Absolute Power



  A whole goddamned country! How much could you charge a country for legal work? Normally a lot. The problem was the ex-communists had no money, unless you counted rubles and coupons and kopecks and whatever else they were using these days, all of which might as well be used for toilet paper.

  That reality did not trouble Lord. What the ex-commies had in abundance was raw materials that Sullivan was salivating to acquire. That was the reason Lord had spent three godforsaken months there. But it would be worth it if Sullivan came through.

  Lord had learned to have his doubts about everyone. But if anyone could pull this deal off, Walter Sullivan could. Everything he had touched seemed to multiply to global proportions, and the droppings that went to his cohorts were truly awe-inspiring. And at almost eighty, the old man hadn’t flowed a step. He worked fifteen-hour days, was married to a twenty-something babe right out of a drive-in movie. He was right this minute in Barbados where he had flown the three highest-ranking politicos for a little business and entertainment Western style. Sullivan would call. And Sandy’s short but select client list would grow by one, but what a one it would be.

  Lord took note of the young woman in the painfully short skirt and tiptoe heels strolling across the dining room.

  She smiled at him; he returned the look with slightly elevated eyebrows, a favorite signal of his because of its ambiguity. She was a congressional liaison for one of the big 16th Street associations, not that he cared about her occupation. She was excellent in bed, that he did care about.

  The view brought back a number of pleasant memories. He would have to call her soon. He jotted a note to that effect in his electronic notebook. Then he turned his attention, as did most of the ladies in the room, to the tall, angular fig ure of Jack Graham striding across the room, heading straight for him.

  Lord rose and extended his hand. Jack didn’t take it.

  “What the hell happened to Barry Alvis?”

  Lord introduced one of his blank stares to the confrontation and sat back down. A waiter appeared and then was dismissed by a short wave of Lord’s hand. Lord eyed Jack, who remained standing.

  “You don’t give a person a chance to catch their breath, do you? Straight out the mouth and into the fire. Sometimes that strategy is smart, sometimes it isn’t.”

  “I’m not kidding, Sandy, I want to know what is going on. Barry’s office is empty, his secretary is looking at me like I personally ordered a hit on him. I want some answers.” Jack’s voice was rising, and with it the stares increased.

  “Whatever you have on your mind, I am sure we can discuss it with a little more dignity than you’re mustering right now. Why don’t you have a seat and start acting like a partner at the best damned law firm in this city.”

  Their eyes stayed locked for a full five seconds until Jack slowly sat down.

  “Drink?”

  “Beer.”

  The waiter reappeared and went away with an order for beer and Sandy’s potent gin and tonic. Sandy lit a Raleigh and casually looked out the window, then back at Jack.

  “You know about Barry then.”

  “All I know is he’s gone. Why he’s gone is what I want you to tell me.”

  “Not much to tell. He was let go, effective today.”

  “Why?”

  “What’s it to you?”

  “Barry and I were working together.”

  “But you weren’t friends.”

  “We didn’t have a chance to be friends yet.”

  “Why on God’s earth would you want to be friends with Barry Alvis? Man was permanent associate material if ever I saw one, and I’ve seen plenty.”

  “He was a helluva lawyer.”

  “No, technically, he was a highly competent attorney, proficient in the area of corporate transactional matters and tax, with a subspecialty in health care acquisitions. He’s never generated a dime in business, and never would. Thus he was not a ‘helluva lawyer.’”

  “Goddammit, you know what I mean. He was a very valuable asset to the firm. You need somebody to do the friggin’ work.”

  “We have roughly two hundred attorneys who are very well suited to do the friggin’ work. On the other hand, we have only a dozen or so partners who bring in any material clients. That is not the proportion one should strive for. Plenty of soldiers, not enough chiefs. You see Barry Alvis as an asset, we saw him as a high-priced liability without the talent to leverage himself. He billed enough to keep himself very highly compensated. That is not how we, the partners, make the most money. Thus a decision was made to sever our relationship.”

  “And you’re telling me you didn’t get a little nudge from Baldwin?”

  Lord’s face contained genuine surprise. A lawyer with over thirty-five years’ experience blowing smoke in people’s faces, he was a consummate liar. “What the hell do the Baldwins care about Barry Alvis?”

  Jack scrutinized the corpulent face for a full minute and then let his breath out slowly. He looked around the restaurant suddenly feeling silly and embarrassed. All this for nothing? But if Lord was lying? He glanced again at the man, but the face was impassive. But why would he lie? Jack could think of several reasons, but none of them made too much sense. Could he have been wrong? Had he just made a complete ass out of himself in front of the firm’s most powerful partner?

  Lord’s voice was softer now, almost consoling. “Barry Alvis was let go as part of an ongoing effort to clear out the deadwood near the top. We want more attorneys who can do the work and produce the rain. Hell, like you. Simple as that. Barry wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. We’ve been working on this for a long time, Jack. Long before you ever came to the firm.” Lord paused and looked keenly at Jack. “Is there something you’re not telling me? We’re going to be partners soon, you can’t keep things from your partners.”

  Lord chuckled inwardly. The list of secret deals he had had with clients was a long one.

  Jack was close to biting, but decided not to.

  “I’m not a partner yet, Sandy.”

  “Pure formality.”

  “Things don’t happen till they happen.”

  Lord shifted uncomfortably in his chair, waved his cigarette smoke like a wand. So maybe the rumors that Jack was contemplating jumping ship were true. Those rumors were the reason Lord was sitting here with the young lawyer. They looked at each other. A smile tugged at Jack’s mouth. Jack’s four million in legal business was an irresistible carrot. Particularly because it meant another four hundred grand to Sandy Lord, not that he needed it, but not that he would turn it down either. He had the reputation of being a big spender. And lawyers didn’t retire. They worked until they dropped. The best made a lot of money, but compared to CEOs, rock stars and actors they were strictly minor-league compensation-wise.

  “I thought you liked our shop.”

  “I do.”

  “So?”

  “So what?”

  Sandy’s eye roamed the dining room again. He spotted another female acquaintance encased in a sleek and costly business suit under which Sandy had good reason to believe she wore absolutely nothing. He swallowed the rest of his gin and tonic, looked at Jack. Lord grew more and more irritated. The stupid, green sonofabitch.

  “You ever been to this place before?”

  Jack shook his head, surveyed the thick menu, searching for a burger and fries and not finding it. Then the menu was yanked out of his hand and Lord leaned into him, his breath heavy and saggy in Jack’s face.

  “Well, why don’t you take a look around then?”

  Lord lifted a finger for the waiter and ordered a Dewar’s and water, which appeared a minute later. Jack leaned back in his chair, but Lord inched closer, almost straddling the ornately carved table.

  “I’ve been in restaurants before, Sandy, believe it or not.”

  “Not this one though, right? You see that little lady over there?” Lord’s surprisingly slender fingers sliced through the air. Jack’s gaze fell on the congressional liai
son. “I’ve fucked that woman five times in the past six months.” Lord could not help but smile as Jack appraised the subject and came away duly impressed.

  “Now ask yourself why a creature like that would condescend to sleep with a big old bag of fat like me.”

  “Maybe she feels sorry for you.” Jack smiled.

  Lord did not. “If you actually believe that, then you possess a naïveté that borders on incompetence. Do you really believe women in this town are any more pure than the men? Why should they be? Just because they have tits and a skirt doesn’t mean they won’t take what they want and use any means at their disposal to do so.

  “You see, son, it’s because I can give her what she wants, and I don’t mean between the sheets. She knows that, I know that. I can open doors in this town only a handful of men can. And the quid pro quo for that is she lets me fuck her. It’s a straight commercial transaction entered into by intelligent, highly sophisticated parties. How about that?”

  “How about it?”

  Lord sat back in his chair, lit a fresh cigarette and blew precise rings to the ceiling. He picked at his lip and chuckled to himself.

  “Something funny, Sandy?”

  “I was just now thinking how you probably got a kick out of people like me when you were in law school. Thinking how you were never going to be like me. Gonna go defend illegal aliens wanting political asylum or do death row appeals for poor sonofabitches who’ve butchered a few too many people and blamed it on getting spanked by their momma when they were bad. Now come on, tell the truth, you did that, didn’t you?”

  Jack loosened his tie, took a sip of beer. He had seen Lord in action before. He smelled a setup.

  “You’re one of the best lawyers around, Sandy, everybody says so.”

  “Shit, I haven’t practiced law in years.”

  “Whatever works for you.”

  “What works for you, Jack?”

  Jack felt a slight but perceptible clinch in his gut as he heard his name pass through Lord’s lips. It suggested a coming intimacy that had startled him, despite Jack’s knowledge of its inevitability. Partner? Jack took a breath and shrugged.

  “Who knows what they want to be when they grow up?”

  “But see you are grown up, Jack, and it’s time to pay the man at the door. So what’s it gonna be?”

  “I’m not following this.”

  Lord leaned in again, hands clenched, like a heavyweight pressing the exchange, looking for the tiniest opening. Indeed, for a moment, an attack seemed imminent. Jack tensed.

  “You think I’m an asshole don’t you?”

  Jack picked up his menu again. “Recommend anything?”

  “Come on, kid, you think I’m a greedy, egocentric, power-happy asshole who doesn’t give a shit about anything or anybody that can’t do something for me. Ain’t that right, Jack!” Lord’s voice was rising, his thick body half out of his chair. He pushed Jack’s menu back down to the table.

  Jack nervously scanned the room, but no one seemed to be paying attention, which meant every word of the exchange was being carefully absorbed and dissected. Lord’s red eyes focused directly on Jack’s, pulling them to him.

  “I am, you know. That’s exactly what I am, Jack.”

  Lord settled back in his chair, triumphant. He grinned. Jack felt inclined to smile in spite of the repulsiveness.

  Jack relaxed a notch. Almost as if sensing that slight release, Lord slid his chair over next to Jack’s, crowding him. For a moment Jack seriously contemplated decking the older man—enough was enough.

  “That’s right, I’m all those things, Jack, all those things and more, much more. But you know what, Jack? That’s who I am. I don’t try to disguise it or explain it. Every sonofabitch that has ever met me has come away knowing exactly who and what I was. I believe in what I do. There’s no bullshit there.” Lord took a deep breath, and then slowly let it out. Jack shook his head, trying to clear it.

  “What about you, Jack?”

  “What about me?”

  “Who are you, Jack? What do you believe in, if anything?”

  “I’ve got twelve years of Catholic school, I’ve got to believe in something.”

  Lord shook his head wearily. “You’re disappointing me. I heard you were a bright kid. Either my reports are wrong, or you’ve got that shit-eating grin on your face because you’re afraid of what you might say.”

  Jack grasped Lord’s wrist in a viselike grip.

  “What the fuck do you want from me?”

  Lord smiled and gently tapped Jack’s hand until the grip was released.

  “You like these kinds of places? With Baldwin as a client you’ll be eating in places like this until your arteries are hard as drill bits. In about forty years, you’ll keel over in some sand trap in the Caribbean and leave behind some young and suddenly rich third-time-around honey; but you’ll die happy, believe me.”

  “One place is the same as another to me.”

  Lord’s hand came down hard on the table. This time several heads did turn. The maitre d’ glanced in their direction, trying to conceal his apprehension behind his thick mustache and quiet air of competence.

  “That’s my whole goddamned point, son, that goddamned ambivalence of yours.” His voice lowered, but he continued to lean into Jack, crowding him. “One place is definitely not the same as another. You have the key to this place, you know. Your key is Baldwin and that nice-looking daughter of his. Now the question becomes: will you or won’t you open that door? Which query interestingly enough leads us right back to my original question. What do you believe in, Jack? Because if you do not believe in this”—Lord spread his arms wide—“if you do not want to become the Sandy Lord of the next generation, if you wake up at night and laugh at or curse my little idiosyncrasies, my assholeness if you will, if you really and truly believe you are above that, if you really hate whaling away at Ms. Baldwin and if you don’t see one single item on that menu that you care for, then why don’t you tell me to fuck off? And get up and walk out that door there, your head high, your conscience clear, and your beliefs intact? Because frankly this game is far too important and intensely played for the uncommitted.”

  Lord slumped back in his chair, his mass extrapolating outward until it fully engulfed the space.

  Outside the restaurant a truly beautiful fall day was unfolding. Neither rain nor excessive humidity marred the blue sky’s perfectness; the gentle breeze rustled discarded newspapers. The torrid pace of the city seemed to have momentarily slowed a notch. Down the street at LaFayette Park, sunseekers lay in the grass, hoping for a few more moments of tan before the really cold weather set in. Bike messengers on break prowled the area looking for unconcealed legs and blouses open just a peek.

  Inside the restaurant Jack Graham and Sandy Lord were staring at each other.

  “You don’t pull any punches do you?”

  “I don’t have time for that, Jack. Not for the last twenty years. If I didn’t believe you could handle the direct approach, I would’ve just bullshit with you and let it go.”

  “What do you want me to say?”

  “All I want to know is whether you’re in or out. The truth is, with Baldwin, you could go to any other shop in town. You chose us, I’m presuming, because you like what you saw.”

  “Baldwin recommended you.”

  “He’s a smart man. Lots of people would follow his lead. You’ve been with us one year. If you choose to stay, you’ll be made a partner. Frankly, the twelve-month wait was purely a formality, to see if we were a good fit. After that you will never have any financial concerns, not counting your future wife’s considerable monies. Your main occupation will be to keep Baldwin happy, and to expand that piece of business, and to bring in anybody else you can. Because let’s face it, Jack, the only security any lawyer has are the clients he controls. They never tell you that in law school and it’s the most important lesson you have to learn. Never, never lose sight of that fact. Even doing the work
should take a back seat to that. There’ll always be bodies to do the work. You will be given carte blanche to chase more business. You will have no one supervising you, except Baldwin. You will not have to monitor the legal work being done for Baldwin, we have others who will do that for you. All in all, not such a terrible life.”

  Jack looked down at his hands. Jennifer’s face appeared there. So perfect. He felt guilty for having assumed she had had Barry Alvis fired. Then he thought of the numbing hours as a PD. His thoughts finally turned to Kate, and then quickly stopped. What was there? The answer was nothing. He looked up.

  “Stupid question. Do I get to keep practicing law?”

  “If that’s what you want.” Lord eyed him closely. “So do I take that as a yes?”

  Jack glanced down at the menu. “The crab cakes look good.”

  Sandy exhaled smoke to the ceiling and smiled broadly. “I love