It was almost five o'clock when I ended the call with Nora, already ruing my decision, and finally walked into the office.
Rene Encantos, my receptionist, office assistant, and doer of all needful things, was seated as usual at her desk, ear pressed against the phone. Smiling, she put the receiver down and indicated that Samuel Raj, the man who does all the investigate work required in my practice, was waiting in my office. Rene, with her dark olive complexion and sinister-black shoulder-length hair that somehow always looks perfect, has a look that could easily be described as luscious-an unfair and exotic beauty that, when she was younger, must have made angels weep. Those looks and the air of dignified sophistication about her gave my office a certain element of credibility that I could not easily afford otherwise. She has managed my front office since the day I moved in. She's in her early fifties, hardworking, divorced, with a grown daughter who went to Georgetown on an academic scholarship and was now at George Washington University Law School. She was tall at a five ten and was blessed with a shapely frame that gave her a slim athletic build. She also possessed a charming smile that could sooth and disarm anyone but the most belligerent of clients. With the black pumps she wore today she was tall enough to easily look at me leveled eyed. It was hard to look at Rene and not think of the what-ifs, but somehow, I had managed to wrestle and tame the evil within and had-thus far, anyway-refrained from spoiling a great working relationship and a valued friendship.
Compared to the handsome penthouse offices of Flannigan, Rubinstein, and Fountain, my hole-in-the-wall was nothing special. Just three comfortable offices: one for me, one for Consuelo, my law clerk, legal assistant, office manager, and critic at large, and the third a "general use" room. I had long ago given up the idea of bringing in a younger lawyer to work with me and grow the practice, so Consuelo had turned the last office into a fairly decent lunch area complete with a double-door refrigerator, microwave, espresso/cappuccino maker, flat-screen TV, and a round four-chair breakfast table. A potted palm and several orchids she tended daily added a homey touch. Separating my office from Consuelo's was a conference room that sat up to twelve adults. No frills and no bravado-what you saw was what you got: a lawyer more concerned with results than with bling.
Rene handed me a stack of messages. I gave them a cursory glance. Nothing important except for the last message: a call from a fairly recent flame. Sweet, way-too-eager-to-please Kate. She was in town for the weekend and would stop by my home later today. Not what I wanted to hear, since Nora, my current love interest, had been staying with me for the past several days in preparation for our vacation.
Home, by the way, is a boat: a sixty-foot Viking Custom Convertible sportfishing craft. It had been my father's dream boat. He worked hard all his life, waiting until he felt he had earned the right to possess something he referred to as "uniquely magnificent." He had placed the order for the custom craft almost three years before his passing. He took delivery barely five months before succumbing to brain cancer. After his death, his will specified that the boat, along with all other major assets in his name, was to be put up for sale, the proceeds to be credited to his charitable foundation. The foundation was designed to benefit his favorite causes: college scholarships for disadvantaged kids, cancer research, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation. For me, keeping the boat was a no-brainer. I was determined to keep his dream alive, so I bought the boat from the estate. But keeping the dream alive meant drastic changes to my lifestyle. I sold my large beachfront apartment and practically everything in it, moved my office from a higher-rent building with impossible views of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Breakers Hotel's twin Moorish towers, to my present address and took up residence in my new digs-the dream, the Bold Ambition II. It was a choice with lots of consequences, to be sure, but none that made me regret my decision.
I peeked into Consuelo's office. She was busy on the phone. I waved at her and got her customary deadpan glassy stare before she went back to taking notes. She was in one of her frequent moods. I scooted along to my office.
Consuelo was the ultimate office manager: good with details, sharp with numbers, efficient, punctual, never missing a day of work, and loyal to a fault. But she had her quirks. For one thing, she had an android's sense of humor. She constantly complained about her feet, claiming they hurt something crazy and her neck was a twisted mess of tendons. She hated hot weather and high humidity, heavy traffic, over population, ozone depletion, instant gratification and materialism and, most of all, she hated her husband. And she always felt free to share her harsh, dry, matter-of-fact critiques and free-flowing opinions that often-if you knew her-came across as funny. If you didn't know her, she could come across as a brooding, even bigoted world-class bitch. But underneath all that bitterness and sarcasm, I knew, was heart of gold.
As I walked down to my office I became aware of the message clutched in my hand. Kate was one of those women who captivated you with their almost startling beauty, infectious smile, and insatiable eagerness to please. Kate was also the type that never seems to rule out a casual one night stand, I believe, in the hope that one of those trivial encounters would last past dawn and eventually lead her to Mr. Right. In the deepest levels of Kate's subliminal self, I imagined every one night stand stood like a sad version of Cinderella's storybook journey, always hoping, always praying that when the nighttime passions had run their course, the slipper would fit and she would be magically transported to the fairytale land of happily-ever-after. Not long after we are born, most of us, and especially girls, are fed a consistent diet of happily-ever-after. But reality seldom lives up to expectations. In the endless search for the perfect mate we tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over, always hoping that the next one will be different, that the next one could be the right one. So we keep on trying. Our brief encounter had been a one-night stand that somehow lasted an entire week and, for Kate anyway, had ended in the same bottomless pit of disappointments where all her relationships landed. Just another spat on a long line of surly encounters. Nora, on the other hand, was different. With her there were possibilities. I didn't know where things would lead, but she was important to me, and I could ill afford to have Kate show up at the boat with Nora there. Best to head this off now.
Walking into my office, phone pressed to my ear, I found my friend Sammy Raj, who is also my private investigator, seated on the leather couch-a tasteful dark brown overstuffed number with wide armrests, which took up a goodly chunk of the room. The couch where Sammy had parked his dark, trim physique was flanked by two matching leather gooseneck chairs. The centerpiece of this comfy area was a square glass-top iron coffee table, which sat on a nice though gently worn Oriental rug. Opposite the couch, on the other side of the oak-floored room, was my rather formidable walnut desk. It had the haggard look of a century-old period piece, erring on the minimalist side with few drawers, its dark surface covered with several neat file stacks and assorted paperwork. Behind it were a credenza and several walnut barrister bookshelves loaded with law books and various mementos. A large picture of my West Point graduation, hats flying, and the corresponding diploma added a certain element of character, of single-minded determination, and achievement to my inner sanctum. There were also a few of the obligatory happier-times family pictures spread smartly around the office: my dad and me deep-sea fishing, stream fishing in Alaska and Montana, skiing in Chamonix, Deer Valley, Killington, and Snowmass, smiles everywhere, evidence of what looked from the outside like a privileged upbringing. On the wall closer to my desk hung the only piece of valuable art in the space: an oil on canvass of a sunny day surrounding the fuzzy lines of a sailboat. The image was punctuated with darker, dissipated images of people at a harbor. It was a work by Camille Pissarro, a lesser-known French impressionist born in 1830 in what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands. Pissarro was one of the pioneers of the impressionist movement, and this single fact is what made this particular painting the unique jewel I believed it to be. On the northeastern side of the rectangular office space, windows spanned the entire wall, affording me a peekaboo view eastward, toward the Atlantic Ocean and the expansive homes watched over by sprawling banyans and elegant royal palms.
Kate answered on the fifth ring. I got past the smoky, sensual ring of her voice and came clean with her. I informed her of my present involvement with someone else. She said she could live with that, and then described in some detail the kinds of things she would do to me when we got together. She wanted it everywhere: in the car, the parking lot, the restaurant bathroom, out in the moonlight against the smooth trunk of the gumbo-limbo tree-you name it. She was hard to resist. I remember our brief encounter well: her magnificent body, the supple curves, the long brown hair curtained over my face, her lovely scent, and her little gasps of pleasure. There was also her insane bikini, a microscopic number that was surely illegal in a number of Bible belt states. Saying no was harder than I thought. I swallowed and meekly mentioned I was headed out of the country and would not be around.
"You sure there's nothing I can do to change your mind?"
The girl was good. I heard myself saying, "How about a rain check?"
That reply caught me by surprise. Just how important was Nora? I had no clear answer. My mother's words echoed distantly in my mind: "Nothing is ever permanent. Nothing lasts a day longer than it should."
We continued our flirtation with disaster for a few more minutes. I sat at my desk. Sammy had ended his phone call and was listening in, studying me, a dim glare of disgust in his long face. I reluctantly agreed to meet her next time she was in town, and ended the call. Sammy shook his head. I glanced at him. He was still glaring.
The silence lingered. I hate silence.
"What?" I said.
"What about Nora?" Sammy snapped back in his raspy voice.
I didn't answer. As usual, Sammy was treading into areas I deemed beyond the scope of our friendship.
"That is so low," he replied to my silence.
"Whatever," I said. "How busy are you at the moment?"
He ignored my question. Obviously, he wasn't done opining on my morals. "I can't believe you're actually thinking of cheating on her."
"I'm not-not that it's any of your business." I leveled my gaze on him. "Are we doing this again?"
"Can I ask you something personal?"
"Only if I can ignore the question."
"Honestly," Sammy replied, ignoring the rhetorical reply, "it's something I've been meaning to ask you for a long time."
"I can't wait," I lied.
"I'm going to put aside my disgust for a moment . . ."
"Oh, no, please don't hold back anything."
Ignoring my obvious displeasure, Sammy plowed on. "This lifestyle of yours-doesn't it leave you feeling empty? I mean, how many women can you screw in any given year?"
"I'm working on it-I'll let you know."
"Don't you want more out of life? I mean, Jason, look at me. I know I'm older than you, but neither of us is getting any younger, my friend. The party does end. The music stops, and you don't want to be left without a chair. Do you understand what I'm getting at, Jason?"
"You done now?" I glared for a moment. Sammy said nothing, so I went on: "'Cause if you're not, I have a suggestion that'll save both of us some time." I pointed at my face. "Here, check my expression."
He gave me a bored look.
"Can you read the subtle 'I don't give a shit' expression written all over my face?" I glared at him silently, and he returned my gaze. We were momentarily caught in our own version of a Mexican standoff. We were like two brothers arguing. There was no ill will, only a deep-seated regard that transcended race, age, and blood. Sammy had been around for so long, he was like family, like the distant nagging uncle we all dread but always call on in a pinch.
Samuel Raj Desai and I go way back. He's my secret weapon. I first met him through my father's business dealings while I was home from school one summer break. One day, Detective Samuel Raj of the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office came in investigating a very odd chain of mini-warehouse robberies and the insurance claims that went with it. My dad suggested I get involved in the investigation, that I "might learn something useful from the detective." And learn I did. Samuel Raj Desai was witty and also sharp as a tack. We searched records together, found the information he sought: a common denominator that pointed to the owner of the warehouses-a client of ours, no less-as the perpetrator of the crimes. Case solved. For my assistance with the search, Detective Desai offered to buy me lunch. Somehow, I ended up buying that day. We've been friends ever since.
Sammy had been a highly decorated detective with Miami-Dade Police before joining the PBSO as a senior detective. Some years later, he took an early retirement and decided to give private practice a try. Sammy, who has a penchant for all things Western-from his black ostrich Tony Lamas to the Texas longhorn belt buckle and the moss agate bolo tie-had dedicated over twenty years of his life to law enforcement. The lessons learned over those many years as a lead investigator were instrumental to his success in private practice. Naturally, I was one of his first clients. If I needed to locate someone or find out their deepest, darkest secrets, Sammy was my go-to guy. As far as I am concerned, there is simply no better investigator anywhere.
Finally, after a long, tense moment, Sammy relented, shook his head, and gazed out the window at the blustering weather.
"So . . . ," I began. Having made my point, it was time to get to business. "If you're working on anything right now, give it to Sean." Sean was one of Sammy's investigators. A young ex-Army intelligence non-commissioned officer turned DEA agent, he had retired from the federal government due to an eye injury and turned PI.
I opened up a Google page on my computer and entered "Samuel Reichmann" in the search box. Hundreds of articles popped up. I chose a lengthy article published in the Wall Street Journal long ago and sent it to the printer. Sammy was still watching the gray skies outside.
"New case?" he said to his reflection.
"Favor for Nora. She asked me to look into something." Somehow, the mention of Nora's name was enough to end his pouting. I plucked the article from the printer. "It's about one of her patients. A Mrs. Kelly-Robertson. Died recently. Lived in Palm Beach."
I offered the freshly printed article to Sammy. He refused to accept it and instead continued to glare. After a moment I asked, "Is there a problem?"
By his expression, I could tell he was not pleased with me. He stared blankly at the pages dangling from my hand. Finally, reluctantly, he took them and said, "I don't know why I bother. But I believe one day you'll say, 'Hey, you know what? Sammy was right after all. I should have listened to him.'" He sighed. "I hope I live to see that day."
Sammy was not an overbearing prude, but he did not approve of a lifestyle of "unbridled and unabashed promiscuity," as he called it. He was deeply religious, having converted to Southern Baptist a few years after his parents passed away. They would have been mortified at his abandoning their traditional Sikh faith. I guess being a Baptist went better with the Western look he preferred. I ignored the remark and pressed on.
"Remember a con man by the name of Samuel Reichmann? Convicted on a slew of securities and wire fraud counts back in 1987?"
"Oh, yeah." Sammy sank into one of the two wingback chairs before my desk. "He's dead, isn't he?"
"He is," I said. "But I'm not interested in Mr. Reichmann."
"Oh?" Sammy gave me a faintly puzzled look.
"I'm interested in his ex-wife, Mrs. Kelly," I said, walking around my desk to stand at the window. It was an uglier, more brooding gray out there if that were possible, and windy, but after the first quick flurry the rain had held off so far. "She was Nora's patient and, apparently, also a close friend."
"I see," Sammy replied, examining the article in his hands with more attention. "So what's Nora's interest? She died owing her money?"
"No. I wish it were that simple. Mrs. Kelly remarried some time ago, to someone who apparently swindled her out of her fortune. A man by the name of Robertson."
"Don't tell me you're working financial fraud again?" Sammy beamed at the prospects.
"Don't get too excited, now," I said, shaking my head. I turned away from the window and faced him. He was still staring at me. "It's just a favor for Nora. A one-time thing." I shared with Sammy what little I knew about the case. I brought up the name of the real client-the daughter, Amy Kelly-and her dire financial circumstances.
"What about the cops?" Sammy asked.
"They can't help. Apparently it was all legal. Nora tells me Mrs. Kelly granted power of attorney to her husband."
Sammy raised his gaze at me before asking, "So, what's the endgame here? I mean, recovering whatever he may have stolen, even if we do manage to locate it, is gonna be ugly at best, if you know what I mean."
Sammy was right: it was fantasy to suppose that Robertson, once located, would just magically change his mind and return what he took from Mrs. Kelly. Nothing is ever that simple. In matters involving large sums of money, people have a tendency to fight back.
I mentioned the tapestry and the fact that Reichmann had hidden something supposedly valuable in it as a form of rainy-day insurance for his daughter. I explained that Reichmann and his now deceased ex-wife were indeed very wealthy even before the scandal. He could have hidden something as simple as a safe-deposit box key from a Swiss bank, or perhaps something easily converted to cash and hard to trace.
"You think whatever was hidden may have belonged to the investors he screwed?"
"I hope not," I replied.
"So what do you want me to do?"
"Examine Mrs. Kelly's life with a microscope. Find out what she owned and what her financial situation was when she died. Search county records, titles, credit, bank accounts, the whole gamut. And more importantly, look into her husband, Mr. Robertson. Sort the truth from the fictional."
Neither of us spoke for a moment. Then Sammy said, "Since this is a matter that may involve illegally obtained assets, should we inform the feds?"
"Good question." I glanced at him. "But premature at this point."
Once a cop, always a cop. Sammy was right, though. A lot of people, most of them lawyers like me who stood to profit handsomely from any recovered Reichmann assets, would be very interested in looking into this.
"But what if we find out there's something there?"
"Even if that's the case," I replied, "all I can do is advise my client to do the right thing. If she decides to keep it, there's nothing much we can do. Attorney-client privilege, remember?"
"So what?" Sammy fired back. "I'm not a lawyer."
"Not so fast, Kemo Sabe. Technically, you're my employee, so like it or not, attorney-client extends to you, too." As in privileged, confidential information never to be divulged without the client's express consent.
Sammy smirked at the mention of the deified legal principle of secrecy. He was naturally averse to lawyers and the pretentious moral authority they always seem to profess when their sole concern is to look out for themselves and where their next dollar is coming from. He firmly believed I should have done something other than become a legal gun for hire. He was probably right. But my father's cancer diagnosis and bleak prognosis were the reasons I moved back to Florida, and for the foreseeable future, private practice is where I cut my teeth.
Sammy and I had built a solid friendship over many years-a friendship that went beyond the office. This odd, awkward man whose mild appearance masked the deadliness of a king cobra was someone I trusted implicitly. His parents, immigrants from Bangladesh, had settled over forty years ago in a suburb of Trenton, New Jersey, where he spent most of his childhood. Fresh out of Rutgers University, he applied to the FBI, and was accepted. After a few years assigned to the FBI's Trenton office, bright, young Special Agent Samuel Raj Desai was involved in an off-duty shootout. He had the bad luck of stopping by a convenience store while it was being robbed. Sammy, being Sammy, intervened and had the bad luck to confront a pair of robbers who were better armed than he. In the ensuing gunfight, Sammy was shot once in the abdomen and once in the right leg, the bullet nicking a major artery. He almost bled to death. The robbers, however, paid the full price. Sammy was an accomplished marksman, having ranked among the top handgun experts ever to attend the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. The incident placed him in the hospital for over two months and in recovery for most of a year. In the meantime, his family decided they had had quite enough of Trenton and its seemingly unlimited supply of thugs and crime, so they bought a convenience store in the greater Miami area and a home in Hialeah and headed south.
If human history teaches us anything, it is that people seldom learn from experience. It was as if the incident that almost took their only son's life had not mattered. Convenience stores make easy marks for ne'er-do-wells in need of quick cash, smokes, or beer. Like a porch light to moths, a convenience store, depending on its location, tended to attract all manner of miscreants and scumbags, especially after dark. As the saying goes, there are no victims, just willing participants. In the end, Sammy's injuries forced him to take early retirement from the Bureau and decided to follow his family south, where, after making a full recovery, he immediately joined local law enforcement.
"How urgent is this?" Sammy asked.
"It's more necessary than urgent. This is for Nora," I said. I stood up and stretched my back. "But I'd like to know what really happened. Find out as much as you can about Robertson."
"I get it: peace in the valley," Sammy said. Already his fingers were tapping away on the tiny keys of his Blackberry. "I'll get Sean on it. Anything else?"
I thought for a moment. "If this guy Roberson is this cunning and deliberate, then he may have done this before."
"Reasonable expectation," Sammy said, not looking up. "Let me see what I can dig out."
This Robertson had to be one cool customer: If he had operated as effectively as he had, in circles as exclusive and skeptical of newcomers as Palm Beach, then I had to assume he was a skilled, highly capable individual who rarely did or said more than he absolutely had to. His success depended on it, and when he did choose to reveal something about himself, it was always contrived, precisely measured, and well thought out in advance. If I had learned anything in the years I spent investigating embezzlement and securities fraud, it was that these criminals nearly always leave something behind: the faintest of clues, overlooked in their haste to escape. A tiny detail was often the difference between a perpetrator making off with a fortune and spending twenty years in prison. The trick was finding those little clues.
"You know," I said as I pondered the amount of money involved, "Check out for any male names associated with Mrs. Kelly's home address."
"If he's got an alias, I'll find it," Sammy said as he scribbled in a small notebook. "What about screwy-honeys? A guy this slick ought to have one or two on the sidelines. Someone to play spoons with at night, know what I mean?"
"I wouldn't know, but it's worth looking into." I laughed. It was pouring now. A trail of headlamps and brake lights mottled the four-lane street below. The waters of Lake Worth looked black now, and clouds and thick rain obscured the towers of the Breakers Hotel. I thought about my vacation plans. I could feel my excitement to get away dwindling. Stepping back from the window, I caught a glimpse of my own reflection smeared over the dark rain: the not-so-young warrior. The years were finally starting to show: a bit of gray at the temples, and the ruddy face that my mother used to tell me most men could only dream of owning now sported a few more lines and no longer glowed with all the radiance of youth. I hate time and the ravages it brandishes on us all, on everything. Yes, time may heal but it is also our worst enemy.
"Well, I better get going," Sammy said, and sprang to his feet. It was amazing how, despite his injuries and his middle-aged frame, he always seemed as alert and energetic as a cat about to pounce. "How's the rest of your day look?"
"Tonight, the boat. Tomorrow, the Bahamas."
Sammy glanced at the window. "Hope you have a plan B ready, 'cause I don't think you're goin' anywhere, chief."
I waved him off.
On his way out of my office, took a moment to say, "You know, there's another alternative."
"What to do if we find Reichmann's missing fortune, what else?" Standing in the doorway, he said, "How about this: I find the money, you and I split it fifty-fifty-after my expenses, of course, and a hefty finder's fee-and we live happily ever after on some no-name island somewhere. Couple of nice beach shacks. The best stogies. Life of plenty, y'know."
I shook my head. This wasn't Sammy. He would never take what wasn't rightfully his. But it was tempting.
"Attorney-client?" I asked.
"What else?" He grinned and headed out into the rain.
... continued ...