Even though it was the last week of September, Tampa was having a mid-July heat wave; about ten degrees hotter and a lot more humid than it should have been. And not a whisper of a breeze. I rented a car at the airport and headed for the center of town, following the directions Maria had given me. I found her office easily. Finding a parking space was another story. I parked in a small lot about two blocks from her office and worked up a pretty good sweat by the time I reached their building. It was a mid-rise with a bronze glass facade, located about a block off the main drag. According to the building directory ?M. R. Shaw Management Group' occupied all of the second floor. When I stepped off the elevator I found myself in a very unusual reception area. The only lighting in the room came from recessed wallwashing spots illuminating about a dozen framed watercolors. The center of the room was darkened and contained a grouping of large leather arm chairs arranged around two huge glass topped coffee tables, with glass at least two inches thick. A huge bouquet of colorful flowers in a cut crystal vase sat on each table. And everything was symmetrically arranged on the largest oriental rug I had ever seen. The other thing that struck me was something I didn't see; there wasn't a newspaper or magazine in sight. The place looked more like an art museum than a business office reception area.
The woman seated behind the large desk at the far end of the room looked to be on the high side of sixty. She was heavy, had gray streaked dark hair and an olive complexion with dark circles around her eyes. The scowl on her face contributed to my impression that she was the last woman in the world I would want greeting visitors to my company.
"Yes, young man, what can I do for you," she snapped, hardly moving her lips, and not showing even a hint of a smile.
"My name is Cole McQuaid, of Hammel and McQuaid. I have an appointment with Maria Sippano."
"Do you have a business card?" she snapped again.
When I produced one she studied it for a moment and than slipped it under her appointment book.
"All right, wait there and I'll call her."
She obviously didn't want me to sit in the reception area. I guess she was afraid I'd slip one of the watercolors into my brief case.
As most people do when speaking on the phone with someone they've never met, I had formed a mental picture of Maria. I imagined her to be around fifty, dark complexioned, short, and kind of frumpish. Her voice on the phone was low pitched and raspy. So I was more than a little surprised when she came through the door and extended her hand in greeting. Her complexion was dark, and I thought I was in the ballpark on her age, but she was anything but frumpish. She had striking light blue eyes, contrasting her olive skin, and her medium height was accentuated by a slim tailored gray silk pant suit, heels, and dark hair pulled up into a sophisticated hairdo. She looked every inch the career business woman. I remembered Trimble's comment that David had had a ?relationship' with this woman. It now didn't seem quite as far-fetched as I initially thought. I then tried picturing this woman as being responsible for everything that has happened, including David's death, but a little voice in my head said it seemed ridiculous - she was an innocent bystander just like me. Trying to be objective I admitted to myself that her appearance could be deceiving. Another little voice agreed and said she might look innocent but she was a dangerous, conniving bitch, and I had better watch my step. There most likely would be no middle of the road. My problem was I had to find out which extreme fit - and which little voice to listen to.
"Welcome to Tampa, Mr. McQuaid. You arrived a little earlier than I expected. Let's go back to my office and chat before we go to lunch."
"Fine," I said, as I followed her through a maze of cubicles toward the rear of the building.
Her office was located on a corner of the building and contained the usual furniture and amenities of upper management, but with a definite feminine touch. She closed the door and invited me to sit in one of the two leather chairs facing her desk. With its large windows, high ceilings and light colors this room was the direct opposite of the institutional reception area.
"I thought we'd take a few minutes to get acquainted before we go to lunch," she said, after sitting behind her desk. "I hope you like seafood, because I took the liberty of making a reservation at a small café a few blocks from here. They're not gourmet, but they have great crab and shrimp dishes."
"That's fine with me," I said. "I love any kind of fish and seafood."
"Good," she said. "Would you care for coffee while we talk?"
"Sure. Black with sugar will be fine."
She picked up her phone, spoke to someone and a few minutes later the coffee arrived. Two styrofoam cups on an ornate silver tray, with equally ornate silver sugar and creamer. I hate plastic cups. Whatever happened to old fashioned china cups, or even mugs?
"Please call me Maria," she said. "I dislike formality. Besides, David told me so much about you I feel I know you."
"And please call me Cole," I responded. "I don't like formality either. But you have me at a disadvantage; your name was mentioned a few times, but neither David nor Trimble told me much about you."
"Well, there's not really much to tell. I joined the company in 1971, when I graduated from Florida State. The company was much smaller then, only ten employees. I was the eleventh. They gave me the title of ?Field Representative', which at the time was another term for glorified gopher. I did everything from putting bid packages together to expediting completion of projects, and of course getting coffee for the others. It was early 1974 when they first let me handle some of the work for David's bank. Since about 1980 I've handled all of David's projects, or, to be more accurate, the clients projects."
"How did your company get started," I interrupted, "and exactly what is it that you do?" Some of the company's history I already knew from my meetings with David and Trimble, but I wanted to hear it from her, just to see if it agreed with their versions. Before she answered I noticed a change in her expression; her smile disappeared and she was shaking her head very slightly from side to side.
"I'll tell you what, let's finish our coffee and leave for the café. It's a short walk and we can talk on the way."
The message I got was that she didn't want to talk here. I was curious as to why, but didn't ask. On the other hand, while we finished our coffee I couldn't resist questioning her about the unusual reception area.
"It is a little out of the ordinary," she said. "And it's certainly not my taste. The paintings were done by our receptionist. She was given carte blanche to decorate and light the area as she wished. A few people have said they like it, but most find it a bit severe."
"Cast my vote for severe. . .and a little depressing," I said. "It seems your receptionist has a lot of clout. Is she a shareholder in the company?"
"No, no, nothing like that."
I started to ask what, but Maria put a finger to her lips and shook her head. She noticed I had finished my coffee, so she suggested we leave for lunch.
She didn't say anything until we got out on the sidewalk. "Please forgive me, Cole, for shushing you in my office. I have some concern about office security, which I'll explain a little later. You asked me how the company got started and what it is we do. How we got started is pretty involved so I'll just give you the highlights.
"The company was founded in 1957 by a gentleman named Bryson - Arnold Bryson. I'm told he was quite old when he started the company. He retired in 1969, about two years after Carlton Alverez was brought in. Shortly after he retired Bryson was diagnosed with stomach cancer and moved to a nursing home somewhere in the Northwest. He died there about six months later. Carlton has been our CEO since Bryson retired and has done a fantastic job. Not only has the business prospered under his leadership, but he's well liked by everybody. Well, almost everybody."
"What do you mean, almost everybody?"
"I'll get to that in a minute. First let me finish explaining how the business was started. I said that Arnold Bryson founded the company. That's what public records show, and what we tell outsiders, but the truth is the client founded the company. And Arnold Bryson wasn't the first employee of the company, he was the second. The first was the woman who greeted you when you got off the elevator - our sweet receptionist."
"You're kidding me! Pardon me for saying so, but I don't see how that woman could last forty days as a receptionist - much less more than forty years. I may be speaking out of turn, but she impressed me as being very unfriendly, if not flat out rude. She's the last person I'd want welcoming my clients."
"She's certainly not a charmer," Maria said with a chuckle. "But she hasn't always been the receptionist. The first thirty some years she served as private secretary to Bryson and, later, Carlton Alvarez. About ten years ago she fired our receptionist and moved into her job. Her excuse was that she wanted a less demanding job until she was ready to retire. Carlton has tried to terminate her on more than one occasion, but every time he did he'd receive a message from the client telling him to back off. Her name is Irena Kabojian. Most of the staff refer to her as ?Iron-Face Irena'. We know she's served since day one as a mole for the client and, apparently, there's nothing we can do about it. I dislike her immensely, and don't trust her at all. . .and she knows it. I'm also afraid of her.
"Unfortunately, I have no proof, but I suspect Irena is eavesdropping - listening in on my phone calls, or maybe all of my office conversations. On three different occasions during the past few weeks - in fact it started when David was killed - she has made snide comments about things I've said on the phone, conversations I had in my office with the door shut. And they were things she could not have known otherwise. Like I said, she frightens me."
"Could your office be bugged? Did you ever have anybody check it out?"
"No, Cole, I haven't. I don't want to let her know I suspect anything by bringing in an outsider to check, and I wouldn't know what to look for. I don't know if it's just my phone or my entire office, but that's why I shushed you when you were talking. I probably should have waited until we got outside before telling you anything. And by the way, when I said Carlton Alvarez is liked by almost everybody - Irena is the exception. They totally dislike each other. He feels as I do about her, but realizes he can't fire her. She's jealous of him because she fully expected to be appointed CEO when Bryson retired. Shortly after Carlton was made CEO she marched into his office and told him he had better resign, because if he didn't she'd make his life hell on earth. She later admitted to him that she had suggested to the client that Carlton be fired. I'm sure the reason he's still our CEO is because he's super intelligent and has made a ton of money for the client. I think that irritates Irena more than anything. And as you suggested, in addition to her abrasive personality, she presents a terrible image to the public."
We reached the restaurant and found it very crowded. At first glance it looked as though every booth and table were occupied, with another half dozen people standing in the foyer waiting to be seated. I was surprised when we were quickly escorted to an empty table in a small nook at the rear of the room. The hostess greeted Maria by name and treated us as VIP's. We each had seafood chowder that was delicious. She had a deviled crab, which she said was excellent, while I had a shrimp salad platter, which wasn't. The shrimp were rubbery from being overcooked and the lettuce was not fresh and crisp. While we ate we made small talk. I got the impression she didn't want to talk business here in the restaurant, but by the time we asked for iced tea refills the crowd had thinned out considerably. When the dishes were cleared from the table, Maria leaned closer to me and spoke almost in a whisper.
"I've told you how the company was started, now I'll try to answer your question about who we are and what we do. First, we're not a corporation, which I've always thought a little unusual. Our company name is the ?M. R. Shaw Management Group', but in the industry we're usually referred to as ?SMG'. Depending on our workload we carry forty to fifty employees, mostly construction managers, inspectors and bean-counters.
"I'm a VP, and head up a group called ?Property Management and Development'. There are currently twenty-two people in my group, and we handle development and construction of projects for the client. In addition, we manage and are leasing agents for a number of investment properties, mostly apartment units, shopping centers and commercial office buildings, including the one our office is in. The majority of these are owned by the client, but we also handle property for other investors. Our office here in Tampa is our company's only permanent office, although we do maintain field offices in leased trailers at construction sites.
"Aside from what my group does, the rest of the company handles nothing but construction management. Bottom line though, the client's projects my group handles account for almost sixty-percent of our gross revenue. The rest is derived from construction management services we provide for others, including a number of federal and state agencies, on projects such as highway construction, airport expansion, new port facilities, and the like. We've also done work for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, and commercial development in the Orlando area around Disney World.
"Last year our billable fees for outside projects were just under four million. This year we'll top out a little over five and a half. We keep busy, and as a result we keep growing."
"Very impressive, Maria, and based on those numbers, very profitable as well. Five and a half mil from outside projects, and that represents only forty percent of your gross income - that's damned profitable! I'm curious though, some quick math tells me your total gross is somewhere around thirteen and a half million. Do you really bill the client for the other eight mil? I mean after all, the client owns your company - you work for him. Why would you charge him for your services?"
Maria hesitated, her face expressionless. "About all I can tell you is the client insists on total accountability; no padding of expenses or deductions, no double sets of books. Every hour spent on the client's projects must be billed, and every penny of income must be reported. Based on what I was told many years ago, the client is paranoid about being audited - particularly by the IRS."
"How do you invoice the client, and how does he pay his bills?" I asked.
"We send all billing to a post office box in Miles City, Montana. Payments have always been wired to our bank here in Tampa, originating in different locations in this country and abroad. Most come from Trimble's bank in London and a bank in Milan, Italy. We've also had a few from the Bahamas. Payments are usually received within thirty days of the billing date."
"That's interesting," I said. "The scope of this client's empire seems to broaden with each new development. But, Maria, before you continue there is something I'd like your opinion on. You may think what I'm about to ask is ludicrous, or certainty too late in the game to worry about, but it leads into something I want to discuss with you before I leave. What I need to know is - what is your perception of the role you, Trimble's bank and my company play in this giant monopoly game? Do you have any concern about the legality of this whole business, and whether some night we're going to turn on the late news and see our faces plastered all over the tube? David tried to convince me that everything was on the up-and-up, yet Trimble admitted to me that their bank has been questioned by at least three different law enforcement agencies about the client's account. My concern is that for as long as all of us have been involved in this, we've played an active role in laundering money for one of the mob families, or worse, a major drug cartel - maybe both. It may be forty some years too late to begin worrying about, but I'm concerned that we're all connected at the hip to this crazy client. If the client is involved in anything illegal, particularly something of this magnitude, and gets caught, we're all going down with him. What court or jury is going to believe us? Best case scenario is we'll all lose our businesses. Worst case is we'll lose our businesses and wind up in prison."
"I don't know that I share your fears," she said. "Maybe it's because things have worked so smoothly for so many years I've subconsciously convinced myself that nothing can go wrong. I agree it's a strange and unusual way to do business, but it's worked for a long, long time. We each do our thing, and I guess we do it quite well because it's worked. Your company is retained by Trimble's bank to find whatever type of facility or land the client orders them to acquire. You do all the legwork, do the site studies and resolve any glitches in zoning or permitting and then turn everything over to Trimble. You're out of the loop at that point. Trimble's bank puts together the financial package, and handles all of the purchasing and settlement details - and then they're out of the loop. Then we take over and do our thing, and the job's done. One of us never gets too involved with the other two.
"What I just described may sound a bit simplistic, but that's how the process works about ninety percent of the time. We do acquire and develop some properties for the client on our own, without any involvement with David's bank. But we do that only when specifically ordered by the client to proceed on our own. When we do, the acquisition funds are deposited by the client in our local bank - David's bank is bypassed completely."
"I haven't heard about this before. Do you have any idea why the client would want certain projects handled that way. What's different about them?"
"I'm not sure," she replied, " but I suspect it has more to do with the size of the acquisition than anything else. They're all valued under a half-million dollars."
"Two quick comments, Maria. First, when you said how smoothly everything has worked you neglected to mention the deaths and disappearances interwoven through the clients business transactions - not to mention David's murder. And secondly, to go back to something you said a few minutes ago; I don't recall whether David or Trimble ever said so, but I assumed all along that your company worked exclusively for the client and that all transactions went through Trimble's bank."
"Cole, as far as the deaths are concerned, no one has ever connected the client to any of them. I know there have been accusations, but never one bit of proof. And as far as my company is concerned, we've always done work for outside interests. The client probably wanted it that way to help us build an independent reputation in the construction community."
"Or an attempt to legitimatize a crooked operation," I added.
The smile left her face and I detected a trace of anger in her voice when she spoke, "You have a right to your opinion, but I certainly don't agree with everything you've said. Let's move on."
"Please don't take anything I've said personally. I'm certainly not accusing you of anything illegal. On the contrary, based on what David and Trimble both told me, you're just doing your job - with no more knowledge of the client than we have. And I apologize for beating a dead horse, but I still find it hard to accept that somewhere along the line the clients name hasn't surfaced. There are so many checks and balances, not to mention audits; a never ending string of regulatory agencies, plus real estate taxes, state taxes, and our friends at the IRS. It boggles the mind."
"I understand exactly how you feel, but believe it or not, Cole, it's true. That's not to say there haven't been questions from time to time, and even a few investigations. As you said, Trimble's bank has had them, and we've had them, but nothing came of any of it. As far as I know, every investigation ended in a blind alley. David also questioned me about the client many, many times. It is the main reason I convinced Carlton Alverez to go to London and talk with Trimble. What really disturbs me is David and I worked very closely together for many years, and yet I think he always felt I was hiding something from him. It saddens me to think he went to his grave doubting my word. I really have no idea who this crazy client is, and that's the truth . . .I swear to you on my mother's grave."
On my flight down from Philly I decided that if I thought Sippano was being evasive, or outright lying to me, I'd find some way to break off the discussion and leave. I'd be honest with her to a point, but I wasn't going to divulge what I knew, or even suspected, until I had some assurance that she would do likewise. I don't know if what she's told me today tipped the scales in her favor, but my gut reaction was that she was being honest with me. And she had already told me considerably more than I hoped to learn during my visit here. I felt it was time to lay my cards on the table and see how she responded.
"Maria," I said. "Our mutual friendship with David notwithstanding, you and I are still strangers. When I came here I had no idea where you and your company fit in this puzzle, and I admit I had serious reservations about coming here at all. Too many people have died. I hope future events don't prove me wrong, but after listening to you I believe you're telling the truth. When I promised Trimble I'd try to get to the bottom of this whole mess, I knew I'd need a lot of help and a few good breaks. You've already given me a ton of information, and I think you know even more that will help me, possibly things you may not realize are significant. I just hope I can count on you to trust me and work with me. Are you willing?"
"Absolutely, Cole," she said, looking directly into my eyes. "But before we go any further with this let's head back to my office. I do have some things I must take care of this afternoon."
"I understand, and I apologize for taking so much of your time. I know I'm imposing on you, but I would like to continue our discussion. If you've nothing planned for this evening why don't you join me for dinner? I'm staying over anyway, and we can talk without worrying about who might be listening."
"Thank you, I would enjoy that," she said. "In the meantime I'll stay at the office and get caught up on some of my work. You can pick me up there, say around seven-thirty."
"That's fine. Maybe Ms Congeniality will be gone by then and I can take a look around your office for a bug. I'm no expert, but if there's something obvious I should be able to find it."
"I can assure you that Irena and the entire staff will be gone by then. Parking will be easier too - you should be able to park in front of our building. By the way, since it appears you didn't enjoy your shrimp salad I'll defer to your judgment in selecting a restaurant," she said, the grin returning to her face. "And the only way I'll veto your choice is if you pick one that I know is bad."
What Maria didn't know was that the last time I visited my parents in Ft. Myers I flew to Tampa, rented a car and spent a week meandering my way down the Gulf coast. The first night I stayed in a five-star hotel out on Sand Key in Clearwater Beach. It was a comfortable drive from downtown Tampa, was right on the Gulf and had a fabulous restaurant. I was confident she wouldn't veto my choice.
After paying the check I walked Maria back to her office and then continued the few blocks to where I had parked the rental car. It seemed to be getting hotter by the minute and the inside of the car was like a furnace. I drove for about ten minutes with the windows down and the air conditioner going full blast. I had a confirmed reservation that Nancy had made for me at one of the major motels on the outskirts of the city. Since I had more than five hours to kill, I looked forward to getting out of these clothes and spending some time sitting by their pool, in nothing but swim trunks and sunglasses. Before I could do that though, I had to commit to paper the information Maria had given me; a lot of things were rattling around in my head. I also wanted to do a little snooping into the track record of the M. R. Shaw Management Group.
I stopped at a roadside phone, dialed 411 and got the number of the local Chamber of Commerce. I called and got their address. Fifteen minutes later I was standing at the counter in their front office. The young guy behind the counter couldn't have been more than a year out of high school. I gave him one of my Hammel & McQuaid business cards and told him the client I represented was getting ready to start site work on a design-build shopping center north of the city on Route 41.
"Bidding will be by invitation only. We're from up north, so we need a list of reputable sub-contractors and construction managers. The total project is going to come in somewhere around six million, so we need outfits with experience on major projects. Who can you recommend?"
"Geez," the kid said. "That's sure a big project. Where's it going to be built on 41?"
"Sorry, I can't divulge that," I responded. "We're still negotiating final details with the owner of the land."
"Oh, I see," he said, a little deflated. "I can give you our list of members; they're indexed by type of business. My boss could give you more information on all of them, but he's up in Tallahassee on Chamber business until day after tomorrow. You gonna be around for a few days?"
"No, I'm leaving tomorrow, but I'll be back in a few weeks. I'd like that list you have, though."
He reached under the counter and produced a thin bound booklet, which he proceeded to thumb through. "Tell you what I can do," he said, pulling a yellow highlighter from his shirt pocket. "I'll mark some of the companies that I know are big, and are also solid Chamber members. O.K.?"
"Sure, that might be real helpful."
After he handed me the marked booklet I casually flipped through the pages until I found what I wanted. They were listed under ?Project Managers/Construction Managers' - the M. R. Shaw Management Group, followed by a two paragraph biography of their operation. Out of six companies in that category, their name was the only one he had highlighted. "What do you know about this Shaw outfit?" I asked, showing him the listing.
"They're a solid company, one of the biggest around. They're also involved in a lot of Chamber programs. I know quite a bit about them because my older brother works for them. Like I said, they're solid."
I thanked him and left. Thirty minutes later I had checked in at my motel, and was in my trunks sitting by the pool, working on my second cold brew. I had brought a notebook and pencil and spent the next hour alternately jotting down notes and dozing off. I filled about three pages with notes, including a few more questions I needed to ask, when I realized I had had enough sun. I was somewhere between well-done and burnt, and I had no intention of making my dermatologist any richer than he already was. I decided on a quick swim, but even the pool water was too warm for my taste. I did a few quick laps, toweled myself off and returned to my room.
After I showered and dressed I worked on the notes again. As I reread what I had written, more questions came to mind, so I marked additional notes between the lines and in the margins. By seven o'clock I was confident that I had recorded all the important things Maria told me. Problem was, some of what she said was most likely unrelated to why I came to Tampa. Later, I'm going to have to sort out what to consider - and what to ignore.
Maria was right. When I returned to her office at seven-thirty I had my pick of a half-dozen parking places in front of her building. There were a few parked cars on the street, and even fewer people.
The lobby outer doors were locked. I pushed the small buzzer button two or three times but couldn't hear any sound from inside. I waited and hit the button again two or three times. I was about to give up when I saw a uniformed security guard shuffling down the corridor toward me. He acted more than a little upset, and was mumbling something about it being after hours and he was on his rounds in the basement when I interrupted him. He also refused to let me in until he checked me out with Maria.
When I stepped off the elevator into the second floor reception area I was surprised to see how different the room looked, compared with earlier today. All of the perimeter recessed lighting was off, and each of the two crystal vases of cut flowers was illuminated by a narrow beam spotlight recessed in the floor below the glass table each vase sat on. The rest of the room was dark. Now the room looked more like a florist's display case than a museum. I'm not sure I liked this any better than the museum look, but I had to admit - it was certainly different.
Maria came out to greet me, and motioned for me to follow her back to her office. The entire floor appeared deserted, with only minimal night lighting. It was not too dim to notice that this was a different Maria. The silk pant-suit and upswept hairdo were gone, replaced with a short, black silk dress, black stockings, heels and shoulder length curly hair framing her face. I still found it difficult to accept that David had cheated on his wife, but if he was prone to that sort of thing I could understand him being attracted to Maria. She was one foxy lady.
"I wasn't sure where we were going for dinner, so I went home, showered and changed. Besides, I had to feed Ralph."
"Who's Ralph?" I asked.
"He's my cat - I call him my attack cat," she said, grinning. "One spitting hiss and a swat with his front claws is usually all it takes for him to intimidate another animal. Probably most humans, too. My neighbor's golden retriever is terrified of Ralph, and he's three times bigger. So much for pets; do you still want to check my office for a bug?"
"Sure, but please understand that what I'll be doing is very unscientific - just looking for anything out of the ordinary. Let's start with your phone." I unscrewed the cap from the mouthpiece and, as she suspected, there was a bug. It took about ten minutes to check other places in the room where listening devices could be hidden, but I found nothing. I suggested that the phone bug be left where it was, and Maria agreed. No point in tipping off old Iron-Face that we knew she was listening. Maria would just have to be careful what she said on the phone. It also gave her a golden opportunity to throw out a few red herrings.
On the way to Clearwater Beach we talked about our personal lives. Maria was big on physical conditioning. She said she jogged about two miles every other morning, and worked-out twice a week in the weight room of a gym. No wonder she looked trim and fit. I knew she had to be around fifty, but she could easily pass for twenty years younger.
I hadn't told her where we were going for dinner. As I pulled into the hotel parking lot she tapped me on the shoulder. "Good choice," she said. "I couldn't have done better myself. This place is one of my favorites. But I am curious, how did you find it?"
"It's a long story, and I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, I stumbled across it. I've eaten here two or three times and had excellent food each time."
Because it was a weeknight I hadn't thought to make a reservation. My mistake. The restaurant was crowded. The maitre d' said there would be at least a half-hour wait, so Maria and I adjourned to the bar. I was just about to order a second round of martinis, when we were told our table was ready.
Maria had filet mignon, medium well, while I opted for the Chilean sea bass. We each started with a spicy lobster chowder, followed with a shared salad of crispy greens topped with gorgonzola cheese, sliced pear and a tangy oil dressing. Everything was delicious. We continued our small talk while we ate. I told Maria some of the history of Hammel & McQuaid, and about my relationship with Suzy. After we finished our coffee I ordered brandy and suggested we find a comfortable spot in the lounge to continue Maria's rundown on the strange circumstances surrounding her employer.
"Maria," I said, "Before you continue where you left off this afternoon, I'd like to ask you a question. . .a very personal question. It's really none of my business, and if you tell me to go to hell I'll understand."
"Fair enough," she said. "What's the question?"
"I won't tell you the source, but I've been told that you and David had some sort of ?relationship'. And the inference was that it was personal rather than professional. Is that true?"
She didn't answer for what seemed like an eternity. Her eyes glistened in the light and I realized she was crying softly.
"I'm sorry, Maria, I certainly didn't mean to upset you."
"It's all right, Cole, I planned to tell you anyway - I knew it would come out sooner or later."
She hesitated again, while dabbing her eyes with a tissue. She reached across and took my hand in hers. She was trembling.
"Please do not think less of David," she whispered. "I initiated the affair. . .and David ended it. It all started about four years ago. Actually, with me it started long before that. I. . .fell in love with him shortly after we met.
"He and I spent many hours together in my office working out details on the client's projects. Occasionally we would go out for dinner, usually after we had wrapped up a project. One night we both had a little too much to drink and, when David took me home, I invited him in. The only way to describe what happened is to say that I seduced him. David took me to bed. . .and spent the night. And the next day - and the next night. For all the pleasure it gave me, David seemed overwhelmed with guilt. When he left for England the following day he hardly said a word. I felt miserable; I knew in my heart that our relationship was over. Worse, I worried that I might never see David again. He didn't return to Tampa for almost three months. We had lunch together the first day, and he was very nervous and apologetic. He said he had enjoyed our short time together, but I think he was just being polite. Then he said he was torn between his fascination with me and his love for his wife. He told me that while he positively would do nothing more to jeopardize his marriage, he also couldn't bear to hurt me. He even offered to resign his position at the bank if it would make things easier for me.
"I told him that I would probably always love him, but the last thing I wanted was to turn his life upside down. I also promised to keep everything on a professional basis from that point forward. And I believe I did.
"Even though our personal relationship was buried in the past, I was devastated when David was killed. I still loved him deeply and I desperately wanted to go to England for his funeral. I didn't because I had no idea who might be there, and I was sure if anyone recognized me they would misinterpret my reason for coming. I didn't want to cause his widow any embarrassment. And, just so you don't misinterpret my motive for helping you, the reason I've agreed to tell you all I know is because I'll do anything I can to avenge David's death."
"I'm sorry for what you've been through," I said. "I also considered David a friend. He was probably the most honest individual I've ever dealt with - his word was more important to him than a signed contract. My secretary always referred to him as a ?true English gentleman', and I think he was. How did you hear of his death?"
"Trimble called our office the day after it happened. I can't remember ever being so upset - I must have cried for a week. Please. . . let's change the subject," she said, forcing a smile, "or I'm really going to start blubbering. Do you remember where I left off when we were talking this afternoon?"
"You told me how your company functions and a little about how it got started, although you didn't explain the relationship between Irena and Bryson."
"Yes, I remember now. I believe I told you that the client founded the company, although all public records indicate Arnold Bryson as the founder. I also mentioned that Irena Kabojian preceded Bryson as the first employee of the new company. To say the least it was a very strange beginning."
"How did you find out about Irena and Bryson," I asked.
"I wouldn't know any of this if David and I hadn't done some serious snooping about five years ago. From the first time we met, David questioned me incessantly about my knowledge of the client. I tried to convince him that I really knew nothing, certainly no more than he did. Then something happened at his bank - I'm not sure exactly what - and Trimble insisted that David come here to question Carlton and myself. It was a fool's errand, and I think David finally realized it. He arrived on a Friday, and the evening he arrived we were having a discussion in my office, when it dawned on me that maybe I could appease David and Trimble by offering to show David our dead storage files in the basement. I had never been through the files, but I knew they were there. I told David that if he was willing I would sacrifice my weekend to help him search through the old records. And that's exactly what it took - all day Saturday and all day Sunday. There were more than forty file cabinets in that room, and we knew that to find any information on the early days of the company, if in fact such information existed, we may have to search through dozens of file drawers. Most of the drawers contained nothing but job files on completed projects, and everything was filed alphabetically, not chronologically."
"Did you really expect to find anything in the files, or were you just humoring David?"
"Probably a little of both. You must understand that this happened about a year before our affair, and I was so in love with David I would have done just about anything he asked. But I was also more than a little curious myself about what the files might contain.
"The office was closed for the weekend, but I had a set of keys and knew how to deactivate the security alarm. The basement storage room was hot and smelled musty. And there were spiders and bugs. It certainly wasn't a nice place to spend a weekend, even with someone you loved. We left empty handed after about six hours of searching on Saturday. By late Sunday afternoon we had found nothing, and were both dirty, tired and frustrated. We were about five minutes away from giving up when we got lucky. Behind some old job folders we found four fat manila envelopes, tied together with twine, and that's where the early years of company history were filed.
"The information in the envelopes started with day one, was filed chronologically, and covered the period of time up to our move into our present office. It was almost like a diary, and was kind of odd. There were no accounts receivable or payable, just personnel records, resumes, tax returns, bank statements, and an assortment of memos and letters.
"The original office was located on the other side of Tampa in a strip shopping center. It was small and consisted of two rooms with a storefront vestibule. As the company grew it became too cramped, so ground was purchased and our present building was constructed. The move into our new offices took place about four months before I joined the company in 1971.
"Arnold Bryson was recruited by an employment agency in 1957. He had worked for years at a small CPA firm in Tallahassee, working his way up the ladder from bookkeeper to office manager. The employment agency lured him away by offering to double his salary. They told him he would be President and CEO, and the first employee of a new real estate and construction management company. He would organize the company, hire employees, and run the entire operation. The day before he was to start his new job a messenger delivered a package to his home. It contained specific instructions he was to follow in organizing and running the business. It also contained the address of the new company's rented office in downtown Tampa, a binder of printed business checks and a receipt indicating a deposit of fifty thousand dollars in the new company's checking account. The ?M. R. Shaw Management Group' was off and running."
"Did you find anything indicating why or how Bryson was picked for the job? And why Irena was hired ahead of him?"
"There was nothing indicating what criteria was used to select Bryson, but you can imagine his surprise when he arrived to open the new office the next morning and found Irena Kabojian seated at a desk, reading the paper and drinking coffee. At this point the story got weird. She informed him that the owner, our client, had hired her. . . to represent the owner . She had started about a month earlier and negotiated the lease for the new office, then had the place painted and furnished. All of this was done before Bryson was hired. She also told Bryson that she was to serve as his executive secretary, and what her salary and benefits were to be. And the real kicker was - she had been given authority to make decisions on certain key issues - whether or not he concurred. Beyond that, she wouldn't divulge any information about the client or anything about her past, personal or otherwise. We found all of this in a very angry memorandum Bryson had written for the file. He was angry, but he was also concerned about the very strange relationship he found himself in. He just didn't know what to do."
"How did Bryson know that Irena was telling the truth and not running a scam?" I asked. "Since he never had direct contact with the client, how could Bryson verify anything?"
"In the beginning he couldn't. He even considered resigning, but the lure of big money changed his mind. About three months later he and Irena locked horns over the hiring of a new field engineer. Bryson had just hired the guy when Irena heard about it. She stormed into Bryson's office and demanded that he call the new hire and withdraw the offer. It seems she had her own candidate for the job. She reminded Bryson that she had final say in the hiring of new employees. He disagreed and ordered her out of his office. Words were exchanged and she threatened to have him fired. The next morning he received a call from overseas. The man at the other end spoke in a deep guttural voice, in very broken English, and ordered Bryson to do as Irena insisted. The caller then said that if Bryson refused he would be terminated within twenty-four hours. Bryson asked the caller for identification, at which point the caller related Bryson's employment history, all the way back to graduation from college. Bryson started to protest, but quickly realized he has no choice and agreed to follow orders.
"About a month later Bryson and Irena had a similar run-in. Bryson lost his temper and threatened to fire her. The next morning he again received an overseas phone call, with the same end result. "
"Over the years since Carlton Alvarez took over, he too has had a number of confrontations with Irena, but the end result is always the same. To his credit, Carlton found ways to work around Irena. He keeps her in the dark as much as possible by generally ignoring her. We all go out of our way to hide things from her. When she gets into one of her snits, or gets too demanding, he lets her do her thing, and then hopes for the best. So far it's worked fairly well."
"So the client has had a mole in your company since the beginning," I said. "I wonder if there are others besides Irena?"
"I don't think so," Maria replied. "At least none we're aware of. Irena pokes her nose into every phase of our business, or at least thinks she does, so she has no need for an accomplice."
"Do any of your employees seem friendly with Irena, maybe socialize with her after hours?"
"Hardly. She seems to be universally disliked by everybody in the office. Most of our people have heard the horror stories and are actually afraid of her."
"It raises another interesting question," I said, "Does Irena have a counterpart in Trimble's bank?"
"It's possible," Maria replied, "but not likely. David and I discussed it, and he said he knew every person in his group personally. He said it was inconceivable that they would be of any use to the client, because each of them was only responsible for a small percentage of the work handled by his group. Like I said, it's possible, but I don't think it's even worth considering."
"I guess the reason David never mentioned Irena to me was because he knew it would support my argument that something was radically wrong. And while we're on the subject of moles, I can vouch for everybody at Hammel & McQuaid. We have fewer employees than either you or Trimble, and only a handful of those know anything of our dealings with Trimble's bank. Other than my partner, our attorney and my secretary, none of my people know anything about you and your organization - and certainly nothing about Irena Whatshername. I wouldn't waste our time worrying about my people being involved in any way with your client.
"And, Maria, one other thing you should know; even though our involvement over the years has been very profitable for Hammel & McQuaid, we're now in the process of severing all ties with Trimble's bank. Our attorney is currently working out the details of a legal agreement with Trimble's solicitor. We're doing this for two reasons; mainly to limit our exposure to liability, but also to distance ourselves from all of the violence that has occurred, both past and present. As I mentioned to you earlier, if the client's business turns out to be as illegal as I think it is, the best case scenario is we'll all go belly up. If that happens, regardless of whether anybody goes to jail - and in my opinion most of the key players probably will - a lot of people at Hammel & McQuaid are going to be hurt. It would destroy the business, and I can't allow that to happen. So, if you and Trimble are half as intelligent as I think you are, you both should start looking for ways to cover your ass."
"As I told you earlier, I don't agree with your opinion of the client. Not at all. My god, you seem to forget that this arrangement has succeeded for more than forty years, and made one hell of a lot of money for all of us. Who cares that he doesn't identify himself?"
"I do, for one. And as I told you earlier, Maria, you've failed to mention all of the violence that has occurred. Even if you ignore all of the previous disappearances and killings, how can you justify David being killed. All of the evidence surrounding his death points directly to the client."
"I think his death was an unfortunate coincidence, but I'm not going to argue the point because I can see that we're never going to agree. Why didn't you tell me sooner about breaking off your relationship with Trimble's bank?"
"I had planned to, but I didn't because I was afraid you'd change your mind about talking to me, or helping me. You have to understand that as much as I'd like to walk away from this, I promised Trimble that I'd do my best to unravel the entire mess. On top of that I feel an obligation to David, something I just can't ignore, not to mention a little revenge of my own after almost being wiped out by the same two goons who killed David."
"What are you talking about - I thought David was killed by two men who tried to rob him at the casino? That's what Trimble told us. Why would they come after you?"
"What Trimble told you is exactly what the news media reported, Maria, but there was more to it than a simple robbery. The killers desperately wanted something David had. When they didn't get it they came after me, thinking he might have given it to me."
I spent the next ten minutes telling Maria about Muzzadin and Salemi and how they killed David, their attempt to kill me, and how Muzzadin ended up dead. She said she wasn't aware of any of it. I asked if she had ever heard of Muzzadin or Salemi before or had seen anyone fitting their description in or around her office building. She said she hadn't. I started to say something else when she grabbed my wrist.
"Cole, wait a minute, describe Muzzadin again."
I did, and before I could finish she pulled her hand back and a look of confusion crossed her face.
"Yes," she almost shouted. "About a month ago I went out to the reception area to pick up a package that had been delivered. I saw a man fitting that description standing at Irena's desk talking to her. I remember thinking it was strange because I had never seen him before, but mostly because it was a very hot day, and he was dressed in dark, heavy clothing. He looked sinister and totally out of place. He was leaning across her desk with his mouth next to her ear, and they were both talking in a whisper. I couldn't hear what was said, but it was obvious they knew each other. Irena was smiling, something she rarely did."
"Are you sure it was him?" I asked.
"Based on the way you just described him it had to be Muzzadin. Yes, I'm sure. . .I know it was him."
"Does this change your opinion on anything?"
"I guess it should, Cole, but right now all I feel is confused and a little frightened. I think I'd like to go home."
I asked the waitress for our check. While we waited a lot of possibilities were popping in and out of my head. If the man Maria saw with Irena was in fact Muzzadin, and there didn't seem to be any doubt in her mind, it tied him to the Tampa organization. Maybe not to Maria or Carlton Alvarez, but at least to Irena. And maybe Irena was the key to everything. Were Irena and Muzzadin working together? Did she order the hit on David, or was Muzzadin acting alone? Regardless, it was the first positive lead I had.
Maria had given me a ton of information on her company's background, probably more than she realized. Certainly more than I ever expected to get. Now came the tough part; sorting it all out. I needed to think, and the best place for that was back in my motel room. Earlier today I had made some tentative decisions about what I was going to do next. Now I don't know. This latest information on Muzzadin and Irena may completely change my plans.
On the way to Maria's place I thanked her for her help, and told her I'd call her if anything further developed. She said to call her at home to avoid Irena's phone bug. She wrote her home number on the back of her business card and handed it to me.
When I pulled up in front of her place I glanced at the card. What I read on the front reminded me of something I meant to ask her earlier.
"Maria, just who the hell is ?M. R. Shaw'? It's probably a dumb question, given everything we've been through, but any chance that he or she is our phantom client?"
"It's certainly not a dumb question, Cole, it's been asked probably a million times - going all the way back to Bryson. Carlton said he questioned Bryson about it shortly after coming to work for the company. Since it was a small business at the time, Carlton thought it strange that the owner never came to the office. Bryson told Carlton that he had never met Shaw, and had no idea if such a person existed. After some discrete checking, that ended up in a blind alley, Carlton concluded that M. R. Shaw was simply a fictitious business name. And we've never seen or heard anything to dispute that."
She invited me in for coffee, but I declined. I had to get back to my motel and do some serious thinking before I hit the sack. I thanked her again and left.
When I got to my room I did as I promised and called Suzy. I blew her a kiss and told her I loved her. She did likewise and asked me what I had learned from Maria. I told her it was too lengthy and complicated to discuss on the phone, but I'd tell her everything when I got back tomorrow. She said there was nothing new at the office - Joe had his usual list of questions on a bid he was putting together - but she was glad I didn't have to stay in Tampa another day. She missed me.
After I hung up I showered, pulled on a pair of shorts, mixed myself a gin and tonic, and turned out the lights. Some years ago I found I did my best thinking in the dark. I spent about an hour mulling over what Maria had told me, sipping my drink, and watching the tiny red light in the ceiling smoke detector blink on and off every few seconds.
No matter how much importance I attached to some of what Maria told me, my thoughts kept returning to Muzzadin's whispered conversation with Irena. What were they conspiring about? Muzzadin had killed David, that was a fact. She was obviously some sort of agent for the client. Did Muzzadin do it on his own, or was he ordered to do it by Irena or the client? If Maria saw Irena and Muzzadin together a month ago, their meeting must have been just before David was killed. The more I thought about it the more I convinced myself that Irena and Muzzadin were working together. And I'd bet money David was the subject of their whispered conversation. Besides, it didn't seem reasonable to me that the client had ordered the hit. David had been doing the client's bidding for years, and was doing everything exactly as he had done since the beginning. Why kill him now? It didn't make sense.
On the other hand, what did Irena, or Muzzadin, or both, have to gain by conspiring against the client? What was their motive? The only obvious answer was money. Lots of money. Whenever the client ordered the purchase of some major entity, David was involved in the transfer of a huge sum of money. Irena would know about this. And if she knew, Muzzadin might also know. Particularly if he and Irena were lovers.
David died because he had something Irena and Muzzadin wanted. When he didn't get it Muzzadin came after me. Whatever it was, if it existed at all, had to be in David's attaché case. That much I knew for sure. But I've been through all the notes and records in the attaché case and, other than David's crazy code, I don't recall seeing anything that Irena and Muzzadin could profit from. After meeting Maria Sippano I was convinced that the ?MS' in David's code had nothing to do with her. So that left only Muzzadin and Salemi. And if that's who David was referring to, it meant he had to know about Muzzadin. If he did, he apparently never said anything to Maria, or Trimble, and certainly not to me. If David knew that Muzzadin was involved in at least two of the earlier deaths, did he also know that Muzzadin would come after him? I can't imagine David knowing, or even suspecting that, and not doing something to protect himself.
I turned on the light and spent the next hour putting on paper what I thought was important. I had some of the answers I came to Tampa to get, but there were still too damn many questions. At midnight I gave up, set my alarm for six o'clock, and went to bed.
After I showered, shaved and dressed the next morning the first thing I did was call Maria at her home. She answered on the second ring.
"Maria, this is Cole. Sorry to bother you so early, but I have another question - one that I couldn't risk asking on your office phone."
"No problem, Cole. You almost missed me though, I was just about to leave to do my running. What's the question?"
"You mentioned that Trimble called your office with the news of David's death. Who took the call - was it Irena, Alvarez, or you?"
"Well, all calls come through Irena. Carlton was out of the office that day and I'm the one who spoke to Trimble. Why?"
"Did you happen to see Irena after you finished talking with Trimble?"
"No I didn't. I was pretty broken up by the news and I stayed in my office trying to compose myself. When I came out about a half hour later, Irena was gone. One of the secretary's told me that Irena had left in a hurry, claiming she had some personal business to attend to, and wouldn't be back until the next day. As I recall, she didn't come back for three or four days."
"Do you happen to have Irena's home address?"
"Yes I do. I have a company directory with addresses and phone numbers. Hold on."
When she returned to the phone she gave me Irena's address and home phone number. I thanked her and told her I'd be in touch soon.
I had breakfast at a restaurant next door to my motel and when I returned to my room I called my parents in Ft. Myers. I usually call them every week or so and visit about twice a year. My mom answered the phone and said my dad had gone fishing. I told her I was in Tampa on business, but couldn't get down to see them because I had to catch a late morning flight back to Philly. She gave me the hurt mother routine, but I told her I loved her and would visit them for three or four days around Thanksgiving. She said she would call Mrs. Tomasello with instructions to make sure I did.
I asked directions at the motel desk, and on my way to the airport I drove past Irena's house. It was a single home in what appeared to be a very affluent suburb. A winding drive lead from the street to a detached three-car garage. Very effective landscaping shielded the main house from the street. It seemed like a hell of a lot of house for a single woman. I'd put a price tag on it of somewhere close to three-quarters of a million. A little too much house for a receptionist.
Originally published: Wednesday, March 21, 2007; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019