Chapter Nineteen

I was in no hurry to leave the clinic at the end of my first day. Home was an empty attic, not much larger than any three of the cubbyholes at the Samaritan House. Home was a bedroom with no bed, a living room with cableless TV, a kitchen with a card table and no fridge. I had vague, distant plans to furnish and decorate.

Sofia left promptly at five, her standard hour. Her neighborhood was rough, and she preferred to be home with the doors locked at dark. Mordecai left around six, after spending thirty minutes with me discussing the day. Don't stay too late, he warned, and try to leave in pairs. He had checked with Abraham Lebow, who planned to work until nine, and suggested We leave together. Park close. Walk fast. Watch everything.

"So what do you think?" he asked, pausing by the door on the way out.

"I think it's fascinating work. The human contact is inspiring."

"It'll break your heart at times."

"It already has."

"That's good. If you reach the point where it doesn't hurt, then it's time to quit."

"I just started."

"I know, and it's good to have you. We've needed a WASP around here."

"Then I'm just happy to be a token."

He left, and I closed the door again. I had detected an unspoken, open-door policy; Sofia worked out in the open, and I had been amused throughout the afternoon as I heard her berate one bureaucrat after another over the phone while the entire clinic listened. Mordecai was an animal on the phone, his deep gravel voice roaring through the air, making all sorts of demands and vile threats. Abraham was much quieter, but his door was always open.

Since I didn't yet know what I was doing, I preferred to keep mine closed. I was sure they would be patient.

I called the three Hector Palmas in the phone book. The first was not the Hector I wanted. The second number was not answered. The third was voice mail for the real Hector Palma; the message was brusque: We're not home. Leave message. We'll return your call.

It was his voice.

With infinite resources, the firm had many ways and places to hide Hector Palma. Eight hundred lawyers, 170 paralegals, offices in Washington, New York, Chicago, L.A., Portland, Palm Beach, London, and Hong Kong. They were too smart to fire him because he knew too much. So they would double his pay, promote him, move him to a different office in a new city with a larger apartment.

I wrote down his address from the phone book. If the voice mail was still working, perhaps he hadn't yet moved. With my newly acquired street savvy, I was sure I could track him down.

There was a slight knock on the door, which opened as it was being tapped. The bolt and knob were worn and wobbly, and the door would shut but it wouldn't catch. It was Abraham. "Got a minute?" he said, sitting down.

It was his courtesy call, his hello. He was a quiet, distant man with an intense, brainy aura that would have been intimidating except for the fact that I had spent the past seven years in a building with four hundred lawyers of all stripes and sorts. I had met and known a dozen Abrahams, aloof and earnest types with little regard for social skills.

"I wanted to welcome you," he said, then immediately launched into a passionate justification for public interest law. He was a middle-class kid from Brooklyn, law school at Columbia, three horrible years with a Wall Street firm, four years in Atlanta with an antideath-penalty group, two frustrating years on Capitol Hill, then an ad in a lawyer's magazine for an advocate's position with the 14th Street Legal Clinic had caught his attention.

"The law is a higher calling," he said. "It's more than making money." Then he delivered another speech, a tirade against big firms and lawyers who rake in millions in fees. A friend of his from Brooklyn was making ten million a year suing breast implant companies from coast to coast. "Ten million dollars a year! You could house and feed every homeless person in the District!"

Anyway, he was delighted I had seen the light, and sorry about the episode with Mister.

"What, specifically, do you do?" I asked. I was enjoying our talk. He was fiery and bright, with a vast vocabulary that kept me reeling.

"Two things. Policy. I work with other advocates to shape legislation. And I direct litigation, usually class actions. We've sued the Commerce Department because the homeless were grossly underrepresented in the ninety census. We've sued the District school system for refusing to admit homeless children. We've sued as a class because the District wrongfully terminated several thousand housing grants without due process. We've attacked many of the statutes designed to criminalize homelessness. We'll sue for almost anything if the homeless are getting screwed."

"That's complicated litigation."

"It is, but, fortunately, here in D.C. we have lots of very good lawyers willing to donate their time. I'm the coach. I devise the game plan, put the team together, then call the plays."

"You don't see clients?"

"Occasionally. But I work best when I'm in my little room over there, alone. That's the reason I'm glad you're here. We need help with the traffic."

He jumped to his feet; the conversation was over. We planned our getaway at precisely nine, and he was gone. In the midst of one of his speeches, I had noticed he did not have a wedding band.

The law was his life. The old adage that the law was a jealous mistress had been taken to a new level by people like Abraham and myself.

The law was all we had.

* * *

The District police waited until almost 1 A.M., then struck like commandos. They rang the doorbell, then immediately started hitting the door with their fists. By the time Claire could collect her wits, get out of bed, and pull something on over her pajamas, they were kicking the door, ready to smash it in. "Police!" they announced after her terrified inquiry. She slowly opened the door, then stepped back in horror as four men--two in uniforms and two in suits--rushed in as if lives were in danger.

"Stand back!" one demanded. She was unable to speak.

"Stand back!" he screamed at her.

They slammed the door behind them. The leader, Lieutenant Gasko, in a cheap tight suit, stepped forward and jerked from his pocket some folded papers. "Are you Claire Brock?" he asked, in his worst Columbo impersonation.

She nodded, mouth open. "I'm Lieutenant Gasko. Where's Michael Brock?"

"He doesn't live here anymore," she managed to utter. The other three hovered nearby, ready to pounce on something.

There was no way Gasko could believe this. But he didn't have a warrant for arrest, just one authorizing a search. "I have a search warrant for this apartment, signed by Judge Kisner at five P.M. this afternoon." He unfolded the papers and held them open for her to see, as if the fine print could be read and appreciated at that moment.

"Please stand aside," he said. Claire backed up even farther.

"What are you looking for?" she asked.

"It's in the papers," Gasko said, tossing them onto the kitchen counter. The four fanned out through the apartment.

The cell phone was next to my head, Which was resting on a pillow on the floor at the opening of my sleeping bag. It was the third night I'd slept on the floor, part of my effort to identify with my new clients. I was eating little, sleeping even less, rating to acquire an appreciation for park benches and sidewalks. The left side of my body was purple down to the knee, extremely sore and painful, and so I slept on my right side.

It was a small price to pay. I had a roof, heat, a locked door, a job, the security of food tomorrow, the future.

I found the cell phone and said, "Hello."

"Michael!" Claire hissed in a low voice. "The cops are searching the apartment."


"They're here now. Four of them, with a search warrant."

"What do they want?"

"They're looking for a file."

"I'll be there in ten minutes."

"Please hurry."

* * *

I roared into the apartment like a man possessed. Gasko happened to be the first cop I encountered. "I'm Michael Brock. Who the hell are you?"

"Lieutenant Gasko," he said with a sneer.

"Let me see some identification." I turned to Claire, who was leaning on the refrigerator holding a cup of coffee. "Get me a piece of paper," I said.

Gasko pulled his badge from his coat pocket, and held it high for me to see.

"Larry Gasko," I said. "You'll be the first person I sue, at nine o'clock this morning. Now, who's with you?"

"There are three others," Claire said, handing me a sheet of paper. "I think they're in the bedrooms."

I walked to the rear of the apartment, Gasko behind me, Claire somewhere behind him. I saw a plainclothes cop in the guest bedroom on all fours peeking under the bed. "Let me see some identification," I yelled at him. He scrambled to his feet, ready to fight. I took a step closer, gritted my teeth, and said, "ID, asshole."

"Who are you?" he asked, taking a step back, looking at Gasko.

"Michael Brock. Who are you?"

He flipped out a badge. "Darrell Clark," I announced loudly as I scribbled it down. "Defendant number two."

"You can't sue me," he said.

"Watch me, big boy. In eight hours, in federal court, I will sue you for a million bucks for an illegal search. And I'll win, and get a judgment, then I'll hound your ass until you file for bankruptcy."

The other two cops appeared from my old bedroom, and I was surrounded by them.

"Claire," I said. "Get the video camera please. I want this recorded." She disappeared into the living room.

"We have a warrant signed by a judge," Gasko said, somewhat defensively. The other three took a step forward to tighten the circle.

"The search is illegal," I said bitterly. "The people who signed the warrant will be sued. Each of you will be sued. You will be placed on leave, probably without pay, and you will face a civil lawsuit."

"We have immunity," Gasko said, glancing at his buddies.

"Like hell you do."

Claire was back with the camera. "Did you tell them I didn't live here?" I asked her. "I did," she said, and raised the camera to her eye. "Yet you boys continued the search. At that point it became illegal. You should've known to stop, but of course that wouldn't be any fun, would it? It's much more fun to pilfer through the private things of others. You had a chance, boys, and you blew it. Now you'll have to pay the consequences."

"You're nuts," Gasko said. They tried not to show fear--but they knew I was a lawyer. They had not found me in the apartment, so maybe I knew what I was talking about. I did not. But at that moment, it sounded good. The legal ice upon which I was skating was very thin. I ignored him. "Your names please," I said to the two uniformed cops. They produced badges. Ralph Lilly and Robert Blower. "Thanks," I said like a real smartass. "You will be defendants number three and four. Now, why don't you leave."

"Where's the file?" Gasko asked.

"The file is not here because I don't live here. That's why you're going to get sued, Officer Gasko."

"Get sued all the time, no big deal."

"Great. Who's your attorney?"

He couldn't pull forth the name of one in the crucial split-second that followed. I walked to the den, and they reluctantly followed.

"Leave," I said. "The file is not here."

Claire was nailing them with the video, and that kept their bitching to a minimum. Blower mumbled something about lawyers as they shuffled toward the door.

I read the warrant after they were gone. Claire watched me, sipping coffee at the kitchen table. The shock of the search had worn off; she was once again subdued, even icy. She would not admit to being frightened, would not dare seem the least bit vulnerable, and she certainly wasn't about to give the impression that she needed me in any way. "What's in the file?" she asked.

She didn't really want to know. What Claire wanted was some assurance that it wouldn't happen again.

"It's a long story." In other words, don't ask. She understood that.

"Are you really going to sue them?"

"No. There are no grounds for a suit. I just wanted to get rid of them."

"It worked. Can they come back?"


"That's good to hear."

I folded the search warrant and stuck it in a pocket. It covered only one item--the RiverOaks/TAG file, which at the moment was well hidden in the walls of my new apartment along with a copy of it.

"Did you tell them where I live?" I asked.

"I don't know where you live," she answered. Then there was a space of time during which it would have been appropriate for her to ask where, in fact, I did live. She did not.

"I'm very sorry this happened, Claire."

"It's okay. Just promise it won't happen again."

"I promise."

I left without a hug, a kiss, a touching of any kind. I simply said good night and walked through the door. That was precisely what she wanted.

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