"I'm looking for Mordecai Green," I said politely, and at that moment he followed his roar and stomped out of his side office and into the main room. The floor shook with each step. tie was yelling across the room for someone named Abraham.
Sofia nodded at him, then dismissed me and returned to her typing. Green was a huge black man, at least six five with a wide frame that carried a lot of weight. He was in his early fifties, with a gray beard and round eyeglasses that were framed in red. He took a look at me, said nothing, yelled again for Abraham while sauntering across the creaking floor. He disappeared into an office, then emerged seconds later without Abraham.
Another look at me, then, "Can I help you?"
I walked forward and introduced myself.
"Nice to meet you," he said, but only because he had to. "What's on your mind?"
"DeVon Hardy," I said.
He looked at me for a few seconds, then glanced at Sofia, who was lost in her work. He nodded toward his office, and I followed him into a twelve-by-twelve room with no windows and every square inch of available floor space covered with manilla files and battered law books.
I handed him my gold-embossed Drake & Sweeney card, which he studied with a deep frown. Then he gave it back to me, and said, "Slum. um~.m~ing, aren't you?"
"No," I said, taking the card.
"What do you want?"
"I come in peace. Mr. Hardy's bullet almost got me."
"You were in the room with him?"
He took a deep breath and lost the frown. He pointed to the only chair on my side. "Have a seat. But you might get dirty."
We both sat, my knees touching his desk, my hands thrust deep into the pockets of my overcoat. A radiator rattled behind him. We looked at each other, then looked away. It was my visit, I had to say something. But he spoke first.
"Guess you had a bad day, huh?" he said, his raspy voice lower and almost compassionate.
"Not as bad as Hardy's. I saw your name in the paper, that's why I came."
"I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do."
"Do you think the family will sue? If so, then maybe I should leave."
"There's no family, not much of a lawsuit. I could make some noise with it. I figure the cop who shot him is white, so I could squeeze a few bucks out of the city, probably get a nuisance settlement. But that's not my idea of fun." He waved his hand over the desk. "God knows I got enough to do."
"I never saw the cop," I said, realizing it for the first time. "Forget about a lawsuit. Is that why you're here?"
"I don't know why I'm here. I went back to my desk this morning like nothing happened, but I couldn't think straight. I took a drive. Here I am."
He shook his head slowly, as if he was trying to understand this. "You want some coffee?"
"No thanks. You knew Mr. Hardy pretty well."
"Yeah, DeVon was a regular."
"Where is he now?"
"Probably in the city morgue at D.C. General."
"If there's no family, what happens to him?"
"The city buries the unclaimed. On the books it's called a pauper's funeral. There's a cemetery near RFK Stadium where they pack 'em in. You'd be amazed at the number of people who die unclaimed."
"I'm sure I would."
"In fact, you'd be amazed at every aspect of homeless life."
It was a soft jab, and I was not in the mood to spar. "Do you know if he had AIDS?"
He cocked his head back, looked at the ceiling, and rattled that around for a few seconds. "Why?"
"I was standing behind him. The back of his head was blown off. I got a face full of blood. That's all."
With that, I crossed the line from a bad guy to just an average white guy.
"I don't think he had AIDS."
"Do they check them when they die?"
"Most of the time, yes. DeVon, though, died by other means."
"Can you find out?"
He shrugged and thawed some more. "Sure," he said reluctantly, and took his pen from his pocket. "Is that why you're here? Worried about AIDS?"
"I guess it's one reason. Wouldn't you be?"
Abraham stepped in, a small hyper man of about forty who had public interest lawyer stamped all over him. Jewish, dark beard, horn-rimmed glasses, rumpled blazer, wrinkled khakis, dirty sneakers, and the weighty aura of one trying to save the world.
He did not acknowledge me, and Green was not one for social graces. "They're predicting a ton of snow," Green said to him. "We need to make sure every possible shelter is open."
"I'm working on it," Abraham snapped, then abruptly left.
"I know you're busy," I said.
"Is that all you wanted? A blood check."
"Yeah, I guess. Any idea why he did it?"
He removed his red glasses, wiped them with a tissue, then rubbed his eyes. "He was mentally ill, like a lot of these people. You spend years on the streets, soaked with booze, stoned on crack, sleeping in the cold, getting kicked around by cops and punks, it makes you crazy. Plus, he had a bone to pick."
"Yep. A few months ago, he moved into an abandoned warehouse at the corner of New York and Florida. Somebody threw up some plywood, chopped up the place, and made little apartments. Wasn't a bad place as far as homeless folk go--a roof, some toilets, water. A hundred bucks a month, payable to an ex-pimp who fixed it up and claimed he owned it."
"I think so." He pulled a thin file from one of the stacks on his desk, and, miraculously, it happened to be the one he wanted. He studied its contents for a moment. "This is where it gets complicated. The property was purchased last month by a company called RiverOaks, some big real estate outfit."
"And RiverOaks evicted everyone?"
"Odds are, then, that RiverOaks would be represented by my firm."
"Good odds, yes."
"Why is it complicated?"
"I've heard it secondhand that they got no notice before the eviction. The people claim they were paying rent to the pimp, and if so, then they were more than squatters. They were tenants, thus entitled to due process."
"Squatters get no notice?"
"None. And it happens all the time. Street folk will move into an abandoned building, and most of the time nothing happens. So they thrink they own it. The owner, if he's inclined to show up, can toss 'em without notice. They have no rights at all."
"How did DeVon Hardy track down our firm?"
"Who knows? He wasn't stupid, though. Crazy, but not stupid."
"Do you know the pimp?"
"Yeah. Completely unreliable."
"Where did you say the warehouse was?"
"It's gone now. They leveled it last week."
I had taken enough of his time. He glanced at his watch, I glanced at mine. We swapped phone numbers and promised to keep in touch.
Mordecai Green was a warm, caring man who labored on the streets protecting hordes of nameless clients. His view of the law required more soul than I could ever muster.
On my way out, I ignored Sofia because she certainly ignored me. My Lexus was still parked at the curb, already covered with an inch of snow.
I drifted through the city as the snow fell. I couldn't recall the last time I had driven the streets of D.C. without being late for a meeting. I was warm and dry in my heavy luxury car, and I simply moved with the traffic. There was no place to go.