Chapter Twenty-Eight

Saturday night, the first day of March. Young, single, certainly not as rich as I was not too long ago, but not completely broke, yet. A closet full of nice clothes, which were not being used. A city of one million people with scores of attractive young women drawn to the center of political power, and always ready, it was rumored, for a good time.

I had beer and pizza and watched college basketball, alone in my loft and not unhappy. Any public appearance that night could have ended quickly with the cruel greeting "Hey, aren't you the guy who got arrested? Saw it in the paper this morning."

I checked on Ruby. The phone rang eight times before she answered, and I was about to panic. She was enjoying herself immensely, having taken a long shower, eaten a pound of candy, and watched TV nonstop. She had not left the room.

She was twenty miles away, in a small town just off the interstate in the Virginia countryside where neither she nor I knew a soul. There was no way she could find drugs. I patted myself on the back again.

During halftime of the Duke-Carolina game, the cell phone on the plastic storage box next to the pizza squawked and starfled me. A very pleasant female voice said, "Hello, jailbird."

It was Claire, without the edge.

"Hello," I said, muting the television.

"You okay?"

"Just doing great. How about you?"

"Fine. I saw your smiling face in the paper this morning, and I was worried about you." Claire read the Sunday paper only, so if she saw my little story, someone gave it to her. Probably the same hot-blooded doc who'd answered the phone the last time I'd called. Was she alone on Saturday night, like me?

"It was an experience," I said, then told her the entire story, beginning with Gasko and ending with my release. She wanted to talk, and as the narrative plodded along I decided that she was indeed by herself, probably bored and maybe lonely. And perhaps there was a chance that she was really worried about me.

"How serious are the charges?" she asked.

"Grand larceny carries up to ten years," I said gravely. I liked the prospect of her being concerned. "But I'm not worried about that."

"It's just a file, isn't it?"

"Yes, and it wasn't a theft." Sure it was, but I was not yet prepared to admit that.

"Could you lose your license to practice?"

"Yes, if I'm convicted of a felony, it would be automatic."

"That's awful, Mike. What would you do then?"

"Truthfully, I haven't thought about it. It's not going to happen." I was being completely honest; I had not seriously thought about losing my law license. Perhaps it was an issue requiring consideration, but I had not found the time for it.

We politely inquired about each other's family, and I remembered to ask about her brother James and his Hodgkin's disease. His treatment was under way; the family was optimistic.

I thanked her for calling, and we promised to keep in touch. When I laid the cell phone next to the pizza, I stared at the muted game and grudgingly admitted to myself that I missed her.

* * *

Ruby was showered and shined and wearing the fresh clothing Megan had given her yesterday. Her motel room was on the ground floor with the door facing the parking lot. She was waiting for me. She stepped into the sunlight and hugged me tightly. "I'm clean!" she said with a huge smile. "For twenty-four hours I'm clean!" We hugged again.

A couple in their sixties stepped from the room two doors down and stared at us. God knows what they were thinking.

We returned to the city and went to Naomi's, where Megan and her staff were waiting for the news. A small celebration erupted when Ruby made her announcement. Megan had told me that the biggest cheers were always for the first twenty-four hours.

It was Sunday, and a local pastor arrived to conduct a Bible study. The women gathered in the main room for hymns and prayer. Megan and I drank coffee in the garden and worked out the next twenty-four hours. In addition to prayer and worship, Ruby would get two heavy sessions of AA/NA. But our optimism was guarded. Megan lived in the midst of addiction, and she was convinced Ruby would slide as soon as she returned to the streets. She saw it every day.

I could afford the motel strategy for a few days, and I was willing to pay for it. But I would leave for Chicago at four that afternoon, to begin my search for Hector, and I wasn't sure how long I would be away. Ruby liked the motel, in fact she appeared to be quite fond of it.

We decided to take things one day at a time. Megan would drive Ruby to a suburban motel, one I would pay for, and deposit her there for Sunday night. She would retrieve her Monday morning, and we would then worry about what to do next.

Megan would also begin the task of trying to convince Ruby she had to leave the streets. Her first stop would be a detox center, then a transitional women's shelter for six months of structured living, job training, and rehab.

"Twenty-four hours is a big step," she said. "But there is still a mountain to climb."

I left as soon as I could. She invited me to return for lunch. We could eat in her office, just the two of us, and discuss important matters. Her eyes were dancing and daring me to say yes.

So I did.

* * *

Drake & Sweeney lawyer always flew first-class; they felt as if they deserved it. They stayed in four-star hotels, ate in swanky restaurants, but drew the line at limousines, which were deemed too extravagant. So they rented Lincolns. All travel expenses were billed to the clients, and since the clients were getting the best legal talent in the world, the clients shouldn't complain about the perks.

My seat on the flight to Chicago was in coach, booked at the last minute and therefore in the dreaded middle. The window seat was occupied by a hefty gentleman whose knees were the size of basketballs, and on the aisle was a smelly youngster of eighteen or so with jet-black hair, cut into a perfect Mohawk, and adorned in an amazing collection of black leather and pointed chrome. I squeezed myself together, closed my eyes for two hours, and tried not to think about the pompous asses sitting up there in first-class, where I once rode.

The trip was in direct violation of my bail agreement--I was not to leave the District without permission of the Judge. But Mordecai and I agreed that it was a minor violation, one that would be of no consequence as long as I returned to D.C.

From O'Hare, I took a cab to an inexpensive hotel downtown.

Sofia had been unable to find a new residential address for the Palmas. If I couldn't find Hector at the Drake & Sweeney office, then we were out of luck.

* * *

The Chicago branch of Drake & Sweeney had one hundred and six lawyers, third highest after Washington and New York. The real estate section was disproportionately large, with eighteen lawyers, more than the Washington office. I assumed that was the reason Hector had been sent to Chicago--there was a place for him. There was plenty of work to do. I vaguely recalled some story of Drake & Sweeney absorbing a prosperous Chicago real estate firm early in my career.

I arrived at the Associated Life Building shortly after seven Monday morning. The day was gray and gloomy, with a vicious wind whipping across Lake Michigan. It was my third visit to Chicago, and the other two times it had been just as raw. I bought coffee to drink and a newspaper to hide behind, and I found a vantage point at a table in a corner of the ground floor's vast atrium. The escalators crisscrossed to the second and third levels where a dozen elevators stood waiting.

By seven-thirty the ground floor was crawling with busy people. At eight, after three cups of coffee, I was wired and expecting the man at any moment. The escalators were packed with hundreds of executives, lawyers, secretaries, all bundled in heavy coats and looking remarkably similar.

At eight-twenty, Hector Palma entered the atrium from the south side of the building, stepping hurriedly inside with a swarm of other commuters. He raked his fingers through his wind-tossed hair and went straight for the escalators. As casually as possible, I walked to another escalator, and eased my way up the steps. I caught a glimpse of him as he turned a corner to wait for an elevator.

It was definitely Hector, and I decided not to press my luck. My assumptions were correct; he had been transferred out of Washington, in the middle of the night, and sent to the Chicago office where he could be monitored, and bribed with more money, and, if necessary, threatened.

I knew where he was, and I knew he wouldn't be leaving for the next eight to ten hours. From the second level of the atrium, with a splendid view of the lake, I phoned Megan. Ruby had survived the night; we were now at forty-eight hours and counting. I called Mordecai to report my finding.

According to last year's Drake & Sweeney handbook, there were three partners in the real estate section of the Chicago office. The building directory in the atrium listed all three on floor number fifty-one. I picked one of them at random: Dick Heile.

I rode the nine o'clock surge upward to the fifty-first floor, and stepped off the elevator into a familiar setting--marble, brass, walnut, recessed lighting, fine rugs.

As I walked casually toward the receptionist, I glanced around in search of rest rooms. I did not see any.

She was answering the phone with a headset. I frowned and tried to look as pained as possible. "Yes sir," she said with a bright smile between calls. I gritted my teeth, sucked in air, said, "Yes, I have a nine o'clock appointment with Dick Heile, but I'm afraid I'm about to be sick. It must're been something I ate. Can I use your rest room?" I clutched my stomach, folded my knees, and I must have convinced her that I was about to vomit on her desk.

The smile vanished as she jumped to her feet and began pointing. "Down there, around the corner, to your right."

I was already moving, bent at the waist as if I might blow up at any second. "Thanks," I managed to say.

"Can I get you something?" she asked.

I shook my head, too stricken to say anything else. Around the corner, I ducked into the men's rest room, where I locked myself in a stall, and waited.

At the rate her phone was ringing, she would be too busy to worry about me. I was dressed like a big-firm lawyer, so I did not appear to be suspicious. After ten minutes, I walked out of the men's room, and started down the hall away from the receptionist. At the first empty desk, I grabbed some papers that were stapled together and scribbled as I walked, as if I had important business. My eyes darted in every direction--the names on doors, names on desks, secretaries too busy to look up, lawyers with gray hair in shirtsleeves, young lawyers on the phone with their doors cracked, typists pecking away with dictation.

It was so familiar!

Hector had his own office, a small room with no name anywhere in sight. I saw him through his halfopen door, and I immediately burst in and slammed it behind me.

He jerked back in his chair with both palms up, as if he were facing a gun. "What the hell!" he said.

"Hello, Hector."

No gun, no assault, just a bad memory. His palms fell to his desk, and he actually smiled. "What the hell?" he said again.

"So how's Chicago?" I asked, resting my butt on the edge of his desk.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, in disbelief.

"I could ask you the same question."

"I'm working," he said, scratching his head. Five hundred feet above the street, tucked away in his nondescript little room with no windows, insulated by layers of more important people, Hector had been found by the only person he was running from. "How'd you find me?" he asked.

"It was very easy, Ilector. I'm a street lawyer now, savvy and smart. You run again, I'll find you again."

"I'm not running anymore," he said, looking away. It was not entirely for my benefit.

"We're filing suit tomorrow," I said. "The defendants will be RiverOaks, TAG, and Drake & Sweeney. There's no place for you to hide."

"Who are the plaintiffs?"

"Lontae Burton and family. Later, we'll add the other evictees, when we find all of them."

He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"You remember Lontae, don't you, Hector? She was the young mother who fought with the cops when you were evicting everyone. You saw it all, and you felt guilty because you knew the truth, you knew she was paying rent to Gantry. You put it all in your memo, the one dated January twenty-seventh, and you made sure the memo was properly indexed into the file. You did this because you knew Braden Chance would remove it at some point. And he did. And that's why I'm here, Hector. I want a copy of the memo. I have the rest of the file, and it's about to be exposed. Now I want the memo."

"What makes you think I have a copy?"

"Because you're too smart not to copy it. You knew Chance would remove the original to cover his ass. But now he is about to be exposed. Don't go down with him."

"Then where do I go?"

"Nowhere," I said. "You have nowhere to go."

He knew it. Since he knew the truth about the eviction, he would be forced to testify at some point, and in some manner. His testimony would sink Drake & Sweeney, and he would be terminated. It was a course of events Mordecai and I had talked about. We had a few crumbs to offer.

"If you give me the memo," I said, "I will not tell where it came from. And I will not call you as a witness unless I am absolutely forced to."

He was shaking his head. "I could lie, you know," he said.

"Sure you could. But you won't because you'll get nailed. It's easy to prove your memo was logged into the file, then removed. You can't deny writing it. Then we have the testimony of the people you evicted. They'll make great witnesses before an all-black jury in D.C. And we've talked to the guard who was with you on January twenty-seventh."

Every punch landed flush on the jaw, and Hector was on the ropes. Actually, we had been unable to find the guard; the file did not give his name.

"Forget lying," I said. "It will only make things worse."

Hector was too honest to lie. He was, after all, the person who had slipped me the list of the evictees, and the keys with which to steal the file. He had a soul and a conscience, and he couldn't be happy hiding in Chicago, running from his past.

"Has Chance told them the truth?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I doubt it. That would take guts, and Chance is a coward ....They'll fire me, you know."

"Maybe, but you'll have a beautiful lawsuit against them. I'll handle it for you. We'll sue them again, and I won't charge you a dime."

There was a knock on his door. It scared both of us; our conversation had taken us back in time. "Yes," he said, and a secretary entered.

"Mr. Peck is waiting," she said, sizing me up.

"I'll be there in one minute," Hector said, and she slowly backtracked through the door, leaving it open.

"I have to go," he said.

"I'm not leaving without a copy of the memo."

"Meet me at noon by the water fountain in front of the building."

"I'll be there."

I winked at the receptionist as I passed through the foyer. "Thanks," I said. "I'm much better."

"You're welcome," she said.

* * *

From the fountain we went west on Grand Avenue to a crowded Jewish deli. As we waited in line to order a sandwich, Hector handed me an envelope. "I have four children," he said. "Please protect me."

I took the envelope, and was about to say something when he stepped backward and got lost in the crowd. I saw him squeeze through the door and go past the deli, the flaps of his overcoat around his ears, almost running to get away from me.

I forgot about lunch. I walked four blocks to the hotel, checked out, and threw my things into a cab. Sitting low in the backseat, doors locked, cabbie halfasleep, no one in the world knowing where I was at that moment, I opened the envelope.

The memo was in the typical Drake & Sweeney format, prepared on Hector's PC with the client code, file number, and date in tiny print along the bottom left. It was dated January 27, sent to Braden Chance from Hector Palma, regarding the RiverOaks/TAG eviction, Florida warehouse property. On that day, Hector had gone to the warehouse with an armed guard, Jeff Mackle of Rock Creek Security, arriving at 9:15 A.M. and leaving at 12:30. The warehouse had three levels, and after first noticing squatters on the ground floor, Hector went to the second level, where there was no sign of habitation. On the third level, he saw litter, old clothing, and the remnants of a campfire someone had used many months earlier.

On the west end of the ground level, he found eleven temporary apartments, all hastily assembled from plywood and Sheetrock, unpainted, but obviously built by the same person, at about the same time, with some effort at order. Each apartment was roughly the same size, judging from the outside; Hector couldn't obtain entry to any of them. Every door was the same, a light, hollow, synthetic material, probably plastic, with a doorknob and a dead bolt.

The bathroom was well used and filthy. There had been no recent improvements to it.

Hector encountered a man who identified himself only as Herman, and Herman had no interest in talking. Hector asked how much rent was being charged for the apartments, and Herman said none; said that he was squatting. The sight of an armed guard in a uniform had a chilling effect on the conversation.

On the east end of the building, ten units of similar design and construction were found. A crying child drew Hector to one of the doors, and he asked the guard to stand back in the shadows. A young mother answered his knock; she held a baby, three other children swarmed around her legs. Hector informed her that he was with a law firm, that the building had been sold, and that she would be asked to leave in a few days. She at first said she was squatting, then quickly went on the attack. It was her apartment. She rented it from a man named Johnny, who came around on the fifteenth of each month to collect a hundred dollars. Nothing in writing. She had no idea who owned the building; Johnny was her only contact. She had been there for three months, couldn't leave because there was no place to go. She worked twenty hours a week at a grocery store.

Hector told her to pack her things and get ready to move. The building would be leveled in ten days. She became frantic. Hector tried to provoke her further. He asked if she had any proof that she was paying rent. She found her purse, under the bed, and handed him a scrap of paper, a tape from a grocery store cash register. On the back someone had scrawled: Recd frm Lontae Burton, Jan 15, $100 rent.

The memo was two pages long. But there was a third page attached to it, a copy of the scarcely readable receipt. Hector had taken it from her, copied it, and attached the original to the memo. The writing was hurried, the spelling flawed, the copying blurred, but it was stunning. I must have made some ecstatic noise because the cabdriver jerked his head and examined me in the mirror.

The memo was a straightforward description of what Hector saw, said, and heard. There were no conclusions, no caveats to his higher-ups. Give them enough rope, he must have said to himself, and see if they'll hang themselves. He was a lowly paralegal, in no position to give advice, or offer opinions, or stand in the way of a deal.

At O'Hare, I faxed it to Mordecai. If my plane crashed, or if I got mugged and someone stole it, I wanted a copy tucked away deep in the files of the 14th Street Legal Clinic.