In 2015 I first learned of the global law firm Mossack Fonseca—primarily based in Panama but having its busiest and most suspicious office in Hong Kong—when the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung dumped 11.5 million documents, totaling 2.5 terabytes of data, onto the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—along with the Guardian, the BBC and Le Monde in Paris—to sort through the files that had hid the wealth of the elites for the past forty years. This was what first prompted me to find the one who owned the world’s hidden wealth. A year later the leaked files became known as the Panama Papers.
From heads of states, ministers, elected officials in more than fifty countries, my search dragged on for months with power players like the President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, the Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson—who has since resigned—the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Al Saud, and the members of the British parliament who held offshore connections that I carefully tracked and catalogued until I worked my way up the long, sordid list. Covert maneuvers by banks to obscure the true owners of shell companies proved difficult to navigate but I knew if I kept digging the truth would eventually emerge.
The ICIJ estimated $21 to $31 trillion usd had been stashed and washed over the years until the true owner of the assets became like an invisible man, someone who in a world of fame-seekers craved anonymity and obscurity to the point of non-existence. But I believed he did exist, and I wanted to face him, mano a mano—man to man.
I logged thousands of hours analyzing financial spreadsheets, emails and copies of passport pages. As the pieces began linking to one another the picture became clearer and began revealing to me the secret owners of bank accounts digitized in the corporate records Mossack Fonseca had concealed from the public over the last four decades to serve the rich and to bury the poor; the names and numbers, one by one, however, started pointing a metaphorical finger to El Cacao in Panama’s Capira District, on the southern tip of the nation’s underbelly. That same day I purchased a plane ticket to Panama City and my bones stirred within from the mixture of elation and anxiety at having found the one who owned the world.
The bus ride from Panama City to El Cacao left me in a mindless, mind-numbing state of wonder. All through the villages and along the mountain roads, I asked myself why would a person who owned the world’s wealth within an elaborate matrix of paper companies choose to live in a village of no more than five thousand souls at the edge of a third-world country?
None of it mattered to me, personally; I simply wanted answers: why was the world the way it was? How could a person be so greedy? So cruel, to let the poor starve? One way or another, I’d have my answers. Perhaps even blood.
A light rain had fallen that morning and suppressed the heat and dust, and by the time I stepped from the bus packed to the roof with migrants and boxes, stray dogs like lost wolves had crawled from the shadows of fruit and vegetable carts to piss the dirt streets of El Cacao.
A shirtless girl and boy ran to my side begging to touch the foreign devil from America, an honor I had never thought to consider. Leaning down to the girl and boy with a crisp twenty in my hand, I asked them to show me the way to the largest cocoa plantation—the one I knew to be the largest supplier to the Swiss for chocolate, and the plantation, one of hundreds, I suspected was owned by the individual who remained nameless at the top of the world’s favored aristocracy.
The girl and boy, obviously twins, locked eyes with one another and a dread I had not expected shimmered down their naked shoulders and into the tips of their soiled toes on their bare feet. The girl darted away first and the boy intended to follow, but the face of Andrew Jackson pulled the boy back to me. He snatched the bill like a gull snatching fish from water and swiftly pointed to the edge of town closest to sea.
Briefly I looked in the direction the boy had indicated and when I turned back the boy and girl had vanished down a trail at the side of the street leading into the wild jungles of Panama.
‘You don’t belong here,’ an old man in a greasy, well-worn ball-cap said in his native Spanish. He fingered his nose and added, ‘Go home. Leave us alone.’
‘Por qué?’ I asked. ‘Why?’
‘There’s nothing but misery for you here.’
He picked up a wooden cage with a three-toed sloth crouched within and hobbled down the same path as the children. Only the wind rustling the leaves on the palm fronds remained.
The hike to the plantation had not been terrible; since I brought a backpack, my load was light and no one suspected me of anything more than a simple tourist on an excursion through the cocoa fields filled with thousands of short, stumpy trees dangling purplish-red pods the shape and size of American footballs. Inside these pods, as if from an alien world, were the cocoa beans once called by the Mayans as the food of the gods.
But after two hours the gods had not favored my search—not one bit. At the plantation the field hands had never met the owner, nor had they ever heard a name. A motherly woman with fat arms told me that the field manager handed out salaries at the end of the month but wouldn’t be back for another three weeks.
‘Who’s the senior worker here?’ I asked—my phrasing coming out all wrong.
‘Señor?’ The motherly woman asked as she wiped sweat from her forehead. ‘No comprende.’ She didn’t understand.
‘The oldest?’ I said. She nodded in a half-understanding sort of way and pointed to the sea. ‘That way?’ I asked.
‘Sí,’ she said. ‘La playa.’ The beach.
I thanked her, offered her a bottle of Fiji water from my backpack, which she accepted, and I started down the slope that led to a path, I hoped, descended to an old man by the sea.
Thirty minutes later I saw him. A chill shivered up and down my spine and cooled the sweat on the back of my neck, and it was then, on the dirt path in the shadows where I stood, I knew I had found the one I was looking for.
Two steps into the sunlight at the foot of the path an old man clutched a machete in one hand and a coconut in the other. His shirtless back was to me, his shorts stretched to his knees while his bare feet dug into the sand the color of brown sugar. He stared out over the open water of the sea before him.
The color of the man’s skin appeared in the bright sunlight as a favored cocoa bean, ripened over the years to a dark perfection. To the side of the path I stepped and watched him for a few more moments. He seemed to me to be lost in a trance—machete and coconut on either side—like a savage armed but too wise and hesitant for battle.
The old man almost stepped closer to the sea but at that moment a woman’s stark laugh hurled itself through the trees on the lips of the wind behind me and caused the old man to turn. The same moment my eyes locked with his the owlish laugh echoing on the wind reminded me of a short story I had read long ago by an author whose name I had long forgotten. I suppose it didn’t matter much anyway.
Keeping his eyes fixed on me, studying me, the old man at the end of the path tossed the coconut away but gripped the machete a little tighter as I stepped forward with my right hand in the air to offer a peaceful interaction.
‘Hello there,’ I said from about fifteen meters out. ‘Do you speak English?’
He gave a nod that he did.
‘I’m with the firm Mossack Fonseca and I need to talk to you.’ I don’t particularly like lying to people but it was a necessary risk I had to take. ‘There’s been a change of plans and—’
‘It’s better I do not know.’ His grip on the machete relaxed and he waved me forward into the sunlight and out of the shaded path. ‘Look around you,’ he said, ‘I have all I need. Save your breath.’
The water that day was clear and calm. The sky a burning blue. The sand a reminder of a beach I had visited with my parents decades before in my youth. The wind, also, was cool as it brushed the hairs on my forearms.
The old man looked me up and down, wiped sweat from his face and then walked to the edge of the path where he leaned the machete, handle up, against the trunk of a palm tree.
I didn’t dare move, but he beckoned me to follow and so I did. The old man, in great physical condition, trotted down the beach, kicking up sand behind him, and eventually stopped when the water reached the edges of his shorts at his knees. Miles around us the beach lay isolated and clear. Only one or two fishing boats dotted the horizon far out to sea. I stopped short of the water sloshing to shore, dropped my backpack and removed my shoes and socks and waded in while the sun burned the back of my neck. Side by side, in the water up to our knees, occasionally rising to our waists as the waves came in, we stood in a shared silence I feared of breaking first. But then the old man started to speak.
‘If you were able to find me, who knows who isn’t far behind. I’ve lived out here, exiled, at the edge of the world for longer than I care to remember, but like most people I had hoped it would have been much longer than what it has been.’ He slapped the water. ‘Someone always manages to find me. Sooner or later, it happens.’ I expected him to turn to see if there were more like me on the beach but he kept staring out to sea as if waiting for a ship to save him. ‘When you get to my age, it doesn’t matter where you’ve exiled yourself to or for what reason, does it?’
He turned to look at me but I was lost in my own trance, just as he had been, and all the hate and anger I had built up over the years dissolved against the sincerity of the old man’s voice. I could even see the old scars on the backs of his hands.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘I’m looking for the one who has it all.’
‘Aren’t we all?’
‘Are you him?’ I sounded like a lost child. ‘Are you the one?’
‘What does your heart tell you?’
‘I’ve no idea. I don’t trust myself anymore.’ The day was getting long and hot.
‘Neither do I. At least we have that much in common.’
The old man reached into the water and from the bottom pulled up a broken seashell, a shard of something once beautiful and useful.
Then a pain wet the old man’s eyes when he spoke next and I still wasn’t sure if he was the one I was searching for or if I could even trust him.
‘I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.’ He threw the broken shell back into the water, where it sank to the bottom, there to remain for countless ages more. ‘I bet you didn’t know that, did you?’
I said nothing.
‘When I first started as a boy with no shoes,’ the old man said as he watched a group of storm clouds gather out over the sea, ‘all I wanted more than anything on this good old earth was to care for my mother and father, my wife and my children, and my closest of friends. My intentions were pure, but after I bought my first pieces of land from relatives and neighbors and sold the land off at a nice profit to purchase my first cocoa plantation, the easy life took a hold on me, the greed or the money became my obsession. From that foundation I built my empire and watched all that I loved turn into ash.’
The old man spoke softly about the corruption of his soul as if one speaks about a loved one succumbing to a fatal illness. He spoke as if he were the one dead.
‘If you want my advice,’ he added, the storm clouds edging closer over the sea, ‘the world is full of people giving advice. Don’t listen to them. Listen to your heart instead. That, stranger, was the only thing to ever make me truly happy. Not the expensive Rolexes, not the Ferraris, not the vacations to Ibiza and Cannes, not the sexy models—women and men—not the compounding interest in my accounts in Zurich, not the Cuban cigars, not the trophy marlins I caught off the Florida coast, not the smoothest of wines on the finest nights by the fire in the Swiss Alps. None of it ever mattered because my heart kept telling me it was all wrong. My heart whispered to my soul that I was becoming damned, but I didn’t know how to stop. And by then, I’m not sure I wanted to.’
At the sound of that last word a large silver fish with blue streaks shot out of the water some distance in front of us and splashed back down before vanishing into the returning calm of the sea.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. The old man’s story had caught me off guard and everything I had planned to say, all my grievances and sympathy for the world’s poor, slipped into the depths of the old man’s words as easily as the broken seashell and silver fish had slipped down into oblivion beneath the sea.
Then I found my voice:
‘What you’ve said may be true but it doesn’t excuse you for what you’ve done. The world is suffering because of you, because of your indolence and greed. You’ve lost your moral compass. You are to blame for the troubles facing every single human being on this planet, and all you still think about, care about, is yourself, and maybe that’s why you exiled yourself all alone out here on a beach in Panama: you’re too afraid to face the consequences of your actions.’
From the moment I started speaking I sensed the old man didn’t like the tone I used with him, but his shoulders relaxed as he listened and nodded to what was said, as if he had heard it all a hundred times before, and perhaps he had.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know. You’re right. But the world’s been suffering since before I was born and will continue to do so after I’m gone. Change is not made overnight. Change is made in increments. Are you to blame me for that?’
‘It is because of cowards like you the world suffers.’
I expected him to grow as angry as I was feeling but the old man simply sighed and finished a thought he must’ve left unspoken for decades:
‘Everything you have said is true because my heart tells me it is so. My heart has told me the same for a long time now, and I’m too tired to fight it anymore. For years I’ve been waiting for you to come. Not you. No. But someone like you. Someone who had the balls to say the truth to my face. Not many have ever had the courage do as you’ve done today. You have that look about you. You’d rather watch the world burn in truth than thrive in lies. That was why I knew it was you when I first saw you in the shadows. I’ve been waiting a long time for this conversation. But in the end, if it had not been me, then it would’ve most certainly been another like me. We all want to be rich and powerful and live forever—’
‘No,’ I said, ‘not all of us.’ I turned to go. The water stirred as I moved.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘Who wants to live forever?’
‘I think you do.’ My reply went unanswered but I didn’t have the stomach to listen any longer to the old man who had put his own interests above all others, and what made me sick was the fact that I too had often done the same, just not as well and as successful as he had done.
On the beach I picked up my shoes with the socks stuffed inside and tossed the backpack over my shoulder. I was angry at myself for having traveled all this way and still hadn’t resolved a single question. I wasn’t even sure if that old fisherman was the one I was searching for.
At the edge of the treeline, at the foot of the path I eyed the machete leaning against the trunk of the palm tree but decided against my worst fears. I could not become a monster like the old man in the sea.
Instead, before I left, I turned a final time to see the old man still standing in the sea up to his knees. The old man did not move as the waves crashed into him and the rain pounded down on both our heads from above. He seemed to be wishing for death as he waited for the dark storm clouds to rage ever closer to shore to come and carry him to a simpler time and place where and when he had last been at peace with the world and himself.
About the Author
CG Fewston is an American novelist who is a member of AWP, a member of Americans for the Arts, and a professional member and advocate of the PEN American Center, advocating for the freedom of expression around the world. A Time to Love in Tehran, his fourth book, won GOLD for Literary Classics’ 2015 best book in the category under “Special Interest” for “Gender Specific – Female Audience.” He was a finalist in the 2015 Chatelaine Awards for Romantic Fiction, and a Finalist in the 2015 Mystery & Mayhem Novel Writing Contest. You can read more about CG Fewston and his writing here and here. Find him on Facebook here.