Page 57 of The Street Lawyer

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"You look great," I said. And he did. Tailored suit and shirt. Expensive tie. I had a closet full of the stuff.

"You too. Is this the way you dress for work now?"

"For the most part. Sometimes I ditch the tie."

We ordered Heinekens and sipped them in the crowd.

"How's Claire?" he asked. The preliminaries were out of the way.

"I suppose she's fine. We filed for divorce, uncontested. I've moved out."

"Is she happy?"

"I think she was relieved to get rid of me. I'd say Claire is happier today than she was a month ago."

"Has she found someone else?"

"I don't think so," I said. I had to be careful because most, if not all, of our conversation would be repeated to my parents, especially any scandalous reason for the divorce. They would like to blame Claire, and if they believed she'd been caught screwing around, then the divorce would seem logical. "Have you?" he asked.

"Nope. I've kept my pants on."

"So why the divorce?"

"Lots of reasons. I'd rather not rehash them." That was not what he wanted. His had been a nasty split, with both parties fighting for custody of the kids. He had shared the details with me, often to the point of being boring. Now he wanted the same in return.

"You woke up one day, and decided to get a divorce?"

"You've been through it, Warner. It's not that simple."

The maitre d' led us deep into the restaurant. We passed a table where Wayne Urnstead was sitting with two men I did not recognize. Urnstead had been a fellow hostage, the one Mister had sent to the door to fetch the food, the one who'd barely missed the sniper's bullet. He didn't see me.

A copy of the lawsuit had been served on Arthur Jacobs, chairman of the executive committee, at 11 A.M., while I was at the CCNV. Urnstead was not a partner, so I wondered if he even knew about the lawsuit.

Of course he did. In hurried meetings throughout the afternoon, the news had been dropped like a bomb. Defenses had to be prepared; marching orders given; wagons circled. Not a word to anyone outside the firm. On the surface, the lawsuit would be ignored.

Fortunately, our table could not be seen from Umstead's. I glanced around to make sure no other bad guys were in the restaurant. Warner ordered a martini for both of us, but I quickly begged off. Just water for me.

With Warner, everything was at full throttle. Work, play, food, drink, women, even books and old movies. He had almost frozen to death in a blizzard on a Peruvian mountain, and he'd been bitten by a deadly water snake while scuba diving in Australia. His post-divorce adjustment phase had been remarkably easy, primarily because Warner loved to travel and hang-glide and climb mountains and wrestle sharks and chase women on a global scale.

As a partner in a large Atlanta firm, he made plenty of money. And he spent a lot of it. The dinner was about money.

"Water?" he said in disgust. "Come on. Have a drink."

"No," I protested. Warner would go from martinis to wine. We would leave the restaurant late, and he would be up at four fiddling with his laptop, shaking off the slight hangover as just another part of the day.

"Candy ass," he mumbled. I browsed the menu. He examined every skirt.

His drink arrived and we ordered. "Tell me about your work," he said, trying desperately to give the impression that he was interested. "Why?"

"Because it must be fascinating."

"Why do you say that?"

"You walked away from a fortune. There must be a damned good reason."

"There are reasons, and they're good enough for me."

Warner had planned the meeting. There was a purpose, a goal, a destination, and an outline of what he would say to get him there. I wasn't sure where he was headed.

"I was arrested last week," I said, diverting him. It was enough of a shock to be successful.

"You what?"

I told him the story, stretching it out with every detail because I was in control of the conversation. He was critical of my thievery, but I didn't try to defend it. The file itself was another complicated issue, one neither of us wanted to explore.

"So the Drake & Sweeney bridge has been burned?" he asked as we ate. "Permanently."

"How long do you plan to be a public interest lawyer?"

"I've just started. I really hadn't thought about the end. Why?"

"How long can you work for nothing?"

"As long as I can survive."

"So survival is the standard?"

"For now. What's your standard?" It was a ridiculous question.

"Money. How much I make; how much I spend; how much I can stash away somewhere and watch it grow so that one day I'll have a shitpot full of it and not have to worry about anything."

I had heard this before. Unabashed greed was to be admired. It was a slightly cruder version of what we'd been taught as children. Work hard and make plenty., and somehow society as a whole would benefit.

He was daring me to be critical, and it was not a fight I wanted. It was a fight with no winners; only an ugly draw.

"How much do you have?" I asked. As a greedy bastard, Warner was proud of his wealth.

"When I'm forty I'll have a million bucks buried in mutual funds. When I'm forty-five, it'll be three million. when I'm fifty, it'll be ten. And that's when I'm walking out the door."

We knew those figures by heart. Big law firms were the same everywhere.

"what about you?" he asked as he whittled on freerange chicken.

"Well, let's see. I'm thirty-two, got a net worth of five thousand bucks, give or take. when I'm thirty-five, if I work hard and save money, it should be around ten thousand. By the time I'm fifty, I should have about twenty thousand buried in mutual funds."

"That's something to look forward to. Eighteen years of living in poverty."

"You know nothing about poverty."

"Maybe I do. For people like us, poverty is a cheap apartment, a used car with dents and dings, bad clothing, no money to travel and play and see the world, no money to save or invest, no retirement, no safety net, nothing."

"Perfect. You just proved my point. You don't know a damned thing about poverty. How much will you make this year?"

"Nine hundred thousand."

"I'll make thirty. what would you do if someone forced you to work for thirty thousand bucks?"

"Kill myself."

"I believe that. I truly believe you would take a gun and blow your brains out before you would work for thirty thousand bucks."

"You're wrong. I'd take pills."

"Coward."

"There's no way I could work that cheap."

"Oh, you could work that cheap, but you couldn't live that cheap."

"Same thing."

"That's where you and I are different," I said. "Damned right we're different. But how did we become different, Michael? A month ago you were like me. Now look at you--silly whiskers and faded clothes, all this bullshit about serving people and saving humanity. Where'd you go wrong?"

I took a deep breath and enjoyed the humor of his question. He relaxed too. We were too civilized to fight in public.

"You're a dumb-ass, you know," he said, leaning low. "You were on the fast track for a partnership. You're bright and talented, single, no kids. You'd be making a million bucks a year at the age of thirty-five. You can do the math."

"It's already done, Wamer. I've lost my love for money. It's the curse of the devil."

 
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