Murder in Exile
“So that’s the whole idea. I come down here to sunny Florida, hang out for a while, do a little background checking for local lawyers, and make sure I keep my earnings below a certain level.”
I reached across the concrete chessboard as I spoke. The board was etched into a small concrete table-and-chairs arrangement common to the seaside parks in my new home of Exile, Florida. Gray Toliver, a tanned and composed local retiree who played chess with me most Wednesday mornings, took in my words with obvious skepticism.
Gray was the closest friend I had made since blowing into town nine months earlier, and he was still the only one who had been told this story. I had been playing chess with him once or twice a week for six months, but until that day he had not asked very much about my background or why a thirty-year-old man was living the life of a beach bum.
“Okay, Frank.” Gray took his eyes off of me to move one of his pieces. He was a much better chess player than I was, but then again he’d been whipping the local talent for a decade before I got there. “Let me get this straight. You came down here to get away from your failed business up north---”
“‘Failed’ is a strong word.” I hadn’t meant to say that, but the sting from the memories was still sore. Luckily, the words had come out unheated. I liked Gray and wanted to keep him as a friend.
“Your business went belly-up. The Frank Cole Computer Company, or whatever you called it, went bankrupt. Right?” His voice was as even as mine, but this was one of the times that I didn’t like him quite so much. He’d been a Chief Petty Officer in the navy in a job involving some whiz-bang analysis of airplane wings. I could easily hear a generation of former swabbies telling bored children and uninterested wives just what a pain old Chief Toliver had been.
“So, saying it failed is pretty accurate.”
A gull screeched overhead before it flew between two of the park’s trees. The surf, one hundred yards away, rumbled on in and then went back out as if it were inhaling and exhaling. I moved another chess piece without answering.
“And some psycho judge attached your future earnings as part of the bankruptcy. So out of spite you’ve resolved to live the life of a pauper.”
“Hopefully not an entire life. The judge was way out of bounds with that ruling and it’s certain to get overturned.”
“Spoken like a true denizen of death row.”
“Come again?” He’d moved while talking and seriously hurt my chances of winning this match. Well, truth is, I’d only managed to beat him twice in dozens of contests.
“I just wonder how many people go to the electric chair saying those same words. ‘The judge was out of bounds. The appeal will come through.’ I imagine some people spend a lifetime in prison saying those words.”
“Let’s hope it’s not a lifetime.” I pretended to stare at the board. In truth, there was a lot to recommend my spending the next fifty or so years in the Panhandle town of Exile. After three bruising years building up my company and three more losing it, I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted any more responsibility than the simple fact-checking duties I had here in sunny Florida.
“One question. Bankruptcy is supposed to be a fresh start.” Gray was amazingly well read and seemed to know a lot about everything. If he weren’t so darned annoying when sharing his knowledge, he’d be on the cocktail party circuit instead of playing board games with guys like me. “So how do you end up with your future earnings attached, if it’s supposed to be a clean slate?”
Gray had hit on one of the main flaws in the judge’s ruling. Mark Ruben, formerly my college roommate and now a high-powered Manhattan attorney, maintained that an appeal held great promise because my case was the first one in which a judge had done something like this. When a business like mine is liquidated, almost all debt obligations are terminated one way or the other. The judge in my case had essentially written a new chapter into that law by attaching my future earnings as part of the settlement. Although Mark had been adamant that the law did not allow this kind of penalty, he had been equally sure that the judge was within his purview to set such a precedent.
Lawyers are like that. I had simply asked Mark if my wages above a certain level of income were in fact attached at that point regardless of a possible reversal. He’d nodded, and I had started getting used to the idea that I would be working off a titanic debt for the rest of my life.
“It was a combination of things. The judge in my case is dotty as all get-out. He should have been retired years ago, he was half asleep through the entire proceeding. Then there’s a group in the legal community that wants this as a standard penalty in all corporate bankruptcies---”
“So they can get bigger awards.”
“Yes. But you’re right, this is supposed to be a fresh start.”
“It’s also supposed to get the debts off the books one way or another. Dragging these things out isn’t going to be any good for the bookkeeping,” Gray pointed out. As I said, Gray was a man of many parts.
“Anyway, one of the bigger corporate-fraud bankruptcies ended that very same week. A huge corporation. You might have heard about these guys: They cooked the books, bought girlfriends and condos using company money---”
“Bullitel. The telecommunications company?”
“You’re an amazing guy, Gray. Yep, that’s them.” I watched Gray tear the game apart without seeming to look at the board. “The prosecution absolutely blew that case, and when it got tossed, there was a real uproar. Corporate fraud hit the front page again, and suddenly my judge thought he’d reverse the tide by nailing me to the floorboards.”
Gray didn’t announce the checkmate when he made the move. We both sat there for a moment, as if appreciating the climbing sun and the sounds of the beach. I finally stood up, actually having some place to go for once.
“Off to the private investigator work then?”
“I already told you, it takes a license and all sorts of other stuff to be a PI. I’m just a background checker, court documents, things like that.” I brushed a hint of errant sand off my shorts and kicked some more off of my running shoes, thinking honestly that there were worse places to serve out this banishment, and worse jobs as well. I could hear Mark’s voice as I considered my observation.
“Go down where it’s warm, keep the income below a level they can touch, get a tan, sleep late every day, play around with this background-checking gig, and before you know it we’ll have this whole thing reversed.” He hadn’t represented me at any time during the bankruptcy, but when the money was all gone (as were the lawyers) he’d signed on pro bono and hatched our little scheme. “The guys breathing on you are gonna realize they’ll never get a dime this way and pretty soon they’ll offer something. Or the judge will have his long-overdue heart attack. Before you know it you’ll be back in business.”
The Sun Provident Assurance Company didn’t seem like a big insurance corporation, but it was. It had offices all along the Gulf Coast, and a sister enterprise hidden under a different name that ran almost up to Charlotte in the east and Chattanooga in the west. It peddled home, life, and auto insurance out of branch offices that were sometimes nothing more than trailers, kept the overhead low, and reaped a fortune off the volume. I received sporadic jobs from their office in the next town over from Exile, and on a slow day had done one of my standard corporate background checks to see who these folks really were. That’s how I found out that Sun Provident and its sister organization were actually part of the same entity.
There’s a reason I’m good at this. My failed business, as Gray had so tactfully put it, was a computer software company that had put other businesses on the Internet. It was far more than mere Web site design, as we built packages for the clients’ supply chain management, billing and payments, and anything else that they might need. Before you get the wrong idea and wonder whether ours was just another dot-com bomb, we had real customers, a real product, and real profits---until the promised Internet revolution fizzled. Maybe it’s a bit much to say that it fizzled, but it certainly didn’t take off like a rocket, and those of us with payrolls to meet, suppliers to pay, and loans that had to be serviced had expected just a bit more business than eventually resulted.
And if that sounds like an excuse, sue me. Everybody else has.
Anyway, quite a bit of the background information that I seek out is available on the Web, and so I feel at home doing the work I do now. The sad truth is that most of this is held in some obvious places, and if people like Harvey Webster of the Sun Provident Assurance Company would just bother to give it a try, they’d soon be doing what I do themselves and stop paying me for it.
Harvey Webster was at least fifty pounds overweight, with a walrus mustache and a thin ring of hair around the region of his ears. He didn’t seem to understand that a bald man can do a lot for himself by getting into shape, or that a guy with a full head of hair and a beer belly is still considered a fatty. More specific to my involvement, he was so lazy that I doubt he would have gotten out of a chair to walk around if he smelled smoke, even in his own house.
I got to Harvey’s trailer at nine-fifteen even though we’d agreed to meet at eight-thirty. I was still fifteen minutes early. Having worked with Harvey before, I simply sat in my car watching the bad part of town wake up.
“Come on in, come on in,” Harvey said as I joined him at the door. Although the day’s true heat was still five hours away, his short-sleeved business shirt was already soaked. He made me hold an oversized fast-food bag and a large coffee while he got the trailer’s bright red door open. Inside, he dropped into an office-issue swivel chair and pushed a folder across at me before diving into the feed sack.
One of the good things about my current status is that I don’t have to chase the work. I have spent a considerable amount of the last few months in the company of real private investigators, and they all work like dogs. Don’t get me wrong; working like dogs has made some of these folks very wealthy, but this is the point where I have to remind you I am not trying to make money. So I sat there without making a move toward the folder until he finally put the cholesterol sandwich down and began to speak.
“This one’s easy. Really just a check to make sure someone’s not pulling a fast one on us. There was a hit-and-run in your neck of the woods---”
“Yeah.” His voice trailed off, and I knew I had to reach for the file now. Harvey was not reliable when it came to the salient information on these jobs, and even though I wasn’t looking to make big bucks I was not the least bit interested in running around in circles.
The folder contained the paperwork for a life insurance claim on a twenty-year-old man named Edward Gonzalez. The photocopied accident report said he’d been hit by a car while jogging---not in Exile, but Bending Palms, the next town over---and that the accident happened just after dark.
“You guys trying to get out of this one? Sounds pretty legit to me.”
“Right, right, it’s just a check, like I said. I mean, what’s suspicious about a twenty-year-old unmarried guy buying life insurance and then collecting a full payout three weeks later?”
“So that’s what got the attention of your home office.”
“You gotta admit it’s a little coincidental. And the last name doesn’t help.”
“Yeah, those rotten Hispanics are always arranging to get themselves run over so they can stick it to good old Sun Provident.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Harvey, I used to be in business with a gang of the most blue-blooded Wasps you’d ever want to lay eyes on, and one of the things it taught me is that cheating is not genetically encoded. Talent isn’t, either, but that’s another story.”
I’d lost him awhile back, so he picked up the sandwich again and asked if I was going to do the check or not.
As things turned out, I should have let it go. After all, I was doing this work primarily to keep my mind active and my hand in on the computer stuff while waiting for the situation up north to blow over. I couldn’t use extra money, didn’t like having anything to do with Harvey, and honestly didn’t know very much about insurance. Something made me take this one, though, and I think it was the knowledge that Harvey and the good folks at Sun Provident were clearly angling to deny payment on what looked like the tragic end of a young life.
One of the odd by-products of my own legal misfortune was a heightened awareness of when it seemed to be happening to other people. I had decided at the outset that I wasn’t going to be a part of anything like that. So my attitude was simple: No divorce work of any kind, obviously no bankruptcy-related investigations, and only the most basic insurance work. That might sound like the fledgling defense attorney who thinks he’ll only handle innocent clients, but if you remember I wasn’t trying to make any money, it sounds like it just might work.
It didn’t, but it seemed that way at first.
Dennis Dannon was the Exile chief of police, and the first time we met I recognized him as one of the smartest people I would ever know. That had been when I first took up residence in his town, and being naive and unsure about my new “hobby” I decided to make a friend of the local law enforcement. So I went down to the small police station (five officers worked for Dannon, but only two were full-time) and introduced myself as someone who helped out private investigators from time to time.
Chief Dannon had been amused by all this, but I had struck a chord with him and we had talked for close to an hour. It was only after I left that I realized he’d been more interested in my post bankruptcy state of mind, and it wasn’t the first time I felt that Denny Dannon would have been a darn good psychiatrist. Tall and thin, he was a forty-something black man who had been born and raised in that little Gulf town. He’d left it only twice, and both of those excursions had been geared toward gaining him a spot on the Exile police force. He’d done a hitch in the navy as a shore patrolman in Diego Garcia and then earned an undergraduate degree in criminal justice at Florida State.
He was known to tell people that if he hadn’t met his wife at State he would never have married, as he did not intend to leave Exile again. Instead of taking this as a slap at the quality of the local girls, the townspeople greeted this statement with pleasure and relief. They had seen too many of the town’s brightest youngsters up stakes and never return, and it wore on them pretty hard.
I went to see Chief Dannon after leaving Harvey’s office for the astounding reason that Harvey had not been completely wrong about Eddie Gonzalez’s accident. It was true that Eddie’s demise had not occurred in Exile, but the young man had been born and raised there, just like our chief of police. Dannon knew everyone and everything in his town, and I figured he’d be able to give me the straight skinny on the kind of kid Eddie Gonzalez had been.
Which turned out to be wrong. I walked in and explained what I was doing, conducting a little background check on the accident, and Dannon clammed right up.
“Not a chance, Frank. Eddie Gonzalez was a really good kid. His family is tops in my book, and your insurance friends are trying to get out of a contract. That’s all this is, and I’m a little surprised at you for even coming in here.”
He was seated behind his aluminum desk, dressed in the Exile police force uniform of gray shirt with matching pants and red piping. A tan park-ranger-style brimmed hat hung on the ugly metal hat stand behind him, and under more pleasant circumstances I considered this a sharp uniform. Dannon didn’t always wear it, oftentimes going around in civilian clothes with his star pinned to his shirt, but he didn’t need even that for you to know he was the chief.
“That’s really all I’m trying to establish, chief.” I hadn’t been offered a seat and remained standing. The walls of the tiny office were adorned with Dannon’s diploma, various police certifications, and several pictures showing the people of Exile presenting him with awards. Another picture showed a head-and-torso shot of him as a teen in his white sailor’s uniform, but it was scary how little he’d aged. “If I can show that this young man was a solid citizen, maybe they’ll stop sniffing at this and just pay up.”
He was condescending, a very different response than I was used to in that office, and I was beginning to wonder if I had misread the man.
“Frank, an insurance policy is a contract. On one side we have people paying their premiums, and on the other side we have the insurers paying out if something happens. The only problem with that is some insurers don’t want to hold up their end of the agreement, and Sun Provident is by reputation one of the worst offenders. If I were you, I’d get copies of the official paperwork, go look at the SUV, wait a couple of days, and tell Harvey Webster that you didn’t find a thing.”
“I’m not going to do your homework for you. Eddie was hit by a stolen SUV that was found dumped a few miles away by whoever did this. It was in the paper, so I suggest you go look it up.”
Still puzzled at this development, I decided that I was getting dangerously close to alienating one of the big fish in the small pond of Exile and that I should leave. I nodded at Pete, one of the full-time cops on the force, as I walked through the outer office and headed for the door. I felt like a scolded schoolchild the entire way, and recognized the feeling because I’d experienced it a lot since my business died.
Once outside in the midday sun, I looked up and down the town’s main street and began throwing ideas together. The heat reflected off of the sidewalk and began cooking me as I walked and thought. Maybe Dannon hated insurance companies, but then again, who didn’t? Maybe he was just mad that Sun Provident was trying to renege on a legal contract, but then again, what else was new?
Another thought followed close on the heels of the first two. Maybe he was a bit suspicious himself about the timing of that insurance policy, but didn’t want to let on because it might help Harvey get out of paying up. This did not fit the Denny Dannon that I knew, though, and I had rejected it before reaching the thin strip of park that ran through the middle of town. My car sat in the shade of one of the park’s trees, and by the time I got to it I was rebuking myself for turning into a half-baked conspiracy theorist. My buddy Mark had warned me about that when he suggested I lie low down here.
“Just one thing. If you were anybody else, I’d suggest you go on welfare, hang out in the sun, and wait for the tide to turn. But a brain like yours needs things to do, and if you don’t take it out for a walk every now and then, it will go walk itself. So a little background checking, a little court document retrieval, it’ll make you feel good about yourself and keep your mind active. You may even come up with another one of those great patent ideas while you’re waiting.
“So don’t let this job assume a life of its own. It’s a hobby, nothing else. Don’t agree to go on stakeouts, don’t let some Florida PI firm take you on as an apprentice, and don’t start seeing things that aren’t there. I work with some PIs from time to time, and you’re not the type.”
Having met a few PIs, I couldn’t agree more, but I still had a job to do. And Denny Dannon’s condescension hadn’t helped, as it suggested that he considered me nothing but a mindless pawn in Harvey Webster’s universe. There had to be a logical reason for this Eddie Gonzalez to have bought insurance not even a month before the accident, and if I could find it I could wrap this up to everyone’s satisfaction. Including Chief Dannon.
I started with the part that I do best, the computer stuff. The Exile Public Library was a mile away on the other side of town, an old building that was loaded with very current hardware. Small as Exile might be, it was a well-run town, and it showed in places like the library.
The questions that needed answering were fairly obvious, and it sounded like they would quickly resolve this case in Eddie Gonzalez’s favor. If he’d purchased insurance for a fraudulent reason it suggested he was afraid of imminent death, which could mean bad medical news or some kind of risky activity.
He had received a physical examination as part of Farragut Community College’s application process, and he had passed with flying colors. Combined with his age, that seemed to rule out some kind of freak medical condition. The category of risky activity could be pretty broad, but in this case I could reasonably restrict it to some kind of dangerous criminal activity. That also seemed unlikely, going by what Chief Dannon had said, and I could definitely check it on the Web. Part of it, anyway.
Libraries have always been my sanctuary, and I had practically moved into the one in Exile when I first arrived. I was now living in a small one-story house near the beach, but in keeping with Mark’s low-income scheme I didn’t have a PC of my own, so I ghosted off of the computers in the library. I kept up with my e-mails in this way (using the town’s only Internet cafe during off hours) and also met the reference librarian, Mary Beth Marquardt.
Mary Beth was almost one hundred and fifty years old and almost as smart as Chief Dannon. Once, when trying to impress a local PI with my discovery of the reference librarian’s value, I had been almost laughed out of the place where we had been eating lunch. Apparently reference librarians are pretty much the same all over the country, and a sharp PI can get a lot of information in a distant city by dialing up the right custodian of the reference desk.
Mary Beth remembered Eddie Gonzalez fondly, and had attended his funeral the week before. According to her he was a bright kid, star track runner for Exile High, and quite sweet on a local girl named Anneliese Escobar. That fit nicely, as Anneliese was the beneficiary listed on the policy. Eddie had been attending Farragut Community College for the last two years, lived at home with his parents, and had been studying to become an accountant. Mary Beth’s glowing recollection of him sounded almost the same as Chief Dannon’s, and I was able to lay any suspicions about the chief’s motives to rest just off that.
I then hopped on a terminal and accessed a site that would tell me if Eddie had any record of criminal behavior. A few jobs for a local law office had bought me a year’s access to this particular site. Like anything else on the Web it runs the risk of being outdated or inaccurate, but it was a good place to start. As expected, I found nothing there.
Mary Beth had pulled back issues of local newspapers from the time of the accident by then, and I quickly read what was available. Exile did not have a town paper, so there was not much about Eddie’s demise. He was hit by a stolen SUV just after dark while jogging on a popular ocean-side fitness trail in the next town over. The Most-of-the-Coast fitness trail was used by bikers, joggers, and walkers. I went back to the Web and punched up a map of the trail, which ran through or touched on four towns and stretched along a thirty mile segment of coast. I went back to the paper while the map was printing, and learned that the SUV had been found abandoned in a parking spot a few miles farther up the jogging trail.
Up the trail. That was odd. Eddie had been hit while crossing one of the many roads that intersected the bike path, presumably by joyriding car thieves, and I had to wonder why they hadn’t peeled off to a better dumping spot. Amateurs, maybe. Locals, from the sound of it, if they knew of a parking spot a distance up the trail. I went and got the printed map, circling the page that contained an abbreviated line intersecting the path labeled “Finch Boulevard.” That was where the accident occurred, and as the map indicated parking areas along the route, it wasn’t hard to figure out where the SUV had been stashed.
I checked my findings with Mary Beth, who gave me some detail on the trail itself. She didn’t know why I was so fixated on the path, but just from reading the papers I was getting an odd feeling that this didn’t add up. It was easy to accept the confluence of events in which the joy-riders crossed the route just as Eddie emerged from the foliage and stepped onto Finch Boulevard, but it didn’t sound right that they would go on up the road and then double back to park the SUV along the trail. Obviously, they would want to get away from the vehicle as fast as possible, but weren’t there better places to dump it?
Once again the Mark Ruben voice came into my head, warning me not to get crazy. According to the chief of police and a librarian who had watched him grow up, Eddie Gonzalez was a solid citizen with no enemies. He’d been hit by some fun-loving teens who had swiped a set of wheels and then dropped the SUV in what was probably a well-known necking spot on the bike path. It was no more sinister than the unfortunate timing of Eddie’s insurance purchase.
Getting the computer information was my strong point and I was now left with the part I didn’t do well at all. The databases would only get me so far. Sooner or later I was going to have to talk with a real live person. And not some clerk of the court, either. I was going to have to go talk with Eddie’s family, and maybe even with the Escobars.
I looked forward to this the same way I look forward to hurting my foot, so I decided it might be better to go look at the site where it happened and where the vehicle had ended up. And if I went by the city impound to look at the vehicle, I might just eat up enough of the afternoon that I wouldn’t have to go see any of those real live people for an entire day. Or even two.