The Sirena Quest

The Sirena Quest

The New York Times Sunday Magazine piece famously opened: “She has pouting lips and high round breasts. Thousands of men have dreamt of her. Hundreds have chased after her. Two ...

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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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Prologue

In the beginning there was the pink slip.

At least that was the conclusion of the college’s archivist, who had compelling reasons to get it right. When he and the others tried to piece it all together afterward—to gather the key documents, interview the main players, get the facts set down in proper sequence—most of them would focus on the message slip.

Here, they would declare, holding the pink phone message slip aloft.

Here is where our story begins. Perhaps.

Where do you begin a narrative? Not an easy call.

There’s always a backstory. Every tale is a tale already in progress.

Always.

Think of Act I of Hamlet.

Or the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. Or the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick.

Or that scratchy announcement at 4:18 p.m. on July 20, 1969: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

And then think of each of those backstories.

Thus our challenge: where in the stream of these remarkable events do we wade in?

The origins of our story predate the pink message slip by more than a century. Many who read this account already know the backstory. They know when Sirena first arrived. They know that she’d been loved and that she’d been kidnapped and rescued and kidnapped again and rescued again.

And that she’d disappeared. And then years passed.

And then decades.

Until we reach June 6, 1994—a date hitherto known, if at all, as a slow news day following a busy month. During May of 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died of cancer, Nelson Mandela won South Africa’s first democratic elections, Michael Jordan swapped his Air Jordans for baseball spikes, and President Bill Clinton beamed as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signed what the pundits declared “an historic accord” on Palestinian autonomy.

June sixth. No big headlines. Not much on the sports page. Nothing special at the movies, either. Release dates for Forest Gump and Pulp Fiction are later that summer. Ace of Base’s “The Sign” sits atop the rock chart. For a little more perspective: the first iPhone is still thirteen years away.

All we have for that day is the pink message slip—stuck in the middle of a pile of pink message slips on the desk of Lou Solomon, Class of 1974. The handwriting on that slip states that the call came in at 10:48.

That would be 10:48 a.m., Central Daylight Time. On Monday, June 6, 1994.

As good a place as any to wade in.

 

Part 1: The Call

She has pouting lips and high round breasts. Thousands of men have dreamt of her. Hundreds have chased after her. Two have died in pursuit.

Her name is Sirena, she weighs 193 pounds, and she vanished in 1959.

Without a trace.

“The Lady Vanished: Pining for the Eternal Prom Queen of Barrett College,” New York Times suNdaY  magaziNe (Dec. 10,  1972)

 

 

Chapter One

At 10:48 on the morning of June 6, 1994, Lou Solomon was in his law firm’s library. That in itself was noteworthy. The law library of Rosen & O’Malley, as with the libraries of most large law firms, is not a likely place to find a partner. Although one may occasionally poke his head in looking for an associate or to scan that day’s Wall Street Journal, the library is—as its name suggests—a place for research. Within the law firm hierarchy, associates do the research. They are, in the jargon of the profession, the mind mules.

Even more unusual, by 10:48 that morning Lou Solomon had already been in the library for nearly three hours. And there he would remain for several more. There hadn’t been a partner in the Rosen & O’Malley library for that long since old Mr. Caruthers spent the night back in the spring of 1982, and that didn’t really count. After all, when the assistant librarian found the seventy-four-year-old tax attorney the following morning slumped against the side of a carrel, his right arm clutching volume four of Scott on Trusts, he was already in an advanced stage of rigor mortis.

When Lou finally gathered his research materials at three that afternoon, two male junior associates peered over their library carrels to watch him leave. As the door swung closed behind him, they exchanged glances.

“Almost seven hours,” one said.

The other shook his head. “That’s incredible, dude.” He said it with affection.

Lou Solomon was a favorite of the associates. The younger litigators tried to emulate his unassuming style in front of judges and juries, and he was often the topic of firm lore when associates gathered for lunch during the week or over pitchers of beer at Dooley’s after work on Fridays.

As the older associates occasionally reminded the younger ones, Lou Solomon had been a different guy back when they joined the firm.

“Remember when he played on the softball team?” one would reminisce between sips of beer.

“Lou played?” a younger associate would ask.

“Oh, yeah. He was good, too. Damn good. Played ball in college, didn’t he, Dave?”

And then Dave would lean back with a smile. “He ran the summer program when I was a law clerk.”

“My summer, too. Remember those float trips?” “What float trips?” a younger associate would ask.

“He organized this annual float trip down the Meramec. It was a real hoot.”

Invariably, one of the senior associates would add, “She used to go on the float trips with us.”

“She?”

“Andi.”

And then there’d be silence. They all knew about Andi, even the ones who’d never met her. Especially the women.

“Yeah,” one of the senior associates would eventually say. “He was a different guy back then.”

Standing at the library carrels, the two associates watched as Lou disappeared down the hall.

“What’s he working on?”

“I think it’s that Donohue appeal.” “Donohue? Isn’t Brenda on that with him?” “She says Lou’s obsessed.”

And he was. Obsessed and haunted.

The brief was due tomorrow, and he still couldn’t let go. He’d promised Brenda his final changes by six that night. That would still leave her enough time to proof and cite-check the brief, shepherd the final version through the word processing department, and arrange to have the correct number of copies bound and filed in the court of appeals by the close of business tomorrow afternoon.

The Donohue appeal.

Its grip on Lou was all the more unusual because of the type of case it was. Lou’s specialty was complex commercial litigation—or, as those cases are known among law firms, elephant orgies: massive disputes featuring lots of parties, warehouses of documents, Dickensian plots, hordes of witnesses, squadrons of attorneys, and millions and millions of dollars at stake. His growing reputation in the field had placed him on the short lists of most general counsels in the region, which made him, at the age of forty-one, one of the firm’s top rainmakers.

But the Donohue appeal was no elephant orgy. The case arose out of a traffic accident, that hoary staple of the personal injury bar. Nevertheless, it possessed him like none he’d ever worked on. He found himself thinking about it in bed at night and on his morning jog and off and on during the day while listening to a long-winded client on the phone or waiting in court for a motion to be called. Although he was hardly the introspective type, Lou wondered about his devotion to this lost cause.

His office was one floor above the library. As he reached the interior stairway between the two floors, he was flipping through his research notes. He scanned one of the pages as he bounded up the stairs two at a time. The human shape registered in his peripheral vision at the last possible instant.

Roger Madison ducked back to avoid the collision. “Whoops,” Madison said. “That was close.”

“I’m sorry, Roger.”

The older man chuckled. “No harm, no foul, Louis.” Roger Madison, a litigation partner who specialized in condemnation matters, was sixty-three, bald, slightly hunched over, and recently divorced. His only son, Roger Jr., had died of AIDS a year earlier. Lou was close enough to Madison to pick up the tang of alcohol beneath the Polo cologne.

Lou gave him an apologetic smile as he started back up the stairs. “I’m a little out of it today, Roger.”

“No problem, Iceman.”

Lou paused and looked back, but Madison was already heading down the stairs.

Iceman.

He started up the stairs again, shaking his head.

He was scanning the headnotes of the next case in the pile as he strolled into his office. Taking a seat on the front edge of his desk, he began reading the court opinion.

The Donohue appeal.

It was a tale any fiction editor would reject as forced and overwrought and far too dependent upon coincidence. Thing was, God seemed to like them that way. The law books were filled with Donohue appeals—fact patterns served up with heavy platters of melodrama, seasoned with pure happenstance, and smothered in a thick gravy of pathos.

The Donohue of Donohue v. Henderson Construction Co. was Jane Donohue—attorney, widow, quadriplegic, mother of two little girls. The Henderson Construction Company had been her client. When old man Henderson died a few years back, Jane advised his adult sons to restructure the company into three separate corporations, one responsible for finances, one for marketing, and one for operations. Her legal strategy was to limit the liability exposure of the operations end of the business. The sons agreed, Jane drew up the new corporate papers, and six weeks later a Henderson dump truck loaded with eight tons of hot asphalt ran a stop sign in her subdivision and plowed into the driver’s side of her station wagon, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down. Jane was a widow at the time of the accident, her husband having died of cancer a year earlier. She hired Lou to represent her and her daughters in the lawsuit, and he’d grown close to all three over the course of the fourteen months of pre-trial proceedings. He’d even taken the two little girls—Emma and Abby—on several outings with his children to the zoo, the science museum, and elsewhere.

He tried the case earlier that year. Forty-five minutes after closing arguments, the jury returned a verdict in Jane’s favor for

$3.2 million. That was the good news. The bad news was that the judgment was against the operations corporation, which had total assets of $384,000. Jane Donohue’s medical bills alone had long since exceeded that amount.

Lou had been struggling with the appellate brief for weeks. The court had granted him three extensions of time as he searched for a loose brick in the legal fortress that Jane had built around the assets of the business. With no support from Missouri precedents, he had spent the last seven hours scouring the legal countryside for aid, reviewing dozens of court opinions from other states and law review articles from across the nation in what seemed an increasingly doomed effort to get some money to a paralyzed woman and her little girls. He’d even turned to California cases—a true sign of desperation. Asking a panel of Missouri appellate judges to follow a Left Coast precedent was akin to asking them to join you in a rousing evening of pansexual bondage. You might get lucky, but the odds were against you.

But even with California in the mix, there wasn’t much help out there. He set the court opinion down and with a sigh of fatigue reached for the latest draft of the appellate brief.

And that’s when he saw the pink Phono-O-Gram slip.

Actually, he saw several. They were in a neat stack on top of the latest draft of the brief. He picked up the slips and started flipping through them. He stopped when he came upon the one from 10:48 that morning:

Mr. Gorman of San Diego called re “fame and fortune” (His words) ”Change of plans.” Arrives @5 PM tomorrow: TWA Flight 432. Said you should “clear your calendar and fasten your seat belt.”

Lou smiled as he leaned back.

What was Gorman up to now?

Their twentieth college reunion was less than two weeks away. Three months earlier, Ray Gorman had put Lou, Gordie, and Bronco Billy together on a conference call and made them take a pledge to meet him at Barrett College two days before the reunion. It would be the first gathering of the James Gang since the end of freshman year.

Lou read the message again.

Change of plans?

He checked his watch. Twenty minutes after three. He’d promised Brenda the brief by six. San Diego was two hours behind St. Louis time. He’d call Ray later.

He flipped through the other messages. Nothing urgent. He folded Ray’s message slip and put it in the pocket of his white dress shirt.

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