The 38 Million Dollar Smile
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by Richard Stevenson
Description: Gadfly scion of Albany old money Gary Griswold goes missing in Thailand, and his ex-wife wants him found--with his 38 million dollars. Soon Albany's only gay PI, Don Strachey, is out of his element, and lover Timmy is out of his comfort zone combing the Land of Smiles for a man with unerring weakness for the poorest possible choice and a daft plan to buy 38 million dollars worth of good karma.
eBook Publisher: MLR Press, LLC,
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [366 KB]
Reading time: 225-315 min.
"Mr. Strachey, do you believe in reincarnation?"
"I've never given it much thought."
"So you won't mind my telling you, I think the whole idea is perfectly absurd."
It had been Ellen Griswold's idea to meet in the bar at the Albany airport at six thirty. She was picking her husband up from the US Airways flight from Washington that theoretically got in at seven forty but sometimes arrived around nine or ten. So we had plenty of time for going over the mysteries of life.
"I know you've spent time in Southeast Asia," she said. "So I assume you know something about Buddhist philosophy."
She was nicely turned out in a beige linen suit, the sea green silk wrap she had been wearing against the early April chill now slung over the chair next to her. Still on the underside of fifty, I guessed, Mrs. Griswold was raven haired, with clear dark eyes, a handsome beak, and apparently had had some minimal cantilevering and other structural work done on her chin and cheeks, though nothing that would have overtaxed Le Corbusier.
I said, "I was in the war there, so I know a little. But even in Army Intelligence, my thinking was focused and practical. The larger questions relating to the Asian psyche were left to the deep thinkers at the Pentagon. How did you know I was in Vietnam?"
"Bob Chicarelli told me."
A lawyer I knew. "I've done work for Bob."
"And have played squash with him. He also says you're gay. That's good, because so is my ex-husband, who is the problem here, I think."
"Ah, the problem."
I liked that she drank beer. She had a large bottle of Indian Kingfisher she was working on, savoring each sip but without making a spectacle of it, like Timmy's and my lesbian friends who drink beer while they inexplicably watch men play football on television.
Mrs. Griswold said, "My ex-husband, Gary, believes that in a previous life he was Thai. What do you make of that?"
"Thai, as in a person from Thailand?"
She sipped her Kingfisher, and I sipped my Sam Adams.
"Gary not only believes that he was Thai, but that he will be Thai again in his next life. This is a man I was married to for six years."
"It sounds as though he may have been problematical for you on multiple fronts."
This got a little half smile. "Well, yes. We were married on January seventeenth nineteen eighty-one. I should have known. It was three days before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated."
"An auspicious week, as a sometime-Thai like your former husband might say."
A curt nod. "I think he would say that, yes. Not back then necessarily. But now Gary would think of it in exactly those terms. Astrology, numerology, karma, reincarnation, the whole nine yards. All that new age hooey. It's really disappointing. When I married Gary, he had his obsessions, which were generally harmless--bicycle racing, and so on. But he was also one of the most rational people I knew."
I said, "East Asians don't think of karma and reincarnation as new age hooey. They think of them as the way the universe is ordered."
I meant this as a point of information, not a lecture, and she seemed to take it that way, unperturbed. "That's fine if it works for the Asians. I've lived and worked abroad, and cultural relativism is fine with me. But for Gary, Eastern ideas turned into a kind of trap, I think."
"As a way of avoiding responsibility."
"I don't think of myself as an overly materialistic person," she said. "But I do believe in managing the assets you have like a grown-up. Whether you earn it or you inherited much of it, as Gary and Bill did, flushing your money down the toilet I find totally incomprehensible."
"Who is Bill?" I asked.
"My husband, Bill Griswold. Gary's older brother."
This was getting complex. I said, "What did the Reagans make of all this?'
She smiled rather sweetly. "Around the time Gary's and my marriage was unraveling--largely because of his coming to terms with his being gay--Bill's fell apart, too. He had married a Long Island jap of a certain type when he was nineteen--a looker, a serious shopper, and not much else--and Bill needed somebody more stimulating. We had always liked each other, and we both liked to read and travel. For fun, we took a trip to Budapest together, and that was it. It's been as good a marriage as anybody could hope for, overall."
"And your husband's first wife was not Japanese?"
"Jewish American Princess. You've heard the term, I'm sure."
"It could have been another Asian in the picture."
"I would not have used Jap that way."
Her cell phone played what Timothy Callahan might have identified as the opening strains of Gluck's overture to Orpheus and Eurydice, but for all I knew could have been Andrew Lloyd Webber. She flipped it out of her handbag and told me with an apologetic shrug, "It's either one or the other."
Ellen Griswold's end of a brief conversation included the words please don't more often than I normally use them on the phone.
"That was Amanda," she said, putting her phone away. I noted a diamond on one finger that, while not quite ostentatious, did not hide its light under a bushel, as well as a demure ruby on a nearby digit.
"Amanda is thirteen," Mrs. Griswold said. "Mark is fifteen. They're both good kids, but they are kids. They pretty much have their feet on the ground, but there are times when I have to try hard not to scream."
"These are Bill's children, not Gary's?"
"That's right. Do the math."
"Gotcha. But we're not here to talk about Amanda and Mark, apparently."
"On the phone, you said you believed that a family member was in trouble, and you wanted my help in getting him out of it. So we're talking about your former husband and current brother-in-law?"
This was the moment when, in the olden days, Mrs. Griswold would rummage in her handbag for a cigarette, and I would light it for her and then fire up one of my own. Now we both had to make do with a barely perceptible tightening of her facial restructuring and a swig of beer for me.
Watching me with no particular expression, she said, "Gary has vanished in Thailand with thirty-eight million dollars. I'd like you to find him, check to see if he is all right, and help him out if he isn't. And if Gary is alive and hasn't gone completely around the bend, help us talk some sense into him."
I said, "That sounds simple enough."
"Look, don't laugh. I know it's a big job. Bob Chicarelli said you could do it."
"I could hire an international private investigations agency. I know that."
"You could. It's what most people would do."
"Or, Bob told me he could locate some reputable private detective in Bangkok, if such a thing exists."
"I'll bet such a thing does."
She thought for a moment and said, "You could farm out some of the work to people there. That would be up to you. But I'm more comfortable paying someone who is known and trusted by someone Bill and I know and trust. And since you're familiar with that part of the world, it's a huge advantage, no? Plus, of course, you presumably would have easier entrée to the Thai gay scene, a good place to start looking for Gary. He went over there on vacation two years ago, and in addition to reincarnation, apparently discovered some gay Shangri-La. He never really came home, except to sell his condo in Key West and then fly straight back to Bangkok. But Thailand has not turned out to be a paradise for Gary. At least not from where I'm sitting, it hasn't."
Where she seemed to be sitting was pretty. A second portion of a sizable family fortune remained intact if I was hearing her correctly. I said, "Please tell me (a) about the rather large sum of money Gary took along--can I assume he didn't earn it over there?--and (b) about his vanishing, as you put it."
This got a look of mild surprise. "So you're interested in taking this on?"
"I was beginning to think you wouldn't. You seem so skeptical about everything."
"Not everything. My, no."
"But," she said, "I think you're skeptical about me."
"Why would you be?"
I noticed that the flat-screen television set over the bar was tuned to cnbc, where a reporter who looked something like Mrs. Griswold was mouthing words that I supposed concerned the day's main news topic, the crashing dollar. If I had been able to read lips I might have phoned my bank immediately and converted everything into Burmese kyat.
I said, "Mrs. Griswold--"
"Please call me Ellen. I think we're more or less contemporaries."
"Yeah, more or less. Ellen, this thirty-eight million dollars--which, by the way, might now be worth somewhat less than it was worth ten minutes ago--this thirty-eight million your ex-husband has or had in his possession--to whom does it belong?"
"To Gary, of course. But the point is, there are indications--and I'll get to those--that Gary is throwing his money away. That's the issue."
"Well, it is and it isn't. That's where a lot of my skepticism--you're right about that--comes in. Your gay ex-husband-brother-in-law may well be over in the Land of Smiles, as the brochures call it, spending thirty-eight million dollars on things you would not necessarily spend thirty-eight million dollars on. Beach houses, money boys, dried squid on a stick, who knows what. But spending money foolishly is what some people do. And while the spectacle can be upsetting to others, nauseating even, especially to the spendthrift's loved ones, there's rarely anything anybody can do about it. Or needs to. Hiring a private investigator is seldom called for--even when it's a family member who appears to have gone off the rails, fiscally speaking."
She was looking increasingly unhappy. "So Bill and I should just--sit back?"
I said, "When you say your ex-husband has vanished, what do you mean by that?"
"It means what it sounds like. No one has heard from Gary for nearly six months. He doesn't respond to e-mails. His snail mail letters don't get answered. His home phone and Thai cell phone accounts have both been shut down. He just seems to have--you know."
"I know." Fallen off the face of the earth. She heard herself thinking the cliché and decided she was not someone who would use it.
"Gary was never much for staying in touch," she said. "Even during his Key West years, he rarely e-mailed or phoned. Business matters with Bill, but little else. And after his and Bill's parents died, we saw very little of Gary. Even though I think he was basically happy that Bill and I had gotten together--at some level, relieved even--he seemed to feel awkward around us. He had a couple of boyfriends in Key West--one of them fairly long-term--but we never met them or knew exactly who they were. Whether it was internalized homophobia or something else, I don't know. What I do know is, Gary didn't seem to fully come out and grow up as a gay person until he went to Thailand."
She blinked a couple of times, realizing she may have blundered.
"So your ex-husband is not a grown-up, and at the same time he is a grown-up?"
"What I meant," she said, recovering handily, "was that on the one hand Gary seems finally to have found a way of being comfortably gay. While on the other hand, his long-term happiness and well-being have been seriously jeopardized by his fiscal irresponsibility, his susceptibility to Eastern religions--there was at least one sizable investment decision Bill and I learned was suggested by his astrologer--and by his choice of boyfriends over there. The last one he mentioned to me--in a short note about some estate business before we stopped hearing from him--was a Thai man named Mango."
"You've been there, and you may know better. But I would find it very difficult to take seriously a man named Mango."
I said, "On some Bangkok R and R from Saigon, I once spent a pleasant weekend with a Thai man named Bank. He had a brother named Book. Thais sometimes give their children English nicknames of objects they value. So I wouldn't make too much of that."
Mrs. Griswold took a good swallow of beer and said, "Well, then, Don, let me run a very different name by you, and let's see if this gets your attention." She waited.
"Ready when you are."
She said, "Algonquin Steel."
"Max J. Griswold."
"Oh, so you all are those Griswolds. If you were Thai, you might have named your son Blast Furnace. Or your daughter."
"The company Gary and Bill's grandfather founded is publicly traded now," she went on. "But Gary and Bill both retained substantial holdings. Last August, Gary sold his shares for thirty million dollars and change. Bill learned this from Alan Rainey, the company treasurer. Alan also told Bill that when Alan questioned him, Gary said he had been offered an investment opportunity that was too good to pass up and would lead to his recouping his investment many times over in a short period of time. It was easy enough, also, for Bill to learn from Angie Hogencamp at Hughes-Weinstock, our brokerage, that Gary had liquidated all of his remaining eight million in assets and had all of it--thirty-eight million in toto--wired to a bank in Bangkok." She eyed me coolly and waited for my reaction.
I said, "Remind me never to do business with Hughes-Weinstock if I want my portfolio activity kept confidential."
She ignored this and added, "All of this bizarre and potentially disastrous financial activity coincided with the arrival of Mango on the scene and came a little less than a month before Gary..."
She waited and I said it. "Seemed to fall off the face of the earth."
"And by the way," Mrs. Griswold said. "Blast Furnace would not be an appropriate Griswold name. The company has steel wholesale and fabricating facilities in eleven states--plus, of course, the nationwide Econo-Build home and building supply chain of stores--but no actual steel mills. Anyway, most of the steel sold and used in the United States these days comes from Japan, Korea, Russia and Brazil. I think it's safe to say few Griswolds have ever laid eyes on a blast furnace."
I did not reply that Bill and Ellen Griswold might then have considered naming their only son Middleman. I thought about it quickly and said, "I guess I have to agree, Ellen, that the situation you have described to me does sound worrisome."