Maybe the gods were plotting against me as I hit all sixteen red lights on Pulaski Highway or maybe they weren’t. I turned left into the parking lot of the Gentlemen’s Gold Club. I wasn’t there for a lap dance, rather business and a pit beef sandwich from Chaps, a dive that happened to share the same parking lot with one of Baltimore’s finest jiggle-joints. I had a meeting with Larry Driskel, a divorce attorney, who lately hadn’t called upon the services of my private investigation firm, Tarrou Security Services. Larry was in the line, which now wrapped around the small building. He waved me over to where he stood.
Larry was in his mid-fifties, with a round face and mustache like Tom Selleck’s. He was short, overweight and wore a tan suit that highlighted his weeble-wobble frame. He only took cases of wives. Maybe he hoped he could be their rebound guy. We got our sandwiches — heaps of beef, sausage, and American cheese, topped with “vegetables” from the questionably sanitary fixin’ bar, smashed onto a sub roll too small for its contents — and sat down at a small picnic table outside. Cars whizzed by on the highway while Larry slurped soda from his large white Styrofoam cup.
“I got a case for you,” he said.
Larry’s cases were typical of the divorce industrial complex. What would it be this time? Sitting in a seedy motel parking lot snapping photos of hubby with his mistress or uncovering dirt for a child custody battle? “Good to hear. My normal rates apply. Just like you shysters, I charge by the minute.”
He half-smiled as if he were immune to jabs about his profession. “My client is Mrs. Molly Berger, wife of Ira Berger, owner of A-Plus Check Cashing. He’s got fifteen stores in different locations throughout the Baltimore-Metro region.”
Check-cashing joints are all over Baltimore, serving mostly poor city dwellers who have no relationship with a bank. A-Plus had a considerable market share, and I guess you could say Berger is the banker of the unbanked. “Fascinating,” I said. “Tell me more boring shit.”
“All right, Ben, don’t be a dick.” I was getting under his skin. Good. “Whenever I get a new client we do a financial background check to facilitate property and asset division. To make sure my client gets her due share.”
“And yours, I’m sure,” I added.
“I got two ex-wives of my own,” he said. “Berger’s all spread out. My financial guys finally tracked most of the business’s accounts to two small thrifts — Carrollton Savings and Loan, and Westminster Savings and Loan. That’s where the money is supposed to be.”
“Bank fraud?” For the first time today, Larry had my attention.
He took out a thick manila folder from his briefcase and flopped it onto the picnic table. “Yeah, check-kiting. Here’s the summary of the accounts from Carrollton and Westminster. My guys highlighted the discrepancies.”
I studied the report for a few minutes. I’d worked some fraud cases before (for the insurance industrial complex), and Berger appeared to be running a circular scam. He was depositing bad checks written from his Carrollton account and then depositing them into the Westminster account. To cover the bad checks, he would write another bad check from his Westminster account and deposit it into his Carrollton account. Berger was taking advantage of the float – the time it takes between when the funds are “credited” and when the funds actually show up — to inflate his balances and then make withdrawals with money that never existed. The scam is so pathetically simple, but I guess most scams are.
“Are the banks and cops aware of this yet?” I asked.
“Not yet. Carrollton and Westminster are up to their eyeballs in subprime trash and default swaps. We’re thinking once they get a grip on their balance sheets, they’ll realize Berger is another one of their toxic assets. Remember the Satisky brothers? They managed to run their kiting scam for over three years before they got caught, and shit, Bernie Madoff ran his Ponszi scheme right under the nose of the SEC for over three decades. If the markets didn’t tank he’d probably still be in business. Let’s not give our overlords too much credit.”
“How much?” Considering all the lime green highlights on the report, Berger was doing a number on the banks.
Larry nodded his fat head slowly. “My guys estimate Berger has been running the scam for almost two years. The losses for the bank are in the ballpark of ten million dollars. Berger’s scheme probably would have been discovered if only the damn banks talked to each other.”
Larry’s Monday morning quarterbacking was right. Maybe if they had communicated this never would have happened. Isn’t the communications revolution the mantra of the 21st century – WI-FI, 4G technology, Smart Phones, and IPads? For a connected world, there sure isn’t a lot of communication, just hyper-chaos. The world was moving faster and the banks hadn’t caught up yet. “So what is it exactly that you need me to do?”
Larry attempted to take another sip from his large cup, but it was empty. “Nobody’s seen Berger for a week.”
“So you want me to find him? Why not just call the FBI and let them find him?”
“We need to find him before the banks or FBI figure out what’s going on. Mrs. Berger is very concerned about her finances. Very concerned. Plus, you know how these well-to-do folks like to keep their dirty little secrets in the closet.”
Larry sat and watched me as I considered his proposition. I was concerned about my finances too. The economy’s long slump was hurting business; insurance companies and lawyers weren’t subcontracting private dicks as much as they once were. “I’ll take the case.”
Larry, satisfied with himself, took out another manila folder. He stood up and flipped the second folder on the table. “Here is some more background info on Mr. Berger. His wife is on a Caribbean cruise and will be back in a few days. I’ll have her contact you when she gets back if Berger doesn’t turn up by then. This should be enough information to get you started. I’m going to get a cocktail and a lap dance at the Gold Club. Want to come?” he asked lecherously.
I scoffed, “Can’t; I’m working.”
I sat at my desk and analyzed the contents of the two thick manila folders: a few photos of Berger, financial disclosures, a list of the A-Plus locations, and real estate reports, one of which listed both a house in Bethany Beach and a membership at the yacht club. My instincts, which had been off lately, told me Berger was alive and on the run.
How was he paying for things? He had easy access to cash, and attempting to track him via his debit and credit card transactions would lead me nowhere. Where is he sleeping? Berger might not need cash, but he certainly needed somewhere to sleep. My friends in the city and county police departments were checking the hotels and motels in the area for his black, 2005 Mercedes E350 sedan with vanity tags that read “CSHMNY”. The beach house would be an obvious place not to hide if you were used to being on the run, but Berger was a businessman gone bad, and I hoped he would be dumb enough to go there.
I headed to slower-lower Delaware in my 1994 red Honda Civic hatchback. To avoid the construction on the Bay Bridge, I headed north into Delaware then south to the beaches. Traffic on Coastal Highway was minimal. I passed through the beach party town of Dewey, then through the trailer-parks on Indian River Inlet, and finally into the upscale Bethany Beach. I turned onto Oceanview Parkway and onto Seabreeze Drive. Berger’s house was the third on the right. The two-storey house, with a white porch that wrapped around the entire second floor, was within walking distance to the beach, and he’d probably overpaid for it during the housing bubble. Berger’s car wasn’t in the driveway, and since it was early October, only one of the houses on the block appeared to be occupied. I wanted to take a look around. One can never be too careful, so I grabbed my Kahr nine millimeter out of the glove box. My carry permit wasn’t any good in Delaware, but I’m not one for details, anyways. From the trunk, I grabbed a pizza warmer box that I bought off a Domino’s delivery guy for fifty dollars about a year ago. I had used the box a few times as cover when doing surveillance, and my pizza-man disguise hadn’t failed yet. I knocked on the door and rang the doorbell. No answer. I walked around the back and looked in the large bay windows. Nothing. Following the staircase to the second floor, I circumnavigated the porch, looking in each window. Zip. Satisfied he wasn’t there, I thought maybe I was underestimating Berger’s criminal mind. It was time to go. I was hungry for pizza.
As I walked down the stairs, a man approached. “Hey, what are you doing?”
I was about to find out if the fifty dollars for the pizza box was worth it. “Somebody ordered a pizza to this address, but no one is home.”
“Nobody has been there for over a year,” the man said.
“This isn’t the Horowitz residence?” I asked.
“No, this is the Berger residence, and they haven’t been here in over a year.”
“This is 221 Seabreeze Drive, isn’t it? Are you sure this isn’t the Horowitz residence?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” He was getting annoyed. I think my snooping was making him late for his tee time. “And I should know, I’m here all year round.” He wasn’t completely convinced I was a pizza delivery man. It was time to go.
“God darn it! Somebody must be making prank calls again. You know, a man tries to make a living, and he has to deal with this shit. I better be going before these other pizzas get cold.”
I hopped in my car and sped off. In my rearview mirror, I saw the man turn and walk back to his house. Domino’s does deliver.
The Bethany Yacht Club was a five-minute drive from Berger’s house. At the entrance was a gate and security hut. Rich people sure do go out of their way to keep the unworthy out of their clubs. The security hut was empty. In the off-season, the gate was probably sufficient to keep undesirables out. I pulled up to the callbox and mashed all the buttons. The gate buzzed and then opened slowly.
I entered the grounds and parked my car near the large club house. As I walked to his boat, I thought how most of these cost more than three times as much as my townhouse. A man sat on a boat next to Berger’s. He was middle-aged, with coffee-color skin, most likely from days on the water. He was drinking a Heineken and smoking a cigarette.
“Hi there.” I stuck out my hand. “I’m Ben. I’m here to look at the boat for sale. Is this Ira Berger’s boat?”
“Nick Marino.” He hesitantly shook my hand. “I didn’t realize he was selling it.”
I examined the boat, pretending to know what I was looking at. The bow had a large teak deck, a polished brass handrail that followed the length of the starboard and port, and two fighting chairs on the stern. Through the windows, I could see the cabin was flush with amenities: the salon featured an entertainment center with two-large flat-screens, a full bar, and two leather couches. I couldn’t see inside the master or guest staterooms, but I had a feeling they were just as posh. “What would you pay for a boat like this?”
“A 46-foot Hatteras Convertible. Let’s see, I would think in this condition,” he tapped his chin with his finger and looked up as if he this were the most perplexing question he had been asked in awhile. “About a hundred fifty thousand. If he really wants to get rid of it, maybe one and a quarter.”
Trying not to be obvious about my real intentions for being there, I engaged Nick in some small talk about the boat, fishing, and places we’d seen. He seemed to enjoy my company, and I was enjoying his. I finished being subtle and asked, “What can you tell me about Mr. Berger, so I know what to offer him for the boat?”
“I haven’t seen him or his wife in awhile, but they weren’t my kind of people. They were all about making sure everybody knew they had money. Typical of the people around here. The only thing most of them know about boats is that they float. Me, I just want to be on the water. I don’t give a shit who knows I have money. Plus, I drink too much and I smoke too much. I guess you could say I’m the club pariah.”
I knew what it was like to be an outsider in an unreasonable world. I gave an understanding smile. “When’s the last time you saw Mr. Berger on the boat?”
He lit a cigarette and grabbed another Heineken out of his cooler. “Last time I saw Ira was over a year ago at the Labor Day social. You want a beer?”
I drank a beer with Nick and even smoked my first cigarette in twenty years. It tasted like shit, but I still found it soothing. I could have sat on his boat all day, but I had a job to do. I finished my beer; Nick cracked another; we shook hands again, and I walked back to my car. I had a feeling Nick knew I wasn’t really interested in the boat; my commonness was all too evident. I headed back to Baltimore, no closer to finding Berger.
I went back to my office. Bethany had been a bust, and none of my contacts had a word on Berger’s Mercedes. I grabbed the list of A-Plus locations off my desk and headed out to see if I could get any information. The first three stores yielded little information. All the employees I talked to knew nothing about Berger. To them, he was just the man who signed their paychecks.
Finding Berger was proving to be more difficult than I had originally anticipated. I carried on– only eleven more stores to go. The fourth store was across the street from Lexington Market. The smell of chitlins (imagine hot garbage) polluted the air. In front of the market, several men stood eating fried chicken, wiping their greasy mouths with slices of white bread. The inside of the store was a large rectangle, with a long U-shaped wall of bulletproof glass running the perimeter of the store. Rich people used gates to keep the riffraff out whereas on the mean streets of Baltimore, bulletproof glass was the preferred deterrent. Behind the glass, in front of a register, a forty-five-millimeter pistol and an aluminum baseball bat were visible, a warning to anyone who thought about doing something crazy. On my right, a large neon “Lottery” sign hung above two black girls operating the number machines. To the left stood a walk-in cooler filled with malt liquor and back-alley champagne. In the middle of the store were three rows of shelves, half-filled with cheap cleaning products, toiletries, and knock-off Hallmark sympathy cards. Towards the back, customers cashed checks, paid bills, and filled out Western Union forms on the counter ledge. The store reminded me of a casino where the cash cages were located in the back, making it impossible to leave without passing the bar, gaming tables, or slot machines.
I approached one of the young black girls working the lottery machine. “Hey, I’m Ben. I work for The Baltimore Sun, and I was wondering if I could speak to a manager.”
She didn’t say anything and headed towards the check cashing cage to talk to a white girl who was helping customers. She followed the lottery girl back to me. The white girl was probably in her late twenties or early thirties, with a pallid complexion and fake hair tied in a long ponytail. She was dumpy, had a diamond stud in her right nostril, and a tattoo on her flabby right arm of the comedy/tragedy masks with the message “Laugh Now, Cry Later, Bitch.” She looked tough but was obviously letting her guard down, excited about meeting a “real” reporter. Over the years I realized that those on the margins of society refuse to talk to the police or anyone remotely linked to law enforcement, but were more than willing to talk to a reporter. When you are used to being ignored all your life, you’ll talk to anyone who might be able to get your story out.
She flipped her hair to the side and said, “Hi, Hon. I’m Ms. Honey, the manager. What can I do for youz, Hon?”
“I’m Ben Tarrou from The Sun paper.” I stuck out my hand. Ms. Honey extended her hand high, fingers pointed downwards, as if we were in the 19th century. I shook her fingers and hoped she didn’t expect me to kiss her hand. “I’m doing a story on the check cashing business. Could I ask you a few questions?”
“Oh my, I’ve never been interviewed before. Let me get my cigarettes, and we’ll go outside and talk, okay, Hon?”
Outside she lit a cigarette and offered me one. For the second day in a row, I was smoking. This coffin nail tasted better than yesterday’s and gave me a buzz. Taking out a small notepad and a pen, I started the interview with some questions about Ms. Honey, playing to her desperate desire to be important.
“My real name is Ella Nesbit, but all the regulars call me Ms. Honey. Before I started working here, I would always buy honey-flavored blunts. I was here so often, Ira, my boss, gave me a job.”
Evidently, Berger had no problem hiring potheads. Pretending to take notes, I scribbled gibberish in my notepad.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Almost ten years, Hon”, she said proudly.
At least Berger hired reliable potheads. “You the only manager?”
She lit another cigarette with the first one. “Uh-huh. When I started, I was just a lottery girl. Ira used to run the store, but he’s way too busy these days, so he promoted me to manager. Are you going to take my picture?”
“Maybe. Do you like being manager?”
“I sure do, Hon. I know all the regulars; I know their lucky numbers, where they work, what they drink. It’s like one big ghetto family.” She laughed, amused at herself.
“That’s cute.” I sarcastically smiled, which, of course, she thought was sincere.
“On the other hand, Ira’s been a real bitch lately. He could pay me a little better and treat me with some respect. I know he thinks I’m just a dumb white bitch from Pigtown, but it wasn’t for me this place would be a bigger shithole than it already is. He was going to make me general manager of the new store in Woodlawn, but he put the move on hold when the regression started a year ago. I tried to talk to him about the new store a month ago and he told me that I should be happy I had a job at all.”
I gave a confused look. “Regression? Do you mean recession?”
She batted her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, and gave an innocent look. “Silly me, Hon. Yeah, recession.”
I didn’t remember any mention of a store in Woodlawn in the report. Could I have missed it? “Where exactly is this store?”
“In the Meadow Park Shopping Center, right off Security. He’s spent a lot of his time there since he and his wife separated. Putting the store on hold was a real disappointment. Now the store is just like most of the other stores in Meadow Park – empty.”
I wrote down the address and put the notepad back in my pocket. “Thanks a lot, Ms. Honey. I think I got enough.”
“That’s it?” she said, disappointed. No one had listened to her for a long time, and now I was leaving. “When is the story going to be in the paper?”
“I’m not sure exactly. I just do the interviews. It was nice meeting you, Ms. Honey.” Feeling somewhat bad for taking advantage of her naïveté, I slipped her a twenty.
I left the city and headed into the county. Thanks to Ms. Honey, I had my first break. In this business, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. But how could I have missed the Woodlawn store? I recalled a TV show about a Virginia lawyer who was busted hiding assets from his ex-wife. The Arlington lawyer gave some of the legal fees he had earned to his mother, and she put the cash in an account in her name. The plan was for her to give the money to him after the divorce was final. Eventually, he was caught and lost his attorney’s license. Was it possible Berger was doing the same thing? Had he purchased the Woodlawn store after his wife had filed for divorce, and put the store in someone else’s name? Berger was turning out to be one sneaky son-of-a-bitch.
I drove east on the Beltway, storm clouds rolled in, and rain pattered on my windshield. Despite the worsening weather, which usually ensures gridlock around Baltimore, there was little traffic. My cell phone vibrated in my pocket; it was Larry.
“What’s up, Larry? I’m in the county. Did you know Berger was opening a store in Woodlawn?”
“No clue. Are you sure?”
“I’m about to find out.”
“Well, you better find out fast. I just got a call from Carrollton Savings and Loan, and Berger’s gig is up. The FBI is involved and they’re looking for him too.”
“Good to know,” I said. “I’ll call you when I know something.”
I exited off the Beltway, drove east on Security Boulevard, and took a right into the Meadow Park Shopping Center. The western section of the shopping center housed a grocery store, a dry cleaners, and a Subway; the three stores in the eastern section were vacant. Two of the three stores had “For Lease” signs on their windows. I pulled around back, and there was Berger’s Mercedes. CHSMNY! I parked the car, and, remembering the guns on display in Berger’s stores, I grabbed mine out of the glove compartment.
At the back door, I grabbed the knob, and the door opened. “Berger, you in there?” No answer. The inside was dark, and cigarette smoke staled the air. A few tools, work benches, and planks of wood lay scattered on the floor. In the back, another door led to an office where a faint light beamed from the bottom of the door. I headed to the back, took out my gun, and cautiously entered the office.
The office was bare, except for a half-empty water cooler to my left and a desk in front of me. Empty bottles of Christian Brothers’ brandy and cigarette butts were scattered across the floor. I walked around the back of the desk, and there Berger lay in the fetal position. His clothes were filthy and he’d probably been wearing the same outfit since he went missing. A gray, scraggly beard had taken over his firm narrow face. I bent down, put two fingers on Berger’s scruffy neck, checking for a pulse, nearly gagging at the reek of his breath. He was alive, just wasted. I checked him for weapons, but he was clean. I took the large blue cooler off its stand and dumped the water onto Berger’s face and torso. Sputtering, he jumped up, stumbled, and fell back into the wall.
“What the fuuu,” he slurred.
“You’re a tough man to find, Berger.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
‘Now, now. No need to be vulgar. Ben Tarrou, private investigator. I was hired by your wife’s lawyer to find you.” Berger stumbled and pulled himself onto the desk chair and sat. He was soaking wet; the water cooler shower was probably the closest thing to a bath he’d had in more than a week. His hands reached for the desk drawer. I pointed my gun at him. “Easy there, cowboy. Let’s not do anything stupid.”
He put his hands in the air. “Just getting something to drink and smoke. If that’s okay with you, Mr. Private Investigator.” He sneered and was struggling to keep his hands up.
I nodded for him to continue, watching his every move, ready to use my gun to erase his face. At the same time I hoped violence wouldn’t be necessary. Berger pulled a new bottle of brandy out of his bottom drawer and slammed it unintentionally on the desk. He struggled to open the bottle. Finally getting it opened, he took a large swig of the brown firewater and then lit a cigarette.
“Lots of people looking for you. Including the FBI.”
Berger took another long pull of brandy. He grimaced. “I’ve been waiting. Didn’t think a private investigator would be looking for me, but the FBI, I knew it was only a matter of time. Should have known that bitch would have sent someone looking for me. She’s probably worried about her money or her fucking social status. That’s all she ever carried about – money. Boy, is she in for a surprise.” He smiled wickedly.
Like he was in a clichéd detective novel where the villain meets his demise, Berger wanted to tell his story. He wasn’t on the run after all; he wanted to be found. “Why’d you do it? Is the check-cashing business that bad these days?”
“Are all private investigators smartasses?” His stoned eyes met mine.
“Most of us,” I quipped back. He lit another cigarette and offered me one. I declined.
He rocked in his chair and tried again to find his equilibrium. “When I first met Molly, she was a bitch – and she still is. But I was young, stupid, and had confused good sex with love.” He breathed heavily out of his nose. He was growling. “That cunt. We started with shit, but even when my business took off, nothing was good enough for her. We traveled, bought a beach house, a boat, went to all the great parties; she loved being part of the social scene.” He ground his teeth and bit his lip; foam caked the corners of his mouth. “In the early part of the decade, I began to expand. Opening new stores, buying up real estate, then the housing bubble burst, and I knew I was in trouble. Things were going to have to change, but Molly didn’t want to hear it. I started small, using the float to cover checks. I’d pay this bill or that bill, and then sling a check to cover it.: nobody even noticed. A thousand here, ten thousand there, and before I knew it I was in deep. The bankers, the ones who thumbed their noses at me and my business, were too busy running their own scams to even notice — Freddie and Fannie, the real estate agents, the mortgage brokers, Wall Street bankers with their fancy financial instruments, all of them as guilty as I. You know, I once saw a mortgage broker authorize a four hundred thousand mortgage for someone with a three hundred fico score. Three fucking hundred. Dipshit shouldn’t have been able to get a loan for a cold drink.” He lit another cigarette; the tobacco sparkled, fueled by his combustible breath. “I knew it was over – my marriage and the scam. And the real kick in the ass was when Molly called me a loser who couldn’t even take care of his family. What family? Molly ain’t family. She’s a hooker I rent for parties.” He slammed his fist on the desk, then started laughing deliriously. “My life is a lie.”
He reached into the bottom drawer of his desk again and pulled out a gun, a forty-five caliber. I raised mine, but he wasn’t aiming for me. The float had gotten the best of Berger — Molly, the Mercedes, the beach house, the boat, A-Plus, the parties, all of it – one big lie. He could no longer rely on the float; for him it was time to face reality.
He put the forty-five in his mouth. I heard the barrel clatter against his teeth and he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
“The safety’s still on,” I said.
He took the gun out of his mouth, and searched for the safety release. Before he had a chance to find it I smacked the gun out of his hand and it slid across the floor away from Berger. Berger put his hands to his face and whimpered, “I can’t even kill myself.”
I picked up the gun, emptied the clip, jacked the slide to get the bullet out of the chamber, and left Berger. Then I called Driskel and 9-1-1.
I went outside and waited for Driskel and the police. My job was done, but I couldn’t get what Berger said out of my mind. My life is a lie. Maybe we’re all living a lie – using the float to buy time until the bills come due. I pondered how the collapse of the financial system forced many of us to accept the absurdity of the float. Molly, like the bankers, denied the float by worshipping money. Berger’s crimes exposed the meaninglessness of his life. At some point we all figure out that life has no special meaning or purpose. I’ve known this for awhile now, and that’s why I choose to exist in the chaos.