Authors: John Grisham
Finally, Mark said, “Let's get outta here.”
t was Friday afternoon, the end of another miserable week. They were in no hurry to return to the city, so Todd took the back roads and they crossed into Virginia. Near the town of Berryville, the boys decided they needed a drink, and Todd stopped at a convenience store. Zola, who never touched the stuff, volunteered to drive, something she often did when she was out with Gordy and the law school gang. Mark bought a six-pack and a soft drink for her.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
Todd, in the front passenger seat, pointed to a sign. “It says that's the way to Front Royal. Ever been to Front Royal?”
“Well, let's take a look.” They popped tops and took off. A few miles down the road, Mark stuck his beer between his knees and checked his phone. There was an e-mail from Ness Skelton. He read it and yelled, “What! You gotta be kidding!”
“What is it?” Todd asked, startled.
“They just fired me! I've been fired!”
“Come on,” Zola said.
“No, this is from Everett Boling, sorry, M. Everett Boling, a real ass who's the managing partner at Ness Skelton. Listen to this. He says, âDear Mr. Frazier. Today our firm announced its merger with the London-based law firm of O'Mara and Smith. This is an exciting opportunity for Ness Skelton to expand and better serve our clients. However, the merger requires a shifting of our personnel. I regret to inform you that the offer of an associate position is being rescinded. We wish you the best in your endeavors. Sincerely, M. Everett Boling.'â”
“I like their timing,” Todd said.
“So they're firing me before I even start the job. Can you believe this?”
“I'm so sorry, Mark,” Zola said.
“Yeah, me too,” Todd said. “Sorry, pal.”
“And they don't even have the guts to do it in person,” Mark said. “Terminated by a lousy e-mail.”
“Are you really surprised, Mark?” Todd asked.
“Of course I'm surprised. Why shouldn't I be?”
“Because they're a bunch of low-end lobbyists who gave you a half-baked offer that didn't include a salary, and one contingent upon passing the bar exam. You've said yourself, and many times I might add, that you trusted no one there and never felt good about the place. They're a bunch of creeps, your term not mine.”
Mark took a deep breath, put down his phone, drained his beer, crumpled the can, and tossed it on the floorboard. He ripped off another can, popped the top, and took a swig. Todd drained his and said, “Give me another.” When he popped his top, he held his can up and said, “Cheers. Welcome to the world of the unemployed.”
“Cheers,” Mark said as the cans touched.
After another mile or so, he said, “I really didn't want to work there anyway.”
“Attaboy,” said Todd. Zola kept glancing at him in the mirror.
“You would've been miserable,” Todd said. “They're all a bunch of turds, real pricks who hate their work. Said so yourself.”
“I know, I know. But I would like to call Randall, my supervisor, just to hear him stutter and stammer.”
“I guarantee you he won't take your call. Let's bet on it.”
“That's a bad bet.”
“Don't do it,” Zola said. “Don't waste the energy.”
“For some reason I'm low on energy these days,” Mark said. “My worthless little brother is about to go to prison, which is a bum deal for him, but I really hate it for my mother. Then Gordy loses it. Now we're taking flak for his suicide. Zola's family gets rounded up and tossed in a prison to wait on deportation. Now this. Now we're supposed to somehow push it all aside and hustle back to law school for our last semester, which will be followed by two months in hell studying for the bar exam, so we can do something to make a little money and start repayment, which, actually, is far more impossible than it seems, and it seems awfully damned impossible at the moment. Yes, Zola dear, I'm tired. Aren't you?”
“I'm beyond exhausted,” she said.
“That makes three of us,” Todd added.
They slowed and passed through the small town of Boyce. When it was behind them, Mark asked, “Are you guys really going to class on Monday? I'm not.”
“That's either the second or the third time you've said that,” Zola said. “If you don't go to class, then what are your plans?”
“I have no plans. My status will be day to day.”
“Okay, but what are you going to do when the law school starts calling?” Todd asked.
“I won't take their calls.”
“Okay, so they'll put you on inactive status and notify your loan sharks and they'll be out for blood.”
“What if they can't find me? What if I change phone numbers and move to another apartment? It would be easy to get lost in a city of two million people.”
“I'm listening,” Todd said. “So, you start hiding. What about work and income and those little challenges?”
“I've been thinking about that,” Mark said and took a long swig. “Maybe I'll get a job tending bar, for cash, of course. Maybe wait tables. Or maybe I'll become a DUI specialist like that sleazeball we met last Friday at the city jail. What was his name?”
“Darrell Cromley,” Zola said.
“I'll bet Darrell nets a hundred grand a year hustling DUIs. All cash.”
“But you don't have a license,” Zola said.
“Did we ask Darrell to show us his license? Of course not. He said he was a lawyer. His business card said he was a lawyer, so we just assumed he had a license. He could've been a used-car salesman moonlighting at the jail.”
“What about going to court?” Zola asked.
“You ever been to city court? I have, and it's a zoo. There are hundreds of Darrell Cromleys running around, hustling small-time criminals for fees, ducking in and out of courtrooms where the judges are bored and half-asleep. And the judges and clerks and everybody else in the courtrooms just assume, as we did, that the guys in the cheap suits scrambling around are really lawyers. Hell, there are a hundred thousand lawyers in this city and no one ever stops and asks, âHey, are you really a lawyer? Show me your license.'â”
“I think that beer's gone straight to your brain,” Todd said.
Mark smiled at Zola in the mirror.
he first day of classes for the spring semester meant money. The Department of Education wired Foggy Bottom the sum of $22,500 for each student's tuition, along with another $10,000 for living expenses. The school immediately wired the bulk of the tuition to its owners at Baytrium Group, then handed out individual expense checks to the students. The Office of Financial Aid was a busy place throughout the day as cash-starved students waited in long lines.
Mark and Todd skipped classes and arrived just before five, when the office closed. With $20,000 in their pockets, they retired to a dive they had discovered over the weekend. The Rooster Bar was tucked away on Florida Avenue in the U Street section of the District, far away from the Foggy Bottom clientele. It covered the ground floor of a four-story building that, though painted bright red, attracted little attention. Todd's boss, a bookie everyone called Maynard, owned both the bar and the building, along with the Old Red Cat and two other joints in the city. Maynard had succumbed to Todd's badgering and agreed to transfer his services. He had also agreed to hire Mark, who claimed to have vast experience mixing drinks. They would tend bar at night and on weekends, and, with new day jobs, their financial future looked much brighter. Of course, their massive debts were still on the books, though they had no intention of addressing them.
The Rooster Bar had the look and feel of an old neighborhood watering hole. Most of its regulars were government workers who lived in the area or stopped by each afternoon for a few stiff ones before heading home after the traffic thinned out. For some, the thinning out took several hours. The bar's wide, half-moon counter was polished mahogany and brass, and by five each afternoon it was packed two and three deep with important mid-level bureaucrats slugging happy hour booze and watching Fox News. Its kitchen cranked out decent bar food at decent prices.
In a corner booth, over chicken wings and draft beer, Mark and Todd spent hours plotting their next moves.
They skipped classes on Tuesday and searched the Internet for a respectable forger who could sell them new identities. They found one in Bethesda, in a garage shop where the “security consultant” printed two sets of perfect driver's licenses for each. D.C. and Delaware for Mark Upshaw and Mark Finley, formerly Mark Frazier; and D.C. and Maryland for Todd Lane and Todd McCain, formerly Todd Lucero. The cost was $200 cash for each set, and the forger offered perfect passports for another $500 each. They declined, for the moment anyway. Their current passports were valid and they had no plans to leave the country.
With new names, they purchased new cell phones and numbers. They kept their old ones to monitor who might be looking for them. They left the phone store and drove to a quick-print shop where they ordered stationery and business cards for their new venture, Upshaw, ParkerÂ & Lane, Attorneys-at-Law. Mark Upshaw and Todd Lane. New names, new phone numbers, a new future. The address was 1504 Florida Avenue, same as The Rooster Bar.
They skipped school on Wednesday, and while the Coop's other renters were in class and no one was watching they loaded up their clothes, a few books, even fewer pots and pans and dishes, and fled the building without a word to anyone. Their January rents were already past due and they expected to be sued by their slumlord, who would have an extremely difficult time finding them. They moved into a grungy three-room apartment on the top floor above The Rooster Bar, a real dump that apparently had been used for storage since the days of FDR. They had not come to terms with Maynard on the lease payments, and had floated the idea of swapping labor for rent, with, of course, everything off the books. Maynard liked it that way.
The idea of living there was not in any way pleasant, but then neither was the option of paying more or being stalked by the loan sharks. If living for a few months in a rathole kept the loan collectors at bay, then Mark and Todd could grind it out. They bought two beds, a sofa, some chairs, a cheap dinette set, and some other odds and ends from a salvage store next to a homeless shelter.
They decided to stop shaving and grow beards. As proper law students, they rarely shaved anyway. The scruffy look was expected. Now the whiskers might provide additional cover.
Wednesday afternoon they ventured for the first time into the Judiciary Square neighborhood, home to the various courthouses that handled the District's legal matters. The hub was the District Courthouse, a massive, 1970s-style concrete edifice where those accused of all manner of criminal activity were dealt with. Its jungle of courtrooms sprawled over six levels. Its hallways were crowded with lawyers ducking in and out of hearings and defendants free on bail loitering nervously with their loved ones. Court was open to the public; admission was free and easy, after the obligatory security with metal detectors and body scans. They watched jury trials in progress. They watched first appearances where inmates in jumpsuits were hauled before judges for quick paperwork, then sent back to jail. They watched motion hearings in which prosecutors and public defenders argued back and forth. They studied the dockets and collected as much paperwork as possible. They roamed the hallways, watching carefully as lawyers huddled with frightened families. Not once did they hear anyone ask a lawyer if he or she actually had a license to practice. Not once did they see anyone they recognized.
That night, they worked until ten serving drinks and food at The Rooster Bar, then retired to their grungy apartment upstairs, where they spent hours online navigating the maze of the D.C. court system. Criminal law was their future, primarily because the fees could be paid in cash and the clients would have no interest in stopping by their office for consultation. Such meetings would take place either at jail or in court, just like Darrell Cromley's.
They skipped classes again on Thursday and opened new checking accounts. There were six Swift Bank branches in the D.C. metropolitan area. Mark went to one near Union Station and deposited $500 in the name of Mark Upshaw. Todd Lane did the same at a branch on Rhode Island Avenue. Together, they visited another Swift Bank branch on Pennsylvania Avenue and opened a law firm checking account with a bogus taxpayer ID number. Thursday afternoon, they were back in court, absorbing the circus.
They skipped classes on Friday and stopped thinking about Foggy Bottom. If possible, they would never see the place again, and that in itself was exhilarating.
Gordy's DUI citation required him to appear in courtroom 117 in the District Courthouse on Friday afternoon at 1:00. At 12:45, Mark and Todd arrived outside the courtroom and tried to appear as nervous as possible. A crowd was gathering. Mark held the citation and looked as though he needed help. Both wore jeans and hiking boots and were sufficiently scruffy. Mark also wore a John Deere cap. A guy with a briefcase arrived and spotted them. He walked over and said to Mark, “You here for a DUI?”
“Yes, sir,” Mark replied. “Are you a lawyer?”
“Yep. You got one?”
“Can I see your citation?”
Mark handed it over and the lawyer frowned as he read it. He then pulled out a business card and gave it to Mark. Preston Kline, Attorney-at-Law. “You need a lawyer for this,” Kline said. “My fee is a thousand bucks, cash.”
“Really, that much?” Mark asked, shocked. Todd stepped beside him and said, “I'm his friend.”
Kline said, “It's a bargain, son. I can save you a lot of money. If you're found guilty, you'll lose your license for a year but before that you'll spend some time in the slammer. I can probably get that suspended, though.”
Kline wasn't nearly as smooth as Darrell Cromley, but at the moment that didn't matter. Mark said, “I got four hundred cash. I can get the rest later.”
Kline said, “Okay, but it's due before your court date.”
“What court date?”
“Okay, we'll walk in and see the judge, name's Cantu, a real hard-ass. I'll do the talking and you don't speak unless I say so. Cantu will go through the motions, all routine stuff, and you'll plead not guilty. He'll set the case for a hearing in a month or so and that'll give me time to do my work. I'm assuming you actually blew 0.11?”
“You got the cash?”
Mark reached into a pocket and removed some money. He handed over four $100 bills and Kline snatched them. “Let's go inside and do the paperwork.”
Todd asked, “Can I go too?”
“Sure. The zoo is open to the public.”
Inside, lawyers milled about beyond the bar as a dozen or so spectators watched them. Kline directed Mark to a spot in the front row and removed some papers from his old briefcase. “This is a contract for legal services between you and me,” he said, pointing. He scribbled in the sum of $1,000. “It's also a promissory note to pay the balance. Look it over, fill in your name and address, sign at the bottom.”
Mark took his pen and wrote Gordon Tanner's name and his old address. He and Todd were banking heavily on the chance that no one would recognize Gordy's name from the news covering the suicide. And, they seriously doubted that anyone in the vast court system had removed Gordy's name from the DUI docket. If so, and if Mark was questioned, they planned to simply walk away. Or run.
Mark read the contract and tried to memorize as much as possible. He handed it back and asked, “You do a lot of these?”
“All the time,” Kline said smugly, as if he were a high-powered litigator.
Todd said, “Say, my brother got in a fight at a Caps game and is charged with assault. Do you handle those?”
“Sure. Simple or aggravated?”
“Simple, I think. How much do you charge?”
“A thousand bucks if there's a plea. If he goes to trial then it's far more expensive.”
“Can you keep him out of jail?”
“Sure, no problem. If he'll plead to a disturbance, he'll walk. Later, I can get it expunged, for another thousand. That is, if there's nothing else on his record.”
“Thanks, I'll tell him.”
At 1:00, Judge Cantu assumed the bench and everyone stood. The assembly line began as one DUI defendant after another walked through the gate when his or her name was called by a clerk. Only about half had lawyers. Each was asked to plead either guilty or not guilty. Those admitting guilt were handed papers by a prosecutor and asked to sit in a corner and fill in the blanks. Those pleading not guilty were assigned return dates in February.
Mark and Todd watched every move and heard every word. They'd be in the business soon enough.
When Gordon Tanner was called, Kline said, “Take off your cap.” He led Mark to the bench and they looked up at the judge. “Hello, Mr. Kline,” Judge Cantu said. They had watched him work for twenty minutes and the guy was Santa Claus, with a smile and kind word for everyone who appeared before him. Though traffic court was the lowest rung on the ladder, he seemed to enjoy it.
“First offense?” Judge Cantu asked.
“Yes, sir,” Kline responded.
“I'm sorry,” he said to Mark with a pleasant look. Mark had a knot in his stomach that felt like a bowling ball, and he half expected someone, perhaps one of the assistant prosecutors, to blurt out, “Hey, I recognize that name. Thought Tanner jumped off the bridge.” But there were no surprises.
Judge Cantu said, “May I see your driver's license, Mr. Tanner?”
Mark frowned and said, “Well, Judge, I lost my wallet. Credit cards, everything.”
“Well, you won't be needing your license. I'm assuming you're pleading not guilty.”
Kline quickly said, “That's correct, Your Honor.”
The judge scribbled here and there and said, “Okay, your court date is FebruaryÂ 14. Should make for a nice Valentine's Day.” He smiled as though he'd said something humorous.
Kline took some papers from a clerk and said, “Thanks, Judge. See you then.”
They backed away from the bench, and as they started to leave the courtroom Mark whispered to his lawyer, “Say, is it okay if we hang around and watch things?”
“If you're that bored, sure.”
They sat in the back row as Kline disappeared. Todd whispered, “So that's how you handle a DUI. Nothing to it.” Other lawyers came and went as more defendants arrived. Ten minutes later Kline was back with another client, undoubtedly one he'd just hustled in the hallway.
They absorbed the show for the next hour and left. According to Kline's business card, his office was on E Street, not far from the District Courthouse. They walked three blocks and found the address. It was a four-story building that was evidently brimming with lawyers. A directory by the front door listed the names of a dozen small firms and several solo practitioners. Evidently, Kline practiced alone. As Mark waited outside, Todd stepped into a cramped reception area where a frazzled lady labored behind a large desk. She greeted him without a smile. “May I help you?”
“Uh, sure, I'm looking for a lawyer named Preston Kline,” Todd said, glancing around. At the edge of her desk was a row of dividers with the names of a bunch of lawyers. Phone messages and letters were stacked neatly by each name.
“Are you a client?” she asked.
“Maybe. Someone referred me to him, said he was a good criminal lawyer.”
“Well, he's in court. I can take your name and phone number and he'll call you back.”
“And his office is here?”
“Yes, second floor. Why?”
“Well, could I see his partner or his paralegal? I need to talk to someone.”
“He works alone. I'm his secretary.”
Todd hesitated, looked around, and said, “Okay, I have his number and I'll give him a call. Thanks.” He left before she could respond.
As they walked away, Todd said, “Just as we figured. The guy works out of his pocket. Got a cubbyhole on the second floor with no staff. The girl at the front desk answers the phone for a whole pack of them. A real low-end operation.”