Page 7 of The Street Lawyer

It was a cold-blooded cover-up, and, sadly, I understood the rationale behind it. I was one of the rich white guys. What did I expect, a memorial? A pile of flowers brought in by Mister's fellow street people?

I didn't know what I expected. But the smell of fresh paint made me nauseous.

On my desk every morning, in precisely the same spot, were The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. I used to know the name of the person who put them there, but it was long forgotten. On the front page of the Post's Metro section, below the fold, was the same mug shot of DeVon Hardy, and a large story about yesterday's little crisis.

I read it quickly because I figured I knew more details than any reporter. But I learned a few things. The red sticks were not dynamite. Mister had taken a couple of broom handles, sawed them into little pieces, wrapped the ominous silver tape around them, and scared the living hell out of us. The gun was a .44 automatic, stolen.

Because it was the Post, the story dealt more with DeVon Hardy than with his victims, though, in all fairness, and much to my satisfaction, not a single word had been uttered by anyone at Drake & Sweeney.

According to one Mordecai Green, Director of the 14th Street Legal Clinic, DeVon Hardy had worked for many years as a janitor at the National Arboretum. He'd lost his job as a result of budget cutting. He had served a few months in jail for burglary, then landed in the streets. He'd struggled with alcohol and drugs, and was routinely picked up for shoplifting. Green's clinic had represented him several times. If there was family, his lawyer knew nothing about it.

As to motive, Green had little to offer. He did say that DeVon Hardy had been evicted recently from an old warehouse in which he had been squatting.

An eviction is a legal procedure, carried out by lawyers. I had a pretty good idea which one of the thousands of D.C. firms had tossed Mister into the streets.

The 14th Street Legal Clinic was funded by a charity and worked only with the homeless, according to Green. "Back when we got federal money, we had seven lawyers. Now we're down to two," he said.

Not surprisingly, the Journal didn't mention the story. Had any of the nine corporate lawyers in the nation's fifth-largest silk-stocking firm been killed or even slightly wounded, it would've been on the front page.

Thank God it wasn't a bigger story. I was at my desk, reading my papers, in one piece with lots of work to do. I could've been at the morgue alongside Mister.

* * *

Polly arrived a few minutes before eight with a big smile and a plate of homemade cookies. She was not surprised to see me at work.

In fact, all nine of the hostages punched in, most ahead of schedule. It would've been a glaring sign of weakness to stay home with the wife and get pampered.

"Arthur's on the phone," Polly announced. Our firm had at least ten Arthurs, but only one prowled the hahs without the need of a last name. Arthur Jacobs was the senior partner, the CEO, the driving force, a man we admired and respected greatly. If the firm had a heart and soul, it was Arthur. In seven years, I had spoken to him three times.

I told him I was fine. He complimented me on my courage and grace under pressure, and I almost felt like a hero. I wondered how he knew. He had probably talked to Malamud first, and was working his way down the ladder. So the stories would begin, then the jokes. Umstead and his porcelain vase would no doubt cause much hilarity.

Arthur wanted to meet with the ex-hostages at ten, in the conference room, to record our statements on video.

"Why?" I asked.

"The boys in litigation think it's a good idea," he said, his voice razor-sharp in spite of his eighty years. "His family will probably sue the cops."

"Of course," I said.

"And they'll probably name us as defendants. People will sue for anything, you know."

Thank goodness, I almost said. Where would we be without lawsuits?

I thanked him for his concern, and he was gone, off to call the next hostage.

The parade started before nine, a steady stream of well-wishers and gossipers lingering by my office, deeply concerned about me but also desperate for the details. I had a pile of work to do, but I couldn't get to it. In the quiet moments between guests, I sat and stared at the row of files awaiting my attention, and I was numb. My hands wouldn't reach.

It was not the same. The work was not important, My desk was not life and death. I had seen death, almost felt it, and I was naive to think I could simply shrug it off and bounce back as if nothing had happened.

I thought about DeVon Hardy and his red sticks with the multicolored wires running in all directions. He'd spent hours building his toys and planning his assault. He'd stolen a gun, found our firm, made a crucial mistake that cost him his life, and no one, not one single person I worked with, gave a damn about him.

I finally left. The traffic was getting worse, and I was getting chatted up by people I couldn't stand. Two reporters called. I told Polly I had some errands to run, and she reminded me of the meeting with Arthur. I went to my car, started it and turned on the heater, and sat for a long time debating whether to participate in the reenactment. If I missed it, Arthur would be upset. No one misses a meeting with Arthur.

! drove away. It was a rare opportunity to do something stupid. I'd been traumatized. I had to leave. Arthur and the rest of the firm would just have to give me a break.

* * *

I drove in the general direction of Georgetown, but to no place in particular. The clouds were dark; people scurried along the sidewalks; snow crews were getting ready. I passed a beggar on M Street, and wondered if he knew DeVon Hardy. Where do the street people go in a snowstorm?

I called the hospital and was informed that my wife would be in emergency surgery for several hours. So much for our romantic lunch in the hospital cafeteria.

I turned and went northeast, past Logan Circle, into the rougher sections of the city until I found the 14th Street Legal Clinic. Fourteenth at Q, NW. I parked at the curb, certain I would never again see my Lexus.

The clinic occupied half of a three-story red-brick Victorian mansion that had seen better days. The windows on the top floor were boarded with aging plywood. Next door was a grungy Laundromat. The crack houses couldn't be far away.

The entrance was covered by a bright yellow canopy, and I didn't know whether to knock or to just barge in. The door wasn't locked, and I slowly turned the knob and stepped into another world.

It was a law office of sorts, but a very different one from the marble and mahogany of Drake & Sweeney. In the large room before me there were four metal desks, each covered with a suffocating collection of files stacked a foot high. More files were placed haphazardly on the worn carpet around the desks. The wastebaskets were filled, and wadded sheets of legal paper had rolled off and onto the floor. One wall was covered with file cabinets in a variety of colors. The word processors and phones were ten years old. The wooden bookshelves were sagging. A large fading photograph of Martin Luther King hung crookedly on the back wall. Several smaller offices branched off the front room.

It was busy and dusty and I was fascinated with the place.

A fierce Hispanic woman stopped typing after watching me for a moment. "You looking for somebody?" she asked. It was more of a challenge than a request. A receptionist at Drake & Sweeney would be fired on the spot for such a greeting.

She was Sofia Mendoza, according to a nameplate tacked to the side of her desk, and I would soon learn that she was more than a receptionist. A loud roar came from one of the side rooms, and startled me without amazing Sofia.