The year People magazine selected George Clooney as its Sexiest Man in the World, women in that part of the world known as St. Louis shook their heads. Their first choice was Nick Moran. Hands down. Although Nick could have passed for George Clooney’s bearded, blue-eyed, younger brother, his appeal went beyond his good looks. He was, after all, the Moran of Moran Renovations. George Clooney’s credits might include Out of Sight and Michael Clayton, but Nick Moran’s included exquisitely remodeled kitchens and bathrooms in upscale neighborhoods throughout St. Louis. For the women of those households, the star of Moran Renovations was way hotter than the star of Ocean’s Eleven.
Although the men of those households might write out the checks to Moran Renovations, the women were the real clients. Few of those husbands shared their wives’ passions for the particulars of countertops and cabinet styles and lighting. Nick, though, would listen to the women for hours. He’d sit with them at the kitchen table leafing through stacks of Architectural Digest and House Beautiful and spend afternoons shopping with them for the perfect light fixtures or the ideal countertops. Granite, ceramic tile, or Cambria Quartz? These were profound questions, and Nick treated them as such.
There were rumors, of course but what do you expect? Nothing gets neighbors talking more than the thought of a bored wealthy wife spending days at home with a handsome contractor in faded Levis, black T-shirt, and low-slung tool belt.
I understood. Nick had remodeled my kitchen and rehabbed the coach house out back for my mother. Barely a week into the kitchen renovations, and I was smitten—and embarrassed. Nick was too classy to flirt with his clients. He had the aura of the earnest tradesman devoted to his craft. And thus I resisted the urge—on more than one occasion—to seduce him right there on the new maple floor or atop the Corian counter.
I always recommended Nick to friends and colleagues who were thinking about redoing their kitchen or updating their bathrooms. Frankly, he was just about every woman’s first choice. According to his office manager, Nick had a three-year waiting list when he died.
We, his devotees, were devastated by his death and, as the details emerged, surprised. According to the police report, the two officers came upon Nick’s pickup truck shortly after nine in the morning. It was parked along an isolated lane in Forest Park known to its habitués and the vice squad as Gay Way.
The mere juxtaposition of Nick Moran and Gay Way was a shocker for us. On most evenings, the cars begin arriving at Gay Way at sunset—one man per car. They park along the right side of the lane. Some of the men remain in their cars while others saunter down the lane in search of a suitable companion. The anonymous action takes place in the front seat, and then the visitor returns to his car. Both men eventually drive off, and others take their places. On a typical night, more than a hundred cars come and go. By sunrise, the only evidence of the prior night’s activities is the fresh cigarette butts, an empty beer can or two, and a scattering of used condoms.
Except on the morning in question.
Inside that lone pickup truck along Gay Way the cops found Nick’s corpse. The body was slumped against the passenger door, pants unzipped, penis exposed, a coil of rubber tubing on the seat next to the body, an empty syringe on the floor. According to the medical examiner, the cause of death was a lethal overdose of heroin. Time of death: sometime the prior evening between six p.m. and midnight.
I was one of the scores of women who attended Nick’s funeral. We outnumbered the men ten to one. Some of us had jobs, while others were from that rarified breed who consider themselves professional volunteers. But whether we were women who took lunch breaks or Ladies Who Lunch, we generally considered ourselves sophisticated modern women, and thus we struggled to connect the dots between the Nick Moran we thought we knew and the Nick Moran who OD’ed on Gay Way.
Being a lawyer—and, unfortunately, one who has handled several nasty divorce cases—I’d had prior encounters with secret lives that were out of sync with public images, from evangelical pedophiles and Orthodox Jewish wife beaters to Transcendental Meditating meth heads. After awhile, you just shrug your shoulders and fall back on one of those old chestnuts about looks being deceiving or never knowing what goes on behind closed doors.
Even so, Nick Moran’s death made no sense to me. That would change.
Looking back, I sometimes wish that it still made no sense to me.
They say that the truth will set you free. Not always.
Susannah Beale was in her late twenties. She wore unstylish glasses and had curly blond hair long overdue for a cut. She had the frazzled air of a woman in her situation, which was six months into her third pregnancy with two other children under the age of four.
“Thank you for seeing me, Miss Gold.”
“I am sorry for your loss, Susannah. I knew your brother. He was a wonderful man.”
Her lips quivered and she lowered her head. “Thank you,” she said in a hoarse whisper.
I leaned across the desk to hand her a tissue. “Here.” She took it from me and pressed it against her nose. I gave her a sympathetic smile.
I knew that Nick Moran had a sister. He’d mentioned her to me, and he’d shown me pictures from his wallet of her children— his niece and nephew. He’d told me his sister married her high school sweetheart, who now worked at the Chrysler assembly plant in Fenton, but I don’t think he’d ever mentioned her first name or that she’d married a man named Beale. And thus when I’d called my office that morning as I left federal court, I was puzzled to learn that a woman named Susannah Beale was waiting to see me.
“Beale? Does she have an appointment, Dorian?”
“No,” my assistant said. “She came in a half hour ago. She wanted to see if she could make an appointment.”
“Just like that?”
“Not for today.” My assistant paused. “I felt bad for her, Rachel. She’s never been to a lawyer in her life. She didn’t know whether you could just call for an appointment or had to come in to make one, so she drove all the way in from Fenton. Took her forty-five minutes. Left her kids with her mother-in-law. I checked your calendar. You didn’t have anything else scheduled until your lunch meeting, so I told her if she could wait around you might be able to see her.”
I was having trouble focusing. My thoughts kept drifting toward the nasty court hearing set for that afternoon in my Frankenstein case.
“What does she want to see me about?” “Her brother. She said you knew him.” “Beale?”
“No. Moran. Nick Moran.”
“Oh. You did the right thing, Dorian. Tell her I’ll be at the office in ten minutes.”
Susannah looked up, wiped her eyes with the tissue and gave me a smile. “Sorry.”
“I understand, Susannah. I lost my husband almost four years ago but I still have trouble talking about him without crying.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry for you. I’m sure he’s with Jesus now.”
I forced a smile, trying to imagine Jonathan’s reaction to that destination point. “So tell me why you’re here.”
She brushed her hair from her eyes with her fingers. “They don’t care.”
“The police. I went to see them last Friday. I talked to the detective who handled Nick’s case. I told him what I knew. I told him that Nick didn’t do drugs. I told him Nick wasn’t a…one of those homosexual-type people. Nick liked women. He had girlfriends. I told him that. I told him all of that. He didn’t care.”
“Who did you talk to? Do you remember his name?” “Italian. Tomasi, I think.”
“Yes. Detective Tomaso. Do you know him?” “I do. He seems like a good detective.”
“Not this time.” She sighed and shook her head. “He wasn’t interested. He listened to what I said, and when I was done he told me there are lots of people who have secret lives that their families don’t know about.”
“Bert Tomaso is an experienced homicide detective, Susannah. When he talks about secret lives, it’s not just talk. He’s seen plenty of them.”
“Maybe so, Miss Gold, but not with my brother. I know Nick. He wasn’t like that.”
I leaned back in my chair. I knew where this was headed—and I didn’t know how to sidetrack it.
“That’s why I came here,” she said. “Nick really thought a lot of you, Miss Gold. He told me that a whole bunch of times.”
“Your brother was a good man, Susannah, but Bert Tomaso is a good detective. I’m not sure if there is anything I could add. Bert has been doing police work for more than twenty years.”
“Maybe he’s been doing it for too long. Maybe he’s so used to seeing stuff one way that he doesn’t notice the little things that don’t belong there.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not a cop, and I’m not a lawyer. But I am his sister. I’ve known him all my life. I may not know much, but I know what I know, and I know my brother wasn’t a drug user and he wasn’t a homo.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled.
“He was my brother. I loved him. I can’t just move on. I need someone to take another look at his death. I owe him that.”
She gave me a sad smile.
“I’m a big girl,” she said. “If it turns out he really did die the way they say he did—well, I’ll learn to live with it. I really will. I promise. I won’t have no choice. But if someone killed my brother—if someone did that, I can’t just walk away. I just can’t. You understand, don’t you?”
Her eyes were red. She rubbed the tissue against her nose.
“I need to know the truth, Miss Gold. I just have to know.
Please help me.”
There are times I need a business manager—someone like Robert Di Niro in Casino or Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. Someone to pull me aside, lean in close, and tell me, Listen, honey, you ain’t running one of them eleemosynary organizations here. You got payrolls to meet and a mortgage to pay and a young son to raise and two stepdaughters to put through to college. Just like I told you before you got yourself stuck in that damn Frankenstein case, taking this Susannah gal on as a client just ain’t gonna help move any of them pieces around the board.
But I don’t have a business manager.