Back when I worked at Bloomberg News, I was assigned to write a story on Faisan Shah, the investment banker.
“Investment” was a polite way of saying what Shah did. He ran a hedge fund that struck fear into the corporate giants in America. He would buy up big chunks of a stock, sending the price up so fast that brokers would scratch their heads and wonder what was happening. They stopped scratching and started buying when Shah put out a press release attacking “lax” company management and threatening to acquire the company.
Wall Street would go along for the ride, sending the stock higher. Corporate management would wet their pants and then buy Shah out with an offer that was even higher. That made everyone happy, except the employees, who were fired by the thousands to pay off Shah and his confederates. Wall Street didn’t care, but it did acknowledge how much damage Shah caused by calling him “Ming the Merciless.” Shah was Pakistani, not Chinese, but hey, it was all the same continent.
Given his savage and duplicitous reputation, I was skeptical about his transactions. Usually, he ducked out of a target after making a huge financial killing.
Then I got roped in. As the stock of his next victim soared, analysts started calling me, claiming they had inside knowledge that – this time – it was real.
“He wants this company,” they whispered. “He’s going to get on the board and buy a controlling interest.”
I ignored the noise for a while, until the editor came over. “He’s nearly reached the five percent threshold,” the quivering editor said. “When he declares, it’s gonna’ be big news! We need to be the first to write this.”
So, I did. And then there was radio silence. And then we learned the Shah had sold, leaving investors holding the now-empty bag and this reporter with an omelet on his face.
I went to my sources, who said Shah had told them to lie. They had done it well and I had learned a hard lesson.
The past became prolog. “Who is this Shah?” asked my now-enlightened editor. “We need a story on him.”
I tried. I called and got ignored, texted and got rejected. Emailed and sent a registered letter with no response. Then I pulled a reporter’s trick. I phoned his office on a Saturday when a guy like Shah would certainly come in and probably couldn’t resist answering a ring.
He didn’t, but I got something anyway. A male voice, maybe a security guard, told me: “He just left. He’s headed for Haven Long Term Care. He goes there every Saturday at 10 to visit a friend.”
I headed over to Haven. When I reached the front lobby, he was just leaving. Slim and elegant in the usual jet-black suit that he probably wore in bed, he had a strange smile on his face that didn’t fit with the disinfectant surroundings. I introduced myself and the smile vanished. “Can’t talk now,” he said, rushing to the waiting town car. “Call me Monday. We’ll chat then.”
Sure. I walked on into the guts of the place and found a middle-aged nurse who looked sweet enough to empty your bedpan if you asked her politely. “I thought I saw Faisan Shah,” I told her.
“Yes,” she said. “He was visiting Teddy Porcini. He brings flowers every Saturday. What a nice man! He and Teddy were classmates back in the seventh grade.”
Down the corridor was the placard identifying “Theodore Porcini.” I ducked in, and saw that Porcini could barely identify himself. He must have once been a big guy, but being bedridden had shrunk him, and his eyes were vacant. The most distinguishing feature in the room was a huge spray of violets with the inscription “Our Memories Together.”
“He’s just had his meds so he’s not talking much right now,” said the nurse, who had followed me in. “Poor dear,” he’s been here since his accident, and he’s never going to improve. But aren’t these flowers lovely?”
His accident. Middle school. I wasn’t going to get much out of Porcini, but I now had a lead.
I already knew a lot about Shah. His family had emigrated from Pakistan when he was 10. He was a – no surprise – brilliant student who had followed scholarships all the way to Wharton, where he had won laureates for a brilliant dissertation on Carl Icahn, the granddaddy of takeover artists.
What I didn’t know, what sometimes nobody knows, even about themselves, is what makes them tick. So, dig we must. And the nexus was Shah, Porcini and middle school. Who else had been there?
The mini-yearbook showed pictures of a skinny bespectacled Shah, a big wise-ass-looking Porcini and their teachers, one of whom had just retired. I looked up the literature teacher, Ronald Updike, made a phone call and landed both a visit and several cups of coffee.
Updike was one of those nice guys who care about the kids and will never make principal. He was happy to talk about his prize pupil. But when I pressed harder, I got resistance. There was something he wanted to tell, something that would clear his conscience, but the words wouldn’t come, even from an English teacher.
Finally, he got it out. “There was a fight … on the schoolhouse steps.”
“And Shah got the worst of it,” I predicted. I remembered how vulnerable he looked in that class photo.
“No, he didn’t,” said Updike, shaking his head as if to shed a bad dream. “We had a kid named Porcini.”
Even in the seventh grade Porcini was so big that everyone was afraid of him. He had his cadre and they loved to pick on kids who were smaller and mostly smarter than they were. “I was reluctant to even call on Faisan because I knew it would earn him a beating after class,” Updike recalled.
Porcini especially hated Shah. Possibly it was the race thing or maybe just because Faisan, small as he was, made Porcini feel even smaller. The physical abuse was bad, but the verbal violence was even worse. He and his gang would make a “lu-lu-lu” noise whenever they saw him in the hall. “Their favorite mockery was …” and Updike halted.
“What was it?”
“They’d yell, ‘Raghead, raghead, Your momma’s on the rag.’ They got everyone to sing it, even kids he thought were his friends. Children are horrible mimics.”
“Didn’t the school do anything about it?”
“The vice principal called him in and he laughed at her. The she called his parents. Porcini’s father came in. He threatened her and said he’d get a lawyer.”
“So how did it end?” I said.
“I liked Faisan and I tried to watch out for him. He bottled it up for a while. Then one day I saw him alone in the gym. He was punching a mat he had set up against the wall. Just one punch, over and over and over again. An uppercut. He stopped when he saw me.
“The next day Porcini caught him on the steps as they were about to come in. I saw Porcini get up close and say something. Then there was the flash of a fist, so fast and so accurate that you knew it had been practiced. Faisan hit Porcini right at the base of his nose.
“Porcini fell backwards and hit his head. There was blood all over from the nose and the back of his head. One punch. All the children were screaming. I saw Shah standing there motionless. Not crying, not laughing. With his fist cocked, like Muhammed Ali after a knockout.
“We called the ambulance and Porcini went to the hospital. He was barely moving. Shah went to class as if nothing had happened, until the police called him out. We all had to talk to the police. Nobody knew what had really happened. Some said Porcini had hit Shah first.”
“But you knew he hadn’t,” I said.
Updike nodded. “And I knew something else. When I went to look at the bloody stairs, there were quarters scattered all over.”
I nodded. “He put them in his hand to add weight to his fist. It’s an old fighter’s trick.”
“I took a broom and swept them away,” said Updike. “Some people went to see Porcini, but not many and I didn’t go. It was scary to see, because he was blind and his head and spinal injuries had permanently disabled him. He’s still somewhere getting care.”
I thanked Mr. Updike, left, and waited for the next weekend. On Saturday I went back to the nursing home, slipped into Porcini’s room, and sat down. Porcini was quiet. I’m not sure he even knew I was there.
At 10 a.m. Shah showed up in his black suit. He had yellow orchids this time, a symbol of friendship. He paused at the doorway.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said. “I’m still not going to talk to you.”
“I don’t need you to talk,” I said. “I already know.”
He looked at me with those predator eyes that had already seen too much. “Maybe you do,” he said. “Maybe you know me too well.” He handed me the latest wreath. “Set that up and when you leave, throw the old one out.”
He walked away. I thought about what he’d said, or didn’t say. Yeah, he knew, knew that I had been bullied just like him, a diminutive four-eyed victim of all the Porcinis of the world, and now trying to get back a piece of myself.
I hated Porcini as much as he did.
I set up the new flowers and threw the old ones in the trash. I went over to Porcini, who was blinking through those unseeing eyes, probably wondering what was happening. I whispered in his ear, “Have a beautiful day.”
Then I left. I never wrote the story.
Ed Leefeldt writes for Forbes Magazine after a career at CBS, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal. “I’ve been watching these mass shootings and trying to learn the untold backstory,” he writes. “In many cases, the perpetrators of violence suffered a huge amount of bullying when they were young.”