Winner Takes All – A Short Story
In this short story, Robert Lewiston fled the country after executing the largest Ponzi scheme in history. He changed his name, had plastic surgery, and escaped to Rio de Janeiro, where he’s living the high life on billions in stolen funds.
John Henderson is an ex-employee of Lewiston’s who is helping the FBI track down his former boss. When John discovers information that could lead to Lewiston’s whereabouts, he is faced with a crucial decision that could lead to dangerous consequences.
The complete short story is available below..
Winner Takes All – A Short Story
The party was in full swing by the time he showed up. Robert Lewiston liked to make a grand entrance, even at his own house. No sense wasting his time making small talk with the early arrivals.
As he swept down the grand staircase, the living room grew quiet. He had directed the band to pause while he addressed his guests. Stopping midway on the stairs, he raised his arms. “Welcome to my humble abode.”
The crowd laughed – his humble abode was a ten thousand square foot mansion nestled into the hills of Rio de Janeiro overlooking the city lights and the ocean beyond.
“Anything and everything you can possibly desire is here tonight,” he said, as his arm swept behind him. On cue, a parade of stunning men and women began to snake their way down the stairs.
As the prostitutes began to circulate through the room, Robert yelled out, “Someone bring me a glass of champagne.” The closest waiter hustled up the stairs, and Robert grabbed a glass from the tray. Holding it high above his head, he grinned broadly. “Let’s have a party!”
The crowd erupted in cheers as the band began to play the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got a Feeling”. Robert watched as the party guests began gyrating to the music. In seconds, the room was a whirling mass of hips and hair.
For a moment, Robert stayed where he was, watching the crowd, as he guzzled down two glasses of champagne. Then he bounded down the stairs and made his way to a prostitute who had caught his eye.
Pulling her away from the man she was dancing with, he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a long, deep kiss. His fingers slid through her thick, dark hair and tightened into a fist. He smiled as she gave a small gasp of pain, her liquid brown eyes wide, her Angelina lips rounded in an O. “You’re all mine tonight,” he whispered.
Not waiting for a reply, he took her hands in his. “Let’s dance, baby.”
As their bodies began to move frantically to the heart-pounding rhythm, he threw his head back and roared, “God, it’s good to be king!”
When Robert’s body was drenched in sweat, he grabbed the woman’s hand. He pulled her toward the sliding glass doors, open to the cool, tropical evening breeze. They stepped through the door onto the patio. The guests out here were more subdued, stretched out on lounge chairs around the pool.
Robert kicked off his Ferragamo loafers and stripped out of his linen pants and silk shirt. He pirouetted, showing off his naked body like a peacock displays his plumage. “Time to cool off!” he shouted as he dived into the pool. He swam to the bottom and then launched himself back to the surface. As he emerged from the water, he shook his head back and forth, droplets flying through the air. With powerful strokes, he swam toward the pool stairs where the prostitute sat.
“So what’s your name?” Robert asked.
“Brittany,” she answered.
Robert laughed. “What’s a Brazilian beauty like you doing with a name like that?”
She shrugged. “I like it.”
“Well, I don’t. What’s your real name?”
“Maria, but you can call me whatever you want.”
“Maria’s just fine,” he said.
Robert floated away, looking up into the night sky. The stars were like shimmering jewels in the night sky.
Robert listened as the first band wrapped up its set. It was an American group he had flown in for the gig. They played everything from the most current American hits to the classic rock he had listened to as a kid. Their last song was a rousing rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes.” After a short break, the second band, a local group specializing in hot salsa, began its set.
When he began to feel chilled, Robert swam back to where Maria was waiting. “Go get us some more champagne and meet me at the hot tub.” He watched her lithe body move across the patio before he hoisted himself out of the pool. As he strutted across the imported Italian tile, he paused periodically to greet his guests, relishing how they fawned over him. He could see the envy in the men’s eyes as he shook their hands. As he leaned in to kiss the women, most whispered their availability to him, even as their husbands stood watching.
When Robert reached the hot tub, he stood looking down at the group. There were bodies all around the perimeter. “Someone’s going to have to make some room.”
Immediately every man and woman leapt up. Robert laughed. “There’s only two of us.” He looked around the circle and pointed to two men, both prostitutes. “You and you, out.” When the men had scrambled out of the tub, Robert slid in next to the second most beautiful woman he had seen that night. He wasn’t sure he recognized her. “Are you one of my guests?”
“I’m a guest of a guest. My name’s Amber.” She told him whom she had come with.
“And where’s your date now?”
“Well, then, I guess you’re mine for now.”
She smiled. “I guess I am.”
“So you’re obviously a fellow American,” he said, taking in her blond hair and lack of Brazilian accent. “Where are you from?”
“I have an apartment in New York. But I’m a model, so I live on the road. Luckily, most of the winter shoots are in the tropics. I can’t stand cold weather.”
“Me neither. That’s why I’m here.”
“You have a beautiful house. Do you live here full time? ”
“I do now. I retired a few months ago.”
“You look too young to be retired.”
“Well, I have more money than God. So I decided I’d rather spend the rest of my life playing than tied to a desk.”
“What did you used to do?”
Robert shrugged. “I had various business interests. Much too dull to talk about.”
Just then, Maria arrived holding two empty glasses and a full bottle of Krug Clos du Mesnil. She poured the drinks and slithered into the water next to Robert.
Robert chugged another glass of champagne and then leaned back, an arm draped around each woman. “Life is good,” he murmured.
When Robert woke the next day, he lay in his king size bed in his king size bedroom and stretched. He twisted his head around to check the time. Almost noon. He used to be in his office by eight. It hadn’t taken him long to adjust to his new schedule.
When he pressed the intercom on his nightstand, the response was immediate. “Good morning, sir.”
“Bring me my breakfast.”
“I’ll be right in, sir.”
Exactly seven minutes later, Paulo gave two quick taps on the bedroom door before opening it. He walked across the room and set the breakfast tray down on the nightstand. Reaching behind his boss, Paulo plumped the Orphelia pillows until Robert was comfortable. Then he positioned the tray over Robert’s lap.
Robert waited as Paulo poured the steaming hot Kopi Luwak into the Limoges cup. A Baccarat crystal bowl was filled with fresh seasonal fruit. A set of Christofle sterling silver flatware was displayed elegantly on the tray. Paulo handed Robert copies of the local newspaper, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
Robert waved his hand dismissively. “No, you can go.”
Robert watched as Paulo left the room as noiselessly as he had arrived. Then he picked up the remote and switched on an entire wall of flat screen plasma TVs. He read the newspapers and half-watched CNN news until a story caught his attention.
“And now, more on the Robert Lewiston story,” the news anchor intoned. “The FBI continues their investigation into the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.”
Robert leapt out of bed and raced to the nightstand. He stared into the mirror, his eyes scrutinizing every last detail of his new face. Then he looked at his old face on the TV screen. Even his own mother wouldn’t recognize him now. With his new look and his new name, he was golden. They’d never track him down.
* * *
It was noon when the moving van pulled in front of John Henderson’s house in a middle class suburb of Chicago. Hiding behind the living room curtains, John watched as his father parked his car next to the van. His parents turned to look at each other before the car doors opened and they slowly got out. As they staggered up his front walk, his mother wiped a tear from her face.
John waited a few minutes before answering the doorbell. He didn’t want his parents to know that he had been watching them. When he opened the door, they both greeted him with brave smiles.
“How did everything go this morning?” John asked.
“All right,” his dad said. “At least it’s over.”
“I can’t believe we lost our house,” his mom said. “Thirty years…”
“Come on now, Sarah,” his dad said, taking her hand. “How about some coffee, son?”
“Sure,” John said, leading the way into the kitchen. Pulling two mismatched mugs out of his cabinet, he poured his parents their coffees. They sat down at the kitchen table, his dad absently tracing the scratches on the table top.
The doorbell interrupted the silence and John leapt from his chair. “Must be the movers. I’ll show them where the rooms are. You’ve got all the boxes labeled, right?”
When he returned, he sat at the table again, listening to the movers shuffling through the house in the background.
“Mom, Dad, I just want to tell you again how sorry I am.”
“We’ve been over this, son. It’s not your fault.” Al’s eyes flashed with anger. “The only one I blame is your boss. I hope the FBI finds Lewiston and puts him away for life.”
“Yeah, but I’m the one who told you to put all your money into his fund.”
“You didn’t know it was a Ponzi scheme. After the real estate market tanked and my firm went bankrupt, that fund seemed like our only chance.”
John shook his head. “But now you’re wiped out.”
“We’re going to get though this, son,” Al said. “I can’t tell you how much it means to your mom and me that you’re letting us move in with you until we can afford our own place again.”
“Are we ever going to get back on our feet?” Sarah asked. “We’re sixty years old. By the time the real estate market bounces back, you’ll be too old to start another firm, and who’s going to hire you?”
“Honey, please. Now’s not the time.”
“I’m just saying what we’re all thinking. No one’s going to hire me either. I’ve been a housewife for the last thirty years.”
“We’ll be fine,” Al insisted. “It’s all going to work out.” He turned to his son. “What about you? Any luck with your job search?”
“Not a bite. Between the rotten economy and the scandal at Lewiston, no one’s going to touch me. I’m toxic.”
“But you didn’t know anything about what was happening there,” Sarah said.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m still tainted. I can’t even get anyone to return a phone call or email. I can’t tell my side of the story if no one will talk to me.”
John looked at his parents, seeing the same hopelessness in their eyes that he had been feeling for months. Sarah pushed herself away from the table, her hands covering her face. John could hear her sobs as she ran out of the room.
“Is she okay, Dad? Does she need a nitro?”
“Your mom knows her heart. She’ll take one if she needs it.”
“I just hope she doesn’t have another attack.”
“God damn Lewiston,” Al said through clenched teeth. As his fist pounded the table, the coffee spilled out over the mugs.
John stared at the pools of liquid seeping into his table, but felt too drained to get up for a rag. The ringing phone woke him from his trance. He pushed himself from the table and went to answer it. “Hello?”
“Is this John Henderson?”
“Yes,” John said eagerly, hoping it was a callback on his job search.
“This is the FBI. We’d like to talk to you.”
* * *
John felt a sense of dread as he walked into his old office building. The FBI had not given him any clue why they wanted to see him. They had only told him that they wanted to meet him at the Lewiston offices to ask him some questions.
As he rode the elevator up, he could feel his dread turn to panic. He began to shake uncontrollably as his body grew clammy. What if they thought he was involved in Lewiston’s scheme? How could he prove that he didn’t know anything had been going on? He was just a support tech. His job was to keep the computers running smoothly. He didn’t know anything about the financial side of the business.
As the doors opened with a soft ping, he tried to pull himself together. He used his shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat from his face before he stepped into the lobby. A man sat at the receptionist’s desk, talking rapidly into a cell phone. Everything about him screamed FBI. Blue suit, white shirt, striped tie — all capped off with a buzz cut.
As John approached him warily, the man held up his finger. John bit his lip as he waited — a few minutes seemed like an hour. The man snapped his phone shut and stood up.
“I’m Special Agent Brad McCoy. Let’s go into the conference room.”
When they walked into the room, two other agents sat at the conference table. The table itself was barely visible, covered with reams of paper, several laptops, briefcases, phones, and cords running everywhere.
Seeing his reaction, McCoy smiled. “Kind of a mess in here, huh? Believe it or not, it’s not as bad as it looks. We’re actually making a lot of headway sorting through your firm’s records.”
“Not my firm,” John said. “I just worked here.”
“We know that. In fact, we know everything about you. We know you weren’t involved in the crime.” McCoy smiled at John, gesturing towards a chair. “Why don’t you relax and have a seat?”
John sank into the nearest chair, his whole body sagging with relief.
The agent took a seat across from John. “We brought you in to ask you if you’d be willing to help us with our investigation. We have some of the best computer minds in the world, but frankly, we could move a lot faster if we had someone who knew all the ins and outs of the systems here. From everything we’ve learned, you’re the guy.”
John stared at the agent, too surprised to respond. It had never occurred to him that the FBI might want his help.
“So what do you think?” McCoy asked. “Will you help us out?”
“Why me? I’m not the only one who knows the systems.”
McCoy leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Like I said before, we know everything about you. Not just what you did here — everything.”
The agent rocked forward, setting his elbows on the table as his gaze bored into John’s. “We know about your parents – that they got wiped out. We figure that gives you a pretty strong motive to help us. We also know you haven’t been able to find a new job. If you work with us, we might be able to help you with that. A reference from the FBI could go a long way to opening some doors.”
Mc Coy held up two fingers. “We’ve got two goals here. One — to find Lewiston and put that scum away for life. And two — to return as much of the money as we can recover to the investors who lost it to Lewiston.”
McCoy turned his palms up and shrugged. “Look, I know it’s not going to make anyone whole, but every little bit helps, right? Maybe it would be enough for your parents to get their own place again.”
John’s jaw dropped open. “You know they moved in with me?”
McCoy smiled. “We’re pretty thorough. So what do you say? You want to help us help them?”
John nodded. “Yeah, I’m in.” And with those words, a small ray of hope replaced the black cloud that had been hanging over his head ever since his firm blew up.
* * *
John sat in his old cubicle at Lewiston Investments. Three weeks had passed since he had first met with the FBI. He was digging through every piece of data he could find and passing along anything he considered useful. Taking a break from his research, he double clicked on his Google icon. He had made it a practice each day to read everything he could find about his old firm.
When Lewiston Investments had first shut down, John couldn’t bring himself to listen to or read any of the news stories. Occasionally he would be watching TV when a news segment on the case would come on, and he would feel his stomach lurch, bile rising in his throat. He would quickly change the station, engulfed in a wave of hopelessness.
Now that he was helping the FBI, he found himself wanting to know everything he could about the crime, hoping he might come across something the agents could use. He clicked onto an article that had just been published by Time magazine that told about how his old boss had stolen money from his clients to fund his extravagant lifestyle. The article included interviews with some of the clients who had lost their money, from large corporations to small businesses to individual investors like his parents.
When he finished reading that story, he began to surf the web again when another site caught his attention. One of Lewiston’s corporate clients, Townsend Group, was offering a five hundred thousand dollar reward for information regarding Lewiston’s whereabouts.
That seemed to be the eighty billion dollar question: where was Lewiston and the money? John recalled how he had passed his boss in the hallway one day. The next day the man had vanished. A few days after that, the FBI had come to their offices, making arrests and shutting the firm down, sending John and the rest of the clueless lackeys home. Four months had passed without any leads.
A team of FBI agents worked the case from inside the investment firm, going through computers and files. John knew there were other agents working the case from the local headquarters, and still others from the SEC who were involved in the investigation.
He had become fairly chummy with the guys working inside the firm, often going to lunch with them or out for the occasional drink after work. When Agent McCoy swung by his cubicle to invite him to lunch, though, John declined. He was already halfway through a ham and cheese sandwich he had brought from home. That was the healthy part of his lunch – the Doritos and Red Bull were the not-so-healthy part.
When John finished eating, he went back to his research. He had just found a data backup file from a few days before Lewiston had vanished. As he opened it, he realized it was the last backup he had made before the firm was shut down. As he sifted through the data, an unusual entry caught his eye. Lewiston had wire transferred most of the firm’s cash to an offshore account in the Cayman Islands. Lewiston must have deleted the entry before he disappeared, because there was no record of it on the main system.
John printed out the account information and stared at it. He knew enough about offshore accounts to realize that the bank would refuse to provide any information to the FBI without a long, protracted legal battle. It would likely take months before the investigators would get the information they were seeking, and even longer before they got their hands on the money. In the meantime, his parents were barely hanging on. His dad was in a state of constant rage; his mom seemed almost suicidal.
John got back on the Internet and opened the website offering the reward money. Townsend Group. He recognized the name, but didn’t know anything about the firm. He Googled them and found their corporate website. They were a large international shipping company. As he read about them, he got more excited. The reward money would just be a drop in the bucket to them, but to his parents, it could make all the difference in the world.
What would it hurt to give Townsend the account information before he gave it to the FBI? It would take months before the FBI could do anything with the information anyway, so what would a few more days matter?
John printed out a copy of the data entry and the reward offer. When he heard the lobby door open, he stood up and stuffed them into his back pocket. His heart was pounding when Agent McCoy ducked his head through the doorway.
“Hey, John, we’re back from lunch. Everything okay?”
John nodded, not trusting his voice.
* * *
John glanced at his watch as he approached the office building in downtown Chicago where Townsend had their U.S. headquarters. It was a few minutes before noon. The woman he had spoken to on the phone yesterday had asked him to meet her for lunch at their offices. Following her directions, he took the elevator up to the twenty-third floor and located their suite. He pushed open the heavy oak door and was instantly transformed into a different world. The receptionist sat at a rich mahogany desk, dwarfed by a large crystal vase filled with exotic looking flowers.
After he introduced himself, the receptionist picked up her phone. When she finished her call, she looked up at him. “Ms. Hawker asked that I show you to our private dining room. Will you follow me please?”
When they arrived at the designated place, they were met by a hostess, who led John through the dining room. The walls were paneled in a rich cherry wood. The floors were covered in deep, plush carpeting. There were no tables, just booths that seemed to be arranged for the utmost privacy. The hostess led John to one of the booths in the back of the room. The woman seated there glanced up and extended her hand. “You must be John. I’m Sheri Hawker.”
John shook her hand before sliding into the booth. He sank into the butter-soft burgundy leather and looked across the table. The woman was lovely, with thick dark hair and a slightly olive complexion. She was dressed in a conservative navy suit with a strand of pearls at her throat.
A waiter appeared and asked John if he would like something to drink.
“We have an excellent assortment of wines here,” Sheri said. She gestured towards her glass. “I’m having a Pinot Grigio, if you’d like to join me.”
“No, thanks,” John said, turning to the waiter. “I’ll just have a Coke please.”
When the waiter left, Sheri suggested they look at the menus and decide on lunch before they started discussing business. When the waiter returned, they placed their orders. John picked up his glass and gulped down half his Coke. Then he leaned forward, his fingers nervously drumming on the table.
Sheri smiled. “Why don’t we start off by my telling you a little bit about our company?”
She spent the next several minutes telling John most of what he had already learned from their web site. “Besides our business interests, we also contribute a great deal of money to various charities. Our company feels strongly about giving back to the community. Each year we donate millions of dollars to various organizations throughout the world. In fact, that’s one of my main job responsibilities. I help administer our charitable fund.”
Her eyes glowed as she spoke. “I’ve been with Townsend for about seven years, and it’s the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. Up until now, that is.” She paused. “Because of all the money we lost through the Lewiston fund, we’ve had to put an end to our charitable work.”
Sheri looked down at the table, and when she raised her head, John could see tears in her eyes. She reached into her purse for a Kleenex and dabbed at them. “I’m sorry. This has been such a difficult time for me.”
John nodded. “I know. Lewiston cheated so many people – including my parents. They had all their money invested with him. Their retirement savings have been wiped out.”
“I’m so sorry, John. What he’s done is reprehensible. Which brings us to why we’re here. We know that the FBI is working on the case and trying to locate Lewiston and the money. But we also know that big government moves slowly. Our concern is that by the time the FBI finds Lewiston, most of the money will be gone.”
Sheri leaned forward, grabbing the edge of the table. “And that’s why we’ve taken matters into our own hands. We’ve hired some of the top private investigators to try to track him down. The sooner we can find him, the sooner some of that money gets returned — to us, as well as the other investors like your parents.”
“What about the FBI? How do they fit into this?”
“The last thing we want to do is interfere with their investigation. We just think that if we have the same information, we can move faster. Once we track Lewiston down, we’ll immediately alert the FBI so they can move in.”
“Okay.” John leaned back, feeling relieved. “That’s what I needed to hear.”
“Based on what you told me on the phone, it sounds as if you have information we could use.”
John reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Like I said, I can give you the name of the bank and the account number where Lewiston transferred some money. But from what I know about offshore accounts, I’m not sure if the bank will give you any information.”
Sheri smiled. “And that’s where we can make a difference. The government has to follow legal protocol to access that information. In other words, they have to play by the rules. We don’t. All it will take is a few well greased palms, and we’ll find out everything we need.”
John shifted in his seat nervously. “And what about the reward money?”
“As you know, the reward offered is five hundred thousand dollars. I have a certified check for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars that I’ve been authorized to give you today in exchange for the bank account information. If we can use that to track Lewiston down, we’ll give you the rest of the money. I don’t know how much your parents lost, but I’m guessing this could help get them back on their feet.”
John looked down at the printout of the data entry, biting his lip. He knew it was wrong to keep this information from the FBI, even temporarily. Doing so might even land him in jail if they ever found out. But how could he just sit back and watch his parents suffer? They needed that reward money. He took a deep breath and pushed the paper across the table.
* * *
The florist truck pulled up in front of Robert Lewiston’s gatehouse in Rio. The armed guard called out to the delivery man, who came each week with fresh flowers. “Buenos dias, Manuel.”
The guard pressed a button to open the electronic gates and waved as the truck drove through. He watched the van travel down the driveway until it rounded a corner and was out of sight.
When the delivery truck pulled in front of the house, the van’s back doors opened and ten armed men dressed in black swarmed out. The leader of the group yanked the driver’s door open and pulled the delivery man out, throwing him to the ground. As Manuel began to scramble away, the man lifted a gun with a silencer and shot him twice in the head.
The shooter turned back to the other men and raised his hand once in the air and then gestured towards the house. The men rushed to the house and kicked in the front door. A guard was seated in the foyer, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. As he lifted his head in surprise, he was shot between the eyes. There was no noise other than the soft whoosh of the silencer and thud of the man’s body hitting the floor.
The leader signaled to the men to split into two groups. As they combed through the house, they shot and killed everyone in their path – a cook, a butler, and two housemaids. When they burst through the library door, they found Robert sitting and reading, oblivious to the massacre.
“What the hell?” Robert called out, as he leapt to his feet.
The men surrounded him, their guns raised. In heavily accented English, the team leader spoke. “Good morning, Senor Lewiston.”
“Who are you?”
The team leader ripped off his face mask. “You know us as the Townsend Group.” The man paused and smiled. “In other circles, we’re known as the Cortez drug cartel.”
Robert blanched. “How did you find me?”
“Once we had your bank account information, it was quite easy. The bank manager was more than willing to give us your new name and address when we showed him his daughter’s finger. We were quite pleased, really. Sometimes it takes several appendages before we get the bank to cooperate.”
Robert raised his hands. “Look, I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Oh, yes, Senor Lewiston. I have great confidence that you’ll do what we want.”
Robert dropped to his knees, his whole body trembling. “You can have the money. Just please don’t turn me in. I can’t do jail time. Please.”
“Oh no, Senor Lewiston. I can assure you, we have no plans to turn you in.”
Copyright 2012 Linda Johnson
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Winner Takes All is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.