Read The King of Torts Page 2

Chapter Two

  In a city of 76,000 lawyers, many of them clustered in megafirms within rifle shot of the U. S. Capitol - rich and powerful firms where the brightest associates were given obscene signing bonuses and the dullest ex-Congressmen were given lucrative lobbying deals and the hottest litigators came with their own agents - the Office of the Public Defender was far down in the minor leagues. Low A.

  Some OPD lawyers were zealously committed to defending the poor and oppressed, and for them the job was not a stepping-stone to another career. Regardless of how little they earned or how tight their budgets were, they thrived on the lonely independence of their work and the satisfaction of protecting the underdog.

  Other PDs told themselves that the job was transitory, just the nitty-gritty training they needed to get launched into more promising careers. Learn the ropes the hard way, get your hands dirty, see and do things no big-firm associate would ever get near, and someday some firm with real vision will reward the effort. Unlimited trial experience, a vast knowledge of the judges and the clerks and the cops, workload management, skills in handling the most difficult of clients - these were just a few of the advantages PDs had to offer after only a few years on the job.

  OPD had eighty lawyers, all working in two cramped and suffocating floors of the District of Columbia Public Services Building, a pale, square, concrete structure known as The Cube, on Mass Avenue near Thomas Circle. There were about forty low paid secretaries and three dozen paralegals scattered through the maze of cubbyhole offices. The Director was a woman named Glenda who spent most of her time locked in her office because she felt safe in there.

  The beginning salary for an OPD lawyer was $36,000. Raises were minuscule and slow in coming. The most senior lawyer, a frazzled old man of forty-three, earned $57,600 and had been threatening to quit for nineteen years. The workloads were staggering because the city was losing its own war on crime. The supply of indigent criminals was endless. Every year for the past eight Glenda had submitted a budget requesting ten more lawyers and a dozen more paralegals. In each of the last four budgets she had received less money than the year before. Her quandary at the moment was which paralegals to terminate and which lawyers to force into part-time work.

  Like most of the other PDs, Clay Carter had not entered law school with the plan of a career, or even a brief stint, defending indigent criminals. No way. Back when Clay was in college and then law school at Georgetown his father had a firm in D. C. Clay had worked there part-time for years, and had his own office. The dreams had been boundless back then, father and son litigating together as the money poured in.

  But the firm collapsed during Clay's last year of law school, and his father left town. That was another story. Clay became a public defender because there were no other last-second jobs to grab.

  It took him three years to jockey and connive his way into getting his own office, not one shared with another lawyer or paralegal. About the size of a modest suburban utility closet, it had no windows and a desk that consumed half the floor space. His office in his father's old firm had been four times larger with views of the Washington Monument, and though he tried to forget those views he couldn't erase them from his memory. Five years later, he still sat at his desk at times and stared at the walls, which seemed to get closer each month, and asked himself how, exactly, did he fall from one office to the other?

  He tossed the Tequila Watson file on his very clean and very neat desk and took off his jacket. It would have been easy, in the midst of such dismal surroundings, to let the place go, to let the files and papers pile up, to clutter his office and blame it on being overworked and understaffed. But his father had believed that an organized desk was a sign of an organized mind. If you couldn't find something in thirty seconds, you were losing money, his father always said. Return phone calls immediately was another rule Clay had been taught to obey.

  So he was fastidious about his desk and office, much to the amusement of his harried colleagues. His Georgetown Law School diploma hung in a handsome frame in the center of a wall. For the first two years at OPD he had refused to display the diploma for fear that the other lawyers would wonder why someone from Georgetown was working for minimum wages. For the experience, he told himself, I'm here for the experience. A trial every month - tough trials against tough prosecutors in front of tough juries. For the down-in-the-gutter, bareknuckle training that no big firm could provide. The money would come later, when he was a battle-hardened litigator at a very young age.

  He stared at the thin Watson file in the center of his desk and wondered how he might unload it on someone else. He was tired of the tough cases and the superb training and all the other crap that he put up with as an underpaid PD.

  There were six pink phone message slips on his desk; five related to business, one from Rebecca, his longtime girlfriend. He called her first.

  "I'm very busy," she informed him after the required initial pleasantries.

  "You called me," Clay said.

  "Yes, I can only talk a minute or so. " Rebecca worked as an assistant to a low-ranking Congressman who was the chairman of some useless subcommittee. But because he was the chairman he had an additional office he was required to staff with people like Rebecca who was in a frenzy all day preparing for the next round of hearings that no one would attend. Her father had pulled strings to get her the job.

  "I'm kinda swamped too," Clay said. "Just picked up another murder case. " He managed to add a measure of pride to this, as if he were honored to be the attorney for Tequila Watson.

  It was a game they played: Who was the busiest? Who was the most important? Who worked the hardest? Who had the most pressure?

  "Tomorrow is my mother's birthday," she said, pausing slightly as if Clay was supposed to know this. He did not. He cared not. He didn't like her mother. "They've invited us to dinner at the club. "

  A bad day just got worse. The only response he could possibly give was, "Sure. " And a quick one at that.

  "Around seven. Coat and tie. "

  "Of course. " I'd rather have dinner with Tequila Watson at the jail, he thought to himself.

  "I gotta run," she said. "See you then. Love you. "

  "Love you. "

  It was a typical conversation between the two, just a few quick lines before rushing off to save the world. He looked at her photo on his desk. Their romance came with enough complications to sink ten marriages. His father had once sued her father, and who won and who lost would never be clear. Her family claimed origins in old Alexandria society; he'd been an Army brat. They were right-wing Republicans, he was not. Her father was known as Bennett the Bulldozer for his relentless slash-and-burn development in the Northern Virginia suburbs around D. C. Clay hated the sprawl of Northern Virginia and quietly paid his dues to two environmental groups fighting the developers. Her mother was an aggressive social climber who wanted her two daughters to marry serious money. Clay had not seen his mother in eleven years. He had no social ambitions whatsoever. He had no money.

  For almost four years, the romance had survived a monthly brawl, the majority of them engineered by her mother. It clung to life by love and lust and a determination to succeed regardless of the odds against it. But Clay sensed a fatigue on Rebecca's part, a creeping weariness brought on by age and constant family pressure. She was twenty-eight. She did not want a career. She wanted a husband and a family and long days spent at the country club spoiling the children, playing tennis, doing lunch with her mother.

  Paulette Tullos appeared from thin air and startled him. "Got nailed, didn't you?" she said with a smirk. "A new murder case. "

  "You were there?" Clay asked.

  "Saw it all. Saw it coming, saw it happen, couldn't save you, pal. "

  "Thanks. I owe you one. "

  He would have offered her a seat, but there were no others in his office. There was no room for chairs and besides they were not needed because all of his clients were in
jail. Sitting and chatting were not part of the daily routine at OPD.

  "What are my chances of getting rid of it?" he said.

  "Slim to impossible. Who you gonna dump it on?"

  "I was thinking of you. "

  "Sorry. I got two murder cases already. Glenda won't move it for you. "

  Paulette was his closest friend inside the OPD. A product of a rough section of the city, she had scratched her way through college and law school at night and had seemed destined for the middle classes until she met an older Greek gentleman with a fondness for young black women. He married her and set her up comfortably in North West Washington, then eventually returned to Europe, where he preferred to live. Paulette suspected he had a wife or two over there, but she wasn't particularly concerned about it. She was well-off and seldom alone. After ten years, the arrangement was working fine.

  "I heard the prosecutors talking," she said. "Another street killing, but questionable motive. "

  "Not exactly the first one in the history of D. C. "

  "But no apparent motive. "

  "There's always a motive - cash, drugs, sex, a new pair of Nikes. "

  "But the kid was pretty tame, no history of violence?"

  "First impressions are seldom true, Paulette, you know that. "

  "Jermaine got one very similar two days ago. No apparent motive. "

  "I hadn't heard. "

  "You might try him. He's new and ambitious and, who knows, you might dump it on him. "

  "I'll do it right now. "

  Jermaine wasn't in but Glenda's door, for some reason, was slightly open. Clay rapped it with his knuckles while walking through it. "Got a minute?" he said, knowing that Glenda hated sparing a minute with anyone on her staff. She did a passable job running the office, managing the caseloads, holding the budget together, and, most important, playing the politics at City Hall. But she did not like people. She preferred to do her work behind a locked door.

  "Sure," she said abruptly, with no conviction whatsoever. It was clear she did not appreciate the intrusion, which was exactly the reception Clay had expected.

  "I happened to be in the Criminal Division this morning at the wrong time, got nailed with a murder case, one I'd rather pass on. I just finished the Traxel case, which, as you know, lasted for almost three years. I need a break from murder. How about one of the younger guys?"

  "You beggin' off, Mr. Carter?" she said, eyebrows arched.

  "Absolutely. Load up the dope and burglaries for a few months. That's all I'm asking. "

  "And who do you suggest should handle the, uh, what's the case?"

  "Tequila Watson. "

  "Tequila Watson. Who should get him, Mr. Carter?"

  "I don't really care. I just need a break. "

  She leaned back in her chair, like some wise old chairman of the board, and began chewing on the end of a pen. "Don't we all, Mr. Carter? We'd all love a break, wouldn't we?"

  "Yes or no?"

  "We have eighty lawyers here, Mr. Carter, about half of whom are qualified to handle murder cases. Everybody has at least two. Move it if you can, but I'm not going to reassign it. "

  As he was leaving, Clay said, "I could sure use a raise if you wanted to work on it. "

  "Next year, Mr. Carter. Next year. "

  "And a paralegal. "

  "Next year. "

  The Tequila Watson file remained in the very neat and organized office of Jarrett Clay Carter II, Attorney-at-Law.