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“Huh,” was all Mitman said. He went back outside to get the second client chair. The furniture for Rangel’s motorhome office stood on the sidewalk wrapped in plastic against the late September, steady drizzle. He worked the chair through the narrow doorway and busied himself pulling off the wet plastic sheeting. He balled up the wrapping and tossed it out the door. “Has she paid?” he asked Rangel, looking up. “Can she pay?” He wasn’t angry exactly, more annoyed.
Rangel said, “Some.” She had the fleeting thought that it wasn’t his place to chastise her. But then, their relationship didn’t have a lot to do with ‘place.’
Mitman stood with the chair in his arms trying to remember the procedure he’d used to get its twin into the small room at the rear that was to be her office. “Not,” he said, feeding the back of the chair past the door frame first to see if the legs would follow, “not at your hourly rate, I’ll bet. You can’t. It’s just detective work, not practising law.” Now he put the forelegs in first, turned the chair a bit, and with that the back followed meekly into the office.
“I’m aware,” Rangel called. She was standing beside the little galley kitchen, trying to stay out of the way and at the same time feeling the urge to help. She was also finding her annoyance rising to the level of his. “It’s better than zero,” she called, raising her voice as though the office were miles away.
“Like you know square root of eff-a about detecting,” Mitman called back. Silence. “And don’t say, ‘How hard can it be?’” He came and stood in the doorway. “It’s about Larry, isn’t it?”
Rangel stiffened. She blinked a couple of times, a look of surprise on her face. “I don’t think so,” she said. And then, more reflectively, “I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Come on,” said Mitman, going outside again into the wet. “Give me a hand. I hope you’re better than I am at assembling this flat pack crap.”
GREGORIA PHOEBE RANGEL HAD it good, growing up, in everything except perhaps for her middle name: caring parents; comfortable suburban life; three siblings, an older brother and a younger brother and sister; support for whatever artistic, athletic, or intellectual aptitude she displayed. She enjoyed a carefree life in primary school and went through nothing worse than the usual Sturm und Drang in middle school. But early in her grade nine year her brother, Larry, committed suicide.
Nothing was ever the same in her house after that. It came as a bolt from the blue for his parents and his brother and sisters. He had displayed almost none of the symptoms that would be expected for depression. In fact, most of the time he had been more chipper and cheerful than many of his teenage friends. Larry had kept his misery, whatever it was, real or imagined, locked inside himself until the store of it became too great to manage. He took an overdose of pills he had obtained on the street somehow and one night in June at the age of seventeen went to sleep forever, leaving a scrawled note that said simply, “Sorry.”
The inexplicable mystery of it, the bewilderment of the survivors, served to ensure that grief could never finish its proper work in their lives. Without wanting to, they began to regard each other with suspicion: what was being withheld? what was it that each ought to but didn’t know about the others? what, after all, was real and could be relied upon? So they sought to enfold, to hold fast, to prison the others in this life, safe now and forever. Love was transmuted to law and trust to trial by inquisition. The Rangel family went into lockdown.
Gregoria Rangel had a hard time breaking free. Some sexual escapades, a couple of fistfights, surprisingly, and two years of utter devotion to the school swimming team helped her establish the beginnings of a base inside herself from which she might tackle the world and her place within it. Her swimming prowess took her into university, where her grades alone might not have sufficed. And after one year of ordinary performance in all respects, she picked herself up and transferred to a university at the other end of the country, just about as far from her family as it was possible to go. There she turned the intensity she had devoted to athletics toward her coursework and then to learning itself.
Her choice of law school and the practice of law came as something of a surprise to her. Latent anger played a role, she thought, anger at Larry, of course, though it expressed itself more as a free-floating willingness to compete, to challenge, to defeat, all of which was made possible within the structure of legal argument. Then there was the somewhat obscure emotional satisfaction she found in practicing criminal law, an activity that let her be near the harsh world of punishment and at the same time work to save people from its damnation. Many Larrys got what they deserved; some of the Larrys close to her were helped and a few were even rescued.
All of which was known to her, ruminated on, and by now generally bracketed off as something that was “live but no longer active,” rather like some old volcano. It distressed her to think that she would make a practice decision now, a full seventeen years after Larry’s suicide, that was in any way influenced by his death and her feelings about it. Was the volcano about to spit some ash, she wondered? There’d been no warning signs of it. At least none she herself had been aware of.
ELDON JEVVERS SAT IN THE MAN’S car and tried to be cool, to be calm. But his voice was higher than he wanted it to be and his right leg couldn’t stop its rapid bouncing. He kept pulling out his cellphone to check the time. “I’m going to lose my job,” he said, instantly regretting having spoken.
“Eldon, Eldon. If I gave a shit, I’d be Mother Teresa. Which you can tell by looking at me that I’m not. But I’ve got a treat for you anyway. This is the last time you and I are going to meet.”
Eldon felt the hot flush of hope soar within him making his face burn. Suddenly relief lay within reach and a real future just beyond that. So great was his response to this news that he thought he might pass out.
“Yes,” the man went on, “in fact, you never met me. Don’t even know who I am. Like you fucking read the papers? If they ask you. Never heard of him. Like I read the papers? Right?”
“Yes,” said Eldon quickly. He frowned, wondering if he was getting it right. “I watch TV. I don’t read papers.”
The man sighed. “Here’s the deal. If you ever so much as hint that you and I have met, I will kill you. I will see that it’s done horribly, slowly. There’s nowhere you can hide. I will find you and hurt you and you will die.”
Eldon wet his pants and began to cry.
“I’m not finished, Eldon. So hold it in. Here’s the good part. You’ll be working with someone else. He’ll be in touch. Soon. You do whatever he tells you to do. There’ll be some money in it for you. And some junk you can sell on or use, for all I care.
“Now get out of the car and stand outside while I finish explaining life to you. You stink.”
Eldon fumbled for the door handle and eventually found it, springing the door and stepping out and as far away as he dared. The man leaned over and crooked a finger to bring him closer.
“She’s seen the lawyer. We know that. We’re going to wait to see if anything comes of it. I’m telling you this because you’re going to put a bug in her house so we can be sure. Your new contact will give you instructions on how to do that. Are we clear?”
Eldon nodded and kept nodding.
The man shook his head in disgust. “Go take a shower.” He reached over all the way and pulled the passenger door shut with a loud thump.
RANGEL AND MITMAN SAT ACROSS from each other in a high-backed booth in the D-Lux Cafe on Orchard Street and drank black coffee out of thick china cups. Through the front window they could see the office, parked in a lot that Rangel had rented earlier in the day for twice as much as it was worth. The van now stood parallel to road, with the entrance door facing the sidewalk. A couple of concrete tiles dropped next to each other in the mud made a walkway of sorts. In a clean typeface the words “This vehicle is the sole property of Alexandre Goncourt” appeared in letters an inch-and-a-half high just behind the cab and towards the top of the side. “Think it’s big enough?” Mitman asked, nodding his head at the labelled RV.
“The lettering. I don’t want to chintz out on him.”
“It’s fine,” Rangel said. “But I do think we’ll need to tape a note to the door, though, that it’s a law office. You know, something in magic marker on a sheet from a lined yellow pad.”
“Ha ha,” said Mitman. “Nobody uses those anymore. But I should have thought of that. I’ll get the painter back tomorrow.”
“Speaking of tomorrow,” said Rangel, and she pushed an envelope across the table to him.
Mitman took out the two pages and read. He looked up at Rangel, stricken. “You’re kidding,” he said.
Rangel reached out and gathered the paper, folding the pages slowly and fitting them back into the envelope. “Filing tomorrow. Advance notice as a courtesy. We shouldn’t talk about it here,” she said. “But I wanted you to know today. Came couriered to the house and I got it when I was there for lunch. I guess everyone in the world knows my office went up in flames.”
Mitman’s face kept darkening. “But it’s bullshit,” he said.
“He was convicted on two of the three counts,” she said, with a calm she didn’t feel. Everything was sinking inside her. Continually sinking. “And, let’s face it, it’s really his only hope at this point.”
Mitman leaned in close and hissed, “His hope for what? A new trial? Where he’ll get much worse representation that what he originally had and get convicted again. On all three counts?”
“Shh!” Rangel hushed him. “This isn’t the place.” She dropped a bill on the table and stood up. “Let’s take it outside.”
Mitman came to his feet. “I’d like to take it outside with the good Doctor Sanders. Half this town would. Shit, the whole town.”
Rangel looked around quickly. No one seemed to have heard. “Wally,” she said sharply, and she pushed through the door. Now the skies had cleared and the sun was on the point of dropping completely behind the building beside her office. The last rays took her full in the face, a spotlight, she thought, singling out the lawyer who would now have to endure months of speculation and gossip — along with some serious legal argument — as to whether her representation of Julius Sanders had been incompetent. She knew it was essentially nonsense and probably a frivolous claim that would be eventually struck out. But even false barbs can sting, and a piece of this one had gone in deep.
© Simon Fodden