“YOU ARE my last-est hope, Portia,” sighed Lucky Lynda, reading my mind. “I cannot lose another lawyer. Will you agree to take my case? What do I need to do? What do you need in order to take me?”
Her words seemed desperate, but her voice was full, warm, and . . . definitely happy. Her face, with no trace of nervousness or sadness, was only puzzled and pensive, as though she was working out her maids’ schedule for the month, and found that she was one maid short. She did not ask if she could call me by my first name. She just did, and it resonated with warmness, not patronizing familiarity.
But her hands told a different story. To a body language expert, her hands betrayed distress which her face and voice had ably concealed. With her left hand, well dressed in iridescent stones, she twisted and pulled on her waist-long necklace of dark-orange garnets held together (according to the catalogue she brought) by granulated 22 carat gold. The garnets’ deep, blood-hued lights washed an exotic warm aura around her face, and with each twist of her short, well-tended fingers, the diamonds on her wrist flashed rainbows of intensely surreal colors. Her whole ensemble coalesced into a scintillant halo, her face glowing effulgently in a kaleidoscope of red, orange, purple, and greenish sparks.
The gems she wore were not the sort of trinkets that entertain the fancy of an average housewife. They were not the type of baubles that can be spotted under a glass display at the mall, easily retrieved from behind the glass by an apathetic attendant with a practiced skill of intuiting the exact object at which the quavering finger of a penurious would-be beauty pointed.
No, Lynda’s jewels were not the sort that languish under glass, for all mall-goers to gawk at and nervously ask to touch. Hers were the specially crafted jewels whose readiness was announced with a ring to her husband’s office phone, and which were then artfully presented for inspection by Mr. and Mrs. Adams in a jeweler’s secure back room. Approved and fitted, the jewels were finally delivered personally by the proud jeweler to the Adams residence. Yes, Lynda’s gems were the real deal.
The diamondiferous creature flashed, glistered, sparkled scintillated before my wondering eyes. Each of her nervous twists and twitches revealed a new hue or facet of the gems, sending sun bunnies jumping around my walls, my ceiling, and my own face, filling the room with the reflected light of real wealth. I just basked. I’d never before been face-to-face with such bejeweled affluence.
Yes, a body language expert, trained in deception discovery techniques might have identified Lynda’s twitches as the classic resort of self-pacifiers, typical ticks of distress, imprints of fear and doubt. But a body language expert might’ve missed the mark. Those ticks and twitches deliberately, “with malice aforethought” woke up Lynda’s ostentatious wealth and craftily fostered the subconscious suggestion that Lynda was good for the money. The jewels were her demonstrable credentials of special status, like the spread of a peacock’s feathers. Without saying as much, Lynda was strutting a display of her iridescent collateral, her indisputable ability-to-pay.
AS NEAR AS I COULD TELL, Lynda’s modus operandi with her string of lawyers was to hitch the mark with promises of her abundantly advertised wealth, then pay with more promises, and more promises yet—until she at long last ran out of credit. I did not want to judge my fellow lawyers, but I knew I was smarter than that. I’d want some security upfront. Something very tangible.
True to form, Lynda promised to pay, and in a form designed to allay my fears.
“It is not an empty promise,” she said continuing to read my mind, “I will guarantee it. I am selling a cottage. You get cash from the proceeds.”
She tapped the pristinely clean screen on her phone, inviting me to see the “cottage.” Indeed, the realtor’s website flashed “sale pending” under the listing she had selected—a cozy but jolly well situated house. The landscape on the photos looked as though it had been fastidiously maintained by an invisible team of arbor artists who made certain that the irises, the azaleas and the wild rose-bushes, all backed by tastefully shaped hollies, bloomed in harmony and in proper sequence. A happy listing; nay, a splendid one.
“I have the papers to show you,” she ducked into her purse and pulled out a perfectly neat stack: the contract of sale and the paperwork for the impending closing. The day to close was set for next Thursday. The address matched. All the terms looked to be in order.
The settlement statement spreadsheet was stapled to the contract: her closing lawyers worked fast. I turned to the last page to see the promised “proceeds” I was supposedly getting as my payment source, and could not withhold a smile. The bottom line of the settlement statement looked just as bright and tidy as the house’s landscape. The proceeds of the sale—diminished by the outstanding taxes, liens and some unpaid suppliers’ bills—came to roughly two million dollars and some change, a sum more than sufficient to cover whatever legal bills I could generate that year, or even in the next five years or whatever.
Waiting for my betraying face to return to sober normal, I flipped through the list of those little liens and taxes, just to stall. I did not want to look too eager, so I looked down, hoping she could not read the greed in my telltale face.
The first half a dozen bills and liens in queue to be paid off the top in this house sale were roughly what you’d expect in a large, somewhat sloppily run household. A few thousand dollars in unpaid local taxes. The usual last minute bills:
- the electrician,
- window cleaner times four,
- driveway cleaner times two,
- the locksmith,
- electric gate repair,
- the same locksmith again.
Mr. and Mrs. Adams must’ve kept the fellow busy locking out each other; then could not decide who should foot the bill.
All that was unremarkable stuff. Then I flipped a page and gasped and forgot all about my face. The tail end of the unpaid bills listing read:
- Jane Holodny, maid, $1200 * 18 months
- Tim Holodny, garden, $1700 *18 months
- Jack Blick, garden, $2000 * 18 months.
Did I read it right?
Could that possibly be true?
Lynda’s own staff worked for her without pay, for a year and a half? Could that be right? Why would these people—presumably not rich—keep working? Why not get up and quit?
To heck with my telltale face, I was now gasping for words.
“The staff’s salaries?” was all I finally managed to croak. Sometimes I impress even myself with my eloquence.
I started again to explain the query, but Lynda understood perfectly.
She leaned in and for the first time since we met, Lynda’s eyes flooded with copious tears.
“Those poor people,” she sobbed softly, “they want to take care of me, they are like family.” Then the dam burst.
Lynda had been even-keel, even cheerful, speaking about her own life, but the woeful treatment of her servants was too much. It was her husband’s fault. She spoke about the court battles to obligate Mr. Adams for the servants’ keep, and of his dark, cold indifference. A tear stuck to the bottom of her nose and glistened like a tiny star. Then her eyes glinted with resolve: “You must make Rick pay them. You can help Jane and Jack. And others!” If she was wearing makeup, crying did not hurt it. She was calm and brave like a little queen.
Her greedy husband defied his obligation to pay the maids and the gardeners. Not a penny beyond what was court-ordered and for Lynda’s necessities. It was disgusting. I vowed to make the heartless cad pay.
With that decided, my mind wandered again, back to my own staff. If we accepted Lynda’s case, that called for an all hands on deck mobilization—and the hands had to be paid. I could not put my people in the shoes of Jane Holodny, who was still waiting for Lynda’s family to send her the past-due paychecks. Reading my mind again, Lynda leaned down to her purse, and solemnly produced a cream-colored personal stationary on which the Letters L and A intertwined in a happy hug. With a firm hand, she titled the note:
“Directive to my Home Office.”
June 7, 2014
Dear William Johnson,
RE: Sale of cottage on 1727 Rosehip Street
All proceeds from the cottage sale must be paid out to my lawyer, Portia Porter, for my bills. Will you see to that yourself?
I watched her sign and date the directive in a firm, beautiful hand.
Under normal circumstances, with a regular client, that note was the closest thing to money-in-the-bank. But it was Lynda, and she had her reputation.
When first we discussed the policies of my law firm, I had announced to Lynda my Unbreakable Rule: no client is accepted without a retainer upfront.
A substantial retainer in her case. Enough to tide over the whole crew until we are released by the judge, even if she never pays another bill again. Lynda was offering a lot of money, more than I even expected. But it was not exactly upfront. It still would technically break my rule.
Lynda sensed my hesitation. She tensed, like Kipling’s Bagheera, readying for a pounce. We looked at each other, and I felt a little like a bull—strong but slow—staring into the eyes of a poised hunter panther.
“Today is Tuesday?” I said tentatively.
She was offering “all proceeds,” the two million and change as the collateral. That was plenty to guarantee the fees, much more than I ever would have asked. And it was more than that. Getting paid by Lynda meant more than just a huge pile of money. It was hooking the White Killer Whale. It would bring every Ducklingburg lawyer to their knees in jealous envy and awe. Even without money, being Lynda’s lawyer meant front page coverage in the Herald, the sort of fame guaranteed to bring flocks of paying wannabe celebrities, all those intent on keeping up with the Adamses.
Besides, her jewelry alone was enough to guarantee my fees. Maybe she had reformed. Perhaps I could even persuade her to use the rest of the cottage proceeds to pay those lawyers she’d stiffed before me. That would make me a heroine in the legal community. Perhaps there’d be an invite to the Legal Lions brunches . . ..
The dream of worldly riches and local glory infiltrated my face, wearing down the sternness of my stare at the sleek black panther.
“I’ll write a check,” purred Lynda, “to tide it over until Tuesday. Will twenty-five thousand be enough?”
That seemed legit. Now she was not leaving herself any way to wiggle out of the payment . . . My stare struggled, and I knew I blinked.
I blinked and Lynda leaped: “But you must promise me one thing.”
At that precise moment, the fight was lost. My jugular was cut, but, foolishly, I noticed not.
“What do you want?” I returned bluntly, still under the illusion that I had the better part of the stare-down.
“I just absolutely need peace of mind. Let’s sign our contract now, so you are my lawyer.”
Like Panther Bagheera, her voice was sweeter than wild honey dripping from a tree and her fur softer than down.
She almost purred: “I just cannot be without a lawyer anymore.”
She reached out to take my hand in hers, her jewels shimmering as she moved. Ever-so-sweetly, she went on: “I cannot be alone, Portia. Not for even one more day. The whole of Ducklingburg, they’re all under Rick’s thumb, nobody has the courage to defend me, none of the other lawyers. You are not afraid to take me on as a client, are you?” she murmured softly.
I was tempted to mention that there were other reasons she had hard time finding a lawyer in Ducklingburg, but it seemed like gratuitous rudeness. Lynda was already tearing a check out of her checkbook. It was a well-battered, regularly used checkbook, with a real address in the top left corner and a twelve hundred something serial number on the check. The check checked out.
To my eye, Lynda appeared finally to be reformed. A long divorce battle will do it for you. It’ll make you see who your friends are, and value of staying true to one’s word.
WE SIGNED OUR CONTRACT and talked for a few hours after that. We clicked, Lynda and I. We saw eye to eye on her divorce strategy. She was straightforward, honest and sensible. She was grateful for my help when I impressively untangled a few legal technicalities that bothered her, and that her prior lawyers could not explain to her satisfaction. She was forthcoming with answers to my questions. She did not sugar-coat her role in the break-up and did not demonize her ex-husband.
I looked down at her hands. Lynda no longer twitched or twisted. The nervous jingling vanished. Every precious stone on her body was peacefully in place. Every diamond and jewel now shone calmly in unison with the others, proudly framing her figure in a steady glow that quietly but firmly guaranteed our deal.
JUST BEFORE PARTYING, Lynda had one more favor to ask of me.
“Name it,” I said.
“It’s about my check,” admitted Lynda.
I should have known! All I could manage was:
She was just wondering: could her check stay under a paperweight until Monday? Her banker would for sure move the funds into the account to cover the $25,000 retainer.
“Today’s Tuesday,” I deja vued again.
“There’s probably enough in the bank to cover the check anyway,” said Lynda pensively. “You could try it . . . but . . .”
She just wanted to make absolutely sure. So just until Monday? Banking business loathes haste—at least when the money is being transferred out of the bank. So maybe her caution was reasonable?
Leaving, she leaned in for a hug, and whispered: “I am so happy you are my lawyer now. I know you will fix all the mess in no time at all. Thank you for trusting in me!”
The hug caught me by surprise. I have a rule about hugs with the clients: I don’t. There are complex professional and psychological reasons for preferring a firm handshake, and I could go into lengthy blabber about professional responsibility, preserving the leader’s distance, and the need for an authority figure. All these are decent reasons, but none of them is the reason. The real reason I do not hug my clients is not something one would want to tell a client. It’s really for personal comfort: my clients are unhappy people. The simple truth of the matter is that clients’ hugs are a cesspool of fear and desperation that conjures up a bad odor in the nostrils of my admittedly over-active imagination. Divorcing people emit an emotional stink! It’s not that I am squeamish, I am not. It’s a bigger problem. The whiff of fear and distress will infiltrate and nest inside one’s nose, take hours to dissipate, all the while subverting the brain’s logical thought, chasing the brain down with a primordial command to curl into flight or spring into a fight. There are simply not enough hours in the day to recuperate from the emotional miasma. A girl who works for a living must build up defenses—or nothing will ever get done! So that’s why there’s the office rule. The clients stink, so stay away.
But not Lynda!
Lynda’s hug conjured up the early morning in a rose garden, the burst of smell at the precise moment when the cold stream of sprinklers propels up thousands of ice-cold drops to hit three hundred closed rose petals—and startled and smiley, the roses wake up. And was there not also a bright twist of a late-night jasmine aroma in Lynda’s hug, the smell that lightens the dip of the evening descending into the night? Lynda’s scent was just as sparkling as her bejeweled halo.
Lynda smelled happy.