Friday, March 8, 2019

The Best Revenge by Patrick Ritter

Mike fears his mother has been conned and wants revenge, but is it too late? By Patrick Ritter.

It came back right after dessert.

"Happy birthday, Mom," Mike said, unwrapping a small birthday cake. "I couldn't fit eighty candles on it, but I know you don't like too much fuss."

"It's perfect," she replied. "What a nice surprise, Michael. And I have a surprise for you too."

"Oh yeah," he said, cutting each of them a piece of cake. "What's that?"

"I know you've wanted me to sell the farm property in Merced and move into that senior home. Well, I'm finally going to do it."

"That's great Mom, you really deserve it. The money from the sale will make your life so much more comfortable. When are you going to list it?"

"Oh, I already have someone who's going to buy it," she said chomping into the cake.

Mike put his plate down. "You have a realtor?"

"No, a developer. He looked at it, and has agreed to buy it."

Mike looked surprised. "You aren't going to put it on the market?"

"No dear, I don't want all the bother."

"How much is he offering?"

"Well, it's not what we thought, but it's still $175,000."

"Oh no, Mom, it should get a lot more than that, six or seven hundred thousand I'd say. You have 40 acres of prime developable land near the new University of California campus."

"That's what I thought too, but with all the problems, he told me -"

"Wait, what problems?"

"The developer was surprised too. Apparently there was a gasoline station on the land many years ago and it leaked. It will cost quite a lot to get it cleaned up, but the developer said he would still buy it and take care of everything so I won't have to deal with it."

"I never heard of a gas station way out there," Mike said, sounding puzzled. "It's always been ag land, even when Dad bought it forty years ago. How do they know this?"

"Oh the developer did some studies and didn't even charge me. It all looked very official. He showed me a map with a gas station on it. They even went out and took some measurements of, I don't know, the fumes, or something."

"You mean soil vapor analysis?"

"Yes, that was it."

"Mom, why didn't you call me? You know I do these kinds of environmental studies as part of my job."

"I know dear, but I didn't want to burden you with extra work. You're busy enough."

"No mom, I have plenty of -" Mike stopped midsentence. Yes, he did have time, a lot of it. He hadn't told her he had been laid off many months ago.

"Well, let me take a look at these studies at least."

"Oh, I don't have them here. I looked at everything at the developer's office."

Mike tried to keep his voice calm. "Mom, I think we need to slow this down."

"I guess. But the contract says it will, what do they call it, close, next week."

"Close? What? You have a contract?" Mike said, his voice rising with each word.

"Yes, all official." She dug the contract out of a pile of papers.

As Mike read through it, that's when it came back, the muscles in his neck started tensing, then tightening into tiny knots, quickly followed by the heat, the weird heat that crept up the back of his neck into his jaw. It was only a small fire, but he knew it could burst into a firestorm. He took a deep breath.

"Michael, aren't you going to finish your cake?" she asked.

But Michael could only stare out the window as his face turned a deeper shade of crimson. Just doesn't smell right, he thought. He left without telling his mother what he really suspected.

Mike didn't tell his mother a lot of things. He didn't want to upset her, he told himself. In his family no one wanted to upset anyone else, so a lot was left unsaid. The year before, when Mike's engagement ended, he had to tell his mother something. "We're both just not ready yet," seemed to work.

He couldn't upset her, and embarrass himself, with the real reason. He had been the victim of a bank hacking scam that cleaned out his account. He and his fiancée were putting both of their life savings into a down payment on their dream home. The closing day was going to be the new beginning they so needed. Instead, it was the beginning of the end. Both of their mutual fund accounts had been hacked and cleaned out. FDIC insurance didn't cover mutual funds, and the escrow company claimed their bank didn't have "reasonable" security measures. So of course, no one was at fault. They supposedly traced the hackers as far as Kiev but could never prove it, much less catch them. To make it worse, two months later Mike was laid off from his environmental consulting job, "right-sizing" as they called it. The engagement ended soon after. His fiancée said it wasn't due to the lost money but rather Mike's anger issues, or more accurately, his revenge issues.

Friends tried to console him, saying, "Don't get mad, get even." Yeah, maybe that sounded good when Bobby Kennedy said it, but it never made sense to Mike. The very reason he would want to get even was because he was so pissed. He went to anger management sessions but they didn't help. One shrink even had the balls to tell him, "The best revenge is living well." That was pure bull. When someone screws you badly enough, you're kidding yourself if you think you can just go on "living well." You're either a moron, fooling yourself, or a wimp. Mike was neither.

The bank scam was the epicenter of Mike's anger. He could never get the bastards who stole his life savings, his future home, and his dreams. Unable to get justice, much less revenge, his anger kept building. It was the San Andreas Fault waiting to rupture. Now he felt that tightening again, and the heat. He really hoped his mother hadn't been conned too.

" Sir, Mr. Cooper is here," the secretary said into the speaker phone.

"Oh yes, Mrs. Cooper's son. Send him in."

Mike walked into the office, an ostentatious acreage offering a thirty-story view of the San Francisco Bay.

"Siegfried Burke, but call me Sig," the developer said, extending his hand. Mike wanted to call him what he was, a con artist and a criminal, but he replied in a low monotone, "Michael Cooper."

Burke was about forty, with dark eyes and even darker, slick-backed hair. He wore an expensive suit and an oily expression. "Well Michael, I'm glad we were able to help your mother out with the purchase. Very nice lady, your mom," he said with an ingratiating smile. "So what can I do for you today?"

"Burke, you ripped off my mother."

"Mr. Cooper, what are you talking about?" he said in an offended tone.

"You know full well what I'm talking about, the tricked out map, and fake soil vapor readings to convince my mother there was a leaking gas station out there."

"Leaking gas station? I don't know what you are getting at, but I certainly hope there isn't a leaking gas station there. That would be a serious disclosure omission."

"Look, you son of a bitch, I know what you did. I pulled the Sanborn insurance maps and historic photos for the land going back to 1910, and there was never a gas station there, just ag land. You ginned up a fake map to show my mother."

"This is preposterous, and slanderous, Cooper," he quickly replied. But his anger wasn't convincing.

"Forget it, pal," Mike said, standing up. "I went out there myself and surveyed the entire property. It was non-detect for any gasoline byproducts. You faked the whole thing to get a lower price. That property is worth well over half a million and any court will see that."

"Look Cooper, I don't know what game you're playing, but I bought that land for a fair market price. I recently bought another larger parcel near town that I am developing. So your land, unfortunately, isn't worth the development potential you might think. I just bought it for a long-term hold." But Burke was subtly shaking his head, as if disagreeing with himself, a classic non-verbal tell that he was lying.

"Yeah, right. You stole it," Mike said resolutely, "and you're going to make my mother whole."

"I had no reason to steal it as you say. It's just not worth that much. I told all this to your mother, nothing about a gas station." Burke blinked several times in rapid succession. "No one will believe this story, Mr. Cooper," he said confidently. "Do you have any evidence to back up this outrageous allegation? If you impugn my reputation I assure you my lawyers will take aggressive action."

"No need for that. We're simply going to cancel the contract is all."

"Gee, that would be a shame, since your mother would then owe me the full sales price as liquidated damages, as clearly stated in the contract. He leaned way back in his chair, appearing to be looking down on Mike. Does she have that kind of cash, Mr. Cooper?"

"You're not getting away with this, Burke."

Trying to sound concerned, Burke said, "How is your mother's health, Michael? Any memory issues? Perhaps she should see someone about these stories of hers."

Mike imagined leaping over the desk and in one smooth motion delivering a roundhouse kick to his smug face. No, hold it together, there might be a better way, he thought. He just stared at the floor and said nothing, then got up and left, dejectedly, letting Burke think he was beaten. But he was just getting started.

Driving home Mike considered the options. Legal jousting would be expensive, likely futile, and he couldn't ask his mother to pay for it. Doing nothing wasn't an option. He had to make this right. He decided he would determine the means and methods himself. The efficiency of this approach appealed to his engineering mind. This wouldn't be a mindless revenge, but rather a careful design to get even. More than getting even, he thought, a dose of your own medicine, Burke. Contemplating it did more than any anger management therapy. This brand of justice brought him a remarkable calmness. He liked that.

The next day, Mike stood in an industrial equipment warehouse in the Central Valley looking up at a stack of fifty-five gallon drums. "And these drums naturally degrade how?" he asked the manager.

"They degrade by a process of oxo-biodegradation, initiated by a polymer additive which reduces the molecular weight of the material over a pre-determined period."

"In plain English, please," Mike replied.

"Exposed to even a minimal amount of oxygen, the bioplastic is consumed by micro-organisms and is converted to nothing more than carbon dioxide, water, and biomass."

"How long do they take to degrade?"

"Depends on the polymer formulation we've added. We have a whole range of drums, with the longest lasting up to eighteen months."

"And the shortest?"

"That would be the D-505. Once removed from the sealed package, within three or four weeks that drum will be so degraded it won't be useable as a container."

"I'll take a D-505," Mike said, pulling out a wad of cash.

On the way back to the Bay Area, he stopped at another facility, this one an agricultural supply house.

From behind a row of trees Mike watched the golfers walk along a path from the eighteenth green back to the clubhouse. When he saw his target he stepped out.

"Sig, Sig Burke?" he called. "How was your round?"

"Get the hell off the grounds, Cooper," Burke replied. "Non-members not allowed."

"Well, let me get right to it then. Our property was worth about $700,000. That's leaves us $525,000 short. Since this transaction won't involve lawyers or commissions, we'll settle for an even $500,000, to be wired into my mother's account immediately."

"Now why would I do that?"

"Well, to avoid that big cleanup you told my Mom about."

"What are you talking about, there's no big -"

Catching him, Mike snapped, "None that you made up, you mean."

"Get out of my way, Cooper."

Mike stepped in front of him. "Burke, you ever heard of biodegradable plastics?"

"I'm warning you, Cooper."

"They're an oil refining byproduct, and can be formulated with polymers to degrade anywhere from about a month to over a year, making them great for biodegradable containers."

"Ok, I'm getting club security, jerk. You're delaying me."

Mike ignored him. "The reason I mention it, Burke, is that two days before the closing I buried a fifty-five gallon drum on the property made with the most rapidly degrading bioplastic available. They say it will totally dissolve in less than a month."

Burke looked annoyed. "What the hell are you talking about? You buried something on my property?"

"Wasn't your property at the time, Burke. But that's not the point. You see, I filled that biodegradable drum with an agricultural herbicide called Atrazine. It's really nasty stuff, this atrazine: endocrine disrupter, birth defects, toxic to aquatic life, the whole menu. It's already banned in Europe, and will likely be banned here soon."

"You're insane, and if you have affected my property you will pay for it."

Mike continued in a relaxed tone. "In about three or four weeks time, maybe less, that drum will start releasing a load of contamination much worse than that con story you gave my mother. The groundwater is pretty shallow out there, I checked. Once the atrazine reaches the water table, it will take years, maybe decades, to remove it.

Burke look worried now. Mike could see the wheels turning, and he said, "In case you're thinking of removing it, that land is all plowed and looks identical, so you won't find any trace of where I buried it. And if you start digging around yourself you'll puncture the drum and release the herbicide anyway."

"You won't get away with this."

Mike looked beyond Burke out at the fairway. "I bet they don't use atrazine here. It would be way too toxic for a club like this."

Burke tightened his grip on the top of his driver and stared, beady eyes burning.

Mike casually leaded against a railing. "Another really cool thing about these drums, Burke? They're entirely bioplastic so you can't find them with a metal detector, in case you were wondering. No, unless you do the right thing, about 55 gallons of concentrated atrazine, the kind farmers use, will be released. The regulators will assume it's an unreported agricultural spill, and by then the drum will have disappeared. The atrazine should show up in the nearby wells, probably next year by my calculations, just when you are going to the county for approval of your subdivision map. Instead, you'll be off to the remediation races. Oh, and the banks won't lend on any development with that mess hanging overhead."

"You contaminated your own property and will pay heavily for it."

"Actually no, Burke. You own the property now, the one you stole, and you also own the liability. I noticed you didn't get a pollution insurance policy when you bought it, did you? No, of course not, the contamination was only in your mind."

"I'll come after you with everything I have, Cooper."

"No, you'll need everything you have for your cleanup, Burke. But go ahead and sue me, I have no money. Sure, you could go after my mom's $175,000 but with what evidence? If you take any legal action, this conversation never happened. And a lawsuit damn sure wouldn't allow development, not for a very long time. Plus, it would be a public relations nightmare for you. Pretty messy really, I don't know why you would choose that option."

"You're bluffing," Burke said, trying to sound confident. But a thin line of sweat trickled down the side of his face.

Mike smiled. "You ever play that battleship game when you were a kid, Burke? The one where you put a few battleships on a piece of graph paper? Each guy has to figure out where his opponent has hidden their battleships. Well, you have a nuclear submarine out there right now, ready to explode. I have the exact GPS coordinates so I know precisely where it is. Maybe you can guess where it is. Are you that good a player, Burke?"

Changing direction, Burke said, "If I transfer the funds, how do I know you will tell me where the drum is?"

"I don't really want to see the land contaminated, but I would rather have that than let you rip off my mom. But that property has been in my family for 40 years, and I promised my dad to take care of it. Why would I want to ruin the land if you've already handed over the money? I'm not seeking a war, only justice."

Burke said nothing. He tried to maintain his confident demeanor, but a new one was emerging. It was panic.

Mike looked casually off to the horizon. "Looks like a storm may be coming in, so I guess I'll be on my way. You think it over, Burke. But don't wait too long. The clock is ticking." He turned and walked away, leisurely.

Two days later, Mike set his phone down and peered at his laptop screen. When he saw the new entry in his mother's account come up, he silently punched the air. Picking up his phone, he said, "Ok, Burke, the funds went through. Here are the coordinates."

The next day Mike finished his coffee, packed up his laptop, and began the drive to his mother's apartment in the South Bay. As Mike was just arriving, sixty miles to the east, just outside the Merced city limits, two workers slowly dug away the rich topsoil. A pickup truck stood nearby with couple of drums and a portable pump in the back.

"Careful," Burke ordered. "You can't puncture it!"

Slowly, carefully, they began to expose the top of the drum. It was pale yellow, the color of translucent straw.

"Ok, bring the hose over," Burke barked. Another worker hooked a hose up to the pump and brought the other end to the excavation pit.

A worker down in the pit maneuvered a small lever at the top of the drum, releasing the locking ring. He carefully lifted off the lid. He stared, sniffed once, and slowly shook his head. Then he dipped a finger into the liquid. The other worker handed him the hose, but he just stood there.

"Well, pump it out, damn it." Burke yelled. "I haven't all day."

Looking back up at the developer, the worker said, "I don't think we'll need the pump, Mr. Burke."

"What? Why the hell not?"

"Because it's not filled with herbicide. It's only water."

After arriving Mike said, "Mom, I'm telling you an additional $500,000 is in your account. I just logged in again and checked. It's there."

"Well, that's rather unusual don't you think?"

"No, as I explained, I talked to the appraiser who realized he had made a mistake. So the developer made up the difference."

"I can hardly believe it," she said. "But I can sure use the money. Thank you, Michael."

"Not at all Mom. That's what the land was worth." Later, as Mike was leaving, he turned and said, "It was just your good fortune, Mom, appreciate it."

"Yes, I certainly do," she replied. "Thank you."

Mike opened the door to leave, but then he stopped, and turned around. "Mom," he said quietly, "that wasn't really the reason he added the additional money."

"No? Then why?"

"Sit down, Mom. I need to talk to you. About this, and a whole lot of other things. Then we're going over to the senior home and pick out your new place."

7 comments:

  1. Good vs. Evil, with a happy ending for the good. No one likes seeing an 80 year old Mom get ripped off. Mike's a convincing character, I was thinking he was going to get scammed in the end, but he wins with his toxic spill scheme. Liars can be very convincing, and they're big on the news these days, so it's a topical subject.

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  2. first class. always nice to see the good guys triumph. i was also expecting a twist against Mike, but he had it all sewn up.
    Mike McC

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  3. I like the way this story draws you in straight away and gets to the nub pretty much right from the get go. Excellent, intricate plotting leading to a very satisfying outcome. Great story.

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  4. I liked how Mike cleverly devised a scheme to out smart Burke and recover funds for his mom. Additionally, he found a way to come clean with his anger, hopefully paving a way towards his emotional recovery.

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  5. I love this delicious revenge story! "You ripped off my mother." NEVER cross a son who watches out for his mom. You will pay mightily. Can I hire Mike to go after my cable company and my cell phone provider?

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  6. Well, you certainly know your stuff, and it was well-suited to the story. Nicely done.

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