Read The Rooster Bar Online

Authors: John Grisham

The Rooster Bar (4 page)

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“And he's not the only one, right?” Todd said.

“Oh no. Molson was just one of many. Quinn has a fancy website and I read the bios of all four hundred lawyers. Thirty percent are from Rackley's law schools. Thirty percent! So, my friends, Rackley hires them at enviable salaries, then uses their smiling faces and great success stories for his propaganda.”

He paused, took a sip, gave them a smug smile as if waiting for applause. He walked closer to the wall and pointed to another face, a black-and-white photo on copy paper, one of three just under the Great Satan. “This crook is Alan Grind, a Seattle-based lawyer and a limited partner in Varanda. Grind owns a law firm called King & Roswell, another low-tier operation with two hundred lawyers in five cities, primarily out west.” He pointed to the left, where King & Roswell held a spot next to Quinn & Vyrdoliac. “Of Grind's two hundred lawyers, forty-five came from the eight law schools.”

He took another sip and walked to the table for a refill.

“Are you going to drink that whole bottle?” Mark asked.

“Only if I want to.”

“Maybe you should slow down.”

“And maybe you should worry about yourself. I'm not drunk, just sufficiently buzzed. And who are you to monitor my drinking?”

Mark took a deep breath and let it go. Gordy's speech was clear enough. His mind was certainly clicking right along. In spite of his disheveled appearance, he seemed to be under control, at least for the moment. He stepped back to the wall and pointed at the photos. “The guy in the middle here is Walter Baldwin, runs a Chicago law firm called Spann & Tatta, three hundred lawyers in seven cities, coast to coast. Same type of work, same fondness for graduates of lesser law schools.” He pointed to the third face under Rackley. “And rounding out the gang is Mr. Marvin Jockety, senior partner of a Brooklyn law firm called Ratliff & Cosgrove. Same setup, same business model.”

Gordy took another sip and admired his work. He turned and looked at the three. “Not to belabor what should be obvious, but Rackley has under his thumb four law firms with eleven hundred lawyers in twenty-seven offices. Between them, they hire enough of his graduates to give his law schools plenty to crow about, so that suckers like us rush in with piles of cash provided by Congress.” His voice was suddenly loud and shaky. “It's perfect! It's beautiful! It's one great big fat law school scam that's risk-free. If we default the taxpayers pick up the tab. Rackley gets to privatize the profits and socialize the losses.”

He suddenly threw his coffee cup at the wall. It bounced off the thin Sheetrock unbroken and rolled across the floor. He sat hard against the wall, facing them, and stretched out his legs. The soles of his feet were black with dirt and grime.

The crash echoed for a few seconds as they watched him. Nothing was said for a long time. Mark gazed at the wall and absorbed the plot. There was no reason to doubt Gordy's research. Todd gazed at the wall as if enthralled by the conspiracy. Zola stared at Gordy and wondered what they were supposed to do with him.

Finally, Gordy, almost in a whisper, said, “My number is 276,000 in loans, including this semester. What's yours, Mark?”

There were no secrets. The four knew each other well enough.

“Including this semester, 266,” Mark said.

“Todd?”

“One-ninety-five.”

“Zola?”

“One-ninety-one.”

Gordy shook his head and laughed, not from humor, but from disbelief. “Almost a million. Who in their right mind would loan the four of us a million dollars?” At the moment, it did seem absurd, even laughable.

After another long pause, Gordy said, “There's no way out. We've been lied to, misled, scammed, and suckered into this miserable place. There's no way out.”

Todd slowly got to his feet and stepped to the wall. He pointed to the center of it and asked, “What is Sorvann Lenders?”

Gordy snorted another fake laugh and said, “The rest of the story. Rackley, through another company, and this guy has more fronts than a low-rent strip mall, owns Sorvann, which is now the fourth-largest private student lender. If you can't get enough cash from the government, then you go private, where, surprise, surprise, the interest rates are higher and the debt collectors make the Mafia look like Cub Scouts. Sorvann lends to undergrads as well and has about ninety million in its portfolio. It's a growing company. Evidently, Rackley smells blood on the private side as well.”

Todd asked, “And what is Passant?”

Another pained laugh. Gordy slowly climbed to his feet and walked to the table, where he grabbed the bottle and took a long swig. He grimaced, swallowed hard, wiped his mouth with his forearm, and finally said, “Passant is Piss Ant, third-largest student loan collecting racket in the country. It's under contract to the Department of Education to ‘service,' as they like to say, student debt. There's over a trillion dollars out there, owed by fools like us. Passant is a bunch of terrorists, been sued a number of times for abusive debt collection practices. Rackley owns a chunk of it. The man is pure evil.”

Gordy walked to the sofa and sat next to Zola. As he passed, Mark got a strong whiff of his body odor. Todd walked to the kitchenette, stepped around the debris on the floor, opened the fridge, and pulled out two cans of beer. He handed one to Mark and both popped the tops. Zola rubbed Gordy's leg, oblivious to his odors.

Mark nodded at the wall and asked, “So how long have you been working on this?”

“That's not important. There's more to the story if you care to hear it.”

“I've heard enough,” Mark said. “For now anyway. How about we walk around the corner and get a pizza? Mario's is still open.”

“Great idea,” Todd said, but no one moved.

Gordy finally said, “My parents are on the hook for ninety thousand of my debt, private stuff I carried over from college. Can you believe that? They were hesitant, and for good reason, but I pushed them hard. What an idiot! My dad makes fifty thousand a year selling farm equipment and owed nothing but a mortgage until I started borrowing. Mom works part-time at the school. I've lied to them, told them I have a great job all lined up and I could handle the repayments. I've lied to Brenda too. She thinks we'll be living in the big city where I'll hustle off to work each day in a nice suit, eager to claw my way to the top. I'm in a bit of a jam, guys, and I see no way out.”

“We'll survive, Gordy,” Mark said, but without conviction.

“We'll get through it,” Todd said, without specifying which “it” he was referring to. Law school? The debt? Unemployment? Or Gordy's breakdown? There were so many challenges at the moment.

Another long, dreary pause. Mark and Todd quietly sipped their beers.

Gordy said, “How can we expose Rackley? I've thought about sitting down with a reporter, someone who covers the legal beat for the
Post
or maybe the
Journal
. I've even thought about a class action lawsuit against the crook. Think of the thousands of young idiots like us who are on the same sinking ship and would love to take a shot at the guy once the truth is out.”

Mark said, “I don't see a lawsuit. I mean, sure, he's put together a brilliant scheme but he hasn't done anything that's actionable. There's no law against owning diploma mills, even though he's trying his best to hide it. His law firms can hire whoever they want. Sleazy, unfair, deceitful, but not enough for a lawsuit.”

“Agreed,” Todd said. “But I love the idea of helping an investigative reporter hammer the guy.”

Zola asked, “Wasn't there a case in California where a law student sued her law school because she couldn't find a job?”

Mark replied, “Yes, there have been several, all dismissed but for the one in California. It went to trial and the jury found in favor of the law school.”

Gordy said, “I'm not giving up on the lawsuit. It's the best way to expose Rackley. Can you imagine what discovery would be like?”

“All fun and games, but he's not stupid,” Mark said. “Hell, he owns four law firms. Just think of the heavy artillery he'd throw at you. The plaintiffs would spend the next five years drowning in paperwork.”

“What do you know about lawsuits?” Gordy asked.

“Everything. I've been educated at Foggy Bottom.”

“I rest my case.”

The lame effort at humor passed and they stared at the floor. Finally, Todd said, “Come on, Gordy, let's go get a pizza.”

“I'm not going anywhere but I think you guys should leave.”

“Then we're not leaving either,” Mark said. “We're staying here.”

“Why? I don't need a babysitter. Get out.”

Todd, still standing, walked to the sofa and stared down at Gordy. “Let's talk about you, Gordy, you and your condition. You're not sleeping or eating, or bathing for that matter. Are you taking your meds?”

“What meds?”

“Come on, Gordy. We're your friends and we're here to help.”

“What meds?” he demanded.

“Come on, Gordy, we know what's going on,” Mark said.

Gordy turned to Zola and growled, “What have you told them?”

Zola was about to respond when Todd said, “Nothing. She's told us nothing, but we're not blind, Gordy, we're your best friends and you need some help.”

“I don't need meds,” he snapped back, then bolted to his feet, brushed by Todd, and went to his bedroom. Seconds later he yelled, “Get out of here!” and slammed the door. They took a deep breath and stared at each other. Seconds later, the door opened and Gordy came out. He grabbed the bottle of tequila, said, “Leave! Now!” and disappeared again into his bedroom.

A minute passed without a sound. Zola stood and crossed the den. She put an ear to his door and listened. She stepped away and whispered, “I think he's crying.”

“Great,” Mark whispered.

Another minute passed. Softly, Todd said, “We can't leave him.”

“No way,” Mark said. “Let's take turns. I'll pull the first shift on the sofa.”

“I'm not leaving,” Zola said.

Mark looked around the den and finished his beer. Almost in a whisper he said, “Okay, you take the sofa and I'll take the chair. Todd, you sleep on Zola's sofa and we'll swap in a few hours.”

Todd nodded and said, “Okay, I guess that will work.” He stepped to the fridge, got another beer, and left. Mark turned off the lights and settled into the battered leather chair. A few feet away, Zola curled up on the sofa. He whispered, “This could be a long night.”

“We shouldn't talk,” she said. “The walls are thin and he might hear us.”

“Right.”

The digital clock on the microwave emitted a bluish light that seemed to grow brighter as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. It defined the shadows of the small dining table, the computer, and printer. Though they were still wide awake, the room was perfectly still. No sounds from the bedroom. Soft, distant music from down the hall. After ten minutes, Mark pulled out his phone and checked his messages and e-mails. Nothing important. The next ten minutes seemed like an hour as the chair grew more uncomfortable.

He stared at the wall. He couldn't see the picture of Hinds Rackley, but he could feel his eyes gazing smugly down at them. At the moment, though, Mark wasn't concerned with Rackley and his grand conspiracy. He was worried about Gordy. Their challenge tomorrow would be getting their friend to the doctor.

5

A
t 2:00 a.m., Todd slipped into Gordy's apartment without a sound and found both Mark and Zola asleep. He shook Mark's arm and whispered, “My turn.” Mark stood, stretched his stiff joints and muscles, and walked across the hall, where he fell onto Zola's sofa.

Before dawn, Gordy got out of bed and put on his jeans, sweatshirt, socks, and denim jacket. Holding his hiking boots, he stood by the door and listened. He knew they were in the den, waiting for him to make a move. He gently opened the bedroom door and listened. He took a step into the den, saw their silhouettes on the sofa and in the chair, heard their heavy breathing, and silently walked to the door. At the end of the hallway, he put on his boots and left the building.

At the first hint of sunlight, Zola awoke and sat up. Seeing the bedroom door open she jumped to her feet, turned on the lights, and realized Gordy had managed to escape. “He's not here!” she yelled at Todd. “He's gone!”

Todd scrambled out of the chair and walked past her to the bedroom, a small square space where hiding would be impossible. He poked through the closet, looked in the bathroom, and yelled, “Shit! What happened?”

“He got up and left,” she said. They stared at each other in disbelief, then walked over to break the news to Mark. The three hurried down the stairs and along the first-floor hallway to the building's rear door. There were a dozen cars in the parking lot but none of them belonged to Gordy. His little Mazda was gone, as they feared it would be. Zola called Gordy's cell but of course there was no answer. They returned to the apartments, locked the doors, and walked three blocks to a diner where they huddled in a booth and tried to regroup over black coffee.

“There's no way to find him in this city,” Mark said.

“He doesn't want to be found,” Todd said.

“Should we call the police?” Zola asked.

“And tell them what? Our friend's missing and might hurt himself? These cops are busy with last night's murders and rapes.”

Todd asked, “What about his parents? They probably have no idea what shape he's in.”

Mark was shaking his head. “No, Gordy would hate us forever. Besides, what can they do? Hurry over to the big city and start searching?”

“I agree, but Gordy has a doctor somewhere, either here or back home. A doctor who knows him, who's treated him, who's prescribed the meds, someone who should know that he's in bad shape. If we tell his parents, they can at least inform the doctor. Who cares if we piss off Gordy as long as he gets some help?”

“That makes sense,” Zola said. “And the doctor is here. Gordy sees him once a month.”

“Do you know his name?”

“No. I've tried to find out, but no luck.”

Mark said, “Okay, maybe later, but for now we gotta find Gordy.”

They drank coffee and pondered the impossibility of finding him in the city. A waitress stopped by and asked about breakfast. They declined. No one had an appetite.

“Any ideas?” Mark asked Zola.

She shook her head. “Not really. In the past week he's disappeared twice. The first time he took a train to New York and was gone for three days. When he got back he didn't say much, just that he was on the trail of the Great Satan. I think he talked to some people up there. He hung around for a day or so; we were together most of the time. He was drinking and slept a lot. Then I came home from work and he was gone again. For two days, nothing. That was when he found the law professor who'd been fired from Foggy Bottom.”

“Did you know what he was doing?” Todd asked.

“No. Two days ago he locked himself in his apartment and wouldn't see me. I think that was when he moved the furniture and went to work on the wall.”

“How much do you know about his condition?” Mark asked.

She took a deep breath and hesitated. “This is all confidential, guys, you understand? He swore me to secrecy.”

“Come on, Zola, we're all in this together,” Mark said. “Of course it's confidential.”

She glanced around as if others were listening. “Back in September, I found his pills, so we talked about it. He was diagnosed as bipolar when he was in college and didn't tell anyone, not even Brenda. He told her sometime later, so she knows. Through therapy and meds he's kept things together nicely.”

“I never knew it,” Mark said.

“Neither did I,” Todd said.

Zola continued. “It's not unusual for people who are bipolar to reach a point where they believe they no longer need the meds. They feel great and convince themselves they can live just fine without them. So they stop taking them, things soon begin to spiral down, and they often turn to self-medication. That's what happened to Gordy, though he was also feeling a lot of other pressures. All this law school mess, couldn't find a job, the loans, and to make it all worse he felt as though he was getting pushed into a wedding. He was in bad shape by Thanksgiving but worked hard to conceal it.”

“Why didn't you tell us?”

“Because he would hate me. He was convinced he could man up and somehow survive. And, looking back, most of the time he was okay. But the mood swings got worse, as did the drinking.”

“You should have told us,” Mark said.

“I didn't know what to do. I've never dealt with something like this before.”

“Pointing fingers will not help right now,” Todd said to Mark.

“I'm sorry.”

Todd glanced at his cell phone and said, “It's almost eight. Nothing from Gordy. I'm supposed to go to the bar at noon and work a shift. What's everybody else doing today?”

Zola said, “I go in at ten for a few hours.” She was working as a temp in a small accounting firm.

Mark said, “Well, I came back early to get away from home and hopefully put together a plan to start studying for the bar exam, but I really don't want to. I suppose I'll drift on over to Ness Skelton and kill the day sucking up to my future bosses, trying to appear needed and relevant. For no pay, of course. I'm sure they need some help in the copy room.”

“Gotta love the law,” Todd said. “I'll accomplish more in the bar.”

“Thanks.”

Zola said, “I suppose all we can do is wait.”

Todd paid for the coffee and they left the diner. They had walked a block when Zola's phone vibrated. She pulled it from a pocket, looked at it, stopped, and said, “It's Gordy. He's at Central Jail.”

—

AT 4:35 A.M.,
Gordy was stopped after an officer noticed his Mazda weaving along Connecticut Avenue. He stumbled during a field sobriety test and eventually agreed to blow. He registered 0.11 on the mobile monitor and was immediately handcuffed and placed in the rear seat of the police car. A tow truck hauled his car to the city lot. At Central, he blew again with the same result. He was fingerprinted, photographed, booked, and thrown into the drunk tank with six others. At 8:00 a.m., a bailiff led him to a small room, handed him his phone, and told him he could use it once. He called Zola, and the bailiff took his phone and led him back to the cell.

Thirty minutes later, his three friends walked through the front door at Central, got themselves scanned by a metal detector, and were directed to a large room where, evidently, families and friends came to retrieve their loved ones after a bad night. It was lined with chairs along three walls, with magazines and newspapers scattered about. Behind a large window at the far end two uniformed clerks were busy with paperwork. Cops milled around, some chatting with dazed and nervous people. There were about a dozen of them—parents, spouses, friends—all with the same spooked looks and fidgety manners. Two men in bad suits and battered briefcases seemed right at home. One was chatting up a cop who appeared to know him well. The other was huddled with a middle-aged couple. The mother was crying.

Mark, Todd, and Zola found seats in a corner and took in the surroundings. After a few minutes, Mark walked to the window and offered a sappy smile to a clerk. He said he was there to get his friend Gordon Tanner, and the clerk checked some paperwork. She nodded toward the seats and said it would take some time. Mark returned to his chair between Todd and Zola.

The lawyer chatting with the cop watched them carefully and soon came over. His three-piece suit was made of a slick bronze fabric. His shoes were shiny and black, with long pointed toes that flipped up at the tips. His shirt was baby blue and his thickly knotted tie was pale green and matched nothing else. On one wrist he wore a large gold watch with diamonds and on the other he displayed two bulky gold bracelets. His hair was greased back and bunched behind his ears. Without a smile he delivered his standard line, “Here for a DUI?”

Mark said, “Yes.”

The lawyer was already passing out his business cards. Darrell Cromley, Attorney-at-Law. DUI Specialist. Each of the three got a card as Darrell asked, “Who's the lucky guy?”

“Our friend,” Todd said.

“First time?” Darrell asked happily.

“Yes, first time,” Mark replied.

“Sorry to hear. I can help. It's all I do, DUIs. I know all the cops, judges, clerks, bailiffs, the ins and outs of the system. I'm the best in the business.”

Careful not to say anything that might show the slightest interest in hiring the guy, Mark asked, “Okay, so what's he looking at?”

Darrell deftly pulled over a folding chair and faced the three. Without missing a beat, he asked, “What's his name?”

“Gordon Tanner.”

“Well, Tanner blew a 0.11, so there's not much wiggle room. First you gotta pay two hundred bucks to get him out. PRB, personal recognition bond. They'll process him in about an hour and he can go. Cost you another two hundred to spring his car. It's over at the city pound. Take half an hour or so to get it out. He'll have a court date in a week or so. That's where I come in. My fee is a thousand bucks cash.”

“He keeps his license?” Todd asked.

“Sure, until he's convicted, in about a month. Then he'll lose it for a year, pay a fine of five thousand, but I can get some of that knocked off. I'm really a bargain, you know? Plus he's facing five nights in jail, but I can work some magic there too. We'll sign him up for community service and keep him out. Believe me, I know the ropes. You guys in school or something?”

Mark said, “Yes, we're law students.” He was not about to give the name of their school.

“Georgetown?”

Todd quietly said, “No. Foggy Bottom.”

Cromley smiled and said, “That's my school. Finished there twelve years ago.”

The door opened and two more worried parents walked in. Cromley eyed them like a hungry dog. When he looked back at the three, Todd said, “So we need four hundred cash right now.”

“No, you need fourteen hundred. Two hundred for the bond. Two hundred for the car. A thousand for me.”

Zola said, “Okay, but our friend probably had some cash on him. How do we find out how much?”

“I can find out. Hire me now and I go to work. Your friend needs protection and that's where I come in. The DUI treadmill in this town will chew him up and spit him out.”

Zola said, “Look, our friend is not doing well. He's, uh, well, he's having some problems and he's off his meds. We need to get him to the doctor.”

Darrell liked it! His eyes narrowed as he moved in for the kill. “Sure. Once we get him out I can file a motion for an expedited hearing. Again, I'm tight with the judges and I can speed things along. But the fee will go up, of course. Let's not delay things.”

Mark said, “All right, all right, give us some time to think about it.”

Cromley bounced to his feet and said, “You have my number.” He slithered away, found another cop to chat with as he surveyed the crowd for his next victim. As they watched him, Mark whispered, “That could be us in a couple of years.”

“What a slimeball,” Todd said, barely under his breath.

Zola said, “I have $80. Let's pass the hat.”

Mark frowned and said, “I'm light. Maybe thirty.”

Todd said, “Me too, but I've got enough in the bank. I'll run find an ATM while you guys wait here.”

“Good plan.” Todd hurried from the room as more people arrived. Mark and Zola watched Cromley and the other lawyer work the crowd. Between victims, Cromley either chatted with a cop or took important calls on his cell. Several times he left the room, always on the phone, as if attending to urgent legal matters elsewhere. But he always returned, and with a purpose.

Mark observed, “The things they haven't taught us in law school.”

“He probably doesn't even have an office,” Zola said.

“Are you kidding? This is his office.”

—

TWO HOURS AFTER
arriving at Central, the three left with Gordy. Since Zola didn't own a car, and since Mark's Bronco could not be trusted in traffic, they piled into Todd's Kia hatchback and made their way to the city's car lot in Anacostia near the naval yard. Gordy rode in the rear seat next to Zola with his eyes closed and said nothing. Indeed, there was little conversation, though there was much to be said. Mark wanted to get it all on the table with something like “Well, now, Gordy, are you even remotely aware of what a DUI will do to your already miserable employment opportunities?” Or, “So, Gordy, do you realize that, even assuming you pass the bar exam, you'll find it virtually impossible to get admitted to the bar because of a DUI?”

Todd wanted to drill him with something like “So, Gordy, where, exactly, were you headed at four in the morning with two empty tequila bottles on the floorboard?”

Zola, far more compassionate, wanted to ask, “Who is your doctor and how soon can you see him?”

So much to say, but nothing was said. At the car lot, Mark handled the negotiations with the clerk. He explained that Mr. Tanner was ill and unable to function at the moment.

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