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“Easy Come”  is an award-winning story included in the collection “It Goes On.”   

Easy Come

by D.R. Shoultz

Despair stalked Jason Woods. He’d given up eluding it months ago.

In his teeth, Jason grasped one end of the rubber tubing wrapped around his upper arm and pulled the other end tight with his free hand.

“Okay, Tina. Let’s have it,” Jason muttered to the strung-out wisp of a woman sitting beside him.

The 10th floor, Lower East Side flat was barren and cold. Aged wallpaper, its edges brown and brittle, pulled away from the corners of the room. The only furnishings in the cramped apartment were a mattress butted against the back wall and a metal table and chairs where they sat, all left behind by the prior occupants.

Tina handed Jason the syringe she’d just filled from the melted contents in the tin can propped over a Sterno flame in the center of the table.

“Jason, are you sure? It’s only been a couple hours.”

“Just give me that,” he snapped, snatching the needle.

His hand trembled as he positioned his index finger on the plunger and probed his scarred arm, looking for an open spot among the puncture wounds that had accumulated over the past months. Finding an opening, he pierced the needle into his arm and slowly emptied the contents into his vein. His eyes pinched shut as he anticipated the warm fluid reaching his brain and radiating through his body, temporarily freeing him from the dark reality that had become his life.

* * *

Everything had come easily to Jason: sports, academics, relationships. As captain of his high school football team, there was no one more popular at Elgin High. His parents, both attorneys, were members of the most prestigious country club in their prosperous Chicago suburb. Considered among the nouveau riche, they’d worked hard to be accepted by the old money families in the community. Jason didn’t want for much of anything being the Woods’ only child.

After graduating at the top of his University of Chicago class with an MBA nearly five years ago, Jason quickly signed with the prestigious Wall Street brokerage firm Thomas, Brooks & James, LLC (TBJ). A handsome, dark-haired man with a sculpted physique, Jason was preordained to wear $1,000 business suits. Within weeks, he was absorbed into the fast-paced, high-risk, glad-handing world of finance.

Fred Armstrong, a senior partner at the firm, had taken Jason under his wing, and in less than a year, he had Jason signing multi-million-dollar clients and loading up their portfolios with custom securities, mainly hedge funds managed by TBJ. Jason flew through the ranks of the company, passing many with longer tenure. Making associate partner before his fifth anniversary–something never done before–seemed to be a real possibility.

It was all going smoothly, too smoothly.

* * *

It was late on a Friday afternoon in September when Fred Armstrong wandered into Jason’s office to discuss Jason’s sales for the week. It had become routine. Jason’s stellar results usually led to a relaxed banter about bigger and better things to come for Jason at the firm.

Jason sat at his desk pouring through a stock fund prospectus when Fred entered. The 40-inch trader screen to the side of his desk displayed a five-year histogram of the TBJ Growth Fund.

“Hi, Fred. Have you ever taken a close look at this Growth Fund? Something here doesn’t make sense.”

Fred moved to the front of Jason’s desk, peering over his reading glasses at Jason. “How so?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve been looking at the fund’s components, and even if I assume optimal returns, the fund should be yielding at best fifteen percent, not the forty-five percent we’ve been paying.”

Fred removed his glasses and stepped closer to the front of Jason’s desk.

“The fund managers know what they’re doing, Jason. Anyway, your job is to sell securities, not to question them,” Fred replied, his eyes locking on Jason to make sure his point was made.

“Yeah, I guess. What motive could we have to overpay returns to our clients?” Jason asked with a nervous laugh.

* * *

Jason and his fiancée, Tracy, hadn’t agreed on a wedding date. Jason’s goal was to make partner before they wed. He’d convinced Tracy that until he was promoted, he’d be too focused on his career to plan a wedding. And after making partner, well, he expected they’d be able to do whatever and go wherever they wanted. Until then, they’d share a small flat at a swanky Upper East Side address, perfectly happy being engaged.

Monday morning

“It’s looking like my retirement will be happening sooner rather than later, thanks to you.” Rex Kinsey, Tracy’s father, had just called Jason at his office. “I’d been way too cautious until you put me into that TBJ Growth Fund last year. I just looked at my statement, and I’m up fifty percent in the last eighteen months.”

Jason leaned back in his chair, staring proudly out his 21st floor office window.

“That’s great, Mr. K. I’m usually hesitant to advise family, but this fund has been doing well for a long time. It would be a shame not to share the opportunity.”

A firm knock came at Jason’s door and he quickly ended the conversation.

“Yeah! Come in.”

Jerry Parker, a financial advisor who’d joined TBJ with Jason, came bursting in, his eyes wide. He closed the door behind him.

“Jason, you’re not gonna believe what’s happening!”

“If you say so. What is it?”

“I received a sell request last month from Ron Kimmel. You know–of Kimmel Plastics?”

“Yeah, yeah. So what? We get sell orders all the time.”

“Maybe, but not like this one. He bailed out of the Growth Fund–over twenty-five million.”

“That’s a chunk, but it’s his money. What’s the problem?” Jason asked.

“The problem is that Kimmel was told by Jim Thomas he’d need to wait thirty days before releasing his money.”

“Yeah, that’s right. Transactions are processed on the day of trade, but we have up to thirty days to transfer funds on sales of that size.”

“Well, it’s been over a month, and Kimmel’s attorneys are hovering outside Thomas’ office right now.”

“I’m sure it’s just a glitch in processing. It’ll get worked out.”

“Yeah. Maybe, but have you seen this?”

Jerry pushed an interoffice memo in front of Jason.

 CONFIDENTIAL

When receiving sell orders for the TBJ Growth Fund, financial advisors are authorized to offer an additional five percent long-term performance bonus to clients who commit to holding their funds with TBJ, LLC through year end.

Approved by:  James A. Thomas

“What do you make of it?” Jerry asked.

“I don’t know what it means, but I’ll ask Fred about it this afternoon.”

“Man, I hope everything’s okay. I’ve sold nearly a quarter billion of this fund,” Jerry said as he turned and left.

Jason thought about his parents’ and his future father-in-law’s investments. Surely, there’s a logical explanation.

 Jason didn’t have to wait until the afternoon to speak to Fred Armstrong. Shortly after talking to Jerry, Fred summoned Jason to meet with him.

As Jason entered Fred’s office, everything seemed normal. Fred’s smile gave the impression he was having a good day.

“Hey, Fred. What’s up?” Jason asked as Fred signaled for him to take a seat in front of his desk.

“Well, what’s up is an opportunity for you.”

Jason didn’t respond, still thinking about how he was going to approach the subject of the interoffice memo.

“I’ve been asked by the senior partners to let you know they’ve approved your promotion to associate partner. Congratulations.”

Smiling, Fred stood to shake Jason’s hand. Jason was excited but confused. Such announcements usually had more fanfare–at least a meeting in the board room with the other partners.

“I don’t know what to say,” Jason said. “This is a huge surprise.”

“There’s more that they want me to share with you,” Fred said, slowly sitting back down behind his desk. Fred’s carefree air morphed into a serious tone.

“With the promotion comes more responsibility.”

“I would expect as much,” Jason replied.

“You’ve probably seen the memo on the long-term performance bonus we’re offering.”

Jason nodded.

“The offer has created some confusion among the financial advisors, and we need someone to motivate the team and optimize the performance of the fund through year end. The partners want you to assume the new position of Client Retention Executive.”

“Fred, I’m obviously thrilled about making associate partner, but it seems like a lot’s happening very quickly. Can I ask you some questions?”

“Sure. Anything,” Fred replied, leaning back in his chair.

“First, what’s this long-term bonus all about? And don’t we have to provide it to all clients holding the TBJ Growth Fund, not just those considering selling it?”

“Sure, and we will. But the focus is to keep our clients in the fund, so this is how we’ve chosen to communicate the offer, initially informing just clients looking to sell.”

“Where does the money for the bonus come from?”

“We’re simply sharing the fund’s management fee with our clients.”

Fred’s answer seemed quick, scripted. The management fee was only two percent, but Jason moved on.

“So when do I start my new assignment?”

“Immediately. The managing partners will be expecting a weekly progress report beginning Monday morning. Your position will be announced this afternoon, and the financial advisers will be invited. Prepare something to say–short, upbeat, convincing.”

Jason didn’t reply, but he couldn’t leave Fred’s office without asking more about the Growth Fund’s stability. Finally, he just blurted it out.

“Fred, is the fund in trouble?”

The pause from Fred was brief and his shocked look was fleeting, but they were enough to answer Jason’s question before Fred even opened his mouth to speak.

“No, the fund’s solid. It always has been. We just have a short-term issue that requires immediate action. Your new role is part of that solution.”

Fred stood. The discussion was over. He shook Jason’s hand and walked him to the door.

Back at his office, Jason closed the door, plopped into his chair and swiveled to stare out the window. For months–hell, more like years–he’d imagined making partner. But this wasn’t what he’d anticipated or how he thought he’d feel.

On the upside, Tracy would be thrilled. They finally could set a date and plan their wedding. And the money–they’d have a hard time finding time to spend it all. He knew what the other associate partners earned, and it was three times his generous income. They’d be moving out of the 600-square-foot flat he and Tracy had been occupying. That alone was cause for celebration.

Still, the look on Jerry’s face that morning haunted him. The financial advisors were restless, and these were guys who dealt with uncertainty on a daily basis. If they were nervous, there was likely a good reason. And the ache in his gut was telling him he’d just accepted a job that required making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

* * *

The announcement of Jason’s promotion received a warm reaction from the partners, as well as the financial advisers. His acceptance speech lasted two minutes and was met with an approving head nod from Fred Armstrong.

The remainder of the afternoon, Jason avoided his former peers who attempted to pull him to the side to see what he really knew about the status of the TBJ Growth Fund. He didn’t know much, but still felt guilty that it took him such a short time to begin acting like a partner, separating himself from his fellow advisers.

* * *

Jason’s thoughts during the cab ride home that evening were focused on what to tell his father and Tracy’s dad. They’d put the lion’s share of their retirement nest eggs into the now suspect fund. Jason was wedged in a tight crack.

How could the newly announced Client Retention Executive recommend to anyone that they get out of the TBJ Growth Fund?

 He and Tracy typically stayed home during the week. Jason would grab Chinese takeout or something quick on his way home from work. But this night, Tracy deserved to celebrate, even if Jason wasn’t totally in the mood. He called Tracy.

“Put on that short, black dress. We’re going to Sergio’s.”

“What’s up, Jason?”

“I’m fifteen minutes away. Meet me at the lobby bar. It’s a surprise.”

“Ohhh. Okay, but give me twenty.”

Jason knew it’d be more like 30 minutes, but that would give him time to pick up the celebration bling he’d put on layaway awaiting this occasion–diamond earrings, one carat each.

It took him a few minutes longer than he’d anticipated, and Tracy was waiting when he arrived at the lobby of their apartment building.

Tracy looked stunning in her black cocktail dress seated at the end of the lobby bar. Her short, blonde hair was swept elegantly behind her ears. Jason envisioned her wearing the dazzling diamond earrings, but knew Tracy’s bright azure eyes would overwhelm the jewelry.

As Jason approached, she pressed him for an explanation, but he just smiled and told her the cab was waiting. “I’ll fill you in at Sergio’s.”

Pouting, she picked up her coat and walked with Jason through the lobby.

Sergio’s was their place. Less than five minutes from their apartment, they dined at the small Italian restaurant several times a month. Sergio’s had the best seafood and pasta in the area and an ambiance befitting a scene from The Godfather.

Jason helped Tracy to her seat at a small, round table for two that was snuggled into the corner of the dining room.

“Okay. Let’s have it. What’s up?” Tracy asked, smiling.

“Well, you can start planning our wedding. You’re having dinner with the newest associate partner at Thomas, Brooks & James.”

She leapt to wrap her arms around Jason and give him a kiss.

“Today? It was announced today?”

“Yep. I start immediately. My new title is Client Retention Executive.”

“Sounds impressive. What will you be doing?”

“I’m still learning, but basically it involves holding on to our major clients.”

Jason reached inside his suit coat and pulled out a small black box.

“I couldn’t have made it this far without you, Tracy. You’ve been my rock . . . an adorable rock. This is for you.”

He flipped open the box. Tracy’s eyes melted and a tear slipped down the side of her upturned nose. After a closer look at the earrings, she leaned across the table for another kiss.

“I have to put them on right now! I’ll be right back,” she said, hurrying off to the ladies’ room.

Jason couldn’t discuss the details of his new job with Tracy. She knew her dad was heavily invested in the TBJ Growth Fund, and if Jason even hinted the fund might be in trouble, Tracy would insist on going to her father.

Jason’s cell phone beeped, startling him and drawing the ire of nearby diners. He pulled it out and glanced at a text message from Jerry Parker.

Call me, it’s urgent.

Jason would call him back after dinner.

* * *

Throughout the evening, Tracy couldn’t stop talking about her earrings, Jason’s promotion, and of course, their wedding plans. Back home, Jason discovered there was something even better than makeup sex–promotion sex. It was far more sensual, and when combined with diamond earrings and wedding plans, the passion became almost animalistic.

Tracy was sound asleep as Jason slipped out of bed and into the kitchen to call Jerry. It was nearly midnight. He’d considered waiting until morning, but he had enough to do at work tomorrow without worrying about a call to Jerry.

“Damn, Jason! What the hell have you been doing? I said it was urgent.”

“I was at dinner with Tracy. What’s so important?”

“Have you seen the news? Fred Armstrong is dead. His body was found in his apartment about four hours ago. A neighbor called the police after hearing a gunshot.”

“Oh my God! He was shot?” Jason felt the blood draining from his head. He sat down.

“Or he shot himself. The news isn’t clear. They’re just saying he died of a single gunshot wound and the weapon was found at the scene.”

“Sounds like suicide,” Jason replied. “But I’d never in a million years think Fred was capable of killing himself.”

“No one would. What could have driven him to this?”

Jason thought it would be easy to jump to the conclusion Fred’s death was work related, but it could have been any number of things. Fred was recently divorced, he had an unemployed son who looked like Charles Manson, and it was common knowledge that Fred liked to gamble.

“It’s gonna be freaky at work tomorrow,” Jerry continued.

“Yeah. I’m sure there’ll be an official office memo waiting for us, but it won’t stop the gossip and second guessing,” Jason replied.

Fred had been Jason’s mentor from Day One at TBJ. He’d hoped Fred would eventually fill him in on what really was going on with the TBJ Growth Fund.

Now what the hell am I going to do?

Tuesday morning

 We regret to announce the sudden death of Fredrick A. Armstrong. Fred was a valued employee and leader at Thomas, Brooks & James for 27 years. He will be dearly missed. We send our thoughts and prayers to his family.

Twenty-seven years and that’s what it boils down to, a forty-word memo. Jason couldn’t believe Fred had promoted him yesterday, and this morning he was just a footnote in TBJ’s history.

There was a knock at Jason’s door. Before he could say “come in,” the door swung open and Jim Thomas, the “T” in TBJ, strode into the office. Jason immediately stood.

“Please sit down. This’ll be quick,” Thomas said, shutting the door behind him.

Thomas could double for the Marlboro Man, provided the Marlboro Man wore a $1,500 Armani suit. Remarkably fit for a man in his late 60s, Thomas had a rugged tan, flowing silver hair, and a mustache that only men like him could pull off.

“I expected you might be a little unsettled today.”

Jason tried to refill his lungs with air.

“Yeah. I mean, yes sir. That’s a fair assessment,” he squeaked out.

“Well, I’m here to tell you we need your leadership now more than ever. We need to sustain our showcase fund. This final quarter will be key.”

A pep talk less than 24 hours after my mentor was killed. What’s with this guy?

 “Sure, Mr. Thomas. I appreciate the opportunity.”

“Please call me Jim. I’ll see you at eight Monday morning. And by the way, leave the fund analysis to our fund managers. You stick to selling.”

With that, he turned and left.

* * *

The next two months aged Jason ten years.

There was no longer a wedding date or even a wedding plan. Jason’s focus was on surviving the fourth quarter in his new job. The tension between him and Tracy escalated for the first time in their six-year relationship. Tracy begged him to slow down. “It’s only a job,” she’d plead. But he didn’t slow down, and the third time Jason pulled an all-nighter at the office, Tracy wasn’t home when he returned. She’d packed a bag and headed to her parents’ Boston house.

The five percent long-term bonus had worked for a while. Jason had even been able to persuade Ron Kimmel to reinvest his $25 million back into the TBJ Growth Fund. But the success was short-lived. Rumor spread that the fund was having a bad year. Two of TBJ’s largest clients sold their shares and depleted the fund of nearly $40 million, and then a few more cashed out, and then several more.

Clients cashing out early were paid promptly, mainly in an effort to instill confidence in the remaining investors. But as more clients sold out, it took longer for them to receive their cash from TBJ. When payments started exceeding 30 days, lawyers began circling the lobby, like sharks smelling blood, demanding payment for their clients.

The Monday updates with the TBJ senior partners were brutal, with Jason taking most of the abuse. To cope, Jason began heading straight to the bars after work where he’d drink his dinners. He’d been a social drinker, but never drank heavily. The hangovers were punishing, but a good tradeoff for blocking out the mess his life had become, even if for just a few hours.

As he sat in his apartment with the room spinning around him, he thought, How did it come to this? The only way to regain the confidence of Tracy and his family was to somehow persist until January with both his job and the TBJ Growth Fund intact. He’d hidden the fund’s problems from his parents and Tracy’s dad, but it was time they knew. Tomorrow he’d suggest they sell, knowing if the senior partners ever learned he’d recommended his own family dump the fund, he’d surely be fired.

* * *

The next morning, Jason arrived at TBJ to find reporters and TV crews assembling on the sidewalk in front of the office building. Ten-foot diameter satellite dishes pointed skyward across the street. He weaved through the mingling crowd, avoiding eye contact.

Jason stepped off the elevator to find the firm’s lobby filled with FBI and SEC agents. They were asking everyone to remain calm and stay at their desks. Expressions on the faces of TBJ employees ranged from confusion to near panic. As Jason started down the hall toward his office, two stocky men with ten-dollar haircuts dressed in blue blazers were leading Jim Thomas toward him in handcuffs. Thomas glanced up at Jason as he passed, then quickly looked away.

A 30-something FBI agent was waiting for Jason in his office. He resembled Jason in height, build, and rugged good looks. The agent rose from his chair when Jason entered.

“Mr. Woods?”

“Yeah, I’m Jason Woods.”

“I’m Agent Tad Elliott with the FBI.” He flashed his badge.

“The TBJ managing partners are being served with arrest warrants this morning, charged with several counts of securities fraud. You and other TBJ employees are also under investigation.”

He paused to hand Jason a document. “Here’s a copy of the search warrant authorizing us to seize documents and computer files from your office.”

Jason was numb. He glanced at the search warrant and waited several seconds before speaking.

“I should talk to our attorney, Tom Peters, before responding. Has he been contacted?” Jason asked.

“Yes, and I expect he and his staff are very busy this morning.”

Months later

Jason waited too long to warn his parents and Rex Kinsey. The TBJ Growth Fund was an empty shell, a Ponzi scheme. What Jim Thomas and the managing partners hadn’t siphoned off, the clients who cashed out early took. Even if the courts succeeded in seizing the partners’ assets, the holders of the fund would receive pennies on the dollar.

Rejecting his explanations, Jason’s parents believed he’d been involved in the scheme from the beginning, convinced he would have warned them sooner if he hadn’t been profiting in some way. Tracy didn’t believe him, either. She broke their engagement months ago and gave him back her ring and earrings. Jason hadn’t seen her since.

Jason knew he was innocent of the criminal charges hanging over his head, but the guilt of not warning his parents continued to haunt him. He liquidated what few assets he had, including Tracy’s engagement ring and earrings. It amounted to just under one hundred thousand dollars, a fraction of what his parents and Tracy’s father had lost. But giving it to them was all he had to offer.

Jobless, penniless, and homeless, Jason hooked up with Tina, an off-Broadway actress, equally down on her luck, but with an income from drug sales to friends in the entertainment business. He didn’t even know Tina’s last name, but he’d become addicted to not having any responsibilities and to Tina’s assortment of medications.

* * *

Tina couldn’t revive Jason. Within seconds of injecting himself, his eyes rolled back and he fell limply to the floor. She nervously pressed her fingers against his neck. His pulse was faint, but at least he was still alive.

Jason was twice her size, and there was no way Tina could move him. Instead, she quickly stuffed the drugs and paraphernalia into a paper bag and tossed it down the garbage chute in the hallway. This wasn’t the first time she’d called 911 to report an overdose.

The medics arrived within minutes and went stoically about their business. It was their third overdose of the evening. After stabilizing his vitals, they loaded Jason onto a gurney and wheeled him away. Tina stayed behind. She hated hospitals.

* * *

Three days later Jason hadn’t regained consciousness. He was breathing on his own and his EEG revealed brain activity, but he showed no signs of waking up.

His parents learned of Jason’s condition from the FBI agent responsible for Jason’s case, Agent Elliott. Jason hadn’t seen his parents for nearly a year. They’d disowned him. He’d become a blemish on their social status, first with the securities fraud investigation and now a drug overdose. Still, his parents notified Tracy of Jason’s condition before flying to Chicago to see him.

Mr. and Mrs. Woods could barely recognize their son. His checks were hollow, his eyes sunken. Tubes flowed into and out of his body. His mother immediately slumped into a chair next to Jason’s bed, crying with her face buried in her hands. His father just stood over him, unable or unwilling to touch his son.

They talked about Jason as if he were already dead.

“It may be for the best,” his father said. “What kind of future would he have?”

To their surprise, Tracy walked into the room.

“I had to see him one more time,” she told Jason’s mom as she fell into her arms, sobbing.

Lifting her head to gaze at Jason’s unconscious body, Tracy said, “I want to believe in him, but I don’t know if I ever could–not with everything that’s happened.”

Jason’s doctor came into the room. They listened to him without asking questions. The doctor’s prognosis was bleak, but he added, “There’s still hope.”

Jason’s parents and Tracy stayed for another 15 minutes, but Jason didn’t give any indication he was aware they were present. Jason’s father signaled it was time to go, and they rose to leave without so much as a goodbye to Jason. As they were about to step through the hospital room door, Agent Elliott stopped them.

“I’m glad I caught you before you left. I’ve got some good news. The charges against Jason have been dismissed. It appears he’d been set up in his role at TBJ. We’ve found no evidence he was aware of the Ponzi scheme or the other violations within the firm.”

Tracy and Jason’s parents looked at each other in silence. To them, the news changed nothing. Jason’s father shook his head, and then checked his watch.

“That’s good to hear, Agent Elliott,” Jason’s father replied calmly. “But we’ve got a flight in a couple hours. I’ll give the hospital a call tomorrow for an update, but there’s not much else we can do for him now.”

They walked past Agent Elliott and down the hall.

* * *

Although unable to move, Jason had regained consciousness and heard much of the conversation during the brief visit from his parents and Tracy.

Jason understood. Although innocent of any crimes, he was guilty of putting his career ahead of his parents’ financial security and ahead of a life with Tracy. Even worse, he’d given up on himself.

Not everything had come easily for Jason. That night, after the nurse made her rounds, he pulled the tubes from his arms.