Sometimes a man can be redeemed. But not in the way he expects.
Jason Stafford is a former Wall Street hotshot who made some bad moves, paid the price with two years in prison, and is now trying to put his life back together. He’s unemployable, until an investment firm asks him to look into possible problems left by a junior trader who died recently in an accident. What he discovers is big – there are problems, all right, the kind that get you killed.
But it’s not his only concern. Stafford has another quest as well: to reclaim his five-year-old son, “the Kid,” from his unstable ex-wife, and then learn just what it means to make a life with him. The things Stafford discovers about himself in the process are every bit as gripping as his investigation, and when the two threads of his life come together – the results are unforgettable.
Black Fridays marks the arrival of a remarkable new writer.
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Michael Sears spent over twenty years on Wall Street, rising to become a managing director at Paine Webber and Jeffries & Co., before leaving the business in 2005. He lives in Sea Cliff, New York, where he is at work on a second book featuring Jason Stafford and his son.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE WOMAN SCREAMED for the first three seconds. Three seconds took her down only fourteen stories— she still had twenty- four to go. She fainted. Her arms and legs stopped flailing, her body went limp.
The few pedestrians on Maiden Lane, forced by circumstance to brave the baking midafternoon sidewalk on the hottest first day of summer in New York City history, all froze at the sound, like grown-up children playing a game of Statues.
The bicycle messenger, a recent veteran of two tours of duty in Afghanistan, was busy chaining his vehicle to the no parking sign. When he heard the scream, he dove clear across the sidewalk, landing behind a large concrete planter.
Wind resistance on the woman’s skirt, combined with the relative effects of gravity upon the denser mass of her head, spun her so that when she struck the roof of the idling Town Car at more than one hundred miles per hour, she hit headfirst—like a bullet. Her heart, unaware that the woman was now legally dead, continued to pump for another few seconds, spewing streams and geysers of blood out of various wounds and orifices.
Despite some doubts, the investigating team from NYPD found no reason not to treat the situation as a straightforward successful suicide—thereby both clearing a case and, with the same stroke of the pen, keeping the murder rate down below the previous year’s, a measure of great importance to the mayor’s Office of Tourism.
No one paid much attention to the shaky veteran who told anyone who would listen, “When you want to die, you don’t scream like that.”
I WAS THE FIRST alumnus from my MBA class to make managing director. I was also the first, as far as I know, to go to prison.
They make you skip breakfast the day they release you. It’s not the final indignity, and far from the worst, but it’s such a small thing, so petty, so unnecessary, that it just hammers home one last time, as though you needed another reminder, that in prison you are nothing. Nothing.
I followed the guards down a short corridor, through a final electrically controlled gate, and into a small room with a metal door, two molded plastic chairs, and a three-inch- thick plexiglass window on the far wall. Through the window I could see my father in the next room, showing his ID and signing his name with a pen that was chained to a clipboard. They probably had to throw the whole thing away whenever they ran out of ink.
He saw me staring at him and gave a short wave. He had been to visit only a month before, but he looked years older—grayer, paler, shorter. I imagined there were more pleasant things to do on a late-summer morning than pick up your only son from prison. My sentence had ended at midnight; that’s the way they do it. For two years, time had been marked by lights on, meals, lights off, with random violence the only relief from boredom. The guards—polite, almost respectful for the first time—had arrived a few minutes early. It didn’t matter—I hadn’t slept.
“Good luck, Jason.” My cellmate was awake as well. He had another four months to go on a two-year stint. He was a car wash owner turned tax protester, who had believed some Internet nonsense about income taxes being unconstitutional. So for a pissy hundred grand or so, he had become a guest of the state, learning the hard realities behind constitutional law.
“Take care, Myron. Give me a call sometime.”
I doubted he would. Neither of us would want to remember where we had met.
There were a few murmured good- byes from the darkened cells as the two guards walked me off the block. Otisville harbored a more congenial, less confrontational clientele than Ray Brook, where I had served the first eighteen months of my sentence. At Otisville, it was possible to play a game of cards that did not lead to getting jumped in the yard the next day. I hadn’t exactly made friends there, just acknowledged fellow travelers.
Two years. Two years earlier, in the midst of a plea bargain meeting, I thought I had misheard. “Two years.” For an accounting shuffle? Ridiculous. You pay a fine and move on. Time served. That’s how these things end up. But the Feds wanted my scalp. It was a half-billion-dollar accounting shuffle, which had come close to bringing down a major investment bank. The stock had plummeted. Investors were outraged. The president’s mother-in-law lost almost ten thousand dollars! The Feds needed someone to put in the stocks and get pelted with stones and rotten fruit. I was their man.
My first stop was Ray Brook. It’s about a long home run from the Canadian border, high in the Adirondacks. It’s the real deal. Somehow, when you do time for a white-collar crime, you think you’re going to spend the days passing around Barron’s and discussing your portfolio with like-minded individuals. Work out, grow a beard, and catch up on your reading. It wasn’t like that.
Most of the habitués were there on drug charges, racketeering, or both. It was an eye-opening master class in Diverse Patterns of Confrontation in Modern Gang Culture. I barely passed. The macho posturing of Wall Street does nothing to prepare you for the moment when a three-hundred- pound Latino man with a dark purple scar running across his throat looks up at you from across the chow hall table and rasps out the words, “Hey, baboso. Give me your lunch.”
I rapped twice on the table and offered him the bread and mashed potatoes. Truce.
In comparison, Otisville was cake. It’s no country club, no matter what the Wall Street Journal implied when I was moved there, but the prisoners are all short-timers and less prone to violent solutions to minor disagreements; no one wants to risk getting his sentence extended when he’s marking off the last days till he goes home. And the food was better.
I hadn’t heard him come in. He was a clerk, not a guard. A little pudgy—baby-faced. Happy to have a ten-dollar-an-hour clerical job with full benefits—even if it was the night shift at the federal prison camp. I had a sudden flash of panic—they weren’t going to let me leave. There was a mistake and this unlikely boob had been assigned the job of letting me know.
“I’m your release expediter. I have some forms to go over with you.”
I sucked in a breath, let it out slowly, then did it again. My pulse rate slowed.
“Will this take long?” As though I had an appointment.
“I’ll do what I can.” His voice went up at the end of every sentence, making it a question. I didn’t know how much of it I could take. “I know you have someone here to pick you up.” He nodded toward the window. A guard was steering my father into an office and out of view. “I hope to get you out in no time at all.”
He wanted to be nice. He wanted me to be nice, too. I thought of some of the other detainees he must have mustered out. It was a high-stress job. I decided to try to make it easy on him.
“What do you need from me?”
Forms. He explained them in bureaucratic detail. I signed them. He handed me a big padded envelope that held my clothes from the first day I entered the system. Underwear, jeans, and a polo shirt. I signed for them. I signed a release form that said I had been advised of the necessary procedures I would have to take in the event that I wished to protest any violations of my civil rights I may have suffered during my incarceration. I signed a separate form that absolved the Federal Government of all responsibility for any such violations committed by employees and a third form that said there hadn’t been any such violations anyway. For such a brutal, stone-cold bureaucracy, the powers in charge were pretty sensitive about covering their asses.
“That’s it, then. You can get changed now. I’ll be back to get you in a while.”
The clothes didn’t fit. My waist and hips were slimmer, my chest and shoulders broader. At the ancient age of forty-four, for the first time in my life I had pecs.
“In a while” was still on prison time. No one was rushing to speed my way home. My father was still hidden in the office. I sat down, propped my feet on the other chair, and tried to imagine life on the outside.
No man ever admits to having been asleep, but I had dreamed. Dreams of pain and torture. My body was on a rack, and each click of the wheel shot sharp spasms along my spine.
“Fuck!” I staggered upright and stretched. I had felt much younger going into prison than I did coming out. Outside, two years is an episode—inside, an eternity.
My stomach was telling me it was six, maybe seven. I thought about the hamburger at the 21 Club. Actually, any hamburger would do. And a cold beer.
The door slammed back against the wall.
“Stafford!” It wasn’t the clerk; it was a dull-eyed dayshift guard. That meant it was already after eight. “This way.” He stepped back and waved me out ahead of him, looking me over as though he expected to find I’d stolen a chair and hidden it down my pants.
He swung the final door open and I felt like I was taking my first full breath in two years.
My father wrapped his arms around me and while I wanted to pull away, it just felt too good. I let him go on hugging me until he pulled away in damp-eyed embarrassment.
I looked him in the eye; I owed him that. “Hey, Pop.” There was too much to say— regrets, recriminations, disappointments—so we did what we always did. We said none of it.
It was raining and windy. The tail end of summer was giving way to fall all too quickly. The chill came right through the light nylon jacket he had brought for me. The collar smelled of his Viceroy cigarettes, though he hadn’t smoked in years—not since my mother died. The coat must have come from far back in his closet. We climbed into his near-classic Olds 88 and headed home.
“I thought you might want to spend a night or two with me. Until you can get the apartment together.”
It was a bad jolt. Prison shrinks your brain. I had thought about food and sex and taking my son to a Yankees game and the smell of the ocean and what it would be like to sleep in a room with an unlocked door. But I’d managed to hide from all the big questions.
My marriage. Work. The nuts and bolts of basic survival. A future. All the things I hadn’t thought about began screaming for attention. I felt a surge of claustrophobia.
“Thanks, Pop, but no,” I finally managed. “Give me a day or two. I’ll come over for dinner some night.” I wasn’t up to explaining that after two years of no privacy whatsoever, I just wanted to be alone. For at least one night.
“I’ve been aging a nice pair of prime steaks. Some fresh asparagus. A Caesar salad.”
“Great. Sounds great. Friday night?” The prison stench was still in my nostrils, turning my stomach every time I inhaled. I tried breathing in through my mouth, out the nose. The smell faded.
He held back a sigh. “Friday night it is, then.”
“Thanks for understanding,” I said, though I knew he didn’t.
“I brought you a black-and-white.” He handed me a white paper bag. “From Carla’s.”
Carla’s black-and-white cookies had been my unfailing cure for the blues. When I was ten. “Thanks, Pop. Maybe later.” I was hungry enough, but I was afraid I’d start bawling if I ate it.
“So, I thought we’d take 84 over to Milford and then 206/15 down to 80. It’s a pretty drive.”
“Nyah. You want 17 to 87 and over the Tappan Zee,” I said.
“I hate the Tappan Zee. How about the other way on 84—all the way to Brewster and then down the Hutch.”
He was comforting me with his own obsessions. My father could debate four different ways of going down to the 7-Eleven for a pint of half- and-half on a Sunday morning. Around the time I started growing pubic hair, it started making me crazy. Then in college I found myself doing it. Later, I found it made my wife nuts. That’s not fair. My wife was more than a bit nuts when I met her.
“You know what I want? I want to see New York from the GW Bridge.”
“It’s your day.”
We rode in silence for a while.
“You want to play something on the radio? You go ahead.” This was a hugely magnanimous gesture. Not only was he tone-deaf—he loved to repeat the old line “I only know two songs. One of them’s ‘Happy Birthday.’ The other isn’t”—but he also had, what I considered to be, an unhealthy addiction to sports talk radio.
“Thanks, Pop. I’m enjoying the quiet.”
The quiet didn’t last long.
“Have you heard from Angie at all?”
Angie was my wife. Ex-wife. We met at a Bear Stearns party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She and two hundred other models had been hired to circulate at the party and “add color.” I’m sure that it was the first time she had ever been there. I was an adult version of a nerd, a Wall Street trader, and a multimillionaire. Angie was an underwear model with a charming, bubbling ditziness—think Myrna Loy in a D-cup—that disguised all clues to her dark side. She was also a monumental narcissist, a street fighter, and—I discovered later—a lush. But she was never boring. We were both asked to leave that party after Angie convinced me to go wading with her in the fountain at the Temple of Dendur. For the first time in eight years, I called in sick the next day. And I stayed in bed all day—her bed. We were married eight weeks later. I thought I knew what I was doing.
“Idiot!” Pop said, as an SUV swerved into our lane without signaling. The car behind us flashed its brights in protest.
I let him ask the question again.
“So, I was saying . . . heard from Angie?”
“Nothing,” I finally answered. “Not since they left.”
It had been almost eight months. At first she made regular once-a-month trips up to Ray Brook. I grew to resent how dependent I became upon those visits. They brought no pleasure—divorced men get no conjugal visits—only desire, pain, frustration, and anger.
But they were all I had. I never thought they must have been tough for her as well.
She sent me a card announcing the move. Gilt lettering on heavy linen stock, like a wedding invitation. “Angie and Jason Jr. are leaving New York and heading home. Y’all come see us sometime.” Underneath was her mother’s address in Beauville, Louisiana. There was no signature. I suppose I should have been gratified that I was on the distribution list.
“I’ll go see her,” I said. “We can straighten this all out.” I might have believed it, too.
My father made that little noncommittal grunt that manages to express nonbelief in the most nonconfrontational manner and we lapsed back into silence.
The traffic was starting to get to me. They all drove too fast. The trucks and SUVs all looked impossibly large and the way everyone careened from lane to lane with only limited regard for human life— their own or anyone else’s—gave me a headache. I put my head back and closed my eyes.
A few minutes later, I felt my father’s hand cover mine. He gave a gentle squeeze.
“Keep the faith, bud. Fresh start. It’s all going to work out.”
I didn’t tell him about the big trucks and the headache. I just squeezed his hand back. Maybe he was right.
“Thanks, Pop.” I nodded off for a bit.
The rain tapered off, leaving a thick fog. I couldn’t see shit from the GW Bridge. If New York City was throwing a party for my return, it was well hidden.
THE FIRST STEP had been just a mistake. An error. I put the wrong date on a trade ticket and the computer, rather than catching it and spitting it back to our clerk, assigned the trade to the following year.
In this case, changing the settlement date gave a huge boost to the plus column for the day’s trading. The group had already had a very good day—we were up almost five million according to the computer. The ...
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