The three smart men came out of the east. Or, rather the East 70s of Manhattan, where they maintained luxury condominiums, both as bases of operation and for investment and tax advantages. The three smart men were originally from countries of the East, but they had moved to New York because of the prophecy of the Ark. Or, rather, the "arc of crisis" that had engulfed their native countries and would have engulfed their wealth, if they had not been very smart men.

The three smart men traveled to Washington, enduring great hardships. The first smart man waited four hours in the Eastern Airlines shuttle queue. The second smart man suffered five hours in a frozen Metroliner. The third smart man survived six hours in a gasoline line on the turnpike. But the three smart men disregarded these hardships, because they were following a star.

It was not actually a star, but rather a bubble -- a speculative bubble that grew and grew, magically leading them on. The three smart men had become rich by hearing things. And what they had heard was that, in a neighborhood in Washington, a child would be born who would burst the bubble once and for all. The smart men wanted this child to warn them when it was time to sell out.

The three smart men had Washington contacts, of course; in business, the media, on the Hill. But to find out what they wanted to know, they traveled to the office of Herod Realty Management, Inc. If anyone knew about the child, it would be Herod.

"Where is the child who will bring the market crashing down?" the smart men asked Herod.

The great landlord's eyes sparkled like eviction notices in mailslots. "I don't know," he said. "But when you find him, have him call me. Maybe he can put me onto a good thing." And he watched the three smart men go as he dialed his accountant.

The three smart men endured great hardships, following the bubble until it led them to a boarded-up townhouse, where the baby lay, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a packing box. The baby and his mother and father lived in the abandoned house because there were no mortgage loan, or rent supplements, or condominiums, for them.

"We are smart men," they said to the child's mother, who had her own opinion about these things. "We have brought gifts for the child."

The first smart man opened his briefcase. "My gift is gold futures," he said. "They are an excellent hedge against inflation." And he laid the futures at the baby's feet. No one said a word, but the first smart man felt a chill in his stomach, like the feeling he felt when the news of a dollar-rescue package ticked across the wire.

The second smart man produced a blue folder. "My gift is oil securities," he said. "One thing we can count on in an unstable world is that future energy demands will grow." And he laid the securities at the baby's side. No one said anything, but the second smart man felt a twinge in his chest, like the sensation he felt when he heard a rumor about alternate energy sources.

The third smart man produced a tiny wax envelope. "My gift is rare stamps," he said. "Collectibles increase in value in times of inflation." And he laid the imperfects at the baby's head. No one said a work, but the third smart manfelt the beginnings of a migraine, like the one he had gotten the day he discovered his Tupenny Black was a fake.

The mother and child looked at the three smart men, but there were no market tips forthcoming. After a silence, the first one said, "I guess we'd better get back to the office." And they left their business cards and departed the neighborhood. Being smart men, they knew enough not to let Herod onto their good thing; and when the old fox discovered they had left town, he took revenge by evicting every child in his rental empire and converting their homes into "adults-only" condos. But the baby's parents were warned in a dream, and moved to Prince George's County.

As for the three smart men, they returned to the East 70s and the worst hardship was still to come. When the opening bell rang on the next trading day, they found that they did not feel as smart as they had before. And that, they later found, was the beginning of wisdom.