In fond remembrance of Mike Sheeter who passed away on June 5, 2012.
Dave Manfred sat in his office on Olympic Boulevard, trying to come to grips with the letter of termination in his hands, watching a bullnecked security guard, flanked by an attorney, fill up a cardboard document box with client files.
He scanned the signatures of nine of his top tier clients: a mixed bag of actors, directors, talent agents, and entertainment executives. They generated eighty percent of his income, and their dismissal read like a formal declaration of war.
According to their new lawyer, a captious little prick with a paisley bow tie and matching suspenders, his ex-clients were filing embezzlement charges against Milt Medenbach, their business manager and Dave's employer.
"Here's some free legal advice," the attorney said. "Hire a good criminal lawyer. You'll be all washed up as a CPA, but if you help us recover let's say, sixty per cent of the money and agree to testify for the prosecution against Mr. Medenbach, maybe you can keep from going to jail."
The mention of Milt's name reminded Dave that he hadn't had any of his calls returned for almost a week.
"Before Medenbach introduced you to these people, you were just another middle of the pack bean counter," the lawyer continued. You really think a west-side jury's going to believe you weren't getting your share?"
"Any accountant is only as good as the numbers his client gives him," Dave offered. "If there are cash shortfalls, I didn't cause them."
The lawyer nodded wearily and said, "Go ahead, play felony ping-pong. You'll blame Medenbach; he'll put it all on you. Whoever's smartest will make a deal."
"Yeah," Dave thought, "But if Milt hasn't been arrested yet, that tells me you haven't figured out how much money is missing, or where he's hidden it. If I can find it before the district attorney, maybe I can jump off this bus before it crashes through the guardrails." Instead, he said, "Tell you what Counselor, you and your big stick take the paperwork you came for, and get out of my office."
The attorney flipped his card onto Dave's desk and the two men left with the box of client files. Dave was gnawing an antacid tablet out of its wrapper when his phone buzzed.
"Hi, Mr. Manfred? Barney Keough, at the Marina. I've been trying to get in touch with Mr. Medenbach, but I haven't been having much luck. I wonder if you could pass along a quick question for me."
"I haven't spoken to Milt for a while, either. What's the question?"
"The lease on his boat slip expires next week. We've got a waiting list for those sixty-five foot doublewides. Could you ask him if he intends to renew?"
"Why does he need a sixty-five foot slip? That dinky catamaran of his can't be longer than 20 feet."
"Oh, he sold the catamaran. He has a motor yacht now, an '03 Viking Sport."
Dave's antacid tablet lodged halfway down his throat. No way Milt could afford that much boat.
Milt's dinged up old XKE roadster was parked haphazardly in the driveway of his California Craftsman house off San Vicente Boulevard.
Dave tried the doorknocker, and leaned on the bell. He remembered seeing Milt use a spare set of keys stashed under a fake rock on the lawn. He found them, released the dead bolt, and stepped into the living room.
Paul Butterfield's blues harmonica wailed from the guest bedroom that Milt used as a home office. When Dave tapped on the door, it swung open beneath his hand. Milt was slumped in his high backed executive chair, facing the computer monitor. His pupils were clouded, and a yellowing plume of pulmonary foam protruded from his mouth. He had knotted a length of surgical tubing around his bicep, and there was a blood-clotted syringe at his feet.
"I should have figured he was backsliding," Dave thought. "I haven't seen him at a Narc-Anon meeting in weeks. No telling how long he's been dead, but even with the air conditioner going, I can smell him."
He turned the overheated carousel CD player off, and came around the desk in the suddenly oppressive silence. The computer monitor displayed the web page of a bank in the Cayman Islands. The transaction log was still open, documenting a two-day-old electronic fund transfer, in the amount of four million dollars.
So the allegations were true: Milt had looted his client trust account, and funneled the stolen money into an anonymous offshore account. Then he threw a little party to celebrate his new wealth, but before he could start spending it, his heart exploded.
Dave spotted a scrap of paper next to the keyboard. A number and letter sequence in Milt's familiar scrawl matched the twelve boxes provided for the depositor's account number. A second line of boxes demanded a personal access code, but displayed only asterisks.
Whatever password Milt had used to access his account, it had eight digits or letters. Maybe I can figure it out and replace the shortfall. But wait a minute; the bank's computers would have a time-coded record of Milt plundering his client's assets. The medical examiner would be able to estimate how long Milt had been dead, too, and cadavers don't make wire transfers. Even if I replaced the money, invading the account is still wire fraud. With nobody else left to prosecute, some hardnosed Assistant US Attorney might decide to pile on tax evasion and money laundering charges.
He may not have taken a dime, but Dave knew appearances trumped reality every day in LA. If I report the account they'll take it as proof I was in on the scheme, too. People with seven-figure incomes take embezzlement even more personally than nanny-cam footage of the au pair slapping their toddler around.
Best-case scenario, Milt's victims would hound him to the grave, and slap a lien on the tombstone. Worst case, he would lose his credential and do time. After that, I'd be lucky to snag a third shift assistant manager's gig at Taco Bell.
Milt had landed him in this jackpot and was the only one who could get him out of it. If I'm going to make my move, I'll need to do it pretty quick. Suppose I just make him disappear, bury him out in the Angeles National Forest? Let them chase a ghost. Meanwhile, I'll crack that password, re-route his balance into an anonymous account of my own, at a different bank.
Dave figured he could tap a few computer keys, and that four million bucks would jump into his lap like a new puppy. After that, Los Angeles and certified public accountancy can kiss my ass goodbye. Milt's flashy new boat meant he was planning to blow town any day. The access code to his secret account was almost certainly somewhere in this room.
He felt around for Milt's wallet and took his time going through it, item by item. There were no eight-figure notations in the margins of any of his cards or snapshots. OK, so let's seeJaguar XKEno, damn it, that's no good, one letter too many. The same goes for his social security number.
Dave refreshed the foreign bank's web page, and entered Milt's date of birth: 02/11/1968. Access denied.
He typed in 'VIKING 65' for Milt's new sixty-five foot motor yacht. Access denied.
A flashing red-bordered message box appeared, warning him that if his third sign-on attempt failed, the account would be frozen until its owner came to the Cayman Islands to present his passport.
He rummaged through Milt's desk and found a satellite phone and the keys to his yacht. There was a belly gun in there too, a .38 Special Smith Bodyguard, stoked with wad cutters. He flipped over the desk blotter and mouse pad, and yanked the drawers out of the desk, running his fingers along their undersides.
Nothing. He could hear his own breathing, starting to hyperventilate. He pried the frames off some photos and diplomas, and then pulled a row of law books down from the bookcase, cracking their spines before tossing them across the room.
A plumed cadet's shako from the Saratoga Military Academy occupied the top shelf. Milt used to boast how military school had toughened him up, made a winner out of him. Wherever he is now, he's probably enjoying this, watching me squirm like a mouse in a glue trap. Maybe he never wrote the password down at all. Maybe the son of a bitch only committed it to memory.
Dave batted the shako across the room. He froze when he heard footsteps approaching. He darted over to the door and managed to twist the lock shut a fraction of a second before the knob turned.
"Mister Milt? You break something? You OK?" It was Marta, Milt's housekeeper.
Dave coughed, imitating Milt's Jersey accent. "I've got the flu," he rasped. "Come back later, you don't want to catch it."
"I already had it," she said. "You want some soup and toast?"
"No thanks," he said. "I'll see you in a few days."
"Mr. Milt?" She said, rattling the doorknob again, "You forgot to give me last week's check."
"I'll leave an envelope under the mat first thing tomorrow."
"I don't sound a damn thing like him," Dave thought. "The woman's no dummy; she's out there calling 911 right now."
"I'll add a little something extra for your trouble," he added.
No reply. After what seemed like a very long time, Marta said, "OK, Mister Milt. I hope you feeling better soon."
He pressed his ear to the door, and listened as she shuffled down the hall and let herself out. The upturned shako caught his eye again.
This time he saw that Cadet Medenbach had written his serial number inside the sweatband: 4778 D Trp.
Milt's body was no longer in rigor. Wheeling him out to the garage in the executive chair and cramming him into the deep freezer under a load of frozen yellow tail was easy. Stuffing five hundred bucks into an envelope for Marta was easy, too. But when it came to opening his own anonymous numbered account in an offshore bank, Dave was beginning to think he was beyond his depth. Corporate attorneys and chief financial officers were the guys who typically dealt with offshore accounts. CPAs spent most of their lives trying to comply with the tax code.
After Dave returned home to his townhouse on North Bundy and hopped online, he found three-dozen offshore banks doing business on the web. But before the foreign banks would talk business with him, they demanded passport numbers, social security numbers, credit reports, and bank references.
All of them, that is, but one.
Dave was using Milt's name and satellite phone now, talking to Señor Ernesto Puyans, of the Banco De La Moneda Extranjera, in Caracas.
"As you probably already know, Mister Medenbach, most banks in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein won't even accept accounts from individual Americans any more," Puyans told him. "Since 9/11, most offshore banks routinely cooperate with Yanqui law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Frankly, these days, Americans are more trouble than they're worth. If you require complete anonymity and discretion, you'll need to venture well beyond the sphere of American influence. We Venezuelans don't jump when Uncle Sam cracks his whip. Also, we offer certain specialized services that other banks can't match. Naturally, Señor, their availability depends on how much money you were thinking of depositing."
"Let's say a million. If everything goes smoothly, there might be substantial additional deposits."
"A deposit of one million dollars US would qualify you for certain premium services we make available only to our preferred customers."
"I really can't discuss it on the phone," Puyans said. "But if you wish, one of our North American account representatives will meet with you tomorrow, and answer your questions in person."
When Dave let himself into Milt's house the next morning, he saw that Marta had tidied up a little before collecting her envelope. The bank's representative, a waif-like Latina in her early thirties, turned up at two p.m. She introduced herself as Teresa, volunteering no last name. After they shook hands, she unbuttoned her blouse and performed a pirouette, showing him her taut belly and flesh-toned Lycra bra.
"Please satisfy yourself that I'm not wearing a recording or listening device," she said.
"That won't be necessary."
She shrugged, took a radio frequency detector out of her attaché case and scanned the room. "Very well," she said, putting the scanner away. "But for my own protection, I'm going to body search you."
Dave held his hands out at his sides. Teresa swept her hands up and down his torso, hesitating for an instant when she encountered the snub-nosed revolver above his kidney.
"I don't care for firearms myself, but LA is a dangerous city, no?" she said. "Will you show me to your computer now?"
Dave led her into Milt's office and looked over her shoulder as she brought up the Venezuelan bank's web page. She positioned the cursor over the 'X' in Extranjera, and double clicked. A new box appeared, demanding an account number and password.
"You see this Easter egg, that's what you call it in English, yes? It connects you to our emergency relocation center," Teresa said. "Think of it as a ripcord. If you need to bail out of your old life and make a soft landing, someplace far away, activate this feature. One of our operatives will contact you within twenty-four hours, and assist you to leave the country safely and anonymously."
"Assist me how, exactly?"
"In absolutely any way you require, Señor Medenbach." She brought up the CIA's world fact book site and tapped a French manicured nail against the screen. "This is the tri-border area between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. Here is Ciudad Del Este, in Paraguay, where the bank maintains a luxury villa for the use of its preferred customers.
If anybody comes looking for you, you can use the villa as a safe house until we can get you across one of these national frontiers. Some of our depositors have eluded national law enforcement agencies, the IRS, even the Mossad, for decades. For an additional fee, we can also offer you one of these." She handed him a passport issued by the Republica Orientale De Uruguay. It was a blank, with no bearer's name or photograph.
"It looks like the real thing," he said.
"It is. We have a working relationship with certain Uruguayan officials. With a legitimate passport and a new name, a gentleman of means can divide his time among the most exciting cities in the world. We'll deduct fifty thousand dollars from your new account for the Uruguayan passport, and an additional fifty thousand if you request emergency relocation. Afterwards, your account balance will be electronically accessible from anywhere in the world."
"The new identity alone is worth a hundred thou," Dave thought. "And even if they rip me off, so what? I've got another three mil waiting in the Caymans. "Would you mind stepping out of the room?" he asked.
Five minutes later, he called Theresa back in and showed her the million-dollar wire transfer into his newly established Venezuelan account.
"You've made a wise choice," she said. "How else may I be of service?"
"I'll take the Uruguayan passport and the emergency relocation option. But before I leave the country, there's a loose end I'll need some help with."
"Certainly, sir." Teresa said. "But first things first. We wouldn't want to leave the authorities any back trails." She popped the C.P.U. cover, used a Leatherman tool to extract the hard drive, and slipped it into her case.
He escorted her out to the garage and showed her Milt's frozen corpse. "This guy was my accountant," Dave said. "He was blackmailing me, and---"
"The particulars aren't important," Teresa interrupted. "We're people of commerce, not moralists. We'll take him with us, and dispose of him enroute."
"Also, I have a boat, a sixty-five foot motor yacht. I'd like to have it with me. Can you help me re-register it under my new name? In Costa Rica, or Belize?"
Teresa clapped her hands and said, "But that's perfect! We can pose as honeymooners! We'll even supply a sailing master, as far as Baja. From there, a freighter can ship it to your destination of choice as deck cargo."
"How much extra will that cost me?"
She closed the space between them, and said, "For you, Señor Medenbach? No additional charge."
They ran into some heavy chop an hour after clearing the harbor. Dave washed down a few Dramamine pills with a split of Veuve Clicquot he found in the galley. When he woke up on the master stateroom's queen-sized bed, something was digging into his back. He pulled the little J-framed revolver out of his waistband and shoved it into his pocket. He blinked at his surroundings for a few seconds before remembering that he was onboard the Svengali, Milt's motor yacht.
His motor yacht now. But he could no longer feel the throb of the twin marine diesels under his feet. He climbed the staircase to the enclosed flying bridge and nodded to Aurelio, the boat handler Teresa had brought aboard in Marina del Ray. Dave glanced at the sun, and then the compass. Svengali's prow was pointed north.
"Where are you taking us?" Dave asked.
Aurelio shrugged. Dave stepped out onto the open deck. An eye-watering stench wafted up from the bow.
Teresa wore a nylon windbreaker over her orange bikini. She was kneeling beside Milt's corpse, using a diver's knife to cut away his shroud of trash bags. "Welcome back," she said. "For a while, you were looking nearly as bad as our friend, here."
"What's happening? Where are we?"
"An excellent place for making a body disappear," she said. She sheathed her knife and added, "Come, let me show you."
He followed her to the stern, and down onto the narrow diver's step. She pointed across a mile-wide expanse of surging white caps to a tiny island. There were no other boats in sight, no buildings on the low brown hills except for an abandoned lighthouse. A few pelicans practiced their formation flying overhead. Dave spotted hundreds of massive gray and black shapes lolling on the beach. Then the wind shifted, and a cacophony of grunts and roars reached him.
Teresa said, "You're looking at the northern elephant seal rookery on Año Nuevo Island, opposite the central California town of Davis."
"It's mating season. This is the time of year when their main predator, the great white shark, arrives to feed on them. Look over there. You see?" As Dave turned his head, Theresa plunged her diving knife between his short ribs, twisted the blade free, and body-checked him off the step.
When Dave got his head back above water, he coughed up a half pint of blood-tinged saltwater. A spreading corona of gore darkened the sea around him. Teresa watched expressionlessly from the step. He clawed his revolver out of his pocket and fired at her. She turned away with no particular urgency. He fired and missed again. White foam rooster-tailed from the Svengali's beam as the twin screws engaged. The motor yacht came about and sped away to the south.
Teresa and Aurelio dragged Milt's corpse across the deck by its heels. "It's a sin to abandon a beautiful boat like this," Aurelio said, puffing with the effort. "It's easily worth more than the million you got. Why can't we just dump the accountant's body, sell the boat, and keep the money ourselves?"
She nodded at Milt's body and said, "You should be grateful to him. He's going to divert official attention from us." She knelt down, finished stripping away the garbage bag wrappings, wrapped the knife inside them, and threw it over the side. "Help me get him into the Captain's chair," she said. The two of them wrestled the corpse into a sitting position and went aft to get some fresh air.
"We'll get plenty more than that first million," Teresa said. "By the time the Coast Guard finds the real Medenbach dead and turns him over to police, we'll have harvested the hard drive and gained access to his other accounts and passwords. When the cops finally connect the corpse and the missing money, it will already be disbursed among shell corporations in a half different countries. There won't be anything to prevent us from doing this again, as many times as we like. So let's not get greedy. Let them have the boat. We'll make our rendezvous as planned."
She smiled, and Aurelio said, "What's the joke?"
"I remember something he said when he was trying to impress me," she said. "He boasted that he worked for all these celebrities. I asked him what a business manager does, and he said, 'A business manager charges his clients fifteen per cent of everything they make.'"
Aurelio said, "What's funny about that?"
Teresa giggled, "Fifteen per cent! That's what I get, too!"
Dave kept dogpaddling. He brought up fresh gouts of blood with every exhalation. I let her remove the hard drive, he remembered, and flashed on a mental image of her slipping it into her attaché case. He imagined her turning it over to a tech, the two of them laughing as they recovered the passwords, and brought up all the account numbers.
He still clutched the snub-nosed revolver. Two rounds gone and three more in the cylinder, he thought. All the wealth I have left. How shall I invest it?
He pondered the question for twenty minutes, until he saw the first fin circling, and an exploratory nudge bumped his leg.
Copyright © 2009 by Mike Sheeter