Ruby reappeared Monday morning with a ferocious appetite for both cookies and news. She was waiting on the doorstep with a smile and a warm hello when I arrived at eight, a bit later than usual. With Gantry out there, I wanted the extra daylight and the increased activity when I got to the office.
She looked the same. I thought perhaps I could study her face and see the evidence of a crack binge, but there was nothing unusual. Her eyes were hard and sad, but she was in a fine mood. We entered the office together and fixed our spot on Ruby's desk. It was somewhat comforting to have another person in the building.
"How have you been?" I asked.
"Good," she said, reaching into a bag for a cookie. There were three bags, all bought the week before, just for her, though Mordecai had left a trail of crumbs.
"?Vhere are you staying?"
"In my car." Where else? "! sure am glad winter is leaving."
"Me too. Have you been to Naomi's?" I asked.
"No. But I'm going today. I ain't been feeling too good."
"I'll give you a ride."
The conversation was a little stiff. She expected me to ask about her last motel visit. I certainly wanted to, but thought better of it.
When the coffee was ready, I poured two cups and set them on the desk. She was on her third cookie, nibbling nonstop around the edges like a mouse.
How could I be harsh with one so pitiful? On to the news.
"How about the paper?" I asked.
"That would be nice."
There was a picture of the mayor on the front page, and since she liked stories about city politics, and since the mayor was always good for some color, I selected it first. It was a Saturday interview in which the mayor and council, acting together in a shaky and temporary alliance, were asking for a Justice Department investigation into the deaths of Lontae Burton and family. Had there been civil rights violations? The mayor strongly implied that he thought so, but bring in Justice!
Since the lawsuit had taken center stage, a fresh new group of culprits was being blamed for the tragedy. Fingerpointing at City Hall had slowed considerably. Insults to and from Congress had stopped. Those who'd felt the heat of the first accusations were vigorously and happily shifting blame to the big law firm and its rich client.
Ruby was fascinated with the Burton story. I gave her a quick summary of the lawsuit and the fallout since it had been filed.
Drake & Sweeney was battered again by the paper. Its lawyers had to be asking themselves, "When will it end?"
Not for a while.
On the bottom corner of the front page was a brief story about the Postal Service's decision to halt the bulk-mail project in Northeast Washington. The controversy surrounding the purchase of the land, the warehouse, the litigation involving RiverOaks and Gantry--all were factors in the decision.
RiverOaks lost its twenty-million-dollar project. RiverOaks would react like any other aggressive real estate developer who'd spent almost a million dollars in cash purchasing useless inner-city property. RiverOaks would go after its lawyers.
The pressure swelled some more.
We scanned world events. All earthquake in Peru caught Ruby's attention, and we read about it. On to Metro, where the first words I saw made my heart stop. Under the same photo of Kito Spires, the same except twice as large and even more menacing, was the headline: KITO SPIRES FOUND SHOT TO DEATH. The story recounted Friday's introduction of Mr. Spires as a player in the Burton drama, then gave the scant details of his death. No witnesses, no clues, nothing. Just another street punk shot in the District.
"You okay?" Ruby asked, waking me from my trance.
"Uh, sure," I said, trying to breathe again.
"Why ain't you reading?"
Because I was too stunned to read aloud. I had to quickly scan every word to see if the name of Tillman Gantry was mentioned. It was not.
And why not? It was obvious to me what had happened. The kid had enjoyed his moment in the spotlight, said too much, made trimself too valuable to the plaintiffs case, and was too easy a target.
I read the story to her, slowly, listening to every sound around us, watching the front door, hoping Mordecai would arrive shortly.
Gantry had spoken. Other witnesses from the streets would either remain quiet or disappear after we found them. Killing witnesses was bad enough. What would I do if Gantry came after the lawyers?
In the midst of my terror, I suddenly realized the story was beneficial to our side of the case. We had lost a potentially crucial witness, but Kito's credibility would have caused problems. Drake & Sweeney was mentioned again, in the third story of the morning, in connection with the killing of a nineteen-year-old criminal. The firm had been toppled from its loftiness and was now in the gutter, its proud name mentioned in the same paragraphs as murdered street thugs.
I took myself back a month, before Mister and everything that followed, and I pictured myself reading the same paper at my desk before sunrise. And I imagined that I had read the other stories and had learned that the most serious allegations in the lawsuit were indeed true. What would I do?
There was no doubt. I would be raising hell with Rudolph Mayes, my supervising partner, who likewise would be raising hell with the executive committee, and I would be meeting with my peers, the other senior associates in the firm. We would demand that the matter be settled and laid to rest before more damage was inflicted. We would insist that a trial be avoided at all costs.
We would make all sorts of demands.
And I suspected most of the senior associates and all the partners were doing exactly what I would be doing. With that much racket in the hallways, very little work was being done. Very few hours were being billed. The firm was in chaos.
"Keep going," Ruby said, again waking me.
We raced through Metro, in part because I wanted to see if perhaps there was a fourth story. No such luck. There was, however, a story about the street sweeps being conducted by the police in response to the Burkholder shooting. An advocate for the homeless was bitterly criticizing the operation, and threatening litigation. Ruby loved the story. She thought it wonderful that so much was being written about the homeless.
I drove her to Naomi's, where she was greeted like an old friend. The women hugged her and passed her around the room, squeezing and even crying. I spent a few minutes flirting with Megan in the kitchen, but my mind was not on romance.
* * *
Sofia had a full house when I returned to the office. The foot traffic was heavy; five clients were sitting against the wall by nine o'clock. She was on the phone, terrorizing someone in Spanish. I stepped into Mordecai's office to make sure he had seen the paper. He was reading it with a smile. We agreed to meet in an hour to discuss the lawsuit.
I quietly closed my office door and began pulling files. In two weeks, I had opened ninety-one of them, and closed thirty-eight. I was falling behind, and I needed a hard morning fighting the phone to catch up. It would not happen.
Sofia knocked, and since the door would not latch, she pushed it open while still tapping it. No Hello. No Excuse me.
"Where is that list of people evicted from the warehouse?" she asked. She had a pencil stuck behind each ear, and reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. The woman had things to do.
The list was always nearby. I handed it to her, and she took a quick look. "Bingo," she said. "What?" I asked, rising to my feet.
"Number eight, Marquis Deese," she said. "I thought that name was familiar."
"Yes, he's sitting at my desk. Picked up last night in Lafayette Park, across from the white House, and dumped at Logan Circle. Got caught in a sweep. It's your lucky day."
I followed her into the front room, where in the center Mr. Deese sat next to her desk. He looked remarkably similar to DeVon Hardy--late forties, grayish hair and beard, thick sunshades, bundled heavily like most homeless in early March. I examined him from a distance as I walked to Mordecai's office to give him the news.
We approached him carefully, with Mordecai in charge of the interrogation. "Excuse me," he said, very politely. "I'm Mordecai Green, one of the lawyers here. Can I ask you some questions?"
Both of us were standing, looking down at Mr. Deese. He raised his head, said, "I guess so."
"We're working on a case involving some people who used to live in an old warehouse at the corner of Florida and New York," Mordecai explained slowly.
"I lived there," he said. I took a deep breath.
"Yep. Got kicked out."
"Yes, well, that's why we're involved. We represent some of the other people who were kicked out. We think the eviction was wrongful." "You got that right."
"How long did you live there?"
"'Bout three months."
"Did you pay rent?"
"Guy named Johnny."
"A hundred bucks a month, cash only."
"Didn't want no records."
"Do you know who owned the warehouse?"
"Nope." His answer came without hesitation, and I had trouble concealing my delight. If Deese didn't know Gantry owned the building, how could he be afraid of him?
Mordecai pulled up a chair, and got serious with Mr. Deese. "We'd like to have you as a client," he said.
"We're suing some people over the eviction. It's our position that you folks were done wrong when you got kicked out. We'd like to represent you, and sue on your behalf."
"But the apartment was illegal. That's why I was paying in cash."
"Doesn't matter. We can get you some money."
"I don't know yet. What have you got to lose?"
"Nothing, I guess."
I tapped Mordecai on the shoulder. We excused ourselves and withdrew into his office. "What is it?" he asked.
"In light of what happened to Kito Spires, I think we should record his testimony. Now."
Mordecai scratched his beard. "Not a bad idea. Let's do an affidavit. He can sign it, Sofia can notarize it, then if something happens to him, we can fight to get it admitted."
"Do we have a tape recorder?" I asked.
His eyes shot in all directions. "Yeah, somewhere."
Since he didn't know where it was, it would take a month to find it. "How about a video camera?" I asked.
I thought for a second, then said, 'Tll run get mine. You and Sofia keep him occupied."
"He's not going anywhere."
"Good. Give me forty-five minutes."
I raced from the office and sped west toward Georgetown. The third number I tried from my cell phone found Claire between classes. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"I need to borrow the video camera. I'm in a hurry."
"It hasn't been moved," she said, very slowly, trying to analyze things. "Why?"
"A deposition. Mind if I use it?"
"I guess not."
"Still in the living room?"
"Have you changed the locks?" I asked.
"No." For some reason, this made me feel better. I still had a key. I could come and go if I wanted.
"What about the alarm code?"
"No. It's the same."
"Thanks. I'll call you later."
* * *
We placed Marquis Deese in an office empty of furniture but crowded with file cabinets. He sat in a chair, a blank white wall behind him. I was the videographer, Sofia the notary, Mordecai the interrogator. His answers could not have been more perfect.
We were finished in thirty minutes, all possible questions served up and answered. Deese thought he knew where two of the other evictees were staying, and he promised to find them.
Our plans were to file a separate lawsuit for each evictee we could locate; one at a time, with plenty of notice to our friends at the Post. We knew Kelvin Lain was at the CCNV, but he and Deese were the only two we'd been able to locate. Their cases were not worth a lot of money--we would gladly settle them for twentyfive thousand each--but their filing would heap more misery upon the beleaguered defendants.
I almost hoped the police would sweep the streets again.
As Deese was leaving, Mordecai warned him against talking about the lawsuit. I sat at a desk near Sofia and typed a three-page complaint on behalf of our new client, Marquis Deese, against the same three defendants, alleging a wrongful eviction. Then one for Kelvin Lain. I filed the complaints in the computer's memory. I would simply change the names of the plaintiffs as we found them.
The phone rang a few minutes before noon. Sofia was on the other line, so I grabbed it. "Legal clinic," I said, as usual.
A dignified old voice on the other end said, "This is Arthur Jacobs, Attorney, with Drake & Sweeney. I would like to speak to Mr. Mordecai Green."
I could only say, "Sure," before punching the hold button. I stared at the phone, then slowly rose and walked to Mordecai's door.
"What is it?" he said. His nose was buried in the U.S. Code.
"Arthur Jacobs is on the phone."
"Who is he?"
"Drake & Sweeney."
We stared at each other for a few seconds, then he smiled. "This could be the call," he said. I just nodded.
He reached for the phone, and I sat down.
It was a brief conversation, with Arthur doing most of the talking. I gathered that he wanted to meet and talk about the lawsuit, and the sooner the better.
After it was over, Mordecai replayed it for my benefit. "They would like to sit down tomorrow and have a little chat about settling the lawsuit."
"At their place. Ten in the morning, without your presence."
I didn't expect to be invited.
"Are they worried?" I asked.
"Of course they're worried. They have twenty days before their answer is due, yet they're already calling about a settlement. They are very worried."