Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 17
🏴 TWO months ago * New York City.
Thomas Bellanger ran an extremely prosperous advertising agency perched high up in an exclusive Art Deco skyscraper on Madison Avenue. One might call the man quirky: He wore tailored suits that cost two thousand dollars, but routinely ate five dollar salads from Au Bon Pain for lunch — not because he would have minded dropping five times as much for a haute cuisine-type salad from some eclectic midtown eatery; but rather because he simply knew what he liked in life.
Bellanger Lavalle had made a name for itself in orchestrating flawless, results-oriented, multi-million-dollar restaurant marketing campaigns. No one could “sell the sizzle” better than Thomas Bellanger (except perhaps his business partner James Lavalle), which had earned the firm an impressive list of marquis clients. Over the years, they’d branched out into sports marketing, gaming, financial services, and health care.
When clients gave him full rein, Thomas had a unique flair for outrageous high-stakes/high-dollar ad campaigns that he felt pushed the envelope. He could stage events, spectacles, and unprecedented public relations stunts that landed coverage worth twenty times his already extraordinary fees.
During a rapid growth stage in the 1990s, the firm opened satellite offices in London, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. This wasn’t a good time for a death in the family — not that such a time exists, of course. However, when his uncle Al passed away (with whom he’d bever been close), Thomas learned that he’d inherited a small property on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
He’d been told that Manteo is a charming place and that the property could easily be turned into a summer home or a vacation rental. Ordinarily, a windfall such as this would be welcomed. It was as if the place were a nice, perfect, one-carat diamond. But, then again, this was like a member of the De Beers family inheriting such a stone.
For such a creative soul, Thomas took the easiest path in dealing with the property; he did nothing. Every year, he’d send a check to cover the property taxes; the accountants and lawyers would handle the rest. It had been a full year since he’d heard from the attorney. The call came as unexpectedly as it always had. The receptionist caught him in a rush, but managed to snag his attention. “Thomas, it’s that lawyer from North Carolina again.”
He fired a petulant expression toward her and said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake. I’ll take the call. Put it in my office. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Thomas had been having “one of those days.” He had stacks of DVDs on his desk bearing freshly produced commercials awaiting his seal of approval. He had an issue to deal with involving several members of his client service staff who had taken to entertaining NBA clients at not quite league-sanctioned sporting houses. He had also opted out of his five dollar salad in favor of a three hundred and fifty dollar power lunch with the chairman of Harrah’s. In short, he didn’t have time to deal with Uncle Al’s estate. And, still, he took the call.
“This is Thomas Bellanger.”
“Uh, yeah, Mr. Bellanger. This is Nathan Pride giving you your annual holler regarding your uncle’s estate.” Nathan certainly had a good ol’ boy drawl that Thomas always found difficult to identify with. “We need you to attend to the property taxes and so forth, as usual.”
“Nate, Nate, Nate. How long has this been going on?” Thomas relaxed, for once, and kicked his feet up onto his desk. He spun around to appreciate the birds-eye view of the New York skyline.
“How long have I been writing you checks each year to maintain this estate?”
“Well, I reckon it’s going on fifteen years now.”
“And yet we’ve never met face-to-face, have we?” Thomas began to doodle with his Mont Blanc on the top page of a fresh Bellanger Lavalle memo pad.
“No, Mr. Bellanger, I don’t believe we have.”
“Nate, it occurs to me that there is a very good reason for that.”
“Well, as far as I understand, you’ve never stopped in to my office to pick up the keys.”
“Precisely. And, at the rate I’m going, I think we could easily go on like this for another fifteen years.” He pulled his feet from the desk and sat up straight as though an idea had come to him.
“Well, that’s all right by us, Mr. Bellanger. We take things slowly out here. You should get down here for a visit.”
“No can do, Nate. But, tell me this. What’s Uncle Al’s place worth these days?”
“Well, I’m a lawyer, Thomas, not a …”
“I know that, but you could give ma a ball park, probably. You deal with estates all the time, right?” Thomas stood up and began pacing around as he often did when inspired.
“I think it’s fair to say you’re looking at four hundred thousand. Perhaps five with some repairs. It’s got a nice view out over the Pamlico Sound and I think it’d do really well.”
“Well, then, I’ll tell you what. You’ve got a few junior associates at the firm, right?”
“Well, I’d like to engage your firm to handle the details for me. Your group can act as my on-site project managers. Hire a building inspector, hire a landscaper, and hire yourself a contractor to fix the place up. I’ll have my secretary send you down a check for, say, fifty thousand, and you just keep track of it all and bill me for your time. Does that sound fair?”
“I believe that sounds fine, Mr. Bellanger. And, the effects?”
Thomas paused. “What do you mean ‘the effects’?”
“I mean your uncle’s personal effects.”
Fifteen years and he’d never considered that his uncle was a real person with probably a lifetime’s worth of tangibles. However, he phrased his reply somewhat indelicately after a slight sigh. “He left a lot of shit, did he?”
“I don’t know if I’d call it all shit, Mr. Bellanger. The man dealt in antiques and such.”
“All right. I’ll tell you what. Get a reputable auctioneer out there to look it all over and have him give me a call.”
Thomas rather enjoyed giving orders like that — delegating complex tasks to others in other parts of the world with the understanding that the final say-so would come back to him at some point. He afforded people considerable latitude, which was the mark of a fine leader and certainly responsible for much of the firm’s growth. He realized that the relatively small-time lawyer on the other end of the phone probably thought this was a real coup. It isn’t often that people like Nate Pride are handed carte blanch authority to generally do and spend. It’s also fair to say that Thomas would not have freely given such a green light to a New York attorney.
Nate came through, as expected. Within days, he’d hired a general contractor to paint anything that needed a fresh coat and to attend to the minor remaining damage from the few brushes with hurricanes earlier this season. He paid a landscaping company to spruce up the lot and add a few decorative elements. And, his sister-in-law landed the real estate listing. The only remaining action item was the hiring of the auctioneer. This took a few days, but Thomas’ secretary soon put through a call from another North Carolinian.
He took the call on speaker phone, as he’d been pacing back and forth in front of his plasma screen television reviewing the latest post-production of an important television ad for the firm. “This is Thomas Bellanger.”
“Mr. Bellanger? This is Elsie Girard from Girard Galleries in Nags Head North Carolina.”
“Hi Elsie. I assume you’re calling because you’ve spoken with Nathan Pride?” He hit the pause button on his remote, figuring this would be a quick call.
“That’s correct. I’d met him at a benefit for the aquarium and he thought I’d be just the person to handle the estate sale. I think he liked the fact that we’re both French. Thought we’d hit it off.”
“Well then, enchanté, Elsie.”
“Oh, I don’t speak the language, I’m afraid.”
“Then I suppose we’ll have to conduct ourselves in English.”
“It would seem so, although I could imitate a thick Irish brogue if you like, just for entertainment’s sake. We have some of that still down this way.”
Thomas liked Elsie. She seemed refreshingly bold and vivacious, which was a pleasant diversion this afternoon. He took a seat; he’d decided to give her his full attention instead of simply getting her off the phone as quickly as possible.
“So, give me the low down. Can your company offload my uncle’s accumulated possessions?”
“We picked up the keys from Nate yesterday. My husband and I scoured the house and the small barn rather well. The place is like a time capsule from 1990. Has no one been inside in that long?”
“I never made it down there, so, yeah, I suppose you’re the first. Anything interesting inside?”
“First of all, you have the everyday stuff, which we’ll sell in large lots just to get rid of it. I’m talking about the dishes, the non-antique furniture, and most of the framed prints hanging here and there. In terms of collectibles, you have a pretty good amount of antique furniture, a good representation of art glass, and a few things that I recommend selling online to realize a premium. There’s a coin collection there with a few investment-grade gold coins and also some sports memorabilia that we’ll have to take a bit of a closer look at to determine a value.”
“Sounds like you’ve got this all under control then.”
“I think so, Mr. Bellanger. There’s also his personal effects, which I’m assuming we should sell also?”
“Class rings, a few watches, and the like.”
“Yeah, sell it all.”
“You know, one item that really caught our eye was a stunning old wooden mariner’s chest. It’s out in the barn under some other items, so we didn’t get to take a look inside. But, it looks exceedingly rare, I daresay early eighteenth century. My husband’s dying to dig that one out and see what’s inside.”
This piqued his interest. “You don’t say. You know, that curiosity your husband has … That’s something I try to leverage on a daily basis — the natural curiosity of the human spirit. We see a box and we simply need to open that box. We’re a world of Pandoras. Trust me: If you understand that concept, you can run an international advertising firm.”
“Well, yeah, that’s why we want to take a look.”
“But, let me ask you something, Elsie. If I asked you to do something rather unusual, do you think you could do it?”
“That all depends, Mr. Bellanger. New York’s definition of unusual may differ somewhat from North Carolina’s.”
“Here’s my thought. I don’t want you to look in that trunk, and I don’t want your husband to look inside, either. In fact, no one is to look inside. Have your husband purchase some tough material — like the stuff they make seat belts out of — and strap the case shut and lock it. No, no. Better yet, get a thick black chain and a padlock. It’ll be much more dramatic.”
“I don’t follow.”
“This case can be the center point of your auction, Elsie. You can advertise that you’ve found an eighteenth century chest and no one’s looked inside prior to the sale — not the auctioneers, not the owners, no one. Just think of the enticement — the wonder it will instill in the people. Everyone will want to know what’s in the box, and maybe you’ll have a bidding frenzy from a couple of speculators.”
“Sounds like you know a thing or two about auctioneering, Mr. Bellanger.”
“I know about creating desire in others.”
“I think that’s a fine idea. We get a few locked safes to auction off every so often, and it always creates quite a buzz in the gallery. Everyone wonders whether there’s a million dollars inside or perhaps just a few old worthless scraps of paper.”
“Do you think you can resist the temptation to peek, Elsie?”
“I believe I can, although my husband may be tough to convince. But, I’ll try.”
“Well, Nate faxed me your terms, which are acceptable, and I think all of the details are in order. You have my address, of course, for the check. But, let me know how this tactic works out for you, okay?”
“Will do. Au revoir, Mr. Bellanger.”
☠️ Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. “Chapter number” background photo atop piece is adapted from “Light Reading” by Martin (Flickr, Creative Commons).