Authors: Claire Matturro
“That would be fine,” Earl said. “Look around and I'll get this tour started in the shop, and then I'll step outside and speak with you.”
We smiled so hard at each other my jaws ached, and Poodle Heads clucked their tongues together as if Earl and I were consummating our little flirts right there.
I went outside to amble around in the fresh air and wait until Earl had the tour group infatuated with his many different items for sale. Tired of watching the old folks nodding their heads at Earl through the plate-glass window, I cruised through the lot, toward the vineyard, until a big barnlike structure caught my eye. Someone had made a border of red bricks and planted a hedge of gardenias and hibiscus along the side of the barn. I huffed over toward it and poked my head right in through the big door. Nobody was home.
The barn was cool and dim, with light coming in the windows. Buckets, rakes, a little tractor, and this and thats of what I took to be the usual accouterments of farming were scattered about. I read the labels on some sacks of rock phosphate and then wandered over to a table under a window with two big, bulky things on it under a tarp.
Since nobody was about, and Earl did say, more or less, I could explore on my own, I pulled the tarp off. Under it, two strange-looking
âtype models, or toys, or something mechanical and mostly metal sat on the table. They were similar, and they were each about four or five feet high, little models that appeared to be workable, with little, metal, robot-type arms on the sides of miniature motors in a center frame. They appeared complex, but with no obvious purpose.
Weird. What, Earl made
models for recreation when he wasn't making sulfite-free wine?
Behind me, the barn door opened and I turned and saw a small, dark man with the look of mixed Spanish and Indian blood. “You no supposed to be here,” he said.
“Oh, no, it's all right. I'm a friend of Earl and he said it was okay.”
Â¡Fuera de aqui!
Get.” The short, dark man pulled his features into a vaguely menacing look.
Well, all right. Be that way.
“Can do,” I said. Jogging through the barn toward the exit, I shoved past the little man and walked out.
Behind me, the little man slammed the barn door.
Not totally frustrated yet, but close, I went back around to the front door of the Gift and Wine Shoppe and went in. Earl was explaining to the tour group what a muscadine was.
Earl raised his eyebrows at me, and I smiled as a bent man screeched a question into Earl's face. Then Earl poured little wine samples for the tour group, and slipped over to me while they slurped down his fine, organic wine.
“Lilly,” he said, smiled, and pushed his glasses up on his nose.
Okay, we knew who we were. Now how did I launch into my mission? “I'm actually here on business, of a sort.”
“You'd like to buy in bulk?”
“No. Thank you. But I would like to buy a case. I'm a lawyer, and I'm here on behalf of Dave Baggwell, and his friend Waylon, er, Waylon.” I realized I didn't know Waylon's last name.
Earl nodded, and I thought he looked disappointed in me. “You want me to forget prosecuting them over the wine, that is, if I get it back?”
“Oh, yes, that would be so much better for everybody. Oh, and better for you especially. You really don't want to get tied up in testifying and wasting all that time going to court. Do you have any idea how much time it takes, and how irritating it is, to be sucked into the criminal-justice system, even as the”âtechnically,
was the word here, but that wasn't the connotation I wanted, so I paused and waited for the blue god of wordsmithing to descend with just the right phraseâ“eh, witness, and if you drop the charges, I will personally see that you are reimbursed for any losses. Plus, of course, the wine will be returned.”
“Yeah. That other lawyer, Philip Cohen, has already spoken with me too.”
Oh, good for Philip, I thought, early worm and all that. Of course, not having spent the night in the ER, he could get up earlier.
“And we can count on your cooperation?” Beam, beam, beam toward Earl.
“I will tell you what I told him. I will think about it. I'll call him and let him know what I've decided. But Dave and Waylon were employees of mine, and I can't tolerate theft by employees.”
“Oh, I think it was more of a”âA what exactly, a bad joke? An extremely bad idea? A typical Dave money-for-nothing adventure?â“a frolic. They're not career criminals, or anything. I don't think they will bother you again.”
“No, one way or the other, I'm sure they won't. And like I said, I will think about dropping the charges. But I have other things on my mind now, more important things.”
“Earl, thank you. I know you will do the right thing.” I offered my hand, and to my pleasant surprise, he took it. “You do have a wonderful place here, and I would like to buy a case of your wine.”
“You don't have to. I can't be bribed that easily.”
“I really like your wine, it's not bribery.”
He nodded, and I bought a case of his wine, and I tried during the transaction to get us back to the smile, smile, flirt, flirt stage, but he wasn't going back there, so I took my wine and left him to his old-people tour.
In light of future events, I should have stayed longer and asked more questions. Or gone back after the tour was over. But, after all, I'd had a pretty rough Saturday and, unlike Gandhi, I didn't have the gift of seeing beyond the moment, and was nearly nauseous with exhaustion and thirst. So I went home, drank iced tea, washed up, and then Bearess and I went over to Bonita's and picked up Benny.
Benny was in no mood to talk. He was in no mood to do anything. If there was anything more to his Saturday adventures with Farmer Dave, he wasn't telling me about it, bent as he was on a course of action that involved staring at his feet and mumbling incoherent not-sweet nothings. We hung out on the track at the middle school and watched Bearess run around in circles while Benny refused to talk to me. Finally Bearess laid her big head on Benny's legs and slobbered until she caught her breath.
I took it as a bad sign that Benny did not pet Bearess as she draped herself over him.
I awoke early with a sense of panic pounding my chest and watering my eyes.
Most lawyers, the litigators at least, wake up on Monday mornings with exactly that same feeling.
Having lost the weekend, and with a looming appellate argument on Tuesday morning, I was left with a frantic sense of having run out of time. I hustled myself to the office as quick as a little bunny on steroids, and I hoped my hands would stop sweating as the day wore on.
Inside Smith, O'Leary, and Stanley, I marched past Bonita, sitting prim and pretty at her desk in her little cubbyhole office outside my big office, and I hissed, “Don't let anyone, not anybody, past my door.”
I slammed my way into my office with its scenic view of the parking lot and cranked open the window for a touch of real air and threw my briefcase on my desk.
When I turned around twice, like a cat selecting a nap spot, I saw that Bonita had already made my coffee, so I poured a cup and smelled it and began to formulate a plan of preparation that didn't involve stolen organic wine or boys from my past.
But first I called Earl and got no answer. Then I called Philip, and after working my way through his receptionist and then his secretary, I demanded a direct line, which Philip gave me.
“Do you charge a set fee for phone calls, or bill according to the actual time spent on the phone?” This would determine how much flirty, polite stuff I said.
“I bill the actual time,” Philip said.
“Dave still in jail?”
“Earl drop the charges?”
“No, not yet.”
“Okay, 'bye.” I hung up the phone, jotted down two minutes so I could check Philip for honest billing, and picked up my cup of coffee.
Before I had finished my first cup, my office door burst open with a blast of the chilly, artificial office air and I shivered.
My associate, Angela, huge with child, teetered on her feet with the misbalance caused by a gestating baby on her petite frame.
Poor Angela. Pregnancy had not made her glow. She had three inches of orange roots showing in her curly auburn bob and not a speck of Maybelline on her pale eyes.
“Brock, every six weeks, rain or shine or baby,” I said, pointing at her hair as if she had barged in for beauty advice. Brock was our hairdresser and my primary therapist and I'd introduced Angela to him when I had decided that instead of being my overworked, mousy-faced, orange-haired associate, Angela should be an overworked world-class beauty. That makeover had also facilitated her theft of my own boyfriend Newly Moneta, who was now her husband and the father of the baby brewing inside her. Her world-class beauty, in pint size, had lasted only until she blew up with unnamed Baby Moneta and stopped using her makeup and having Brock color her hair.
Angela shook a handful of paper at me.
“Brock, once every six weeks, Angela, and Maybelline on the lashes and L'OrÃ©al on the lips,” I repeated in case being pregnant made her deaf.
“Chemicals,” she said. “Baby.”
Since becoming huge with child, Angela was too tired and frazzled to waste time on extraneous words. Though she still communicated what was necessary, her terseness was not a great trait in a lawyer, lawyers being paid to talk, that is, and I was a little afraid to send her to hearings these days.
As I mused on Angela's immediate future, she advanced upon me and practically smashed my face with her handful of paper. Pregnancy had also, I noted, and not for the first time, made her unusually aggressive. This was a good trait in a lawyer, although not necessarily when directed at me, but I let it go and took the papers.
They were copies of a memo to the law clerks, requesting legal research on the issue of whether a plaintiff's fraud in calculating the amount of damages in a wrongful-death claim could be used to vacate the whole judgment.
“This doesn't have anything to do with us. You're not a law clerk and it's not my case.” I thrust the papers back at Angela.
Angela took the papers only to rustle them under my nose and shove them back into my hand.
Okay, okay, okay. I looked past the first paragraph in the memo. I didn't see my name in it, or Angela's, for that matter, so I scanned again for the gist. A request for legal research on recouping a judgment in a wrongful-death case. Something about fraudulently claiming the decedent had more children than he actually did to jack up the amount of the ultimate judgment.
When I looked up from the memo, Angela nodded her head emphatically.
Okay, a whole sentence from her would be helpful. But I took a whirl at interpretation.
“You found this in the library?”
I looked down at the memo again. Dated today, and fresh from the desk of Kenneth U. Mallory. Nothing of Kenneth's was anything I wanted anything to do with, especially not right now, the morning of the last day on earth I had to complete the preparation for my oral argument.
But I wasn't going to cross that look on Angela's face, and so I said, “Kenneth is doing research, on fraud and recoupment? Right? Relief from judgment, right? And this is important to you and me, why?”
Angela turned and pointed to the wall beyond which Bonita was allegedly busily protecting me by keeping people like Angela out of my office.
No bells went off.
Angela again punched at the paper in my hand.
I continued scanning down the paragraphs of Kenneth's request for legal research. Then I saw it: the words
Bonita was a widow with five dependents, and Newly had won her a sizable wrongful-death judgment in a product-liability case when a bottling machine at the local orange-juice processing plant had eaten Bonita's husband alive. His workers' compensation benefits had been wholly insignificant, as, of course, they always are, but the product-liability award in the wrongful-death case was not.
That Kenneth was looking into this didn't smell right. Spearheading research aimed at trying to take back the judgment from Bonita and her five kids seemed evil even for Kenneth. Especially since she worked for the same law firm where he was a partner. And especially since he had not represented the bottling company in the initial wrongful-death suit.
What the hell?
“This is wrong,” Angela said, and punched the paper in my hand with her finger. “Stop him.”
Oh, good, I thought, a whole sentence. Plus, a command.
“Would you like to sit down?” I asked.
But Angela had already turned away and was lurching back out my door, which Bonita, rising from her chair, tiptoed over to close behind her.
Why on earth would Kenneth take a case against one of our own people?
Then a bigger question occurred to me: Why, in a city with an average of one attorney per ten people, would the bottling company hire Kenneth to go after a secretary from his own law firm?
That suggested to me that Kenneth was the instigator in luring the bottling company to him as a client and convincing them to sue Bonita for fraud and relief from judgment.
Of course, lawyers in a competitive society were not above recruiting their own clients. When done with finesse, this was called rainmaking. When done with sleeze, it was called ambulance chasing.
Okay, odd as this was, I was going to have to do something. It was one thing that Kenneth was bugging the crap out of Jackson to make the firm pay for his stupid Hummer, but Jackson was a big boy and could fight back, fair and unfair. But for Kenneth to be inducing the bottling company to go after Bonita was unconscionable.
Bonita was my secretary, and my friend, and the rock upon which I daily hurled my obsessions and petty complaints and half-baked theories, and she never raised her voice at me, well, almost never, and I owed her, owed her big, and Kenneth was the slime left in the bottom of the trash Dumpster. I would, as Angela the Petite had said, find some way to stop him.
But not now. Now I had an appellate argument looming in the very near and scary future and a fifteen-year-old boy to worry about and a missing grocery sack of gosh-knows whose or how much money.
I leaned over my desk and punched a key on my laptop, which Bonita had already booted up and opened to WordPerfect, and I began a cursory first draft of my proposed appellate argument. Everything else was just going to have to wait.