Chapter Fifteen

She left before dawn. A sweet note on the table told me that she had to make her rounds, and that she would return mid-morning. She had talked to my doctors, and it was likely that I would not die.

We seemed perfectly normal and happy, a cute couple devoted to each other. I drifted off wondering why, exactly, we were going through the process of a divorce.

A nurse woke me at seven and handed me the note. I read it again as she rattled on about the weather--sleet and snow--and took my blood pressure. I asked her for a newspaper. She brought it thirty minutes later with my cereal. The story was front page, Metro. The narc was shot several times in a gun battle; his condition was critical. He'd killed one dealer. The second dealer was the Jaguar driver, who died at the scene of the crash under circumstances still to be investigated. I was not mentioned, which was fine.

Had I not been involved, the story would have been an everyday shootout between cops and crack dealers, ignored and unread by me. Welcome to the streets. I tried to convince myself it could've happened to any D.C. professional, but it was a hard sell. To be in that part of town after dark was to ask for trouble.

My upper left arm was swollen and already turning blue--the left shoulder and collarbone stiff and tender to the touch. My ribs were sore to the point of keeping me perfectly still. They hurt only when I breathed. I made it to the bathroom where I relieved myself and looked at my face. An air bag is a small bomb. The impact stuns the face and chest. But the damage was minimal: slightly swollen nose and eyes, an upper lip that had a new shape. Nothing that wouldn't disappear over the weekend.

The nurse was back with more pills. I made her identify each one, then I said no to the entire collection. They were for pain and stiffness, and I wanted a clear head. The doc popped in at seven-thirty for a quick going-over. With nothing broken or tipped, my hours as a patient were numbered. He suggested another round of X-rays, to be safe. I tried to say no, but he had already discussed file matter with my wife.

So I limped around my room for an eternity, testing my wounded body parts, watching the morning newsbabble, hoping no one I knew would suddenly enter and see me in my yellow paisley gown.

* * *

Finding a wrecked car in the District is a baffling chore, especially when initiated so soon after the accident. I started with the phone book, my only source, and half the numbers in Traffic went unanswered. The other half were answered with great indifference. It was early, the weather was bad. It was Friday, why get involved?

Most wrecked cars were taken to a city lot on Rasco Road, up in Northeast. I learned this from a secretary at the Central Precinct. She worked in Animal Control; I was dialing police extensions at random. Other cars were sometimes taken to other lots, and there was a good chance mine could still be attached to the wrecker. The wreckers were privately owned, she explained, and this had always caused trouble. She once worked in Traffic, but hated it over there.

I thought of Mordecai, my new source for all information related to the street. I waited until nine to call him. I told him the story, assured him I was in great shape in spite of being in a hospital, and asked him if he knew how to find a wrecked car. He had some ideas.

I called Polly with the same story.

"You're not coming in?" she asked, her voice faltering. "I'm in the hospital, Polly. Are you listening to me?" There was hesitation on her end, confirming what I feared. I could envision a cake with a punch bowl next to it, probably in a conference room, on the table, with fifty people standing around it proposing toasts and making short speeches about how wonderful I was. I had been to a couple of those parties myself. They were awful. I was determined to avoid my own send-off.

"When are you getting out?" she asked.

"Don't know. Maybe tomorrow." It was a lie; I was leaving before noon, with or without my medical team's approval.

More hesitation. The cake, the punch, the important speeches from busy people, maybe even a gift or two. How would she handle it?

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Me too. Is anybody looking for me?"

"No. Not yet."

"Good. Please tell Rudolph about the accident, and I'll call him later. Gotta go. They want more tests."

* * *

And so my once promising career at Drake & Sweeney sputtered to an end. I skipped my own retirement party. At the age of thirty-two I was freed from the shackles of corporate servitude, and the money. I was left to follow my conscience. I would've felt great if not for the knife sticking through my ribs every time I moved.

Claire arrived after eleven. She huddled with my doctor in the hall. I could hear them out there, speaking their language. They stepped into my room, jointly announced my release, and I changed into clean clothes she had brought from home. She drove me there, a short trip during which little was said. There was no chance at reconciliation. Why should a simple car wreck change anything? She was there as a friend and a doctor, not a wife.

She fixed tomato soup and tucked me into the sofa. She lined up my pills on the kitchen counter, gave me my instructions, and left.

I was still for ten minutes, long enough to eat half the soup and a few of the saltines, then I was on the phone. Mordecai had found nothing.

Working from the classifieds, I began calling Realtors and apartment locating services. Then I called for a sedan from a car service. I took a long, hot shower to loosen my bruised body.

My driver was Leon. I sat in the front with him, trying not to grimace and groan with each pothole he hit.

I couldn't afford a nice apartment, but at the least I wanted one that was safe. Leon had some ideas. We stopped at a newsstand and I picked up two free brochures on District real estate.

In Leon's opinion, a good place to live right now, but this could change in six months, he warned me, was Adams-Morgan, north of Dupont Circle. It was a wellknown district, one I had been through many times, never with any desire to stop and browse. The streets were lined with turn-of-the-century rowhouses, all of which were still inhabited, which, in D.C., meant a vibrant neighborhood. The bars and clubs were hot at the moment, according to Leon, and the best new restaurants were there. The seedy sections were just around the corner, and of course one had to be extremely careful. If important people like senators got themselves mugged on Capitol Hill, then no one was safe.

Driving toward Adams-Morgan, Leon was suddenly confronted with a pothole larger than his car. We bounced through it, getting airborne for what seemed to be ten seconds, then landing very hard. I couldn't help but scream as the entire left side of my torso collapsed in pain.

Leon was horrified. I had to tell him the truth, where I'd slept last night. He slowed down considerably, and became my Realtor. He helped me up the stairs at my first prospect, a run-down flat With the unmistakable smell of cat urine emanating from the carpet. In no uncertain terms, Leon told the landlord she should be ashamed showing the place in such condition.

The second stop was a loft five floors above the street, and I almost didn't make it up the stairs. No elevator. And not much heating. Leon politely thanked the manager.

The next loft was four floors up, but with a nice, clean elevator. The rowhouse was on Wyoming, a pretty shaded street just off Connecticut. The rent was five hundred and fifty a month, and I had already said yes before I saw the place. I was sinking fast, thinking more and more about the pain pills I'd left on the counter, and ready to rent anything.

Three tiny rooms in an attic with sloping ceilings, a bathroom with plumbing that seemed to be working, clean floors, and something of a view over the street.

"We'll take it," Leon said to the landlord. I was leaning on a door frame, ready to collapse. In a small office in the basement, I hurriedly read the lease, signed it, and wrote a check for the deposit and first month's rent.

I'd told Claire I'd be out by the weekend. I was determined to make it happen.

If Leon was curious about my move from the swankiness of Georgetown to a three-room pigeonhole in Adams-Morgan, he didn't ask. He was too much of a professional. He returned me to our apartment, and he waited in the car while I swallowed my pills and took a quick nap.

* * *

A phone was ringing somewhere in the midst of my chemical-induced fog. I stumbled forth, found it, managed to say, "Hello." Rudolph said, "Thought you were in the hospital." I heard his voice, and recognized it, but the fog was still clearing. "I was," I said, thick-tongued. "Now I'm not. What do you want?"

"We missed you this afternoon."

Ah yes. The punch and cake show. "I didn't plan to be in a car wreck, Rudolph. Please forgive me."

"A lot of people wanted to say good-bye."

"They can drop me a line. Tell them to just fax it over."

"You feel lousy, don't you?"

"Yes, Rudolph. I feel like I've just been hit by a car."

"Are you on medication?"

"Why do you care?"

"Sorry. Look, Braden Chance was in my office an hour ago. He's quite anxious to see you. Odd, don't you think?"

The fog lifted and my head was much clearer. "See me about what?"

"He wouldn't say. But he's looking for you."

"Tell him I've left."

"I did. Sorry to bother you. Stop by if you get a minute. You still have friends here."

"Thanks, Rudolph."

I stuffed the pills in my pockets. Leon was napping in the car. As we sped away, I called Mordecai. He'd found the accident report; it listed a Hundley Towing as the wrecker service. Hundley Towing used an answering machine for most of its calls. The streets were slick, lots of accidents, a busy time for people who owned tow trucks. A mechanic had finally answered the phone around three, but proved to be completely useless.

Leon found the Hundley place on Rhode Island near Seventh. In better days it had been a full-service gas station, now it was a garage, towing service, used-car lot, and U-Haul trailer rental. Every window was adorned with black bars. Leon maneuvered as close as possible to the front door. "Cover me," I said, as I got out and dashed inside. The door kicked back when I walked through, hitting me on my left arm. I doubled over in pain. A mechanic wearing overalls and grease rounded a comer and glared at me.

I explained why I was there. He found a clipboard and studied papers stuck to it. In the rear, I could hear men talking and cursing---no doubt they were back there shooting dice, drinking whiskey, probably selling crack.

"The police have it," he said, still looking at the papers.

"Any idea why?"

"Not really. Was there a crime or something?"

"Yeah, but my car wasn't involved with the crime."

He gave me a blank look. He had his own problems.

"Any idea where it might be?" I asked, trying to be pleasant.

"When they impound them, they usually take them to a lot up on Georgia, north of Howard."

"How many lots does the city have?"

He shrugged and began walking away. "More than one," he said, and disappeared.

I managed the door with care, then bolted for Leon's car.

It was dark when we found the lot, half a city block lined with chain link and razor wire. Inside were hundreds of wrecked cars, arranged haphazardly, some stacked on top of others.

Leon stood with me on the sidewalk, peering through the chain link. "Over there," I said, pointing. The Lexus was parked near a shed, facing us. The impact had demolished the left front. The fender was gone; the engine exposed and crushed.

"You're a very lucky man," Leon said.

Next to it was the Jaguar, its roof flattened, all windows missing.

There was an office of some type in the shed, but it was closed and dark. The gates were locked with heavy chains. The razor wire glistened in the rain. There were tough guys hanging around a corner, not far away. I could feel them watching us. "Let's get out of here," I said.

Leon drove me to National Airport, the only place I knew to rent a car.

* * *

The table was set; carry-out Chinese was on the stove. Claire was waiting, and worried to some degree, though it was impossible to tell how much. I told her I had to go rent a car, pursuant to instructions from my insurance company. She examined me like a good doctor, and made me take a pill.

"I thought you were going to rest," she said.

"I tried. It didn't work. I'm starving."

It would be our last meal together as husband and wife, ending the same way we'd begun, with something fast and prepared elsewhere.

"Do you know someone named Hector Palma?" she asked, halfway through dinner. I swallowed hard. "Yes."

"He called an hour ago. Said it was important that he talk to you. Who is he?"

"A paralegal with the firm. I was supposed to spend the morning with him going over one of my cases. He's in a tight spot."

"Must be. He wants to meet with you at nine tonight, at Nathan's on M."

"Why a bar?" I mused.

"He didn't say. Sounded suspicious."

My appetite vanished, but I kept eating to appear unmoved. Not that it was necessary. She couldn't have cared less.

* * *

I walked to M Street, in a light rain that was turning to sleet, and in significant pain. Parking would've been impossible on Friday night. And I hoped to stretch my muscles some, and clear my head.

The meeting could be nothing but trouble, and I prepped for it as I walked. I thought of lies to cover my trail, and more lies to cover the first set. Now that I had stolen, the lying didn't seem like such a big deal. Hector might be working for the firm; there was a chance he could be wired. I would listen carefully, and say little.

Nathan's was only half-full. I was ten minutes early, but he was there, waiting for me in a small booth. As I approached he suddenly jumped from his seat and thrust a hand at me. "You must be Michael. I'm Hector Palma, from real estate. Nice to meet you."

It was an assault, a burst of personality that put me on my heels. I shook hands, reeling, and said something like, "Nice to meet you."

He pointed to the booth. "Here, have a seat," he said, all warmth and smiles. I delicately- bent and squeezed my way into the booth.

"What happened to your face?" he asked.

"I kissed an air bag."

"Yeah, I heard about the accident," he said quickly. Very quickly. "Are you okay? Any broken bones?"

"No," I said slowly, trying to read him.

"Heard the other guy got killed," he said, a split second after I'd spoken. He was in charge of this conversation. I was supposed to follow along.

"Yeah, some drug dealer."

"This city," he said, as the waiter appeared. "What'll you have?" Hector asked me.

"Black coffee," I said. At that moment, as he pondered his choice of drinks, one of his feet began tapping me on the leg.

"What kind of beer do you have?" he asked the waiter, a question they hated. The waiter looked straight ahead and began rattling off brands.

The tapping brought our eyes together. His hands were together on the table. Using the waiter as a shield, he barely curled his right index finger and pointed to his chest.

"Molson," he announced suddenly, and the waiter left.

He was wired, and they were watching. Wherever they were, they couldn't see through the waiter. Instinctively, I wanted to turn and examine the other people in the bar. But I withstood the temptation, thanks in no small part to a neck as pliable as a board.

That explained the hearty hello, as if we'd never met. Hector had been grilled all day, and he was denying everything.

"I'm a paralegal in real estate," he explained. "You've met Braden Chance, one of our partners."

"Yes." Since my words were being recorded, I would offer little.

"I work primarily for him. You and I spoke briefly one day last week when you visited his office."

"If you say so. I don't remember seeing you."

I caught a very faint smile, a relaxing around the eyes, nothing a surveillance camera could catch. Under the table, I tapped his leg with my foot. Hopefully we were dancing to the same tune.

"Look, the reason I asked you to meet me is because a file is missing from Braden's office."

"Am I the accused?"

"Well, no, but you're a possible suspect. It was the file you asked for when you sort of barged into his office last week."

"Then I am being accused," I said hotly.

"Not yet. Relax. The firm is doing a thorough investigation of the matter, and we're simply talking to everyone we can think of. Since I heard you ask Braden for the file, the firm instructed me to talk to you. It's that simple."

"I don't know what you're talking about. It's that simple."

"You know nothing about the file?"

"Of course not. Why would I take a file from a partner's office?"

"Would you take a polygraph?"

"Certainly," I said firmly, even indignantly. There was no way in hell I would take a polygraph.

"Good. They're asking all of us to do it. Everybody remotely near the file."

The beer and coffee arrived, giving us a brief pause to evaluate and reposition. Hector had just told me he was in deep trouble. A polygraph would kill him. Did you meet Michael Brock before he left the firm? Did you discuss the missing file? Did you give him copies of anything taken from the file? Did you assist him in obtaining the missing file? Yes or no. Hard questions with simple answers. There was no way he could lie and survive the test.

"They're fingerprinting too," he said. He said this in a lower voice, not in an effort to avoid the hidden mike, but rather to soften the blow.

It didn't work. The thought of leaving prints had never occurred to me, neither before the theft, nor since. "Good for them," I said.

"In fact, they lifted prints all afternoon. From the door, the light switch, the file cabinet. Lots of prints."

"Hope they find their man."

"It's really coincidental, you know. Braden had a hundred active files in his office, and the only one missing is the one you were quite anxious to see."

"Are you trying to say something?"

"I just said it. A real coincidence." He was doing this for the benefit of our listeners.

I thought perhaps I should perform too. "I don't like the way you said it," I practically yelled at him. "If you want to accuse me of something, then go to the cops, get a warrant, and get me picked up. Otherwise, keep your stupid opinions to yourself."

"The cops are already involved," he said, very coolly, and my contrived temper melted. "It's a theft."

"Of course it's a theft. Go catch your thief and stop wasting your time with me."

He took a long drink. "Did someone give you a set of keys to Braden's office?"

"Of course not."

"Well, they found this empty file on your desk, with a note about the two keys. One to the door, the other to a file cabinet."

"I know nothing about it," I said, as arrogantly as possible while trying to remember the last place I'd put the empty file. My trail was widening. I'd been trained to think like a lawyer, not a criminal.

Another long drink by Hector, another sip of coffee by me.

Enough had been said. The messages had been delivered, one by the firm, the other by Hector himself. The firm wanted the file back, with its contents uncompromised. Hector wanted me to know that his involvement could cost him his job.

It was up to me to save him. i could return the file, confess, promise to keep it sealed, and the firm would probably forgive me. There would be no harm. Protecting Hector's job could be a condition of the return.

"Anything else?" I asked, suddenly ready to leave.

"Nothing. When can you do the polygraph?"

"I'll give you a call."

I picked up my coat and left.