Green Bowl’s total land was well over a thousand acres. There was no conceivable reason why the entirety of it would be needed for shopping and road access to support an airport in northern North Dakota, but that didn’t make the slightest bit of different to the man who was poised to steal it.
“Larson is moving quickly,” Anna said, gesturing to the map that was laid out on the conference table, indicating the properties Larson’s investment company owned. The map offered a sprawling topographic view of area around Green Bowl’s land and the airport that was soon to border it. “He is looking for backers to invest in his development company with a cutoff on the initial buy in of next week. He claims the more investment funds he can collect, the more infrastructure and services he can create around the airport, though he also claims that he has enough money already to make a shopping destination larger than the Mall of America.”
“Shouldn’t the cutoff be when he reaches the funds that he needs rather than a specific date?” Tam asked. She was more familiar with the workings of venture capital in terms of startup tech companies, but the general rule of ‘don’t sell off more of your company than you need to’ seemed like something that should cross industries.
“That depends,” Anna said. “If you are setting up an actual company, then yes, you want to be careful how much investment you take on and terms it is offered under.”
“And if you’re running a scam?” Val asked, tracing paths through the map with her finger. The Red River Valley was relatively flat, which would make construction easier once it began. That was good for building but it also meant that, if the earthwork machines rolled in, Green Bowl’s farmland would vanish in record time.
“For a scam you want as much money as possible, in as short an amount of time as possible,” Anna said. “Some people prefer the long con, but those require patience and are very delicate affairs. Larson is a man lacking in both impulse control and finesse, so naturally he gravitates to the quick scam, despite its long term costs.”
“I just don’t understand why he would do any of this?” Daniela said. “I’ve met Howard. He has a good job at the bank. He’s a respected member of the community. Why would he want to setup a scheme like this to take our farm? He doesn’t need the money at all.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Tam said. “Howard Larson has been living beyond his means for several years now it seems. He’s still rich, don’t get me wrong there, but a lot of the wealth he splashes around is an illusion.”
She handed a dossier she had compiled over to Val before turning back to the laptop she’d brought to their meeting to continue plugging away at it.
“Three houses, but they’re all heavily mortgaged,” Val read from the dossier. “He’s being sued by a bunch of private contactors too. Oh hey and he hasn’t paid the staff for the gala that you went to last night. This guy’s a real winner.”
“But the bank must pay him a good salary doesn’t it?” Daniela asked. She had a stack of papers that she’d brought with her to the meeting, order forms and time sheets from the workers to be processed before the next business day. They sat unsorted and blank in a pile in front of her still.
“His salary is more than generous, as are the perks that come along with it,” Anna said. “For the class of wealth Howard Larson aspires to however, no amount of money is ever sufficient.”
“He might want to be one of the ultra-rich, but according to this he’s lucky not to be in the poor house,” Val said. “I’m seeing big losses year after year. This guy’s a disaster when it comes investing. How is he the CEO of a bank?”
“Look at who the CEO was before him,” Tam said without looking up from her computer.
“Oh, of course,” Val said as she found the relevant page in the dossier and showed it to the others. “Like father, like son, I guess.”
“George Larson was a different category of disaster than his eldest son,” Anna said. “He built First Security on the back of a lucrative smuggling trade that ran through the Canadian border. By the time proof of that came to light, the elder Larson had been dead for half a decade.”
“And yet Howard got to keep his inheritance,” Tam said.
“The probate was long finalized by the time proof came to light,” Anna said.
“I don’t understand how he can keep losing money like that though,” Daniela said. “Wouldn’t the bank have noticed? Wouldn’t they have fired him if he was that bad?”
“Up until now, Larson has kept his investment schemes separate from First Security,” Anna said.
“Yeah, I’m seeing that here,” Val said. “Each of these big losses that Larson’s reporting are tied to corporations that he setup. His personal losses are much smaller.”
“It’s an efficient tactic for a swindler,” Anna said. “He creates corporations based out of other states, uses his connections as the CEO of a well capitalized bank to present a solid, dependable image for the new businesses, brings in investors and buries the lower performing companies under debt from the few ventures that do succeed, and walks away with everyone’s money and owing none of them a dime.”
“But that should give him a terrible reputation,” Daniela said. “Who would work with a man who does that?”
“A surprising number of people. Board shareholders have no special wisdom in picking their CEOs,” Anna said. “They choose people who they have connections to, regardless of previous failures or the capability, or lack thereof, the person may possess.”
“Also, it looks like Larson has avoided scamming anyone local, or related to First Security,” Val said. “People are much more likely to overlook things that happen far away than trouble that lands close to home.”
“And, seriously, what’s the chance that the rest of the First Security board isn’t into things that are just as unethical?” Tam asked.
“Why would he change now then? Why target us?” Daniela asked. “We’ve gotten along just fine up till now. Heck if he needed a road, we probably could have just sold him that.”
“When was the decision on the airport’s location made?” Anna asked.
“Technically it hasn’t been made yet,” Tam said. “But the final draft of the plans was submitted a month ago. They’re up for review and the deciding vote next week.”
“So Larson knew a month ago where the airport would probably land,” Val said. “And that’s right around the time he put the plan in motion to steal Green Bowl.”
“The timing is suggestive,” Anna said. “Of a great many things.”
“It suggests that Howard Larson has the impulse control of a five year old hopped up on pixie sticks,” Val said. She’d started making small ‘x’ marks on the map at various locations.
“That is unkind to five year olds I think,” Anna said. “It also suggests some amount of desperation. We should look into his most recent creditors, particularly any involved with companies that failed in the last six months.” She paced around the end of the conference table, nibbling on a pen cap, her gaze turned inwards as she crunched the possibilities through the wheels of logic in her mind.
“You’re thinking one of them is unhappy with him?” Val asked.
“Many of them are unhappy with him,” Anna said. “One of them however has resources beyond simple wealth.”
“Like the mob?” Tam asked.
“Possibly,” Anna said. “Larson is highly enough placed though, and this area remote enough that I’m not certain if typical mobsters could make an effective threat here. I believe he may have stumbled on someone with a more extensive war chest of resources to draw on.”
“So he needs a quick score to pay back people he shouldn’t have ripped off in the first place?” Val asked. “If we wanted to, could we just bribe him to leave the farm alone?”
“That depends on how his creditors wish to be paid back,” Anna said. “Control of the facilities servicing a new international airport is a resource worth far more than the monetary value of the land and buildings.”
“Good,” Val said. “I like it when we can’t do things the easy way.”
Her smile radiated the kind of self confidence that had told more than a few of her enemies they’d made a terrible mistake in squaring off against her.
“You know, we don’t even know if he has any goons or not,” Tam said. “There may be no one for you to pummel on this assignment.”
“Oh, I’m not worried,” Val said. “Push comes to shove, guys like Larson always seem to be able to dig up some meat slabs for protection.”
“Yes, that does seem to be true in more cases than it should,” Anna said. “But perhaps in this case, we have a simpler path.”
“You want to con him before he cons us?” Val asked, unable to suppress the lift of her eyebrows.
“We have a golden opportunity to do so,” Anna said.
“I feel like you always make a case for that,” Val said.
“Greedy men are very easy to manipulate,” Anna said with a shrug.
“So how do we approach him?” Tam asked.
“The only thing that interests someone running a scam on the scale Larson is attempting, is a payout that will bring it to the next level,” Anna said. “He is swindling millions of dollars. We will make him think that he can tap into a set of investors that will net him billions.”
“Definitely a job for me there. I’m in,” Tam said. “What do we need to set everything up?”
“We’ll need a car that matches Larsons, a set of Russian credentials, and for you to work a little bit of magic,” Anna said.
“This sounds very risky,” Daniela said.
“Yes, you could say we’re betting the farm on it,” Anna said.
“So he took the bait?” Val asked.
“He was all too happy to meet me at Green Bowl when I said I had the funds with me and needed to see his vision for the facilities in person,” Anna said. “Now I just need to put on my makeup.”
She pulled an old box covered in complex geometric sigils from her bag.
“James sent along the good stuff I see?” Tam said.
The bank was long closed by the time Howard Larson’s black Mercedes rolled down the access road to Green Bowl’s farmland.
Anna was waiting for him at the border of the farm’s lands, leaning against her rental sedan, which was also a black Mercedes, the tall wheat of the farm’s roadside acre waving behind her as she worked on her cell phone.
“Getting any signal out here?” Larson asked. He’d parked behind her, bumpers uncomfortably close together despite the miles of shoulder available.
“It comes and goes,” Anna said.
“Well now that’s something we’re going to change,” Larson said. “Soon as we close on this? Bang, up go the cell towers. We’re going to make this place so modern, you won’t even believe it.”
“Will you now?” Anna asked. “Which service providers will you contract with?”
“All of them,” Larson said. “The best ones.”
“But that will be very hard won’t it?” Anna said.
“Not for me,” Larson said. “They’re going to be begging me to let them work here.”
“I mean it will be hard because you’re not going to building anything here,” Anna said.
“What? Are you crazy? Of course I’m going to build something here!” Larson said, his mood fading as irritation and panic twitched at the corners of his mouth.
“Mr. Larson, Howard if I may, I looked you up,” Anna said. “There is no construction firm bidding on work beyond the airport, and no permits or plans have been filed yet.”
“We’re waiting on those things,” Larson said.
“Waiting until you can get away with the cash or until you’re sure you can steal this farm from its rightful owners?” Anna asked.
“Now listen here, I don’t know…” Larson started to say but Anna cut him off.
“You don’t know what I have to offer you,” she said, her tone mild and conciliatory. “Whether this is a scam or a legit development, I don’t care. In either case it is an opportunity.”
“What do you mean?” Larson asked, his shoulders tight and his hands clenched.
“I mean, the money I would invest with you? It is currency which is for chasing rabbits.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that. What do rabbit have to do with this?” Larson asked.
“Rabbits are very quick, and can get away very easily, but they are quite tasty when you catch them,” Anna said. “That is what the people I have found are like. They have money to burn chasing tasty rewards, but they are not too bright about how risky those rewards can be.”
“What are you saying?” Larson asked, perplexed by Anna’s metaphors but she’d mentioned money and he understood that.
“I am saying you’re operation here is a very alluring rabbit hole, and I have people who are looking for such a thing to throw their money down. I am saying I want to invest in you, but I want a piece of your action. Not the return on the investment. I want a piece of the haul you bring in.”
“And why would I do that?” Larson asked.
“I can give you a million reasons right now,” Anna said. “They are in the trunk of my car. But they are not the important factor in these negotiations.”
Larson went around to the rental car’s trunk and Anna hit the fob to open it.
Neatly stacked bills in every denomination filled the trunk.
“Well, you do have a lot of money here,” Larson said. “But you’ve got something better than this?”
“This is one percent of the funds my backers have pledged me,” Anna said. “All I need to do to secure the rest is provide them with a sufficient opportunity.”
Larson face went pale and he swallowed.
“How much is here?” he asked.
“Eleven point two million dollars in cash and bearer bonds,” Anna said. Most of the money was in the bearer bonds, since eleven million in cash wouldn’t have fit in any car’s trunk.
“Well, isn’t that just an amazing sight,” Larson said as he stood up from the truck. “You know what my daddy always told me though? He said ‘don’t get too greedy’ son.”
As he cleared the back of the car, Anna saw that he had a gun in his hand and a smile on his lips.