Ill-Gotten Gains

A short story where a lawyer, following in his father’s footsteps and to fulfill a dying wish, succumbs to a life of crime, and the consequences therein…

by: Alan Swyer

What the fuck did I do?” Phil Berger wondered aloud on a Thursday morning while eyeing his reflection in the bathroom mirror of his Short Hills, New Jersey home.

The problem was that Phil Berger knew all too well what he’d done. The crisis confronting him was the culmination of a nearly two-decade long series of events that began when he got a panicked call from his mother on the very day he received notice that he’d passed the Multistate Bar Exam.

“Can you fly home?” Muriel Berger asked, her voice resonating with fear.

“What’s wrong?” replied Phil Berger, instantly concerned.

“Your dad—”

“What about him?”

“He’s having emergency surgery.”

“For?”

“A burst aorta.”

After catching a flight from Washington, D.C. to Newark, Phil Berger rented a car and drove straight to the hospital, where he joined his mother in a vigil that lasted until they were led in to see the cardiothoracic surgeon.

“The good news,” said Dr. James Einhorn, “is the operation was a success.”

“And the not so good?” asked Phil Berger.

Dr. Einhorn, who looked in need of a week’s worth of sleep, fixed his attention on Muriel Berger. “How active is your husband?”

“Very.”

“Not any longer,” stated the surgeon. “Not if he’s going to remain with us for a few more years. He’s a lawyer, right?”

Muriel Berger nodded.

“Given his age and condition,” said Dr. Einhorn, “going back to work is almost certainly a death sentence.”

Muriel Berger winced.

“How are you feeling?” Phil Berger asked when he and his mother were allowed to enter his father’s room.

Despite looking cadaverous, Bert Berger tried to muster a smile. “Ask me when the drugs wear off.” Then he stared at his son. “Have I ever asked for a favor?”

“Not now,” interjected Muriel before Phil could answer.

“Yes, now!” protested Bert.

“But your heart—”

“It’s my heart,” insisted Bert, turning his head so as to once more face his son. “Have I?”

“Not that I can remember.”

“I’m asking now,” stated Bert, despite difficulty breathing. “I need you to handle my practice.”

“But, Bert!” protested Muriel. “He’s supposed to start clerking for a judge.”

Ignoring his wife, Bert Berger pointed at Phil. “This is non-negotiable.”

Having been told for years that his father, after attending Rutgers Law School at night, had opened a one-man shop specializing in real estate law when spurned by “proper” firms, Phil Berger was startled to learn that such was not entirely the case. His father’s practice, which had subsidized Phil’s education at an expensive prep school, then Amherst, and finally Georgetown Law, was far more colorful than simple real estate, and, significantly more shady.

Bert Berger’s specialty, Phil quickly discovered, was constantly finding new and creative ways to launder, shelter, and hide what in certain circles would be considered ill-gotten gains — most of it in cash, with no contracts or other documentation.

After spending years with patrician classmates whose first names often sounded like last names, Phil’s father’s clientele was a trial-by-fire entree into an alternate universe.  His regulars — with the exception of a couple of widows, plus a woman named Ethel Meisel who ran a high stakes card game in her Maplewood apartment — were almost entirely male, predominantly Bert Berger’s age or older, with monikers not heard at Andover, Exeter, or Choate. Among them: Lefty Lefkowitz, JoJo Ferrara, Butchie Iannuzzi, and Big Sid Steinberg.

Their declared occupations, Phil Berger deduced, were willfully vague: import-export, salvage, consulting, problem solver.

Heretofore shielded from the rackets — and especially from racketeers — these were men who sported pinkie rings, peppered their speech with merch, grift, sheist, bust-outs, and snarf, and referred to money as cabbage, C-notes, moolah, and shekels.

Though fascinated, Phil chose to restrict interactions to business dealings, turning down overtures to play poker, hit the track, or make runs to Atlantic City, known in their circle as A.C. Thus began a double life: 

As fascinated as Phil was by the company he was keeping professionally, there were moments, especially when he was home reading a Pynchon novel or watching sports, when he found himself envying law school classmates who were clerking for judges, working as public defenders, or going through hazing at Wall Street Firms. 

Those moments of envy disappeared when Bert Berger’s heart stopped for good while seated on a sofa, screaming at the TV due to sloppy play by the Yankees. In the aftermath of the funeral, which featured an almost surreal juxtaposition of family members and wise guys, Phil Berger allowed himself to be coaxed into participating first in some, then in many of the outings and events he had previously ducked.

Soon many late nights were spent playing poker or shooting pool, with stops afterwards for either pastrami or meatball sandwiches, depending upon whether the guys he was with were Jewish or Italian. Runs were made not merely to A.C., but also occasionally to Vegas or even San Juan, Puerto Rico. On summer weekends, the trips were often to a house at the Jersey Shore, or someone’s place in Upstate New York. 

Increasingly comfortable in his new environment, Phil started expanding the business, creating and initiating new opportunities rather than simply hiding or shielding his clients’ bucks. This led to incursions into the world of smart phones (often bootleg or stolen), electronics, and other facets of the tech world, plus moves into territories previously unexploited — first Latin America, then parts of Asia.

Not satisfied with simply billing for fees, Phil made a decision his father would never have dreamed of. He decided to establish partnerships with clients on new ventures he devised.

What began slowly expanded exponentially when Phil invited a woman on a scuba trip to one of the lesser known resorts in the Caribbean. As the two of them searched for things to do at night, Phil had an epiphany that in his mind linked him to the almost legendary Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. Why, he wondered, much as Lansky must have done when setting eyes on Havana, or Siegel when envisioning Vegas, was there no gambling on the island?

Thanks to his clients’ connections, introductions were made that allowed Phil to get behind-the-scenes access to casinos and gambling dens in A.C., Vegas, Puerto Rico, and London. The privileged views enabled him not merely to learn the do’s-and-don’ts of the gambling world, but also to understand that no two places can, or should, be considered the same. In addition to the insights he was acquiring, London added a wonderful fringe benefit, for it was there that he met an aspiring fashion designer named Olivia, who would soon become his constant companion.

Whereas baccarat and roulette were altogether fitting and appropriate in Monte Carlo, Biarritz, and Deauville, Phil came to recognize, other places were better suited for less sophisticated forms of gambling: blackjack, video poker, slot machines, even craps.

Deftly, Phil began courting high-ranking government officials and community leaders in countries he deemed ripe for what he could offer.

His clients-turned-business-associates — some of whom had been replaced by their sons when they died or retired — were thrilled when, bit by bit, Phil’s brainstorm became a reality. His plans were helped enormously by the company he kept, since more often than not gambling equipment had to be shipped surreptitiously, labeled as toys, baby powder, or canned goods.

In no time, it was not only his clients’ revenue that had to be finessed and finagled, but his own profits as well. The one bit of semi-conspicuous consumption he allowed himself was the purchase of the house in Short Hills, which provided Olivia, who came to the States to be with him, easy access to Manhattan by train.

Having acquired a taste for fine wine while learning about the casinos in Monaco and France, Phil, who had always pushed for his clients to have liquidity, decided that much of his assets would literally be liquid.

After installing a spacious wine cellar in his basement, Phil made frequent trips to France, then started becoming an active participant in New York wine auctions as well. No expense was spared in acquiring great vintages from Bordeaux from 1970 on from Chateaux such as Margaux, Cheval Blanc, Lafite, Haut-Brion, and others, plus Burgundies from 1971 on including Romanee-Conti, Chambertin, Richebourg, Musigny, etc. — all of which was paid for, per his insistence, in cash, with no paperwork whatsoever.

Not surprisingly, in addition to his newfound interest becoming both a hobby and investment, fine wine also served as a gateway into the kind of dining that was appropriate for vintage bottles of red and white. Thus did brisket, gnocchi, and fried chicken give way to caviar, foie gras, and Médaillons de Veau.

Late at night, lying in bed beside Olivia, who slept far more soundly than he ever did, Phil occasionally reflected on the unexpected turns his journey through life had taken. There was no way, he recognized, that he would have, or could have, anticipated living with a bright, talented, and stunning Brit like Olivia. Or recieving VIP treatment in the world of fine wine and dining. Or having business associates who would be right at home in the stories of Damon Runyon.

Only rarely was Phil struck by thoughts of what he might have become — or accomplished — had he gone to work in a government agency, or for Legal Aid, or as the lawyer for a nonprofit in a socially relevant field. His pangs, however, were quickly assuaged by a promise he’d made to himself that sometime, somewhere, he would use his experiences and energy for the greater good.

But until then, there was still a serious challenge ahead.

Instead of seeing the political instability in Africa as a negative, Phil took it as an incentive. That continent would be the last step in his plans — his last, perhaps legend-making score — before reinventing himself as someone who gives back to society.

Instead of jumping in hastily, once again Phil did his diligence, meeting with key figures both in and outside of governments, then determining which parts of Africa were most propitious for his plans.

His first foray was a small country in West Africa, where, to his surprise, his initial venture went surprisingly smooth. Buoyed by that experience, Phil set his sights on Niger, which in addition to having the continent’s strongest economy, boasted a significant tourist trade, especially in Lagos, with its sandy beaches, five-star hotels, and numerous festivals.

“After this,” Phil told Olivia one evening over oysters and Dover sole accompanied by a chilled Meursault, “I’m over. Finished. Done.”

“And then?” she asked.

“Maybe I can be the man I’ve wanted to be.”

“Sounds ambitious,” remarked Olivia.

“That’s my middle name,” joked Phil. “Hopefully.”

It was slot machines — hundreds and hundreds of slot machine all hidden in boxes marked as baby formula, diapers, and sanitary napkins — that constituted Phil’s first shipment to his newest destination.

Notified that the parcels had arrived safely in Lagos, Phil started contemplating how and when he would inform his partners that he was withdrawing from the business as well as from their lives.

Those thoughts were rudely interrupted, however, when news broke of a military coup in Niger.

Instantly, a call came in from a panicked Lefty Lefkowitz. “What the fuck’s going on?” he demanded to know. 

Seconds later, it was Jojo Ferrara’s son asking the same question.

Then Big Syd Steinberg.

Then Butchie Iannuzzi.

To each of them, as well as the others who called and/or texted, Phil Berger gave the same answer: “We’ll have to wait and see.”

The waiting was hard, but that was nothing compared to the seeing. The new military government, Phil unhappily learned, had discovered the deception and confiscated the slot machines.  

Worse, they were unwilling to negotiate or even talk with what they termed a criminal element that had conspired with a corrupt segment of their society.

“I guess we’ll have to just take this one on the chin,” Phil stated to a gathering of his partners on the venture.”

“We?” responded Big Syd Steinberg.

“We were in it together,” explained Phil.

“But who’s the one who got us into it?” insisted Butchie Iannuzzi.

That precipitated a chorus of “Yeah!” You bet!” “Damn right!” and “Abso-fuckin’-lutely!”

Though Phil tried to argue, his words were to no avail. Despite all the money he’d made for them over the years, plus the ostensible friendships, he was being held responsible for the funds that seemed lost.

Tossing and turning in a cold sweat that night, Phil Berger came to a realization. Instead of viewing the events the unexpected turn of events in Niger as a total disaster, there was a way to view them not merely as a failure, but as an opportunity.

Repaying his erstwhile associates, no matter how wrong they were or how inappropriate that seemed, would spell freedom, though at a significantly reduced scale. But somehow he could live without dinners of quenelles and quail, trips to the Loire Valley, summertime villas outside of Saint-Tropez, and other fruits of his ill-gotten gains.

“Will you still love me,” he asked Olivia the next morning, “if from now on it’s bagels instead of brioche? And corn flakes instead of caviar?”

Olivia studied him for a moment, then smiled.  “I’ll love you even if it means bangers and mash or a plowman’s lunch in rainy London all winter, perish the thought.”

An hour later, Phil called a French wine merchant in Manhattan. “Remember,” he asked his friend Claude Gaillard, “when you begged me to call if ever I wanted to sell?”

Bien sur,” replied Gaillard. “But if I may, what is the reason for such a decision?” 

“Freedom,” answered Phil as he began to contemplate the new life that lay ahead.

 

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.”  In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *