Chapter Seventeen

I locked myself inside the office. The clinic was colder Sunday than it had been on Saturday. I wore a heavy sweater, corduroy pants, thermal socks, and I read the paper at my desk with two steaming cups of coffee in front of me. The building had a heating system, but I wasn't about to meddle with it.

I missed my chair, my leather executive swivel that rocked and reclined and rolled at my command. My new one was a small step above a folding job you'd rent for a wedding. It promised to be uncomfortable on good days; in my pummeled condition at that moment, it was a torture device.

The desk was a battered hand-me-down, probably from an abandoned school; square and boxlike, with three drawers down each side, all of which actually opened, but not without a struggle. The two clients' chairs on the other side were indeed folding types--one black, the other a greenish color I'd never seen before.

The walls were plaster, painted decades ago and allowed to fade into a shade of pale lemon. The plaster was cracked; the spiders had taken over the corners at the ceiling. The only decoration was a framed placard advertising a March for Justice on the Mall in July of 1988.

The floor was ancient oak, the planks rounded at the edges, evidence of heavy use in prior years. It had been swept recently, the broom still standing in a corner with a dustpan, a gentle cue that if I wanted the dirt cleared again, then it was up to me.

Oh how the mighty had fallen! If my dear brother Warner could've seen me sitting there on Sunday, shivering at my sad little desk, staring at the cracks in the plaster, locked in so that my potential clients couldn't mug me, he would've hurled insults so rich and colorful that I would've been compelled to write them down.

I couldn't comprehend my parents' reaction. I would be forced to call them soon, and deliver the double shock of my changes of address.

A loud bang at the door scared the hell out of me. I bolted upright, unsure of what to do. Were the street punks coming after me? Another knock as I moved toward the front, and I could see a figure trying to look through the bars and thick glass of the front door.

It was Barry Nuzzo, shivering and anxious to get to safety. I got things unlocked, and let him in.

"What a slumhole!" he began pleasantly, looking around the front room as I relocked the door.

"Quaint, isn't it?" I said, reeling from his presence and trying to figure out what it meant.

"What a dump!" He was amused by the place. He walked around Sofia's desk, slowly taking off his gloves, afraid to touch anything for fear of starting an avalanche of files.

"We keep the overhead low, so we can take all the money home," I said. It was an old joke around Drake & Sweeney. The partners were constantly bitching about the overhead, while at the same time most were concerned about redecorating their offices.

"So you're here for the money?" he asked, still amused.

"Of course."

"You've lost your mind."

"I've found a calling."

"Yeah, you're hearing voices."

"Is that why you're here? To tell me I'm crazy?"

"I called Claire."

"And what did she say?"

"Said you had moved out."

"That's true. We're getting a divorce."

"What's wrong with your face?"

"Air bag."

"Oh, yeah. I forgot. I heard it was just a fender bender."

"It was. The fenders got bent."

He draped his coat over a chair, then hurriedly put it back on. "Does low overhead mean you don't pay your heating bill?"

"Now and then we skip a month."

He walked around some more, peeking into the small offices to the side. "Who pays for this operation?" he asked.

"A trust."

"A declining trust?"

"Yes, a rapidly declining trust."

"How'd you find it?"

"Mister hung out here. These were his lawyers."

"Good old Mister," he said. He stopped his examination for a moment, and stared at a wall. "Do you think he would've killed us?"

"No. Nobody was listening to him. He was just another homeless guy. He wanted to be heard."

"Did you ever consider jumping him?"

"No, but I thought about grabbing his gun and shooting Rafter."

"I wish you had."

"Maybe next time."

"Got any coffee?"

"Sure. Have a seat."

I didn't want Barry to follow me into the kitchen, because it left much to be desired. I found a cup, washed it quickly, and filled it with coffee. I invited him into my office.

"Nice," he said, looking around.

"This is where all the long balls are hit," I said proudly. We took positions across the desk, both chairs squeaking and on the verge of collapse.

"Is this what you dreamed about in law school?" he asked.

"I don't remember law school. I've billed too many hours since then."

He finally looked at me, without a smirk or a smile, and the kidding was set aside. As bad as the thought was, I couldn't help but wonder if Barry was wired. They had sent Hector into the fray with a bug under his shirt; they would do the same with Barry. He wouldn't volunteer, but they could apply the pressure. I was the enemy.

"So you came here searching for Mister?" he said.

"I guess."

"What did you find?"

"Are you playing dumb, Barry? What's happening at the firm? Have you guys circled the wagons? Are you coming after me?"

He weighed this carefully, while taking quick sips from his mug. "This coffee is awful," he said, ready to spit.

"At least it's hot."

"I'm sorry about Claire."

"Thanks, but I'd rather not talk about it."

"There's a file missing, Michael. Everyone's pointing at you."

"Who knows you're here?"

"My wife."

"The firm send you?"

"Absolutely not."

I believed him. He'd been a friend for seven years, close at times. More often than not, though, we'd been too busy for friendship.

"Why are they pointing at me?"

"The file has something to do with Mister. You went to Braden Chance and demanded to see it. You were seen near his office the night it disappeared. There is evidence someone gave you some keys that perhaps you shouldn't have had."

"Is that all?"

"That, and the fingerprints."

"Fingerprints?" I asked, trying to appear surprised. "All over the place. The door, the light switch, the file cabinet itself. Perfect matches. You were there, Michael. You took the file. Now what will you do with it?"

"How much do you know about the file?"

"Mister got evicted by one of our real estate clients. He was a squatter. He went nuts, scared the hell out of us, you almost got hit. You cracked up."

"Is that all?"

"That's all they've told us."

"They being?"

"They being the big dogs. We got memos late Friday--the entire firm, lawyers, secretaries, paralegals, ev erybody--informing us that a file had been taken, you were the suspect, and that no member of the firm should have any contact with you. I am forbidden to be here right now."

"I won't tell."


If Braden Chance had made the connection between the eviction and Lontae Burton, he was not the type who would admit this to anyone. Not even his fellow partners. Barry was being truthful. He probably thought my only interest in the file was DeVon Hardy.

"Then why are you here?"

"I'm your friend. Things are crazy right now. My God we had cops in the office on Friday, can you believe that? Last week it was the SWAT team, and we were hostages. Now you've jumped off a cliff. And the thing with Claire. Why don't we take a break? Let's go somewhere for a couple of weeks. Take our wives."


"I don't know. who cares. The islands."

"What would that accomplish?"

"We could thaw out for one thing. Play some tennis. Sleep. Get recharged."

"Paid for by the firm?"

"Paid for by me."

"Forget about Claire. It's over, Barry. It took a long time, but it's over."

"Okay. The two of us will go."

"But you're not supposed to have any contact with me."

"I have an idea. I think I can go to Arthur and have a long chat. We can unwind this thing. You bring back the file, forget whatever is in it, the firm forgives and forgets too, you and I go play tennis for two weeks on Maui, then when we return you go back to your plush office where you belong."

"They sent you, didn't they?"

"No. I swear."

"It won't work, Barry."

"Give me a good reason. Please."

"There's more to being a lawyer than billing hours and making money. Why do we want to become corporate whores? I'm tired of it, Barry. I want to make a difference."

"You sound like a first-year law student."

"Exactly. We got into this business because we thought the law was a higher calling. We could fight injustice and social ills, and do all sorts of great things because we were lawyers. We were idealistic once. Why can't we do it again?"


"I'm not trying to recruit. You have three kids; luckily Claire and I have none. I can afford to go a little nuts."

A radiator in a corner, one I had not yet noticed, began to rattle and hiss. We watched it and waited hopefully for a little heat. A minute passed. Then two.

"They're gonna come after you, Michael," he said, still looking at the radiator, but not seeing.

"They? You mean we?"

"Right. The firm. You can't steal a file. Think about the client. The client has a right to expect confidentiality. If a file walks out, the firm has no choice but to go after it."

"Criminal charges?"

"Probably. They're mad as hell, Michael. You can't blame them. There's also talk of a disciplinary action with the bar association. An injunction is likely. Rafter is already working on it."

"Why couldn't Mister have aimed a little lower?"

"They're coming hard."

"The firm has more to lose than I do."

He studied me. He did not know what was in the file.

"There's more than Mister?" he asked.

"A lot more. The firm has tremendous exposure. If they come after me, I go after the firm."

"You can't use a stolen file. No court in the country will allow it into evidence. You don't understand litigation."

"I'm learning. Tell them to back off. Remember, I've got the file, and the file's got the dirt."

"They were just a bunch of squatters, Michael."

"It's much more complicated than that. Someone needs to sit down with Braden Chance and get the truth. Tell Rafter to do his homework before he pulls some harebrained stunt. Believe me, Barry, this is front-page stuff. You guys will be afraid to leave your homes."

"So you're proposing a truce? You keep the file, we leave you alone."

"For now anyway. I don't know about next week or the week after."

"Why can't you talk to Arthur? I'll referee. The three of us will get in a room, lock the door, work this thing out. What do you say?"

"It's too late. People are dead."

"Mister got himself killed."

"There are others." And with that, I had said enough. Though he was my friend, he would repeat most of our conversation to his bosses.

"Would you like to explain?" he said.

"I can't. It's confidential."

"That has a phony sound to it, coming from a lawyer who steals files."

The radiator gurgled and burped, and it was easier to watch it than to talk for a while. Neither of us wanted to say things we would later regret.

He asked about the other employees of the clinic. I gave him a quick tour. "Unbelievable," he mumbled, more than once.

"Can we keep in touch?" he said at the door.