Mad Money: A Madeline Carter Novel
by Linda L. Richards
No one accused me of killing Jackson Shoenberger. The hand on the weapon wasn't mine. I didn't pull the trigger or point the gun. After Jack was dead, no one looked at me and said, "She did it. Madeline Carter widowed that woman, orphaned those kids."
Yet I felt responsible. Responsible and, at the same time, I felt how easily it could have been me. Those things might sound mutually exclusive, but they're not.
I wasn't a junior broker. Neither was Jack. We'd both been with the company ten years when Sal came to us and offered to pull us out of the bullpen -- give us offices of our own. Jack looked as if he thought it was a good idea, but I wouldn't bite. I loved the electric crackle in the pen on bullish mornings when the room hummed with possibilities -- the phones, the yells, the excited high fives. It was all a part of it for me. I loved being a broker. Becoming an investment manager didn't feel like a step up.
I wouldn't have blamed Jack for accepting Sal's offer. Jack had a wife, kids and a house in Jersey. I didn't even have a cat. But when I declined, Jack looked at me with those heavy-lidded eyes of his and grinned. "What she can hack, I can hack." It could have meant a lot of things, but I took it at face value.
We never got a clear answer on how the shooter made it past security and into the bullpen. He looked normal enough. Fortyish, short dark hair, well-pressed chinos and a good wool coat, not out of keeping with the season. In retrospect I think that when he said, "Jackson Shoenberger?" to confirm Jack's identity, there was a quaver in his voice. A hesitation. But maybe that's just my mind filling things in after the fact.
The rest isn't filled in.
Initial surprise. Then a smile. An extended hand. "Yeah, I'm Jack. What can I do you for?" A coat flung aside, a flash of chrome, a crack of sound, then Jack on the floor in a cascade of blood. I can't forget the smell: metallic and burnt all at once. The smell of the firearm discharging. Cordite. But something else. Not the smell of death, but of dying.
Before any of us had time to react, another crack sounded and the shooter was down. So little space separated the two men that the shooter's ruined face came to rest on Jack's left foot. More blood. Then a cone of silence you could hold in your hand. The world stopped. No one said anything. No one screamed. No one even seemed to breathe. Ten seconds. Maybe thirty. It was the blood on my hand that woke me from my daze. Moved me. Blood cooled by its flight through the air.
Then chaos: we all moved at once. It didn't matter; we could have stayed there for an hour. Forever. Jack was dead. Jackson Shoenberger -- thirty-five-year-old husband of Sarah, father of Nigel and Rose, the man who never missed the first-Thursday-night-of-themonth meetings of his gourmet club -- was dead before he hit the floor.
And it was stupid. Pointless. Without sense. The shooter had been a client. Not an important one. He'd made a bit of money when the bull was raging and had started investing heavily just as the bear pulled up. The worse the market got, the more money he plugged in. I know Jack wouldn't have asked his client where the cash was coming from. That wasn't part of our job.
Once the blood was mopped up, we followed the paper trail. Jack had been trying to steer the guy right, but he hadn't listened, hadn't trusted and had said, "Buy," when Jack had told him, "Sell."
It had only been a couple of hundred grand but, as it turned out, it belonged to the shooter's mom. According to the pieces the police and the old woman's boyfriend put together, the lady asked for her cash back to buy a condo in Florida and her son just snapped. Killed her pretty much the way he'd killed Jack -- at close range with the same small gun -- then hauled his ass to Manhattan from Long Island and did the double deed, Jack and then himself, all in the space of a couple of hours.
The funeral was in New Jersey -- in Lawrenceville, where the Shoenbergers lived. I was pleased to see Sarah's delicate face light up when she saw me, and surprised to see Nigel and Rose standing somberly on either side of their mother.
"They're little, I know," Sarah said when she saw me notice. "But I wanted them to be part of this. Funerals are about completion for those that are left behind." She said it like a mantra, smoothing Nigel's pale hair absently as she spoke. "They deserved the chance to say goodbye, too."
Sarah was, in all ways, the opposite of her husband. Late husband, I corrected myself. Sarah was a tiny bundle of energy, where Jack had been big and rangy and, for a broker, laid-back. Sarah was dark where Jack had been fair. Each had been given a child: at nine, Nigel, with fine wheat-colored hair and pale eyes, was the image of his father. Today it hurt to look at him. Rose, just six, was dark and composed, a jade-green ribbon bringing out the red highlights in her hair.
"I was afraid you wouldn't come," Sarah said, grasping my hand tightly when she saw me after the funeral.
"Of course I'd come, Sarah. How could I not?"
"I was worried when you didn't return my calls."
"Sarah, I'm so sorry. I ... I didn't know what to say." I glanced down at the kids, lowered my voice. "I was ... I was there."
"Oh, honey, I know you were." She reached out and squeezed my hand. "That must have been so hard."
The touch undid me. On the surface of things, I'd been managing fine. Not thinking too much about anything, just moving. But the touch, from someone so close to Jack, someone with whom I shared a link to my old friend, was like a flame to wax on the place I'd been protecting. I could feel my face cloud, tears threatening, something I couldn't bear the thought of Sarah seeing. Her pain, I thought, was enough. She didn't need the added weight of mine. She didn't see it that way.
"After all of this -- " she indicated the crowds of people filing through, both Jack and her families, co-workers and friends " -- just a few people are coming by the house. I'd like you to be one of them."
I nodded, quickly kissed her on the cheek and went to move on, to let other mourners pay their respects, but Sarah didn't let me slip away. She grasped my hand firmly and pulled me back. "Don't even think about bailing, Carter," she said firmly. "I need you there. Jack would have wanted you there."
"Yes'm," I said, smiling for what felt like the first time in days. "That does not sound like an invitation that can be turned down."
"I get that, already. When?"
"Anytime, really. My parents headed back to the house to make coffee and prepare food."
I didn't head straight for the house. I drove around Lawrenceville in my rental, mentally placing Jackson everywhere I looked. In a ball cap and jeans, on the weekend, scooting into the hardware store for whatever gunk he needed to fix a leaky faucet in the kids' bathroom. Taking Sarah out for Italian food on their anniversary. Running the kids to day care and, later, to school. When I cruised past the high school and thought about how he wouldn't get to see his kids go there, let alone graduate, I made myself stop. None of this, clearly, was going to bring Jackson back. And none of it was making me feel any better, either.
Sarah and the kids were already back at the house when I pulled up, a strudel purchased from a local bakery in my arms.
"I was afraid you weren't going to come," Sarah said. She was outwardly composed, but I knew her well enough to see the strain around the edges: the reddened eyes, the line above her brow that didn't seem to go away even when her expression was relaxed. That hadn't been there a month ago.
"Naw." I showed her the strudel. "Couldn't come empty-handed."
"Right," she said sarcastically, taking it and indicating I should follow her to the kitchen. "I know what a stickler you are for tradition."
I stuck my tongue out at her tone, a childish gesture, and we both started to laugh, the laughter turning to tears in a heartbeat.
Jack and Sarah's kitchen was bright and modern. The hand-painted milk jugs from the 1940s and 50s that Sarah had collected over the course of her marriage brought happy splashes of color to the room. I had watched the collection grow over the years, exclaimed at new acquisitions when I'd joined them for family dinners. It felt odd being here now, knowing that Jack wouldn't be joining us. Wrong.
Sarah was crying like someone for whom tears are no longer an effort, the way oil moves through a well made machine: smoothly and with grace. "Everything is just the same. Nothing will ever be the same." She shrugged, leaning on the counter. "I'm a widow now, Madeline. A widow. I can't get my mind around that. And I keep expecting him to come back. To walk through that door." She looked out to the backyard as though she was, indeed, expecting him to walk in, bags of groceries in his arms, yelling, "Sarah, did you forget to pay the goddamn Visa bill?"
It was me, I wanted to say. It's all because of me and what I wanted, what I said. I didn't, though. "Is everything going to be okay, Sarah? Financially, I mean? You wouldn't need that on top of ... "
"No, no. Everything is great that way. And the company has been terrific. More than terrific. They've sent out a grief counselor and therapists for the kids and you name it. You're lucky to work for such a great company."
"I'm thinking of quitting," I said quietly, surprising myself. It was the first time the thought had entered my head, but it suddenly seemed my obvious next move.
Sarah just looked at me.
"I'm thinking of leaving Merriwether Bailey," I said with more confidence.
"You are not."
I just nodded.
"Oh, Madeline. Why?"
"I can't go back there. I mean, not to work, like, every day."
"What'll you do?"
It felt terrible, taking sympathy from the newly bereaved widow, but it also felt good, allowing my pain to ease away a little bit. As if the blending of our pain would somehow open it to the light for sharing. Or maybe it was just good to air some of the stuff that had been rocking around in my head since Jack died.
"I'm not sure. I feel so ... bad, Sarah. I feel ... "
I looked at her sharply. How had she known?
"There was nothing Jack didn't tell me, Madeline. Nothing. That's one of the reasons I could love you as much as I did -- do -- because no matter what some people thought, I knew that the love you shared with Jack was different than the love I needed from him. Part of the reason I could love him so deeply was because he was a man who could have a woman as his best friend. Other women might not have understood that. I did." She smiled at me through a thin cloud of tears. "And you got to be my friend, too.
"Jack told me he was up for a promotion. And then it came and he told me what happened. Told me what both of you had said."
I crumpled then. I felt diminished, reduced. I had wanted to tell Sarah. Yet at the same time I hadn't wanted her to know.
"But, Madeline, you said what you said and Jack did what he wanted. That was his way. Once you've thought about it, you'll know what I'm saying is true. He loved the market. He lived for the market. And he made a good living as a broker. A very good living. He didn't need the extra salary moving into an office would have given him. He told me, 'I'd miss the sweat and the Maalox.' Those were his exact words. And I know he would have missed you."
And that was just it. What if -- more what-ifs -- what if there hadn't been a me? Or if I'd never joined Merriwether Bailey? It was clear to me that Jack would still be alive.
I didn't say this to Sarah. I figured she'd been through enough. "Thank you, sweetie," I said, hugging her quickly. "It's been so hard for me. And you're his wife. I feel like such a loser feeling as bad as I do and knowing how much harder it must be for you."
"That's the thing about grief, hon. It's not a contest. No one gets to win." She smiled bitterly and I knew that bitterness wasn't directed at me. "I have felt ... " She searched for a word. "Flatlined. I've felt flatlined since it happened. I go through the motions, but none of it matters." She shrugged. "So that's my big plan, for now. For the kids. Just keep the motions going and maybe sometime it'll surprise me. Maybe someday it won't be pretend."
The idea of the flatline got into my head. It covered precisely how I felt. Entirely flat, not quite alive. I was someone who had always thought of herself as buoyant. Vibrant. And suddenly I was anything but. For the first time in my life it was possible for me to spend a whole day in bed, doing nothing. I'd drag myself up to go to the bathroom, maybe make some toast with peanut butter or a soft-boiled egg, and then try to throw myself back into sleep.
I didn't quit my job right away. Unlike Jack, who got taken out with a bullet, I went with a whimper. I took a leave of absence -- a week that stretched into two then four -- and contemplated basic things. The meaning of life, for me. How I fit into the pattern that I'd created. On good days I was able to leave my apartment and I didn't cry. On bad ones, I'd encounter Jack's face at every turn: in the antique mirror over my armoire, in the dull gloss of the tiles behind the stove, through the window when I tried to imagine what was in the world beyond my door.
Jack and I had never been lovers, though I'm sure people in the office had their doubts. In the time we worked together, both of us got married, one (me) got divorced, one (him) had children, and in between were all the challenges of lives being lived, both in the markets and out of them. I loved Jack. Not as a wife loves a husband, yet not quite as a sister loves a brother, either. I'd always felt that what we shared transcended all those things. That we'd be together always, each forever the emergency other in our lives. And now ...
My world was full of what-ifs. What if Jack had taken Sal's offer and had been safely working with corporate clients behind a closed office door?What if I had said yes to Sal and Jack had followed my lead? But the world can be too full of questions. Stack them all together and you end up a dollar store cashier in Bend, Oregon, or a gas station attendant in New Hampshire. You end up spending your life looking for low risk gigs. What did low risk look like, anyway? No one had ever warned me about the physical dangers involved with being a stockbroker.
Before Jack died, I'd already been having thoughts about changing my life. I'd spent the last few years coasting on high tech, just like everybody else. It's hard to think now about, what it was like being a broker during the boom, but it was ... delicious. Touch anything and it goes gold. Pick some crappy little Web-based company with a happy idea and a slick annual report trading at six and a half dollars, trade it, promote it, and within two weeks it's trading at twenty bucks. By the end of the boom I was working with scores of securities just like that, trading at twenty, forty, sixty dollars a share. For some of them, two hundred wasn't even a reach.
I saw and felt it coming. I was crunching Advil like candy. Do I even have a stomach lining anymore? And Maalox. I never drank it right out of the bottle like some of the guys did, but that's what was in the coffee mug on my desk anytime after lunch.
I had a nice little co-op apartment -- stand on a chair and look out the bathroom window and see Central Park -- that I'd paid mostly cash for. My own trading had never been on the margin. I lost the bazillion or so dollars I'd been worth on paper. But I was a broker; I'd never been convinced it was real money, anyway. I had my apartment. I had a Chagall etching I'd bought with some pretend money I'd converted into real money. I thought, I'm gonna be okay. I'm gonna coast through this. I still had a job. Not everyone did.
I thought briefly about not doing something with stocks. I wanted to make a new life. I could do anything. I could wait tables. Become a real estate agent. Be a film director. Open a dress shop. Or a café. But the reality was that the stock market was the only thing I knew. Except I also knew I didn't want to be a broker anymore. I didn't want to invest other people's money. And I realized I was tired of having to stand on a chair to see a slice of green. My apartment was worth enough to buy a whole house in most cities that weren't New York. It was certainly enough for a stake.
I had a lot of questions, was shy on answers, but there was one thing I knew: my days at Merriwether Bailey -- or any other brokerage -- were over. And it wasn't just that the new economy was looking like it was going to suck so badly there'd be too many of us. I was good. I could have kept my job. I just didn't want it anymore.
"What are you gonna do?" Sal asked when I went into the office to clean out my desk.
As I loaded the cardboard box that was proving to be too large for my few personal possessions, I had been trying to impress details on my mind so I wouldn't forget: the wood-grain laminate that seemed to coat every hard surface in the office (active traders can be messy), the dumb, dippy bird on Jamal Henderson's desk (bright red with a real feather on his head and always dipping toward water but never making it), the viral hum of the air conditioner (noiseless noise, white noise). My eyes stopped on Jack's desk, catty-corner from mine. Empty now, his family pictures gone. Had Sarah come in for everything? Or was there a box somewhere in one of the back offices with "Shoenberger" scrawled across it in big, black letters? I figured I didn't really want to know.
It was 4:30 p.m. on a trading day. The markets were closed, the bullpen in the post-coital lull that follows the closing bell: brokers cleaning up their desks, doing paperwork, chatting softly, amicably; traders horsing around like the self-satisfied adolescents they seem to pride themselves on being. All of this activity, all in anticipation of tomorrow's opening bell, while still riding the ebbing high of the day's trading. I knew this was one of the things I'd miss.
"Sorry, Sal. I was just thinking."
"I asked what you're going to do." I noticed that the corner of Sal's mouth was twitching, as it does when he's worried about something. I wondered if I might be the cause.
Sal was my boss, but he was more, as well. My father died when I'd only been at Merriwether Bailey a couple of years. Sal hadn't tried to be a father to me after my Dad was gone, but he'd slid into the senior-male figure in my life position comfortably. Watching me closely through heartbreaks and workaholic periods. Prodding me when I seemed to spend too much time at the office or forgot to eat. He worried about me. I could see it on him now.
"I don't know," I told him honestly.
"Just not this, huh?"
"Jack," he said. It wasn't a question.
"I guess." I looked again at the empty desk, allowing my eyes to scan the place where Jack had fallen. Self-indulgent, self-punishing. I made myself stop. "And it just doesn't make sense to me anymore. Not so much."
He hugged me then. I hadn't expected a hug, not from Sal. But we both needed it -- the touch of another human. The world was changing. Jack's death was the grand finale for me, but Sal and I had both seen the changes coming for a long time. You don't get to be an old racehorse without learning to recognize the sound of the starting gate. Or, for that matter, the feel of the finish wire.
Sal pulled a strand of hair away from my eyes, tucked it behind my ear. "We're gonna miss your smiling mug, kiddo. I always said you were too pretty to be a broker."
I made a shooing motion with my hands, though I couldn't stop the grin that slid over my face. It was an old line with us. Lady brokers were seldom slender, five-foot-eleven blondes with lots of unruly hair. I've never thought of myself as gorgeous -- attractive, sure -- but in the early days, the guys gave me a fairly hard time. After a while, once I'd earned my stripes, it turned into good-natured ribbing. These days it was all about Barbie. If I made the company a lot of money, they'd call me Vacation Barbie, as in I'd earned a vacation. Or if word leaked out that I was in a relationship, the guys would ask, "How's Ken?"
The Barbie stuff didn't irritate me perhaps as much as it should have. The trading floor is always tense. As a result brokers get their laughs as cheaply and easily as possible, there's no time or energy for sophisticated humor, not during working hours.
Now Sal said, "Good luck, Barbie," and, despite the teeny inside joke, I could see the sentiment was sincere. "You always know where I am."
And I did.
I was disappointed when, a couple of weeks after I'd quit my job, I still didn't feel any better. I started getting seriously worried about myself. Was this what had happened to those crazy ladies you saw pushing shopping carts filled with all their possessions? Did it start with some sharp, personal tragedy they never recovered from? The moment that possibility seemed like an achingly clear forecast of my future, I pulled myself out of bed and made a conscious effort to do something. Anything. And in those first few days of stumbling recovery, a walk around a couple of blocks chased my breath away. But it helped. It was like there was a light ahead somewhere, if only I squinted diligently enough.
My timing on choosing to return to what was left of my life was flawless. Around the time I could manage a whole meal, cared enough to shower every day, and felt strong enough to catch up on my laundry, my co-op sold and I knew that the time for introspection was over. In thirty days new people would be moving into my apartment and would expect me not to be living there. I had to do something. I just wasn't quite sure what.
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