Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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USA: Chapter Four

Between juggling my schedule, the bid opening, and last minute preparations for the trip, Thursday turned into a two-day marathon. As far as I could tell there were no more tailing incidents, although I admit to looking over my shoulder more than once. Every dark blue Ford on the road got my attention. I decided against telling anybody about what happened yesterday on the way home; nothing came of it, so there was really no point. Besides, who could I tell?

The funeral director called late in the afternoon and said that delivery had been made; the casket was at the airport awaiting placement on the plane. As usual, whenever I'm leaving on a trip the last hour in the office was bedlam - the phones never stopped. Always something off the wall, and everybody needs an answer. So, I did what I usually do: call Nancy and delegate or totally ignore - about a sixty-forty split.

We made it to the airport with about ten minutes to spare, and our flight left on time. The 747 was crowded, but Suzy and I lucked out and had a window row all to ourselves. The drink cart came down the aisle after we were in the air about fifteen minutes. While handing Suzy her vodka and tonic it struck me that this is the first time she and I have ever been alone together, outside the office, and also the first time we could sit and make small talk, without phone interruptions or an office crisis dominating the conversation. After that first drink, Suzy kicked off her shoes, pushed down the arm rest and rearranged herself in the seat, then told me she wanted a complete rundown on today's bid opening. I had forgotten that she was home packing when Joe and I got back to the office.

"All right," I said, "I'll give you the meat of it, but then no more shop talk until we get home. You're supposed to be on vacation, remember?"

"So are you," she smiled. "Just tell me how things went and I won't mention the office again until we get home. Promise."

"O.K., but I'm going to hold you to that." The attendant came down the isle with the food cart and we both selected the poached salmon. I also ordered wine for each of us. "Most important, we're the apparent low bidder on the combined package. I was also relieved to hear that we left only about eleven grand on the table, on a bid of just over forty-one million. You can't get much closer than that. Joe and the guys did one helluva job. What's even better is we know we're right on the mark; our three big competitors were all bunched together, with a spread of less than eighty-five thousand. Everybody wanted the job bad."

"That's great. With those two jobs we picked up last month, this gives us more work on the books than we've had in over two years. What's the completion date?"

"The school board rep said they want to award within a month and break ground by early October. We'll have about twenty-three months to complete the job, which shouldn't be a problem. I plotted it against our other schedules and I think we can do it without hiring any more inside people."

"That's great, and it's also going to look great on our statement," she said, patting me on the arm. "Now I'll keep my promise - tell me all about London, and all the fabulous things you're going to show me. Remember, I've never been there before."

Through the rest of dinner, and for an hour afterward, I talked. I get really wound up when I start talking about London; I think it's the most fascinating city on earth. I love the place. I told her about my favorite pubs and restaurants; about Soho and Mayfair and Piccadilly Circus; the museums; shopping on Oxford and Regent Streets; and walks along the Thames. I had been rambling on for some time about the bombing of London and how the city had been rebuilt after the war when I felt the weight of her head on my arm. I looked down and saw she was sound asleep. So much for my scintillating conversation.

I turned out the overhead lights and closed my eyes. Sitting there, being lulled by the almost hypnotic harmonics of the jet engines, it suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten something; I had left David's attache case back at the office. The day after his death I had locked it in our fire file for safekeeping, intending to bring it with me tonight. I'll call the office from London and have them ship it to his widow.

My body craved sleep, but my churning brain wouldn't cooperate. I tried making a mental list of all the things Suzy and I should do and see in London. It didn't work. My thoughts kept drifting back over the tragedy of the past few days - the loss suffered by David's family and friends; how so many lives can be drastically altered so quickly, and in David's case so permanently. It also bothered me that I had no idea what to expect from Alex Trimble. The reality of this is: what the hell can I do to make this trip even resemble a vacation for Suzy? Maybe I should have insisted she stay home. After half an hour I gave up on sleep, grabbed my newspaper and started working the crossword puzzle, squinting in the semi-darkness. Suzy stirred and gave me a big sigh. O.K., I thought, whatever happens, we'll try to minimize the nasty stuff and do our damnedest to have a little fun.

London was warm and dry. As promised, a car was waiting at Terminal 4, and, even with the commute traffic, we were at the Dukes in just under an hour. The Dukes is a comparatively small hotel, situated in a quiet courtyard off St. James Place. It's right in the middle of everything, yet seems private and low-key. Outside, gas lanterns and an abundance of potted flowers lend a lot of charm. Inside, the polished mahogany in the lobby and the crisp British service raised my concern that maybe it wasn't to Suzy's liking, but she seemed impressed. After registering, she insisted on peeking into the hotel restaurant to look at the luncheon menu. She came out a few minutes later raving about the murals and the Roland Batchelor watercolors on display. I knew she was hooked on the place. I told her the restaurant was good, but asked her to bear with me; I wanted to have lunch in one of my favorite pubs. We agreed to meet in the lobby at one, which gave me time for a couple hours of badly needed sleep and a hot shower.

Lunch at Watling's was as good as I remembered. I convinced Suzy to try the "Ploughman's Plate' with me. I love English Stilton and cheddar, with their course bread and hot mustard. Wash it down with a pint of lager and I'm set - at least until dinner. During lunch I bored Suzy with some of Ye Olde Watling's history. I knew it when she reached across the table and pressed the tip of her finger against my lips. I guess I never learn. She laughed and said the history lesson was very interesting, but we were wasting a lot of quality shopping time.

After spending the next hour or so in a couple of very pricey boutiques, I hailed a taxi and dropped Suzy at the Dukes on my way to meet with Trimble. She said not to worry; she was going to explore some of the stores near the hotel, have dinner in her room, and go to bed early. I knew by the expression on her face that she was like a kid in a candy store. These London shops may never recover. We agreed to meet at nine the next morning for breakfast.

Trimble's bank is in an area known as The City, London's answer to Wall Street. Only a few blocks from the Bank of England, the bank was clustered in a group of classic nineteenth-century buildings - somewhat as I had imagined. The massive entrance, containing huge bronze doors, was flanked by ornate marble columns and imposing polished brass lanterns. Quite a contrast to the cookie-cutter drive-ins we have back home.

Trimble was expecting me, but I was asked to wait in the lobby. After a few pointed questions and some terse answers from a receptionist, I concluded that as the bank's executive vice-president Trimble ran the show; the president was apparently a figurehead who spent most of his time in Bermuda. It was also obvious that at least the receptionist was totally intimidated by Trimble and considered him a pompous ass. After a short wait his secretary, a very unattractive pinched-face woman named Nickleby, Miss Nickleby, she informed me in a very acid tone, came out to escort me up in the elevator and into his office.

Trimble came from behind his desk to shake hands and invited me to sit in a narrow wingback chair opposite his desk. He didn't look like I imagined he would. On the short side, he was heavy, well past sixty, and wore his jet-black hair combed straight back. The hair looked like it came right out of a bottle, which I guess is preferable to coming off a wig stand. His clean-shaven face and mottled pink complexion brought one thought to mind: if there was such a character, this was Mr. Piggy. He wore half-glasses low on his broad nose and carried his head down to look over them. Trimble told Miss Nickleby to bring tea - I guess coffee wasn't an option - and when she did he snapped at her to close the door on her way out; we were not to be disturbed, and absolutely no calls. Maybe this explains the reaction to Trimble I had encountered in the lobby. He certainly doesn't come across as Mr. Nice Guy.

Without any small talk Trimble immediately asked about the details of David's death and the investigation, and then sat with his hands clasped on his ample stomach while I told him everything I knew about it. I didn't withhold anything, including the details of the torture and what Ronko had told me about somebody suppressing information. When I finished, he removed some papers from a desk drawer, placed them in front of himself, and looked at me with an obviously forced smile. "Cole," he said, "if you have no objections I'd like to eliminate the formality of last names. Under the circumstances I think it's important that we communicate freely, and in my opinion, first names will help - please call me Alex."

"That's fine with me." Maybe the receptionist was wrong. "I do apologize for dragging you to London on such short notice, but David's death not only shocked me, it frightened the hell out of me! I'm not usually this blunt, but since you called with the news about David I've found it increasingly difficult to function. I'm frightened because I suspect his killing was not a coincidence, or a random act of violence. If I'm right, there's no telling where this bloody business will end. I could be in danger...and so might you! If I'm wrong, I can only apologize for alarming you needlessly."

Alex picked up his cup and spilled tea on the papers lying on the desk. He nervously dabbed at the wet spots with his handkerchief and then stuffed it back in the breast pocket of his jacket. As he continued, his face colored an even brighter pink and he looked annoyed, apparently embarrassed about what he had just done. "Because of your unfortunate involvement in David's death, and your relationship with us over the years, I feel I can be frank in discussing my suspicions with you. After you hear me out I would like your opinion; whether you agree with me, or possibly think my imagination is running wild. And totally honest with me.

"David and I have worried about this situation for many years and had more than a few discussions about what to do. We agreed that we could not go to the authorities, it would have been very risky and we had absolutely no proof. And, even though our board of directors knows about the account, and our mysterious client, they know nothing of what I'm about to tell you. To involve them was also out of the question...there are two or three directors who might panic and run to the authorities, or worse, the media. Such a knee-jerk reaction could destroy the bank - or maybe bring about even more tragedy! With David gone I just didn't know where to turn, other than you. That's why I asked you here."

Based on what I had heard so far, my imagination was definitely running wild. I certainly knew which client Alex was talking about but I had no idea how much Alex thought I knew. I thought I had better find out. "I'm anxious to hear about what's bothering you, but if you're talking about the client we have mutually worked for, please understand that I know damned little."

"That is exactly who I am referring to. It might save time if you tell me what you do know."

This isn't what I had in mind, but I decided to go along. "Precious little, Alex. I don't know how many times I questioned David about this over the years. Both my partner and brother have been uptight about legal entanglements with you and your client, and I told David so. Until the night before he was killed David always refused to discuss your client, except in very general terms. We had a lengthy discussion in my office just before he left for the casino. He didn't say much that I didn't already know, other than to explain how the account was started, and how it prospered over the years. He insisted for the hundredth time that no one in your bank knows the client's identity, and the reasons you haven't tried to find out."

"David mentioned your questions to me more than once. Your curiosity is certainly not without justification. The very same issue caused David and I to be at odds with our board for many years. In retrospect, given the strong feelings expressed about it by some board members, I'm surprised they didn't replace both of us. On the other hand, I'm sure they were as concerned as David and I about survival of the bank."

Alex shuffled the papers in front of him and looked at me, his face without expression and his forehead beaded with perspiration. "I may regret this, but it's time to clear the air. I think it best that I start at the beginning and tell you what I do know...and also what I suspect. You can then form your own conclusions. Based on what you just said, David apparently didn't tell you about the many strange things that have happened over the years. Tragic, inexplicable things that happened to people; all of whom were tied in some fashion to the client - or the client's business ventures. The client may have been directly responsible for these happenings, maybe not - we just never knew for sure. Certainly no definitive proof. I do know that if the client has not been involved, the laws of probability and coincidence are stretched beyond belief. And now this business with David...I really can't ignore what has happened any longer."

Alex picked up the papers and scanned the top page. "I made some notes, I don't want to overlook anything important. There's too much to trust to memory.

" You see, for David and me this all began in 1954 when he and I joined the bank within a week of each other, fresh out of university. The client had opened the account a year earlier, and Peter Willard was assigned to handle the transactions. Willard was a senior teller at the time. My first involvement occurred in 1957. I had just been put in charge of international business development, a new department, when the client instructed Willard to purchase property in the United States, the first time that had occurred. Peter and I worked together researching real estate brokers in your country and settled, unfortunately as it turned out, on a firm in New York City. We retained their services and the first deal went very smoothly. Over the next few years, they represented us a number of times, apparently without incident. Willard handled all transactions with them until his death in 1967.

"David was then appointed to replace Willard, and very quickly expressed dissatisfaction the way the New York broker was handling our projects. After reviewing Willard's records, David was convinced the broker had been padding expenses and gouging us with excessive or bogus fees. He decided to visit them, unannounced, to audit their records. It didn't take long to confirm his suspicions. He confronted them, and of course, they denied his allegations. Before contacting me, David was invited out for drinks and dinner by one of their principals. After a few drinks, the chap tried to buy David off by offering him kickbacks. When that failed he got downright nasty and said if we didn't back off he would start an investigation to uncover the client's identity - and make sure the media heard about it; pure blackmail. Apparently, Willard had let slip enough about the strange nature of the account and the client's insistence on anonymity, at least enough to give the broker big ideas. David then called me and we decided to counter with a threat of a formal audit of their books and criminal prosecution. The next day, after a conference call with their officers, we compromised: we don't prosecute, and they cease and desist, and accept termination of services. The letter of agreement is still in our file. Shortly after, we offered our business in your country to Walter Hammel."

"So that's how we got your business. How did you happen to pick Walter?"

"He had built a manufacturing plant and office facility for one of your large pharmaceutical firms in Bolton, up near Manchester, about two years before. Our bank had handled the financing. While working together, Walter and I became friends. He was amazing. Not only was he expert at construction, but his business and political connections throughout the United States never failed to surprise us. Nothing was ever impossible for Walter."

I started to say something about Walter when Alex extended a hand in the air and continued scanning his notes; he obviously didn't want to be interrupted.

"We didn't have much business for Walter during the first few years. There were a few relatively small deals; mostly land acquisition, and a resort hotel in Florida. But in 1972 the client ordered us to find a ranch for them. It was totally unlike anything we had ever done for them. We thought it particularly odd when they advised us what they intended doing with it, and their criteria for the purchase. They wanted to raise cattle and horses; experimental breeding stock and thoroughbreds. They required at least six-thousand acres of undeveloped grazing land somewhere in your mid-west. It had to be remote, but with paved access to a rail connection, and with good water.

"Walter came through admirably. He found a site in less than a month; seventy-two hundred acres in eastern Montana, with the Powder River running through the property, and rail service less than five miles away. The purchase of that land was the beginning of a great number of acquisitions in the States for the client - first by Walter and later by you. It was also when and where the first of the strange events occurred."

"So, what happened?"

Alex again scanned his notes before continuing. "We had an ironclad agreement of sale for the purchase. About a week before settlement Walter was contacted by the seller's agent, a man by the name of Stiebris, who announced that the seller wanted additional contingencies placed in the agreement, mostly dealing with development restrictions. Walter refused, and David and I supported him fully. The long and short of it was the new contingencies were ridiculous - absolutely without merit and totally unacceptable. They would have prevented the use of the property as our client apparently intended. With a signed agreement already in place, we knew we could win in court, but were concerned about the possible delay; we knew the client wanted to move quickly. Stiebris and the seller knew we intended paying cash, so in our opinion, the eleventh-hour ploy was pure extortion. They were squeezing us for more money. Walter was irate. We gave him the authority to do what he felt was necessary, so he ran a bluff and told them the deal was off.

"Well, two days before settlement Walter called and told David to catch his flight after all; the original deal was back on. As it turned out, Stiebris had suggested more money as the remedy. But, as you're fond of saying in your country, Walter told him to stick it! Walter had already pulled some strings; he discovered the seller was a speculator, but on a grand scale. The seller was deep in the pockets of a half-dozen banks. With Walter's prodding, two of the banks suddenly discovered that the speculator's methods of financing were a bit too creative. Two of his major loans were called, and within hours he became desperate. He needed our cash. End of problem. Incidentally, this was the first of many instances where Walter's connections and resourcefulness saved the day for us. Settlement was held in Billings, as scheduled, without any further glitches."

"I don't see anything strange in what I just heard, it happens all the time."

"So far I agree, but hear me out. Less than a month later our client brought in contractors to clear land and start construction of the main residence and remaining complex. There were no problems except for Stiebris. He persisted in snooping around the property, taking photographs, badgering the workmen, and generally making a pest of himself. He was escorted from the site a number of times by security guards. One morning, a few weeks later, Stiebris told his secretary he was going to the site to take more pictures, left in his car, and has never been seen or heard from since."

"Did he ever show up at the site that morning. His disappearance may have been totally unrelated. A girlfriend, money problems - maybe he was a head case."

"No one saw Stiebris after he left his office that morning," Alex continued. "His car was found about a half mile from the site, with the keys in the ignition and no sign of foul play. His empty camera and briefcase were on the back seat. The police investigated but turned up nothing. Absolutely not a trace. His wife even hired a private investigator. The consensus was: Stiebris had no girlfriend, no major enemies, no money problems, no family problems, no reason to disappear. But he did.

"No one ever determined why he persisted in visiting the site after settlement. Logically it made no sense whatsoever. The authorities could find no involvement on the part of the land speculator, the former owner. The only rationalization we could make was that Stiebris was being vindictive; he wanted to stick his finger in Walter's eye. He believed Walter had deprived him of an even larger commission and soiled his reputation with the local banks. He very nastily said so and created quite a scene with Walter and David as they were leaving settlement."

"If your suspicions were correct," I said, "Stiebris must have been unbalanced. It makes no sense at all - how could making a pest of himself at the site in any way embarrass Walter? Was there any evidence implicating your client, or for that matter any possible reason why the client would want Stiebris eliminated? Certainly, your bank and Walter had no reason to be involved."

"No, certainly not Walter or ourselves. But it happened, and as I said, it was the first of many similar incidents. I know we had nothing to do with any of them, nor did your company. That leaves either coincidence or the client, and I am firmly convinced the events were not a coincidence. I believe you'll feel the same... after you hear me out."

"Alex, I'm curious about something; you said the client brought in contractors to build the ranch. How did the client do that without some kind of personal involvement?"

"It was really quite simple. At about the same time that we started buying property in your country, the client formed a real estate management and holding company. They're headquartered in Tampa, Florida. As we found out later, the client recruited a few key real estate and insurance people and then proceeded to build the company around them - again, all by remote control. We had them investigated as soon as we were informed of the role they were to play. We found a very convoluted corporate structure, but absolutely no discernible link to the client.

"David and the rest of his staff have always referred to them simply as "Tampa', and David personally handled the coordination with them. Typically, Tampa steps in and takes control of most of the properties we acquire for the client, at least those that require development or long-term management. The exceptions are the quick turn-around deals we handle ourselves and the few properties managed by your company. So, to answer your question; as in our case, the client apparently issues the orders and Tampa carries them out. They obtain the architects and engineers, the builders, and whatever else is needed. Their operation apparently runs very smoothly."

"Maybe too smoothly. The links of the chain have to connect somewhere. What makes you so sure Tampa doesn't know the client - or maybe is the client? How can you be sure that's not the case?"

"That's part of my concern, Cole, I am not sure! Aside from investigating them, we've asked Tampa a lot of very specific questions, and on more than one occasion. David and I have talked with their top executive, a chap by the name of Alvarez, a number of times since our first transaction together, all to no avail. About a year ago Alvarez came to London to discuss a pending deal. At the urging of our bank's solicitor, David and I used the opportunity to subject Alvarez to a real third-degree. We asked many questions that I would have refused to answer, had our roles been reversed. We were impressed with his candor and apparent veracity, but he told us nothing we didn't already know. They seem to exist in the same vacuum the bank has operated in all these years; just different functions and a different setting."

I was becoming impatient and more than a little annoyed with this whole crazy situation. God, what have I gotten myself involved in! For days now it's been nothing but questions, foreign intrigue, and the thickest smoke screen since Oliver North. But dammit to hell, nobody ever has even one answer - just more lousy questions!

I snapped at Alex, "How can you possibly tie the disappearance of this guy Stiebris with David's death more than two decades later?"

Alex's face was devoid of expression, but his coloring was deepening from pink to red. He fidgeted and again shuffled the notes in his hands. He also avoided my stare as he answered. "Again, Cole, I'm not sure, but during those twenty odd years, starting with Stiebris and ending with David, there have been a total of seven disappearances or deaths. Seven! And in my opinion, all were tied in some fashion to the client."

"Seven! My God, that's incredible. How come we haven't heard about any of this before?" Now I was really upset, and Alex knew it. I got out of my chair and began pacing in front of his desk. I was tempted to walk away from this whole mess. The bank's business accounted for about ten percent of our total yearly gross. Did we really need this kind of aggravation and risk? Then my brother Ben flashed into mind. How is he going to react to this news? One thing I did know for sure - he'd want all the crazy details, verbatim - so I guess I'd better listen to the rest of it. Damn!

"I can understand your reaction," Alex said, his face now glistening with perspiration. "But please consider this: not one of these mysteries has ever been solved. And more importantly, as far as I know, the authorities have never tied any of them together, or to any of us. You weren't told because - with the exception of David's death - each occurred well after your participation in the transaction had ended. We felt there was no point. You're hearing this now only because David's death has hit too close to home... I'm really concerned for both you and myself. Other than asking you to come here, I didn't know what else to do. I'm at my wit's end, and we've got to decide what to do before something happens to one of us... or our families. We have to find some way to stop this craziness once and for all!

His hands were shaking and he was really losing it. "Alex, we'll figure out something, you've got to get a grip on yourself! You said the authorities have never tied any of these incidents together. Has Hammel & McQuaid's name ever surfaced, or yours?"

"No, at least not yours. As I said, in each case you were no longer in the picture, so we made the decision not to involve you. David and I were questioned a few times, usually as a follow-up to an inquiry with Tampa. Nothing came of any of it, and no single event was ever tied to any of the others. I can only attribute that to the time spans between them and the fact they all occurred in different parts of the country."

I flopped back in my chair again. Alex was again blotting his face and looked like he was about to have a coronary. "I still don't understand why you or David didn't tell us what was going on. Hell, didn't it ever occur to you that we may have been at some risk, I mean we had a lot of exposure in every one of your deals."

"You're right," he said, his voice somewhat subdued. "But we avoided telling you for what we thought was a very valid reason: we were convinced you would insist on conducting your own investigation. Such action could have placed you in real jeopardy...and may have created the impact with the client we have tried to avoid since the beginning. Maybe not sound or ethical reasoning on our part, but after the second and third deaths, I felt we were in a real predicament. And you can rightfully blame me for our silence; after the Chicago incident David wanted to tell you, but I ordered him not to. I truly did not know what to do but sit back and keep quiet."

"O.K., I still don't agree with your logic, but it's too late to argue about it now. You said the authorities never turned up any leads - so what makes you think the client has been involved in all this?"

"What else could we think. The client has been the only common denominator."

"Well, so much for Mr. Stiebris. Why don't you tell me about the rest." I knew this was going to take a while, and the rumbling in my stomach told me it had been a long time since lunch. At the rate we were going it would be a couple of hours minimum until dinner - I hope Alex hadn't forgotten.

"I had planned to do just that," Alex said. He had started to calm down some; his coloring was returning to mottled pink. " Incidentally, to save time I'll try to stick to the main points, but I will give you a copy of my notes - they are fairly comprehensive. They're handwritten, but they should provide you with most of the details. The only other person to see them was David - I keep them here in my personal safe - so please maintain them as confidential."

"Understood," I said. But I can't speak for Ben.

"The next incident occurred in 1977, about five years after the disappearance of Stiebris. Walter had negotiated the purchase of about three hundred acres outside Houston. It was another property that Tampa took over and developed - an industrial park venture. An attorney by the name of Matthews represented the seller at settlement. Shortly after settlement he approached Tampa and tried to shake them down for a considerable sum. Matthews was apparently connected politically and threatened serious zoning problems unless Tampa went along. Alvarez called David and David reminded him that all approvals had been obtained prior to settlement, thanks to Walter. They then agreed to ignore Matthews and continue the site work. A few days later, before anything further developed, Matthews stopped at a bar on his way home from his office. As he was leaving the bar later that night a small lorry - I believe you refer to it as a pickup truck - jumped the curb at high speed and ran him down, killing him instantly. There were two witnesses who both said they thought it wasn't an accident. The lorry had it's lights off and had no license plates. There were two men inside. After hitting Matthews it never slowed down, but veered back into the street and sped off. The lorry and men were never found.

"Four years later, in 1981, there was a woman who allegedly killed herself in Chicago. Her name was Joanne Myers, a very wealthy forty-one-year-old widow. We had purchased a hotel from her near O'Hare International, which netted her another ten million after taxes. After the purchase, Tampa took over the renovation and management of the property. They had barely started the renovation work when our client ordered them to sell the hotel to an anxious cash buyer, which naturally they did. The buyer was supposedly a front man for the Chicago mob. The deal went through, and the client made a fast six million clear profit in less than three months, all of which wound up back in our bank.

"The widow got wind of the resale and made a real stink. She said she would not stand by and see the mob take over the hotel her husband had built and left to her. She also owned a local TV station and threatened to turn investigative reporters loose on Tampa. Before she could do anything she died from an overdose of bourbon and barbiturates, or at least that was the listed cause of death. Problem was, she reportedly had an aversion to alcohol, and wouldn't even take aspirin for a headache. Everybody who knew her refused to believe she killed herself. There also was no suicide note.

"The next incident was another disappearance. You may remember the St. Louis shopping mall Walter found for us in '83; I believe you did the initial inspection of the property. It was owned by the McNaughton brothers, Lawrence and George. Both were going to retire after the sale. Lawrence apparently did, but George decided there was still more money to be made in shopping centers. About three months after our settlement he announced that he was going to build a new, bigger mall about ten miles from ours. Tampa told us later that the client instructed them to find a legal way of stopping McNaughton, but they could not. We had erred by not including any such restrictions in the settlement documents. McNaughton proceeded with his development plans and was negotiating with two major department stores to come in as anchors when he failed to show up for a meeting with one of them. He has never been seen or heard from since."

Alex now seemed to be performing like an actor reading for a part. He hardly took his eyes from his notes. I was interested, but I also wanted to get this over with, so I hated to interrupt. But there was a question I had to ask. "You said the authorities have never tied you or us to any of this. Unless you had your own pipeline, I don't understand how you came up with all this information."

"Actually, some information did come from official sources, but most came from David. A lot he dug up on his own, but a fair amount came from a...ah, relationship he established a few years ago with somebody in the Tampa organization; a woman by the name of Maria Sippano. The rest came from my meeting last year with the Tampa CEO."

So, David had a "relationship'. I wonder what kind? The usual kind would be somewhat out of character, I thought, but interesting. I decided not to comment on it yet. "O.K.," I said. "What happened next?"

"Almost seven years went by before the next event occurred in 1990. And then another happened in 1991. In many respects those two were similar to David's death - all were cold-blooded, brutal murders. To me, they don't seem to fit the earlier pattern; almost as though they were unrelated. The 1990 killing involved the marina and restaurant complex you located for us in Rhode Island in the fall of 1989. You may recall the place was deeply in debt and about ready to declare bankruptcy. After we bought it, Tampa completely renovated the entire property and imported a top-notch executive chef. They also hired a chap by the name of Ray Durwood to run the whole operation as general manager. Durwood had been with a big marina in Florida and had a reputation as a money-maker. He revamped their dockage and service facilities, brought in two new lines of boats, and within a year had them in the black.

"One morning Durwood failed to show up for work. The next day, after repeated unanswered phone calls, his secretary found him in his apartment. He was gagged and trussed to a kitchen chair and had been shot twice in the head at point-blank range. No motive, no weapon, no clues. There was no sign of a break-in, and they ruled out robbery; there was quite a bit of cash in his wallet. As in all the rest, no one was ever apprehended.

"The 1991 incident was equally chilling. What set it apart from the others was the timing. You and David purchased the beach resort north of Santa Barbara in 1985. Again, Tampa was running the operation. Shortly after they took over, they installed a woman by the name of Phyllis Byrnes as executive director. As you may recall, it was a very posh hideaway to begin with, but she installed a make-over spa and a nine-hole golf course and made it even more exclusive. It became the in place for super-rich women.

"One evening in June of 1991, Byrnes was relaxing at home with her husband when she received a late phone call. She quickly dressed and left the house, telling her husband only that there was a serious problem she had to attend to at the office. Early the next morning her car was found in her parking space at the resort. She was slumped over the wheel - dead, shot twice in the head at point-blank range. Her unopened purse was on the seat next to her, intact. No evidence, no weapon, no leads. The case is still open."

I again got out of my chair and tried to walk off the stiffness in my legs - and my mounting frustration. Alex put his notes in a pile on his desk and sat back in his chair, looking more at ease than he had since I arrived. A recollection of things I had experienced or heard during the past few days - not to mention the past few hours - began rolling through my mind like chasing lights on a marquee. David's body in the morgue...the similar way he and Durwood and Byrnes had been being followed, maybe, by God knows who or why. Am I next on somebody's list? Questions. A string of deaths and only one common denominator. Questions. And then something hit me.

"Wait a minute, Alex. Something you said earlier about the client being the only common denominator - that's not true. What about Tampa? Based on what you've said, they've been part of this puzzle since day one. They could even have been involved in David's death. Am I right?"

Alex hesitated a long time before answering. "Yes, technically you are. But I'm still convinced that Tampa is no more involved in any of this than we are. I firmly believe that."

"I don't know what makes you so sure - I'm certainly not convinced, but for now I'll accept what you say. At least until I have a chance to sort out this whole mess. Another thing I find unbelievable is the time span. God, Alex, these incidents have occurred over a twenty-five year period. Could one person or a group of people be responsible for carrying this out over such a long period of time - they'd have to be pretty old by now? I just don't..."

"Excuse me for interrupting, but please understand that I don't expect you to have any immediate answers. And I never thought we could conclude this today; we haven't yet begun to consider how we should proceed with this. I know you need time to think this through - Lord knows I'm pushing you unfairly as it is - and I don't wish to intrude on your time here any more than is absolutely necessary. You were very gracious to come here on such short notice. I hope you might find time to meet with me again on Monday afternoon, after the funeral, if that would be convenient. Maybe we can reach some conclusions then. Meantime, I haven't forgotten that I promised you dinner tonight. If we leave now we can make our eight o'clock reservation at my club."

"Monday afternoon will be fine, and dinner sounds excellent." Actually, dinner was the best thing I had heard since I got here.

Alex's club was exactly as I imagined it would be. Very proper. Dark wood paneling, crimson carpet, large gilt-framed oils, glittering chandeliers, bone china, cut crystal, and very heavy silver flatware. There were ornate trays of scotch and bourbon being toted by waiters in tails - not a waitress in sight. Unfortunately, neither the cigar smoking nor the menu was to my liking. Carcinogen and cholesterol were obviously not part of their vocabulary. There were multiple choices of beef, mutton, and veal, a shepherd's pie and a mixed grill. I had the one fish dish on the menu, a rather mediocre fillet of Pollock, but I was so hungry it didn't really matter.

During dinner we thankfully didn't talk about the issue at hand. We did talk football - American style, baseball, and some of the problems common to the construction industries in Great Britain and the United States. This led me to a dissertation on the role each country's banking community must play when the economy turns stagnant. I knew by the expression on his face that I had pushed the wrong button; he was a banker and I was a builder. So I switched back to baseball. After some very good brandy, Alex signed the chit and we left. We agreed to share a taxi home, and before dropping me at my hotel, Alex gave me the address of the church where the funeral would be held on Monday.

It was a little past ten when I arrived back in my room. I decided not to knock on Suzy's door. She was probably asleep, and I didn't really feel like talking. Besides, two hours sleep out of the last forty is stretching my limit to the breaking point. I was exhausted. I left a wake-up for seven, peeled off my clothes, and slid between the cool sheets. I don't even remember turning out the lights.

Originally published: Tuesday, March 20, 2007; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019