Since Lontae Burton's father was a person unknown to us, and probably unknown to the world, and since her mother and all siblings were behind bars, we made the tactical decision to bypass the family and use a trustee as a client. While I was in Chicago Monday morning, Mordecai appeared before a judge in the D.C. Family Court and asked for a temporary trustee to serve as guardian of the estates of Lontae Burton and each of her children. It was a routine matter done in private. The Judge was an acquaintance of Mordecai's. The petition was approved in minutes, and we had ourselves a new client. Her name was Wilma Phelan, a social worker Mordecai knew. Her role in the litigation would be minor, and she would be entitled to a very small fee in the event we recovered anything.
The Cohen Trust may have been ill-managed from a financial standpoint, but it had rules and bylaws covering every conceivable aspect of a nonprofit legal clinic. Leonard Cohen had been a lawyer, obviously one with an appetite for detail. Though discouraged and frowned upon, it was permissible for the clinic to handle an injury or wrongful death case on a contingency-fee basis. But the fee was capped at twenty percent of the recovery, as opposed to the standard one third. Some trial lawyers customarily took forty percent.
Of the twenty percent contingenty-fee, the clinic could keep half; the other ten percent went to the trust. In fourteen years, Mordecai had handled two cases on a contingency basis. The first he'd lost with a bad jury. The second involved a homeless woman hit by a city bus. He'd settled it for one hundred thousand dollars, netting the clinic a grand total of ten thousand dollars, from which he purchased new phones and word processors.
The Judge reluctantly approved our contract at twenty percent. And we were ready to sue.
* * *
Tip-off was at seven thirty-five--Georgetown versus Syracuse. Mordecai somehow squeezed two tickets. My flight arrived at National on time at six-twenty, and thirty minutes later I met Mordecai at the east entrance of the U.S. Air Arena in Landover. We were joined by almost twenty thousand other fans. He handed me a ticket, then pulled from his coat pocket a thick, unopened envelope, sent by registered mail to my attention at the clinic. It was from the D.C. bar.
"It came today," he said, knowing exactly what it contained. "I'll meet you at our seats." He disappeared into a crowd of students.
I tipped it open and found a spot outside with enough light to read. My friends at Drake & Sweeney were unloading everything they had.
It was a formal complaint filed with the Court of Appeals accusing me of unethical behavior. The allegations ran for three pages, but could have been adequately captured in one good paragraph. I'd stolen a file. I'd breached confidentiality. I was a bad boy who should be either (1) disbarred permanently, or (2) suspended for many years, and/or (3) publicly reprimanded. And since the file was still missing, the matter was urgent, and therefore the inquiry and procedure should be expedited.
There were notices, forms, other papers I hardly glanced at. It was a shock, and I leaned on a wall to steady myself and contemplate matters. Sure, I had thought about a bar proceeding. It would have been unrealistic to think the firm would not pursue all avenues to retrieve the file. But I thought the arrest might appease them for a while.
Evidently not. They wanted blood. It was a typical big-firm, hardball, take-no-prisoners strategy, and I understood it perfectly. What they didn't know was that at nine the following morning, I would have the pleasure of suing them for ten million dollars for the wrongful deaths of the Burtons.
According to my assessment, there was nothing else they could do to me. No more warrants. No more registered letters. All issues were on the table, all lines drawn. In a small way, it was a relief to be holding the papers.
And it was also frightening. Since I'd started law school ten years earlier, I had never seriously considered work in another field. What would I do without a law license?
But then, Sofia didn't have one and she was my equal.
Mordecai met me inside at the portal leading to our seats. I gave him a brief summary of the bar petition. He offered me his condolences.
While the game promised to be tense and exciting, basketball was not our top priority. Jeff Mackle was a part-time gun at Rock Creek Security, and he also worked events at the arena. Sofia had tracked him down during the day. We figured he would be one of a hundred uniformed guards loitering around the building, watching the game for free and gazing at coeds.
We had no idea if he was old, young, white, black, fat, or lean, but the security guards wore small nameplates above their left breast pockets. We walked the aisles and portals until almost halftime before Mordecai found him, hitting on a cute ticket clerk at Gate D, a spot I had inspected twice.
Mackle was large, white, plain-faced, and about my age. His neck and biceps were enormous, his chest thick and bulging. The legal team huddled briefly and decided it would be best if I approached him.
With one of my business cards between my fingers, I walked casually up to him and introduced myself. "Mr. Mackle, I'm Michael Brock, Attorney."
He gave me the look one normally gets with such a greeting and took the card without comment. I had interrupted his flirting with the ticket clerk.
"Could I ask you a few questions?" I said in my best homicide detective impersonation.
"You can ask. I may not answer." He winked at the ticket clerk.
"Have you ever done any security work for Drake & Sweeney, a big law firm in the District?"
"Ever help them with any evictions?"
I hit a nerve. His face hardened instantly, and the conversation was practically over. "Don't think so," he said, glancing away. "Are you sure?"
"No. The answer is no."
"You didn't help the firm evict a warehouse full of squatters on February fourth?"
He shook his head, jaw clenched, eyes narrow. Someone from Drake & Sweeney had already visited Mr. Mackle. Or, more than likely, the firm had threatened his employer.
At any rate, Mackle was stonefaced. The ticket clerk was preoccupied with her nails. I was shut out.
"Sooner or later you'll have to answer my questions," I said.
The muscles in his jaw flinched, but he had no response. I was not inclined to push harder. He was rough around the edges, the type who could erupt with a flurry of fists and lay waste to a humble street lawyer. I had been wounded enough in the past two weeks.
I watched ten minutes of the second half, then left with spasms in my back, aftereffects of the car wreck.
* * *
The motel was another new one on the northern fringe of Bethesda. Also forty, bucks a night, and after three nights I couldn't afford any more lockdown therapy for Ruby. Megan was of the opinion it was time for her to return home. If she was going to stay sober, the real test would come on the streets.
At seven-thirty Tuesday morning, I knocked on her door on the second floor. Room 220, per Megan's instructions. There was no answer. I knocked again and again, and tried the knob. It was locked. I ran to the lobby and asked the receptionist to call the room. Again, no answer. No one had checked out. Nothing unusual had been reported.
An assistant manager was summoned, and I convinced her that there was an emergency. She called a security guard, and the three of us went to the room. Along the way, I explained what we were doing with Ruby, and why the room wasn't in her name. The assistant manager didn't like the idea of using her nice motel to detox crackheads.
The room was empty. The bed was meticulous; no sign of use during the night. Not a single item was out of place, and nothing of hers had been left behind.
I thanked them and left. The motel was at least ten miles from our office. I called Megan to alert her, then fought my way into the city with a million other commuters. At eight-fifteen, sitting in stalled traffic, I called the office and asked Sofia if Ruby had been seen. She had not.
* * *
The Lawsuit was brief and to the point. Wilma Phelan, trustee for the estates of Lontae Burton and her children, was suing RiverOaks, Drake & Sweeney, and TAG, Inc., for conspiring to commit a wrongful eviction. The logic was simple; the causal connection obvious. Our clients would not have been living in their car had they not been thrown out of their apartment. And they wouldn't have died had they not been living in their car. It was a lovely theory of liability, one made even more attractive because of its simplicity. Any jury in the country could follow the rationale.
The negligence and/or intentional acts of the defendants caused the deaths, which were foreseeable. Bad things happened to those living on the streets, espe cially single mothers with little children. Toss them out of their homes wrongfully and you pay the price if they get hurt.
We had briefly considered a separate lawsuit for Mister's death. He too had been illegally evicted, but his death could not be considered foreseeable. Taking hostages and getting shot in the process were not a reasonable chain of events for one civilly wronged. Also, he had little jury appeal. We put Mister to rest, permanently.
Drake & Sweeney would immediately ask the Judge to require me to hand over the file. The Judge might very well make me do it, and that would be an admission of guilt. It could also cost me my license to practice law. Further, any evidence derived from anything in the stolen file could be excluded.
Mordecai and I reviewed the final draft Tuesday, and he again asked me if I wanted to proceed. To protect me, he was willing to drop the lawsuit entirely. We had talked about that several times. We even had a strategy whereby we would drop the Burton suit, negotiate a truce with Drake & Sweeney to clear my name, wait a year for tempers to cool, then sneak the case to a buddy of his on the other side of town. It was a bad strategy, one we ditched almost as soon as we thought of it.
He signed the pleadings, and we left for the courthouse. He drove, and I read the lawsuit again, the pages growing heavier the farther we went.
Negotiation would be the key. The exposure would humiliate Drake & Sweeney, a firm with immense pride and ego, and built on credibility, client service, trustworthiness. I knew the mind-set, the personality, the cult of great lawyers who did no wrong. I knew the paranoia of being perceived as bad, in any way. There was guilt for making so much money, and a corresponding desire to appear compassionate for the less fortunate.
Drake & Sweeney was wrong, though I suspected the firm had no idea how very wrong it was. I imagined Braden Chance was cowering behind his locked door praying fervently that the hour would pass.
But I was wrong too. Perhaps we could meet in the middle somewhere, and cut a deal. If not, then Mordecai Green would have the pleasure of presenting the Burton case to a friendly jury one day soon, and asking them for big bucks. And the firm would have the pleasure of pushing my grand larceny case to the limit; to a point I didn't care to think about.
The Burton case would never go to trial. I could still think like a Drake & Sweeney lawyer. The idea of facing a D.C. jury would terrify them. The initial embarrassment would have them scrambling for ways to cut their losses.
Tim Claussen, a college pal of Abraham's, was a reporter for the Post. He was waiting outside the clerk's office, and we gave him a copy of the lawsuit. He read it while Mordecai filed the original, then asked us questions, which we were more than happy to answer, but off the record.
The Burton tragedy was fast becoming a political and social hot potato in the District. Blame was being passed around with dizzying speed. Every depaiuiient head in the city blamed another one. The city council blamed the mayor, who blamed the council while also blaming Congress. Some right-wingers in the House had weighed in long enough to blame the mayor, the council, and the entire city.
The idea of pinning the whole thing on a bunch of rich white lawyers made for an astonishing story. Claussen--callous, caustic, jaded by years in journalism--couldn't suppress his enthusiasm.
* * *
The ambush of Drake & Sweeney by the press did not bother me in the least. The firm had established the rules the prior week when it tipped a reporter that I had been arrested. I could see Rafter and his little band of litigators happily agreeing around the conference table that, yes! it made perfect sense to alert the media about my arrest; and not only that but to slip them a nice photo of the criminal. It would embarrass me, humiliate me, make me sorry, force me to cough up the file and do whatever they wanted.
I knew the mentality, knew how the game was played.
! had no problem helping the reporter.