Mano a Mano

fiction by Richard Ellison


This article has been editted for our site. The original version can be viewed at www.word.com. Please note this article is a work of fiction. It is meant to entertain.

My name is Jack Thorn. I'm a collection agent.

Collection agents are the people who call you up and try to find out why you're not paying delinquent student loans, credit card debts, or mortgage payments. More importantly, they try to get you to pay even though you think you can't. Even if it hurts.

I can't tell you where I work, but I've always wanted to describe what it is I do for a living and how.

So here's Lesson One. There is a plaque on the wall of my office that says:


This plaque was given to me the day I started working for my firm. It serves as a suitable symbol for this business and how it operates.

Above the plaque is a portrait of an old codger in a suit-- our ostensible founder, chairman, and director emeritus, Rodney Strong, Sr. In fact, this man is a sham, a lie, a figurehead-- created by the PR genius behind my 3-year-old firm to give the impression of a father-and-son team with years of experience.

Current and potential clients, you see, like to feel as if they're dealing with an established agency. The name "Rodney Strong" is intended to conjure up, in the minds of both client and debtor, the image of a virile, self-assured individual, well-equipped to handle any collection task. Collectors can, of course, choose their own pseudonym (e.g. Jack Powers, Raymond Galvin, Randall Stryker) as long as it projects the appropriate capabilities.

Strong, Strong, & Stryker Assoc.,., has positioned itself to collect commercial debts, rather than consumer ones. Actually the procedure differs little between the two, because behind every delinquent business, you've still got a deadbeat who won't pay the bill. My time is spent shaking down pathetic human beings for money. And that's that.



You're probably getting the idea by now how this whole thing works: it's a total farce on every level. This fact is that we have no power to force anyone to pay. Only a judge can do that, and by the time one goes through the courts and gets the sheriff to execute on a judgment, years have passed and the debtor has fled. All assets are exhausted and we are left holding the bag for our time and expenses. Fortunately for us, most debtors are stupid and scared. Consequently, we've developed powerful, persuasive methods of intimidation, and they usually work.

You may ask, after reading this, why it is that I remain in such a position? The answer is that I love it. It provides me with an opportunity to live out some of my sick power fantasies.

Our 1,000-square-foot office has cubicles for four collection agents and three secretaries.

On my desk I've got:

* a five-line Meridian phone,
* a Dictaphone,
* an IBM terminal (permanently hooked into the company database),
* a laptop computer, and
* a Hewlett Packard calculator.

I am ready to multi-task with the simple goal of bringing as much cash into the office as quickly as possible, by any means necessary, without getting us shut down, sued, or jailed.

Bad commercial paper is just a fancy name for bad checks or worthless stocks. A claim I just handled provides a nice example.



HAWK Investments engaged my agency to collect on a $500,000 loan to a "dummy" corporation called Slam Pictures. HAWK is a consortium of venture capitalists looking for interesting "opportunities." Slam Pictures consisted of Robert (pronounced Roe-bear) Scully and his five associates.

Robert had lured these associates (former army buddies) into a get-rich-quick movie deal, promising each of them huge monetary rewards for co-signing on a $500,000 loan to Slam Pictures. With the backing in place, HAWK Investments gave the half-million to Robert.

The ostensible goal was to complete a flick titled "The Mayo Truck," involving two beautiful sisters named Mayo who have to deliver a bunch of mayonnaise. No joke.

Normally loans such as these are uncollectable because the dummy corporations are designed to collapse to protect the principals when they misuse or abscond with fraudulently obtained funds. Lenders are left to contend with an empty corporate shell. However, as I said, Robert's associates had personally guaranteed the loans. Their asses were completely on the line. Although Robert's credit was, and always had been, in question, the guarantors' credit was solid and HAWK made the loan on that basis.

To make a long story short, Robert and his director ran off with the entire $500,000 and took a sixty-day vacation in Rio with the Mayo sisters. Instead of getting a profitable skin flick, the five principal investors had become fully liable for an entire half-mill wad of bad commercial paper.

HAWK engaged Strong, Strong & Stryker Assoc.,., to enforce the loan agreement against the guarantors. The guarantors, of course, had disappeared. Evidently, they were stupid enough to co-sign for Robert, but not so stupid as to stick around and make good for the debt. My job was to find them, collect from them if possible, or simply turn their whereabouts over to Hawk. I managed to get Robert on the phone, and to my surprise, he promised me $25,000 and agreed to snitch on the whereabouts of the guarantors (again, his former buddies) in exchange for a complete release from HAWK. Yes, Robert was the kind of guy you eventually find floating peacefully down the East River.

I arranged to meet Robert that morning.

We met on a street corner. "Hi," I said. "Let's grab a coffee-- on me."

Robert nodded. We entered a coffee shop and slid into a booth. Robert looked around nervously. "I don't like diner coffee. You wanna go someplace else?" I didn't have time to hang around. I wanted to get the money and vamoose. The worst thing you can do with a guy like Robert is have him get to know you as a human being. Sometimes it's good to get to know a debtor-- when you wanna plead sympathy and act like you'll get in trouble with your boss if they don't at least pay you something. But with a maggot like Robert, the only way was to hang tough and tighten the screws.

"Robert, I want that HAWK money now. Then we'll get friendly."

He pulled out a wad of $20 bills an inch thick and waved it in front of my face. He pulled out a sheet of paper. "Here are the names and addresses of the guarantors you wanted. Now leave me alone!" Robert plopped them on the table, muttered that he wouldn't drink piss with me, and walked out.

Robert had produced only $3,020 and a short list of names, all of whom turned out to be bogus except one-- Jimmy Chang in the Virgin Islands. I called Jimmy at 7:20 a.m. his time. I said I was from the United States Post Office and had a large package for him. After a groggy Jimmy correctly identified his full name, address, and social security number, I told him I was the agent for HAWK and made demand for payment.

Jimmy quickly reasoned that Robert had betrayed him yet again and announced that his former business associate was as good as dead. I immediately forwarded HAWK's claim to a lawyer on the island, who successfully sued Jimmy and got a lien on his property for the full $500,000 amount of the claim. Eventually an out-of-court settlement was reached whereby Jimmy paid $100,000 and ratted on the other four investors.

These people were scum from top to bottom. Next case.



Another of my claims concerned a $680,000 delinquent Pirrelli Tire account.

Pirrelli handed the account to Strong, Strong & Stryker Assoc.,., when a certain Mr. Scarfone, of Scarfone & Sons Carting Service, broke his third promise to pay a $40,000 installment on the balance. Scarfone had not paid a dime in six months.

Luckily for me I read the Dun and Bradstreet report before I called Scarfone. Dun and Bradstreet is a company that provides detailed financial information on companies and their officers for would-be lending agencies. The report on the Scarfone "companies" indicated they were in the process of being indicted by the Bronx District Attorney for monopolistic practices and racketeering in the garbage hauling business. The last line of the report said "known syndicate connections." Great. I was collecting from the mob.

"Scarfone's," intoned the deep-voiced, Brooklyn-accented, female receptionist. I asked for the chief financial officer. "Do you want Dominic Scarfone?"

"That's right," I said.

A moment later, a voice belched, "Dom here. Go."

I replied, "Rodney Strong here. I'm the agent for Pirrelli."

Full thirty-second silence. "I'm calling about invoices open, due, and immediately owing to Pirrelli." Full forty-five second silence. "Have you heard of Pirrelli?"

Then I was placed on speakerphone. "Yeh, Rodney, no problem [ruffling papers]-- I sent $14,000 last week [ruffling papers]. Julio! Get me the check numbers [ruffling papers]. Julio! Anyway I'm not gonna send you a dime cause I don't know you from Jack."

Click. We were disconnected.

I immediately called Pirrelli to verify payment. They'd received nothing.

From that discourse I knew this was to be a long, arduous process. I decided to play good cop, bad cop-- an old routine, indeed, but with Rodney Strong Jr. and Sr. playing the cops, at least I had a fighting chance.

Dom had the money. I just knew it. But I also knew he was the kind of guy who had to feel he had beaten at least one guy down. Rodney Jr. would be the sacrifice. Later, when the time came, Papa Strong would appear on the scene as the tough, "no-nonsense" man of steel.

First, I faxed a "friendly" demand. I re-introduced "Rodney Jr." and attached a letter from the Pirrelli regional credit manager that "all payment discussions may be made through Mr. Strong." Second, I attached complete invoicing substantiating the $680,000 balance. Third, I wrote that I had checked with Pirrelli and they had not received Scarfone's check, and I was concerned FOR HIM. Finally I wrote that I would call back to verify dates and check numbers and attempt to create "a payment framework" to address the outstanding balance.

The idea was to foresee and close off all of Dom's rational objections to paying this debt.

I called five times a day for three days and sent as many faxes. Finally, I got through to Dom.

Again, on speakerphone, Dom said, "Yo look, Rodney-- I told you I am going to clear this up next week no problem [ruffling papers]. We got a little behind in our paperwork."

I responded, "Dom, I am very concerned about your checks. Please give me the dates and check numbers so I may investigate."

Dom countered that he was investigating $20,000 worth of Pirrelli's invoices that he claimed weren't checking out against his inventory.

I jumped in. "Dom, you agree that the majority of this invoicing is undisputed. Even if we forget about the $20,000 we still have over $650,000 in undisputed debt. May I have a payment for $100,000 by my courier today? Then we can advance our files 30 days and clear up the paperwork at our leisure."

The Dom replied, "Yo, Rodney, maybe Thursday I might be ready but I gotta go now."

I tried one last gambit, "But Dom, we still haven't cleared up the issue of the missing checks." Click.

That Thursday I scheduled three DHL courier pickups at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. I also called and faxed requests for Dom to call me. As expected, the Dom took none of my calls. Further and as predicted, DHL's couriers were unable to pick up a payment. The next day, Dom called Rodney but this time, I took the call as Rodney Sr.

Dom said that sending couriers out was bull and he wasn't gonna be strong-armed into paying. Rodney Strong, Sr. handled him with the unflinching class of a true a pro.

"Right, Dom," I said in a low, raspy voice. "My son doesn't always understand that people need time to think. He's impatient. I realize you guys have some problems. You don't need more litigation. But, Dom-- I need a payment now to keep this out of litigation. You understand what I'm saying?"

Dom tried to raise the invoicing issue again, together with every other imaginable objection. But Rodney Sr. kept repeating, "Dom, I need a payment now to keep this out of litigation. You understand what I'm saying?" and, "You guys don't need more litigation. I'd like to help you keep the D.A. off your back. Dom, I need a payment to keep this out of litigation."

Finally, Dom broke down. He promised a payment the next day for "at least $90,000 and probably more."

Three times in a row, Rodney Sr. asked, "Tomorrow?"

And Dom said, "Mano a mano."

"Mano a mano?"

"Mano a mano."

"All right, Dom."

Over the next three months, Rodney Sr. was able to induce the Dom to make monthly payments of $90,000. However, after that, the Dom ceased making payments and Strong, Strong, & Stryker Assoc.,., forwarded the case to their attorneys.


I can't believe that I do this and make money at it. Although it's hard to conceive of my work as meaningful or productive, I still get off relating to people in these hardball situations. The debtors know I receive a commission, and that ultimately, that's why I'm calling.

Sometimes the debtors give me a hard time and try to make me"earn" my money, but many of them truly want to resolve the matter. I'm often able to make a reasonable settlement between debtor and creditors. In these cases, I feel I am actually performing a service for all involved.

However, the bottom line is that by the time these claims come to me, the debtors have already made the decision not to pay. It's my job to change their minds. And when I really think about it, breaking the will of another human being can actually turn out to be pretty enjoyable.




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