“No society in history has ever experienced a shortage of whores.” I thought Dany Nesselrode was talking about the dead guy. He wasn’t. By the time I figured it out the body count had risen— and one of the bodies belonged to someone I’d miss.
I got involved on the last Thursday in March.
# # #
“All dressed up and no place to go?”
- Talbot Rand, house counsel for the Pittsburgh Museum of Twentieth-Century Art, aimed this crack at Willy Szulz’s lawyer, Cynthia Jakubek. Szulz wanted to sell a piece of paper to my employer so that it wouldn’t have to write a very big check to Rand’s employer someday soon. A check big enough for me to have spent one hundred twenty-seven airplane minutes scrolling on my iPad through a briefing packet that Proxy Shifcos had zapped to me through cyberspace. That’s how I knew the names and roles.
“Don’t be snide, Tally,” Jakubek replied in a half-teasing lilt. “Willy isn’t even fifteen minutes late yet. In the perspective of eternity, that’s scarcely an eyeblink.” If the serene confidence radiating from her olive-brown face was a bluff, she had a knack for that useful art.
“‘Eternity’ is a bit nebulous for us free-thinkers.” Rand pointedly glanced from under bushy, charcoal gray eyebrows at a silver watch he pulled from a loden green vest pocket. “Patience is a virtue, but I report to a busy lady.”
“I’ll try him again.” Jakubek unholstered a Droid and stabbed its screen a couple of times with her index finger.
Rand’s condescending professor act put me off, but to tell the truth I was getting a little antsy myself. Not much of a party without the guest of honor. Please tell me that I didn’t put a computer hacking investigation on ice and fly fourteen-hundred miles on six hours’ notice for coitus interruptus.
“What’s the deal, tiger?” Jakubek demanded into her Droid. “You’re about three minutes away from a value-billing write-up.” Over the next seven seconds serene confidence morphed into serious-as-a-heart-attack concern as she lowered the phone and swung her eyes toward Proxy and me. “He’s been driving around downtown for twenty minutes because he thinks he’s being followed.”
I started pulling myself up from my seat even before I got Proxy’s subtle nudge. At six-four and two-twenty, I have ten inches and more than a hundred pounds on her, and God hadn’t created her WASP-Madonna face and inquisitive brown eyes to stop punches. The division of labor was obvious.
“What’s our hotel?”
“Omni William Penn. On a street called William Penn Place, according to my itinerary. Intersects with Fifth Avenue.”
Catching that one on the fly, Jakubek pulled the phone back up.
“Drive to the Omni William Penn, leave your car with the valet, and wait for us in the lobby….No, don’t tell him you’re checking in. Just give him a big tip.”
Three minutes later I was striding beside Jakubek along Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, about to turn the corner onto Fifth. Maybe Szulz was just a self-involved drama magnet, but that piece of paper he was hawking might save Transoxana Insurance Company fifty million dollars—which is why Proxy’s maroon leather attaché case held codes and passwords she could use to wire-transfer up to one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars to buy it. People get killed every week in America for three orders of magnitude less than that, so I couldn’t just blow off the being-followed stuff.
“So your buddy is something-something Risk Management and you’re Loss Prevention-something—did I get that right?”
Jakubek managed this question without panting even though I was setting the kind of pace you’d expect from someone who’d just flown in from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March without time to grab a Pittsburgh-worthy coat.
“My business card reads Loss Prevention Specialist. Ms. Shifcos is Senior Director—Risk Management—U.S. At thirty. If there’s a pool on divisional VP by thirty-five, I’m going all-in on ‘Yes.’”
“In other words, she’s the suit and you’re the muscle.” “That’s one way to put it.” I shrugged off the little locker-room towel snap. “Proxy says that in perfect loss prevention no one raises his voice—but on an eight-figure risk, perfection doesn’t happen very often.
“Law calls muscle ‘litigators,’ although in our case it’s metaphorical. If everything went right when the C. Talbot Rands of the world negotiated their deals, trial lawyers would starve to death. Fortunately, they go wrong often enough to cover our bar-bills.”
The intrigued glance I shot at her caught gently laughing eyes looking up at me. Or maybe mocking eyes, but I’m gonna go with gently laughing. She’s not the dish Proxy is, but Jakubek looked just fine and she knew it. I figured she hadn’t quite hit thirty yet, but she’d left any ingénue stuff way behind. Black hair pulled straight back with a clean part instead of Proxy’s sassy helmet cut, a hint of an attitude in those eyes that reminded me of my wife, Rachel, and nothing wrong with her shape, either. I’d figured all that out in the reception area. Not that Jakubek had done anything flirtatious. Didn’t have to. She’s the kind of woman who produces head-snaps from straight males just by walking into a room.
“Not sure how I feel about sharing a category with trial lawyers,” I told her. “Even metaphorically.”
“Ex-cop, I’m guessing.”
“Close enough. Two combat tours with an MP battalion.” “I bet you call all lawyers ‘shysters.’”
“Only male lawyers. Women lawyers I call ‘shysterettes.’”
Instead of a scowling eye-roll at that little payback for “muscle,” Jakubek gave me a good-sport chuckle and a playful sock on the bicep.
I told myself right then to watch out.
As Jakubek and I walked I kept my eyes open, sweeping the street and sidewalks for a tail. Even for a pro, following someone solo is hard to do without standing out. Of course that doesn’t mean that everyone who stands out is a tail. By the time we were one block- plus from the hotel I had three possibilities but no certainties.
A slender African-American woman in her mid-twenties walked up and down the sidewalk on the south side of Fifth, smoking a cigarette. She passed up three chances to huddle in doorways out of the cold. Just east of the corner of Fifth and William Penn Place, a white guy in a gray Corolla with dirty snow residue on its fenders looked here and there kind of randomly in what struck me as an affectedly casual way. He wore a down vest instead of a jacket or overcoat. A twenty-something with Mediterranean coloring stood on the northeast corner of the same intersection. He sported a ragged gray hoodie and dark pants that didn’t look quite like jeans.
As we approached the corner the guy in the hoodie stepped toward a man in a fedora and a khaki London Fog who’d just left the hotel and begun walking toward Fifth. The hoodie panhandled the guy in a whiny, wheedling tone as he extended his left hand. London Fog blew right past him, careful not to make eye contact.
A familiar tension roiled my gut. I never want to walk down sidewalks dotted with invisible people, like Mr. London Fog just had. On the other hand, I don’t like being a sucker, kidding myself about my two bucks going for food instead of subsidizing slow-motion suicide. I haven’t figured that one out yet.
“I sometimes give panhandlers something if I think they’re vets,” I told Jakubek, “but I’m not getting a vet-vibe from this guy.” “I’m getting a guy-whose-shoes-cost more-than-my-coat vibe from him.” When the hoodie stepped toward us Jakubek stopped in her tracks and looked him right in the eye. “St. Benedict’s Open Door Café, just this side of PPG Place on Fourth. Free meals every day.”
The panhandler stepped back, shaking his head with a disappointed frown. I took a look at his shoes: winterized Air Jordan Six-Rings, gleaming black. Not a penny under a hundred-and-a- half online, and probably twenty-five percent more in a brick-and- mortar shop. The shysterette apparently kept her eyes open too. I had no idea what Szulz looked like, but I spotted him the minute we walked into the Omni’s lobby. He wore a parka over a non-descript charcoal suit and pinned a battered yellow-and-black backpack between his calves. Forty-seven, according to Proxy’s briefing packet. Two European languages: Czech and German. Curly hair thinning and going from dark brown to gray framed a roundish, animated white face. Pushing six feet but not quite there, and a good fifteen pounds overweight.
The instant he spotted Jakubek he sprang to his feet, pulling a Steelers watch cap from the parka’s right pocket with one hand while he grabbed the backpack with the other. The hem of his suit coat came down a good two inches below the bottom of the parka.
“Okay, let’s roll.” He spoke with a peppery, machine-gun cadence. “Sorry about the cops-and-robbers stuff, but swear to God I had a dark Jap car tailing me all the way from the bridge.” Jakubek didn’t turn around as the seller blew past us. After three strides toward the door he wheeled and showed us a puzzled, impatient face.
“C’mon, let’s go!”
“Willy, this is Jay Davidovich, Loss Prevention Specialist with Transoxana Insurance Company. Mr. Davidovich, this is Willy Szulz, who’s here to save your company fifty million dollars.”
“Pleased to meecha.” Szulz offered me his right hand as he slipped his left arm through one of the backpack straps. “Now—” “In other words, Willy,” Jakubek said in an unruffled voice, “you’re in the presence of the enemy. Don’t act like you’re in a hurry, and don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to hear again
in front of a jury.”
“Bingo, C.J.” Szulz had the grace to grin. “That’s why you get the big bucks.”
Now we headed for the door.