Grave Designs: An Attorney Rachel Gold Mystery #1

Grave Designs: An Attorney Rachel Gold Mystery #1

Graham Anderson Marshall III of Abbott & Windsor was the archetype of the powerful senior partner at a major corporate law firm. But then came his bizarre death, the kinky ...

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, ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

“Please call me Ishmael,” he said, studying the menu. “The fish here is generally quite good. I prefer the jumbo whitefish.”

“Is the chef named Queequeg?” I asked.

“What’s that?” Ishmael Richardson looked up from the menu. “No,” he said, frowning. “I believe he is French. A nice chap.” We were seated at a window table in Cathedral Hall, the enormous dining room on the ninth floor of the University Club of Chicago. I had first eaten here as a third-year law student, flown out by Abbott & Windsor for a job interview. After joining the firm I came here frequently, usually as the lunch guest of Graham Anderson Marshall and always to discuss some aspect of In re Bottles & Cans. This was my first time back since leaving Abbott & Windsor two years ago.

There are more exclusive downtown clubs than the University Club—and Ishmael Richardson is a member of most  of them. But none could boast a more stunning or ludicrous main dining room. Cathedral Hall is a dead-serious replica of a medieval Gothic cathedral, built at the turn of the century by Chicago bankers and lawyers eager for respectability. The results are impressive: stained glass, gray stone walls, and massive fluted columns rising three stories to a vaulted timber ceiling. Chicago’s cathedral of capitalism.

As I looked over the menu I wondered again why I was here as the Monday lunch guest of A & W’s managing partner. The invitation had been delivered over the telephone last Friday by one of Richardson’s secretaries. At the time, I had been reviewing the terms of a proposed divorce settlement with my client, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the Reverend Horace Bridges. Three months earlier she had arrived at my office, grim and revengeful, the morning after she had discovered her husband—unfrocked and speaking in tongues—between the plump thighs of a young Sunday-school teacher at his Baptist church. I had offered sympathy. She had instructed me to visit the wrath of the Lord on Reverend Bridges. And the resulting property settlement read, at least in part, as if it had been drafted by the God of the Old Testament.

My telephone started ringing just as Mrs. Bridges asked if her husband’s large organ could be treated as marital property even though he had owned it prior to the marriage.

“He taught me how to use it,” she had said, her fists clenched in the lap of her flower-print ankle-length dress, “and it has given me great pleasure over the years. After what he did to me, I don’t think the Lord would want him to keep it.”

“Excuse me,” I said, fumbling for the telephone. “I’ll have to answer this.”

After I accepted the luncheon invitation, Mrs. Bridges resumed her request and, in response to my questions, revealed that her husband’s instrument of pleasure was the product of the Hammond Organ Company and not the result of genetic largess. I added her husband’s organ to the list of demands and told Mrs. Bridges we should meet again once her husband’s attorney responded.

Now I sat gazing out the window while Ishmael Richardson placed our orders. Down below, across Michigan Avenue, young secretaries and clerks were sitting on the grass near the Art Institute, eating their take-out lunches or just lolling in the sun. Off in the distance—beyond the dark high-rise condominiums and the sluggish traffic on Lake Shore Drive—Lake Michigan sparkled under the glare of the August sun. A rainbow of sailboats bobbed in the waters of the Monroe Street Harbor.

“A pleasant view,” said Richardson. “Tempting,” I answered.

“Occasionally,” he said with a smile. Ishmael Richardson is made to order for the role of managing partner of a major corporate law firm. His face is tanned and deeply lined, his white hair is thick and wavy, and his eyes are a pale gray. “How is your practice, Rachel?”

“I’m busy enough,” I answered.

“Wonderful,” he said as he unfolded his napkin and placed it on his lap.

A silver-haired man in a gray pinstripe suit walked over to our table.

“Hello, Ishmael,” he said.

“Hello, Charles. Good to see you.” “Who is this beautiful young lady?”

“Rachel Gold. Ms. Gold, this is Charles Winthrop. Mr. Winthrop is president of the Lake Michigan Bank.” “Hello, Miss Gold. Pleased to meet you.”

“Same here.”

We shook hands.

“Ms. Gold is a former associate of ours, Charles. She was part of our Bottles and Cans team. She is now out on her own.” Winthrop smiled at me. “Isn’t that nice.” He turned to Richardson. “You’ll be at the board meeting this afternoon, won’t you?”

“I will be there, Charles.”

“We’re going to take a hard look at the merger.” He smiled at me. “Nice to meet you, young lady. Good luck in your practice.” I forced a “Thanks” and a smile. I was twenty-nine years old, a member of the Illinois bar, and the veteran of more than a dozen federal and state jury trials and appellate arguments. To Charles Winthrop I was still a girl.

Winthrop walked back to his table across the dining room. Most of the tables were occupied—lawyers and bankers and corporate executives cutting deals and plotting strategy over steaks and salads in a mock cathedral.

Ishmael Richardson lifted the club slip off the white tablecloth and removed a gold fountain pen from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “Have you decided on lunch?”

“I’ll go with your recommendation of the broiled whitefish.

And I’ll have a small salad. House dressing. Iced tea.”

“Good choice,” he said. He jotted down our orders and signaled for the waitress.

Ishmael Harrison Richardson had joined the firm of Abbott, Windsor, Harrison, & Reynolds in 1939 after graduating, according to legend, with the fourth highest grade-point average in the history of Harvard Law School. The firm had consisted of six lawyers at the time. Now—almost a half century later and two names shorter—Abbott & Windsor had more than four hundred lawyers, with branch offices in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, London, Taipei, and Riyadh. Eight years ago Richardson had been named managing partner—the law firm’s equivalent of chairman of the board. He had turned seventy last April. The birthday party was held at the Union League Club, and the list of attendees included the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, a former Vice-President of the United States, and the chief executive officers of several multinational corporations. The guest list took up half of Kup’s column in the next day’s Sun-Times.

Although he is the oldest active partner in the firm, Rich- ardson looks and acts far younger than his age. During my last year with Abbott & Windsor, Ishmael Richardson had outlasted a fifty-year-old partner and two young associates from the New York firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, & McCloy during marathon negotiations over the refinancing of a loan to one of Richardson’s clients, Argentina. The three Wall Street lawyers had staggered out of the main conference room at 10:15 p.m. Richardson had remained in the conference room for an hour dictating the final modifications to the refinancing papers, and then had had his driver drop him off at his weekly poker game. They played poker every Wednesday night—Richardson and five name partners from Chicago’s largest firms.

“Rachel,” he said after the waitress had taken the club slip with our orders, “I asked you here to discuss a somewhat peculiar legal problem that has arisen. A rather sensitive matter.” He pinched the knot of his club tie. His gold cuff links were initialed IHR in Old English script. “The Executive Committee of Abbott and Windsor has authorized me to retain you in connection with a matter we are handling.”

“Should I be flattered or suspicious?”

“The former.” Richardson smiled. “You still have many admirers at our firm. I happen to be one of them.”

“Is it a conflicts problem?” I asked. Occasionally, large firms are prevented from representing several defendants in the same lawsuit because of a potential conflict of interest between some of the parties. In those situations, the firm will represent the best client—i.e., the largest corporation or the highest-ranking corporate officer—and refer the other clients to another law firm, preferably a firm too small to steal the referred client. Every large Chicago firm has a stable of small firms—usually composed of former members of the large firm—which it uses for conflicts matters. Abbott & Windsor had sent me two conflicts cases during the past year.

“I suppose it does involve a potential conflict of interest, but not in the ordinary sense of the term,” Richardson said. “Let me explain. It involves Graham Marshall. You are aware of his death?”

“I saw the obituary last month. I was shocked.”

“So were we all.” Richardson slowly shook his head. “A tragic loss.”

We sat in silence for a moment. “Did an associate find him?”

Richardson looked up, his gray eyes narrowing. “Why do you ask?”

“The obituary said he died in his office at night.” I shrugged. “Just morbid curiosity, I suppose. I remember that Bill Phillips found Jean Huber.”

Richardson relaxed. “No, I don’t believe an associate discovered him.”

The salads arrived. Richardson paused until the waiter left. “As I was explaining, this matter involves Mr. Marshall. More precisely, it involves his estate. It is a rather unusual problem.”

“Didn’t the firm handle his will?”

“We did. Harlan Dodson prepared the will. There seems to be no problem there. However, Mr. Marshall executed a codicil to his will two years ago. Apparently without our knowledge. Certainly without our advice.” He paused, leaning forward slightly. “Rachel, what I am about to describe is quite confidential. It is known to no one other than the members of the Executive Committee and Harlan Dodson, who is handling the estate.”

I nodded.

“This codicil to Mr. Marshall’s will establishes a forty-thousand-dollar trust fund for the care and maintenance of a gravesite in a cemetery called Wagging Tail Estates.”

“What kind of name is that for a cemetery?” He paused. “It’s a pet cemetery.”

“A pet cemetery?” I kept a straight face. Richardson frowned. “I am afraid so.” “Who’s buried there?”

“That is your assignment.” “What do you mean?”

“The pet’s name is Canaan, according to the codicil.” “A dog?”

“We don’t know.” Richardson shook his head. “Frankly, we have no idea. Harlan Dodson has asked Marshall’s widow and children about the codicil. None of them knows a thing about it. None of them has ever heard of Canaan. Julia Marshall is quite allergic to dog and cat hair. The family has never owned a pet.”

“Can’t you just challenge the trust?”

“We could. It is what is known as an honorary trust, and it can be broken. But this particular trust has some features that make a court challenge, well, somewhat unattractive. For example, the codicil names me as co-trustee with Marshall’s widow. More precisely, the co-trustee is to be the managing partner of the firm at the time of Marshall’s death. The codicil instructs the managing partner not only to provide for the general care and maintenance of the gravesite but also to arrange for delivery of flowers to the grave—two dozen long-stemmed white roses—on four specified days each year.” Richardson sighed and slowly shook his head. “I am to be paid at twice my normal hourly rate for these services. The trust remains in force until twenty-one years after the death of the last attorney who was a member of the Executive Committee at the time of Marshall’s death.”

“What happens then?”

“The remaining principal is to be paid to Abbott and Windsor.” I let it all sink in. “That’s a weird trust,” I finally said.

Richardson nodded. “It is indeed.”

“It really puts the firm behind the eight ball.”

“We are placed in a most awkward position. We are, of course, representing the Marshall family in winding up the estate. However, since my firm is the ultimate beneficiary of the trust, a challenge to the trust would benefit only the firm. An order voiding the trust would result in the trust funds being paid to the firm. Although forty thousand dollars is an insignificant amount for a firm with annual revenues of eighty-seven million dollars, I will not tolerate even the appearance that my firm would somehow profit at the expense of the Marshall family.”

“You could solve that problem by transferring the trust monies to the family,” I said.

“Which is exactly what we would do, of course. If it comes to that. But to reach that stage may require us to first seek a court order voiding the trust.”

“And a court order could mean a nasty story in the Sun-Times.” “Precisely.” Richardson rested his fork on the salad plate. “There is another significant factor that must be considered: Mr. Marshall’s desires. As eccentric as that trust may be, it is still his trust. Until we can ascertain what is in that grave and why he buried it in that pet cemetery, Mr. Marshall’s wishes are entitled to respect.”

“And you want me to find out what is in the grave,” I said. “Yes. And, if possible, why he buried it there. We need to determine the facts behind this peculiar codicil. Then we will be in a better position to evaluate the matter and advise the family.”

“Why me?” I finally asked.

Richardson took a sip of his wine and set the glass back on the table. “This matter will require some investigation into the underlying facts.” He smiled. “Excuse the pun. In any event, the Executive Committee feels it would be inappropriate to have one of our own associates intrude in the private affairs of one of our most senior partners. Similarly, we were uncomfortable turning the matter over to a complete outsider.”

“And I’m more like a member of the clan.”

“Precisely. You were with the firm, you worked extensively with Mr. Marshall in the Bottles and Cans litigation. We are confident you will handle the matter competently and with discretion.” Richardson paused. “Frankly, Rachel, I view you more as my attorney on this matter. After all, I am co-trustee of this Canaan legacy. In addition, I am the individual designated by the codicil to oversee the care and maintenance obligations. For those reasons, the Executive Committee deferred to my selection of outside counsel. I recommended that you be retained.” He took another sip of wine. “I was quite impressed with the way you handled that Anderson custody battle last summer.”

The Anderson custody battle. Melanie Anderson had come to me three years after her divorce from a prominent North Shore real estate developer. Her ex-husband had decided to launch a custody war over their two children, and he hired the toughest domestic relations law firm in Chicago to wage his battle. Their mission was to overturn the original custody decree on the grounds that my client was unfit as a mother. The trial lasted five weeks, and was filled with allegations of lesbianism, child abuse, and drug addiction. The local media loved it, and the New York Times ran a story with two photos: one of Melanie and me entering the courtroom, and the other of her husband striding into the courtroom with his entourage of four male attorneys. One of my strategies was to fight fire with fire, but my investigator failed to turn up any dirt on her ex-husband. During the second week of trial, however, I received a midnight tip from an acquain- tance in the FBI. I followed it up on my own over the weekend, and the next week was able to force her ex-husband to take the Fifth Amendment seven times in a row on cross-examination in response to my questions about his cocaine habit. I won the case, and the judge’s verdict was affirmed on appeal. Melanie and her two children are still trying to put their lives back together. It was my first, and it will be my last, custody case.

“That’s kind of you,” I said. “Somehow I didn’t think you were the type to follow a custody battle.”

“Melanie Anderson is my niece,” he said slowly. “Oh.”

“I told her to hire you, Rachel.” “I see,” I finally said.

“And that is why I have come to you on this matter. Are you willing to take it on?”

The waiter removed our salad plates and set down the whitefish. I thought it over. The case didn’t sound hard, and it was just weird enough to break up the monotony. I decided to accept it.

“Well, Mr. Richardson—” “Ishmael.”

“Okay…Ishmael.” I smiled. “I’ll give it a try.” “Excellent.”

“Where is this Wagging Tail Estates?” “It is located on the southwest side.”

“I can get out there this afternoon. I’ll see what I can dig up.” “Fine.” Richardson smiled and reached into his suit jacket. “We need to have all the material facts before we advise Mrs. Marshall.” He placed a cream-colored envelope on the table next to my plate. “This is a retainer in the amount of six thousand dollars.”

“That’s a lot of money.”

“Perhaps. I assume you will bill us at your normal hourly rate and refund the balance, if any. Treat us as you would any client.”

“I hope I can wrap it up in a few days.”

“If so, fine. But this matter may take longer. As I explained, our preliminary investigation yielded nothing. We have had one telephone communication with the cemetery owner, but that was not fruitful. Perhaps you will have better luck with her. We prefer that you focus your inquiries on those outside of the immediate family. However, you may contact family members if you deem it necessary. As you can understand, Mrs. Marshall finds this topic somewhat distressing, particularly so soon after the loss of her husband.” Richardson paused. “Graham Marshall was a respected member of our firm and our community. We feel a profound obligation toward him and his family. I am aware of your clashes with some of our partners during your years with us, but the Executive Committee shares my belief that you will handle this matter in a thorough and professional manner.”

Ishmael Richardson lifted his fork and turned his attention to the whitefish. We spent the rest of the lunch searching without success for a conversational common ground. I left him in the lobby of the University Club after he agreed to send me a copy of Marshall’s will and codicil.

The Yellow Pages listed an address and telephone number for Wagging Tail Estates. Someone named Maggie Sullivan answered the phone on the third ring and told me she could see me that afternoon. I called my secretary and told her I’d be out most of the afternoon.

“A pet cemetery?” she said. “Honest.”

“Too bad. I thought old Ishmael was going to ask you out on a date.”

“Come on, Mary.”

“Hey, I think that old geezer had the hots for you back when we were at A and W.”

“Mary, the only thing that turns him on are debentures. Any messages?”

“Nothing that can’t wait till tomorrow.”

I checked my wallet, flagged a Yellow Cab, and settled back in the seat as the cab lurched into traffic on Michigan Avenue. Three years ago I was working with Graham Anderson Marshall on the international antitrust case of In re Bottles & Cans. Now I was heading out to visit his pet’s grave. A young lawyer’s career on the rise. You’re really moving up in the world, kiddo.

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