“Frank, I need a favor.”
Denny Dannon, the chief of police in my adopted home of Exile, Florida, spoke those words from an ocean-side dock. Tall and black, he was waiting when we pulled in after three hours of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
The boat was a small wooden number which I had first seen just a few days before. I had been looking for a missing cab driver at the time, and had found him working as a deck hand on the charter fishing vessel Miranda. I had taken an instant liking to the little boat and its irascible skipper, and had hired them both when my old college roommate Mark came to visit.
I left Mark chatting with Captain Tom as I hopped onto the busy Davis pier that was the Miranda’s home. Davis is rich man’s territory, with two yacht clubs in addition to the tourist docks, and Chief Dannon had driven a bit of a distance to meet me.
“How can I help, Chief?”
Dannon is one of the smartest guys I have ever met, as well as the patron saint and protector of the little town of Exile. I had solved the murder of a young Exile man a few months after coming to live there, and had gained a fair amount of Dannon’s respect in the process.
“Frank, I’ve got a job for you. Someone complained to the State Attorney’s office about the way the bank runs its safe deposit area, and they’re about to get a visit from some regulators.” Exile has only one bank, so I didn’t have to ask which one he was talking about.
Although I had solved two murders while living in Florida, my primary employment was as a fact-checker. I worked for insurance companies and local law offices on a freelance basis, and could see several possible tasks in Dannon’s request.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Here’s the situation: Some of the bank’s safe deposit records are badly out of date. They’ve discovered that the addresses and phone numbers on some of the older boxes are no longer current. They’ve been trying to contact all of the box-holders to update the records before the regulators get there, but they’ve reached a dead end on a few of them.”
“Is that what the complaint was about?”
“From what Ollie told me, that seems to be the case.” Ollie Morton was the bank’s manager, and I had met him before. He was a thin, fiftyish man whose nerves didn’t seem up to the job.
I digested Dannon’s request while looking around the dock. Other charter boats were pulling in, and fishing parties or sightseeing groups were disembarking around us. It was late in the day, but the summer sun would not set for hours.
“I don’t know much about banks, so humor me here. How could they lose track of someone who’s renting a box in their own vault?”
“Ollie tells me the safe deposit records have never been maintained on the bank’s computers. They’re kept on a card system filled out when the box is first assigned. So even if a box-holder submitted a change of address to the main bank, that update usually didn’t make it onto the ownership cards in the vault area.”
“That sounds pretty easy to fix, then.” I’d owned a computer business just a few years earlier, and for a moment thought I saw why Dannon had brought this to me. “They need to search the automated systems for the box-holder’s name, and use that information to update the old address in the vault records.”
“They’ve already done that, and it worked when the customer still had other business with the bank. But some of these box rentals go back a long time, and they’re discovering cases where the safe deposit box is the only thing left over from an otherwise defunct account. Ollie’s people have been calling around to confirm the addresses and numbers that they do have, but a lot of the time people have just hung up on them. So far they’ve got at least ten accounts where they’re running into a brick wall.”
It was starting to make sense to me, and sounded pretty simple at the time.
“So they want me to go knocking on a few doors to talk with the people who hung up on them, and then track down the customers who have actually moved away.”
“Died?” Maybe it wasn’t that simple. “How out of date are these records?”
“Ollie didn’t go into that when we talked. He asked me to find someone to do the leg work, and of course they’ll pay for it. It’s right up your alley, so I came to you.”
Considering the lack of detail in this job offer, I decided to give myself an out. “Of course I’ll help, Chief, and glad to. But one thing: I’m not going to be able to resolve every one of these.”
“Nobody expects that. Ollie said the complaint was pretty serious, but the regulators aren’t going to come by for at least a week. Ollie believes they’re giving him a chance to get a handle on things. It would help a lot if most of the names on the unconfirmed box-holder list had moved to the previously unconfirmed list when the inspectors get there.”
“Sounds like they need me to come by right away.”
“Tomorrow, if you can swing it. I know your friend is in town, but he was headed up to Tallahassee anyway, wasn’t he?” I had introduced Mark to the Chief the day before, and he had told Dannon he was mixing his visit with a little legal work involving a sister law firm in the state capital.
“Then tomorrow it is.” I stuck my hand out, and we shook. I turned toward the boat, but Dannon spoke again, this time in almost a whisper.
“Frank, Ollie’s not the most methodical fellow in the world. I don’t want you to get involved with bank business, but don’t be afraid to give him advice about keeping this organized. I’m talking basic project management, the stuff you did in your other life. The last thing we need is a hurry-up effort that leaves things worse off than before, where they can’t tell what’s been updated and what hasn’t. Keep him straight, all right?”
Even less certain than before, I nodded and walked away.
Mark was standing at the end of the dock, looking out to sea, when I got back. I misspoke when I said I chartered Captain Tom and the Miranda, basically because I have almost no money and Mark had paid for our three hours on the ocean.
We had caught nothing, but Mark seemed to be having the time of his life. I stopped and watched him for a moment, standing there framed by the water and other sightseers, and was amazed by how much he fit in. Tall and dark-haired, Mark had played varsity tennis at our school and still managed to keep up his game despite the demands of his career. He was wearing a battered set of khaki shorts and an old sky-blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and I had to work hard to remember the last time I had seen him dressed so casually.
Mark had gone into law school at about the same time that I started my computer business up north, and so of course we had spent a fair part of those years complaining to each other over the phone. The complaints had paid off, though, as my business found its legs right about the time that Mark landed a big job with a prestigious Manhattan law firm. He had disappeared into the firm’s research stacks like any new corporate lawyer, and I had begun spending more and more hours at work while the economy softened and then swooned.
I barely came up for air to attend Mark’s wedding to his longtime girlfriend Miriam, and by then my entire industry was in trouble. I kept hoping for the promised economic turnaround to occur, but it was always just around the corner. In a last-ditch effort to save my company, I brought in a pair of partners named Hammer and Lane who operated a venture capital outfit called Tammerlane Group.
The number crunchers at Tammerlane had changed their minds about my business shortly after coming on board, and then forced the place into bankruptcy with surprising speed. I had already plowed my entire savings into the company by then, and so I was left penniless when the gavel came down. My marriage, suffering under the weight of fourteen-hour workdays, little money, and blueblood in-laws who disapproved of failure, had collapsed at about the same time.
Just when things hadn’t seemed likely to get worse, a dotty judge had decided I had wrecked my company on purpose. In a moment of pique, he had attached my future earnings as a means of paying off the same partners who had scuttled my company. Mark had come back into the picture then, proposing a stall tactic that only a lawyer could love.
It called for me to move somewhere warm, take odd jobs that would make almost no money at all, and convince Hammer and Lane that they’d already gotten their last penny out of me. Mark had taken over the role of negotiator, and intended to keep the ploy going until Hammer and Lane offered to settle. As for me, I moved to the Florida panhandle because I had once enjoyed a happy Spring Break there, and began making just enough money to live on.
Mark had originally explained his visit to Florida as an update on the situation with my creditors, but he had brought little news. Hammer and Lane had recently divulged an interest in gaining control of some patents once held by my company, but that revelation did me no good. Those patents were currently the property of an angry insurance outfit in Hartford that had been forced to pay off a large chunk of my non-Tammerlane debt. Tammerlane’s interest in them was doubly odd, in that the innovations supposedly protected by those patents were already obsolete.
I walked up behind the success that my roommate had become and tapped him lightly in the lower back. He turned away from the sea and smiled, and once again I wondered just why the high-powered city lawyer was so enamored of my little chunk of the world.
“What’d the Chief want?”
“He’s got a job for me. Somebody complained about the way the local bank runs its safe deposit area, and right now they’re scrambling to run down the current addresses of the box-holders.”
Mark whistled. “Safe deposit. Walls full of locked containers rented by strangers. The banks don’t want to know what’s in them, and the box-holders load them up with things they don’t want in their houses. Talk about a recipe for disaster.”
“If you say so. I really don’t know much about them.”
“Try to stay away from the actual boxes if you can. Run down the customers, but let the bankers deal with the vault. If a complaint started this ball rolling, the regulators can’t be far behind.”
That sounded logical, but it was important to read between the lines when Mark doled out advice. In this case he was actually warning me to stay in the shadows when the regulators arrived. If his strategy with Hammer and Lane failed, he hoped to someday get my situation resolved in an appeal. To that end, he was constantly reminding me to keep my nose clean. As you might guess, that litany got a little tiresome sometimes.
“Will do. It sounds fairly simple, but they’re in a bit of a hurry so I’m going to have to swing by there tomorrow morning.”
“That’s fine. I’ll just head up to Tallahassee a little ahead of schedule.” Mark had not elaborated on his legal duties in the state capital, although it was possibly nothing more than a means of writing his visit off as a business expense. I doubted that, because Mark was an ethical guy and also quite wealthy.
I secretly believed he was trying to get some lawyer friends in Tallahassee to recommend me as the in-house investigator for their firm. He had mentioned it once before as a way of getting me a steady income, but I was not sure I wanted to go that particular route. Although I had knocked on plenty of doors as a background checker, and had helped solve two murders in the bargain, I was a little leery of anything that might have me helping lawyers with a bankruptcy case. Or a divorce.
“But I’ll be back in Exile in a couple of days, so we should plan to do something then.” Mark had already been in town the entire weekend, and had so far shown no hurry to get back to New York.
“Sure the little lady won’t mind?” I asked. Miriam Ruben was well along in her first pregnancy, and I was a bit surprised at how much time he was planning to spend in the Panhandle.
“Not so little right now.” He laughed. “Nah, she was happy to get me out of her hair. She’s scouting out a new place for us, a real house outside the city for when the baby gets here, only she doesn’t think I know it.”
“How do you know it?”
He smiled again, and changed the subject by pointing at my waistline. I had lost a lot of weight in the past few weeks, and it was about the only thing he hadn’t liked down here.
“Come on, scarecrow. I’ll buy you something to eat.”
Copyright © 2007 by Vincent H. O'Neil