Sunday, July 8, 2012


October 7, 2002
I hate Mondays..

It was 7:14 am on Monday morning when the private line on the IPC trading desk phone turret started ringing, just as I was getting ready to enter my firm’s daily morning meeting; a dawn-breaking ritual that brought together the 100 traders, salesman and research analysts that comprised RTM Securities, one of the leading junk bond boutiques on Wall Street. I was one of five Managing Directors; I had been recruited by the two senior partners eighteen months earlier, and I was made “partner” less than six months later.

At the age 43, I was a Wall Street veteran with the badges and scars to prove it, but I was dubbed the firm’s “fair-haired boy” because I served as major domo to Bobby Sonnenfeld, the firm’s tyrannical Founder/CEO, along with being the institutional sales and marketing guru, and the resident consigliore on venture capital investing,, electronic trading, and technology.

As I was about to reach for the phone, a queasy feeling in my gut indicated that it wasn’t going to be good call. It was too early for a business call; the people I did business with were in their own morning meetings, and it was a Monday; a day of the week that I’ve dreaded since the time I was in college. Nothing good has ever happened to me on Mondays, and in fact, almost every calamity that I’ve experienced has happened on that particular day of the week. And Mondays in October have always been the worst, as most of my career has revolved around the financial markets, a world within itself that has an infamous history for upending events on Mondays, especially in the month of October.

I glanced at my silver and gold Rolex, a gift from parents when I turned 21, and checked the time against the digital display on my phone to confirm that I had less than twenty seconds to take the call and dash into the meeting. If I walked in a second past 7:15, I risked being publicly lambasted for tardiness by Bobby, a real stickler for the smallest details. I took a deep breadth, and picked up the hand set. All I had to hear was the familiar, but now trembling voice say “Josh, are you there?” to know that my instincts were right.. It was Lorna.

We’d been together since our junior year in college, almost twenty five years; a miraculous accomplishment given the fact that many yuppie generation marriages had tended to flounder after a child was introduced into the equation. Over the years, and mostly due to the pressures of my trying to maintain a standard of living that was above our means, we’d become estranged as husband and wife. Thanks to a silver spoon upbringing, and training from my Mom, a former debutante that lives inside of a Baccarat Bubble in Boca Raton, and whose motto seems to have always been “why spend less when you can spend more?”, I had spoiled Lorna with a heady lifestyle at the very outset. But, between some bad luck and bad decisions, the Yuppie dream ship had started to spring leaks, creating lots of tension and angst.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way, as the boat that I first set sale on was a cruise ship.

As seemed customary in the days when I was growing up, I was shepherded to Boca Raton during winter vacations, and spent my summer months at four-star sleep away camps in the Adirondecks, while my parents golfed and entertained at their country club.

In almost a decade, my resume had become as colorful as a box of Crayola crayons, but with each post more high profile than the previous one.

I’d have six jobs in three different industries, including a crisis management stint for an offshore insurance company whose owners didn’t believe in paying out on claims, and who were eventually chased down by at least two different state attorney offices; co-founding an internet start-up that changed the way bonds are traded in the inter-bank market, but was funded by an venture capital firm whose partners were former Merrill Lynch bond salesman that had a tendency to play hide the banana in the course of getting SBA funding for their deals.

There was also one “turnaround situation” where the same gang-that-couldn’t invest straight recruited me to become interim CEO of a publicly-traded entertainment company that operated two of the biggest tourist destinations in New York. This time, someone else was being even more creative with other people’s money. The working capital provided by the VC firm was being pillaged by a company management team that perfected the art of skimming from the cash register, and whose CEO built himself a private spa, including a steam room within his 1000 square foot office.

The VC’s had already concluded that I was a talented guy, as I had played an integral role in not only building, but also in selling the ecommerce company they had funded from start-up. I had proved myself to be better than most at overcoming obstacles, so they inserted me into the job of fixing one of their problems.

And all of these experiences led to an ever-evolving relationship I had with the senior partner of Knoll Associates, the crème de la crème of corporate gumshoes. What had started as a casual friendship with my buddy, the Dad of one of Charlie’s childhood playmates when we had first moved to Westport, had become a relationship that not only included a strong family tie, but over the years, a trusted business relationship. Given the situations I found myself in, I had found it necessary to retain his firm on several occasions, and as the other partners of the firm got to know me, they had likewise enlisted me as a private consultant to assist their financial industry practice, which necessarily included the need for people that had relationships and access to Wall Street.

However slowly and however tenuously, I had re-gained my footing and established a formidable reputation as a creative problem solver and someone that was skilled at leveraging business opportunities. Through hard work and relationship building, I had secured progressively higher profile jobs, and built up a rolodex of private numbers belonging to senior Wall Street executives, top gun venture capitalists, and private investors having net a worth of at least eight figures.

Along the way I had also encountered more than my share of intriguing and very creative characters. Some were simply very shrewd and accomplished businessmen, others were out and out scammers, and some were downright unsavory. And there were a few that were more than just unsavory. But, despite the obstacles, including trying to live within a dysfunctional family situation, the house of cards was up and relatively intact. Until the call from Lorna.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Chapter 1 : I Hate Mondays

While moving the handset from my right ear to the left, a pain shot from my shoulder to my hip, a carpal tunnel-related syndrome that was exacerbated by high levels of anxiety. “I’m right here, Lorna. What’s wrong??”

Lorna was almost stammering, terribly unusual for her, as she rarely lost her composure, regardless of the circumstances. “Two men claiming to be from the FBI are standing at the front door and refusing to leave the property until they speak to you. What the hell is going on?”

I was shell-shocked. The wheels in my head started spinning into high gear as my brain was trying to process why two feds were knocking on my door before sunrise and panicking my family. My life was flashing before me, like a PowerPoint presentation set on high speed.

During the first milliseconds, I thought it was a sick prank being pulled off by someone that I had crossed paths with in the interim eight years, a period that seemed like a long-running soap opera, during which I had four different "day jobs", and several 'moonlighting' projects, all in effort to keep my wife and family in the style in which I had grown them accustomed to, including the 5 bedroom house we rented in Westport, and all of the other accouterments that a nice Jewish girl from Long Island would expect from a seemingly nice Jewish boy from the North Shore.

One of those interim episodes included my crossing paths with a national ring of financial fraudsters that had ripped off a client of mine while I was doing a brief stint as an institutional salesman for a second tier brokerage firm. That experience was my first and only other encounter with the brain trust at the FBI. Aside from my being enraged by what had happened to my client, who was also a personal friend, I was extremely frustrated by the Feds’ ineptitude. The FBI agents were like Keystone Cops, so I took it upon myself to put together the hard evidence against the bad guys. A year later, and despite a none-to-discreet threat against my family, it was my testimony in court that sent two of the crooks to a federal prison. But as far as I knew, those clowns were still guests of the Government, so I took them off my split-second suspect list.

There were a few other less ominous characters that probably had an axe to grind with me; there’s no doubt I might have inadvertently stepped on some toes while climbing the ladder. While the left side of my brain was engaged in a fierce battle with the right side to try and process the potential who’s and why’s, and before Lorna could confirm my worst fear, my gut sent another instant message directly up my spine that jolted all ten billion neurons in the cerebral cortex lining of my skull, and it was two words: Jake Bronstein.

Jake was one of the most colorful people I had met in the last twenty years; a true-to-life caricature of a Las Vegas “entrepreneur”. He looks like the actor Andy Garcia, and when a photo from Variety had the two of them standing next to each other at a Hollywood dinner, you’d think they were twins. A shrink would say that he’s my alter ego. Our birthdays fall on the same day, we have the same initials engraved on our cufflinks, we both grew up in affluent, Jewish suburbs. We have older brothers that are the same age (and both were screw-ups), and our wives even have the same middle name. We could fit into each other’s clothes, and go into tie-breakers in every set on the tennis court at the Las Vegas Country Club, but that’s where the similarities pretty much end.

Jake’s primary residence is a 9000 sq. ft. penthouse in Vegas’s Turnberry Place; the 4000 sq. ft. wrap around deck adds to the roominess, but the deck isn’t calculated as part of the total square footage. When he had given me a tour of his place a year after moving in, Jake had told me how modified the original floor plan, and converted two of the three “junior suites” into “His” and “Hers” dressing areas, each with private bath and wardrobe closet. The Hers closet, for his wife Elly, measures 700 sq. ft., and is a condensed version of Neiman Marcus, elegantly sub sectioned for each type of apparel. His is lined with size-40, double-breasted Brioni suits, French-cuff silk shirts, Versace ties, and Ferragamo loafers; his business uniform. For casual occasions, like when visiting his gun club on weekends, he’s just as dapper in his tailored black jeans, ostrich cowboy boots, and black Polo t-shirts. Always black.

He especially liked showing me the special hidden closet within the His dressing room, one that opened via a button imbedded beneath the carpet. It housed a small collection of high caliber weapons, including a Walther PPK that he had been given after coordinating a location shoot in Las Vegas for a James Bond film, a pearl-handled Gloch, and a snub-nosed .38. There was also a black velvet bag that had more than a fistful of diamonds, and a 12 inch stack of $100’s. There was also a manila envelope. He didn’t share the contents, but for an instant, I envisioned that it contained a passport and drivers license that displayed Jake’s photo, but a name that was different than what appeared on his tax return or his utility bills.

Forty-two stories directly below his mansion in the sky is a subterranean parking facility, and his name is on five of the parking slots that are occupied by his ever-updated collection of Porsches, BMW’s, a Bentley Coupe, and his Mercedes limo. They’re black too, with blacked out windows. He had told me that he had the Bentley bullet-proofed, and during a drive by tour of his title loan stores on the Vegas strip, he had shown me the hide-a-away holster in his BMW 635, a button in the steering column that dispensed another Gloch from under the front seat, a defensive measure he had installed after one of his title loan stores had be held up at gun point.

Jake’s real estate portfolio also includes a two bedroom bungalow overlooking Malibu Beach, decorated to the nines by his trophy wife, a former lingerie model with an insatiable taste for carats, and the best of the breed in Jake’s stable of women, who are spread out across the country. His favorite concubine is comfortably ensconced in Jake’s Beverly Hills high rise condo on Wilshire Blvd, two blocks from his film production office.

And, to make sure he’s always exactly one minute early to every meeting or appointment, Jake wears a special-edition Patek Phillippe wrist watch. His only other jewelry is a 2-carat diamond pinky ring with a platinum band, the one he inherited from his Dad, who for ten years had been the consigliore to Jimmy Hoffa.

Yes, Jimmy Hoffa. In addition to being the eyes and ears to one of the most famous union bosses of all time, Jake’s Dad was in charge of the Teamsters’ pension fund investments, including their extensive holdings throughout Las Vegas. When Jake’s father unexpectedly died in middle of a serving a tax-related “sabbatical” at Lompoc Federal Prison, Jake was left with $1 million in a safe deposit box, and his Dad’s rolodex; a passport that he would use to build up a small empire of business interests that included everything from casino industry consulting, to movie producing, to hard money lending, to selling imported olive oil and noodles to the hotels on the Vegas strip. And those were the businesses he would talk about on the phone. There were more businesses that Jake would only talk about in person.

Since the time we had been introduced in a conference call more than a dozen years ago, Jake and I had somehow become closer than brothers. We chased rainbows together, and we’ve done favors for each other, most of which involving straight-forward business deals, and some that we rarely made it a point to talk about afterwards. Like the saying goes, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But, between the sharp pain in my neck and the queasy feeling in my gut, I was pretty sure that something had left Vegas, and it was about to hit me square between the eyes.

Chapter 2: Devil and Danny Glassman

Chapter 2.
At first, I thought I was in the middle of a bad dream; that I actually wasn’t standing at my desk on the trading floor with the phone in my hand, but that I was still at home and tucked into bed, passing time in REM 6 mode, and that I’d wake up screaming any second. I don’t remember how long it took to answer Lorna; it seemed like minutes, but it was likely less than two seconds, and all I could think of to say was, “What?? What are you talking about?” Watch enough CSI Miami on TV, and you hear the same witless retort from the prime suspect. With the proper feign of shock and surprise, this is a classic non-committal response that is almost guaranteed to assure the other person of complete innocence.

“They just rang the doorbell and asked if you were here.” The fear was resonating from her voice. “I asked them who they are, and they said that they’re from the FBI. Then I asked them what they wanted, and all they would say is they needed to speak to you and wanted to know where they could find you.”

“Take it slow, honey, try to calm down for a second” I said. I hadn’t called Lorna “honey” in a long time; we’d grown out of affectionate names for each other, so it became a phrase that I more recently reserved for comforting her in moments of real trauma, like when learning that someone close had just been diagnosed with cancer. I suggested that she take a deep breath, and then I tried to sound like I was in control, “Have they shown you any kind of ID? And where are they right now??”

Then the river flowed. “One of them flashed a business card, but it was so fast, I couldn’t even read it. They’re standing in the driveway right now.”  Then she said, “I told them that if they didn’t leave, I was going to call the police and have them removed from the property! Then they said I was free to call the police if I wanted to. Then, the one that flashed the card, said that I was acting as if law enforcement had shown up to the door before!!” She barely took a breadth, “He said it would be “fine with him” to call the police, but before I did, that I should call you. What an asshole!! Who do they think they are?? These guys have a real attitude and they’re being very harassing, Josh. What the hell is going on? What do they want??”  And then the rata-tat-tat-tat stopped.

It wasn’t the first time a stranger had shown up at the door and scared the shit out of her in connection with one of my illustrious experiences. The other time was more than ten years ago, when I found myself in the role of government witness in a case against a bunch of financial scam artists who were running a multi-million dollar, but otherwise bogus securities scheme. One of the gang’s leaders had duped a client of mine, and since I was the introducing broker, I took it upon myself to track down the evil-doers when it was obvious that the Feds were moving in slow motion. It turned out to be a nationwide network that was co-managed by one very sleazy lawyer with a gambling problem and his partner, the disinherited heir to a multi-million dollar real estate fortune. That was a guy who had a real problem controlling his fingers; when they weren’t being used to peel assets from his father’s company, they were busy shoveling cocaine into his nose.  With help from Seth Tucker, a close friend and neighbor that was a Managing Partner at the corporate private eye shop Knoll Associates, I did my own sleuthing and managed to follow the trail of my client’s money, which the rogue lawyer embezzled from his escrow account, and then wired to a bunch of wannabe hoods in Albany, NY. Based on the information I had put together, the feds ultimately rounded all of them up, and I was elected to be the government's leading prosecution witness. 
A few days before the trial was scheduled to start, a big goon showed up at our house, just as Lorna was getting Charlie ready for kindergarten. The goon first pretended to be looking for another address, and before he turned to leave, he said “Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Berman. Tell Josh that I hope everything is good with him.”

When Lorna called me then to tell me what happened, I was more pissed off than I was scared. She was scared too, but even more pissed off than I was. She didn’t flinch before starting to blast me for quitting the “great job” I had been offered after the buyout of my Dad’s firm several years before, and for since getting mixed up with a bunch of crazy people.  Instead of calling the Feds, I quickly dialed up my pal Seth, and he simply said “What a bunch of schmucks. Don’t worry, Josh, since I helped you track them down in the first place, I’ll have one of our guys look into it this.”

You’d have to know Seth, and his background to appreciate that ‘looking into” something usually meant turning the world upside down until he found the culprit. And then, he’d turn the culprit upside down and inside out. Captain of his high school wrestling team in Garden City, NY, Seth had won a scholarship to Cornell, went on to NYU Law School, and then he went straight into the Bronx County DA’s office, where he soon ran all of the mob prosecutions in that borough. After five years, he became known as a current day Elliot Ness, and was appointed by NYC Mayor Ed Koch to spearhead a special, city-wide organized crime task force. Within twelve months, Seth had been credited with the indictments of three dozen mobsters. But prosecuting mobsters had its drawbacks, not the least of which was the paltry salary, and Seth didn’t need to think about it twice when Jimmy Knoll tapped him to join his firm with a Managing Director title, a mid-six figure salary, and stock options that would ultimately be worth more than $10 million.

Aside from the money, Knoll’s resources were incomparable to what Seth had to work with while a municipal employee. Knoll’s outfit uses a much different, and “more creative” approach to solving problems. It took Seth and his firm less than 48 hours to properly address the incident that had unfolded at my home. And right now, Lorna’s live action episode was eliciting the same kind of fear and anger, prompting me wonder whether I’d be having to pick up the Bat Phone to enlist Seth’s help.

In response to her $64,000 question, “What did they want?” the only thing I could think of to say was “Are they’re just standing in the driveway now??”

“Yes… no… wait, one of them is walking back to the door…Should I open it?”, Lorna asked.

I tried to be calm, yet in control. “First, what are they wearing? Second, what kind of car are they driving? And, can you see the license plates?” I figured that if they were real government cops, they’d at least be wearing jackets and ties, and their car would most likely be a typical unmarked Ford, or a Chevy, and would have some kind of Government tags. If they were wearing leather jackets and driving  a shiny, black Caddy, or who knows what, I’d tell her to hit the panic button on the alarm system in the hallway, double bolt the door, than grab our daughter and lock themselves in the basement until the Westport cops showed up with Glochs in hand.

Lorna was getting exasperated with my answering her questions with my own questions. “They’re wearing jackets and ties, Josh. The car is just sitting there. It’s a blue or black four door; it’s too dark outside to tell. I think the license plates are from New York, but I can’t read it from here.” Based on Lorna’s brief description, it sounded like these guys were who they claimed to be. Although I was relieved that Lorna didn’t appear to be in any kind of imminent danger, I was getting dizzy with nausea.

“I don’t know what’s going on, Lorna; I’m sure its nothing. Just relax,” I said.

Of course, I didn’t believe that for a second. With the rash of white collar prosecutions taking place, and the front page perp shot photos and accompanying stories, it’s  rare that the FBI shows up at someone’s house at 7 am unless they are a target of something. Before I could say anything else, I could hear a voice in the background. Lorna had opened the door, but she had wisely kept the chain bolt in place, and one of the “Feebs” was talking to her. It took him about thirty seconds to relay his message.

“Josh, he said something about having tried to find you at The Bank, and he wants you to call him right now. He gave me a cell number for you to call him.”

What the fuck were two FBI agents doing looking for me? And, why were they looking for me at The Bank? I hadn’t worked there in over four years!

After Lorna gave me the phone number, I told her to close the door, lock it, and then try to relax. I told her that I’d call the number and get the whole thing straightened out. After she insisted that I call her right back to tell her what happened, I hung up the phone and glanced around and noticed that other than Mario, the firm’s order clerk and all purpose gopher, the trading floor was empty of people. The daily morning meeting had already started in the conference room, and since I wasn’t in attendance, it would be a problem I’d have to deal with later.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The film rights to this story are now being negotiated; listing on the Cantor Future Exchange to be announced at a later date