Page 15 of The Street Lawyer

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I found a folding chair and took a position next to Ontario, with my back to the wall. The basement was quiet at times, but never still. Those who live without beds do not sleep calmly. Occasionally, Mordecai would pick his way around the bodies to settle some flare-up. He was so large and intimidating that no one dared challenge his authority.

With his stomach filled again, Ontario dozed off, his litfie head resting on his mother's feet. I slipped into the kitchen, poured another cup of coffee, and went back to my chair in the corner.

Then the baby erupted. Its pitiful voice wailed forth with amazing volume, and the entire room seemed to tipple with the noise. The mother was dazed, tired, frustrated at having been aroused from sleep. She told it to shut up, then placed it on her shoulder, and rocked back and forth. It cried louder, and there were rumblings from the other campers.

With a complete lack of sense or thought, I reached over and took the child, smiling at the mother as I did so in an attempt to win her confidence. She didn't care. She was relieved to get rid of it.

The child weighed nothing, and the damned thing was soaking wet. I realized this as I gently placed its head on my shoulder and began patting its rear. I moved to the kitchen, desperately searching for Mordecai or another volunteer to rescue me. Miss Dolly had left an hour earlier.

To my relief and surprise, the child grew quiet as I walked around the stove, patting and cooing and looking for a towel or something. My hand was soaked.

Where was I? What the hell was I doing? What would my friends think if they could see me in the dark kitchen, humming to a little street baby, praying that the diaper was only wet?

I didn't smell anything foul, though I was certain I could feel lice jumping from its head to mine. My best friend Mordecai appeared and turned on a switch. "How cute," he said.

"Do we have any diapers?" I hissed at him.

"Big job or little job?" he asked happily, walking toward the cabinets.

"I don't know. Just hurry."

He pulled out a pack of Pampers, and I thrust the child at him. My denim jacket had a large wet spot on the left shoulder. With incredible deftness he placed the baby on the cutting board, removed the wet diaper, revealing a baby girl, cleaned her with a wipe of some sort, rediapered her with a fresh Pamper, then thrust her back at me. "There she is," he said proudly. "Good as new."

"The things they don't teach you in law school," I said, taking the child.

I paced the floor with her for an hour, until she fell asleep. I wrapped her in my jacket, and gently placed her between her mother and Ontario.

It was almost 3 A.M., Saturday, and I had to go. My freshly pricked conscience could take only so much in one day. Mordecai walked me to the street, thanked me for coming, and sent me away madess into the night. My car was sitting where I left it, covered with new snow. He was standing in front of the church, watching me as I drove away.

Chapter Nine

Since my run-in with Mister on Tuesday, I had not billed a single hour for dear old Drake & Sweeney. I'd been averaging two hundred a month for five years, which meant eight per day for six days, with a couple left over. No day could be wasted and precious few hours left unaccounted for. When I fell behind, which rarely happened, I would work twelve hours on a Saturday and perhaps do the same on a Sunday. And if I wasn't behind, I would do only seven or eight hours on Saturday and maybe a few on Sunday. No wonder Claire went to med school.

As I stared at the bedroom ceiling late Saturday morning, I was almost paralyzed with inaction. I did not want to go to the office. I hated the thought. I dreaded the neat little rows of pink phone messages Polly had on my desk, the memos from higher-ups arranging meetings to inquire about my well-being, the nosy chitchat from the gossipers, and the inevitable "How you doin'?" from friends and those genuinely concerned and those who couldn't care less. What I dreaded most, though, was the work. Antitrust cases are long and arduous, with files so thick they require boxes, and what was the point anyway? One billion-dollar corporation fighting another. A hundred lawyers involved, all cranking out paper.

I admitted to myself that I'd never loved the work. It was a means to an end. If I practiced it with a fury, became a whiz and perfected a specialty, then one day soon I would be in demand. It could've been tax or labor or litigation. Who could love anti-trust law?

By sheer will, I forced myself out of bed and into the shower.

Breakfast was a croissant from a bakery on M, with strong coffee, all taken with one hand on the wheel. I wondered what Ontario was having for breakfast, then told myself to stop the torture. I had the right to eat without feeling guilty, but food was losing its importance for me.

The radio said the day's high would be twenty degrees, the low near zero, with no more snow for a week.

I made it as far as the building's lobby before being accosted by one of my brethren. Bruce somebody from communications stepped onto the elevator when I did, and said gravely, "How you doin', pal?"

"Fine. You?" I shot back.

"Okay. Look, we're pulling for you, you know. Hang in there."

I nodded as if his support was crucial. Mercifully, he left on the second floor, but not before favoring me with a locker-room pat on the shoulder. Give 'em hell, Bruce.

I was damaged goods. My steps were slower as I passed Madam Devier's desk and the conference room. I went down the marble hallway until I found my office and slumped into the leather swivel, exhausted.

Polly had several ways of leaving behind the phone litter. If I had been diligent in returning calls, and if she happened to be pleased with my efforts, she would leave one or two message slips near my phone. If, however, I had not, and if this happened to displease her, then she liked nothing better than to line them up in the center of my desk, a sea of pink, all perfectly arranged in chronological order.

I counted thirty-nine messages, several urgent, several from the brass. Rudolph especially seemed to be irritated, judging by Polly's trail. ! read them slowly as I collected them, then set them aside. I was determined to finish my coffee, in peace and without pressure, and so I was sitting at my desk, holding the cup with both hands, staring into the unknown, looking very much like someone teetering on the edge of a cliff, when Rudolph walked in.

The spies must have called him; a paralegal on the lookout, or maybe Bruce from the elevator. Perhaps the entire firm was on alert. No. They were too busy.

"Hello, Mike," he said crisply, taking a seat, crossing his legs, setfling in for serious business.

"Hi, Rudy," I said. I had never called him Rudy to his face. It was always Rudolph. His current wife and the partners called him Rudy, but no one else.

"Where have you been?" he asked, without the slightest hint of compassion.

"Memphis."

"Memphis?"

"Yeah, I needed to see my parents. Plus the family shrink is there."

"A shrink?"

"Yes, he observed me for a couple of days."

"Observed you?"

"Yeah, in one of those swanky little units with Persian rugs and salmon for dinner. A thousand bucks a day."

"For two days? You were in for two days?"

"Yeah." The lying didn't bother me, nor did I feel bad because the lying didn't bother me. The firm can be harsh, even ruthless, when it decides to be, and I was in no mood for an ass-chewing from Rudolph. He had marching orders from the executive committee, and he would make a report minutes after leaving my office. If I could thaw him, the report would go soft, the brass would relax. Life would be easier, for the short term.

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