Page 63 of The Street Lawyer

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How could I be harsh with one so pitiful? On to the news.

"How about the paper?" I asked.

"That would be nice."

There was a picture of the mayor on the front page, and since she liked stories about city politics, and since the mayor was always good for some color, I selected it first. It was a Saturday interview in which the mayor and council, acting together in a shaky and temporary alliance, were asking for a Justice Department investigation into the deaths of Lontae Burton and family. Had there been civil rights violations? The mayor strongly implied that he thought so, but bring in Justice!

Since the lawsuit had taken center stage, a fresh new group of culprits was being blamed for the tragedy. Fingerpointing at City Hall had slowed considerably. Insults to and from Congress had stopped. Those who'd felt the heat of the first accusations were vigorously and happily shifting blame to the big law firm and its rich client.

Ruby was fascinated with the Burton story. I gave her a quick summary of the lawsuit and the fallout since it had been filed.

Drake & Sweeney was battered again by the paper. Its lawyers had to be asking themselves, "When will it end?"

Not for a while.

On the bottom corner of the front page was a brief story about the Postal Service's decision to halt the bulk-mail project in Northeast Washington. The controversy surrounding the purchase of the land, the warehouse, the litigation involving RiverOaks and Gantry--all were factors in the decision.

RiverOaks lost its twenty-million-dollar project. RiverOaks would react like any other aggressive real estate developer who'd spent almost a million dollars in cash purchasing useless inner-city property. RiverOaks would go after its lawyers.

The pressure swelled some more.

We scanned world events. All earthquake in Peru caught Ruby's attention, and we read about it. On to Metro, where the first words I saw made my heart stop. Under the same photo of Kito Spires, the same except twice as large and even more menacing, was the headline: KITO SPIRES FOUND SHOT TO DEATH. The story recounted Friday's introduction of Mr. Spires as a player in the Burton drama, then gave the scant details of his death. No witnesses, no clues, nothing. Just another street punk shot in the District.

"You okay?" Ruby asked, waking me from my trance.

"Uh, sure," I said, trying to breathe again.

"Why ain't you reading?"

Because I was too stunned to read aloud. I had to quickly scan every word to see if the name of Tillman Gantry was mentioned. It was not.

And why not? It was obvious to me what had happened. The kid had enjoyed his moment in the spotlight, said too much, made trimself too valuable to the plaintiffs case, and was too easy a target.

I read the story to her, slowly, listening to every sound around us, watching the front door, hoping Mordecai would arrive shortly.

Gantry had spoken. Other witnesses from the streets would either remain quiet or disappear after we found them. Killing witnesses was bad enough. What would I do if Gantry came after the lawyers?

In the midst of my terror, I suddenly realized the story was beneficial to our side of the case. We had lost a potentially crucial witness, but Kito's credibility would have caused problems. Drake & Sweeney was mentioned again, in the third story of the morning, in connection with the killing of a nineteen-year-old criminal. The firm had been toppled from its loftiness and was now in the gutter, its proud name mentioned in the same paragraphs as murdered street thugs.

I took myself back a month, before Mister and everything that followed, and I pictured myself reading the same paper at my desk before sunrise. And I imagined that I had read the other stories and had learned that the most serious allegations in the lawsuit were indeed true. What would I do?

There was no doubt. I would be raising hell with Rudolph Mayes, my supervising partner, who likewise would be raising hell with the executive committee, and I would be meeting with my peers, the other senior associates in the firm. We would demand that the matter be settled and laid to rest before more damage was inflicted. We would insist that a trial be avoided at all costs.

We would make all sorts of demands.

And I suspected most of the senior associates and all the partners were doing exactly what I would be doing. With that much racket in the hallways, very little work was being done. Very few hours were being billed. The firm was in chaos.

"Keep going," Ruby said, again waking me.

We raced through Metro, in part because I wanted to see if perhaps there was a fourth story. No such luck. There was, however, a story about the street sweeps being conducted by the police in response to the Burkholder shooting. An advocate for the homeless was bitterly criticizing the operation, and threatening litigation. Ruby loved the story. She thought it wonderful that so much was being written about the homeless.

I drove her to Naomi's, where she was greeted like an old friend. The women hugged her and passed her around the room, squeezing and even crying. I spent a few minutes flirting with Megan in the kitchen, but my mind was not on romance.

* * *

Sofia had a full house when I returned to the office. The foot traffic was heavy; five clients were sitting against the wall by nine o'clock. She was on the phone, terrorizing someone in Spanish. I stepped into Mordecai's office to make sure he had seen the paper. He was reading it with a smile. We agreed to meet in an hour to discuss the lawsuit.

I quietly closed my office door and began pulling files. In two weeks, I had opened ninety-one of them, and closed thirty-eight. I was falling behind, and I needed a hard morning fighting the phone to catch up. It would not happen.

Sofia knocked, and since the door would not latch, she pushed it open while still tapping it. No Hello. No Excuse me.

"Where is that list of people evicted from the warehouse?" she asked. She had a pencil stuck behind each ear, and reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. The woman had things to do.

The list was always nearby. I handed it to her, and she took a quick look. "Bingo," she said. "What?" I asked, rising to my feet.

"Number eight, Marquis Deese," she said. "I thought that name was familiar."

"Familiar?"

"Yes, he's sitting at my desk. Picked up last night in Lafayette Park, across from the white House, and dumped at Logan Circle. Got caught in a sweep. It's your lucky day."

I followed her into the front room, where in the center Mr. Deese sat next to her desk. He looked remarkably similar to DeVon Hardy--late forties, grayish hair and beard, thick sunshades, bundled heavily like most homeless in early March. I examined him from a distance as I walked to Mordecai's office to give him the news.

We approached him carefully, with Mordecai in charge of the interrogation. "Excuse me," he said, very politely. "I'm Mordecai Green, one of the lawyers here. Can I ask you some questions?"

Both of us were standing, looking down at Mr. Deese. He raised his head, said, "I guess so."

"We're working on a case involving some people who used to live in an old warehouse at the corner of Florida and New York," Mordecai explained slowly.

"I lived there," he said. I took a deep breath.

"You did?"

"Yep. Got kicked out."

"Yes, well, that's why we're involved. We represent some of the other people who were kicked out. We think the eviction was wrongful." "You got that right."

"How long did you live there?"

"'Bout three months."

"Did you pay rent?"

"Sure did."

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