When I arrived home, I called my friend Michelle to tell her that I’d managed to get a cashier’s check. She loved hearing updates about the $95,000.
"You took the money? Why did you do that?" She sounded upset. That’s going to get you in big trouble!"
Her reaction scared me. Maybe taking the money was really stupid.
I decided to call Scott Edelstein, a trusted friend of mine in Minneapolis, for a second opinion. Scott was a long-distance friend I’d known for two years. He’d negotiated my book deal for me. I found him to be wonderfully wise, the only person I knew who could pepper a conversation with Zen stories. After he heard the whole chain of events, including Michelle’s alarm, he said, "There’s these two monks washing in the river when they notice a scorpion drowning. One monk scooped it onto the bank and got stung. He went back to washing and again the scorpion fell in. The monk again saved the scorpion, and again got stung. The other monk asked him, "Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?" "Because," the monk replied, "to save it is my nature."
I didn't catch the drift of the story.
"Patrick, certainly many people will think what you’ve done is frightening and scary, but that’s why they’re not you. You’re you precisely because you do things like this. Look at you! You launched your own speaking career without any training. You wrote a book because one day you got the inspiration to. A lot of people don't do things like that because of fear. I think it’s fantastic that you deposited one of those junk checks. It’s something everybody has fantasized about doing, but leave it to you to actually try it!" Scott’s words, cheery and matter of fact, soothed my nerves and made me smile. "Just keep trusting your own instincts and you’ll be fine."
We talked a bit longer. He added, "I think you’ve got a story good enough for the national news."
I laughed. "Sure, headline news. Well, thanks Scott. Gotta go."
Having the money in a safe deposit box alleviated my need to call and check my bank balance every minute. During the next week, I was able to focus on my speaking work. When the money did come to mind, I wavered between wanting to keep it and fantasizing about donating it all to the Red Cross. The Robin Hood option appealed to me. I particularly loved the thought of doing good with bad people’s money. That’s how I saw the minds that designed the fake check - the same way I thought of all people who sold get-rich-quick schemes for a living. They were low-lifes willing to prey on other people’s lack of sophistication.
I imagined what it would be like to be a fly on the wall when the Association of Certified Liquidators (the company that sent the check) discovered I’d cashed it. I pictured a man at small table, in a humid office with cheap wood paneling, springing up from a mess of papers and rushing to his boss’s equally dumpy room. The boss would choke on his sandwich and then loosen his already poorly-tied tie to relieve a sudden hot flash. Sometimes the boss would scream, "I’ll kill the jerk who did this! How the hell could this happen?"
One afternoon, deep into this fantasy, I decided to call the man who’d claimed he could make me rich, Mr. Mitch Klass. Undoubtedly, he was going to call me soon, so it seemed better to act first. More fun to catch him, than to have him catch me. I dialed, using the number on his junk mail letter.
"I’m calling for Mr. Klass."
"Have you purchased our $150 sales system?"
"Mr. Klass can’t take your call right now. He has to reserve his time for our sales associates, but if you want to leave a message, he’ll try and get back to you."
"Hmm, okay. Would you tell Mr. Klass that I did get rich from his system -- that I cashed the $95,000 check that came in the letter -- the sample check."
"You cashed the check?"
"And you got the money?"
There was brief pause. "Hold please and I’ll pass the message onto Mr. Klass."
On hold I was treated to Muzac, and wondered if there were people, mellow by nature, who dreamed of making elevator music.
"Mr. Klass won’t take your call, but he said to return the money to the bank and call the police."
I couldn’t contain my laughter. "Okay, I’ll be sure and turn myself in."
Seven days after I put the cashier’s check into the safe deposit box, and thirty-three days after I deposited the junk mail check in the first place, I came home to two voice mail messages from my bank. The first message was from the Haight Street branch of my bank and the second voice-mail was from the bank’s security department. Expecting these calls didn’t make them any easier to hear. And I was confused. I thought the calls would have come from the get-rich-quick company, not from my bank. It was after 5 p.m., so I would have to wait a day to find out why my bank was involved.
That evening, with my friend Gary standing by my side, I put my bank card into an ATM to get some cash for dinner. The ATM ate my card and on the screen, green words glowed, Card Confiscated. Contact Your Branch Office Immediately.
"Ooo shit dude, you’re busted!" Gary exclaimed.
I tried to laugh it off, but it felt like the walls were closing in.
I had a restless sleep that night, and woke up before my alarm. I caught an early morning flight to New York to begin a two-week vacation with friends and family. My flight had a short stopover in Seattle at about 10:00 a.m., so I used the time to make a phone call. I returned the call from the Haight Street branch of my bank.
"Sharon Kempner, please."
"Sorry, she’s not in. May I ask who’s calling?"
With the mention of my name she said, "Oh! Hold a second, please."
Then another woman came on the line and said, "You got a cashier’s check from us for $93,095.35 that we need back. Can you bring me the cashier’s check today?"
"I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name or job title?"
"Sharon Kempner. Customer service manager. Can you bring me that check?"
"I can't. I’m almost to New York," I replied, looking out a window at a large Alaska Airlines jet rolling across a tarmac not far from pine trees.
She interrupted me telling her the check was in a safe deposit box. "Does anyone else have a key?" I told her no.
"When do you come back?"
"I return July 6th. I can give you the money then," I said. "Can you tell me how this matter came to your attention?"
"The check came back insufficient funds."
"Really?" I was worried it might, but a First Interstate manager told me that, by law, it could no longer be returned."
Sharon snapped, "Well that is wrong! It can come back for a full year. I'd like to know who told you that. Do you remember who it was?"
I did remember, but I told her I didn’t know to keep that person out of trouble.
"What kind of check did you deposit?" Sharon asked.
"Have you seen the check?" I asked her back.
"I’m holding it in my hands," Sharon replied.
"It's a junk mail check!" I was beaming, happy to state the obvious.
"I thought that's what it was. Why did you deposit it? It clearly has the words ‘non-negotiable’ on it. Were you experimenting?" Sharon asked, obviously baffled.
"I don't know," I replied, responding more to my wonderment about why they’d accepted it and now wanted it back. "How do you think this happened, Sharon? That it was accepted for so long and then rejected?"
"I don't know, but you need to return the cashier's check. You shouldn't have done this." Frustration cracked her voice.
"I'll give it back when I return," I said calmly.
Apparently this was what Sharon had hoped to hear. "Well, yes. That will be the thing to do. Thank you."
I had read for myself that the junk mail check was real and a bank manager had told me I was safe to spend it. Yet now I was being told I had to return the money. I felt like I was being ripped off.
A final boarding call over the loud speakers alerted me to get back on the plane. Next up was a stop over in Chicago. Inside the cathedral-like airport that is O’Hare, I parked myself at another payphone and returned the call from Robert Gage, First Interstate’s security officer. A woman answered. Upon hearing my name, she put me right through.
"Mr. Combs, I know you spoke with Sharon Kempner earlier, but I’m on the case now, understand? Hereforth, you don’t need to speak with anyone else but me. I want you to return that cashier’s check immediately." He sounded as if he ate gravel for breakfast every morning. His words came at me with a truckload of force, enough to increase the speed of blood through my veins.
I wanted him to admit the check was real. "Mr. Gage, I understand. Can you tell me how the bank could have cashed this junk mail check?"
"I don’t care a bit why First Interstate bank cashed a junk mail check. It shouldn’t have happened. This is a matter of fraud on your part," he barked back.
It alarmed me -- the word fraud. Criminals on the post office walls committed fraud. FBI agents investigated fraud. Fraud got you sent to jail. Fraud would kill my speaking career!
"I know you’re out of town. Fly back right now and return that check!"
He didn’t know that my father had left when I was one, and that I hated men trying to tell me what to do.
"No sir," I answered, feeling my throat tremble.
"Is there anyone here that can open the box for you?"
"No sir, I'm the only one on the signature card."
"Then give me permission to drill the box." I paused to let a lump move down my throat. "No sir."
"So you won't cooperate?" his coarse voice spewed.
I didn’t want to make an impulsive stupid mistake. I could feel a bead of sweat running down my ribcage. My hand holding the phone was clammy. Before I could come up with a response, he yelled again, "Why won't you give me permission to drill the box?"
"Because it would be irresponsible of me. This has all gotten really serious, really fast. Just give me a second here," I yelled. I struggled for even a shallow breath and then let my words ride out on the exhale. "I’ll tell you what. I need this all in writing. Send me an official bank letter stating who you are and that the check was returned for insufficient funds."
He exploded into a machine gun of words. "You're not getting any letter! This phone call is all you're getting. It’s all I have to give you! You committed bank check fraud when you got a cashier’s check for money you knew wasn't yours. This isn't about a hundred dollars, or ten thousand dollars! You committed fraud to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars! If you don't return that money, what I’m going to give you is policemen on your door young man! Now give me permission to drill open that box!"
I knew I had to think fast. But I couldn’t with all the flight announcements blaring, footsteps crashing, and hundreds of voices swarming.
"No sir," I said quietly.
Robert Gage said nothing.
While we held the silence, I found it easy to imagine the fear fugitives feel as they try to get a flight out of the country. "I haven’t spent a cent of the money. And I have no intention of keeping money that doesn't belong to me."
I caught a quick sigh from Gage. "Alright then. I won’t take further action, as long as we agree to call the minute you get home on July 6th"
I said sure. Then he agreed to have my bank account unfrozen so that my checks wouldn’t bounce. Seemingly all was okay between us when the call ended. As I eased into my airplane seat, I realized Gage assumed the money didn’t belong to me. That could be debated later. I felt a relief to have the call over, but the words fraud and policemen pounded in my head.
End of Part III