Death Benefits: A Rachel Gold Mystery #2

Death Benefits: A Rachel Gold Mystery #2

The smart and savvy Rachel Gold has established herself in Chicago legal circles as a tough litigator, when a case calls for moxie, and a discreet counselor, when a client ...

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Michael A Kahn

Michael Kahn is a trial lawyer by day and an author at night. He wrote his first novel, Grave Designs, ...


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Chapter One

“Call me, Ishmael,” I had told him, half hoping he wouldn’t. But he did—or rather, one of his secretaries did. To ask if I could meet Mr. Richardson for lunch on Monday in Cathedral Hall of the University Club. I could, and I did.

Mr. Richardson was running late, the maitre d’ explained with a mournful look. I assured him that I would somehow persevere. Relieved, he led me through the enormous dining room to one of the coveted “private” tables—reserved for bank presidents, corporate CEOs, and chairmen of major law firms. The table was nestled between a pair of massive fluted columns that rose three stories to the vaulted timber ceiling of Cathedral Hall.

I ordered a glass of wine and looked around. Most of the tables were occupied. Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows overhead, daubing muted reds and blues on the gray stone walls and white tablecloths. Although I spotted a few familiar faces, the lunch scene at Cathedral Hall still looked as if David Lynch had been in charge of production design: bankers, lawyers, and other moneychangers doing deals over charred meat in a fake Gothic cathedral.

My table was by a window overlooking Michigan Avenue. As I sipped my wine and gazed at the brown-baggers on the grass near the Art Institute, I realized that it was at this very same table, almost three summers ago to the day, that Ishmael Richardson had retained me to investigate what he had described as an “awkward little matter” involving the identity of something named Canaan that was buried in a pet cemetery. The matter hadn’t stayed little for long, and it got a whole lot more awkward before it was over. Although the firm paid my bill without com- plaint, there had been a definite downturn in referral business from Abbott & Windsor ever since.

Which is why I’d been delighted when my secretary told me that Ishmael Richardson was on Line 2. Summers tend to be slow for trial lawyers, largely because of overlapping vacation schedules of judges, court clerks, witnesses, and other lawyers. My next few weeks looked especially slow: A major new case I was defending had suddenly settled. So when it’s July and a big case has just settled and there’s a hole in your calendar and the chairman of Abbott & Windsor is on Line 2, you get off Line 1 in a hurry.

But visions of a challenging case topped with a fat fee dis- solved when Ishmael told me his firm might need my services with regard to an “awkward little matter” involving an insurance policy. Although he had used the magic three words, they lost their promise when coupled with the dreaded phrase “insurance policy.” Had I ever done any work for Mid-Continent Assurance Company, he asked.

I silently groaned. A “coverage” dispute.

There are trial lawyers out there—thousands—who make their living litigating the meaning of terms in insurance policies. One of the mysteries of the law is the way that basic words—words as hard and precise as cut diamonds—become warm saltwater taffy when inserted at critical points in insurance policies. Because millions of dollars can hinge on a court’s explication of one of the Four Horsemen of the Insuring Clause—“sudden,” “unexpected,” “occurrence,” and “loss”—entire law firms have been built on the legal fees paid by insurance companies, to say nothing of the cottage industry of legal publishers and law school professors that have been feasting at the insurance trough for years.

Three of the largest law firms in Chicago handle nothing but insurance coverage disputes. The sexiest man in my law school class at Harvard joined the in-house legal staff of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. So be it. I couldn’t even force myself to read my auto policy.

“No,” I had told Ishmael over the phone. “I’ve never represented Mid-Continent.”

“Good. We may not need separate counsel on this matter, but in the event we do, it would appear that you could handle the matter without a conflict of interest.”

Or any interest, I thought. “If you need me I’d be glad to help,” I said, trying to force some enthusiasm into my voice. “Call me, Ishmael.”

And he had. And here I was.

“I am terribly sorry I’m late, Rachel. Please forgive me.”

I looked up from my reverie, surprised. I hadn’t heard his approach. “Don’t be silly,” I said. “I’ve been enjoying the view, and the wine is delicious.”

It had been more than a year since I had last seen Ishmael Harrison Richardson. Although he was seventy-two years old, he looked terrific—far younger than his age. His face was deeply tanned, his white hair thick and wavy, and his eyes a pale gray. Tall and slim, immaculate as usual in a gray pinstriped suit, blue oxford cloth shirt, and red-on-navy tie, Ishmael Richardson seemed the very apotheosis of what he was: chairman of one of the nation’s largest and most powerful law firms.

He had joined the firm of Abbott, Windsor, Harrison & Reynolds in 1939 after graduating summa cum laude from Harvard Law School. Back then, the firm had consisted of six lawyers. Now—a half-century later and two names shorter—Abbott & Windsor had more than five hundred lawyers, with branch offices in Washington, DC, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis, Palo Alto, Taipei, Singapore, and Riyadh. It was the third oldest and second largest firm in Chicago, and, in the opinion of many, the most powerful law firm in the Midwest. Ishmael Richardson had been chairman of the firm during its remarkable growth in size, profits, and prestige over the past decade and was generally credited with much of the firm’s success.

Viewed from a distance, he was an imposing, almost regal figure, made all the more so by his reputation, his press clippings (how many lawyers can boast cover stories in Forbes and Vanity Fair?), and his astounding list of clients (which included not only Fortune 500 companies and national political figures but several nation states). But to his clients, like most great corporate attorneys, Ishmael Richardson was neither imposing nor regal. He had the bedside manner of a country doctor and the ability to focus all of his considerable attention and empa- thy on whomever sought his counsel. During a typical day he might talk to dozens of clients on the telephone, yet each hung up satisfied that his problem was the only problem on Ishmael’s mind. I had admired him when I was a young associate at Abbott & Windsor. During the four years since I had left the firm, my admiration had grown to include real affection.

After exchanging pleasantries and placing our orders, Ishmael turned to the purpose of the meeting. “I believe St. Louis is your home town.”

I nodded.

“You may recall that Abbott and Windsor opened an office in St. Louis last summer.”

“In the Boatmen’s Tower on Broadway, right?”

“Correct. We have approximately fifty lawyers in the office now. We had hoped to double the size in two years.”

“Had?”

“Stoddard Anderson was the managing partner of our St. Louis office.” He paused to take a sip of his water. “He died last month.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He nodded. “Thank you, Rachel.” “Was it sudden?”

Ishmael leaned back. “Sudden? No. Quick? Probably. He committed suicide.”

“Oh, God. How?”

“He slit his wrists and neck with a razor blade. He bled to death in a hotel bathtub.”

“That’s awful.”

We paused as the waiter set down our salad plates and sprinkled on ground pepper with a mill the size of a Louisville Slugger. “As you may have surmised,” Ishmael said after the waiter hauled off the pepper mill, “I asked you here today to discuss an awkward little matter involving the suicide of Mr. Anderson.”

I smiled. “As someone once said, this sounds like déja vu all over again.”

Ishmael shook his head, chuckling. “I am quite certain that this matter will seem tame in comparison to the Canaan investigation.”

“Then it has to involve an insurance coverage issue,” I said. He looked at me with surprise. “How did you guess?” “Elementary, my dear Ishmael. When we talked on the phone

last week you asked if Id ever represented Mid-Continent Assurance Company. I assume you aren’t moonlighting these days as an insurance agent.”

He smiled. “Your assumption is correct, Rachel. This is indeed a matter where you may be adverse to the insurance company. And,” he raised his eyebrows, “possibly adverse to Abbott and Windsor, although I sincerely hope it will not come to that.”

I removed a legal pad and fountain pen from my briefcase. “What kind of insurance policy?” I asked as I scribbled the insurance company’s name at the top of the first page.

“Life.”

I paused, and then looked up. “So my client is Mr. Ander- son’s widow?”

Ishmael nodded. “Dorothy Anderson. She prefers the name Dottie.”

“Is the carrier denying coverage?”

“Not yet, but we anticipate a dispute over the death benefits. The insurer claims to be investigating the situation. All it has done so far is issue a reservation of rights letter in which it raises the suicide exclusion.”

“Do you have the letter with you?” I asked.

“Not with me. Melvin Needlebaum should have a copy. He has conducted a preliminary investigation of the insurance issues.”

I couldn’t suppress a smile. “How’s old Melvin doing?” Ishmael had better luck with a straight face. “Melvin is a hardworking and brilliant young man. I am certain he will provide you with a thorough briefing on the legal issues.”

“I’m sure it will be thorough.” I paused to eat some of my broiled Lake Superior whitefish. “What are the issues?” I asked. “The potential problem arises out of the somewhat unusual circumstances of the death. This was not an ordinary suicide, assuming there is ever such a thing. Stoddard Anderson was last seen alive shortly before noon on June eighteenth, when he left the St. Louis offices of Abbott & Windsor. According to his secretary, he had a luncheon meeting at the St. Louis Club.” Ishmael paused. “Anderson never arrived at the club. He disap- peared. Four days later, he was found dead in a hotel  bathtub near the St. Louis airport. The coroner ruled it a suicide.” “How long had he been dead?” I asked.

“Not for more than a day. The medical examiner placed the time of death at twelve to twenty-four hours before the body was discovered.”

“Where was he between the time he disappeared and the time he died?”

“No one knows, Rachel. He checked into the hotel on the day he disappeared. It is my understanding that the police have not yet determined whether he remained in the room during the entire three days before his death.”

“Did his wife…his widow—did he contact her before he died?” “I don’t believe so. As far as the police can determine, he contacted no one. His activities, if any, during the last few days of his life are not yet known.”

“How much insurance is involved?” I asked.

“The total package is worth over two million dollars. Melvin will have the precise figures.”

“How, and why, do I fit in?”

“The amount of the death benefits payable to Mrs. Anderson may depend, first, upon whether Stoddard Anderson intended to commit suicide at the time he purchased the policy and, second, upon whether he was insane at the time he killed himself.”

“When did he take out the policy?”

“Four months before he died. Prior to that, his life insurance package was somewhat modest, at least for someone at Stoddard’s station in life. He more than quadrupled his coverage in February of this year and added the accidental death benefits package.”

“Is Abbott and Windsor handling his estate?” Ishmael nodded.

“What’s the size of the rest of the estate?” I asked.

“Far smaller than one might imagine. Stoddard Anderson sustained significant losses in the stock market crash of 1987. Those problems were compounded by his heavy investments in commercial real estate, primarily through limited partnerships. The recent slump in that market has had a materially adverse impact on the assets of the estate.”

“So the widow could use the death benefits.” “Precisely.”

I mulled it over. “Suicide is not an accident. If he was sane at the time he committed suicide, the insurance company wouldn’t have to pay the accidental death benefits.”

“Correct, or so Melvin has concluded.”

“So it might be in the widow’s best interest to argue that her husband was insane when he killed himself,” I mused.

“If the facts would support such an argument,” Ishmael added with an edge in his voice.

“But of course,” I said with a smile. “I see the conflict. It would be awkward for Abbott and Windsor to make the insanity argument.”

Ishmael nodded. “Our St. Louis office opened just a year ago, Rachel. The suicide of the managing partner of that office has already been a most unfortunate source of embarrassment in the St. Louis legal and business community. Were Abbott and Windsor to discharge its professional duty to zealously represent the estate in order to maximize the insurance payment to Anderson’s widow, we could find ourselves in the position of having to argue that the managing partner of our St. Louis office was insane at the time he committed suicide.”

“If the facts would support such an argument,” I added. “But of course.” He forced a smile, which quickly vanished as he leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. “At the moment, Stoddard Anderson’s suicide is a local embarrassment. I cannot allow my firm to be placed in the position of publicly advocating that one of its more prominent partners was insane when he died. Clients understand that personal grief—that overwhelming personal trauma—can lead to suicide. No client, however, could ever be comfortable with the thought that an insane man was handling his affairs, or, even worse, that a firm could be so imprudent as to place an insane man in the position of the managing partner of one of its branch offices. Clients pay us handsomely for our expertise and judgment. A mentally disturbed managing partner tends to suggest a lack of both. What is now merely a provincial setback would escalate into a national scandal, suitably tailored for the American Lawyer and our competitors. It could subject my firm to mockery and derision in the national legal community.” His eyes blazed. “I will not allow that to happen.”

“So it’s safe to assume that Abbott & Windsor will take the position that Stoddard Anderson was perfectly sane at the time he died?”

“It is indeed. And it is also safe to assume that Abbott and Windsor will vigorously oppose any contention to the contrary.”

I let it all sink in. “Why hire me?”

“You are the obvious choice for several reasons. You are from St. Louis. Presumably you are somewhat familiar with its people and institutions. You are, as I recall, a member of the Missouri bar. Thus, you could represent Mrs. Anderson before a Missouri tribunal, if that should become necessary. But those are trivial reasons, Rachel. Stoddard Anderson was a prominent and valued partner of Abbott & Windsor. His widow deserves excellent representation on this matter, and I am determined she will receive it. I know you. I trust you. And I have the utmost confidence you will provide Stoddard Anderson’s widow with excellent representation.”

“I’m flattered.”

He smiled. “You should be.”

I mulled it over. “We could become adversaries here.”

“I am well aware of that, Rachel. I included that factor in my selection of counsel. You are trustworthy and discreet. You proved that to me beyond cavil in the way you handled that unfortunate Canaan investigation. You could have turned that into a media carnival. Others might have used it as an opportunity for self-promotion. You did not. Although this matter is far different from the Canaan situation, it could nevertheless present opportunities for attorney grandstanding. You are not a grandstander, Rachel.”

“What makes you think that Dottie Anderson will want me to be her lawyer on this?”

He smiled. “She has already retained you,” he said, removing an envelope from his suit jacket and handing it to me.

Inside was a letter from Ishmael Richardson to Dottie Anderson, confirming that Rachel Gold was her attorney “with respect to all matters relating to or arising out of that certain life insurance policy bearing the policy number 113-456-89J and issued to Stoddard Anderson by the Mid-Continent Assurance Company of Kansas on or about February 22nd of this year, including without limitation Endorsement No. 4, entitled ‘Accidental Death Benefits Rider A.’” The final paragraph of the letter assured her that Abbott & Windsor would pay “all of Ms. Gold’s fees and expenses in connection with her representation herein.”

At the bottom of the letter was a place for Dottie Anderson to sign her authorization. She had so signed, in blue ink, in a fat, backward-sloping script.

# # #

We parted in the lobby of the University Club after Ishmael called Melvin Needlebaum to confirm that I would meet with him later that afternoon.

I had a court date at 2:00 p.m. On my walk across the Loop to the Federal Courts Building on South Dearborn, I reevalu- ated my decision.

I didn’t like insurance law, and I wasn’t crazy about taking on a case that could make me an adversary of Abbott & Windsor, particularly where there was the risk—if it ended up in court—of lots of publicity. No sense biting the hand that pays the fees.

But taking on the case would give me a chance to spend some time in St. Louis. Although my parents were in Israel for the rest of the summer, my sister and her two children were there. In addition, as I confirmed from the Cardinals’ schedule I pulled from my purse while waiting for the light to change on State and Dearborn, the Redbirds were in town for the entire first week of August. When you live more than two hundred miles from Busch Stadium, you don’t pass up the chance to return to St. Louis during a midsummer home stand.

Moreover, the case did sound intriguing. Particularly the missing days at the end of Stoddard Anderson’s life. Was he insane? Or just depressed? Where was he those last few days? And what was he up to?

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