STUNG by Howard Feigenbaum
Nobody likes getting ripped off, especially to the tune of three and a half million dollars. Furlong Financial, a private bank, specializing in loans on thoroughbred racehorses. Four horses, pledged as collateral by a syndicate, were imposters. When the loan defaulted, Furlong inherited ownership of four mounts of unknown breeding and track performance.
Tom Reynolds, the firm’s president, wanted me to retrieve the money. He was willing to pay my ten percent recovery fee plus expenses.
A Santa Anita Park guard stopped me as I entered the luxury box section reserved for owners.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Benny Goldfarb. I’m meeting Tom Reynolds.”
“He’s expecting you. His box is straight ahead, the fifth one on the left.”
Reynolds rose from his seat as I approached. About sixty-five, he stood six feet tall and had a full head of silver-gray hair. He studied me, making the assessment that someone experienced in deal-making would do as a matter of course.
“Nice to meet you, Benny. Call me Tom,” He offered his right hand and an engaging smile. The man wore the accoutrements of success: the gold Rolex, cashmere sports jacket, black Bruno Magli loafers with tan lacing and, as a concession to informality, ordinary khakis. “Please, have a seat. Can I pour you a drink? We have some delicious watermelon sangria.”
“A cup of coffee would be great.” Reynolds asked the waitress to bring my coffee. I didn’t want to reject his hospitality, but I preferred a clear head when interviewing a new client. “Can you fill me in on what we’re dealing with here?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’ve been in this business more than thirty years. An Argentine group came to us for financing on four horses. We checked their company assets. The horses were registered with the Jockey Club and tattooed. Everything appeared in good order. The owners wanted to race the U.S. circuit and needed money for training, stables, and transportation.
I made a few notes as he talked.
“Since we didn’t have a longstanding relationship, we asked for a pledge of collateral. They gave us title to the horses and their ranch outside Buenos Aires.” As he told the story, his brow furrowed and his lips stiffened.
“It sounds like you were careful.”
“Not careful enough. The tattoo numbers inside the horses’ upper lips were taken from deceased animals. The documents for the ranch in Argentina were forged. We had a real estate attorney in Buenos Aires investigate the property before we approved the loan. It looks like he was paid off.”
Reynolds paused to drink from his glass of sangria. He pulled at his shirt collar as if it were too tight and sighed.
“Why me?” I asked. I was happy to have the business, but I liked to know why clients hired me.
“The police aren’t getting anywhere with this. I don’t want to throw money down a rat-hole by using someone I don’t know in Argentina. You have a reputation for being willing to travel to get the job done. My Jewish attorney knows about you and suggested I call you.”
“You’ll have to give me his name so I can send him a gift for Hanukkah.”
“Don’t be so sensitive. I trust him. If he thinks you’re okay, so do I.”
“Thanks for your vote of confidence. You’ll have to agree to introduce me to people I need to speak with and get me into places I need to go.”
“It’s a deal.”
“I’ll take the case.”
He stood up without waiting for me to finish my coffee. “Let me know whatever else I can do.”
“You don’t mind if I finish my coffee, do you?” This man was accustomed to dismissing people. I didn’t like being dismissed. I deliberately took my time emptying the cup.
Reynolds acknowledged my delay with a grin. “You don’t take any crap, do you? I think you’re a match for these scoundrels. I apologize for my rudeness.”
“Apology accepted.” I stood, shook his hand, and headed to the parking lot.
The paperwork provided by Furlong included copies of the loan form, an appraisal report, photographs of four horses, numbers from the tattoo registry, the wire transfer, copies of Argentine passports, and a police report. I presumed the horse identities were bogus. The photographs on the passports, however, were probably right on. Every person and animal entering the country legally gets eyeballed by Customs and Immigration.
“Annie, I hope you like horses,” I said, passing her on the way to my office. “We have a horse case.”
“I’ll be right in.” She picked up her note pad and placed herself in the chair across from me.
“Here’s what I need,” I said. “One, call Furlong and ask where the loan signing took place. Find out where everyone sat and what they touched. I’m looking for traces of DNA or prints. Two, ask if anyone there has an idea when the Argentines might have arrived. I might be able to access info on a Customs landing form. Three, get information on the lawyer they hired in Buenos Aires. And four, check the larger hotels in Pasadena, Arcadia, and downtown Los Angeles. Tell them you’re looking for your relatives from Argentina. See what shakes out.”
“You got it.”
Annie kept detailed computerized records of each case and its progression. When we filled in the map with what we knew, we would make clear what we didn’t. Somewhere during the process, the criminals’ mistakes would come to the surface. Experience taught me no matter what we learned in our preliminary investigation, we would have to face the wolves in their den.