Chapter Five

I drifted through the city as the snow fell. I couldn't recall the last time I had driven the streets of D.C. without being late for a meeting. I was warm and dry in my heavy luxury car, and I simply moved with the traffic. There was no place to go.

The office would be off-limits for a while, what with Arthur mad at me; and I'd have to suffer through a hundred random drop-ins, all of which would start with the phony "How you doin'?"

My car phone rang. It was Polly, panicky. "Where are you?" she asked.

"Who wants to know?"

"A lot of people. Arthur for one. Rudolph. Another reporter called. There are some clients in need of advice. And Claire called from the hospital." "What does she want?"

"She's worried, like everybody else."

"I'm fine, Polly. Tell everybody I'm at the doctor's office."

"Are you?"

"No, but I could be. What did Arthur say?"

"He didn't call. Rudolph did. They were waiting for you."

"Let 'em wait."

A pause, then a very slow "Okay. When might you be dropping by?"

"Don't know. I guess whenever the doctor releases me. Why don't you go home; we're in the middle of a storm. I'll call you tomorrow." I hung up on her.

The apartment was a place I had rarely seen in the light of day, and I couldn't stand the thought of sitting by the fire and watching it snow. If I went to a bar, I'd probably never leave.

So I drove. I flowed with the traffic as the commuters began a hasty retreat into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, and I breezed along near-empty streets coming back into the city. I found the cemetery near RFK where they buffed the unclaimed, and I passed the Methodist Mission on Seventeenth where last night's uneaten dinner originated. I drove through sections of the city I had never been near and probably would never see again.

By four, the city was empty. The skies were darkening, the snow was quite heavy. Several inches already covered the ground, and they were predicting a lot more.

* * *

Of course, not even a snowstorm could shut down Drake & Sweeney. I knew lawyers there who loved midnights and Sundays because the phones didn't ting. A heavy snow was a delightful respite from the grueling drudgery of nonstop meetings and conference calls.

I was informed by a security guard in the lobby that the secretaries and most of the staff had been sent home at three. I took Mister's elevator again.

In a neat row in the center of my desk were a dozen pink phone messages, none of which interested me. I went to my computer and began searching our client index.

RiverOaks was a Delaware corporation, organized in 1977, headquartered in Hagerstown, Maryland. It was privately held, thus little financial information was available. The attorney was N. Braden Chance, a name unknown to me.

I looked him up in our vast database. Chance was a partner in our real estate division, somewhere down on the fourth floor. Age forty-four, married, law school at Duke, undergrad at Gettysburg, an impressive but thoroughly predictable resumŽ

With eight hundred lawyers threatening and suing daily, our firm had over thirty-six thousand active files. To make sure our office in New York didn't sue one of our clients in Chicago, each new file was entered immediately into our data system. Every lawyer, secretary, and paralegal at Drake & Sweeney had a PC, and thus instant access to general information about all fles. If one of our probate attorneys in Palm Beach handled the estate of a rich client, I could, if I were so inclined, punch a few keys and learn the basics of our representation.

There were forty-two files for RiverOaks, almost all of them real estate transactions in which the company had purchased property. Chance was the attorney of record on every file. Four were eviction actions, three of which took place last year. The first phase of the search was easy.

On January 31, RiverOaks purchased property on Florida Avenue. The seller was TAG, Inc. On February 4, our client evicted a number of squatters from an abandoned warehouse on the property--one of whom, I now knew, was Mister DeVon Hardy, who took the eviction personally and somehow tracked down the lawyers.

I copied the file name and number, and strolled to the fourth floor.

No one joined a large firm with the goal of becoming a real estate lawyer. There were far more glamorous arenas in which to establish reputations. Litigation was the all-time favorite, and the litigators were still the most revered of all God's lawyers, at least within the firm. A few of the corporate fields attracted top talent--mergers and acquisitions was still hot, securities was an old favorite. My field, antitrust, was highly regarded. Tax law was horribly complex, but its practitioners were greatly admired. Governmental relations (lobbying) was repulsive but paid so well that every D.C. firm had entire wings of lawyers greasing the skids.

But no one set out to be a real estate lawyer. I didn't know how it happened. They kept to themselves, no doubt reading fine print in mortgage documents, and were treated as slightly inferior lawyers by the rest of the firm.

* * *

At Drake & Sweeney, each lawyer kept his current files in his office, often under lock and key. Only the retired files were accessible by the rest of the firm. No lawyer could be compelled to show a file to another lawyer, unless requested by a senior partner or a member of the firm's executive committee.

The eviction file I wanted was still listed as current, and after the Mister episode I was certain it was well protected.

I saw a paralegal scanning blueprints at a desk next to a secretarial pool, and I asked him where I might find the office of Braden Chance. He nodded to an open door across the hall.

To my surprise, Chance was at his desk, projecting the appearance of a very busy lawyer. He was perturbed by my intrusion, and rightfully so. Proper protocol would have been for me to call ahead and set up a meeting. I wasn't worried about protocol.

He didn't ask me to sit. I did so anyway, and that didn't help his mood.

"You were one of the hostages," he said irritably when he made the connection.

"Yes, I was."

"Must're been awful."

"It's over. The guy with the gun, the late Mr. Hardy, was evicted from a warehouse on February 4. Was it one of our evictions?"

"It was," he snapped. Because of his defensiveness, I guessed the file had been picked through during the day. He'd probably reviewed it thoroughly with Arthur and the brass. "What about it?"

"Was he a squatter?"

"Damned sure was. They're all squatters. Our client is trying to clean up some of that mess."

"Are you sure he was a squatter?"

His chin dropped and his eyes turned red. Then he took a breath. "What are you after?"

"Could I see the file?"

"No. It's none of your business."

"Maybe it is."

"Who is your supervising partner?" He yanked out his pen as if to take down the name of the person who would reprimand me.

"Rudolph Mayes."

He wrote in large strokes. "I'm very busy," he said. "Would you please leave?"

"why can't I see the file?"

"Because it's mine, and I said no. How's that?"

"Maybe that's not good enough."

"It's good enough for you. Why don't you leave?" He stood, his hand shaking as he pointed to the door. I smiled at him and left.

The paralegal heard everything, and we exchanged puzzled looks as I passed his desk. "What an ass," he said very quietly, almost mouthing the words.

I smiled again and nodded my agreement. An ass and a fool. If Chance had been pleasant and explained that Arthur or some other honcho from above had ordered the file sealed, then I wouldn't have been as suspicious. But it was obvious there was something in the file.

Getting it would be the challenge.

* * *

With all the cell phones Claire and I owned--pocket, purse, and car, not to mention a couple of pagers--communication should've been a simple matter. But nothing was simple with our marriage. We hooked up around nine. She was exhausted from another one of her days, which were inevitably more fatiguing than anything I could possibly have done. It was a game we shamelessly played--my job is more important because I'm a doctor/lawyer.

I was tiring of the games. I could tell she was pleased that my brush with death had produced aftershocks, that I'd left the office to wander the streets. No doubt her day had been far more productive than mine.

Her goal was to become the greatest female neurosurgeon in the country, a brain surgeon even males would turn to when all hope was lost. She was a brilliant student, fiercely determined, blessed with enormous stamina. She would bury the men, just as she was slowly burying me, a well-seasoned marathon man from the halls of Drake & Sweeney. The race was getting old.

She drove a Miata sports car, no four-wheel drive, and I was worried about her in the bad weather. She would be through in an hour, and it would take that long for me to drive to Georgetown Hospital. I would pick her up there, and we would try to find a restaurant. If not, it would be Chinese carry-out, our standard fare.

I began arranging papers and objects on my desk, careful to ignore the neat row of my ten most current files. I kept only ten on my desk, a method I'd learned from Rudolph, and I spent time with each file every day. Billing was a factor. My top ten invariably included the wealthiest clients, regardless of how presshag their legal problems. Another trick from Rudolph.

I was expected to bill twenty-five hundred hours a year. That's fifty hours a week, fifty weeks a year. My average billing rate was three hundred dollars an hour, so I would gross for my beloved firm a total of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They paid me a hundred and twenty thousand of this, plus another thirty for benefits, and assigned two hundred thousand to overhead. The partners kept the rest, divided annually by some horrendously complex formula that usually caused fistfights.

It was rare for one of our partners to earn less than a million a year, and some earned over two. And once I became a partner, I would be a partner for life. So if I made it when I was thirty-five, which happened to be the fast track I was on, then I could expect thirty years of glorious earnings and immense wealth.

That was the dream that kept us at our desks at all hours of the day and night.

I was scribbling these numbers, something I did all the time and something I suspect every lawyer in our firm did, when the phone rang. It was Mordecai Green.

"Mr. Brock," he said politely, his voice clearly audible but competing with a din in the background.

"Yes. Please call me Michael."

"Very well. Look, I made some calls, and you have nothing to worry about. The blood test was negative."

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

"Just thought you'd want to know as soon as possible."

"Thanks," I said again, as the racket rose behind him. "Where are you?"

"At a homeless shelter. A big snow brings 'em in faster than we can feed them, so it takes all of us to keep up. Gotta run."

* * *

The desk was old mahogany, the rug was Persian, the chairs were a rich crimson leather, the technology was state-of-the-art, and as I studied my finely appointed office, I wondered, for the first time in many years there, how much all of it cost. Weren't we just chasing money? Why did we work so hard; to buy a richer rug, an older desk?

There in the warmth and coziness of my beautiful room, I thought of Mordecai Green, who at that moment was volunteering his time in a busy shelter, serving food to the cold and hungry, no doubt with a warm smile and a pleasant word.

Both of us had law degrees, both of us had passed the same bar exam, both of us were fluent in the tongue of legalese. We were kindred to some degree. I helped my clients swallow up competitors so they could add more zeros to the bottom line, and for this I would become rich. He helped his clients eat and find a warm bed.

I looked at the scratchings on my legal pad--the earnings and the years and the path to wealth--and I was saddened by them. Such blatant and unashamed greed.

The phone startled me.

"Why are you at the office?" Claire asked, each word spoken slowly because each word was covered with ice.

I looked in disbelief at my watch. "I, uh, well, a client called from the West Coast. It's not snowing out there."

I think it was a lie I'd used before. It didn't matter.

"I am waiting, Michael. Should I walk?"

"No. I'll be there as fast as I can."

I'd kept her waiting before. It was part of the game--we were much too busy to be prompt.

I ran from the building, into the storm, not really too concerned that another night had been ruined.