The sabbatical concept was killed in the executive committee. While no one was supposed to know what that group did in its private meetings, it was reported to me by a very somber Rudolph that a bad precedent could be set. With a firm so large, granting a year's leave to one associate might trigger all sorts of requests from other malcontents.
There would be no safety net. The door would slam when I walked through it.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" he asked, standing before my desk. There were two large storage boxes on the floor next to him. Polly was already packing my junk.
"I'm sure," I said with a smile. "Don't worry about me."
"Thanks, Rudolph." He left, shaking his head. After Claire's blindside the night before, I had not been able to think about the sabbatical. More urgent thoughts cluttered my brain. I was about to be divorced, and single, and homeless myself.
Suddenly I was concerned with a new apartment, not to mention a new job and office and career. I closed the door, and scanned the real estate section of the classifieds.
I would sell the car and get rid of the four-hundredeighty-dollar-a-month payment. I'd buy a clunker, insure it heavily, and wait for it to disappear into the darkness of my new neighborhoods. If I wanted a decent apartment in the District, it became apparent that most of my new salary would go for rent.
I left early for lunch, and spent two hours racing around Central Washington looking at lofts. The cheapest was a dump for eleven hundred a month, much too much for a street lawyer.
* * *
Another file awaited me upon my return from lunch; another plain manila legal-sized one, with no writing on the outside of it. Same spot on my desk. Inside, two keys were taped to the left side, a typed note was stapled to the right. It read:
Top key is to Chance's door. Bottom key is to file drawer under window. Copy and return. Careful, Chance is very suspicious. Lose the keys.
Polly appeared instantly, as she so often did; no knock, not a sound, just a sudden ghostlike presence in the room. She was pouting and ignoring me. We'd been together for four years, and she claimed to be devastated by my departure. We weren't really that close. She'd be reassigned in days. She was a very nice person, but the least of my worries.
I quickly closed the file, not knowing if she had seen it. I waited for a moment as she busied herself with my storage boxes. She didn't mention it--strong evidence that she was unaware of it. But since she saw everything in the hallway around my office, I couldn't imagine how Hector or anyone else could enter and leave without being seen.
Barry Nuzzo, fellow hostage and friend, dropped by to have a serious talk. He shut the door and stepped around the boxes. I didn't want to discuss my leaving, so I told him about Claire. His wife and Claire were both from Providence, a fact that seemed oddly significant in Washington. We had socialized with them a few times over the years, but the group friendship had gone the way of the marriage.
He was surprised, then saddened, then seemed to shake it off quite well. "You're having a bad month," he said. "I'm sorry."
"It's been a long slide," I said.
We talked about the old days, the guys who had come and gone. We had not bothered to replay the Mister affair over a beer, and that struck me as strange. Two friends face death together, walk away from it, then get too busy to help each other with the aftermath.
We eventually got around to it; it was difficult to avoid with the storage boxes in the middle of the floor. I realized that the incident was the reason for our conversation.
"I'm sorry I let you down," he said.
"Come on, Barry."
"No, really. I should're been here."
"Because it's obvious you've lost your mind," he said with a laugh.
I tried to enjoy his humor. "Yeah, I'm a little crazy now, I guess, but I'll get over it."
"No, seriously, I heard you were having trouble. I tried to find you last week but you were gone. I was worried about you, but I've been in trial, you know, the usual."
"I really feel bad for not being here, Mike. I'm sorry, '
"Come on. Stop it."
"We all got the hell scared out of us, but you could've been hit."
"He could've killed all of us, Barry. Real dynamite, a missed shot, boom. Let's not replay it."
"The last thing I saw as we were scrambling out the door was you, covered with blood, screaming. I thought you were hit. We got outside, in a pile, with people grabbing us, yelling, and I was waiting for the blast. I thought, Mike's still in there, and he's hurt. We stopped by the elevators. Somebody cut the ropes from our wrists, and I glanced back just in time to see you as the cops grabbed you. I remember the blood. All that damned blood."
I didn't say anything. He needed this. Somehow it would ease his mind. He could report to Rudolph and the others that he had at least tried to talk me out of it.
"All the way down, I kept asking, 'Did Mike get hit? Did ,Mike get hit?' No one could answer. It seemed like an hour passed before they said you were okay. I was going to call you when I got home, but the kids wouldn't leave me alone. I should have."
"I'm sorry, Mike."
"Please don't say that again. It's over, done with. We could've talked about it for days, and nothing would've changed."
"When did you realize you were leaving?"
I had to think about this for a moment. The truthful answer was at the point Sunday when Bill yanked the sheets back and I saw my little pal Ontario finally at peace. It was then and there, at that moment, in the city morgue, that I became someone else.
"Over the weekend," I said, with no further explanation. He didn't need one.
He shook his head, as if the storage boxes were primarily his fault. I decided to help him through it. "You couldn't have stopped me, Barry. No one could."
Then he began nodding, in agreement because he understood somehow. A gun in your face, the clock stops, priorities emerge at once--God, family, friends. Money falls to the bottom. The Firm and the Career vanish as each awful second ticks by and you realize this could be the last day of your life.
"How about you?" I asked. "How are you doing?"
The Firm and the Career stay on the bottom for a few short hours.
"We started a trial on Thursday. In fact, we were preparing for it when Mister interrupted us. We couldn't ask the Judge for a continuance because the client had been waiting four years for a trial date. And we weren't injured, you know. Not physically, anyway. So we kicked into high gear, started the trial, and never slowed down. The trial saved us."
Of course it did. Work is therapy, even salvation at Drake & Sweeney. I wanted to scream at him, because two weeks ago I would have said the same thing.
"Good," I said. How nice. "So you're okay?"
"Sure." He was a litigator, a macho player with Teflon skin. He also had three kids, so the luxury of a thirtysomething detour was out of the question. The clock suddenly called him. We shook hands, embraced, and made all the usual promises to keep in touch.
* * *
I kept the door closed so I could stare at the file and decide what to do. Before long I'd made a few assumptions. One, the keys worked. Two, it was not a setup; I had no known enemies and I was leaving anyway. Three, the file was really in the office, in the drawer under the window. Four, it was possible to get it without being caught. Five, it could be copied in a short period of time. Six, it could then be returned as if nothing had happened. Seven, and the biggest of all, it actually contained damning evidence.
I wrote these down on a legal pad. Taking the file would be grounds for instant dismissal, but I didn't care about that. Same for getting caught in Chance's office with an unauthorized key.
Copying it would be the challenge. Since no file at the firm was less than an inch thick, there would probably be a hundred pages to Xerox, assuming I copied everything. I would have to stand in front of a machine for several minutes, exposed. That would be too dangerous. Secretaries and clerks did the copying, not lawyers. The machines were high-tech, complicated, and no doubt just waiting to jam the instant I pushed a button. They were also coded--buttons had to be pushed so that every copy could be billed to a client. And they were in open areas. I couldn't think of a sin gle copier in a corner. Perhaps I could find one in another section of the firm, but my presence there would be suspicious.
I would have to leave the building with it, and that would border on being a criminal act. I wouldn't steal the file, though, just borrow it.
At four, I walked through the real estate section with my sleeves rolled up, holding a stack of files as if I had serious business there. Hector was not at his desk. Braden Chance was in his office, with his door cracked, his bitchy voice on the phone. A secretary smiled at me as I strolled by. I saw no security cameras peeking down from above. Some floors had them; others didn't. Who'd want to breach security in real estate?
I left at five. I bought sandwiches at a deli and drove to my new office.
* * *
My partners were still there, waiting for me. Sofia actually smiled as we shook hands, but only for an instant.
"Welcome aboard," Abraham said gravely, as if I were climbing onto a sinking ship. Mordecai waved his arms at a small room next to his.
"How about this?" he said. "Suite E."
"Beautiful," I said, stepping into my new office. It was about half the size of the one I'd just left. My desk at the firm wouldn't fit in it. There were four file cabinets on one wall, each a different color. The light was a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. I didn't see a phone.
"I like it," I said, and I wasn't lying.
"We'll get you a phone tomorrow," he said, pulling the shades down over a window AC unit. "This was last used by a young lawyer named Banebridge."
"What happened to him?"
"Couldn't handle the money."
It was getting dark, and Sofia seemed anxious to leave. Abraham retreated to his office. Mordecai and I ate dinner at his desk--the sandwiches I'd brought with the bad coffee he'd brewed.
The copier was a bulky one of eighties' vintage, free of code panels and the other bells and whistles favored by my former firm. It sat in a corner of the main room, near one of the four desks covered with old files.
"What time are you leaving tonight?" I asked Mordecai between bites.
"I don't know. In an hour I guess. Why?"
"Just curious. I'm going back to Drake & Sweeney for a couple of hours, last-minute stuff they want me to finish. Then I'd like to bring a load of my office junk here, tonight. Would that be possible?"
He was chewing his food. He reached into a drawer, pulled out a ring with three keys on it, and tossed it to me. "Come and go as you please," he said.
"Will it be safe?"
"No. So be careful. Park right out there, as close to the door as you can. Walk fast. Then lock yourself in."
He must have seen the fear in my eyes, because he said, "Get used to it. Be smart."
I walked fast and smart to my car at six-thirty. The sidewalk was empty; no hoodlums, no gunfire, not a scratch on my Lexus. I felt proud as I unlocked it and drove away. Maybe I could survive on the streets.
* * *
The drive back to Drake & Sweeney took eleven minutes. If it took thirty minutes to copy Chance's file, then it would be out of his office for about an hour. Assuming all went well. And he would never know. I waited until eight, then walked casually down to real estate, my sleeves rolled up again as if I were hard at work.
The hallways were deserted. I knocked on Chance's door, no answer. It was locked. I then checked every office, knocking softly at first, then harder, then turning the knob. About half were locked. Around each comer, I checked for security cameras. I looked in conference rooms and typing pools. Not a soul.
The key to his door was just like mine, same color and size. It worked perfectly, and I was suddenly inside a dark office and faced with the decision of whether or not to turn on the lights. A person driving by couldn't tell which office was suddenly lit, and I doubted if anyone in the hallway could see a ray of light at the bottom of the door. Plus, it was very dark, and I didn't have a flashlight. I locked the door, turned on the lights, went straight to the file drawer under the window, and unlocked it with the second key. On my knees, I quietly pulled the drawer out.
There were dozens of files, all relating to RiverOaks, all arranged neatly according to some method. Chance and his secretary were well organized, a trait our firm cherished. A thick one was labeled RiverOaks/TAG, Inc. I gently removed it, and began to flip through it. I wanted to make sure it was the right file.
A male voice yelled "Hey!" in the hallway, and I jumped out of my skin.
Another male voice answered from a few doors down, and the two struck up a conversation somewhere very near Chance's door. Basketball talk. Bullets and Knicks.
With rubbery knees, I walked to the door. I turned off the lights, listening to their talk. Then I sat on Braden's fine leather sofa for ten minutes. If I was seen leaving the office empty-handed, nothing would be done. Tomorrow was my last day anyway. Of course I wouldn't have the file either.
What if someone spotted me leaving with the file? If they confronted me, I would be dead.
I pondered the situation furiously, getting caught in every scenario. Be patient, I kept telling myself. They'll go away. Basketball was followed by girls, neither sounded married, probably a couple of derks from Georgetown's law school, working nights. Their voices soon faded.
I locked the drawer in the dark and took the file. Five minutes, six, seven, eight. I quietly opened the door, slowly placed my head in the crack, and looked up and down the hall. No one. I scooted out, past Hector's desk, and headed for the reception area, walking briskly while trying to appear casual.
"Hey!" someone yelled from behind. I turned a corner, and glanced back just quickly enough to see a guy coming after me. The nearest door was to a small library. I ducked inside; luckily it was dark. I moved between tiers of books until I found another door on the other side. I opened it, and at the end of a short hallway I saw an exit sign above a door. I ran through it. Figuring I could run faster down the stairs than up them, I bounded down, even though my office was two floors above. If by chance he recognized me, he might go there looking for me.
I emerged on the ground floor, out of breath, without a coat, not wanting to be seen by anyone, especially the security person guarding the elevators to keep out any more street people. I went to a side exit, the same one Polly and I had used to avoid the reporters the night Mister got shot. It was freezing and a light rain was falling as I ran to my car.
* * *
The thoughts of a bungling first-time thief. It was a stupid thing to do. Very stupid. Did I get caught? No one saw me leave Chance's office. No one knew I had a file that wasn't mine.
I shouldn't have run. When he yelled, I should're stopped, chatted him up, acted as if everything were fine, and if he wanted to see the file, I'd rebuke him and send him away. He was probably just one of the lowly clerks I had heard earlier.
But why had he yelled like that? If he didn't know me, why was he trying to stop me from the other end of the hallway? I drove onto Massachusetts, in a hurry to get the copying done and somehow get the file back where it belonged. I had pulled all-nighters before, and if I had to wait until 3 A.M. to sneak back to Chance's office, then I would do so.
I relaxed a little. The heater was blowing at full speed.
There was no way to know that a drug bust had gone bad, a cop had been shot, a Jaguar owned by a dealer was speeding down Eighteenth Street. I had the green light on New Hampshire, but the boys who shot the cop weren't concerned with the rules of the road. The Jaguar was a blur to my left, then the air bag exploded in my face.
When I came to, the driver's door was pinching my left shoulder. Black faces were staring in at me through the shattered window. I heard sirens, then drifted away again.
One of the paramedics unlatched my seat belt, and they pulled me over the console and through the passenger door. "I don't see any blood," someone said.
"Can you walk?" a paramedic asked. My shoulder and ribs were hurting. I tried to stand, but my legs wouldn't work.
"I'm okay," I said, sitting on the edge of a stretcher. There was a racket behind me, but I couldn't turn around. They strapped me down, and as I entered the ambulance I saw the Jaguar, upside down and surrounded by cops and medics.
I kept saying, "I'm okay, I'm okay," as they checked my blood pressure. We were moving; the siren faded.
They took me to the emergency room at George Washington University Medical Center. X-rays revealed no breaks of any type. I was bruised and in terrible pain. They filled me with painkillers and rolled me up to a private room.
I awoke sometime in the night. Claire was sleeping in a chair next to my bed.
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