The King of Torts
The Office of the Public Defender is not known as a training ground for bright young litigators. Clay Carter has been there too long, and, like most of his colleagues, dreams of a better job in a real firm. When he reluctantly takes the case of a young man charged with a random street killing, he assumes it is just another of the many senseless murders that hit D.C. every week. As he digs into the background of his client, Clay stumbles on a conspiracy too horrible to believe. He suddenly finds himself in the middle of a complex case against one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world and looking at the kind of enormous settlement that would totally change his life–that would make him, almost overnight, the legal profession’s newest king of torts.
43 Author’s Note
The shots that fired the bullets that entered Pumpkin’s head were heard by no less than eight people. Three instinctively closed their windows, checked their door locks, and withdrew to the safety, or at least the seclusion, of their small apartments. Two others, each with experience in such matters, ran from the vicinity as fast if not faster than the gunman himself. Another, the neighborhood recycling fanatic, was digging through some garbage in search of aluminum cans when he heard the sharp sounds of the daily skirmish, very nearby. He jumped behind a pile of cardboard boxes until the shelling stopped, then eased into the alley where he saw what was left of Pumpkin.
And two saw almost everything. They were sitting on plastic milk crates, at the corner of Georgia and Lamont in front of a liquor store, partially hidden by a parked car so that the gunman, who glanced around briefly before following Pumpkin into the alley, didn’t see them. Both would tell the police that they saw the boy with the gun reach into his pocket and pull it out; they saw the gun for sure, a small black pistol. A second later they heard the shots, though they did not actually see Pumpkin take them in the head. Another second and the boy with the gun darted from the alley and, for some reason, ran straight in their direction. He ran bent at the waist, like a scared dog, guilty as hell. He wore red-and-yellow basketball shoes that seemed five sizes too big and slapped the pavement as he made his getaway.
When he ran by them he was still holding the gun, probably a .38, and he flinched just for an instant when he saw them and realized they had seen too much. For one terrifying second, he seemed to raise the gun as if to eliminate the witnesses, both of whom managed to flip backward from their plastic milk crates and scramble off in a mad flurry of arms and legs. Then he was gone.
One of them opened the door to the liquor store and yelled for someone to call the police, there had been a shooting.
Thirty minutes later, the police received a call that a young man matching the description of the one who had wasted Pumpkin had been seen twice on Ninth Street carrying a gun in open view and acting stranger than most of the people on Ninth. He had tried to lure at least one person into an abandoned lot, but the intended victim had escaped and reported the incident.
The police found their man an hour later. His name was Tequila Watson, black male, age twenty, with the usual drug-related police record. No family to speak of. No address. The last place he’d been sleeping was a rehab unit on W Street. He’d managed to ditch the gun somewhere, and if he’d robbed Pumpkin then he’d also thrown away the cash or drugs or whatever the booty was. His pockets were clean, as were his eyes. The cops were certain Tequila was not under the influence of anything when he was arrested. A quick and rough interrogation took place on the street, then he was handcuffed and shoved into the rear seat of a D.C. police car.
They drove him back to Lamont Street, where they arranged an impromptu encounter with the two witnesses. Tequila was led into the alley where he’d left Pumpkin. “Ever been here before?” a cop asked.
Tequila said nothing, just gawked at the puddle of fresh blood on the dirty concrete. The two witnesses were eased into the alley, then led quietly to a spot near Tequila.
“That’s him,” both said at the same time.
“He’s wearing the same clothes, same basketball shoes, everything but the gun.”
“No doubt about it.”
Tequila was shoved into the car once again and taken to jail. He was booked for murder and locked away with no immediate chance of bail. Whether through experience or just fear, Tequila never said a word to the cops as they pried and cajoled and even threatened. Nothing incriminating, nothing helpful. No indication of why he would murder Pumpkin. No clue as to their history, if one existed at all. A veteran detective made a brief note in the file that the killing appeared a bit more random than was customary.
No phone call was requested. No mention of a lawyer or a bail bondsman. Tequila seemed dazed but content to sit in a crowded cell and stare at the floor.
Pumpkin had no traceable father but his mother worked as a security guard in the basement of a large office building on New York Avenue. It took three hours for the police to determine her son’s real name–Ramon Pumphrey–to locate his address, and to find a neighbor willing to tell them if he had a mother.
Adelfa Pumphrey was sitting behind a desk just inside the basement entrance, supposedly watching a bank of monitors. She was a large thick woman in a tight khaki uniform, a gun on her waist, a look of complete disinterest on her face. The cops who approached her had done so a hundred times. They broke the news, then found her supervisor.
In a city where young people killed each other every day, the slaughter had thickened skins and hardened hearts, and every mother knew many others who’d lost their children. Each loss brought death a step closer, and every mother knew that any day could be the last. The mothers had watched the others survive the horror. As Adelfa Pumphrey sat at her desk with her face in her hands, she thought of her son and his lifeless body lying somewhere in the city at that moment, being inspected by strangers.
She swore revenge on whoever killed him.
She cursed his father for abandoning the child.
She cried for her baby.
And she knew she would survive. Somehow, she would survive.
Adelfa went to court to watch the arraignment. The police told her the punk who’d killed her son was scheduled to make his first appearance, a quick and routine matter in which he would plead not guilty and ask for a lawyer. She was in the back row with her brother on one side and a neighbor on the other, her eyes leaking tears into a damp handkerchief. She wanted to see the boy. She also wanted to ask him why, but she knew she would never get the chance.
They herded the criminals through like cattle at an auction. All were black, all wore orange coveralls and handcuffs, all were young. Such waste.
In addition to his handcuffs, Tequila was adorned with wrist and ankle chains since his crime was especially violent, though he looked fairly harmless when he was shuffled into the courtroom with the next wave of offenders. He glanced around quickly at the crowd to see if he recognized anyone, to see if just maybe someone was out there for him. He was seated in a row of chairs, and for good measure one of the armed bailiffs leaned down and said, “That boy you killed. That’s his mother back there in the blue dress.”
With his head low, Tequila slowly turned and looked directly into the wet and puffy eyes of Pumpkin’s mother, but only for a second. Adelfa stared at the skinny boy in the oversized coveralls and wondered where his mother was and how she’d raised him and if he had a father, and, most important, how and why his path had crossed that of her boy’s. The two were about the same age as the rest of them, late teens or early twenties. The cops had told her that it appeared, at least initially, that drugs were not involved in the killing. But she knew better. Drugs were involved in every layer of street life. Adelfa knew it all too well. Pumpkin had used pot and crack and he’d been arrested once, for simple possession, but he had never been violent. The cops were saying it looked like a random killing. All street killings were random, her brother had said, but they all had a reason.
On one side of the courtroom was a table around which the authorities gathered. The cops whispered to the prosecutors, who flipped through files and reports and tried valiantly to keep the paperwork ahead of the criminals. On the other side was a table where the defense lawyers came and went as the assembly line sputtered along. Drug charges were rattled off by the Judge, an armed robbery, some vague sexual attack, more drugs, lots of parole violations. When their names were called, the defendants were led forward to the bench, where they stood in silence. Paperwork was shuffled, then they were hauled off again, back to jail.
“Tequila Watson,” a bailiff announced.
He was helped to his feet by another bailiff. He stutter-stepped forward, chains rattling.
“Mr. Watson, you are charged with murder,” the Judge announced loudly. “How old are you?”
“Twenty,” Tequila said, looking down.
The murder charge had echoed through the courtroom and brought a temporary stillness. The other criminals in orange looked on with admiration. The lawyers and cops were curious.
“Can you afford a lawyer?”
“Didn’t think so,” the Judge mumbled and glanced at the defense table. The fertile fields of the D.C. Superior Court Criminal Division, Felony Branch, were worked on a daily basis by the Office of the Public Defender, the safety net for all indigent defendants. Seventy percent of the docket was handled by court-appointed counsel, and at any time there were usually half a dozen PDs milling around in cheap suits and battered loafers with files sticking out of their briefcases. At that precise moment, however, only one PD was present, the Honorable Clay Carter II, who had stopped by to check on two much lesser felonies, and now found himself all alone and wanting to bolt from the courtroom. He glanced to his right and to his left and realized that His Honor was looking at him. Where had all the other PDs gone?
A week earlier, Mr. Carter had finished a murder case, one that had lasted for almost three years and had finally been closed with his client being sent away to a prison from which he would never leave, at least not officially. Clay Carter was quite happy his client was now locked up, and he was relieved that he, at that moment, had no murder files on his desk.
That, evidently, was about to change.
“Mr. Carter?” the Judge said. It was not an order, but an invitation to step forward to do what every PD was expected to do–defend the indigent, regardless of the case. Mr. Carter could not show weakness, especially with the cops and prosecutors watching. He swallowed hard, refused to flinch, and walked to the bench as if he just might demand a jury trial right there and then. He took the file from the Judge, quickly skimmed its rather thin contents while ignoring the pleading look of Tequila Watson, then said, “We’ll enter a plea of not guilty, Your Honor.”
“Thank you, Mr. Carter. And we’ll show you as counsel of record?”
“For now, yes.” Mr. Carter was already plotting excuses to unload this case on someone else at OPD.
“Very well. Thank you,” the Judge said, already reaching for the next file.
Lawyer and client huddled at the defense table for a few minutes. Carter took as much information as Tequila was willing to give, which was very little. He promised to stop by the jail the next day for a longer interview. As they whispered, the table was suddenly crowded with young lawyers from the PD’s office, colleagues of Carter’s who seemed to materialize from nowhere.
Was this a setup? Carter asked himself. Had they disappeared knowing a murder defendant was in the room? In the past five years, he’d pulled such stunts himself. Ducking the nasty ones was an art form at OPD.
He grabbed his briefcase and hurried away, down the center aisle, past rows of worried relatives, past Adelfa Pumphrey and her little support group, into the hallway crammed with many more criminals and their mommas and girlfriends and lawyers. There were those in OPD who swore they lived for the chaos of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse– the pressure of trials, the hint of danger from people sharing the same space with so many violent men, the painful conflict between victims and their assailants, the hopelessly overcrowded dockets, the calling to protect the poor and ensure fair treatment by the cops and the system.
If Clay Carter had ever been attracted to a career in OPD, he could not now remember why. In one week the fifth anniversary of his employment there would come and go, without celebration, and, hopefully, without anyone knowing it. Clay was burned out at the age of thirty-one, stuck in an office he was ashamed to show his friends, looking for an exit with no place to go, and now saddled with another senseless murder case that was growing heavier by the minute.
In the elevator he cursed himself for getting nailed with a murder. It was a rookie’s mistake; he’d been around much too long to step into the trap, especially one set on such familiar turf. I’m quitting, he promised himself; the same vow he had uttered almost every day for the past year.
There were two others in the elevator. One was a court clerk of some variety, with her arms full of files.
The other was a fortyish gentleman dressed in designer black–jeans, T-shirt, jacket, alligator boots. He held a newspaper and appeared to be reading it through small glasses perched on the tip of his rather long and elegant nose; in fact, he was studying Clay, who was oblivious. Why would someone pay any attention to anyone else on this elevator in this building?
If Clay Carter had been alert instead of brooding, he would have noticed that the gentleman was too well dressed to be a defendant, but too casual to be a lawyer. He carried nothing but a newspaper, which was somewhat odd because the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse was not known as a place for reading. He did not appear to be a judge, a clerk, a victim, or a defendant, but Clay never noticed him.
In a city of 76,000 lawyers, many of them clustered in megafirms within rifle shot of the U.S. Capitol–rich and powerful firms where the brightest associates were given obscene signing bonuses and the dullest ex-Congressmen were given lucrative lobbying deals and the hottest litigators came with their own agents–the Office of the Public Defender was far down in the minor leagues. Low A.
Some OPD lawyers were zealously committed to defending the poor and oppressed, and for them the job was not a stepping-stone to another career. Regardless of how little they earned or how tight their budgets were, they thrived on the lonely independence of their work and the satisfaction of protecting the underdog.
Other PDs told themselves that the job was transitory, just the nitty-gritty training they needed to get launched into more promising careers. Learn the ropes the hard way, get your hands dirty, see and do things no big-firm associate would ever get near, and someday some firm with real vision will reward the effort. Unlimited trial experience, a vast knowledge of the judges and the clerks and the cops, workload management, skills in handling the most difficult of clients—these were just a few of the advantages PDs had to offer after only a few years on the job.
OPD had eighty lawyers, all working in two cramped and suffocating floors of the District of Columbia Public Services Building, a pale, square, concrete structure known as The Cube, on Mass Avenue near Thomas Circle. There were about forty low paid secretaries and three dozen paralegals scattered through the maze of cubbyhole offices. The Director was a woman named Glenda who spent most of her time locked in her office because she felt safe in there.
The beginning salary for an OPD lawyer was $36,000. Raises were minuscule and slow in coming. The most senior lawyer, a frazzled old man of forty-three, earned $57,600 and had been threatening to quit for nineteen years. The workloads were staggering because the city was losing its own war on crime. The supply of indigent criminals was endless. Every year for the past eight Glenda had submitted a budget requesting ten more lawyers and a dozen more paralegals. In each of the last four budgets she had received less money than the year before. Her quandary at the moment was which paralegals to terminate and which lawyers to force into part-time work.
Like most of the other PDs, Clay Carter had not entered law school with the plan of a career, or even a brief stint, defending indigent criminals. No way. Back when Clay was in college and then law school at Georgetown his father had a firm in D.C. Clay had worked there part-time for years, and had his own office. The dreams had been boundless back then, father and son litigating together as the money poured in.
But the firm collapsed during Clay’s last year of law school, and his father left town. That was another story. Clay became a public defender because there were no other lastsecond jobs to grab.
It took him three years to jockey and connive his way into getting his own office, not one shared with another lawyer or paralegal. About the size of a modest suburban utility closet, it had no windows and a desk that consumed half the floor space. His office in his father’s old firm had been four times larger with views of the Washington Monument, and though he tried to forget those views he couldn’t erase them from his memory. Five years later, he still sat at his desk at times and stared at the walls, which seemed to get closer each month, and asked himself how, exactly, did he fall from one office to the other?
He tossed the Tequila Watson file on his very clean and very neat desk and took off his jacket. It would have been easy, in the midst of such dismal surroundings, to let the place go, to let the files and papers pile up, to clutter his office and blame it on being overworked and understaffed. But his father had believed that an organized desk was a sign of an organized mind. If you couldn’t find something in thirty seconds, you were losing money, his father always said. Return phone calls immediately was another rule Clay had been taught to obey.
So he was fastidious about his desk and office, much to the amusement of his harried colleagues. His Georgetown Law School diploma hung in a handsome frame in the center of a wall. For the first two years at OPD he had refused to display the diploma for fear that the other lawyers would wonder why someone from Georgetown was working for minimum wages. For the experience, he told himself, I’m here for the experience. A trial every month—tough trials against tough prosecutors in front of tough juries. For the down-in-the-gutter, bareknuckle training that no big firm could provide. The money would come later, when he was a battle-hardened litigator at a very young age.
He stared at the thin Watson file in the center of his desk and wondered how he might unload it on someone else. He was tired of the tough cases and the superb training and all the other crap that he put up with as an underpaid PD.
There were six pink phone message slips on his desk; five related to business, one from Rebecca, his longtime girlfriend. He called her first.
“I’m very busy,” she informed him after the required initial pleasantries.
“You called me,” Clay said.
“Yes, I can only talk a minute or so.” Rebecca worked as an assistant to a low-ranking Congressman who was the chairman of some useless subcommittee. But because he was the chairman he had an additional office he was required to staff with people like Rebecca who was in a frenzy all day preparing for the next round of hearings that no one would attend. Her father had pulled strings to get her the job.
“I’m kinda swamped too,” Clay said. “Just picked up another murder case.” He managed to add a measure of pride to this, as if he were honored to be the attorney for Tequila Watson.
It was a game they played: Who was the busiest? Who was the most important? Who worked the hardest? Who had the most pressure?
“Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday,” she said, pausing slightly as if Clay was supposed to know this. He did not. He cared not. He didn’t like her mother. “They’ve invited us to dinner at the club.”
A bad day just got worse. The only response he could possibly give was, “Sure.” And a quick one at that.
“Around seven. Coat and tie.”
“Of course.” I’d rather have dinner with Tequila Watson at the jail, he thought to himself.
“I gotta run,” she said. “See you then. Love you.”
It was a typical conversation between the two, just a few quick lines before rushing off to save the world. He looked at her photo on his desk. Their romance came with enough complications to sink ten marriages. His father had once sued her father, and who won and who lost would never be clear. Her family claimed origins in old Alexandria society; he’d been an Army brat. They were right-wing Republicans, he was not. Her father was known as Bennett the Bulldozer for his relentless slash-and-burn development in the Northern Virginia suburbs around D.C. Clay hated the sprawl of Northern Virginia and quietly paid his dues to two environmental groups fighting the developers. Her mother was an aggressive social climber who wanted her two daughters to marry serious money. Clay had not seen his mother in eleven years. He had no social ambitions whatsoever. He had no money.
For almost four years, the romance had survived a monthly brawl, the majority of them engineered by her mother. It clung to life by love and lust and a determination to succeed regardless of the odds against it. But Clay sensed a fatigue on Rebecca’s part, a creeping weariness brought on by age and constant family pressure. She was twenty-eight. She did not want a career. She wanted a husband and a family and long days spent at the country club spoiling the children, playing tennis, doing lunch with her mother.
Paulette Tullos appeared from thin air and startled him. “Got nailed, didn’t you?” she said with a smirk. “A new murder case.”
“You were there?” Clay asked.
“Saw it all. Saw it coming, saw it happen, couldn’t save you, pal.”
“Thanks. I owe you one.”
He would have offered her a seat, but there were no others in his office. There was no room for chairs and besides they were not needed because all of his clients were in jail. Sitting and chatting were not part of the daily routine at OPD.
“What are my chances of getting rid of it?” he said.
“Slim to impossible. Who you gonna dump it on?”
“I was thinking of you.”
“Sorry. I got two murder cases already. Glenda won’t move it for you.”
Paulette was his closest friend inside the OPD. A product of a rough section of the city, she had scratched her way through college and law school at night and had seemed destined for the middle classes until she met an older Greek gentleman with a fondness for young black women. He married her and set her up comfortably in North West Washington, then eventually returned to Europe, where he preferred to live. Paulette suspected he had a wife or two over there, but she wasn’t particularly concerned about it. She was well-off and seldom alone. After ten years, the arrangement was working fine.
“I heard the prosecutors talking,” she said. “Another street killing, but questionable motive.”
“Not exactly the first one in the history of D.C.”
“But no apparent motive.”
“There’s always a motive—cash, drugs, sex, a new pair of Nikes.”
“But the kid was pretty tame, no history of violence?”
“First impressions are seldom true, Paulette, you know that.”
“Jermaine got one very similar two days ago. No apparent motive.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
“You might try him. He’s new and ambitious and, who knows, you might dump it on him.”
“I’ll do it right now.”
Jermaine wasn’t in but Glenda’s door, for some reason, was slightly open. Clay rapped it with his knuckles while walking through it. “Got a minute?” he said, knowing that Glenda hated sparing a minute with anyone on her staff. She did a passable job running the office, managing the caseloads, holding the budget together, and, most important, playing the politics at City Hall. But she did not like people. She preferred to do her work behind a locked door.
“Sure,” she said abruptly, with no conviction whatsoever. It was clear she did not appreciate the intrusion, which was exactly the reception Clay had expected.
“I happened to be in the Criminal Division this morning at the wrong time, got nailed with a murder case, one I’d rather pass on. I just finished the Traxel case, which, as you know, lasted for almost three years. I need a break from murder. How about one of the younger guys?”
“You beggin’ off, Mr. Carter?” she said, eyebrows arched.
“Absolutely. Load up the dope and burglaries for a few months. That’s all I’m asking.”
“And who do you suggest should handle the, uh, what’s the case?”
“Tequila Watson. Who should get him, Mr. Carter?”
“I don’t really care. I just need a break.”
She leaned back in her chair, like some wise old chairman of the board, and began chewing on the end of a pen. “Don’t we all, Mr. Carter? We’d all love a break, wouldn’t we?”
“Yes or no?”
“We have eighty lawyers here, Mr. Carter, about half of whom are qualified to handle murder cases. Everybody has at least two. Move it if you can, but I’m not going to reassign it.”
As he was leaving, Clay said, “I could sure use a raise if you wanted to work on it.”
“Next year, Mr. Carter. Next year.”
“And a paralegal.”
The Tequila Watson file remained in the very neat and organized office of Jarrett Clay Carter II, Attorney-at-Law.
The building was, after all, a jail. Though it was of recent vintage and upon its grand opening had been the source of great pride for a handful of city leaders, it was still a jail. Designed by cutting-edge urban defense consultants and adorned with high-tech security gadgetry, it was still a jail. Efficient, safe, humane, and, though built for the next century, it was overbooked the day it opened. From the outside it resembled a large red cinderblock resting on one end, windowless, hopeless, filled with criminals and the countless people who guarded them. To make someone feel better it had been labeled a Criminal Justice Center, a modern euphemism employed widely by the architects of such projects. It was a jail.
And it was very much a part of Clay Carter’s turf. He met almost all of his clients there, after they were arrested and before they were released on bond, if they were able to post it. Many were not. Many were arrested for nonviolent crimes, and whether guilty or innocent, they were kept locked away until their final court appearances. Tigger Banks had spent almost eight months in the jail for a burglary he did not commit. He lost both of his part-time jobs. He lost his apartment. He lost his dignity. Clay’s last phone call from Tigger had been a gut-wrenching plea from the kid for money. He was on crack again, on the streets and headed for trouble.
Every criminal lawyer in the city had a Tigger Banks story, all with unhappy endings and nothing to be done about them. It cost $41,000 a year to house an inmate. Why was the system so anxious to burn the money?
Clay was tired of those questions, and tired of the Tiggers of his career, and tired of the jail and the same surly guards who greeted him at the basement entrance used by most lawyers. And he was tired of the smell of the place, and the idiotic little procedures put in place by pencil pushers who read manuals on how to keep jails safe. It was 9 A.M., a Wednesday, though for Clay every day was the same. He went to a sliding window under a sign for ATTORNEYS, and after the clerk was certain that he had waited long enough, she opened the window and said nothing. Nothing needed to be said, since she and Clay had been scowling at each other without greetings for almost five years now. He signed a register, handed it back, and she closed the window, no doubt a bulletproof one to protect her from rampaging lawyers.
Glenda had spent two years trying to implement a simple call-ahead method whereby OPD lawyers, and everyone else for that matter, could telephone an hour before they arrived and their clients would be somewhere in the vicinity of the attorney conference room. It was a simple request, and its simplicity had no doubt led to its demise in bureaucratic hell.
There was a row of chairs against a wall where the lawyers were expected to wait while their requests were sent along at a snail’s pace to someone upstairs. By 9 A.M. there were always a few lawyers sitting there, fidgeting with files, whispering on cell phones, ignoring one another. At one point early in his young career Clay had brought along thick law books to read and highlight in yellow and thus impress the other lawyers with his intensity. Now he pulled out the Post and read the sports section. As always, he glanced at his watch to see how much time would be wasted waiting for Tequila Watson.
Twenty-four minutes. Not bad.
A guard led him down the hall to a long room divided by a thick sheet of Plexiglas. The guard pointed to the fourth booth from the end, and Clay took a seat. Through the glass, he could see that the oilier half of the booth was empty. More waiting. He pulled papers from his briefcase and began thinking of questions for Tequila. The booth to his right was occupied by a lawyer in the midst of a tense, but muted, conversation with his client, a person Clay could not see.
The guard returned and whispered to Clay, as if such conversations were illegal. “Your boy had a bad night,” he said, crouching and glancing up at the security cameras.
“Okay,” Clay said. “He jumped on a kid around two this morning, beat the hell out of him, caused a pretty good brawl. Took six of our guys to break it up. He’s a mess.”
“Watson, that’s him. Put the other boy in the hospital. Expect some additional charges.”
“Are you sure?” Clay asked, looking over his shoulder.
“It’s all on video.” End of conversation.
They looked up as Tequila was brought to his seat by two guards, each with an elbow secured. He was handcuffed, and though the inmates were customarily set free to chat with their lawyers, Tequila’s handcuffs were not coming off. He sat down. The guards moved away but remained close.
His left eye was swollen shut, with dried blood in both corners. The right one was open and the pupil was bright red. There was tape and gauze in the center of his forehead, and a butterfly Band-Aid on his chin. Both lips and both jaws were puffy and oversized to the point that Clay wasn’t sure he had the right client. Someone somewhere had just beaten the hell out of the guy sitting three feet away through the Plexiglas.
Clay picked up the black phone receiver and motioned for Tequila to do likewise. He cradled it awkwardly with both hands.
“You are Tequila Watson?” Clay said with as much eye contact as possible.
He nodded yes, very slowly, as if loose bones were shifting throughout his head.
“Have you seen a doctor?”
A nod, yes.
“Did the cops do this to you?”
Without hesitation he shook his head. No.
“The other guys in the cell do it?”
A nod, yes.
“The cops tell me you started the fight, beat up some kid, put him in the hospital. Is that true?” A nod, yes. It was hard to imagine Tequila Watson, all 150 pounds of him, bullying people in a crowded cell in the D.C. jail. “Did you know the kid?” Lateral movement. No. So far his receiver had not been needed, and Clay was tired of the sign language. “Why, exactly, did you beat up this kid?”
With great effort the swollen lips finally parted. “I don’t know,” he managed to grunt, the words slow and painful.
“That’s great, Tequila. That gives me something to work with. How about self-defense? Did the kid come after you? Throw the first punch?”
“Was he stoned or drunk?”
“Was he trash-talking, making threats, that kind of stuff?” “He was asleep.” “Asleep?” “Yeah.” “Was he snoring too loud? Forget it.”
Eye contact was broken by the lawyer, who suddenly needed to write something on his yellow legal pad. Clay scribbled the date, time, place, client’s name, then ran out of important facts to take note of. He had a hundred questions filed away in his memory, and after that a hundred more. They rarely varied in these initial interviews; just the basics of his client’s miserable life and how they came to meet. The truth was guarded like rare gems to be passed through the Plexiglas only when the client wasn’t threatened. Questions about family and school and jobs and friends were usually answered with a good measure of honesty. But questions related to the crime were subject to gamesmanship. Every criminal lawyer knew not to dwell too much on the crime during the first interviews. Dig for details elsewhere. Investigate without guidance from the client. The truth might come later.
Tequila, however, seemed quite different. So far, he had no fear of the truth. Clay decided to save many, many hours of his precious time. He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “They say you killed a boy, shot him five times in the head.”
The swollen head nodded slightly.
“A Ramon Pumphrey, also known as Pumpkin. Did you know this guy?”
A nod, yes.
“Did you shoot him?” Clay’s voice was almost a whisper. The guards were asleep but the question was still one that lawyers did not ask, not at the jail anyway.
“I did,” Tequila said softly.
“Thought it was six.”
Oh well, so much for a trial. I’ll have this file closed in sixty days, Clay thought to himself. A quick plea bargain. A guilty plea in return for life in prison.
“A drug deal?” he asked.
“Did you rob him?”
“Help me here, Tequila. You had a reason, didn’t you?”
“I knew him.”
“That’s it? You knew him? That’s your best excuse?”
He nodded but said nothing.
“A girl, right? You caught him with your girlfriend? You have a girlfriend, don’t you?”
He shook his head. No.
“Did the shooting have anything to do with sex?”
“Talk to me, Tequila, I’m your lawyer. I’m the only person on the planet who’s working right now to help you. Give me something to work with here.”
“I used to buy drugs from Pumpkin.”
“Now you’re talking. How long ago?”
“Couple of years.”
“Okay. Did he owe you some money or some drugs? Did you owe him something?”
Clay took a deep breath and for the first time noticed Tequila’s hands. They were nicked with small cuts and swollen so badly that none of the knuckles could be seen. “You fight a lot?”
Maybe a nod, maybe a shake. “Not anymore.”
“You once did?”
“Kid stuff. I fought Pumpkin once.”
Finally. Clay took another deep breath and raised his pen. “Thank you, sir, for your help. When, exactly, did you have a fight with Pumpkin?” “Long time ago.” “How old were you?” A shrug, one in response to a stupid question. Clay knew from experience that his clients had no concept of time. They got robbed yesterday or they got arrested last month, but probe beyond thirty days and all history melted together. Street life was a struggle to survive today, with no time to reminisce and nothing in the past to get nostalgic over. There was no future so that point of reference was likewise unknown.
“Kids,” Tequila said, sticking with the one-word answer, probably a habit with or without broken jaws. “How old were you?” “Maybe twelve.” “Were you in school?” “Playing basketball.” “Was it a nasty fight, cuts and broken bones and such?” “No. Big dudes broke it up.”
Clay laid the receiver down for a moment and summarized his defense. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client shot Mr. Pumphrey (who was unarmed) five or six times at point-blank range in a dirty alley with a stolen gun for two reasons; first, he recognized him, and second, they had a playground shoving match about eight years ago. May not sound like much, ladies and gentlemen, but all of us know that in Washington, D.C., those two reasons are as good as any.
Into the receiver again, he asked, “Did you see Pumpkin often?”
“When was the last time you saw him before he got shot?”
A shrug. Back to the time problem.
“Did you see him once a week?”
“Once a month?”
“Twice a year?”
“When you saw him two days ago, did you argue with him? Help me here, Tequila, I’m working too hard for details.”
“We didn’t argue.”
“Why did you go into the alley?”
Tequila laid down the receiver and began moving his head back I and forth, very slowly, to work out some kinks. He was obviously in pain. The handcuffs appeared to be cutting into his skin. When he picked up the receiver again he said, “I’ll tell you the truth. I had a gun, and I wanted to shoot somebody. Anybody, it didn’t matter. I left the Camp and just started walking, going nowhere, looking for somebody to shoot. I almost got a Korean dude outside his store, but there were too many people around. I saw Pumpkin. I knew him. We talked for a minute. I said I had some rock if he wanted a hit. We went to the alley. I shot the boy. I don’t know why. I just wanted to kill somebody.”
When it was clear the narrative was over, Clay asked, “What is the Camp?” “Rehab place. That’s where I was staying.” “How long had you been there?” Time again. But the answer was a great surprise.
“Hundred and fifteen days.” “You had been clean for a hundred and fifteen days?” “Yep.” “Were you clean when you shot Pumpkin?” “Yep. Still am. Hundred and sixteen days.” “You ever shot anybody before?” “No.” “Where’d you get the gun?” “Stole it from my cousin’s house.” “Is the Camp a lockdown place?” “Yes.” “Did you escape?” “I was getting two hours. After a hundred days, you can go out for two hours, then go back in.”
“So you walked out of the Camp, went to your cousin’s house, stole a gun, then began walking the streets looking for someone to shoot, and you found Pumpkin?”
Tequila was nodding by the end of the sentence. “That’s what happened. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
There was possibly some moisture in the red right eye of Tequila, perhaps brought on by guilt and remorse, but Clay could not be certain. He pulled some papers out of his briefcase and slid them through the opening. “Sign these by the red check marks. I’ll come back in a couple of days.”
Tequila ignored the papers. “What’s gonna happen to me?” he asked.
“Well talk about it later.”
“When can I get out?”
“It might be a long time.”
The people who ran Deliverance Camp saw no need to hide from the problems. They made no effort to get away from the war zone from which they took their casualties. No quiet facility in the country. No secluded clinic in a better part of town. Their campers came from the streets and they would go back to the streets.
The Camp faced W Street in N.W., within view of a row of boarded-up duplexes that were sometimes used by crack dealers. Within plain sight was the notorious empty lot of an old gas station. Here drug peddlers met their wholesalers and did their exchanges regardless of who might be looking. According to unofficial police records, the lot had produced more bullet-laden corpses than any other piece of turf in D.C.
Clay drove slowly down W Street, doors locked, hands clutching the wheel, eyes cutting in all directions, ears awaiting the inevitable sound of gunfire. A white boy in this ghetto was an irresistible target, regardless of the time of day.
D Camp was an ancient warehouse, long abandoned by whoever last used it for storage, condemned by the city, then auctioned off for a few dollars to a nonprofit that somehow saw potential. It was a hulking structure, the red brick spray-painted maroon from sidewalk to roof, with the lower levels repainted by the neighborhood graffiti specialists. It rambled down the street then back an entire city block. All the doors and windows along the sides had been cemented shut and painted, so that fencing and razor wire were not needed. Anyone wishing to escape would need a hammer, a chisel, and a hard day of uninterrupted labor.
Clay parked his Honda Accord directly in front of the building and debated whether to race away or get out. There was a small sign above a set of thick double doors:
No trespassing. As if someone could wander inside, or want to. There was the usual collection of street characters loitering about: some young toughs no doubt hauling drugs and enough assault weapons to hold off the police, a couple of winos staggering in tandem, what appeared to be family members waiting to visit those inside D Camp. His job had led him to most of the undesirable places in D.C., and he had grown proficient at acting as though he had no fear. I’m a lawyer. I’m here on business. Get out of my way. Don’t speak to me. In nearly five years with OPD, he had yet to be shot at.
He locked the Accord and left it at the curb. While doing so he sadly admitted to himself that few if any of the thugs on this street would be attracted to his little car. It was twelve years old and pushing two hundred thousand miles. Take it, he said.
He held his breath and ignored the curious stares from the sidewalk gang. There’s not another white face within two miles of here, he thought. He pushed a button by the doors and a voice cracked through the intercom. “Who is it?”
“My name is Clay Carter. I’m a lawyer. I have an eleven o’clock appointment with Talmadge X.” He said the name clearly, still certain that it was a mistake. On the phone he had asked the secretary how to spell Mr. X’s last name, and she said, quite rudely, that it was not a last name at all. What was it? It was an X. Take it or leave it. It wasn’t about to change.
“Just a minute,” the voice said, and Clay began to wait. He stared at the doors, trying desperately to ignore everything around him. He was aware of movement off to his left side, something close.
“Say, man, you a lawyer?” came the question, a high-pitched young black male voice, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Clay turned and looked into the funky sunshades of his tormentor. “Yep,” he said, as coolly as possible.
“You ain’t no lawyer,” the young man said. A small gang was forming behind him, all gawking.
“Afraid so,” Clay said.
“Can’t be no lawyer, man.”
“No way,” said one of the gang.
“You sure you’re a lawyer?”
“Yep,” Clay said, playing along.
“If you a lawyer, why you drivin’ a shit car like that?”
Clay wasn’t sure which hurt more—the laughter from the sidewalk or the truth of the statement. He made matters worse.
“My wife drives the Mercedes,” he said, a bad attempt at humor.
“You ain’t got no wife. You ain’t got no wedding ring.”
What else have they noticed? Clay asked himself. They were still laughing when one of the doors clicked and opened. He managed to step casually inside instead of diving for safety. The reception area was a bunker with a concrete floor, cinderblock walls, metal doors, no windows, low ceiling, a few lights, everything but sandbags and weapons. Behind a long government-issue table was a receptionist answering two phones. Without looking up she said, “He’ll be just a minute.”
Talmadge X was a wiry, intense man of about fifty, not an ounce of fat on his narrow frame, not a hint of a smile on his wrinkled and aged face. His eyes were large and wounded, scarred by decades on the streets. He was very black and his clothes were very white-heavily starched cotton shirt and dungarees. Black combat boots shined to perfection. His head was shined too, not a trace of hair.
He pointed to the only chair in his makeshift office, and he closed the door. “You got paperwork?” he asked abruptly. Evidently, small talk was not one of his talents.
Clay handed over the necessary documents, all bearing the indecipherable handcuffed scrawl of Tequila Watson. Talmadge X read every word on every page. Clay noticed he did not wear a watch, nor did he like clocks. Time had been left at the front door.
“When did he sign these?”
“They’re dated today. I saw him about two hours ago at the jail.”
“And you’re his counsel of record?” Talmadge X asked. “Officially?”
The man had been through the criminal justice system more than once. “Yes. Appointed by the court, assigned by the Office of the Public Defender.”
“Glenda still there?”
“We go way back.” It was as close to chitchat as they would get.
“Did you know about the shooting?” Clay asked, taking a legal pad to write on from his briefcase.
“Not until you called an hour ago. We knew he left Tuesday and didn’t come back, knew something was wrong, but then we expect things to go wrong.” His words were slow and precise, his eyes blinked often but never strayed. “Tell me what happened.”
“This is all confidential, right?” Clay said.
“I’m his counselor. I’m also his minister. You’re his lawyer. Everything said in this room stays in this room. Deal?”
Clay gave the details he’d collected so far, including Tequila’s version of events. Technically, ethically, he was not supposed to reveal to anyone statements made to him by his client. But who would really care? Talmadge X knew far more about Tequila Watson than Clay would ever learn.
As the narrative went on and the events unfolded in front of Talmadge X, his stare finally broke and he closed his eyes. He tilted his head upward, to the ceiling, as if he wanted to ask God why this happened. He drifted away, deep in thought and deeply troubled.
When Clay finished, Talmadge X said, “What can I do?”
“I’d like to see his file. He’s given me authorization.”
The file was lying squarely on the desk in front of Talmadge X. “Later,” he said. “But let’s talk first. What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with Tequila. Where’d he come from?”
The stare was back, Talmadge was ready to help. “The streets, same place they all come from. He was referred by Social Service, because he was a hopeless case. No family to speak of. Never knew his father. Mother died of AIDS when he was three. Raised by an aunt or two, passed around the family, foster homes here and there, in and out of court and juvenile homes. Dropped out of school. Typical case for us. Are you familiar with D Camp?”
“We get the hard cases, the permanent junkies. We lock ‘em down for months, give ‘em a boot camp environment. There are eight of us here, eight counselors, and we’re all addicts, once an addict always an addict, but you must know that. Four of us are now ministers. I served thirteen years for drugs and robbery, then I found Jesus. Anyway, we specialize in the young crack addicts nobody else can help.”
“Crack’s the drug, man. Cheap, plentiful, takes your mind off life for a few minutes. Once you start it you can’t quit.”
“He couldn’t tell me much about his criminal record.”
Talmadge X opened the file and flipped pages. “That’s probably because he doesn’t remember much. Tequila was stoned for years. Here it is; bunch of petty stuff when he was a juvenile, robbery, stolen cars, the usual stuff we all did so we could buy drugs. At eighteen he did four months for shoplifting. Got him for possession last year, three months there. Not a bad record for one of us. Nothing violent.”
“How many felonies?”
“I don’t see one.”
“I guess that’ll help,” Clay said. “In some way.”
“Sounds like nothing will help.”
“I’m told there were at least two eyewitnesses. I’m not optimistic.”
“Has he confessed to the cops?”
“No. They’ve told me that he clammed up when they caught him and has said nothing.”
“It is,” Clay said.
“Sounds like life with no parole,” said Talmadge X, the voice of experience.
“You got it.”
“That’s not the end of the world for us, you know, Mr. Carter. In many ways, life in prison is better than life on these streets. I got lots of pals who prefer it. Sad thing is, Tequila was one of the few who could’ve made it.”
“Why is that?”
“Kid’s got a brain. Once we got him cleaned up and healthy, he felt so good about himself. For the first time in his adult life, he was sober. He couldn’t read so we taught him. He liked to draw so we encouraged art. We never get excited around here, but Tequila made us proud. He was even thinking about changing his name, for obvious reasons.”
“You never get excited?”
“We lose sixty-six percent, Mr. Carter. Two thirds. We get ‘em in here, sick as dogs, stoned, their bodies and brains cooked on crack, malnourished, even starving, skin rashes, hair falling out, the sickest junkies D.C. can produce, and we fatten ‘em up, dry ‘em out, lock ‘em down in basic training where they’re up at six A.M. scrubbing their rooms and waiting on inspection, breakfast at six-thirty, then nonstop brainwashing from a tough group of counselors who’ve all been exactly where they’ve been, no bullshit, pardon my language, don’t even try to con us because we’re all cons ourselves. After a month they’re clean and they’re very proud. They don’t miss the outside world because there’s nothing good waiting for them—no jobs, no families, nobody loves them. They’re easy to brainwash, and we are relentless. After three months we might, depending on the patient, start easing them back onto the street for an hour or two a day. Nine out of ten return, anxious to get back into their little rooms. We keep them for a year, Mr. Carter. Twelve months, not a day less. We try to educate them some, maybe a little job training with computers. We work hard at finding them jobs. They graduate, we all have a good cry. They leave, and within a year two thirds of them are doing crack again and headed for the gutter.”
“Do you take them back?”
“Rarely. If they know they can come back, then they’re more likely to screw up.”
“What happens to the other third?”
“That’s why we’re here, Mr. Carter. That’s why I’m a counselor. Those folks, like me, survive in the world, and they do it with a toughness no one else understands. We’ve been to hell and back and it’s an ugly road. Many of our survivors work with other addicts.”
“How many people can you house at one time?”
“We have eighty beds, all full. We have room for twice that many, but there’s never enough money.”
“Who funds you?”
“Eighty percent federal grants, and there’s no guarantee from year to year. The rest we beg from private foundations. We’re too busy to raise a lot of money.”
Clay turned a page and made a note. “There’s not a single family member I can talk to?”
Talmadge X shuffled through the file, shaking his head. “Maybe an aunt somewhere, but don’t expect much. Even if you found one, how could she help you?”
“She can’t. But it’s nice to have a family member to contact.”
Talmadge X kept flipping through the file as if he had something in mind. Clay suspected he was looking for notes or entries to be removed before it was handed over.
“When can I see that?” Clay asked.
“How about tomorrow? I’d like to review it first.”
Clay shrugged. If Talmadge X said tomorrow, then it would be tomorrow. “All right, Mr. Carter, I don’t get his motive. Tell me why.”
“I can’t. You tell me. You’ve known him for almost four months. No history of violence or guns. No propensity for fighting. Sounds like he was the model patient. You’ve seen it all. You tell me why.”
“I’ve seen everything,” Talmadge X said, his eyes even sadder than before. “But I’ve never seen this. The boy was afraid of violence. We don’t tolerate fighting in here, but boys will be boys, and there are always the little rituals of intimidation. Tequila was one of the weak ones. There’s no way he would leave here, steal a gun, pick a random victim, and kill him. And there’s no way he would jump on a guy in jail and send him to the hospital. I just don’t believe it.”
“So what do I tell the jury?”
“What jury? This is a guilty plea and you know it. He’s gone, off to prison for the rest of his life. I’m sure he knows plenty of folk there.”
There was a long gap in the conversation, a break that seemed not to bother Talmadge X in the least. He closed the file and shoved it away. The meeting was about to be over. But Clay was the visitor. It was time to leave.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said. “What time?”
“After ten o’clock,” Talmadge X said. “I’ll walk you out.”
“It’s not necessary,” Clay said, delighted with the escort.
The gang had grown and appeared to be waiting for the lawyer to exit D Camp. They were sitting and leaning on the Accord, which was still there and still in one piece. Whatever fun they’d planned was quickly forgotten at the sight of Talmadge X. With a quick jerk of his head he scattered the gang, and Clay sped away, untouched and dreading his return the next day.
He drove eight blocks and found Lamont Street, then the corner of Georgia Avenue, where he stopped for a moment for a quick look around. There was no shortage of alleys in which one might shoot someone, and he was not about to go looking for blood. The neighborhood was as desolate as the one he’d just left. He’d come back later with Rodney, a black paralegal who knew the streets, and they’d poke around and ask questions.
The Potomac Country Club in McLean, Virginia, was established a hundred years earlier by some wealthy people who’d been snubbed by the other country clubs. Rich folks can tolerate almost anything, but not rejection. The outcasts pumped their considerable resources into Potomac and built the finest club in the D.C. area. They picked off a few Senators from rival clubs and enticed other trophy members, and before long Potomac had bought respectability. Once it had enough members to sustain itself, it began the obligatory practice of excluding others. Though it was still known as a new country club, it looked and felt and acted like all the rest.
It did, however, differ in one significant way. Potomac had never denied the fact that its memberships could be bought outright if a person had enough money. Forget waiting lists and screening committees and secret votes by the admissions board. If you were new to D.C., or if you suddenly struck it rich, then status and prestige could be obtained overnight if your check was large enough. As a result, Potomac had the nicest golf course, tennis facilities, pools, clubhouses, dining room, everything an ambitious country club could want.
As far as Clay could tell, Bennett Van Horn had written the big check. Regardless of which cloud of smoke he was blowing at the moment, Clay’s parents did not have money and certainly would not have been accepted at Potomac. His father had sued Bennett eighteen years earlier over a bad real estate deal in Alexandria. At the time, Bennett was a big-talking Realtor with lots of debts and very few unencumbered assets. He was not a member of the Potomac Country Club then, though he now acted as if he’d been born there.
Bennett the Bulldozer struck gold in the late eighties when he invaded the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside. Deals fell into place. Partners were found. He didn’t invent the slash-and-burn style of suburban development, but he certainly perfected it. On pristine hills he built malls. Near a hallowed battleground, he built a subdivision. He leveled an entire village for one of his planned developments—apartments, condos, big houses, small houses, a park in the center with a shallow muddy pond and two tennis courts, a quaint little shopping district that looked nice in the architect’s office but never got built. Ironically, though irony was lost on Bennett, he named his cookie-cutter projects after the landscape he was destroying—Rolling Meadows, Whispering Oaks, Forest Hills, etcetera. He joined other sprawl artists and lobbied the state legislature in Richmond for more money for more roads so more subdivisions could be thrown up and more traffic created. In doing so, he became a figure in the political game, and his ego swelled.
In the early nineties, his BVH Group grew rapidly, with revenues increasing at a slightly faster rate than loan payments. He and his wife, Barb, bought a home in a prestigious section of McLean. They joined the Potomac Country Club and became fixtures. They worked hard at creating the illusion that they had always had money.
In 1994, according to the SEC filings that Clay had studied diligently and kept copies of, Bennett decided to take his company public and raise $200 million. He planned to use the money to retire some debt, but, more important, to “…invest in the unlimited future of Northern Virginia.” In other words, more bulldozers, more slash-and-burn developments. The thought of Bennett Van Horn with that kind of cash no doubt thrilled the local Caterpillar dealers. And it should have horrified the local governments, but they were asleep.
With a blue-chip investment banker leading the way, BVHG stock roared out of the blocks at $10 a share and peaked at $16.50, not a bad run but far short of what its founder and CEO had predicted. A week before the public offering he had boasted in the Daily Profit, a local business tabloid, that “…the boys on Wall Street are sure it’ll hit forty bucks a share.” In the Over the Counter market, the stock floated back to earth and landed with a thud in the $6.00 range. Bennett had unwisely refused to dump some stock like all good entrepreneurs do. He held on to all of his four million shares and watched as his market value went from sixty-six million to almost nothing.
Every weekday morning, just for the sheer fun of it, Clay checked the price of one stock and one stock only. BVHG was currently trading at $0.87 per share.
“How’s your stock doing?” was the great slap-in-the-face Clay’d never had the nerve to use.
“Maybe tonight,” he mumbled to himself as he drove into the entrance of the Potomac Country Club. Since there was a potential marriage in the near future, Clay’s shortcomings were fair game around the dinner table. But not Mr. Van Horn’s. “Hey, congratulations, Bennett, the stock has moved up twelve cents in the past two months,” he said out loud. “Kicking ass, aren’t you, old boy! Time for another Mercedes?” All the things he wanted to say.
To avoid the tip associated with valet parking, Clay hid his Accord in a distant lot behind some tennis courts. As he hiked to the clubhouse he straightened his tie and continued his mumbling. He hated the place—hated it for all the assholes who were members, hated it because he could not join, hated it because it was the Van Horns’ turf and they wanted him to feel like a trespasser. For the hundredth time that day, as every day, he asked himself why he’d fallen in love with a girl whose parents were so insufferable. If he had a plan, it was to elope with Rebecca and move to New Zealand, far from the Office of the Public Defender, and as far away as possible from her family.
The gaze from the frosty hostess told him, I know you are not a member, but I’ll take you to your table anyway. “Follow me,” she said with the slight makings of a fake smile. Clay said nothing. He swallowed hard, looked straight ahead, and tried to ignore the heavy knot in his stomach. How was he supposed to enjoy a meal in such surroundings? He and Rebecca had eaten there twice—once with Mr. and Mrs. Van Horn, once without. The food was expensive and quite good, but then Clay lived on processed turkey so his standards were low and he knew it.
Bennett was absent. Clay gently hugged Mrs. Van Horn, a ritual both of them disliked, then offered a rather pathetic, “Happy Birthday.” He pecked Rebecca on the cheek. It was a good table, one with a sweeping view of the eighteenth green, a very prestigious spot to eat because one could watch the geezers wallow in the sand traps and miss their two-foot putts.
“Where’s Mr. Van Horn?” Clay asked, hoping he was stuck out of town, or better yet, hospitalized with some grave ailment.
“He’s on his way,” Rebecca said.
“He spent the day in Richmond, meeting with the Governor,” added Mrs. Van Horn, for good measure. They were relentless. Clay wanted to say, “You win! You win! You’re more important than I am!”
“What’s he working on?” he asked politely, once again astounded at his ability to sound sincere. Clay knew exactly why the Bulldozer was in Richmond. The state was broke and could not afford to build new roads in Northern Virginia, where Bennett and his ilk demanded that they be built. The votes were in Northern Virginia. The legislature was considering a local referendum on sales taxes so the cities and counties around D.C. could build their own highways. More roads, more condos, more malls, more traffic, more money for an ailing BVHG.
“Political stuff,” Barb said. In truth, she probably didn’t know what her husband and the Governor were discussing. Clay doubted if she knew the current price of BVHG stock. She knew the days her bridge club met and she knew how little money Clay earned, but most other details were left to Bennett.
“How was your day?” Rebecca asked, gently but quickly steering the conversation away from politics. Clay had used the word sprawl two or three times when debating issues with her parents and things had become tense.
“The usual,” he said. “And you?”
“We have hearings tomorrow, so the office was hopping today.”
“Rebecca tells me you have another murder case,” Barb said.
“Yes, that’s true,” Clay said, wondering what other aspects of his job as a public defender they had been talking about. Each had a glass of white wine sitting before her. Each glass was at least half-empty. He had walked in on a discussion, probably about him. Or was he being unduly sensitive? Perhaps.
“Who’s your client?” Barb asked.
“A kid from the streets.”
“Who did he kill?”
“The victim was another kid from the streets.”
This relieved her somewhat. Blacks killing blacks. Who cared if they all killed each other? “Did he do it?” she asked.
“As of now he is presumed to be innocent. That’s the way it works.”
“In other words, he did it.”
“It sort of looks that way.”
“How can you defend people like that? If you know they’re guilty, how can you work so hard trying to get them off?”
Rebecca took a large gulp of wine and decided to sit this one out. She had been coming to his rescue less and less in recent months. A nagging thought was that, while life would be magical with her, it would be a nightmare with them. The nightmares were winning.
“Our Constitution guarantees everyone a lawyer and a fair trial,” he said condescendingly, as if every fool should know this. “I’m just doing my job.”
Barb rolled her new eyes and looked at the eighteenth green. Many of the ladies at Potomac had been using a plastic surgeon whose specialty, evidently, was the Asian look. After the second session the eyes strained backward at the corners, and, while wrinklefree, were grossly artificial. Ol’ Barb had been nipped and tucked and Botoxed without a long-range plan, and the transition simply was not working.
Rebecca took another long pull on the wine. The first time they had eaten there with her parents she had kicked off a shoe under the table and run her toes up and down his leg, as if to say, “Let’s blow this joint and hop in the sack.” But not tonight. She was icy and seemed preoccupied. Clay knew she wasn’t worrying about whatever meaningless hearings she would suffer through tomorrow. There were issues here, just under the surface, and he wondered if this dinner might be a showdown, a powwow with the future on the line.
Bennett arrived in a rush, full of bogus apologies for being late. He slapped Clay on the back as if they were fraternity brothers, and kissed his girls on the cheeks.
“How’s the Governor?” Barb asked, loud enough for the diners across the room to hear.
“Great. He sends his best. The President of Korea is in town next week. The Guv has invited us to a black-tie gala at the mansion.” This too was offered at full volume.
“Oh really!” Barb gushed, her redone face erupting into a contortion of delight.
Should feel right at home with the Koreans, Clay thought.
“Should be a blast,” Bennett said as he pulled a collection of cell phones from his pocket and lined them up on the table. A few seconds behind him came a waiter with a double Scotch, Chivas with a little ice, the usual.
Clay ordered an ice tea.
“How’s my Congressman?” Bennett yelled across the table to Rebecca, then cut his eyes to the right to make sure the couple at the next table had heard him. I have my very own Congressman!
“He’s fine, Daddy. He sends his regards. He’s very busy.”
“You look tired, honey, a tough day?”
The three Van Horns took a sip. Rebecca’s fatigue was a favorite topic between her parents. They felt she worked too hard. They felt she shouldn’t work at all. She was pushing thirty and it was time to marry a fine young man with a well-paying job and a bright future so she could bear their grandchildren and spend the rest of her life at the Potomac Country Club.
Clay would not have been too concerned with whatever the hell they wanted, except that Rebecca had the same dreams. She had once talked of a career in public service, but after four years on the Hill she was fed up with bureaucracies. She wanted a husband and babies and a large home in the suburbs.
Menus were passed around. Bennett got a call and rudely handled it at the table. Some deal was falling through. The future of America’s financial freedom hung in the balance.
“What should I wear?” Barb asked Rebecca as Clay hid behind his menu.
“Something new,” Rebecca said.
“You’re right,” Barb readily agreed. “Let’s go shopping Saturday.”
Bennett saved the deal, and they ordered. He graced them with the details of the phone call—a bank was not moving fast enough, he had to light a fire, blah, blah. This went on until the salads arrived.
After a few bites, Bennett said, with his mouth full, as usual, “While I was down in Richmond, I had lunch with my close friend Ian Ludkin, Speaker of the House. You’d really like this guy, Clay, a real prince of a man. A perfect Virginia gentleman.”
Clay chewed and nodded as if he couldn’t wait to meet all of Bennett’s good friends.
“Anyway, Ian owes me some favors, most of them do down there, and so I just popped the question.”
It took Clay a second to realize that the women had stopped eating. Their forks were at rest as they watched and listened with anticipation.
“What question?” Clay asked because it seemed that they were expecting him to say something.
“Well, I told him about you, Clay. Bright young lawyer, sharp as a tack, hard worker, Georgetown Law School, handsome young man with real character, and he said he was always looking for new talent. God knows it’s hard to find. Said he has an opening for a staff attorney. I said I had no idea if you’d be interested, but I’d be happy to run it by you. Whatta you think?”
I think I’m being ambushed, Clay almost blurted.
Rebecca was staring at him, watching closely for the first reaction.
According to the script, Barb said, “That sounds wonderful.”
Talented, bright, hardworking, well educated, even handsome. Clay was amazed at how fast his stock had risen. “That’s interesting,” he said, somewhat truthfully. Every aspect of it was interesting.
Bennett was ready to pounce. He, of course, held the advantage of surprise. “It’s a great position. Fascinating work. You’ll meet the real movers and shakers down there. Never a dull moment. Lots of long hours, though, at least when the legislature is in session, but I told Ian that you had broad shoulders. Pile on the responsibilities.”
“What, exactly, would I be doing?” Clay managed to get out.
“Oh, I don’t know all that lawyer stuff. But, if you’re interested, Ian said he’d be happy to arrange an interview. It’s a hot ticket, though. He said the resumes were flooding in. Gotta move quick.”
“Richmond’s not that far away,” Barb said.
It’s a helluva lot closer than New Zealand, Clay thought. Barb was already planning the wedding. He couldn’t read Rebecca. At times she felt strangled by her parents, but rarely showed any desire to get away from them. Bennett used his money, if indeed he had any left, as a carrot to keep both daughters close to home.
“Well, uh, thanks, I guess,” Clay said, collapsing under the weight of his newly bestowed broad shoulders.
“Starting salary is ninety-four thousand a year,” Bennett said, an octave or two lower so the other diners couldn’t hear.
Ninety-four thousand dollars was more than twice as much as Clay was currently earning, and he assumed that everyone at the table knew it. The Van Horns worshiped money and were obsessed with salaries and net worths.
“Wow,” Barb said, on cue.
“That’s a nice salary,” Clay admitted.
“Not a bad start,” Bennett said. “Ian says you’ll meet the big lawyers in town. Contacts are everything. Do it a few years, and you’ll be able to write your own ticket in corporate law. That’s where the big money is, you know.”
It was not comforting to know that Bennett Van Horn had suddenly taken an interest in planning the rest of Clay’s life. The planning, of course, had nothing to do with Clay, and everything to do with Rebecca.
“How can you say no?” Barb said, prodding with two left feet.
“Don’t push, Mother,” Rebecca said.
“It’s just such a wonderful opportunity,” Barb said, as if Clay couldn’t see the obvious.
“Kick it around, sleep on it,” Bennett said. The gift had been delivered. Let’s see if the boy is smart enough to take it.
Clay was devouring his salad with a new purpose. He nodded as if he couldn’t speak. The second Scotch arrived and broke up the moment. Bennett then shared the latest gossip from Richmond about the possibility of a new professional baseball franchise for the D.C. area, one of his favorite topics. He was on the fringes of one of three investment groups jockeying for the franchise, if and when one was ever approved, and he thrived on knowing the latest developments.
According to a recent article in the Post, Bennett’s group was in third place and losing ground by the month. Their finances were unclear, downright shaky, according to one unnamed source, and throughout the article the name of Bennett Van Horn was never mentioned. Clay knew he had enormous debts. Several of his developments had been stalled by environmental groups trying to preserve whatever land was left in Northern Virginia. He had lawsuits raging against former partners. His stock was practically worthless. Yet there he sat slugging down Scotch and yapping away about a new stadium for $400 million and a franchise fee of $200 million and a payroll of at least $100 million.
Their steaks arrived just when the salads were finished, thus sparing Clay another tortured moment of conversation with nothing to stuff in his mouth. Rebecca was ignoring him and he was certainly ignoring her. The fight would come very soon.
There were stories about the Guv, a close personal friend who was putting his machine in place to run for the Senate and of course he wanted Bennett in the middle of things. A couple of his hottest deals were revealed. There was talk of a new airplane, but this had been going on for some time and Bennett just couldn’t find the one he wanted. The meal seemed to last for two hours, but only ninety minutes had passed when they declined dessert and started wrapping things up.
Clay thanked Bennett and Barb for the food and promised again to move quickly on the job down in Richmond. “The chance of a lifetime,” Bennett said gravely. “Don’t screw it up.”
When Clay was certain they were gone, he asked Rebecca to step into the bar for a minute. They waited for their drinks to arrive before either spoke. When things were tense both had the tendency to wait for the other to fire first.
“I didn’t know about the job in Richmond,” she began.
“I find that hard to believe. Seems like the entire family was in on the deal. Your mother certainly knew about it.”
“My father is just concerned about you, that’s all.”
Your father is an idiot, he wanted to say. “No, he’s concerned about you. Can’t have you marrying a guy with no future, so he’ll just manage the future for us. Don’t you think it’s presumptuous to decide he doesn’t like my job so he’ll find me another one?”
“Maybe he’s just trying to help. He loves the favors game.”
“But why does he assume I need help?”
“Maybe you do.”
“I see. Finally the truth.”
“You can’t work there forever, Clay. You’re good at what you do and you care about your clients, but maybe it’s time to move on. Five years at OPD is a long time. You’ve said so yourself.”
“Maybe I don’t want to live in Richmond. Perhaps I’ve never thought about leaving D.C. What if I don’t want to work under one of your father’s cronies? Suppose the idea of being surrounded by a bunch of local politicians does not appeal to me? I’m a lawyer, Rebecca, not a paper pusher.”
“Is this job an ultimatum?”
“In what way?”
“In every way. What if I say no?”
“I think you’ve already said no, which, by the way, is pretty typical. A snap decision.”
“Snap decisions are easy when the choice is obvious. I’ll find my own jobs, and I certainly didn’t ask your father to call in a favor. But what happens if I say no?”
“Oh, I’m sure the sun will come up.”
“And your parents?”
“I’m sure they’ll be disappointed.”
She shrugged and sipped her drink. Marriage had been discussed on several occasions but no agreement had been reached. There was no engagement, certainly no timetable. If one wanted out, there was sufficient wiggle room, though it would be a tight squeeze. But after four years of (1) dating no one else, and (2) continually reaffirming their love for each other, and (3) having sex at least five times a week, the relationship was headed toward permanent status.
However, she was not willing to admit the truth that she wanted a break from her career, and a husband and a family and then maybe no career at all. They were still competing, still playing the game of who was more important. She could not admit that she wanted a husband to support her.
“I don’t care, Clay,” she said. “It’s just a job offer, not a Cabinet appointment. Say no if you want to.”
“Thank you.” And suddenly he felt like a jerk. What if Bennett had simply been trying to help? He disliked her parents so much that everything they did irked him. That was his problem, wasn’t it? They had the right to be worried about their daughter’s future mate, the father of their grandchildren.
And, Clay grudgingly admitted, who wouldn’t be worried about him as a son-in-law?
“I’d like to go,” she said.
He followed her out of the club and watched her from the rear, almost suggesting that he had time to run by her apartment for a quick session. But her mood said no, and, given the tone of the evening, she would thoroughly enjoy a flat rejection. Then he would feel like a fool who couldn’t control himself, which was exactly what he was at these times. So he dug deep, clenched his jaws together, and let the moment pass.
As he helped her into her BMW, she whispered, “Why don’t you stop by for a few minutes?”
Clay sprinted to his car.
He felt somewhat safer with Rodney, plus 9 A.M. was too early for the dangerous types on Lamont Street. They were still sleeping off whatever poison they had consumed the night before. The merchants were slowly coming to life. Clay parked near the alley.
Rodney was a career paralegal with OPD. He’d been enrolled in night law school off and on for a decade and still talked of one day getting his degree and passing the bar. But with four teenagers at home both money and time were scarce. Because he came from the streets of D.C. he knew them well. Part of his daily routine was a request from an OPD lawyer, usually one who was white and frightened and not very experienced, to accompany him or her into the war zones to investigate some heinous crime. He was a paralegal, not an investigator, and he declined as often as he said yes.
But he never said no to Clay. The two had worked closely together on many cases. They found the spot in the alley where Ramon had fallen and inspected the surrounding area carefully, with full knowledge that the police had already combed the place several times. They shot a roll of film, then went looking for witnesses.
There were none, and this was not surprising. By the time Clay and Rodney had been on the scene for fifteen minutes, word had spread. Strangers were on-site, prying into the latest killing, so lock the doors and say nothing. The liquor store-milk crate witnesses, both men who spent many hours every day in the same spot sipping cheap wine and missing nothing, were long gone and no one had ever known them. The merchants seemed surprised that there had been a shooting at all. “Around here?” one asked, as if crime had yet to reach his ghetto.
After an hour, they left and headed for D Camp. As Clay drove, Rodney sipped cold coffee from a tall paper cup. Bad coffee, from the look on his face. “Jermaine got a similar case a few days ago,” he said. “Kid in rehab, locked down for a few months, got out somehow, don’t know if he escaped or was released, but within twenty-four hours he’d picked up a gun and shot two people, one died.”
“What’s random around here? Two guys in cars with no insurance have a fender bender and they start shooting at each other. Is that random, or is it justified?”
“Was it drugs, robbery, self-defense?”
“Random, I think.”
“Where was the rehab place?” Clay asked.
“It wasn’t D Camp. Some joint near Howard, I think. I haven’t seen the file. You know how slow Jermaine is.”
“So you’re not working the file?”
“No. Heard it through the grapevine.”
Rodney controlled the grapevine rumors and gossip and knew more about OPD lawyers and their caseloads than Glenda, the Director. As they turned on W Street, Clay said, “You been to D Camp before?”
“Once or twice. It’s for the hard cases, the last stop before the cemetery. Tough place, run by tough guys.”
“You know a gentleman by the name of Talmadge X?”
There was no sidewalk circus to wade through. Clay parked in front of the building and they hurried inside. Talmadge X was not in, some emergency had taken him to a hospital. A colleague named Noland introduced himself pleasantly and said he was the head counselor. In his office, at a small table, he showed them Tequila Watson’s file and invited them to look through it. Clay thanked him, certain that it had been purged and cleaned up for his benefit.
“Our policy is that I stay in the room while you look through the file,” Noland explained. “If you want copies, they’re twenty-five cents each.”
“Well, sure,” Clay said. The policy was not going to be negotiated. And if he wanted the entire file he could snatch it at any time with a subpoena. Noland took his place behind his desk, where an impressive stack of paperwork was waiting. Clay began leafing through the file. Rodney took notes.
Tequila’s background was sad and predictable. He had been admitted in January, referred from Social Services after being rescued from an overdose of something. He weighed 121 pounds and was five feet ten inches tall. His medical exam had been conducted at D Camp. He had a slight fever, chills, headaches, not unusual for a junkie. Other than malnourishment, a slight case of the flu, and a body ravaged by drugs, there was nothing else remarkable, according to the doctor. Like all patients, he had been locked down for the first thirty days and fed continually.
According to entries made by TX, Tequila began his slide at the age of eight when he and his brother stole a case of beer off a delivery truck. They drank half and sold half, and with the proceeds bought a gallon of cheap wine. He’d been kicked out of various schools and somewhere around the age of twelve, about the time he discovered crack, he’d dropped out altogether. Stealing became a way of survival.
His memory worked until the crack use began, so the last few years were a blur. TX had followed up on the details and there were letters and e-mails confirming some of the official stops along the miserable trail. When he was fourteen, Tequila had spent a month in a substance abuse unit of the D.C. Youth Detention Center. Upon his release, he went straight to a dealer and bargained for crack. Two months in Orchard House, a notorious lockdown facility for teens on crack, did little good. Tequila admitted to TX that he consumed as many drugs inside “OH” as he had on the outside. At sixteen, he was admitted to Clean Streets, a no-nonsense abuse facility very similar to D Camp. A stellar performance there lasted for fifty-three days, then he walked away without a word. TX’s note said “…was high on crack within 2 hrs. of leaving.” The juvenile court ordered him to a summer boot camp for troubled teens when he was seventeen, but security was leaky and he actually made money selling drugs to his fellow campers. The final effort at sobriety, before D Camp, had been a program at Grayson Church, under the direction of Reverend Jolley, a well-known drug counselor. Jolley sent a letter to Talmadge X in which he expressed the opinion that Tequila was one of those tragic cases that was “probably hopeless.”
As depressing as the history was, there was a remarkable absence of violence in it. Tequila had been arrested and convicted five times for burglary, once for shoplifting, and twice for misdemeanor possession. Tequila had never used a weapon to commit a crime, at least not one that he had been nabbed for. This had not gone unnoticed by TX, who, in one entry on Day 39 said, “…has a tendency to avoid even the slightest threat of physical conflict. Seems truly afraid of the bigger ones, and most of the small ones too.”
On Day 45, he was examined by a physician. His weight was a healthy 138. His skin was clear of “…abrasions and lesions.” There were notes about his progress in learning to read, and his interest in art. As the days passed, the notes became much shorter. Life inside D Camp was simple and grew to be mundane. Some days passed with no entries at all.
The entry on Day 80 was different: “He realizes he needs spiritual guidance from above to stay clean. He can’t do it alone. Says he wants to stay in D Camp forever.”
Day 100: “We celebrated the hundredth day with brownies and ice cream. Tequila made a short speech. He cried. He was awarded a two-hour pass.”
Day 104: “Two-hour pass. He left, returned in twenty minutes with a popsicle.”
Day 107: “Sent to the post office, gone almost an hour, returned.”
Day 110: “Two-hour pass, returned, no problem.”
The final entry was Day 115: “Two-hour pass, no return.”
Noland was watching as they neared the end of the file. “Any questions?” he asked, as if they had consumed enough of his time.
“It’s pretty sad,” Clay said, closing the file with a deep breath. He had lots of questions but none that Noland could, or would, answer.
“In a world of misery, Mr. Carter, this indeed is one of the saddest. I am rarely moved to tears, but Tequila has made me cry.” Noland was rising to his feet. “Would you like to copy anything?” The meeting was over.
“Maybe later,” Clay said. They thanked him for his time and followed him to the reception area.
In the car, Rodney fastened his seat belt and glanced around the neighborhood. Very calmly he said, “Okay, pal, we got us a new friend.”
Clay was watching the fuel gauge and hoping there was enough gas to get back to the office. “What kinda friend?”
“See that burgundy Jeep down there, half a block, other side of the street?”
Clay looked and said, “So what?”
“There’s a black dude behind the wheel, big guy, wearing a Redskins cap, I think. He’s watching us.”
Clay strained and could barely see the shape of a driver, race and cap indistinguishable to him. “How do you know he’s watching us?”
“He was on Lamont Street when we were there, I saw him twice, both times easing by, looking at us but not looking. When we parked here to go in, I saw the Jeep three blocks back that way. Now he’s over there.”
“How do you know it’s the same Jeep?”
“Burgundy’s an odd color. See that dent in the front fender, right side?”
“Same Jeep, no doubt about it. Let’s go that way, get a closer look.”
Clay pulled onto the street and drove past the burgundy Jeep. A newspaper flew up in front of the driver. Rodney scribbled down the license plate number.
“Why would anyone follow us?” Clay asked.
“Drugs. Always drugs. Maybe Tequila was dealing. Maybe the kid he killed had some nasty friends. Who knows?”
“I’d like to find out.”
“Let’s not dig too deep right now. You drive, and I’ll watch our rear.”
They headed south along Puerto Rico Avenue for thirty minutes and stopped at a gas station near the Anacostia River. Rodney watched every car as Clay pumped fuel. “The tail’s off,” Rodney said when they were moving again. “Let’s go to the office.”
“Why would they stop following us?” Clay asked. He would have believed any explanation.
“I’m not sure,” Rodney said, still checking his side mirror. “Could be that they were only curious as to whether we went to D Camp. Or maybe they know that we saw them. Just watch your tail for a while.”
“This is great. I’ve never been followed before.”
“Just pray they don’t decide to catch you.”
Jermaine Vance shared an office with another unseasoned lawyer who happened to be out at the moment, so Clay was offered his vacant chair. They compared notes on their most recent murder defendants.
Jermaine’s client was a twenty-four-year-old career criminal named Washad Porter, who, unlike Tequila, had a long and frightening history of violence. As a member of D.C.’s largest gang, Washad had been severely wounded twice in gun battles and had been convicted once of attempted murder. Seven of his twenty-four years had been spent behind bars. He had shown little interest in getting cleaned up; the only attempt at rehab had been in prison and had been clearly unsuccessful. He was accused of shooting two people four days before the Ramon Pumphrey killing. One of the two was killed instantly, the other was barely clinging to life.
Washad had spent six months at Clean Streets, locked down and evidently surviving the rigorous program there. Jermaine had talked to the counselor, and the conversation was very similar to the one Clay had had with Talmadge X. Washad had cleaned up, was a model patient, was in good health, and gathering self-esteem every day. The only bump in the road had been an episode early on when he sneaked out, got stoned, but came back and begged for forgiveness. Then he went almost four months with virtually no problems.
He was released from Clean Streets in April, and the next day he shot two men with a stolen gun. His victims appeared to have been selected at random. The first was a produce deliveryman going about his business near Walter Reed Hospital. There were words, then some pushing and shoving, then four shots to the head, and Washad was seen running away. The deliveryman was still in a coma. An hour later, six blocks away, Washad used his last two bullets on a petty drug dealer with whom he had a history. He was tackled by friends of the dealer who, instead of killing him themselves, held him for the police.
Jermaine had talked to Washad once, very briefly, in the courtroom during his initial appearance. “He was in denial,” Jermaine said. “Had this blank look on his face and kept telling me that he couldn’t believe he’d shot anybody. He said that was the old Washad, not the new one.”
Clay could think of only one other occasion in the past four years on which he called, or tried to call, Bennett the Bulldozer. That effort had ended dismally when he’d been unable to penetrate the layers of importance surrounding the great man. Mr. BVH wanted folks to think he spent his time “on the job,” which for him meant out among the earthmoving machinery where he could direct matters and smell up close the unlimited potential of Northern Virginia. In the family’s home there were large photos of him “on the job,” wearing his own custom-made and monogrammed hard hat, pointing here and there as land got leveled and more malls and shopping centers got built. He said he was too busy for idle chatter and claimed to hate telephones, yet always had a supply nearby to take care of business.
Truth was, Bennett played a lot of golf, and played it badly, according to the father of one of Clay’s law school classmates. Rebecca had let it slip more than once that her father played at least four rounds a week at Potomac, and his secret dream was to win the club championship.
Mr. Van Horn was a man of action with no patience for life behind a desk. He spent little time there, he claimed. The pit bull who answered “BVH Group” reluctantly agreed to forward Clay on to another secretary deeper inside the company. “Development” the second girl said rudely, as if the company had unlimited divisions. It took at least five minutes to get Bennett’s personal secretary on the phone. “He’s out of the office,” she said.
“How can I reach him?” Clay asked.
“He’s on the job.”
“Yes, I figured that. How can I reach him?”
“Leave a number and I’ll put it with the rest of his messages,” she said.
“Oh thank you,” Clay said, and left his office number.
Thirty minutes later Bennett returned the call. He sounded indoors, perhaps in the Men’s Lounge at the Potomac Country Club, double Scotch in hand, big cigar, a game of gin rummy in progress with the boys. “Clay, how in the world are you?” he asked, as if they hadn’t seen each other in months.
“Fine, Mr. Van Horn, and you?”
“Great. Enjoyed dinner last night.” Clay heard no roaring diesel engines in the background, no blasting.
“Oh yes, it was really nice. Always a pleasure,” Clay lied.
“What can I do for you, son?”
“Well, I want you to understand that I really appreciate your efforts to get me that job down in Richmond. I didn’t expect it, and you were very kind to intervene like that.” A pause as Clay swallowed hard. “But truthfully, Mr. Van Horn, I don’t see a move to Richmond in the near future. I’ve always lived in D.C. and this is home.”
Clay had many reasons to reject the offer. Staying in D.C. was mid-list. The overwhelming motive was toavoid having his life planned by Bennett Van Horn and getting locked into his debt.
“You can’t be serious,” Van Horn said.
“Yes, I’m very serious. Thanks, but no thanks.” The last thing Clay planned to do was to take any crap off this jerk. He loved the telephone at these moments; such a wonderful equalizer.
“A big mistake, son,” Van Horn said. “You just don’t see the big picture, do you?”
“Maybe I don’t. But I’m not so sure you do either.”
“You have a lot of pride, Clay, I like that. But you’re also very wet behind the ears. You gotta learn that life is a game of favors, and when someone tries to help you, then you take the favor. One day maybe you’ll get the chance to repay it. You’re making a mistake, here, Clay, one that I’m afraid could have serious consequences.”
“What kinds of consequences?”
“This could really affect your future.”
“Well, it’s my future, not yours. I’ll pick the next job, and the one after that. Right now I’m happy where I am.” “How can you be happy defending criminals all day long? I just don’t get it.” This was not a new conversation, and, if it followed the usual course, things would deteriorate quickly. “I believe you’ve asked that question before. Let’s not go there.”
“We’re talking about a huge increase in salary, Clay. More money, better work, you’ll be spending your time with solid folks, not a bunch of street punks. Wake up, boy!” There were voices in the background. Wherever Bennett was, he was playing for an audience.
Clay gritted his teeth and let the “boy” pass. “I’m not going to argue, Mr. Van Horn. I called to say no.”
“You’d better reconsider.”
“I’ve already reconsidered. No thanks.”
“You’re a loser, Clay, you know that. I’ve known it for some time. This just reaffirms it. You’re turning down a promising job so you can stay in a rut and work for minimum wage. You have no ambition, no guts, no vision.”
“Last night I was a hard worker—had broad shoulders, lots of talent, and I was as sharp as a tack.”
“I take it back. You’re a loser.”
“And I was well educated and even handsome.”
“I was lying. You’re a loser.”
Clay hung up first. He slammed the phone down with a smile, quite proud that he had so irritated the great Bennett Van Horn. He’d held his ground and sent a clear message that he would not be shoved around by those people.
He would deal with Rebecca later, and it would not be pleasant.
Clay’s third and final visit to D Camp was more dramatic than the first two. With Jermaine in the front seat and Rodney in the back, Clay followed a D.C. police car and parked again directly in front of the building. Two cops, both young and black and bored with subpoena work, negotiated their entrance. Within minutes they were in the midst of a tense confrontation with Talmadge X, Noland, and another counselor, a hothead named Samuel.
Partially because he had the only white face in the crowd, but primarily because he was the lawyer who’d obtained the subpoena, the three counselors focused their wrath on Clay. He could not have cared less. He would never see these people again.
“You saw the file, man!” Noland yelled at Clay.
“I saw the file that you wanted me to see,” Clay shot back. “Now I get the rest of it.”
“What’re you talking about?” Talmadge X asked.
“I want everything here with Tequila’s name written on it.”
“You can’t do that.”
Clay turned to the cop holding the papers and said, “Would you please read the subpoena?”
The cop held it high for all to see, and read: “All files pertaining to the admission, medical evaluation, medical treatment, substance abatement, substance abuse counseling, rehabilitation, and discharge of Tequila Watson. As ordered by the Honorable F. Floyd Sackman, D.C. Superior Court Criminal Division.”
“When did he sign it?” Samuel asked.
“‘Bout three hours ago.”
“We showed you everything,” Noland said to Clay.
“I doubt that. I can tell when a file has been rearranged.”
“Much too neat,” Jermaine added helpfully, finally.
“We ain’t fighting,” said the larger of the two cops, leaving little doubt that a good fight would be welcome. “Where do we start?”
“His medical evaluations are confidential,” Samuel said. “The doctor-patient privilege, I believe.”
It was an excellent point, but slightly off the mark. “The doctor’s files are confidential,” Clay explained. “But not the patient’s. I have a release and waiver signed by Tequila Watson allowing me to see all of his files, including the medicals.”
They began in a windowless room with mismatched filing cabinets lining the walls. After a few minutes, Talmadge X and Samuel disappeared and the tension began to ease. The cops pulled up chairs and accepted the coffee offered by the receptionist. She did not offer any to the gentlemen from the Office of the Public Defender.
After an hour of digging, nothing useful had been found. Clay and Jermaine left Rodney to continue the search. They had more cops to meet.
The raid on Clean Streets was very similar. The two lawyers marched into the front office with two policemen behind them. The Director was dragged out of a meeting. As she read the subpoena she mumbled something about knowing Judge Sackman and dealing with him later. She was very irritated, but the document spoke for itself. The same language—all files and papers relating to Washad Porter.
“This was not necessary,” she said to Clay. “We always cooperate with attorneys.”
“That’s not what I hear,” Jermaine said. Indeed, Clean Streets had a reputation for contesting even the most benign requests from OPD.
When she finished reading the subpoena for the second time, one of the cops said, “We’re not going to wait all day.”
She led them to a large office and fetched an assistant who began hauling in files. “When do we get these back?” she asked.
“When we’re finished with them,” Jermaine said.
“And who keeps them?”
“The Office of the Public Defender, under lock and key.”
The romance had begun at Abe’s Place. Rebecca had been in a booth with two girlfriends when Clay walked by en route to the men’s room. Their eyes met, and he actually paused for a second, unsure of exactly what to do next. The girlfriends soon got lost. Clay ditched his drinking pals. They sat together at the bar for two hours and talked nonstop. The first date was the next night. Sex within a week. She kept him away from her parents for two months.
Now, four years later, things were stale and she was under pressure to move on. It seemed fitting that they would end things at Abe’s Place.
Clay arrived first and stood at the bar in a crowd of Hill Rats draining their glasses, talking loud and fast and all at once about the crucial issues they had just spent long hours dealing with. He loved D.C., and he hated D.C. He loved its history and energy and importance. And he despised the countless minions who chased themselves in a frenetic game of who was more important. The nearest discussion was a passionate argument about wastewater treatment laws in the Central Plains.
Abe’s Place was nothing but a watering hole, strategically placed near Capitol Hill to catch the thirsty crowd headed for the suburbs. Great-looking women. Well dressed. Many of them on the prowl. Clay caught a few looks.
Rebecca was subdued, determined, and cold. They sneaked into a booth and both ordered strong drinks for the ride ahead. He asked some pointless questions about the subcommittee hearings that had begun, amid no fanfare, at least according to the Post. The drinks arrived and they dived in.
“I talked to my father,” she began.
“So did I.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were not taking the job in Richmond?”
“Why didn’t you tell me your father was pulling strings to get me a job in Richmond?”
“You should’ve told me.”
“I made it clear.”
“Nothing is clear with you.”
Both took a drink.
“Your father called me a loser. Is that the prevailing mood in your family?”
“At the moment, yes.”
“Shared by you?”
“I have my doubts. Someone has to be realistic here.”
There had been one serious intermission in the romance, a miserable failure at best. About a year earlier they had decided to let things cool off, to remain close friends, but to have a look around, perhaps play the field, make sure there was no one else out there. Barb had engineered the separation because, as Clay found out later, a very rich young man at the Potomac Country Club had just lost his wife to ovarian cancer. Bennett was a close personal friend of the family, etcetera, etcetera. He and Barb laid the trap, but the widower smelled the bait. One month on the fringes of the Van Horn family and the guy bought a place in Wyoming.
This, however, was a much more severe breakup. This was almost certainly the end. Clay took another drink and promised himself that whatever else was said, he would not, under any circumstances, say something that would hurt her. She could hit below the belt if she wanted. He would not.
“What do you want, Rebecca?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do. Do you want out?”
“I think so,” she said, and her eyes were instantly wet. “Is there someone else?”
Not yet anyway. Just give Barb and Bennett a few days.
“It’s just that you’re going nowhere, Clay,” she said. “You’re smart and talented, but you have no ambition.”
“Gee, it’s nice to know I’m smart and talented again. A few hours ago I was a loser.”
“Are you trying to be funny?”
“Why not, Rebecca? Why not have a laugh? It’s over, let’s face it. We love each other, but I’m a loser who’s going nowhere. That’s your problem. My problem is your parents. They’ll chew up the poor guy you marry.”
“The poor guy?”
“That’s right. I pity the poor guy you marry because your parents are insufferable. And you know it.”
“The poor guy I marry?” Her eyes were no longer wet. They were flashing now.
“Take it easy.”
“The poor guy I marry?”
“Look, I’ll make you an offer. Let’s get married right now. We quit our jobs, do a quickie wedding with no one present, sell everything we own, and fly to, say, Seattle or Portland, somewhere far away from here, and live on love for a while.”
“You won’t go to Richmond but you’ll go to Seattle?”
“Richmond is too damned close to your parents, okay?”
“Then we’ll find jobs.”
“What kinds of jobs? Is there a shortage of lawyers out West?”
“You’re forgetting something. Remember, from last night, that I’m smart, talented, well educated, sharp as a tack, and even handsome. Big law firms will chase me all over the place. I’ll make partner in eighteen months. We’ll have babies.”
“Then my parents will come.”
“No, because we won’t tell them where we are. And if they find us, we’ll change our names and move to Canada.”
Two more drinks arrived and they wasted no time shoving the old ones aside.
The light moment passed, and quickly. But it reminded both of why they loved each other and of how much they enjoyed their time together. There had been much more laughter than sadness, though things were changing. Fewer laughs. More senseless spats. More influence from her family.
“I don’t like the West Coast,” she said, finally.
“Then pick a spot,” Clay said, finishing the adventure. Her spot had been chosen for her, and she wasn’t getting too far from Mommy and Daddy.
Whatever she had brought to the meeting finally had to be said. A long pull on the drink, then she leaned forward and stared him directly in the eyes. “Clay, I really need a break.”
“Make it easy on yourself, Rebecca. We’ll do whatever you want.”
“How long a break?”
“I’m not negotiating, Clay.”
“Longer than that.”
“No, I won’t agree to it. Let’s go thirty days without a phone call, okay? Today is the seventh of May. Let’s meet here on June the sixth, right here at this very table, and we’ll talk about an extension.”
“Call it whatever you want.”
“Thank you. I’m calling it a breakup, Clay. The big bang. Splitsville. You go your way, I go mine. We’ll chat in a month, but I don’t expect a change. Things haven’t changed much in the past year.”
“If I’d said yes to that awful job in Richmond, would we be doing this split thing?”
“Does that mean something other than no?”
“So, it was all a setup, wasn’t it? The job, the ultimatum? Last night was just what I thought it was, an ambush. Take this job, boy, or else.”
She would not deny it. Instead, she said, “Clay, I’m tired of fighting, okay? Don’t call me for thirty days.”
She grabbed her purse and jumped to her feet. On the way out of the booth, she somehow managed to plant a dry and meaningless kiss near his right temple, but he did not acknowledge it. He did not watch her leave.
She did not look back.
Clay’s apartment was in an aging complex in Arlington. When he’d leased it four years earlier he had never heard of BVH Group. Later, he would learn that the company had built the place in the early eighties in one of Bennett’s first ventures. The venture went bankrupt, the complex got bought and sold several times, and none of Clay’s rent went to Mr. Van Horn. In fact, no member of that family knew Clay was living in something they’d built. Not even Rebecca.
He shared a two-bedroom unit with Jonah, an old pal from law school who’d flunked the bar exam four times before passing it and now sold computers. He sold them part-time and still earned more money than Clay, a fact that was always just under the surface.
The morning after the breakup, Clay fetched the Post from outside his door and settled down at the kitchen table with the first cup of coffee. As always, he went straight to the financial page for a quick and rewarding perusal of the dismal performance of BVHG. The stock barely traded and the few misguided investors who owned it were now willing to unload it for a mere $0.75 a share.
Who was the loser here?
There was not a single word about Rebecca’s crucial subcommittee hearings.
When he was finished with his little witch hunts, he went to the sports section and told himself it was time to forget the Van Horns. All of them.
At twenty minutes after seven, a time when he was usually eating a bowl of cereal, the phone rang. He smiled and thought, It’s her. Back already.
No one else would call so early. No one except the boyfriend or husband of whatever lady might be upstairs sleeping off a hangover with Jonah. Clay had taken several such calls over the years. Jonah adored women, especially those already committed to someone else. They were more challenging, he said.
But it wasn’t Rebecca and it wasn’t a boyfriend or a husband.
“Mr. Clay Carter,” a strange male voice said.
“Mr. Carter, my name is Max Pace. I’m a recruiter for law firms in Washington and New York. Your name has caught our attention, and I have two very attractive positions that might interest you. Could we have lunch today?”
Completely speechless, Clay would remember later, in the shower, that the thought of a nice lunch was, oddly, the first thing that crossed his mind.
“Uh, sure,” he managed to get out. Headhunters were part of the legal business, same as every other profession. But they rarely spent their time bottom-feeding in the Office of the Public Defender.
“Good. Let’s meet in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, say, noon?”
“Noon’s fine,” Clay said, his eyes focusing on a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Yes, this was real. It was not a dream.
“Thanks, I’ll see you then. Mr. Carter, I promise it will be worth your time.”
Max Pace hung up quickly, and for a moment Clay held the receiver, looked at the dirty dishes, and wondered who from his law school class was behind this practical joke. Or could it be Bennett the Bulldozer getting one last bit of revenge?
He had no phone number for Max Pace. He did not even have the presence of mind to get the name of his company.
Nor did he have a clean suit. He owned two, both gray, one thick and one thin, both very old and well used. His trial wardrobe. Fortunately, OPD had no office dress code, so Clay usually wore khakis and a navy blazer. If he was going to court, he would put on a tie and take it off as soon as he returned to the office.
In the shower, he decided that his attire did not matter. Max Pace knew where he worked and had a rough idea of how little he earned. If Clay showed up for the interview in frayed khakis, then he could demand more money.
Sitting in traffic on the Arlington Memorial Bridge, he decided it was his father. The old guy had been banished from D.C. but still had contacts. He’d finally hit the right button, called in one last favor, found his son a decent job. When Jarrett Carter’s high-profile legal career ended in a long and colorful flameout, he pushed his son toward the Office of the Public Defender. Now that apprenticeship was over. Five years in the trenches, and it was time for a real job.
What kinds of firms would be looking for him? He was intrigued by the mystery. His father hated the large corporate and lobbying outfits that were packed along Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues. And he had no use for the small-timers who advertised on buses and billboards and clogged up the system with frivolous cases. Jarrett’s old firm had ten lawyers, ten courtroom brawlers who won verdicts and were in demand.
“That’s where I’m headed,” Clay mumbled to himself as he glanced at the Potomac River beneath him.
After suffering through the most unproductive morning of his career, Clay left at eleven thirty and took his time driving to the Willard, now officially known as the Willard InterContinental Hotel. He was immediately met in the lobby by a muscled young man who looked vaguely familiar. “Mr. Pace is upstairs,” he explained. “He’d like to meet with you up there, if that’s all right.” They were walking toward the elevators.
“Sure,” Clay said. How he’d been recognized so easily he was not certain.
They ignored each other on the ride up. They stepped onto the ninth floor and Clay’s escort knocked on the door of the Theodore Roosevelt Suite. It opened quickly and Max Pace said hello with a businesslike smile. He was in his mid-forties, dark wavy hair, dark mustache, dark everything. Black denim jeans, black T-shirt, black pointed-toe boots. Hollywood at the Willard. Not exactly the corporate look Clay had been expecting. As they shook hands he had the first hint that things were not what they seemed.
With a quick glance, the bodyguard was sent away.
“Thanks for coming,” Max said as they walked into an oval-shaped room laden with marble.
“Sure.” Clay was absorbing the suite; luxurious leathers and fabrics, rooms branching off in all directions. “Nice place.”
“It’s mine for a few more days. I thought we could eat up here, order some room service, that way we can talk with complete privacy.”
“Fine with me.” A question came to mind, the first of many. What was a Washington headhunter doing renting a horribly expensive hotel suite? Why didn’t he have an office nearby? Did he really need a bodyguard?
“Anything in particular to eat?”
“They do a great capellini and salmon dish. I had it yesterday. Superb.”
“I’ll try it.” At that moment Clay would have tried anything; he was starving.
Max went to the phone while Clay admired the view of Pennsylvania Avenue below. When lunch was ordered, they sat near the window and quickly got past the weather, the Orioles latest losing streak, and the lousy state of the economy. Pace was glib and seemed at ease talking about anything for as long as Clay wanted. He was a serious weight lifter who wanted folks to know it. His shirt stuck to his chest and arms and he liked to pick at his mustache. Whenever he did so, his biceps flexed and bulged.
A stuntman maybe, but not a headhunter in the big leagues. Ten minutes into the chatter, and Clay said, “These two firms, why don’t you tell me a little about them?” “They don’t exist,” Max said. “I admit I lied to you. And I promise it’s the only time I will ever lie to you.” “You’re not a headhunter, are you?” “No.” “Then what?” “I’m a fireman.” “Thanks, that really clears things up.” “Let me talk for a moment. I have some explaining to do, and when I’m finished I promise you’ll be pleased.” “I suggest you talk real fast, Max, or I’m outta here.” “Relax, Mr. Carter. Can I call you Clay?” “Not yet.” “Very well. I’m an agent, a contractor, a freelancer with a specialty. I get hired by big companies to put out fires. They screw up, they realize their mistakes before the lawyers do, so they hire me to quietly enter the picture, tidy up their mess, and, hopefully, save them a bunch of money. My services are in great demand. My name may be Max Pace and it may be something else. It doesn’t matter. Who I am and where I come from are irrelevant. What’s important here is that I have been hired by a large company to put out a fire. Questions?”
“Too numerous to ask right now.”
“Hang on. I cannot tell you the name of my client now, perhaps never. If we reach an agreement, then I can tell you much more.
Here’s the story: My client is a multinational that manufactures pharmaceuticals. You’ll recognize the name. It makes a wide range of products, from common household remedies that are in your medicine cabinet right now to complex drugs that will fight cancer and obesity. An old, established blue-chip company with a stellar reputation. About two years ago, it came up with a drug that might cure addiction to opium- and cocaine-based narcotics. Much more advanced than methadone, which, though it helps many addicts, is addictive itself and is widely abused. Let’s call this wonder drug Tarvan—that was its nickname for a while. It was discovered by mistake and was quickly used on every laboratory animal available. The results were outstanding, but then it’s hard to duplicate crack addiction in a bunch of rats.”
“They needed humans,” Clay said.
Pace picked his mustache as his biceps rippled. “Yes. The potential for Tarvan was enough to keep the big suits awake at night. Imagine, take one pill a day for ninety days and you’re clean. Your craving for the drugs is gone. You’ve kicked cocaine, heroin, crack—just like that. After you’re clean, take a Tarvan every other day and you’re free for life. Almost an instant cure, for millions of addicts. Think of the profits—charge whatever you want for the drug because somebody somewhere will gladly pay for it. Think of the lives to be saved, the crimes that would not be committed, the families held together, the billions not spent trying to rehab addicts. The more the suits thought about how great Tarvan could be, the faster they wanted it on the market. But, as you say, they still needed humans.”
A pause, a sip of coffee. The T-shirt trembled with fitness. He continued.
“So they began making mistakes. They picked three places—Mexico City, Singapore, and Belgrade—places far outside the jurisdiction of the FDA. Under the guise of some vague international relief outfit, they built rehab clinics, really nice lockdown facilities where the addicts could be completely controlled. They picked the worst junkies they could find, got ‘em in, cleaned ‘em up, began using Tarvan, though the addicts had no idea. They really didn’t care—everything was free.”
“Human laboratories,” Clay said. The tale so far was fascinating, and Max the fireman had a flair for the narrative.
“Nothing but human laboratories. Far away from the American tort system. And the American press. And the American regulators. It was a brilliant plan. And the drug performed beautifully. After thirty days, Tarvan blunted the cravings for drugs. After sixty days, the addicts seemed quite happy to be clean, and after ninety days they had no fear of returning to the streets. Everything was monitored—diet, exercise, therapy, even conversations. My client had at least one employee per patient, and these clinics had a hundred beds each. After three months, the patients were turned loose, with the agreement that they would return to the clinic every other day for their Tarvan. Ninety percent stayed on the drug, and stayed clean. Ninety percent! Only two percent relapsed into addiction.”
“And the other eight percent?”
“They would become the problem, but my client didn’t know how serious it would be. Anyway, they kept the beds full, and over eighteen months about a thousand addicts were treated with Tarvan. The results were off the charts. My client could smell billions in profits. And there was no competition. No other company was in serious R&D for an anti-addiction drug. Most pharmaceuticals gave up years ago.”
“And the next mistake?”
Max paused for a second, then said, “There were so many.” A buzzer sounded, lunch had arrived. A waiter rolled it in on a cart and spent five minutes fussing with the setup. Clay stood in front of the window, staring at the top of the Washington Monument, but too deep in thought to see anything. Max tipped the guy and finally got him out of the room. “You hungry?” he asked. “No. Keep talking,” Clay took off his jacket and sat in the chair. “I think you’re getting to the good part.”
“Good, bad, depends on how you look at it. The next mistake was to bring the show here. This is where it starts to get real ugly. My client had deliberately looked at the globe and picked one spot for Caucasians, one spot for Hispanics, and one spot for Asians. Some Africans were needed.”
“We have plenty in D.C.”
“So thought my client.”
“You’re lying, aren’t you? Tell me you’re lying.”
“I’ve lied to you once, Mr. Carter. And I’ve promised not to do it again.”
Clay slowly got to his feet and walked around his chair to the window again. Max watched him closely. The lunch was getting cold, but neither seemed to care. Time had been suspended.
Clay turned around and said, “Tequila?”
Max nodded and said, “Yes.”
“And Washad Porter?”
A minute passed. Clay crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, facing Max, who was straightening his mustache. “Go ahead,” Clay said.
“In about eight percent of the patients, something goes wrong,” Max said. “My client has no idea what or how or even who might be at risk. But Tarvan makes them kill. Plain and simple. After about a hundred days, something turns somewhere in the brain, and they feel an irresistible impulse to draw blood. It makes no difference if they have a violent history. Age, race, sex, nothing distinguishes the killers.”
“That’s eighty dead people?”
“At least. But information is difficult to obtain in the slums of Mexico City.”
“How many here, in D.C.?”
It was the first question that made Max squirm, and he dodged it. “I’ll answer that in a few minutes. Let me finish my story. Would you sit down, please? I don’t like to look up when I talk.”
Clay took his seat, as directed.
“The next mistake was to circumvent the FDA.”
“My client has many big friends in this town. It’s an old pro at buying the politicians through PAC money, and hiring their wives and girlfriends and former assistants, the usual crap that big money does here. A dirty deal was cut. It included big shots from the White House, the State Department, the DEA, the FBI, and a couple of other agencies, none of whom put anything in writing. No money changed hands; there were no bribes. My client did a nice job of convincing enough people that Tarvan might just save the world if it could perform in one more laboratory. Since the FDA would take two to three years for approval, and since it has few friends in the White House anyway, the deal was cut. These big people, names now forever lost, found a way to smuggle Tarvan into a few, selected, federally funded rehab clinics in D.C. If it worked here, then the White House and the big folks would put relentless pressure on the FDA for quick approval.”
“When this deal was being cut, did your client know about the eight percent?”
“I don’t know. My client has not told me everything and never will. Nor do I ask a lot of questions. My job lies elsewhere. However, I suspect that my client did not know about the eight percent. Otherwise, the risks would have been too great to experiment here. This has all happened very fast, Mr. Carter.”
“You can call me Clay now.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I said there were no bribes. Again, this is what my client has told me. But let’s be realistic. The initial estimate of profits over the next ten years from Tarvan was thirty billion dollars. Profits, not sales. The initial estimate of tax dollars saved by Tarvan was about a hundred billion over the same period of time. Obviously, some money was going to change hands along the line.”
“But all that’s history?”
“Oh yes. The drug was pulled six days ago. Those wonderful clinics in Mexico City, Singapore, and Belgrade closed up in the middle of the night and all those nice counselors disappeared like ghosts. All experiments have been forgotten. All papers have been shredded. My client has never heard of Tarvan. We’d like to keep it that way.”
“I get the feeling that I’m entering the picture at this point.”
“Only if you want to. If you decline, then I am prepared to meet with another lawyer.”
“The deal, Clay, the deal. As of now, there have been five people in D.C. killed by addicts on Tarvan. One poor guy is in a coma, probably not going to make it. Washad Porter’s first victim. That’s a total of six. We know who they are, how they died, who killed them, everything. We want you to represent their families. You sign them up, we pay the money, everything is wrapped up quickly, quietly, with no lawsuits, no publicity, not the slightest fingerprint anywhere.”
“Why would they hire me?”
“Because they don’t have a clue that they have a case. As far as they know, their loved ones were victims of random street violence. It’s a way of life here. Your kid gets shot by a street punk, you bury him, the punk gets arrested, you go to the trial, and you hope he goes to prison for the rest of his life. But you never think about a lawsuit. You gonna sue the street punk? Not even the hungriest lawyer would take that case. They’ll hire you because you will go to them, tell them that they have a case, and say you can get four million bucks in a very quick, very confidential settlement.”
“Four million bucks,” Clay repeated, uncertain if it was too much or too little.
“Here’s our risk, Clay. If Tarvan is discovered by some lawyer, and, frankly, you’re the first one who picked up even a whiff of a scent, then there could be a trial. Let’s say the lawyer is a trial stud who picks him an all-black jury here in D.C.”
“Of course it’s easy. And let’s say this lawyer somehow gets the right evidence. Maybe some documents that didn’t get shredded. More likely someone working for my client, a whistle-blower. Anyway, the trial plays beautifully for the family of the deceased. There could be a huge verdict. Worse yet, at least for my client, the negative publicity would be horrendous. The stock price could collapse. Imagine the worst, Clay, paint your own nightmare, and believe me, these guys see it too. They did something bad. They know it, and they want to correct it. But they’re also trying to limit their damages here.”
“Four million is a bargain.”
“It is, and it isn’t. Take Ramon Pumphrey. Age twenty-two, working part-time, earning six thousand dollars a year. With a normal life expectancy of fifty-three more years, and assuming annual earnings of twice the minimum wage, the economic value of his life, discounted in today’s dollars, is about a half a million dollars. That’s what he’s worth.”
“Punitive damages would be easy.”
“Depends. This case would be very hard to prove, Clay, because there’s no paperwork. Those files you snatched yesterday will reveal nothing. The counselors at D Camp and Clean Streets had no idea what kind of drugs they were dispensing. The FDA never heard of Tarvan. My client would spend a billion on lawyers and experts and whoever else they need to protect them. Litigation would be a war because my client is so guilty!”
“Six times four is twenty-four million.”
“Add ten for the lawyer.”
“Yes, that’s the deal, Clay. Ten million for you.”
“You must be kidding.”
“Dead serious. Thirty-four total. And I can write the checks right now.”
“I need to go for a walk.”
“How about lunch?”
Drifting now, on foot in front of the White House. Lost for a moment in a pack of Dutch tourists taking pictures and waiting for the President to give them a wave, then a stroll through Lafayette Park where the homeless vanished during the day, then to a bench in Farragut Square where he ate a cold sandwich without tasting anything. All senses were dull, all thoughts were slow and confused. It was May but the air was not clear. The humidity did little to help him think.
He saw twelve black faces sitting in the box, angry folks who’d spent a week hearing the shocking history of Tarvan. He addressed them in his final summation: “They needed black lab rats, ladies and gentlemen, preferably Americans because this is where the money is. So they brought their miraculous Tarvan to our city.” The twelve faces hung on every word and nodded in agreement, anxious to retire and dispense justice.
What was the largest verdict in the history of the world? Did the Guinness Bookkeep tabs on such? Whatever it was, it would be his for the asking. “Just fill in the blank, ladies and gentlemen of the jury.”
The case would never go to trial; no jury would hear it. Whoever made Tarvan would spend a helluva lot more than thirty-four million to bury the truth. And they would hire all manner of thugs to break legs and steal documents and wire phones and burn offices, whatever it took to keep their secret away from those twelve angry faces.
He thought of Rebecca. What a different girl she would be wrapped in the luxury of his money. How quickly she would leave the worries of Capitol Hill and retire to a life of motherhood. She would marry him in three months, or as soon as Barb could get things planned.
He thought of the Van Horns, but, oddly, not as people he still knew. They were out of his life; he was trying to forget about them. He was free of those people, after four years of bondage. They would never again torment him.
He was about to be free of a lot of things.
An hour passed. He found himself at DuPont Circle, staring in the windows of the small shops facing Massachusetts Avenue; rare books, rare dishes, rare costumes; rare people everywhere. There was a mirror in one storefront, and he looked himself squarely in the eyes and wondered aloud if Max the fireman was real or a fraud or a ghost. He walked along the sidewalk, sick with the thought that a respected company could prey on the weakest people it could find, then seconds later thrilled with the prospect of more money than he ever dreamed of. He needed his father. Jarrett Carter would know exactly what to do.
Another hour passed. He was expected at the office, a weekly staff meeting of some variety. “Fire me,” he mumbled with a smile.
He browsed for a while in Kramerbooks, his favorite bookstore in D.C. Perhaps soon he could move from the paperback section to the hardbacks. He could fill his new walls with rows of books.
At exactly 3 P.M., on schedule, he walked into the rear of Kramer’s, into the cafe, and there was Max Pace, sitting alone, drinking lemonade, waiting. He was obviously pleased to see Clay again.
“Did you follow me?” Clay asked, sitting down and stuffing his hands in his pants pockets.
“Of course. Would you like something to drink?”
“No. What if I filed suit tomorrow, on behalf of the family of Ramon Pumphrey? That one case could be worth more than what you’re offering for all six.”
The question seemed to have been anticipated. Max had an answer ready. “You’d have a long list of problems. Let me give you the top three. First, you don’t know who to sue. You don’t know who made Tarvan, and there’s a chance no one will ever know. Second, you don’t have the money to fight with my client. It would take at least ten million dollars to mount a sustainable attack. Third, you’d lose the opportunity to represent all known plaintiffs. If you don’t say yes quickly, I’m prepared to go to the next lawyer on my list with the same offer. My goal is to have this wrapped up in thirty days.”
“I could go to a big tort firm.”
“Yes, and that would present more problems. First, you’d give away at least half of your fee. Second, it would take five years to reach an outcome, maybe longer. Third, the biggest tort firm in the country could easily lose this case. The truth here, Clay, may never be known.”
“It should be known.”
“Maybe, but I don’t care one way or the other. My job is to silence this thing; to adequately compensate the victims, then to bury it forever. Don’t be foolish, my friend.”
“We’re hardly friends.”
“True, but we’re making progress.”
“You have a list of lawyers?”
“Yes, I have two more names, both very similar to you.” “In other words, hungry.” “Yes, you’re hungry. But you’re also bright.” “So I’ve been told. And I have broad shoulders. The other two are here in the city?”
“Yes, but let’s not worry about them. Today is Thursday. I need an answer by Monday, at noon. Otherwise, I’ll go to the next guy.”
“Was Tarvan used in any other U.S. city?”
“No, just D.C.”
“And how many people were treated with it?”
“A hundred, give or take.”
Clay took a drink of the ice water a waiter had placed near him. “So there are a few more killers out there?” “Quite possibly. Needless to say, we’re waiting and watching with great anxiety.”
“Can’t you stop them?”
“Stop street killings in D.C.? No one could predict Tequila Watson would walk away from D Camp and within two hours kill a person. Nor Washad Porter. Tarvan gives no clue as to who might snap, nor when they might do so. There is some evidence that after ten days without the drug a person becomes harmless again. But it’s all speculative.”
“So the killings should stop in just a few days?”
“We’re counting on it. I’m hoping we can survive the weekend.”
“Your client should go to jail.”
“My client is a corporation.”
“Corporations can be held criminally responsible.”
“Let’s not argue that, okay? It gets us nowhere. We need to focus on you and whether or not you are up to the challenge.”
“I’m sure you have a plan.”
“Yes, a very detailed one.”
“I quit my present job, then what?”
Pace pushed the lemonade aside and leaned lower, as if the good stuff was about to be delivered. “You establish your own law firm. Rent space, furnish it nicely, and so on. You’ve got to sell this thing, Clay, and the only way to do so is to look and act like a very successful trial lawyer. Your potential clients will be brought into your office. They need to be impressed. You’ll need a staff and other lawyers working for you.
Perception is everything here. Trust me. I was a lawyer once. Clients want nice offices. They want to see success. You will be telling these people that you can obtain settlements of four million dollars.”
“Four is much too cheap.”
“Later, okay? You have to look successful; that’s my point.”
“I get the point. I grew up in a very successful law firm.”
“We know. That’s one of the things we like about you.”
“How tight is office space right now?”
“We’ve leased some footage on Connecticut Avenue. Would you like to see it?”
They left Kramer’s through the rear entrance and ambled along the sidewalk as if they were two old friends out for a stroll. “Am I still being followed?” Clay asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious. Doesn’t happen every day. I’d just like to know whether I’d get shot if I broke and ran.”
Pace actually chuckled at this. “It is rather absurd, isn’t it?”
“My client is very nervous, Clay.”
“With good reason.”
“They have dozens of people in the city right now, watching, waiting, praying there are no more killings.
And they’re hoping you’ll be the man to deliver the deal.”
“What about the ethical problems?”
“I can think of two—conflict of interest and solicitation of litigation?”
“Solicitation is a joke. Just look at the billboards.”
They stopped at an intersection. “Right now I represent the defendant,” Clay said as they waited. “How do I cross the street and represent his victim?”
“You just do it. We’ve researched the canons of ethics. It’s sticky, but there are no violations. Once you resign from OPD, you are free to open your own office and start accepting cases.”
“That’s the easy part. What about Tequila Watson? I know why he committed murder. I can’t hide that knowledge from him, or his next lawyer.”
“Being drunk or under the influence of drugs is not a defense to a crime. He’s guilty. Ramon Pumphrey is dead. You have to forget about Tequila.” They were walking again.
“I don’t like that answer,” Clay said.
“It’s the best I have. If you say no to me and continue to represent your client, it will be virtually impossible for you to prove he ever took a drug called Tarvan. You’ll know it, but you won’t be able to prove it. You’ll look foolish using that as a defense.”
“It may not be a defense, but it could be a mitigating circumstance.”
“Only if you can prove it, Clay. Here.” They were on Connecticut Avenue, in front of a long modern building with a three-story glass-and-bronze entrance.
Clay looked up and said, “The high-rent district.”
“Come on. You’re on the fourth floor, a corner office with a fantastic view.”
In the vast marble foyer, a directory listed a who’s who of D.C. law. “This is not exactly my turf,” Clay said as he read the names of the firms.
“It can be,” Max said.
“What if I don’t want to be here?”
“It’s up to you. We just happen to have some space. We’ll sublease it to you at a very favorable rent.”
“When did you lease it?”
“Don’t ask too many questions, Clay. We’re on the same team.”
Carpet was being laid and walls painted in Clay’s section of the fourth floor. Expensive carpet. They stood at the window of a large empty office and watched the traffic on Connecticut Avenue below. There were a thousand things to do to open a new firm, and he could only think of a hundred. He had a hunch that Max had all the answers.
“What do you think?” Max said.
“I’m not thinking too well right now. Everything’s a blur.”
“Don’t blow this opportunity, Clay. It will never come again. And the clock is ticking.”
“You can do your firm’s charter online, takes about an hour. Pick a bank, open the accounts. Letterhead and such can be done overnight. The office can be complete and furnished in a matter of days. By next Wednesday you can be sitting here behind a fancy desk running your own show.”
“How do I sign up the other cases?”
“Your friends Rodney and Paulette. They know the city and its people. Hire them, triple their salaries, give them nice offices down the hall. They can talk to the families. We’ll help.”
“You’ve thought of everything.”
“Yes. Absolutely everything. I’m running a very efficient machine, one that’s in a nearpanic mode. We’re working around the clock, Clay. We just need a point man.”
On the way down, the elevator stopped at the third floor. Three men and a woman stepped in, all nicely tailored and manicured and carrying thick expensive leather briefcases, along with the incurable air of importance inbred in big-firm lawyers. Max was so engrossed in his details that he did not see them. But Clay absorbed them—their manners, their guarded speech, their seriousness, their arrogance. These were big lawyers, important lawyers, and they did not acknowledge his existence. Of course, in old khakis and scuffed loafers he did not exactly project the image of a fellow member of the D.C. Bar.
That could change overnight, couldn’t it?
He said good-bye to Max and went for another long walk, this one in the general direction of his office. When he finally arrived, there were no urgent notes on his desk. The meeting he’d missed had evidently been missed by many others. No one asked where he had been. No one seemed to notice that he had been absent during the afternoon.
His office was suddenly much smaller, and dingier, and the furnishings were unbearably bleak. There was a stack of files on his desk, cases he could not now bring himself to think about. All of his clients were criminals anyway.
OPD policy required thirty days’ notice before quitting. The rule, however, was not enforced because it could not be enforced. People quit all the time with short notice or none whatsoever. Glenda would write a threatening letter. He would write a pleasant one back, and the matter would end.
The best secretary in the office was Miss Glick, a seasoned warrior who might just jump at the chance to double her salary and leave behind the dreariness of OPD. His office would be a fun place to work, he had already decided. Salaries and benefits and long vacations and maybe even profit-sharing.
He spent the last hour of the workday behind a locked door, plotting, stealing employees, debating which lawyers and which paralegals might fit.
He met Max Pace for the third time that day, for dinner, at the Old Ebbitt Grille, on Fifteenth Street, two blocks behind the Willard. To his surprise, Max began with a martini, and this loosened him up considerably. The pressure of the situation began melting under the assault of the gin, and Max became a real person. He had once been a trial lawyer in California, before something unfortunate ended his career out there. Through contacts he found his niche in the litigation marketplace as a fireman. A fixer. A highly paid agent who sneaked in, cleaned up the mess, and sneaked out without a trace. During the steaks and after the first bottle of Bordeaux, Max said there was something else waiting for Clay after Tarvan. “Something much bigger,” Max said, and he actually glanced around the restaurant to see if spies were listening.
“What?” Clay said after a long wait.
Another quick search for eavesdroppers, then, “My client has a competitor who’s put a bad drug on the market. No one knows it yet. Their drug is outperforming our drug. But my client now has reliable proof that the bad drug causes tumors. My client has been waiting for the perfect moment to attack.”
“Yes, as in a class-action suit brought by a young aggressive attorney who possesses the right evidence.”
“You’re offering me another case?”
“Yes. You take the Tarvan deal, wrap things up in thirty days, then we’ll hand you a file that will be worth millions.”
“More than Tarvan?”
Clay had thus far managed to choke down half his filet mignon without tasting anything. The other half would remain untouched. He was starving but had no appetite. “Why me?” he asked, more to himself than to his new friend.
“That’s the same question lottery winners ask. You’ve won the lottery, Clay. The lawyer’s lottery. You were smart enough to pick up the scent of Tarvan, and at the same time we were searching desperately for a young lawyer we could trust. We found each other, Clay, and we have this one brief moment in time in which you make a decision that will alter the course of your life. Say yes, and you will become a very big lawyer. Say no, and you lose the lottery.”
“I get the message. I need some time to think, to clear my head.”
“You have the weekend.”
“Thanks. Look, I’m taking a quick trip, leaving in the morning, coming back Sunday night. I really don’t think you guys need to follow me.”
“May I ask where?”
“Abaco, in the Bahamas.”
“To see your father?”
Clay was surprised, but then he should not have been. “Yes,” he said.
“For what purpose?”
“None of your business. Fishing.”
“Sorry, but we’re very nervous. I hope you understand.”
“Not really. I’ll give you my flights, just don’t follow me, okay?”
“You have my word.”
Great abaco island is a long narrow strip of land at the northern edge of the Bahamas, about a hundred miles east of Florida. Clay had been there once before, four years earlier when he’d scraped together enough money for the airfare. That trip had been a long weekend, one in which Clay had planned to discuss serious issues with his father and discard some baggage. It didn’t happen. Jarrett Carter was still too close to his disgrace and concerned primarily with drinking rum punch from noon on. He was willing to talk about anything but the law and lawyers. This visit would be different.
Clay arrived late in the afternoon on a very warm and very crowded Coconut Air turboprop. The gentleman at Customs glanced at his passport and waved him through. The taxi ride into Marsh Harbor took five minutes, on the wrong side of the road. The driver liked loud gospel music and Clay was not in the mood to argue. Nor was he in the mood to tip. He got out of the car at the harbor and went looking for his father.
Jarrett carter had once filed suit against the President of the United States, and though he lost the case, the experience taught him that every subsequent defendant was an easier target. He feared no one, in court or out. His reputation had been secured with one great victory—a large malpractice verdict against the President of the American Medical Association, a fine doctor who’d made a mistake in surgery. A pitiless jury in a conservative county had returned the verdict, and Jarrett Carter was suddenly a trial lawyer in demand. He picked the toughest cases, won most of them, and by the age of forty was a litigator with a wide reputation. He built a firm known for its bare-knuckle ways in the courtroom. Clay never doubted he would follow his father and spend his career in trials.
The wheels came off when Clay was in college. There was an ugly divorce that cost Jarrett dearly. His firm began to split with, typically, all partners suing each other. Distracted, Jarrett went two years without winning a trial, and his reputation suffered greatly. He made his biggest mistake when he and his accountant began cooking the books—hiding income, overstating expenses. When they got caught, the accountant killed himself but Jarrett did not. He was devastated though, and prison looked likely. Luckily, an old pal from law school was the U.S. Attorney in charge of the prosecution.
The details of their agreement would forever remain a dark secret. There was never an indictment, just an unofficial deal whereby Jarrett quietly closed his office, surrendered his license to practice law, and left the country. He fled with nothing, though those close to the affair felt he’d stashed something off-shore. Clay had seen no indication of any such loot.
So the great Jarrett Carter became a fishing boat captain in the Bahamas, which to some would sound like a wonderful life. Clay found him on the boat, a sixty-foot Wavedancer wedged into a slip in the crowded marina. Other charters were returning from a long day at sea. Sunburned fishermen were admiring their catches. Cameras were flashing. Bahamian deckhands scurried about unloading coolers of iced-down grouper and tuna. They hauled away bags of empty bottles and beer cans.
Jarrett was on the bow with a water hose in one hand and a sponge in the other. Clay watched him for a moment, not wanting to interrupt a man at work. His father certainly looked the part of the expatriate on the run—barefoot with dark leathery skin, a gray Hemingway beard, silver chains around his neck, long-billed fishing cap, ancient white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his biceps. If not for a slight beer belly, Jarrett would have looked quite fit.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” he yelled when he saw his son.
“Nice boat,” Clay said, stepping aboard. There was a firm handshake, but nothing more. Jarrett was not the affectionate type, at least not with his son. Several former secretaries had told different stories. He smelled of dried perspiration, salt water, stale beer—a long day at sea. His shorts and white shirt were dirty.
“Yeah, owned by a doctor in Boca. You’re looking good.”
“I’m healthy, that’s all that matters. Grab a beer.” Jarrett pointed to a cooler on the deck.
They popped tops and sat in the canvas chairs while a group of fishermen staggered along the pier. The boat rocked gently. “Busy day, huh?” Clay said.
“We left at sunrise, had a father and his two sons, big strong boys, all of them serious weight lifters. From someplace in New Jersey. I’ve never seen so many muscles on one boat. They were yanking hundred-pound sailfish out of the ocean like they were trout.”
Two women in their forties walked by, carrying small backpacks and fishing supplies. They had the same weary, sunburned look as all other fishermen. One was a little heavy, the other was not, but Jarrett observed them equally until they were out of sight. His gawking was almost embarrassing.
“Do you still have your condo?” Clay asked. The condo he’d seen four years earlier had been a run-down two-room apartment on the back side of Marsh Harbor.
“Yeah, but I live on the boat now. The owner doesn’t come over much, so I just stay here. There’s a sofa in the cabin for you.”
“You live on this boat?”
“Sure, it’s air-conditioned, plenty of room. It’s just me, you know, most of the time.”
They sipped beer and watched another group of fishermen stumble by.
“I’ve got a charter tomorrow,” Jarrett said. “You along for the ride?”
“What else would I do around here?”
“Got some clowns from Wall Street who want to leave at seven in the morning.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“I’m hungry,” Jarrett said, jumping to his feet and tossing the beer can in the trash. “Let’s go.”
They walked along the pier, past dozens of boats of all varieties. Small dinners were underway on the sailboats. The fishing captains were drinking beer and relaxing. All of them yelled something to Jarrett, who had a quick retort for each one. He was still barefoot. Clay walked a step behind him and thought to himself, That’s my father, the great Jarrett Carter, now a barefoot beach bum in faded shorts and an unbuttoned shirt, the king of Marsh Harbor. And a very unhappy man.
The Blue Fin bar was crowded and loud. Jarrett seemed to know everyone. Before they could find two stools together the bartender had tall glasses of rum punch waiting for them. “Cheers,” Jarrett said, touching his glass to Clay’s, then draining half of it. Serious fishing talk then followed with another captain and for a while Clay was ignored, which was fine with him. Jarrett finished the first rum punch and yelled for another. Then another.
A feast was getting organized at a large round table in one corner. Platters of lobster, crab, and shrimp were laid in the center of it. Jarrett motioned for Clay to follow, and they took seats at the table with a half dozen others. The music was loud, the conversation louder. Everyone around the table was working hard to get drunk, with Jarrett leading the charge.
The sailor to Clay’s right was an aging hippie who claimed to have dodged Vietnam and burned his draft card. He’d rejected all democratic ideas, including employment and income taxes. “Been bouncing around the Caribbean for thirty years,” he boasted with a mouthful of shrimp. “Feds don’t even know I exist.”
Clay suspected the Feds had little interest in whether the man existed, and the same was true of the rest of the misfits he was now dining with. Sailors, boat captains, full-time fishermen, all running from something—alimony, taxes, indictments, bad business deals. They fancied themselves as rebels, nonconformists, free spirits—modern-day pirates, much too independent to be constricted by the normal rules of society.
A hurricane had hit Abaco hard the summer before, and Captain Floyd, the loudest mouth at the table, was at war with an insurance company. This prompted a round of hurricane stories, which, of course, required another round of rum punch. Clay stopped drinking; his father did not. Jarrett became louder and drunker, as did everyone else at the table.
After two hours the food was gone but the rum punch kept coming. The waiter was hauling it over by the pitcher now, and Clay decided to make a quick exit. He left the table without being noticed and sneaked out of the Blue Fin.
So much for a quiet dinner with Dad.
He awoke in the dark to the sounds of his father stomping around the cabin below, whistling loudly, even singing a tune that remotely sounded like something from Bob Marley. “Wake up!” Jarrett yelled. The boat was rocking, but not so much from the water as from Jarrett’s noisy attack on the day.
Clay stayed on the short and narrow sofa for a moment, trying to get his bearings, and he recalled the legend of Jarrett Carter. He was always in the office before 6 A.M., often by five and sometimes by four. Six days a week, often seven. He missed most of Clay’s baseball and football games because he was simply too busy. He was never home before dark, and many times he didn’t come home at all. When Clay was older and worked in the law firm, Jarrett was famous for crushing young associates with piles of work. As his marriage deteriorated, he slept in his office, sometimes alone. Regardless of his bad habits, Jarrett always answered the bell, and always before anyone else. He had flirted with alcoholism, but managed to stop when the booze interfered with the work.
He didn’t need sleep in the glory days, and evidently some habits refused to die. He roared past the sofa singing loudly and smelling of a fresh shower and cheap aftershave. “Let’s go!” he shouted.
Breakfast was never discussed. Clay managed a quick, cold bird-bath in the tiny space called the shower. He was not claustrophobic, but the notion of living in the cramped confines of the boat made him dizzy. Outside the clouds were thick and the air was already warm. Jarrett was on the bridge, listening to the radio, frowning at the sky. “Bad news,” he said.
“What is it?”
“A big storm is moving in. They’re calling for heavy rain all day.”
“What time is it?”
“What time did you come in last night?”
“You sound like your mother. Coffee’s over there.” Clay poured strong coffee into a cup and sat by the wheel.
Jarrett’s face was covered by thick sunglasses, his beard, and the bill of his cap. Clay suspected the eyes would betray a nasty hangover, but no one would ever know it. The radio was alive with weather alerts and storm warnings from larger boats at sea. Jarrett and the other charter captains yelled back and forth to each other, relaying reports, making predictions, shaking their heads at the clouds. A half hour passed. No one was leaving the harbor.
“Dammit,” Jarrett said at one point. “A wasted day.”
Four young Wall Street honchos arrived, all in white tennis shorts, new running shoes, and new fishing hats. Jarrett saw them coming and met them at the stern. Before they could hop into the boat, he said, “Sorry, guys, no fishing today. Storm warnings.”
All four heads jerked upward to inspect the sky. A quick scan of the clouds led all four to the conclusion that weather forecasters were wrong. “You’re kidding,” one said.
“Just a little rain,” said another.
“Let’s give it a try,” said another.
“The answer is no,” Jarrett said. “Ain’t nobody fishing today.” “But we’ve paid for the charter,” “You’ll get your money back.” They reexamined the clouds, which were getting darker by the minute. Then thunder erupted, like distant cannons. “Sorry, fellas,” Jarrett said. “How about tomorrow?” one asked. “I’m booked. Sorry.” They shuffled away, certain that they’d been cheated out of their trophy marlins.
Now that the issue of labor had been resolved, Jarrett went to the cooler and grabbed a beer. “Want one?” he asked Clay.
“What time is it?”
“Time for a beer, I guess.”
“I haven’t finished my coffee yet.”
They sat in the fishing chairs on the deck and listened as the thunder grew louder. The marina was bustling as captains and deckhands secured their boats and unhappy fishermen hurried back down the piers, hauling coolers and bags filled with suntan oil and cameras. The wind was slowly picking up.
“Have you talked to your mother?” Jarrett asked.
The Carter family history was a nightmare, and both knew better than to explore it. “You still with OPD?”
Jarrett asked. “Yes, and I want to talk to you about that.” “How’s Rebecca?” “History, I think.” “Is that good or bad?” “Right now it’s just painful.” “How old are you now?” “Twenty-four years younger than you. Thirty-one.” “Right. You’re too young to get married.” “Thanks, Dad.” Captain Floyd came rushing along the pier and stopped at their boat. “Gunter’s here. Poker in ten minutes. Let’s go!” Jarrett jumped to his feet, suddenly a kid on Christmas morning. “Are you in?” he said to Clay. “In for what?” “Poker.” “I don’t play poker. Who’s Gunter?” Jarrett stretched and pointed. “See that yacht over there, a hundred-footer. It’s Gunter’s. He’s an old German fart with a billion bucks and a boatload of girls. Believe me, it’s a better place to ride out the storm.”
“Let’s go!” Captain Floyd yelled, walking away. Jarrett was climbing out of the boat, onto the pier. “Are you coming?” he snapped at Clay.
“Don’t be silly. It’ll be much more fun than sitting around here all day.” Jarrett was walking away, following Captain Floyd.
Clay waved him off. “I’ll read a book.”
They hopped in a dinghy with another rogue and splashed through the harbor until they disappeared behind the yachts. It was the last time Clay would see his father for several months. So much for advice. He was on his own.
The suite was in a different hotel. Pace was moving around D.C. as if spies were trailing him. After a quick hello and the offer of coffee, they sat down for business. Clay could tell that the pressure of burying the secret was working on Pace. He looked tired. His movements were anxious. His words came faster. The smile was gone. No questions about the weekend or the fishing down there in the Bahamas. Pace was about to cut a deal, either with Clay Carter or the next lawyer on his list. They sat at a table, each with a legal pad, pens ready to attack.
“I think five million per death is a better figure,” Clay began. “Sure they’re street kids whose lives have little economic value, but what your client has done is worth millions in punitive damages. So we blend the actual with the punitive and we arrive at five million.”
“The guy in the coma died last night,” Pace said.
“So we have six victims.”
“Seven. We lost another one Saturday morning.”
Clay had multiplied five million times six so many times he had trouble accepting the new figure. “Who? Where?”
“I’ll give you the dirty details later, okay? Let’s say it’s been a very long weekend. While you were fishing, we were monitoring nine-one-one calls, which on a busy weekend in this city takes a small army.”
“You’re sure it’s a Tarvan case?”
Clay scribbled something meaningless and tried to adjust his strategy. “Let’s agree on five million per death,” he said.
Clay had convinced himself flying home from Abaco that it was a game of zeroes. Don’t think of it as real money, just a string of O’s after some numbers. For the time being, forget what the money can buy. Forget the dramatic changes about to come. Forget what a jury might do years down the road. Just play the zeroes. Ignore the sharp knife twisting in your stomach. Pretend your guts are lined with steel. Your opponent is weak and scared, and very rich and very wrong.
Clay swallowed hard and tried to speak in a normal tone. “The attorneys’ fees are too low,” he said.
“Oh really?” Pace said and actually smiled. “Ten million won’t cut it?”
“Not for this case. Your exposure would be much greater if a big tort firm were involved.”
“You catch on quick, don’t you?”
“Half will go for taxes. The overhead you have planned for me will be very expensive. I’m expected to put together a real law firm in a matter of days, and do so in the high-rent district. Plus, I want to do something for Tequila and the other defendants who are getting shafted in all this.”
“Just give me a figure.” Pace was already scribbling something down.
“Fifteen million will make the transition smoother.”
“Are you throwing darts?”
“No, just negotiating.”
“So you want fifty million—thirty-five for the families, fifteen for you. Is that it?”
“That should do it.”
“Agreed.” Pace thrust a hand over and said, “Congratulations.”
Clay shook it. He could think of nothing to say but “Thanks.”
“There is a contract, with some details and stipulations.” Max was reaching into a briefcase.
“What kinds of stipulations?”
“For one, you can never mention Tarvan to Tequila Watson, his new lawyer, or to any of the other criminal defendants involved in this matter. To do so would be to severely compromise everything. As we discussed earlier, drug addiction is not a legal defense to a crime. It could be a mitigating circumstance during sentencing, but Mr. Watson committed murder and whatever he was taking at the time is not relevant to his defense.”
“I understand this better than you.”
“Then forget about the murderers. You now represent the families of their victims. You’re on the other side of the street, Clay, so accept it. Our deal will pay you five million up front, another five in ten days, and the remaining five upon final completion of all settlements.
You mention Tarvan to anyone and the deal is off. You breach our trust with the defendants, and you’ll lose one helluva lot of money.”
Clay nodded and stared at the thick contract now on the table.
“This is basically a confidentiality agreement,” Max continued, tapping the paperwork. “It’s filled with dark secrets, most of which you’ll have to hide from your own secretary. For example, my client’s name is never mentioned. There’s a shell corporation now set up in Bermuda with a new division in the Dutch Antilles that answers to a Swiss outfit headquartered in Luxembourg. The paper trail begins and ends over there and no one, not even me, can follow it without getting lost. Your new clients are getting the money; they’re not supposed to ask questions. We don’t think this will be a problem. For you, you’re making a fortune. We don’t expect sermons from a higher moral ground. Just take your money, finish the job, everybody will be happier.”
“Just sell my soul?”
“As I said, skip the sermons. You’re doing nothing unethical.
You’re getting huge settlements for clients who have no clue that they are due anything. That’s not exactly selling your soul. And what if you get rich? You won’t be the first lawyer to get a windfall.”
Clay was thinking about the first five million. Due immediately.
Max filled in some blanks deep in the contract, then slid it across the table. “This is our preliminary deal. Sign it, and I can then tell you more about my client. I’ll get us some coffee.”
Clay took the document, held it as it grew heavier, then tried to read the opening paragraph. Max was on the phone to room service.
He would resign immediately, on that day, from the Office of the Public Defender and withdraw as counsel of record for Tequila Watson. The paperwork had already been done and was attached to the contract. He would charter his own law firm directly; hire sufficient staff, open bank accounts, etcetera. A proposed charter for the Law Offices of J. Clay Carter II was also attached, all boilerplate. He would, as soon as practicable, contact the seven families and begin the process of soliciting their cases.
Coffee arrived and Clay kept reading. Max was on a cell phone across the suite, whispering in a hushed, serious voice, no doubt relaying the latest events to his superior. Or perhaps he was monitoring his network to see if another Tarvan murder had occurred. For his signature on page eleven, Clay would receive, by immediate wire, the sum of $5 million, a figure that had just been neatly written in by Max. His hands shook when he signed his name, not from fear or moral uncertainty, but from zero shock.
When the first round of paperwork was complete, they left the hotel, and climbed into an SUV driven by the same bodyguard who’d met Clay in the lobby of the Willard. “I suggest we get the bank account opened first,” Max said softly but firmly. Clay was Cinderella going to the ball, just along for the ride because it was all a dream now.
“Sure, a good idea,” he managed to say.
“Any bank in particular?” Pace asked.
Clay’s current bank would be shocked to see the type of activity that was coming. His checking account there had barely managed to remain above the minimum for so long that any significant deposit would set off alarms. A lowly bank manager had once called to break the news that a small loan was past due. He could almost hear a big shot upstairs gasping in disbelief as he gawked at a printout.
“I’m sure you have one in mind,” Clay said.
“We have a close relationship with Chase. The wires will run smoother there.”
Then Chase it would be, Clay thought with a smile. Anything to speed along the wires.
“Chase Bank, on Fifteenth,” Max said to the driver, who was already headed in that direction. Max pulled out more papers. “Here’s the lease and sublease on your office. It’s prime space, as you know, and certainly not cheap. My client used a straw company to lease it for two years at eighteen thousand a month. We can sublease it to you for the same rent.”
“That’s four hundred thousand bucks, give or take.”
Max smiled and said, “You can afford it, sir. Start thinking like a trial lawyer with money to burn.”
A vice president of some strain had been reserved. Max asked for the right person and red carpets were rolled down every hallway. Clay took charge of his affairs and signed all the proper documents.
The wire would be received by five that afternoon, according to the veep.
Back in the SUV, Max was all business. “We took the liberty of preparing a corporate charter for your law firm,” he said, handing over more documents.
“I’ve already seen this,” Clay said, still thinking about the wire transfer.
“It’s pretty basic stuff—nothing sensitive. Do it online. Pay two hundred dollars by credit card, and you’re in business. Takes less than an hour. You can do it from your desk at OPD.”
Clay held the papers and looked out a window. A sleek burgundy Jaguar XJ was sitting next to them at a red light, and his mind began to wander. He tried to concentrate on business, but he simply couldn’t.
“Speaking of OPD,” Max was saying, “how do you want to handle those folks?”
“Let’s do it now.”
“M at Eighteenth,” Max said to the driver, who appeared to miss nothing. Back to Clay he said, “Have you thought about Rodney and Paulette?”
“Yes. I’ll talk to them today.”
“Glad you approve.”
“We also have some people who know the city well.
They can help. They’ll work for us, but your clients won’t know it.” He nodded at the driver as he said this. “We can’t relax, Clay, until all seven families have become your clients.”
“Seems as though I’ll need to tell Rodney and Paulette everything.”
“Almost everything. They will be the only people in your firm who’ll know what’s happened. But you can never mention Tarvan or the company, and they’ll never see the settlement agreements. We’ll prepare those for you.”
“But they have to know what we’re offering.”
“Obviously. They have to convince the families to take the money. But they can never know where the money is coming from.”
“That’ll be a challenge.”
“Let’s get them hired first.”
If anyone at OPD missed Clay it wasn’t obvious. Even the reliable Miss Glick was preoccupied with the phones and had no time for her usual expression of “Where have you been?” There were a dozen messages on his desk, all irrelevant now because nothing mattered anymore. Glenda was at a conference in New York, and, as usual, her absence meant longer lunches and more sick days around OPD. He quickly typed a letter of resignation and e-mailed it to her. With the door shut, he filled two briefcases with his personal office junk and left behind old books and other things he owned and once thought had sentimental value. He could always come back, though he knew he would not.
Rodney’s desk was in a tiny workspace he shared with two other paralegals. “Got a minute?” Clay said.
“Not really,” Rodney said, barely looking up from a pile of reports.
“There’s a breakthrough in the Tequila Watson case. It’ll just take a minute.”
Rodney reluctantly stuck a pen behind an ear and followed Clay back to his office, where the shelves had been cleared, and the door was locked behind them. “I’m leaving,” Clay began, almost in a whisper.
They talked for almost an hour, while Max Pace waited impatiently in the SUV, parked illegally at the curb. When Clay emerged with two bulky briefcases, Rodney was with him, also laden with a briefcase and a stuffed paper shopping bag. He went to his car and disappeared. Clay jumped in the SUV.
“He’s in,” Clay said.
“What a surprise.”
At the office on Connecticut Avenue, they met a design consultant who’d been retained by Max. Clay was given his choice of rather expensive furniture that happened to be in the warehouse and thus deliverable within twenty-four hours. He pointed at various designs and samples, all on the higher end of the price scale. He signed a purchase order.
A phone system was being installed. A computer consultant arrived after the decorator left. At one point, Clay was spending money so fast he began to ask himself if he’d squeezed Max for enough.
Shortly before 5 P.M., Max emerged from a freshly painted office and stuck his cell phone in his pocket. “The wire is in,” he said to Clay.
“That’s it. You’re now a multimillionaire.”
“I’m outta here,” Clay said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Where are you going?”
“Don’t ever ask that question again, okay? You are not my boss. And stop following me. We have our deal.”
He walked along Connecticut for a few blocks, jostling with the rush-hour crowd, smiling goofily to himself, his feet never touching the concrete. Down Seventeenth until he saw the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument, where hordes of high school groups clustered for photos. He turned right and walked through Constitution Gardens and past the Vietnam Memorial. Beyond it, he stopped at a kiosk, bought two cheap cigars, lit one, and continued to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he sat for a long time and gazed down The Mall to the Capitol far away.
Clear thinking was impossible. One good thought was immediately overwhelmed and pushed out by another. He thought of his father living on a borrowed fishing boat, pretending it was the good life but struggling to scrape out a living; fifty-five years old with no future whatsoever; drinking heavily to escape his misery. He puffed on the cigar and mentally shopped for a while, and just for the fun of it made a tally of how much he would spend if he bought everything he wanted—a new wardrobe, a really nice car, a stereo system, some travel. The total was but a small subtraction from his fortune. What kind of car was the big question. Successful but not pretentious.
And of course he would need a new address. He’d look around Georgetown for a quaint old town house. He’d heard tales of some of them selling for six million, but he didn’t need that much. He was confident he could find something in the million-dollar range.
A million here. A million there.
He thought of Rebecca, though he tried not to dwell on her. For the past four years she had been the only friend with whom he’d shared everything. Now there was no one to talk to. Their breakup was five days old, and counting, but so much had happened that he’d had little time to think about her.
“Forget the Van Horns,” he said aloud, blowing a thick cloud of smoke.
He’d make a large gift to the Piedmont Fund, designating it for the fight to preserve the natural beauty of Northern Virginia. He’d hire a paralegal to do nothing but track the latest land grabs and proposed developments of BVH Group, and wherever possible he’d sneak around and hire lawyers for small landowners unaware that they were about to become neighbors of Bennett the Bulldozer. Oh, what fun he would have on the environmental front!
Forget those people.
He lit the second cigar and called Jonah, who was at the computer store putting in a few hours. “I have a table at Citronelle, eight o’clock,” Clay said. It was, at that moment, everybody’s favorite French restaurant in D.C.
“Right,” Jonah said.
“I’m serious. We’re celebrating. I’m changing jobs. I’ll explain later. Just be there.”
“Can I bring a friend?”
Jonah went nowhere without the girl-of-the-week. When Clay moved out he would move out alone, and he would not miss Jonah’s bedroom heroics. He called two other law school pals, but both had kids and obligations, and it was pretty short notice.
Dinner with Jonah. Always an adventure.
In his shirt pocket he had brand-new business cards, the ink barely dry, delivered fresh that morning from an overnight printing firm, declaring him to be the Chief Paralegal of the Law Offices of J. Clay Carter II, Rodney Albritton, Chief Paralegal, as if the firm had an entire division of paralegals under his control. It did not, but it was growing at an impressive rate.
If he’d had the time to purchase a new suit, he probably wouldn’t have worn it on his first mission. The old uniform would work better—navy blazer, loosened tie, faded jeans, scuffed black Army boots. He was still working on the streets and he needed to look like it. He found Adelfa Pumphrey at her station, staring at a wall of closed-circuit monitors but seeing nothing.
Her son had been dead for ten days.
She looked at him and pointed to a clipboard where all guests were expected to sign in. He pulled out one of his cards and introduced himself. “I work for a lawyer downtown,” he said.
“That’s nice,” she said softly, without so much as glancing at the card.
“I’d like to talk to you for a couple of minutes.”
“About your son, Ramon.”
“What about him?”
“I know some things about his death that you don’t.”
“Not one of my favorite subjects right now.”
“I understand that, and I’m sorry to be talking about it. But you’ll like what I got to say, and I’ll be quick.”
She glanced around. Way down the hall was another uniformed guard, standing by a door, half-asleep. “I can take a break in twenty minutes,” she said. “Meet me in the canteen, one floor up.”
As Rodney walked away he told himself that, yes, he was in fact worth every penny of his fat new salary. A white guy who had approached Adelfa Pumphrey with such a delicate matter would still be standing before her, nervous, shaking, grasping for words because she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t trust him, wouldn’t believe anything he said, would have no interest in anything he had to say, at least not within the first fifteen minutes of conversation.
But Rodney was smooth and smart and black and she wanted to talk to someone.
Max Pace’s file on Ramon Pumphrey was brief but thorough; there wasn’t much to cover. His alleged father had never married his mother. The man’s name was Leon Tease, and he was currently serving a thirty-year sentence in Pennsylvania for armed robbery and attempted murder. Evidently, he and Adelfa had lived together just long enough to produce two children—Ramon and a slightly younger brother named Michael. Another brother had been sired later by a man Adelfa married and then divorced. She was currently unmarried and trying to raise, in addition to her two remaining sons, two young nieces who belonged to a sister who’d been sent to prison for selling crack.
Adelfa earned $21,000 working for a private company hired to guard low-risk office buildings in D.C. From her apartment in a project in the North East, she commuted downtown each day by subway.
She did not own a car and had never learned to drive. She had a checking account with a very low balance and two credit cards that kept her in trouble and ruined any chance of a good credit rating. She had no criminal record. Other than work and family, her only outside interest appeared to be the Old Salem Gospel Center not far from where she lived.
Since they had both grown up in the city, they played “Who-do-you-know?” for a few minutes. Where did you go to school? Where were your parents from? They found a couple of tenuous connections. Adelfa worked on a diet cola. Rodney had black coffee. The canteen was half-filled with low-level bureaucrats prattling about everything but the monotonous work they were supposed to be doing.
“You wanted to talk about my son,” she said after a few minutes of awkward chitchat. Her voice was soft and low, strained, still suffering.
Rodney fidgeted slightly and leaned in lower. “Yes, and, again, I’m sorry to talk about him. I got kids. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
“You’re right about that.”
“I work for a lawyer here in town, young guy, very smart, and he’s on to something that can get you some big money.”
The idea of big money didn’t seem to faze her.
Rodney kept going. “The boy that killed Ramon had just walked out of a drug treatment facility where he’d been locked down for almost four months. He was a junkie, a street kid, not much of a chance in life. They’d been giving him some drugs as part of his treatment. We think one of the drugs made him crazy enough to pick a random victim and start shooting.”
“It wasn’t a drug deal that went bad?”
“No, not at all.”
Her eyes drifted away, then became moist, and for a moment Rodney could see a breakdown coming. But then she looked at him and said, “Big money? How much?”
“More than a million bucks,” he said with a straight poker face, one he’d rehearsed a dozen times because he doubted seriously if he could deliver that punch line without going wild-eyed.
No visible reaction from Adelfa, at least not at first. Another wayward gaze around the room. “You jivin’ me?” she said.
“Why would I do that? I don’t know you. Why would I walk in here and feed you a line? There’s money on the table, big money. Big corporate drug money that somebody wants you to take and keep quiet.”
“What big company?”
“Look, I’ve told you everything I know. My job is to meet you, tell you what’s goin’ on, and to invite you to come see Mr. Carter, the lawyer I work for. He’ll explain everything.”
“Yep. Good dude. I’ve worked with him for five years. You’ll like him, and you’ll like what he has to say.”
The moist eyes had cleared. She shrugged and said, “Okay.”
“What time you get off?” he asked.
“Our office is on Connecticut, fifteen minutes from here. Mr. Carter will be waiting on you. You got my card.”
She looked at the card again.
“And one very important thing,” Rodney said, almost in a whisper. “This’ll work only if you keep quiet. It’s a deep secret. You do what Mr. Carter advises you to do, and you’ll get more money than you ever dreamed of. But if word gets out, then you’ll get nothing.”
Adelfa was nodding.
“And you need to start thinking about moving.”
“As in a new house in a new town where nobody knows you and nobody knows you got lots of money. Pretty house on a safe street where kids can ride their bikes on the sidewalks, no drug dealers, no gangs, no metal detectors at school. No kinfolk wanting your money. Take some advice from somebody who grew up like you. Move. Leave this place. You take this money back to Lincoln Towers and they’ll eat you alive.”
Clay’s raid on OPD had so far netted Miss Glick, the very efficient secretary who hesitated only slightly at the prospect of having her salary doubled, and his old pal Paulette Tullos who, though she was well maintained by her absent Greek husband, nonetheless jumped at the chance to earn $200,000 a year as opposed to a mere $40,000; and, of course, Rodney. The raid had provoked two urgent and as of yet unanswered phone calls from Glenda, and a whole series of pointed e-mails, also being ignored, at least for now. Clay vowed to himself to meet with Glenda in the very near future and offer some lame reason for stealing her good people.
To counterbalance the good people, he had hired his roommate, Jonah, who, though he had never practiced law—he’d passed the bar exam on his fifth attempt—was a friend and confidant who Clay hoped might develop some legal skills. Jonah had a big mouth and liked to drink and so Clay had been very sketchy with the details of his new firm. He planned to gradually tell Jonah more and more, but he started slow. Smelling money from somewhere, Jonah had negotiated a starting salary of $90,000, which was less than that of the Chief Paralegal, though no one at the firm knew what the others were earning. The new CPA firm down on the third floor was handling the books and payroll.
Clay had given Paulette and Jonah the same careful explanation he had given to Rodney. To wit: He had stumbled upon a conspiracy involving a bad drug—the name of the drug and the name of the company would never be disclosed to them or to anyone else. He had made contact with the company. A quick deal was struck. Serious money was changing hands. Secrecy was crucial. Just do your jobs and don’t ask a lot of questions. We’re going to build a nice little law firm where we make lots of money and have some fun along the way.
Who could say no to such an offer?
Miss Glick greeted Adelfa Pumphrey as if she were the very first client to ever enter the shiny new law firm, which in fact she was. Everything smelled new—the paint, the carpet, the wallpaper, the Italian leather furniture in the reception area. Miss Glick brought Adelfa water in crystal that had never been used before, then returned to her task of arranging her new glass-and-chrome desk. Paulette was next. She took Adelfa into her office for the preliminary workup, which was more than semiserious girl talk. Paulette took a bunch of notes about family and background, the same info Max Pace had already prepared. She said the right words to a grieving mother.
So far everyone had been black, and Adelfa was reassured by this.
“You may have seen Mr. Carter before,” Paulette said, working her way through the rough script she and Clay had put together. “He was in court when you were there. He was appointed by the Judge to represent Tequila Watson, but he got rid of the case. That’s how he got involved with this settlement.”
Adelfa looked as confused as they’d expected her to be.
Paulette pressed on. “He and I worked together for five years in the Office of the Public Defender. We quit a few days ago and opened this firm. You’ll like him. He’s a very nice guy and a good lawyer. Honest, and loyal to his clients.”
“Y’all just opened up?”
“Yes. Clay has been wanting to have his own firm for a long time. He asked me to join him. You’re in very good hands, Adelfa.”
The confusion had turned to bewilderment.
“Any questions?” Paulette asked.
“I got so many questions I don’t know where to start.”
“I understand. Here’s my advice to you. Don’t ask a lot of questions. There’s a big company out there that’s willing to pay you a lot of money to settle a potential lawsuit you might have arising from the death of your son. If you hesitate and ask questions, you could easily end up with nothing. Just take the money, Adelfa. Take it and run.”
When it was finally time to meet Mr. Carter, Paulette led her down the hall to a large office in the corner. Clay had been pacing nervously for an hour, but he greeted her calmly and welcomed her to the firm. His tie was loose, his sleeves rolled up, his desk covered with files and papers as if he were litigating on many fronts. Paulette hung around until the ice was completely broken, then, according to the plan, excused herself.
“I recognize you,” Adelfa said.
“Yes, I was in court for the arraignment. The Judge dumped that case on me, but I got rid of it. Now I’m working the other side of the street.”
“You’re probably confused by all this.”
“It’s actually quite simple.” Clay straddled the edge of his desk and looked down at her hopelessly perplexed face. He locked his arms across his chest and tried to give the appearance that he’d done this before. He launched into his version of the big bad drug company narrative, and while it was more drawn out than Rodney’s and more animated, it told the same story without revealing much in the way of new facts. Adelfa sat in a sunken leather chair, hands folded across the lap of her uniform pants, eyes watching, never blinking, not sure what to believe.
As he wrapped up his story he said, “They want to pay you a bunch of money, right now.”
“Who, exactly, is they?”
“The drug company.”
“Does it have a name?”
“It has several, and several addresses, and you’ll never know its true identity. That’s part of the deal. We, you and I, lawyer and client, must agree to keep everything a secret.”
She finally blinked, then recrossed her hands and shifted her weight. Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the fine new Persian rug that consumed half the office. “How much money?” she asked softly.
“Five million dollars.”
“Good Lord,” she managed to say before she broke down. She covered her eyes and sobbed and for a long time made no effort to stop. Clay handed her a tissue from a box.
The settlement money was sitting in Chase Bank, next to Clay’s, just waiting to be distributed. Max’s paperwork was on the desk, a pile of it. Clay walked her through it, explaining that the money would be transferred first thing the next morning, as soon as the bank opened. He flipped pages and pages of documents, hitting the high points of the legalities, collecting her signatures where necessary. Adelfa was too stunned to say much. “Trust me,” he said more than once. “If you want the money, sign right there.”
“I feel like I’m doing something wrong,” she said at one point.
“No, the wrong has been done by someone else. You’re the victim here, Adelfa, the victim and now the client.”
“I need to talk to someone,” she said once as she signed again.
But there was no one to talk to. A boyfriend came and went, according to Max’s intelligence, and he was not the type to seek advice from. She had brothers and sisters scattered from D.C. to Philadelphia, but they were certainly no more sophisticated than Adelfa. Both parents were dead.
“That would be a mistake,” Clay said delicately. “This money will improve your life if you keep it quiet. If you talk about it, then it will destroy you.”
“I’m not good at handling money.”
“We can help. If you’d like, Paulette can monitor things for you and give advice.”
“I’d like that.”
“That’s what we’re here for.”
Paulette drove her home, a slow ride through rush-hour traffic. She told Clay later that Adelfa said very little, and when they arrived at the housing project she did not want to get out. So they sat there for thirty minutes, talking quietly about her new life. No more welfare, no more gunshots in the night. No more prayers to God to protect her children. Never again would she worry about keeping her kids safe the way she had worried about Ramon.
No more gangs. No more bad schools.
She was crying when she finally said good-bye.
The black Porsche Carrera rolled to a stop under a shade tree on Dumbarton Street. Clay got out and for a few seconds was able to ignore his newest toy, but after a quick glance in all directions he turned and admired it once again. His for three days now, and he still couldn’t believe he owned it. Get used to it, he kept telling himself, and he could manage to act as though it were just another car, nothing special, but the sight of it after even a brief absence still made his pulse quicken. “I’m driving a Porsche,” he would say to himself, out loud, as he buzzed through traffic like a Formula One driver.
He was eight blocks from the main campus of Georgetown University, the place he’d spent four years as a student before moving on to its law school near Capitol Hill. The town houses were historic and picturesque; the small lawns manicured; the streets covered by ancient oaks and maples. The busy shops and bars and restaurants on M Street were just two blocks to the south, easy walking distance. He had jogged these streets for four years, and he’d spent many long nights with his pals prowling the hangouts and pubs along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street.
Now he was about to live here.
The town house that held his attention was on the market for $1.3 million. He’d found it cruising through Georgetown two days earlier. There was another on N Street and another on Volta, all within a stone’s throw of each other. He was determined to buy one before the end of the week.
The one on Dumbarton, his first choice, had been built in the 1850s and carefully preserved ever since. Its brick facade had been painted many times and was now a faded bluish color. Four levels, including a basement. The real estate agent said it had been immaculately maintained by a retired couple who had once entertained the Kennedys and the Kissingers and just fill in the blanks with all the other names one might want. Washington Realtors could drop names faster than those in Beverly Hills, especially when peddling property in Georgetown.
Clay was fifteen minutes early. The house was empty; its owners were now doing time in assisted living, according to the agent. He walked through a gate beside the house and admired the small garden in the back. There was no pool and no room for one; real estate was precious in Georgetown. There was a patio with wrought-iron furniture and weeds creeping in from the flower beds. Clay would have a few hours to spare for the gardening, but not much.
Perhaps he would just hire a lawn maintenance company.
He loved the house and the ones next to it. He loved the street, the coziness of the neighborhood, everybody living near each other but respecting each other’s privacy. Sitting on the front steps, he decided he would offer one million even, then negotiate hard, bluff and walk away, and in general have a great time watching the Realtor run back and forth, but in the end he would be perfectly willing to pay the asking price.
Staring at the Porsche, he drifted away again to his fantasy world where money was growing on trees and he could buy anything he wanted. Italian suits, German sports cars, Georgetown real estate, downtown office space, and what was next? He’d been thinking about a boat for his father, a larger one of course, to generate more revenue. He could incorporate a small charter business in the Bahamas, depreciate the boat, write off most of its costs, thus allowing his father to make a decent living. Jarrett was dying down there, drinking too much, sleeping with anything he could find, living on a borrowed boat, scrambling for tips. Clay was determined to make his life easier.
A door slammed and interrupted his spending, if only for a moment. The Realtor had arrived.
Pace’s list of victims stopped at seven. Seven that he knew of. Seven that he and his operatives had been able to monitor. Tarvan had now been pulled for eighteen days, and from the company’s experience they knew that whatever the drug did to make people start killing usually stopped working after ten days. His list was chronological, with Ramon Pumphrey being number six.
Number one had been a college kid, a student at George Washington who had walked out of a Starbucks coffee shop on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda just in time to be spotted by a man with a gun. The student was from Bluefield, West Virginia. Clay made the fivehour drive there in record time, not hurried at all but rather as a race car driver speeding through the Shenandoah Valley. Following Pace’s precise instructions, he found the home of the parents, a rather sad-looking little bungalow near downtown. He sat in the driveway and actually said out loud, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Two things motivated him to get out of the car. First, he had no choice. Second, the prospect of the entire $15 million, not just one third or two thirds. All of it.
He was dressed casually and he left his briefcase in the car. The mother was home but the father was still at work. She reluctantly let him in, but then offered some tea and cookies. Clay waited on a sofa in the den, pictures of the dead son everywhere. The curtains were drawn. The house was a mess.
What am I doing here?
She talked about her son for a long time, and Clay hung on every word.
The father sold insurance a few blocks away, and he was home before the ice melted in the tea glass. Clay presented his case to them, as much of it as possible. At first there were some tentative questions—How many others died because of this? Why can’t we go to the authorities? Shouldn’t this be exposed? Clay fielded them like a veteran. Pace had prepped him well.
Like all victims, they had a choice. They could get angry, ask questions, make demands, want justice, or they could quietly take the money. The sum of $5 million didn’t register at first, or if it did they did a wonderful job of deflecting it. They wanted to be angry and uninterested in money, at least initially. But as the afternoon dragged by they began to see the light.
“If you can’t tell me the real name of the company, then I won’t accept the money,” the father said at one point.
“I don’t know the real name,” Clay said.
There were tears and threats, love and hatred, forgiveness and retribution, almost every emotion came and went during the afternoon and into the evening. They’d just buried their youngest son and the pain was numbing and immeasurable. They disliked Clay for being there, but they thanked him profusely for his concern. They distrusted him as a bigcity lawyer who was obviously lying about such an outrageous settlement, but they asked him to stay for dinner, whatever dinner might be.
It arrived promptly at six. Four ladies from their church hauled in enough food for a week. Clay was introduced as a friend from Washington, and was immediately subjected to an all-out cross-examination by the four. A hard-nosed trial lawyer couldn’t have been more curious.
The ladies finally left. After dinner, as the night wore on, Clay began to press them. He was offering the only deal they would get. Shortly after 10 P.M., they began signing the paperwork.
Number three was clearly the most difficult. She was a seventeen-year-old prostitute who’d worked the streets most of her life. The police thought she and her killer had once had a business relationship, but there was no clue as to why he would shoot her. He did so outside a lounge, in front of three witnesses.
She went by the name of Bandy, without the need of a last name. Pace’s research had revealed no husband, mother, father, siblings, children, home address, schools, churches, or, most amazing, police record. There had been no funeral. Like two dozen others each year in D.C., Bandy had received a pauper’s burial. When one of Pace’s agents had inquired at the city coroner’s office, he had been told, “She’s buried in the tomb of the unknown prostitute.”
Her killer had provided the only clue. He had told the police that Bandy had an aunt who lived in Little Beirut, the most dangerous housing ghetto in South East D.C. But after two weeks of relentless digging, the aunt had not been found.
With no known heirs, a settlement would be impossible.
The final Tarvan clients to sign the documents were the parents of a twenty-year-old Howard University coed who’d dropped out of school one week and been murdered the next. They lived in Warren-ton, Virginia, forty miles west of D.C. For an hour they had sat in Clay’s office and held hands tightly, as if neither of them could function alone. They cried at times, pouring out their unspeakable grief. They were stoic at other times, so rigid and strong and seemingly unmoved by the money that Clay doubted they would accept the settlement.
But they did, though of all the clients he’d processed Clay was certain that the money would affect them the least. With time they might appreciate it; for now, they just wanted their daughter back.
Paulette and Miss Glick helped escort them out of the office and to the elevators, where everybody hugged everybody again. As the doors closed, the parents were fighting tears.
Clay’s little team met in the conference room where they let the moment pass and were thankful that no more widows and grieving parents would visit them, at least not in the near future. Some very expensive champagne had been iced for the occasion, and Clay began pouring. Miss Glick declined because she drank nothing, but she was the only teetotaler in the firm. Paulette and Jonah seemed especially thirsty. Rodney preferred Budweiser, but he sipped along with the rest.
During the second bottle, Clay rose to speak. “I have some firm announcements,” he said, tapping his glass. “First, the Tylenol cases are now complete. Congratulations and thanks to all of you.” He’d used Tylenol as a code for Tarvan, a name they would never hear. Nor would they ever know the amount of his fees. Obviously, Clay was being paid a fortune, but they had no idea how much.
They applauded themselves. “Second, we begin the celebration tonight with dinner at Citronelle. Eight o’clock sharp. Could be a long evening because there is no work tomorrow. The office is closed.”
More applause, more champagne. “Third, in two weeks we leave for Paris. All of us, plus one friend each, preferably a spouse if you have one. All expenses paid. First-class air, luxury hotel, the works. We’ll be gone for a week. No exceptions. I’m the boss and I’m ordering all of you to Paris.”
Miss Glick covered her mouth with both hands. They were all stunned, and Paulette spoke first, “Not Paris, Tennessee.”
“No, dear, the real Paris.”
“What if I bump into my husband over there?” she said with a half-smile, and laughter erupted around the table.
“You can go to Tennessee if you’d like,” Clay said.
“No way, baby.”
When she could finally speak, Miss Glick said, “I’ll need a passport.”
“The forms are on my desk. I’ll see to it. It’ll take less than a week. Anything else?”
There was talk about weather and food and what to wear. Jonah immediately began debating which girl to take. Paulette was the only one who’d been to Paris, on her honeymoon, a brief tryst that ended badly when the Greek was called away on emergency business. She flew home alone, in coach though she’d gone over in first class. “Honey, they bring you champagne in first class,” she explained to the rest. “And the seats are as big as sofas.”
“I can bring anyone?” Jonah asked, obviously struggling with the decision.
“Let’s limit it to anyone who doesn’t have a spouse, okay?” Clay said.
“That narrows the field.”
“Who will you take?” Paulette asked.
“Maybe no one,” Clay said, and the room went quiet for a moment. They had whispered about Rebecca and the separation, with Jonah supplying most of the gossip. They wanted their boss happy, though they were not close enough to meddle.
“What’s that tower over there?” Rodney asked.
“The Eiffel Tower,” Paulette said. “You can go all the way to the top.”
“Not me. It don’t look safe.”
“You’re going to be a real traveler, I can tell.”
“How long are we there?” asked Miss Glick.
“Seven nights,” Clay said. “Seven nights in Paris.” And they all drifted away, swept along by the champagne. A month earlier they had been locked in the drudgery of the OPD. All but Jonah, who’d been selling computers part-time.
Max Pace wanted to talk, and since the firm was closed Clay suggested they meet there, at noon, after the cobwebs had cleared.
Only a headache remained. “You look like hell,” Pace began pleasantly. “We celebrated.” “What I have to discuss is very important. Are you up to it?” “I can keep up with you. Fire away.” Pace had a tall paper cup of coffee that he carried around the room as he moved about. “The Tarvan mess is over,” he said, for finality. It was over when he said it was over, and not before. “We settled the six cases. If anyone claiming to be related to our girl Bandy ever surfaces, then we’ll expect you to deal with it. But I’m convinced she has no family.”
“So am I.”
“You did good work, Clay.”
“I’m getting paid handsomely for it.”
“I’ll transfer in the last installment today. All fifteen million will be in your account. What’s left of it.”
“What do you expect me to do? Drive an old car, sleep in a rundown apartment, keep wearing cheap clothes? You said yourself that I had to spend some money to create the right impression.”
“I’m kidding. And you’re doing a great job of looking rich.”
“You’re making the adjustment from poverty to wealth with remarkable ease.”
“It’s a talent.”
“Just be careful. Don’t create too much attention.”
“Let’s talk about the next case.”
With that Pace took a seat and slid a file across. “The drug is Dyloft, manufactured by Ackerman Labs. It’s a potent anti-inflammatory drug used by sufferers of acute arthritis. Dyloft is new and the doctors have gone crazy over it. It works wonders, patients love it. But it has two problems: First, it’s made by a competitor of my client’s; second, it’s been linked to the creation of small tumors in the bladder. My client, same client as Tarvan, makes a similar drug that was popular until twelve months ago when Dyloft hit the market. The market is worth about three billion a year, give or take. Dyloft is already number two and will probably hit a billion this year. It’s hard to tell because it’s growing so fast. My client’s drug is doing a billion and a half and losing ground fast. Dyloft is the rage and will quickly crush all competition. It’s that good. A few months ago my client bought a small pharmaceutical company in Belgium.
This outfit once had a division that was later swallowed by Ackerman Labs. A few researchers got shoved out and shafted along the way. Some lab studies disappeared then surfaced where they didn’t belong. My client has the witnesses and the documents to prove that Ackerman Labs has known of the potential problems for at least the past six months. You with me?”
“Yes. How many people have taken Dyloft?”
“It’s really hard to tell because the number is growing so fast. Probably a million.”
“What percentage get the tumors?”
“The research indicates about five percent, enough to kill the drug.”
“How do you know whether a patient has the tumors?”
“You want me to sue Ackerman Labs?”
“Hang on. The truth about Dyloft will be out very shortly. As of today, there has been no litigation, no claims, no damaging studies published in the journals. Our spies tell us Ackerman is busy counting its money and stashing it away to pay off the lawyers when the storm hits. Ackerman may also be trying to fix the drug, but that takes time and FDA approvals. They’re in a real quandary because they need cash. They borrowed heavily to acquire other companies, most of which have not paid off. Their stock is selling for around forty-two bucks. A year ago it was at eighty.”
“What will the news about Dyloft do to the company?”
“Hammer the stock, which is exactly what my client wants. If the litigation is handled right, and I’m assuming you and I can do it properly, the news will murder Ackerman Labs. And since we have the inside proof that Dyloft is bad, the company will have no choice but to settle. They can’t risk a trial, not with such a dangerous product.”
“What’s the downside?”
“Ninety-five percent of the tumors are benign, and very small. There’s no real damage to the bladder.”
“So the litigation is used to shock the market?”
“Yes, and, of course, to compensate the victims. I don’t want tumors in my bladder, benign or malignant. Most jurors would feel the same way. Here’s the scenario: You put together a group of fifty or so plaintiffs, and file a big lawsuit on behalf of all Dyloft patients. At precisely the same time, you launch a series of television ads soliciting more cases. You hit fast and hard, and you’ll get thousands of cases. The ads run coast to coast—quickie ads that’ll scare folks and make them dial your toll-free number right here in D.C., where you have a warehouse full of paralegals answering the phones and doing the grunt work. It’s gonna cost you some money, but if you get, say, five thousand cases, and you settle them for twenty thousand bucks each, that’s one hundred million dollars. Your cut is one third.”
“No, Clay, that’s mass tort litigation at its finest. That’s how the system works these days. And if you don’t do it, I guarantee you someone else will. And very soon. There is so much money involved that the mass tort lawyers wait like vultures for any hint of a bad drug. And believe me, there are plenty of bad drugs.”
“Why am I the lucky guy?”
“Timing, my friend. If my client knows exactly when you file the lawsuit, then they can react to the market.” “Where do I find fifty clients?” Clay asked. Max thumped another file. “We know of at least a thousand. Names, addresses, all right here.” “You mentioned a warehouse full of paralegals?” “Half a dozen. It’ll take that many to answer the phones and keep the files organized. You could end up with five thousand individual clients.” “Television ads?” “Yep, I’ve got the name of a company that can put the ad together in less than three days. Nothing fancy—a voice-over, images of pills dropping onto a table, the potential evils of Dyloft, fifteen seconds of terror designed to make people call the Law Offices of Clay Carter II. These ads work, believe me. Run them in all major markets for a week and you’ll have more clients than you can count.”
“How much will it cost?”
“Couple of million, but you can afford it.”
It was Clay’s turn to pace around the room and let the blood circulate. He’d seen some ads for diet pills that had gone bad, ads in which unseen lawyers were trying to frighten folks into dialing a toll-free number. Surely, he wasn’t about to sink that low.
But thirty-three million dollars in fees! He was still numb from the first fortune.
“What’s the timetable?”
Pace had a list of the first things to do. “You’ll have to sign up the clients, which will take two weeks max. Three days to finish the ad. A few days to buy the television time. You’ll need to hire paralegals and put them in some rented space out in the suburbs; it’s too expensive here. The lawsuit has to be prepared. You have a good staff. You should be able to get it done in less than thirty days.”
“I’m taking the firm to Paris for a week, but we’ll get it done.”
“My client wants the lawsuit filed in less than a month. July the second, to be exact.”
Clay returned to the table and stared at Pace. “I’ve never handled a lawsuit like this,” he said.
Pace pulled something out of his file. “Are you busy this weekend?” he asked, looking at a brochure.
“Been to New Orleans lately?”
“About ten years ago.”
“Ever heard of the Circle of Barristers?”
“It’s an old group with a new life—a bunch of trial lawyers who specialize in mass torts. They get together twice a year and talk about the latest trends in litigation. It would be a productive weekend.” He slid the brochure across to Clay who picked it up. On the cover was a color photo of the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter.
New Orleans was warm and humid as always, especially in the Quarter.
He was alone, and that was fine. Even if he and Rebecca were still together she would not have made the trip. She would’ve been too busy at work, with shopping to do on the weekend with her mother. The usual routine. He had thought about inviting Jonah, but that relationship was strained at the moment. Clay had moved out of their cramped apartment and into the comfort of Georgetown without offering to take Jonah with him, an affront, but one that Clay had anticipated and was prepared to deal with. The last thing he wanted in his new town house was a wild roommate coming and going at all hours with whatever stray cat he could pick up.
The money was beginning to isolate him. Old friends he once called were now being ignored because he didn’t want all the questions. Old places were no longer frequented because he could afford something better. In less than a month, he had changed jobs, homes, cars, banks, wardrobes, eating places, gyms, and he was most definitely in the process of changing girlfriends, though no substitute was on the horizon. They had not spoken in twenty-eight days. He’d been under the assumption that he would call her on the thirtieth day, as promised, but so much had changed since then.
By the time Clay entered the lobby of the Royal Sonesta his shirt was wet and clinging to his back. The registration fee was $5,000, an outrageous amount for a few days of fraternizing with a bunch of lawyers. The fee said to the legal world that not everyone was invited, only the rich who were serious about their mass torts. His room was another $450 &night, and he paid for it with an unused platinum credit card.
Various seminars were under way. He drifted through a discussion on toxic torts, led by two lawyers who’d sued a chemical company for polluting drinking water that might or might not have caused cancer, but the company paid a half a billion anyway and the two lawyers got rich. Next door a lawyer Clay had seen on television was in full throttle on how to handle the media, but he had few listeners. In fact, most of the seminars were lightly attended. But it was Friday afternoon and the heavyweights arrived on Saturday.
Clay eventually found the crowd in the small exhibition hall where an aircraft company was showing a video on its upcoming luxury jet, the fanciest of its generation. The show was on a wide screen in one corner of the hall, and lawyers were packed together, all silent, all gawking at this latest miracle of aviation. Range of four thousand miles— “Coast to coast, or New York to Paris, nonstop of course.” It burned less fuel than the other four jets Clay had never heard of, and went faster too. The interior was roomy with seats and sofas everywhere, even a very comely flight attendant in a short skirt, holding a bottle of champagne and a bowl of cherries. The leather was a rich tan color. For pleasure or for work, because the Galaxy 9000 came with a cutting-edge phone system and a satellite receiver that allowed the busy lawyer to call anywhere in the world; and faxes and a copier, and, of course, instant Internet access. The video actually showed a group of harsh-looking lawyer types huddled around a small table, with their sleeves rolled up as if they were laboring over some settlement, while the comely blonde in the short skirt got ignored along with her champagne.
Clay inched closer into the crowd, feeling very much like a trespasser. Wisely, the video never gave the selling price of the Galaxy 9000. There were better deals, involving timeshares and trade-ins, and leasebacks, all of which could be explained by the sales reps who were standing nearby ready to do business. When the screen went blank, the lawyers all began talking at once, not about bad drugs and class-action suits, but about jets and how much pilots cost. The sales reps were surrounded by eager buyers. At one point, Clay overheard someone say, “A new one is in the thirty-five range.”
Surely it wasn’t thirty-five million.
Other exhibitors were offering all sorts of luxury items. A boat-builder had a group of serious lawyers interested in yachts. There was a specialist on Caribbean real estate. Another was peddling cattle ranches in Montana. An electronics booth with the latest absurdly expensive gadgets was particularly busy.
And the automobiles. One entire wall was lined with elaborate displays of expensive cars—a Mercedes-Benz convertible coupe, a limited edition Corvette, a maroon Bentley, which every respectable mass tort lawyer had to have. Porsche was unveiling its own SUV and a salesman was taking orders. The biggest gathering was gawking over a shiny royal blue Lamborghini. Its price tag was almost hidden, as if the manufacturer was afraid of it. Only $290,000, and a very limited supply. Several lawyers appeared ready to wrestle for the car.
In a quieter section of the hall, a tailor and his assistants were measuring a rather large lawyer for an Italian suit. A sign said they were from Milan, but Clay heard some very American English.
In law school, he had once attended a panel discussion on large settlements, and what lawyers should do to protect their unsophisticated clients from the temptations of instant riches. Several trial lawyers told horror stories of working families who had ruined their lives with their settlements, and the stories were fascinating studies in human behavior. At one point, a lawyer on the panel quipped, “Our clients spend their money almost as fast as we do.”
As Clay gazed around the exhibition hall, he saw lawyers spending money as fast as they could make it. Was he guilty of this?
Of course not. He’d stuck to the basics, at least so far.
Who wouldn’t want a new car and a better home? He wasn’t buying yachts and planes and cattle ranches. Didn’t want them. And if Dyloft earned him another fortune, he would not, under any circumstances, waste his money on jets and second homes. He would bury it in the bank, or in the backyard.
The frenzied orgy of consumption sickened him, and Clay left the hotel. He wanted some oysters and Dixie Beer.
The only nine o’clock session on Saturday morning was an update on class-action legislation currently being debated in Congress. The topic drew a small crowd. For $5,000, Clay was determined to soak up as much as he could. Of the few present, he appeared to be the only one without a hangover. Tall cups of steaming coffee were being drained around the ballroom.
The speaker was a lawyer/lobbyist from Washington who got off to a bad start by telling two dirty jokes, both of which bombed. The crowd was all-white, all-male, a regular fraternity, but not in the mood for tasteless jokes. The presentation quickly went from bad humor to boredom. However, at least for Clay, the materials were somewhat interesting and mildly informative; he knew very little about class actions so everything was new.
At ten, he had to choose between a panel discussion on the latest in Skinny Ben developments and a presentation by a lawyer whose specialty was lead paint, a topic that sounded rather dull to Clay, so he went with the former. The room was full.
Skinny Ben was the nickname of an infamous obesity pill that had been prescribed for millions of patients. Its maker had pocketed billions and had been poised to own the world when problems began developing in a significant number of users. Heart problems, easily traceable to the drug. Litigation exploded overnight and the company had no desire to go to trial. Its pockets were deep and it began buying off the plaintiffs with huge settlements. For the past three years, mass tort lawyers from all fifty states had been scrambling to sign up Skinny Ben cases.
Four lawyers sat at a table with a moderator and faced the crowd. The seat next to Clay was empty until a feisty little lawyer rushed in at the last moment and wedged himself between the rows. He unpacked his briefcase—legal pads, seminar materials, two cell phones, and a pager. When his command post was properly arranged and Clay had inched as far away as possible, he whispered, “Good morning.”
“Morning,” Clay whispered back, not at all anxious to chat. He looked at the cell phones and wondered who, exactly, might he want to call at 10 A.M. on a Saturday.
“How many cases you got?” the lawyer whispered again.
An interesting question, and one Clay was certainly not prepared to answer. He had just finished the Tarvan cases and was plotting his Dyloft assault, but, at the moment, he had no cases whatsoever. But such an answer was quite insufficient in the current environment where all numbers were huge and exaggerated.
“Couple of dozen,” he lied.
The guy frowned, as if this was completely unacceptable, and the conversation was iced, at least for a few minutes. One of the panelists began talking and the entire room became still. His topic was the financial report on Healthy Living, manufacturer of Skinny Bens. The company had several divisions, most of which were profitable. The stock price had not suffered. In fact, after each major settlement the stock held its own, proof that investors knew the company had plenty of cash.
“That’s Patton French,” the lawyer next to him whispered.
“Who’s he?” Clay asked.
“Hottest mass tort lawyer in the country. Three hundred million in fees last year.”
“He’s the luncheon speaker, isn’t he?”
“Right, don’t miss it.”
Mr. French explained, in excruciating detail, that approximately three hundred thousand Skinny Ben cases had been settled for about $7.5 billion. He, along with other experts, estimated that there were maybe another hundred thousand cases out there worth somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. The company and its insurers had plenty of cash to cover these lawsuits, and so it was up to those in the room to hustle on out there and find the rest of the cases. This fired up the crowd.
Clay had no desire to jump into the pit. He couldn’t get past the fact that the short, pudgy, pompous little jerk with the microphone made $300 million in fees last year and was still so motivated to earn even more. The discussion drifted into creative ways to attract new clients. One panelist had made so much money that he had two doctors on his payroll full-time to do nothing but go from town to town screening those who’d taken Skinny Bens. Another had relied solely on television advertising, a topic that interested Clay for a moment but soon dissolved into a sad debate as to whether the lawyer should appear on television himself or hire some washed-up actor.
Oddly missing was any discussion about trial strategies—expert witnesses, whistleblowers, jury selections, medical proof—the usual information lawyers exchanged at seminars. Clay was learning that these cases seldom went to trial. Courtroom skills were not important. It was all about hustling cases. And making huge fees. At various points during the discussion, all four panelists and several of those tossing up softball questions couldn’t help but reveal that they had made millions in recent settlements.
Clay wanted to take another shower.
At eleven, the local Porsche dealer held a Bloody-Mary reception that was wildly popular. Raw oysters and Bloody Marys and nonstop chatter about how many cases one had. And how to get more. A thousand here, two thousand there. Evidently, the popular tactic was to round up as many cases as possible, then tag team with Patton French who’d be happy to include them in his own personal class action in his backyard over in Mississippi, where the judges and juries and verdicts always went his way and the manufacturer was terrified to set foot. French worked the crowd like a Chicago ward boss.
He spoke again at one, after a buffet lunch featuring Cajun food and Dixie Beer. His cheeks were red, his tongue loose and colorful. Without notes he launched into a brief history of the American tort system and how crucial it was in protecting the masses from the greed and corruption of big corporations that make dangerous products. And, while he was at it, he didn’t like insurance companies and banks and multinationals and Republicans, either. Unbridled capitalism created the need for people like those hardy souls in the Circle of Barristers, those down in the trenches who were unafraid to attack big business on behalf of the working people, the little people.
At $300 million a year in fees, it was hard to picture Patton French as an underdog. But he was playing to the crowd. Clay glanced around and wondered, not for the first time, if he was the only sane one there. Were these people so blinded by the money that they honestly believed themselves to be defenders of the poor and the sick?
Most of them owned jets!
French’s war stories poured forth effortlessly. A $400 million class-action settlement for a bad cholesterol drug. A billion for a diabetes drug that killed at least a hundred patients. For faulty electrical wiring put in two hundred thousand homes that caused fifteen hundred fires killing seventeen people and burning another forty, $150 million. The lawyers hung on every word. Sprinkled throughout were indications of where his money had gone. “That cost ‘em a new Gulf-stream,” he cracked at one point and the crowd actually applauded. Clay knew, after hanging around the Royal Sonesta for less than twenty-four hours, that a Gulfstream was the finest of all personal jets and a new one sold for about $45 million.
French’s rival was a tobacco lawyer somewhere in Mississippi who had made a billion or so and bought a yacht that was 180 feet long. French’s old yacht measured only 140 feet, so he traded it in for a 200footer. The crowd found this funny as well. His firm now had thirty lawyers and he needed thirty more. He was on his fourth wife. The last one got the apartment in London.
And so on. A fortune earned, a fortune spent. Small wonder he worked seven days a week.
A normal crowd would have been embarrassed by such a vulgar discussion of wealth, but French knew his audience. If anything, he energized them to make more, spend more, sue more, hustle for more clients. For an hour he was crass and shameless, but seldom boring.
Five years in OPD had certainly sheltered Clay from many aspects of modern-day lawyering. He had read about mass torts but had no idea its practitioners were such an organized and specialized group. They didn’t seem to be exceptionally bright. Their strategies centered around gathering the cases and settling them, not real trial work.
French could’ve gone on forever, but after an hour he retired to a standing ovation, albeit an awkward one. He’d be back at three for a seminar on forum shopping—how to find the best jurisdiction for your case. The afternoon promised to be a repeat of the morning, and Clay had had enough.
He roamed the Quarter, taking in not the bars and strip clubs but the antique shops and galleries, though he bought nothing because he was overcome with the urge to hoard his money. Late in the day, he sat alone at a sidewalk cafe in Jackson Square and watched the street characters come and go. He sipped and tried to enjoy the hot chicory, but it wasn’t working. Although he had not put the figures on paper, he had mentally done the math. The Tarvan fees less 45 percent for taxes and business expenses, minus what he’d already spent, left him with around $6.5 million. He could bury that in a bank and earn $300,000 a year in interest, which was about eight times what he’d been earning in salary at OPD. Three hundred thousand a year was $25,000 a month, and he could not, sitting there in the shade on a warm New Orleans afternoon, imagine how he could ever spend that much money.
This was not a dream. This was reality. The money was already in his account. He would be rich for the rest of his life and he would not become one of those clowns back at the Royal Sonesta griping about the cost of pilots or yacht captains.
The only problem was a significant one. He had hired people and made promises. Rodney, Paulette, Jonah, and Miss Glick had all left longtime jobs and put their blind faith in him. He couldn’t just pull the plug now, take his money and run.
He switched to beer and made a profound decision. He would work hard for a short period of time on the Dyloft cases, which, frankly, he would be stupid to turn down since Max Pace was handing him a gold mine. When Dyloft was over, he’d give huge bonuses to his staff and close the office. He’d live the quiet life in Georgetown, traveling the world when he wanted, fishing with his father, watching his money grow, and never, under any circumstances, ever getting near another meeting of the Circle of Barristers.
He had just ordered breakfast from room service when the phone rang. It was Paulette, the only person who knew exactly where he was. “Are you in a nice room?” she asked.
“Indeed I am.”
“Does it have a fax?”
“Gimme the number, I’m sending something down there.”
It was a copy of a clipping from the Sunday edition of the Post. A wedding announcement. Rebecca Allison Van Horn and Jason Shubert Myers IV. “Mr. and Mrs. Bennett Van Horn of McLean, Virginia, announce the engagement of their daughter, Rebecca, to Mr. Jason Shubert Myers IV, son of Mr. and Mrs. D. Stephens Myers of Falls Church….” The photo, though copied and faxed more than a thousand miles was quite clear—a very pretty girl was marrying someone else.
D. Stephens Myers was the son of Dallas Myers, counsel to Presidents beginning with Woodrow Wilson and ending with Dwight Eisenhower. According to the announcement, Jason Myers had attended Brown and Harvard Law School and was already a partner in Myers & O’Malley, perhaps the oldest law firm in D.C., and certainly the stuffiest. He had created the intellectual property division and had become the youngest partner in the history of Myers & O’Malley. Other than his round eyeglasses, there appeared to be nothing intellectual about him, though Clay knew he couldn’t be fair even if he wanted to. He was not unattractive but clearly no match for Rebecca.
A December wedding was planned at an Episcopal church in McLean, with a reception at the Potomac Country Club.
In less than a month she had found someone she loved enough to marry. Someone willing to stomach a life with Bennett and Barb. Someone with enough money to impress all the Van Horns.
The phone rang again and it was Paulette. “You okay?” she asked. “I’m fine,” he said, trying hard. “I’m real sorry, Clay.”
“It was over, Paulette. It had been unraveling for a year. This is a good thing. Now I can forget her completely.”
“If you say so.”
“I’m okay. Thanks for calling.”
“When you coming home?”
“Today. I’ll be in the office in the morning.”
The breakfast arrived but he’d forgotten that he’d ordered it. He drank some juice but ignored everything else. Maybe this little romance had been brewing for some time. All she needed was to get rid of Clay, which she’d been able to do rather easily. Her betrayal grew as the minutes passed. He could see and hear her mother pulling strings in the background, manipulating their breakup, laying the trap for Myers, now planning every detail of the wedding.
“Good riddance,” he mumbled.
Then he thought about sex, and Myers taking his place, and he threw the empty glass across the room where it hit a wall and shattered. He cursed himself for acting like an idiot.
How many people at that moment were looking at the announcement and thinking of Clay? Saying, “Dumped him in a hurry, didn’t she?”
“Boy, that was fast, wasn’t it?”
Was Rebecca thinking of him? How much satisfaction did she get in admiring her wedding announcement and thinking of old Clay? Probably a lot. Maybe a little. What difference did it make? Mr. and Mrs. Van Horn had no doubt forgotten about him overnight. Why couldn’t he simply return the favor?
She was rushing, that much he knew for certain. Their romance had been too long and too intense and their breakup too recent for her to simply drop him and take up with another. He’d slept with her for four years; Myers for only a month, or less, hopefully not longer.
He walked back to Jackson Square, where the artists and tarot card readers and jugglers and street musicians were already in action. He bought an ice cream and sat on a bench near the statue of Andrew Jackson. He decided that he would call her, and at least pass along his best wishes. Then he decided he would find a blond bimbo and somehow flaunt her in front of Rebecca. Maybe he would take her to the wedding, of course in a short skirt with legs a mile long. With his money, such a woman should be easy to find. Hell, he’d rent one if he had to.
“It’s over ol’ boy,” he said to himself, more than once. “Get a grip.”
Let her go.
The office dress code had rapidly evolved into an anything-goes style. The tone was set by the boss who leaned toward jeans and expensive T-shirts, with a sports coat nearby in case he went to lunch. He had designer suits for meetings and court appearances, but for the moment both of those were rare events since the firm had no clients and no cases. Everyone had upgraded their wardrobes, much to his satisfaction.
They met late Monday morning in the conference room—Paulette, Rodney, and a rather rough-looking Jonah. Though she had acquired considerable clout in the short history of the firm, Miss Glick was still just a secretary/receptionist.
“Folks, we have work to do,” Clay began the meeting. He introduced them to Dyloft, and relying on Pace’s concise summaries, gave a description and history of the drug. From memory, he gave the quick and dirty review of Ackerman Labs—sales, profits, cash, competitors, other legal problems. Then the good stuff—the disastrous side effects of Dyloft, the bladder tumors, and the company’s knowledge of its problems.
“As of today, no lawsuit has been filed. But we’re about to change that. On July the second, we start the war by filing a class action here in D.C. on behalf of all patients harmed by the drug. It will create chaos, and we’ll be right in the middle of it.”
“Do we have any of these clients?” Paulette asked.
“Not yet. But we have names and addresses. We start signing them up today. We’ll develop a plan for gathering clients, then you and Rodney will be in charge of implementing it.” Though he had reservations about television advertising, he had convinced himself flying home from New Orleans that there was no viable alternative. Once he filed suit and exposed the drug, those vultures he’d just met in the Circle of Barristers would swarm to find the clients. The only effective way to quickly reach large numbers of Dyloft patients was by television ads.
He explained this to his firm and said, “It’ll cost at least two million bucks.”
“This firm has two million bucks?” Jonah blurted, saying what everyone else was thinking.
“It does. We start working on the ads today.”
“You’re not doing the acting, are you, boss?” Jonah asked, almost pleading. “Please.” Like all cities, D.C. had been flooded with early-morning and late-night commercials pleading with the injured to call lawyer so-and-so who was ready to kick ass and charged nothing for the initial consultation. Often the lawyers themselves appeared in the ads, usually with embarrassing results.
Paulette also had a frightened look and was slightly shaking her head no.
“Of course not. It’ll be done by professionals.”
“How many clients are we looking at?” Rodney asked.
“Thousands. It’s hard to say.”
Rodney pointed at each of them, slowly counting to four. “According to my numbers,” he said, “there are four of us.”
“We’re adding more. Jonah is in charge of expansion. We’ll lease some space out in the suburbs and fill it with paralegals. They’ll work the phones and organize the files.”
“Where does one find paralegals?” Jonah asked.
“In the employment sections of the bar journals. Start working on the ads. And you’ve got a meeting this afternoon with a real estate agent out in Manassas. We’ll need about five thousand square feet, nothing fancy, but plenty of wiring for phones and a complete computer system, which, as we know, is your specialty. Lease it, wire it, staff it, then organize it. The sooner the better.”
“How much is a Dyloft case worth?” Paulette asked.
“As much as Ackerman Labs will pay. It could range from as little as ten thousand to as much as fifty, depending on several factors, not the least of which is the extent of the damage to the bladder.”
Paulette was working with some numbers on a legal pad. “And how many cases might we get?”
“It’s impossible to say.”
“How about a guess?”
“I don’t know. Several thousand.”
“Okay, let’s say that’s three thousand cases. Three thousand cases times the minimum of ten thousand dollars comes to thirty million, right?” She said this slowly, scribbling the entire time.
“And how much are the attorneys’ fees?” she asked. The other three were watching Clay very closely.
“One third,” he said.
“That’s ten million in fees,” she said slowly. “All to this firm?”
“Yes. And we’re going to share the fees.”
The word share echoed around the room for a few seconds. Jonah and Rodney glanced at Paulette, as if to say, “Go ahead, finish it off.”
“Share, in what way?” she asked, very deliberately.
“Ten percent to each of you.”
“So in my hypothetical, my share of the fees would be one million?”
“And, uh, same for me?” Rodney asked.
“Same for you. Same for Jonah. And, I must say, I think that’s on the low side.”
Low side or not, they absorbed the numbers in muted silence for what seemed like a very long time, each instinctively spending some of the money. For Rodney, it meant college for the kids. For Paulette, it meant a divorce from the Greek she’d seen once in the past year. For Jonah, it meant life on a sailboat.
“You’re serious, aren’t you, Clay?” Jonah asked.
“Dead serious. If we work our butts off for the next year, there’s a good chance we’ll have the option of an early retirement.”
“Who told you about this Dyloft?” Rodney asked.
“I can never answer that question, Rodney. Sorry. Just trust me.” And Clay hoped at that moment that his blind trust in Max Pace was not foolish.
“I almost forgot about Paris,” Paulette said.
“Don’t. We’ll be there next week.”
Jonah jumped to his feet and grabbed his legal pad. “What’s that Realtor’s name?” he asked.
On the third floor of his town house, Clay had put together a small office, not that he planned to do much work there but he needed a place for his papers. The desk was an old butcher block he’d found in an antique store in Fredericksburg, just down the road. It consumed one wall and was long enough for a phone, a fax, and a laptop.
It was there that he made his first tentative entry into the world of mass tort solicitation. He delayed the call until almost 9 P.M., an hour at which some folks went to bed, especially older ones and perhaps those afflicted with arthritis. A stiff drink for courage, and he punched the numbers.
The phone was answered on the other end by a woman, perhaps Mrs. Ted Worley of Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Clay introduced himself pleasantly, identified himself as a lawyer, as if they called all the time and there was nothing to be alarmed about, and asked to speak to Mr. Worley.
“He’s watching the Orioles,” she said. Evidently Ted didn’t take calls when the Orioles were playing.
“Yes—would it be possible to speak to him for a moment?”
“You say you’re a lawyer?”
“Yes ma’am, from right here in D.C.”
“What’s he done now?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all. I’d like to talk to him about his arthritis.” The first impulse to hang up and run came and went. Clay thanked God no one was watching or listening. Think of the money, he kept telling himself. Think of the fees.
“His arthritis? Thought you were a lawyer, not a doctor.”
“Yes ma’am, I’m a lawyer, and I have reason to believe he’s taking a dangerous drug for his arthritis. If you don’t mind, I just need him for a second.”
Voices in the background as she yelled something to Ted who yelled something back. Finally, he took the phone. “Who is this?” he demanded, and Clay quickly introduced himself.
“What’s the score?” Clay asked.
“Three-one Red Sox in the fifth. Do I know you?” Mr. Worley was seventy years old.
“No sir. I’m an attorney here in D.C., and I specialize in lawsuits involving defective drugs. I sue drug companies all the time when they put out harmful products.”
“Okay, what do you want?”
“Through our Internet sources we found your name as a potential user of an arthritis drug called Dyloft. Can you tell me if you use this drug?”
“Maybe I don’t want to tell you what prescriptions I’m taking.”
A perfectly valid point, one Clay thought he was ready for.
“Of course you don’t have to, Mr. Worley. But the only way to determine if you’re entitled to a settlement is to tell me if you’re using the drug.”
“That damned Internet,” Mr. Worley mumbled, then had a quick conversation with his wife who, evidently, was somewhere near the phone.
“What kind of settlement?” he asked.
“Let’s talk about that in a minute. I need to know if you’re using Dyloft. If not, then you’re a lucky man.”
“Well, uh, I guess it’s not a secret, is it?”
“No sir.” Of course it was a secret. Why should a person’s medical history be anything but confidential? The little fibs were necessary, Clay kept telling himself. Look at the big picture. Mr. Worley and thousands like him might never know they’re using a bad product unless they were told. Ackerman Labs certainly hadn’t come clean. That was Clay’s job.
“Yeah, I take Dyloft.”
“For how long?”
“Maybe a year. It works great.”
“Any side effects?”
“Blood in your urine. A burning sensation when you urinate.” Clay was resigned to the fact that he would be discussing bladders and urine with many people in the months to come. There was simply no way around it.
The things they don’t prepare you for in law school.
“We have some preliminary research that Ackerman Labs, the company that makes Dyloft, is trying to cover up. The drug has been found to cause bladder tumors in some of the folks who use it.”
And so Mr. Ted Worley, who just moments earlier had been minding his own business and watching his beloved Orioles, would now spend the rest of that night and most of the next week worrying about tumors growing wild in his bladder. Clay felt rotten and wanted to apologize, but, again, he told himself that it had to be done. How else might Mr. Worley learn the truth? If the poor man indeed had the tumors, wouldn’t he want to know about them?
Holding the phone with one hand and rubbing his side with the other, Mr. Worley said, “You know, come to think of it, I do remember a burning sensation a couple of days ago.”
“What are you talking about?” Clay heard Mrs. Worley say in the background.
“If you don’t mind,” Mr. Worley said to Mrs. Worley.
Clay charged in before the bickering got out of hand. “My firm represents a lot of Dyloft users. I think you should consider getting tested.”
“What kind of test?”
“It’s a urinalysis. We have a doctor who can do it tomorrow. Won’t cost you a dime.”
“What if he finds something wrong?”
“Then we can discuss your options. When the news of Dyloft comes out, in just a few days, there will be many lawsuits. My firm will be a leader in the attack on Ackerman Labs. I’d like to have you as a client.”
“Maybe I should talk to my doctor.”
“You can certainly do that, Mr. Worley. But he may have some liability too. He prescribed the drug. It might be best if you get an unbiased opinion.”
“Hang on.” Mr. Worley covered the receiver with his hand and had a contentious chat with his wife. When he returned he said, “I don’t believe in suing doctors.”
“Nor do I. I specialize in going after the big corporations that harm people.”
“Should I stop taking the drug?”
“Let’s do the test first. Dyloft will likely be pulled off the market sometime this summer.”
“Where do I do the test?”
“The doctor is in Chevy Chase. Can you go tomorrow?”
“Yeah, sure, why not? Seems silly to wait, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.” Clay gave him the name and address of a doctor Max Pace had located. The $80 exam would cost Clay $300 a pop, but it was simply the price of doing business.
When the details were finished, Clay apologized for the intrusion, thanked him for his time, and left him to suffer while he watched the rest of the game. Only when he hung up did Clay feel the beads of moisture just above his eyebrows. Soliciting cases by phone? What kind of lawyer had he become?
A rich one, he kept telling himself.
This would require thick skin, something Clay did not possess and was not certain he could develop.
Two days later, Clay pulled into the Worleys’ driveway in Upper Marlboro and met them at the front door. The urinalysis, which included a cytological exam, revealed abnormal cells in the urine, a clear sign, according to Max Pace and his extensive and ill-gotten medical research, that there were tumors in the bladder. Mr. Worley had been referred to a urologist whom he would see the following week. The examination and removal of the tumors would be by cystoscopic surgery, running a tiny scope and a knife in a tube through the penis into the bladder, and while this was purported to be fairly routine, Mr. Worley saw nothing ordinary about it. He was worried sick. Mrs. Worley said he hadn’t slept the last two nights, nor had she.
As much as he wanted to, Clay could not tell them that the tumors were probably benign. Better to let the doctors do that after the surgery.
Over instant coffee with powdered creamer, Clay explained the contract for his services and answered their questions about the litigation. When Ted Worley signed at the bottom, he became the first Dyloft plaintiff in the country.
And for a while it seemed as if he might be the only one. Working the phones nonstop, Clay succeeded in convincing eleven people to show up for the urinalysis. All eleven tested negative. “Keep pushing,” Max Pace urged. About a third of the people either hung up or refused to believe Clay was serious about what he was saying.
He, Paulette, and Rodney divided their lists between black and white prospective clients. Evidently blacks were not as suspicious as whites because they were easier to persuade to go see the doctor. Or perhaps they enjoyed the medical attention. Or maybe, as Paulette suggested more than once, she had the better gift of gab.
By the end of the week, Clay had signed up three clients who tested positive for abnormal cells. Rodney and Paulette, working as a team, had seven more under contract.
The Dyloft class action was ready for war.
The Paris adventure cost him $95,300, according to the numbers so carefully kept by Rex Crittle, a man who was becoming more and more familiar with almost all aspects of Clay’s life. Crittle was a CPA with a mid-sized accounting firm situated directly under the Carter suite. Not surprisingly, he too had been referred by Max Pace.
At least once a week, Clay walked down the back stairs or Crittle walked up them, and they spent a half an hour or so talking about Clay’s money and how to properly handle it. An accounting system for the law firm was basic and easily installed. Miss Glick made all the entries and simply ran them down to Crittle’s computers.
In Crittle’s opinion, such sudden wealth would almost certainly trigger an audit by the Internal Revenue Service. Notwithstanding Pace’s promises to the contrary, Clay agreed and insisted on perfect records with no gray areas when it came to write-offs and deductions. He had just earned more money than he’d ever dreamed of. No sense trying to beat the government out of some taxes. Pay them and sleep well.
“What’s this payment to East Media for half a million dollars?” Crittle asked.
“We’re doing some television ads for litigation. That’s the first installment.”
“Installment? How many more?” He peered over his reading glasses and gave Clay a look he’d seen before. It said, “Son, have you lost your mind?”
“A total of two million dollars. We’re filing a big lawsuit in a few days. The filing will be coordinated with an advertising blitz that East Media is handling.”
“Okay,” Crittle said, obviously wary of such large expenditures. “And I’m assuming there will be some additional fees to cover all this.”
“Hopefully,” Clay said with a laugh.
“What about this new office out in Manassas? A lease deposit of fifteen thousand bucks?”
“Yes, we’re expanding. I’m adding six paralegals in an office out there. Rent’s cheaper.”
“Nice to see you’re worried about expenses. Six paralegals?”
“Yes, four have been hired. I have their contracts and payroll information on my desk.”
Crittle studied a printout for a moment, a dozen questions clicking through the calculator behind his glasses. “Could I ask why you need six more paralegals when you have so few cases?”
“Now that’s an interesting question,” Clay said. He blitzed through the pending class action without mentioning either the drug or its maker, and if his quick summary answered Crittle’s questions it wasn’t obvious. As an accountant, he was naturally skeptical of any scheme that urged more people to sue.
“I’m sure you know what you’re doing,” he said, suspecting Clay had, in fact, lost his mind. “Trust me, Rex, the money is about to pour in.” “It’s certainly pouring out.” “You have to spend money to make money.” “That’s what they say.”
The assault began just after sundown on July 1. With everyone but Miss Glick gathered in front of the television in the conference room, they waited until exactly 8:32 P.M., then grew quiet and still. It was a fifteen-second ad that began with a shot of a handsome young actor wearing a white jacket and holding a thick book and looking sincerely at the camera. “Attention arthritis sufferers. If you are taking the prescription drug Dyloft, you may have a claim against the manufacturer of the drug. Dyloft has been linked to several side effects, including tumors in the bladder.” On the bottom of the screen the bold words: DYLOFT HOT LINE—CALL 1-800-555-DYLO appeared. The doctor continued: “Call this number immediately. The Dyloft Hot Line can arrange a free medical test for you. Call now!”
No one breathed for fifteen seconds, and no one spoke when it was over. For Clay, it was a particularly harrowing moment because he had just launched a vicious and potentially crippling attack against a mammoth corporation, one that would undoubtedly respond with a vengeance. What if Max Pace was wrong about the drug? What if Pace was using Clay as a pawn in a huge corporate chess match? What if Clay couldn’t prove, by expert witnesses, that the drug caused the tumors? He had wrestled with these questions for several weeks, and he had quizzed Pace a thousand times. They had fought twice and exchanged sharp words on several occasions. Max had eventually handed over the stolen, or at least ill-gotten, research on the effects of Dyloft. Clay had had it reviewed by a fraternity brother from Georgetown who was now a physician in Baltimore. The research looked solid and sinister.
Clay had ultimately convinced himself that he was right and Ackerman was wrong. But seeing the ad and flinching at its accusation made him weak in the knees.
“Pretty nasty,” said Rodney, who’d seen the video of the ad a dozen times. Still, it was much harsher on real television. East Media had promised that 16 percent of each market would see each ad. The ads would run every other day for ten days in ninety markets from coast to coast. The estimated audience was eighty million.
“It’ll work,” Clay said, ever the leader.
For the first hour, it ran on stations in thirty markets along the East Coast, then it spread to eighteen markets in the Central Time Zone. Four hours after it began, it finally reached the other coast and hit in forty-two markets. Clay’s little firm spent just over $400,000 the first night in wall-to-wall advertising.
The 800 phone number routed callers to the Sweatshop, the new nickname for the shopping center branch of the Law Offices of J. Clay Carter II. There, the six new paralegals took the calls, filled out forms, asked all the scripted questions, referred the callers to the Dyloft Hot Line Web Site, and promised return calls from one of the staff attorneys. Within two hours of the first ads, all phones were busy. A computer recorded the numbers of those callers unable to get through. A computerized message referred them to the Web site.
At nine the next morning, Clay received an urgent phone call from an attorney in a large firm down the street. He represented Ackerman Labs and insisted that the ads be stopped immediately. He was pompous and condescending and threatened all manner of vile legal action if Clay did not buckle immediately. Words grew harsh, then calmed somewhat.
“Are you going to be in your office for a few minutes?” Clay asked.
“Yes, of course. Why?”
“I have something to send over. I’ll get my courier. Should take five minutes.”
Rodney, the courier, hustled down the street with a copy of the twenty-page lawsuit. Clay left for the courthouse to file the original. Pursuant to Pace’s instructions, copies were also being faxed to the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.
Pace had also hinted that short-selling Ackerman Labs stock would be a shrewd investment move. The stock had closed the Friday before at $42.50. When it opened Monday morning, Clay placed a sell order for a hundred thousand shares. He’d buy it back in a few days, hopefully around $30, and pick up another million bucks. That was the plan, anyway.
His office was hectic when he returned. There were six incoming toll-free lines to the Sweatshop out in Manassas, and during working hours, when all six were busy, the calls were routed to the main office on Connecticut Avenue. Rodney, Paulette, and Jonah were each on the phone talking to Dyloft users scattered around North America.
“You might want to see this,” Miss Glick said. The pink message slip listed the name of a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. “And Mr. Pace is in your office.”
Max was holding a coffee cup and standing in front of a window.
“It’s filed,” Clay said. “We’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest.”
“Enjoy the moment.”
“Their lawyers have already called. I sent them a copy of the lawsuit.”
“Good. They’re dying already. They’ve just been ambushed and they know they’ll get slaughtered. This is a lawyer’s dream, Clay, make the most of it.”
“Sit down. I have a question.”
Pace, in black as always, fell into a chair and crossed his legs. The cowboy boots appeared to be of rattlesnake.
“If Ackerman Labs hired you right now, what would you do?” Clay asked.
“Spin is crucial. I’d start the press releases, deny everything, blame it on greedy trial lawyers. Defend my drug. The initial goal, after the bomb goes off and the dust is settling, is to protect the stock price. It opened at forty-two and a half, which was very low; it’s already at thirty-three. I’d get the CEO on television to say all the right things. I’d get the PR folks cranking out the propaganda. I’d get the lawyers preparing an organized defense. I’d get the sales people to reassure the doctors that the drug is okay.”
“But the drug is not okay.”
“I’d worry about that later. For the first few days, it’s all spin, at least on the surface. If investors believe there’s something wrong with the drug, they’ll jump ship and the stock will keep falling. Once the spin is in place, I would have a serious talk with the big boys. Once I found out that there were problems with the drug, then I’d bring in the numbercrunchers and figure out how much the settlements will cost. You never go to trial with a bad drug. Each jury can fill in the blank for a verdict, and there’s no way to control the costs. One jury gives the plaintiff a million bucks. The next jury in another state gets mad and awards twenty million in punitive damages. It’s a huge crap-shoot. So you settle. As you are quickly learning, mass tort lawyers take their percentages off the top, so they’re easy to settle with.”
“How much cash can Ackerman afford?”
“They’re insured for at least three hundred million. Plus they have about a half billion in cash, most of it generated by Dyloft. They’re almost maxed out at the bank, but if I were calling the shots I’d plan on paying a billion. And I would do it fast.”
“Will Ackerman do it fast?”
“They haven’t hired me, so they’re not too bright. I’ve watched the company for a long time, and they’re not particularly sharp. Like all drugmakers, they’re horrified of litigation. Instead of using a fireman like me, they do it the old-fashioned way—they rely on their lawyers, who, of course, have no interest in quick settlements. The principal firm is Walker-Steams in New York. You’ll hear from them very shortly.”
“So no quick settlement?”
“You filed suit less than an hour ago. Relax.”
“I know, but I’m burning up all that money you just gave me.”
“Take it easy. Within a year you’ll be even richer.”
“A year, huh?”
“That’s my guess. The lawyers have to get fat first. Walker-Steams will put fifty associates on the case with meters churning at full blast. Mr. Worley’s class action is worth a hundred million bucks to Ackerman’s own lawyers. Don’t ever forget that.”
“Why don’t they just pay me a hundred million bucks to go away?”
“Now you’re thinking like a real mass tort boy. They’ll pay you even more, but first they have to pay their lawyers. That’s just the way it works.”
“But you wouldn’t do it that way?”
“Of course not. With Tarvan, the client told me the truth, which seldom happens. I did my homework, found you, and wrapped up everything quietly, quickly, and cheaply. Fifty million, and not a dime to my client’s own lawyers.”
Miss Glick appeared in the door and said, “That reporter from The Wall Street Journal is on the phone again.” Clay looked at Pace who said, “Chat him up. And remember, the other side has an entire PR unit cranking out the spin.”
The Times and the Post ran brief stories of the Dyloft class action on the front pages of their business sections the following morning. Both mentioned Clay’s name, which was a thrill he quietly relished. More ink was given to the defendant’s responses. The CEO called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “just another example of litigation abuse by the legal profession.” The Vice President for Research said, “Dyloft had been thoroughly researched with no evidence of adverse side effects.” Both newspapers noted that Ackerman Labs’ stock, which had dropped by 50 percent in the three preceding quarters, had taken another blow by the surprise lawsuit.
The Wall Street Journal got it right, at least in Clay’s opinion. In the preliminaries, the reporter had asked Clay his age. “Only thirty-one?” he’d said, which led to a series of questions about Clay’s experience, his firm, etcetera. David versus Goliath is much more readable than dry financial data or lab reports, and the story took on a life of its own. A photographer was rushed over, and while Clay posed his staff watched with great amusement.
On the front page, far left column, the headline read:
The Rookie Takes on Mighty Ackerman Labs
Beside it was a computerized caricature of a smiling Clay Carter. The first paragraph read: “Less than two months ago, D.C. attorney Clay Carter was laboring through the city’s criminal justice system as an unknown and low paid public defender. Yesterday, as the owner of his own law firm, he filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against the third-largest pharmaceutical company in the world, claiming its newest wonder drug, Dyloft, not only relieves acute pain for arthritis sufferers but also causes tumors in their bladders.”
The article was filled with questions about how Clay had made such a radical transformation so quickly. And since he couldn’t mention Tarvan or anything related to it, he vaguely referred to the quick settlements of some lawsuits involving people he’d met as a public defender. Ackerman Labs got in a few licks with its typical posturing about lawsuit abuse and ambulance chasers ruining the economy, but the bulk of the story was about Clay and his amazing rise to the forefront of mass tort litigation. Nice things were said about his father, a “legendary D.C. litigator” who had since “retired” to the Bahamas.
Glenda at OPD praised Clay as a “zealous defender of the poor,” a classy remark that would get her lunch in a fancy restaurant. The President of the National Trial Lawyers Academy admitted he had never heard of Clay Carter, but was nonetheless “very impressed with his work.”
A law professor at Yale lamented “yet another example of the misuse of class-action litigation,” while one at Harvard said it was “a perfect example of how class actions should be used to pursue corporate wrongdoers.”
“Make sure this gets on the Web site,” Clay said as he handed the article to Jonah. “Our clients will love it.”
Tequila Watson pleaded guilty to the murder of Ramon Pumphrey and was sentenced to life in prison. He would be eligible for parole in twenty years, though the story in the Post did not mention that. It did say that his victim had been one of several gunned down in a spate of killings that had seemed unusually random even for a city accustomed to senseless violence. The police had no explanations. Clay made a note to call Adelfa and see how her life was going.
He owed something to Tequila, but he wasn’t sure what. Nor was there any way of compensating his ex-client. He rationalized that he had spent most of his life on drugs and would probably spend the rest behind bars anyway, with or without Tarvan, but this did little to make Clay feel honorable. He had sold out, plain and simple. He’d taken the cash and buried the truth.
Two pages over another article caught his attention and made him forget about Tequila Watson. Mr. Bennett Van Horn’s pudgy face was in a photo, under his monogrammed hard hat, taken at a job site somewhere. He was intently staring at a set of plans with another man who was identified as the project engineer for BVH Group. The company had become embroiled in a nasty fight over a proposed development near the Chancellorsville battlefield, about an hour south of D.C.
Bennett, as always, was proposing one of his hideous collections of houses, condos, apartments, shops, playgrounds, tennis courts, and the obligatory pond, all within a mile of the center of the battlefield and very near the spot where General Stonewall Jackson was shot by Confederate sentries. Preservationists, lawyers, war historians, environmentalists, and the Confederate Society had drawn swords and were in the process of shredding Bennett the Bulldozer. Not surprisingly, the Post praised these groups while saying nothing good about Bennett. However, the land in question was privately owned by some aging farmers, and he appeared to have the upper hand, at least for the moment.
The article ran long with accounts of other battlefields throughout Virginia that had been paved by developers. An outfit called the Civil War Trust had taken the lead in fighting back. Its lawyer was portrayed as a radical who was unafraid to use litigation to preserve history. “But we need money to litigate,” he was quoted as saying.
Two calls later and Clay had him on the phone. They talked for half an hour, and when he hung up he wrote a check for $100,000 to the Civil War Trust, Chancellorsville Litigation Fund.
Miss Glick handed him the phone message as he walked by her desk. He looked at the name twice, and was still skeptical when he sat in the conference room and punched the numbers. “Mr. Patton French,” he said into the phone. The message slip said it was urgent.
“And who’s calling, please?”
“Clay Carter, from D.C.”
“Oh yes, he’s been expecting you.”
The image of such a powerful and busy lawyer as Patton French waiting for Clay’s phone call was difficult to imagine. Within seconds the great man himself was on the phone. “Hello, Clay, thanks for calling me back,” he said so casually Clay was caught off-guard. “Nice story in The Journal, huh? Not bad for a rookie. Look, sorry I didn’t get to say hello when you were down in New Orleans.” It was the same voice he’d heard from behind the microphone, but much more relaxed.
“No problem,” Clay said. There were two hundred lawyers at the Circle of Barristers gathering. There had been no reason for Clay to meet Patton French, and no reason French should know Clay was even there. He had obviously done his research.
“I’d like to meet you, Clay. I think we can do some business together. I was on the Dyloft trail two months ago. You beat me to the punch, but there’s a ton of money out there.”
Clay had no desire to crawl into bed with Patton French. On the other hand, his methods of extracting huge settlements from drug companies were legendary. “We can talk,” Clay said.
“Look, I’m headed to New York right now. What if I pick you up in D.C. and take you with me? I got a new Gulfstream 5 I’d love to show off. We’ll stay in Manhattan, have a wonderful dinner tonight. Talk business. Back home late tomorrow. Whatta you say?”
“Well, I’m pretty busy.” Clay vividly remembered his revulsion in New Orleans when French kept mentioning his toys in his speech. The new Gulfstream, the yacht, a castle in Scotland.
“I’ll bet you are. Look, I’m busy too. Hell, we’re all busy. But this could be the most profitable trip you’ll ever make. I’m not taking no for an answer. I’ll meet you at Reagan National in three hours. Deal?”
Other than a few phone calls and a game of racquetball that night, Clay had little to do. The office phones were ringing nonstop with frightened Dyloft users, but Clay was not fielding the calls. He hadn’t been to New York in several years. “Sure, why not?” he said, as anxious to see a Gulfstream 5 as he was to eat in a great restaurant.
“Smart move, Clay. Smart move.”
The private terminal at Reagan National was packed with harried executives and bureaucrats hustling through, coming and going. Near the reception counter, a cute brunette in a short skirt held a handmade placard with his name on it. He introduced himself to her. She was Julia, with no last name. “Follow me,” she said with a perfect smile.
They were cleared through an exit door and driven across the ramp in a courtesy van. Dozens of Lears, Falcons, Hawkers, Challengers, and Citations were either parked or were taxiing to and from the terminal. Ramp crews carefully guided the jets past each other, their wings missing by inches. Engines screamed and the entire scene was nerveracking.
“Where you from?” Clay asked.
“We’re based out of Biloxi,” Julia said. “That’s where Mr. French has his main office.”
“I heard him speak a couple of weeks ago in New Orleans.”
“Yes, we were there. We’re seldom at home.”
“He puts in the hours, doesn’t he?”
“About a hundred a week.”
They stopped beside the largest jet on the ramp. “That’s us,” Julia said, and they got out of the van. A pilot grabbed Clay’s overnight bag and disappeared with it.
Patton French was, of course, on the phone. He waved Clay aboard while Julia took his jacket and asked him what he wanted to drink. Just water, with lemon. His first view inside a private jet could not have been more breathtaking. The videos he had seen in New Orleans didn’t do justice to the real thing.
The aroma was that of leather, very expensive leather. The seats, sofas, headrests, panels, even the tables were done in various shades of blue and tan leather. The light fixtures and knobs and gadget controls were gold-plated. The wood trim was dark and deeply polished, probably mahogany. It was a luxury suite in a five-star hotel, but with wings and engines.
Clay was an even six feet tall, and there was room to spare above his head. The cabin was long with some type of office in the rear. French was way back there, still talking into a telephone. The bar and the kitchen were just behind the cockpit. Julia emerged with his water. “Better have a seat,” she said. “We’re about to taxi.”
When the plane began moving, French abruptly ended his conversation and charged forward. He attacked Clay with a violent handshake and toothy smile and another apology for not getting together down in New Orleans. He was a bit heavy, graying nicely with thick, wavy hair, probably fifty-five but not yet sixty. Vigor oozed from every pore and breath.
They sat across from each other at one of the tables.
“Nice ride, huh?” French said, waving his left arm at the interior.
“You got a jet yet?”
“No.” And he actually felt inadequate because he was jetless. What kind of a lawyer was he?
“It won’t be long, son. You can’t live without one. Julia, get me a vodka. This makes four for me, jets, not vodkas. Takes twelve pilots to keep four jets going. And five Julias. She’s cute, huh?”
“Lots of overhead, but then there’s lots of fees out there. Did you hear me speak in New Orleans?”
“I did. It was very enjoyable.” Clay lied a little. As obnoxious as French had been from the podium, he’d also been entertaining and informative.
“I hate to dwell on money like that, but I was playing to the crowd. Most of those guys will eventually bring me a big tort case. Gotta keep ‘em pumped up, you know. I’ve built the hottest mass tort firm in America, and all we do is go after the big boys. When you sue companies like Ackerman Labs and any of those Fortune 500 outfits, you gotta have some ammunition, some clout. Their cash is endless. I’m just trying to level the field.”
Julia brought his drink and strapped herself in for takeoff.
“You want some lunch?” French asked. “She can cook anything.”
“No thanks. I’m fine.”
French took a long swig of the vodka, then suddenly sat back, closed his eyes, and appeared to be praying as the Gulfstream sped down the runway and lifted off. Clay used the break to admire the airplane. It was so luxurious and richly detailed that it was almost obscene. Forty, forty-five million dollars for a private jet! And, according to the gossip among the Circle of Barristers, the Gulfstream company couldn’t make them fast enough. There was a two-year backlog!
Minutes passed until they leveled off, then Julia disappeared into the kitchen. French snapped out of his meditation, took another gulp. “Is all that stuff in The Journal true?” he asked, much calmer. Clay had the quick impression that with French the mood swings were rapid and dramatic.
“They got it right.”
“I’ve been on the front page twice, nothing ever good. No surprise that they don’t like us mass tort boys. Nobody does, really, which is something you’ll learn. The money takes the sting out of the negative image. You’ll get used to it. We all do. I actually met your father once.” His eyes squinted and darted when he talked, as if he was constantly thinking three sentences ahead.
“Really?” Clay wasn’t sure he believed him.
“I was with the Justice Department twenty years ago. We were litigating over some Indian lands. The Indians brought in Jarrett Carter from D.C. and the war was over. He was very good.”
“Thank you,” Clay said, with immense pride.
“I gotta tell you, Clay, this Dyloft ambush of yours is a thing of beauty. And very unusual. In most cases, word of a bad drug spreads slowly as more and more patients complain. Doctors are slow as hell in communicating. They’re in bed with the drug companies, so they have no incentive to raise the red flag. Plus, in most jurisdictions, the doctors get sued because they prescribed the drug in the first place. Slowly, the lawyers get involved. Uncle Luke has suddenly got blood in his urine for no reason, and after staring at it for a month or so he’ll go to his doctor down in Podunk, Louisiana. And the doctor will eventually take him off whatever new miracle drug he had prescribed. Uncle Luke may or may not go see the family lawyer, usually a small-town ham-and-egger who does wills and divorces and in most cases wouldn’t know a decent tort if one hit him. It takes time for these bad drugs to get discovered. What you’ve done is very unique.”
Clay was content to nod and listen. French was content to do the talking. This was leading somewhere.
“Which tells me that you have some inside information.” A pause, a brief gap in which Clay was given the opportunity to confirm that he did indeed have inside information. But he offered no clue.
“I have a vast network of lawyers and contacts from coast to coast. No one, not a single one, had heard of problems with Dyloft until a few weeks ago. I had two lawyers in my firm doing the preliminary workup on the drug, but we were nowhere close to filing suit. Next thing I see is news of your ambush and your smiling face on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. I know how the game is played, Clay, and I know you have something from the inside.”
“I do. And I’ll never tell anybody.”
“Good. That makes me feel better. I saw your ads. We monitor such things in every market. Not bad. In fact, the fifteen-second method you’re using has been proven as the most effective. Did you know that?”
“Hit ‘em fast late at night, early in the morning. A quick message to scare them, then a phone number where they can get help. I’ve done it a thousand times. How many cases have you generated?”
“It’s hard to say. They have to do the initial urinalysis. The phones have not stopped ringing.”
“My ads start tomorrow. I have six people in-house who do nothing but work on advertising, can you believe that? Six full-time ad folks. And they’re not cheap.”
Julia appeared with two platters of food—a shrimp tray and one covered with cheeses and various meats—prosciutto, salami, and several more Clay could not name. “A bottle of that Chilean white,” Patton said. “It should be chilled by now.
“Do you like wine?” he asked, grabbing a shrimp by its tail.
“Some. I’m no expert.”
“I adore wine. I keep a hundred bottles on this airplane.” Another shrimp. “Anyway, we figure there are between fifty and a hundred thousand Dyloft cases. That sound close?”
“A hundred might be on the high side,” Clay said cautiously.
“I’m a little worried about Ackerman Labs. I’ve sued them twice before, you