Chapter Twenty-One

When I mustered the courage to explain to Mordecai that I needed the afternoon off, he very brusquely informed me that my standing was equal to the rest, that no one monitored my hours, and that if I needed time off, then I should damned well take it. I left the office in a hurry. Only Sofia seemed to notice.

I spent an hour with the claims adjuster. The Lexus was a total wreck; my company was offering $21,480, with a release so it could then go after the insurer of the Jaguar. I owed the bank $16,000, so I left with a check for $5,000 and change, certainly enough to buy a suitable vehicle, one appropriate to my new position as a poverty lawyer, and one that wouldn't tempt car thieves.

Another hour was wasted in the reception area of my doctor. As a busy attorney with a cell phone and many clients, I stewed as I sat among the magazines and listened to the clock tick.

A nurse made me strip to my boxers, and I sat for twenty minutes on a cold table. The bruises were turning dark brown. The doctor poked and made things worse, then pronounced me good for another two weeks.

I arrived at Claire's lawyer's office promptly at four, and was met by an unsmiling receptionist dressed like a man. Bitchiness resonated from every corner of the place. Every sound was anti-male: the abrupt, husky voice of the gal answering the phone; the sounds of some female country crooner wafting through the speakers; the occasional shrill voice from down the hall. The colors were soft pastel: lavender and pink and beige. The magazines on the coffee table were there to make a statement: hard-hitting female issues, nothing glamorous or gossipy. They were to be admired by the visitors, not read.

Jacqueline Hume had first made a ton of money cleaning out wayward doctors, then had created a fierce reputation by destroying a couple of philandering senators. Her name struck fear into every unhappily married D.C. male with a nice income. I was anxious to sign the papers and leave.

Instead, I was allowed to wait for thirty minutes, and was on the verge of creating a nasty scene when an associate fetched me and led me to an office down the hall. She handed me the separation agreement, and for the first time I saw the reality. The heading was: Claire Addison Brock versus Michael Nelson Brock.

The law required us to be separated for six months before we could be divorced. I read the agreement carefully, signed it, and left. By Thanksgiving I would be officially single again.

My fourth stop of the afternoon was the parking lot of Drake & Sweeney, where Polly met me at precisely five with two storage boxes filled with the remaining souvenirs from my office. She was polite and efficient, but tight-lipped and of course in a hurry. They probably had her wired.

I walked several blocks and stopped at a busy corner. Leaning on a building, I dialed Barry Nuzzo's number. He was in a meeting, as usual. I gave my name, said it was an emergency, and within thirty seconds Barry was on the phone.

"Can we talk?" I asked. I assumed the call was being recorded.


"I'm just down the street, at the corner of K and Connecticut. Let's have coffee."

"I can be there in an hour."

"No. It's right now, or forget it." I didn't want the boys to be able to plot and scheme. No time for wires either.

"Okay, let's see. Yeah, all right. I can do it."

"I'm at a Bingler's Coffee."

"I know it."

"I'm waiting. And come alone."

"You've been watching too many movies, Mike." Ten minutes later, we were sitting in front of the window of a crowded little shop, holding hot coffee and watching the foot traffic on Connecticut.

"Why the search warrant?" I asked.

"It's our file. You have it, we want it back. Very simple."

"You're not going to find it, okay. So stop the damned searches."

"Where do you live now?"

I grunted and gave him my best smart-ass laugh. "The arrest warrant usually follows the search warrant," I said. "Is that the way it's going to happen?"

"I'm not at liberty to say."

"Thanks, pal."

"Look, Michael, let's start with the premise that you're wrong. You've taken something that's not yours. That's stealing, plain and simple. And in doing so, you've become an adversary of the firm's. I, your friend, still work for the firm. You can't expect me to help you when your actions may be damaging to the firm. You created this mess, not me."

"Braden Chance is not telling everything. The guy's a worm, an arrogant little jerk who committed malpractice, and now he's trying to cover his ass. He wants you to think it's a simple matter of a stolen file and that it's safe to come after me. But the file can humiliate the firm."

"So what's your point?"

"Lay off. Don't do anything stupid."

"Like get you arrested?"

"Yeah, for starters. I've been looking over my shoulder all day, and it's no fun."

"You shouldn't steal."

"I didn't plan to steal, okay? I borrowed the file. I planned to copy and return it, but I never made it."

"So you finally admit you have it."

"Yeah. But I can deny it too."

"You're playing, Michael, and this is not a game. You're gonna get yourself hurt."

"Not if you guys lay off. Just for now. Let's have a truce for a week. No more search warrants. No arrests."

"Okay, and what are you offering?"

"I won't embarrass the firm with the file."

Barry shook his head and gulped hot coffee. "I'm not in a position to make deals. I'm just a lowly associate."

"Is Arthur calling the shots?"

"Of course."

"Then tell Arthur I'm talking only to you."

"You're assuming too much, Michael. You're assuming the firm wants to talk to you. Frankly, they don't. They are highly agitated by the theft of the file, and by your refusal to return it. You can't blame them."

"Get their attention, Barry. This file is front-page news; big bold headlines with noisy journalists following up with a dozen stories. If I get arrested, I'll go straight to the Post."

"You've lost your mind."

"Probably so. Chance had a paralegal named Hector Palma. Have you heard of him?"


"You're out of the loop."

"I never claimed to be in."

"Palma knows too much about the file. As of yesterday, he no longer works where he worked last week. I don't know where he is, but it would be interesting to find out. Ask Arthur."

"Just give the file back, Michael. I don't know what you're planning to do with it, but you can't use it in couurt."

I took my coffee and stepped off the stool. "A truce for one week," I said, walking away. "And tell Arthur to put you in the loop."

"Arthur doesn't take orders from you," he snapped at me.

I left quickly, darting through people on the sidewalk, practically running toward Dupont Circle, anxious to leave Barry behind and anyone else they'd sent along to spy.

* * *

The Palma's address, according to the phone book, was an apartment building in Bethesda. Since I was in no hurry and needed to think, I circled the city on the Beltway, bumper to bumper with a million others.

I gave myself fifty-fifty odds of being arrested within the week. The firm had no choice but to come after me, and if Braden Chance was in fact hiding the truth from Arthur and the executive committee, then why not play hardball? There was enough circumstantial evidence of my theft to convince a magistrate to issue an arrest warrant.

The Mister episode had rattled the firm. Chance had been called onto the carpet, grilled at length by the brass, and it was inconceivable that he admitted any deliberate wrongdoing. He lied, and he did so with the hope that he could doctor the file and somehow survive. His victims, after all, were only a bunch of homeless squatters.

How, then, was he able to dispose of Hector so quickly? Money was no object--Chance was a partner. If I had been Chance, I would've offered cash to Hector, cash on one hand with the threat of immediate termination on the other. And I would've called a partner buddy in, say, Denver, and asked for a favor--a quick transfer for a paralegal. It would not have been difficult.

Hector was away, hiding from me and anyone else who came with questions. He was still employed, probably at a higher salary.

Then what about the polygraph? Had it been simply a threat used by the firm against both Hector and my self? Could he have taken the test and passed? I doubted it.

Chance needed Hector to keep the truth hidden. Hector needed Chance to protect his job. At some point, the partner blocked any notion of a polygraph, if in fact it had been seriously considered.

The apartment complex was long and rambling, new sections added as the sprawl moved northward away from file city. The streets around it were packed with fast food, fast gas, video rentals, everything hurried commuters needed to save time.

I parked next to some tennis courts, and began a tour of the various units. I took my time; there was no place to go after this adventure. District cops could be lurking anywhere with a warrant and handcuffs. I tried not to think of the horror stories I'd heard about the city jail.

But one stuck like a cattle brand seared into my memory. Several years earlier, a young Drake & Sweeney associate spent several hours after work on Friday , drinking in a bar in Georgetown. As he was trying to get to Virginia, he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. At the police station, he refused a breath test, and was immediately thrown into the drunk tank. The cell was overcrowded; he was the only guy with a suit, the only guy with a nice watch, fine loafers, white face. He accidentally stepped on the foot of a fellow inmate, and he was then beaten to a bloody mess. He spent three months in a hospital getting his face rebuilt, then went home to Wilmington, where his family took care of him. The brain damage was slight, but enough to disqualify him for the rigors of a big firm.

The first office was closed. I trudged along a sidewalk in search of another. The phone address did not list an apartment number. It was a safe complex. There were bikes and plastic toys on the small patios. Through the windows I could see families eating and watching television. The windows were not defended by rows of bars. The cars crammed into the parking lots were of the midsized commuter variety, mostly clean and with all four hubcaps.

A security guard stopped me. Once he determined that I posed no threat, he pointed in the direction of the main office, at least a quarter of a mile away.

"How many units are in this place?" I asked.

"A lot," he answered. Why should he know the number?

The night manager was a student eating a sandwich, a physics textbook opened before him. But he was watching the Bullets-Knicks game on a small TV. I asked about Hector Palma, and he pecked away on a keyboard. G-134 was the number.

"But they've moved," he said with a mouthful of food.

"Yeah, I know," I said. "I worked with Hector. Friday was his last day. I'm looking for an apartment, and I was wondering if I could see his."

He was shaking his head no before I finished. "Only on Saturdays, man. We have nine hundred units. And there's a waiting list."

"I'm gone on Saturday."

"Sorry," he said, taking another bite and glancing at the game.

I removed my wallet. "How many bedrooms?" I asked.

He glanced at the monitor. "Two."

Hector had four children. I was sure his new digs were more spacious.

"How much a month?"


I took out a one-hundred-dollar bill, which he immediately saw. "Here's the deal. Give me the key. I'll take a look at the place and be back in ten minutes. No one will ever know."

"We have a waiting list," he said again, dropping the sandwich onto a paper plate.

"Is it there in that computer?" I asked, pointing.

"Yeah," he said, wiping his mouth.

"Then it would be easy to shuffle."

He found the key in a locked drawer, and grabbed the money. "Ten minutes," he said.

The apartment was nearby, on the ground floor of a three-story building. The key worked. The smell of fresh paint escaped through the door before I went inside. In fact, the painting was still in progress; in the living room there was a ladder, dropcloths, white buckets.

A team of fingerprinters could not have found a trace of the Palma clan. All drawers, cabinets, and closets were bare; all carpets and padding ripped up and gone. Even the tub and toilet bowl stains had been removed. No dust, cobwebs, dirt under the kitchen sink. The place was sterile. Every room had a fresh coat of dull white, except the living room, which was half-finished.

I returned to the office and tossed the key on the counter.

"How about it?" he asked.

"Too small," I said. "But thanks anyway."

"You want your money back?"

"Are you in school?"


"Then keep it."


I stopped at the door, and asked, "Did Palma leave a forwarding address?"

"I thought you worked with him," he said.

"Right," I said, and quickly closed the door behind me.