He’d dialed me from the gate call box. Former school chums, we went separate ways after graduation, and I lost contact. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Hart in thirty years.
“How the hell are you?” I asked.
“I’ve been better. Look, I’m at the Perla Street gate.”
I asked with both astonishment and a trace of suspicion. “How did you get my address?”
“On Facebook. I sent you repeated messages, but you never responded.”
“I stopped using Facebook years ago.”
“Your phone number wasn’t listed. Anyway, how do I get in?”
“I can open the gate from here.”
“Wait. I’m traveling in a pig of an RV. How far to walk to your house?”
“No way. I’ll pick you up.”
When someone you haven’t seen in years shows up unexpectedly, you wonder what he wants. Admittedly, I’m not an easy guy to get hold of, but Hart had thirty years to make contact and didn’t. He wasn’t interested in keeping our friendship going, or maybe he just got caught up in his own life. That was my excuse for not reaching out to him. School days ended, and I unleashed my ambition on the world.
I jumped into my red Ferrari 488 and drove the mile and a half to the gate. The look on Hart’s face as I roared up to him was the effect I hoped for. The size of houses in my community were a hint, but the Ferrari added paragraphs about my success.
I jumped out and we embraced.
Hart hadn’t dressed to impress. He wore faded jeans and a scruffy T-shirt with a “Camper for Life” motto under the image of a pup tent. He had aged, but he probably thought the same about me. His signature mustache needed trimming.
He gawked. “Jesus, what a car. I’ve never been inside a Ferrari.”
Hart had the odor of someone living rough. He was a few years older than me, having been a corpsman in the army before attending graduate school. He wouldn’t talk about it, and I imagined he had some scarring experiences. A loner at school, he didn’t make many friends, but I gravitated toward outcasts.
I floored the gas and the Ferrari roared like a lion, no doubt pissing off my tight-ass neighbors who’d come to expect that from me.
“How fast is this thing?” he asked.
“On the track, over two-hundred-miles-per-hour, and I wasn’t pushing it.”
“Your insurance company permits you to race?” he asked in a surprised tone.
I smiled, perhaps a bit smugly. “I’m self-insured.”
We arrived at my estate. Twelve acres surrounded by six-foot-high stone walls. I clicked the actuator and opened the steel gate, then motored up to the porticoed entrance.
“Goddamn,” he said, “you live in a palace.”
Hart’s head was on a swivel as we walked into the vaulted entranceway, where he stopped to admire the statuary and paintings.
He said, “I had no idea how well you fared after school.”
“I caught a few breaks,” I said in the most modest tone I could muster. When you make it big, the envy of others is the nectar you drink. However, Hart seemed genuinely enthusiastic about my success, the sign of a real friend. If he’d come to me for help, I’d respond. Within reason, of course.
Hart sunk into the marshmallow brown leather couch in my great room, and I went into the kitchen and popped open a bottle of Crystal Champagne, returning with two flutes.
“Bubbly?” Hart asked accepting the glass.
“Something special for the occasion. Salute.”
We clinked and sipped.
“Wow,” he said.
“If you’d rather have a Bordeaux, I’ve got a 1983 in my cellar that will spoil you for other wines.”
“Sounds wonderful, but I shouldn’t overdo the booze. I’ll need to drive.”
“Nonsense. You’re staying here tonight. Obviously, I have room.”
“That’s generous of you, but I don’t want to impose.”
“It’s fine. Look, you can’t just drop in after thirty years and run.”
Hart smiled. “I didn’t know how happy you’d be to see me. You’ve topped my expectations.”
“That’s my specialty,” I said, draining my glass. “Another?”
“Sure,” Hart said settling comfortably on the couch. “Why not?”
I retreated to the kitchen, returning with the bottle in an ice bucket. “I opened that Bordeaux to let it breathe. I gave my chef the day off, so I’ll grill us a couple of prime strips later, if that’s okay.”
“A personal chef? Oh my god.” He laughed. “Sure. Steaks would be fantastic. I’m definitely a meat and potatoes man.” Hart paused, looking around like he expected someone before he asked, “You live alone in this mansion? Never married?”
I let out a long breath. “Once. A few years after graduation. Lasted eighteen months. An expensive mistake I won’t repeat. Turns out that money is an aphrodisiac. I don’t lack for female company.”
“I bet,” Hart said with another chuckle.
“What about you?”
He sighed. “None of my relationships clicked. Now that I’m mostly on the road, the prospect for finding something lasting is small.”
“Yeah. I get that.”
Hart drank, and I refilled his glass. His cheeks had a flush that told me he was starting to feel the champagne.
He asked, “What the hell did you do to amass so much money? I knew you were the brainier guy at school, but the lifestyle you’ve created for yourself is incredible. I almost feel like I should call you Mister.”
I leaned back. “I was a financial advisor specializing in clients having multi-generational wealth.”
“I suppose it was. Seven in ten families lose their money in the second generation, nine in ten in the third. I wouldn’t say this publicly, but a lot of third generation idiots whose inheritance stemmed from their grandparents’ success would’ve died in poverty if not for me.”
“You had to suffer some rich fools.”
I extended my arms to my surroundings. “For a good cause.”
We were silent for a moment. Having been honest with Hart, I decided to indulge a curiosity I’d had about him since school. “You were never forthcoming about your military experience.”
Hart grimaced and took another sip, seemingly thinking how he’d respond. “I entered the service with the naïve desire to serve my country and ended up taking orders from assholes. After my discharge, I contemplated bombing recruiting stations, but decided to go back to school and try to become a boss rather than remain a grunt. I’m sorry to say that PTSD is real and has influenced my life.”
“Now, I understand why you shared my problem with authority.”
“Kissing ass was never my specialty.”
“What happened after school?”
“I had the knack for picking employers who eventually went bankrupt. I got downsized often. Not conducive to building a career.”
“How did you decide to come here?”
“A while back, I invested everything in the RV and headed across the country, stopping along the way in trailer camps. Having not seen you in thirty years, I became curious, so I detoured a bit to pay you a visit.” He raised his glass. “It’s great to see how lucky you’ve been.”
I stiffened and my tone sharpened. “Luck had nothing to do with it.”
“Oh. Come on. You skimmed off the top of a bunch of spoiled brats who were too rich and too stupid to know what you were doing.”
My face got hot, but I held my anger in check. Hart had proven to be like everybody else. He’d initially masked his envy, but the alcohol had dropped the veil. I wouldn’t allow him to misstate my accomplishments. “What do you know about hedges and straddles? Parking money in overseas tax havens? Trusts and estate planning?”
“I admit, my eyes glazed over during those classes in school.”
“Exactly, you pissed away your education whereas I used it as a foundation to build extensive financial knowledge and a lucrative expertise.”
“Please. You were a hired gun. You sucked up to wealth and some of it stuck to you.”
I placed my glass on the cocktail table. “I always saw you as an angry guy.”
Hart shrugged and drained his glass, putting it next to mine. We locked eyes.
He said, “You were like a butler or a maid, just higher paid. Those wealthy people never had any regard for you. They used you and dismissed you the moment you were out of their sight.”
I stood. No longer able to control myself, and my voice rose. “You think you know me? You don’t know shit. I’ll show you what people thought of me. A gift one of my clients gave me in appreciation. That’ll shut your mouth.”
I stormed from the great room and went to my vault. In my agitated state, I flubbed the combination a couple of times until I took a deep breath, then opened the door and retrieved my evidence.
Returning to the great room, I shoved the finely finished wooden instrument into Hart’s face where he sat on the couch.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked in a snide tone, knowing that he didn’t.
He sounded deflated. “Tell me.”
My chest expanded. “This is a Stradivarius violin, one of the most expensive instruments in the world, valued at $3.5 million.”
Hart reached out, but I tossed him two cotton gloves like the ones I’d donned.
“Put those on if you want to handle it.”
He complied before taking the violin from my hand.
“Exquisite,” he said.
I spoke in a purposely know-it-all tone. “This violin was made in 1727 by Antonio Stradivari. One of my clients, Mrs. Moretti gifted me this piece as a token of her gratitude and regard.”
I continued. “Do you think she would give something so precious to her lap dog?”
Hart turned the violin over in his hands. “Certainly not.”
“So,” I said, puffing out a long breath, finally calm. “I won’t hear any more talk about butlers and maids. My clients valued me for the superstar I was.”
I reached for Hart to return the instrument, but he laid it aside on the couch.
“If you don’t mind,” I said, “I keep the violin in an environmentally controlled vault. You’ve had your proof. Now, I need to put it back.”
“Nonsense,” Hart said matter-of-factly. “This is precisely why I came.”
My eyes narrowed, scanning his pockets for a weapon. “Do you think I’m going to allow you to walk out of here with my Stradivarius?” I braced, ready for a fight.
Hart stood and faced me, leaving the violin on the couch.
I balled my fists.
As he reached into his jeans pocket, I flinched, but he didn’t draw the blade I’d imagined, only a slim wallet.
He said, “This instrument was stolen in 2005 from the New York City apartment of 91-year-old Irene Moretti, a former concert violinist, while she was hospitalized and dying.”
I felt my face lose color. I gulped.
Hart continued. “We knew you embezzled and defrauded your clients, but you’d been clever and covered your tracks. We didn’t even have the evidence to justify a search warrant. But we also knew you were light fingered and couldn’t control yourself from snatching a few precious objects.”
I sputtered. “Mrs. Moretti gave me the violin. You can’t prove I stole it.”
Hart opened the wallet to reveal FBI credentials. “Tell it to the jury. I bet when we search your house, we’ll find a few missing items you won’t be able to explain.”
I thought to jump Hart and beat him unconscious, but toe to toe, I realized he was fitter than I’d imagined. Better to consult with the most expensive lawyer I could buy.
Hart produced handcuffs. “You’re under arrest.”
I allowed myself to be cuffed.
He said with a smile. “We’re old friends, Ricky. You were a blowhard in school. I assured my team that your ego would trip you up now.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Joe’s second story published with Books & Pieces Magazine.]
Help support Books & Pieces Magazine by ADVERTISING your books, your clients, your products, or services. We have VERY affordable ad rates, and we include ad design if needed. Click HERE for more information or to get started.
Are you a published author, screenwriter, artist or songwriter? Would you like to be interviewed? Contact me HERE and let’s chat.
Click HERE to join–it’s FREE