Instinct. Told him. Too good to be true. He ignored it.
“It’s Ben.” On the telephone.
He hadn’t heard that voice for what was it? How long? Ten years? More? Crap! Four years as an airborne trooper in the Army should have sharpened his senses. Denial overcame common sense.
He accepted Ben’s invitation.
He had some questions. What? Why? Nevertheless, it did not take him long to make up his mind. He needed a job. This was a gift horse he would not look in the mouth. So the next morning he went to the closet in his small studio apartment, selected an outfit. It was not hard to choose. The navy suit from the discount men’s store on Route 9 or the tweed sports jacket? The suit. More expensive. Professional. He chose a starched white shirt from the single shelf beside the bed where he piled his shirts, sweaters, underwear. The tie, a maroon and blue rep stripe, was also easy. He had only one. Perfect? Even though they came from different parts of town; Alex lived in a low-rent apartment while Ben’s family owned a large, center-entrance colonial in a leafy neighborhood; they had been friends years earlier in high school in Hoboken. Together in New Jersey they reveled in fantasy about changing the world. Saviors! Real life “Team America: World Police” in the fashion of South Park’s dueling duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated TV movie characters. But that was before his parents were killed in a car crash. Stopping into a storefront recruiting station just off the seamier side of Hoboken’s Main Street he joined the Army instead. Ben taunted him. Betraying their ideals; quitting; joining what Ben lampooned as the 3Ps, the Penile Peak of the Pinnacle of the establishment. It irked Alex that he couldn’t be like Ben; didn’t have his self-assurance, conviction that no matter how close Ben skirted disaster, he would be unscathed. Part of his magnetic charisma. Same thing that attracted the captain of the Hoboken High School football team cheerleaders to date Ben at their prom even though he was never on or never aspired to be on the football team. Unlike Alex, Ben was always a risk-taker. Balls. That is what Ben respected. You did not get them running downfield for the glory of a long, successful pass or dodging bullets mindlessly to defend some stink-hole somewhere that no one gave a damn about. What really, in fact, took courage was saving lives from the quicksand of poverty, to get on top of the game and to rescue the have-nots of the world. A plan! Mother Teresa! Ben would rail about the sainted nun’s quiet support against godless revolutionaries, Spain’s anti-Francoists, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, her anti-abortion stand. The “rugged pioneer spirit” of the early American gold and railroad speculators. “The same conviction what made America strong,” Ben’d say that in some strange way reflected his devil-may-care quixotic attitude. Alex wasn’t sure of the analogy. But it sure sounded good. Before he lost his parents and the bottom fell out of his life.
He didn’t usually splurge on taxis and driving in the city annoyed him. Parking was expensive; traffic pressed his patience. But the car was one luxury he figured he could afford. He’d managed to save enough during his tour in the Army to pay cash for a slightly used Honda Civic. His two favorite movies were environmental thrillers, “Erin Brokovich” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” And it didn’t bother him whether global warming was man-made or a natural outcome, he trusted unequivocally that it was a problem to be solved. So, when he bought the car he picked the hybrid. It promised 45 mpg on the highway, equipped with leather seats, satellite-linked navigation system with voice recognition, USB audio interface “which makes it easier for you to enjoy your music.” Who wouldn’t be proud to drive that kind of car? At any rate, that was his luxury. He scrimped on everything else. Planned to continue until he found a job, a decent job, a good-paying job.
Would this turn out right? His old friend had plowed ahead with his change-the-world investment plans and gotten rich. Very, very rich. News-rich. It was a fact that Alex had noted long before he saw Ben Paladin’s picture on the cover of Business Week posing handsomely, chin jutting like a snow-plow, with the chairman of the S.E.C He occasionally thumbed through the publication as fantasy material at his dentist’s office or in the waiting room at his annual medical check-up. There was a history of heart problems on his father’s and uncle’s side and he thought it wise to reduce his risks.
When he called, Ben told him his office was at Sixty State Street. Alex remembered that building the way it was before he left Boston with his parents to join his uncle in Hoboken. It seemed like so long ago. Nevertheless, the memory was vivid. Looking up with his Dad, up the long, sheer wall soaring like an enormous cliff into the heavenly abyss above. Awe-inspiring. Or simply frightening. It made him feel tiny, forlorn even with his father by his side holding his hand. He’d heard about people jumping to their death out of windows in cliffs like this and imagined how horrible it would be to see that happen while he was standing there gazing up the wall. The fleeting thought intensified his sense of insignificance. It got worse when they entered the imposing marble lobby still hand in hand and a doorman dressed in a goofy uniform with gold braid on the shoulders waved at them. “Say, Jack. Early to start the cleanup, aren’t we.” Funny. Thinking back about that day later after moving to Hoboken made him think of how neat Ben always was. It was not just that he wore starched shirts and jeans, but that everything in his life had to be perfectly in order, pristine, spotless; just perfect. Even at his home his bedroom was orderly, the bed made drum-tight with just-so hospital corners, shirts and slacks pressed and stacked in neat rows inside a walk-in closet. He even had a spot to hang his dust-buster there.
His Dad had plans. They left their Boston neighborhood and moved while he was still in sister school, eighth grade. His father was going to work on the shipping docks with Alex’s uncle who worked as a stevedore with Local 1588 of the Longshoreman’s Union. It never worked out. They stayed anyway and Alex learned to love his irrepressible, incorrigible uncle whom he named “Uncle Fester.” It came from his bowling-ball-head and sunken eyes like the lovable hulk in The Addams Family TV show. Fester took him under his substantial wing and encouraged him to make some new friends. It wasn’t easy to fit into the school cliques at that point, but eventually he got friendly with Ben.
It only took him only twenty minutes to drive from his apartment the next morning. Tooling down Storrow Drive along the Charles River between Harvard College and its famed Business School, it amazed him to see the herring rippling in pools and leaping out of the polluted water on the other side, the Cambridge side, of the river. A low cloud formation etched in rose by the early morning sun just rising over Boston Harbor in the distance framed a stand of bronzed willows across the river. It reminded him of . . . Church, was it . . . Or Cole? The Hudson School or the Hudson Valley School or the Hudson River Valley School. He could never remember. But. Incredible.
Parking at the big Government Center Garage stirred his memory. He looked for an attendant. None. Even that had changed from the days he himself helped park cars for six bucks an hour and tips downtown Hoboken when he was in high school.
Now, standing in front of the big skyscraper, the feeling came back. Worse. He looked up and wondered whether Ben could look out his floor-to-ceiling office window on the 36th floor and see him standing in the gutter of the busy street. His office was only two floors beneath the top floor. There was located the Liberty Club, an exclusive lunch and hang-out spot for the city’s leading bankers and lawyers. Members liked to point to the fact that the club, while now established in different premises, had been founded by the Sons of Liberty, Boston patriots who fought in the American Revolution against the unfairness and betrayal embodied by murderous British greed; patriots so instrumental in founding the nation: James Otis, Sam Adams, John Hancock. He wondered whether Ben was a member of the club. Whatever. Didn’t he have views of the Boston Commons, Boston Harbor, Charles River and a panoramic look over the historic cityscape?
The coffee aroma wafted up the imposing walls, across the high, vaulted ceiling and back down to the polished marble floors from the Starbucks located in a corner of the great lobby. Would Ben have fresh coffee? Of course he would. He couldn’t find the right bank of elevators on his first try. Klutz. The doorman at the security desk, who could have been the same guy, his father’s colleague from that day years earlier, directed him down the corridor to the correct bank. Now getting off the elevator, he was faced with the glass marquee over a double set of polished mahogany doors: Medici Investment Funds. Impressive.
He entered. His eyebrows arched as if drawn by a bow string. An attractively slim, young, plum-black woman sat behind a glass reception desk; a near reflective silk blouse was buttoned only just enough to provide a modicum of modesty, but not enough to keep a greeter’s eyes at eye level. He was almost embarrassed as he quickly looked up. Everything he learned about business could be written on a sheet of notepaper, but he was smart enough to recognize the value of an attractive greeter in an office dedicated to impressing and seducing potential investors. As he looked at her he wondered. He’d had a few black friends in Hoboken, but the first ones he’d met with any social stature had been some company-grade officers in the Army. Now, greeting prospects and clients in a fancy investment office. What a country. In all the jobs he’d had, caddying, washing dishes in a summer resort, scallywagging briefly as a free-lance longshoreman on the docks, he believed in his ability to work hard, pull his own weight. It dawned on him immediately that she must be strong, capable, mentally agile. He remembered thinking how lucky he was in his own life when he saw Gene Wilder pushing a cart around town and collecting horse manure created by the beasts that deliver Dublin’s milk in “Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx.” He identified. And so was grateful his own fortune started out on a higher plane, even if marginally; at the same time, he envied Quackser’s dalliances with Betsy Bourke played by a young Eileen Colgan.
As he looked at the receptionist, he wondered.
“You must be Alex.”
She stood and came around the desk. Her hand was out. He took it. It felt warm; delicate; welcoming. “I’m Willie,” she responded. “The office go-to. Telephone screen and general manager. You would have spoken to me first had you called back. But I would have put you through. Ben told me he was looking forward to seeing you.”
Alex looked at her quizzically.
“Willie for Wilhelmina,” she answered. “Wilhelmina Washington. Great name, huh?” she said confidently.
“Wonderfully ethnic,” he nodded politely. Smiled as big as he could. He thought she was gorgeous. She smiled back.
She led him to Ben’s office.
Stepping into Ben’s office over a brightly-polished double herringbone patterned parquet floor in alternating Afromosia and American Ash, Alex’s eyes jumped. The walls were lined with lightly-stained cherry wood paneling, a glittering bar on the inside wall facing and adjacent to the huge windows on either side between which Ben sat behind a long glass desk. Everything on the desk was in perfect order, one neatly stacked pile of papers on one end and another at the opposite. Simple. In and Out. A large mirror backed the bar shelving, deceptively doubling the impression of gem-quality treasure in the brilliantly-colored liquor decanters and bottles. Ben wore a silver-grey suit. It whispered seductively to Alex of bespoke, Savile Row. Underneath, a grey cashmere polo neck jersey showed off his muscular neck. The outfit matched a slim umbrella leaning elegantly in the corner under a painting that escaped Alex’s notice at first. Ben took a fat, unlit and illegal Havana out of his mouth, deposited it with its slimy, chewed-up mouth-end on a huge alabaster ash tray that sat just behind the right-hand stack of documents; stood and strode up to him with two outstretched hands. Alex took them into his own, noting the platinum watch that he had read about, a diamond-studded Breguet antique complication. Platinum! Amazingly, it matched the heavy wedding ring he wore on the same hand. Looking at Ben’s eyes, he remembered his envy. The deepest blue sapphires he’d ever seen on anyone. He wondered. At six-five with broad shoulders and a smile pretty as a pin-up, he looked like a poster child for the All-American. Curly hair bounced over his starched collar as he pumped Alex’s hands in a forceful clamp. His complexion was as peaches and cream, with just the right hint of sun-touch, as it was the last time Alex saw him. Phenomenal. Looking at the smoothness under his eyes, not a hint of sagging or bagging. He presented the paradigm of good health. Robust. Happy. Master of all he surveyed.
On the wall just next to the bar hung the oil painting, highly varnished, square, stark black, vacant. The only interesting characteristic was the contrasting frame holding it from floating off into the space from which it looked like it came.
“Are those stripes?” Alex asked looking intently at the picture.
“ABC art. That’s a Philip Glass,” Ben whispered smilingly while stepping back to his desk, lifting his hand to flick a tiny white speck of dust from the sparkling glass top. “Unbelievable,” You wouldn’t believe what they command for those things today. Who was it? P.T. Barnum? Said ‘There is a sucker born every minute?’ I guess that would include me,” he said unpretentiously, knowing that modesty is a virtue.
“Philip Glass is a composer,” Alex responded, arching his eyebrows, laughing at the joke and thinking of one of his favorite chestnuts from Golda Meir: “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.”
Ben himself chuckled quietly. Assuringly. “Just checking your attention level,” he said, a big smile cracking his face. It was one of those gestures Ben was capable of throwing off that made Alex feel relaxed in his presence. He suspected he was not alone in that sense of security that circulated glowingly about Ben’s presence like an angelic nimbus. “In fact, he is related to Ira Glass of NPR’s ‘This American Life’ fame. “Actually, truth to tell, he was in fact a Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist . . . like myself . . . and a co-founder of the Tibet House.”
“And you are a Buddhist now; Dali Lama and all? Sort of born again?” Alex shrugged, lifting his hands palms up.
If anyone else had answered the way Ben did, it would have sounded like boasting, but from Ben it was just another fact of his celestial and rapturous life. “Well, to be perfectly honest, Philip is the one who introduced me to Errol Morris . . . Fog of War? Glass scored Morris’ wonderful film. You’ve heard the joke on Glass’s hit song: ‘My name is Philip Glass, Philip Glass, Philip Glass, etc., etc., etc.’? Repetition. Minimalism. Integrity! Wonderful! It was through Morris I met Richard Gere. We became close friends and Richard passed on to me the enlightenment that led me to the Dali.”
“So? The painting?”
“ABC art. “Another black square!!! A newly discovered work. Kazimir Severinovich Malevich. Priceless. But . . . who knows for how long,” he laughed silently, modestly, a gesture of self-effacement. Alex thought that Ben had become such a refined aristocrat. Unlike himself.
“I don’t know anything about it.”
Ben took his hand and led him to one of two red leather, high-seat Queen Anne wing-backed chairs situated kitty-corner in front of the bar. He took down a bottle of single-malt scotch, pulled a couple of diamond-shaped cubes out of a wooden ice-bucket, dropped them into three stemmed crystal goblets, placed them carefully on a Tiffany-inspired stained-glass coffee table. He poured the drinks. “Perrier? Pellegrino? Or plain?” he purred. “My associate is coming in to join us.”
Just then in floated a small man appearing suddenly like an apparition. Alex hadn’t even noticed the door open. It was almost as if the man had been in the room all along. Dark, with black hair swept back from a receding hairline, black metal-framed glasses and a chocolate gabardine Brioni suit made him also the picture of Wall Street success. He could have played Ben’s physically conflicting alter-ego in a stage play. He wore a pencil mustache to complete the picture.
Ben introduced them and as he did Willie also entered the room.
“Alex wanted to know about the Malevich,” he said after the two shook hands, Alex noting the damply soft palms, lifeless fingers.
When he spoke, Alex squirmed.
“Life pared down to a minimum,” he expounded. “Sparse, spare, restricted, even empty. ‘ssential undastanin’a problems society today. ‘Out’s knowledge, can’t truly spek know anythin’. Really. Colloquially speaking’s meanta bring human undastanin’ new heights recognizinga ‘plexity ‘n symbols strippeda ‘eir naked existential ‘ssentials. Actually reaction ‘gainsta Abstract ‘spreshnists ‘s well as dialogue, ‘stablishment ’n’ ideas ‘at drove ‘em.”
“Oh,” Alex responded, his eyes dropping to a large diamond that beaconed from the man’s right pinky.
“It’s a black panel.”
“Exactly,” the associate shot back, his voice oily.
“The detail is in the short strokes, I imagine . . . .”
A brief pause. Ben explained.
”I would have called earlier, but just found out you were in Boston. I stayed here after college; this town’s been good to me,” Ben said, his voice soft again. Alex had read of his offices in New York and Paris as well. He had also read about his 150-foot Burger yacht moored in the marina at Cap d’Antibes and his dating of Bar Rafaeli, the current Sports Illustrated cover swim suit model. “Sorry. But tell me what’s going on. I heard you were looking for work.”
They looked at each other.
“Well,” Alex started, wavering. “Sure. When you called, I thought you had something specific in mind.” He wondered if his voice sounded weak. Nothing made him feel sorrier for someone than indecisiveness; a tone that lacked confidence, speaking that was more like pleading.
“Ben tells me you’ one his best friends,” the associate smiled unctuously. “Also says you’ vey, vey bright,” he slurred lazily over the Rs. He picked up the drink Ben had poured. He raised it in the air. Ben picked up his. Alex followed suit. “The future,” the associate mumbled breathily.
“To the future,” Alex agreed, but as he did he turned to an old black-and-white enlarged photograph on the wall. He saw a handsome young man dressed dapperly in a white suit and standing next to a stunning blonde flapper. It appeared to have been taken sometime in the twenties or thirties. They were standing on a magnificent porch surrounded by stately columns bordered by a sumptuous garden of bougainvillea, coconut palms and Mango trees.
“Jesse Livermore,” Ben smiled with a twist in his lips. “Confessions of a Stock Operator . A bible. On the portico at The Breakers. Palm Beach, of course. That’s Dorothy Livermore, Ziegfield showgirl, standing there with him like a wife which she was not. If I have a hero, it’s Jesse Livermore.”
“Why? He was one of the greatest stock traders in history, made more than a billion dollars in today’s money. In one year! And he did it with pure Balls, going against the market.”
“By betting against Common Wisdom in 1929; trusting his own instinct and shorting the leading stocks in the market.”
“You mean . . . when everyone else was getting hammered . . . he was getting . . . rich?” Alex said haltingly. He didn’t want to sound judgmental.
“Well, displayed the kind of courage we used to revere. Remember?”
“You must und’stand. No magic makin’ money Wall Street. Nothin’ new. Speculation same’s it always was,” the associate said. “Markets,” he tutored with a wave, “have funny way repeatin’emselves. Rules never change. People love to speculate, exhilaratin’, often fatal.” He went on to explain that speculation was for “suckas,” those willing to fall for a phony get-rich-quick scheme.
Ben spoke. “We know that prudent investment means not buying at the bottom and selling at the top, but selling at the right time. The dumbest thing of all is this crap you hear about Wall Street cheating investors. The biggest fools are some of the most successful men in the country. They want to multiply their fortunes as quickly as possible. Took me five years to develop the strategies we use to protect our investors,” Ben added. He described the system in simple terms. While the big investment banks were taking long shots shorting sub-prime mortgages against solid AAA debt, a strategy that failed when those sterling mortgages deteriorated, Ben was using sophisticated trading techniques with puts and calls, bets on prices going up or down against the stock positions they held, to guarantee investors between and eight- and ten-percent return.
“Guaranteed,” he grinned at Alex. “Good deal?”
“Sure,” Alex smiled back. He wondered. Thought it wasn’t quite the same as their teenage dream. But perhaps this was the answer. He’d always been curious about money, big money. He’d read about philanthropists like the Rockefellers and, of course, New England’s Cabots and Lodges. And he had recently read of the millions Ben had pledged to eradicate polio. Wondered what it would really be like to have enough money to make some real changes in the world. He looked at the three of them standing now in a semi-circle around him. The two men, Ben and his associate, looked like they floated above all the world’s ills, unscathed by flaw or doubt. Willie, radiant, strong, smiled at him as though reading his mind. Could she? He thought he might be able to read hers. He knew she knew. She was thinking how tempting this offer was to him. Why?
Breaking the awkward pause, Ben’s friend put out his hand and shook Alex’s. He looked back and forth between Ben and Willie, said “Don’t know much you read ‘out us. Gains Worldwide? But years we been makin’ history returns our investas.” His name was Carleton Fisher and he was Ben’s partner. He told Alex the story about how the two men had met working the rough-and-tumble Over-The-Counter market. Eventually, they pooled their growing profits to start their own firm trading listed stocks. Short-selling the high tech flyers brought them to fame and riches in the wake of the tech stock bubble bust in 2000. Then Enron, Tyco, WorldCom . . . the biggest string of frauds, cover-ups and criminal accounting practices to hit the nationwide accounting industry in history. They’d taken advantage of all of it.
Alex said he was confused. He thought the firm Ben led was Medici Investments. Learning that Medici was just the conduit for Gains Worldwide intrigued him. There was so much to learn. So much his innocent past hadn’t equipped him for. After explaining some of the more mundane intricacies of their business they took him to lunch at the Liberty Club. Willie joined them. They told him how they saw his role. They were bringing Willie in as an account executive and they told him he would replace her on the front desk. A chill went up his spine and he felt, could actually feel, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck lift.
“You have to understand one major thing. We are not a hedge fund. Nor a fund of funds. Those people are largely overrated by media types who can’t make their own management decisions. You have to realize that anyone really capable of picking investments, timing markets, beating the Dow, wouldn’t be wasting their time on television or writing a column in a newspaper. They would be doing what we are doing. An investor has to be selective because so many of these funds are run by a bunch of merchandise managers, glad-handers and back-slappers and not by trained micro-economic analysts and professional traders,” Ben explained smoothly. “We have two-hundred of them. Most from the Ivy League!”
Being an amateur hobbyist in philosophy, Alex was taken aback when Ben cited the German philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
“We believe ‘the ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.’ So we run our investment philosophy with that principle in mind. Ultimate trust that doing the right thing will turn out right in the end every time.”
Alex asked him about the Business Week photo with Raul LeBeaux, the chairman of the S.E.C. Ben smiled and said, “The best way to protect investors is to gain some input at the seats of power. It is the only way to hold the mean spirits that dominate politics at bay. That takes personal involvement. We simply take pains to do what needs to be done to assure that the country continues to grow into the moral society our forefathers planned and died for.”
“When you learn the business, we’ll bring you in just like we’re bringing in Willie,” Ben said soothingly. “Trust me Alex. This will work. We need a solid commitment, one-hundred percent, but . . . This will change your life. And you can help others around the world to change theirs. Our dream. Remember. But this is real.” As Alex left and the door to the ornate office closed behind him, he heard, “Oh, and you might get yourself a new suit. Appearance matters.”
The next morning Alex showed up at the 60 State Street office tower in a new suit, shirt and tie. He left his car on the street in front of his apartment complex. Maybe if Ben brought him in and taught him the trade he would buy a Porsche Carrera GT, perhaps a racing concept model. His apartment building didn’t have a garage and he indulged himself with a taxi to work on his first day. He listened to Bach on his I-Phone on his way settling the debate in his mind as he walked down the four flights from his apartment to the street whether to listen to Wagner, like the warrior he intended to become, or the seeker-of-peace which he had always been in spite of his elite corps military tour. Actually, though he joined the “All American” 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, instead of going Infantry, he worked as a supply clerk. In fact, of the 15,000 members of the 82nd, as far as he knew, he was the only one who, through a company snafu, made his virgin jump without training. Once that was behind him, they gave him his jumper wings anyway. “They said I was airborne qualified,” he later told an investigator when it came to Colonel McMurphy’s attention, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team to which Alex was attached.
They had settled on a full salary of forty-five thousand a year plus all the fringes. Amazing! It was all he hoped for; a mountain of cedar-brushed air and open sky over what he thought he might have had to settle for as a payment clerk in an entry job at a mortgage company. Couple of his friends from his Army tour in Iraq started out that way and were eating dirt from bosses pressing them to shake out more mortgage payments from hard-pressed and defaulting home-owners. When he called his Uncle Fester to share the news of his good fortune, his uncle made him feel like he had just graduated summa cum laude with an MBA from an elite business school. Hallelujah! That meant a lot to him. He loved Fester and worried about how he was handling retirement and all the fading promises that went along with it. And though he was ailing, he still held on to his raucous sense of humor, like the last time they got together with his father’s side of the family. Capitalizing on his “Addams Family” nickname, Uncle Fester had picked up a trick light bulb and freaked out two of the youngest members of the family, chasing them around with the bulb blinking out of his mouth like a big blown fire-fly or an electronic bubble.
Before going through Medici’s front doors, Alex stopped in the washroom. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, tightened the new tie, a $135 silk Robert Talbott seven-fold, pirouetted to check every angle. Appearance matters. When he entered the office, Willie got up from her desk to greet him. She had on a trimly-styled, darkly-sedate suit with a just-above the knee skirt that accented her fitness in a nice way that he thought was proper, inoffensive even if very fetching. She displayed a full-lip-glossed smile that looked like a big, happy invitation. Alex refused to read too much into it. Handing him a company brochure and a small booklet that proclaimed it as a history with supporting newspaper and magazine articles, she asked him if he’d like to go into the conference room to read through the material. He did. She brought him a steaming mug of rich, creamy coffee which prompted him to breathe deeply through his nose. Delicious. The emblem on the mug indicated it was a souvenir from the 2006 U.S. Open, Winged Foot Country Club. Life really might be turning better. He had never played golf, but he had dreamed about it incessantly. Maybe now he would have the chance to join a country club like Winged Foot. Success and wealth in the abstract was something with which he was too familiar. Sure, there was Uncle Fester. But he didn’t have much and who could figure what he would do with whatever he had accumulated. At any rate, if he had anything, he sure wasn’t sharing it with Alex. Guilt seared his brain when he even thought about putting a financial value to his love for his uncle. Besides, in spite of his loving feelings for Alex, Uncle Fester had a fatalistic and stand-by-yourself and pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps attitude about life that Alex figured came with being Irish. As he flopped through the pages, he could taste the filet mignon and foie gras and truffles; saw himself in a Milan or London custom tailor shop, the tape measure sizing up his every angle; fishing for huge trout in Mongolia or sail-fishing off the Yucatan. This flight into the lands of airy ambition was not without cost, one with which he was only too familiar. Guilt followed his naked aspiration at every step. It followed invariably on the directly on the heels of constant internal conflict. In the Army he avoided it, unsure whether he were really capable of killing someone in close-range combat, seeing the results of a bullet smashing a real person’s flesh and bone. Looking into their face at the moment of death. Or just visualizing what it must look like, sound like, being too far away to actually see it. Wouldn’t that still be murder in the eyes of any Creator? Could he really engage in cutthroat competition, cut the legs out from under any opponent? But pragmatism had the upper hand over idealism in that debate. Hell. Why not me. If others can do it, get paid like kings for their work and reap the all the juicy fringies, why not me?
It must have been two hours later when Willie came back into the conference room. Sat. Crossed her trim legs modestly, his eyes dropping to the spiky heels.
“Well, what do you think?” she said snapping out the words like rapping keys on an old Royal typewriter in a newspaper office or government bureau. That brought him up short. He paused before answering.
He told her how impressed he was. How exciting the prospect was for him. How it must be for her.
“Grew up in Anacostia,” she said. “On the river, down a side street from the corner of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Ever been there?”
Guilt. Alex’s face flushed. Could she notice? Sixty State Street was a long way from Sweet Soul’s Eatery there. His mouth ran from dry to suddenly soaked with the taste of batter-fried chitlins, glazed sweet potatoes and crispy chicken livers they used to eat when he and his Army buddies drove over that river from a night partying in Georgetown. He couldn’t possibly be honest with her. He would never embarrass her. How could he tell her he knew that it had the highest per capita murder rate in the country or that when he was stationed briefly with the Army’s Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia, his friends came back from week-end leave bragging about the whores they picked up behind the library there? Sadly, that was all he knew about her old neighborhood. So he just shook his head.
Pointing to one of the pages with the articles he said in what he feared sounded like gasping, “Time Magazine calls Ben the most important fund manager in U.S. history.” He noticed her crisp, black eyebrows lift; a soft spray of radiance from the overhead rope lighting beneath the molding managed to bounce its reflection off her deep chocolate eyes. Willie looked to him like a cross between a feet-firmly-placed-on-the-ground school teacher and a fashion model, albeit a very fit one. Strange as it was, he couldn’t help thinking of Nina Mae McKinney, the black Clara Bow, the first Negro starlet, a face that leaped with sincerity. “And it quotes him as saying it is not the secret to buy as cheap as possible, but to know when to sell.”
“Initially, he made his money shorting the market at the right time, then when he sensed the real estate market tanking, buying credit default swaps on mortgages. He made money on them when the real estate market collapsed and home-owners began to default.”
“Sounds complicated,” he said still a bit breathless.
“Not as much as you’d think. He likes to say there is nothing new on Wall Street, but we . . . I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.” She explained the intricacies of her job, punctuating the key points with an index finger, thumb up like a revolver. Alex listened intently, watched as she rose and picked up a television console remote control, flicked a button with a snap that looked like she had just pulled out a switchblade. On the wall a large screen lit up covered in green figures, many of them flashing like ambulance lights or battlefield gunfire. She told him these were the guiding lights of the business; Carleton Fisher’s domain.
“You may have noticed, Carltey’s got a pole up his ass,” she said clicking through a series of screens. He thrives on this stuff. Tells me I’m going to learn fast, make millions. I can’t wait,” she laughed lifting both hands, running her fingers through her curly ebony hair. Carleton popped his head in.
“Eve’thin’ goin’ smoothly here hope,” he asked. “Hope so. Jus’ buzz me need anythin’,” he slurred. Then he was gone.
“See what I mean.”
They lunched together, shared lasagna at a small, quiet booth in an Italian restaurant on Tremont Street. When the waiter, who affirmed Alex’s guess that he was a Pakistani, left after taking their order Willie surprised him with her candor. Where did she fit in here? “I was happy when I heard you were coming in to replace me,” she smiled. “First of all, I liked what I heard from Ben. And then, well, it’s good to have an ally. You and I are the same. Hired help. Not like Ben and Carltey, the fund managers and analysts. Not even like most of the clients. These guys are living on top of the world and you and I are clawing to keep abreast of the bill collectors.”
They should stick together. He learned that she would train him to handle the rarified clients that came in; elite treatment, kid glove stuff. She said he’d get it. In the meantime, she was on her way. It was obvious to Alex, however, that she would demand more for her efforts than mere money. Sure, she loved, much like he did, the good life, but he could see there was more to her. They wouldn’t be there forever, she’d said, and they’d have to make the most of the time they had.
Alex found it easy to put in one-hundred-percent and he worked harder than he ever had in his life, meeting clients, writing letters and reports summarizing the amazing returns they were getting on their investments, signing off on account documents. He couldn’t believe his turn of fortune. Ben gave him more and more important work to do and that work came with commensurate salary raises. Time passed faster than he expected, weeks filled with new learning and new experiences. They crossed into a new season and Alex got to play golf, first at The Country Club in Chestnut Hill and then, dream fulfilled, on the West Course at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York, the baronial stone clubhouse built over the former ancestral grounds of the Mohegans. He discovered there that the integrity of his shot was critical. Under the shower of early spring sun and travel poster clouds, Alex felt a sense of akin paramount to one of his few drug experiences with cocaine; cocky with self-satisfaction and iron-clad confidence. This in spite of the fact that nearly every one of the 36-holes on the course was designed with deep bunkers guarding the treacherously undulating greens. The only way to compete was with an approach from the ideal side of the landing area. He failed miserably, of course. It didn’t hurt inasmuch as he wasn’t expected to excel. The problem came when Ben failed as well. By that time, Alex was not surprised by Ben’s outbursts. Willie had already told him what a brute he could be. He still couldn’t believe it when Ben blamed him for a slice that put him in the woods and prompted him to smash his driver against the ball-washer. The driver broke nearly in two. Ben blamed Alex for that, too. If it bothered Alex he didn’t show it. Ben needed a handy target for his rage. When he thought about it, Alex wondered what it was all about. Didn’t Ben have everything in life he wanted? He absorbed the blows like a sandbag, shrugged them off and let Ben blow off steam. It was worth it, wasn’t it?
There were multiple reasons why Willie didn’t join them on their golf excursions, but Ben explained that they would work their way up to that as she became adapted to the business. The days flipped by like pages in a potboiler and then one evening, after work when the two of them were tired and stressed, Willie asked him out for a drink. He had been wondering when it was going to happen. To say he was elated would be an understatement. Both of them were dressed in business attire, she starkly in a no-nonsense pin-striped pants suit with a starched white cotton shirt and necktie, very transgendery. They took a table at the corner of the bar in the Parker House, a revered old Boston hotel that catered as much to lawyers from the Attorney General’s office as to stock traders and brokers from the Boston Stock Exchange around the corner.
“Have you ever wondered why I’m here?” Willie asked.
The question struck him as right on point. He had the same question about himself. He had resolved that attributing it to Ben’s outsized ego. The fact was that while he wondered what he himself might have to offer, he was suspicious of Ben’s motives for bringing Willie into the firm. Maybe it was a convoluted sense of recapturing their early plans to save the world. Was Ben reaching out to help lift the prospects for blacks and other minorities? If so, Alex would be anxious to sign on. Imagine putting a hand out to bring more justice to the world in terms of sharing economic growth and development. Domestic affirmative action in the stock market could be just the beginning. Wealth would bring influence. He could help spread it everywhere. If he could just learn how. Maybe Ben had the answer. Living like a king would be just frosting on Marie Antoinette’s famous cake.
“Sea change in America,” she said flicking a strand of hair over her ear. “Obama’s election was just the beginning. Look what black power means today. Money! Tiger, Oprah, P-Diddie, Michael Jordan. They’re all worth hundreds of millions. And then there are the black CEOs: Stan O’Neil, former CEO at Merrill Lynch; Ken Chenault, CEO at American Express; John Thompson, CEO and Chair at Symantec . . . and the list goes on and on.” Taking the concept overseas, she added the fact that Anglo-American, the giant mining conglomerate, had recently sold a 26-percent stake to a group of black investors.
He lifted the bottle of Bud Light to his lips, looked at her. A long way from Anacostia. Thought about his father, his unrealized dreams, immigrant dreams passed down from someone who came over from a potato farm to escape a famine more than a century ago. America was a land of opportunity, but it sill offered more hope to some than others. And Alex was only too aware of that fact. Uncle Fester, bless his heart. Wondered how he was doing living on a stevedore’s pension and a small stipend from workers comp.
“So more African Americans are investing in the stock market now,” he said making a statement more than asking a question. Sometimes he could be so decisive. “And they are looking for people they can trust to invest with.”
“Fastest growing segment of the investment market if you count union members, Teamsters, Government and Service Employees, Communications, Electricians, Teachers. Blacks want someone they can identify with, who are recommended by friends or relatives and are involved in their community’s activities.”
She took a sip from the wine glass, put it down, spoke. “Thing is. I want to make sure those investors don’t get hurt. There are serial killers out there, bloodthirsty, predatory animals just waiting to pounce.” For the first time, he noticed the purple veins of an athlete etched out down the sides of her muscular neck. She stood, all six-feet of her, clenched her teeth and squinted her piercing eyes, looking deadly.
As the weeks rattled by like boxcars on a long locomotive, Alex and Willie spent more and more time together. Gradually, what had started as a convenient alliance grew into something more profound. Some afternoons they’d stroll the walkway from the Hatch Shell on the Charles River, stopping to watch the little sailboats sliding with the soft wind across the water. And then one day, on the way back to the office after sharing a pizza, a day overcast with grey shadows that made him feel that he wished he could speed the clock. As much as he enjoyed Willie’s company; she turned out to be his counterpart in bed, making love lazily with no great expectations other than the warmth they generated for one another; he wanted to get under way with his financial career. Answering phones and tracking stock quotes was not what he planned for his life and the murky weather made him feel sick to his stomach. The only thing that brought him back to a positive mood was the memory of his trip with Ben a week earlier to the CBOE, the Options Exchange in the Art Deco-style Board of Trade Building that anchored North LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago. Atop the building, a standing statue of Ceres, the Greek goddess of abundance, promised prosperity for all.
After getting registered with day-badges, Ben took him to the wild OEX pit where several hundred traders screamed and waved their hands, calling out trades for put and call options on the S&P 100 stocks. He introduced him to a trader who told him a story he suspected was apocryphal, but pointed. Years earlier, a trader who had lost his entire life’s savings, house and pension fund included, stepped out of the pit in the middle of the trading day, whipped out a pistol and shot himself in the head. The narrator laughed when he told Alex that the traders in the pit paused to shrug and then continued trading. Strangely enough, it didn’t bother Alex. The way the guy told it, it was a funny story and, anyway Alex was too stunned to care after seeing the Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Porsches, and Jaguars the traders had parked in their parking garage beneath the BOT Building. He wanted in.
Ben started introducing Alex to some of his smaller clients. One day after coming back from Chicago, they met with Jack O’Hurley, a doctor from the North Shore. Alex was thrilled to discover that Jack was a fly-fishing enthusiast, salt water, stripers and blues. Alex hadn’t had a chance to go out since moving into Boston and now he thought he might have a chance to get out with someone who knew the waters. He loved the sense of freedom he got just being outdoors between the blue water and the open sky, casting into choppy riffles and using his keen acumen to beat the wily fish. One of the most thrilling things for him was seeing the flash in the water, getting a strike and hearing the reel whine as a game fish took off and ripped out line in a desperate effort to escape.
“The way I see it,” Jack said, looking from Alex to Ben. “Is that investing is like fly-fishing. Anybody can do it, but to do it successfully takes hard work, studying the quarry’s habitats, learning what flies to use and when; developing the skill needed to get the fly out to the game and present it in a way that will make it appetizing.
“Thing I like about you Ben and Medici is the steady income. Never got less than eight-percent, more often more like ten-, and that even in down markets. I don’t know how you do it, but I’m not complaining,” he laughed too loudly.
They walked in the sunshine along the waterfront on Northern Avenue, past the old Boston Fish Pier. Landscaped flowers blossomed in a park across the street and the sea sparkled on their right, a line of fishing trawlers bobbing slowly in the undulating waters alongside an ancient pier. They were headed for the Summer Shack for a seafood lunch. All around them, young men and women were walking hand-in-hand, sitting together on benches in the parks, or just hustling back and forth between office and lunch. Eying one young woman brought his thoughts to Willie, made him wonder where that was going. They had a lot in common. He liked drinking beer from a bottle and she liked sipping wine from a stem glass, but they both loved hiking in the woods and singing Don Henley songs from Henley’s days with The Eagles, who chronicled America in what music promoters called the high-flying Seventies and again in the late nineties with their corresponding rapidly changing social mores and reverence for life in the fast lane. Alex reminded her that many of the country-rock groups’ lyrics lampooned the pursuit and unraveling of the American dream. He liked her and was sure she liked him too. But there was something else. What? He couldn’t grasp it. But it was there. He knew it. Between them?
As they talked Alex dreamed. He watched those old fishing boats bobbing in the water alongside the crumbling dock. His mind drifted off to what he could do if he actually had the kind of money Ben had. He saw men working on the boats, repairing nets, scraping barnacles, unloading fish into large, wheeled carts. Wondered what they did to support themselves when they got injured and couldn’t work like his uncle when he slipped on a ladder and fell 60-feet into ship’s hold and broke his back, ending his working days. Workmen’s comp wasn’t enough even with his meager pension. And what about the millions of people . . . .
“There’s an old adage: bulls make money, bears make money: pigs get slaughtered,” Ben said bringing Alex back to the moment. “So you are right. Successful investing takes discipline, developing a plan and then having the discipline to stick to it.”
So the conversation went until they got into the restaurant. After sitting down and settling in, Jack asked Ben if he would have any trouble withdrawing money from or taking all of the money from his account if he needed it. Ben assured him.
“That’s never been a problem.”
Then one day, Alex and Willie sat on a camo-printed Polar Tec fleece blanket on the white sand by the table-top, smooth, flat rocks at Wingaersheek Beach. She wore a white bikini and near thong that he decided was more help than she needed with that tight figure pleading for exposure. The soft wind blew over their bodies while they held hands and listened together to the gentle surf wash onto the shore, receding with the tide. Shadows lengthened around them, even those of their reclining bodies across the patterned blanket. The sky reddened as the sun slowly sank over the town beyond.
“So, what would you buy if you had all the money you ever dreamed of having?” she asked, rolling over on her back and sitting up next to him. Her black skin glistened with the Coppertone sun screen he had applied, running his hands as modestly as possible over her slick skin. He thought it was smooth and purple as an eggplant and wondered whether that amounted to a racist thought. What did color really mean? He tried throughout his life to be color-blind but he never could figure out whether that was possible or, even if it were, whether it ultimately made sense in terms of reaching a state of equality in America.
“I’d buy you a house right here on the beach.”
“Take the girl out of Anacostia?”
“You don’t live in Anacostia any longer.”
“My Mom is still there. At any rate thanks. That’s nice thought. He sat up. Admired her athletic arms. Let his eyes wander over her near nakedness.
“I’d blush, if I could.” She was smiling and he wondered what she was thinking. He reached for the plastic cooler that sat next to them on the blanket to keep it from getting too sandy.
“Coke?” he asked. “Or the last beer?” She declined, offering it to him since she knew he liked it more. She reached into the tote bag that sat next to the cooler, took out the sun screen, applied some into her palm and started applying it to his shoulders. While she soothed his heated back, he reached over and passed her a bag of Doritos.
“So, has it ever occurred to you that all these people Ben has sold into his investments are getting big returns whether the market is up or the market is down? And how he is doing that?” she asked.
Alex repeated what he had learned from Ben. That he had developed proprietary software to price options in such a way to allow him to sell premium on the options positions against stock in the portfolio. It was a foolproof system that virtually guaranteed an eight- or ten-percent return.
Willie looked at him, cocked her head. When she raised her eyebrows and shook her head he knew something was wrong. “Do you really think Ben has figured out a foolproof way to beat the market? Every time? Do you know what the volume of the options market is and how many investors are trying to make money out of it?”
Alex studied her face, his brow wrinkling. Suddenly his throat tightened, his mouth felt dry as the beach and he could taste salt that didn’t come from the ocean. Ben had the answer. Alex didn’t want to hear anything else. His dream! If he could just join the Masters of the Universe, he could save the world. He could feel his eyes beginning to well. “We better get going,” he said wiping the wetness from them. He took the sunscreen from her hands, opened the tote bag to place it back. That’s when he saw the badge affixed to the inside of her open wallet
He picked it up. Showed it to her. “What the be-fuckin’ Jeezis’s is ‘is?” Standing. He never swore.
She reached up to him. “Have you ever heard of Charles Ponzi?” Tears began to flow down his cheeks. He knew. Ponzi bilked Boston investors out of millions of dollars in 1920 offering huge returns on investments that he paid off by using funds coming in from new investors rather than legitimate corporate profits. What became known as a Ponzi scheme was outdone last year by Bernard Madoff, a former non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange who cost investors $50 billion.
Alex grabbed a towel from the bag, wiped his face. A seagull swooped down and boldly made off with the bag of Doritos Nacho Cheesier tortilla chips.
“Shit! he shouted uncharacteristically, shaking from head to toe as the big white bird flew away. “He’s a fucking crook!”
She reached out for his hand. “No, Alex, he is a maniac, a serial killer.”
It took him a long time to get over that. The day on the beach was just the beginning. In all of his lifetime, he thought he could rely on his instinct to trust people. It just didn’t make sense, but there it was. He was there the day the FBI came to arrest Ben and Carleton. Ben glared through red-rimmed eyes as he passed, handcuffed, out of the elevator into the marble lobby and out into the street just diagonally across from the Old State House, operated by the Bostonian Society and the site of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Carleton mimicked Ben’s hateful and pathetic scorn. Later, the courts cleared Alex of any wrongdoing though at Ben’s insistence, he had dumbly signed off on numerous fraudulent accounts. He stayed in touch from time to time with Willie who went back to the financial frauds division at the FBI headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania Avenue just down the street from the White House in Washington, DC. She had moved her mother out of Anacostia the last time he saw her even though or possibly because the old neighborhood was in the process of being gentrified. In the meantime, Uncle Fester died of complications from his work injury. Shockingly, he had inherited a substantial fortune from an obscure aunt who Alex had never heard of, Fester being as secretive a person as Willie Washington which was, of course, not her real name. Alex never found out what it was. Fester had invested — and lost — all of the fortune through Medici Investment Funds, a front for Gains Worldwide, a firm which had been completely unknown to Fester.
Alex was the sole beneficiary.
He later discovered that Jesse Livermore committed suicide in 1940 at the age of 63. Although Livermore’s estate was estimated to be worth several millions of dollars, in his suicide note he declared himself a failure.