The Reisman Case
At the bar, you asked me to lay out the details of the Reisman case from beginning to end. I told you that would be too long a story to tell in one sitting, too involved a tale for that noisy setting.
I’ve had time since then to write it all out. A full case report, which I submit to you here.
I made some decisions along the way, as I’m sure you’ve heard from Anton, that might have seemed reckless. That’s what you do when the stakes are high and the outcome matters more to you personally than to any other player in the game. I’ve always had faith in my abilities, and I’ve never fully trusted others to do things right, certainly not to my own high standards, and certainly not when it’s my life on the line. Roscoe Lehmann was right when he said the best motivation is to have some skin in the game.
The risks paid off. So what if Anton was horrified? Lawyers are trained for caution, and caution wasn’t going to help me in this case.
You’ve heard of those ride-alongs where cops give civilians a first-hand view of the streets? Well, I’m going to put you in the passenger seat of my mind and show you the case as it unfolded before me. You’ll get the facts as I found them, and you can make of them what you will. I respect your experience and abilities. I’d like to know if you would have acted differently in my position.
You asked how all this started. It started as all our troubles start: unremarkably, on a day that looked like any other, under circumstances I would not have remembered if the case had not played out as it did.
If I had known what this case would turn into, I never would have accepted it. No one walks into a burning house.
You know what I used to do. Due diligence for corporate buyouts. I’d go into a company, interview people, run through the books, dig into their intellectual property, production processes, pick apart the management structure and organizational psychology. The goal was to expose hidden risks before the purchaser finalized the deal.
It was corporate detective work. I was good at, I enjoyed it, and it paid well. Then six months ago, when my life was falling apart, I got sucked into a world of trouble not of my own making. An old friend had bequeathed me some information I didn’t want. Simply having it made me a target. I met some very nasty people, got locked in The Friday Cage and had to think my way out.
That experience woke me up. It gave me a taste of what I really wanted to do. The world is full of bad people, and someone needs to keep them from hurting the good.
I enrolled in criminal justice courses at American University. To pay the bills, I picked up a contract with the Securities and Exchange commission, reviewing documents in a securities fraud case.
That was dull work. My life consisted of subway rides between Woodley Park and Union Station, hours of combing through tedious documents, and more hours of pointless meetings. Outside of work, I studied, and when I wasn’t studying, I was wrapping up my grandmother’s affairs. Selling her house, her car. Establishing a trust to pay for her dementia care.
It wasn’t much of a life.
In mid-July, the contractor that had placed me in the SEC asked if I wanted to renew for three more months. I was looking for an excuse to say no, waiting till the last minute when I had to give them a firm answer, hoping that something more interesting would come along. I wanted distraction, something to take me away from the responsibilities of work and family and study, something other than myself to occupy my mind in that lonely apartment.
The night before I had to give my final answer, I got a call from Roscoe Lehmann. Did I have a few days to look into something for him? I asked him what kind of investigation he needed and he said he’d rather not discuss it over the phone.
“Come to my house tomorrow morning. I’ll give you the details in person. It’s a simple case, bread and butter work. It shouldn’t take more than a few days.” I wanted to ask how he’d found me and if he knew I wasn’t licensed yet, but I decided to save those questions for our meeting.
At the close of the call, all I could think was, Well, here’s my distraction. I told Lehmann I’d see him at 10:30 the next morning.
After I hung up, I told my employer I wouldn’t be renewing the contract right away. I’d need a week or two off. That was fine with them.
I understood why his name sounded familiar when I Googled Roscoe Lehmann. He owned a company that sold appliances—refrigerators, dishwashers, dryers. I’d seen his trucks around DC since I was a girl, big white box trucks with the green Lehmann Appliance logo, though there seemed to be fewer of them now than when I was young.
I found Lehmann’s house on Zillow, a six bedroom in Potomac worth two and a half million. He had owned it since it was built in the mid-eighties. I guessed he’d have to be at least sixty-five.
He was obviously a private man. No social media, no photos of him at charity fundraisers or any of the other events where the rich from Potomac tend to show up. He’d lost a son some years back, but other than that, his name didn’t show up in the news.
Before I left the next morning, I had a mental picture of the person I would meet: an older man with money who had withdrawn from the mainstream of life into quiet and solitude. A discreet man who, if he ever had cause to hire an investigator, would want to keep it on the down low, would want to talk face-to-face so he could assess the quality of the person he was hiring.
That all fit with the way I liked to work. I looked forward to meeting him.
He lived in that part of Potomac where huge stone houses sit behind iron gates and the rolling lawns stay green even when the rest of the county is brown with drought. Mercedes in every driveway, next to the Land Rover or the Porsche, and landscaping trucks on every other block because in his neighborhood, even the bushes have servants.
Lehmann’s house was at the end of one of the older streets, a two-story brick mansion with a two-car garage and an asphalt drive. The shaggy grass gave the yard a disheveled look, like stubble on the face of a man who’d been up drinking all night. Every other lawn on the street was freshly cut.
The rough asphalt drive had faded from black to grey. Tiny weeds and tufts of grass peeped up through gnarled cracks that bulged like varicose veins.
I wondered if Lehmann was down on his luck, or too depressed to maintain the property. Or maybe he was just cheap.
The grey GMC Yukon in the driveway had Florida plates. Maybe he’s a snowbird, I thought. If he doesn’t live here full time, why should he care if it’s all ship-shape?
I parked behind the SUV, cut the engine, and took a photo of the Yukon’s license plate because—why not? Better to have information you don’t need than to be missing information you do. If I got curious later, and I knew I would, I could look up his Florida address, find out what kind of mansion he had down there.
I checked myself in the rearview, turned it back, rubbed my hands on my slacks, and thought, “OK, let’s see what Roscoe Lehmann wants.”
It was hot, and the car was in the sun, so I left the windows down. I wore navy slacks and a white sleeveless top. I would not have worn that in the shape I was in last winter, but I’d regained all the weight I’d lost. I was healthy again, and on a broiling July day, I didn’t want to sweat any more than I had to.
The only thing I took from the car was my shoulder bag, which held a laptop, phone, pen and paper, and a few other items.
I stopped at the Yukon before going to the door. The SUV was spotless inside and out. Much better maintained than the property. What did that say about the man? I wasn’t sure.
I tucked the observation and the question into my mental case file, ascended three slate steps and rang the bell beside the heavy wooden door.
You don’t notice when a house has a portico over the front door, but you notice when it doesn’t have one. You notice when it’s July and that sweltering DC sun is beating down on you.
I could see where the portico had once been attached to the house. Slanted lines above the door showed it had a pitched roof, and two faded squares at the corners of the stoop showed where the support posts had stood. He’d had it removed, but there didn’t seem to be any work in progress to replace it.
Beads of sweat were forming on my scalp and on the back of my neck. I checked my watch. Ten thirty-two. I rang again.
Through the windows on either side of the door, I could see the dark stain of the floors, the deep red border of the Persian rug, and the bottom of a stairway that ascended to the right. I wondered if Lehmann himself would answer or if he’d send a servant.
When I drew back from the window, I felt someone watching me. Whether it was real or not, I didn’t know. It was a hard feeling to shake after what happened six months ago. First one man had been following me and then another. Even after they’d been locked up, I continued to look over my shoulder. The only analogy I can give to people who haven’t been through what I went through, who haven’t been stalked, is that the aftereffect is like getting off a boat. The rational part of you knows you’re on solid ground, but you still feel the rocking sea in your bones.
My paranoia flared up now and then, and I had to make a conscious effort to tamp it down.
Time, I told myself. Time will erase this feeling, if I let it.
But even now, months after those men had been put away, I was acutely sensitive to the presence of others. I still carried the stun gun in my shoulder bag. I still couldn’t give myself permission to relax.
A motion in the window above caught my eye. One side of the curtain fluttered shut, as if a hand had just let go of it.
Then the door in front of me opened. The man on the other side, sixty or so—a few years younger than I had guessed in my musings the night before—seemed to startle at the sight of me.
“Hello,” I said.
I put on my friendliest smile, extended my hand. “I’m Claire.”
He shook off his surprise with some effort. Almost unwillingly, I thought. His hand was clammy, his grip half-hearted.
“We had an appointment. 10:30. Remember?”
“Yes, I remember.” His face was tan and lined from years of sun. Florida, I thought.
His blue suit was expensive and well-tailored, more like the spotless Yukon than the shaggy lawn, but it was too dark for the summer heat. Who would go outside in that? Maybe all his business was indoors that day.
“Come in, won’t you?” He moved aside to make way.
The air inside was twenty degrees cooler. He closed the door behind me and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
“Sorry, Roscoe Lehmann. I should have introduced myself. I don’t know where my head is today. I didn’t forget about you, Claire. I just lost track of time and…”
He stopped and stared at me, appraising my features with the calculating interest of a car dealer evaluating a trade-in.
“And?” I said.
Again, he had to force himself to stop staring. “I’m sorry. Would you like something to drink? Iced tea? Lemonade?”
“Lemonade sounds good.”
“Great. Let me show you to the office.”
He led me down the hallway toward the rear of the house. Between the living room in front and his office in back, a stairway ascended to the right. Four dark wood steps led to a landing before the stairs turned left and went up to the second floor. A large, discolored square marked the spot where a painting had been removed from the landing wall. It must have had a substantial frame. The two heavy-duty wall anchors that had supported it stared out like empty eyes from a blank, forsaken face.
I wondered if Roscoe Lehmann was in the process of moving his wealth to the Sunshine State. Maybe the painting was a favorite, or a piece of great value.
An original by some famous artist.
A faint, familiar smell lingered on the steps. Oribe. An expensive shampoo. I used to use it when I was earning a big salary. You don’t forget that scent. It told me someone else was in the house.
After we passed the stairs, Lehmann said, “Right here.” He showed me into the office. “I’ll be back in a minute with your drink. Sit wherever you like.”
The room had a heavy feel: wood paneling, mahogany desk, intricately patterned Persian rug. One wall held a shelf of leather-bound books, the kind you know the owner didn’t read because all the spines were the same dull brown with titles debossed in gold. Western literature’s greatest hits, priced by the foot to decorate a library or a den. Framed watercolors showed the fish and waterfowl of the Chesapeake Bay.
Two green leather-upholstered chairs stood before the heavy desk. It could have been a stage set for the office of a 1940s banker. The green chairs would be for loan applicants.
Behind the desk, an Aeron chair broke the illusion. An ergonomic intrusion from the twenty-first century to ease a rich man’s aging back.
Huge French windows overlooked the back yard, which extended fifty or sixty yards to a stand of trees. The pool was empty except for two feet of brown water at the deep end. The leaves must have been steeping since autumn. They had sunk to the bottom and turned black. Sparse grass clippings on the surface gave the water a tinge of green.
On the outside, the property had the feel of a once-flourishing man now in decline. Inside, it was clean and well furnished, but quiet and lifeless; dark, with high ceilings that made it feel empty despite the rich furnishings.
It lacked the warmth of a home, felt more like a second home, or an interior decorator’s set piece, meant to be looked at rather than lived in. The ticking of the clock on the shelf added a dimension of loneliness, as if time were winding down to its inevitable end. The heavy decor didn’t fit with the bright scent that lingered on the stairway. A woman who spent that much on shampoo would never let her pool fall into such a state.
“Ah, the pool,” said Lehmann, handing me a tall cool glass. “I will get around to that. I will! Take a seat if you’d like. Unless you prefer to stand.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I took one of the loan applicant’s seats. Lehmann took the Aeron behind the desk. I sipped my drink—which was both too sweet and too sour—and looked for a spot to put it down. There were no coasters, and I didn’t want to stain the wood. Lehmann put his drink on the old-fashioned blotter, and I did the same.
“You want me to cut to the chase?” he asked.
“I had a feeling. You have that look. Straight to the point. You know what I do, right?”
“You sell appliances.”
He smiled. “That’s not how I would put it. I own the company. We have warehouses in Maryland and Virginia. We sell to builders and consumers. We… OK, I don’t need to give you the whole pitch. The reason I called you, I think one of my employees is stealing.”
“Any idea who?”
“I have a very definite idea.”
“You know how much he’s taken? Sorry, is this person you’re thinking of a he or a she?”
“He. As for what he’s taken, I’m not exactly sure.”
“He has access to company accounts?”
“No. He works at the warehouse.”
“So, he’s taking merchandise? Not embezzling?”
“That’s my suspicion.”
“But you don’t know what he might have taken? Don’t you track inventory?”
The question seemed to catch him off guard. Or maybe it was just the sharpness of my tone. Neither should have bothered him. We had already established that I’m straight to the point, and who moves merchandise without tracking inventory?
“I do track inventory,” he said, “but it’s a little more complicated than that. Say, for example, we get a delivery. The supplier says it was signed for on such and such date and twelve items were delivered. Somehow, we only have eight. Where did the other four go? They were never even scanned into our tracking system to be counted.”
“So, you think it’s someone on the receiving dock?”
“Do you have security watching them?”
“The warehouse has a guard, but he works for the property owner, not me. He’s up and down Rockville Pike, patrolling half a dozen properties. So, no. No one is watching him at this point.”
“What about cameras?”
“They don’t cover every inch of the warehouse. Things move around a lot. A guy with a dolly moves an item off camera, maybe it shows up again, maybe it doesn’t.”
“OK. So, you think your employee is stealing. What do you want me to do?”
“Follow him. See if you can catch him hauling anything in his pickup. Find out if he rented storage space to stash things. Find out if he’s selling online. See if he’s spending beyond his means. He makes fourteen dollars an hour.”
“What difference does that make?” Lehmann asked.
“A single man might get by on fourteen dollars an hour. A married man can’t pay the rent on that.”
“Is he dangerous?” Lehmann repeated the question slowly, as if he wasn’t sure how to answer.
“It’s a simple question,” I said. “I’d like to know before I run into him.”
“Shouldn’t you make that determination on your own?”
“I should and I will, but I want to get your take on him first. How long has he been working for you?”
“Did you know him before that?”
“No. And as for dangerous, I’m not sure how to answer. He’s…” Lehmann paused to search for the word. “Delicate.”
“How do you mean?”
“He’s a loner. Pathologically shy. Which is part of the reason I asked you here.”
I heard a thump on the floor upstairs. Lehmann glanced up quickly and scowled.
“I’m sorry, what is the reason you asked me here?”
“Jacob is too wary,” he said, “and too shy to let people close.”
“I don’t need to get close to him to figure out if he’s stealing.”
“Oh, but you do. He’s painfully shy. You won’t learn anything about him without—”
“He doesn’t sound like the kind who would steal. Thieves are bold or desperate, not shy.”
“There’s something else though.”
“Uh-huh. I could tell.”
I could also tell that Roscoe Lehmann had just shaved his beard. The skin on his lower cheeks and chin was lighter than his upper cheeks and forehead, like it had been shielded from the sun. Red spots and dry white flakes were signs of razor burn.
“I don’t think this person is motivated by simple greed,” Lehmann said. “I think he might be harboring some resentment. Maybe some kind of vendetta. As I said, he’s…”
He searched once more for a word. He could have said “delicate” again, after all the trouble he’d gone through to dredge up that vague and useless adjective, but something compelled him to dig deeper this time for an even vaguer description. “He’s not quite right.”
“OK, I asked you if this person was dangerous.” My tone was sharp, impatient. I try to control that, because I know how it puts people off, but Lehmann’s evasiveness came off as less than honest.
“And I would say no,” Lehmann said cautiously. “Not toward you.”
He leaned forward and smiled with the overly reassuring manner of a salesman trying to reel in a customer. His smile was too ready, too eager, flashing beneath eyes that too obviously kept score of my reactions.
“Not toward me?” I asked. “Why not toward me?”
“I just think that the attention of a woman—”
“No,” I stood and looped my bag over shoulder. “I’m not in this business to give anyone attention. Especially not some delicate man who isn’t quite right.”
Lehmann rushed around the desk and got in front of me. “Please!”
“Hire someone else. Or just fire the guy if you want to be rid of him.”
“For what cause?” Lehmann pleaded. “Until I can prove he’s stealing—”
“You don’t need cause. Maryland is a right-to-work state. You can hire and fire at will.”
I tried to step around him, but he blocked my way.
“But if there is something wrong with him,” he pleaded, “if he does hold some kind of vendetta and I fire him—”
“So, you do think he’s dangerous? You’ve only known him two months. What could he possibly have against you?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t care. But if you can prove he’s stealing, I can get him arrested.”
“You don’t think that will piss him off? I’m sorry. This isn’t for me.”
This time I did step around him, but he cut me off at the double doors of the office.
“You don’t get it,” he said, grabbing me by the arm. “Once the cops have him—”
“Take your hands off me.”
Lehmann let go. “—they’ll see what state he’s in. They’ll put him back in the institution.”
“OK, this is going from bad to worse.” I gave him a hard look. “You bring me here with a story about a stealing employee, and now he’s a madman who needs to be locked up again. Unless he can get the attention of a woman.”
“No, no, no. You’re misinterpreting.”
“Misinterpreting what? Those are your own words. Get out of my way.”
I walked past him, turned left in the hall and headed back toward the front door.
“Sorry. We’re done.”
“OK, just do this much for me. Follow him. Look for clues. A storage space. Spending beyond his means. Evidence left in his truck. Just get me that. That’s all. I’ll take care of the rest.”
I stopped at the front door and thought about it. This would be my first case, if I accepted it. I didn’t have an investigator’s license, but it was a simple job, and it would give me some practice. Follow, observe, gather evidence, write a report.
Lehmann stood beside me with the nervous air of a dog that didn’t want to be left.
“OK,” I said. “First condition: if this guy shows any sign of being a psychopath, I’m out. You find someone else to follow him.”
“Second, you pay me for three days up front, and if I have to bail on the assignment because your friend is nutso, I keep the money.”
“Fine. And if you’re nervous about—you really shouldn’t be because he’s painfully shy—”
“And he has a vendetta.”
“Possibly, but that would be against me, not you. If you’re worried, then only talk to him in public, where there are people around to see.”
“I’d do that anyway.”
“Talk to him on the loading dock, in the warehouse if you want, but don’t let on there’s any kind of investigation.”
“Why would I do that? If I’m investigating the guy, I’m not going to tell him.”
“No, I mean if you talk to the other workers, don’t let them think you’re an investigator.”
“I hired one once before and things got ugly. The guy was aggressive and threatening. It caused a lot of resentment and hurt morale. I don’t want that again.”
“I don’t work like that,” I said.
“So do we have a deal?”
“Aren’t you going to ask my rate?”
“What’s your rate?”
I hesitated a split second longer than I should have.
“Two thousand a day,” I said. I didn’t want the job, so I named a price I knew he wouldn’t accept.
For a moment, we stood staring at each other, neither one knowing what to do next. At last, I told him I’d start when he signed a contract and paid me.
“I can pay you now,” Lehmann said. “We don’t need a contract.”
I shook my head. “There is no we without a contract.”
“Do you have one?”
“All right,” Lehmann sighed. “Come into the kitchen. The light’s better in there.”
I laid two copies of a contract on the marble top of the kitchen island. I had spent several evenings drafting this months before and had reviewed it with a lawyer. A standard terms-of-service agreement between investigator and client. Even though I didn’t have a license, I had my paperwork ready ahead of time so I could hit the ground running the day a license came through.
I filled in the daily rate we had agreed on and wrote a brief addendum spelling out the terms we’d discussed. If the subject of the investigation turned out to be dangerous or threatening, I could opt out and keep the money.
Lehmann watched me write with the eager anticipation of a dog watching its owner scrape the remains of a steak into its food bowl.
He flipped to the last pages and signed both copies. I don’t know why he thought I wouldn’t notice that. No successful business owner signs a contract without reading it.
Lehmann excused himself and went upstairs, to get his checkbook, I assumed.
Alone in the kitchen, I tried to assemble a picture of the man’s life from the scene around me. The sink was dirty, but the stove was spotless, which told me he probably didn’t cook. Three boxes of cereal sat on the counter, all opened, beside one of those old-fashioned coffee grinders that you crank by hand. I didn’t see a coffee maker anywhere.
Lehmann returned after a minute with a manila envelope.
“What’s this?” I asked as he handed it to me.
The envelope was stuffed with cash.
“A simple check would do.”
“Cash is cleaner.”
“Not for me.”
“We have a contract,” Lehmann said. “And that’s legal tender. Take it.”
Who keeps six thousand dollars cash in their house? Or gives that kind of money to someone they just met? I didn’t ask aloud. I just gave him a curious look, an invitation to explain himself.
He read the invitation and ignored it. My doubts didn’t matter to him. I took that as a slight. One more point against a man I trusted less and less since the moment we met.
“Professor Williamson recommended you very highly.”
I’d meant to ask him how he’d heard of me. Funny he had thought of it himself just then. Williamson taught Foundations of Criminal Justice Systems at American University, one of two classes I had taken in the spring.
Lehmann picked up his copy of the contract, folded it in half and stuffed it into the pocket of his suit.
“Make sure you take photos,” he said.
Why would you bother telling me that, I wondered. Do you think I’m stupid?
“Of course,” I said politely. “They’re all yours when the case is done.”
“And write your notes by hand.”
“What difference does it make how I write my notes?”
“I don’t want you sending reports electronically.”
“Is someone snooping on you?”
“That’s a separate issue and none of your concern.” A cold rebuff delivered in a reassuring tone, with a polite salesman’s smile.
I extended my hand, polite and professional, but decidedly more cool than warm for this man I neither liked nor trusted. “OK, Mr. Lehmann. I’ll call you later with some questions.”
Again, his hand was clammy and limp. Totally at odds with the eager smile and dark brown eyes that looked on me with too much familiarity.
A minute later, I was rolling up the windows in the BMW, cranking the air conditioning, wondering how much of the story Lehmann wasn’t telling me.
I pulled a printed page from the envelope of cash and looked over the photo and details. Jacob Reisman was twenty-five years old, but he looked closer to forty. Chubby face, balding, with a wispy blond comb-over and the dark-ringed eyes of a chronic insomniac. Lives in Rockville, MD. Drives a twelve-year old blue Chevy 1500 pickup. His address and license plate number were right there at the top of the page.
I put the paper on the passenger seat and released the emergency brake. My accountant’s sense told me the same thing my gut was telling me. Something was wrong with this setup. How many appliances would this thief have to steal to justify a six-thousand-dollar investigation? Why not spend five hundred bucks for a few extra surveillance cameras and catch him in the act?
But I had signed an agreement. I wasn’t going to back out of my first case before the ink on the contract had dried. I have always looked at quitting as the lowest form of failure, a humiliation you can hide from everyone but yourself. And part of me was curious. What was this case really about? If it involved more than thievery, I should be able to figure it out. And if I couldn’t, I was in the wrong business.
I pushed the shift into reverse and checked the rearview to see if it was safe to back up. A fluttering motion drew my eyes to the second-floor window. The nails on the hand that pulled the curtain shut were painted red. A woman’s hand, small and slim like my own.