Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel

by Michael Sears

Hardcover

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Overview

Notes From Your Bookseller

There’s so much attention paid to Manhattan that we forget there are four other boroughs in NYC. Anyone from NYC knows each borough has its own personality. Michael Sears steps away from his Jason Stafford series to guide us through the Queens underworld. We take caution under his wing and are excited to meet his latest star, Ted Malloy.

Shamus Award–winning author Michael Sears brings Queens, New York, to literary life in this crime series debut featuring a somewhat seedy lawyer with a heart of gold (or at least gold plate).

Queens, New York—the most diverse place on earth. Native son Ted Molloy knows these streets like the back of his hand. Ted was once a high-powered Manhattan lawyer, but after a spectacular fall from grace, he has found himself back on his home turf, scraping by as a foreclosure profiteer. It’s a grubby business, but a safe one—until Ted’s case sourcer, a mostly reformed small-time conman named Richie Rubiano, turns up murdered shortly after tipping Ted off to an improbably lucrative lead.

With Richie’s widow on his back and shadows of the past popping up at every turn, Ted realizes he’s gotten himself embroiled in a murder investigation. His quest for the truth will take him all over Queens, plunging him into the machinations of greedy developers, mobsters, enraged activists, old litigator foes and old-school New York City operators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641291958
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 861,127
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Michael Sears spent over twenty years on Wall Street, rising to become a managing director for Paine Webber and Jefferies Financial before leaving the business in 2005 to pursue writing full-time. His books, a number of which are national bestsellers, have been nominated for—and received—numerous awards, including the Edgar. An avid sailor, he lives in Sea Cliff, New York, with his wife, poet and artist Barbara Segal, and the cat Penelope.

Read an Excerpt

1
 
Little Richie was a hard man to like. Though if Ted had known Richie was going to be dead in three days, maybe he would have tried a little harder.
     Or maybe not. Richie Rubiano was a nasty weasel with a long list of annoying habits.
     It was a warm Friday in May, the Mets were at home, three games up on .500, and the bookies were predicting a sweep. Four hours till game time. Ted Molloy was having a late lunch in the back booth at Gallagher’s Pub on Grand Ave.—and anticipating a pleasant weekend at Citi Field—when Richie dropped a stack of marked-up file folders on the table. “I got you some grade A today, bro,” he said. “Check this out.”
     “Nice to see you, Richie. You hungry?” Ted rescued his iced tea as the pile of folders began a slow-motion avalanche across the table. Richie made no effort to assist in heading off this disaster. He looked at the remains of the house pad thai in front of Ted and shuddered. “How do you eat that grass?”
     “I’m offering to buy you lunch.” Richie was bone thin everywhere except for his gut. He always looked both undernourished and overweight. He also had a drooping eyelid and wore a greying ponytail that looked like something you might find on the rear end of a very wet squirrel.
     “No, man. I don’t eat Chinese food.”
     Gallagher’s Pub, a short walk from Ted’s apartment and a quiet place to get work done in the middle of the day, had been a faltering business when Henry Zhang bought it four years ago. He’d made only two important changes. First, he fired all the bartenders who had been robbing Gallagher blind, installing in their place a troop of his female cousins. Then he upgraded the menu to better reflect the changing neighborhood, adding Asian, South American, and Middle Eastern dishes. The weekend dim sum brunch was a hit. And the place still made a great cheeseburger.
     “How about a beer?” Ted asked.
     “Well . . .” Richie twisted his face into a reluctant frown. He wanted the beer, but he mistrusted hospitality.
     Lili, the twentysomething-going-on-forty day-shift bartender, was watching the talking heads on one of the two televisions over the bar. A grinning real estate developer with a glistening, almost reflective bald pate was holding forth on the local economy of Queens. From what Ted had picked up, the guy was taking credit for job creation, tax reduction, and resodding the soccer fields in the park. The cameras liked him.
     Ted managed to catch Lili’s eye, a not terribly difficult feat considering that the only other customer was Paulie McGirk, who occupied the last barstool against the far wall every day from opening until dinner rush, or until he passed out, whichever came first. When Henry bought the pub, Paulie had been included with the other fixtures.
     She raised an eyebrow in response. Ted pointed at Richie and she nodded.
     Ted turned to Richie. “What’ve we got?”
     Richie had a penchant for committing short cons and other small-time property crimes, but Ted had kept him marginally, and legally, employed for four years. Richie was almost old enough to be Ted’s father and had grown up in one of the least diverse enclaves in Queens, the United States’ most ethnically and culturally diverse county. This perspective gave him a singular belief in his innate superiority and catholic ability to understand—and hoodwink—anyone from any background. The fact that he had repeatedly failed at this—and had the police record to prove it—was testimony to his true talent: self-delusion.
     In their work together, Richie did the research. Ted closed the deals. They were not partners. Neither would have allowed it. Richie because he had never learned to play well with others, Ted because he knew better. Richie looked through public documents for foreclosure auctions that resulted in “surplus money.” When, for whatever reason, an owner walked away from a property—commercial only; Ted avoided the heartbreaks of residential foreclosures—and stopped paying the mortgage or taxes or water bill, the building was eventually sold at auction. If some Trump wannabe paid more than the claimants were demanding, the resulting funds were called “surplus money.” If the original owner did not claim these funds, they went to the government and were eventually absorbed by that great maw. These kinds of opportunities were neither common nor rare. Ted made a living off them, but only because he worked at it.
     His part of the job took over where Richie’s left off. Ted examined the files and attempted to locate and cut a deal with the original owners, taking a hefty finder’s fee for reuniting these hapless businessmen with the last recoverable scraps of their failed real estate empires. Sometimes it worked; more often it did not. Not everyone wanted to be found or, when found, appreciated being contacted regarding a painful and destructive phase in their lives. Ted managed to have more good years than bad by concentrating on hitting singles and doubles. There were few home runs.
     The bartender arrived with a Bud Light and a chilled glass.
     “Put that on my tab,” Ted said.
     Richie ignored the glass and took a hefty swallow from the longneck. “She’s always trying to get me to up my game. You see that? Trying to get me to show some class.”
     “Yeah, well, she’s young. She’ll get over it.”
     They had met four years earlier when Ted was coming out the door of the Capital One bank near the courthouse and Richie had approached him with his sad face and a story. Ted had let him spin his whole pitch about having lost his wallet and needing help to cash two checks from his employer and how he’d gladly pay 10 percent—$200—for assistance. It was an old con, and Richie, though glib enough, was unlikely to inspire confidence in anyone in possession of either eyes or brain.
     But Ted was new to the surplus-money game and already disheartened by the amount of time he was spending on research, both online and at the courthouse. He bought the hapless con man a few beers, and by the end of the day, they had arrived at a working arrangement. A year later, when Richie was arrested for scamming senior citizens with an IRS spiel, Ted bailed him out, found him a good lawyer, and put him back to work. Ted didn’t think of it as either altruism or heroism. He didn’t want to waste time finding and training some other researcher.
     “What do I owe you?” Ted asked.
     “I got eleven. All winners.”
     “So, that’s two seventy-five.” Ted passed him the cash and reached for the top case file. “Anything I should know about these?”
     “The one in your hand. You read that and tell me it’s not solid gold.”
     He flipped it open. The top page listed the property address, the defendant, the claimant, the amounts sought by claimant, and the sale price. Ted slammed it closed.
     “Gimme back twenty-five,” he said. “You know I don’t hunt elephants.”
     “You gotta read it first.”
     “I read it. It’s a million-two. That’s all I need to know.”
     There were no guarantees in his business. People who fail to appear at their own foreclosure hearings may be confused, angry, disorganized, broken, or, in some cases, just nuts. It could be a little like juggling rattlesnakes. The process itself could be devastating for the defendants, or for any number of reasons, they could be victims of their own design. Early on, Ted had made some rules to protect himself, and he observed them more religiously than he had ever followed the Ten Commandments.
     One of those rules was “Thou Shalt Take a Pass on the Big Ones.” Normal people don’t leave a million dollars lying around. There’s always a story. A divorce, trouble with probate, criminal activity, people fleeing the country or disappearing into the wind. The really big ones were a waste of time. The sweet spot was fifty to a hundred thousand. In a stretch, he would go as high as a quarter million, but he had regretted it every time.
     “There’s got to be an army of lawyers circling something this large, Richie. It’s a sucker bet.”
     “You’re a lawyer. You could work your magic and get by ’em.”
     Ted had a law degree but no license. He’d let it lapse and no longer gave much thought to it.
     “It’s the property. The family owned it since the 1880s. One heir. Some lady who never married. She’s like ninetysomething.” Richie was excited. That was never a good sign.
     “You mean 1980s.”
     “No, like since the Civil War. You know where they started clearing that big lot in Corona? You hear about this?”
     About a mile from where they sat, a full four-block area was to be razed and cleared in preparation for the transformation of the neighborhoods surrounding Flushing Meadows Park. There would be a new on/off ramp for the Grand Central Parkway, luxury hotels with views of both the Mets’ ballpark and the tennis stadium, and a combined shopping mall and mixed-use high-rise that would throw a late-afternoon shadow as far as the Nassau County line. The three-letter name of the development corporation, LBC, was chiseled into the cornerstone of dozens of projects around the borough, a brand as recognizable to Queens residents as IKEA or Con Ed. Members of the local community had been fighting this monstrosity in the courts for months. But a day did not go by without an appearance on television of the Chairman and CEO, Ronald (Ron) Reisner, smirking at their failure to stop him. Whether Reisner and his family owned the company or simply acted as if they did was a source of constant speculation in the New York press. Nevertheless, Ted was not surprised that Richie seemed to have only recently become aware of the project.
     “I heard someone mention it,” Ted said.
     “It’s a big deal,” Richie assured him.
     “Mr. Reisner was on the television not two minutes ago.” Ted saw that Reisner had been replaced by a photo of the mayor shaking hands with a parking lot tycoon, who had recently been indicted for extortion, defrauding employees, failure to pay sales tax, and witness tampering.
     Richie glanced at the set. “Nah. That ain’t him.”
     “I’m sure you’re right.” Conversations with Richie often took these veering turns, and Ted had learned that the only way to keep his sanity was to allow his mind to float above the words and focus on the horizon.
     “This was the whole northwest corner,” Richie said, stabbing the file folder with a finger. “This old lady owned six lots. She lost it all for two years’ water and taxes.”
     “And interest and legal fees and—”
     “Yeah, yeah, I know.”
     “I’m not interested,” Ted finished.
     The weasel pouted. “Okay, but if I go after it myself, will you back me?”
     “Back you? You mean with cash?” Ted cut off a laugh. Richie was serious.
     “If I can cut a deal.”
     “Why don’t I just take the money and burn it?”
     “Not to buy her out. Just enough to show her I’m for real. Say, fifty grand. Or a hundred.”
     “You’re dreaming.”
     “I got some ideas.”
     “Really?” Ted flipped open the file again. “How do you propose to find a ninety-three-year-old woman named Barbara Miller? That’s like looking for John Smith. According to the docs, she never once appeared in court.”
     “Yeah, but . . .”
     “And if, by some bit of magic, you do locate this lady, and she’s not so far into dementia that she can’t understand the words you’re saying, how are you going to keep her from running to her lawyer here? What’s his name?”
     Ted shuffled pages until he found the settlement page listing all of the parties involved and their representatives. The name jumped up and smacked him between the eyes. Jacqueline Clavette. He slammed the file closed.
     “What?” Richie cried.
     “Nothing. Look, Richie, keep the twenty-five bucks. I don’t care. But leave this alone. Can you?”
     “You know this lawyer.” Richie tried to take the file.
     Yes, he knew the lawyer all right. Jacqueline Clavette was married to Ted’s ex-wife.
     Richie snatched the file. “We’ll talk again, and when we do, I’m gonna show you how this shit gets done.”
     The talk never happened. Three days later Richie was dead.

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