Page 26 of The Street Lawyer

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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.

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