The countdown is on now until the special offer I’m making on the Crime Cafe’s Patreon page is coming! I don’t know about you, but I’m excited! 🙂
And, as part of my early
warning promotion of this awesome offer for podcast supporters, I’ve done another reading from the book I’m offering.
And here it is! 🙂
And here’s the entire chapter, if you’d like to give it a read:
Ten days earlier
I could think of better things to do on a sunny morning in early May than to sit at a shabby desk in my small office sublet, waiting for the phone to ring while going over my law office’s severely diminishing financials. The latter made the former necessary. However, I took a break to get up and stretch. While I was up, I walked to the window and opened it to let in a bit of the mild spring, which would soon enough transform into a sullen, hot Maryland summer.
Law can be a seasonal business. Thanksgiving and Christmas are often a bust—people too entrenched in the holidays to bother with legal matters—but afterwards, look out. There’s usually a run on divorces wrought by dysfunctional family “cheer” and both criminal and personal injury cases resulting from too much drinking during the festivities. For whatever reason, I’d been experiencing an extended drought in business since the end of last October. Where are all the drunk drivers and assault perpetrators, I grumbled to myself. And, much as I hated handling divorce and custody cases, I’d settle for a miserable spouse or two. Or someone hopelessly mangled in a car wreck. I grimaced at that last thought. Only a lawyer would suffer such longings. But I was struggling to cover my overhead plus unanticipated repairs to my car. My billables were a joke, but I wasn’t laughing.
I had grown so desperate that I had actually considered taking on a temp job or part-time work. However, anything I did on the side took time away from what work I did have, even if it didn’t pay much. I owed my clients my best efforts and had a business to run. As much as I hated them, I’d started attending more business mixers in an attempt to circulate my card among potential clients with money.
I looked out the window onto the historic Main Street of Laurel, Maryland, all beautifully restored and lined with brick buildings and flowering trees. This part of town was the heart of old Laurel, what remained of a time that had long given way to suburban sprawl and houses made of ticky-tacky, as the song goes. I could stand here all day looking out the window and thinking or I could sit at my desk and think. But I couldn’t go out and chase ambulances or hand out business cards at funerals. I could advertise on the Internet. I could tell people all about myself and what I do. But I couldn’t force them to hire me.
So I did what I could to pay the bills. I worked the cases I had as well as I could. I went out to the meet-and-greets to press the flesh, sat at my desk, kept my books, ran an honest business, and waited for the phone to ring. I turned from the window, went back to my desk, and landed in my chair. Thud. Then the phone rang.
When I picked it up, I nearly said, “Sam McRae, will represent you for food.”
I settled on my usual greeting instead. “Law offices.” Like I have more than one. One that I sublet, no less. Funny.
“Sam? Sam McRae, is that you?”
The voice rang a faint bell, but I couldn’t match it with a name. Was it a former client? “Yes,” I answered. Hopefully, not a former client with a complaint.
“Oh, my gosh, Sam. It’s been forever, but this is Linda Parker. Remember me?”
“Linda Parker? Holy shit, lady.”
She laughed, and I joined in.
I’d met Linda while doing my undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland. We’d kept in touch for a few years afterward, but our contact had dwindled to yearly Christmas cards after a while. Then, at some point, the Christmas cards stopped.
“Nice to know you haven’t changed,” she said.
“Some things never change.”
“Yeah, well.” She paused. “Some things do and some don’t.”
Why did I not like the sound of that?
“So, it’s been ages, Linda. We should get together sometime and catch up. But was there a reason you called me at my office?” Because I’m such a busy, busy big-time lawyer now.
“Actually, I hoped you could help me with a legal matter.”
My turn to pause. I wanted to say, Well, sure, Linda! But I don’t do divorce work for friends. And I don’t work for free for anyone. However, because you’re an old friend, I’ll take a check up front, okay?
“Sam? Are you there?”
“Yes, Linda. Uh . . . what kind of legal matter?”
“I’d like to take some time to explain it, maybe over lunch or dinner? I’ll pay, of course.”
Must be a mighty interesting case. I decided to hear Linda out. Besides, it had been ages since we’d seen each other, and who was I to object to a free meal?
“Well, there’s room on my calendar tomorrow to meet for lunch, if you’d like.” Yes, I think I can manage to squeeze you in, old friend.
“Great! Why don’t we meet at the Flanders Farmhouse Restaurant near the College Park Airport. Eleven-thirty, say? Can’t wait to see you.”
We hung up, and I thought, I can’t wait to see you, too. I thought briefly of an old line another lawyer used to say: “Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.” I felt chilly, despite the day’s warmth; then, the chill passed.
At eleven-thirty on the dot I walked into the restaurant, housed in a pseudo-French farmhouse circa World War I, and was escorted to a table next to a big picture window where the waiter removed the napkin from my goblet with a flourish and poured my water with equal ceremony. Linda was nowhere in sight. The place had a low wooden ceiling with thick parallel beams and a brick fireplace in the corner.
I vaguely recalled seeing a show on the History Channel about bombs buried under real farmhouses in Europe during World War I as a defense against the Germans. The British were taking steps to tunnel down and recover them. However, some of them were going off accidentally. Possibly due to lightning strikes.
I sat in my solid wooden chair and admired the detailed recreation of history, including the brass pots and pans hanging near the fireplace and the mantel clock. A bookshelf lined one wall. A piano player banged out a recorded ragtime tune in the background. Each table was adorned with a pristine white tablecloth draped over a red one and full place settings arranged around a candle flickering in a cut glass holder, in hopeful anticipation that someone might sit there. No threat of the Kaiser, no bombs concealed below the painstakingly decorated eatery. None that we knew of.
I shifted in my seat. For some reason, my jaw felt rigid, so I tried smiling. Then I figured sitting by myself smiling made me look goofy, so I stopped. My mouth was dry, so I sipped my water. One sip of water didn’t quench my thirst, so I took another. My mouth still felt dry. Why was I so nervous?
I looked around again at the tables, all neatly set, waiting for customers. So far, the only takers were myself, one quiet couple, and a group of four men and two women who, all in suits, were talking about sales figures and laughing too loudly at each other’s jokes. I turned away to gaze out the window, guzzled water, and watched a Cessna make a lazy circle over the landing field.
Linda came in about thirteen minutes later, moving through the room with the fluid grace of a gazelle and the self-assurance of a woman on a mission. A smile broadened across her pale, freckled face, and her wavy red hair flowed back as if blown by a secret wind. The air seemed to freshen in her presence, as if she’d brought some of the outdoors in with her. I stood and we hugged.
“Sam,” she said. “It’s been too long.”
“Feels like a million years,” I said, overlooking her tardiness and lack of explanation. “You were with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the last time we spoke.”
“Can you believe I’m still there? I’m probably a lifer even though they make me do more with less budget every year. But how many jobs are out there for biologists?” She shrugged. “The bureaucracy and paperwork just seem to worsen over time, too. But if you can ignore the bullshit, it’s decent work.”
“I know what you mean.” My problem was, I couldn’t abide the bullshit of office politics and bureaucracy. That’s why I’d left the Prince George’s County Public Defender’s Office years ago to start my own practice.
As we took our seats, she said, “I’m really sorry I’m late, but I got waylaid at the office.”
I waved my hand. “Don’t worry about it. It’s so great to see you again. You’re well worth the wait.”
Her and the free lunch.
We scanned menus the waiter had left with me. Linda chose the Cobb Salad, but urged me to get whatever I wanted. Well, okay, then. I decided to go all out with filet mignon, since Linda was paying. This meal could be both lunch and dinner.
After the waiter took our orders, Linda turned to me and said, “How’s business?”
“Fine.” Never let them see you sweat. Even if they’re old friends you haven’t spoken to in forever. Not if they’re going to be your client, maybe.
Linda peered at me. “Are you all right? You look a little . . . pale, I guess.”
I shook my head. “No, no. I’m always pale, remember? I never could get a decent tan.” Plus I don’t feel like playing games, and why are we talking about this?
Linda raised her eyebrows. “Okay.”
I sighed. “I’ll be honest. Things are a bit slow right now, but they’ll pick up I’m sure. They always do.” That’s me. Little Miss Sunshine.
Linda leaned toward me and touched my arm. “I wish we had more time to catch up, but I can tell you about my case and you can see what you think, okay?”
I sat up straighter. “I’m all ears.”
Linda leaned back in her chair and folded her hands on the table. “Two years ago, I started a local activist group where I live. It’s named Citizens Advocating Sensible Development, but everyone calls it CASD.” She pronounced the acronym as if it were spelled “cazd.”
“We’re trying to preserve a large tract of undeveloped land in southern Prince George’s County, where I live,” she continued. “The group plans to appeal a zoning decision that would pave the way for a big new development—five hundred-plus acres of former farmland has been rezoned to let a developer fill it with houses, offices, and stores.”
“Interesting,” I told her, “But I’m not a zoning expert.”
“But it’s not that hard. It’s all politics, really. Couldn’t you please do it just this once?”
Okay, meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in years is awesome. Doing an old friend a favor is awesome. Mixing business and pleasure, sometimes not so cool. And this contact from my long-lost friend had tripped my bullshit meter now, big time.
“Have you thought of approaching any local firms?” I asked, casually. “Many of them will take a case like this pro bono, just for the publicity.”
She shook her head. “We tried three or four firms. We’ve offered to pay. No one wants to fight Graybeck.”
“Is that who we’re talking about?” No wonder no one would take the case. They were probably all fighting for his business. I felt torn between fears that I’d be in over my head trying to fight Graybeck and a weird thrill at the prospect of doing it anyway.
“I guess you’ve read the articles about this.” Linda twiddled her thumbs, a tiny vertical line forming on her brow. “The fact that Graybeck is a minority-owned business and this push for upscale development is in a mostly black county doesn’t help us. The press is playing the race angle as if the environmentalists were a cross between Greenpeace and the Klan. Sometimes I wonder why we can’t all just get along.”
I’d often had that same thought, knowing that if it came to fruition, I’d be out of a job. Our food arrived, and she fell silent, pushing her salad around on her plate a bit. I sawed off a large chunk of my filet mignon, bit it off my fork, and chewed. Perfect. I was still thinking of all the reasons to turn this down when she said, “We’re willing to pay you eight grand up front, if you do this.”
I swallowed my bite half-chewed and felt it inching down my esophagus, like a mouse through a snake. I grabbed my water and gulped half the glass. When I set the glass down, I could swear the meat was still stuck somewhere near the bottom of my esophagus. Well, at least no one needed to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on me.
I raised my napkin to my lips. “That’s more than generous,” I managed to say.
“We were willing to pay that to the other firms, so it’s yours, if you want it.”
My mouth went slack. “How . . . who . . . where did you get this money?”
“The group got together and collected it.”
I peered at her. “Really?” I pictured a bunch of hippies, handing out flowers for donations.
“Our members have resources and friends with money.”
Ah. That helps.
I was ready to offer another polite demurrer. Then, I remembered Jamila Williams. She worked as a real estate attorney for one the biggest firms in Prince George’s County. She was definitely politically connected. I could consult with her on this. Jamila and I were tight. We were there for each other when the going got tough.
“Well,” I said. “I feel funny about taking a zoning case. But for you, I’ll consider it, okay?”
I still had misgivings, but with eight thousand reasons to take the case and a stack of unpaid bills, I couldn’t say no.
After we dispensed with that, Linda seemed to relax.
“Thank you, Sam,” she said. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
Let’s not get carried away. I said I’d consider it.
“Linda, please don’t take this the wrong way,” I said. “But I need a day or so to think about this and make sure I have the resources to do a good job for you. Do you understand?”
She reached out and touched my arm again. “Of course. You have to do what’s right for you.” Linda leaned back and smiled. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
I thought about that. Was that really true? “Oh, I don’t know.”
“Well, I can tell. You’re as stubborn as ever and probably a hundred times better than most of the high-priced lawyers in this county.”
“Well,” I said. “Being stubborn doesn’t mean jack shit when it comes to being a good lawyer.”
She laughed. “See? That’s why you’re the best. You’re honest. Thank you for that. I hope you will consider my offer. Please.”
After we finished eating, Linda said she needed to go back to the office right away. She flagged the waiter over, pulled her wallet from her shoulder bag, and retrieved an Amex credit card. A platinum Amex credit card to be exact. The waiter hustled over through the nearly empty room and presented the bill in its folder, like an engraved invitation. Linda gave it a cursory glance, nodded, then stuck the credit card in the slot and handed it back. The waiter hurried off.
“Here’s my card, Sam,” Linda said, pulling a shiny, gold-colored metal cardholder from her shoulder bag. She popped it open with her thumb and retrieved a business card with her agency’s logo on it from the stash within. “I’ll write my home and cell number on here, too.”
While she scribbled that down, I fished around for a business card and a pen, finding both. I paused, then wrote down my cell phone, which I normally don’t give out to clients. That was my second mistake, after thinking I’d gotten a free lunch.
PS: Did I mention that I’m excited? 🙂