The Dead Hand

The Dead Hand

“Dead hand” is the English translation of the Latin term “mortmain,” which the law dictionary defines as “the influence of the past regarded as controlling the present.” For Rachel Gold, ...

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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Chapter One

As I gazed at my newest client, I reminded myself that there is a first time for everything. I’ve been a lawyer now for more than a decade. Over those years I’ve handled plenty of oddball cases. But never one of these. I didn’t even know they still existed.

“That bastard screwed me,” she said, shaking her head in anger. “Good and hard.”

I glanced down at the lawsuit petition on my desk and then back at my client. “You may be right, Marsha.”

“May?” Her eyes widened. “I’d say definitely.”

She leaned back in the chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “He totally screwed me, Rachel. You just know that when they put him into his grave he had a big grin on his face, right?”

Not being familiar with mortuary protocols, I treated her question as rhetorical.

I gestured toward the petition. “I’ll need to do some legal research, Marsha. I’ve never had a case like this.”

“I understand. My daughter told me these cases are unusual.” “Is she a lawyer?”

“Not yet. Katie’s in law school. Third year. Wash U. That’s how I got your name.”

“Katie Knight?” The name wasn’t familiar. “She knows me?” “Oh, no. She got your name from one of her professors. She told him about my situation. She told him I needed a   lawyer that was smart and tough.”

“Well, well.” I raised my eyebrows. “Her professor recommended me?”

“Oh, my goodness, he did more than just recommend you. He said you were tougher than every smart lawyer in town and smarter than every tough lawyer.” Marsha laughed. “You ready? He told her, and I quote, ‘You won’t find an attorney in this town with a bigger set of cojones than Rachel Gold.’”

“Ah, Professor Goldberg…?” “How did you know?” “Wild guess.”

Marsha Knight was in her fifties. Slim build, dyed-blond hair, lots of makeup, dressed in what I’d call a Full Neiman, right down to the Louis Vuitton monogram handbag and black- and-silver pumps that were either Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin.

Her smile faded, her lower lip quivered, and she dropped her head.

I waited.

She took a deep breath, shook her head, and exhaled. When she looked up, there were tears in her eyes.

“I don’t have any savings. Zilch. If that bitch wins, I’ll be left with nothing. Not even my apartment. She’d evict me. I know it.”

I slid the box of Kleenex across the desk. “Here, Marsha.” She took a tissue and wiped her eyes.

Once she’d regained her composure, I guided our conversation through some easy personal topics—which for Marsha Knight included her personal trainer; her only child, Katie; and her tennis game—to the specifics of my attorney engagement agreement (including the retainer check, which she’d brought with her), and eventually back to the lawsuit.

I leafed through the petition and the attached exhibits. “So the divorce was—let’s see—almost six years ago?”

“Wow, time flies.”

“And this real estate deed—the document marked Exhibit A, here—it was part of your divorce settlement?”

“It was.”

I skimmed through Exhibit B. “But not in the actual divorce decree.”

“I think that’s right. There was some technical reason. But the deed was recorded. I know that for a fact. I have a stamped copy from the Recorder of Deeds.”

I read through the grant portion of the deed. “Who was your divorce lawyer?”

“Adam Fox.”

I looked up. “Adam Fox.” I frowned. “Is he the one…?” “Yes.”  She sighed and shook her head. “He’s the one that died.”

I nodded and flipped back to the first page of the petition. “So this Danielle Knight—she’s your ex-husband’s widow?”

“That’s her.” Marsha glared as she shook her head. “Young enough to be his daughter.”

We went over a few other details of the case. I explained that we’d meet again after I’d researched the legal issues. Before we parted, I asked her if there was anything else—anything at all—that I needed to know about the divorce.

She thought it over and then shook her head. “Nope.”

It’s the standard question every lawyer asks a new client during that initial meeting, and Marsha Knight gave me the standard answer. As I’ve learned over the years, the standard answer is almost always false.

 

 

 

Cojones, eh?”

Chapter Two

 

“A multicultural figure of speech.” Benny shrugged. “Call me bilingual, Señora.”

“I’ll need more than cojones for this one, Señor.” I shook my head. “I didn’t know these cases even existed in real life.”

“Me, neither. When Katie told me about her mother’s prob- lem, I had an acid flashback to our fucking bar review course. Was it even on the goddamn bar exam?”

I thought back, trying to remember. “I don’t think so. Thank goodness. I’d have blown it.”

Benny Goldberg and I met many years ago as first-year associates in the Chicago office of Abbott & Windsor, then one of the largest law firms in Chicago, now one of the largest law firms in the world, with over three thousand lawyers in offices throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. We’d been in the same bar review course that summer, along with two dozen other Abbott & Windsor newbies and hundreds of other law school grads. We all sat for the bar exam at the end of that summer.

“Do they still teach it in law school?” I asked.

“Yep. I checked with one of profs who teaches Property to the One-L’s. Phoebe Hecht. She said she spends two full classes on it. The property law geeks even have an acronym for it: RAP. Win that case, woman, and you’ll be known as the Rap Queen.”

“Rap?”

“R-A-P.”

I frowned as I silently repeated the letters and then nodded. “Ah, got it.”

The Korean-American server approached our table with a full tray of food. “The Gogi Bowl?”

“Me,” I said.

The server gave Benny a quizzical look. “And these burritos?” “Yes?” Benny said.

“All three for you, sir?”

“Don’t worry, pal. I’ll save room for dessert.”

Benny and I were having lunch at Seoul Taco, a favorite spot of ours in the University City Loop. Seoul Taco began as a food truck and expanded to a restaurant. It offers a spicy and delicious Korean take on Mexican street food. Benny’s burritos, for example, had kimchi fried rice, bulgogi meat, and a special Seoul sauce. One of those giant burritos was enough for any normal person. No one has ever accused Benny of being a normal person. Among his many unique qualities, the man has capacity. “So they still teach it, huh?” I leaned back in my chair. “What were some of those goofy law school hypotheticals?”

“Let’s see.” Benny squinted a moment. “There was the Case of the Fertile Octogenarian.”

“That’s right.” I smiled. “We had that one at Harvard, too. We also had the Case of the Unborn Widow. At least that was its name. I can’t remember the facts.”

“My favorite was the Case of the Magical Gravel Pit.” I frowned. “Which one was that?”

“The property transfer was to be made as soon as the gravel pit ran out of gravel.”

“And?”

“And when would that happen? That was the flaw. The grant might not vest for centuries.”

I took a sip of iced tea and shook my head. “Ridiculous.” “Not so fast. When word about this case gets out, you’ll be a goddess in that oddball legal community. A fucking trust-and- estates hottie.”

“Be still my heart.”

We ate in silence for a while.

Benny said, “So her ex-husband died, eh?” “About six months ago.”

“Rich, eh?” I nodded.

“How’d he make his money?” I smiled. “Undergarments.” “Huh?”

“Knight Apparel. Jerry was the founder and CEO. They made bras and girdles.”

“Ah. The meat-packing business.” I laughed. “Not bad.”

“My grandmother gets credit for that one.” “Really?”

“Back when I was growing up, my Bobba Ann worked in women’s lingerie at the Bamberger’s in Newark. She told people she was in the meat-packing department.”

Benny took a big bite of his second burrito and chewed thoughtfully. “Knight Apparel? In St. Louis?”

“Actually, out in Sullivan. Set it up out there to avoid the unions. Hanes acquired it about fifteen years ago. Jerry Knight took the money and invested some of it in real estate.”

“Such as that apartment complex.” “Exactly.”

“And bought himself a trophy wife.” “So it seems.”

“What about the ex-wife? Katie’s mom. You like her?” “She’s okay.” I took a sip of iced tea and shook my head. “She’s scared. That property is her sole source of income. If she loses it, she loses everything. Including her own apartment, which is in the building.”

He took another bite of the burrito and washed it down with a big gulp of soda. “You’ve seen the deed?”

I nodded.

“Is she fucked?”

I shrugged. “I’ve got to do some legal research first.” “That doesn’t sound good.”

I sighed. “We’ll see.”

Benny finished off the second burrito and unwrapped the third.

“So,” I said, “you must be going on TV soon.” He gave me a surprised look. “How’d you know?” “Your hair, boychik.”

Benny and I were coaching my son Sam’s kindergarten soccer team that fall. When I’d last seen Benny, at our game on Sunday afternoon, his shaggy Jew-fro had reached epic Jimi Hendrix proportions, but now it was neatly trimmed.

Benny sighed. “Fucking hair wussies at CNN.” “When?”

“A week from Wednesday. I’m on some panel for the bizarrely named Wolf Blitzer. We’re going to talk about a trade regulation proposal in Congress that’s giving the Silicon Valley boys irritable bowel syndrome.”

“A week from Wednesday? Cool. I’ll let Mom know. She’s your biggest fan.”

“And I’m hers. Sarah Gold is awesome.” Benny took another bite of the burrito.

Despite his national reputation in the field of antitrust law, Professor Benjamin Goldberg remains my beloved Benny. He’s vulgar, he’s fat, and he’s gluttonous, but he’s also ferociously loyal and wonderfully hilarious and my best friend in the whole world. I love him like the brother I never had. After a few years at Abbott & Windsor, we both escaped that LaSalle Street sweatshop—Benny to teach law at De Paul, me to go solo as Rachel Gold, Attorney at Law. Different reasons brought us to St. Louis. For me, it was a desire to live closer to my mother after my father died. For Benny, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse from the Washington University School of Law.

Benny said, “Tell her I’ll be wearing that tie she gave me for Hanukkah.”

“She’ll be in heaven. So will Sam. We’ll be watching.” I took out my iPhone and opened the calendar. “A week from next Wednesday. Got it. Oh, and you’re down for dinner the following night, too. You’re still coming, right?”

“You kidding? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” “Mom’s making her homemade kishka for you.”

“Damn, woman, I’m getting a woodie just thinking about it.” “I’ll be sure to not let her know that.”

He gave me a wink and took a big bite out of the burrito.

Reviews of

The Dead Hand

St. Louis attorney Rachel Gold lands not one but two cases that feature trouble arising from beyond the grave. Both cases spring gorgeous plot twists that keep recasting the hapless litigants in new and ever more unflattering roles. Both are ripe with the promise of legal and ethical complications that Kahn seizes with unholy glee.

Kirkus Reviews

Readers who enjoy legal procedurals will find the complex reasoning involved in these cases satisfying. Kahn, a lawyer with a good sense of humor, uses a light touch to make complicated points of law accessible and even enjoyable as mystery fare.

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