D on’t panic,” Gage said when he dropped his business card on the table-for-two in the almost vacant Jade Garden Chinese Restaurant in San Jose twenty-four hours later.
“Private investigator?” the diner asked, looking up. “What did I do?”
“I think it may be something that got done to you.” Gage glanced at the empty chair. “May I?”
“Sure. Why not? Things can’t get any worse.”
Gage sat down and rested his folded hands on the edge of the table, careful to make sure his suit jacket didn’t touch. The plastic tablecloth was sticky, the soy sauce bottle was grimy, and the napkin holder was empty.
“How’s the food?” Gage asked.
“Cheap and better than bringing my lunch.”
Robert Milsberg picked up the card. “Graham Gage, Private Investigator. San Francisco.” He then looked at Gage. “I knew somebody would come knocking, I just figured it would be the FBI.”
“You mean you haven’t been interviewed?”
Milsberg should’ve been the first on the list at SatTek after Matson.
“Not yet.” Milsberg offered a weak smile. “I assumed they were still gathering documents and then they’d call us in one by one.”
“The whole freaking thing. Even Matson…” He peered across the table at Gage. “I guess you know about Matson if you’re talking to me. Even Matson says they haven’t questioned him yet.”
“What’s the whole freaking thing?”
“You know or you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“It looks like a pump and dump with an offshore angle.”
Milsberg jabbed the air with his chopsticks. “Bingo. Matson and me both got slammed by Granger and that lawyer in San Francisco, Burch. That son of a bitch. Matson lost almost a million and me one-point-two.”
A listless waitress wandered up to the table, order pad in hand.
“What’s good?” Gage asked Milsberg.
“Chow fun. Beef chow fun.”
“That’s fine,” Gage told her, and she shuffled off toward the kitchen.
Milsberg cleaned his glasses with a handkerchief. Pale skin surrounded reddened eyes and a comb-over that was graying and far less than adequate. He reminded Gage of those awkward kids in high school whose body parts seemed to grow at different rates.
“Who you working for?” Milsberg asked.
“Some of the shareholders.” Gage had planned the lie in advance. Better that Milsberg believed that Gage’s clients were fellow victims, rather than one of those he thought were the masterminds. “Most are devastated. Others are just pissed.”
“Not half as much as me. Once this all hits the papers, I won’t even get hired to count eggs at a chicken farm.” He didn’t laugh at his own attempted joke. “What’s your theory?”
Gage took a chance, saying a little more than he could yet prove. “Fake receivables paid for by selling stock.”
Milsberg nodded. “That’ll be the headline all right.”
“Why are you still hanging around?”
“We still have some orders to fill and somebody’s got to do the books. There’s enough money coming in to cover our reduced salaries. It’s not much, but I’ve got a kid in college, so a little is better than none.”
The waitress set a pot of tea, a cup, and a napkin in front of Gage.
“When did you figure it out?” Gage asked.
“One day too late. There was something weird since just before we went public. We’d get these big orders from Asia, but I never knew how. We never had a sales staff out there. I’d ask Matson. He’d tell me that it was through Granger’s connections. That’s why the board approved his fees. A couple of hundred grand in two years. I could understand the orders from Europe. Matson was traveling there all the time, working the market. That’s what he was always good at, sales. He could sell a pork sandwich to a vegan-twice.”
Milsberg poked around in his chow fun with his chopsticks.
“It was only after the collapse that Matson told me that Granger and Burch set up a bunch of burn companies…You know what burn companies are, right?”
“When Matson went back after the collapse, the customers were gone. Poof. Up in smoke.”
Milsberg set down his chopsticks.
“If it weren’t for our pastor, my wife would’ve divorced me. She’s kind of a religious nut. She used to teach this marriage class at the church. You know, ‘It’s not a contract, it’s a covenant with God.’ That kind of stuff. Naive. She says I’m naive. She never liked Matson. She thought he was slick. And Madge. My wife saw through her the first time they met. But you can’t blame Matson. He looks at his wife, he still sees what she was like when they first got together. We’re all that way.”
Gage had come to the restaurant ready for psychological combat with an accountant constantly calculating his position, but what he saw before him was a fragile, flailing man.
“It’s called being human.”
“I guess so. But you didn’t come here to listen to me ramble on.”
“It’s okay. You’ve had a tough couple of months.”
“I wasn’t sure whether to blow my brains out or Granger’s or Burch’s.”
Gage’s eyes went dark.
Milsberg pulled back and held up his hands. “I didn’t shoot Burch. It wasn’t me.” He shook his head. “I haven’t the stomach for any kind of violence.” He hunched forward again and stared down at this chow fun. “I can only eat this stuff because I don’t think about how cow becomes beef.”
Gage glanced toward the door. “How about we go for a walk?” he said. “Get some fresh air. Talk a little more.”
“Sure. I got nothing much to do at the office. What about your lunch?”
“She can pack it up. I know somebody who’ll eat it.”
Gage drove Milsberg to Coyote Creek Park. They entered the Japanese Friendship Garden, bought fish food pellets, and walked to the crest of the bridge over the koi pond.
“You don’t know me,” Gage said, as he tossed a few pellets to the koi schooling below, “and I don’t know you.”
“That’s not quite true.”
“How do you figure?”
“I’ll bet you’ve met a lot of Robert Milsbergs in your career and you take them to comforting places like this for a little heart-to-heart.”
“You’re an insightful guy.”
“Sometimes too much. You know what I wanted to be when I was in college? A poet. I wanted to be a poet. And I could write, too.” Milsberg tore open his bag of pellets. “There was something heroic about being a poet. Now look at me. I’m as broke as if I was one. But I ain’t no hero. I’m a middle-aged guy who screwed up his life.”
Milsberg leaned over the wooden railing and stared down toward the water, his eyes losing focus, then he blinked hard and tossed a few pellets to the koi.
“You know haiku?” Milsberg asked, watching the fish vacuum them up.
“Try this one: The somber wind stills, the dark river of pain speaks, of what might have been.”
“That could be anyone.”
“But it’s me. I write haiku to keep from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.” Milsberg sighed, still staring at the koi. “What do you need?”
“Look at me,” Gage said, as if a father to his son.
Milsberg turned to face him.
“You tried to ride this scam, didn’t you?”
Milsberg glanced away, then returned his eyes to Gage’s.
“I shouldn’t have. But I did. Everybody said we had great products, ones the country really needed. And I thought everything would work out in the end.”
“But it didn’t. And a lot of people suffered, not just you.”
“Maybe I’m lucky. I’m still young enough to earn it again.”
“But not the old folks who lost all of their retirement money.”
Milsberg hesitated, off balance, as if for the first time seeing the victims in his mind’s eye. “No. Not them.”
“And you knew Matson was in on it?”
“And you did what he told you?”
“Yes. And my name is all over the paperwork. Even the SEC filings.”
Gage pulled a photograph out of his suit pocket, holding it by the bottom center between his thumb and forefinger.
“You know what building this is?”
“Sure.” Milsberg shrugged. “It’s the Federal Building in San Francisco. I went there a few times to pick up tax forms, back when the IRS had an office on the first floor.”
“And what’s in the Federal Building now?”
“Courts, U.S. Attorney, FBI.”
Gage moved his thumb.
Milsberg’s head jerked forward. Eyes riveted on the small figure walking toward the entrance. “That son of a bitch!”