Chapter Thirty-Eight

I was unlocking the car when the cell phone rattled in my pocket. It was Judge DeOrio. Mordecai laughed when I said, "Yes, Judge, we'll be there in five minutes." We took ten, stopping in the rest rooms on the ground floor, walking slowly, using the stairs, giving DeOrio as much time as possible to further pummel the defendants.

The first thing I noticed when we entered the courtroom was that Jack Bolling, one of the three attorneys for RiverOaks, had removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and was walking away from the Drake & Sweeney lawyers. I doubted if he had physically slapped them around, but he looked willing and able.

The huge verdict Mordecai dreamed about would be lodged against all three defendants. Evidently RiverOaks had been sufficiently frightened by the settlement conference. Threats had been made, and perhaps the company had decided to chip in with some cash of its own. We would never know.

I avoided the jury box and sat next to Mordecai. Wilma Phelan had left.

"We're getting close," the Judge said.

"And we're thinking of withdrawing our offer," Mordecai announced with one of his more violent barks. We had not discussed such a thing, and neither the other lawyers nor His Honor had contemplated it. Their heads jerked as they looked at each other.

"Settle down," DeOrio said.

"I'm very serious, Judge. The more I sit here in this courtroom, the more convinced I am that this travesty needs to be revealed to a jury. As for Mr. Brock, his old firm can push all it wants on the criminal charges, but it's no big deal. They have their file back. He has no criminal record. God knows our system is overloaded with drug dealers and murderers; prosecuting him will become a joke. He will not go to jail. And the bar complaint--let it run its course. I'll file one against Braden Chance and maybe some of the other lawyers involved in this mess, and we'll have us an old-fashioned spitting contest." He pointed at Arthur and said, "You run to the newspaper, we run to the newspaper."

The 14th Street Legal Clinic couldn't care less what was printed about it. If Gantry cared, he wouldn't show it. RiverOaks could continue to make money in spite of bad press. But Drake & Sweeney had only its reputation to market.

Mordecai's tirade came from nowhere, and they were completely astonished by it.

"Are you finished?" DeOrio asked.

"I guess."

"Good. The offer is up to four million."

"If they can pay four million, then they can certainly pay five." Mordecai pointed again, back to Drake & Sweeney. "This defendant had gross billings last year of almost seven hundred million dollars." He paused as the numbers echoed around the courtroom. "Seven hundred million dollars, last year alone." Then he pointed at RiverOaks. "And this defendant owns real estate worth three hundred and fifty million dollars. Give me a jury."

When it appeared that he was silent, DeOrio again asked, "Are you finished?"

"No sir," he said, and in an instant became remarkably calm. "We'll take two million up front, a million for our fees, a million for the heirs. The balance of three million can be spread over the next ten years--three hundred thousand a year, plus a reasonable interest rate. Surely these defendants can spare three hundred thousand bucks a year. They may be forced to raise rents and hourly rates, but they certainly know how to do that." A structured settlement with an extended payout made sense. Because of the instability of the heirs, and the fact that most of them were still unknown, the money would be carefully guarded by the court. Mordecai's latest onslaught was nothing short of brilliant. There was a noticeable relaxing in the Drake & Sweeney group. He had given them a way out. Jack Bolling huddled with them. Gantry's lawyers watched and listened, but were almost as bored as their client.

"We can do that," Arthur announced. "But we keep our position regarding Mr. Brock. It's a one-year suspension, or there's no settlement."

I suddenly hated Arthur, again. I was their last pawn, and to save what little face they had left, they wanted all the blood they could squeeze.

But poor Arthur was not negotiating from a position of power. He was desperate, and looked it.

"What difference does it make?!" Mordecai yelled at him. "He's agreed to suffer the indignity of surrendering his license. What does an extra six months give you? This is absurd?

The two corporate boys from RiverOaks had had enough. Naturally afraid of courtrooms, their fear had reached new heights after three hours of Mordecai. There was no way on earth they would endure two weeks of trial. They shook their heads in frustration and whispered intensely to one another.

Even Tillman Gantry was tired of Arthur's nitpicking. With the settlement so close, finish the damned thing!

Seconds earlier, Mordecai had yelled, "What difference does it make?" And he was right. It really made no difference, especially for a street lawyer like me, one whose job and salary and status would remain wonderfully unaffected by a temporary suspension.

I stood, and very politely said, "Your Honor, let's split the difference. We offered Six months; they want twelve. I'll agree to nine." I looked at Barry Nuzzo when I said this, and he actually smiled at me.

If Arthur had opened his mouth at that point, he would've been mugged. Everyone relaxed, including DeOrio. "Then we have a deal," he said, not waiting for a confirmation from the defendants.

His wonderfully efficient law clerk pecked away at a word processor in front of the bench, and within minutes she produced a one-page Settlement Memorandum. We quickly signed it, and left.

* * *

There was no champagne at the office. Sofia was doing what she always did. Abraham was attending a homeless conference in New York.

If any law office in America could absorb five hundred thousand dollars in fees without showing it, it was the 14th Street Legal Clinic. Mordecai wanted new computers and phones, and probably a new heating system. The bulk of the money would be buried in the bank, drawing interest and waiting for the lean times. It was a nice cushion, one that would guarantee our meager salaries for a few years.

If he was frustrated by the reality of sending the other five hundred thousand to the Cohen Trust, he concealed it well. Mordecai was not one to worry about the things he couldn't change. His desk was covered with the battles he could win.

It would take at least nine months of hard labor to sort out the Burton settlement, and that was where I would spend much of my time. Heirs had to be determined, then found, then dealt with when they realized there was money to be had. It would get complicated. For example, the bodies of Kito Spires and those of Temeko, Alonzo, and Dante might have to be exhumed for DNA tests, to establish paternity. If he was in fact the father, then he would inherit from the children, who died first. Since he was now dead, his estate would be opened, and his heirs located.

Lontae's mother and brothers posed intimidating problems. They still had contacts on the streets. They would be paroled in a few years, and they would come after their share of the money with a vengeance.

There were two other projects of particular interest to Mordecai. The first was a pro bono program the clinic had once organized, then allowed to slip away as federal monies evaporated. At its peak, the program had a hundred lawyers volunteering a few hours a week to help the homeless. He asked me to consider reviving it. I liked the idea; we could reach more people, make more contacts within the established bar, and broaden our base for raising funds.

That was the second project. Sofia and Abraham were incapable of effectively asking people for money. Mordecai could talk people out of their shirts, but he hated to beg. I was the bright young Waspy star who could mix and mingle with all the right professionals and convince them to give annually.

"With a good plan, you could raise two hundred thousand bucks a year," he said.

"And what would we do with it?"

"Hire a couple of secretaries, a couple of paralegals, maybe another lawyer." As we sat in the front after Sofia left, watching it grow dark outside, Mordecai began dreaming. He longed for the days when there were seven lawyers bumping into each other at the clinic. Every day was chaos, but the little street firm was a force. It helped thousands of homeless people. Politicians and bureaucrats listened to the clinic. It was a loud voice that was usually heard.

"We've been declining for five years," he said. "And our people are suffering. This is our golden moment to turn it around."

And the challenge belonged to me. I was the new blood, the new talent who would reinvigorate the clinic and take it to the next level. I would brighten up the place with dozens of new volunteers. I would build a fund-raising machine so that we could lawyer on the same field as anyone. We would expand, even knock the boards off the windows upstairs and fill the place with talented advocates.

The rights of the homeless would be protected, as long as they could find us. And their voices would be heard through ours.