Page 16 of The Moneychangers

Alex asked, "And you won't go further? You won't be more specific?"

Dr. McCartney shook his head. "Only you can make the decision. Those last few paces each of us walls alone."

The psychiatrist glanced at his watch and got up from his chair. Moments later they shook hands and said good night.

Outside the Remedial Center, Alex's limousine and driver the car's motor running, its interior warm and comfortable were waiting. "Without doubt," Margot Bracken declared, "that is one crappy collection of chicanery and damn lies."

She was looking down, elbows aggressively out, hands on slender waist, her small but resolute head thrust forward. She was provocative physically, Alex Vandervoort thought a "slip of a girl" with pleasingly sharp features, chin jutting and aggressive, thinnish lips, though the mouth was sensual over-all. Margot's eyes were her strongest feature; they were large, green, flecked with gold, the lashes thick and long. At this moment those eyes were glaring. Her anger and forcefulness stirred him sexually.

The object of Margot's censure was the assortment of advertising proofs for Keycharge credit cards which Alex had brought home from FMA, and which now were spread out on the living-room rug of his apartment. Margot's presence and vitality were providing, also, a needed contrast to Alec's ordeal of several hours ago.

He told her, "I had an idea, Bracken, you might not like those advertising themes." "Not like them! I despise them." "Why?' She pushed back her long chestnut hair in a familiar though unconscious gesture. An hour ago Margot had kicked off her shoes and now stood, all five-foot-two of her, in stockinged feet.

"All right, look at thatl" She pointed to the announcement which began: WHY WAIT? YOU CAN AFFORD TOMORROW'S DREAM TODAY! "What it is, is dishonest bullshit high-powered, aggressive selling of debt concocted to entrap the gullible. Tomorrow's dream, for anyone, is sure to be expensive. That's why it's a dream. And no one can afford it unless they have the money now or are certain of it soon."

"Shouldn't people make their own judgments about that?"

"Not not the people who'll be influenced by that perverted advertising, the ones you're trying to influence. They're the unsophisticated, the easily persuadable, those who believe that what they see in print is true. I know. I get plenty of them as clients in my law practice. My unprofitable law practice." - "Maybe those aren't the kind of people who have our Keycharge cards.'

"Dammit, Alex, you know that isn't true! The most unlikely people nowadays have credit cards because you all have pushed them so hard.The only thing you haven't done is hand cards out at street corners, and it wouldn't surprise me if you started that soon."

Alex grinned. He edjoyed these debating sessions with Margot and liked to keep them fueled. "I'll tell our people to think about it, Bracken."

"What I wish other people would think about is that Shylocking eighteen percent interest all bank credit cards charge." "We've been over that before."

"Yes, we have. And I've never heard an explanation which satisfied me."

He countered sharply, "Maybe you don't listen." Enjoyable in debate or not, Margot had a knack of getting under his skin. Occasionally their debates developed into fights.

"I've told you that credit cards are a packaged commodity, offering a range of services," Alex insisted. "If you add those services together, our interest rate is not excessive." "It's as excessive as hell if you're the one who's paying.. "Nobody has to pay. Because nobody has to borrow." "I can hear you. You don't have to shout." "All right."

He took a breath, determined not to let this discussion get out of hand. Besides, while disputing some of Margot's views, which in economics, politics, and everything else were left of center, he found his own thinking aided by her forthrightness and keen lawyer's mind. Margot's practice, too, brought her contacts which he lacked directly among the city's poor and underprivileged for whom the bulk of her legal work was done. He awed, "Another cognac?" "Yes, please."

It was close to midnight. A log fire, blazing earlier, had burned low in the hearth of the snug room in the small, sumptuous bachelor suite.

An hour and a half ago they had had a late dinner here delivered from a service restaurant on the apartment block's main floor. An excellent Bordeaux, Alex's choice, Chateau Gruaud-Larose '66 accompanied the meal.

Apart from the area where the Keycharge advertising had been spread out, the apartment lights were low.

When he had replenished their brandy glasses, Alex returned to the argument. "If people pay their credit-card bills when they get them, there is no interest charge." "You mean pay their bills in full." "Right."

"But how many do? Don't most credit-card users pay that convenient 'minimum balance' that the statements show?" "A good many pay the minimum, yes."

"And carry the rest forward as debt which is what you bankers really want them to do. Isn't that so?"

Alex conceded, "Yes, it's true. But banks have to make a profit somewhere."

"I lie awake nights," Margot said, 'worrying if banks are making enough profit."

As he laughed, she went on seriously, "Look, Alex, thousands of people who shouldn't are piling up long-term debts by using credit cards. Often it's to buy trivia drugstore items, phonograph records, bits of hardware, books, meals, other minor things; and they do it partly through unawareness, partly because small amounts of credit are ridiculously easy to obtain. And those small amounts, which ought to be paid by cash, add up to crippling debts, burdening imprudent people for years ahead."

Alex cradled his brandy glass in both hands to warm it, sipped, then rose and tossed a fresh log on the fire. He protested, "You're worrying too much, and the problem isn't that big."

And yet, he admitted to himself, some of what Margot had said made sense. Where once as an old song put it miners "owed their souls to the company store," a new breed of chronic debtor had arisen, naively mortgaging future life and income to a "friendly neighborhood bank." One reason was that credit cards had replaced, to a large extent, small loans. Where individuals used to be dissuaded from excessive borrowing, now they made their own loan decisions often unwisely. Some observers, Alex knew, believed the system had downgraded American morality.

Of course, doing it the credit-card way was much cheaper for a bank; also, a small loan customer, borrowing through the credit-card route, paid substantially higher interest than on a conventional loan. The total interest the bank received, in fact, was often as high as twenty-four percent since merchants who honored credit cards paid their own additional bank levy, ranging from two to six percent.

These were reasons why banks such as First Mercantile American were relying on credit-card business to swell their profits, and they would increasingly in future years. True, initial losses with all credit-card schemes had been substantial; as bankers were apt to put it, "we took a bath." But the same bankers were convinced that a bonanza was close at hand which would outstrip-in profitability most other kinds of bank business.

Another thing bankers realized was that credit cards were a necessary way station on the route to EFTS the Electronic Funds Transfer System which, within a decade and a half, would replace the present avalanche of banking paper and make existing checks and passbooks as obsolete as the Model T.

''That's enough," Margot said. "The two of us are beginning to sound like a shareholders meeting." She came to him and kissed him fully on the lips.

The heat of their argument earlier had already aroused him, as skirmishes with Margot so often did. Their first encounter had begun that way. Sometimes, it seemed, the angrier both became, the larger their physical passion for each other grew. After a while he murmured, "I declare the shareholders meeting closed."

"Well…" Margot eased away and regarded him mischievously. "There is some unfinished business that advertising, darling. You're not really going to let it go out to the public the way it is?" "No," he said, "I don't believe I am."

The Keycharge advertising was a strong sell too strong and he would use his authority to exercise a veto in the morning. He realized he had intended to, anyway. Margot had merely confirmed his own opinion of this afternoon.

The fresh log he had added to the fire was alight and crackling. They sat on the rug before the fireplace, savoring its warmth, watching the rising tongues of flame.