The chemicals worked until four the next morning, when I awoke to the harsh smell of Mister's sticky brain fluid weaving through my nostrils. I was frantic for a moment in the darkness. I rubbed my nose and eyes, and thrashed around the sofa until I heard someone move. Claire was sleeping in a chair next to me.
"It's okay," she said softly, touching my shoulder. "Just a bad dream."
"Would you get me some water?" I said, and she went to the kitchen. We talked for an hour. I told her everything I could remember about the event. She sat close to me, rubbing my knee, holding the glass of water, listening carefully. We had talked so little in the past few years.
She had to make her rounds at seven, so we cooked breakfast together, waffles and bacon. We ate at the kitchen counter with a small television in front of us. The six o'clock news began with the hostage drama. There were shots of the building during the crisis, the mob outside, some of my fellow captives hurriedly leaving when it was over. At least one of the helicopters we had heard belonged to the news station, and its camera had zoomed down for a tight shot of the window. Through it, Mister could be seen for a few seconds as he peeked out.
His name was DeVon Hardy, age forty-five, a Vietnam vet with a short criminal record. A mug shot from an arrest for burglary was put on the screen behind the early morning newsperson. It looked nothing like Mister-no beard, no glasses, much younger. He was described as homeless with a history of drug use. No motive was known. No family had come forward.
There were No comments from our side, and the story fizzled.
The weather was next. Heavy snow was expected to hit by late afternoon. It was the twelfth day of February, and already a record had been set for snowfall.
Claire drove me to the office, where at six-forty I was not surprised to see my Lexus parked among several other imports. The lot was never empty. We had people who slept at the office.
I promised to call her later in the morning, and we would try to have lunch at the hospital. She wanted me to take it easy, at least for a day or two.
What was I supposed to do? Lie on the sofa and take pills? The consensus seemed to be that I needed a day off, after which I guessed I would be expected to return to my duties at full throttle.
I said good morning to the two very alert security guards in the lobby. Three of the four elevators were open, waiting, and I had a choice. I stepped onto the one Mister and I had taken, and things slowed to a crawl.
A hundred questions at once: Why had he picked our building? Our firm? Where had he been in the moments before he entered the lobby? Where were the security guards who usually loitered near the front? Why me? Hundreds of lawyers came and went all day long. Why the sixth floor?
And what was he after? I did not believe DeVon Hardy went to the trouble of wrapping himself with explosives and risking his life, humble as it was, to chastise a bunch of wealthy lawyers over their lack of generosity. He could've found richer people. And perhaps greedier ones.
His question, "Who are the evictors?" was never answered. But it wouldn't take long.
The elevator stopped, and I stepped off, this time without anyone behind me. Madam Devier was still asleep at that hour, somewhere, and the sixth floor was quiet. In front of her desk ! paused and stared at the two doors to the conference room. I slowly opened the nearest one, the one where Umstead stood when the bullet shot over his head and into Mister's. I took a long breath and flipped a light switch.
Nothing had happened. The conference table and chairs were in perfect order. The Oriental rug upon which Mister died had been replaced with an even prettier one. A fresh coat of paint covered the walls. Even the bullet hole in the ceiling above Rafter's spot was gone.
The powers that be at Drake & Sweeney had spent some dough the previous night to make sure the incident never occurred. The room might attract a few of the curious throughout the day, and there certainly could be nothing to gawk at. It might make folks neglect their work for a minute or two. There simply couldn't be any trace of street trash in our pristine offices.
It was a cold-blooded cover-up, and, sadly, I understood the rationale behind it. I was one of the rich white guys. What did I expect, a memorial? A pile of flowers brought in by Mister's fellow street people?
I didn't know what I expected. But the smell of fresh paint made me nauseous.
On my desk every morning, in precisely the same spot, were The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. I used to know the name of the person who put them there, but it was long forgotten. On the front page of the Post's Metro section, below the fold, was the same mug shot of DeVon Hardy, and a large story about yesterday's little crisis.
I read it quickly because I figured I knew more details than any reporter. But I learned a few things. The red sticks were not dynamite. Mister had taken a couple of broom handles, sawed them into little pieces, wrapped the ominous silver tape around them, and scared the living hell out of us. The gun was a .44 automatic, stolen.
Because it was the Post, the story dealt more with DeVon Hardy than with his victims, though, in all fairness, and much to my satisfaction, not a single word had been uttered by anyone at Drake & Sweeney.
According to one Mordecai Green, Director of the 14th Street Legal Clinic, DeVon Hardy had worked for many years as a janitor at the National Arboretum. He'd lost his job as a result of budget cutting. He had served a few months in jail for burglary, then landed in the streets. He'd struggled with alcohol and drugs, and was routinely picked up for shoplifting. Green's clinic had represented him several times. If there was family, his lawyer knew nothing about it.
As to motive, Green had little to offer. He did say that DeVon Hardy had been evicted recently from an old warehouse in which he had been squatting.
An eviction is a legal procedure, carried out by lawyers. I had a pretty good idea which one of the thousands of D.C. firms had tossed Mister into the streets.
The 14th Street Legal Clinic was funded by a charity and worked only with the homeless, according to Green. "Back when we got federal money, we had seven lawyers. Now we're down to two," he said.
Not surprisingly, the Journal didn't mention the story. Had any of the nine corporate lawyers in the nation's fifth-largest silk-stocking firm been killed or even slightly wounded, it would've been on the front page.
Thank God it wasn't a bigger story. I was at my desk, reading my papers, in one piece with lots of work to do. I could've been at the morgue alongside Mister.
* * *
Polly arrived a few minutes before eight with a big smile and a plate of homemade cookies. She was not surprised to see me at work.
In fact, all nine of the hostages punched in, most ahead of schedule. It would've been a glaring sign of weakness to stay home with the wife and get pampered.
"Arthur's on the phone," Polly announced. Our firm had at least ten Arthurs, but only one prowled the hahs without the need of a last name. Arthur Jacobs was the senior partner, the CEO, the driving force, a man we admired and respected greatly. If the firm had a heart and soul, it was Arthur. In seven years, I had spoken to him three times.
I told him I was fine. He complimented me on my courage and grace under pressure, and I almost felt like a hero. I wondered how he knew. He had probably talked to Malamud first, and was working his way down the ladder. So the stories would begin, then the jokes. Umstead and his porcelain vase would no doubt cause much hilarity.
Arthur wanted to meet with the ex-hostages at ten, in the conference room, to record our statements on video.
"Why?" I asked.
"The boys in litigation think it's a good idea," he said, his voice razor-sharp in spite of his eighty years. "His family will probably sue the cops."
"Of course," I said.
"And they'll probably name us as defendants. People will sue for anything, you know."
Thank goodness, I almost said. Where would we be without lawsuits?
I thanked him for his concern, and he was gone, off to call the next hostage.
The parade started before nine, a steady stream of well-wishers and gossipers lingering by my office, deeply concerned about me but also desperate for the details. I had a pile of work to do, but I couldn't get to it. In the quiet moments between guests, I sat and stared at the row of files awaiting my attention, and I was numb. My hands wouldn't reach.
It was not the same. The work was not important, My desk was not life and death. I had seen death, almost felt it, and I was naive to think I could simply shrug it off and bounce back as if nothing had happened.
I thought about DeVon Hardy and his red sticks with the multicolored wires running in all directions. He'd spent hours building his toys and planning his assault. He'd stolen a gun, found our firm, made a crucial mistake that cost him his life, and no one, not one single person I worked with, gave a damn about him.
I finally left. The traffic was getting worse, and I was getting chatted up by people I couldn't stand. Two reporters called. I told Polly I had some errands to run, and she reminded me of the meeting with Arthur. I went to my car, started it and turned on the heater, and sat for a long time debating whether to participate in the reenactment. If I missed it, Arthur would be upset. No one misses a meeting with Arthur.
! drove away. It was a rare opportunity to do something stupid. I'd been traumatized. I had to leave. Arthur and the rest of the firm would just have to give me a break.
* * *
I drove in the general direction of Georgetown, but to no place in particular. The clouds were dark; people scurried along the sidewalks; snow crews were getting ready. I passed a beggar on M Street, and wondered if he knew DeVon Hardy. Where do the street people go in a snowstorm?
I called the hospital and was informed that my wife would be in emergency surgery for several hours. So much for our romantic lunch in the hospital cafeteria.
I turned and went northeast, past Logan Circle, into the rougher sections of the city until I found the 14th Street Legal Clinic. Fourteenth at Q, NW. I parked at the curb, certain I would never again see my Lexus.
The clinic occupied half of a three-story red-brick Victorian mansion that had seen better days. The windows on the top floor were boarded with aging plywood. Next door was a grungy Laundromat. The crack houses couldn't be far away.
The entrance was covered by a bright yellow canopy, and I didn't know whether to knock or to just barge in. The door wasn't locked, and I slowly turned the knob and stepped into another world.
It was a law office of sorts, but a very different one from the marble and mahogany of Drake & Sweeney. In the large room before me there were four metal desks, each covered with a suffocating collection of files stacked a foot high. More files were placed haphazardly on the worn carpet around the desks. The wastebaskets were filled, and wadded sheets of legal paper had rolled off and onto the floor. One wall was covered with file cabinets in a variety of colors. The word processors and phones were ten years old. The wooden bookshelves were sagging. A large fading photograph of Martin Luther King hung crookedly on the back wall. Several smaller offices branched off the front room.
It was busy and dusty and I was fascinated with the place.
A fierce Hispanic woman stopped typing after watching me for a moment. "You looking for somebody?" she asked. It was more of a challenge than a request. A receptionist at Drake & Sweeney would be fired on the spot for such a greeting.
She was Sofia Mendoza, according to a nameplate tacked to the side of her desk, and I would soon learn that she was more than a receptionist. A loud roar came from one of the side rooms, and startled me without amazing Sofia.
"I'm looking for Mordecai Green," I said politely, and at that moment he followed his roar and stomped out of his side office and into the main room. The floor shook with each step. tie was yelling across the room for someone named Abraham.
Sofia nodded at him, then dismissed me and returned to her typing. Green was a huge black man, at least six five with a wide frame that carried a lot of weight. He was in his early fifties, with a gray beard and round eyeglasses that were framed in red. He took a look at me, said nothing, yelled again for Abraham while sauntering across the creaking floor. He disappeared into an office, then emerged seconds later without Abraham.
Another look at me, then, "Can I help you?"
I walked forward and introduced myself.
"Nice to meet you," he said, but only because he had to. "What's on your mind?"
"DeVon Hardy," I said.
He looked at me for a few seconds, then glanced at Sofia, who was lost in her work. He nodded toward his office, and I followed him into a twelve-by-twelve room with no windows and every square inch of available floor space covered with manilla files and battered law books.
I handed him my gold-embossed Drake & Sweeney card, which he studied with a deep frown. Then he gave it back to me, and said, "Slum. um~.m~ing, aren't you?"
"No," I said, taking the card.
"What do you want?"
"I come in peace. Mr. Hardy's bullet almost got me."
"You were in the room with him?"
He took a deep breath and lost the frown. He pointed to the only chair on my side. "Have a seat. But you might get dirty."
We both sat, my knees touching his desk, my hands thrust deep into the pockets of my overcoat. A radiator rattled behind him. We looked at each other, then looked away. It was my visit, I had to say something. But he spoke first.
"Guess you had a bad day, huh?" he said, his raspy voice lower and almost compassionate.
"Not as bad as Hardy's. I saw your name in the paper, that's why I came."
"I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do."
"Do you think the family will sue? If so, then maybe I should leave."
"There's no family, not much of a lawsuit. I could make some noise with it. I figure the cop who shot him is white, so I could squeeze a few bucks out of the city, probably get a nuisance settlement. But that's not my idea of fun." He waved his hand over the desk. "God knows I got enough to do."
"I never saw the cop," I said, realizing it for the first time. "Forget about a lawsuit. Is that why you're here?"
"I don't know why I'm here. I went back to my desk this morning like nothing happened, but I couldn't think straight. I took a drive. Here I am."
He shook his head slowly, as if he was trying to understand this. "You want some coffee?"
"No thanks. You knew Mr. Hardy pretty well."
"Yeah, DeVon was a regular."
"Where is he now?"
"Probably in the city morgue at D.C. General."
"If there's no family, what happens to him?"
"The city buries the unclaimed. On the books it's called a pauper's funeral. There's a cemetery near RFK Stadium where they pack 'em in. You'd be amazed at the number of people who die unclaimed."
"I'm sure I would."
"In fact, you'd be amazed at every aspect of homeless life."
It was a soft jab, and I was not in the mood to spar. "Do you know if he had AIDS?"
He cocked his head back, looked at the ceiling, and rattled that around for a few seconds. "Why?"
"I was standing behind him. The back of his head was blown off. I got a face full of blood. That's all."
With that, I crossed the line from a bad guy to just an average white guy.
"I don't think he had AIDS."
"Do they check them when they die?"
"Most of the time, yes. DeVon, though, died by other means."
"Can you find out?"
He shrugged and thawed some more. "Sure," he said reluctantly, and took his pen from his pocket. "Is that why you're here? Worried about AIDS?"
"I guess it's one reason. Wouldn't you be?"
Abraham stepped in, a small hyper man of about forty who had public interest lawyer stamped all over him. Jewish, dark beard, horn-rimmed glasses, rumpled blazer, wrinkled khakis, dirty sneakers, and the weighty aura of one trying to save the world.
He did not acknowledge me, and Green was not one for social graces. "They're predicting a ton of snow," Green said to him. "We need to make sure every possible shelter is open."
"I'm working on it," Abraham snapped, then abruptly left.
"I know you're busy," I said.
"Is that all you wanted? A blood check."
"Yeah, I guess. Any idea why he did it?"
He removed his red glasses, wiped them with a tissue, then rubbed his eyes. "He was mentally ill, like a lot of these people. You spend years on the streets, soaked with booze, stoned on crack, sleeping in the cold, getting kicked around by cops and punks, it makes you crazy. Plus, he had a bone to pick."
"Yep. A few months ago, he moved into an abandoned warehouse at the corner of New York and Florida. Somebody threw up some plywood, chopped up the place, and made little apartments. Wasn't a bad place as far as homeless folk go--a roof, some toilets, water. A hundred bucks a month, payable to an ex-pimp who fixed it up and claimed he owned it."
"I think so." He pulled a thin file from one of the stacks on his desk, and, miraculously, it happened to be the one he wanted. He studied its contents for a moment. "This is where it gets complicated. The property was purchased last month by a company called RiverOaks, some big real estate outfit."
"And RiverOaks evicted everyone?"
"Odds are, then, that RiverOaks would be represented by my firm."
"Good odds, yes."
"Why is it complicated?"
"I've heard it secondhand that they got no notice before the eviction. The people claim they were paying rent to the pimp, and if so, then they were more than squatters. They were tenants, thus entitled to due process."
"Squatters get no notice?"
"None. And it happens all the time. Street folk will move into an abandoned building, and most of the time nothing happens. So they thrink they own it. The owner, if he's inclined to show up, can toss 'em without notice. They have no rights at all."
"How did DeVon Hardy track down our firm?"
"Who knows? He wasn't stupid, though. Crazy, but not stupid."
"Do you know the pimp?"
"Yeah. Completely unreliable."
"Where did you say the warehouse was?"
"It's gone now. They leveled it last week."
I had taken enough of his time. He glanced at his watch, I glanced at mine. We swapped phone numbers and promised to keep in touch.
Mordecai Green was a warm, caring man who labored on the streets protecting hordes of nameless clients. His view of the law required more soul than I could ever muster.
On my way out, I ignored Sofia because she certainly ignored me. My Lexus was still parked at the curb, already covered with an inch of snow.