READ AN EXCERPT
If there was a day of the week I could skip it would be Monday. Clients had too much time to think and worry over a long weekend and by Monday they were often riddled with fear and anxiety. Nearly half of my week's telephone calls from clients came on Monday. But today it wasn't just a few clients who had succumbed to their fears, but the entire population. I got a frantic call from my old client Tex Weller late Monday afternoon. The stock market had taken a nosedive dropping 22.6 percent since the opening bell. Tex was an active trader and often traded on margin. I had advised him against it more than once, but he usually ignored my advice.
The press quickly dubbed October 19, 1987 as Black Monday. The market collapse shouldn't have been such a shock as many experts had warned that, after five consecutive years of economic growth, stocks were way overpriced. Unfortunately, most investors were caught up in the glitter and euphoria of the long bull market and didn't think it would ever end. Tex Weller was one of them. Fortunately, I wasn't a stock trader. Not that I wouldn't have liked to invest in the market, but with four kids I spent ever nickel I earned.
If the stock crash wasn't bad enough, banks and savings and loans were failing left and right�184 banks and 17 savings and loans nationwide. Of course, Texas had the most failures of any state in the union. I blamed President Ronald Reagan for the derailed economy. During his campaign he had promised big tax cuts and an overhaul of the tax system. A year earlier he had finally delivered on his promise and pushed a tax relief package through congress. The new law lowered individual tax rates dramatically but it also eliminated most personal tax deductions. In theory it made sense and, in the long run, probably made our tax laws more equitable, but in the short run it totally upset the economy and nearly destroyed the banking and savings and loan industry.
"Can you believe it, 508 points?" Tex moaned. "Jesus Christ, what a disaster!"
"How much did you lose?"
"I don't know�a hundred grand easy."
"Well, the market will come back," I said, trying to sound upbeat. "Don't panic."
"Yeah, but the problem is, I pledged that stock on the Metroplex note. Tomorrow morning I'm going to be getting a call from Fred, my loan officer. He's gonna want some more collateral."
Metroplex Savings and Loan was a local thrift owned by millionaire Donald T. Baker. Baker owned a large construction company that managed to land almost every state highway project in North Texas. Baker was known to have close connections with Congressman Horace Manning and John Potts, Speaker of the Texas House. Several years earlier he had purchased Metroplex Savings and Loan, a local thrift with several branch offices. Speaker Potts and Congressman Manning were rumored to be part owners.
When Tex decided to invest in a string of nutrition centers, he went to Metroplex Savings & Loan for the funding. They agreed to give him the loan but insisted on some rather onerous conditions. Above and beyond the loan at 3.5% above prime, they wanted a consulting contract whereby Tex's company would pay $3,000 a month to a vice-president at Metroplex Savings and Loan. This was a way around Texas' stringent usury laws, although I doubted it would stand up in court. I advised Tex against the deal but he really wanted the loan and, once again, ignored my advice.
"Wonderful," I said. "Do you have anything to give him?"
"Not really. Everything's tied up."
"Maybe they'll give you some time to come up with some more collateral."
"I hope so. If not, I'm screwed. The assholes will probably call my note. You know what a bunch of greedy bastards they are."
"Maybe not. Why don't you take a few days off and get away from here? That should buy you some time. Hell, the market may bounce back in a couple days."
"Oh God, Stan. What if it doesn't? I curse the day I met Donald T. Baker."
Tex told me how they had met at Baker's daughter's wedding. During casual conversation Baker invited Tex to come visit him if he ever needed a loan. Tex figured he'd get a good deal since he knew Baker, but that's not exactly what happened.
"Well, if you know him, don't you think if you talked to him he might cut you some slack?"
He shrugged, "Maybe."
Although I tried to be optimistic with Tex, I was sick inside. I didn't have any ready solution for his problem. If the savings and loan called his note, he would be expected to pay the full balance within thirty days. That would be pretty much impossible and mean he'd lose everything. The only other option he'd have would be a chapter 11, but that would be a monumental undertaking with only a slim chance of success.
While I was contemplating Tex's predicament, Jodie buzzed in and said that Derek Donner was there to see me. Derek Donner was my casualty insurance agent. We referred each other business from time to time. Derek was Pakistani but had grown up in South Africa. Consequently he had developed a slight British accent which the ladies loved. When he called to make the appointment, he had mentioned something about a probate case. I asked Jodie to send him in. She did, and we exchanged greetings and talked a bit before getting down to business.
"I think I'm going to be needing your services," he began. "Remember doing that will for Lottie West?"
"Lottie West. . . . It kinda rings a bell."
"She's the one who was afraid to leave her house. You had to meet me out at her place so she could sign the bloody thing."
"Oh, right. The lady with all the dogs."
"Yes. Why anyone needs thirteen dogs, I'll never understand."
I shook my head. "That wasn't a pleasant afternoon as I recall."
Lottie West lived in an old rundown house on Cole Avenue in Dallas. Even though I loved dogs I felt very uncomfortable at her house. She seemed to be living with a pack of wolves. The place stunk and the dogs leered at us as we walked through the living room to the kitchen table where we were going to execute the will. One of the dogs barked incessantly making it nearly impossible to think, let alone explain the complexities of a last will and testament.
Derek continued, "I went out to collect her premium on a health insurance policy the other day but when I knocked on her door she didn't answer. That concerned me because, as you know, she never leaves her house."
"So, I walked around the back yard and it was awfully quiet. I couldn't understand why the dogs weren't barking. When I looked in her back window, I noticed the place was a mess�furniture knocked over, lamps broken, and debris everywhere. I didn't know what to do, so I went next door and asked the lady who lives there if she had seen Lottie lately. She said no and that it had been unusually quiet over there for a couple of days, so we decided to call the police."
"When the police got there, they forced open the front door and went in. The place was in shambles�drawers pulled out and the contents dumped, cupboards emptied onto the floor, and the place had a god awful smell. They found Lottie in the hall amongst a dozen dead canines�apparently all victims of a natural gas leak. The coroner said they'd been dead for twelve hours or more."
"Oh, my God!" I exclaimed. "She was such a nice old lady."
Derek shook his head. "I know. I was really fond of her, too."
"Where was the gas leak?"
"I don't know. They hadn't found its source by the time I left. They said it was a wonder the whole place hadn't blown up."
"So, who's the executor of the will?" I asked.
I frowned. "I'm am?"
"Yes, don't you remember she didn't have anyone to be her executor, so she asked you to do it?"
I took a deep breath. "Gee. She must have caught me in a weak moment. I don't usually take fiduciary assignments."
Some attorneys loved to be appointed the executor of their clients' estates. That meant they could charge both an executor fee and attorney's fees. Sometimes estates were literally plundered by these attorneys. I considered it unethical, a conflict of interest, and would only agree to it if there was no other alternative. And, if I did agree to it, it would be understood that I would only charge for my time spent and expenses incurred. Even under these circumstances it was still a bad idea. I had no particular expertise in business or finance nor the time to give it the attention that would be expected.
"As I recall you weren't thrilled with the idea and suggested a relative or bank, but Lottie said she didn't trust banks and had no relatives, so you agreed to do it."
"Wonderful," I said. "So, did she have any property other than her home?"
"There's fifty thousand dollars in insurance proceeds, so you won't have to work for nothing," Derek replied. "I don't know if she had any other assets."
"Thank God for small favors. . . .Well, the first thing we need to do is get some security on the house. There are a lot of thieves who work the obituaries. While the family is at the funeral, they clean out the house."
"Speaking of funerals, where do you want them to take the body after the autopsy?" Derek asked.
"What? Doesn't the family take care of that?" I asked.
"Usually, but in this case there is no family."
"You gotta be kidding. I can't believe she doesn't have a single relative," I said.
"Apparently not. She made the SPCA the sole beneficiary of her estate and made you put in all those provisions to provide for the care of her dogs if she died?"
"Right. I vaguely remember that now. Who would have figured they'd all die together."
"I know. What were the odds of that?"
"Will you help me inventory the place after the funeral?" I asked.
"Sure. No problem."
After Derek had left, I looked at my calendar and saw I had one last appointment for the day. It was with a Robert Huntington and was scheduled for later in the day at 4:00 p.m. I buzzed Jodie and asked her who he was. She said she didn't know but that Mo had referred him. That aroused my curiosity as Mo was with the CIA. Several years earlier he had disclosed that startling information to me after I had completed his bankruptcy. He indicated the Agency would be sending me other agents who needed their credit card debt discharged, but that I wouldn't know who they were. I wondered why this time he had alerted me to the fact that he had referred Mr. Huntington to me. It had to mean that this was a special case.
At 4:00 p.m. Jodie brought Mr. Huntington into my office. He was a tall, lean, somber-looking man, with wire-rimmed glasses, and a short military type haircut. Jodie offered him a cup of coffee but he looked like he needed a drink.
"So, how do you know Mo?" I asked.
"Mo? Oh, well, my company does a lot of exporting, so you've got to have connections in the government to be successful."
"Oh, really? I didn't know that."
"Yes," he nodded, "to export to some countries you have to . . . you know . . . pay off certain people. The Agency helps us out in that regard."
I frowned. "Really? How do . . . I mean, what do they do, tell you who to pay off?"
"Right. Who, how much, delivery�that sort of thing."
I raised my eyebrows. "That's amazing. I never realized our government provided that kind of service."
Huntington shrugged and gazed out the window. There was an awkward moment while we sized each other up. Finally, I took a deep breath and said, "So, what can I do for you?"
"I need to retain you to deal with a little situation I have."
"Really. What's that?"
"The IRS has garnished one of my bank accounts. I've got to have the money released by Friday so I can wire transfer $150,000 to our . . . our Beijing office. If I don't wire transfer it by Friday, my partner�" Huntington swallowed hard, then looked away again apparently struggling to control his emotions.
"Your partner will what?"
"Be arrested�maybe killed."
I just looked at him for a brief moment bewildered at what I was hearing. His hands were shaking.
"Why would he be arrested?"
"I can't be more specific . . . you know . . . for security reasons. The less you know the better."
"I see. . . . Okay, why will�what's your partner's name?"
"Why will Mr. Palmer be arrested? And why would you be sending money if you're the one selling�what do you sell anyway?"
"I can't tell you anymore, unless you agree to represent me and I can depend on the attorney-client privilege."
He was right. Unless he retained me there was no attorney-client privilege. I assumed by the remark that I had passed his scrutiny and he was prepared to hire me. The question was, did I want to represent him? It would definitely be an intriguing case, but I had no idea if I could even help him. I needed more information. I wasn't good at turning down work anyway, since I was by nature an optimistic person and wanted to help whoever walked through my door. But this attitude had got me in trouble in the past and I had vowed to be more careful. In the end I succumbed to my inherent weakness and said, "Okay, but
you'll have to sign a fee agreement. I guess you know lawyers are expensive."
"Yes, I know. You're not the first lawyer I've had to hire."
"Good. I charge $150 an hour and I usually require a retainer. Is that agreeable?"
"Sure, but with all my money being tied up in this garnishment, I can't give you a retainer right now."
I took a deep breath and replied, "Well, okay. You can write me a check for the retainer and I'll cash it when we get your money freed up�although I can't guarantee that we will be able to do that. If we're unsuccessful, you'll have to figure out another way to pay me. I don't do contingencies."
"I understand. I'll pay you somehow. Don't worry. But I have to try to get the account released. I don't have any other choice."
I pulled out my standard fee agreement, filled in the blanks and handed it to Huntington. He signed it immediately without
reading it and handed it back to me. Then he wrote out a check and gave it to me.
"Okay. It would be a lot easier if I knew more about your business. I don't do much international law, so I'm not sure exactly how the export business works."
"Like I said, I'm not at liberty to go into any details. It's not relevant anyway."
"But now I'm your attorney. You can tell me everything."
"Not really. This is a matter of national security. You don't have the proper clearance."
I just stared at Huntington. I hated working in the dark but I figured it was too late to back out now. Huntington's rigid expression didn't change. He looked like a man you didn't want to cross. I wondered what had I gotten myself into?
"Right," I said. "So, let me guess�you promised a bribe to someone and now you can�t make good on it, is that it?"
"Something like that."
"So, that�s why Mo sent you to me? Another one of their services."
"He said you were good."
I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "Well, I'll talk to the Revenue Officer and see if I can convince him to drop the garnishment. What kind of taxes do you owe, anyway?"
"They say my corporation owes $1.5 million in income taxes."
"Whoa! That's a lot of bread."
Huntington shrugged. "They sent me a bill for $1.5 million but it's not right. The company didn't make any money last year. In fact, we lost money."
A chill darted through me. This was some serious business Mr. Huntington had gotten himself into. With taxes due of this magnitude anything I did would be closely scrutinized. Although it was a fascinating case, I felt a little overwhelmed and didn't really know what to do. Reversing an IRS garnishment wouldn't be easy and there was so little time�not to mention the whole question as to the legality of what Mr. Huntington was doing.
"It's not easy to get a garnishment released. It normally takes weeks or months to even get a hearing. I'm not sure I can help you."
"The IRS thinks I'm evading taxes. If we can somehow let them know that I'm working for the CIA this whole thing might go away."
"Why can't you talk to your friends at the CIA and have them get the word to the IRS?"
"The CIA has disavowed any knowledge of what I'm doing?"
"I don't understand," I said. "Why would they do that?"
"There were other things besides grapefruit in the shipment."
I felt like I was in a submarine and had just been hit with the second depth charge. "Listen! This may be out of my league. I don't practice international law and I can't be involved in anything illegal."
"You can�t turn me away, Mr. Turner," he said desperately. "You're my last hope. I don't have time to get another attorney. Mo said you would handle this for me. Just contact David Barton, the Revenue Officer responsible for the garnishment, and tell him he's interfering with a CIA operation."
"I'll do that," I replied, "but he's not going to take my word for it, nor would that necessarily make any difference anyway."
"Don't worry about that. I've got a person he can call to verify my story."
This was blowing my mind. I hated things going on that I didn't understand and Mr. Huntington was a complete enigma. What were the CIA and he up to and was he really telling me the truth?
"I thought the CIA was disavowing any knowledge of what you were doing." I asked.
"The person I'm referring to is not with the CIA. He's a politician. That's all I can tell you."
My neck was beginning to stiffen and I felt the onset of a headache. My instinct was to stand up, thank Mr. Huntington, and respectfully decline the employment. But Mo had sent him and I presumed the CIA was working for the good of the country. I wondered if I should just go along with what they apparently wanted me to do. . . . The thought also occurred to me that if I refused, there could be repercussions as well.
"Who's the politician the IRS can call?" I asked.
"Yes, he's a friend. He'll verify that I've been working behind the scenes for the government."
Huntington gave me the garnishment papers and left. I looked at the check he'd written to the firm. It was drawn on Metroplex Savings & Loan. How ironic, I thought. I fell back into my chair angered that I hadn't been strong enough to turn down the case. As I was thinking, my partner Paula Waters walked in excitedly.
"Did you hear the news?"
"Yeah, the stock market crashed."
"No, not that. Donald Baker and his girlfriend Amanda Black were murdered?"
"Yeah'like in Metroplex Savings & Loan."
"You're kidding," I said. "Tex and I were just talking about him."
"They haven't arrested anyone yet, but I talked to Bart and speculation is that his son-in-law, Jimmy Bennett, did it."
Bart was an assistant DA at the Collin County District Attorney's office. Paula had worked with Bart in the past and they were friends as well as occasional lovers. She routinely called him for inside information.
"What makes them think that Jimmy did it?"
"He worked at his father's construction company. Apparently they've been feuding lately and Saturday morning Donald threatened to fire him for the fourth or fifth time. They almost got into a fist fight right then on the spot."
"Sounds like Donald Baker finally got what he deserved."
"What do you mean?" Paula asked.
"I didn't know him personally, but Tex has told me a few interesting things about him."
I told her about the consulting contract Tex was forced to sign.
"I'm sure his lawyers drafted it so it was technically legal."
"Maybe so, but I've also heard he lends a lot of money to his friends and they don't have to sign consulting contracts or put up collateral for their loans."
"Well, it's all about who you know, right?" Paula said.
"How were they killed?" I asked.
"They were found in bed together early this morning with their throats slit."
"Where did they find them?"
"In the company condo. Baker and his girlfriend were seen dining at Sal's Italian Grille on Greenville earlier in the evening. I guess Amanda lives in the condo and they retired there for the evening. They think the murder took place Monday between 12:00 and 1:00 a.m."
"Hmm. . . . So, who's defending Jimmy?"
Paula looked at me and winked. I instantly knew the answer to my question. She wanted to defend Jimmy Bennett and now she expected me to make it happen since I knew Tex and Tex knew Jimmy. Technically it was unethical to solicit business, but this particular canon of legal ethics was under attack as being in violation of federal antitrust laws and wasn't strictly enforced by the State Bar.
"Okay. I'll give Tex a call. Maybe he can make it happen."
A broad smile came over Paula's face. She said, "I knew I could count on you. Thanks, Stan." Then she turned and went back into her office.
Later that afternoon I called Tex about Jimmy Bennett. He said he'd just got off the phone with Jimmy's brother and that Jimmy hadn't retained an attorney as yet. I told him, if he got a chance, to drop Paula's name as a possible choice. He said he would.
After hanging up, I started working on a real estate contract. The next time I looked up it was five-thirty. I quickly packed up my briefcase and headed home. Rebekah was putting supper on the table when I strolled in. She looked up and smiled.
"Oh, just in time. Dinner is ready."
"Good, I'm starved. Just give me a minute to get out of this suit. I'll call the kids."
Rebekah nodded and I continued on to the base of the stairway. I could hear the kids talking upstairs.
"Come on down! Chow time," I yelled.
"Daddy, daddy," Marcia yelled and came bounding down the stair. She jumped into my arms and gave me a big hug as Mark and Reggi flew by on their way to the kitchen.
"Where is Peter? " I asked.
"On the computer," Reggi yelled back at me.
I had given the kids an old Apple IIe to play with and it was hard to pry them away from it, even for dinner. I yelled up to Peter again and he finally came bounding down the stairs.
"Hi, dad," he said. "What�s up?"
"Supper is ready."
After I'd changed into a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, I joined everyone at the kitchen table. The Six O'clock News was in progress on the kitchen TV and the reporters were talking about the stock market crash.
"Did you hear about the stock market?" Rebekah asked.
"Yeah, I did. Tex called and told me about it. He lost $150,000."
"Oh, my God!" Rebekah exclaimed.
"Did you lose any money, Dad?" Reggi asked.
"No, I don't invest in the stock market."
"Cause you kids cost me so much money. I'm always broke."
"Mark got an "A" on his science project," Rebekah said.
I looked at Mark and smiled. "That's great. What did you write it on?"
"Acid rain," Mark replied.
"Hmm. Interesting. I'll have to read it," I noted.
"It's on the coffee table in the living room," Rebekah said. "There's a letter from Father Bob, too. They need money for the new women's shelter. If they don't raise $100,000 from the parish they'll lose their matching funds and have to scrap the project."
"Well, write him a check?" I said.
Rebekah smiled. "I don't think a hot check will do them much good."
"It's the thought that counts, right?"
"No, I think they want hard cash."
After dinner the kids went upstairs and Rebekah and I settled down on the living room sofa for a night of leisure. I was telling Rebekah about Lottie West's death when my attention was drawn to the television where the news was beginning.
"First Lady Nancy Reagan is reportedly doing well after undergoing surgery for breast cancer earlier in the week. Doctors are optimistic about her chances of a full recovery. She is expected to go home to the White House on Thursday.
"On Capitol Hill democrats pledged today to continue to push the investigation into accusations that President Reagan authorized the illegal diversion of proceeds from arms sales to Iran to the Contra Rebels fighting Nicaragua's Marxist government. This action was taken despite denials by Colonel Oliver North and Rear Admiral John M. Poindexter of any knowledge or involvement by the President.
"In related news the U.S. Navy today attacked an Iranian oil platform reportedly being used to launch missiles against U.S. ships in the area."
"There was a plane flying over town today pulling a sign that read, 'We Love You Ollie,'" Rebekah said.
I laughed. "Oh, really? Huh. Well, this is Collin County�one of the most conservative counties in the country. I'd imagine old Ollie would have a lot of supporters here."
"I'm glad you're not in the Marines any more."
"You and me both. Can you imagine serving your country for fifteen years and then suddenly having to take a fall to protect the President?"
Rebekah shook her head and said, "His poor wife. She must be so humiliated."
I nodded. "I had another interesting case come in today,"
"Really. A busy day, huh?"
I nodded and started telling Rebekah about Robert Huntington and his frozen bank account. She couldn't believe it.
"Couldn't his partner go to the American Embassy for protection?"
"I don't know. They probably have him under surveillance and if he tried to get there, they'd stop him."
"What are you going to do?"
"I have to get the IRS to release the account. There's no other way."
I told her about Horace Manning who was supposed to put the fear of God into the IRS.
"I've heard about him," Rebekah said. "He's a congressman, isn't he?"
"Right, from East Texas, but I doubt he'll be able to get the money released. Congressional interventions take time."
Rebekah gave me a sympathetic look. I forced a smile. How I could possibly get the account released in such a short time I didn't know, but with someone's life at stake it was a time for some creative thinking and lots of prayer.