Dave Garrett is a disbarred lawyer eking out a living in Philadelphia as a private eye. At noon on Friday, a law school classmate offers him what looks like a hopeless investigation. Seven years before, a man named Daniel Wilson disappeared. His car was found abandoned with bullet holes and blood, but no body. A hearing is scheduled for Monday on whether Wilson should be declared legally dead. The police have been stumped for seven years. Organized crime warned off the first investigator to look into the case. Over the course of the weekend, the case takes Dave from center city to the coal regions and back, where the story comes to what the critics called “a startling and satisfying conclusion.”
Nominated as a Best First Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America when it first appeared in 1990 and the first of a series of twelve.
“Worthy of a Scott Turow . . . This exceptional first mystery is driven by a baffling plot and comes to a surprise ending that passes the Holmesian test.”
~ Publishers Weekly
FRIDAY, 11:00 A.M.
I couldn’t stand the sight of him but I took his case anyway.
I’d been sitting in the spectator’s section of a courtroom in the basement of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. At night the room was used for criminal arraignments, and it showed. Everything in the room was dirty, even the air. I breathed in a mixture of grit, poverty and despair. The bare wooden benches were carved in complex, overlapping swirls of graffiti, initials, gang emblems, and phone numbers. Some people called it street art. I didn’t.
To my left, fifteen feet off the ground, a clock was built into the wall. It was missing its hands and most of the brass numerals, and the few that were left were muddy brown. Not that I cared what time it was; as long as I sat there, waiting to testify, my meter was running.
Today the room was being used by the Family Court for a custody case. This was the second day of trial, and the wife’s attorney was hoping to get me on the stand today. There’s no such thing as a custody case with class. The couple were both doctors, both well respected. Married ten years, two children, both girls, ages four and seven. They had separated two years ago. Each had a condo; his was just south of Society Hill in a newly gentrified neighborhood; hers was on Rittenhouse Square. They both had memberships at the usual country clubs, plus time-shares in Aspen and Jamaica. She drove a BMW and he drove a Benz. It had been amicable at first. Neither one was leaving for someone else; they just didn’t like being married to each other anymore. There was no one stirring it up. Most spouses need encouragement from a third party to get really nasty–a new girlfriend, a mother, a friend, or a lawyer. In the absence of someone to stir the pot, it was very civilized. For a while. Then, while working out a property settlement, her lawyer found that her husband had forgotten to disclose his half-interest in a fast-food franchise–a small matter of half a million dollars. In response, she dropped the blockbuster; she moved to terminate his visitation rights because she claimed he was sexually abusing the seven-year-old. He denied it and countered with a suit for attorney’s fees and punitive damages. The case had started yesterday, was being tried again today, and would probably go on for a good chunk of the next two weeks.
I had very little to say, but the wife’s lawyer wanted me to testify anyway. In a close case, almost anything might make a difference. I’d followed the husband for a week, and the most interesting thing I’d found was that he read Penthouse. Plus, as I was sure his lawyer would point out on cross, Time, Sports Illustrated, Business Week, and The New England Journal of Medicine.
The wife’s attorney, sitting at counsel table, turned to me, pointed to his watch, and shook his head. The cross examination of the wife’s child psychologist was hopelessly bogged down on the question of her credentials, and they weren’t going to reach me that day. The case wasn’t on again until the following Wednesday; I was free till then. I nodded, pointed to my own watch to indicate that my meter was off and headed for the door. My overcoat was already over my arm; no one familiar with the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County leaves their property unattended. There used to be a sign outside the Public Defender’s office: Watch your hat, ass, and overcoat, till somebody stole it.
The corridor was as filthy as the courtroom, but at least there was light. And people–lots of them. The young and shabbily dressed ones were there for misdemeanor criminal or for family law cases. The felony defendants were usually older and better dressed; they’d learned the hard way that making a good impression just might help. The best dressed of all–except for the big-time drug defendants, who put everyone to shame–were the civil trial attorneys. There was big money in personal injury work and large commercial claims, and a lot of it was worn on their backs. My own suit, when it was new, had looked like theirs; now it was dated and worn, and my tie had a small stain. I was dressed well enough for what I did now.
I was nearly to the exit, feeling blasts of cold air as people went in and out, when I heard him call my name. The voice was raspy and nasal. I turned; it was Mark Louchs, a classmate from law school. He practiced with a small firm out in the suburbs. His hairline had receded since I’d last seen him, and he was wearing new, thicker glasses. His skin was red, probably from a recent Caribbean vacation. He smiled, shook my hand, and said he was so glad to see me. It was all too fast and too hearty, and I wondered what he wanted from me.
“Hello, Mark. Going well for you?”
“God, hearings coming out my ears. Clients calling all hours. Can’t get away from it. My accountant–I’m busy as hell–” He stopped himself. “Yeah. Fine. Look, you know how bad I feel about what happened to you. ” His voice trailed off. He’d been a jerk when I needed his help and we both knew it. I said nothing, letting the awkward silence go on. Making him uncomfortable was petty, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. When he was nervous, I noticed, his smile was a little lopsided.
When he was certain that I was going to leave him hanging, he went on. “Look, I hear you’re doing investigations now.”
“It’s the closest thing I can do to keep my hand in. And I sure wasn’t going to hang around as somebody’s research assistant.”
“I tried to reach you first thing this morning. They said you were out. ” I hadn’t had time to check my messages, but I just stayed quiet. I liked leaving him under the impression that I was in no hurry to talk to him. Partly because it might give me an advantage in whatever he wanted with me, and partly because it was true.
“Listen, Dave, I’d like you to do me a favor. Are you set up to handle a rush job?”
I do plenty of favors, but not in business. And not for someone who didn’t respond to my request for a letter of support when I’d gone before the Disciplinary Board with my license on the line. I kept my voice disinterested and cautious. “How much a favor, and how much a rush?”
“I need you to do an investigation for a case to be heard this coming Monday at one thirty.”
I carefully gave a low whistle, watching for his reaction. “That gives me just the rest of today and the weekend. Pretty short notice.”
“If you can do it, the fee should be no problem. I’m sure we can agree on an acceptable rate. “
I looked at his suit and at my own. I knew the money would never wind up in a suit. I had too many other bills. But it gave me something to focus on. “Let’s go somewhere and hear about it.”
We put on our overcoats, cut through the perpetual construction around City Hall and wound up at a small bar near Sansom. He found a quiet corner booth and ordered two coffees. Whatever serious lawyers do after five, they don’t drink during the day.
“Ever do a presumption of death hearing!” he asked.
“Fifteen years ago, fresh out of law school, I did a memo for a partner.”
“Familiar with the law?”
“Unless it’s changed. If all you have is a disappearance, no body or other direct proof of death, the passage of seven years without word gives rise to a presumption of death. If the person were alive, the law assumes that someone would have heard from them.”
“I represent the survivors of a man who disappeared under circumstances strongly suggestive of his death. His name is—was–Daniel Wilson. We filed an action to have him declared dead. The hearing is Monday afternoon at one-thirty in Norristown. The insurance company is fighting tooth and nail.”
“What carrier? I do some work for USF&G and for Travelers. I’d hate to get on their bad side. “
“Neither of them. Some one-lung life insurance outfit out of Iowa. Reliant Fidelity Mutual, or something like that.”
“Let’s hear some more. “
“He lived in Philly and had offices in the city and in Norristown. I figured that his office in Norristown gave me enough to get venue in Montgomery County. I don’t come into Philadelphia for trials if I can avoid it. The insurance company won’t offer a nickel, but they don’t care if it’s in Philadelphia or Montgomery County. “
“What kind of office?”
“A law office. Never heard of the guy before this case, though. I made a couple calls to friends from law school, but neither of them knew him. “
“Lawyers aren’t disappearing kinds of people. We’re more like barnacles.”
“Wait till you hear about the disappearance. Just after New Year’s, seven years ago. His sister was in town from LA; they planned to get together. They’re in separate cars, out in the country. Powell Township, Berks County. She finds his car off the road full of bullet holes. Plenty of blood, but no body. Police can’t turn up shit. He was never heard from again.”
It was short notice, but I had no plans for the weekend. It sounded like a break from skip traces and catching thieving employees. And it paid. “The case has been kicking around for months. You didn’t decide to hire an investigator this morning.”
Even in the dimness I could tell he was flustered. “Yeah, you’re right; you’re getting sloppy seconds. The Shreiner Agency was handling it till yesterday. ” I just sat there until he decided to continue. “They were doing all the usual interviews, credit checks, asset checks. They hand-delivered back the file and refunded our retainer. And a letter saying they wouldn’t be able to help any further. “
“Someone warned them off. “
“There could be other reasons.”
“This thing smells to me like organized crime. That’s out of my league. “
“Look, nobody’s asking you to find who killed him, even if he’s dead. We just need to say that there’s no evidence he’s alive. That ought to be easy enough.” He didn’t say the words ‘even for you’, but I heard them.
“Tell that to the Shreiner Agency. “
He finished his coffee. He was anxious to get help, but I was clearly hitting a nerve. “Yes or no?”
I normally worked for a flat fifty dollars an hour. Right then, considering who I’d be working for and whatever had happened to the Shreiner Agency, I wasn’t so sure if I wanted it. “I charge my attorney’s rate–one hundred fifty per hour; two hundred for work outside of business hours, half rate for travel time, plus all expenses.”
“Think you can come up with something for that kind of money?”
“Haven’t the slightest idea. You know how it is. I work by time, not results.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“And it’s quarter to twelve on Friday.”
He gave me the kind of look I didn’t normally associate with being hired–it was closer to the expression you get when you steal somebody’s parking place. But he grunted something that sounded like “okay” and gave me his business card with his home number on it. And the Shreiner file, too–there was so little of it, he was carrying it in his breast pocket.
“I’ll look this over and do what I can this afternoon. When can I talk to the sister?” I asked.
“Give me your card. She’s in the area. I’ll have her at your office at nine tomorrow morning. “
“Make it seven; I don’t want to lose any time on Saturday. It’s tougher to reach people on Sunday.”
“Okay, but keep me posted, will you? Remember that you’re working under the supervision of an attorney. “
“Right. ” I wanted to tell him that I was working under the supervision of an asshole, but I let it pass.
Philadelphia has mild winters, but early January is no time to linger outside. I needed a quiet place to read. I went to Suburban Station and found an empty bench.
The Shreiner Agency was like the Army: bloated, bureaucratic, and sluggish, and most of its best people moved along after a few years. Yet they were careful and scrupulously honest. That counted for a lot in my business.
The file was only about twenty pages, and most of it was negative information. Daniel Wilson hadn’t voted in his home district since the time of his disappearance. Neither had he started any lawsuits, mortgaged any real estate, filed for bankruptcy, used his credit cards, joined the armed forces, opened any bank accounts, or taken out a marriage license. His driver’s license had expired a year after he disappeared and had never been renewed. At the time of his disappearance be had no points on his license and no criminal record. Since then, there had been no activity in his checking or savings accounts; the balances in each were a few hundred dollars. No income taxes or property taxes bad been paid in seven years. None of this distinguished Daniel Wilson from somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the population. I would need a lot more than this to convince a judge he was dead.
Toward the bottom of the pile I found an interim report by “JBF,” who I knew to be Jonathan Franklin, an investigator I’d worked with before. According to the report, at the time of his disappearance Wilson was thirty years old, short to medium height, wiry build, brown hair and eyes. Paper-clipped to the corner of the first page was a black-and-white wallet-size formal photo of Wilson in a suit and tie. From the date on the back, it was probably his law school graduation portrait. Assuming he graduated at twenty-five, the picture was twelve years old. I had visions of showing it and asking people if they’d ever seen an average-looking guy with glasses and brown hair before. It was a pleasant-looking face; maybe a little bland, but presentable. His cheeks were smooth and pink, and he looked closer to twenty than twenty-five. His glasses weren’t the wire-rimmed ones that were fashionable when I was in college, or the high-tech rimless models the yuppies wore now, but good old-fashioned ones, horn rimmed, with a heavy frame. He had the kind of face clients would trust.
The family background was minimal. Wilson’s father had died when he was a child; his mother was still living and worked cleaning offices in Center City. She lived in the Overbrook section of west Philadelphia. There was one sibling, a sister, Lisa, two years older; a former nurse who now lived in a small town upstate. She’d been living in LA, if I remembered Louchs correctly. I figured her for a loyal daughter who’d moved back east to be close to their mother after Daniel’s death, or disappearance, or whatever it was. Neither Lisa nor Daniel had any children. Neither had ever been married.
Franklin had come up with some more about Wilson’s grade and high school education. Wilson was consistently a superior student; not brilliant, but always near the top of the class. He was seldom absent, hardly ever late with work assignments, and never a discipline problem. Several of his high school classmates had been contacted; they remembered him as serious and hardworking. He played no sports but was active with the school literary magazine and the newspaper: He had a few dates, but no one remembered a steady girlfriend.
Except to tell me that he’d attended Gettysburg College, was secretary of the Photography Club, and obtained a degree in history, the college section was a blank. I wasn’t surprised; in high school everybody knows everybody. But people are too busy in college to know more than a couple of people well. Investigating backgrounds at the college level is usually helpful only if the subject was very well known or if the school was very small. I was reading with only half my attention by then; I was trying to imagine what kind of man was behind that picture. And what was the judge going to make of him. I hoped he wouldn’t decide that Wilson was the kind of loner who would pull up stakes and disappear without a word to anybody.
The next section was hardly more help. After college, three years at Temple Law School, graduating about one-third of the way from the top. He passed the bar on the first try and set up practice in Center City with a classmate, Leo Strasnick. When Wilson disappeared five years later, the partnership already had three associates, with offices in Philadelphia and Norristown. Nice growth.
I rubbed my eyes and looked at my watch. It was nearly one, and this was the only business day before the day of the hearing. The rest of the file would have to wait.
One of the advantages of Suburban Station was plenty of phone booths. My investigation got off on the right foot. Not only was Leo Strasnick available, he agreed to see me at four that afternoon. His office was only a few blocks from the station.
I tried Shreiner’s next.
“Shreiner Security Agency. How may we help you?” She sounded like a recording of herself.
“Mr. Franklin, please.”
“And whom may I say is calling?
“She was good. If my gross ever broke into seven figures, I promised myself I would get a receptionist who talked that well. And to take lessons from her.
“Just say I’m calling regarding the Wilson case. ” I was curious to see if that would be enough to get me through.
“Yeah, this is Jon Franklin,” was all he said, but it was enough. Something was bothering him. His words were unnaturally clipped, and his voice was too loud and too fast.
“Hello, Jon, this is Dave Garrett–“
“You said you were calling about Wilson?”
“Yeah, right,” I said as casually as I could “Remember me, Jon? We worked together on those tools disappearing out of Sun Shipbuilding? I was–“
“I remember. ” Then his voice got softer. “Dave, what do you have to do with this? We’re not in the Wilson case.”
“I’ve just taken it over. ” There was silence on the other end. “I’ve read your report and I assume there’s more than you had time to put in writing. ” More silence. “Look, Jon, the case is coming up Monday, for Christ’s sake. Cut me some slack.”
“You want some advice? Don’t take the case.”
“The lawyer guaranteed payment,” I said, being deliberately stupid. I had a lot of practice at that.
“No amount of money is worth it. ” I’d been expecting him to say that, but he was at the biggest agency in the state a fifteen-year veteran of the Philadelphia police.
“Can we get together somewhere?”
“I’ve told you all you need to know already,” he said, and hung up.”
Excerpt from The January Corpse by Neil Albert. Copyright 1990 by Neil Albert. Reproduced with permission from Neil Albert. All rights reserved.
Neil Albert is a trial lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and this book is based on a real presumption of death hearing. He has completed nine of the projected twelve books in the series and hopes to finish with December within the next two years. His interest in writing mysteries was kindled by reading Ross Macdonald and Neil operates a blog with an in-depth analysis of each of Macdonald’s books, In his younger years he was an avid fox hunter. His best memory is that he hunted for fifteen years and was the only member not be to seriously injured at least once.