Page 28 of The Street Lawyer

The second stop was a loft five floors above the street, and I almost didn't make it up the stairs. No elevator. And not much heating. Leon politely thanked the manager.

The next loft was four floors up, but with a nice, clean elevator. The rowhouse was on Wyoming, a pretty shaded street just off Connecticut. The rent was five hundred and fifty a month, and I had already said yes before I saw the place. I was sinking fast, thinking more and more about the pain pills I'd left on the counter, and ready to rent anything.

Three tiny rooms in an attic with sloping ceilings, a bathroom with plumbing that seemed to be working, clean floors, and something of a view over the street.

"We'll take it," Leon said to the landlord. I was leaning on a door frame, ready to collapse. In a small office in the basement, I hurriedly read the lease, signed it, and wrote a check for the deposit and first month's rent.

I'd told Claire I'd be out by the weekend. I was determined to make it happen.

If Leon was curious about my move from the swankiness of Georgetown to a three-room pigeonhole in Adams-Morgan, he didn't ask. He was too much of a professional. He returned me to our apartment, and he waited in the car while I swallowed my pills and took a quick nap.

* * *

A phone was ringing somewhere in the midst of my chemical-induced fog. I stumbled forth, found it, managed to say, "Hello." Rudolph said, "Thought you were in the hospital." I heard his voice, and recognized it, but the fog was still clearing. "I was," I said, thick-tongued. "Now I'm not. What do you want?"

"We missed you this afternoon."

Ah yes. The punch and cake show. "I didn't plan to be in a car wreck, Rudolph. Please forgive me."

"A lot of people wanted to say good-bye."

"They can drop me a line. Tell them to just fax it over."

"You feel lousy, don't you?"

"Yes, Rudolph. I feel like I've just been hit by a car."

"Are you on medication?"

"Why do you care?"

"Sorry. Look, Braden Chance was in my office an hour ago. He's quite anxious to see you. Odd, don't you think?"

The fog lifted and my head was much clearer. "See me about what?"

"He wouldn't say. But he's looking for you."

"Tell him I've left."

"I did. Sorry to bother you. Stop by if you get a minute. You still have friends here."

"Thanks, Rudolph."

I stuffed the pills in my pockets. Leon was napping in the car. As we sped away, I called Mordecai. He'd found the accident report; it listed a Hundley Towing as the wrecker service. Hundley Towing used an answering machine for most of its calls. The streets were slick, lots of accidents, a busy time for people who owned tow trucks. A mechanic had finally answered the phone around three, but proved to be completely useless.

Leon found the Hundley place on Rhode Island near Seventh. In better days it had been a full-service gas station, now it was a garage, towing service, used-car lot, and U-Haul trailer rental. Every window was adorned with black bars. Leon maneuvered as close as possible to the front door. "Cover me," I said, as I got out and dashed inside. The door kicked back when I walked through, hitting me on my left arm. I doubled over in pain. A mechanic wearing overalls and grease rounded a comer and glared at me.

I explained why I was there. He found a clipboard and studied papers stuck to it. In the rear, I could hear men talking and cursing---no doubt they were back there shooting dice, drinking whiskey, probably selling crack.

"The police have it," he said, still looking at the papers.

"Any idea why?"

"Not really. Was there a crime or something?"

"Yeah, but my car wasn't involved with the crime."

He gave me a blank look. He had his own problems.

"Any idea where it might be?" I asked, trying to be pleasant.

"When they impound them, they usually take them to a lot up on Georgia, north of Howard."

"How many lots does the city have?"

He shrugged and began walking away. "More than one," he said, and disappeared.

I managed the door with care, then bolted for Leon's car.

It was dark when we found the lot, half a city block lined with chain link and razor wire. Inside were hundreds of wrecked cars, arranged haphazardly, some stacked on top of others.

Leon stood with me on the sidewalk, peering through the chain link. "Over there," I said, pointing. The Lexus was parked near a shed, facing us. The impact had demolished the left front. The fender was gone; the engine exposed and crushed.

"You're a very lucky man," Leon said.

Next to it was the Jaguar, its roof flattened, all windows missing.

There was an office of some type in the shed, but it was closed and dark. The gates were locked with heavy chains. The razor wire glistened in the rain. There were tough guys hanging around a corner, not far away. I could feel them watching us. "Let's get out of here," I said.

Leon drove me to National Airport, the only place I knew to rent a car.

* * *

The table was set; carry-out Chinese was on the stove. Claire was waiting, and worried to some degree, though it was impossible to tell how much. I told her I had to go rent a car, pursuant to instructions from my insurance company. She examined me like a good doctor, and made me take a pill.

"I thought you were going to rest," she said.

"I tried. It didn't work. I'm starving."

It would be our last meal together as husband and wife, ending the same way we'd begun, with something fast and prepared elsewhere.

"Do you know someone named Hector Palma?" she asked, halfway through dinner. I swallowed hard. "Yes."

"He called an hour ago. Said it was important that he talk to you. Who is he?"

"A paralegal with the firm. I was supposed to spend the morning with him going over one of my cases. He's in a tight spot."

"Must be. He wants to meet with you at nine tonight, at Nathan's on M."

"Why a bar?" I mused.

"He didn't say. Sounded suspicious."

My appetite vanished, but I kept eating to appear unmoved. Not that it was necessary. She couldn't have cared less.

* * *

I walked to M Street, in a light rain that was turning to sleet, and in significant pain. Parking would've been impossible on Friday night. And I hoped to stretch my muscles some, and clear my head.

The meeting could be nothing but trouble, and I prepped for it as I walked. I thought of lies to cover my trail, and more lies to cover the first set. Now that I had stolen, the lying didn't seem like such a big deal. Hector might be working for the firm; there was a chance he could be wired. I would listen carefully, and say little.

Nathan's was only half-full. I was ten minutes early, but he was there, waiting for me in a small booth. As I approached he suddenly jumped from his seat and thrust a hand at me. "You must be Michael. I'm Hector Palma, from real estate. Nice to meet you."

It was an assault, a burst of personality that put me on my heels. I shook hands, reeling, and said something like, "Nice to meet you."

He pointed to the booth. "Here, have a seat," he said, all warmth and smiles. I delicately- bent and squeezed my way into the booth.

"What happened to your face?" he asked.

"I kissed an air bag."

"Yeah, I heard about the accident," he said quickly. Very quickly. "Are you okay? Any broken bones?"

"No," I said slowly, trying to read him.