An excerpt from the novel, Power Game
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 100 in 1998.
IZion sat in a small canoe and watched as late afternoon turned to dusk, the pink from his wide view of the western sky reflecting off the surface of the sea.
IZion was fishing, but fishing wasn't his living, he made his living in a much more dangerous way than that, and he was thinking that for the danger he faced he shouldn't be poor; so poor that borrowing this lowly craft to leave the city and go to the other side of the harbour for the space and time to think was the one pleasure he could really afford. He loved to go and sit out there and watch the planes circle and land and rise again from the city's airport ... people who could make planes, and fly them and buy them and sell them, what kind of world did those people really live in, wondered IZion. How did they get that rich? How did they think that big and make it happen? Did they really want to keep poor people poor, or did putting cash in poor peoples pockets make them richer because they sold more goods? Who in the city across the bay was really the biggest guy? Was he big enough to make the others bow? For how long?
For IZion these were not idle questions. Whoever was in charge, things weren't going well with him ... whatever was at stake was worth killing for and IZion lived on the firing line. It was one thing to live dangerously and get rich, but to live dangerously and stay poor ... no ... that couldn't go on ... he had to find the secret to success, he had to find out what was really going on in the minds of those who controlled his destiny ... that's what he was thinking as he started paddling back towards the docks in the distance.
The city, downtown, looked much like many others in the Caribbean in the seventies ... Panama, Santo Domingo, Kingston ... sweltered in heat, smothered with smog, square miles of slum rooftops stretched like waves of rusting zinc on an ocean of rotting wood; horizons of poverty unbroken, except that in the middle of the waterfront, like ocean liners at sea, there stood out six dramatically modern high rise buildings.
The tallest of these buildings was the hotel; the next in height was the Central Bank, and at the top of the Central Bank building Winston Bernard was looking out across the harbour to the airport, looking out for Hugh Clifford's plane.
Winston Bernard was tall, brown, thin in an athletic way, with highly intelligent eyes, the eyes of a mimic, taking everything in.
Winston had done well enough in the outside world, starting with a Rhodes Scholarship and ending at the World Bank, to feel at ease where he sat at the top of the town. His cousin was Prime Minister, his brother ran the army, his wife ran the most popular radio station. His father had been the head of the civil service under the British and he'd been knighted for that, but there was relatively little nepotism in the British Colonial Civil Service, everybody got where they were going on their own steam, and because he'd been born into a meritocracy and had surpassed the norm one might assume that Winston Bernard was comfortable with the idea of being in charge; that he was happy with the assumption that others would look to him for orders in a crisis - provided that he was in full control, provided that he was pursuing a plan of his own choosing, and provided there was nobody blocking his way, because when blocked Winston could be very unhappy indeed, and he'd been blocked now for the last several months.
Winston Bernard and his brother Mark came from that generation of leadership in the tropics who were born in the forties, and who had spent the first ten years of their lives under colonialism; who then in the fifties saw the Independence Movement triumph all over the world just as they themselves were coming of age, and who, during the sixties, were conscious of the vast resources and enormous riches that were theirs to control, now that they controlled the destinies of truly independent nations.
But while the sixties brought independence, the seventies brought the oil shock and the end to innocence. Only ten years had elapsed since the fireworks lit up the sky for the freedom night celebrations, and already the cupboard was bare.
As the price of oil doubled and doubled and doubled again those countries who had previously had money in the bank found that their reserves had been wiped out in a few months.
Once more ministers were expected to go to London and Washington to beg for preferential tariffs, to wait in the same ante- chambers as their forefathers during colonial times, accepting the fact that someone else would take their decisions for them. For ten years the former colonies had been banking their own cash, but now everyone who didn't have oil would have to go back into the begging business; merely back to business as usual for most of those involved, but not for Winston Bernard. He knew the opposition, he had been trained by them and had succeeded in their system, and he was determined to beat them at their own game.
As he walked around the terrace that surrounded his penthouse office, Winston's gaze shifted from the harbour to the hills and mountains that formed the backdrop to the city, rearing up to disappear into cloud at seven thousand feet, and as he continued his circle to the west Winston's eyes swept over urban sprawl that stretched for ten miles to end in the swamp that separated the city from fifty thousand acres of sugar cane; then he came back round to see the docks and harbour and airport again, and this time he saw the dot of Hugh Clifford's little jet coming in to land, its wings glinting in the rays of the setting sun.
Winston's mood lightened immediately. If he could swing Hugh Clifford behind him he stood a chance of winning. He was the only man in the world who could help Winston right now.
Inside the plane, Hugh Clifford's wife, Molly, called him over to look at the sunset outside her window as the Lear banked and lined up for landing.
Molly wasn't one to miss a good sunset, she didn't like missing anything, and she hadn't missed much ever since she first invaded London as the daughter of a rural Earl to become deb of the year, 1936.
Hugh Clifford looked out of the window, settled his long frame back into his seat, finished off his scotch and soda, picked up the cards from the game he'd been playing with Molly, and watched as she packed up a wide variety of music cassettes and magazines and shoved them into a large leather carrying bag together with her walkman and the two novels she'd brought along on the trip.
Hugh Clifford was one of the last of a dying breed; Kaiser, Bronfman, Paley, Niarchos, even the young Howard Hughes, who everybody thought was nuts, but who, as Hugh happened to know, was so busy designing and building the first satellite system ever that he couldn't remember to cut his nails ... these were his peers at the prime of his life, and he missed them. There were only two classes of people in business so far as Hugh Clifford was concerned, those who could say yes and those who had to ask somebody else, and he was bored at his age to find himself surrounded by those in government and the corporate world who had to consult with others in endless succession.
Hugh Clifford's father had been one of five railroad barons who'd envisioned the plan, got it financed, employed the labour, moved the earth, cut the logs, embedded the sleepers, and laid down upon them the lines of steel that crisscrossed North America. He was as rich as such a man would be if he was given the land on either side of the railroad for thousands of miles, and sold off the plots for all the towns along the way. He was as rich as a man could become if he chose where the rails would go and when they would get there, and this was at a time before there were any paved roads or trucks; as rich as such a man would become if he got together with the steel and oil cartels to put competitors out of business with high rail charges, getting a big piece of big oil and big steel for his cooperation... Hugh's father was already as rich as that before Hugh was born to the sole inheritance of all that the old man had accumulated.
He was so rich that throughout his childhood he never ever heard money discussed. It just didn't come up when his mother was around, and later, when it did, it was always in reference to how much wealth he had, so he didn't think about it, he certainly didn't crave it, and he found the challenges to his ego entirely outside considerations of money altogether.
His skill in sport, for example, was much more important to him than money. How well did he ride? ski? play tennis? dance? What help was money at sixteen when facing a ski slope that could break your legs? When someone else could simply beat you at a game you were trying to win or take away the girl you wanted on the dancefloor? Right from the start Hugh was brought up to believe that the really important possessions were courage and style and a taste for the quality that rendered his mother passionate, the quality that money couldn't necessarily buy, either in things or in people, and especially in people...
So all his long life Hugh Clifford had been fascinated by other forms of power; he'd been fascinated by the power of great lovers, he was fascinated with the power of scientists, and artists and politicians; he was fascinated by what they did with their power, and he was even more intrigued by what it did to them...
For decades he'd been watching ambitious men climb, and seeing them fall, calculating the height at which they would lose their grip and slip and barely hold on, knowing that they could climb no further because they knew not the secret of success at the highest levels of power - they were only now discovering that there were tests to be passed which they had failed, tests which they hadn't even known existed.
The American ambassador was at the airport to meet the Cliffords' plane, and so was the local press.
"Mr. Clifford," asked the reporter from the television station, "can you tell us the purpose of your visit?"
"Yes," said Hugh Clifford, "I think it's time we settled this mining tax issue once and for all, and I'm here to do that for my company."
"Mr. Lynch gave out a statement earlier saying that the mining companies were prepared to 'tough it out', as he put it," said the man from the morning daily. "There seems to be more flexibility in your attitude."
"I'm here to negotiate for my company and Mr. Lynch negotiates for the companies that he represents," said Hugh Clifford.
"Aren't all the mining companies presenting a united front?"
"Gentlemen," said the old man holding up his hands and smiling, "I really don't think I can discuss the negotiations before I've had them," and with that the Cliffords got into the ambassador's car and drove away.
As the big black limousine moved through the boisterous, darkening streets of the city slums towards the hotel, the ambassador handed Hugh Clifford a note and leaned across to switch on the reading light. Molly Clifford handed her husband his glasses. Hugh Clifford read the note and grunted.
"Mr. Lynch thinks Kass can swing the cabinet against Bernard," said the ambassador.
"What do you think?" asked Clifford.
"It's a hard one to call," said the ambassador, "Percy Sullivan could go either way."
"If Bernard wins in cabinet he'll be in a strong position," said Hugh Clifford.
The ambassador's face tightened.
"You'd break ranks with Lynch?" he asked.
"Lynch got us into this mess by bluffing, and I don't intend to pay for his mistake," said Hugh Clifford. "If we pull out it's going to cost us twice as much to start up somewhere else, and why not come to terms with Bernard? He's got a case."
"You accept Bernard's figures?" asked the ambassador.
"They're accurate," said Clifford.
"How did they get those figures?" asked the ambassador.
"It doesn't matter where he got the figures," said Hugh Clifford, "they're reasonable in today's market and I'll go with them rather that sit around toughing it out with Lynch."
"You know Mr. Clifford, Washington feels very strongly that if we don't present a united front here the rot will spread throughout the entire region," said the ambassador.
Hugh Clifford said nothing.
"He's very anxious for a response," said the ambassador, "he asked that you call him tonight."
"I'll call him when I've made my decision," said Hugh Clifford, "and tonight we're having dinner with the Bernards."
Winston Bernard and his wife Michele lived in the foothills of the mountains that overlooked the lights of the city, which stretched across a plain that sloped for ten miles towards the sea.
Cocktails were served by the swimming pool, on a terrace framed at one end by big bushes of flowering bougainvillea, and at the other end by the view.
Laughter drifted through the crowd of twenty, a family of every shade from black to pale brown. Percy Sullivan, the Prime Minister, was there. So was Major General Mark Bernard, Minister of Security. Percy was a much married bachelor; Mark had married the daughter of a Latin American ambassador in Washington. He'd met her on one of his many staff courses in the States. Children circulated with trays of hors d'oeuvres, listening to snippets of conversation from the grownups, pausing to be introduced to the Cliffords.
"And who's this little sweetie?" asked Molly Clifford of Michele Bernard as a child of six approached, wearing her party dress.
"Mrs. Clifford, this is Miranda," said Michele.
"Good evening Mrs. Clifford," said Miranda.
"Good evening darling," said Molly, who bent down to kiss the top of the child's head.
Molly took an hors d'oeuvre. It was delicious. She liked these people. As a family they were goodlooking, talented, hospitable, entertaining, educated, travelled... there was an atmosphere on the patio, a mixture of confidence and relaxation, that she found strangely familiar.
"I believe we have a mutual friend," said Michele, "Max DeMalaga."
"Oh yes, DeMalaga! Of course I know him," said Molly, "and not only do I know him, but I love him dearly. His mother and I were great friends and I've known him since he was a tot, and my goodness, how he's got on. He really has made millions selling songs you know."
"Oh I know," said Michele, "I'm going to meet him in Antigua tomorrow night because I have a singer that I want him to promote."
"How long have you known him?" asked Molly.
"We were teenagers together," said Michele, "holidays on the north coast. We used to water ski and go out dancing."
Michele was thirty-five, Lebanese with African and Indian, her eyes sensual and alert at the same time.
Molly thought, 'I bet they did more than dance. DeMalaga couldn't possibly have resisted her at sixteen'.
"Well please give him my fondest love," said Molly.
Winston Bernard and Hugh Clifford were apart from the crowd, talking at the edge of the terrace, looking out over the lights of the city.
"Lynch doesn't want to negotiate," said Winston, "He wants to keep control."
"The market will control the price," said Clifford, "not Lynch."
"Yes, but who controls the market?" asked Winston.
"Nobody, not in the long run," said Clifford
"Well, I hope the run isn't so long that the island runs out of breath in the meantime," said Winston.
He turned and looked out over the city.
"I'd hate to see all those lights down there start going out, but as far as I'm concerned it's worth the risk of fighting Lynch if I know we have a deal."
"I'll stick to the terms we discussed if you can get the cabinet to stand up to Lynch," said Hugh Clifford.
He'd said yes? Winston turned back to look at him, to confirm the moment. He'd said yes!
"May I ask you a personal question?" asked Winston.
"Sure," said Hugh Clifford.
"Why are you prepared to fight Lynch on our behalf?"
"I'm not fighting Lynch on your behalf," said Hugh Clifford, "I'm fighting him because I don't like him. I think he's greedy and stupid, and he's the kind of guy who'll fight when he hasn't really got an enemy."
"Perhaps that's because what he really wants to do is go on playing the bully," said Winston.
"Well, let's put it this way," said the old man, " he's playing politics and I'm doing business."
A giant thrill ran through him as Winston Bernard realized that the only ally he really needed to push through his plan was the one man he could trust!
Winston instinctively scanned the crowd on the other side of the pool to find Michele, to share the moment, and he saw her ushering the others into the house. Then he turned again towards the old man and smiled right into his eyes.
"Well," said Winston, "it looks as though dinner's on the table."
Often at the end of the day Hugh Clifford would lie in bed watching Molly as she moved around the room on a much slower wind down, and they would compare notes, because while Hugh's interest was in what power did to people, Molly was fascinated by where it would move to next, and over the years she had become so adept at predicting those moves that there were many, who, if posed with such a thought, would have agreed that Molly Clifford was the greatest power groupie of her time.
Her instinct for where the center of power would be in any particular span had taken Molly around the world many times... she had seen the center shift from city to city and group to group like a restless spirit on the move, settling on those whose time had come, often for no apparent reason and in ways that no one would have predicted, but the signs were unmistakable to those whose business it was to know where the crucial decisions were being taken.
Over and over Molly had watched as success enveloped an individual or group before they themselves became aware of its arrival, and over and over she had seen the power they once had move on before they knew they'd lost it.
Molly had seen the magic move from aristocrats to fanatics and from fanatics to warriors and from warriors to scientists and from scientist to stars and from stars to agents and from agents to financiers ... she didn't so much watch as listen, because the simplest way of telling who needed whom was by listening for the phone, by knowing who would wait for whose call, and thirty years ago she'd noticed that the most important people in the world would wait for a phone call from Hugh Clifford, and when she got to know him she noticed that he never waited for anybody's call, until one day he was frantic for a call from her, and they'd been together ever since.
Molly didn't love Hugh because he was powerful in the usual sense; Molly wasn't a snob in the usual sense at all because neither she nor Hugh could have cared less about colour or class; but in her special way she was the biggest snob of all, because strictly at the chemical level, the level at which she could tell how she felt about something by the feeling in her stomach, the one thing she could never imagine herself doing was making love with a man who was subservient to anyone else.
Molly couldn't imagine sleeping with a man who would do another man's bidding against his will, and she'd been in love with Hugh for all these years because she'd never seen him bow to anything but his own best judgment. It wasn't the money that had allowed him to do that ... what it was, was a secret they shared.
"Who do you think is the strong one?" asked Hugh.
"Do you mean between Winston and Michele?" asked Molly.
"In the family as a whole."
"I've no idea, it's much too early to tell," said Molly.
"How about between Winston and Percy?" asked Hugh.
"Oh, I'd say Winston, wouldn't you?" said Molly, "I think Percy's just a narcissist."
"Little bit psycho?"
"Hmm, probably, a bit," said Molly.
People think psychos have no conscience, she thought, but actually they crave forgiveness. That's what had made them so dangerous before she realized that every time they were forgiven they'd take it as a victory, and do something even more outrageous until one just couldn't forgive them anymore.
Molly climbed into bed with her walkman, three audio cassettes, five magazines, and two novels.
"Did you agree to back Winston Bernard against Lynch?" she asked.
"If he can swing Percy," said Hugh.
"Are you really in the mood for that kind of fight?" asked Molly.
"I think so," said Hugh. He yawned. "Somebody has to stand up to that bunch."
Hugh closed his eyes.
"What do you think of Michele?" asked Molly.
"Very beautiful," said Hugh, without opening his eyes.
"She's a friend of Max DeMalaga you know," said Molly, "and DeMalaga..."
She looked over to see that Hugh was fading fast. She kissed him lightly, put on the headphones, switched on the walkman, and continued reading a novel about the middle of the first millennium, when the Roman Empire collapsed and the barbarians sacked Rome.