"Dude says you got a nice jacket," said the one from the top bunk.
"And I said thanks."
"Dude says he ain't got no jacket that nice."
"So what am I supposed to do?" I asked.
"A gift would be appropriate."
A third one stepped forward and closed the semicircle around me. The first one kicked my foot, and all inched closer. They were ready to pounce, each waiting for the other, so I quickly removed my blazer and thrust it forward.
"Is this a gift?" the first one asked, taking it.
"It's whatever you want it to be," I said. I was looking down, sull avoiding eye contact; thus, I didn't see his foot. It was a vicious kick that slapped my left temple and jerked my head backward where it cracked against the bars. "Shit!" I yelled as I felt the back of my head.
"You can have the damned thing," I said, bracing for the onslaught.
"Is it a gift?"
"Don't mention it," I said, rubbing my face. My entire head was numb. They backed away, leaving me curled in a tight ball. Minutes passed, though I had no concept of time. The drunk white guy two doors down was making an effort to revive himself, and another voice was calling for a guard. The punk with my jacket did not put it on. The cell swallowed it.
My face throbbed, but there was no blood. If I received no further injuries as an inmate, I would consider myself lucky. A comrade down the hall yelled something about trying to sleep, and I began to ponder what the night might bring. Six inmates, two very narrow beds. Were we expected to sleep on the floor, with no blanket and pillow?
The floor was getting cold, and as I sat on it I glanced at my cellmates and speculated as to what crimes they had committed. I, of course, had borrowed a file with every intention of returning it. Yet there I was, low man on the pole among drug dealers, car thieves, rapists, probably even murderers.
I wasn't hungry, but I thought about food. I had no toothbrush. I didn't need the toilet, but what would happen when I did? Where was the drinking water? The basics became crucial.
"Nice shoes," a voice said, startling me. I looked up to see another one of them standing above me. He wore dirty white socks, no shoes, and his feet were several inches longer than mine.
"Thanks," I said. The shoes in question were old Nike cross-trainers. They were not basketball shoes, and should not have appealed to my cellmate. For once, I wished I'd been wearing the tasseled loafers from my previous career.
"What size?" he asked.
The punk who took my jacket walked closer; the message was given and received.
"Same size I wear," the first one said.
"Would you like to have these?" I said. I immediately began unlacing them. "Here, I would like to present you with a gift of my shoes." I quickly kicked them off, and he took them.
What about my jeans and underwear? I wanted to ask.
My bail was ten thousand dollars. Mordecai was waiting with the bondsman. I paid him a thousand in cash, and signed the paperwork. Coffey brought my shoes and blazer, and my incarceration was over. Sofia waited outside with her car, and they whisked me away.
* * *
Mordecai finally broke through around 7 P.M. Coffey fetched me from the cell, and as we made our way toward the front, he asked, "Where are your shoes?"
"In the cell," I said. "They were taken."
"I'll get them."
"Thanks. I had a navy blazer too."
He looked at the left side of my face where the corner of my eye was beginning to swell. "Are you okay?"
"Wonderful. I'm free."
Strictly in physical terms, I was paying a price for my journey from the tower to the street. The bruises from the car wreck were almost gone, but the soreness in the muscles and joints would take weeks. I was losing weight, for two reasons--I couldn't afford the restaurants I'd once taken for granted; and I'd lost interest in food. My back ached from sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, a practice I was determined to pursue in an effort to see if it would ever become tolerable. I had my doubts.
And then a street punk almost cracked my skull with his bare foot. I iced it until late, and every time I awoke during the night it seemed to be expanding.
But I felt lucky to be alive, lucky to be in one piece after descending into hell for a few hours before being rescued. The fear of the unknown had been removed, at least for the present. There were no cops lurking in the shadows.
Grand larceny was nothing to laugh at, especially since I was guilty. The maximum was ten years in prison. I would worry about it later.
I left my apartment just before sunrise, Saturday, in a rush to find the nearest newspaper. My new neighborhood coffee shop was a tiny all-night bakery run by a rowdy family of Pakistanis on Kalorama, in a section of Adams-Morgan that could go from safe to treacherous in one small block. I sidled up to the counter and ordered a large latte. Then I opened the newspaper and found the one little story I'd lost sleep over.
My friends at Drake & Sweeney had planned it well. On page two of Metro, there was my face, in a photo taken a year earlier for a recruiting brochure the firm had developed. Only the firm had the negative.
The story was four paragraphs, brief, to the point, and filled primarily with information fed to the reporter by the firm. I had worked there for seven years, in antitrust, law school at Yale, no prior criminal record. The firm was the fifth-largest in the country--eight hundred lawyers, eight cities, and so on. No one got quoted, because no quotes were necessary. The sole purpose of the story was to humiliate me, and to that end it worked well. LOCAL ATTORNEY ARRESTED FOR GRAND LARCENY read the headline next to my face. "Items taken" was the description of the stolen loot. Items taken during my recent departure from the firm.
It sounded like a silly little spat--a bunch of lawyers quibbling over nothing but paperwork. Who would care, other than myself and anyone who might know me? The embarrassment would quickly go away; there were too many real stories in the world.
The photo and the background had found a friendly reporter, one willing to process his four paragraphs and wait until my arrest could be confirmed. With no effort whatsoever, I could see Arthur and Rafter and their team spending hours planning my arrest and its aftermath, hours that no doubt would be billed to RiverOaks, only because it happened to be the client nearest to the mess.
What a public relations coup! Four paragraphs in the Saturday edition.
The Pakistanis didn't bake fruit-filled doughnuts. I bought oatmeal cookies instead, and drove to the office.
Ruby was asleep in the doorway, and as I approached I wondered how long she had been there. She was covered with two or three old quilts, and her head rested on a large canvas shopping bag, packed with her belongings. She sprang to her feet after I coughed and made noise.
"Why are you sleeping here?" I asked.
She looked at the paper bag of food, and said, "I gotta sleep somewhere."
"I thought you slept in a car."
"I do. Most of the time."
Nothing productive would come from a conversation with a homeless person about why she slept here or there. Ruby was hungry. I unlocked the door, turned on lights, and went to make coffee. She, according to our ritual, went straight to what had become her desk and waited.
We had coffee and cookies with the morning news. We alternated stories--I read one I wanted, then one that was of interest to her. I ignored the one about me.