Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chapter 15- Banished By The Bank

Tuesday, October 8.

I hadn’t actually slept for more than an hour, and when I crawled out of bed at 5am, Lorna, who was half awake, said “Nobody with badges had better be showing up at the door this morning, Josh.” My always loving and supportive bride.

Before I turned on any lights, I did look through the curtains to see if there were any cars in the driveway, or on the street, but everything was quiet. On the ten minute car ride to the train station, I spent more time looking in the rear view mirror than I did watching the road in front of me.

I was able to grab about twelve minutes of shut eye during the fifty five minute train ride to Grand Central, and when I exited the station, I took a slight detour around the block before heading into the office, casually looking over my shoulder every twenty paces or so, just in case the feebs had decided to pull a surprise visit.

After passing through the security turnstile in the building lobby and taking the elevator up to the trading floor, I found myself, as usual, one of the first in the office. Bobby was in his glass cage reading the Wall Street Journal and checking his Bloomberg terminal for email messages, and Mario was the lone body on the trading floor, distributing the morning research comments published by the analysts after the close of yesterday’s trading.

The red message light on my private phone was blinking. I couldn’t imagine who would have called me so early, but when I retrieved the voice mail, I could tell that this would be another long day. The message was from my pal, Alan Hochstein, the CTO I had recruited for my gig at the start-up electronic exchange. After The Bank had acquired the company, Alan was quickly moved up the ranks of the parent company and had ascended to the number two technology job at The Bank.

“Hi, Josh. Alan here.Wanted to check in on you. Give me a call on my cell when you can.”

When the start-up was stumbling before it even got out of the gate, it was me that more than casually observed that the software developer hired by the company’s founder was completely out of his league, and that we needed to bring in a technology project manager that could bring much needed leadership to the company’s development process.. We had burned through $10 million of VC money and we were months behind schedule, and however much the founder/CEO was resistant to change pitcher’s, the VC’s tapped me to find an answer.

Alan was introduced to me by a head hunting boutique that specialized in Wall Street geeks. His profile indicated that he was a gun-for-hire project manager, mostly short-term projects, and although Alan didn’t have any experience working on Wall Street, no less a college degree, his creds were very solid. According to the snapshot forwarded by the head hunter, over the past eight years, Alan had extinguished technology-related fires for two major cities, one federal government agency, and a telecommunications company. There was very little information about his prior experience, and given that he was only a year younger than me, the void on the resume seemed a bit cryptic, but nothing that would cause me to balk as far scheduling an interview.

Half-way through the one hour ‘job interview’, which included my sharing my background, the company’s start-up story, and the state of our current software development, his observations about our dilemma, and his very calm, but focused mannerisms made it poignantly clear that he was the answer to our problem.

He was the furthest thing from being a ‘geek’. Not just because he was nicely tanned, when most techies are pale from being shackled to computer screens, or because his 155lb, 5’9 frame was outfitted in a stylish pin-striped suit, pale blue French collar shirt with gold cuff links, Hermes ties and soft Italian loafers, and all complemented by an IWC Aquitimer wrist watch; one that works just as well at a Black Tie event as it does 2000 meters below the sea. Alan’s model had the understated rubber wrist band instead of the titanium band, all a stark differentiator when compared to the casual dress code favored by techies; khaki pants and button down shirts.

Alan was perfectly poised and obviously worldly. He had come from an affluent family in Westchester, NY, and when he was a teen his Dad had moved the family to Beverly Hills Alan told me that his resume was a “bit light” because he had spent a number of years after dropping out of college to travel and see the world, including spending a year in Tibet. He volunteered that his lack of a college degree was simply a function of his never encountering any teachers that were particularly inspiring.

When the topic of his interest in aligning with a start-up was broached, Alan’s dispassionate response included his telling me that he wasn’t particularly enamored by what he read about the Wall Street culture, and he wasn’t interested in a long-term assignment, merely saying that “staying in one place for too long isn’t a strong suit.” That explained why he was still single at the age of 40, when most of us were married, more than a few for a second time. I didn’t find the answer any more mysterious than the time gap on his resume, but simply figured that he was merely posturing, which was totally fine. From my perspective he was a combination of Doogie Howser and David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine character in “Kung Fu.”The VC’s met with Alan the next day, and immediately green lighted me to extend Alan a job offer, with the understanding that he wouldn’t be shackled for longer than need be.

The rest is history, as they say. Alan and I had not only become close friends and confidantes, but as I predicted, he became the company’s savior. He had literally wiped the white board clean, and quickly recruited a swat team of techies that in less than six months, delivered one of the most powerful electronic trading platforms that Wall Street had ever seen. And, despite Alan having said that he wouldn’t stay around long, he ended up relishing the opportunity, as he had become widely-respected by a peer group that oversaw the information technology workings of the world’s most formidable investment firms.

When The Bank acquired the company a year later, it was on the condition that Alan sign a five year employment contract, with aggressive non-compete clauses. They had determined that he was an asset that was not only integral to the company that they were buying, but the acquisition team, led by one of The Bank’s most senior executive committee members, had the same gut instinct about Alan that I had when he and I had first met; he was already being groomed for a senior job overseeing the world’ largest bank’s technology platform.

While Alan and I had stayed in touch often after I had been recruited away from The Bank, his rapid ascension made him a very busy guy, and the frequency of our catching up with each other had diminished to once every six weeks. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that he had called to “check in” on me.

It was only 7:15 in the morning, and I guessed that Alan had called me on his drive into Manhattan from new McMansion inWestchester, the one that housed his new, much younger Tibetan bride and her two kids that came with his mid-life marriage.

In my new state of paranoia, I left the trading floor, went back downstairs and rang up Alan on my cell phone.

“Helloooo my dear and always dull friend Josh” he answered, my caller ID giving me away. He was always upbeat.

Alan and I shared a similar degree of cynicism about the world around us, and neither of us were shrinking flowers, so we’d often drip in sarcasm.. Since the time we had met seven earlier, we had countless witty repartees in which we chided each other, our way of demonstrating our respect for one another. As much as he enjoyed flexing his wit at my expense, he had also confided in me on select occasions, and told me that however smart he was, he was always enamored by the situations I found myself in, and out of, and that he had great admiration for me.

He had been a first hand observer at how my career had zig-zaged since I had left The Bank, and he had even invested in an entertaining website that I had produced while I was in between jobs. It was a Bloomberg Meets Playboy internet “destination”; an R-rated site that provided live market data, and live business news commentary that was video cast by a team of sultry looking babes in revealing business-sexy outfits. Of course, Jake had invested in that too, and it was actually a big hit; the site had several thousand daily visitors, and had won lots of write ups in main stream press, albeit for a short period of time.

Alan had also championed my being hired by The Bank as a consultant, to help them sell licensing deals for the trading system platform that we had built.

“Hi back to you, Mr. Big Shot. Its always nice to hear your sweet, charming voice at the dawn’s early rise. Shouldn’t you already be lording over your 3000 reports instead of chit chatting with old and forgotten buddies?” By that time, Alan was overseeing half of The Bank’s world-wide technology staff.

As close as Alan and I had become, and notwithstanding the fact that he was one of only five or six people that I felt a true bond with, I wasn’t ready to tell him about my latest situation, as I didn’t even know what the situation was. More importantly, I never liked telling Alan something that would make him disappointed in me, and given that he was my Rabbi insofar as my consulting arrangement with The Bank, I wasn’t ready to let him know that I might have burned a bridge that he had help build for me.

“Actually, I’m stuck on the West Side Highway, and since I’m the only one with the keys to the wire transfer department, its possible that your bond trading friends on Wall Street might be a bit delayed in getting started today.” Alan really enjoyed his new job.

“In all seriousness” he said. “I wanted to make sure you’re OK.”

Alan didn’t have a crystal ball, if he did, he’d have been able to predict the bout of cancer that he had hopefully beaten two years before; one that he had pledged me to keep quiet about while sitting with him during more than a few chemo treatment sessions. He wasn’t a big fan of displaying weakness.

“Why? Do you know something that I don’t?” I asked, trying to cut to the chase for both of us.

“Actually, was I cc’d on an email sent by one of your old buddies in The Bank’s Greenwich office yesterday. I thought you should know about it.”

I didn’t have any buddies left at The Bank’s Greenwich office. The only ones that hadn’t been moved to Lower Manhattan after the acquisition were two hardware guys that were monitoring some remaining servers. Neither of them particularly liked me; after all, I was the company’s top dog sales guy, and they were the guys that were supposed to jump through hoops whenever a customer had a problem.

“If this is the first time you’re hearing about it, then you’d wan to know that apparently two fellows with badges came to the office yesterday asking where they could find you.”

Not good, I thought to myself. “Yes,” I said. I’m aware. I had the dubious pleasure of actually meeting with those two witless fellows yesterday. Who else was on the receiving end of the email?”, I asked

“Just the head of The Bank’s security department, and a few others. You’re a popular guy”, Alan said. Without skipping a beat he asked, “Who’d you kill?”

“Perfect,” I said sardonically. “And, I didn’t kill anyone. Not yet anyway. But, I’m thrilled to hear how quickly good news travels,” I said, baiting him to share more intel.

“Oh yes it does.”Alan replied, with his own morning dose of sarcasm. “And, unlucky for me that my domain also includes overseeing The Bank’s email system. The Security Chief already sent out a memo advising anyone that hears from you should report it to him. Should I ask what you’ve done?”

I took a deep breadth, inhaling the magnitude of Alan’s message. News travels way too fast on Wall Street; and stories like the one he just revealed spread on Wall Street faster than the black plague, and can kill a career within hours. This was happening way too quickly.

“I won’t bore you with the details. They’re apparently looking into something from two years ago, and my name apparently popped up in a file.” I didn’t need to tell him more than he wanted to know at the moment. “Its probably no big deal.” I said, trying to sound casual, even if I felt as if I was standing alone in a house hit by an earthquake.

“If I can help in any way, call me on my other cell. The Bank pays for this one.”

I could read through the lines.

“Understood. And, thanks for the heads up.” I answered

“Not a problem, I wouldn’t be where I am today without you, so I’ll expect you to keep me up on what’s happening.”

I promised that he’d be the first person that I’d call, He ended with an upbeat, Alan-type remark, “But not if you need someone to post bail.”

“That’s very funny” I said. “If it comes to that, I’ll call your lovely wife, I know she has a thing for me.” Alan laughed and we exchanged goodbyes.

I went back up to the trading floor at RTM, and joined the line of traders, sales people and research analysts as they herded into the morning meeting. For the next forty-five minutes I was preoccupied with Alan’s alert, and the damage that had already been inflicted.

After the morning meeting broke up, I planted myself back at my desk and tried to focus on my normal routine. I bristled every time my phone rang.

At 11 am, my IM alert popped open, displaying that Jake had logged in to his Instant Messenger. Two minutes later he IM’d me

Jag (11:02:42 AM): No surprises today? 

JoshB (11:02:49) Glad u have a sense of humr about this. Can you spell p-a-r-i-a-h? Word trvls fast.

Jag (11:03:02 AM): ?

JoshB: (11:03:10 AM) Will expln ltr. 

Jag: (11:04:02 AM): You worry too much. Btw- I’m wiring the money this morning.

JoshB: (11:04:09 AM): Thnx

Jag (11:04:12 AM): np. You’re covered 

Although slightly relieved that my bank balance was about to be been resuscitated, and that Jake hadn’t encountered any surprises of his own in the past twelve hours, I also realized that chatting on IM with him was probably not a great idea at all, so I switched on my away message.

At noon, I decided to ring up Sercowitz to see if there was any status update on his end, but Sonja told me that he wasn’t in the office yet. Then I called up Tom Russo’s office and his secretary told me that he had already booked me on his schedule for Friday afternoon at five, as that was his first opening. I thanked her and said I’d be there. What with Alan’s heads up earlier in the morning, I knew that I needed to assemble as many cards up my sleeve as I could.

My cell phone rang at 1:30, and the tone was loud enough to get the attention of Bobby and some of the salesman that sat near me on the trading desk. Bobby had implemented a strict ‘no cell phones allowed’ policy on the trading floor, and he freaks out whenever its violated. I threw him a sheepish look, rolled my eyes, and looked down at the caller ID. It was the 516 area code number that belonged to Heckle the Feeb.

Instead of answering it immediately, I pressed the ringer off button, and headed towards the glass doors, towards the outside atrium. I hit the answer button after the fourth ring.

“Hello. This is Josh.” I said, trying to be nonchalant.

“Hello, Mr. Berman. This is Agent Trujillo.”

“Yes, Mr. Trujillo, What can I do for you now?” I didn’t bother hiding my exasperation.

“I was checking to see if you had retained an attorney yet. And I was hoping you might have found any documents that could help us.” He said.

I didn’t want his train to move any faster than necessary, and since the gauntlet had already been thrown down in the form of a subpoena, I wasn’t about to assist him.

“In answer to your first question, I’m in the process of securing counsel.” Then I let my emotions of the past twelve hours spill into his ear. ”And, given the manner in which you sought my “assistance” and completely disrupted my home, I’m not inclined to speak with you without having a lawyer present. In point of fact, your tactics are straight out of a bad comic book, and I’m not amused when my home is invaded before dawn.”

Trujillo started to retort “Mr. Berman, I’m not sure you understand the seriousness of this…” when I cut him off by saying “I’m aware of my rights Officer Trujillo, I read the subpoena carefully and it says that I’m expected to appear before a grand jury in two weeks. I don’t have anything else to say to you, other than the fact that you can expect me to be filing an harassment complaint against you and your partner.” I was on fire.

“You showed up at my former place of work and waived around a letter that might or might not be evidence, and you otherwise informed former co-workers of mine that I was the “target” of a Federal bank fraud investigation, although you didn’t even have an arrest warrant. Then you stormed trooped my home and rousted my family out of bed before sun rise.” I was fuming, not even paying attention to whether anyone in earshot of me. “I can tell you that the two lawyers that I’ve already interviewed have told me that those kind of tactics were stricken from the FBI training manual long before you even went to the Academy.”

He actually seemed to be somewhat intimated.

“Look, Mr. Berman. We’re getting off on the wrong foot here, and you should calm down. I apologize for waking up your family, but we have our job to do, its as simple as that.”

I paused briefly and simply said “Actually, I am calm. And, you’re right, we got off on the wrong foot. If I owe you an apology for venting just now, so be it. I’ll be answering the subpoena accordingly.” I finished with, “I know that I don’t have anything else to say to you at the moment, and I need to get back to work. Have a good day.”

With that, we exchanged good byes.

I had broken into a cold sweat, and as much as Sercowitz had told me to keep my mouth shut if I were to be contacted by the Feebs, I couldn’t hold myself back. As I turned to slide my security card into the slot adjacent to the glass doors leading to the trading floor, I saw Mario exiting the washroom from behind me.

I merely said “Hey”, gave him a smile and went back to work.

By the end of the day, I still hadn’t heard back from Sercowitz, suggesting that the wheels of justice move at different speeds, and I decided to wait until he called me to share with him the exchange I had with feeb. Before leaving work, I noticed that Jake was still in the ‘available’ mode on the IM buddy list, it was barely past lunch time in Vegas, and instead of pinging him, I decided to connect with him later that night.

I stopped at the news kiosk in Grand Central and bought twenty dollars worth of prepaid calling cards. I’d ring up Jake from a phone booth after I got back to Connecticut, and I’d make another call to Stuey Levinson.

On the train ride home, I zonked out; I hadn’t slept more than two hours in the past thirty six hours and it was only Tuesday. While in REM, my conversation with the Feeb from earlier in the today kept replaying in my head.

After I pulled out of the parking lot at the Westport train station, I headed to a pay phone outside the Compo shopping center, and I dialed up Jake’s cell phone. When he picked up, his demeanor was as calm and collected as always. Mine wasn’t.

“Good to hear your voice’ he said. “What’s new?”

“Let’s see, the head of security at The Bank sent out a company-wide memo that I’m persona non-grata, thanks to the Feebs visit yesterday morning. Then I had a call from one of the “agents” later in the day, asking if I’d be ready to speak with them in greater detail. That was a great conversation. I told him that I was filing harassment charges against him and his partner. Otherwise it was a typical day.”

“Well, it sounds as though you’ve calmed down a bit. That’s good.”

“I’m glad you think so, Jake. None of this is amusing. I’m not sure you understand the ramifications of a major bank sending out a company wide email instructing anyone that comes in contact with me to report it to the security department”

“That’s ri-dic-ulous.” Jake said. He loved enunciating words so as to stress the point.

“Whatever.” I said, somewhat exasperated by his failing to grasp what was evolving on my side of the world. “What have you heard from your pal, Glassman?” I asked. “This whole thing is connected to him, he’s the one that orchestrated the letter, along with his pals Nardone and Lutkins.”

“I didn’t speak to Danny today, but like I said before, he told me yesterday that he has no idea what this is about. I’m supposed to get a reel of dailies sent to me tomorrow, just so we can show the movie is made. ”

“Obviously someone has a problem. I don’t know these people, you do.”

“You worry too much. I keep telling you that. Just relax.

“Right.” I said.

“Oh., I talked to my friend Jeffrey, the one that ran the FBI’s Miami office. He’s retired for two years now, but he said he’ll make some discrete calls to find out who the agents are, and what they might be looking into.”

“Ok. That’s good. I guess.”

Jake continued, “I have to run to a meeting, and I need to stop at the car wash, but I sent the wire this morning. It should have hit your account.”

He’s worried about desert dust on his $80,000 Beemer, while the FBI has got people believing that I’m one of the 10 Most Wanted.

“Thanks again,” I said. “Keep your powder dry. We might need to have a defense fund.”

He laughed, as if it were just a minor expense to doing business, and ended with his famous “You’re covered.”

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