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By JOEL GOLDMAN
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Joel Goldman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere was a dead body in the trunk of Avery Fish's Fleetwood Cadillac. Not that he didn't have enough problems already. He was late for a meeting with his lawyer, Lou Mason, and the assistant U.S. attorney, Pete Samuelson. They were negotiating a deal for Fish's body and soul like they were haggling over a used car, both sides selling him "as is."
Fish knew how it would go. Mason had briefed him the day before, telling him he'd better be on time.
"Why not just strip me down to my shorts and check my teeth like I was a horse being sold by the pound?" Fish asked.
"Because you're too old and ugly," Mason answered, grinning. "The feds wouldn't buy and I'd be stuck with you."
Fish waved his hand at Mason's joke. "So what kind of deal am I going to get?"
"You're charged with mail fraud. I'll offer twelve months suspended with probation, which is a downward deviation from federal sentencing guidelines, and a hundred thousand dollars in restitution for the people the government says you swindled."
"Like I've got that kind of money."
He didn't deny his guilt. He just wanted to know what he owed, figuring he was negotiating with his lawyer as well as the Justice Department. Mason ignored Fish's complaint, knowing that Fish had the money or could get it, just as he had gotten the money to pay Mason's fee.
"This is your first conviction. You're not a young man. Samuelson will want eighteen months of real time and more money, maybe two hundred and fifty grand, plus a fine. Probably the same amount, maybe a little less."
"What are the chances I'll get probation?"
"Not good unless you've got something else to offer besides money and remorse."
"Someone you could give to them. Someone who has bigger problems than mail fraud."
"You mean inform on someone? I'd rather go to jail," Fish said.
"The government calls it cooperation. Judges are very impressed by it and nobody would rather go to jail."
"Such a future." Fish rubbed the top of his bulging stomach. His heartburn could eat through sheet metal. He appreciated Mason's precise explanation. First conviction. Not first indictment. He shouldn't complain. Not at his age. But he couldn't help it. "Spending my golden years as a bankrupt federal snitch. Acch! What a life."
"Beats the hell out of stripping to your shorts and having your teeth checked by some Aryan Brotherhood inmate who thinks you remind him of the uncle that molested him when he was a kid," Mason had told him.
Now this, Fish thought to himself, as he stood in the parking lot of his synagogue in south Kansas City, the weekday morning service just finished. The air was damp and cold, the day raw and typical for February. The pavement and the sky were the same flat gray, just like the body in the trunk. He should have gone to Scottsdale for the winter like everybody else.
The dead man was naked and wrapped in a sheet of clear plastic that made him look like a prehistoric hunter left frozen in ice a thousand years ago. The limbs were tight against the torso, their skin unblemished by any visible wounds.
Fish's briefcase was in the trunk. He didn't need it for the meeting with the lawyers. In fact, there was nothing in it besides the latest issue of Fast Company with an article he wanted to read, especially now, titled "How to Make Your Own Luck." But, carrying the briefcase gave him a more substantial look. Like he was a businessman, not some gonif caught with his nuts in the wringer.
Which he was. Gonif, Yiddish for thief, was a word that defined itself as much by its pronunciation as its meaning. He liked the guttural way it rolled off his tongue, straight from the back of his mouth like he was throwing it at someone.
His briefcase was tucked underneath the dead man. Fish worried that the poor bastard had bled onto it even though the body was wrapped in plastic. He didn't want to walk into the meeting with the U.S. attorney carrying a briefcase with a bloodstain painted on it like a bull's-eye. He left it where it was and closed the trunk.
He was seventy-three years old. He had a wife who referred to herself as his ex-wife on the slight technicality that they'd been divorced for twenty-five years. Like that mattered. He had two daughters who didn't talk to him unless they had to and four grandchildren who never stopped.
He was thirty-five pounds overweight. He had plantar fascitis in both feet and chronic pain in both hips. He had a lumbar disc at the base of his spine that bulged like a teenage boy's dick at his first skin flick and chest pain that woke him at night like the devil was slipping a blade between his ribs. But he didn't complain. That was life. The odds favored a man like him having problems like these.
But a dead body in the trunk of his car on the day he was to bargain his life away in a comfortable conference room at the Federal Courthouse—that didn't defy the odds. It beat the living daylights out of them.
Fish didn't realize he was sweating until he slid into his car. And he was sweating and breathing as hard as a racehorse on the backstretch. Certain of what he'd seen, he still didn't want to believe it. It was too awful to be true, but it was. In spite of the cold, he turned on the air-conditioning, gripping the leather-wrapped steering wheel until he cooled down and could breathe normally.
What are the odds? A dead body in his trunk. Blinking the sweat from his eyes, he squinted, remembering when he'd last opened the trunk. It was the night before when he'd gotten home from meeting with Mason. The briefcase had been on the front seat of the car, the magazine already in it. His dry cleaning had been in the trunk. He'd taken the laundry out and left the briefcase in its place.
He'd stayed home the rest of the night. Gone to bed early. Slept all night except for the three times he'd gotten up to go to the bathroom. His car had been parked in front of his house, the garage crammed full of junk he'd been meaning to throw away since his divorce.
Had to have been during the night. He lived on a quiet street. Hell, it was a historic district! That's how quiet it was. Most of the neighbors were old like him, the houses even older. No young kids coming home late to interrupt some killer who had turned Fish's car into a drive-by drop-off for dead bodies. If the killer had bothered to ask, Fish would have told him that there was a twenty-four-hour Goodwill drop-off a mile away.
During the night was a better bet than while he was in the synagogue, even if there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot belonging to the ten people who showed up for the morning service. It was still dark when he arrived a few minutes before seven that morning. The service lasted forty-five minutes. The rabbi had buttonholed him for another fifteen minutes afterwards, making him late for his meeting with the attorneys, asking him how things were going with his case. His legal problems weren't a secret. The media and a city full of gossips had taken care of that.
He set aside the odds against a dead body showing up in the trunk of his car. It had happened. The odds had gone from astronomical against to one hundred percent in favor. Fish's next bet was on when it happened. The odds favored last night while Fish slept. He didn't have time to figure the odds on the harder questions. Who was the dead man? Who killed him? Why did the killer pick the trunk of his car?
Fish didn't want to know the answers to any of these questions, certain that he was better off not knowing. It had nothing to do with him anyway. The body in the trunk was his bad luck. That's all.
He had to be downtown in fifteen minutes and he was thirty minutes away. He couldn't leave his car in the parking lot without arousing suspicions at the synagogue. He couldn't leave his car at home and take the bus downtown because he didn't know where to catch the bus or even which bus to take if he did.
As he considered his options, the idea of parking his car with its decaying cargo at the Federal Courthouse wasn't as bad as he first thought. The parking lot was across the street from the courthouse. It was secure, regularly patrolled by the U.S. Marshals' deputies who were responsible for courthouse security. No one was going to break into a car in that lot. It was cold enough and the corpse was fresh enough that the body hadn't started to smell.
Mason had told him that the meeting with the U.S. attorney shouldn't take too long, though he could expect some fireworks as the attorneys postured for one another, doing their peacock dance. Fish hoped the meeting was more a formality than anything else.
Good, he thought to himself. Things work out if you give them a chance and work the right angles. That had always been his philosophy. He took a deep breath, put the Cadillac in gear, and tried not to think about the body in the trunk.
Chapter TwoFish was in sales. Buy, sell, trade. He didn't always own what he sold. He didn't always pay for what he bought, and he didn't always have what he traded. These were business risks that he managed through the next buy, sell, or trade.
His entire life had been a teetering Ponzi scheme in which he had to make the next deal just to stay a step ahead of the last one. Not that he was in Bernie Madoff 's league, not by a long shot. Now there was a gonif. Fish admired Madoff for his balls, but even he had cringed at the scope of the devastation Madoff had caused, rationalizing his own crimes as minor offenses that had left a few people short a few bucks, nothing they couldn't recover from.
The U.S. attorney had indicted Fish for mail fraud stemming from a vacation time-share scam. Fish had assembled a loose network of third-rate condos in Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, promised below-market prices for theme park and cruise packages, and bundled the pitch in a slick, glossy, four-color brochure. He bought a mailing list of likely marks and mailed them his solicitation. He got so many takers that the properties were oversold and double-booked. People complained that they couldn't book their time-share or that, when they did, their unit was already occupied when they arrived.
He made a killing, using the proceeds to pay off the most vociferous of the complainers, until one outraged customer told the story to his next-door neighbor, who happened to be a secretary at the Kansas City office of the FBI. And the rest was commentary.
It wasn't difficult or sophisticated. A good scam never was. It depended on people who would jump at deals that were too good to be true. Fish counted on them to forget the flip side of the axiom that such deals almost always were.
For Fish, life was a game in which everyone was a free agent. Winners anticipated the responses of the other players. Winners took advantage of better information. Winners made hard choices.
Losers reacted based on imperfect information and wimped out when their losses got too high. That's why most people who complained about their time-shares settled for getting less than one hundred percent of their money back. Fighting harder wasn't worth the effort. Fish knew that.
He was reconciled to being the loser in the game with the U.S. attorney. He admired Mason for not conning him. The government's case was solid. The feds had been sniffing after him for years. They were going to take him down. Cutting a deal wasn't wimping out. It was the only rational decision.
The body in the trunk presented an entirely different problem. He had no idea how to get rid of it without being implicated in a murder he didn't commit. He could stop at police headquarters and invite a homicide detective to take a peek. Given his present circumstance with the Justice Department, he doubted the cops would buy his "beats me" answer to the questions they would ask.
He could tell his lawyer, but he knew what Mason would tell him. Go to the cops. Maybe good advice for another day, but definitely not today.
By the time he pulled into the courthouse parking lot, Fish was convinced of two things: He had to get out of there with a signed deal as fast as he could, and then he had to take care of the dead body on his own.
He'd have to get a new car as well. He couldn't take the chance that a latent hair of the murder victim would one day be scraped out of the trunk while he stood around shrugging his shoulders like the old Jew in the joke about why Jews have such short necks. "I don't know," Fish said to no one, shrugging and smiling to himself. Don't lose your sense of humor, his mother always told him. He pictured her for a moment as he walked toward the courthouse, smiling without reason.
Fish met Mason in the hall on the eighth floor. He was leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest, when Fish got off the elevator. Fish hurried toward him, hands outstretched.
"I'm sorry I'm late. The rabbi grabbed me after services this morning. Everything with him is another sermon. He wouldn't let me go until I told him he'd have to call the FBI and tell them I hadn't jumped bail."
Mason shook his hand. "Don't worry. Samuelson is running late too. His secretary said he'd be another twenty or thirty minutes. There's a lot of hurry up and wait in the practice of law."
Fish pulled off his topcoat, and laid it across his arm. He looked out the eighth-floor windows at the panoramic view to the south, focusing on the parking lot below. He spotted his car tucked into a space at the back of the lot. Someone parked next to his Cadillac, got out, and walked toward the courthouse without so much as a backward glance. Fish exhaled loudly, unaware that he'd been holding his breath.
Mason asked, "Are you okay, Avery? I've got mold in my refrigerator that looks better than you do."
Fish wiped his brow. More sweat. "How should I look? I work all my life and I'm about to get the penitentiary instead of a pension."
"There's a bathroom down the hall. Splash some water on your face. Straighten your tie and pinch your cheeks for some color. You look like death warmed over. I want Samuelson to see the grandfather not the gonif."
Fish smiled. That's why he liked Mason. No bullshit and a sense of humor. It didn't hurt that he was a member of the tribe, a fellow Jew. When it was crunch time, his people always took care of one another.
Forty minutes later, they were ushered into a conference room by Samuelson's secretary, who apologized again that her boss had been delayed by an emergency in another case. She apologized a second time that there was no coffee, closing the door and leaving Fish and Mason alone.
The conference room was small and had no windows. Pinpoint beams of light aimed at them from miniature floodlights buried deep in ceiling canisters. Mason sat in one of the black leather chairs ringing a circular table. Fish paced, brushing his hand along the surface of the table.
"Samuelson," Fish said. "He must be a young guy."
"Around thirty, I'd say. How did you know?"
"This conference room. It's for minor leaguers. You want to impress somebody with the might of the federal government, you get the big room with the picture of the president on the wall and a couple of flags in the corners. Maybe one of those big bronze seals with the eagle on it. I'd say Samuelson doesn't carry a lot of weight around here if this is the best conference room he can get."
"Don't be insulted that you didn't get the big-shot treatment. There's a price for that, and it's paid in jail time and money. Better to be a low-profile defendant in a low-profile case with a young guy still learning his way around."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Fish smoothed the lapels on his suit jacket, hiking up his pants and tugging at his shirt collar. "If I'm right, then why is he keeping us waiting? What's with this baloney about an emergency in another case? I know it's the government we're dealing with here, but don't they have to try to run on time for Christ's sake?"
"Avery, you got someplace else you've got to be today? Something more important on your schedule than this? Sit down, take a breath, and relax. These things always take longer than they should. We're going to get a deal you can live with. It may not be perfect, but it will beat the hell out of taking this case to trial. Trust me."
Excerpted from FINAL JUDGMENT by JOEL GOLDMAN Copyright © 2012 by Joel Goldman. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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