I spent the following morning at the Redeemer Mission, counseling clients with all the finesse of one who'd spent years tending to the legal problems of the homeless. Temptation overcame me, and at elevenfifteen I called Sofia to see if she had heard from Mordecai. She had not. We expected the meeting at Drake & Sweeney to be a long one. I was hoping that by chance he had called in to report everything was proceeding smoothly. No such luck.
Typically, I had slept little, though the lack of sleep had nothing to do with physical ailments or discomfort. My anxiety over the setdement meeting outlasted a long hot bath and a bottle of wine. My nerves were jumping.
As I counseled my clients, it was difficult to concentrate on food stamps, housing subsidies, and delinquent fathers when my life was hanging in the balance on another front. I left when lunch was ready; my presence was far less important than the daily bread. I bought two plain bagels and a bottle of water, and drove the Beltway for an hour.
When I returned to the clinic, Mordecai's car was parked beside the building. He was in his office, waiting for me. I closed the door.
* * *
The meeting took place in Arthur Jacobs' personal conference room on the eighth floor, in a hallowed corner of the building I'd never been near. Mordecai was treated like a visiting dignitary by the receptionist and staff--his coat was quickly taken, his coffee mixed just right, fresh muffins available.
He sat on one side of the table, facing Arthur, Donald Rafter, an attorney for the firm's malpractice insurance carrier, and an attorney for RiverOaks. Tillman Gantry had legal representation, but they had not been invited. If there was a settlement, no one expected Gantry to contribute a dime.
The only odd slot in the lineup was the lawyer for RiverOaks, but it made sense. The company's interests were in conflict with the firm's. Mordecai said the ill will was obvious.
Arthur handled most of the talking from his side of the table, and Mordecai had trouble believing the man was eighty years old. The facts were not only memorized but instantly recalled. The issues were analyzed by an extremely sharp mind working overtime.
First they agreed that everything said and seen in the meeting would remain strictly confidential; no admission of liability would survive the day; no offer to settle would be legally binding until documents were signed.
Arthur began by saying the defendants, especially Drake & Sweeney and RiverOaks, had been blindsided by the lawsuit--they were rattled and reeling and unaccustomed to the humiliation, and to the battering they were taking in the press. He spoke very frankly about the distress his beloved firm was suffering. Mordecai just listened, as he did throughout most of the meeting.
Arthur pointed out that there were a number of issues involved. He started with Braden Chance, and revealed that Chance had been expelled by the firm. He did not withdraw; he was kicked out. Arthur spoke candidly about Chance's misdeeds. He was solely in charge of all RiverOaks matters. He knew every aspect of the TAG closing, and monitored every detail. He probably committed malpractice when he allowed the eviction to proceed.
"Probably?" Mordecai said.
Well, okay then, beyond probably. Chance did not meet the necessary level of professional responsibility by proceeding with the eviction. And he doctored the file. And he attempted to cover up his actions. He lied to them, plain and simple, Arthur admitted, with no small amount of discomfort. Had Chance been truthful after Mister's hostage crisis, the firm could have prevented the lawsuit and its resulting flood of bad press. Chance had embarrassed them deeply, and he was history. "How did he doctor the file?" Mordecai asked. The other side wanted to know if Mordecai had seen the file. Where, exactly, was the damned thing? He was not responsive.
Arthur explained that certain papers had been removed.
"Have you seen Hector Palma's memo of January twenty-seventh?" Mordecai asked, and they went rigid.
"No," came the response, delivered by Arthur.
So Chance had in fact removed the memo, along with Lontae's receipt, and fed them to the shredder. With great ceremony, and relishing every second of it, Mordecai removed from his briefcase several copies of the memo and receipt. He majestically slid them across the table, where they were snatched up by hardened lawyers too terrified to breathe.
There was a long silence as the memo was read, then examined, then reread, then finally analyzed desperately for loopholes and words which might be lifted out of context and slanted toward their side of the table. Nothing doing. Hector's words were too clear; his narrative too descriptive.
"May I ask where you got this?" asked Arthur politely.
"That's not important, at least for now."
It was obvious they had been consumed with the memo. Chance had described its contents on his way out the door, and the original had been destroyed. But what if copies had been made?
They were holding the copies, in disbelief.
But because they were seasoned litigators they rallied nicely, laying the memo aside as if it were something they could handle effectively at a later date.
"I guess that brings us to the missing file," Arthur said, anxious to find more solid footing. They had an eyewitness who had seen me near Chance's office the night I took the file. They had fingerprints. They had the mysterious file from my desk, the one that had held the keys. I had gone to Chance demanding to see the RiverOaks/TAG file. There was motive.
"But there are no eyewitnesses," Mordecai said. "It's all circumstantial."
"Do you know where the file is?" Arthur asked.
"We have no interest in seeing Michael Brock go to jail."
"Then why are you pressing criminal charges?"
"Everything's on the table, Mr. Green. If we can resolve the lawsuit, we can also dispose of the criminal matter."
"That's wonderful news. How do you propose we settle the lawsuit?"
Rafter slid over a ten-page summary, filled with multicolored graphs and charts, all designed to convey the argument that children and young, uneducated mothers are not worth much in wrongful-death litigation.
Wlth typical big-firm thoroughness, the minions at Drake & Sweeney had spent untold hours spanning the nation to survey the latest trends in tort compensation. A one-year trend. A five-year trend. A ten-year trend. Region by region. State by state. City by city. How much were juries awarding for the deaths of preschoolers? Not very much. The national average was forty-five thousand dollars, but much lower in the South and Midwest, and slightly higher in California and in larger cities.
Preschoolers do not work, do not earn money, and the courts generally do not allow predictions about future earning capacity.
Lontae's estimate of lost earnings was quite liberal. With a spotty employment history, some weighty assumptions were made. She was twenty-two, and she would one day very soon find full-time employment, at minimum wage. That was a generous assumption, but one Rafter was willing to grant. She would remain clean, sober, and free of pregnancy for the remainder of her working life; another charitable theory. She would find training somewhere along the way, move into a job paying twice as much as minimum wage, and keep said job until she was sixty-five. Adjusting her future earnings for inflation, then translating to present dollars, Rafter arrived at the sum of $570,000 for Lontae's loss of earnings. There were no injuries or burns, no pain and suffering. They died in their sleep.
To settle the case, and admitting no wrongdoing whatsoever, the firm generously offered to pay $50,000 per child, plus the full sum of Lontae's earnings, for a total of $770,000.
"That's not even close," Mordecai said. "I can get that much out of a jury for one dead kid." They sank in their seats.
He went on to discredit almost everything in Rafter's pretty little report. He didn't care what juries were doing in Dallas or Seattle, and failed to see the relevance. He had no interest in judicial proceedings in Omaha. He knew what he could do with a jury in the District, and that was all that mattered. If they thought they could buy their way out cheaply, then it was time for him to leave.
Arthur reasserted himself as Rafter looked for a hole. "It's negotiable," he said. "It's negotiable."
The survey made no allowance for punitive damages, and Mordecai brought this to their attention. "You got a wealthy lawyer from a wealthy firm deliberately allowing a wrongful eviction to occur, and as a direct result my clients got tossed into the streets where they died trying to stay warm. Frankly, gentlemen, it's a beautiful punitive damages case, especially here in the District."
"Here in the District" meant only one thing: a black jury.
"We can negotiate," Arthur said again. "What figure do you have in mind?"
We had debated what number to first place on the table. We had sued for ten million dollars, but we had pulled the number out of the air. It could've been forty or fifty or a hundred.
"A million for each of them," Mordecai said. The words fell heavily on the mahogany table. Those on the other side heard them clearly, but it took seconds for things to register.
"Five million?" Rafter asked, just barely loud enough to be heard.
"Five million," boomed Mordecai. "One for each of the victims."
The legal pads suddenly caught their attention, and all four wrote a few sentences.
After a while, Arthur reentered the fray by explaining that our theory of liability was not absolute. An interveiling act of nature--the snowstorm--was partly responsible for the deaths. A long discussion about weather followed. Mordecai settled the issue by saying, "The jurors will know that it snows in February, that it's cold in February, that we have snowstorms in February."
Throughout the meeting, any reference by him to the jury, or the jurors, was always followed by a few seconds of silence on the other side.
"They are horrified of a trial," he told me.
Our theory was strong enough to withstand their attacks, he explained to them. Either through intentional acts or gross negligence, the eviction was carried out. It was foreseeable that our clients would be forced into the streets with no place to live, in February. He could convey this wonderfully simple idea to any jury in the country, but it would especially appeal to the good folks in the District.
Weary of arguing liability, Arthur moved to their strongest hand--me. Specifically, my actions in taking the file from Chance's office, and doing so after being told I couldn't have it. Their position was not negotiable. They were willing to drop the criminal charges if a settlement could be reached in the civil suit, but I had to face disciplinary action on their ethics complaint.
"What do they want?" I asked.
"A two-year suspension," Mordecai said gravely.
I couldn't respond. Two years, non-negotiable.
"I told them they were nuts," he said, but not as emphatically as I would have liked. "No way."
It was easier to remain silent. I kept repeating to myself the words Two years. Two years.
They jockeyed some more on the money, without closing the gap. Actually, they agreed on nothing, except for a plan to meet again as soon as possible.
The last thing Mordecai did was hand them a copy of the Marquis Deese lawsuit, yet to be filed. It listed the same three defendants, and demanded the paltry sum of fifty thousand dollars for his wrongful eviction. More would follow, Mordecai promised them. In fact, our plans were to file a couple each week until all evictees had been accounted for.
"You plan to provide a copy of this to the newspapers?" Rafter asked.
"Why not?" Mordecai said. "Once it's fled, it's public record."
"It's just that, well, we've had enough of the press."
"You started the pissing contest."
"You leaked the story of Michael's arrest."
"We did not."
"Then how did the Post get his photograph?"
Arthur told Rafter to shut up.
* * *
Alone in my office with the door closed, I stared at the walls for an hour before the settlement began to make sense. The firm was willing to pay a lot of money to avoid two things: further humiliation, and the spectacle of a trial that could cause serious financial damage. If I handed over the file, they would drop the criminal charges. Everything would fold neatly into place, except that the firm wanted some measure of satisfaction.
I was not only a turncoat, but in their eyes I was responsible for the entire mess. I was the link between their dirty secrets, well hidden up in the tower, and the exposure the lawsuit had cast upon them. The public disgrace was reason enough to hate me; the prospect of stripping them of their beloved cash was fueling their hunger for revenge.
And I had done it all with inside information, at least in their collective opinion. Apparently, they did not know of Hector's involvement. I had stolen the file, found everything I needed, then pieced together the lawsuit.
I was Judas. Sadly, I understood them.