Chapter 8: A Fine Mess

I sent the license plate number to Detective O’Neil that evening by email, along with a brief summary of Mike’s story, and the photo of the man who might very well have been Stupid Gandalf. Unfortunately, the reply I received in return was not nearly the springing-into-action response I’d been looking for. He said that the FBI had taken over the case and that he’d forwarded the information to Special Agent Tom Fine, who would be getting in touch with me soon. I didn’t like the ambiguity of the word “soon.”

I was right not too like it, too. It turned out to mean three days, and completely unannounced.

It was a Friday morning, and I had an hour and a half with no appointments scheduled. Carl D’Antonio had stopped by, and the two of us were hanging around my office talking to Mike and Tom. Carl had swept in first thing in the morning, his arms loaded up with expensive cheese spreads and crackers, and basically started singing songs about how great the cheese spreads were.

“You gotta try this stuff,” he announced. “A buddy of mine had this at his house when we went over there for the game. He was going on and on about this stuff. I was looking at him exactly like you guys are looking at me, like ‘there is no such thing as a cheese spread that should get someone this excited.’”

He thumped the tubs of cheese spread and boxes of crackers down on the table between my sofa and chairs, across the room from my desk. I’d never heard of the brand, but the flavors sounded pretty serious – Jarlsberg Swiss, Dortmunder Beer, and Cheese, Sharp Cheddar with Bacon and Horseradish. He had little plastic knives and napkins and everything.

I was indeed as skeptical as Carl had described himself as being, and I didn’t like the idea of cleaning up after his little picnic before my appointment later, but bless his heart, I just couldn’t shut him down. He was so excited. I shrugged and sat down in one of the chairs while Carl popped the lids off the tubs.

Drawn by the cheese monologue, Michael Mueller showed up in seconds, followed by Tom, who simply walked in looking puzzled and said, “Did someone say ‘cheese spread?’”

And Carl turned out to be right. The stuff was amazing. What had changed in cheese spread technology that had taken so long? I got out my phone and took a photo of the containers so I could order some.

We all got quiet while we went to work on the spread, and after a while, Carl said, “So Becky tells me she’s taking Julia over to the gun range to fire off her shotgun.”

Becky was Carl’s wife, and they were both avid gun owners. I said, “Yeah, I’ll bet they’re in your kitchen right now eating a bunch of this cheese spread. And yes, she loves her shotgun, that’s for sure. Though I thought it was weird to take it to a gun range. I thought the whole point of a shotgun is you don’t need to have very good aim.”

“You need to get used to how it feels kicking into your shoulder though, so you don’t knock yourself down when it comes time to use it.”

“I guess now that you mention it, I’ve never fired the thing in my life. It’s like the Nordic Track thing, we just bought it and then put it in a room.”

“Bet you wish you had one the other night.”

I shrugged.

“So what about the guys who grabbed you,” Carl asked. “Did they get them yet? Mike told me he got a license number and they think it’s the guy.”

“Don’t get me started. I sent that over to them three days ago, haven’t heard a peep. I guess I’m going to have to give the detective a call on Monday if I haven’t heard anything by then.”

Carl nodded, chewing. “I would. They told you they had the FBI on this thing, right?”

“That’s what they said. Haven’t heard from them either.”

Now Carl shook his head decisively. “Nope. You got kidnapped. They work for us. Our tax dollars, right? Give them a call and light them up like Christmas.”

I tried to give him a skeptical look but the Dortmunder Beer and Cheese spread was too fantastic and my face wouldn’t comply. Instead I just told him, “I’m not lighting up the FBI, Carl.”

Then as if summoned by the conversation, we heard the front door to the office open followed by a pleasant greeting from Meredith. In reply, an easy-going but clear and confident voice announced that he was Special Agent Tom Fine with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, here to see Greg DuPont.

Rather comically, Meredith attempted to tell him he couldn’t talk to me because he lacked an appointment. She tried it several times until she was simply following him into my office protesting. I waved her off and her eyebrow went up, but she asked Agent Fine if he’d like anything to drink, and he asked for black coffee. She went off to fire up the coffee machine for him.

He was a tall man, his face devoid of the slightest stubble, his black hair trim and kept as if he had it cut every single Friday morning. He wore a long coat-like Agent Mulder from The X-Files, and a crisp, charcoal suit beneath it, clearly tailor-made. His sidearm was displayed at his hip with purposeful prominence, his coat flicked to the side to keep it revealed. He was still carrying his FBI badge, which he flashed around at all of us while we got to our feet and babbled some greetings at him.

“I’m Special Agent Tom Fine,” he said, looking at each of us in turn. When he was finished he looked back at me with unsettling certainty as he added, “You’re Greg DuPont.”

“That’s right,” I said, introducing everyone. We couldn’t help it; we were all excited to meet an FBI agent. You see them in movies so often, but they seem like bounty hunters or astronauts or something – it’s so odd to see them in reality.

He humored us for a few minutes, Tom wisecracking about various television FBI agent clichés. Did the agent have just this one case this week which he would wrap up handily in time for the one case he would have next week? Could he deputize us into the FBI? Where was his multicultural team of backup agents?

Agent Fine riffed off the jokes like a pro, even helped himself to some cheese spread and asked Carl a few pointed questions about where to get it.

He said, “Well, Mr. DuPont I do need to speak with you about Mr. and Mrs. de Modelo, as well as your abduction earlier this week.”

“Sure, can the rest of you guys excuse us?”

Tom and Mike and Carl frowned down at the cheese and then frowned over at the agent, not wanting to leave the excitement of either one behind. Somewhat absently, Tom palmed the tub of Sharp Cheddar and Bacon with Horseradish in one hand, and a sleeve of crackers in the other. But Agent Fine gestured at them all dismissively.

“Actually, it would probably be valuable to speak with anyone on your staff who knows anything about the situation. I had planned on asking to do so to some extent or another anyway. You guys mind sticking around?”

They all erupted into agreement, but Tom didn’t put the cheese spread down.

Then out of nowhere, although the easygoing smile and casual tone remained, Agent Fine became very, very serious. He said, “Of course there’s one cool thing about being an FBI agent, and it’s something you should all know. Did you know that it’s explicitly illegal to lie to a federal agent?”

The sound in the room turned off abruptly as if a dog had rolled over on a remote control and muted it. They all looked around at each other.

“Ten years,” Agent Fine went on. “It’s an automatic ten years. Doesn’t matter in what capacity. So for example, if your boss Greg here asked any of you to lie to me, and then you did, that would be ten years in a federal prison. Simple as a parking ticket, off to jail you’d go.”

He gave a little Pepperidge Farm chuckle and we all gaped around at each other.

A second later, Carl clapped his hands together and said, “Welp. I gotta get rolling, I’d love to hang around with you guys.”

“Yeah,” Tom Schaffer agreed, smacking Mike on the shoulder with the back of his hand and heading straight for the door with crackers and cheese in hand. “I’ve got a thing.”

Mike threw his hands in the air, gestured at Tom as if there was nothing to do but follow him out of the office, then he followed him out of the office.

So it was that by the time Meredith returned with a steaming cup of coffee for Agent Fine, it was just me in the room, frowning down at the remaining cheese spread which did not seem nearly so fun anymore. Agent Fine settled into the sofa across from the chair I had collapsed into, and he helped himself to a little more cheese spread while I shifted around nervously, watching him.

Then he simply started asking questions, and I answered them. How long had I known Chelsea and Arturo de Modelo? And which of them had I met first? Did I know either of Arturo’s ex-wives? What could I tell them about his sons? Did I like pancakes? How many pairs of shoes did I own?

Finally, I decided I needed to assert myself a little. I said, “Agent Fine, I’m happy to help you with your investigation, but I’m the victim of a crime here. I’m not a suspect. I was kidnapped and I’m lucky to be alive. Did you receive the license plate number I sent to Detective O’Neil?”

“I did receive it, yes,” Fine said, taking out his phone and scrolling through it for something. “It’s registered to a woman named Phyllis McIntyre. She’s roughly old enough to be the mother of the man in the photo you sent, but we’ve looked at her and she has no children.”

“Did she say who the guy was, the guy driving her car?”

“No, I haven’t spoken to her.”

“Well, why not?”

Agent Fine put his phone away and adopted a patient expression as if humoring a child. He said, “Mr. DuPont, tell me again how you determined this license plate number was in any way connected to your abduction.”

So I ran through the story again, Mike doing a little cyberstalking before heading over to the dead beekeeper’s house and talking to his brother, finding out about the Crowns Crew club, and tracking down the meeting locations and dates online, and then watching the smokers for someone who looked like either of the guys I had described.

When I was finished, I already knew that I had just described a series of assumptions. Fine smiled at me while he summarized. “So, you found out that Rob Marcum was one of approximately twenty million Canton Crowns fans, theorized that the guys who grabbed you were again, two of approximately twenty million Canton Crowns fans, then Michael here with the absolutely magnificent mustache went to a bar where a few dozen of the approximately twenty million Canton Crowns fans were hanging out, he saw a bearded guy smoking, and now you’d like me to put the heat on a seventy-five-year-old woman because whoever was driving her car was one of twenty million Canton Crowns fans and also he smokes and has a beard.”

“I’m not saying arrest anyone…”

“I would hope not, sir.”

“But asking questions – that’s what you do, right?”

“I see. So, now you’d like to tell me what I do? As a federal law enforcement agent?”

“I just thought that’s how it worked, sir. I had some information, I thought you guys would want to follow up on it. I apologize if I’ve wasted your time.”

Fine shrugged amiably, giving me a reassuring smile. “Not at all. Let me just switch gears for a minute, Detective O’Neil says you believe that this is all connected to the nearly fatal car accident involving Arturo De Modelo and some sort of hot dog truck?”

“My client…”

“You mean Chelsea de Modelo? Arturo’s wife?”

“Correct. Mrs. de Modelo believes that very strongly. I can’t say that I’m convinced she’s right, but there are an awful lot of coincidences. My partner Braden is also representing Chelsea in a civil action against the food truck owner. It’s easily the strangest case I’ve ever been involved in.”

Agent Fine’s eyebrows scrunched up as he took his phone back out and scrolled through it some more. “Yes, Mrs. de Modelo believes that someone put a container of live hornets in the ventilation system and rigged it to release them while he was driving it.”

I threw up my hands helplessly. “You can ask Chelsea what she believes or doesn’t believe. I don’t speak for her.”

For just a moment, Fine’s eyes grew hard and dark. Then he shut it off like a light, an amiable smile erupting onto his face. He turned his phone around and showed me a photo of the flaming Hornet with the giant hot dog sticking out the back window. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, chuckling. “If that’s not the weirdest case you’ve been involved in then you’re the most fascinating attorney in Columbus, Ohio.”

“I got kidnapped, sir. Sure, it’s fascinating, but finding out who did it – that would be way more so.”

“And you’re not just an attorney,” Fine went on, putting the phone back in his pocket. “You’re also a financial planner. You must have a lot under management if your client is Arturo de Modelo. What’s he got, a couple hundred million?”

“I can’t tell you that, sir.”

“But you can like, touch your nose if I’m in the ballpark, right?”

There wasn’t anything to say to that, so I just waited. Naturally, my nose started to itch and I couldn’t scratch it. I blinked at him very slowly a couple of times.

“I understand there were no fingerprints left at your house.”

“They were both wearing gloves.”

“And nothing out of the ordinary at Maxwell Mechanical, either. No missing trucks, no signs of any break-ins.”

“They took the truck back while I was with them. Then we switched to the van, which I returned to the police.”

“And which had plenty of fingerprints, but all belonging to employees, all of which have been ruled out.”

“I’m sorry, Agent Fine. What exactly are you saying? Do you think I faked my own kidnapping?”

“I didn’t say that Mr. DuPont. But you did. Isn’t that interesting that you would say such a thing?”

“My wife’s walking around with a shotgun over her shoulder all the time now. Why would I fake something like this?”

“There have been some large and unusual transactions in both Mr. and Mrs. de Modelo’s accounts. And some large transaction requests which have been flagged and reported to us according to federal banking regulations. It’s almost as if Chelsea de Modelo stands to financially benefit a great deal from the death of her husband.”

“She also benefits from him staying in perfect health, don’t you think?”

“Let me just be clear with you, Mr. DuPont. When I hear a bunch of bizarre stories with things like runaway hot dog trucks, murderous beekeepers with automotive maintenance skills, and kidnappings by wizards and clowns, do you know what I start to think?”

“I know he wasn’t an actual wizard. I mean, you know I know he wasn’t an actual wizard, right?”

“What I think about is deflection. Deflection from the obvious. Do you know who is usually responsible when a married man is murdered?”

“On television, it’s usually the wife, but no, I don’t know in real life.”

“That’s correct. If Mr. de Modelo were murdered, Chelsea would be the prime suspect. So I find it very suspicious when the prime suspect – and her attorney, frankly – start spouting off outrageous, convoluted theories. I find it suspicious when someone is kidnapped, escapes, and cannot provide any evidence that he was kidnapped at all. Do you know how rare kidnappings are, Mr. DuPont?”

“No.”

“Even more rare is when the victim escapes. But you did it quite easily. I mean, according to your story.”

“You’re not going to question the woman who owns the car Mike tracked down, are you?”

“Oh, I’m going to question her. If she has any connection to any of this, I’ll find it.”

“That’s reassuring.”

Special Agent Tom Fine picked up his coffee for the first time, and drained the entire thing like a shot of whiskey, smacking his lips as he thumped the cup back down on the table. He got to his feet and said, “And that goes for you too, sir. If you have any connection to any of this, I’ll find it.”

“I am Arturo’s attorney, so of course I have a connection to this.”

“I think you know that I mean, any connection to Rob Marcum’s death, or the hot dog truck debacle.”

“Is there a number code for hot dog truck debacles? Like a three-eight-one in progress or something?”

“You’re funny,” Agent Fine said, clicking his cheek and shooting me with his finger. “Hey listen, don’t leave town. I mean that literally, that’s not just a thing we say because they say it on television.”

“I’m not going to leave town.”

“Excellent,” he replied. “I’ll be in touch.”

And then Special Agent Tom Fine left my office, and I got back to work on the cheese spread.


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