Page 23 of The Street Lawyer

"I guess we'll have to make adjustments, won't we?" she said, staring coldly at me. The word "adjustments" was dripping with connotations. "I suppose so."

"I'm tired," she said. She drained her glass, and went to the bedroom.

How pathetic, I thought. We couldn't even muster enough rancor to have a decent fight.

Of course, I fully realized my new status in life. I was a wonderful story--ambitious young lawyer transformed into an advocate for the poor; turns back on blue-chip firm to work for nothing. Even though she thought I was losing my mind, Claire had found it hard to criticize a saint.

I put a log on the fire, fixed another drink, and slept on the sofa.

Chapter Thirteen

The partners had a private dining room on the eighth floor, and it was supposed to be an honor for an associate to eat there. Rudolph was the sort of klutz who would think that a bowl of Irish oatmeal at 7 A.M. in their special room would help return me to my senses. How could I turn my back on a future filled with power breakfasts?

He had exciting news. He'd spoken with Arthur late the night before and there was in the works a proposal to grant me a twelve-month sabbatical. The firm would supplement whatever salary the clinic paid. It was a worthy cause, they should do more to protect the rights of the poor. I would be treated as the firm's designated pro bono boy for an entire year, and they could all feel good about themselves. I would return with my batteries recharged, my other interests quelled, my talents once again directed to the glory of Drake & Sweeney.

I was impressed and touched by the idea, and I could not simply dismiss it. I promised him I would think about it, and quickly. He cautioned that it would have to be approved by the executive committee since I was not a partner. The firm had never considered such a leave for an associate.

Rudolph was desperate for me to stay, and it had little to do with friendship. Our antitrust division was logjammed with work, and we needed at least two more senior associates with my experience. It was a terrible time for me to leave, but I didn't care. The firm had eight hundred lawyers. They would find the bodies they needed.

The year before I had billed just under seven hundred fifty thousand dollars. That was why I was eating breakfast in their fancy little room, and listening to their urgent plans to keep me. It also made sense to take my annual salary, throw it at the homeless or any charity I wished, for that matter, then entice me back after one year.

Once he finished with the idea of the sabbatical, we proceeded to review the most pressing matters in my office. We were listing things to do when Braden Chance sat at a table not far from ours. He didn't see me at first. There were a dozen or so partners eating, most alone, most deep in the morning papers. I tried to ignore him, but I finally looked over and caught him glaring at me.

"Good morning, Braden," I said loudly, startling him and causing Rudolph to jerk around to see who it was. Chance nodded, said nothing, and suddenly became involved with some toast. "You know him?" Rudolph asked, under his breath. "We've met," I said. During our brief encounter in his office, Chance had demanded the name of my supervising partner. I'd given him Rudolph's name. It was obvious he had not lodged any complaints.

"An ass," Rudolph said, barely audible. It was unanimous. He flipped a page, immediately forgot about Chance, and plowed ahead. There was a lot of unfinished work in my office.

I found myself thinking of Chance and the eviction file. He had a soft look, with pale skin, delicate features, a fragile manner. I could not imagine him in the streets, examining abandoned warehouses filled with squatters, actually getting his hands dirty to make sure his work was thorough. Of course he never did that; he had paralegals. Chance sat at his desk and supervised the paperwork, billing several hundred an hour while the Hector Palmas of the firm took care of the nasty details. Chance had lunch and played golf with the executives of RiverOaks; that was his role as a partner.

He probably didn't know the names of the people evicted from the RiverOaks/TAG warehouse, and why should he? They were just squatters, nameless, faceless, homeless. he wasn't there with the cops when they were dragged from their little dwellings and thrown into the streets. But Hector Palma probably saw it happen.

And if Chance didn't know the names of Lontae Burton and family, then he couldn't make the connection between the eviction and their deaths. Or maybe he did know now. Maybe someone had told him.

These questions would have to be answered by Hector Palma, and soon. It was Wednesday. I was leaving on Friday.

Rudolph wrapped up our breakfast at eight, just in time for another meeting in his office with some very important people. I went to my desk and read the Post. There was a gut-wrenching photo of the five unopened caskets in the sanctuary, and a thorough review of the service and the march afterward.

There was also an editorial, a well-written challenge to all of us with food and roofs to stop and think about the Lontae Burtons of our city. They were not going away. They could not be swept from the streets and deposited in some hidden place so we didn't have to see them. They were living in cars, squatting in shacks, freezing in makeshift tents, sleeping on park benches, waiting for beds in crowded and sometimes dangerous shelters. We shared the same city; they were a part of our society. If we didn't help them, they would multiply in numbers. And they would continue to die in our streets.

I cut the editorial from the paper, folded it, and placed it in my wallet.

* * *

Through the paralegal network, I made contact with Hector Palma. It would not be wise to approach him directly; Chance was probably lurking nearby.

We met in the main library on the third floor, between stacks of books, away from security cameras and anybody else. He was extremely nervous.

"Did you put that file on my desk?" I asked him point-blank. There was little time for games.

"What file?" he asked, cutting his eyes around as if gunmen were tracking us.

"The RiverOaks/TAG eviction. You handled it, right?"

He didn't know how much I knew, or how little. "Yeah," he said.

"Where's the file?"

He pulled a book off the shelf and acted as though he were deep in research. "Chance keeps all the files."

"In his office?"

"Yes. Locked in a file cabinet." We were practically whispering. I had not been nervous about the meeting, but I caught myself glancing around. Anybody watching would have immediately known that we were up to something.

"What's in the file?" I asked.

"Bad stuff."

"Tell me."

"I have a wife and four kids. I'm not about to get fired."

"You have my word."

"You're leaving. What do you care?"

Word traveled fast, but I was not surprised. I often wondered who gossiped more, the lawyers or their secretaries. Probably the paralegals.

"Why did you put that file on my desk?" I asked.

He reached for another book, his right hand literally shaking. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He flipped a few pages, then walked to the end of the' row. I followed along, certain no one was anywhere near us. He stopped and found another book; he still wanted to talk.

"I need that file," I said.

"I don't have it."

"Then how can I get it?"

"You'll have to steal it."

"Fine. Where do I get a key?"

He studied my face for a moment, trying to decide how serious I was. "I don't have a key," he said.