Chapter Thirty-Three

There were two stories in the morning Post, both prominently displayed and accompanied by photos. The first was the one promised in yesterday's edition--a long history of the tragic life of Lontae Burton. Her grandmother was the principal source, though the reporter had also contacted two aunts, a former employer, a social worker, a former teacher, and her mother and two brothers in prison. With its typical aggressiveness and unlimited budget, the paper was doing a splendid job of gathering the facts we would need for our case.

Lontae's mother was sixteen when she was born, the second of three children, all out of wedlock, all sired by different men, though her mother refused to say anything about her father. She grew up in the rough neighborhoods in Northeast, moving from place to place with her troubled mother, living periodically with her grandmother and aunts. tier mother was in and out of jail, and Lontae quit school after the sixth grade. From there, her life became predictably dismal. Drugs, boys, gangs, petty crime, the dangerous life on the street. She worked at various minimum-wage jobs, and proved to be completely unreliable.

City records told much of the story: an arrest at the age of fourteen for shoplifting, processed through juvenile court. Charged again three months later for public drunkenness, juvenile court. Possession of pot at fifteen, juvenile court. Same charge seven months later. Arrested for prostitution at the age of sixteen and handled as an adult, conviction but no jail. Arrested for grand larceny, stealing a portable CD player from a pawnshop, conviction but no jail. Birth of Ontario when she was eighteen, at D.C. General with no father listed on the birth certificate. Arrested for prostitution two months after Ontario arrived, convicted but no jail. Birth of the twins, Alonzo and Dante, when she was twenty, also at D.C. General, also with no father listed. And then Temeko, the baby with the wet diaper, born when Lontae was twenty-one.

In the midst of this sad obituary, a glimmer of hope sprang forth. After Temeko arrived, Lontae stumbled into the House of Mary, a women's day center similar to Naomi's, where she met a social worker named Nell Cather. Ms. Cather was quoted at length in the story.

According to her version of Lontae's last months, she was determined to get off the streets and clean up her life. She eagerly began taking birth control pills, prodded by the House of Mary. She desperately wanted to get clean and sober. She attended AA/NA meetings at the center, and fought her addictions with great courage, though sobriety eluded her. She quickly improved her reading skills, and dreamed of getting a job with a steady' paycheck to provide for her little family.

Ms. Cather eventually found her a job unpacking produce at a large grocery store; twenty hours a week at $4.75 an hour. She never missed work.

One day last fall she whispered to Nell Cather that she had found a place to live, though it must be kept a secret. As part of her job, Nell wanted to inspect the place, but Lontae refused. It wasn't legal, she explained. It was a small, two-room squatter's apartment with a roof and a locked door and a bathroom nearby, and she paid a hundred dollars a month in cash.

I wrote down the name of Nell Cather, at the House of Mary-, and smiled to myself at the thought of her on the witness stand, telling the Burtons' story to a jury.

Lontae became terrified at the thought of losing her children, because it happened so often. Most of the homeless women at the House of Mary had lost theirs, and the more Lontae heard their horror stories, the more determined she became to keep her family to gether. She studied harder, even learned the basics of a computer, and once went four days without touching drugs.

Then she was evicted, her meager belongings tossed into the street along with her children. Ms. Cather saw her the next day, and she was a mess. The kids were hungry and dirty; Lontae was stoned. The House of Mary had a policy forbidding the entry of any person obviously intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. The director was forced to ask her to leave. Ms. Cather never saw her again; not a word until she read about the deaths in the paper.

As I read the story, I thought of Braden Chance. I hoped he was reading it too, in the early morning warmth of his fine home in the Virginia suburbs. I was certain he was awake at such an early hour. How could a person under so much pressure sleep at all?

I wanted him to suffer, to realize that his callous disregard for the rights and dignities of others had caused so much misery. You were sitting in your nice office, Braden, working hard by the golden hour, shuffling papers for your rich clients, reading memos from paralegals you sent to do the dirty work, and you made the cold, calculated decision to proceed with an eviction you should have stopped. They were just squatters, weren't they, Braden? Lowly black street people living like animals. There was nothing in writing, no leases, no papers, thus no rights. Toss 'em. Any delay in dealing with them might hinder the project.

I wanted to call him at home, jolt him from his morning coffee, and say, "How do you feel now, Braden?"

The second story was a pleasant surprise, at least from a legal point of view. It also meant trouble.

An old boyfriend had been found, a nineteen-yearold street tough named Kito Spires. His photo would frighten any law-abiding citizen. Kito had a lot to say. He daimed to be the father of Lontae's last three children-the twins and the baby. He had lived with her off and on over the last three years; more off than on.

Kito was a typical inner-city product, an unemployed high school dropout with a criminal record. His credibility would always be questioned.

He had lived in the warehouse with Lontae and his children. He had helped her pay the rent whenever he could. Sometime after Christmas, they had fought and he had left. He was currently living with a woman whose husband was in prison.

He knew nothing about the eviction, though he felt it was wrong. When asked about conditions in the warehouse, Kito gave enough details to convince me he had actually been there. His description was similar to the one in Hector's memo.

He did not know the warehouse was owned by Tillman Gantry. A dude named Johnny collected rent, on the fifteenth of each month. A hundred bucks.

Mordecai and I would find him soon. Our witness list was growing, and Mr. Spires might well be our star.

Kito was deeply saddened by the deaths of his children and their mother. I had watched the funeral very carefully, and Kito was most certainly not in attendance.

Our lawsuit was getting more press than we could have dreamed of. We only wanted ten million dollars, a nice round figure that was being written about daily, and discussed in the streets. Lontae had sex with a thousand men. Kito was the first prospective father. With that much money at stake, other fathers would soon appear and claim love for their lost children. The streets were full of prospects.

That was the troubling part of his story.

We would never get the chance to talk to him.

* * *

I called Drake & Sweeney and asked for Braden Chance. A secretary answered the phone, and I repeated my request. "And who's calling, please?" she asked.

I gave her a fictitious name and claimed to be a prospective client, referred by Clayton Bender of RiverOaks.

"Mr. Chance is unavailable," she said.

"Tell me when I can talk to him," I said rudely.

"He's on vacation."

"Fine. When will he return?"

"I'm not sure," she said, and I hung up. The vacation would be for a month, then it would become a sabbatical, then a leave of absence, and at some point they would finally admit that Chance had been sacked.

I suspected he was gone; the call confirmed it.

Since the firm had been my life for the past seven years, it wasn't difficult to predict its actions. There was too much pride and arrogance to suffer the indignities being imposed.

As soon as the lawsuit was filed, I suspected they got the truth from Braden Chance. Whether he came forth on his own, or whether they pried it out of him, was immaterial. He had lied to them from the beginning, and now the entire firm had been sued. Perhaps he showed them the original memo from Hector, along with the rent receipt from Lontae. More than likely, though, he had destroyed these and was forced to describe what he had shredded. The firm--Arthur Jacobs and the executive committee--at last knew the truth. The eviction should not have occurred. The verbal rental agreements should have been terminated in writing, by Chance acting for RiverOaks, with thirty days' notice given to the tenants.

A thirty-day delay would have jeopardized the bulkmail facility, at least for RiverOaks.

And a thirty-day delay would have allowed Lontae and the other tenants time to survive the worst of winter.

Chance was forced out of the firm, undoubtedly with a generous buy-out package for his partnership share. Hector had probably been flown home for briefings. With Chance gone, Hector could tell the truth and survive. He would not, however, tell of his contact with me.

Behind locked doors, the executive committee had faced reality. The firm had enormous exposure. A plan of defense was devised with Rafter and his litigation team. They would defend vigorously on the grounds that the Burton case was based on materials stolen from a Drake & Sweeney file. And if the stolen materials couldn't be used in court, then the lawsuit should be dismissed. That made perfect sense, from a legal perspective.

However, before they were able to implement their defense, the newspaper intervened. Witnesses were being found who could testify to the same matters protected in the file. We could prove our case regardless of what Chance had concealed.

Drake & Sweeney had to be in chaos. With four hundred aggressive lawyers unwilling to keep their opinions to themselves, the firm was on the verge of an insurrection. Had I still been there, and been faced with a similar scandal in another division of the firm, I would have been raising hell to get the matter settled and out of the press. The option of battening down the hatches and riding out the storm did not exist. The exposure by the Post was only a sample of what a fullblown trial would entail. And a trial was a year away.

There was heat from another source. The file did not indicate the extent to which RiverOaks knew the truth about the squatters. In fact, there was very little correspondence between Chance and his client. It appeared as though he was given instructions to close the deal as soon as possible. RiverOaks applied the pressure; Chance steamrolled ahead.

If we assumed RiverOaks did not know the evictions were wrongful, then the company had a legitimate claim for legal malpractice against Drake & Sweeney. It hired the firm to do a job; the job was botched; and the blunder was to the detriment of the client. With three hundred fifty million in holdings, RiverOaks had sufficient clout to pressure the firm to remedy its wrongs.

Other major clients would also have opinions. "What's going on over there?" was a question every partner was hearing from those who paid the bills. In the cutthroat world of corporate law, vultures from other firms were beginning to circle.

Drake & Sweeney marketed its image, its public perception. All big firms did. And no firm could take the hammering being inflicted upon my alma mater.

* * *

Congressman Burkholder rallied magnificently. The day after his surgery, he met the press in a carefully staged exhibition. They rolled him in a wheelchair to a makeshift podium in the lobby of the hospital. He stood, with the aid of his pretty wife, and stepped forward to issue a statement. Coincidentally, he wore a bright red Hoosier sweatshirt. There were bandages on his neck; a sling over his left arm.

He pronounced himself alive and well, and ready in a few short days to return to his duties on the Hill. Hello to the folks back home in Indiana.

In his finest moment, he dwelt on street crime, and the deterioration of our cities. (His hometown had eight thousand people.)It was a shame that our nation's capital was in such a sorry state, and because of his brush with death he would from that day forward devote his considerable energies into making our streets safe again. He had found a new purpose.

He blathered on about gun control and more prisons.

The shooting of Burkhoider had put immense, though temporary-, pressure on the D.C. police to clean up the streets. Senators and representatives had spent the day popping off about the dangers of downtown Washington. As a result, the sweeps started again after dark. Every drunk, wino, beggar, and homeless person near the Capitol was pushed farther away. Some were arrested. Others were simply loaded into vans and transported like cattle to the more distant neighborhoods.

* * *

At 11:40 P.M., the police were dispatched to a liquor store on Fourth Street near Rhode Island, in Northeast. Gunshots had been heard by the owner of the store, and one of the sidewalk locals had reported seeing a man down.

In a vacant lot next to the liquor store, behind a fifie of rubble and cracked bricks, the police found the body of a young black male. The blood was fresh, and came from two bullet holes to the head.

-He was later identified as Kito Spires.