in one of the greatest tax avoidance locations in the world. And it is not just Switzerland. You have Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands.” She lowered her voice and leaned closer to him. “Even in this restaurant, I wouldn’t be surprised if half the customers here work for private banks that help clients shield money from taxesAnd at your luncheon today? Most of the people.” 


Their main courses arrived. “Let’s talk about something else,” she said. “Tell me more about yourself.  Are you married? I don’t see a ring.” Brian noticed that so far Maria really hadn’t told him very much about herself, but she was very good at finding out more about him. 


“Yes, I am.  Christy and I have been married for 25 years. She’s from California, but her parents were missionaries in Colombia. I dislocated my ring finger playing basketball and the ring won’t fit anymore. I’ve been meaning to get it enlarged. We have a son, Michael,  who is 19; he’s in college in Ohio,  studying film.  Our daughter Rachel  is 17.  She will be a senior in high school and … she’s going through some problems I’ve been in the investment business for 20 years. I worked as an analyst and then a market strategist for a regional brokerage firm.” 


“Where did you grow up?” 


I grew up in California. My father was a Presbyterian minister, first in southern California, and then near San Francisco. My mother was what they used to call a housewife; she raised four kidsHer father also was a Presbyterian minister.  So, we had Calvinists on all sides. My grandfathers would feel right at home here. I suppose I should, too. I probably should get a picture of myself with the statue of Calvin over in the park.  I have two brothers and a sister.”  


“But didn’t you go to high school in Pennsylvania?” 


Brian looked at her. How did you know that? 


She laughed. “Oh, I have done just a little checking. You wouldn’t expect me to make such a large investment without checking, would you?” 


“Well, yes, I suppose that makes sense. What else did you find out? 


“Well, you also worked at the Federal Reserve, but that was on your biography at the luncheon. I suppose that experience is a great help in running a hedge fund?” 


“The Fed? Oh no, I don’t have a clue what they are going to do next, if that’s what you mean. It might help me understand what they are trying to do with monetary policy, but I think they make that pretty clear, don’t you?” 


It is not always so clear to us.  But you have friends you could call if you needed to, yes?’ 


“At the Fed? Yes, I suppose I could call them. But only to clarify policy statements  or actions. They would never reveal anything material to anyone.  Anyway, they don’t know what the next move is going to be. Forecasting Fed policy is not part of our fund’s methodology, if that’s what you are wondering.” 


“Of course, I was just curious. In Russia we have a long tradition of mysterious groups wielding great power. 


“The Fed is not really mysterious if you take the time to read about how it works A lot of Americans are very sensitive about any sort of central control of anything. Contrary to what some people think, the Fed by itself can’t control the economy. 


They finished the meal discussing different parts of the U.S. and how Brian ended up in Atlanta at the brokerage firm. Maria insisted on picking up the check “to celebrate our new relationship.” Did that mean she was going to invest? Or did it mean something else? And if she knew where he went to high school, wouldn't she also know that he was married? 


“You know, Maria, I really haven’t learned much about you,” he said as she was paying. 


“Yes, you’re right. You know, I live very close by here in one of the old buildings. Would you like to see my apartment? We could have a nightcap and I can tell you more about myself.  It’s right on your way back to the Metropole.” Another smile that seemed slightly amused and mysterious.  With a quick turn, she took her hair out of its pony tail. Brian noticed more than one person glancing at them as they made their way out of the Brasserie. It was not just the Syrah; his entire body was tingling as if it had received a mild electric shock as they left the restaurant. Later, he remembered thinking that he was not sure if he was in complete control of himself. 


Her apartment was indeed very close by, up the cobblestoned hill about one block, and on the second story of a very old stone building. By now, it was 10 pm; the small plaza in front of the building was desertedShe inserted the key and pushed open a huge wooden door. They were greeted by a gray and white long haired cat. 


“This is Sasha. She’s a sweet girl.” 


Brian bent down to pet Sasha, who obligingly let him stroke the back of her head. 


The apartment had high ceilings, several book cases with books in English, French, and Russian, and some startling contemporary art on the stone walls. graphic representation of Leda and the Swan, which Brian recognized as based on the scandalous version by Peter Paul RubensWindows and a small balcony looked out over the medieval plaza. Maria produced a bottle of port and poured two glasses. He could smell her perfume as she handed him his glass. It was exotic, spicy, hard to place, not like anything he had encountered before.  


“What is that perfume It’s unusual. 


She came close and clicked her glass with his. “Well, I am a bit unusual, you know.” 


She put her glass down on the coffee table, put one hand on his cheek, and kissed him.  He felt her hand on his belt.