Annie Custer worked for a force so powerful that nothing on earth could control it. Sometimes it acted like a perfect summer of endless sunny days with showers that came and went only before dawn. And sometimes it brought season after season of hurricanes with tornadoes and tidal waves that wreaked destruction everywhere. When times were good, the whole world wanted to get into the stock market and ride its highs to the top. When it turned bad, everyone wanted to run away and hide from its devastation. The funny thing about the stock market, though, was that anyone could take a vacation and miss the highs; but no one could escape the tsunami waves, the avalanches, the free-fall crashes. They affected everyone. Everywhere.
God or the devil or nature itself, the stock market was the true dictator that ruled the earth. No one could conquer it forever, not its former chairman, who took too much pay, or anyone else. For better or worse, when it started to move in any direction it changed lives. On Monday, September 18, it was Annie Custer's turn to get caught in the deadly currents.
That day there was mixed feeling on Wall Street. The good news was that after the deluge of 9/11 and several years of market free fall, recovery of the Dow and NASDAQ finally seemed firmly on track. The bad news was that parts of the economy hadn't followed suit. Turned out there couldn't be such a thing as a jobless recovery, or a recovery of jobs in only one sector. From sea to shining sea, millions of people in many fields were still out of work and suffering.
In the brokerage business, customers were still licking their wounds and regarding their brokers with suspicion for bad investment advice from years past as well as the financial irregularities that had surfaced in the fall of giant companies and the toppling of dot-coms. Billions of dollars in paper gains had disappeared forever, and not without repercussions. Above all, the United States is a free and litigious country. Clients were suing their brokers left and right, placing the blame for all their woes squarely on them.
Annie Custer's old-line firm, Hall Stale, was taking a big hit. The firm had so many complaints to defend that there was a logjam of arbitrations looming years into the future. It was costing a lot of money to settle the legitimate cases, and costing even more to fight the clearly ridiculous ones. For Hall Stale-and the brokerage business in general-it was a lose-lose situation.
In addition to the lawsuits, something else was making business difficult for brokers. New standards for consumer protection had cut commissions to pennies. Former million-dollar-a-year brokers were struggling to make six figures, and six-figure brokers were out of the game altogether. Offices were emptying, and people were without work of any kind. The climate was as uncomfortable for brokers as it had been decades ago in the early 1970s when all the small investment houses went out of business and thousands of people lost their jobs.
That Monday morning, Annie was worrying about the usual subjects: money, her husband, her daughters. Money, her husband, her daughters. Money . . . husband . . . daughters. Every day it was the same thing. She had a greatly reduced income and the same old bills-and she was one of the lucky ones. Her husband had not died in the World Trade Center attack, her clients were still solvent, and she hadn't been sued. All in all, she was an unusual person-and she'd worked hard. She'd never been just a stock jockey who pushed the stocks of whatever companies, bonds, or funds Hall Stale happened to be promoting at the moment. She was more than the money managers who specialized in different areas but never did the actual transactions. She logged in most of the trades for her clients herself-hundreds of thousands of them a year-and she didn't rely solely on her assistant to do the scut work, either. She wasn't above doing paperwork. She opened accounts, closed them, transferred money when people bought houses, and explained along the way.
She'd been a broker for a long time and helped her clients understand all the sectors that so many investors had trouble keeping straight: the Blue Chips, the Steady Value companies, the up-and- coming Growth stocks, the Cyclicals that performed well in different economies, and the Tech and Fixed-Income sectors. Every stock and bond in every sector traded every day. The prices varied minute by minute. When you were placing orders in the tens of thousands, every penny-a-share counted. There was a lot to know, and a lot to watch out for. People went crazy under the pressure. She had close personal experience with some of the victims of the business. Her own husband, Ben, was one of them.
She didn't want to end up like him, so she was up at dawn every weekday with a clear head, and in her office on the fourteenth floor of the Lipstick Building before the opening bell sounded at the New York Stock Exchange.Today had been no exception. She'd pulled herself out of her recurring nightmare of New York under attack. She'd drunk a cup of coffee all alone in her kitchen. She'd dressed in a pleasant enough early-autumn suit that was far from new. Then she'd bused twenty blocks down Lexington Avenue to her office on Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue. As usual, Petra, her pretty blond assistant, was already at her desk fielding calls. A second line was ringing as Annie waved and walked into her large and airy office. Petra answered the phone, then called through the open door.
Annie picked up the phone before sitting down. "Hey, cutie, what's up?" she said, sipping from the Starbucks she'd bought across the street.
"Annie, I need your help." Carol's plea was the cry of a wild animal, which was not unusual for Carol.
Instantly Annie was a faithful dog on point. "No problem, whatever you need." Carol Mack was her best friend, after all. Furthermore, her mother was dying of cancer. Annie had lost her own mother to the same sad fate years ago, and the catastrophe still felt brand-new to her. "What can I do?" she asked quickly.
"You have to help me with the stash."
Uh-oh, here we go again, was Annie's first thought. The stash was the hoard of securities Carol's eccentric father claimed he had hidden in the house. No one knew the value of it or where it was hidden. For years he'd tormented both Carol and Annie with hints of it, but nothing either of them said to him could persuade him to hand it over to a brokerage house to be invested properly. Annie sank into her leather desk chair and turned away from her computer, its screen already full of numbers and the tape running. "How's your mother doing?" she asked softly.
"Not well, but one thing is a blessing. She doesn't know what's going on, and Dad is in complete denial. You told me what would happen if she died before I took care of her estate issues." Carol sounded even more frantic than usual.
Annie shivered. The air-conditioning in the building was still on full force, and her hands were frozen, but the cold air wasn't what chilled them. Carol's situation was truly upsetting. "How do you want to handle it?"
"Look, I really think that Dad is ready to do things properly this time. I have a strong feeling he'll do it today if we handle it right," Carol said craftily.
"Well, that's good news," Annie replied slowly. She'd heard this before, and for her own sake she didn't want to hope for a new account, only to be disappointed again.
"He says it's big. Really big. The trouble is, he'll hand over the stash only if you go out there and take care of it yourself. You'll go, okay." Carol wasn't asking the question. She'd made up her mind.
Annie was silent. This was the last thing she ever would have expected from the most secretive person she knew. Carol had asked for her help a hundred times, but had never invited her over to meet the parents. How could she go there out of the blue and collect their money? It made no sense.
"Please, Annie. Please. I wouldn't ask you to do this if it wasn't an emergency." Carol had that tone in her voice. She was used to getting her own way and didn't mind begging when she had to. "You know what it means to me."
Annie kept thinking, Poor Carol, her mother is dying. It was the worst thing in the world. Obviously she couldn't handle it. She was freaking out.
Then Carol said, "I've been loyal to you, kiddo!"
And that hit Annie right in the gut because it was true. Three years ago Carol's husband had sued Annie's husband. The bitter fight contributed to the trauma Ben had experienced on 9/11. Carol's husband, Matthew, a litigation lawyer, had won his case. Ben sank into a quagmire of disillusionment about pretty much everything. He'd stopped working, and Annie's life had become a juggling act of painful allegiances. Now she was torn again. If she did what Carol asked and took someone's assets out of their house, her branch manager would have a cow. If she didn't do it, Carol's assets-whatever they were-would be in jeopardy, and she might have a meltdown. There was also the prospect of a new account to consider: Annie wanted, and needed, new accounts. Besides that, she was curious as hell. Carol's meltdown began anyway.
"I waited until you got into the office to call, didn't I? I didn't bother you at home, did I?" Carol said as she launched into her tirade.
"Honey, I've been telling you all this for years-"
"I know, I know. I should have taken care of it, but they're soooo difficult," Carol said sullenly.
Well, yes, parents could be very difficult, but that wasn't Annie's fault. She'd already done her best with Carol's parents. She'd talked and advised and been there for dozens of hours of phone debate with Carol's father, Dr. Dean Teath. Just his name alone put Annie's teeth on edge. And he probably didn't have that much money anyway.
"Please, I promise you won't be sorry," Carol wheedled.
Annie exhaled and realized she'd been holding her breath. She knew she shouldn't succumb to the plea to go that extra twenty miles. She was a stockbroker, not a courier, not a bodyguard, not a cop! She had no armored vehicle. And there was no insurance for what Carol was asking her to do: to intervene in her private life, to take possession (of whatever) from a notoriously skittish old man who'd been resisting custodial care of his assets (as well as himself) for the whole fifteen years that Annie had been a broker.
She shivered with swelling anxiety. Okay, okay. She reminded herself that her husband wasn't working, so she couldn't afford to do something wrong and lose her job. As if she needed any reminders about that! But those things aside, she didn't want to do anything wrong. So many terrible things had happened to people because of their brokers, or lawyers, or big corporations. She couldn't forget that. There were lawsuits left and right because of the bad things people had done. The firm would punish her if she generated one. She was an honest person and never did anything wrong.
. . . But she was curious, and not so far in the back of her mind she wondered if she could pull it off. She debated with herself. Certainly Carol could be harmed by her father's negligence. On the other hand, she knew that if she took any assets out of Dr. Teath's possession, the water could get very muddy very quickly. There were rules about this kind of thing. And even if she had been dead-of-winter-wolf hungry-which she was-it was not in her job description to travel to someone's home to dig assets out from under their mattresses. No, no, and again no! She decided she could not do it.
"Carol, you know I love you. I really do, but you have to go out there and get the certificates yourself. Bring them to the office where we can officially document them in your and your father's presence."
"But you know he doesn't trust me," Carol wailed.
"He will trust you if bring him into the office with you. I'll be here waiting for you. I'll explain everything to you," Annie promised.
"Please, please, please. You're my best friend, my only hope here. If he hides all this stuff again and forgets where he put it, or God forbid he dies without telling me, I might never find it. Remember when Mom forgot that she'd put all her jewelry in the Goodwill box and told me to take it in. It was just an accident that I checked it first."
Something clicked. Something cracked in an honest person's mind. Annie didn't know what it was. Maybe the dirty tricks of politics. Maybe war. Maybe all the events of the past few years together just caught up with her. She didn't know. All she knew was that the little voice inside her head, whose job it was to separate right from wrong, was strangely absent right at that moment. She caved.
"Okay, Carol, I'll do it. But you'd better pray for both of us that this isn't one giant mistake." With those fateful words, she put her whole life on the line.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from For Love and Money by Leslie Glass. Copyright © 2004 by Leslie Glass. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.