Gregor Demarkian grew up in the Armenian-American enclave in Philadelphia known as Cavanaugh Street. Even though he left to go to college, and then went on to a storied career in the famous Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, he eventually returned to Cavanaugh Street after an early retirement. There he finds himself in a rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhood that still retains some of the friends, institutions, and flavor of the immigrant neighborhood he grew up in. Among them is his best friend, Father Tibor Kasparian, the parish priest of the local Armenian-Orthodox church, probably the most genuinely gentle soul that Demarkian has ever met.
When Father Tibor is then arrested on murder charges, it tears at the very foundation of Demarkian's world. While Gregor has very strict rules about for whom and under what conditions he will consult, all those rules go by the wayside. In Fighting Chance, from award-winning author Jane Haddam, Demarkian is now a man possessed, and his one goal is to find out what really happened and who is really responsible for the murder Father Tibor is charged with.
About the Author
Jane Haddam, author of more than twenty novels, has been a finalist for both the Edgar® and the Anthony Award. She lives in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
Somewhere back in the mists of time, Gregor Demarkian had trained to be an accountant. First he had taken a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania. That had sounded very practical to his parents, who were immigrants from Armenia and heavily invested in making sure their children had careers that could carry them in America. Gregor never had the heart to tell them that academic economics was not the same thing as a business degree. To this day, he wasn’t sure what it was most of his professors had been getting at. Whether they were socialist or capitalist, mercantilist or Marxist, they all seemed to be living in cloud-cuckoo-land, where “rational actors” and “historical forces” bumped about the landscape doing things no actual existing human being would ever do, “inevitably” coming to conclusions that contradicted everybody else’s inevitability.
After college, Gregor went on to the Harvard Business School, where he’d been given an MBA that should have been spectacularly practical. He’d been enabled to go by the Armenian American Professional Fund, which was set up by an earlier generation of immigrants than that of his parents, dedicated to turning Armenian Americans into doctors and lawyers and that kind of thing.
“We can’t go on and on with the rugs,” the secretary of the fund explained to him when he’d gone by to pick up an application. “It’s embarrassing. It’s a stereotype. Nobody wants to be a stereotype.”
Gregor had been a contrarian even then, and something in the back of his mind observed that not only did everybody rely on stereotypes to get by in everyday life, but that it could sometimes be to your own advantage to be taken as one. Fortunately, he’d had too much sense actually to say that. He’d just taken the papers home, filled them out, and sent them in. Two months later, his tuition at Harvard was covered.
His father thought he’d been in school long enough already, but his mother was very pleased. “They take you very seriously,” she’d said. “You want to be taken seriously.”
Gregor supposed he did want to be taken seriously, but at the moment, it was mostly a side issue. He’d done well at Wharton, and while he was doing very well, he had assumed that he would spend his life after graduating working for some enormous corporation, or for one of the Big Eight accounting firms. He’d had his sights set on Arthur Andersen when the man from the FBI showed up at a recruitment day.
From the moment he met the man from the FBI, he’d been hooked.
The problem as things now stood was that, although the FBI had hired him because he was an accountant—in those days, the FBI preferred its recruits to be either lawyers or accountants—it hadn’t ever really used his expertise in accountancy.
Part of that was his own damned fault. He’d graduated. He’d been sent off to get enough experience to be certified. He’d trained at Quantico. In no time at all, he was able to see that the really interesting work in the Bureau had to do with bodies.
For a while after that, Gregor kept up his certification and made some effort to keep up with accounting. But it was only for a while. Kidnapping detail had given way to murder investigations on Indian reservations and then to the early days of the Behavioral Sciences Unit. And after that, Elizabeth got sick with breast cancer.
Gregor could not remember a time when he had been sorry that his career went the way it had gone. Until now. Now he was sitting at the Federal Reserve, waiting for an appointment and sifting through computer files. He had been sifting through these files for several weeks, and they still didn’t make even a modicum of sense.
He was rapidly reaching the conclusion that they were not making sense, because they could not be made sense of.
He heard a discreet little cough near the top of his head and looked up to find a middle-aged woman standing over him, looking faintly disapproving. Gregor did not take that seriously. This was a confidential secretary of the old school—not a woman who typed and took dictation, but a woman who manged five or six other secretaries underneath her and knew more about what her boss did than her boss himself. She knew because she was convinced that bosses knew next to nothing, and she was probably right.
“Mr. Carpenter is ready for you now,” she said. “If you’ll just follow me this way.”
Gregor said thank you and got up and followed. It had been many years since he was last inside the Federal Reserve, and he was both surprised and a little depressed to see that it had changed almost not at all.
It wasn’t very far to Mr. Carpenter’s office. It was just off the reception area to the right and barely down the corridor. Whoever Mr. Carpenter was, he was not a force to be reckoned with.
That made Gregor Demarkian decidedly relieved.
The middle-aged woman stopped at a blank wooden door, knocked twice, and opened it.
A young man stood up from behind a solid wood desk and held out his hand. “Mr. Demarkian? I’m Terry Carpenter. The Director has told me a lot about you.”
Gregor could not imagine what the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had had to tell Terry Carpenter about him. This was not a Director under which Gregor had ever worked. He wasn’t even the second Director after one under which Gregor had worked.
Gregor shook Terry Carpenter’s hand and sat down in one of the seats the man was gesturing to. The office was only big-ish. Gregor wondered what Carpenter spent most of his time doing.
Terry Carpenter sat down behind his desk again. Gregor put his briefcase on the floor.
“I’m not sure I’m actually the person you need to talk to,” Carpenter said. “We looked through the material you sent the Bureau, and we tried to work it out, but you have to understand that these things are very complicated. Worse than complicated.”
“‘Bat shit crazy’ is what Mike Engstrom told me.”
Carpenter flushed slightly. “Yeah,” he said. “I know. And I hate to admit it, but I think it’s actually getting worse.”
“It’s been years,” Gregor pointed out. “The mortgage meltdown was in 2008. And you don’t know anything?”
“Oh, no,” Carpenter said. “We know a lot. We’re just not sure what we know is right, and we’re not sure what else is out there, and as to the problem of titles—well.”
“When you take a mortgage and slice it into a dozen pieces and sell the pieces to a dozen different funds that sell securities based on the pieces to hundreds of different clients, it begins to get to be a problem figuring out who actually owns the property.”
“That’s what your e-mail said,” Gregor poined out.
Carpenter flushed again. “I know. It’s going to be years yet before we get this all straightened out, and we may never get this straightened out. There may be hundreds of properties out there without any clear title at all—”
“You mean people are going to be living in houses and nobody’s going to know who owns them.”
“That’s the thing,” Carpenter said. “Yes.”
“I’m only interested in one property,” Gregor said. “Apartment Four, 1207 Markham Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s right around the corner from my house. The man who lives there is named Mikel Dekanian. He immigrated from Armenia fifteen years ago. He’s got a wife named Asha and two children, both boys. The boys are both under ten.”
“Yes,” Carpenter said. “But you must realize that as affecting as these personal stories are—”
“It’s not just that their house is in foreclosure. It’s that their house is in foreclosure due to the legal action of a bank that, as far as I can figure out, never had a mortgage on the house. Never. You can do things about a foreclosure if you know how to go about it right. But I can’t do anything about a foreclosure when the bank that’s foreclosing doesn’t actually hold the mortgage on the house. And I really can’t do anything about it when everybody admits that the bank doesn’t seem to have the right to foreclose, but nobody will stop them from foreclosing. This ought not even to be an issue. We should have been able to go into court, show the judge that the bank did not have the lien, and walked out with the foreclosure stopped.”
“Yes,” Carpenter said miserably. “I know.”
“Instead,” Gregor said, “the court is acting as if Mikel Dekanian is pulling some kind of scam, and as if I’m aiding and abetting it. And the priest from our local church. And my wife. And before you say yes again, let me point out that this isn’t the only case like this we’ve had. There have, in fact, been four of these cases over the last three years in our own parish alone, and we lost one of them.”
“I’m feeling a little stuck on yes,” Terry Carpenter said.
“And does yes mean there’s nothing you can do about it?”
“Not exactly,” Terry Carpenter said. “Give me a minute and let me show you what I’ve managed to put together.”
What Terry Carpenter had managed to put together was an even bigger mess than what Gregor Demarkian had managed to put together for himself, and it was far more surreal.
“I just have to do a little setup here,” he promised while Gregor sat in his uncomfortable visitor’s chair and watched the razzle-dazzle roll out in the hands of two assistants who looked far more nervous than they ought to be.
Gregor was willing to bet that these were not Terry Carpenter’s own personal assistants, and the ferociously competent woman who had brought him to Carpenter’s door wasn’t either. The ferociously competent woman would belong to a higher-up who wanted to make sure Carpenter made a good impression. Carpenter wasn’t making a good impression.
He was barely making a bad impression.
Computers rolled into the office, mostly laptops with very big screens. These were lined up on the edge of Carpenter’s desk facing Gregor. The screens of the laptops all had very colorful graphs on them—bar graphs and pie graphs, overlapping circle graphs that reminded Gregor of elementary school forays into set theory. The whole thing gave off a distinct odor of panic.
“There,” Carpenter said. “There we are. I think that if we refer to these graphs, I might be able to explain what’s going on with your Mr., uh, Mr.—”
“Mikel Dekanian,” Gregor said.
“Yes,” Carpenter said.
Gregor gave the computer screens a sweep. “You know,” he said, “I don’t really need to understand what’s going on here. What I need is to find out what I have to do to fix it. I have a young man who’s done that thing we’re always talking about, and played by all the rules. He’s never been late on a mortgage paper in his life. He hasn’t dealt with any of the big banks exactly because he’s heard too much about the way they operate. And in spite of all that, he’s got letters threatening to send officers to his door. And—”
“It really would help if you understood it,” Terry Carpenter said. “It will only take a minute.”
“We’d let it go and laugh it off if it wasn’t for the case we had last year,” Gregor said. “I mean, for God’s sake, if something like this had come up twenty years ago, it would have been resolved in a week and the bank would have been falling all over Mikel, trying to pay him enough not to sue—”
“But that’s just it!” Terry Carpenter said frantically. “That’s just it! Twenty years ago, the lien would have been filed on paper in your local property tax jurisdiction, somebody would have taken a paper copy of the lien down to the wherever it is, wherever you file deeds and liens on the deeds—it would be the town hall in most places, but with a city the size of Philadelphia, I’m just not sure, so you see—”
“Are you trying to say that Mikel’s deed isn’t on file with the real estate office? Because I can tell you’re wrong. It’s there. I’ve seen it. What’s more, what isn’t there is any lien whatsoever besides the mortgage from the American Amity Savings Bank. I know. I went down there and looked myself.”
Terry Carpenter seemed to be trying to get control of himself.
Gregor thought he’d head him off at the pass.
“Don’t try to tell me that American Amity sold the mortgage,” Gregor said, “because I know it didn’t. American Amity never sold any of its mortgages. I checked it out.”
“Yes,” Terry Carpenter said, “but the thing is—”
“And if you’re going to try to tell me that Mikel took out a second mortgage with J.P. CitiWells, you’re going to have to show me the paperwork. Mikel said he didn’t, and I believe him. I believe him because I know him. I believe him because there is no record of such a lien in the city records. And I believe him because less than a year ago, we had a case where this same bank tried to foreclose on a house that hadn’t had a mortgage on it for nearly thirty years. No mortgage at all. Free and clear.”
Terry Carpenter had been standing up, leaning toward the open laptops, as if he needed only a break in the conversation to jump in and get going. Now he sat down again with a thud.
“Oh, God,” he said. “You got one of those.”
“One of those?” Gregor asked.
Carpenter looked defensive. “There weren’t many of them,” he said. “I mean, hardly a thousand all told throughout the entire system—”
“You had a thousand cases where banks tried to foreclose on houses without any mortgages on them at all? None? A thousand cases—”
“I keep trying to tell you,” Carpenter said. “Everybody used to register their deeds and their mortgages at town hall, but back around 2000, people began to feel that was a really old-fashioned and time-consuming way of going about things. You had to hire people to go running all over the country. It could take weeks to get mortgage liens filed. So a group of the bigger banks got together to found an electronic filing database, one big database for the entire country. Which was not entirely stupid, you have to see that—”
“Was it legal?” Gregor asked. “Is it legal?”
Terry Carpenter looked miserable. “We don’t know.”
“You don’t know,” Gregor said. “I’ve got a man with a wife and two small children about to lose his house over a mortgage he never took out, and you don’t know if the way it was filed was legal—”
“There are a lot of different jurisdictions involved,” Terry Carpenter said. “What’s legal in California isn’t necessarily legal in Nevada. What’s legal in Atlanta isn’t necessarily legal in Savannah.”
“I know about jurisdictions,” Gregor said.
“It’s easy to say that the banks should have stuck to the old system,” Terry Carpenter said, “but you’ve got to see that that isn’t going to be sustainable. We live in a digital age. You don’t type on a manual typewriter anymore, and you don’t vote by paper ballot. We really are going to have to do something about updating the recordkeeping—”
“Mikel Dekanian’s house is in jeopardy because you hired a bunch of cut-rate data entry people, didn’t hire enough of them, made them work like crazy, and they made mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Some of which—”
“After all,” Terry Carpenter said. “They really were just mistakes. The banks aren’t deliberately trying to steal people’s houses out from under them—”
“How do you know?”
“You’ve got to expect that there are going to be some glitches when a new system goes into place,” Terry Carpenter said, sailing right past anything Gregor was saying. “The thing to do, right this minute, is to get your proof together—”
“We don’t have proof,” Gregor said, “and we shouldn’t be the ones trying to prove anything. J.P. CitiWells should be producing the loan documents, which they are not, and—”
“—and then it’s just a matter of time,” Terry Carpenter said. “It’s just a matter of time—”
“We don’t have any time,” Gregor said. “The court has refused to issue an injunction. We can’t get the process stopped. By the time your matter of time has run its course, Mikel Dekanian is going to be out on the street. And then what happens?”
“You have to see it from the banks’ point of view. They have billions of dollars at stake. They’re trying to recover from enormous financial losses. They have to protect themselves if they’re not going to go down in flames, and—”
“And then I’ve got to ask what I’m doing at the Federal Reserve anyway,” Gregor said. “Why is the Federal Reserve—?”
“Oh, I’m not part of the Federal Reserve proper,” Carpenter said. “I mean, we’re in the building, but that’s just because they were able to find space for us here. We’re really, I mean we’re actually—”
There were two sharp raps on the door. Gregor and Terry Carpenter looked up at the same time. Then the door popped open, and the formidable middle-aged woman stuck her head in.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” she said, “but Mr. Demarkian’s wife is on the phone, and she’s very insistent. She says it’s urgent.”
Copyright © 2014 by Jane Haddam