The Murder of a Fund Manager

By James P. Hanley

"If you give me a partner, I'll likely shoot him," said Gary Rygh, a notoriously lone-wolf detective, who, nonetheless, got results.

Lieutenant Marsha Alavarez answered, "I'm assigning Michael Coughlin, who was a stockbroker before he joined the force. He can help in this high profile case of the murdered fund manager, Gerry Benjamin. Coughlin is also very smart."

"He's Irish, isn't that a contradiction?"

"Rygh, I'm getting a lot of heat from the Chief and the pressure comes from even higher up. Alex Levitt, the founder and CEO of one of the bigger investment firms, complained that the press is playing the killing as revenge by someone who lost a good chunk of their life savings. The murdered fund manager is known to take big risk and lately hasn't been picking well. I'm not doing this to break your chops. If I wanted to do that, I would have assigned a woman as your partner."

"I definitely would have shot her."

As if cued, there was a strong knock on the door and Detective Michael Coughlin came in. Rygh stood as the tall, good-looking man entered. The contrast was immediate: Rygh had the build and determination of a star halfback told he was too small to play, cropped hair from cuttings at a barber school, and a loose jacket over a tie-less shirt and baggy chinos. Coughlin, lanky and fluid like a college golfer, was dressed in a white shirt, dark tie and blue suit. Stretching out his hand, Coughlin said, "Pleased to meet you, Detective. I'm looking forward to working with you."

Grabbing the extended hand, Rygh growled, "Don't fall in love with the arrangement. This is a one-night stand."

"Do you always use sexual metaphors?" Coughlin said.

Lieutenant Alvarez chuckled at the banter. "This is going to be fun to watch." She then explained that Gerry Benjamin was well-known in the investment community and, like many in that field worked long hours. His body, with one bullet in the temple, was found in a commuter train station lot near his home. "No witnesses, no finger prints or DNA, no evidence at the scene, no one heard a shot, no obvious motive, or indication if it was an amateur or professional hit," Alvarez said.

"Lots of people don't like the Wall Street types," Rygh said.

"Don't knock investment folks; they've been moving into the area in great numbers, creating new jobs and increased revenues — that pay your salary. They put up with a long commute for what we have to offer, which includes a low crime rate. Start with the grieving widow," Alvarez directed.

"If she killed him that would solve a lot of problems," Coughlin said.

"Working with this guy," she nodded toward Rygh, "for two minutes and you're already a cynic."

* * *

On the way to the eastern edge of town, where much of the new, expensive housing was constructed in the last five years, Rygh, who was driving, asked, "What do you know about this fund manager?"

"I'll tell you, if you slow down." After Rygh eased up on the accelerator, Coughlin continued, "As the boss said, Benjamin was a risk taker but if you stayed with him through the ups and downs, you do well. When a guy gets a reputation for results, he gets an audience. I've heard a company's stock value can rise or plummet on a good or bad word by Benjamin."

Rygh said, "I've seen his spouse in the local society pages." As if to ward off sarcasm, he quickly added, "Actually my wife tells me, the woman's in every social organization in town and quite a looker. She's British but some doubt her pedigree."

The driveway to the Benjamin wound around sections of planted trees, rows of flowers and bright bushes. "This driveway is longer than Route 80," Rygh commented.

Coughlin flicked the doorbell and called out "Police," but Rygh leaned over and pressed hard until the annoying chiming stopped.

"Just a minute," a fluttering voice called out.

The door was opened by the lamenting wife. Tears had forged a path through the thick eye makeup leaving trails of black down her cheeks; droplets wound under her high cheekbones and stopped before reaching the corners of her downturned mouth.

Coughlin introduced them and asked to come in. Mrs. Benjamin, speaking with most of her form behind the door, moved aside as they entered. She was dressed in what could not be called widow's weeds, Rygh would later remark to the Lieutenant adding, "She was wearing a tight tennis outfit that puffed above her shapely butt, and encased what gave the appearance of two tennis balls in her form-fitting t-shirt." Her expression of grief deepened as the detective sat gingerly on the ornate chairs in the living room.

Rygh started to question Mrs. Benjamin when he suddenly said, "Where's the head?"

Coughlin answered her confused expression, "Where's the bathroom?"

While Rygh was out of the room, Coughlin asked the usual questions about enemies, changes in behavior, the status of their marriage and their finances, but she claimed there were no problems or reason to be concerned. "My husband and I do have busy lives, he with the business, me with the organizations I belong to — all for charity," she quickly added. "So our time together lately was limited. But we were still in love." Her voice cracked.

As Rygh came back, Coughlin looked at him and said, "Mrs. Benjamin — "

"Please call me Laura," she interrupted in a sing-song voice that had considerably changed.

"Laura has been very cooperative. But she doesn't understand why anyone would kill her husband."

Rygh looked at her and asked abruptly, "Was he having an affair? Were you?"

Laura's face re-formed in an expression of shock and indignation; her make-up cracked. She looked to Coughlin for rescue, but Rygh quickly spoke, "Never mind, I know what you'll say. Let's go, Detective."

On the ride back to the station house, Coughlin asked, "Why did you have to pee as soon as we walked in?"

"I didn't buy her instant grief. The delay before opening, the perfectly aligned tears and even-flowing mascara were suspicious. You can tell a lot about someone from the content of their bathroom. I looked around the bathroom and found a bottle of eye drops, appropriately called artificial tears in the top draw; she hadn't time to screw the top back on."

"So what's next?"

"I'd like you to look into their finances; check and see if his wife made any large cash withdrawals, the usual. And talk to the neighbors. I'll go meet with Benjamin's boss."

* * *

The offices of Association Investments were on the thirty-ninth floor of One New York Plaza in lower Manhattan just off Battery Park. Having called earlier, Rygh got an appointment with Alex Levitt, the CEO. Leaving the elevator, he was in front of a wide mahogany desk manned by a striking young woman who smiled as if being photographed for a magazine ad.

"I'm here to see Mr. Levitt," Rygh said.

"Mr. Rygh," she said in a cheery voice, "he's expecting you. His assistant will be out shortly to bring you back to his office."

As she finished, the thick doors behind the reception desk opened and a tall, blond woman in a form fitting skirt came out. She, too, was smiling broadly and her looks was competition for the receptionist. As Rygh went inside a cavernous office, the assistant lightly touched his shoulder and asked, "Would you like something to drink: coffee, water?"

Rygh shook his head. Levitt was on the phone and pointed toward a chair.

The detective said in a loud voice, "Do you guys hire any ugly women?"

Levitt looked at him with an expression of annoyance and excused himself from the call. Dressed in a stylish three-piece suit, the CEO had a patrician countenance that could go from charming to intimidating with a few face-muscle movements. He answered the usual questions about threats, incidents, and Benjamin's job performance and behavior lately. Finally, Rygh asked who will take over the dead investment manager's fund, and Levitt's eyebrows lifted.

"Scott Morgan; he manages another of our funds, although it's not nearly as large. Understand that Benjamin headed a fund that rivaled Fidelity's Magellan Fund in its finest days. Scott is deserving, but it's ironic."

"What do you mean, ironic?"

"Gerry was trying to get Morgan fired. He even threatened to leave if we didn't get rid of Scott. The two were much alike and the competition had always been there. They'd hurl daily performance results at each other like grenades. Truth is Benjamin was a much better strategist and stock picker. If you want to talk to Morgan, he's at a petroleum company. He's trying to emulate Benjamin's aggressive, hand-on research but will never do as well. Benjamin could be harsh in his criticism of companies, but he was insightful."

"Some companies must have been really pissed at him. Any stick out?"

Levitt rubbed his chin in a schooled gesture of reflection, "He'd been looking at international companies more as of late. He'd been really down on a Russian firm, Vlad Aluminum. They sell worldwide including a lot to the US market. He wrote of the company's reluctance to share financial data in his newsletter and in a story in a national newspaper, which caused the stock price to plummet. I remember he facetiously called them a KGB-fronted business. After that, he swore Russian thugs were following him. We joked about his overactive imagination; guess we should have taken it more seriously. "

"One more thing, Benjamin was shot at the parking lot of a train station. You don't live far from there. Are you familiar with that station?"

"I drive home, but I often pass that station lot. There are dark sections. In fact, the whole parking area is poorly lit and pretty empty when I drive by. There aren't many people on the trains who keep our hours."

* * *

Later that day, Rygh and Coughlin met at the precinct to compare notes. Coughlin was the first to offer his findings. "She hasn't taken out any large sums from their accounts — what you and I would call large sums — but there are rumors of affairs, more attached to her than him, according to neighbors. That's standard in this kind of pretend-rich society; they spend every dime, and rebel against their parochial school upbringing by violating as many commandments as they can."

"Are you like that, Catholic school boy?" Rygh joked.

Coughlin ignored the question. "I still think she had something to do with it. She wouldn't risk her acryl nails, so she would have hired someone. What did you find out?"

"The list gets longer: someone competing to be top dog at the investment company, and an unhappy Russian business. I want to get a list of the guy's investors but have a feeling that Levitt would balk."

"He would balk. Most of the large investors are likely institutional; they wouldn't mind. The wealthy individual investors will get very uncomfortable, afraid you'll look at other holdings, maybe even tax records. Association's lawyers will throw all kinds of roadblocks to a court order."

"I asked the receptionist — a looker — to call me when Morgan, our victim's replacement, comes in."

Just then, the phone rang and a saccharine voice asked for Detective Rygh, pronouncing his name "reeegh."

Coughlin smiled as his partner softened his voice, "This is Detective Rygh; I'm glad you called Tiffany. Is Mr. Morgan back in the office?"

"Yes, he is, just a few minutes ago, and I told him you wanted to talk to him. That it was very important."

Coughlin picked up the extension to hear her response. Rygh, sensing the eavesdropping, told her abruptly he would be right there.

"I'll still be here," she answered. Coughlin put his hand over his mouth to muffle his guffaw.

"If her word came out in liquid form, there'd be syrup flowing through the phone lines, Detective Reeegh. I assume you want to handle this on your own," Coughlin said, winking.

Rygh huffed out and drove to the investment company's office. Ushered by the receptionist, who led him like a blind man by a soft hand on his elbow, he was deposited across from Morgan.

Morgan was a fidgety man, twirling a pen between his fingers with practiced rhythm. He was dressed in a dark suit with a pink shirt and matching tie — an unusual blend of uniformity with a splash of rebellion when compared to the other white-shirted staff. Rygh heard an odd brushing sound until a pale-skin man popped up from behind the massive desk holding a shoe brush. Morgan tipped the man and he left.

"Detective, good to meet you," Morgan said amicably as he extended his hand and twisted his face in remorse, "terrible thing about Gerry. He was a close friend. It's horrible to speak of him in the past tense. Please sit down, Detective. Would you like Tiffany to bring you anything?" Morgan spoke rapidly as if he'd been drinking high-octane coffee.

Rygh began with the usual questions and Morgan seemed unbothered by the inquiries, often beginning his response with, "I know you have to ask these questions," until the detective's next question: "you took over his fund. What does that mean in terms of income for you?"

Morgan flinched but kept calm, at least in his tone and facial expression. Rygh noticed the man's hands were gripping his thighs tightly.

"Modest increase, but I really wouldn't know. It's not my motivation."

Rygh smirked unconsciously but Morgan noticed the change in expression. "Is there anything else, Detective?"

"Benjamin had success in managing the funds; think it was competence, luck or maybe something else?"

"Ability with some luck. If you are suggesting by something else, illegal such as insider knowledge, I can't respond to that."

"Ok," Rygh said as he got up to leave, "you were in ROTC, weren't you? We checked everyone's background. I guess you learned to shoot."

Morgan laughed, "You can ask my instructor; I couldn't hit a tank from twenty feet. And to answer your next question, I don't own a gun."

* * *

While Rygh met with Morgan, Coughlin followed up on the Russian aluminum company. Vlad Aluminum stock was sold in the US in the Over the Counter (OTC) market and was popular among institutional investors, until Benjamin's assessment appeared in The Wall Street Journal in an article on European investments. The stock price plummeted and sales declined because of the poor press. Vlad had an office in New York on Third Avenue and Fortieth. The tall detective rode the rattling elevator to the fifteenth floor and stopped at the front desk to be greeted by a stocky woman who looked more like a prison guard than a receptionist.

"I have an appointment with Andrei Ivanovich," Coughlin said.

"I thought she was coming around the desk to frisk me," Coughlin told Rygh later; instead she led him into the mostly empty offices around back. Ivanovich was a somber man who wore ill-fitting suits and paced nervously waiting for Coughlin. He pumped Coughlin's hand like a milk farmer and pointed to a chair with worn covering. "Terrible news about Mr. Benjamin," he said in a nearly incomprehensible accent.

"I gather your firm was not pleased with his assessment of your business."

"It is true," he said with a sly smile. "Such criticisms are not common in Russia, but we understand that it is the price for international business."

"Did you convey your displeasure to Mr. Benjamin after the article appeared?"

"We strongly stated our disagreement."

"What do you mean by strongly?"

Ivanovich laughed, "The Cold War is over, my friend. We simply corrected his assumptions."

The Russian's choice of words did little to eliminate them as suspects to Coughlin.

"I understand that Mr. Benjamin was preparing a follow-up piece, perhaps because of your corrections?"

"We are a worldwide organization not heavily dependent on the US market. If it is a capital..." Ivanovich swallowed the ism of the word, and continued, "opinion, we will find replacement markets, Brazil perhaps."

"Brazil is one of the leading producers of aluminum, not likely to buy yours."

The Russian's expression changed to impatience and his tone became sharp. "We are debating markets; let's return to the subject of Mr. Benjamin. We are sorry he died, and hope that his successor will be more thorough in his analysis."

"Did your organization arrange his death?"

Ivanovich muttered a few Russian words, which Detective Coughlin guessed were obscenities. "Mr. Coughlin," he said, pronouncing the name as Cougarlon, "you read too many spy novels. We are a legitimate business, not like your Mafia."

Later Coughlin told Rygh of his meeting with the Russian and his lingering suspicion. "I don't believe him. No proof, and he didn't say anything self-incriminating. Maybe I just don't like the guy."

"We've talked to the main people in Benjamin's life; maybe we need to talk to some of the big investors in his fund."

"But we agreed that they wouldn't give up the client list," Coughlin said.

"Because we are asking the wrong people. I heard Levitt tell his administrative assistant that he was going out of town for a few days. You go there tomorrow, ask for Levitt, and when they tell you he's out of town, say it's urgent and you need to talk to the administrative person. Use your charm to get the list of investors."

"What if she balks and wants to talk to Levitt first?"

Rygh had a wry smile; "I have a feeling he'll be unavailable. As I was walking out, Levitt came out to the reception area, pretending to see me leave. I saw him whisper to the receptionist and she said softly, 'wonderful. I can't wait.' I have a feeling the married Mr. Levitt is someplace with Ms. Front Desk."

"You heard all that?"

"No, I read lips. My mother was very hard of hearing and could do so, and she taught me. Thought it might come in handy. She was right."

Coughin agreed to the plan, and Rygh suggested he tell the young woman he works with the SEC. "Not a lie; you just don't work for the SEC."

The strategy worked; the administrative assistant did try to reach her boss, but when she was unable and Coughlin threatened obstruction of justice, she gave him the list.

That afternoon, they split the list of large investors to call. By late that day, they hadn't discovered anything helpful, until Coughlin spoke to the head of the Ewing Foundation, an organization with major portfolio holdings in Benjamin's fund.

"Could you repeat that? I'm going to put you on speaker phone so my partner can hear."

The sonorous voice on the other end began with a deep breath, "We have a great deal of money invested with the fund managed by Mr. Benjamin. Our Controller, who once worked in investment banking, came to me and said that the management fees automatically charged against the assets didn't match what was reported in the quarterly fund report. He said it was quite intricate and transparent to the average investor. We are so on guard for Ponzi schemes that we miss the miniscule but cumulative fraudulent deductions."

"Was Benjamin behind the discrepancy?" Coughlin asked.

"No," the Foundation President said, "I spoke to him a few days ago and he was quite shocked and said he would investigate immediately. My Controller believed him. The fee discrepancy was a back-office manipulation."

After they hung up with the Foundation head, Coughlin said, "This has the imprint of someone very senior who could arrange higher fee deductions, likely with inside help. It only takes a fraction of a percent to build to a large amount, especially in a fund that size. But the money would go into the company's accounts, and it would take a person high in the company to syphon the money into a personal account. Levitt is the only one that fits."

Rygh said, "Benjamin could have confronted Levitt, and when Benjamin left to catch a train, Levitt went to the station lot and shot him. I remember he was familiar with the parking lot, said it was dark. Also he was quick to point the finger at Morgan."

The next day, Levitt's administrative assistant did confirm her boss and Benjamin had a heated exchange, and when she left they were still arguing. "Mr. Levitt called late yesterday and I told him someone from the SEC was here about the fund," she looked at Coughlin as she spoke, a smirk on her face.

"I have an employment application at the SEC," Coughlin responded.

Rygh laughed. "The Lieutenant is right; I am rubbing off on you."

* * *

They both briefed Lieutenant Alvarez. When she asked about Levitt's location, Rygh answered, "Since he's been tipped off, he's not coming back to the states soon. We suspect he has offshore accounts. Soon, the receptionist will want to come home and we'll have an idea where to start looking; she's likely not involved, except in an affair. The feds will take over and have the resources to check out the company books and his personal finances, as well as track him down."

* * *

Later Rygh's wife called and he told her he'd be late filing reports on the case and making calls.

"By the way," Dee Rygh said, "I called you earlier. You weren't at your desk and Mike answered — "

"Who?" Rygh interrupted.

"Detective Coughlin, your partner. He was very nice and we had a wonderful chat. I invited him to dinner."

"First, he's not my partner, and you better not make some Irish dish, like corn beef and cabbage." Rygh said, glaring at Coughlin who had his head down, stifling a chuckle.

James P. Hanley has had articles published in professional journals but has concentrated more on fiction in recent years. His stories have been accepted by mystery magazines such as Crimespree, Futures, Detective Mystery Stories, Savage Kick and others, as well as in mainstream/literary periodicals: MacGuffin, South Dakota Review, Concho River Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Center, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, and recently in Westerns: Western Online.

Two of the author's short stories were previously published on the omdb! website — "The Tuna Mystery" in March, 2012 and "End Times" in October, 2011.

Copyright 2012 James P. Hanley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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