AUCKLAND, New Zealand – May 17, 1994
American Woman Rescued
Search and Rescue forces today reported the rescue at sea of an American woman, Sophie Suriano. The Suriano yacht with two aboard had been reported overdue from Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
Mrs. Suriano was evacuated by helicopter to Whangarei Base Hospital, where she is undergoing treatment for injuries suffered during and subsequent to the sinking of the yacht Sylph. Still missing is Mrs. Suriano’s husband, Samuel.
The cause of the sinking is not known at this time.
San Francisco – November 1994
The client, a woman of slight stature and sharp edges, walked into my office with the aid of a cane and the hesitancy of the recently ill.
She was a referral from Ben Talbot: “Max, have I got a case for you.”
“Last time you said that, I ended up on the wrong end of an oil tanker collision.”
“Hell, the Alejandro made your reputation.”
“What is it this time?”
He’d given me a summary. A hit and run, in international waters off New Zealand, involving a Chinese freighter and an American yacht. Two people aboard the yacht, only one survivor.
Not my kind of case, and Ben knew it.
“The fact is, Sam Suriano wasn’t just a client. He was a friend,” Ben said.
It was the one approach I couldn’t refuse out of hand, which was why Sam Suriano’s widow was currently being ushered into my office by my assistant, Cassie.
The contrast between the two women was startling. Cassie, dark-skinned and regal versus Mrs. Suriano, pale, gaunt, and looking much older than her forty years. Further proof of what else Ben told me—that severely injured, she’d been cast adrift on the Tasman Sea with no food, water, and with little protection from the elements. Seeing her now, it was difficult to imagine how she’d managed to survive.
“Mrs. Suriano, Max Gildea,” Cassie said.
The woman lifted haunted eyes to mine. I nodded, and after a brief hesitation, she lowered herself into the client chair. Cassie set a cup of tea on the table next to the chair and left the room without giving me a signal, although Cassie never brings in a new client without letting me know her opinion.
There’s the eye roll (thinks he’s a comedian), the flapping hand (won’t stop talking), the smile with a thumbs-up (this one’s a keeper), and the grimace with a thumbs-down (turkey, pass him on to someone else). Her instincts are excellent, so I always pay attention. This time, however, if she made a judgment, she wasn’t sharing.
“My condolences on your loss.” I spoke the formal words acknowledging the death of Mrs. Suriano’s husband with a proper solemnity, and she inclined her head in response.
“Ben Talbot gave me only a summary of your situation. Perhaps we might start with you filling in more details.” I picked up a pen and waited for her to begin.
“First, I’d like to ask you a few questions.” Her voice was clear and firm without the tremor her appearance suggested would be there.
“Ben didn’t discuss my professional qualifications with you?”
“Indeed. He said you’re…relentless.”
Not bad. I’d have to remember that. I nodded, encouraging her to get on with it.
She tipped her head, examining me. “Tell me, do you handle many wrongful death cases?”
“No, I avoid them whenever possible.”
“I see.” She tightened her lips, and a small crease appeared between her eyes. “Then why did Ben say you were the best person for this?”
“You’d have to ask Ben.”
She continued to examine me. “Do you sail, Mr. Gildea?”
“And yet all your cases are associated with ships and the sea.”
“I know a successful attorney whose practice involves the thoroughbred industry, and yet he’s afraid of horses.” Brother Andy. A Gildea family trait perhaps—to deal with fears sideways. Our father was afraid to fly, but nonetheless spent twenty years in the Air Force.
“Are you afraid of the water?” she asked, her expression and tone intent.
“No.” Always the exception.
“What are you afraid of?”
What the hell? “Snakes and spiders. Nuclear weapons. Meteors.”
“You’re not taking my questions seriously.”
“I usually ask the questions.” I returned her steady look with an effort.
“And it makes you uncomfortable to answer them.”
“Yes.” That yes represented a degree of personal candor I rarely grant, even to those closest to me. I shifted, trying to clamp down on the discomfort her questions had elicited.
She had been leaning forward as she questioned me. Now, she sat back. “Where do you want me to begin?”
Her more relaxed posture suggested I had passed muster, although damned if I had any idea how I’d done it. “Start wherever you like.” I leaned back as well, relieved to be once again on familiar ground.
As she began to speak, Mrs. Suriano looked past me, her eyes losing their focus. Her voice dropped to a monotone, and her body began to rock.
The most useful part of her story? That the ship responsible for the sinking of the Suriano yacht had been identified as the Chinese freighter, Nereus.
The ship was first implicated by New Zealand authorities, based on shipping schedules and satellite tracking, then its involvement was confirmed by Japanese authorities in Yokohama, who found fresh dents in the freighter’s bow, containing traces of anti-fouling paint. Anti-fouling paint is used on boat hulls to prevent barnacles, algae, and other types of marine growth.
“The anti-fouling paint on the Nereus was matched to what we’d used on the Sylph,” Mrs. Suriano said.
“I didn’t realize the yacht had been recovered.”
She shook her head. “It hasn’t been. A friend used the same batch of paint we did. He provided the samples for the matching.” Mrs. Suriano turned her gaze back to me, and in that moment, I had the totally absurd urge to pull her into my arms, pat her on the back, and tell her everything would be all right. Like one would a child.
It wasn’t an impulse I could easily indulge from a wheelchair, and it certainly wasn’t my usual response to a client. My clients are, at any rate, mostly men with well-camouflaged paunches and perfectly barbered hair. Men who tap manicured fingers against the arms of my guest chairs, directing me to speak quickly and to the point about their situations. Men who refuse sympathy and consider compassion a sign of weakness. The sort of men we would be up against in this case.
All I had to work with was Mrs. Suriano’s insistence that the reason she didn’t see the freighter approaching was because it was running without lights, something the freighter crew denied.
But no matter how the accident happened, there was no excuse for the crew’s subsequent action, that of sailing off without attempting a rescue, although they’d subsequently claimed they had no idea they’d even hit the yacht. However, Mrs. Suriano denied that, saying she and her husband had seen sailors looking down at them.
“I want to sue the ship’s owners and the officers in charge at the time of the accident for the wrongful death of my husband and for my pain and suffering, property damage, and anything else we can tack on.”
Right. That was what it always boiled down to. Money. Even with a case as horrific as this one. “Why?” It was brutal, but I needed to check how committed she was.
She gave me a kitten-backed-into-a-corner look, but the intensity was pure tiger, and I braced for the angry words to follow. Instead, her tone was controlled. “You think it’s all about the money? That’s what you’re thinking.” She looked away, and I waited.
“I have plenty of money. More than I can ever possibly need. What I don’t have any longer is my husband.” She stopped speaking abruptly and took several deep breaths before continuing. “The Nereus was running without lights. She hit us, and her crew knew they hit us. They left us to die. And denied it. They didn’t even have the humanity to say they were sorry we were hit.” She took a shaky breath. “I want them to regret that, and I want to stop them from ever having a chance to hit anyone else.” She closed her eyes, and her hands clenched. Then she opened her eyes and met my gaze. “It’s the only weapon I have. To force them to pay so much it hurts.”
It’s my experience that whenever someone says it isn’t about the money, that’s usually exactly what it is about. But the emotion in Mrs. Suriano’s eyes and voice convinced me. This case wasn’t about money. Worse. Much worse. It was about justice, something I gave up on years ago.
“Unfortunately, there’s a law that affects this type of case.” I watched her as I spoke. “It’s called Death on the High Seas Act or DOHSA. It will restrict any financial settlement you might receive to compensatory damages only. In other words, your husband’s estimated lifetime earnings, the loss of the yacht, and your medical expenses.”
Her posture stiffened. “It’s the only reason I survived. To stop them. To make them pay.”
“I’m afraid DOHSA will make that impossible.”
“I don’t understand.”
I spoke gently, although I have strong feelings on the subject. “DOHSA was passed in 1920, and at that time it was ground-breaking. It represented the first time compensation was provided for widows and children of men killed on the job. Now, however, it ties our hands because it doesn’t allow for punitive damages.”
“But how could such a thing… Why?”
“Whenever Congress considers an amendment, the cruise ship industry spends big bucks to block it.”
“So, you’re saying…because of this DOHSA, they’re going to get away with murder?”
“Only a criminal case would effectively address the question of their guilt. All a civil case can accomplish is to find them at fault and require them to pay a compensatory settlement. Unfortunately, I doubt that will affect them as much as you would like.”
I gave her a moment to consider that before delivering the final blow. “If you decide to proceed, you need to know this firm cannot accept a case like this on contingency.”
Her chin came up, and her eyes flashed with a return of the anger she’d suppressed earlier. “Of course I intend to proceed. If they lose the case, at the least it will prove they were responsible. And I’m willing to pay whatever that requires.”
Money again. With a sigh, I bowed to the inevitable. “I’ll need a retainer of twenty thousand to begin. Making it to court will likely cost in excess of a hundred thousand.”
She opened her purse, pulled out a checkbook and pen, wrote quickly, then leaned forward to place the check on my desk. I left it sitting, but the number she’d written was clear. One hundred thousand dollars.
I wouldn’t want to play poker with her.
I didn’t doubt the check would clear.
~ ~ ~
Mrs. Suriano left, and I wheeled over to the window. On a clear day, I can see all the way to Sausalito, and this was a clear day. I picked up the binoculars I keep handy and watched a freighter heading out under the Golden Gate.
I put the binoculars down and buzzed Cassie. She seemed unusually subdued when she came in.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have an opinion on Mrs. Suriano? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember that happening before.”
“She was wearing a Dellagracia.” Cassie avoided both my eyes and my question.
“I thought she was wearing a nice blue suit.”
Cassie propped her hands on her hips, the distracted look gone. “Lordy, Max, a nice blue suit? Dellagracia doesn’t do nice suits, he does amazing suits.”
Cassie has needled me about fashion ever since I criticized the too-short skirt and too-tight top she wore when I interviewed her. I gave her what she called “my look,” and she settled back to business.
“So, are we representing Mrs. Suriano?”
I didn’t argue with her use of “we.” When I take on a client, that client gets not only my best effort and the firm’s, but Cassie’s as well. “We’re going to do the prelims. See how it goes.”
“Why the lack of enthusiasm?” she said.
“The case hinges on a she-says-they-say scenario that will be impossible to prove. She says the freighter was running without lights. The freighter crew has denied that. And DOHSA limits our options. Bottom line, Mrs. Suriano won’t get what she’s seeking.”
Cassie’s chin came up, a dangerous sign. “Why not tell her that?”
“I tried. She’s not ready to hear it.”
“So, you’re going to take her money and string her along? That stinks, Max.”
“As long as we’re representing her, we’ll do our best to make sure she receives whatever compensation we can get for her.”
“I always thought deep down you was rooting for the underdog, Max. Even when you defend them oil tankers.”
When Cassie’s upset, she slips into old habits. It doesn’t happen often, at least not with me. Along with how to dress, she’s learned to choose her battles, and after more than ten years of working together, she and I can read each other’s moods with a glance. That familiarity helps us avoid conflicts, although if it’s one thing I can count on, it’s that Cassie never minces words.
~ ~ ~
That evening, as he did every evening, Roosevelt Hawkins, a cousin of Cassie’s, picked me up at the office and drove me home.
“Cassie tells me your given name be Franklin Delano,” he said, when we met. “I’m Roosevelt. Reckon we can be one helluva team.”
And we are. Before Rosie, I’d been finding the daily tasks involved in living without legs time-consuming and exhausting. But with Rosie running my household, driving me to and from work, and cooking most of our meals, that aspect of my handicap was lifted.
Rosie’s also my workout partner. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays we do his favorite activities—swimming laps and doing weight circuits at the health club. I prefer circling the SeaSide College track, which we do Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
This being a Wednesday, he drove us to the track, and as I settled into my racing chair, he pulled off his sweatshirt.
“What’s for dinner tonight?” I asked.
“Got a deee-licious cass’role perking away. Smelled real good. And a flirty little mousse just sitting in the fridge waiting for us.” He chuckled, a sound as rich and warm as a bowl of his chili. “Course, you know, Max, before I met you I say we having us stew and pudding.”
“A stew by any other name would taste as sweet.”
“Don’t make no sweet stews, no way. Mousse is where that’s at.” While Rosie might not recognize literary allusions, he handles word play quite satisfactorily.
“How long you figuring on tonight, Max?”
“Let’s try for an hour.”
He nodded in agreement and jogged off. I moved into my lane, set my timer, and started rolling. Usually it rests my mind to settle into the rhythmic movements that propel me around the track in the special chair my brother Jeff designed for me. Tonight, though, my mind, full of Sophie Suriano’s story, was spinning as fast as my wheels.
New Year’s 1995
My brothers and their families always spend the holidays in San Francisco. Christmas we celebrate at the folks’, and New Year’s everyone gathers at my place.
When I first bought the two acres on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, my folks worried about me choosing to live in such an isolated spot, but after Rosie moved in, they stopped fussing.
After dinner, as was our tradition, everyone went out to my meadow to play a softball game. I wheeled myself onto the terrace, surprised when my favorite sister-in-law, Kelly, pulled up a chair and joined me. Kelly, a tomboy at heart and one of the family’s best athletes, didn’t usually sit out family games.
A breeze blew in from the sea smelling of saltwater and kelp and flipped a lock of Kelly’s black hair into her face. I watched as she smoothed it, along with the rest of her hair, into an impromptu ponytail that made her look as young as her thirteen-year-old daughter.
As the happy bantering of the others faded, she gave me a troubled look. “I need to tell you something, Max.”
“Must be serious, if you’re willing to sit out the game.”
“It is. I…” She stopped, took a breath. “I may have ovarian cancer.”
I took her hand and held it between both of mine, trying to think what to say to comfort her, to lift the heavy weight of fear suddenly pressing down on us both. “You said, may. That means you might not.”
She closed her eyes. “That’s what we’re hoping. I’m having surgery in two weeks. Then we’ll know for sure.”
“What can I do to help?”
I hadn’t prayed since my accident. Didn’t see the point. That wasn’t something to share with Kelly under the current circumstances, however.
“And…” She paused and looked up to meet my eyes, “start living.”
“I’m living.” The words came out sounding more harsh and defensive than I’d intended.
She shook her head. “When I found out that I might have this…” She gestured with her free hand, then dropped it back in her lap. “I was so scared, I couldn’t think straight. Then I realized. We never know, do we? We always think there’s going to be plenty of time. Only sometimes, there isn’t.” Her voice wavered, and she took a steadying breath. “But I knew that no matter how this turns out, I needed to talk to you.”
“What? Just because you may have cancer, you think you can say anything you want?” It was an effort, but I managed to make it sound like a tease. At least I thought I did. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’ve got a terrific life.”
She shook her head. “It isn’t a full life, Max.”
“Half a life for half a man.” I meant it as a joke, but I nearly choked on the words.
“Please don’t…” Her words were cut off by a sob. I fished out a handkerchief for her, then looked away—at the rest of the family spread across my meadow, calling out taunts to each other, running the makeshift base paths, their legs flashing in the sun, while I sat on the sidelines with a woman who’d just told me I wasn’t living and she might be dying.
My nieces and nephews scored on their parents, and the younger ones shrieked with the joy of it. I took Kelly’s hand gently between mine and rubbed it, the smoothness of her skin sliding against the wheelchair calluses on my palms.
When she spoke again, it was almost dreamily. “Do you remember when we met?”
Unlikely I would forget. Jeff brought her over shortly after Susan decamped.
“If I’d met you first instead of Jeff…” Her voice trailed off, then she roused herself slightly. “Dear Max, the legs wouldn’t have mattered to me.” Slowly she shook her head. “It’s time for you to let it go.”
If she meant let go of my bitterness toward Susan, she could relax. I did that years ago. After all, the breakdown of our marriage wasn’t all Susan’s fault, even if I did let my family think it was. After the accident, I saw how she looked at what was left of me, and I pushed her away with my remaining strength. I could hardly blame her for actually leaving.
“You need to find someone,” Kelly said. “To love. Life’s too short to lose that chance.” She fell silent, and if it was my turn to speak, damned if I knew what to say. I sat staring across the meadow, no longer seeing it.
“I’m sorry, Max.”
The softness almost did me in.
I blinked to clear my vision. Kelly’s hand was still tucked in mine, and as the others continued their game, we sat, the quiet gathering between us.
~ ~ ~
I’ve always been closer to Jeff and Kelly than to my two other brothers and their wives. Geography has a lot to do with that. Jeff and I live in the San Francisco area, while Link and Andy live in Seattle and Louisville, respectively. But there’s more to it than that, of course.
Jeff found his purpose in life as a result of my accident. He designs aids for the handicapped, particularly those confined to wheelchairs. He pulled me out of despair, and his designs gave me back my mobility and independence.
Now, it appeared, I would be given a chance to pay back that support.
~ ~ ~
Prior to my second meeting with Mrs. Suriano, I reviewed what I’d learned about the freighter responsible for the sinking of the Sylph.
The Nereus, a 170-meter, 30,000-ton bulk carrier, was owned by Helice Shipping Limited, offices in Hong Kong. In all, the company owned ninety-five freighters that cycled among ports in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the States, all of them flying the Liberian flag of convenience.
Cassie attached a note to the list of ship names in the report.
Max, All these names appear to be Greek. Weird!! Have included approximate meanings. Of course if Helice (he’ li see) was Helices that would make it the plural of Helix. Since it isn’t, it must refer to the sacred city of Poseidon. Looks like someone has an Oedipus complex. CQL
I skimmed the list of names and translations—Halcyon (seabird), Tethys (wife of Ocean), Nereus (sea god). Cassie was right, and given the Chinese ownership, it was unusual. Setting that puzzle aside, I turned to the reports we’d obtained from the maritime authorities in New Zealand and Yokohama, the freighter’s first port of call after New Zealand. The Japanese report verified what Mrs. Suriano had told me about the damage found on the Nereus’s bow. The transcript concluded, based on the freighter’s schedule and the damage to the bow, that the Nereus did indeed strike the Suriano yacht. The crew of the freighter was, therefore, cited for failure to follow international navigation rules that require a motor vessel to give way to one sailing under wind power. However, the board also noted there had been a failure to maintain proper lookout aboard the stand-on vessel, Sylph. Thus blame was apportioned to both vessels. Reprimands were placed in the files of the Nereus captain and the mate on watch at the time of the accident, and as far as Japan was concerned, the case was closed.
One of our firm’s researchers had compiled copies of all the news reports written about the accident. Reading them, I learned Mrs. Suriano was rescued fifty-six hours after the sinking, not the twenty-four to thirty hours I’d inferred from her account. I already respected and admired the woman. This information deepened that respect. It also increased my outrage at the crew of the freighter, although, despite that outrage, I was meeting with Mrs. Suriano to inform her that she would be better served if I passed the case to a colleague who had more experience with wrongful death suits.
I straightened the pages into a neat stack. If I managed to finesse it, Mrs. Suriano might even believe it was her decision.
“I expect Cassie explained the purpose of this meeting is to update you on our progress,” I said, after Mrs. Suriano was seated. I focused on the pile of documentation, which was easier than looking at the woman and knowing I was about to add to her distress.
As I summarized what we’d learned, she sat straight and still, apparently listening intently. “None of that is new, is it?”
“Correct. But our first step was to collect existing documentation, and that process has helped clarify matters.” I straightened the referred-to documentation and returned it to the folder.
A tiny crease appeared between her eyes. “What does that mean? Clarify matters.”
“There’s no question DOHSA will apply. And it isn’t good news that after their investigation, the Japanese authorities assigned blame to both vessels and declined to prosecute the captain.”
Her lips tightened.
“You need to…” No. I had no idea where that statement was going. I paused and tried again. “If you choose to go ahead, this is going to be a very difficult case. It’s unlikely you’ll get even a small measure of the satisfaction you’re hoping for.”
Her expression turned fierce. “There’s no question of my going forward.”
Okay. Something less direct, perhaps? “The attorneys for the Nereus are going to fight hard against the evidence she sank the Sylph. And they may be successful, particularly with regard to the matching of the anti-fouling paint.”
She followed my words with an intent look, her hands clenched in her lap.
“Getting a jury to accept that the paint on the Nereus is the same paint that would have been found on the Sylph, well, it gives them a lot to work with. But what’s even more problematic is the issue of how the accident happened. We have only your word that the Nereus was operating without lights.”
She lifted her chin and gave me the tiger look. “It doesn’t sound like you’re interested in proceeding.”
And there it was. The perfect segue. “I proceed with cases, not because of my interest, but because my clients choose to continue. But when they make that choice, I want them to have realistic expectations.” Not what I meant to say.
“So, they aren’t surprised when they lose?”
“Sometimes a case isn’t winnable.”
“Is that how you view this case?”
“It will be difficult.” It will be difficult? Did I just tell her it would be difficult? What the hell was I doing?
“But not impossible?”
“That’s not a question I can answer yet.” Dammit. Tell her!
She continued to give me a steady look, while I tried to figure out why I couldn’t do it. All I had to say was, “This isn’t my kind of case. You’ll be better off with…”
Maybe it was the haunted expression she had until something pricked her, and she turned fierce. Or maybe it was knowing what the Nereus had taken from her. Or maybe it was the memory of Kelly, telling me I wasn’t living. If I turned this case down, I might have trouble meeting my sister-in-law’s eyes.
But whatever the reason, I was unable to say those few simple words that would allow me to get back to my usual cases. The meeting ended, and I was still Mrs. Suriano’s attorney.