Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Neander Valley Girl (or Cavemen Behaving Badly)

Hare slinked away from the fire, choosing the comfort of shadows over warmth. The free-form beat Lapwing tapped on his new drum made of hollowed spruce and reindeer hide annoyed her.
It wasn’t just the music. Hare was angry with her parents – angrier than when they had burdened her with the adult name “Hare.” For months she eagerly had anticipated the solstice, the day when youngsters in their twelfth summer received their adult names. When the day finally came her parents sprang “Hare” on her. An adult name was supposed to express some special personal characteristic, but sometimes parents couldn’t resist playing jokes. Within the band were a towering fellow named Mouse, a short girl named Elk, and a dimwit named Fox. Hare strongly suspected her parents picked “Hare” not because of her swiftness of foot but because of her big ears, which she covered with her hair whenever possible. There had been snickering aplenty within the band on that awful day. Not that she hadn’t laughed when the boy with the child-name Sprig, who was terrified of water, was dubbed “Otter,” but he deserved it.
The naming ceremony was a negligible offense compared to this new blow. Her parents had announced they would pair her with Boar, and so far her loud objections to the plan had gotten her nowhere. Boar was as ugly as his namesake and only half as smart. His only recommendation was that he belonged to the Birch clan. The chieftain of all the bands of the Folk always was a Birch, and Hare’s parents wanted some of the family prestige to rub off on them. Hare couldn’t bear the thought of what would rub off on her.
Hare sometimes wondered if Boar was part ogre. He didn’t look much like his supposed father. He had a squat broad frame much like the creatures. Could his mother have dallied with one? If so, he wasn’t a Birch; he wasn’t one of the Folk; maybe he wasn’t even human. At the tribal meets, there were whispered stories of occasional mixed-bloods, who were killed at birth. The fate of mixed-bloods, if any, born among the ogres was unknown. No one knew exactly what the ogres were, but they had occupied this land first. They fell back toward the ice to the north and the sea to the west as the Folk steadily infiltrated from the Southwest.
Hare had never seen an ogre up close though she had seen their silhouettes on ridges. They kept their distance from the Folk, and for good reason. The Folk didn’t hesitate to attack them. The ogres were incredibly strong, and they were deadly up close with their heavy spears and axes, but they had nothing to match the throwing sticks and darts of the Folk. They could be killed or injured at a safe range. Even though Hare’s band was virtually isolated at the farthest edge of the Folk’s range, the ogres had not dared to cause any trouble.
Whatever his origins, Boar was ugly, stupid, and clumsy. He stank. She seriously weighed fleeing her band and her family. Young women always could find a place, but it was a hard choice. She looked toward the fire where Boar sat. Even at this distance she could see him sweat. Maybe it wasn’t so hard a choice.
She espied a glow in the shaman’s cave. Old Owl, the shaman, was orating by the fire as Lapwing continued to play, so the person in the cave had to be his apprentice, an albino named Ghost. She climbed the rocks to the cave entrance to join him. She liked Ghost, who was no more than a year older than she. Nearly everyone was afraid of him, and his name didn’t help. If the shaman hadn’t chosen him as apprentice, he might have been expelled. Hare wasn’t afraid. In truth, she would prefer him as a mate to Boar, but he had more of an interest in the hunters. He was a gifted artist who painted striking cave murals of animals.
She found Ghost tending to the brew deep within the cave. In the flickering torchlight his wall paintings appeared to move. Ghost had shared with her a secret of the brew: despite all ritual associated with its creation, the task really was simple. Mix grains, honey, and the juices of fruits and let the whole thing froth. The special qualities of the elixir developed with little or no intervention. The resulting grog did not always taste good, but the effect was powerful. On special occasions it was provided to the band to promote spirituality. In Hare’s observation it did more to promote carnality, though Old Owl said the two were intertwined. Old Owl was a dirty old man.
Hare sat across from Ghost, who looked especially eerie in the half-shadow.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“You always say that but you never tell me to leave.”
“What do you want?”
“Give me some brew.”
“Aren’t we demanding? I’m not supposed to do that.”
“So you always say.”
He dipped a wooden ladle beneath the froth. He held out the ladle. She sipped. It tasted sweeter than usual.
“Have you done something different?”
“We have the tribal meet coming up, and Old Owl wanted to bring something special to outdo the other shamans. So, we used up nearly all our fruits and honey making this batch. I’m afraid the next batch will be sour unless we find a lot more honey.”
“It looks like you made plenty of it.”
“So we did.”
“I’d like some more.”
“Better not. Your parents will notice.”
“You mean I’ll be spiritual?”
“I mean you’ll be drunk.”
“I thought you didn’t like the term.”
“I don’t like a lot of things, especially when they’re true.”
Despite his warning, Ghost passed her another ladle full. Hare drank quickly.
“I always liked you, Ghost. Remember that.”
“Thank you, but don’t make it sound like a goodbye. You’re only getting married, and not for another month.”
She returned to her family shelter. Like most, it was made of tanned animal skins wrapped around poles. Folded, it could be dragged easily – or carried less easily – to another location. The portability was a more theoretical than practical advantage. The band hadn’t moved in three years, even choosing to remain for the winters rather than debate transit rights with other groups to the south. There were no plans to move in the near future.
Hare’s parents were still at the fire where the hunter Aurochs was taking his turn bragging about his own prowess, so she entered the shelter unseen. She removed a lance, a throwing stick, and two darts. She also took an ivory knife; it was too soft to be much use as a tool, but it was sharp enough to be an effective weapon of last resort. Keeping to the shadows, she furtively hurried over the hillside toward the Southwest.
Ghost’s elixir helped provide her with the courage to travel alone at night. She would gain an insurmountable lead over anyone inclined to follow the next morning provided she didn’t get eaten in the interim. It was a trek of days to even the closest neighbor. Snow lions and wolves were not as numerous as they once had been, at least according to the old folks, but enough of them still stalked the countryside to be a serious threat.
Hare was so concerned about predators that she failed even to consider other dangers. So, Hare was caught totally unaware when she rounded a large rock and faced an ogre at scarcely the distance of an arm’s reach. A half dozen more ogres of both sexes silently surrounded her. Outnumbered and outflanked, she knew neither fight nor flight was an option, so she stood completely still. She wondered if the ogres had been spying on the Folk encampment.
The pale skin and blond hair of the ogres were striking. They were almost as pale as Ghost. Their faces were broad and flat, as though smashed with a rock, but they shimmered in the moonlight. Hare had heard the ogres’ clothes were untanned and unsewn, but this wasn’t quite right. The animal skins they wore almost surely were tanned. If not, they were fresh; they had no scent or other manifestation of decay. The ogres had a definite aroma, but it was not that of rotted pelts. The clothes were not sewn together, properly speaking, in the manner of her own well-tailored leather. Instead, they were tied together with strips of hide through eyelets. The effect was surprisingly neat. 
She and they remained immobile for what seemed to her a very long time. At last, one of the female ogres uttered odd sounds formed in the back of her throat. She turned and walked away. One by one the others followed leaving Hare alone. She watched them retreat. On a whim she would not have been able to explain even to Ghost, she followed. Their lack of aggression had aroused her curiosity. The ogres looked back at her as she tagged behind, but did nothing to encourage or dissuade her.
The ogre band reached their encampment far sooner than she expected. She had no idea they lived so close to the Folk. They occupied a cave half-way up a rocky outcrop. From below, the narrow entrance looked like a mere shadow, which helped explain why her people never had discovered it. The Folk had seen smoke in this direction on occasion, but never could determine its precise location. Still, Hare realized that, in order to remain unobserved for so long, the ogres actively had to have hidden from passing Folk hunting parties.
Hare’s hands were cold and sore from the climb to the cave entrance. The entryway turned sharply to the left and then opened up into a large room. The bend at the entrance largely had hidden the light from the fire burning in the back of the cave from outside observers. The fire vented to an opening in the cave ceiling that the ogres apparently had dug out themselves.
All chatter inside the cave ceased as the ogres stared at her. She took in the residents. They lived in a cruder fashion than the Folk, but they weren’t beasts. She saw women on one wall gnawing on hides to soften them. In front of them were small piles of leaves, buds, and bark: the same ingredients used for tanning by the Folk. There were a handful of children, but fewer than there should have been. Two of the children looked seriously ill. On one she recognized the facial blemishes of a mild childhood affliction. The children of the Folk shrugged off the disease in a week, but this one looked in danger of dying.
A murmur arose and sounded menacing. Some of the looks in her direction were focused on her weapons. These people probably knew the Folk sometimes killed ogres. Hare hoped they didn’t know the Folk always killed them whenever they could. Hare nodded her head and retreated slowly out the cave entrance. She heard arguing, probably over whether or not to intercept her and kill her. She climbed down the rocks and hurried back to her people’s encampment. All the way she anticipated a spear in her back, but it never came.
An idea was forming in her mind. An alliance or accommodation with these people was possible. As the person to make contact, she could serve as liaison – not just for her band but perhaps for the whole tribe. She thereby could satisfy the status-wishes of her parents without marrying Boar. Perhaps she would have high status men from multiple bands competing for her.
She entered her family shelter. Her parents were there. Feigning sleep, they ignored her. They likely assumed she had been hiding somewhere in a sulk. She had done it before. It wouldn’t surprise them she was armed. It was a wise precaution if she was going to keep to the edges of the camp.
She passed the next day in a daze. Her parents were relieved when she didn’t start the day by complaining about Boar. Her mother didn’t even reprimand her when her mind seemed to wander during her chores.
After dusk, she waited by the shaman’s cave until Old Owl left for the campfire and Ghost again was alone.
“Back again, are we?” Ghost greeted her as she entered.
He held out the ladle.
“I want enough for twenty people. No, fifty.”
“Don’t be crazy. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“I don’t plan to drink it all tonight.”
“I’m glad to hear it. But you are asking for our whole stock. It’s absurd. We’d have none for the tribal meet.”
“You can make more. If you don’t give it to me, I’ll go down to the fire and tell Aurochs you bragged about what you two do together.”
“How did you know?”
“You mean it’s true?”
“He might kill me.”
“Yes, he might at that.”
“I used to like you, Hare. But I just can’t.”
“Then I can’t be quiet. Ghost, just tell them I stole the brew. I won’t be around to contradict you.”
“Why? Where are you going?”
“You’ll learn soon enough,” she answered.
“They’ll come after you. They’ll know you went southwest. There is nothing but ogres everywhere else.”
“OK, then don’t tell them I ran away. Tell them ogres stole me. Tell them ogres stole the elixir, too.”
“They’ll want to kill all the ogres.”
“They want to do that anyway. Look, Ghost, I’ll be coming back. I’ve got something special to do, but I need the elixir. All of it.”
“To buy friendship, I hope.”
“Apparently a friendship that means more to you than mine did. Hare, I’m leaving the cave now. This is the last favor I’ll ever do you and it will cost me my hide. If you do come back, don’t even think of asking me for anything again. Ever.”
“Thank you, Ghost.”
He said nothing as he left the cave.
She filled as many wineskins as she could carry and strapped them on. As an afterthought, she also took a small drum used by Old Owl in some of his ritual chants. She didn’t dare stop by the hut to retrieve her weapons; there was no way to explain herself if she were seen like this. She was too laden to carry or use them anyway. Traveling unarmed at night was reckless, but she preferred to take her chances with a boar than with Boar. It was near midnight when she arrived at the ogres’ lair. Climbing the rocks with her luggage was a daunting challenge, but, aching and panting, she succeeded.
At the entrance to the cave a guard with very bad breath and a disturbing resemblance to Boar blocked her path. She slipped one of the skins off her shoulder, untied the pouring end, and drank. She held out the skin to him. The ogre put down his massive spear, took the skin, and examined it carefully. He sniffed and then sipped. As Ghost had told her, this batch was unusually fruity and sweet; even so the ogre appeared puzzled by the taste. Hare wondered if he would have spat out the usual grog. Perhaps suspicious the stuff was poisonous, he handed the skin back and indicated she should drink more. She did. Satisfied, he took back the skin and entered the cave. Hare followed.
The guard grunted some kind of announcement, and the sleeping band stirred. One of the ogres leaned toward the small fire and added sticks, causing it to flare up. Cracked and clean bones of small animals were in and around the fire. All eyes were on Hare as she found an empty space along one wall, put down her remaining wineskins, and sat. She looked around. She didn’t see the boy with the facial blemishes.
 The guard already had passed the grog to another ogre. Hare opened another skin, sipped from it, and passed it to the woman closest to her. The woman tried it warily. Hare opened yet another skin and passed it the other way. Before long, it was clear the beverage was making a hit. The chatter rapidly grew more animated. On impulse, Hare put Old Owl’s drum between her legs, beat it, and chanted. She believed herself to be a terrible singer, but her performance captivated the ogres.
It was clear the ogres were much more susceptible to the grog than were the Folk. They quickly phased from merry to uproarious. One especially affected woman grabbed the drum from Hare and tried to copy her singing. She had no rhythmic sense and her voice sounded like a wounded wildcat, but Hare danced to the sounds anyway. This evoked laughter and finger pointing. To cheers and jeers, one young couple openly began to make love. This prompted a male to approach Hare. He made garbled sounds and gesticulated. If Hare understood him correctly, he was offering sex. Hare was spared answering when one of the women grabbed the fellow’s arm and noisily pulled him away. Hare got the impression the woman felt the man was being perverse. Hare wasn’t sure whether or not to be insulted.
The wineskins eventually emptied, as they always do, and one by one, the ogres fell asleep – or, more properly, passed out. They were still sleeping it off when the hunters of the Folk arrived.
Had not hangovers slowed the ogres’ response, the Folk wouldn’t have stood a chance in such a close quarters fight. The Folk were ruthless, swiftly killing even the children. Only one ogre, the guard from the night before, got to his feet in time to put up a serious fight. He tore a lance out of Boar’s hands and impaled him with it. Two other hunters finished off the ogre. The massacre was over in minutes. 
A cheer went up as the attackers reveled in what they believed to be a heroic rescue. Hare was too stunned to do anything but allow herself to be to be led back to camp. She was welcomed deliriously. She knew it was the victory that excited everyone. She herself was not popular enough to inspire so much emotion otherwise.
“We thought you were gone forever!” Hare’s mother said, hugging her. “When Ghost said you were abducted we sent out scouts. One of them heard the ogres celebrating at their secret base. They probably were plotting an attack on all of us. Are you hurt at all?”
“No. The killing was horrible.”
“Yes, I heard Boar was killed, but don’t worry. We’ll find you someone else.”
She hadn’t meant Boar, but she let it pass.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Short Fiction (with apologies to Fitzgerald): The Great Gaffe

My father, who liked to affect gruffness, often warned me, “Everyone is a son of a bitch until he proves different.” Yet, in his own life, he was a trusting man inclined to give huge benefits of doubt. He gave not only second chances, but third and fourth. My mother was quite the reverse. She had a kindly manner and advised charity in judging others, all the while keeping an eye on friends and strangers alike as wary as the one she kept on the cat when fresh fish was on the countertop.

I inherited my mother’s manner and my father’s nature, a combination that has proved both rewarding and expensive. The rewards come from the company of odd and fascinating people who find nonjudgmental companionship congenial. The expenses, unsurprisingly, often come from those same people. The single most fascinating and expensive acquaintanceship was with Brendan Gaffrey.

Brendan Gaffrey was a man with a terrible affliction: he loved his wife. Uxoriousness is no certain recipe for pain, but in this case it was the main course.

I own a small office building on the main street of the quaint town of Peapack, New Jersey. Designated a historical landmark by the inclusive standards of the local historical society, the building was constructed sometime before 1850. In a few rooms on the second floor I manage a portfolio of bonds, REITS, and stocks for myself and a handful of select investors. I’m cautious enough to have limited losses during the 2008 financial debacle to less than half the percentage decline in the S & P. No one wins accolades for losing money, but arguably this was a better performance than any year in which I actually made money. I lease out the lower level of the building, which covers most of the costs of owning it. For twenty-five years my tenant was an insurance broker.  Mortality overcame him, and so the space became available.

It was a sunny mid-morning when I heard footsteps on the stairs coming up to my office. A trim and handsome man in a sport jacket appeared in my door.

“Hello, I’m looking for the building owner or manager.”

“You found him. Henry Quenton.” I held out my hand. He shook it warmly.

“I instantly like a man with two first names.”

“Well, I suppose there are people with the first name Quenton, but I never met one.”

“Anyone call you Q?” he asked.

“No one. I didn’t catch your name.”

“Brendan Gaffrey. It originally was Gaffe, but I changed it.  It is hard to win people’s confidence when your name means ‘mistake.’”

“I see. So what may I do for you Mister Gaffrey?”

The fellow fell into my guest chair with a thump. He leaned back, stretched out his legs, and folded his hands over his stomach.

“Your business sign out front doesn’t state the type of business. I see bond statements on your desk though,” he observed.

“I manage some investments in the form of a limited partnership. I don’t need new clients, so I don’t advertise,” I explained.

“Doesn’t sound ambitious.”
“Perhaps not.”
“Are you’re clients rich?”
“Well, they have investments.”

“Lots of them around here, aren’t there?”


“Rich people.”

“I suppose.” The town had acquired an upscale reputation a century earlier and still maintained it, though truly wealthy residents, as everywhere, were a minority.

“Can I help you with something specific?” I prompted again.

“Q, I can help you.”

“Anything is possible.”

“I couldn’t agree more. Look, Q, I’m here because of my wife.”

“Oh?  Do I know her?”

“You will. You’ll be impressed. Her smile is like morning sunshine.”

“Uh-huh.” It was sufficiently uncommon a way for a man to speak of his wife to make me uncertain of a proper response. I let him continue.

“Are you married?” he asked

“Old bachelor.”

“You should be.”

“A bachelor?”


“So my departed mother always told me. Does all this relate to making the sun shine in the morning?”

“Precisely. Show me the space you have to rent on the first floor. If it is the right space, Miranda will be pleased,” he said.

“Ah, why didn’t you say so? Follow me?” I led Gaffrey downstairs and unlocked the suite of rooms.

“There are four rooms and a small lavatory. Parking in back,” I explained.

“People think old buildings like this are classy, don’t they?”

“Yes, if I had an outhouse and a hand pump, instead of indoor plumbing which some thoughtless person installed in the 1920s, I could double the rent.”  This reminded me to discuss the amount of the rent and the terms.

He listened, and said simply, “I’ll take it, if you don’t mind the competition.”

“Competition? What is it you do, Mr. Gaffrey?”

“Same as you.  I’m more ambitious.  I invest money and I make it. Lots of it. Is that a problem?”

“Not at all.  I’m not looking for new clients, so there will be no competition. When do you want to take possession?”

“ASAP. I’ll bring Miranda by this afternoon.”

“Shall I wear sunglasses?”

“You’ll need them. She may want to make changes. You know: paint, carpets.  Is that OK?”

“Are the changes out of your pocket?”


“Then they are OK.”

Gaffrey pulled a bank envelope out of his pocket. He counted out the security deposit and pro-rated the first month’s rent in $100 bills.

As promised, Miranda showed up with Brendan in the early afternoon. I went downstairs to meet her. She was petite, slender, and tanned. Her hair was a light brown cut to the shoulders.  She wore a mink coat and blue jeans.  She was not unpretty, but the need for sunglasses was not immediately obvious. This didn’t surprise me. One man’s sunshine is another man’s moonshine.

“Q, Miranda,” Brendan introduced us.

“Most people call me Henry,” I mentioned.

She smiled. “The carpets will have to go,” she said with an accent too slight to place.

“Well, I’ll let you two discuss decorating.”

Miranda succeeded in impressing more thoroughly me two days later when workmen showed up to begin remodeling. Even when times are bad, I don’t have the knack for getting contractors to show up in a timely fashion. Amid a cacophony of skill saws, thumps, and hammer whacks below my feet, Brendan appeared again in my doorway. He carried maps and papers under each arm.

“I hope we’re not bothering you with this ruckus.”

“No. If you improve the place too much though, I’ll have to raise the rent.”

“Aren’t we decreasing the building’s value by making it less historic?”

“Conceded. The rent stays fixed. What is on your mind?”

“My wife is Argentine.  She comes from a good family.  They have servants and all that.” He paused for a response as though something in his remarks was self-explanatory.

“I’m not sure I get your point.”

“The point is, we live in a center hall colonial with no servants in Randolph.  I have a Chevy.”

Randolph is nice. I like Chevys.”

“Yes, but I want her to have what she is used to having.”

“Sometimes we have to be happy just for what is.”

“I disagree, Q.  This is America. The land of opportunity and all that. I’m going to be rich. I’ve waited long enough.”

“What bank are you casing?” I joked.

“Several. Actually they are offering me their money to me. They’ve lost so much money in real estate in recent years that they are jumping at the chance to be involved in a deal where the profits are so solid and unmistakable. I have an option on a shopping center in Tulsa,” Brendan said as he spread a survey map across my desk. “I bought the option for a song when values went bust.  Now things have recovered enough that I already have buyers interested in paying me $4,000,000 over the price for which I can buy the property. All I need is the money to close on it, and then I can flip the shopping center over and pocket the profit. That’s where investors come in.”

“Why not just sell the option? You won’t have to close,” I suggested.

“I can’t.  It’s worded to be non-assignable. I’m willing to sell you a piece of the deal. I guarantee you a 30% return with an expected turnaround time of less than six months.”

He dropped on my desk a satellite photograph of the shopping center plus copies of the option, deed, and letters from prospective buyers.

“Why ask me? I thought banks were forcing money on you.”

“They are. But why should they get all the benefits? We’re friends, aren’t we? Besides I have two other deals just as good in the works. There is a marina in Michigan and a REIT-owned apartment complex in North Carolina. We can catch this market perfectly on the upswing. I always can use more investors.”

“Well, thank you, but count me out. I’m too conservative an investor for this sort of thing.”

“Are you sure your partners feel the same way?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Is there any way I could meet them? Look, I’m not trying to steal them away from you. I’m sure they’ll always want the mix of blue chips and municipals you offer them for most of their cash, but maybe they’d like to put some toward making real money, too.”

“Some partners and I have a business lunch at the Gladstone Tavern this Saturday at noon. You can stop at the table and I’ll introduce you.”

“Now you are talking, Q.”

Saturday’s lunch began as usual. I commented on general economic trends and recommended market strategies. Then, Brendan marched in the door with briefcase in hand. He strode to our table. I expected him to shake a few hands and, perhaps, exchange a few cards. Instead, after my introduction he took over the meeting. He pulled up a chair and opened his brief case. He launched into a description of the profit potential in the three deals he mentioned to me and in two others besides. He documented his case with letters, comparable sales data, and copies of his contracts and options. Everyone at the table was intrigued except myself and a real estate broker name George Lester. Even Trudy Bechenforth, who habitually was suspicious of all my investment recommendations, became excited.

George challenged him. “These mark-ups are very hard to believe. I’ve been in business a long time and never have seen anything like them.”

“Is that really true?” Brendan responded quickly. “Haven’t you ever passed on a chance to buy a lot, commercial building, or house that afterward leapt in value by these same percentages or more?”      

“Well, sure. It happens to all of us,” George conceded. “We don’t have crystal balls. Even professionals misjudge upsides and downsides with some frequency. But that doesn’t explain how you just stumbled onto such bargains.”

“I didn’t stumble. Everything comes down to contacts. If you know enough of the right people, you can build bridges between them and collect your profits on the tolls. One man’s turkey is another man’s eagle. Buy turkeys from the first, and sell them as eagles to the second. The business becomes self-generating, because once you are known as a deal-maker, the contacts find you. Now all of you are my contacts, too."

“GL, if I may call you that…”

“If you must,” George said.

“You’ll find this working to your advantage starting this very minute. You are a real estate broker, aren’t you?  My wife wants a home in Peapack with more space.”

“How much space?”

“8000 square feet. Maybe 10,000. Acreage too.”

George instantly became friendlier. “I’m sure I can find something.”

Brad, a loan officer at a regional bank spoke up, “Will you need a jumbo loan for the house?”

“No, I was thinking of paying cash.”

“Bad move. Mortgage interest is one of the few deductibles left. You may have heard how conservative we lenders have gotten, but, for the right client with a good balance sheet, you’d be surprised at what we can do.”

“I’m willing to discuss it.”

“Good. Take my card.”

So did Brendan reluctantly allow himself to be offered money.

A scant two weeks after this meeting, I pulled into my parking lot. A BMW and a Mercedes were in the lot. I entered my building. Brendan caught my arm before I climbed the stairs. He ushered me into the first floor suite. Miranda was inside. The suite had been re-paneled and was full of oak and leather office furniture.

“Very nice,” I said.

“Image matters. Money trusts money.”

“Does it? How’s the house-hunting going?” I asked.

“Good,” he said.  “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about actually. George found us a big old mansion on Willow. Lots of class. Brad gave us an 80% loan and the seller took back the downpayment as a second, so we aren’t even out of pocket.”

“It needs work,” Miranda added.  “I don’t think the kitchen was updated since 1925. The estimates for upgrading it are only about $250,000, though, which isn’t bad. I like the separate wing for the nanny.”

“Oh, you have kids.”

“Twins.  They’re in Buenos Aires with my mother right now. They’re four. They’ll being flying back soon.”

“Anyway,” Brendan said, “you are so plainly Old School that I figure you must have studied Latin.”

Amo, amas, amat.”

“I thought so. Tell me, what does ‘gaudium formandum’ mean?  It is over the front door.  Some kind of motto, I guess.”

“ ‘Happiness must be constructed.’ ‘Joy must be built,’ ‘Pleasure must be forged.’ Something like that.”

“‘Pleasure must be forged.’ I like that. Want to go to Oklahoma?”

The change in subject disconcerted me. “Why on earth would I want to go to Oklahoma?”

“To look at the shopping center project.  Four of your partners are going including Trudy.”

“Thank you, but no.”

“You need to be more adventurous. There is more to life than this little town. Where do you live by the way?”

“In a stuffy little Victorian around the corner.”

“I thought so. We need to loosen up that prep school tie.”

“This isn’t my school tie.”

“It is even when it isn’t.”

“No wonder the Alumni Office is always asking me for money.”

“Could you introduce me to them?”

“The Alumni Office? Whatever for?”

“I’m more interested in the alumni than the Office. Most are pretty well-to-do, aren’t they?”

“Oh. I see. I’ll print out the contact numbers. It’s on the alumni website.”

“I can use your name for introduction, right?” he asked.

“So long as you don’t say I endorse any investments.”

“I understand. You have your own business to protect.”

“Is this Trudy woman pretty?” Miranda asked suddenly.

“A candle to your halogen floodlight,” Brendan answered.

Despite his affected hyperbole, we both knew he was serious. Brendan’s romantic streak in truth was one of the few things I liked about him. It was rare and quaint. I’ve always invested my emotions as carefully as my money, which no doubt explains my old bachelorhood. Brendan’s lack of reserve in this matter was refreshing. Otherwise I found him crude and abrasive, and half regretted renting space to him.

I regretted renting to Brendan Gaffrey even more in the ensuing months when, one after another, my investors withdrew their accounts and deposited them with Gaffrey. Unlike myself, they seemed quite taken by his bonhomie.

One day, he again appeared in my office door.

“Q, our remodeling at home is finished. Next Saturday there is a housewarming party.  You are coming,” Brendan said.

I was about to beg off, when my curiosity about his other guests got the better of me. “As you wish.”

“Great, Q.”

On the evening of the party I pulled into the driveway of the 1920s brick monstrosity the Gaffreys called home. Cars were parked along the side of the driveway’s entire 500 foot length. Others were lined up on the lawn. I found a lawn space near the road and walked the distance to the house.

The limestone steps to the front porch were stained but otherwise in good shape.  The fluted columns looked solid. As Brendan had said, a carved scroll with the motto “gaudium formandum” arced over the oak paneled front door. The door was ajar. I pushed the door open further and entered the huge and crowded center hallway which stretched from the front door to the back of the house, where French doors opened onto the lawn and more partiers. Frank Sinatra’s voice emanating from hidden speakers was almost overwhelmed by the sound of guests chatting and laughing.

I wended through the guests, several of whom were old classmates. Many others were complete strangers. In the absurdly huge dining room to the right was a long long table topped with a small mountain range of food attended by caterers. A bartender at a built-in bar across the hallway was being kept busy. I marveled at it all. A hand slapped me on the back.

“Glad you could make it, Q. I think you know a lot of the folks here.”

“Some of them. You put out quite a spread, Brendan.”

“As I said, money trusts money. Our new kitchen made it easy for the caterers, with all the Viking ranges and Subzeros.”

“You and Miranda must love to cook.”

“Not really. We eat out almost every night. But Miranda wanted a quality kitchen. She has excellent taste.”

“Expensive taste.”

“Same thing, Q.”

I chose not to debate the point.

A young boy at the top of the stairs looked down at us. He shouted, “Daddy is a piggy!” and then fled down the hall.

“Well, he knows his father,” said Miranda with a smile. “I have to go mingle. Maybe you should do that yourself. There are single women here, you know. Or do you prefer them married?”

“The latter are more discreet.”

She smiled again and aimed herself for a clump of people just beyond the French doors.  Brendan excused himself as well. I couldn’t deny that the Gaffreys looked happy.  They had made the home’s motto their own and apparently succeeded at it.

I chose not to mingle. On the way back to the front door I passed Brendan, who was talking with four men. I overheard something about an industrial park in Colorado.

In the weeks and months that followed I saw Brendan and Miranda only in passing. They worked irregular hours at the office. In December they announced the Oklahoma deal had closed. The investor party which followed was legendary. I did not attend. I heard the marina scored big too. His investors, which included two local banks, were ecstatic over double digit returns. The Gaffreys scarcely could hold back the flow of new clients wishing to invest with them. The couple went from success to success.

In early March, as a late snow dusted the region, Brendan pulled into the office parking lot.  I heard him climb the steps to my suite.

“Hello, Q. Look, I’m sorry about taking away your clients.”

“It’s all right. I can get by on my own. I had no ownership claim on them.”

“I don’t understand why I haven’t been able to tempt you though. Ask any of your old buddies. Not one has made less than 20% with me. Try doing that anywhere else in the market today,” he said.

“I make enough for my needs, which are modest. I would rather play it safe and live quietly.”

“Doesn’t sound exciting.”

“Excitement is overrated.  Was there something else, Brendan?”

“Yes, do you have a safe?”

“Yes. I just keep documents in it. No money.”

“One of my clients invested cash and I have nowhere to put it.”

“Cash as in Federal Reserve Notes?”

“Yes. $280,000.”

“I can’t be liable for that,”

“Of course not. I doubt the owner would report it if it did go missing, if you catch my meaning. But I’ll sign a note taking liability for it if you like.”

“OK, on those terms.” I scribbled a note relieving me of any responsibility for theft or destruction of the cash and shoved it across the desk. He signed it readily. He then handed me a paper bag.

“This is it?” I asked.


I peeked inside. The denominations were most fifties and hundreds.

“OK, I’ll lock it up.”


The money remained there for months.

Brendan’s reputation for business acumen and splendid parties continued to spread.  Miranda flew back and forth to Argentina regularly. She seemed happy. However, as time passed I noticed a change in Brendan. He looked increasingly harried and careworn.  

Another summer passed. The leaves fell.

Brendan, looking five years older than the previous spring, walked in my door.

“Q, you’ve been ignoring us. Come to our Halloween party. I insist.”

It was a costume party. A few of those present were elaborately masqueraded, the hosts among them. Brendan and Miranda were Caesar and Cleopatra. Miranda chose the Claudette Colbert rather than the Liz Taylor version. Brendan looked uncomfortable in his toga.

“Hello, Q.” he greeted me.

Ave. Why not Antony?” I asked.

“Miranda said he lost.”

“True, but Julius was assassinated.”

“I guess that’s better than losing. I see you came as an aging WASP. Clever disguise,” he joked.

“The aging part was tough to fake.”

“You pulled it off. No date tonight?”

“Her husband wouldn’t like it.”

“Ah, yes. Very discreet, Q. Breeding shows.”

It wasn’t many days after the party that Brendan showed up in my office.

“Q, you still have the $280,000?”

“I spent that months ago.” When he didn’t smile, I added, “Of course I still have it.”

“I need it.”

“Some new venture?”

This time he smiled wanly. “Yes. Out West.”

“Very good. I’ll get the money  for you.” He took the bag without examining the contents.

Neither he nor Miranda came to work the next day. The following morning, Brad the banker came into my office. He looked worried.

“Hi Brad. It’s been a long time. Want to go back to boring safe investments?”

He looked pained and asked, “Do you know where the Gaffreys are?”

“No. Brendon said he was going out West.  I don’t know about Miranda, but she travels a lot.”

“Yeah.  I’ve been to the house.”

“Is something wrong?”

“I hope not. It is probably just a paperwork mix-up, but I’m on the spot until it is straightened out.”

“Why are you on the spot?”

“Because I OK’d the loans. When you see him, tell him to call me. Night or day.”


Brad was just the first. A parade of investors followed. All were angry at me, though I had urged none of them to invest with Brendan. No one was giving me a clear explanation of the problem. I assumed some deal had gone bad, but while that might be a loss it was unlikely to be a catastrophe. Trudy was the last and the angriest. She, at last, imparted some information.

“You son of a bitch!” she yelled as she burst into my office. “You set me up with the bastard!”

“I did no such thing. He asked to come to lunch one day. That is all. What is going on?”

“Bullshit! You’re in it with him!”

“I’m in nothing. What is going on Trudy? I haven’t a clue.”

“You do know! They screwed the banks! They screwed me! They screwed everybody! No one can get their money back!”

“Brad seemed to think it was a paperwork error.”

“It had better be! You don’t understand. I invested most of my assets with those people.”

“That was an egg laden basket. Why?”

“They were paying 20%. Sometimes 30%. With you I got seven in a good year.”

“Well, at least you have that money until things are straightened out.”

“No. I never saw any checks from them. They added the profits to my ‘account.’ What am I going to do? I may have to sell my house. You’ve got to help me.”

“I don’t see what I can do, Trudy.”

“I’ll see you put in a jail cell with them!” she shouted. She was in tears as she stomped  down the steps.

The next day a nationwide bulletin was put out for Brendan Gaffrey. The following morning the New Jersey Bureau of Investigation arrived. The two agents in charge were neither gentle nor polite. The file cabinets, computers, and desks in the Gaffreys’ suite were carried out to a van. Then a beefy Agent Krentzler stood before my desk.

“Yes sir. How may I help?” I asked.

“You can get out while we search your office, too.”

“Excuse me? Don’t you need a warrant?”

He dropped one on my desk.

“But I have nothing to do with this.”

“Have friends in Costa Rica, do you?”

“What? No. I don’t understand.”

He showed me a copy of my telephone charges. I hadn’t yet received this bill in the mail. He pointed to two long distance calls to a number in Costa Rica.

“I didn’t make those.”

“Who did?”

“I don’t know. I suppose someone came in and made the call. I don’t always lock my office door at night. I just lock the outer door of the building when I leave.”

“Who else has keys to the outer door?”

“The Gaffreys, but I thought Miranda was from Argentina.”

Costa Rica has tighter bank secrecy laws, doesn’t it?”

“I really wouldn’t know.”

“I would.”

“Why don’t you call the number and find out who it is?”

“We did. It is just a hotel desk. Get out. Oh, open the safe first. I’ll let you know when you can return.”

As I waited outside in my car in the parking lot for two hours, I saw my files, desk drawers, and CPU join the Gaffreys’ goods in the van. At last, Krentzler approached my car.

“OK, you can go home. Do not re-enter this building until we tell you.”

“It’s my building.”

“Stay out of it.” He handed me a card. Be at this address first thing Monday morning. The address was the NJBI in Trenton.

Saturday night I received a call at home. I said “hello” twice and was about to hand up when a voice said, “Q?”


“Yeah. The shit really hit the fan, didn’t it?”

“Where are you?”

“I was in Vegas trying to win back investor money with the $280,000.  Miranda was against it, but I wanted to try. She was right, of course. I lost the money. I’m home now.”

“Do you mean to tell me that, with a nationwide alarm out for you, you drove all the way to Nevada and all the way back again in a Mercedes Benz sports coupe with New Jersey plates, and no one stopped you?”

“No one stopped me. What do you think I should do?”

“Turn yourself in. You’ll only make things worse if you do anything else.”

“Maybe you are right.”

I arrived on Monday at the NJBI at nine o’clock. Krentzler let me wait on a hard bench in a sitting area until ten. Then he opened his door and waved me in.

“Come on. Don’t sit around out there all day.” I followed him into an inner office. He pointed to a chair inside the office. “Sit there.”

He closed the door. He remained standing. An associate sat on his desk with his arms folded.

“Gaffrey tells us you told him to turn himself in. Very wise. Let’s see how wise you can continue to be.”

“I’m not quite sure what you want from me.”

“You are involved in this up to your eyeballs, Quenton. How long do you think Gaffrey will hold out before he rats on you? Suppose I offer to cut him some slack if he does?”

“There is nothing to rat about. I’m still not even clear what happened. Brendan can’t implicate me in anything unless he lies.”

“And he never would do that, would he? Look, we know what you did. You set up his marks and you collected your cut.”

“I collected no cut.”

“I have a receipt for one $280,000 pay-off right here.” He waived the slip of paper at me I had Brendan sign. “How many more were there?”

“That was no pay-off! He just wanted to put some money in my safe. I made him sign that so I wouldn’t be responsible. Ask him.”

“You know, I don’t consider him a credible source. Where is the money, Quenton?”

“I gave it back to him! That’s the money he lost in Las Vegas.”

“So you two say. Maybe you agreed to split it with him if he stays silent.”

“Silent about what?”

“All right, let’s pretend for a moment that you don’t know about the Gaffrey’s scheme. Let’s pretend you don't know all those real estate deals of his were fake. The documents were fake. The contracts were fake. The title insurance was fake. The 1040s he gave to the banks to show inflated income were fake. The properties all have real owners who never heard of Brendan Gaffrey. Word processors are very good these days at making convincing forgeries. All he did was pocket the investors' money and write fake totals on their accounts. He pocketed the cash.”

 “But that’s crazy. Sooner or later you would run out of new investors and old ones will want their money back. It was bound to fall apart.”

“Of course. The idea in a Ponzi scheme is to disappear by then.”

“Who found out what was going on?”

“The Oldwick Bank did a routine check on some documents and found a problem. They thought it was a paperwork glitch at first, because deeds and contracts aren’t always recorded properly. The more they tried to clear it up, the worse it looked. They called in their loans.”

“And so the cascade started. How much money are we talking about?”

“Millions upon millions.”

“But this still has nothing to do with me.”

“I’m afraid it does. We are freezing your assets. They will be sold off to pay the investors in this scheme.”

“It’s not my scheme!”

“A jury may not agree, especially when they see this $280,000 receipt. A woman named Trudy Bechenforth is screaming for your blood. She makes a very convincing witness.”

Krentzler gestured to his associate with his right forefinger. The fellow leaned back, opened a desk drawer, and turned off a tape recorder.

“I’ll be honest with you Quenton. I don’t know what to believe about your role in all this.  Maybe you are part of the ring, maybe not. Whatever you may think of me, I really don’t want to railroad an innocent person. What I can prove is that you received $280,000. Give it back and we’ll call it even.”

“I already gave it back!”

“You are not hearing me. Bring the $280,000, I tear up this receipt, and no charges will be brought against you. Or, I make a phone call to the judge and we take everything you own. You have one minute to decide. You now have 55 seconds.”

I was slow catching on, but I finally realized that, by bad luck, the two agents assigned to the case shared Gaffrey’s moral philosophy on the acquisition of wealth. I assumed they were atypical, but, if I complained to other agents, they would deny my accusations and follow through on their threat. I decided to make sure.

“Will a check do? Certified?”

“No checks.  The money was in cash.  Bring it in cash.”

I was sure.

“It may be difficult to get the banks to give me that much actual money.”

“Your problem. Get it. Don’t bring it here. Bring it to the parking lot at this address.” He scribbled a street address on a Post-it on his desk. He handed me the note. “You have until six.”

“But that barely gives me time even to get to my banks.”

“Then you better get rolling.”

I caused more than a little consternation at the banks with my sudden large withdrawals. I suffered heavy penalties on CDs.

I fought my way through brutal traffic down Route 206 to Trenton.  I reached the assigned parking lot at 5:57. A Ford sedan pulled alongside. Krentzler was on the passenger side. His associate was behind the wheel. Krentzler opened his window.  I handed him the bag.

“Do you want to count it?” I asked.

“Nah, I trust you. Know why?”

“If I shorted you, you’ll deny the whole thing and bring charges against me anyway.”

“Skillful deduction. You may want to consider detective work.”

The car pulled away. Several minutes later I did too.

Since then, I have had to scale back my modest lifestyle. All lawsuits against me were summarily dismissed, but they still cost me attorney’s fees.

Brendan took the fall for Miranda as I expected. He denied she knew anything about his business. He was sentenced to ten years. She did not return to the United States.

Six months after Brendan’s sentencing, while driving on Willow Avenue, I saw an Open House sign in front of their old house. George, the real estate agent, recognized me at once and beamed a smile. Not many people smile at me anymore, but he hadn’t been hurt in the affair. He led me around the house, including the remodeled kitchen. The kitchen was a sterile white, almost laboratorial, but all the equipment shouted expense.

“Strange they spent money on this when they knew they would have to leave,” I observed.

“Oh I don’t think they ever paid the contractor,” he answered.


“You know,” he spoke in a confidential tone, “the police never accounted for twelve million dollars. Brendan claimed anything missing had been spent, but that doesn’t seem possible. Rumors are that some people invested cash, so it may have been much more than twelve million.”

“I see. I suppose no one ever heard from Miranda again.”

“Yes. Her attorney served Brendan in jail with divorce papers – said it was best for the kids. He signed them.”

“Yes, I suppose he would.”

“The return address was in Latin America somewhere.”

“She was from Argentina.”

“It was someplace else I think.”

Costa Rica?”

“That may have been it.”

To my mind, the twelve million dollar mystery was solved.

Gaffrey was a romantic figure in his own way, but that doesn’t make him alright in the end. Sacrificing oneself for love is one thing. Sacrificing others is quite another.

It took many months for me to find a new tenant. At last a psychic reader rented the space. I was pleased to have so much more honest a neighbor. I even submitted to a reading. The prediction of good fortune was pleasing enough, but the promise of romance I find ominous.