Thursday, 14 April
"Jim said I would probably find you here."
I looked up at the mention of my lawyer's name. A woman blocked the light that tried to enter the bar. She was an eyeful, in her early fifties, five foot four, and petite. Her hair was ash blond streaked with silver. It was no dye job; she was a natural beauty. Her gray eyes had the look of recent weeks of crying. Behind her pain, she looked new to the Blues. The rock on her left ring finger was probably worth more than last year's income.
I stood, and offered my hand. "Nick Schaevers. What can I do for you?"
Her soft hand shook mine. The contrast between the warm palm and ice-cold fingertips told me that she was scared. "My name is Margaret Stapleton."
I tried to pull my hand away but her grip was like a vice.
"I need your help."
I heard panic in her voice. I guided her to the chair across from mine.
She scanned the dim interior from the safety of her seat. Patrick's is a big club; at night it's crowded with everyone getting real cozy. For all of the dark wood and decorations, it lacked the stale smoke smell of an R&B bar. The air was fresh even if the atmosphere was old.
I had come to Patrick's to meditate and self-medicate. I didn't know where to start to tell a priest my personal problems. I wasn't ready for a shrink, but I knew how to drink. I'd kept my appointment with the three wise men: Johnny, Jack, and Jim. They dispensed emotional tonic in ounces or fifths depending on the depths of your troubles.
The fear that flickered across Margaret's face amused me. She didn't need to be afraid in here, but she didn't know that. "It's okay. Patrick's is a nice joint. The food's great, and the bouncers are better. You're safe here. Trust me."
"Jim said that I could."
Little Milton's "Grits Ain't Grocery" started playing over the sound system and Patrick's was again alive with mirth. Margaret appeared to have spent her last ration of bravery to find me in the dark south side bar. I'd have covered bets on whether Margaret's wildest night was her debutante ball.
I suspected my first task was to pry the story out of her. "So, how do you know Jim?"
"He is my husband's lawyer."
Her eyes were wetter than my throat. I eyed my empty glass.
She pulled an embroidered handkerchief from a purse that matched her pumps, and managed to blurt out "Alan's in jail." before descending into barely controlled sobs.
I signaled Bob the bartender. He looked over and twirled two fingers. I nodded. Bob would send over a Jameson's, and a Black Russian. By the time Margaret was quiet, the drinks were on the table.
I put the concoction in front of her. "Here, drink this."
"What is it?"
"A Black Russian. You looked like you could use one."
Margaret took a sip. The ice thawed a little.
I didn't want to rush a timid woman, so I asked a stupid question. "Alan's your husband?"
Margaret nodded from behind her glass.
I looked around the room for a thesaurus. No luck. I'd have to pick my words carefully. Patrick's patrons wouldn't appreciate a wailing woman without a blues band backing her. Maybe the swing-shift group would start playing early tonight. "What was the charge?"
"Murder, but he didn't do it." was all she managed to get out.
"Jim must agree, or he wouldn't have sent you. If Jim believes Alan's innocent then that's good enough for me. He's been my lawyer for years, and my friend for a lot longer."
An ancient wound opened, complete with video quality memories of Mom's blood dripping down a black metal table leg. Now Margaret needed help. I had failed Mom. Maybe she was watching from heaven.
I took the case. "I can't promise you anything, except that I'll try. Nothing's impossible, unless Alan's dead."
"No, he's not dead, but he's in prison." Her lip trembled like a bad Elvis impersonation.
"You need to be brave."
Margaret managed a thin and teary smile. She didn't look stable enough to tell the tale without creating an embarrassing scene. I moved the conversation to a safer subject. "Tell me about Alan: who he is and what he does."
She almost resembled a proud wife on familiar ground. "Alan and I have been married thirty-two years. He owns Bottom Line, a small accounting firm with his partner...He's dead. Alan didn't do it. He couldn't have." The waterworks flowed again.
I put my hand on hers and looked directly into her eyes. "Give me a break. All I know is a few names. We have to get me up to speed. We don't want to waste any time, so let's play a game: you aren't Margaret Stapleton. You're an actress, playing the wife of a wronged man. Can you do that? You're just an actress starring in someone else's drama, okay?"
She appeared to muster her courage behind the liquor. "Okay."
I gave her a place to start. "Who died?"
"Frank Gunston, Alan's partner. They were partners for eighteen years."
"Where did it happen?"
"Las Vegas. The trial was horrible. Everyone in the hotel was laughing and partying. I of course was not in a festive mood."
She was focused on her own emotional ordeal, perhaps too much to answer questions. I sat quietly waiting for the facts.
"Our regular attorney recommended Jim, who found a Nevada firm to perform the courtroom duties. We thought we had a great legal team, but we lost." She was crying again.
Like a Jehovah's Witness at her door, I pressed her button. "How did the murder happen?"
"Frank was suffocated in his hotel room. The police went after my Alan. How could they?"
Sobs like big prairie thunder shook her small frame. I could see that I'd have to talk to Jim to get the details. I changed the subject. "I'll need a list of friends and acquaintances. Get me the invitation lists from your last three parties before Vegas. I also need you to set up a tour of the accounting firm. Can you do that for me?"
"Does this mean that you'll help Alan and me?"
"Yes, I'll help you. I like challenges. If Alan's innocent, we have to get him out of jail. My fee is $150 per hour, plus expenses. You only pay for the hours I work. Okay?"
Talking about money stopped her tears. "Jim said you were expensive, but also that you are the only one likely to free my husband. I will pay you to do that."
"Try to do that, you mean."
Margaret gave a small nod.
You should wring out that wet hankie. "Could you bring the lists to my office tomorrow afternoon around two? I'll have an outline of the investigation and a standard contract for you to sign."
"I don't know if I have the guest lists you want."
"Just do the best you can. I know, make a new guest list for the welcome home party you'll throw for Alan. Be sure to make me a list of who you won't invite."
"Okay, I will meet you at your office at two. Where is it?"
"Fifty Maryland Plaza. It's the building behind the Chase Park Plaza in the Central West End. Could you also check on when we can visit the Bottom Line office?"
"Yes, I will set up an appointment." She started to dig in her purse.
I stopped her. "The first round's always on me."
She thanked me as we stood together. I walked her to the door, and we stepped outside into the April twilight. I waited until her tan Lexus left the parking lot, heading uptown. Returning inside, I signaled Bob. "Put it on my tab, will ya?"
"She must be a client. Way too classy for you."
"She's my mother, and all broke up over me wasting my life in cheap dives. I gotta go."
I pushed through the door into the moist St. Louis air. I heard Bob say "See ya, Nick." as the door closed.
Leaving Patrick's, I climbed into my pearl gray BMW Z-3. I own several cars to tail people and to do stakeouts, with makes and models chosen to blend into selected neighborhoods. The Z-3 is mine. It stands out in any neighborhood. A horrible detective car, but a great single guy car. Some folks love classic roadsters. Not me. I like art from the past, but cars from the present.
Leaving Patrick's I swung right on Jefferson, heading for Jim's law firm in Clayton. I called his office.
"Meecham, McCracken & Bonesteel, Mr. Walkins' office."
"Hi Sally. It's Nick. Is Jim in?"
"Hi Sweetie. I'll put you through."
Mozart's Third Horn Concerto in E-flat played on the line and I vaguely wondered if it was a Dennis Brain recording with the Philharmonia. Just as I began to get with the beat, Jim came on the line, killing the orchestra. That's okay, they were probably in the ground already.
"Hi Nick. Is this about the Stapletons, or a re-match at handball?"
"Hi, Jim. No, no re-match. My elbow is still sore from where you whacked me. It's the Stapleton case; Thanks, I took it. Margaret was too distraught to give me any useful information. When can we get together?"
"Not tonight. I've got daddy duties. You should stop by to see Joanne and the kids." I heard pages turning. "I have nine o'clock free tomorrow."
"Okay, I'll stop by."
After a pause, we ended the call. We never say good-bye to each other. We never started that stuff as twenty-somethings.
I had time to kill, so I took the scenic route home, going east through upscale Clayton neighborhoods that I could afford but didn't want to, crossing into North St. Louis where nobody wanted to live. It looked like a huge plywood bomb had exploded and blown shutters onto every door and window for miles. I passed through the war zone into the new loft district.
On the southern edge, the swing-shift crowd at Schlafley's Brewery and Taproom was already a few beers ahead of me. The TapRoom is in a converted fire house dating from the era when fire-trucks were pulled by horses. The spring daffodils in the center courtyard were visible from the interior of the main room of the tavern. My forebears were Belgian, so my taste buds prefer European styles of ale over the beer that made the city famous. I had one of my TapRoom growlers along for a refill. I grabbed the half gallon re-sealable glass bottle and went inside.
After settling the bill, I left for home a few blocks away. I pulled into the parking lot of the former Levine Hat Factory on Washington and punched the garage entry code into the transmitter. The beacon on the rear of my building blinked green then became solid orange. The entry cameras were tracking the Z-3. If anything else moved the door wouldn't open. As usual, nothing happened, and I drove into my building.
I was back in my lair, where I didn't have to be on good behavior.