The man on the street
There was a high window on the top floor of the brokerage house, and a man on the sidewalk directly below it. Both of them were shattered.
The SEC boys were there by the time I got to the top floor, making the usual jokes about "liquidated assets." They were a little friendlier than the Spanish Inquisition, but I showed them my ID, and they backed off. It's got my name and title in big letters: NICHOLSON DIMES, INVESTMENT INVESTIGATOR.
I found my old SEC pal Bernie Bond waiting for me in the dead man's office. "Hiya, Nick," he said, shaking hands. "How's tricks?"
"Same as always, Bernie. I appreciate the call."
He laughed. "Usually, we'd have plenty of time to handle this, but it's earnings season. You know how that goes. And I figured you could use the extra cash."
"Who's the stiff?" I asked, peering out the broken window, past the fluttering yellow crime-scene tape, all the way down to the sidewalk. Bernie consulted a notebook.
"Walt Streeter," he said. "Big-shot broker to the well-to-do. A turnover man." He spat out the last few words, and I understood why. A turnover man kept his clients hopping from one stock to the next, buying and selling for the short term, always hyping the latest hot stock. Every buy or sale came with a commission fee, and little by little, the fees added up. In the end, those investors' hard-earned money went nowhere -- except into their broker's pocket.
"Was he alone when he jumped?" I asked.
"Far as anyone knows," Bernie said. "He didn't have any appointments. His secretary stepped out for coffee around nine. Says she came back and found him on the sidewalk."
Streeter's desk was solid oak and only slightly smaller than a Cadillac. I picked up his leather-bound appointment book and flipped through it. "Looks like he had a meeting with a client set for lunchtime," I said. "Can your boys get me an address?"
The lady in the red
It was a modernist place on the coast, on a high cliff overlooking the ocean. It looked like a jetliner had fallen apart in the most artistic way possible.
A woman answered the door. She was a strawberry blonde with eyes the color of fresh $20s. She had a red scarf around her neck, and a red dress on, a dress like a Fed chief facing inflation. It kept raising my interest.
"Ada Smith?" I said. "I'm Nick Dimes. I'm here about your broker."
She served me tea on the veranda. It had a sleek metal railing overlooking the long, long drop to the ocean below. I watched her add a sugar cube to my cup. The scenery was spectacular. The ocean wasn't bad, either.
I told her about Walt Streeter and his last plunge into that big bear market. She didn't seem too choked up, but then, I couldn't blame her. "How much can you tell me about your portfolio, Miss Smith?" I asked.
She blushed. "I really couldn't say, Mr. Dimes. Walt handled all of that -- I started out with a little of this and that. Then he started making suggestions, and I'd just approve the sales or purchases. I don't have much of a head for investing, I'm afraid."
"Trust me, Miss Smith," I said, "You're better off without him. The last time you spoke, did he sound depressed? Did you talk about making changes to your holdings?"
"I wouldn't know where to begin with any of that," she said. "I -- I really don't know what I'll do with my money now." She batted her eyes, and I had to fight the impulse to buy her a whole shelf of investing-advice books.
"I know a good financial advisor -- an honest one," I told her. "I'll give you his number. I'll need yours, too, in case I get to the bottom of this." She went into the house and got a monogrammed notepad from her desk. She wrote her number on the top sheet, tore it off, and handed it to me. I told her I'd be in touch. I meant it.
Three names to nowhere
I got behind the wheel of my car and took out Ada Smith's number, just to look at it. I liked her penmanship.
I was about to put the scrap of paper back in my pocket when I noticed something. Indentations on the paper, underneath the phone number. I got my copy of One Up on Wall Street and a No. 2 pencil from the glove box, and I shaded the pencil over the surface of the note. Three names emerged from the graphite:
A cash register rang somewhere deep in my mind, and I headed the car straight to the public library. The clerk in the periodicals section, the cute one in the glasses, knew me by sight. She made a face at me as I walked past. I have that effect.
It didn't take too much digging through prospectuses and financial magazines to connect the first two names. They were mutual fund managers, and good ones.
John Gunn was one of six senior managers on Dodge & Cox International Stock
Charles M. Royce had run Royce Premier (RYPRX) for a decade and a half now, and I could see why he put his name on it. Over the past five years, it had racked up average annual gains of more than 15% as the S&P 500 chased its tail. Not too shabby for a fund stocked with under-the-radar types like Thor Industries
So Miss Smith hadn't been honest with me. She'd been looking for mutual funds, run by smart men with experience as solid as their ethics. She wanted someone else to take care of the hardest parts of investing, and she didn't want to pay too dearly for the privilege. That much made sense. It was the third name that didn't add up.
It was late afternoon by the time I finished. I passed the clerk on the way out. "Know anything about a guy named Zimmerman?" I asked. She gave me the hairy eyeball and told me to quit fooling around.
And that's when it all clicked.
A fund to die for
It was sunset by the time I got back to Ada Smith's place. She was waiting for me on the veranda.
"I've got bad news for you, kid," I said, as she watched me with those green eyes. "Your broker didn't jump. He was pushed."
She turned away and leaned over the railing to watch the ocean far below. "What makes you think so, Mr. Dimes?"
"He had a sweet racket, Miss Smith. Keeping you jumping from one investment to the next, nibbling away at your money the whole time. He wouldn't want to give that up. But you got wise."
I took a step forward. "You wanted more from your money. You'd been doing your homework. Looking for funds with long-tenured management, solid track records, and reasonable expense ratios -- everything a mutual fund investor could dream of. You wanted a piece of those funds, and you wanted it bad. Bad enough to come to Streeter's office early, just to tell him he was fired. Bad enough for you to push him out that nice big picture window when he threatened to make it hard on you." Down below, I could hear the waves crashing against the cliffs. She didn't move a muscle.
"The thing I didn't figure at first," I said, "was this Zimmerman. But then .. Wanting better investments. Knowing what makes a great mutual fund. You've been reading Shannon Zimmerman's Motley Fool Champion Funds, haven't you, Miss Smith?"
She turned around, and there was a .22 in her hand. Don't ask me where she'd been keeping it. "You just keep talking," she said, icicles forming on every word.
"You could have taken control of your money without giving your broker the long goodbye," I told her. "Zimmerman would have taken care of you."
"Tell me, shamus," she said, raising the pistol. "Who's going to take care of you?"
Police sirens sang softly in the distance. Sweet music to my ears.
"Lady Luck," I said. "And a little foresight. As always." I stepped forward and held out my hand. "Just give me the gun, Ada. I know it looks bad, but you'll still get a new fund pick every month. You might do hard time, but your investing will be easy."
"It's not enough," she said. She tossed me the gun, and as I moved to catch it, she turned to the rail and folded herself over. She was gone by the time I reached the edge -- just a scarf, twisting its lonely way down toward the sea.
I stood at the railing as the sirens grew louder and watched the sun turn the ocean to gold. I thought about Ada Smith -- how she'd had the right idea about smart investing and the wrong idea about everything else. Maybe it was time for me to check into Champion Funds myself. I could stand to let someone else, someone smarter, do my investing grunt work for me for a change. And in this line of work, a little extra scratch, a little security, never hurt. I could try it free for 30 days.
In the end, it was a better deal than Ada Smith got. It was good enough for me.
Fool online editor Nathan Alderman is always ready for a big sleep -- especially right after lunch. He holds no financial position in any stocks or funds mentioned. Dodge & Cox International and Royce Premier have been featured in Champion Funds. GlaxoSmithKline is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool's disclosure policy is no mystery.