The Street Lawyer
By John Grisham
All right reserved.
The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, but I didn't see him at first. I smelled him though-the pungent odor of smoke and cheap wine and life on the street without soap. We were alone as we moved upward, and when I finally glanced over I saw the boots, black and dirty and much too large. A frayed and tattered trench coat fell to his knees. Under it, layers of foul clothing bunched around his midsection, so that he appeared stocky, almost fat. But it wasn't from being well fed; in the wintertime in D.C., the street people wear everything they own, or so it seems.
He was black and aging-his beard and hair were half-gray and hadn't been washed or cut in years. He looked straight ahead through thick sunglasses, thoroughly ignoring me, and making me wonder for a second why, exactly, I was inspecting him.
He didn't belong. It was not his building, not his elevator, not a place he could afford. The lawyers on all eight floors worked for my firm at hourly rates that still seemed obscene to me, even after seven years.
Just another street bum in from the cold. Happened all the time in downtown Washington. But we had security guards to deal with the riffraff.
We stopped at six, and I noticed for the first time that he had not pushed a button, had not selected a floor. He was following me. I made a quick exit, and as I stepped into the splendid marble foyer of Drake & Sweeney I glanced over my shoulder just long enough to see him standing in the elevator, looking at nothing, still ignoring me.
Madam Devier, one of our very resilient receptionists, greeted me with her typical look of disdain. "Watch the elevator," I said.
"Street bum. You may want to call security."
"Those people," she said in her affected French accent.
"Get some disinfectant too."
I walked away, wrestling my overcoat off my shoulders, forgetting the man with the rubber boots. I had nonstop meetings throughout the afternoon, important conferences with important people. I turned the corner and was about to say something to Polly, my secretary, when I heard the first shot.
Madam Devier was standing behind her desk, petrified, staring into the barrel of an awfully long handgun held by our pal the street bum. Since I was the first one to come to her aid, he politely aimed it at me, and I too became rigid.
"Don't shoot," I said, hands in the air. I'd seen enough movies to know precisely what to do.
"Shut up," he mumbled, with a great deal of composure.
There were voices in the hallway behind me. Someone yelled, "He's got a gun!" And then the voices disappeared into the background, growing fainter and fainter as my colleagues hit the back door. I could almost see them jumping out the windows.
To my immediate left was a heavy wooden door that led to a large conference room, which at that moment happened to be filled with eight lawyers from our litigation section. Eight hard-nosed and fearless litigators who spent their hours chewing up people. The toughest was a scrappy little torpedo named Rafter, and as he yanked open the door saying "What the hell?" the barrel swung from me to him, and the man with the rubber boots had exactly what he wanted.
"Put that gun down," Rafter ordered from the doorway, and a split second later another shot rang through the reception area, a shot that went into the ceiling somewhere well above Rafter's head and reduced him to a mere mortal. Turning the gun back to me, he nodded, and I complied, entering the conference room behind Rafter. The last thing I saw on the outside was Madam Devier shaking at her desk, terror-stricken, headset around her neck, high heels parked neatly next to her wastebasket.
The man with the rubber boots slammed the door behind me, and slowly waved the gun through the air so that all eight litigators could admire it. It seemed to be working fine; the smell of its discharge was more noticeable than the odor of its owner.
The room was dominated by a long table, covered with documents and papers that only seconds ago seemed terribly important. A row of windows overlooked a parking lot. Two doors led to the hallway.
"Up against the wall," he said, using the gun as a very effective prop. Then he placed it very near my head, and said, "Lock the doors."
Which I did.
Not a word from the eight litigators as they scrambled backward. Not a word from me as I quickly locked the doors, then looked at him for approval.
For some reason, I kept thinking of the post office and all those horrible shootings-a disgruntled employee returns after lunch with an arsenal and wipes out fifteen of his co-workers. I thought of the playground massacres-and the slaughters at fast-food restaurants.
And those victims were innocent children and otherwise decent citizens. We were a bunch of lawyers!
Using a series of grunts and gun thrusts, he lined the eight litigators up against the wall, and when their positions suited him he turned his attention to me. What did he want? Could he ask questions? If so, he could get anything he damned well pleased. I couldn't see his eyes because of the sunglasses, but he could see mine. The gun was pointed at them.
He removed his filthy trench coat, folded it as if it were new, and placed it in the center of the table. The smell that had bothered me in the elevator was back, but not important now. He stood at the end of the table and slowly removed the next layer-a bulky gray cardigan.
Bulky for a reason. Under it, strapped to his waist, was a row of red sticks, which appeared to my untrained eye to be dynamite. Wires ran like colored spaghetti from the tops and bottoms of the sticks, and silver duct tape kept things attached.
My first instinct was to bolt, to lunge with arms and legs flapping and flailing for the door, and hope for luck, hope for a bad shot as I scrambled for the lock, then another bad shot as I fell through the doorway into the hallway. But my knees shook and my blood ran cold. There were gasps and slight moans from the eight against the wall, and this perturbed our captor. "Please be quiet," he said in the tone of a patient professor. His calmness unnerved me. He adjusted some of the spaghetti around his waist, then from a pocket in his large trousers produced a neat bundle of yellow nylon rope and a switchblade.
For good measure, he waved the gun at the horrified faces in front of him, and said, "I don't want to hurt anybody."
That was nice to hear but hard to take seriously. I counted twelve red sticks-enough, I was certain, to make it instantaneous and painless.
Then the gun was back on me. "You," he said, "tie them up."
Rafter had had enough. He took one very small step forward and said, "Look, pal, just exactly what do you want?"
The third shot sailed over his head into the ceiling, where it lodged harmlessly. It sounded like a cannon, and Madam Devier or some female shrieked in the foyer. Rafter ducked, and as he attempted to stand upright the beefy elbow of Umstead caught him squarely in the chest and returned him to his position against the wall.
"Shut up," Umstead said with clenched jaws.
"Do not call me Pal," the man said, and Pal was instantly discarded as a reference.
"What would you like us to call you?" I asked, sensing that I was about to become the leader of the hostages. I said this very delicately, with great deference, and he appreciated my respect.
"Mister," he said. Mister was perfectly fine with everyone in the room.
The phone rang, and I thought for a split second he was going to shoot it. Instead he waved it over, and I placed it squarely before him on the table. He lifted the receiver with his left hand; his right still held the gun, and the gun was still pointed at Rafter.
If the nine of us had a vote, Rafter would be the first sacrificial lamb. Eight to one.
"Hello," Mister said. He listened briefly, then hung up. He carefully backed himself into the seat at the end of the table and sat down.
"Take the rope," he said to me.
He wanted all eight of them attached at the wrists. I cut rope and tied knots and tried my best not to look at the faces of my colleagues as I hastened their deaths. I could feel the gun at my back. He wanted them bound tightly, and I made a show of practically drawing blood while leaving as much slack as possible.
Rafter mumbled something under his breath and I wanted to slap him. Umstead was able to flex his wrists so that the ropes almost fell loose when I finished with him. Malamud was sweating and breathing rapidly. He was the oldest, the only partner, and two years past his first heart attack.
I couldn't help but look at Barry Nuzzo, my one friend in the bunch. We were the same age, thirty-two, and had joined the firm the same year. He went to Princeton, I went to Yale. Both of our wives were from Providence. His marriage was working-three kids in four years. Mine was in the final stage of a long deterioration.
Our eyes met and we both were thinking about his kids. I felt lucky to be childless.
The first of many sirens came into range, and Mister instructed me to close the blinds over the five large windows. I went about this methodically, scanning the parking lot below as if being seen might somehow save me. A lone police car sat empty with its lights on; the cops were already in the building.
And there we were, nine white boys and Mister.
At last count, Drake & Sweeney had eight hundred lawyers in offices around the world. Half of them were in D.C., in the building Mister was terrorizing. He instructed me to call "the boss" and inform him that he was armed and wired with twelve sticks of dynamite. I called Rudolph, managing partner of my division, antitrust, and relayed the message.
"You okay, Mike?" he asked me. We were on Mister's new speakerphone, at full volume.
"Wonderful," I said. "Please do whatever he wants."
"What does he want?"
"I don't know yet."
Mister waved the gun and the conversation was over.
Taking my cue from the pistol, I assumed a standing position next to the conference table, a few feet from Mister, who had developed the irritating habit of playing absentmindedly with the wires coiled against his chest.
He glanced down and gave a slight tug at a red wire. "This red one here, I give it a yank and it's all over." The sunglasses were looking at me when he finished this little warning. I felt compelled to say something.
"Why would you do that?" I asked, desperate to open a dialogue.
"I don't want to, but why not?"
I was struck by his diction-a slow, methodical rhythm with no hurry and each syllable getting equal treatment. He was a street bum at the moment, but there had been better days.
"Why would you want to kill us?" I asked.
"I'm not going to argue with you," he announced. No further questions, Your Honor.
Because I'm a lawyer and live by the clock, I checked my watch so that whatever happened could be duly recorded, if we somehow managed to survive. It was one-twenty. Mister wanted things quiet, and so we endured a nerve-racking period of silence that lasted fourteen minutes.
I could not believe that we were going to die. There appeared to be no motive, no reason to kill us. I was certain that none of us had ever met him before. I remembered the ride on the elevator, and the fact that he seemed to have no particular destination. He was just a nut in search of hostages, which unfortunately would have made the killings seem almost normal by today's standards.
It was precisely the kind of senseless slaughter that would grab the headlines for twenty-four hours and make people shake their heads. Then the dead lawyer jokes would start.
I could see the headlines and hear the reporters, but I refused to believe it would happen.
I heard voices in the foyer, sirens outside; a police radio squawked somewhere down the hallway.
"What did you eat for lunch?" Mister asked me, his voice breaking the silence. Too surprised to consider lying, I hesitated for a second, then said, "A grilled chicken Caesar."
"No, I met a friend." He was a law school buddy from Philly.
"How much did it cost, for both of you?"
He didn't like this. "Thirty bucks," he repeated. "For two people." He shook his head, then looked at the eight litigators. If he polled them, I hoped they planned to lie. There were some serious stomachs among the group, and thirty bucks wouldn't cover their appetizers.
"You know what I had?" he asked me.
"I had soup. Soup and crackers at a shelter. Free soup, and I was glad to get it. You could feed a hundred of my friends for thirty bucks, you know that?"
I nodded gravely, as if I suddenly realized the weight of my sin.
"Collect all the wallets, money, watches, jewelry," he said, waving the gun again.
"May I ask why?" I asked.
I placed my wallet, watch, and cash on the table, and began rummaging through the pockets of my fellow hostages.
"It's for the next of kin," Mister said, and we all exhaled.
He instructed me to place the loot in a briefcase, lock it, and call "the boss" again. Rudolph answered on the first ring. I could envision the SWAT leader camped in his office.
"Rudolph, it's me, Mike, again. I'm on the speakerphone."
"Yes, Mike. Are you okay?"
"Just fine. Look, this gentleman wants me to open the door nearest the reception area and place a black briefcase in the hallway. I will then close the door and lock it. Understand?"
With the gun touching the back of my head, I slowly cracked the door and tossed the briefcase into the hallway. I did not see a person anywhere.
Few things can keep a big-firm lawyer from the joys of hourly billing. Sleep is one, though most of us slept little. Eating actually encouraged billing, especially lunch when the client was picking up the check. As the minutes dragged on, I caught myself wondering how in the world the other four hundred lawyers in the building would manage to bill while waiting for the hostage crisis to end. I could just see them out there in the parking lot, most of them sitting in their cars to keep warm, chatting away on cell phones, billing somebody. The firm, I decided, wouldn't miss a beat.
Some of the cutthroats down there didn't care how it ended.
Excerpted from The Street Lawyer
by John Grisham Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.