An easy mark for con artists and bums.
January 31, 2014
A VG Serial: Borrowed to the Bone
Peter Umlauf’s crates had gathered almost a decade of dust before Mark Conley visited the old bank in Mesa. Mark banged on the glass windows cloudy with dust until Ben Tom appeared and opened the door.
When he came into the bank lobby, Ben Tom was more stooped than his years, his face more lined than it should have been. The years after Billy’s death had been filled with a constant stream of demands on his time and resources. He was providing care and financial support for the family Billy left behind and for Trez, who continued to live in the fish trailer. It also seemed that Ben Tom was like a beacon in the desert for every needy person in East Texas.
They came from all over, scalawags, con artists, bums, and good people down on their luck. Even stray and abandoned pets, especially horses, found their way to his door. Four decades of being an easy mark or being overly kind and generous, depending on how you looked at it, had earned Ben Tom a following of people who were in need. He never turned any of them away, even the ones known to use his money for alcohol, drugs, or to fund a gambling addiction. Ben Tom always figured this time would be different.
The roller coaster ride in the markets for antiques and real estate had only exacerbated his precarious situation. The regal home on the Red, no longer fit for human habitation, had been abandoned. A stately old commercial building in downtown Riverby had been renovated, filled with antiques, and made suitable as Ben Tom and Penny’s residence and primary place of business.
It suited them to live behind their storefront antique store, so that Penny could wait on customers while Ben Tom searched for more antiques. He also sold used cars, trailers, tractors, and other farm equipment on the road that ran by his farm. Trez helped out with these transactions.
But Mark Conley hardly noticed Ben Tom’s wearied face and posture. Ben Tom, however, did notice Mark’s. The bank president pulled up a dusty chair and almost fell into it. He jerked his tie away from his collar and wadded it in one hand as he looked up and gave Ben Tom a smile filled with pain.
“Need a favor, old buddy.”
Ben Tom’s face showed his concern. Mark’s words were slurred and he reeked of alcohol. “Anything you need, friend. You’ve always helped me out plenty.”
“Hate to have to ask you this, but I’m in a bad way. I need ten grand by Friday.”
It was Monday, and Ben Tom was confused. Why would a banker need ten grand by Friday? “I ain’t sure what you mean.”
“Sounds strange, I know, coming from a banker. But I let myself get overextended at the bank. I need to cover up my mistakes before the directors find out. Could lose my job if I don’t.”
Ben Tom tried to make light of the uncomfortable situation while he thought how he might help. “Ain’t you got this backwards? You’re the one that loans me money, not the other way around.”
Mark did not smile. “It ain’t no laughing matter. My family, my house and ranch, my whole future is on the line. If I don’t put that money back by Friday, I could even go to jail.”
Put the money back? Jail? This sounded ominous and explained the liquor-breath. “You know my bank balance ain’t seen ten thousand for more than a few hours in years. It goes out as fast as I put it in.”
“You’re the only one I can turn to, the only one that will keep my secret.”
Ben Tom thought of the stranger that had offered him ten thousand for his ’55 Ford over the weekend. He had laughed at him, but had taken his card. He fished around in his too-thick billfold for it. By noon on Wednesday, the Ford was parked in front of his antique shop and the buyer was peeling off hundreds into Ben Tom’s open palm in full view of everyone on the town square.
Ben Tom’s breath caught in his throat as the man drove away his most prized possession. He hoped Penny wasn’t watching. They had begun dating in that car.
He went inside and stuffed the bills into a large envelope, sealed it, and wrote Mark Conley on the front. He felt better as he strode toward the bank. But Mark was not in the bank. When he asked to see him, a teller took him aside and whispered that he might be able to find Mark at Wheeler Parker’s; that he wouldn’t be in the bank for several days at least.
Wheeler Parker was a known bootlegger who lived on the banks of the Red, a few miles east of Ben Tom’s house. His shack by the river, The Wheelhouse, was a known hangout for men who preferred the company of other men and whiskey to that of their families. Ben Tom had accompanied Joe Henry there once when Joe Henry had gone to retrieve a client close to jumping bail and forfeiting the bond Joe Henry had helped him to obtain.
The place seemed harmless enough. Just a place where lonely, down-on-their-luck, and usually older men could buy liquor cheap and drink in peace and quiet. But it was not a place where one would expect the find the pristinely dressed and well-mannered Mark Conley. Ben Tom was confused as he walked to the two adjoining buildings on the corner of the Riverby square.
Joe Henry Leathers, attorney-at-law, occupied the corner building and Tee Jessup, CPA occupied the old building next door. Joe Henry owned them both. The lawyer was in court, and the CPA was with a client, so Ben Tom took up residence in Tee’s waiting room. He sat quietly, listening to the sounds of Verda Lemon’s police scanner in her Four Forces Beauty Salon that connected to Tee’s office. No matter how long he pondered, he could not come up with an answer, but he figured Tee would know what to do about Mark Conley.
Chapters of the serial are published on Friday.
You can learn more about Borrowed to the Bone and other titles by Jim H. Ainsworth on his Amazon Author Page.