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Authors: John Grisham

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BOOK: The Rooster Bar
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“I love it,” Mark said. “Now all we need is a girl.”

14

Z
ola attended one class on Monday but found it so depressing she blew off the others. The class, Rights of the Elderly, was one of those useless electives so popular with third-year students coasting to the finish line. She and Gordy had signed up for it and planned to take turns suffering through the lectures, then compare notes at the end and get rewarded with either As or Bs. It was a small class, about twenty students, and when the seat to her right remained empty she couldn't help but think of Gordy. He should have been sitting there.

When they had started dating the previous September, they had been cautious. Gordy was a popular student with an outsized personality and commanded a lot of attention. Zola was not the first girl he'd chased, but certainly the first black one he'd fallen for. Their friends knew he had a serious sweetheart back home, one who was jealous and came to D.C. often to check on him. Zola and Gordy had been careful, but with time they had been noticed. Word had spread.

The professor had started his lecture with some sad comments about Mr. Tanner's tragedy, and Zola got a few looks. She heard little else and couldn't wait to leave the building, but not before picking up her check for $10,000. She deposited it in her bank, bundled up, and drifted through the city. When the sky turned gray, she ducked into the National Portrait Gallery and killed some time.

During law school, she had managed to find part-time jobs for a few hours here and there. She lived more frugally than the rest of her impoverished friends, and since she didn't drink, partied little, and used public transportation, she had saved money. The $20,000 the government lent her each year to live on had been more than enough, and with one semester left Zola had $16,000 in a savings account no one else knew about. Chump change in D.C., but serious money in Senegal. If her parents and brother were finally deported, the money could become crucial to their survival. Bribery was common, and though she shuddered at the thought of traveling to Senegal, and of being either detained or denied reentry, she knew that she might one day be forced to rush to the aid of her family with as much cash as possible. So she saved and tried not to think about her loans.

She had not heard from her parents. Telephone use was limited at the detention center. Her father had been confident that he would be allowed to notify her before they were finally removed and flown back to Senegal, but with deportation the rules seemed to change daily. She convinced herself they were still in the country, and that provided some comfort. Why, she wasn't sure. What was worse—living like prisoners in a federal camp or being turned loose on the streets of Dakar? Neither scenario held the slightest hope. They would never be allowed to return to their neighborhood in Newark. The menial jobs they had scrambled to get for the past twenty-six years would be taken by other undocumented workers. The cycle would continue because the work had to be done and real Americans preferred not to do it.

When she wasn't longing for Gordy and blaming herself, she was worrying about her family and their frightening predicament. And if she somehow managed to put those two tragedies aside, she was confronted with the uncertainties of her own future. As the cold, bleak days of January crept by, Zola fell into a deep and understandable funk.

After ten days of virtually living with Todd and Mark, she needed some distance. They were skipping classes and were adamant that they would not return to school. They texted her occasionally to check on things, but seemed occupied with more important matters.

Late Tuesday morning, she heard noises from across the hall and realized the Tanners were removing boxes of Gordy's belongings. She thought about saying hello and offering condolences, but let it pass. Mr. Tanner and Gordy's brother spent an hour going back and forth to a rental van parked on the street. Grim work, and she listened to their efforts through a cracked door. When they were gone, she took an extra key and walked through Gordy's apartment. The old furniture that came with the place was still there, and she sat on the sofa, in the dark, and had a good cry.

On two occasions and at very inopportune times, she had fallen asleep on that sofa, and allowed him to venture into the night. Her guilt was overwhelming.

On Wednesday, she dressed for class and was about to leave when her father called. They were still at the detention facility without a word about their final removal. Nothing had changed since her visit. He tried to sound upbeat, a real challenge given his circumstances. Zola had been trying to locate relatives in Senegal to alert them and ask for help, but so far had not been successful. After twenty-six years of virtually no contact, a pleasant homecoming seemed unlikely. And, since her parents had no idea when they might be returned, making arrangements seemed impossible. According to her father, most of the family had fled the country years earlier. Those still there had their own problems and would not be sympathetic.

They talked for twenty minutes, and when the call ended she broke down again. Going to class seemed like such an insignificant thing to do. She was there because of a misguided dream of becoming a lawyer and fighting to protect her family and other immigrants. Now that was a hopeless cause, a broken dream.

She had collected a small library of immigration manuals and procedures, and she spent hours online reading articles and blogs and government publications. She was in contact with several rights groups and legal aid lawyers. One issue continued to frighten her. ICE, in its random eagerness to seize and deport, had made mistakes. She kept a file of cases where legitimate American citizens had been caught up in sweeps and sent back. She knew of a dozen stories in which citizens whose parents were undocumented had been mislabeled and removed. And in almost every case, the illegal seizure had occurred after the family had been detained.

Alone and vulnerable, and with her family in custody, she once again feared the knock on the door.

On Thursday, she dressed in her best for an interview at the Department of Justice. A number of starting positions were available but they were in high demand. She felt lucky just to land an interview. The salary, $48,000, was not what she had been thinking about three years earlier, but those fantasies were long gone.

The federal government had created a loan forgiveness program for young lawyers who pursued careers in public service. In the program, students who chose to work for any branch of state, local, or federal government, or for certain qualified nonprofits, could repay only 10 percent of their annual salaries, for ten years, and walk away from the rest of the debt. For many students, especially those at Foggy Bottom, it was tempting, especially in light of the soft job market in the private sector. Most preferred to work in some law-related agency, but others were signing up to teach school or join the Peace Corps.

The interview was in the basement of an office building on Wisconsin Avenue, far from the DOJ headquarters near the White House. When Zola signed in, the small waiting room was packed with third-year students, some of whom she knew from Foggy Bottom. She took a number, stood until a chair became available, and had pretty much given up when her name was called. She chatted with a harried flunky from DOJ for fifteen minutes and couldn't wait to get away.

Given the instability of her life, ten years was a long time to commit to anything.

15

F
riday dinner was at The Rooster Bar, a place she had never heard of. According to Todd, he and Mark wanted to treat her to a fine meal. One look at the place, though, and she knew something was up. They were waiting in a corner booth, both dressed in new suits, both unshaven and working on beards, and both wearing odd new eyeglasses. Mark's were round tortoiseshell. Todd preferred a narrow frameless pair in the European style.

She sat across from them and said, “Okay, what's going on?”

Todd asked, “Did you go to class this week?”

“I tried. At least I made the effort. Didn't see you boys around.”

Mark said, “We've dropped out, and we highly recommend it.”

Todd said, “It's exhilarating, Zola. No more law school. No more worries about the bar exam.”

“I'm listening,” she said. “Where'd you get those suits?”

A waiter took their drink orders. Beers for the boys, a soda for her.

“It's our new look, Zola,” Mark said. “We're lawyers now and we have to look the part, though in our line we can't look too sharp. DUI lawyers, as you know, rarely make the cover of
GQ
.”

“I see. And who would be desperate enough to hire you?”

“We've hung out our own shingle,” Todd said. “Hired ourselves. The Legal Clinic of Upshaw, Parker & Lane.” He handed her a new business card with the firm's name, address, and phone number.

She looked at it, studied it, and said, “You are kidding, right?”

“Dead serious,” Mark said. “And we're hiring.”

She took a deep breath, slowly showed them both palms, and said, “Okay. I'm not asking any more questions. Tell me what's going on, or I'm leaving.”

Todd said, “You're not going anywhere. We've moved out of our apartments, dropped out of school, changed our names, and found a way to make a few bucks. We're going to pass ourselves off as lawyers, hustle the criminal courts for fees, in cash of course, and hope like hell we don't get caught.”

“We won't get caught,” Mark said. “There are too many guys just like us doing the same thing.”

“But they're all licensed,” she said.

“How do you know? No one ever checks. And the clients have no clue. They're scared to death and overwhelmed anyway, and never think about asking. Just like we didn't ask Darrell Cromley at the jail.”

“It's illegal,” she said. “I haven't learned much at Foggy Bottom but I do know that practicing law without a license is against the law.”

“Only if we get caught,” Mark said.

Todd added, “Sure, there's a risk, but it's not that significant. If something goes wrong, we'll just disappear again.”

Mark said, “And we think we can generate some cash, tax-free, of course.”

“You're crazy.”

“No, we're actually pretty smart. We're hiding in plain sight, Zola. Hiding from our landlord. Hiding from the student loan services. Hiding from everyone who might want to find us. And, we'll be making decent money.”

“And your debts?”

Mark sipped his beer, wiped his mouth, and leaned in closer. “Here's what will happen. The law school will one day realize that we've checked out, but it will do nothing. Most reputable law schools notify DOE and then haggle over how much of the tuition will be refunded for the semester. You can bet Foggy Bottom wants to refund nothing, so it will sit on the fact that we're gone and keep all the money. We'll check in by e-mail with our servicers and give them the impression that we're in class. Graduation is in May, and, as you know, we're supposed to agree to a repayment plan that starts six months later. When we don't pay, they'll throw us in default.”

Todd added, “Did you know that last year a million students went into default?”

She shrugged. Maybe she did; maybe she didn't.

Mark continued, “So we have some time, nine or ten months before we're in default. By then, we'll be kicking ass with our little legal clinic and hoarding cash.”

She said, “But default means default, a guaranteed lawsuit that you can't defend.”

Todd said, “Only if they find us. My loan servicer works in a sweatshop in Philadelphia. Mark's is in New Jersey. Where is yours, I can't remember?”

“Chevy Chase.”

“Okay, a bit closer, but you'll still be safe. The point is that they can't find us because we have different names, different addresses. They'll turn us over to some two-bit law firm, one no doubt owned by Hinds Rackley, and they'll file suit. Big deal. They're suing students like crazy and the lawsuits are worthless.”

“But your credit is ruined.”

“What credit? It's ruined anyway because we can't repay the loans. Even if we found honest work, there's no way in hell we can repay what we owe.”

The waiter appeared and Mark ordered a platter of nachos. When he left, she said, “So much for a fine dinner.”

“Compliments of us. It's on the firm,” Todd said with a smile.

She was still holding the business card. She looked at it and asked, “Where did these names come from?”

Mark replied, “The phone book. Common, everyday names. I'm Mark Upshaw and have documents to prove it. He's Todd Lane, just another ham-and-egg lawyer hustling the streets.”

“And who's Parker?”

“That's you,” Todd said. “Zola Parker. We're thinking our little clinic needs some diversity so we're adding you as the middle partner. All equal, you understand. Three equal partners.”

“Three equal crooks,” she said. “I'm sorry, but this is crazy.”

“It is. And what's even crazier is the idea of wrapping things up at Foggy Bottom, graduating in May without a job, then grinding away for the bar exam. Face it, Zola, you're not emotionally prepared for that. Neither are we, so we've already made our decision.”

“But we're almost finished with law school,” she said.

Mark said, “So what? So you finish with a law degree that's worthless. Just another piece of paper courtesy of Hinds Rackley and his diploma mill. We've been had, Zola, sucked into a scam of epic proportions. Gordy was right. You can't just drift along with the scam and hope for a miracle. At least we're fighting back.”

“You're not fighting anything. You're just screwing the taxpayers.”

Todd said, “The taxpayers are getting screwed by Congress and the Department of Education. And, of course, Rackley, who's already made his money off our backs.”

“But we chose to borrow the money. No one made us.”

“True, but the money was loaned to us under false pretenses,” Mark said. “When you started law school, did you really believe that you would one day be sitting here with a mountain of debt and no job? Hell no. The picture they painted back then was much rosier. Take the money, get the degree, pass the bar, and go to work in a great profession that would make it easy to repay everything.”

The waiter brought another round of drinks. There was a gap in the conversation as they sipped and stared at the table.

Softly, she said, “It seems awfully risky.”

Mark and Todd nodded in agreement. Mark said, “There are risks, yes, but we don't consider them to be that significant. The first risk is that we get caught practicing law without a license, but it's no big deal. A slap on the wrist, a small fine, and move on.”

Todd added, “We've studied the cases and unauthorized practice is not that uncommon. It happens, and by the way the cases are fascinating, but no one goes to jail.”

“That's supposed to be comforting?”

“I suppose. Look, Zola, under our plan if someone gets suspicious and reports us, and let's say the D.C. Bar Council shows up with a bunch of questions, we simply vanish again.”

“And that's even more comforting?”

Mark ignored her and said, “The second risk is that we default on our loans and this somehow screws up our already screwed-up lives.”

The nachos arrived and each took a bite. After the second bite, Zola touched her eyes with a paper napkin and they realized she was crying. She said, “Look, guys, I can't stay in my apartment. Every time I look at Gordy's door I almost break down. His family moved out his stuff on Tuesday and I keep going over there and sitting in the darkness. I need to get away, to somewhere.”

They nodded, stopped eating, took a sip.

“And there's something else,” she said. She took a deep breath, wiped her eyes again, and told the story of a college student in Texas who was yanked from her dorm room in the middle of the night by ICE agents. She was sent to El Salvador, where she was reunited with her family of undocumented workers who had been removed a month earlier. The problem was the student had been born in the U.S. and had full citizenship. Her appeals and paperwork still languished somewhere deep in the bureaucracy.

Zola told them she had found a dozen cases of U.S. citizens being ensnared in ICE raids and removed, and each arrest had happened after the detention of family members. She was living in fear and it was debilitating.

Mark and Todd listened with sympathy. When she finished, and the tears had stopped, Mark said, “Well, we've found a great hiding place, and there's room for you.”

“Where?” she asked.

“Upstairs. We're sharing a dump on the fourth floor, no elevator I might add, and there are two rooms just below us. Maynard says we can have it for very reasonable rent.”

“Who's Maynard?”

“Our boss,” Todd said. “He owns the place.”

“It's not very nice,” Mark said. “But you would have your privacy, or some of it.”

“I'm not rooming with you guys.”

“No, not at all. We'll be on the fourth floor and you'll be on the third.”

“Does it have a kitchen?”

“Not really, but then you don't need to cook anyway.”

“How about a bathroom?”

“That could be a problem,” Todd said. “The only bathroom is on the fourth floor, but we can make it work. It's not ideal, Zola, but we're all scrambling here. We can tough it out for a few months and see how things go.”

“It's the perfect place to hide,” Mark said. “Think of Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis, only not quite that severe, you know?”

“That's supposed to make me feel better?”

“I guess I could find a better analogy.”

“What about Maynard?” she asked. “How much does he know?”

Todd said, “I've worked for Maynard for three years and he's cool. He's a bit on the crooked side anyway, big-time bookie and all, and he has no idea what a legal clinic is. He thinks we're still in school but doesn't really care. We're negotiating with him, offering to swap bartending hours for rent. He'll come around.”

She said, “I really can't visualize myself hustling DUI cases like that Cromley dude.”

Mark said, “Of course not, Zola. So far, from what we've observed, all the hustlers are men, most of them white. You wouldn't fit in, because, well, you do tend to attract attention.”

“So what's my specialty?”

“Office girl,” Todd said.

“I don't like the sound of that. Where's the office?”

“Your den. It's the new home of Upshaw, Parker & Lane. UPL. Unauthorized Practice of Law.”

“Clever.”

“We thought so. We see your talents in the field of personal injury law, which, as we know because of our superb legal education, is still the most lucrative area of street law.”

As if rehearsed, Mark took the handoff and said, “We see you working the hospital emergency rooms, trolling for injured plaintiffs. In this city, most of them are black and you can relate to them. They'll believe you and want to hire you.”

“I know nothing of personal injury law,” she said.

“Of course you do. You've seen a thousand ads on television, all those hucksters begging for cases. They're not the sharpest tools in the shed, so you gotta figure there can't be much to PI work.”

“Thanks.”

Todd added, “And it only takes a couple of really good car wrecks to make some money, Zola. I met a lawyer in the Old Red Cat who was starving until he slipped on some ice and fell. When he was laid up in the hospital, they rolled in another guy who got banged up in a motorcycle collision. A year later the lawyer settled the motorcycle accident case for almost a million and raked off one-third.”

“Just like that,” she said.

“Yes, and there will always be injured people and they always take 'em to the hospital. That's where you'll be waiting.”

“It'll work, Zola, because we'll make it work,” Mark said. “Just the three us, all for one, one for all. Equal partners to the very end.”

“And what's the end, guys? What is your endgame?”

“Survival,” Todd said. “We'll survive by hiding and pretending to be other people. We'll hustle the streets because there's no turning back.”

“And if we get caught?”

Mark and Todd took a sip and thought about an answer. Finally, Mark said, “If we get caught, we simply walk away again. Vanish.”

“A life on the run,” she said.

“We're running now,” Todd said. “You might not want to admit it, but that's what we're doing. We're living a life that's not sustainable, so we have no choice but to run.”

Mark cracked his knuckles and said, “Here's the deal, Zola. We're in this together, thick as thieves and loyal to the end. We have to agree, right now, up front, that if it becomes necessary, we leave together.”

“And go where?”

“We'll worry about that when the time comes.”

“What about your families?” she asked. “Have you told them?”

They hesitated, and the pause conveyed the answer. Mark said, “No, I have not told my mother, because she has enough problems right now. She thinks I'm in class and looking forward to graduation with a nice job all lined up. I suppose I'll wait a couple of months, then lie and tell her I'm taking a semester off. I don't know. I'll think of something.”

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