"Heard the other guy got killed," he said, a split second after I'd spoken. He was in charge of this conversation. I was supposed to follow along.
"Yeah, some drug dealer."
"This city," he said, as the waiter appeared. "What'll you have?" Hector asked me.
"Black coffee," I said. At that moment, as he pondered his choice of drinks, one of his feet began tapping me on the leg.
"What kind of beer do you have?" he asked the waiter, a question they hated. The waiter looked straight ahead and began rattling off brands.
The tapping brought our eyes together. His hands were together on the table. Using the waiter as a shield, he barely curled his right index finger and pointed to his chest.
"Molson," he announced suddenly, and the waiter left.
He was wired, and they were watching. Wherever they were, they couldn't see through the waiter. Instinctively, I wanted to turn and examine the other people in the bar. But I withstood the temptation, thanks in no small part to a neck as pliable as a board.
That explained the hearty hello, as if we'd never met. Hector had been grilled all day, and he was denying everything.
"I'm a paralegal in real estate," he explained. "You've met Braden Chance, one of our partners."
"Yes." Since my words were being recorded, I would offer little.
"I work primarily for him. You and I spoke briefly one day last week when you visited his office."
"If you say so. I don't remember seeing you."
I caught a very faint smile, a relaxing around the eyes, nothing a surveillance camera could catch. Under the table, I tapped his leg with my foot. Hopefully we were dancing to the same tune.
"Look, the reason I asked you to meet me is because a file is missing from Braden's office."
"Am I the accused?"
"Well, no, but you're a possible suspect. It was the file you asked for when you sort of barged into his office last week."
"Then I am being accused," I said hotly.
"Not yet. Relax. The firm is doing a thorough investigation of the matter, and we're simply talking to everyone we can think of. Since I heard you ask Braden for the file, the firm instructed me to talk to you. It's that simple."
"I don't know what you're talking about. It's that simple."
"You know nothing about the file?"
"Of course not. Why would I take a file from a partner's office?"
"Would you take a polygraph?"
"Certainly," I said firmly, even indignantly. There was no way in hell I would take a polygraph.
"Good. They're asking all of us to do it. Everybody remotely near the file."
The beer and coffee arrived, giving us a brief pause to evaluate and reposition. Hector had just told me he was in deep trouble. A polygraph would kill him. Did you meet Michael Brock before he left the firm? Did you discuss the missing file? Did you give him copies of anything taken from the file? Did you assist him in obtaining the missing file? Yes or no. Hard questions with simple answers. There was no way he could lie and survive the test.
"They're fingerprinting too," he said. He said this in a lower voice, not in an effort to avoid the hidden mike, but rather to soften the blow.
It didn't work. The thought of leaving prints had never occurred to me, neither before the theft, nor since. "Good for them," I said.
"In fact, they lifted prints all afternoon. From the door, the light switch, the file cabinet. Lots of prints."
"Hope they find their man."
"It's really coincidental, you know. Braden had a hundred active files in his office, and the only one missing is the one you were quite anxious to see."
"Are you trying to say something?"
"I just said it. A real coincidence." He was doing this for the benefit of our listeners.
I thought perhaps I should perform too. "I don't like the way you said it," I practically yelled at him. "If you want to accuse me of something, then go to the cops, get a warrant, and get me picked up. Otherwise, keep your stupid opinions to yourself."
"The cops are already involved," he said, very coolly, and my contrived temper melted. "It's a theft."
"Of course it's a theft. Go catch your thief and stop wasting your time with me."
He took a long drink. "Did someone give you a set of keys to Braden's office?"
"Of course not."
"Well, they found this empty file on your desk, with a note about the two keys. One to the door, the other to a file cabinet."
"I know nothing about it," I said, as arrogantly as possible while trying to remember the last place I'd put the empty file. My trail was widening. I'd been trained to think like a lawyer, not a criminal.
Another long drink by Hector, another sip of coffee by me.
Enough had been said. The messages had been delivered, one by the firm, the other by Hector himself. The firm wanted the file back, with its contents uncompromised. Hector wanted me to know that his involvement could cost him his job.
It was up to me to save him. i could return the file, confess, promise to keep it sealed, and the firm would probably forgive me. There would be no harm. Protecting Hector's job could be a condition of the return.
"Anything else?" I asked, suddenly ready to leave.
"Nothing. When can you do the polygraph?"
"I'll give you a call."
I picked up my coat and left.
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.