From the author of the extraordinary Edgar-nominated debut novel Black Fridays, a sensational story of murder and financial corruption—and one man’s continued search for redemption.
William von Becker ran one of the largest privately held investment banks in North America, until the bottom fell out, and the whole edifice was demonstrated to be a fraud.
After von Becker dies in prison, financial investigator Jason Stafford is hired by his family. There is still a lot of missing money out there, he’s told, and they want Stafford to find it before the Feds do—and certain other parties, some of whom are nowhere near as scrupulous in their methods. Bad things start happening to the people Stafford talks to. Soon bad things are happening to him as well.
Making it worse, his treacherous ex-wife has come to town, ostensibly to visit their young son. Stafford suspects there’s more to it than that, but even he has no idea how much that visit is about to change all their lives—and send him off to the next chapter of his life.
According to the police report, the victim, Serge Biondi, an eighty-year-old tax and estate attorney and partner with the firm Kuhn Lauber Biondi, made two phone calls after his secretary left the offices at 6:48 that Friday evening. The first call was to Frau Hilde Biondi, his seventy-four-year-old wife of nearly fifty years. He informed her that he was working late, a not-unusual occurrence, but planned on being home for dinner by 8:30. They briefly discussed plans for the weekend that included some early Christmas shopping for their two sons and their families.
The second call was to the Zurich Escort Center, where, police later learned, he was a steady, but not frequent client, generally preferring discreet sessions in his office after hours with tall, large-breasted, Eastern European women. Herr Biondi was just over 1.7 meters, or five-foot-five.
The assignment was given to a twenty-seven-year-old airline stewardess with LOT by the name of Adrianna Marchek who had met with Serge Biondi on two previous occasions. When interviewed the following day, Ms. Marchek said that she had been held up by an emergency with her dog and did not arrive at the offices of Kuhn Lauber Biondi until sometime after 7:45. There was no answer when she rang the intercom, so she called her office. The dispatcher attempted to reach Herr Biondi by phone, and when that failed, told Ms. Marchek that she was free to leave. Detectives who took Ms. Marchek’s statement further reported that she fit Herr Biondi’s request in every particular.
Zurich police were first called to the scene at 9:09 by a hysterical and nearly unintelligible cleaning woman, one Nkoyo Adeyemo, a citizen of Nigeria. Adeyemo had a valid work visa and was also employed at a commercial laundry establishment in Kloten. Her testimony was that she had arrived at the offices at 7:58, two minutes early for her evening cleaning shift. She’d worked her way up, floor by floor, and so did not find the body for more than an hour.
Closed-circuit television tapes of the lobby confirmed Adeyemo’s timetable. They also showed two men arriving exactly at 7:00 and leaving twenty-eight minutes later. The men were both approximately two meters tall, one slighter of build than the other and dressed in nearly identical long overcoats, gloves, and broad-brimmed hats. Neither one’s face could be observed because of the hats and the location of the camera. They entered from the street, proceeded directly to the elevator just outside of camera view. One man carried a light leather satchel. Judging by the way he held it, the bag was empty, or almost so. When leaving, they walked in the same unhurried but very direct manner.
It appears that during the twenty-eight minutes the two men were upstairs, they went directly to Herr Biondi’s office, where they tied the lawyer to his chair with gray duct tape and began to beat him about the face, chest, and groin. If their ultimate goal was the death of Herr Biondi, they were almost immediately successful, though if they were attempting to extract information, they were no doubt frustrated, as the first heavy blow to the chest precipitated a massive heart attack that dispatched their victim in seconds.
The room was searched thoroughly, with the file drawers and the small safe receiving the most attention. Mr. Biondi kept few files in his office, his secretary reported, as the custom at the firm was to move all inactive case materials to a basement storage room referred to by all as der katakomben. Neither the secretary nor Herr Kuhn could identify anything missing from the room (Herr Lauber was not available, as he had passed away in 2001). The door had been removed from the ancient safe, and a jeweler’s box containing an emerald brooch—possibly a Christmas present for Frau Biondi, who admitted to a particular fondness for emeralds—was left untouched.
Upon further questioning of Herr Kuhn, the three junior lawyers, and the clerical staff, there was unanimous consent that there was nothing that Herr Biondi could have been working on that would have warranted such an attack.
Six months later, the file was still open.
I found that if I kept my focus on the horizon, I could almost convince my stomach that I was not traveling at one hundred miles per hour in a loud, throbbing, whining machine, tilted, like some perverse carnival ride, at an angle, so that forward motion actually felt exactly like falling out of the sky. My stomach rumbled in protest, threatening to liquefy all matter currently in my lower intestines.
I hated helicopters.
I squelched the impulse to make idiotic conversation, such as “Isn’t this where John Kennedy’s plane went down?” or “I understand this chopper has the highest safety record of any light aircraft in the world.” It was all mental static, anyway, obscuring the single screaming question that was threatening to shut down all of my cognitive functions—if I were to die in a helicopter accident, who would take care of my beautiful six-year-old son?
We were flying east down the middle of Long Island Sound on a cloudless day in mid-May. Another man might have enjoyed the view.
The invitation to join the Von Becker family for an afternoon at their estate in Newport had come at one of my low points. I was ten months out of prison and finding it hard to find work. The Wall Street fraud consulting I had been doing was drying up, as the big firms realized I wasn’t above sharing my findings with the FBI and SEC regulators. Wall Street greatly prefers self-regulation—hyphenated shorthand for “sweeping things under the carpet.” So, if the currently most notorious banking family in the world wanted to talk with me about a project that might take me a few weeks to complete—with hints of a substantial performance bonus—I was willing to meet with them. Even if it meant taking an hour-long helicopter ride to get there.
I had assets—five million in offshore funds, which I had moved into a Swiss annuity, untraceable, but untouchable for five years, and a turret apartment in the Ansonia—in my opinion, the most beautiful apartment building in New York. What I didn’t have was ready cash. I was hungry. And, I was curious.
William Von Becker had run one of the largest privately held investment banks in North America, with branch offices on four continents—he had not yet extended his reach to Africa, the South Pacific, or Antarctica. He ran investment funds totaling in the hundreds of billions, universally recognized as safe, consistent earners. He was also a philanthropist, giving away millions each year, and, after the multiple-hurricane disaster in Haiti, running a $10,000-per-ticket annual fund-raising party for the Hurricane Relief Fund.
Then the bottom fell out. It came at the end of a bad week. The stock market hiccupped for three days, and then hemorrhaged on Thursday. Friday morning, a South American finance minister announced he was pulling all of his dollar accounts. It was a bit of hysteria from one source—but it was enough. When the money from the Von Becker funds didn’t arrive on Monday, the world took notice. On Tuesday, there was a run on both his funds and the banks he owned throughout Central and South America. And by the week’s end, the truth was out. The Von Becker empire was just another hollow shell—a multibillion-dollar hollow shell. Bigger than most, smaller than a few, it was just one more in an ever-lengthening list of failed Ponzi schemes.
The pilot nudged my arm and pointed down at the water. Even from that height, the sailboat looked huge. The mast must have been two hundred feet tall. The sail could have gift-wrapped a small house. There was a full platoon of men in bright red uniforms sitting out on the rail waving at us as the boat heeled in the strong winds off Point Judith.
My stomach lurched again as we tilted and veered down into the harbor. The bay seemed to be rushing up at me.
I gripped the door handle hard enough to hurt—I don’t know whether I was getting ready to throw it open or hold it closed. Then, as abruptly as changing a television channel, we were flying over land—a rocky beach, a flash of trees—and we circled suddenly and settled onto a concrete helipad, the landing struts neatly framed by a big yellow “H.” Two men in gray business suits ran to open the door and help me out.
Solid ground felt only slightly better, with the rotors still swirling over my head. Though there had to have been a four-to-six-foot clearance, it still felt right to duck. I noticed that the other two ducked as well.
“Jason, thank you for coming out on such short notice. The family will certainly appreciate this.” The man projected over the continuing whine of the helicopter engine in a nasal whine of his own. It was the kind of voice that came from generations of careful breeding or well-practiced mimicry. I knew Everett. It was a bit of both.
Everett Payne had been a constant on my personal radar screen for most of my adult life, but I could easily say I barely knew him, although, if you had charted our respective résumés, you might have assumed we were bosom buddies. He had been a business major at Cornell two years ahead of me and in a different fraternity. We never met at that time. Later, at Wharton in the mid-eighties, we were in the same class, though we hung out with different crowds—I was with the quants and grinds, he with the “coast to a C because I’m going to work at my father’s firm anyway” crowd. Only in his case, that plan bit the dust during our last semester, when Payne the Elder ran a billion-dollar S&L into insolvency. Instead of stepping into a sinecure, young Everett started his career as a sales assistant at a Memphis bond shop. But over the intervening years, he had networked his way through a succession of ever-improving positions, until he landed as a senior portfolio manager at the Von Becker funds.
Everett’s greatest achievement, however, had been his ability to stay out of jail—to not even be indicted—following the collapse of the Von Becker funds. Though he had been nominally in charge of overseeing a wide range of investments and executives, he was still able to deny—convincingly—any knowledge of the mega-sized con game his boss had been running in the next room.
The second man was from a very different milieu. Though he was dressed in a simple gray suit, white shirt, and blue striped tie, he looked as though he would have been more comfortable in combat fatigues and a Kevlar vest. As security, he was more mercenary than bodyguard. In prison I had learned that reading tats quickly and accurately was a key element of survival, but the mixed messages on the backs of his hands were confusing. On his right was a professionally done design of a fist holding lightning bolts, that I had learned was a U.S. Army accessory for Fisters—Fire Support Teams, the forward spotters for artillery. They called down the lightning. But the left hand had a blued prison blur of a shamrock and the letters AB—Aryan Brotherhood. I had met his brethren before.
Everett didn’t introduce us. The man looked me over, judged me to be only a minor potential threat, and mentally photographed my face, coloring, and body type. He would remember me, and be able to pick me out of the crowd at Yankee Stadium if need be. I gave him my best imitation of a smile, just to see what effect it might have. He didn’t flinch.
“Right this way, Jason. Everyone’s down at the beach. I’ll introduce you.”
A house was barely visible through a screen of tall pines. It was a big house—probably a bit small for a castle, but very big for a house. Guests would probably need a floor plan to get from their bedroom suites down to the breakfast room. Maybe not. There were probably enough servants on hand to keep anyone from getting lost.
We followed a freshly raked gravel path through a well-manicured landscape of gentle slopes and sand traps—a series of elaborate putting greens, though it took me a few moments to realize it. We took a turn and looked out at a two-hundred-and-seventy-degree panorama of Newport and the bay. To the left was the town proper, Goat Island, and beyond it the soaring bridge that spanned the bay on both sides of the island. Directly in front of us stood Fort Adams and the lower headland. And to the right, a pink-and-white striped tent big enough to house a full band of Bedouins—camels, goats, wives, and children—blocked the view of the lower bay.
Everett filled me in as we walked. “Livy, the matriarch, is the decider. If she likes you, you’re in. But Virgil is the one you’ll be dealing with. He’s all about details.” He thought for a moment before continuing. “You two might actually get along.”
He passed through a canvas portal in the back of the tent, and I pushed through behind him. A blast of frigid air hit me. A pair of air conditioners—each the size of a compact car—were spewing arctic breezes onto a string of buffet tables loaded with iced shrimp, oysters, clams, and what must have been the last of the Florida stone-crab harvest for the year. In the center of this bounty was a bowl of black caviar. My bathroom sink was smaller than that bowl. Buckets held bottles of Gosset champagne and Chopin vodka.
The women wore pearls, sipped champagne, and smelled of Chanel. The men all had cigars and glasses of a heavily peated single-malt scotch. They smelled like a Highlands brushfire. The premium vodka was going untouched. No one was eating.
The far side of the tent was open, giving a wide view of the mouth of the harbor. Three of the men at the party—all in dark suits, as though just come from a funeral—were standing at telescopes mounted on tall tripods, staring out to sea. I followed their gaze. Two miles or so away, I could see the big yacht we had passed just a few minutes before. It was still heeled over and flying.
Everett took my elbow and guided me through the small crowd. “Come, Jason. I’ll have you meet the Mater while the boys are playing with their boat.” He led me toward a wall of four thick-necked men in gray suits. They all frisked me with their eyes, checking for threats. I passed. The wall parted. I didn’t see any more tattoos.
A small, round, cloth-covered table had been set up, surrounded by six wooden folding chairs. Three of the seats were taken—a horse-faced woman in her sixties, a much younger woman who could have been her daughter, and a man with the still-trim look of a tennis player. He had the unfashionable good looks of a silent film star, a Valentino maybe, the features a bit too prominent, the eyes too moody. His hair was black, so black as to make me question its provenance, but the eyebrows matched, and though he had no mustache or trace of beard, his chin and jawline were very dark.
“I’m Kurt Blake,” he said, stepping forward. His head was cocked at a slight angle, as though he were constantly appraising the world and finding it all slightly below his standards. “I run security for the family.”
Everett stepped in. “Livy, may I introduce my old friend, Jason Stafford. Jason, Mrs. Olivia Von Becker.”
Blake took being brushed aside much better than I would have. He sat back down and watched—carefully.
“Charmed,” the older woman said, sounding anything but. I’d seen warmer eyes on blackjack dealers. “Stafford? There was a Stafford girl at Miss Porter’s when Morgan was there. My daughter, Morgan, Mr. Stafford.” She gestured to the twenty-something, round-faced young woman to her left. Morgan Stafford wore no makeup or jewelry, and her hair was cropped close to her head. Not a flattering look.
She greeted me by deigning to look briefly in my general direction. I didn’t take the snub personally. Morgan looked like she had decided at a very young age that she didn’t like boys and had yet to find any reason to revisit the question.
“The father sold office supplies,” Mrs. Von Becker continued. “He had a chain of stores, I believe. Help me, Morgan. The girl. You remember. She was named for a car.”
Morgan turned to her. “Mercedes, Mother.” She looked at me. “Her father started Home Office.”
The first of the big-box stationery stores. I remembered reading the Journal article after the founder sold out to Staples for a hundred and eighty-three million dollars.
“No relation, I’m afraid,” I said. “My family is in beverage distribution.” My father owned a bar in College Point, Queens, and still worked the closing shift six nights a week. He would have laughed himself into a case of hiccups if he’d heard my description.
Olivia Von Becker was no beauty. I could not imagine she had looked much better at twenty-three when she married. Her face was long and large-featured, her nose more Roman than patrician, her eyes slightly protuberant. Her strength was her strength. She radiated power, supreme self-confidence, and a zero tolerance for any dithering or wool-gathering—unless she was the one doing it.
“Everett tells me you are the man to help us, Mr. Stafford. I hope he is not exaggerating again.” She took a sip of clear liquid from an ice-filled tumbler. I had discovered who was putting away the vodka.
Everett made a visible effort not to wince. “Livy, I promised nothing. When Binks and Virgil are ready, we’ll all have a powwow and see if Jason can sort things out for us. Jason, can we get you a drink? Champagne? Something stronger?”
“A bit early for me,” I said. “What are you drinking, Miss Von Becker?”
The daughter looked startled—she was probably not used to being addressed directly by “the help.”
“I . . . I . . . Iced tea,” she managed, finally looking directly at me. It was my turn to be startled. Her eyes were a smoky gray, both compelling and frightening—like wolves’ eyes.
“Iced tea it is,” I said to Everett.
He leaned back and waved for a waiter.
“It’s quite beautiful here, Mrs. Von Becker. I didn’t know any of these grand estates had survived into the twenty-first century.”
She looked at me over the top of her glass for a moment. “I don’t know if you are paying a compliment or prying for information. I imagine both. Thank you for the first. The house is mine, as is the money to maintain it. My late husband had no claim to it, and neither do his creditors. It’s all in a trust designed to survive our barbaric inheritance taxes. Were you ever a Tea Partier, Mr. Stafford?”
A waiter set down a tall iced tea, with a translucent slice of lemon.
I shook my head. “This is the only tea party I belong to, Mrs. Von Becker.” I raised the glass to her.
She was an arrogant blowhard, and I liked her.
I looked over at her protector. “Are you political, Mr. Blake?” I let my eyes scan over the four suits still guarding the sector. They all had the oversized jaw muscles of the steroid-addicted.
He smiled as though it caused him pain. “Not at all. I provide a service and I use all available assets.”
I turned back to the dowager. “And do you feel safer now?”
She drained her glass before speaking. “There have been death threats against my children because of their father’s activities. I have taken steps to protect them.” It sounded too rehearsed, as though she didn’t quite believe it herself.
“Serious threats?” I aimed the question at Blake.
He nodded. “After Mr. Von Becker’s death, people turned their anger on the family. Serious enough.”
William Von Becker had saved the state and his family the trouble and expense of a trial by taking himself out of the picture. Late one night in his cell at the Manhattan Metropolitan Correctional Center, he had removed his jumpsuit, tied the pant legs into a noose, and hung himself from the bars. At the funeral, the press outnumbered the mourners by ten to one.
“The threats against Morgan came first,” Blake continued.
“Why do you think you were chosen, Miss Von Becker?”
She was busy looking away again. “I couldn’t say.”
Blake jumped in as though to protect her. “Visibility. Morgan ran much of the family’s charitable works.”
I didn’t see the immediate connection, but I didn’t pursue it. I knew I wasn’t there to provide any more security, but if someone was threatening violence, I wanted to know about it.
“How were the threats delivered? Are we talking nasty e-mails or letter bombs?”
There was a pause while Blake sought and received silent permission from the head of the family.
“The first time, they tried grabbing Morgan off the street as she was coming out of Il Mulino one night. It was dumb. There had to have been a dozen limo drivers hanging around out front, and they jumped in the minute she started screaming.”
“You weren’t hurt?” I asked.
Morgan shook her head.
“You were lucky. What did you do?”
Blake answered for her. “She contacted me. We’ve worked for the family before. They made another attempt at her apartment two days later.”
“Again, nothing. We were there. But since then, she stays here on the compound and we have a twenty-four-hour watch on.”
“Sounds like more than disgruntled investors. Have they gone after anyone else?”
Olivia Von Becker had watched our exchange as carefully as any poker player looking for tells. “No one else,” she announced. “As yet. Mr. Blake seems to be doing his job with his usual efficiency.” She spoke with absolute authority. The subject was closed. A waiter cleared away her empty glass and immediately replaced it with a twin. Or triplet.
The moment was saved from being uncomfortable by the arrival of the “boys” and a cacophonous chorus.
“Christ, Wyatt. It’s not a toy. It’s an eighteen-million-dollar boat, with twenty human beings on board.”
“Give it a rest, Binks. I’m just keeping them on their toes.”
Morgan scowled at their approach.
“Don’t scowl, Morgan,” her mother commanded. “You could be such a pretty girl, if you just didn’t scowl.”
Morgan dutifully swept away the scowl, but I had the feeling that she was just saving it up for later.
“Hello, Mother. Morgie. Everett, is this your man?” James “Binks” Von Becker was first into view. Late thirties, blond, and handsome in a forgettable way, like a J.Crew model. If I ever ran into him outside that environment, I would have no idea who he was.
“Hello, Binks. This is Jason Stafford.”
I stood to shake hands with Binks and a second black-suited man stepped between us.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said in a cold and brittle voice. “I am Wyatt Von Becker. Why are you here?”
As everyone else ignored the question, I elected to do the same. Wyatt was ten years younger than his brother, and had the arrogant air of a precocious teenager, more endured than enjoyed. He did not extend a hand to shake, as they were both occupied manipulating a large laptop computer.
The third black-suited brother stood back and waited—he was being polite, not shy. Virgil Von Becker radiated his mother’s solid strength. He had his younger brother’s dark coloring, but none of his unfocused energy. Virgil was all about focus. And he had his mother’s long face. It suited him a lot better.
“Virgil,” he said, extending a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Mrs. Von Becker placed her empty glass back on the table—hard enough to command attention. “You have business to discuss and I will only be in the way.” She gave Virgil a steady look. “I believe we can thank Everett for bringing us Mr. Stafford. He will do quite nicely.” She graced me with a prim smile. “Morgan, you and I will take our guests up to the house,” she said, standing. She may have weaved just a bit on the way up. “Then I may take my nap.” She turned to me again. “My doctor tells me there is no such thing as a bad nap. What do you think, Mr. Stafford?”
“Sound advice. A pleasure meeting you.” I nodded to the daughter, who responded with the kind of grin one plasters on in polite company after eating too many raw onions. But then she did something that surprised me. As she stepped back from the table, her eyes swept over Kurt Blake, and for a brief moment, a look flickered over her stony face. It was gone so quickly, I thought I might have imagined it, but the feeling lingered. A look of yearning, making her seem both older and younger, but also almost beautiful. Then she followed her mother out.
Blake missed it.
Maybe I had her wrong. Maybe she did like boys.
The other guests, like a flock of starlings, swept along in their wake, still chattering and laughing in too high a register to sound happy. I had a sudden insight—they were the hangers-on and poor relations, too marginal in their world of wealth and long bloodlines to turn down a lunchtime cocktail party with the most despised family in America. I was left with the three brothers, Everett, Kurt Blake, and half of his posse of muscle.
I turned to Everett. “So I guess I passed the audition.”
He gave a nod so subtle it might have been a tic.
Wyatt placed his laptop on the table, screen still up, and began pecking at the keys.
“Put it away, Wyatt.” Binks sounded bored, annoyed, and ineffectual.
“In a minute,” his brother said, obviously having no intention of doing anything of the kind.
Virgil reached over and took the computer and gently closed it. “Later for this.” There was no room for discussion. “Excuse my brother, Mr. Stafford. He likes to take the helm of our boat, but as he suffers from seasickness, the only thing he can do is run the boat from his computer.”
I was stunned. I turned and looked out at the bay. The red-uniformed crew was scrambling over the deck as the big boat made a sail-flogging turn into the wind.
“I have kinetosis,” Wyatt was saying. “Because of a malformed inner ear. It is not seasickness.”
“Whatever,” Binks said, in a tone that said he had heard the excuse a thousand times before.
The crew seemed to be finally getting the boat under control again. I was sure that even at that distance I saw one of them throw a middle finger in our general direction.
I spoke to Virgil. “So he taps out a command and sends orders to the crew? Isn’t there a captain on board?”
“Not quite,” he said. “He taps out a command and the onboard computer receives it and overrides the helm and the captain on board. Then, without any warning, the boat tacks—or jibes, turns upwind or down—and the crew has to respond as though they’ve been prepped well in advance.”
“It makes them better—faster,” Wyatt said, somewhere between a pout and a tantrum.
“They hate it,” Virgil said to me.
“I can only imagine,” I agreed.
“May I have my computer back?” Wyatt managed to make the polite request sound like a demand.
Virgil tried staring him down, but Wyatt kept his eyes averted.
“Wyatt, we’re about to discuss business with Mr. Stafford. You have asked to be included when we talk about business. This is your chance.”
“I just want to watch. I won’t touch the controls. I promise. I can watch while you talk.”
Virgil gave a weary look. “Binks, can I prevail upon you? Take Wyatt up to the house for lunch?” He handed the laptop to his older brother. “He can have this back when he gets there.”
Binks took it without showing any response at all. Either he was quite used to taking orders from his younger brother, or he was a zombie. Or both. “Come on, Wyatt. Virgil doesn’t need us annoying him right now.”
Kurt Blake turned to the remaining two bodyguards. “Follow them up. I’ll stay here.”
The air felt just a touch cleaner once they were gone.
The two dinner-jacketed waiters began packing up the seafood. I hoped it was going to be donated rather than tossed. Meals on Wheels recipients would never get over it.
Virgil made a little steeple with his fingers and leaned toward me. “As my brother is an adult, I never apologize for him, but I do ask for your understanding. He is far more intelligent than he sometimes appears.”
“Asperger’s?” I said.
Virgil looked mildly surprised. “You are familiar with the symptoms?”
“I have a son. We’re still waiting to see just where he fits on the autism scale. I take it the boat is one of your brother’s enthusiasms?”
“Enthusiasms?” He rolled the word around in his mouth like a taste of expensive wine. “I like that.”
“My son likes cars.”
Virgil smiled. “And does he race them by remote?” He chuckled.
“Not yet,” I said. “He’s six.”
Everett had been quietly watching us talk, but his impatience was starting to show. He cleared his throat. “Ahem.”
Virgil looked at him with a touch of regret. Then his eyes blinked once and a mask of duty hid him. “Everett makes a point, Mr. Stafford. I should explain why you were asked to come up here today.”
“No, no,” Everett said. “Please, Virgil. Take your time. I would never think of rushing you.”
Virgil and I ignored him.
“You are, I am quite sure, aware of the troubles visited upon my family. I worked for my father for ten years.”
The whole world was aware. But when I had Googled the rest of the family, Virgil and Morgan were the only two ever mentioned. Morgan because of her work with the charities that her father supported, and Virgil as the prodigal son. After finishing first in his class at Williams, and before coming home and putting on the mantle, he spent two years in Colorado as a ski bum, supporting himself as a bartender at night. Sometime during that period, he had sired a son, whom he still supported, though he had a restraining order against the mother—she had tried to stab him twice, succeeding the second time in opening a six-inch scalp wound. Virgil got himself stitched up and came home to work in the family business. He appeared to have worked his way up more on merit than on nepotism. When his father got caught, he was running the equity research department in the investment bank.
“Up until ten months ago, I fully expected to be running the whole brokerage business before I turned forty.”
“Not the whole firm? I thought the holdings also included a few offshore banks in addition to the money management business.”
Virgil winced at the mention of the money management business. It was there that his father had run the con, paying investors double-digit returns—with their own money. When it ran out, he simply found new “investors” to keep the game running.
“Also, two restaurants in lower Manhattan,” Virgil continued. “A livery service, an airplane and helicopter charter outfit, and until a few years ago, a printing company, which we closed when the firm went paperless.”
“Your father believed in integrated resources.”
“My father was a secretive control freak. So, you see, when people ask me how could I not have known what he was doing, the answer is fairly simple. I knew about equity research. I was learning about the brokerage. But I knew as much about his international banking business as I knew about his investment funds. He owned a sushi bar. Was I supposed to know how to cut fish?”
It was a stretch, but I saw his point. Wall Street is a business of specialization. Managers rarely get a chance to peek over the cubicle wall to see what the next guy is up to, and when they do, they may not understand what they’re looking at.
“I reported directly to him,” Everett said. “I ran two of the bigger funds. And I had no idea what he was doing.” It was a well-polished performance. The Feds had bought it, which was all that mattered.
“So, who did? Those two clerks who cut deals and pled out?”
So far, the only two people who had been indicted, other than Von Becker himself, were two junior clerks who worked directly for the man. According to the Times, they were sacrificial lambs, serving nine months each for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to the Journal, they were the true villains and had gotten off much too lightly.
Virgil shook his head. “I don’t think anyone really knew. Each line of business was set up as a separate corporation, all reporting to him only. Some people knew little bits, but more often, they didn’t even know they knew it. My father fooled some of the brightest people on the planet. I don’t include myself in that description, by the way.”
“What do you think I can do for you? The way I hear it, you’ve got the full resources of the federal government combing through the firm’s books—everybody from the SEC and the FBI to Homeland Security. NASA and the EPA, too, for all I know. What are they going to miss that you want me to find?”
“I’ll get to that. I wish to save what I can of the firm, and to do that, the firm needs to settle up with the Feds and move on. Quickly. The money management business is lost, and all of our overseas operations as well. But the core businesses of underwriting, research, and trading are healthy. Untainted. Implicated only because of some missing funds. Given the chance—meaning if we can get out from under—my brother and I can salvage something of the family name.”
“James is one of our foreign exchange traders. He’s always said he would rather grow grapes than count bottles.”
“No taste for management?”
“Nor any ability, I imagine. It’s not for everyone.”
It was hard to imagine the handsome but profoundly disinterested man I had just met going head-to-head with the FX market, but it was harder still thinking of him trying to manage a bunch of booty-hungry pirates on a trading desk.
“Wyatt lives at home.”
I nodded. I might be saying the same of my son for decades to come.
“These missing funds? How much are we talking?”
“Three billion dollars,” he said with somewhat forced casualness.
If it was meant to impress me, it worked.
“You know,” I said. “I might just take a short glass of scotch if it’s still on offer.”
“Or so.” Virgil smiled and signaled for a waiter. “The Feds believe they have accounted for all of my father’s misappropriation of funds. The ‘missing’ forty billion you have read about in the paper isn’t missing. It never existed.”
I understood. Before becoming a guest of the federal prison system, I had pled guilty to a similar fraud, though on a considerably smaller scale. The trading losses I had covered up had been recouped many times over. It was the falsification of trading profits that had done me in.
“They have also followed the paper trail of another twelve billion, which is, I am afraid, quite gone. My father maintained both a lavish lifestyle and a generous philanthropic image. The cost of fuel for his private jet is no more recoverable than the forty million he spent building a hospital in Puerto Barrios in Guatemala.”
“And they can’t account for a measly three billion? Sounds like a rounding error.”
Blake was following the conversation with a preoccupied smile—I imagined that he had heard it all before and he was more concerned with protecting us from the deranged lynch mobs that might appear out of the woods, intent on taking revenge for their depleted 401(k)s. Everett, on the other hand, was practically drooling on my shoulder at the smell of so much unattached money still out there.
“The firm executed hundreds of international wire transfers a day. It has taken the Feds months to sift through it all. I have looked at their numbers, and I’m convinced. Somehow, my father managed to squirrel away as much money as a third-world dictator.”
The waiter set down the scotch. I didn’t want it anymore.
“And you think I can find it? An army of lawyers and accountants have come up bust. You’ve got Blake here, and his musclemen, who can probably twist any arms that need twisting. What do I bring to the table?”
Virgil was unfazed. He had his answer all prepared. “Two things. First, you have a unique perspective—one that can not be easily learned.”
I was a crook. Had been. Past tense. I tried not to let the reference rankle. But Virgil surprised me.
“You have seen this kind of thing from both sides, and you have had some success in uncovering obscured monetary trails.” He smiled as though assuring me it was a compliment. “And second,” he continued, “people will talk to you. At your level in this business, there are not three degrees of separation between any two major players. And those who know something may not know that they know it. Neither threats nor torture will work. They may tell you things that they would never say to an SEC lawyer. Things that would be meaningless to their spouse. Bits and pieces that will only have meaning to a man with your background.”
It was a long shot—a Hail Mary pass. The numbers were blinding. A one percent finder’s fee would set me and the Kid up for life. But I needed a paycheck, not another “maybe, someday, down the road.”
“I guarantee nothing and I get paid up front. I don’t work weekends, because I spend that time with my kid.”
“Not a problem.”
“Five thousand a day plus a one percent finder’s fee. I’ll get started tomorrow, but I have a few things scheduled over the next week. You’ll have me full-time by Wednesday.”
Virgil gave a slight frown. “But you will begin immediately?”
I nodded. “You only pay me for when I’m working.”
He shook his head. “Do not misunderstand. I am not questioning your professional behavior, but there is some urgency to this affair. I hope you understand that. If the Feds find the money first, we have no bargaining power.”
“Which leads me to the big question. What do I do when I find it? It’s hidden now; I don’t know that it stays that way after I go poking around in all the back closets. It will be hard not to draw attention to myself.”
“Again, not a problem. But we do need to get to the money first. Then we can make our bargain with the authorities, turn it over, and all go on with our lives.”
The size of the deal had startled me, but this was a deeper shock. Right up until that moment I had assumed I was dealing with fellow crooks. It had never occurred to me that Von Becker’s son was willing to hand over three billion dollars to the courts, for the chance of clearing his family name. I wasn’t so sure I entirely believed it.
Virgil saw the look on my face.
“I am not a saint, Mr. Stafford. I know what three billion dollars can buy. But what it can’t buy is freedom from looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life. If I can persuade the Feds—and the press—that I am serious about making amends for my father’s actions, then I can go about my business. My children will have sleepovers at their friends’ houses. My wife can go back to volunteering as a docent at the Met. My brother gets to play with his boat. My sister, who was the only one of us not to abandon our father—she visited him in jail almost every day—is now a virtual prisoner herself, unable to step outside the compound here. She gets her life back. Do you understand?”
I did. Maybe not one hundred percent, but I got it. I often felt just the same. Anything for a quiet life. And he had a point. Handing over three billion dollars of the money his father had stolen would win him kudos in the press. He could negotiate a clean slate from the regulators. He would go from being the son of a pariah to becoming a role model. From Page Six innuendos to front page applause. It was a smart move.
“And, of course, I get to run the whole firm before I turn forty,” he acknowledged with a sly smile.
“As for the performance bonus,” he continued. “The money is not mine to grant. If I were to give you thirty million dollars, the bankruptcy trustee would come after you. With a federal judge behind him. You would not want that.”
“Are you looking to negotiate? Make a counteroffer.”
“A counterproposal. If this works and the firm survives, I am prepared to offer you a permanent, lifelong consultancy with the firm. One million dollars a year for life. A retainer. There will be times when I will need an objective point of view. Are you interested?”
“And if the firm doesn’t make it?”
“I will add your name to the list of unsecured creditors. Are you a gambler, Mr. Stafford?”
“Only when I’ve got the edge.”
He gave a deep belly laugh. “Spoken like a trader. Do we have a deal?”
He was right. A lump-sum finder’s fee would be an anchor around my neck. Not only would the trustee be after me, so would the judge from my trial, demanding that I repay the firm I had defrauded—of half a billion dollars. And the IRS would jump on it, too. I might end up owing all three. One mil a year, however. As we used to joke on the trading desk, “Yeah, I could get by on that.”
“Make it nine hundred ninety thou. I want to stay out of that one percent bracket.”
“I’ll want to see the Fed’s case. Not the whole paper trail, just their conclusions. Next, I’ll need a list of your father’s friends. Anyone he might have talked to.”
“A list of his friends will be very short, but if I include close business acquaintances, it will be far too long.”
“Err on the inclusive side. I’ll know a lot of the names, and if I think they’re nonstarters, I’ll cross them off. And, finally, a list of all the employees, salaried or consultants or even outside counsel that he met with, spoke with, or even rode the elevator with on a regular basis.”
Virgil looked over. “Everett?”
He nodded. “I’ll have it all messengered over tomorrow morning.”
“Anything else?” Virgil asked.
I gave a half-nod, half-shrug. “It’ll come to me. I might need you to make a call for me to prod some of the more reluctant ones on the list.”
“Give Everett the names. I’ll take care of it. That it?”
Business was done.
“One more thing, though I really hate to ask. Can I get a ride back to the city?”
Back in the helicopter.
Praise for Mortal Bonds
“A twisty tale of greed, double-crossing and families bonds both good and very, very bad. Grade: A”— Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“Sears’ brisk plot packs in believable action while also delivering a heartfelt character study of a man trying to rebuild his life.”—Mystery Scene
“Sears expertly continues to use financial corruption as a cautionary tale about greed while delivering a heartfelt character study of a man rebuilding his life.”—South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“Jason Stafford, whose first case in Black Fridays sent author Michael Sears’ critical stock soaring, has personal and professional problems of his own in his second high-stakes adventure.”—The Wall Street Journal
“The bestselling author who brought readers the unforgettable novel, “Black Fridays,” has most definitely followed up with a sequel that will blow your mind. This, like the first novel, will be one book you’ll want to read over and over again.”—Suspense Magazine
“Sears’s knowledge of investment banking makes the plot compelling . . . Deft, witty prose is a plus.”—Publishers Weekly
“As densely plotted as Sears’ strong debut (Black Fridays, 2012), with complications that keep mounting in the race to the final curtain.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A touching, tense, and terrific thriller.”—Library Journal
“Sears has a good feel for New York, where most of the action is set, for the world of finance (intelligently explained), for dialogue, and for the thriller genre.”—Booklist
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