Street Legal

A Mystery

N.S. "Shep" Ladderback and Andrea Cosicki Mysteries (Volume 4)

Bill Kent

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One 

Exit Sandman
On the morning after she found the dead lawyer, Andrea “Andy” Cosicki checked the pocked and pitted newsroom bulletin board above the incoming-mail boxes.
Above the announcements about cutbacks in health benefits, the name of a staffer who had just given birth to a baby girl, and the results of last night’s Fretzer Awards at the Hot Lead Club, Philadelphia Press editor Howard Lange had posted a memo “re: procedures to be used by staff to assist police re: incident re: death of Charles Muckler.”
These included Samantha Gross, who edited the puzzle page and wrote the “Daily Twinkle” horoscope under the pseudonym Glinda Starr, and, at the very bottom, “Andrea Cosicki (Mr. Action).”
Neville Shepherd Ladderback, the old, dusty obituary writer who seemed to know everybody, was not on the list.
“Did you know Muckler?” she asked Ladderback as she draped her bomber jacket over the back of her chair, hung her woven shoulder bag on the seat back and confronted the mess of letters, faxes, papers and things that she hadn’t yet thrown out.
Behind his thick bifocals, Ladderback’s eyes moved like goldfish in a bowl while his stubby, liver-spotted hands danced swiftly over the keyboard. “I knew of him,” he said quietly.
Ladderback’s immaculate desk was immediately to the left of Andy’s. He worked facing a blank wall. The wall extended to a huge series of file cabinets that supposedly contained every obituary Ladderback had written in his who-knows-how-many-years at the Press, as well as files of other articles he had clipped and saved.
Before Andy could get to work on the day’s Mr. Action, Ladderback took his fingers off his keyboard, turned in his chair to face her and asked, “Would you like an assignment?”
She sat down in her swivel chair and stretched her legs, which looked longer and thinner because she was wearing tight, winter-weight black denim, the bottoms over brown street boots whose edges she’d scuffed from practicing side kicks on fire hydrants, railings, and brick walls. She crossed her arms over a burgundy I’m-not-expecting-to-meet-the-public-today sweater. She took a deep, do-I-really-have-to-take-this-assignment breath. She reminded herself she didn’t have to take assignments from him—she was only nominally his assistant.
And his assignments tended to lead her to places she’d rather not go. At the moment, she had enough to do with Mr. Action. On her desk, in her computer and stored in the voice-mail cue on her telephone were questions from readers who wanted to know what to do when the wrong dishwasher is delivered, or when the credit card company raises your rates, or even how many city workers it takes to change a lightbulb in a street lamp. Andy had spent most of yesterday getting the answer: nineteen desk jockeys within the Streets and Sanitation Department’s Public Safety Division; ten inspectors who are supposed to spot burned-out lamps, traffic lights and illuminated signs on any of the 36,000 Philadelphia city streets, not including those on state roads and federal highways that are serviced by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation; seven clerks in the city warehouse where the bulbs are stored; two procurement officers who order new lightbulbs when the supplies are low and attend important yearly conferences in exotic locales so that they can be well versed in the latest illumination technologies; four three-person Service and Maintenance Division teams that actually go out in the truck, ride the cherry picker, take out the old bulbs and put in the new; and, finally, a resource recycling coordinator who contracts for bulb disposal in accordance to current environmental laws and policies, for a total of fifty-three.
The topmost letter on her desk was from a Philadelphia public school student who had asked for advice about something that was “taken from him” that he failed to identify. Today she would have to call the student’s home and confirm that he had sent the letter. Before she could decide to include the letter, and its answer, in her column, she would have to find out what, exactly, had been taken.
And then there was that murder she witnessed last night.
As she signed on to her word processor, she saw Ladderback write a telephone number on a reporter’s pad. “This is the cell phone number of Schuyler Nordvahl. Twenty years ago he made a great deal of money from litigating asbestos claims. He left his firm and helped found the Delaware Valley Law Watch, which advocates for higher ethical standards in the legal profession. The Law Watch is on the second floor of Jimmy D’s. Mr. Nordvahl celebrated his birthday there last night. He also takes his meals there when he is in the city. You could meet him there for lunch today.”
Jimmy D’s was a dark, wood-paneled surf-and-turf restaurant that Andy’s father had used for business luncheons. Ladderback had taken Andy there a few times, and had introduced her to the restaurant’s owner, a former Irish mobster named Whitey Goohan. Ladderback wrote what Andy thought was the best obituary she had ever read after Goohan died the past week.
“Mr. Nordvahl is also fluent in Latin,” Ladderback continued. “He has lectured on the history of law, and legal ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He only works pro bono.”
Andy wasn’t impressed. “So he doesn’t charge. There are a lot of lawyers working pro bono. I use a few of them for sources when a reader asks Mr. Action for free legal help.”
“Mr. Nordvahl only takes cases that he feels will be pro summa bono, for the greatest good,” Ladderback continued. “Because many of his cases involve legal malpractice, he tends to be shunned by his colleagues. He lives in a seventeenth century Brandywine River mill in Chadds Ford. Chadds Ford is an exceptionally beautiful place, especially in winter.”
She knew Ladderback was agoraphobic, and she sympathized because she was born with a rare neurological disorder called amusa: she couldn’t hear music. So much of what others found beautiful and moving was, to her, just noise.
For Ladderback, so much of what human beings inhabited was a terrifying, fearful void.
“How do you know his place is so beautiful?” she asked him.
“I’ve seen photographs,” Ladderback said.
“I don’t do articles about people’s houses,” Andy said. “He’s just a lawyer, Shep. He’s not news.”
Ladderback frowned. He handed her the paper with the phone number.
Andy took it out of his hand and put it on top of the letter from the Philadelphia public school student. “Why don’t you tell me the real reason you want me to write him up?”
Ladderback became motionless for about a minute. Then he said, “Last night he celebrated his fiftieth birthday.”
Andy said, “He’s more than double my age and you want me to use this newspaper to give him all this publicity? Like, we don’t have people in this town turning fifty every day?”
Ladderback shifted uncomfortably. “The half-century mark typically inspires a person to look back on his life, take stock of his achieve-ments and his failures and react in a variety of ways, some of them unanticipated.”
Andy looked at the ceiling.
“When you interview him,” Ladderback added, “be certain to ask him why King James imprisoned Sir Edward Coke in the Tower of London.”
Andy let a second go by. Then she picked up a pen and the notepaper with the phone number and asked, “Who was Sir Edward Coke?”
“Schuyler will tell you,” Ladderback said. “I’d prefer if you’d call him promptly.”
She sighed. “Is this, like, an emergency?”
Ladderback pondered that. “What if I told you it was a matter of life and death?”
“You write obituaries,” Andy said. “Everything you do is a matter of life and death.”
He shook his head and she stuffed the note in her shoulder bag.
Dear Mr. Action,
I go to the James Lawson Middle School in Rock Hall and Mr. Arasim, my English teacher, wants us to express ourselves by writing to the media to say something that is really important. In the Press you answer questions about things. My question is, what do you do when somebody takes something from you and it’s real important to you and you can’t get it back. Should you go after them? Should you take something of theirs? Should you call the police? Please tell me what to do.
Never been told, Jermaine Haynes, Rock Hall
Andy dialed the phone number at the bottom. A woman who said she was Jermaine Haynes’s “half sister” confirmed that the boy lived in the Rock Hall neighborhood. “His fifth-grade English teacher said he was supposed to write some dumb thing to a newspaper or magazine about something important to him.”
Had the boy had something stolen from him? Andy asked.
“Why are you asking?” Jermaine’s sister replied, immediately suspicious. “Just because Jermaine wrote a letter don’t mean you have to ask questions about it.”
“I want to make sure I represent his question fairly and accurately before it’s printed,” Andy said.
“A boy like Jermaine can get himself in all kinds of trouble, talking about what he seen and didn’t see, without you trying to represent him any which way. These gangstas, they’ll kill you just to have something to do. You’re not going to print his name, are you? You print his name and they come after him, it’s me that’s going to come after you.”
Andy explained that identifying details about readers were never printed unless the readers consented. “I only identify sources who provide information in my column,” Andy said.
“How come you’re calling it your column? You’re no Mr. Action. Mr. Action a man. Put him on. I got stuff I got to say.”
“Anything you have to say to Mr. Action, you can say to me,” Andy said firmly. The woman sputtered words that Andy couldn’t quite hear and hung up.
She let the late-morning sounds of tapping keyboards and newsroom phone chatter distract her. She hated it when readers were a pain. Sure, the media gets things wrong every once in a while, but Jermaine’s letter sounded as if it were more than just the completion of a school assignment.
She tried a reply:
Dear Jermaine,
What to do depends on what was taken from you. If you have a problem with someone, common sense should tell you to try to work things out with that person. If you can’t settle the problem on your own, you might want to consult an adult or authority figure. If a valuable object was taken, as a citizen, you have a right and obligation to report any criminal activity to the police, as quickly as possible.
Andy paused. Her answer seemed gassy and insubstantial. She needed a good quote from an authority figure. She could call the Philadelphia Police Department’s Division of Public Affairs and get a quote from the officially designated spokesperson.
Or she could buttonhole Detective Lieutenant Jeffery Everson of the Homicide Division, who was, at that very moment, inside Howard Lange’s office, interviewing newsroom staffers about the demise of Charles Muckler, Esq. Lieutenant Everson had been a friend of her father’s, and, though he didn’t handle burglaries or stolen cars, he could say a few things that would give the answer some weight.
Just then, her phone rang. A bored, irritated Lange told her, “You’re on deck.”
She signed off her word processor, took a pad and pen and crossed the newsroom to Lange’s office, a glass rectangle against a far wall, shrouded in floor-to-ceiling beige curtains. She approached just as Samantha Gross waddled backward out the door in a huge, clover-patterned crimson dress.
“You sure you don’t need anything else from me?” She asked, reluctant to leave.
“If we do,” Andy heard the resonant, deeply masculine reply, “I will find you.”
Gross paused, turned and sighed at Andy. “He is so . . . ,” she sighed again, “much.”
She was gone before Andy could ask who was so much, or why. She poked her head into the office and smelled the sour odors of old sandwiches and stale coffee.
“Last one to go!” Lange called out from his desk. He rubbed his face, stuck his fingers in the corners of his eyes, yawned.
Across from the desk, a weary, bleary-eyed Lieutenant Everson was sinking ever deeper into the lumpy brown couch. Andy saw a mustard stain on his pale blue and gray flannel shirt. His badge and I.D. hung on a strap from his neck.
Andy thought Everson might have looked great maybe ten or twenty years ago, when his eyes and mouth lacked the stress marks that came, not just from the sad and terrible crimes he investigated, but also from the bureaucratic complications that, he had once told her, were always a “factor” in “what gets done, who does it and who it gets done to.”
Sharing a place on the couch was Everson’s assistant, a thick, dark-skinned woman whose lap was piled high with legal pads. She was replacing cassettes in an old portable tape recorder. In a chair near Lange’s desk sat a blank-faced Asian man in his twenties, wearing a smartly tailored copper-colored suit, the knot of his gleaming, navy blue tie riding tightly under his neck and a laptop computer, open on his lap, his hands poised.
Andy had never met the Press’s lawyer, Michael “Marathon Mike” McSloan. As soon as she saw him, she knew immediately the reason for Samantha Gross’s reluctance to leave.
He stood with his face turned away from the window and its view of City Hall. He wore a pale blue silk shirt stretched tightly over long, lanky arms, wide shoulders and a trim, smoothly muscled chest. His blue and gold suspenders were like racing stripes, ending in dark blue trousers that emphasized very long legs.
Lieutenant Everson gave Andy a once-over. “You grow some, or something?”
“I was almost six-one when I last saw you. I’m almost six-two now.”
Lange stretched in his chair. “Once a month we put a dust mop on her head and she does the ceiling. You’ve met Jeff Everson, right, Andy? Good. With him is Sergeant Hess. Here in the chair is Gordon Wu, and the only reason he’s here is that our counsel, Marathon Mike, doesn’t like to take notes, am I right, Mike?”
The sun was low in the winter sky as the man at the window turned, so the chiseled planes of his face were lit in an amber glow. He was her height, or close to it, with clear, deep set brown eyes, a long nose ending in flaring nostrils, a strong mouth and dimpled chin. He gave her a small smile, as if he really, really liked the fact that, finally, here was a woman with whom he could see eye to eye.
Andy saw the wedding band on his finger. She decided not to sit. She folded her arms and leaned against the curtains so she was directly opposite McSloan.
“Ms. Cosicki,” McSloan said with a voice that seemed to echo inside her, “before we begin, let me tell you why I’m here.”
To pose in front of the window like some kind of African god, and melt every woman who sees you down to slag, Andy told herself.
“This is to be an informational interview,” McSloan went on. “I’m here to make sure you do not answer any questions you do not want to answer, for any reason. Lieutenant Everson has asked to record the proceedings. Your responses do not have to be recorded if you do not desire them to be. What is your pleasure?”
Pleasure. The way he said that, you’d think he had just thrown a log on the fire and was about to uncork the champagne.
“You can tape it,” she said, her eyes on McSloan. “I don’t care.”
Sergeant Hess put a cassette in the tape recorder.
“Okay, Andy,” Lieutenant Everson began. “Tell us who you are, how old you are, where you live and what you do for a living.”
“She’s twenty-two,” Lange said. “She lives in town and she does our ‘Mr. Action’ column and the occasional feature. She’s famous for her attitude, which she is not going to give us at this time because we’ve been here all day and we want to wrap this up as quickly as possible. Got me, Andy?”
She got him, but more than what she got from him was a tension between Lange and McSloan that McSloan confirmed when he folded his arms and almost scolded Lange with, “The lady can speak for herself.”
Lady? Not once, since Andy was hired in June of last year, had anyone in the newsroom called her a lady. When Ladderback called her it was more like “Yo, Andy” or “Hey, you” but, she had to admit, she liked the way McSloan said it.
Lieutenant Everson covered his mouth as he yawned. “Let’s start with why you were at the Hot Lead Club last night. When did you decide to go there?”
“At the last minute,” Andy began. “I’d finished up. I saw the announcement on the bulletin board. I’d been to the Hot Lead once before, when I was co-editor of the Penn student newspaper and the Quill Awards were being handed out for the best student newspaper work. I’d heard about the Fretzers. I thought it would be fun.”
“Fun,” Lange said sourly. “Look, this isn’t about you. You were there, you saw the Sandman, and the next thing you know, he’s in his car and he’s up to his ass in—”
“You want to let me talk?” Andy said to Lange.
“Please,” McSloan said. “The lady is speaking.”
“Calm down everybody,” Everson said. “Now Andy. Could your late father have crossed paths with Muckler? It’s likely, in your father’s dealings with city hall—”
“He was a sneaky little fixer,” Lange said. “She wouldn’t have this job if it wasn’t for him blowing out my parking tickets.”
“You shut up about my father,” Andy told him.
“I knew Benjamin Cosicki,” McSloan said. “I found him very open and forthright.”
“Can I ask the questions here?” Everson said. “Did your father ever say anything to you about any dealings with Charlie Muckler?”
“My father never said anything about what he did,” Andy said.
“He never told you why they call Muckler the Sandman?”
Andy shook her head. “Not a word. I didn’t know about it until I read the paper this morning.”
“I love it when my staffers read,” Lange said.
“The Press article gave a simplified version of what Muckler did,” McSloan told Andy. “It’s true that he was quite expert at what we call pouring sand into the legal machinery: he caused delays, he failed to file documents in a timely matter, he challenged accepted procedural points and was so difficult to work with that he could force pre-trial settlements, generally in favor of his clients, because no one wanted to meet him in court.”
“He was a pain in the ass,” Lange said. “Did he bill the same as you? Or less?”
“Less,” McSloan said. “Far less.”
Everson nodded, as if he had heard this too many times. To Andy, he said, “You didn’t expect to see him last night?”
“I never saw or heard of him before last night,” Andy said.
“Did you tell anyone that you were going to the Hot Lead Club?”
“Just Ladderback, the guy who sits next to me.”
“Our man on the dead beat,” Lange said. “I’ve been trying to get him to retire since I got this job. Shep’s out of the loop.”
“He is not!” Andy said.
“How did you get to the club?” Everson asked her. “Cab, bus, train, walk?”
Andy had told all of this to the police who had interviewed her last night. “I got my car out of the Press’s garage and drove there, so, if it got late, I could drive back.”
“Make and model?” Everson cut in.
“Ford Focus. Red. I parked it on Seventeenth Street, right near the Dempsey Lane. The Hot Lead is on Dempsey, so I went down Dempsey.”
“That was the first time you saw Charlie Muckler’s car?”
“A silver Jaguar parked in this tiny space right next to the club. I didn’t know whose car it was when I saw it. But I remember the license plate said SANDMAN.”
“Did you wonder why the car was parked there?”
“I figured it was left where it was because whoever the Sandman was, he was either special, or he thought he was special. My father used to leave his car in all kinds of places,” Andy said. “He didn’t get tickets.”
Lange piped up “That’s because he was a—”
“That’s enough, Howard,” McSloan scolded. “You may continue, Ms. Cosicki.”
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Kent