On April 14, 2004, Bayou wired $150,999,847.42 to an account at Barclays in London. Under the terms of the agreement with Nichols, Israel was now called the “Benefactor.” Israel believed he’d read the terms carefully, though he never managed to explain to me precisely how the bond market was supposed to work or where the profits were meant to come from. “The parties agree that the financial return to the Benefactor shall be one hundred percent (100 percent) paid every ten days.”
Investing in the high-yield market was financially risk-free, Nichols had explained, but just attempting to trade in it meant that Israel risked being killed at any moment by a rival faction angling for control over the lucrative bonds. Their own faction, Nichols told him, would include John Cassidy and Nigel Finch, whom Nichols introduced at a London lunch as intelligence operatives but were likely “shills,” or bit players in the con. (“Cassidy” and “Finch” are pseudonyms.)
Finch was a suave Englishman—a veteran of MI6, Nichols told Israel, who ran an antiques store in London and was a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. Cassidy was a former CIA station chief, a pilot for Air America during Vietnam, and a descendant of a legendary Old West gunslinger. “Bob didn’t really trust Cassidy. But he said Cassidy was the only way to get into the market,” Israel says. “He was truly freaky looking. He had tattooed eyebrows. He limped badly. He was short. His teeth were fucked up. He was one scary-looking dude.”
Nichols told Israel that the three men had squired wealthy people into the market for years. But all they had received were broker commissions. Now, with Israel’s $150 million, they would have the chance to get into the game as principals.
There was more: Their trading wouldn’t just make them all impossibly rich, Nichols said. It would change the world. Since traders were only allowed to keep a portion of the profits for themselves, a charity was a necessary part of the structure of any faction. Their extra money, the men told Israel, would be used to cure aids.
Finch and Cassidy showed Israel a zinc-based mineral supplement they said they had developed. In drop form, it had been proved to drastically reduce levels of HIV, they said, but the medicine wasn’t available because pharmaceutical companies were making a lot of money selling antiretroviral drugs and were protected by the American government.
As Israel inspected the medicine with interest, the three men watched him expectantly. Cassidy especially.
“Do you have a problem with me?” Israel asked.
“You’re Mossad,” Cassidy said.
Israel laughed. “You’re out of your cabeza.”
Cassidy sneered. “Have you had any heart trouble?”
Israel was flabbergasted. There was no way some stranger could know about his condition. No way.
“You’re on something called the Intellectual Threat to State list,” Cassidy said. “The CIA poisoned you and made it look like it was heart failure. There are people who want to kill you. You’re either very lucky or you’re in great shape.”
Israel started to panic, but Cassidy calmed him. There was no need to be afraid, he said—Cassidy could arrange to have Israel’s name taken off the list. Israel was now under the watch of a highly skilled assassin, Cassidy reminded him. Nichols would protect him.
By far the most important role in a long con is the “inside man”—the mark’s handler and confidant, who is also the master of ceremonies and teller of the tale. But who was Robert Booth Nichols really? He told Israel he was a “facilitator”—spookspeak for jack-of-all-trades—and that he’d been apprenticed to a tiny elite of national-security operatives called the “Chosen,” then later disowned by the CIA in the fallout from Iran-contra. But it is hard to establish much beyond the very basic contours of Nichols’s biography, since so much is shrouded in myth or blocked by the veil of national security. A 1978 FBI report identified Nichols as a professional confidence man—but one with some undefined association with intelligence agencies. He’d been licensed to manufacture the G-77 submachine gun, the report said. He claimed he’d been sent to Switzerland for three years to be taught the intricacies of intelligence-agency high finance. Nichols “should be considered armed and dangerous,” the FBI report concluded.
For months, Nichols led Israel around London, attempting to enter the shadow market through mysterious back channels. On Lombard Street, late one night, they visited Barclays bank, where Israel was given a trading desk and appeared to make millions immediately. Unbeknownst to him, Barclays was moving its headquarters from Lombard Street to Canary Wharf at the time, and the setting that night was what con artists call “the big store”—essentially a soundstage, assembled by Nichols, with just enough trappings of the real version (flickering computer screens, security guards, oak-paneled walls) to convince his mark the scam was real. (The Bayou trading floor in Connecticut was another “big store.”) But when Israel tried to collect the $942 million he thought he’d made over two weeks of late-night trading at Barclays, the counterparties vanished, and he was left with only his original investment.