Chapter Sixteen

For reasons that I would soon understand, Mordecai had an intense dislike for District cops, even though most were black. In his opinion, they were rough on the homeless, and that was the standard he invariably used to measure good and bad.

But he knew a few. One was Sergeant Peeler, a man described by Mordecai as "from the streets." Peeler worked with troubled kids in a community center near the legal clinic, and he and Mordecai belonged to the same church. Peeler had contacts, and could pull enough strings to get me to my car.

He walked into the clinic shortly after nine Saturday morning. Mordecai and I were drinking coffee and trying to stay warm. Peeler didn't work Saturdays. I got the impression he would have rather stayed in bed.

With Mordecai doing the driving and talking, and with me in the back, we rode through the slick streets into Northeast. The snow they had forecast was instead a cold rain. Traffic was light. It was another raw February morning; only the hearty ventured onto the sidewalks.

We parked at the curb near the padlocked gates to the city lot just off Georgia Avenue. Peeler said, "Wait here." I could see the remains of my Lexus.

He walked to the gates, pushed a button on a pole, and the door to the office shed opened. A small, thin uniformed policeman with an umbrella came over, and he and Peeler exchanged a few words.

Peeler returned to the car, slamming the door and shaking the water off his shoulders. "He's waiting for you," he said.

I stepped into the rain, raised my umbrella, and walked quickly to the gates where Officer Winkle was waiting without the slightest trace of humor or goodwill. He produced keys by the dozens, somehow found the three that fit the heavy padlocks, and said to me, "Over here," as he opened the gates. I followed him through the gravel lot, avoiding when possible the potholes filled with brown water and mud. My entire body ached with every move, so my hopping and dodging were restricted. He went straight to my car.

I went right to the front seat. No file. After a moment of panic, I found it behind the driver's seat, on the floor, intact. I grabbed it, and was ready to go. I was in no mood to survey the damage I'd walked away from. I had survived in one piece, and that was all that mattered. I'd haggle with the insurance company next week.

"Is that it?" Winkle asked.

"Yes," I said, ready to bolt.

"Follow me."

We entered the shed where a butane heater roared in a corner, blasting us with hot air. tie selected one of ten clipboards from the wall, and began stating at the file I was holding. "Brown manila file," he said as he wrote. "About two inches thick." I stood there clutching it as if it were gold. "Is there a name on it?"

I was in no position to protest. One smart-ass remark, and they would never find me. "Why do you need it?" I asked.

"Put it on the table," he said.

On the table it went. "RiverOaks slash TAG, Inc.," he said, still writing. "File number TBC-96-3381." My trail widened even more.

"Do you own this?" he asked, pointing, with no small amount of suspicion. "Yes."

"Okay. You can go now."

I thanked him, and got no response. I wanted to jog across the lot, but walking was enough of a challenge. He locked the gates behind me.

Mordecai and Peeler both turned around and looked at the file once I was inside. Neither had a clue. I had told Mordecai only that the file was very important. I needed to retrieve it before it was destroyed. All that effort for one plain manila file?

I was tempted to flip through it as we drove back to the clinic. But I didn't.

I thanked Peeler, said good-bye to Mordecai, and drove, cautiously, to my new loft.

* * *

The source of the money was the federal government, no surprise in D.C. The Postal Service planned to construct a twenty-million-dollar bulk-mail facility in the city, and RiverOaks was one of several aggressive real estate companies hoping to build, lease, and manage it. Several sites had been considered, all in rough and decaying sections of the city. A short list of three had been announced the previous December. RiverOaks had begun snapping up all the cheap real estate it might need.

TAG was a duly registered corporation whose sole stockholder was Tilhnan Ginitry, described in a file memo as a former pimp, small-time hustler, and twice-convicted felon. One of many such characters in the city. After crime, Gantry had discovered used cars and real estate. He purchased abandoned buildings, sometimes doing quickie renovations and reselling, sometimes offering space for rent. Fourteen TAG properties were listed in a file summary. Gantry's path crossed that of RiverOaks' when the U.S. Postal Service needed more space.

On January 6, the Postal Service informed RiverOaks by registered mail that the company had been chosen to be the contractor/owner/landlord of the new bulk facility. A memorandum of agreement provided for annual rental payments of $1.5 million, for a guaranteed period of twenty years. The letter also said, with nongovemmental-like haste, that a final agreement between RiverOaks and the Postal Service would have to be signed no later than March 1, or the deal was off. After seven years of contemplating and planning, the Feds wanted it built overnight.

RiverOaks, and its lawyers and Realtors, went to work. In January, the company purchased four properties on Florida near the warehouse where the eviction took place. The file had two maps of the area, with shaded colors indicating lots purchased and lots under negotiation.

March 1 was only seven days away. Small wonder Chance missed the file so quickly. He was working with it every day.

The warehouse on Florida Avenue had been purchased by TAG the previous July for a sum not revealed in the file. RiverOaks bought it for two hundred thousand dollars on January 31, four days before the eviction that sent DeVon Hardy and the Burton family into the streets.

On the bare wooden floor of what would become my living room, I carefully removed each sheet of paper from the file, examined it, then described it in detail on a legal pad so that I could put it back together in perfect order. There was the usual collection of papers I assumed to be in every real estate file: tax records for prior years, a chain of title, previous deeds, an agreement for the purchase and sale of the property, correspondence with the Realtor, closing papers. It was a cash deal, so no bank was involved.

On the left inside flap of the file was the journal, a preprinted form used to log each entry by date and brief description. You could judge the organizational capacity of a Drake & Sweeney secretary by the level of detail in a file's journal. Every piece of paper, map, photo, or chart--anything and everything that was punched into a file was supposed to be recorded in the journal. This had been drilled into our heads during boot camp. Most of us had learned the hard way--there was nothing more frustrating than flipping through a thick file in search of something that had not been logged in with sufficient detail. If you can't find it in thirty seconds, the axiom said, it's useless.

Chance's file was meticulous; his secretary was a woman of details. But there had been tampering.

On January 22, Hector Palma went to the warehouse, alone, for a routine, prepurchase inspection. As he was entering a designated door, he was mugged by two street punks who hit him over the head with a stick of some sort, and took his wallet and cash at knifepoint. He stayed at home on January 23, and prepared a memo to the file describing the assault. The last sentence read: "Will return on Monday, January 27, with guard, to inspect." The memo was properly logged into the file.

But there was no memo from his second visit. A January 27 entry into the journal said: HP memo---site visit, inspection of premises.

Hector went to the warehouse on the twenty-seventh, with a guard, inspected the place, no doubt found that serious squatting was under way, and prepared a memo, which, judging by his other paperwork, was probably quite thorough.

The memo had been removed from the file. Certainly no crime, and I had taken things from files all the time without making a note in the journal. But I damned sure put them back. If an item was logged in, it was supposed to be in the file.

The closing took place on January 31, a Friday. The following Tuesday, Hector returned to the warehouse to remove the squatters. He was assisted by a guard from a private security firm, a District cop, and four roughnecks from an eviction company. It took three hours, according to his memo, which ran for two pages. Though he tried to mask his emotions, Hector didn't have the stomach for evictions.

My heart stopped when I read the following: "The mother had four children, one an infant. She lived in a two-room apartment with no plumbing. They slept on two mattresses on the floor. She fought with the policeman while her children watched. She was eventually removed." So Ontario watched while his mother fought. There was a list of those evicted, seventeen in all, with children excluded, the same list someone had placed on my desk Monday morning with a copy of the Post story.

In the back of the file, lying loose without the benefit of a journal entry, were eviction notices for the seventeen. They had not been used. Squatters have no rights, including the right to be notified. The notices had been prepared as an afterthought, an effort to cover the trail. They had probably been stock in after the Mister episode by Chance himself, just in case he might need them.

The tampering was obvious, and foolish. But then Chance was a partner. It was virtually unheard of for a partner to surrender a file.

It hadn't been surrendered; it had been stolen. An act of larceny, a crime for which evidence was now being gathered. The thief was an idiot.

As part of my preemployment ritual seven years earlier, I had been fingerprinted by private investigators. It would be a simple matter to match those prints with the ones lifted from Chance's file cabinet. It would take only minutes. I was certain it had already been done. Could there be a warrant for my arrest? It was inevitable.

Most of the floor was covered when I finished, three hours after I started. I carefully reassembled the file, then drove to the clinic and copied it.

* * *

She was shopping, her note said. We had nice luggage, an item we failed to mention when we split the assets. She would be traveling more than I in the near future, so I took the cheap stuff---duffel and gym bags. I didn't want to get caught, so I threw the basics into a pile on the bed--socks, underwear, tee shirts, miletries, shoes, but only the ones I had worn in the past year. She could discard the others. I hurriedly cleaned out my drawers and my side of the medicine cabinet. Wounded and aching, physically and otherwise, I hauled the bags down two flights of stairs to my rental car, then went back up for a load of suits and dress clothes. I found my old sleeping bag, unused for at least the last five years, and carried it down, along with a quilt and a pillow. I was entitled to my alarm clock, radio, portable CD player with a few CD's, thirteen-inch color TV on the kitchen counter, one coffeepot, hair dryer, and the set of blue towels.

When the car was full, I left a note telling her I was gone. I placed it next to the one she'd left, and refused to stare at it. My emotions were mixed and just under the skin, and I was not equipped to deal with them. I'd never moved out before; I wasn't sure how it was done.

I locked the door and walked down the stairs. I knew I would be back in a couple of days to get the rest of my things, but the trip down felt like the last time.

She would read the note, check the drawers and closets to see what I had taken, and when she realized I had indeed moved out, she would sit in the den for a quick tear. Maybe a good cry. But it would be over before long. She would easily move to the next phase.

As I drove away, there was no feeling of liberation. It wasn't a thrill to be single again. Claire and I had both lost.

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