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Gray Mountain, Page 2

John Grisham

  “Oh really. Scully & Pershing has deferred all new hires, which means that a dozen or so of the brightest from the Harvard Law School have just been informed that the jobs they were promised next September won’t be there. Same for Yale, Stanford, Columbia.”

  “But you are so talented, Samantha.”

  Never argue with a bureaucrat. Samantha took a deep breath and was about to sign off when an urgent call “from the White House” came through and Karen had to go. She promised to call right back, as soon as she saved the Republic. Fine, Mom, Samantha said. She received as much of her mother’s attention as she could possibly want. She was an only child, which was a good thing in retrospect, in light of the wreckage strewn high and low by her parents’ divorce.

  It was a clear, beautiful day, weatherwise, and Samantha needed a walk. She zigzagged through SoHo, then through the West Village. In an empty coffee shop, she finally called her father. Marshall Kofer had once been a high-octane plaintiffs’ lawyer whose expertise had been suing airlines after crashes. He built an aggressive and successful firm in D.C. and spent six nights a week in hotels around the world, either chasing cases or trying them. He made a fortune, spent lavishly, and as an adolescent Samantha was keenly aware that her family had more than many of the kids in her D.C. prep school. While her father was leaping from one high-profile case to the next, her mother quietly raised her while doggedly pursing her own career at Justice. If her parents fought, Samantha was not aware of it; her father was simply never at home. At some point, no one would ever know exactly when, a young and pretty paralegal entered the picture and Marshall took the plunge. The fling became an affair, then a romance, and after a couple of years Karen Kofer was suspicious. She confronted her husband, who lied at first but soon admitted the truth. He wanted a divorce; he’d found the love of his life.

  Coincidentally, at about the same time Marshall was complicating his family life, he made a few other bad decisions. One involved a scheme to take a large fee offshore. A United Asia Airlines jumbo jet had crashed on Sri Lanka, with forty Americans on board. There were no survivors, and, true to form, Marshall Kofer got there before anyone else. During the settlement negotiations, he set up a series of shell companies throughout the Caribbean and Asia to route, reroute, and outright hide his substantial fees.

  Samantha had a thick file with newspaper accounts and investigative reports of her father’s rather clumsy attempt at corruption. It would make a compelling book, but she had no interest in writing it. He got caught, humiliated, embarrassed on the front page, convicted, disbarred, and sent to prison for three years. He was paroled two weeks before she graduated from Georgetown. These days, Marshall worked as a consultant of some variety in a small office in the old section of Alexandria. According to him, he advised other plaintiffs’ lawyers on mass tort cases but was always vague with the details. Samantha was convinced, as was her mother, that Marshall had managed to bury a pile of loot somewhere in the Caribbean. Karen had stopped looking.

  Though Marshall would always suspect it and Karen would always deny it, he had a hunch his ex-wife had a finger in his criminal prosecution. She had rank at Justice, plenty of it, and lots of friends.

  “Dad, I got fired,” she said softly into her cell. The coffee shop was empty but the barista was close by.

  “Oh, Sam, I’m so sorry,” Marshall said. “Tell me what happened.”

  As far as she could tell, her father had learned only one thing in prison. Not humility, nor patience, nor understanding, nor forgiveness, nor any of the standard attributes one picks up after such a humiliating fall. He was just as wired and ambitious as before, still eager to tackle each day and run over anyone stalling in front of him. For some reason, though, Marshall Kofer had learned to listen, at least to his daughter. She replayed the narrative slowly, and he hung on every word. She assured him she would be fine. At one point he sounded as if he might cry.

  Normally, he would have made snide comments about the way she chose to pursue the law. He hated big firms because he had fought them for years. He viewed them as mere corporations, not partnerships with real lawyers fighting for their clients. He had a soapbox from which he could deliver a dozen sermons on the evils of Big Law. Samantha had heard every one of them and was in no mood to hear them again.

  “Shall I come see you, Sam?” he asked. “I can be there in three hours.”

  “Thanks, but no. Not yet. Give me a day or so. I need a break and I’m thinking about getting out of the city for a few days.”

  “I’ll come and get you.”

  “Maybe, but not now. I’m fine, Dad, I swear.”

  “No you’re not. You need your father.”

  It was still odd to hear this from a man who had been absent for the first twenty years of her life. At least he was trying, though.

  “Thanks, Dad. I’ll call later.”

  “Let’s take a trip, find a beach somewhere and drink rum.”

  She had to laugh because they had never taken a trip together, not just the two of them. There had been a few hurried vacations when she was a kid, typical trips to the cities of Europe, almost always cut short by pressing business back home. The idea of hanging out on a beach with her father was not immediately appealing, regardless of the circumstances.

  “Thanks, Dad. Maybe later but not now. I need to take care of business here.”

  “I can get you a job,” he said. “A real one.”

  Here we go again, she thought, but let it pass. Her father had been trying to entice her into a real law job for several years now, real in the sense that it would involve suing big corporations for all manner of malfeasance. In Marshall Kofer’s world, every company of a certain size must have committed egregious sins to succeed in the cutthroat world of Western capitalism. It was the calling of lawyers (and maybe ex-lawyers) like him to uncover the wrongdoing and sue like crazy.

  “Thanks, Dad. I’ll call you later.”

  How ironic that her father would still be so eager for her to pursue the same brand of law that had landed him in prison. She had no interest in the courtroom, or in conflict. She wasn’t sure what she wanted, probably a nice desk job with a handsome salary. Primarily because of her gender and brains, she once had a decent chance of making partner at Scully & Pershing. But at what cost?

  Perhaps she wanted that career, perhaps not. Right now she just wanted to roam the streets of lower Manhattan and clear her head. She drifted through Tribeca as the hours passed. Her mother called twice and her father called once, but she declined to answer. Izabelle and Ben checked in too, but she didn’t want to talk. She found herself at Moke’s Pub near Chinatown, and for a moment stood outside looking in. Her first drink with Henry had been at Moke’s, so many years ago. Friends introduced them. He was an aspiring actor, one of a million in the city, and she was a rookie associate at S&P. They dated for a year before the romance fizzled under the strain of her brutal work schedule and his unemployment. He fled to L.A. where, at last sighting, he was driving limos for unknown actors and doing bit parts in commercials, nonspeaking.

  She could have loved Henry under different circumstances. He had the time, the interest, and the passion. She had been too exhausted. It was not unusual in Big Law for women to wake up at the age of forty and realize they were still single and a decade had just passed by.

  She walked away from Moke’s and headed north to SoHo.

  Anna from Human Resources proved remarkably efficient. At 5:00 p.m., Samantha received a long e-mail that included the names of ten nonprofits someone had deemed suitable for nonpaying internships by the battered and bruised souls suddenly furloughed by the world’s largest law firm. Marshkeepers in Lafayette, Louisiana. The Pittsburgh Women’s Shelter. Immigrant Initiative in Tampa. Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia. The Euthanasia Society of Greater Tucson. A homeless organization in Louisville. Lake Erie Defense Fund. And so on. None of the ten were anywhere near the New York metropolitan area.

  She stared at the list for
a long time and contemplated the reality of leaving the city. She had lived there for six of the past seven years—three at Columbia and three as an associate. After law school, she had clerked for a federal judge in D.C., then hurriedly returned to New York. Between there and Washington she had never lived beyond the bright lights.

  Lafayette, Louisiana? Brady, Virginia?

  In language that was far too chipper for the occasion, Anna advised those furloughed that space could possibly be limited at some of the above nonprofits. In other words, sign up in a hurry or you might not get the chance to move to the boondocks and work the next twelve months for free. But Samantha was too numb to do anything in a hurry.

  Blythe popped in for a quick hello and microwave pasta. Samantha had delivered the big news via text and her roommate was near tears when she arrived. After a few minutes, though, Samantha managed to calm her and assure her that life would go on. Blythe’s firm represented a pack of mortgage lenders, and the mood there was just as dark as at Scully & Pershing. For days now, the two had talked of almost nothing but being terminated. Halfway through the pasta, Blythe’s cell began vibrating. It was her supervising partner, looking for her. So at 6:30 she dashed from the apartment, frantic to get back to the office and fearful that the slightest delay might get her sacked.

  Samantha poured a glass of wine and filled the tub with warm water. She soaked and drank and decided that, in spite of the money, she hated Big Law and would never go back. She would never again allow herself to get yelled at because she was not at the office after dark or before sunrise. She would never again be seduced by the money. She would never again do a lot of things.

  On the financial front, things were unsteady but not altogether bleak. She had $31,000 in savings and no debt, except for three more months on the loft rental. If she downsized considerably and pieced together income through part-time jobs, she could possibly hang on until the storm blew over. Assuming, of course, that the end of the world did not materialize. She couldn’t see herself waiting tables or selling shoes, but then she had never dreamed her prestigious career would end so abruptly. The city would soon be crowded with even more waitresses and retail clerks holding graduate degrees.

  Back to Big Law. Her goal had been to make partner by the age of thirty-five, one of few women at the top, and nail down a corner office from which she would play hardball with the boys. She would have a secretary, an assistant, some paralegals, and a driver on call, a golden expense account, and a designer wardrobe. The hundred-hour workweeks would shrink into something manageable. She would knock down two million plus a year for twenty years, then retire and travel the world. Along the way she would pick up a husband, a kid or two, and life would be grand.

  It had all been planned and was seemingly within reach.

  She met Izabelle for martinis in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, four blocks from her loft. They had invited Ben but he had a new wife and was otherwise distracted. The furloughs were having opposite effects. Samantha was in the process of coping, even shrugging it off and thinking about ways to survive. She was lucky, though, because she had no student debt. Her parents had the money for a fine education. But Izabelle was choking under old loans and agonizing over the future. She slurped her martini and the gin went straight to her brain.

  “I can’t go a year with no income,” she said. “Can you?”

  “Possibly,” Samantha said. “If I shrink everything and live off soup, I can scrimp along and stay in the city.”

  “Not me,” Izabelle said sadly as she took another gulp. “I know this guy in Litigation. He got the furlough deal last Friday. He’s already called five of the nonprofits, and all five said the internships had been grabbed by other associates. Can you believe it? So he called HR and raised hell and they said they’re still working on the list, still getting inquiries from nonprofits looking for extremely cheap labor. So not only do we get sacked, but the little furlough scheme is not working too well. No one wants us even if we’ll work for free. That’s pretty sick.”

  Samantha took a tiny sip and savored the numbing liquid. “I’m not inclined to take the furlough deal.”

  “Then what do you do about health insurance? You can’t go naked.”

  “Maybe I can.”

  “But if you get sick, you’ll lose everything.”

  “I don’t have much.”

  “That’s foolish, Sam.” Another pull on the martini, though a bit smaller. “So you’re giving up on a bright future at dear old Scully & Pershing.”

  “The firm has given up on me, and you, and a lot of others. There has to be a better place to work, and a better way to make a living.”

  “I’ll drink to that.” A waitress appeared, and they ordered another round.


  Samantha slept for twelve hours and woke up with an overwhelming urge to flee the city. Lying in bed and staring at the ancient wooden beams across her ceiling, she replayed the last month or so and realized she had not left Manhattan in seven weeks. A long August weekend in Southampton had been abruptly canceled by Andy Grubman, and instead of sleeping and partying she had spent Saturday and Sunday at the office proofreading contracts a foot thick.

  Seven weeks. She showered quickly and stuffed a suitcase with some essentials. At ten, she boarded a train at Penn Station and left a voice message on Blythe’s cell. She was headed to D.C. for a few days. Call me if you get the ax.

  As the train rolled through New Jersey, curiosity got the best of her. She sent an e-mail to the Lake Erie Defense Fund, and one to the Pittsburgh Women’s Shelter. Thirty minutes passed without replies as she read the Times. Not a word about the carnage at S&P as the economic meltdown continued unabated. Massive layoffs at financial firms. Banks refusing to lend while other banks were closing their doors. Congress chasing its tail. Obama blaming Bush. McCain/Palin blaming the Democrats. She checked her laptop and saw another e-mail from happy Anna in HR. Six new nonprofits had emerged and joined the party. Better get busy!

  The Women’s Shelter sent back a pleasant note, thanking Ms. Kofer for her interest but the position had just been filled. Five minutes later, the good folks fighting to save Lake Erie said pretty much the same thing. Feeling the challenge now, Samantha sent a flurry of e-mails to five more nonprofits on Anna’s list, then sent one to Anna politely asking her to become a bit more enthusiastic with her updates. Between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Marshkeepers down in Louisiana said no. The Georgia Innocence Project said no. The Immigrant Initiative in Tampa said no. The Death Penalty Clearinghouse said no, and Legal Aid of Greater St. Louis said no. No, but thanks for your interest. The intern positions have already been filled.

  Zero for seven. She couldn’t land a job as a volunteer!

  She got a cab at Union Station near the Capitol and sank low in the rear seat as it inched through D.C. traffic. Block after block of government offices, headquarters for a thousand organizations and associations, hotels and gleaming new condos, sprawling offices packed with lawyers and lobbyists, the sidewalks crawling with busy people hurrying back and forth, urgently pursuing the nation’s business as the world teetered on the brink. She had lived the first twenty-two years of her life in D.C., but now found it boring. It still attracted bright young people in droves, but all they talked about was politics and real estate. The lobbyists were the worst. They now outnumbered the lawyers and politicians combined, and they ran the city. They owned Congress and thus controlled the money, and over cocktails or dinner they would bore you to death with the details of their latest heroic efforts to secure a bit of pork or rewrite a loophole in the tax code. Every friend from childhood and Georgetown earned a paycheck that in some way had federal dollars attached to it. Her own mother earned $145,000 a year as a lawyer at Justice.

  Samantha wasn’t sure how her father earned his money. She decided to visit him first. Her mother worked long hours and wouldn’t be home until after dark. Samantha let herself into her mother’s apartment, left her suitcase, and took the same
cab across the Potomac to Old Town in Alexandria. Her father was waiting with a hug and a smile and all the time in the world. He had moved into a much nicer building and renamed his firm the Kofer Group. “Sounds like a bunch of lobbyists,” she said as she looked around his well-appointed reception area.

  “Oh no,” Marshall said. “We stay away from that circus over there,” he said, pointing in the general direction of D.C. as if it were a ghetto. They were walking down a hallway, passing open doors to small offices.

  Then what exactly do you do, Dad? But she decided to postpone that question. He led her into a large corner office with a distant view of the Potomac River, not unlike Andy Grubman’s from another lifetime. They sat in leather chairs around a small table as a secretary fetched coffee.

  “How are you doing?” he asked sincerely, a hand on her knee as if she’d fallen down the steps.

  “I’m okay,” Samantha said and immediately felt her throat tighten. Get a grip. She swallowed hard and said, “It’s just been so sudden. A month ago things were fine, you know, on track, no problems. A lot of hours but that’s life on the treadmill. Then we started hearing rumors, distant drumbeats of things going wrong. It seems so sudden now.”

  “Yes it does. This crash is more like a bomb.”

  The coffee arrived on a tray and the secretary closed the door as she left.

  “Do you read Trottman?” he asked.


  “Okay, he writes a weekly newsletter on the markets and politics. Based here in D.C. and been around for some time, and he’s pretty good. Six months ago he predicted a meltdown in the sub-prime mortgage game, said it’s been building for years and so on, said there would be a crash and a major recession. He advised everyone to get out of the markets, all markets.”

  “Did you?”

  “Didn’t have anything in the markets, really. And if I did I’m not sure I would have taken his advice. Six months ago we were living the dream and real estate values would never decline. Credit was dirt cheap and everybody was borrowing heavily. The sky was the limit.”

  “What does this Trottman say now?”

  “Well, when he’s not crowing, he’s telling the Fed what to do. He’s predicting a major recession, and worldwide, but nothing like 1929. He thinks the markets will sink by half, unemployment will jump to new levels, the Democrats will win in November, a couple of major banks will go under, a lot of fear and uncertainty but the world will survive somehow. What do you hear up there, on Wall Street? You’re in the thick of things. Or you were, I suppose.”