Part I provided the background of a unique bank fraud investigation.
No one had any notion of the unreal turn negotiations would take.
Centuries from now, post-civilization archeologists will discover deep, mystifying gouges in the concrete walls of a skating rink in Greensboro, North Carolina. Those ragged furrows came about this way…
The Queen Unseen
Previously I’d uncovered an unusual fraud perpetrated upon a Virginia bank. The bankshares officials sent me to Greensboro to negotiate with the unlikely scammer.
I was willing to bet the miserly VP had booked the motel. It smelled like cheap motels everywhere, a musty mix of stale food, sex, and disinfectant. It featured two beds, a TV remote control bolted to the nightstand, and lots of cardboard stand-ups advertising the dining room, deals for my next visit, Dillard’s Rent-a-Car, and dial 6 for room service. The cardboard junk I swept into a drawer so I could open up my suitcase. Tomorrow, the maid would redecorate the room with new cardboard stand-ups.
I hung shirts on stupid hangers that featured nubbins instead of hooks. Someone had left two wire coat hangers behind. Thanks to cable television, frequent travelers no longer needed to use one as a TV antenna, but having one to keep the toilet from running helped in the middle of the night.
I sat on the bed and dialed Sandman’s number. Another cardboard stand-up informed me local calls cost 75¢. That would bring a frown to the face of Data Corp’s very tight vice president.
“Yo, this is Dan Sandman. We’re ready. Be there in fifteen minutes. Oh, I forgot– I’m bringing my girlfriend, Justine.”
Before my speaking with Sandman, Chase had filled me in about Justine, and Sandman revealed more in our conversation not long ago. Some years older than Danny, his girlfriend was married to an oblivious husband.
She certainly annoyed the hell out of Chase and not because of morals. Chase intimated she involved herself as more than a mistress. She interfered with the business he and Sandman put together. She interjected herself in the middle of discussions. Chase also thought she was a little too flirtatious.
Another hypothesis was developing.
A knock rapped on the door.
Sandman stood nearly a foot shorter than me with an average build, neither athletic nor chubby, barely a slight pudginess around the edges from Moon Pies. His sandy hair was short, but he kept brushing an invisible lock away from his eyes. He bore a pale complexion not from sun screens, but computer screens.
His girlfriend constituted another matter altogether, a dishwater blonde with blonder streaks, slender, pneumatic push-up cleavage, and skirt by Saran-wrap. In heels, she stood a couple of inches taller than Sandman. A lupine awareness hovered about her, a feral aura of a Jerry Springer guest loose on the veldt. She looked pretty in a tough, Tonya Harding way.
I found it difficult to picture her with a didactic like Sandman, a guy who listened to Shostakovich and read whenever he wasn’t writing. Well, maybe not so difficult to figure out– she insistently molded bulging parts against him.
From under her lashes she locked her gaze on me. My hypothesis was becoming a theory. They’d brought a shopping bag heavy enough that Sandman carried it in his arms rather than by its handles.
He said, “We were supposed to go out to dinner, but maybe we could order in pizza. Eat it here and talk.”
“Sure. What do you like on yours?”
We ordered a large artery-clogger with extra cholesterol, bound to be tasty. Recalling Sandman’s preference, I added two litres of Pepsi.
I got down to business. “The bank authorized me to verify the source code– no more tricks– and pay you a final fee.”
“I brought a listing.” He patted the shopping bag like a baby’s tummy. “Let me show you the program.” From the bag, he reverently pulled a binder of old-school perforated green-bar, 14×11, six inches thick. Definitely large enough.
Sandman held it in his lap for a moment longer, a young mother not wanting to put her baby in someone else’s hands. He said, “Let me show you the code now, so we don’t pizza smear it later.”
Involved with his own self-centered agenda, Chase had come off insensitive to this guy’s inner needs, missing the essential clues.
Danny opened the listing on the motel coffee table and gently smoothed a page with evident pride. Few people could appreciate his accomplishment and he desperately needed a professional and, better yet, a cognoscente to validate his work.
I scanned it. Titles, section headings, comments, labels now made sense. It stopped short of my persnickety standard of documentation, but the code was excellent, even brilliant. I told him so.
He hovered over me, pointing out snippets he was particularly proud of. Perhaps a hundred people in the world could appreciate his creation and he was not wasting this opportunity. A willing audience, I effusively praised his masterpiece.
Justine hovered by his side, watchful. Like hearing foreigners speak, she followed the buzz if not the intricacies. Throughout, she kept some part of her body touching his, not so much affectionate as proprietary. When her eyes turned on me, they gave the feeling of being x-rayed.
Tap on the door. Pizza man. Sandman carefully closed the listing and, with unconscious veneration, placed it back in the shopping bag. I noticed external drives, mag tapes, and a second, thin listing. “My encryption program,” he said.
The pizza was a social convention, a bonding device for minds and ribs. When Sandman and Justine turned to their shared enthusiasm for roller skating, she grew animated. “I love skating,” she said. “It’s where we met. My, ah, husband doesn’t skate. Do you like skating?”
“I like the Dire Straits song.”
“Have you ever tried it?” Danny asked.
“Me? Never. I’m a klutz and a menace. Klutzes that value their skin and bones don’t skate.”
|Oh hush! Anyway, it has 4 feet.|
© Inside Edition
“You never learned?”
“I suffered a deprived childhood. It happens when you’re raised by wolves.”
She sniggered. “Competition we like best, skate dancing. You’d have fun chasing a girl in a very short skirt, wouldn’t you?”
“I’d need to master the art of standing up.”
Sandman finished his pizza. He dabbed his mouth with a paper serviette. His eyes flicked to the shopping bag with the goodies.
He said, “About the fee, you know we want serious money.”
We. He kept using plural pronouns.
I said, “Don’t get too ambitious. The company isn’t in a mood to be trifled with.”
“You know the software is worth at least a couple hundred thousand, probably two-fifty, maybe more. They could make millions off this.”
“What I know is that they feel hijacked, Dan. You put their investors and customers at risk. They’re upset. You have their attention, but don’t overplay your hand.”
“The obfuscation was just a joke on Chase,” he said petulantly. “Why else would I sell it so cheap?”
“Their contract doesn’t have the word ‘joke’ in it. They’re not laughing. Chase was acting for the bank. Sending me here is an expediency. They figure you owe them, but they’re willing to pay a ransom if they can put this mess behind them.”
“I owe them?”
“Dan, you miscalculated. Sure, Chase might lose his job, but involving bank investors, you lost hearts and minds. You viewed it as getting a bonus $5000 to screw Chase, but you put Data Corp at risk with bank customers. At worst, they perceive Chase as naïve, trusting a deceiver, a fraudster who lies, cheats, and steals.”
He turned paler. “Jesus, I never looked at it that way.”
“They don’t like negotiating with a gun to their head, but they’ll ransom the package if they can.”
“How much are you asking?”
Sandman glanced at Justine. Some silent communication transpired.
“Listen,” he said, “let’s go our own way this evening. We’ll reconvene tomorrow. We want to invite you skating. Let’s get to know each other better and then we’ll talk. OK? It’ll be fun. OK?”
It wasn’t okay, but options were limited. I nodded. “Sure.”
Sandman put his hand on the shopping bag. “We’ll, ah…” He seemed strangely uncertain. “We’ll take the program with us for now.”
I looked at them– Sandman timid, she suddenly tense. I realized each person in that room thought the same thing. I was considerably taller, broader, with more muscle mass. I could physically seize the listings and tapes from them, heave their asses out the door and leave them nothing.
For a moment they feared they’d misjudged, but the instance passed. They got me right the first time. Not an enforcer, never a bully, that’s not my style. I wouldn’t thump someone over computer code no matter how justified it might be. Doing the wrong thing wouldn’t accomplish the right thing. He’d placed himself and others in a precarious legal and ethical situation, but he nevertheless deserved compensation for his product.
Relieved, clutching their package, they backed out of the room, waving and saying, “Tomorrow, lunch time, we’ll pick you up.”
I phoned the vice president at home and filled him in. He was a man of rectitude. He didn’t approve of a Sunday spent in a roller rink negotiating a shady deal with, in his view, a whoring shyster, but he understood the necessity.
“What’s your take on the situation?” he asked.
“Not positive. This girlfriend of his, she’s the wild card, the real problem. What do you know about her?”
“Almost nothing. Just that she’s, ah, a married woman of doubtful moral character. Why?”
“I think she’s running him. Behind the scenes, she calls the shots.”
“Like he’s the mistress? How do you make that out?”
“My theory, she fancies he’s Bill Gates and she’s Melinda without that pesky desire to rescue starving people on the other side of the world. Maybe it’s the skating thing, but I keep thinking Tonya Harding. Together, they’re a salad of Bud and Lou.”
“It wasn’t strictly Sandman’s idea to scam us. She figured they could wring out more money this way. If Sandman has ceded the decision-making to her, I doubt we can reach a deal.”
“Much as it goes against my grain, this one time we’re offering him a chance to do right.”
“She thinks everyone is unscrupulous like she is. Her idea of business conduct entails screwing the other guy first. Given a path of crooked or straight, her twisted instincts choose crooked. Then after driving the bus off a cliff, she blames others. Sandman realizes they screwed up. She doesn’t.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“They assume their goals are the same, but I don’t think she cares all that much about him, just the money he represents. Sandman lashed out at Chase, but he’d prefer to settle this with minimal fuss. The woman seeks to screw as much money as possible out of the bank, and that’s still her goal. Making more money playing it straight wouldn’t occur to her.”
“If they’d been truly smart, he would have negotiated an optimum price, not a token amount. Then charged us again for continued maintenance and development, which we probably would have agreed to do.”
I said, “Instead of giving value and getting rewarded for it, petty spite and greed guides them.”
“Hmmm. Ever skated before?”
“No. The thought of me skating represents a danger to society.”
He surprised me by chuckling.
“Good luck. The person most agile remains standing at the end of the day.”
The Great Roller Skating Caper
They dropped in at noon on the dot. Her skating skirt covered most of both cheeks. She twitched her bottom against him as we walked to their car. On the ride over, she tucked a hand high inside his thigh.
The front third of the skating complex sported a store and rental shop, plus a snack bar on the left. The rest of the building encompassed a low-walled oval– the rink. Rock music and kiddie shrieks and squeals echoed off the concrete walls.
Sandman helped me pick out skates. Justine knelt to lace them on me, her breasts nearly tumbling out of her top. She momentarily rested my socked foot against her bare thigh before giving my sole a covert caress and slipping it into the boot. Truly a woman of subtlety and international distinction.
One at each of my elbows, they led me like a doomed gladiator into the arena. If given roller skates, many more Romans would have fallen on their swords.
They left me standing and backed away, leaving me on my own. Standing was the key word, because I didn’t know how to move. I shuffled my feet. Zoop. Zoop. Nothing, nothing happened.
I moved one foot, then the other, only to find I was still standing in the same place. Wait. I’d studied physics, mechanics, the science of momentum. I should be able to figure this out. Balance on one wobbly leg and cautiously push away with the side of my other skate.
Twelve-year-olds hoisted me off the floor. They knew naught about physics, but they’d cultivated a sense of their bodies on wheels that had escaped my edification.
Clinging to the low wall, I tugged myself along by my fingernails. The waist-high barrier circled only half way around. The rest of the rink was enclosed by the building’s cinder block walls, walls I hugged with intimacy.
I clawed my way around the perimeter. I dared not venture more than two feet from the wall so I could pull myself up. My fingers left gouges in concrete blocks still embedded today. A thousand years hence, archeologists will conclude the scarred oval housed a circus of unmanicured Jurassic Park III raptors.
For some reason, girls helped me to my feet but not guys. Possibly it was a center of gravity thing, or maybe if guys stopped to help, they couldn’t get going again. Or perhaps I’d proved an embarrassment to the male population.
Meanwhile, Sandman and Justine whirled and twirled, skating away to the music. Legs outstretched, his fingertips lightly on her waist, hands clasped, they gazed blissfully toward the stars. On skates, he appeared a whole lot taller. Not taller than her, just taller than me struggling to rise from the floor.
Every time I face planted, this toddler on skates and sucking a knuckle stared eye-level at me. Why was a munchkin two Lego bricks tall judging me? I had a lot farther to fall than he.
A charming skater, the kind that prompts males to upshift mass from their abdomen to their chest, hovered over me. With gorgeous padding in all the right places, she offered advice. “Lean forward and stick your bottom out.” Easy for her to say, she was beautifully counterbalanced.
I made one and a half circuits to my hosts’ twenty-three thousand or so, when I realized I needed to visit the restroom. “Behind the food court,” the charming advice chick said.
|Typical roller rink after too many tumbles. Note slight incline of floor. © Huffington Post|
I worked my way to the gate and pulled myself hand-over-hand along the rail toward the snack bar. There I encountered an insurmountable problem. The floor suffered a sight incline, imperceptible to anyone but a novice on skates. To me, it sloped 160° uphill, and I didn’t have ropes and pitons to master it. I churned skates, but stayed right where I was.
Spotting the problem, two teenage girls took pity on me. Still on skates themselves, they towed me upslope to the restroom door. O sweet rescuing girls; had they been older, I might have proposed out of sheer gratitude.
The men’s room was laid out with ‘the facilities’ on one side, sinks on the other. I clomped over to the porcelain and discovered another problem. Curse the contractor, the floor’s slope continued in the loo. I found myself rolling away from the urinals. Damn. For a meticulous guy, this wouldn’t do; no one was going to mop up after me.
I angled the skates and locked my heels together, but the muscle tension discouraged kidney participation. Finally, I did the obvious and grabbed the pipe like a carousel horse and held on. That allowed me to ‘complete my business’ as my grandmother might have said. Someone more sensible would have simply entered the toilet stall.
I turned my attention to the sinks. There I encountered the opposite problem where the floor sloped toward the basins. Angling toes trying as I might, I kept rolling into them. I’d soap my hands, push off, lather, push off, rinse, push off… at least in theory. The front of my pants looked like the accident I was trying to avoid.
For once those warm air hand dryers proved useful. I aimed their nozzles at the front of my jeans and held the buttons on. A couple of locals wandered in, eyed the disheveled madman, the blow dryers, and the saturated floor, shot each other looks and backed out again.
Outside, the two girls smiled at me, waving me over. “How did you make out?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know. I looked like a poster child for poster children.”
That brought more giggles. They steered me toward a food court plastic chair where I collapsed.
Sandman and his woman had just finished their final pirouette et pad-á-deux of the entire Swan Lake ballet. They glided out of the enclosure and up to my table. Unlike me, they barely broke a sweat.
He affectionately brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. She glanced sharply around. “Not here,” she hissed, but she covered her rebuke by surreptitiously squeezing his thigh.
Sandman pulled out a chair for her and she sank gracefully into it. I was envious of their ease on wheels, but if my awkwardness charmed teenage girls, maybe there was still hope for me.
Sandman laughed. “We’ll say one thing for you. You’ve got guts.”
We sipped coffee and Cokes for a few minutes.
“Tell me,” Sandman said, “what the numbers are.”
“The numbers… how much they’re offering. A quarter million?”
I had a horrible feeling the bank radically underestimated these two. Or overestimated, depending on how one looked at it. No number was going to satisfy them.
“They authorized much, much less. I’m talking what you can walk away with this weekend, no questions asked. Name high numbers like that, I have to call in and they debate whether or not to accept. Good chance you could get half your quarter mil, perhaps a little more if you’re willing to wait through the week, but odds drop if you try to wring out much more.”
Justine’s face clouded. Sandman flicked a glance at her but all he said was, “Let’s drive back and change. We’ll pick you up for dinner.”
I looked forward to famed North Carolina slaw and barbecue, but their palates weren’t adventurous. Instead, we visited a family restaurant. Sandman and I chatted technical trivia, operating system internals, stuff of interest only to computer geeks. Were the circumstances different, I might have hired him to work for me.
Justine crushed her breast against his arm while shooting me feral looks. Her leg brushed mine twice, hard to say if it signified more than accidental contact. My instinct suggested it did.
“One twenty?” said Sandman.
“Yes, can do.”
“It’s worth more than that.”
“It was worth more than that, but they’re wounded, embarrassed, made fools of. Your shot across the bow at Chase injured them and damaged your credibility. You placed their bank and reputation at risk.”
Justine placed her lips against his ear and whispered something.
“So they should be willing to pay more, shouldn’t they?”
“They’re willing to pay less. Don’t get greedy, Dan. Pigs go to slaughter. I can’t impress upon you enough you’re not dealing from a position of strength. Mess around further and you’ll blow the deal. Be timely about it. I can’t advise you any more seriously.”
“You have his interests at heart?” Justine asked me, but the message was for him.
I said, “I have our interests at heart. The company has a limit how much they’re willing to deal, how much they’re willing to risk, and how much they’re willing to tolerate before cutting their losses.”
“That would leave the product up in the air.”
“No, that would leave the product dead and buried. You sold it to them; they own it.”
Wheels turned, though I couldn’t track where they headed. These two lived in a land of make-believe with no notion how the business world operated.
As I left the tip, they ambled out with their heads together. In the car, they pointed out features of Greensboro as he drove toward the motel. They stayed in the vehicle as I walked around to his window.
“Dan, what do I tell the executives in the morning?”
He waited an uncomfortable half minute before answering. “Tell them we’re in no hurry to accept.”
Did my not-to-tarry warning trigger a contrary response? Trying to keep exasperation out of my voice, I said, “What does that imply? How close or far apart are we?”
“It means… It means go home and think about it and we’ll go home and think about it. Then perhaps we’ll talk again. Perhaps not.”
“Don’t try their patience, Dan. They’re already put out.”
He shrugged, smiled, and offered his hand. I shook it. Pressed tightly against him, she reached out and shook mine too. I turned and strolled back to my room.
Despite the late hour, back in Virginia folks waited to hear from me. The vice president asked if I thought I could resolve this impasse in the next day or so. I had to say no.
“Go home, man. We’ll be in touch. Thank for trying.”
Over the next two and a half weeks, I spoke with Chase every few days. He’d ask clarification of some detail; I enquired about the situation’s progress. Twice I casually reached out to Sandman. He enjoyed talking tech, but steered away from closing a deal.
The notice came unexpectedly, a call from the bankshares president himself. He instructed me to fly once again to Greensboro. No one expected we would witness an entirely different battle of wits in Part III.