"Thanks, but I'd rather not talk about it."
"There's a file missing, Michael. Everyone's pointing at you."
"Who knows you're here?"
"The firm send you?"
I believed him. He'd been a friend for seven years, close at times. More often than not, though, we'd been too busy for friendship.
"Why are they pointing at me?"
"The file has something to do with Mister. You went to Braden Chance and demanded to see it. You were seen near his office the night it disappeared. There is evidence someone gave you some keys that perhaps you shouldn't have had."
"Is that all?"
"That, and the fingerprints."
"Fingerprints?" I asked, trying to appear surprised. "All over the place. The door, the light switch, the file cabinet itself. Perfect matches. You were there, Michael. You took the file. Now what will you do with it?"
"How much do you know about the file?"
"Mister got evicted by one of our real estate clients. He was a squatter. He went nuts, scared the hell out of us, you almost got hit. You cracked up."
"Is that all?"
"That's all they've told us."
"They being the big dogs. We got memos late Friday--the entire firm, lawyers, secretaries, paralegals, ev erybody--informing us that a file had been taken, you were the suspect, and that no member of the firm should have any contact with you. I am forbidden to be here right now."
"I won't tell."
If Braden Chance had made the connection between the eviction and Lontae Burton, he was not the type who would admit this to anyone. Not even his fellow partners. Barry was being truthful. He probably thought my only interest in the file was DeVon Hardy.
"Then why are you here?"
"I'm your friend. Things are crazy right now. My God we had cops in the office on Friday, can you believe that? Last week it was the SWAT team, and we were hostages. Now you've jumped off a cliff. And the thing with Claire. Why don't we take a break? Let's go somewhere for a couple of weeks. Take our wives."
"I don't know. who cares. The islands."
"What would that accomplish?"
"We could thaw out for one thing. Play some tennis. Sleep. Get recharged."
"Paid for by the firm?"
"Paid for by me."
"Forget about Claire. It's over, Barry. It took a long time, but it's over."
"Okay. The two of us will go."
"But you're not supposed to have any contact with me."
"I have an idea. I think I can go to Arthur and have a long chat. We can unwind this thing. You bring back the file, forget whatever is in it, the firm forgives and forgets too, you and I go play tennis for two weeks on Maui, then when we return you go back to your plush office where you belong."
"They sent you, didn't they?"
"No. I swear."
"It won't work, Barry."
"Give me a good reason. Please."
"There's more to being a lawyer than billing hours and making money. Why do we want to become corporate whores? I'm tired of it, Barry. I want to make a difference."
"You sound like a first-year law student."
"Exactly. We got into this business because we thought the law was a higher calling. We could fight injustice and social ills, and do all sorts of great things because we were lawyers. We were idealistic once. Why can't we do it again?"
"I'm not trying to recruit. You have three kids; luckily Claire and I have none. I can afford to go a little nuts."
A radiator in a corner, one I had not yet noticed, began to rattle and hiss. We watched it and waited hopefully for a little heat. A minute passed. Then two.
"They're gonna come after you, Michael," he said, still looking at the radiator, but not seeing.
"They? You mean we?"
"Right. The firm. You can't steal a file. Think about the client. The client has a right to expect confidentiality. If a file walks out, the firm has no choice but to go after it."
"Probably. They're mad as hell, Michael. You can't blame them. There's also talk of a disciplinary action with the bar association. An injunction is likely. Rafter is already working on it."
"Why couldn't Mister have aimed a little lower?"
"They're coming hard."
"The firm has more to lose than I do."
He studied me. He did not know what was in the file.
"There's more than Mister?" he asked.
"A lot more. The firm has tremendous exposure. If they come after me, I go after the firm."
"You can't use a stolen file. No court in the country will allow it into evidence. You don't understand litigation."
"I'm learning. Tell them to back off. Remember, I've got the file, and the file's got the dirt."
"They were just a bunch of squatters, Michael."
"It's much more complicated than that. Someone needs to sit down with Braden Chance and get the truth. Tell Rafter to do his homework before he pulls some harebrained stunt. Believe me, Barry, this is front-page stuff. You guys will be afraid to leave your homes."
"So you're proposing a truce? You keep the file, we leave you alone."
"For now anyway. I don't know about next week or the week after."
"Why can't you talk to Arthur? I'll referee. The three of us will get in a room, lock the door, work this thing out. What do you say?"
"It's too late. People are dead."
"Mister got himself killed."
"There are others." And with that, I had said enough. Though he was my friend, he would repeat most of our conversation to his bosses.
"Would you like to explain?" he said.
"I can't. It's confidential."
"That has a phony sound to it, coming from a lawyer who steals files."
The radiator gurgled and burped, and it was easier to watch it than to talk for a while. Neither of us wanted to say things we would later regret.
He asked about the other employees of the clinic. I gave him a quick tour. "Unbelievable," he mumbled, more than once.
"Can we keep in touch?" he said at the door.
My orientation lasted about thirty min.utes, the time it took us to drive from the clinic to the Samaritan House in Petworth, in Northeast. Mordecai handled the driving and the talking; I sat quietly, holding my briefcase, as nervous as any rookie about to be fed to the wolves. I wore jeans, a white shirt and tie, an old navy blazer, and on my feet I had wellworn Nike tennis shoes and white socks. I had stopped shaving. I was a street lawyer, and I could dress any way I wanted.
Mordecai, of course, had instantly noted the change in style when I walked into his office and announced I was ready for work. He didn't say anything, but his glance lingered on the Nikes. He had seen it all before--big-firm types coming down from the towers to spend a few hours with the poor. For some reason, they felt compelled to grow whiskers and wear denim.
"Your clientele will be a mixture of thirds," he said, driving badly with one hand, holding coffee with another, oblivious to any of the other vehicles crowded around us. "About a third are employed, a third are families with children, a third are mentally disabled, a third are veterans. And about a third of those eligible for low-income housing receive it. In the past fifteen years, two and a half million low-cost housing units have been eliminated, and the federal housing programs have been cut seventy percent. Small wonder people are living on the streets. Governments are balancing budgets on the backs of the poor."