They greeted one another by law specialty.
“Greetings, Personal Injury.”
“Same to you, Bankruptcy. What are we having?”
“Dirty martinis. Bitch of an afternoon.”
Personal Injury’s full Christian name was Barney Holland.
“Where’s our always-late friend, the inimitable Criminal Law?”
“Dire, you mean. He’s in court. He drew Silverman again,” Bankruptcy replied. “He’s not very happy about it, either.”
“Criminal Law,” born Angus Cameron Macdougal, was known all the way to the seventh floor where the founding partner’s office was located.
“That’s an understatement.” Ellis Ebenbach, a.k.a. “Bankruptcy,” was merely a non-equity partner in the firm and bitter about it. “I’ll have the same, Vincent.”
Vincent slipped the napkin under the glass with a flourish.
“How long has that vermouth been sitting on the shelf?”
“Since yesterday, Counselor,” replied Vincent.
“Vermouth can spoil, you know. It’s made from grapes.”
Vincent was already walking way.
“Little weasel,” Ellis mumbled. “This place used to have class. Now it’s servers with tattoos, blue hair, and nose studs.”
“Vincent’s OK,” Barney replied.
The men sipped, thinking their own thoughts, staring at an attractive woman showing a lot of cleavage in the mirror as she passed behind them.
“Melons,” Barney said.
“Probably fake,” Ellis said.
“Injury, Bankruptcy,” Macdougal said, slipping up on them, clapping both colleagues soundly on the shoulder causing them to jerk forward on their stools.
“Jesus, Gus,” Barney said. “Where’d you come from?”
“I was right behind her,” he said.
Like a hound flaring its nostrils, he raised his nose high in the air vacuuming in the woman’s lingering perfume. “You two should petition the Olympics to allow for synchronized drinking from bar stools.”
He pantomimed drinking and swiveling robotically in a bar stool.
“Funny, Angus. Are we going to do it or not?”
“Already done,” Macdougal replied.
“What do you mean?”
He caught the bartender’s eye.
“Three more,” he told him.
“Good day in court, sir?”
“My office is lined with the scalps of mine enemies, lad. Rows of blood-soaked, dripping scalps.”
“Congratulations, sir,” Vincent said, walking off, snapping his towel.
Macdougal shifted his great weight on the stool. “Like trying to sit on a pie plate.”
“Quit fussing about and tell us,” Ebenbach demanded.
Macdougal shot his cuffs, never to be hurried in or out of court, and faced his drink, a priest preparing the chalice at high mass.
“She’s got the potato, right up the wazoo.”
Macdougal smacked his lips and made an obscene gesture.
The lawyers, conspirators all, laughed and raised their glasses to one another in a toast.
Vincent would be summoned over several more times that night. The big joke among the revelers was how many variations on “potato” they could produce. Vincent watched with interest.
* * *
“She” was the new paralegal.
Her name was Robin and she was twenty-five, a single mother, and extremely attractive. She had already proved herself to be efficient, pleasant, but also cool to the overtures of her new employer’s stable of lawyers.
Ellis denied she had rebuffed him. He protested she had misunderstood his intentions—he’d merely mentioned the extra ticket for the Nutcracker—but ceased once he realized he was only adding mirth to their doubts. Barney Holland, between divorces, didn’t take her refusal that seriously until he learned from a junior partner in torts he was the object of gossip around the office cooler. Scuttlebutt was she didn’t date “guys with combovers” because she linked them to “pervy old men.” When she avoided looking at him, he began to brood over it.
Macdougal, on the other hand, was known by a select few in the firm to be living with a younger man, a graduate student in Pan-African Studies.
Their revenge plot was meant to be “a mere boyish prank,” as Ellis described it at the time. One of them would jam a potato up the muffler pipe of her Datsun causing the car to stall out. They settled who would be “the perp,” in Mac’s words, with a round of paper-scissors-rock. The image of obese Mac in his expensive Armani suit bent over in the filthy slush with a peeled potato in his mitt inspired hilarity even in the normally dour Ellis, so much so that Vincent sauntered over to see what was amusing the three lawyers.
“We’re drinking a toast,” Barney told him.
Vincent grinned at the three lawyers.
“To Angus Macdougal and to his natal state,” Barney said.
All raised their glasses to Macdougal, who grudgingly clinked glasses.
“Where were you born, sir?” Vincent asked.
* * *
“Did you hear?”
White-faced, a styrofoam cup of coffee sloshing over the side from his trembling hand, Barney looked at Ellis, nose to the grindstone already.
Annoyed, Ellis looked up from the stack of briefs. “Hear what?”
“Who’s dead? You’re not making sense.”
“Robin, the new girl—who do you think?”
Ellis’ mouth dropped open, a pear-shaped hollow in his face out of which no note came.
“Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus. We’re screwed—”
“Keep quiet, you fool,” Ellis snarled, now fully alarmed and focused on his colleague’s whey-faced grimace. Secretaries and paralegals walked by in twos and threes on their way to their carrels or to the printing room.
“Tell me,” Ellis said, “and keep your voice down.”
“Traffic accident, I don’t know. It was on the ten o’clock news. All I know is it was a two-car accident on the Eisenhower Expressway. She’s dead—”
“I tried,” Barney replied. “He’s got a pre-trial hearing with Silverman in the judge’s quarters right now.”
“Leave a message. Tell him to meet us at the place five o’clock. And Barney. . .”
“Not one goddamned word more, you hear me?”
* * *
“You did what?”
Ellis couldn’t believe what Macdougal had just said.
Barney, looking as anemic as that morning, put his head in his hands and groaned.
“For Christ’s sake,” Macdougal fumed, “you didn’t think I was going to get down on my hands and knees and shove it up there.”
Worse, Ebenbach realized, had just come to worse; he’d used one of his criminal contacts to have someone do it.
“I’m going to be sick,” Barney said and got up to head to the men’s room.
“He’s going to be a problem,” Macdougal said. “You realize that.”
“Right now, we need to know what the police know.”
“She was rear-ended in the middle of the expressway. Then hit by a semi. Some kind of chain reaction. They’re still investigating.”
“Who do you know in CPD?”
“Ellis, I don’t think this would be the best time to intrude myself into an ongoing investigation.”
“She worked here,” Ellis snapped. “No one will think anything of it.”
“I think we have a more immediate problem,” Macdougal said. He sipped his bourbon and made a sour face.
“You mean the guy who did your dirty work for you? Please tell me it’s one of our lily-white fraud clients and not some gangbanger.”
“As a matter of fact, he’s a member in good standing in the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation. No, I mean Holland with the tender stomach in the lavatory. What do we do about him?”
It was a question that hung in the air between them and remained there when Barney returned, cheeks flushed pink, smelling of lavender hand-soap from the dispenser.
* * *
On the following morning, Macdougal made a visit to the floor where Barney and Ellis worked. He was cordial as he passed the carrels, waving to some, smiling at the women, his lord-of-the manor carriage on full display for the little people. He carried his umbrella with him; snow wasn’t permitted to land on the fabric of his tailored suits.
He walked into Ellis’ office and shut the door.
“It appears we do have a problem,” he said.
“I knew it! Damn you, Angus, and your lowlife scumbag—”
“You’re jumping to conclusions, Counselor. Trial Law One-Oh-One, remember?”
“Spit it out,” Ellis replied.
“Abdullah DeShon Holley, to give my scumbag his name, isn’t the problem, and before you point the finger at Barney, I shall inform you who is.”
“I swear I’ll kill you if you drag this out one more sec—”
Macdougal drew it out into two syllables.
“The bartender at O’Day’s? Our bartender?”
“As your lawyer, I advise you to keep your voice down. These walls are thin.”
He jabbed the pointed end of the umbrella between Ellis’ law school diploma and a certificate of appreciation from the Chicago Bar Association for his pro bono work.
“He wants one-hundred-thousand or he’s going to the cops.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I am not shitting you.”
“Does Holland know?”
“I thought it would be best to break it to him when he’s well shot of the building. His womanly shriek might draw suspicion.”
“God Almighty,” Ellis said. “What are we going to do?”
“I’ve already made a phone call.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that Mister Holley’s skills aren’t confined to inserting potatoes into mufflers. For thirty thousand, he can make Vincent go away.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I want ten from you and Barney before the banks close today.”
Macdougal’s pudgy face resembled those fat little cherubim on Christmas cards. Ellis recalled his Bar Mitzvah studies, however, and remembered that Cherubim were four-faced creatures, each one a burning mask of ox, eagle, lion, and human, who guarded the throne. Macdougal’s beefy-red complexion reminded him why Angus was revered in the firm: he took no prisoners in the courtroom and had once even sued the family of a hit-and-run victim his own client had killed. He used voire dire like a Svengali when it came to picking the right jurors.
* * *
Macdougal stuffed the wads of banded bills into a manila envelope and slid it across the bar at Vincent.
“What’s that?” Vincent asked. He looked about, expecting entrapment.
“There’s no one else here, Vincent. Check the bathrooms if you want.”
Vincent’s tongue appeared, snake-like, between his lips, to lick some moisture into them. “I trust you, Counselor.”
“Shove your trust. You understand there’s no going back to the well.”
Vincent’s eyes cut from one to the other. “I understand,” he said. “Now what would you gents like to drink?”
“Go screw yourself,” Macdougal said; he hoisted himself from the stool. Ellis and Barney followed him out the door.
* * *
“So that’s it,” Barney said. “Thank God, it’s over.”
“It’s over, Holland. Go home and relax now.”
He clapped Barney on the back and gave him his trademark courtroom grin, the humble victor.
They waited in a light snowfall for Barney’s Uber ride before heading down Michigan Avenue against the wind.
“I’m shaking,” Ellis said, “but not from the cold.”
“It’s taken care of, I told you. Stop clucking.”
“I’m not one of the Immortals like you,” said Ebenbach, referencing the partners on the top floor. “I can’t afford another ten thousand if this thing goes sideways.”
Macdougal came to an abrupt halt, his umbrella thrusting to the skies like a baton. “It’s bad enough our absent colleague’s as delicate as a Fabergé egg. Don’t you start.”
“How do you know?”
“Because that well-dressed black gentleman who came in ten minutes after us will see to it.”
“You mean Mohammed—?”
“Oh my God.”
“Read ‘Crime Beat’ in tomorrow’s Sun-Times,” Macdougal said.
They parted at the corner. Macdougal lived in Oak Park in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The graduate student earned his keep by running errands and picking up Macdougal. Ellis watched the black SUV peel off from traffic and ease slowly to the curb behind them so as not to spatter Macdougal’s pant legs.
Ellis let the Arctic air whip his hair about his ears. At home, he cracked open a fresh bottle of Glenfiddich and drank it neat. Ellis was drunk by the time the news came on and fell asleep on the couch. In the morning, he had to rush the shower and quick shave. A big conference call was scheduled, and all the senior partners would be there.
* * *
“You look awful,” Ellis whispered to him.
Barney Holland’s eyes were bloodshot. His face was dotted with black nubs where the razor had missed.
Without replying, Barney eased the folded paper over to Ellis. A light finger tap on the dog-eared page told Ellis where to look:
Man Found Slain behind Michigan Ave. Bar
Vincent Guilfoyle, 26, was shot to death behind the downtown bar where he worked. Police are investigating but there are no suspects at this time. Det. Lisa Schuchart said, “It appears to be an unprovoked assault. We don’t know if robbery or car-jacking was the motive.” Guilfoyle was discovered slumped over the wheel with a bullet wound to the temple.
Toward the end of the meeting, a sob erupted escaped from Barney’s throat. He coughed to cover it, but all eyes turned to him. Barney got up and left the room. Heads swiveled to watch him go. Ellis remained sitting, unable to move.
When Barney collapsed in the chair beside him, he jumped.
“That wasn’t smart,” Ellis snarled. “Leaving while the Old Man was in the middle of his annual Christmas message.”
“I couldn’t help it,” Barney whined. “I was afraid he was going to talk about her.”
“He didn’t,” Ellis said. “H.R. asked for money, though. Pronounced her last name with a p in it. There’s no p in her surname.”
“Are you out of your mind, Ebenbach? You want a spelling bee over her name when—”
“Everything all right in here, Holland? Ebenbach?”
Ellis’ eyes were squeezed shut. He didn’t see the Old Man pop his head in the room.
“Yes, sir,” Ellis said, forcing a smile to his lips. “We were just talking about the game.”
“No, sir, the Bears.”
“Let’s watch the language, gentlemen.”
The smile on Ellis Ebenbach’s face dissolved like sugar in water as he watched the firm’s founding partner walk down the corridor under the rows of fluorescent lights.
Between gritted, he said to Holland: “You’re going to get us twenty years apiece in Joliet. Do you know who winds up Joliet, Barney? The same kind of people Mac hired to—solve our problem.”
“Ellis, I can’t take it anymore,” Barney pleaded. Fat drops oozed from the corners of his eyes and slid down his cheeks.
Ellis realized his colleague was a hair’s breadth from hysteria.
His voice choking, he said to him, “I’ll drop by your place tonight,” Ellis said. “We’ll figure this out.”
“It’s because of that potato,” Barney said.
“It was only half a potato,” Ellis said. “Angus said his guy had to cut it in half to get it up there.”
Why that seemed important to be accurate he didn’t know.
* * *
Ellis turned around to see the formidable shape of Macdougal coming from behind a pillar in the parking garage.
“You startled me,” Ellis said as he approached him in that same lordly strut.
“I heard what happened in the meeting today,” Macdougal said.
“I’m going over to his apartment tonight,” Ellis said.
“You might suggest he switch from martinis to milk for the duration. Showing up half-blitzed at the office has a way of—well, undermining one’s best intentions, wouldn’t you say?”
“I say, Go to hell, Macdougal! You got us into this dumpster fire of a mess!”
“I always suspected you were a nasty worm beneath that anal-retentive exterior.”
Ellis watched Macdougal hoist his bulk into the passenger seat of his SUV in the rearview mirror.
* * *
Ebenbach knocked on the door several times. He figured Barney was already in the bag. He recalled the feeling of ice in his entire GI tract that afternoon when he realized Barney intended to confess.
The logical solution was inevitable: Macdougal had to get his P. Stones killer to do one more job.
His knuckles sore from pounding, he turned the knob. It opened. Barney’s living quarters, his TV room, was to the left. A braided-metal stairway led upstairs to his den, computer room, and bedroom.
The TV upstairs was blaring. A basketball game. . .
Ebenbach headed up the stairs and down the carpeted hallway. A light under the door. Barney often relaxed in a La-Z-Boy in front of his television.
Stretched out in the fully reclined chair, his bone-white shirt with the sleeves rolled up exposing his hairy arms that reminded Ellis of a monkey’s forearms, Barney’s head canted to the right, fast asleep
That icy feeling in Ellis’ guts returned.
“Barney, hey Barney. . .”
A rusty zigzag of trickle ran into his shirt collar from the neat little hole behind his ear.
“He can’t hear you,” an unfamiliar voice said.
Ellis bolted for the door.
A slender African-American stepped into the room, but not the dapper-looking black male from O’Day’s but a slender male wearing a different kind of suit—one of those disposable crime-scene suits complete with hood, booties, and latex gloves. Synaptic firing of neurons in Ellis’ brain brought home a belated recognition: the face of the driver glimpsed through the windshield of Macdougal’s SUV.
“Is it . . . is it too late to offer more money?”
The reply came as a muffled thwup from barrel fitted with a silencer.
Ellis felt the slug punch deep into his chest. The second shot clipped him under the jaw, knocking his head back like a punch, then ricocheted off his lower mandible and came out beside his right ear and ended up smashing into the TV monitor. Ellis didn’t hear the man curse because he was dead before his knees buckled.
* * *
Angus Macdougal personally informed the Old Man.
“All this. . . this mess, Angus. It doesn’t look good,” the Old Man frowned.
“Murder-suicides tend to be, sir,” Macdougal replied.
“Lover’s quarrel, you say?”
“The lead investigator thinks so. It’s a theory they’re considering.”
“That’s your specialty, isn’t it, Angus?”
“What is, sir?”