Face Value: A Rachel Gold Mystery #9

Face Value: A Rachel Gold Mystery #9

As St. Louis attorney Rachel Gold knows firsthand, the grueling hours and demands of Big Law take their toll on young lawyers. Some turn to drugs, some quit the profession, ...

About The Author

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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Prologue

Tommy Flynn leaned over the body, hands on his knees.

This was hardly his first. He’d averaged more than one a year during his thirty-three years as a St. Louis cop. Though he’d retired from the force twelve years ago, he could still recall each one. Shooting victims mostly, and mostly men. A few knifings, including a barroom brawler known as Battleship who’d died with a knife jammed up to the hilt in his right eye socket. Two floaters. Several traffic fatalities—the most memorable being a husband and what turned out to be his mistress, both decapitated in a collision with a garbage truck. He’d been driving a Porsche 911, top down. By the time Tommy and his partner arrived at the scene, a drunk bystander had retrieved the heads and put them on the corpses’ laps—although he’d placed the man’s on the woman’s lap, and vice versa. Generated some crude jokes back at the station.

This wasn’t his first jumper, either. He’d had two others—both men, both in their thirties, both hitting the sidewalk headfirst after falls of several stories. Hard to forget those two. From the neck up, Hamburger Helper.

But this was the first corpse he’d known.

Not including Muriel, God bless her, who didn’t really count because he was off duty at the time and she’d been in a coma in the ICU for more than two weeks, hooked up to all kinds of machines, when he’d given the doctor the okay to pull the plug.

And he knew this one, poor gal.

He’d spotted the body in the alley on his midnight smoke break, which had started twenty minutes late because the move- out of the insurance agency on the third floor took longer than expected. He couldn’t leave the front desk until the movers signed out. Tapping his pen, he’d watched on his closed-circuit TV monitor as the two knuckleheads exited, finally, through the freight entrance.

At 12:20 he’d stepped out into the warm October evening, fired up a Camel, and started off on his usual stroll east down Olive toward Broadway. His knees had ached. They always did after sitting. Arthritis. Walking helped loosen things.

An alley separated his office building, the Chouteau Tower, from the parking garage to the east. He’d glanced over as he passed by the alley. That’s when he saw the corpse—or what appeared to be a corpse. He’d seen bodies in the alley before, but they’d turned out to be drunks passed out or homeless people bundled in rags.

From habit instilled by all those years on the force, he’d checked his watch before stepping into the alley.

12:24 a.m.

As he approached, he could tell it was a woman. Facedown, head turned away from him. Dressed in business attire—dark skirt, pale blouse. Although the light was too dim to see colors, he knew that the fluid pooled around her head was blood. There was also blood darkening the back of her blouse. He could tell she’d fallen from a great height—her skull was partially crushed, her right arm clearly broken, a splintered piece of bone had pierced through the skin on her right leg. He surveyed the area. Her open purse was about ten feet from her body, and some of its contents were scattered about, including a set of keys and a wallet.

He stepped around the body and looked down at her.

Jesus.

He bent over to get a better look.

Jesus H. Christ.

He knew her.

Not well, but better than he knew most of the lawyers at Warner & Olsen, the main tenant in the Chouteau Tower.

The firm took up the top four floors. Worked crazy hours, those lawyers. Especially the younger ones. Like this gal. She worked late most nights, which is how he got to know her. Back before they opened the sixth-floor crosswalk to the parking garage, his duties had included escorting any female leaving the building after eight o’clock to the parking garage. He’d escorted her several nights a week, every week.

She’d been a bashful one. A foreigner—an Arab or maybe one of those Pakistanis—but spoke perfect English, no accent. Pretty gal, too, in that modest foreign style. Seemed embarrassed about taking him away from the front desk so many nights, but was always grateful and thanked him in such a heartfelt way that he ended up the embarrassed one, shrugging it off, telling her no big deal.

Even after they opened the crosswalk to the garage, he occasionally saw her. Sometimes she’d come down through the main lobby around seven to go pick up dinner from Subway or Quiznos or the St. Louis Bread Company. Always stopped at the front desk to say hello and ask him how he was doing. Last Christmas she gave him a tin of homemade cookies she called barazeh. Told him she made them from her aunt’s recipe. They were delicious—crunchy sesame cookies with honey and pistachio.

He realized he hadn’t seen her for awhile. Maybe two weeks. And now look at the poor thing. Side of her face crushed in, blood oozing out of her ear and nose, body shattered.

Jesus Christ.

Tommy straightened with a wince and looked around. The Chouteau Tower, which was on the west side of the alley, rose twenty-four stories, all steel and glass. The parking garage on the east side of the alley was ten stories of concrete. The elevated walkway connecting the two structures spanned the alley overhead about thirty yards south of where he stood. Her body lay on the garage side of the alley, about ten feet from the outer wall. He looked up, visualizing the interior of the garage, the cars parked against the wall. The outer wall on each floor rose about two feet above the parking surface, leaving about eight feet of open space between the top of the wall and the ceiling.

He looked down at her and shook his head.

Jesus.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and flipped it open. He frowned, trying to remember the number for the nearest police station. He couldn’t, so he punched in 9-1-1.

 

Part 1

Whether Stanley Plotkin shall turn out to be the hero of his own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Tony Manghini Manager of Office Support Services

Warner & Olsen, LLP

 

Chapter One

They held the memorial service in Graham Chapel on the campus of Washington University. Although Sari Bashir had died only eight days before, her funeral had already taken place in Detroit. Even with the autopsy, she’d been buried just five days after her death, which is actually a long time lapse for someone of the Moslem faith.

I glanced around the chapel. Warner & Olsen had closed the office for the service, and it appeared that most of that firm’s lawyers and staff were in the chapel that morning, along with many others. I recognized a few professors from the Washington University Law School. I spotted Tommy Flynn, the Chouteau Tower’s late-shift security guard, seated near the aisle in a row toward the rear of the chapel. I’d heard he’d been the one to discover her body.

Like many in the chapel crowd, I knew firsthand that the long hours and demanding tasks (and taskmasters) of Big Law take their toll on young associates. Some turn to booze or drugs, some develop medical problems, some lose their marriages. A few quit their jobs, a few (including me) quit Big Law, a few quit the profession, and every once in a while one quits altogether. According to the medical examiner, Sari Bashir had quit altogether on the third Thursday in October, somewhere between nine and eleven that night. That’s when she fell to her death from the eighth floor of the downtown garage where she parked her car. The police concluded that she’d taken her own life—a conclusion that haunted me, and no doubt others, in the chapel that day.

Sari and I met during her third year of law school, when she’d worked for me part-time as a law clerk. She was a lovely person—quiet, sweet, diligent. The first member of her family to go to college, Sari had grown up in Detroit. Her mother had died of cancer when Sari was in elementary school. Her father worked on the assembly line at the Ford Motor plant in Dearborn. I’d met him at her law school graduation. I still have the photo I took of them that day. They stand side by side, Sari in her cap and gown, a diploma in her hand, her father Ameer in a suit and tie. If you look closely, you can see tears of pride on his cheeks. It was a beautiful memorial service. Sari’s cousin Malikah was the first of the four speakers. She described growing up with Sari in Detroit—from Barbie doll parties at grade school sleepovers to band camp at Interlochen in high school.

The next two speakers were the founding partners of Sari’s law firm: Donald Warner and Len Olsen. Except for their ages—both were in their early sixties—they were a study in contrasts. Many believed those contrasts were the key to the law firm’s success as one of the dominant firms in the Midwest. Donald Warner was tall and gaunt, with the build and gait of a retired basketball center, a position he’d played forty years ago at the University of Illinois. Len Olsen, though nearly six feet tall, seemed short by comparison. He looked more like a former quarterback, which he’d been at Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau. Warner’s expertise was in the esoteric realm of international corporate finance, while Olsen had made his name in courtrooms throughout Missouri and the surrounding states. Both men had apparently worked with Sari during her six years at the firm, and each shared a touching vignette that highlighted her dedication to the profession—and each did so in a manner that highlighted the contrast in personal styles. Donald Warner stood at the podium and delivered his eulogy from prepared remarks in the deliberate, measured tones of  a local TV news anchorman.

Then came Len Olsen. He removed the microphone from the stand, walked around the stage as he spoke, and eventually came down the stairs and strolled up the main aisle, making eye contact with many of us in the audience. As I recalled, he’d grown up near the Arkansas border in rural Missouri. He spoke with a gentle, musical southern drawl that had been charming juries and judges for decades. We in the audience, like Olsen himself, chuckled occasionally and, toward the end, wiped away a tear. The last to speak was the dean of the law school, who read aloud remembrances of Sari by several of her professors. He spoke of his own memories of the shy but determined young law student who’d become articles editor for the Law Review by her third year. He concluded his remarks with the announcement that Warner & Olsen had established a fifty-thousand-dollar scholarship fund in Sari’s memory.

The service ended with the organist playing what the program identified as Sari’s favorite song, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” You could almost hear the sigh of relief throughout the crowd as the first plaintive notes rang out. The music meant that the service was over, and that meant that the most painful aspect of Sari’s death—namely, the facts surrounding her death—would not be touched upon.

You may say I’m a dreamer, I sang to myself, thinking of Sari, but I’m not the only one…

As I joined the crowd moving down the rows toward the center aisle for the slow stroll to the rear of the chapel, the somber mood was shattered by a strident nasal voice toward the back. “Shall we focus our attention on the vote count for the Presidential election of 1836?”

I couldn’t help but smile.

Stanley Plotkin. Barely five feet tall, bad haircut, horn-rim glasses resting on a big nose. Even those of us who knew Stanley Plotkin were taken aback by his outfit that morning. He had on an ill-fitting black tuxedo, including cummerbund and black bow tie.

Seemingly oblivious to the crowd, he squinted up at the enormous man standing next to him. “Do you recall the victor, Jerry?”

“In 1836?” the big man replied in a near whisper, clearly trying to encourage Stanley to lower his voice. “Andrew Jackson?” “Jackson?” Stanley Plotkin snorted. “Hardly.  Martin  Van Buren.”

“Okay.”

The huge man next to Stanley was Jerry Klunger. He stood at least six-and-a-half feet tall and must have weighed close to three hundred pounds.

“How many votes?” Stanley demanded in a nasal staccato. “I don’t know,” Jerry said. “Maybe we should leave now.” “Exactly one hundred and seventy.”

“Okay.”

One of the women moving up the aisle in front of me shook her head at Stanley and mumbled something. I saw a lawyer from the firm give Jerry a sympathetic smile.

“Second place?” Stanley demanded. “Maybe we should leave now.”

“William Harrison. Seventy-three. And then?” The big guy shrugged. “Beats me.”

I nodded at Stanley as I paused at his aisle.

“Ms. Gold,” he stated in greeting, averting his eyes a moment, and then turning back to Jerry. “Hugh White, Daniel Webster, and Willie Magnum, tallying in at twenty-six, fourteen, and eleven, respectively. All Whigs.”

Jerry frowned. “They were bald?”

Stanley snorted. “Whigs. W-H-I-G-S, Jerry. An American political party that operated from 1834 to 1856.”

Jerry placed his enormous hand on Stanley’s shoulder. “Miss Gold is here, Stanley. Time for us to leave.”

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