Firm Ambitions: A Rachel Gold Mystery #3

Firm Ambitions: A Rachel Gold Mystery #3

After the death of her father, attorney Rachel Gold has returned to her hometown of St. Louis to spend more time with her mother. The savvy and beautiful Rachel, who ...

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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

Despite the allegations in the petition, fellatio is no longer included on Missouri’s list of infamous crimes against nature. It remains, however, “deviate sexual intercourse,” which the criminal code defines as “any sexual act involving the genitals of one person and the mouth or tongue of another.” The code calls it a class A misdemeanor. Vicki MacDonald calls it a Big Mac with Special Sauce.

Over the course of her two-year relationship with Stanley Webster, Vicki had 204 Big Macs. She kept track in her general ledger. Under the final settlement decree, the Estate of Stanley Webster paid her an amount equal to $1,715.69 per Big Mac. You could build a franchise on numbers like that. And with a few more fees like the one Vicki paid me, I could almost get used to the peculiar path my legal career seemed to be following since I had moved back home to St. Louis from Chicago.

Vicki MacDonald had been the very first client to walk into my St. Louis law office, which was on the first floor of a converted Victorian mansion in the Central West End. She was, as the host of the old What’s My Line would put it, self-employed in the service industry. She had been referred to me by a Chicago client who practiced the same trade in the Windy City.

Vicki earned a handsome living through her mastery of certain physical skills and her understanding of the keys to success in any service industry. Unlike her physician clients, she made house calls. Unlike her attorney clients, she came to your office. Unlike her CPA clients, she took Visa and MasterCard.  (The $549.99 charge showed up on the monthly statement under something called Professional Relief Systems, Inc.) And unlike most of her clients, Vicki brought genuine ability and enthusiasm to her craft: she was good at what she did, and she clearly enjoyed doing it.

As a result, Vicki was weathering the recession quite nicely when Stanley Webster died in a freak airplane crash outside Detroit. Although the stock of Webster Industries fell seven points in heavy trading the following day, it bounced back by the end of the week and was actually up a point and a half when the market opened on the day of his funeral. In short, things seemed to be returning to normal.

And then the fourth codicil to Stanley Webster’s will was revealed. In it, Stanley bequeathed to Vicki MacDonald enough stock in Webster Industries to entitle her to a position on the board of directors. Under the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, that sort of transaction is known as a material event requiring public disclosure.

When Rosalind Webster, former president of the St. Louis Symphony Society and current member of the Washington University board of trustees, learned of her late husband’s codicil, she did what any wealthy widow would do in response to that sort of material event: she instructed her lawyers to obliterate it. Specifically, she hired three vicious and expensive St. Louis litigators—barracudas with Rolexes—and told them to do whatever needed to be done to nullify the codicil and destroy “that blow-job bimbo.”

Vicki MacDonald was no bimbo. That was obvious when she arrived at my office, grim and determined. She had brought along the petition delivered to her by Rosalind Webster’s attorneys. It was the so-called hammer draft—designed to make the other side crater at the prospect of having such a lawsuit filed. The hammer draft alleged that the stock bequest should be invalidated on the ground that Vicki had already been “vastly and unconscionably overcompensated for her infamous crimes against nature, as more fully detailed on the decedent’s monthly Visa statements attached as Group Exhibit A.” Highlighted in yellow on those Visa statements were 112 charges over the past eighteen months to Professional Relief Systems, Inc., each  for $549.99, for a total of $61,598.88.

It was a nasty ploy by Rosalind Webster’s lawyers—especially the part about the monthly Visa statements, since they knew that Vicki would realize that public disclosure of the Visa statements would give a prosecutor an easy road map for a quick prostitution conviction. The ploy, especially the risk of criminal prosecution, would have worked against most people. Vicki MacDonald was not most people.

“I really liked Stanley,” she told me that first day in my office, “and he liked me. He treated me special. We had fun together. I’m not some floozy his wife’s lawyers can force back under a rock. I’ve thought it over, Rachel. I don’t want you to get me on the board of directors, and I don’t want to get into an alley fight over the stock. You know what I want? Two things. First, I want you to make her lawyers start pissing in short jerks. Second, I want you to make that bitch back down and apologize.”

So that’s what I did.

I started by upping the ante: I sent Rosalind Webster’s lawyers a draft response to the hammer draft. My best buddy Benny Goldberg called it the “Yo’ Mama Answer.” Among other things, it attached as Exhibit C an excerpt from Vicki’s journal quoting Stanley Webster’s graphic and disgusted descriptions of a few of Rosalind Bingsley Webster’s rather unusual sexual preferences, which included, among other things, an occasional “golden shower.”

Four days later, one of Rosalind’s lawyers—the middle barracuda—called to suggest that it might make sense for the parties to explore an amicable resolution of their differences before anyone rushed off to court.

I told him that my client was not in an amicable mood. “Nevertheless,” I said nonchalantly, “cooperation isn’t out of the question. For example, it might make sense for us to coordinate a joint press conference at the outset of the lawsuit. By the way, Ron, I’m willing to recommend to my client that we consent to having the photographs filed under seal. Of course, I can’t promise that Vicki will agree, but she might.”

“Which, uh, photographs would those be?” “Of your client. The golden-shower shots.”

He called six times over the next twenty-four hours. I took the sixth call after having my secretary put him on hold for ten minutes. His voice sounded a full octave higher since our prior conversation, and his speech mannerisms did indeed suggest a man with blockage in the urinary tract. I laid out my settlement demands. Miss Manners herself would have been pleased with the tone and substance of his response. Two days later we signed the settlement agreement: Vicki surrendered her claim to the stock in exchange for (1) a cash payment of $350,000 and (2) a notarized written apology from Rosalind Bingsley Webster.

Little did I know that the Big Mac case was the beginning of my descent into that level of domestic hell known as divorce law. Vicki sent me the next divorce—one of the CPA clients. Three others came through the door based on what they had heard through the divorce-case grapevine. Vicki’s lucrative settlement seemed to have catapulted me onto the St. Louis short list of prospective lawyers for high-stakes, bad-blood divorces. It was a list I had no desire to be on. Although the fees were lavish, my daily sorties into the war zone of crumbled marriages, shrill emotions, revenge schemes, and creepy lawyers became increasingly oppressive. The practice of law just wasn’t fun anymore.

So when June Greisedick came along I decided that she would be my last. June was a farmer’s wife from Jefferson County. Her husband Bob’s idea of carnal bliss was to sit naked on the edge of the bed while Big Sal licked his nether parts. Big Sal was a purebred tricolor collie. All in all, it was a vision of the American farmer somewhat at odds with the Jeffersonian ideal. I proceeded to file what I assume is the only divorce case in America in which the correspondent has papers from the American Kennel Club. It was, to say the least, an unusual case for a nice Jewish girl from Harvard Law School. My only consolation was that I would never handle another divorce case.

# # #

Never say never, I reminded myself, as I sat behind my desk and watched Eileen Landau reapply her lipstick. She was a friend of my sister Ann, and Ann had begged me to see her.

Eileen checked her lipstick in the mirror of her compact, dropped the compact back into her Louis Vuitton bag, and looked up at me. “And another thing,” she said with a shudder. “He sheds.”

“Your husband?” I asked uncertainly as a vision of a tricolor collie in heat flashed through my mind.

She nodded in disgust.

I stared down at my hands and sighed. A dull mechanic’s lien case sounded good about now.

“Eileen, I’m not quite sure I’m following you.”

“He’s physically repulsive,” she said. “When’s the last time you saw Tommy?”

I had a vague memory of Tommy Landau from a summer evening many years ago, maybe all the way back to high school: a long-haired rich guy revving the engine of his Jeep convertible as he waited for the light to change. There was a smirk on his face as he turned toward the car I was in. He was wearing wraparound sunglasses and smoking a cigarette. The light changed and he roared off with a screech of the tires.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe ten or fifteen years.”

“I bet he’s put on fifty pounds since then,” Eileen said. “And he keeps getting hairier. After we have sex and he finally rolls off of me—he’s always got to be on top, you know—half the time he falls asleep up there as soon as he comes, which usu- ally takes thirty seconds max, and then I have to shove him off me—anyway, after he rolls off I go right into my bathroom, turn on the light, and stand in front of the mirror. It takes me half an hour to pick all the hairs off my body. It’s totally gross.”

The phone rang. My secretary answered it on the second ring. Maybe it was a new client with a really boring insurance coverage dispute. Better yet, a property tax appeal.

“Have you tried marriage counseling?” I asked, hoping for an escape route.

“Rachel, I don’t want marriage counseling. I don’t want this marriage. I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life married to Tommy Landau. I’m sick of him. That’s why I’m here. I don’t want to be his wife anymore.”

I studied my newest client. The Eileen Landau seated across the desk from me in no way resembled the Eileen Cohen who had graduated from University City High School eight years ahead of me. Back then her nose was hooked, her breasts were small, her hair was brown, her teeth were crooked, and she wore glasses. Back then she was treasurer of the student council. Now she was a homecoming queen. Plastic surgery, orthodontia, an expensive hairdresser, and tinted contact lenses had converted Eileen Cohen into a striking redhead with high, round breasts, a small retroussé nose, and capped white teeth. She was wearing the mandatory daytime shopping outfit for the wealthy ladies of Ladue: a white tennis dress, a diamond tennis bracelet, and a diamond pendant.

Like the Jaguar she drove, Eileen Landau looked expensive to maintain. She hadn’t always been that way. Her father—Sid Cohen—owned Cohen’s Drugs, a gloomy little pharmacy with trusses and prosthetic devices and sun-faded posters in the front window. Cohen’s Drugs was sandwiched between a kosher deli and a dry cleaner in a strip shopping center in University City across the street from the small Orthodox synagogue where Eileen had been confirmed in a dress sewn by her mother.

That was many years ago, long before Sid Cohen’s daughter married into one of the oldest and most prestigious Germanic Jewish families in St. Louis. She had adapted quite nicely to the ways and means of the Jewish country-club set. Indeed, Eileen Landau seemed more of a Landau than her husband, Tommy, who was something of a black sheep in a family whose name adorned a building and a professorship at the Washington University School of Law, an elementary school in north St. Louis, and an endowment fund at Temple Emmanuel.

Tommy Landau was the son of a prominent St. Louis attorney and the grandson of a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals. Tommy Landau, however, hadn’t even graduated from college. As I recalled, he was expelled in the aftermath of some sort of date-rape scandal at his fraternity. From there, he moved into drugs—first as a consumer, then as a retailer. By the time he was arrested on drug charges in his mid-twenties, he was allegedly dealing cocaine to the yuppie stockbrokers, bankers, and lawyers he’d met during his formative years at the St. Louis Country Day School. After Tommy beat the drug charges, he moved into a field more receptive to his talents and tendencies: he became a real estate developer. He currently owned a dozen strip shopping centers throughout metropolitan St. Louis and southern Illinois.

“When did it start going bad?” I asked. “When I heard him say, ‘Celtics by six.’” “I’m not following you.”

“Everything I needed to know about our marriage I learned on my wedding night,” she said with a sad shake of her head. “When we got to our hotel room, I ordered champagne and caviar from room service and went into the bathroom to put on my nightgown. I bought it especially for our first night. I so wanted it to be romantic—a typical young bride, I guess. What did I know? All I’d been up to then was a kindergarten teacher. When I came out of the bathroom, he was on the phone and had the TV and the radio on. You know why?”

“No.”

She rolled her eyes. “We got married in the middle of the NBA playoffs. He had one game on the tube and another one on the radio. I came out of the bathroom just in time to hear him place a five-thousand-dollar bet with his bookie. Five thousand dollars. ‘Celtics by six.’ Those were the first words I heard. He looked up when I walked out of the bathroom, but I could tell he didn’t even notice me or the nightgown. ‘Be with you in a moment, babe,’ he said, and then he placed another bet.”

I winced. “You must have been so disappointed.”

“It was a nightmare. The West Coast games were still going when I fell asleep. We never even made love that night.”

“Does he still bet on sports?”

“All the time. He dropped eighty thousand dollars on the Super Bowl last year. He missed half of our son’s bar mitzvah because he was out in the hallway at a pay phone placing bets on college basketball games.”

I gave her a sympathetic look. “That’s awful.”

She nodded. “I’ve always come second in his life. He’s a workaholic, and when he’s not at work he’s either watching sports or placing bets. When my son Brandon was in first grade the art teacher had each of the children make a wall hanging using words of wisdom that one of their parents had taught them. You know, ‘Love your neighbors,’ ‘Be nice to animals,’ something normal. Do you know what Brandon chose? ‘Dogs at home.’”

“Huh?”

“It’s one of Tommy’s betting guides. If the teams seem evenly matched, then bet on the underdog when they’re playing at home. ‘Dogs at home.’ Can you believe it? Now that Brandon is in junior high, he wants to go on a safari with his father. Kill a gazelle. Isn’t that touching?”

“A real safari?”

“Tommy goes to this game reserve in South Africa every summer. He brings back a trophy each time. Usually a stuffed head mounted on a board. You should see the family room. Even worse, you should see his office. He’s got a mounted cow’s head in there.”

“An African cow?”

“No. An American cow.” She snorted in disgust. “Isn’t that sick?”

“Your husband hunts dairy cows?”

“No. That one was an accident. He goes deer hunting some- where in southern Illinois every fall. Two years ago he shot a cow by mistake. He thought it was so funny he had the head stuffed and mounted.” She shuddered. “I can’t stand that man, Rachel.” I leaned back in my chair and looked at Eileen. Tommy Landau sounded like a real creep. Despite my prior vows, I could sense my litigator’s pulse quicken ever so slightly at the thought of going into battle against him. “Does he know you’re here today?” I asked her. “No.”

“Have you told him you want a divorce?”

She took a deep breath and exhaled. “Not yet.” “Why not?”

“Because I wanted to meet with you before I told him.” “What made you finally decide to divorce him?”

She tilted her head as she pondered the question. “I guess it started when they stole my ballerina over Christmas.”

“Who?”

“Burglars. They broke into our house while we were down at Sanibel. It was a totally professional job. They got in and got out without setting off the alarm. They took the usual stuff: color TV, stereo, the kids’ Apple computer, a couple paintings. Tommy’s parents called us the day after it happened. We came home the next day.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “The whole time I kept praying, ‘Please let my ballerina be there.’”

“What kind of ballerina?”

“She’s one of those beautiful Lladro porcelain figurines. I bought her in Chicago a few years ago.” She looked at me and sighed. “Oh, Rachel, she was so gorgeous, so graceful. She’s seated on the floor and slipping on one of her ballet shoes. I put her in the sunroom, which is where I have my coffee every morning after the kids go to school. Just looking at her made me feel better.”

“They stole her?”

She nodded sadly. “I was upset for weeks. It drove Tommy crazy. When he couldn’t stand it anymore he contacted a Lladro dealer in New York and had another one sent by overnight courier. But it was never the same. In fact, it was actually kind of worse.”

“Why?”

“I looked at the new ballerina, which looked almost exactly like the old one, and it made me realize what a pathetic person I’d become. When I was little I used to dream of becoming someone special when I grew up. Like a ballerina. Well, I obvi- ously hadn’t. But surely I could do more in my life than stare at a porcelain copy of a porcelain copy of a little girl’s fantasy.”

She paused to stub out her cigarette. I waited.

“Everything seemed to come together on my fortieth birthday in February,” she said. “I remember looking at myself in the mirror that night while I stood there picking his hairs off my body. I said to myself, Eileen, you’re never going to be that ballerina, but you still have half your life ahead of you. You’ve followed all the rules. You did your homework. You got good grades. You stopped at all red lights. You always sent a thank- you card. When’s it supposed to be your turn?” She paused, with an expression of fierce determination. “That’s when I decided. Now. It’s my turn now.”

“Is he seeing someone?”

She nodded grimly and checked her watch. “Probably as we speak.”

“Who?”

She shrugged. “No one special. It never is. Tommy’s the king of the quickies. You know those motels where they rent rooms by the hour? Tommy needs a place where they rent by the minute.”

“What about you? Are you seeing someone special?”

She smiled with undisguised carnal pleasure. “Definitely.” “Tell me about him.”

“He’s thirty years old and he’s gorgeous. He’s totally different from Tommy.” She leaned forward and raised her eyebrows in a lascivious manner. “Especially in the bedroom.”

“Oh?” I said with a smile.

“Let me tell you, Rachel, that man is hung like a bull, and he can last as long as I need. I’ve had more orgasms in an hour with Andros than I’ve had in a year with my husband.”

“Andros?” I asked with surprise. “You mean the aerobics guy?”

Eileen nodded proudly.

I’d been hearing about Andros for months from my sister Ann. He was the crown prince of St. Louis exercise instructors. He had a place called Firm Ambitions in the Plaza Frontenac shopping mall, where he conducted aerobics and exercise classes a few hours each day. He also did personal workout sessions at the homes of dozens of clients, who were, for the most part, wealthy women between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five.

I was especially intrigued because I would be seeing Eileen’s lover in action for the first time that night. Ann was an Andros fanatic. After dinner she was taking me to his high-impact aerobics class at Firm Ambitions.

“Do you think your husband suspects anything?” I asked. “No. Andros and I are very careful about the whens and the wheres.”

“What if he found out?”

She laughed bitterly. “He’d kill me. He’d view it as a breach of our understanding.”

“Which is what?”

“I get the furs and the designer clothes and the Jag and two weeks at LaCosta every February. He gets the safaris and the gambling and the sport fucking. Meanwhile, I stay pure and raise the kids. Screwing Andros isn’t part of that deal.”

I asked her some questions about Tommy Landau’s finances. As I expected, she knew very little beyond what Tommy told her, and Tommy told her very little. Over the past couple years she had glanced at a few of their financial statements when his lawyers had her sign various documents in connection with refinancings of some of his shopping centers. As she recalled, the assets on the financial statements included numerous limited partnerships, and the liabilities included millions of dollars in loans. From various overheard phone conversations at home, she had the sense that some of his shopping centers were having financial problems.

I explained that we would need to hire a good forensic accountant to help make sense of her husband’s real estate holdings in order to be sure that she got her fair share of the property division. I concluded the meeting by describing the sequence of events from the filing of the petition to the date the judge issued the final order of dissolution.

“Who’s Tommy likely to hire?” I asked.

“Hard to say. Maybe his father, if that firm does divorce work.

If not, maybe Charles Kimball.”

“The Charles Kimball?” I asked, impressed.

She nodded. “They go way back. All the way to when Tommy got kicked out of college.”

“Did Kimball represent him in the rape trial?”

She nodded. “And in the cocaine case. Got him off both times. Tommy’s pretty loyal to him.”

“With good reason,” I said as I walked her to the door. “Well, we’ll find out soon enough. Drop those documents off tomor- row, if you can. Especially the tax returns. We’ll plan to meet next week before I file the petition.”

After Eileen left I dictated the notes of our meeting and asked my secretary to set up a new divorce file. Your last divorce file, I told myself as I took a sip of coffee. The property issues were going to be dull and complex, especially the valuation of Tommy Landau’s equity positions in each of his strip shopping centers. But, I reminded myself, dull wasn’t necessarily bad. The case of Landau v. Landau would be a peaceful change after several months of Big Macs and Big Sals. And the Andros angle at least added a tinge of excitement. Maybe. Don’t get your hopes up, I cautioned myself. The only reason you agreed to take this case was that Ann begged you to.

I nodded in resignation. How could I say no to my sister?

I should have, of course. But I didn’t realize that until much later. Neither did Ann. And by the time we both did, it was far too late.

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