Penhooker Roundup
 
By Tom Word
 
 
Ben (“Long”) Reach heard it as a boy at the dinner table from his father, a lawyer like Ben in Albany (“All-benny”), Georgia: “When you try a law case, you will either make an enemy and a friend, or two enemies.”  In his almost fifty years of law practice, Ben had seen the proposition proven time and again.  
Over the years, Ben had made many friends and a fair number of enemies, some of whom had later become friends and among his most loyal clients.  Former adversaries fairly beaten made the best clients, Ben believed.
One such loyal client had been Robert Geary, a Philadelphia financier who had in 1960 bought Pine Bough Plantation.  Ben had represented an adjoining landowner in a title dispute with Geary and prevailed, then suggested a compromise that worked to the advantage of both landowners.  Geary later became Ben’s client.  Since Geary’s death, Ben had represented his daughter and heir, Mary Geary Keen, who as a widow lived full time on Pine Bough.
In the fall of 2008, Mary called Ben and asked him to come out to Pine Bough to see her.  On the drive, Ben wondered what Mary had on her mind.  Like Ben she was pushing seventy, and having no children, she busied herself with charitable pursuits, Meals on Wheels and the Boys and Girls Clubs being her favorites.
Robert Geary had left Mary Pine Bough Plantation outright, but the rest of his fortune he’d left her in trust, with Mary getting the income for life with the principal to go to charity of her choice when she died.  The income was plenty to support Mary’s comfortable but not ostentatious lifestyle, but she sometimes found herself short of cash to do what she wanted for her favorite charities.  Ben suspected Mary’s call was prompted by a desire to raise cash for some pressing charitable project.  The last time they’d met the need with a sale of timber from Pine Bough, but that would not do it this time.  Timber prices were down.
Ben arrived at 4:30 as scheduled.  Mary liked her advice over cocktails, and that suited Ben just fine.  They sat together in the room whose French windows looked out on the Flint River and Pine Bough’s marshlands beyond, winter home to many ducks.  As dusk approached, wood ducks began their evening pitch into the marsh.
As Ben had suspected, Mary wanted advice on a way to raise $400,000 toward a new Boys and Girls Club facility in Albany.  Mary had already pledged it anonymously as a challenge grant to be matched by other donors (Ben knew he’d soon be approached for a pledge himself).
When Mary and Ben had finished their second single malts, Ben rose to take his leave.  “Let me think about this a day or two, and I’ll get back to you,” Ben said as Mary put her arm around him for a goodbye hug.  Then she kissed him on the mouth, not a passionate kiss exactly, but one that conveyed deep affection.  Ben felt a little stir—he’d long carried a small torch for Mary, a woman he admired in many ways and who had kept her looks with age (“neither chick nor child,” Ben’s wife had said with a hint of jealously when he had once remarked on how Mary didn’t seem to age).
On the drive back to town Ben came up with a possible plan.  It was prompted, strangely enough, by reflection on two other admirers of Mary, men who had used their fiduciary roles in her life to their own advantage, a practice that Ben despised.  One was her physician, Dr. Sam Eldridge.  He’d ended up with Robert Geary’s matched pair of Purdey shotguns, worth Ben guessed more than $200,000.  Mary had given them to him after he’d repeatedly expressed admiration for them.  The second was her minister, an Episcopal priest named Father Tom Fallon.  Only Ben knew that Mary had paid each summer for a half dozen years for month-long European vacations for the good Father—spiritual retreats he called them.  This particularly infuriated Ben because he knew Father Tom was quite well fixed financially, being a trust-fund baby of old Boston wealth.  (Ben knew this because the trustee, a Boston bank, had asked Ben to look into a pecan-orchard scheme Father Tom had asked them to put some of his trust money into.)
The third person Ben thought of on his drive home had no connection to Mary, but he shared a predilection for fiduciary abuse with Doctor Sam and Father Tom.  And Ben sensed a chance to turn the greed of the three to Mary’s advantage and get even with two of them for their abuse of Mary and, in the case of the third, for his abuse of others.
The third man was Fred Eanes, a real-estate appraiser.  Whenever Fred’s name was mentioned, Ben’s antenna came up.  Fred was competent, highly competent, but too often, Fred ended up with an interest, usually hidden, in a property he had appraised.  All three—Doctor Sam, Father Tom, and appraiser Fred—Ben classified as penhookers, an arcane term often used by his father.
The opportunity Ben saw for Mary to raise her charitable war chest from the three involved two ingredients, their greed and Ben’s knowledge of something about Pine Bough Plantation that the penhookers did not know.
Two days later, Ben returned to Pine Bough to tell Mary of his plan.  He told her of his idea to use the appraiser Fred Eanes’ greed in his scheme, but not of his hope to ensnarl Doctor Sam and Father Tom in the net.  He did not want to cause her the pain of realizing her trusted advisers on matters medical and spiritual had been using her.
The key to Ben’s scheme was Pine Bough Plantation’s peculiar relationship with lands to its north, lands on which a huge deposit of sand and gravel had long been mined.  The resulting pits had been reclaimed as lakes beneficial to waterfowl.  All the other plantations in the neighborhood had been subjected to conservation easements prohibition extraction of sand and gravel, and besides it would be impossible in today’s environmental climate to get the permits necessary to dig sand and gravel on any of them.  But no such easement burdened Pine Bough’s acres.  In fact, when the owner of the adjoining property now being mined had years before sought its permits, Robert Geary had obtained for Pine Bough the right to have the mining extended on to Pine Bough, if its owner should so desire (this was part of the compromise Ben had suggested in the case where he’d been adverse to Robert Geary).
With Mary’s approval, Ben called Fred Eanes.  “Fred, Mary Keen is exploring the possibility of selling Pine Bough Plantation, and we’d like to get you to appraise it for her.”  Ben could hear the greed in Fred’s oily voice as he said he’d be glad to.  Ben was sure Fred remembered the arrangement that would permit expansion of sand and gravel mining onto Pine Bough without further permitting.
In a couple of weeks, Fred came to Ben with preliminary numbers on Pine Bough’s value.  They did not take into account any factor for the mining possibilities.
“This is what I think the place would bring,” Fred said.  “But I might be able to offer a bit more and give Miss Mary a quick deal with no commission.”  Then Fred made his offer, and from it Ben knew Fred was counting on the mining rights attached to Pine Bough, but the offer was low if those mining rights could be fully exploited and if Pine Bough held anywhere near the deposits of sand and gravel that Robert Geary had believed Pine Bough might hold when he negotiated the mining rights so many years ago.
“Tell you what, Fred, I’d advise Mary to give you a six-months option at that price for $500,000, to be applied to the purchase price if you exercise it.  But Mary has two friends we’d like you to invite into your deal—she’d like them to benefit from the property in gratitude for what they’ve meant to her over the years.  They are Doc Eldridge and Father Tom Fallon.”
Fred said he’d think about Ben’s proposition and get back to him soon.  Next day Fred came to Ben’s office with an option agreement and a cashier’s check for $500,000, payable to Ben as escrow agent.  The option buyer was a limited liability company Fred had named Pine Bough Venture LLC.  Fred confirmed that Doctor Eldridge and Father Tom were in on the deal.  (Fred expressed to Ben surprise that Father Tom had the dough to participate, which made Ben smile.)  Ben still didn’t tell Mary of the involvement of her beloved physician and priest.
As Ben had expected, engineers from the company mining sand and gravel north of Pine Bough were soon busy putting down test borings on Pine Bough.  In a month Fred Eanes showed up at Ben’s office with a long face.
“We won’t be exercising the option on Pine Bough, Ben.  My partners want to bring a lawsuit to get the option money back.  They think you knew something we didn’t.”
“Fred, you know that on a land deal in Georgia it’s caveat emptor.  If you fellows sue Mary, I’ll counter sue you for defamation and a lot more.”
“Any chance we can compromise, Ben?” Fred said.
“Tell you what, Fred, you three make a contribution to the Boys and Girls Club of $400,000, and Mary will give you $100,000 of the option money back,” Ben said.
At lunchtime Fred Eanes came back to Ben’s office.  “You’ve got a deal,” he said.  Ben wrote a check on his escrow account for $100,000 to Pine Bough Venture LLC and another to the Boys and Girls Club of Albany for $400,000.  He gave Fred Eanes the smaller check.
“I’ll give this one to the Club’s chairman.  It will be an anonymous contribution as your partners required,” Ben said with a grin.
Mary would never know that her doctor and preacher had been parties to Ben’s sting.  And although Fred Eanes suspected that Ben knew there was no mineable sand and gravel under Pine Bough Plantation, he would never know for sure.  Only Ben knew that Robert Geary had drill-tested Pine Bough Plantation for sand and gravel and shared the results with Ben.